Monday, July 24, 2006

America's Best College Towns

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We are a divided family. We divide over universities, not all universities mind you, just two, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (known as Carolina) and Duke University. These rival schools, located a few miles apart, hate each other passionately. It’s an old story which contains a bit of “Gone with the Wind” and a bit of “Bonfire of the Vanities”. Mostly it is a problem with basketball. On the day that I visited Duke, there was a young man walking through the engineering school with a t-shirt which screamed, “CAROLINA SUCKS”, just so you get a feel for the depth of the problem.

The bulk of my family have always strongly supported Carolina which makes sense since they are Carolinians but Duke has made inroads in recent years. My parents now use Duke’s hospital (big vote of confidence). In addition, my son applied to one of their graduate schools. His girlfriend, Alison, is a graduate. Brick by brick, we loyal Carolina supporters have been drawn into Duke’s powerful orbit but still, I take exception to that t-shirt.

For visitors who could care less about who hates whom, both towns, Chapel Hill for UNC and Durham for Duke offer crowd-free, fun places to visit. Both Universities have lots of things to do and see, most of which are free or priced for students. Back in November, my friend Mase wrote a wonderful post for NoCrowds about visiting Chapel Hill, making the case that the best way to experience the best America has to offer is to visit its college towns. Following on from that idea and to even out the playing field and in the interest of family harmony, yesterday I asked my son’s friend, Alison, if she would give me an insiders’ tour of Durham and the Duke Campus. Here is what we did.

We parked. You may laugh but parking at universities is often a huge problem, mostly driven by the fact that almost all American students have cars. To Duke’s credit, they have built a big new parking lot on the West Campus and this problem is mostly solved, at least for now. Alison says things will get more difficult when the full complement of students is back on campus.

We began our tour of Duke at their bookstore where I like to begin every university visit. In this case, I could have skipped it. The Duke bookstore is really nothing special.

What is special is the monumental chapel next door which has the metrics of a mind blowing cathedral: seating for 1,670, seventy-seven stained glass windows containing 800-900 figures made from over 1 million pieces of glass, three organs, a fifty bell carillon, and a fine portal with sculpted figures of a curious collection of luminaries such as Savonarola, Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee (and who says Duke is just for Yankees?). I’ve been to countless churches and cathedrals in my time, but when we visited the Duke Chapel one of the three organs was playing and the combination of the music, the scale and the grandeur of the place made the visit uplifting and memorable. There is a sheet at the entrance with information for a self-guided tour (not great) and a much more useful brochure, “The Guide for Visitors” which I would definitely pick up.

After our visit to the Chapel, we made our way to the Sarah Duke Gardens, a short walk away. Occupying 55 acres the Gardens are recognised as one of the premier public gardens in the United States which attract more than 300,000 visitors annually. But don’t worry, the size of the place absorbs the numbers easily. On the day we visited, it felt like we were the only people there.

The gardens were designed by Ellen Shipman (1869-1950), a pioneer in American landscape design. Duke Gardens is considered Shipman’s greatest work. There are five miles of walks and pathways, areas devoted to flora of the southeastern United States, an area devoted to the plants of eastern Asian with lovely rock gardens, foot bridges, stone lanterns and a teahouse shelter. As I said before in my post about Kew Gardens in the United Kingdom, I’m not much of a gardener, but I loved my visit to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens and I respect the way they have devoted so much resources to the preservation of great American landscape design.

After our visit to the Garden, we wandered through the gigantic University hospital complex which, as I explained above, now tends to the medical needs of my parents. I suspect that if you are a patient, the “in your face” scale of the place is comforting but for me, I kept thinking about some of the Victorian era hospitals we still have in Britain and shake my head at this modern medical megalopolis. The place is so big that it has its own mini train (which looks like the little pods from Woody Allen’s movie “Sleeper”) to carry people around. Anyway, suffice it to say that if you take ill during your visit to Durham, you will receive some of the finest medical care to be found in the United States.

Following our tour of the campus, Alison suggested we get a sandwich at Fowlers on South Duke Street near the East Campus. Once again we found a parking place straight away. Fowlers is in a large converted warehouse with a cafĂ©, a delicatessen with a very good selection of foreign foods, a large cheese selection, a butcher and a fishmonger. You can eat outside on the porch if you like. It was far too hot for that the day we were there. I had the homemade pastrami which was excellent even if I did have to send the first sandwich back because they used the wrong bread. I would love to give this place a better review because management obviously cares, in the right way, about food and so much of what is served is of superior quality. Still, on the day of our visit, I felt that staff was well intended but way too disorganised and it distracted from the experience. According to Alison, good meals near campus can also be had at Elmo’s Diner which serves inexpensive good southern food and great breakfasts as well as the Cosmic Cantina for burritos and pitchers of beer.

