Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Next Up: Atlanta

I don't know what hit me, but today I booked my next excursion.  I'd been throwing around a few European destinations and just want something quick and easy for right before Christmas.  Europe is running a bit too expensive for "quick and easy" right now.  So, Atlanta, tie up your pandas, I'm coming down!  The Atlanta Zoo has four pandas now, not to mention a new litter of tiger cubs, all of whom I watch religiously on the zoo webcams.  So that is the primary destination, as is Georgia Aquarium, CNN Headquarters and the Museum of High Art.  That's just what I know off the top of my head.

Interesting, I had no idea it is so cheap to fly to Atlanta, the fare was $150 total, and even a very good, centrally located hotel is $100 a night (AAA discount)???  Wow.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Philly In A Day - amybatt style

Last Saturday, I made the second in a series of one day jaunts to a major city in the Northeast.  As you may remember, I made a similar jaunt to Washington DC back in the spring (and will go again next month).  My purpose for these one-day trips is to take advantage of budget airfares and maximize the time on the ground.

As before, I booked Park Shuttle and Fly ahead and left my car there at 6:00 in the morning for a 7:15 flight on US Airways direct to Philadelphia.  The beauty of this strategy is that the PS&F Shuttle will take you directly to your terminal without having to pay for parking in the garages there (PS&F is only $16.50 for the day with a coupon) so right away, you have car to door service.  Having checked in online the day before, I could go right through security and to the gate.  I allowed plenty of time and enjoyed a Starbucks iced coffee and cinnamon scone while I waited for my flight to board.

I'd heard US Airways runs late frequently and was surprised that we took off almost on time.  That was balanced though, by seemingly endless circling around the airport in Philly before we landed, some 10 minutes late.  That delay was just enough for me to miss the 9:10 SEPTA train into Suburban Station, so rather than wait for the 9:40 train and lose time getting to the museum, I took a cab to Love Plaza for $32.  It took all of 15 minutes to get there.

I knew the Love logo statue is a famous Philly landmark and had planned to go there once I arrived at nearby Suburban Station, so I had the cab leave me there.  The park was smaller than I expected and it was quite quick to find the statue, which is also smaller than I imagined but still cool to see, propped up on a stand so that the Philadelphia Museum of Art and pretty Benjamin Franklin Parkway fall behind it as a back drop.  I ended up paying a homeless guy $1 to take my photo with the statue.  That was my only option as there seemed to be only homeless people in that area at that hour.  That done, I walked over to take photos of the pretty strikingly white City Hall and the "Your Move" statues (giant board game pieces) in the plaza across from City Hall.

From there, I walked up the parkway to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I had an 11:30 reservation for the Rembrandt exhibit there and wanted to see some of the permanent collection beforehand.  I made it easily by 10:00.  On the way down the parkway, I passed the now-closed-for-renovation Rodin Museum and the future site of the now-closed Barnes Collection.  Once both of those are open, this will truly be a museum mile to behold.  Again, this walk from the plaza to the museum was another case where the distance on the map seemed grossly exaggerated.  I found tucked to the side of the museum the statue of Rocky Balboa, who, in his first movie, famously ran up the steps to this museum.  I later learned that it was sculpted to live at the top of the steps, but the museum graciously declined that offer.  So I ran up the steps (not nearly as bad as climbing the Great Wall!) and entered the museum with my pre-paid admission ticket which I'd gotten online a few weeks ago; $25 for the exhibition and museum admission.

I spent about an hour and 15 minutes going through the European collection, as that most suited my tastes.  The museum has a nice collection of Monets, I think about 18 in total.  I'd seen a few at the Monet exhibit in Paris back in December, but it was nice to see them displayed here as the museum meant for them to be seen.  In particular I loved the Manne-Porte at Etretat, The Zuiderkerk, Amsterdam (Looking up the Groenburgwal) and Bend in the River Epte Near Giverny.  I also saw a great Vincent Van Gogh that I loved as well as an interesting, uncharacteristically large, uncharacteristically nude Large Bathers by Renoir.  I also took a pass through the earlier European gallery but wasn't terribly moved by anything I saw there.

