Friday, September 14, 2018

I originally wanted to title this post: “How to kill 5 hours in downtown Houston while renewing your passport.” I looked for street art, ate a giant omelet for breakfast, chased butterflies at the science museum and had an iced coffee while I waited for my expedited passport.
Continuing on my solo road trip, I drove from Austin to Houston in about 3 hours.
After dropping off my proper paperwork at the downtown passport office, I headed to Harry’s, a longtime, Greek family restaurant on the edge of Montrose and Midtown. I ordered a big-as-my-head spinach and feta omelet with hashbrowns and unlimited filter coffee. Man, I do miss bottomless cups of coffee like what you get in the USA!

With a full belly, I continued on my wander of Downtown/Midtown Houston toward Elgin Street. At the bottom of this post, I included a map of my approximate walking area. I will say that some of the blocks here definitely seemed more sketchy than others. I was approached by a few homeless people asking for spare change and got whistled at by a group of guys walking by. My advice is to use your common sense and don’t do anything stupid. I didn’t use my good Canon camera like I usually do, and I kept my mobile phone in my front pocket so I could take photos.

Where: 3100 Smith St.
The Gorillas mural was completed by local Houston artist Nicky Davis in 2015 to mark the coming of western lowland gorillas to the Houston Zoo.
Michael Savoie mural
Where: Elgin and Smith streets
In this colorful mural, Dallas-based artist Michael Savoie depicts an African-American woman with a European look. In 2015, he was selected as a top 3 finalist and finished as the first runner-up in the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series competition when this mural was unveiled.
Preservons La Creation
Where: 2800 San Jacinto St.
Wow! You can’t miss this 9,750-square-foot mural created by French artist Sebastien “Mr. D” Boileau in 2014. His impressive interpretation of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel stretches an entire city block. Boileau now lives in Houston and owns a mural company, which does both private and public pieces.

The Bloody Truth mural
Where: 3000 Louisiana St.
This Halloween-ish mural, in support of the Bloody Truth Houston blood drive, also was designed by Boileau.
"The Earth is but one country and mankind its citizens."
Where: Bahá'í Community Center, 2419 Fannin St.
Meeting of Styles murals
Nouveau Antique Art Bar, 2913 S. Main St.
Meeting of Styles is an international network of graffiti artists that meet together and host various public art events around the world. I love the “Dia de los Muertos” murals, which I think were designed by Mexican street artist Real Tres. Apparently, the group also hosts an annual street artist event in London, so I’ll have to watch out for that.

Other murals in Downtown Houston
Here is an approximate walking area of Downtown Houston where I took these photos in this post:

NOTE: It’s been a little over one year ago since Hurricane Harvey landed in Houston (August 27, 2017), causing major flooding lasting until September 3, and the Downtown neighborhood was one of the areas greatly affected. The flood damage amounted to $1.5 billion and forced thousands of people to be evacuated from their homes. I visited Houston in October 2016 so I’m not sure if you’ll still find many of these murals.


Wednesday, September 12, 2018

I am taking a break from our European travels to look back at some cool street art I saw on previous trips “home” to the USA.

Texas is not a state I would go running to if it weren’t for several friends who currently call this Lone Star state home. In fact, I last visited Texas in 2002 (Yikes!), so I made a solo 900-plus-mile road trip to see several friends after visiting my family in Nebraska.

After having a homecooked Laotian lunch in Dallas with a girlfriend, I continued to Austin, who’s city model is “Keep Austin Weird” and is probably the state’s most liberal city. (Thank goodness!) During my three-day stay with a longtime girlfriend, she showed me the main sites and we sought out local street art.  

Downtown Austin
On the first day, we did a two-hour city tour with Austin Detours, which showcases a few highlights and includes a visit to the state capitol building.
Austin mural located at 6th Street Historic District by Sanctuary Printshop: East 6th St & SB I-35 Access Road.