Following our lunch, we drove around the East Campus and past a Durham Shrine to fine food – the Magnolia Grill. Founded by chef owners Ben and Karen Barker, the Magnolia Grill serves sophisticated and beautifully prepared versions of traditional southern food and is one of my favourite places to eat in the South. Sadly, there was no time for a meal during this visit. Reservations can be hard to come by, but go if you can get a table.

After lunch we toured the East Campus, the highlight for me being the series of colourful benches built by students in front of their dorms which they happily burn and build again when Duke beats Carolina in basketball. Go figure. After that, we got back in the car and headed for Chapel Hill for some ice cream at Cold Stone on Franklin Street where, if you leave a tip, the happy workers, one of whom is my cousin, will sing you a funny little “tip song”.

Going back to Jeff Mason’s point that the best way to see America is by visiting its college towns, I highly recommend making Durham and Chapel Hill a stop on any tour of the American South. The attractions are interesting, the people are friendly, the food is great, you can park your car, and Carolina, for the record, definitely does not suck.

Good Food in Durham

The Magnolia Grill
1002 Ninth Street
919 286 3609
Reservations essential

112 South Duke Street
919 683 2555
Open 7 days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner (closes at 6:00 on Sunday)

Elmo’s Diner
776 9th Street
919 416 3823

Cosmic Cantina
1920 ½ Perry Street (just off 9th Street)
919 286 1875

Thursday, July 13, 2006

NoCrowds Europe Heads Home

Posted by Picasa Regular readers of NoCrowds Europe know that occasionally, when the spirit moves me, I write about something other than Europe. Call it lack of discipline but until NoCrowds has more manpower than just me, I can’t do anything other than write about where I am. Tomorrow, I am off to North Carolina for a month with a road trip to New York and I intend to write about the vacation venues of the East Coast of the United States with the same focus as when NoCrowds covers Europe. Regardless of the location, I’ll work hard to unmask the overrated and uncover the overlooked and report back on the best ways I have found to get off the tourist treadmill.

Tomorrow, I will have to face the biggest nightmare in summer travel – the airport. This morning, I made a failed attempt to check-in and select seats on American Airlines Flight 173 to Raleigh. The first disappointment was that not one aisle seat remained in the entire economy section. But worse was yet to come. After a half hour of trying to book the really bad seats ( near the toilet, in the middle etc.) that AA was showing as open, a call to customer service resulted in my learning that online check-in was not possible for my flight. The customer service rep was perfectly lovely, but why provide an online system if only AA staff are in on the little secret that it only works for certain flights?

In fact, I can hardly wait to get to the airport to be told that there are no two seats together which is not so bad really because Eloise can spill her drink on a brand new friend and ask him/her 8,342 times if we are almost there. Now that I am thinking about it in a positive way, things are looking up. Tomorrow night, the queues at Gatwick, the cat fight for a decent seat and the idiotic clearing of customs and immigration at Raleigh Durham will all be behind me. I’ll be eating barbeque from Stephenson’s at my farm, with my big southern family (see above), and nothing, absolutely nothing, is better than that.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Not Tired of London

Sometimes, when the traffic, the parking, the grime, the ill tempers and the expense make me tired of London, I think of Samuel Johnson and his famous quote, “A man who is tired of London is tired of life”. Since Johnson was right about so many things, then he must be right about life and London and since, I assure myself, I am not tired of life, I should not be tired of London.

Last week, walking along Fleet Street where the traffic, noise and grime are singularly impressive, I saw a small sign pointing towards Samuel Johnson’s house. Curious and having time to spare, I ventured into the intimate passageways just north of Fleet Street that quickly take you back in time into the heart of historic London. Following the signs, I arrived at No. 17 Gough Square, and thought, “what the heck, I don’t know much about Johnson except the headlines and the house looks interesting.”

In fact, the building represents one of the few remaining residential houses of its age in the City of London. It was in this handsome house on the north side of an elegant small square that Dr Johnson lived from 1748 to 1759, to be near his publisher and it was in the attic of the house that he, along with six clerks, worked on his monumental Dictionary of the English Language.

Inside, the house has been impressively and simply restored using panelling and paint colours of the period. The furniture, prints and portraits provide plenty of human interest in the life of Johnson who rose from simple beginnings to become one of the towering masters of the English language. Only Shakespeare and the Bible are quoted more often. Included in the artefacts is a beautiful porcelain service belonging to Johnson’s friend, Joshua Reynolds, and an intriguing piece of Dickensian London can be found in the massive chain and bar over the front door, made by lady chain makers, to stop tiny children from being lowered through the small top window to open the door and rob the house. And we think we have a crime problem!

Upstairs, you can watch a video on Johnson’s life and times (note to the museum’s curator, as soon as funds are available, you need a new TV) and children have the opportunity to try on beautifully made Georgian costumes. I have seen plenty of costumes for children in museums and these were by far the nicest. There are also copies of the Dictionaries and other collections of books.