A little after 11:00 I headed past the entrance to the Rembrandt exhibit and good thing I did, as the line was already forming for the 11:30 entry time.  I didn't get in until almost 11:45.  Despite the museum letting visitors in a trickle at a time, it was still a bit more crowded than I would have liked, but like any other exhibition I've been to, most visitors eventually peter out and lose steam by the end, so it was more comfortable the further into the exhibit I got.  The premise of the exhibition was that Rembrandt changed the way artists generally painted the visage of Jesus by creating his own style and manner of interpreting  Jesus.  Before this, artists ordinarily painted Jesus following the description set out in the Lentilus Letter (written by someone who'd actually seen Jesus) or on either of two cloths that retained the impression of Jesus' face while he was living (the Veil of Veronica and Mandylion).  Following those guidelines meant that all depictions of Jesus looked pretty much the same.  But Rembrandt injected a character and spirit into his versions of Jesus which made them live, and the way the paintings and drawings are displayed chronologically allows the viewer to see that transition quite easily.  Unfortunately, most of the drawings are very small and the large-scale nature of the exhibition made it hard to view them in a crowd so big, but the paintings were indicative on their own of Rembrandt's transformation.  Most striking, I thought, was a wall of nothing but paintings of the head of Jesus done either by Rembrandt himself or his studio, which reflects this new style and life-like quality over a series of very similar views and angles.

After the exhibition, I escaped a very crowded museum and boarded the Phlash bus ($2 per ride or all day access for $5), which took me to Reading Terminal Market, where I'd be meeting my friend Susan for lunch.  She wasn't there yet, so I popped into the Philadelphia Hard Rock Cafe and bought a City-T as I usually do.  We then walked to the market, which is a food market of just the best sort:  too much choice, lots of incredible smells and a very hungry belly.  Because we had a very rich meal planned for later, we both opted for a large salad bar place but splurged on a warm cookie right out of the oven at one of the bakeries.

The walk to the historical area where we'd spend the rest of the day took about 20 minutes down Market Street.  As I'd never seen any of the historical sights, this was the crux of the visit.  I'd reserved a tour of Independence Hall, which was a good thing since even in mid-October, the tours still sold out that day.  After picking up our reserved tickets, we walked to the Christ Church burial ground, where Benjamin Franklin is buried.  For a small fee, we were able to enter the cemetery and find a few other signers of the Declaration of Independence as well as toss a penny (for "a penny saved is a penny earned") on Franklin's grave.  From there we visited the building that houses the Liberty Bell.  A fairly lengthy line outside this moved quickly (no admission fee, just a quick bag/security check) and we were inside and out again within 20 minutes.  The couple hundred feet leading from the entrance to the bell itself were full of educational exhibits about the bell and indeed liberty itself, but we skipped those to save time (3:45 tour across the street was approaching) and saw the Bell itself.  I was duly impressed, I must say.  It is polished to a dark copper shine and nicely set out on its own and given the spotlight, so to speak.  But again, without the lead up to it, it's really a quick photo stop.

Across the street we went through still another security check to get into Independence Hall.  The Park Ranger strongly suggested (no, mandated, let's be honest about that) that we arrive at least a half hour before our tour time, which meant after the security check we had a half hour to kill just sitting in the courtyard, which was pretty enough.  Independence Hall, however, is under scaffolding, so if you are hoping to see it any time soon, you're out of luck, but for a faded scrim that barely registers the facade over the scaffolding.  I had low expectations for the tour but the park ranger who led it was wonderful.  She was entertaining and provided the perfect amount of information and detail.  The most interesting room is the room where both the Declaration of Independence and, later, the Constitution were signed.  Of course everyone has seen this in paintings as as the park ranger reminded us more than once "just about anyone who was anyone was in this room to sign."  She also gave me pause because I'd never really thought about how much a risk all of them took in signing the Declaration, especially.  That equated to being a traitor to Great Britain, essentially, and was a big risk to both the signers' lives and that of their families.  Just something to think about...