As a pastry chef, I loved the “You’re My Butter Half” mural – a replica is located inside the Austin Visitor Center. The original design by Creative Suitcase is located at E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd & Alamo St., which we tried to find but couldn’t.
Random Pac-Man street art in Austin  
1st and Annie streets (Roadhouse Relics)
Our tour stopped at this large-scale replica of a vintage postcard located on the side of Roadhouse Relics. It’s easy to see why this is one of Austin’s most beloved murals and our tour guide took a group photo here. The mural was originally painted in 1998 by artist and owner Todd Sanders of Roadhouse Relics and his friend Rory Skagen.
HOPE Outdoor Gallery
I loved wandering around the HOPE Outdoor Gallery, a three-story concrete structure covered with random graffiti, in downtown Austin. The art park has been slated for demolition for months but will stay open through October this year. The park, launched in 2011 in an undeveloped lot, is home to some really cool murals as well as some random tagging and graffiti. Apparently, the site attracts an average of 500 daily visitors and also featured on our daily tour.
There are plans for opening a new art park at Carson Creek Ranch, a 58-acre ranch on the banks of the Colorado River in Southeast Austin near the airport. However, I doubt that a shiny, brand new site will have near the character as the current location.

South Congress Avenue
Snack Bar neon sign originally built as an addition to the Austin Motel.
Since my visit two years ago, a large section of South Congress Avenue where Parts & Labour and Doc’s Motorworks were located has been purchased, and the developers are planning a mixed-use project that calls for office, retail and restaurant uses and a (freaking) parking garage. Good job, Austin, let’s demolish some original, interesting buildings and replace them with another strip mall and parking garage! What a shame! (Read more about the development here by the Austin Statesman.)
For years, South Congress or SoCo has been a good representation of what Austin is all about. The ideal Austin mix is home to trendy boutiques, eclectic restaurants, food trucks, as well as craft booths and street musicians. I loved all the funky t-shirts and locally-made items that I found at Parts & Labour and enjoyed wandering through other artsy shops. I doubt that I will like the new SoCo if all the originality is replaced with strip malls, parking garages and fancy boutique hotels.

Don’t miss the famous “I love you so much” graffiti at Jo’s Hot Coffee on South Congress Avenue. You will probably have to wait your turn to take a photo here in front of what started as a simple love message. The story is that in 2010, local musician Amy Cook painted this love letter to her partner, Liz Lambert, one of the owners at Jo’s. The message stuck, has been repainted after being vandalized, and now is a popular photo spot for tourists and locals.
Good friends for nearly 20 years!
Neon Signs
In addition to the cool street art around Austin, you’ll find neon signs popping up inside and outside various buildings.
My advice: Visit Austin sooner rather than later because it appears that developers are taking away its artistic soul. BTW, I'm not usually so negative, but I'm disappointed to hear about the changes happening in Austin.

What do you think? Would you still want to visit Austin, Texas?


Friday, September 7, 2018

Well, we’re only halfway through our stash of champagne we brought back from our spring trip to the Champagne region of France. For some reason, champagne still seems more like a special occasion drink unlike my usual less than £10 bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

But you’ll quickly find while exploring this region is that visiting the champagne houses is not cheap. In fact, tours and tastings at the historic Maison Ruinart start at 70 euros each while Dom Pérignon only offers private tours. Moët & Chandon, home to the largest cellars in the region, offers a traditional tour starting at 25 euros. Also, tours of the Reims champagne houses and caves generally need to be prebooked. If you join a group tour, expect to pay a minimum of 120-200 euros per person, depending on the amenities offered.

So this spring, we decided to try a DIY version of champagne tasting in Reims. After taking the 6:18 a.m. Eurostar from London to Paris, hubby and I joined four other expat friends – two whom had previously visited several of the champagne houses in Reims. To avoid the whole drinking and driving situation, we hired a private driver through Chaffeur Gold. Luckily, one of our German friends, originally from Burkina Faso, Africa, speaks fluent French, so he acted as our translator.

(Note: After arriving via the Eurostar at Gare du Nord in Paris, you’ll have to walk over to Gare de l’Est to catch a TGV train to Gare de Reims. Plan your schedule accordingly because the trains run about every 2 hours.)