Back outside again, I stopped to admire the modern statue of Johnson’s cat, Hodge, who is sitting on a dictionary with oysters at his feet. We know about Hodge from the writings of Johnson’s biographer, Boswell, who, not being a cat lover, was shocked at the extent to which Johnson would indulge his pampered pet, even going so far as to go shopping himself for the cat’s favourite oysters.

On the way home, I reflected on how much I enjoyed this unexpected visit to Samuel Johnson’s House. The next time I am feeling a little weary from living in London, I will think not only about Samuel Johnson’s quote but also about his wonderful museum where you can happily spend an hour or so learning about the life and times of a remarkable man who never tired of London.

Dr. Johnson’s House
14 Gough Square
London EC4A 3DE
Tel: 0207 353 3745
Tube: Temple, Blackfiars, Chancery Lane, Holborn

Opening times: Monday to Saturday from 11am – 5:30, May to September and 11am – 5pm, October to April. Closed Bank Holidays

Adults £4.50
Children £1.50
Family £10.00

Monday, July 03, 2006

19 Princelet - Where Georgian and Immigrant London Collide

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Take a guess what was the most popular search term in today’s electronic version of the New York Times – immigration. When I put “immigration” into Google, 521,000,000 responses came back. The entry and settlement of people in a country of which they are not native gets people excited for all kinds of reasons. But it was not an interest in immigration which made me rush to 19 Princelet Street in Spitalfields for one of the rare days in the year when London’s Museum of Immigration is open to the public. No, I went looking for more of the Spitalfields’ “picturesque” which had so captured my imagination at Denis Severs House, and where one can so easily imagine the past.

Once again, Spitalfields delivered the goods and of all the strange places I have visited in my quest for uncrowded and authentic experiences, 19 Princelet Street is the strangest. Haunted, heavy with romance, tragic, this unrestored house, built in 1719, and now in a dire state of disrepair, was once the proud home of French Huguenot master silk weavers. Over the centuries, successive waves of London’s East End immigrants have left their mark on the building which the Spitalfields Centre Charity is fighting to keep out of the hands of developers and retain as a permanent resource to tell the story of the Huguenots, Irish, Jews, Bangladeshi, Somalis and others who have sought refuge in the neighbourhood.

Through the writing of Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair, the house also achieved fame as the setting for the mysterious story of its last resident, David Rodinsky, who lived above the synagogue and sometime in the 1960s disappeared. Rodinsky’s room remained locked and undisturbed for over 20 years with the chaotic contents, newspapers, a fossilised cup of tea, porridge on the stove, a head imprint in the pillow, covered in dust and frozen in time.

As my friend Laura and I arrived at 19 Princelet, we were asked to wait outside for a while, because the house is in such bad shape that only a small number of people can be in the building at any one time. Finally, it was our turn to enter the dust filled, gloomy hallway, sign the guestbook and head for the synagogue which had been brought from Poland in 1869 and reconstructed, out of sight, in the back garden.

The synagogue, abandoned in 1963 as Jewish residents began to move to other neighbourhoods, has left behind a treasure trove of amazing stories. Along the wooden walls of the second floor ladies gallery, printed in gold lettering, one finds the honour roll of former donors. From overhead, the light which manages to penetrate the gloom of the filthy glass roof would thrill a Hollywood set director. The excavated basement once served as the meeting place of the Friendly Society set up by Ashkenazi Jews to assist victims of the pogroms of the 18th century. In the garret above, once a place for silk weavers, lived the sad and mysterious David Rodinsky.
As we entered the synagogue, I grew increasingly interested in the conversation taking place between a group of young black and Asian women, many in head scarves, who were being shown around by one of the museum guides who was explaining the persecution suffered by the Huguenots and their need to find refuge outside of France. “But weren’t they all Christians, said one of the girls. “Yes, replied the guide who went on to outline the long conflict between French Roman Catholics and Protestants. “But they were all white?” The group of girls shock their heads in disbelief.

Before my visit, I was not convinced that London needed a Museum of Immigration but with that group of perplexed girls in mind, I now think it’s a good idea. Whether the huge amount of money can ever be raised to realise this ambition appears questionable. I hate to say this, but if I had to bet, I’d put my money on the developers. I hope I am wrong. With my sad prognosis looming, I urge you to jump at the chance to see this house. There are three days left this year when the building is open to the public:

Sunday 3 September 12 - 5pmfor European Day of Jewish Culture and Heritage

Saturday 16 September 12 - 5 pm
Sunday 17 September 12 - 5 pm
for London Open House weekend (prepare for crowds)

The website gives detailed information about how to arrange a group visit. The organisers ask for at least four weeks notice and a minimum donation of £100 pounds which seems fair to me when you consider that a family ticket for such tourist trash as Madame Tussauds can set you back £74. I can only put forward the idea that any effort and expense you make to see 19 Princelet will be rewarded with a completely unique and memorable experience. If you manage to read Rodinsky’s Room before your visit, the experience will be even more informed by the stories of the lost world of the Jewish East End. In any event, try to go.

19 Princelet Street
London E1 6QH
020 7247 5352