Thursday, April 8, 2010

Discovering a Red Headed Stranger in Austin, Texas

Paul had to travel to Austin, Texas recently on business. From the onset he was not over whelmed about spending time there. Me, I like cowboys, and barbeques, and long winding dirt roads surrounded by open, empty fields or stands of woods. Of course Austin is a city so my vision is stuck in some old black and white movie, but Paul was still concerned that Austin wouldn’t be, I don’t know, metropolitan enough for his tastes.

A day into his trip he phoned to say he was thoroughly enjoying himself. As it turns out Austin is quite metro. The capital of Texas, Austin is located in Central Texas, situated on the Colorado River, with three man-made lakes within the city limits: Lady Bird Lake, Lake Austin, and Lake Walter E. Long.

According to Wikipedia, “Residents of Austin are known as "Austinites" and include a diverse mix of university professors, students, politicians, musicians, state employees, high-tech workers, blue-collar workers, and white-collar workers. The main campus of the University of Texas is located in Austin. The city is home to development centers for many technology corporations and has adopted the nickname "Silicon Hills"… In recent years, many Austinites have also adopted the unofficial slogan "Keep Austin Weird"; this refers partly to the eclectic and liberal lifestyle of many Austin residents but is also the slogan for a campaign to preserve smaller local businesses and resist excessive corporatization.”

Austin's official slogan is The Live Music Capital of the World; the city has a happening live music scene revolving around the many nightclubs on 6th Street and the annual film/music/interactive festival known as South by Southwest (SXSW).

Paul was there just a week after SXSW ended but the city was still humming from the vibe. When we were young and growing up in Litchfield County, Connecticut, the live music scene, between local clubs and live venues in NYC and Boston, was alive and kickin’. I loved seeing bands perform live, having a cocktail with friends, and dancing the night away….oh how I miss the 70s and 80s, but I digress. It appears that Austin Texas, of all places, is one of the last surviving enclaves for a lot of good, live music.

Towards the end of 1971, Stevie Ray Vaughan dropped out of high school and moved to Austin, Texas with the band Blackbird. Their home base was a nightclub on the outskirts of town called the Soap Creek Saloon, a classic Texas Roadhouse. Of course, Soap Creek Saloon is now closed, and Stevie Ray has moved on up to that big band in the sky, but I thought he was worth a mention when speaking of Austin.

One thing that Paul did consider very freaky was the fact that Austin is home to the largest urban bat population in the world. Congress Avenue Bridge, which spans the Lady Bird Lake, is home to a colony of Mexican Free-tailed Bats. At dusk, from March to September, people line the bridge and lake shore to watch the bats stream out in their nightly quest for insects. I think this would be so amazing to witness, Paul stayed as far away from the bridge as possible.

There were two things that Paul thoroughly enjoyed about Austin Texas: one was Tito’s Handmade Vodka and the other was a Bacon Bloody Mary.

Tito's Handmade Vodka is produced in Austin at Texas' first and oldest legal distillery. It's made in small batches in an old fashioned pot still by Tito Beveridge (yes, that is his actual name), a 45-year-old Geologist. It is micro-distilled in an old-fashioned pot still, like they do for fine single malt scotches or high-end French cognacs. This stuff is distilled six times and it is smooth, hoo-wee boy.  When Paul got home we asked the Cascade Spirit Shop to find us a bottle. They did, and it is truly delicious and not overly expensive. Buy some now before it catches on.

Paul and I LOVE hotdogs.  While he was in Austin he stopped by Frank’s looking to try out theirs. Just looking at their website makes my mouth water. I may travel to Austin just so I can experience Frank’s first hand. I never did ask Paul how the hotdogs were, because he sent me this photo (left).  While waiting for his dog he enjoyed a cocktail called the Red Headed Stranger. It is created with house made bacon-infused Dripping Springs Vodka, Frank’s Bloody Mary mix, garnished with a slice of bacon, a hunk of cheddar cheese, an olive, and a pepperocini. Paul had his glass rimmed in pepper, like you would salt a margarita glass.

As far as the Bacon Bloody, aka the Red Headed Stranger, well I guess I am going to have to get myself to Austin and try the original with a side of hotdogs, but since my religion involves the partaking of at least one Bloody Mary every Sunday, I will try to recreate the original using Paul as my taste-tester. This will be a good juxtaposition to my beloved Shrimpy Mary served at Jumpin’ Jays Fish CafĂ© in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

From what I can tell there is much more to Austin than I would have ever imagined. Paul thinks we should go back and visit sometime soon. He thinks I would really enjoy it. I think he’s right.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Historic Canterbury Cathedral

The Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury, Kent, England is one of the oldest Christian structures in England and forms part of a World Heritage Site. Canterbury's skyline is dominated by the stunning Canterbury Cathedral. Located in the southeastern corner of England, Kent borders the river Thames and North Sea to the north, and the Straits of Dover and English Channel to the south, France is a mere 21 miles across the Strait, and Kent is one of the warmest parts of England. Whether you are interested in history, architecture, art, music, the spiritual aspect or the beauty of the town and country surrounding Canterbury Cathedral there are many avenues to explore.