1 p.m. Saturday
Our private driver picked the six of us up outside of our hotel (Appart’City Reims Centre) in a black minivan. First, we headed to the small champagne house of Champagne Pascal Mazet located in the tiny village of Chigny-les-Roses, about 20 minutes south of Reims. His friendly wife met us at the front door and then took us back to the production shed where we met Pascal, who remembered our fellow American friend from a previous visit because he had worn strange webbed running shoes. Le Americain!
If I understand correctly, Pascal practices organic farming techniques on his two-hectacre estate, so he produces a cuvée unique that is certified BIO Ecocert. This champagne is made from a blend of pinot meunier, pinot noir and chardonnay grapes. He also produces an interesting, golden-hued cuvée nature that has zero sugar added, so of course we bought a bottle because it was something new to us.

Both Pascal and his wife were quite charming in showing us their humble family business. We each bought at least one bottle from them, and I regret only buying three bottles because the Mazet originel brut premier cru ended up being one of my favorites.

3 p.m. Saturday
Unfortunately, Champagne Michel Fagot, one of our friend’s favorites in the village of Rilly-la-Montagne, appeared to be closed. Actually, several of the champagne houses were shuttered in mid-March so best to plan ahead. Next, our driver took us to the nearby Champagne Delaunois F. & Fils, which he recommended. This family operation was founded in 1920. We tried a couple champagnes and a fortified wine called ratafia, which I did not like. We bought two bottles from here – a brut nature and a blanc de blanc.

4 p.m. Saturday
Well, we saved the best for last on our private tour and ended up at Champagne Alain Suisse, whom we had called in advance for our afternoon tasting. Monsieur Suisse is a jolly, rosy-cheeked champagne maker who is obviously very proud of the champagnes he produces at his independent house. He is the fourth generation running his family’s small farm in the countryside. He also speaks a little English, which helped, but his French was slow and clear enough that even I could understand him at times. Both our French translator friend and Le Americain had visited here previously and were welcomed back.
I loved all the Suisse champagnes that we tried here, especially the brut rosé, which is such a lovely shade of pink and only cost 19 euros/bottle. Most of us bought at least six bottles from Suisse, and I regret that we didn’t buy more.
Hubby with two of our good friends at Champagne Alain Suisse.
6 p.m. Saturday
After a rainy afternoon at three champagne houses, our driver dropped us and all our boxes filled with bottles at our hotel in Reims. I think we made excellent use of our driver, and the total cost was 100 euros per person for our 5-hour excursion. Then, we just had to sort out who had which bottles.

8 p.m. Saturday
How am I still drinking champagne at this point? We walked through the falling snow into the city center of Reims and found a cozy spot at Le Wine Bar by Le Vintage. Surprisingly, the town was quite busy for off-peak season and we had difficulties finding a restaurant for dinner.

12 p.m. Sunday
Since we wanted to tour one of the larger champagne houses in Reims, we joined a last-minute French tour at Domaine Vranken Pommery, a historic champagne house which achieved fame in the late 1800s under Madame Pommery. We bought the 30-euro tickets which included two champagne tastings at the end of the tour. We relied on our friend to translate again since the English tours were all sold out that day.

The Pommery estate is one of a few in the Champagne region to have crayères, chalk caves that began as quarries in the Early Middle Ages and are ranked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s absolutely stunning to walk through these historic tunnels with vaulted ceilings and look high up to see the sunlight shining down.
What’s also cool is that between the chalk quarries and tunnels, you will find a variety of contemporary art. The Vranken family has continued Pommery’s legacy in supporting artists and hosts a variety of local and international artists.
The only downside to visiting a larger champagne house is that the bottles of champagne carry higher price tags. I only bought one bottle of Pommery brut royal, which cost 34 euros compared to our previous purchases of 20-25 euros each.
The freshly fallen snow outside of Domaine Vranken Pommery was magical.
As you can probably tell, we had a whirlwind tour of Reims, but we had heaps of fun tasting different champagnes with our friends. Luckily, we can still relive some of those moments with our remaining bottles of champagne here in London.


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