After the tour we walked a bit more, passing Betsy Ross's house (notable really only in that it was her house) on the way to Elfreth's Alley, which is the oldest residential street (or something similar) in the US.  It consists of period-architecture so walking down the street is really like stepping back in time to the early 18th century.  That was actually pretty cool to see, if I'm being honest.

We then roamed around a bit, taking in some local indie music shops and other stores on the way to dinner, which I'd made reservations for at Alma de Cuba.  This was pretty nice for the pair of us who'd been schlepping on foot all over Philly all day, but very worth the wait.  The dark cozy atmosphere and big comfy chairs were just what we needed to kick back and enjoy good conversation and good food and drink.  We both started with a Suave Mojito, which is a must when the two of us hit a Cuban restaurant together (mostly in Miami!).  I had the chorizo sliders to start, which were two cute little tasty chorizo burgers with pickles and mustard.  We both had the vaca frita, which was a twice fried skirt steak with black beans, rice and a very tasty tomato "escabeche" which was like a sweet salsa.  We shared a plate of fried plantains.  All of this was just beyond description.  The steak was melt in your mouth delectable and I coul dhave eaten that escabeche on everything in my cupboard for the next month.  By now I'd moved on to a black cherry capirihna, which was really sweet but very tasty and much more potent than the mojito (what is "Brazilian Leblon Cachaca" anyway?  That was the liquor in this drink.)   Although we both thought we were done for, we were tempted by dessert.  I had the mocha tres leche cake and Susan had the dulce de leche crepes with smoked vanilla ice cream.  That smoking of the ice cream may have been the strangest but most experimental part of the meal...very interesting.

After lingering a bit longer over our drinks, we headed to Suburban Station.  I had a 10:45 flight home so took the 9:00 train back to the airport.  That took all of 20 minutes and cost $7, but those commuter trains make the ones I take every day in Boston look like Lamborghinis; man, they were old!  The flight left on time but experienced major turbulence and drifting on the landing (major understatement).  We landed at 11:30 and I summoned PS&F to take me back to my car.  Home by 12:45.

All in all, a great day with time well-spent both seeing the city and catching up with a good friend.

Next up, D.C. in a day!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Local Escape -- Degas and the Nude at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts

It's not often that I will unabashedly demand that people go see art that I like.  However, I just went to the members' preview for the latest exhibition at the MFA in Boston.  If you are anywhere near Boston in the next 4 months, get yourself to the exhibit "Degas and the Nude" at the Museum of Fine Arts. This is George Shackleford's last exhibit before he departs the MFA for Fort Worth (sniff, sniff!) and it's just wonderful. I went Friday night for member previews and was just blown away. There are over 80 pieces from painting to pastel to sketches and sculpture that mindfully trace how Degas worked with nudes throughout his career. I always get the audio guides, particularly for Shackleford's exhibitions, because they are so well done. This was no exception. He has a way of designing a show that just makes sense and tells the story. Even as a fan of Degas, I learned more than I expected and was sad when I'd reached the end. I will go again a couple times, I'm sure before the exhibit closes, but I was glad to have the relative peace and quiet of a near-empty gallery last week to enjoy this on my own!

What is striking though is that there are two other notable Degas exhibits on now as well, "Dancers at the Barre" at the Phillips Collection in DC, which I hope to see next month, and "Ballerinas Picturing Movement" at the Royal Academy in London which I'm itching to try to get to before December. That Degas was both so prolific and so accomplished with both the nude and ballerinas as his subjects that three significant exhibits can run around the world like this is exceptional.