Almost everyone had to read Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales at some point during their education. Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written in Middle-English by Chaucer at the end of the 14th century. The tales are written as a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims traveling together on a journey from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. In 1170 Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in the Cathedral, as told by Chaucer in his famous tome, and since that time the Cathedral has attracted thousands of pilgrims.

Having survived fires, pillaging and attacks by the Danes, aggression from the Puritans, and even aggressive air bombings in the area during the Second World War, the Cathedral luckily remained virtually intact. Today over 2 million visitors come to the Cathedral each year; some come to pray and some come as tourists. If you like to travel the Canterbury Cathedral is a lovely place to visit. The history, architecture, art, and religious aspects, the archival library, as well as the beautiful countryside surrounding the structure, are more than enough reasons for most to consider visiting the area.

First and foremost Canterbury Cathedral is a working, living church and place of worship; Cathedral life begins daily with Morning Prayer and finishes with Evening Prayer. The Eucharist is also offered daily. Many other services take place throughout the year and visitors are always welcome.

Canterbury Cathedral is impressive for its size alone. A unique combination of architectural features from Western Roman and Byzantine buildings, known generally as Romanesque architecture which is known for thick walls, sturdy piers, large towers and decorative arcading, the building is impressive. Equally impressive, as well as revolutionary at the time of construction, are Canterbury Cathedral's pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses.

The grandeur of the building's Romanesque Gothic style architecture reflects historic and religious importance, as does the magnificent collection of medieval stained glass windows. Canterbury Cathedral's stained glass windows, many surviving from the late 12th and early 13th centuries, are a sight to behold; in the Middle Ages most people could not read or write, stained glass windows told the stories of the Bible in pictures that anyone could interpret.

A particular grouping, known as the Miracle Windows, depict stories that sometimes involve local people whose names are still known today. These windows provide a fascinating glimpse into medieval life, particularly common illnesses and accidents. Many scenes take place around Thomas Becket's tomb.
The Cathedral now has its own stained glass conservation studio, established in 1973, and a team of seven highly trained conservators. The studio has become a center of excellence in stained glass conservation and restoration throughout the world.

The Canterbury tradition of Cathedral music is also quite special. Music is an integral part of Cathedral life and they take great pride in the music performed at their services. Every day visitors are given the chance to celebrate and enjoy music written for the English choral tradition as well as music from other parts of the world. The choir consists of twelve Lay Clerks, men who are professional singers but also work locally, and the 30-strong choristers, boys of 8 - 13 years old who attend St Edmund's School in Canterbury. They sing at services six days a week, as well as at special events happening in Canterbury Cathedral.

The choir's repertoire is extensive and always expanding, they learn and perform music dating from the 13th century to modern works. Every two-weeks there is a mixture of styles and composers, so that there is something for everyone to enjoy and appreciate. Evensong is sung on a Wednesday and is normally sung by the Lay Clerks alone. The twelve Lay Clerks, 4 basses, 4 tenors and 4 countertenors, have a high standard of vocal training and ability. Since the post of Lay Clerk is part-time it requires great commitment to schedule practices and performances in and around other work and family, but the result is heavenly.

For the more serious traveler the Canterbury Cathedral Library may be a point of interest. Since the Reformation numerous donations have formed the majority of holdings. The Library contains about 30,000 books and pamphlets printed before 1900, and a collection of some 20,000 books and serials published in the 20th and 21st centuries. The collection of books on church history, older theology, national and local history, travel, natural science, medicine and the anti-slavery movement is particularly expansive. The Library welcomes all researchers; their holdings are tracked on the internet as part of the University of Kent's online catalogue at

Although Canterbury is a place steeped in tradition it is also a modern and vibrant city. Luxury hotels, fine restaurants, and welcoming pubs combine to give a complete experience. For those who like to shop, Canterbury's array of shop windows beckons with a kaleidoscope of colors. The King's Mile has an atmosphere all of its own, while the city's St Dunstan's, West Gate Towers, and Northgate areas have a range of specialist and individual outlets.

Travelling by foot is a good way to explore the city. Walking trails or guided walks will allow you to make the most of your time enjoying the winding lanes and streets. Alternatively you may wish to relax view the city with a boat trip along the River Stour. You will be able to appreciate Canterbury's historical architecture set against outstanding, scenic views. The crystal clear waters offer a home to ducks, swans, fish and other wildlife, while the river banks have an array of bending willow trees and wild flowers. I can’t think of  better reasons to visit, can you?


Thank you to for some beautiful photos