4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Architecture”

The Stunning Taj Mahal (by Carmen)

The famous Taj Mahal view

How could we come to India and not see the Taj Mahal?  I mean, it’s THE symbol of India. One of the most beautiful structures ever. A wonder of the world. A must see…isn’t it?” These were the thoughts running through my head as we struggled to get train tickets to Agra, the city that holds the famous sight.  Long lines, crowded ticket counters, sold out trains all conspired against our visit and my determination to see the Taj began to waiver.  It took some effort but we finally made it.  And then…wow.

Taj from the mosque

The crowds were already queuing up at dawn and we joined their ranks.  I think Shiva and Vishnu (or possibly both) decided to reward our perseverance in getting to Agra by coinciding our visit with World Heritage Day.  This meant that our entrance to the Taj Mahal was absolutely free!  We entered the grounds and walked through the main gate to behold the famous and stunning view of the Taj.

It was wonderful. Nathan and I perched ourselves on a bench to the side of the main aisle to peacefully observe the scene.  And we were promptly asked to move so that a French tour group could take photos at the bench.  That’s the downside of these beautiful sights – they attract huge volumes of people and the jostling to get that perfect picture can get ugly.  

Up close and personal

Grand archway

We took our time getting up close to the main building, the mausoleum emperor Shah Jahan built for his deceased wife.  The building itself actually has a rather small footprint.  The pedestal it stands on and the setting makes it seem much more grand.  But as you get closer what you lose in grandeur you gain in great attention to details.  The carved marble was inlaid with flower patterns and script or carved into fine, intricate lattices.

A practice in symmetry

Us and the Taj

For me, the Taj really did live up to the hype.  It has a timelessness that belies its 400 years of age.  I believe this is a result its perfect proportions.  The dome and the carved niches all have soft curves that provide an elegant beauty.  In the end, it was well worth the trip.

Touristy camel ride

Agra holds not one but two world heritage sights.  A mere 2km away from the Taj is the Agra Fort, a defense complex turned palace.  We admired the extremely tall camels pulling tourists to and from the Taj but decided to walk along the river to the fort.

Textures of the Agra Fort

Beautiful arches of the Hall of Public Audiences

The Agra Fort has its own, crumbling elegance to it.  My favorite area was the scalloped archways of the Hall of Public Audiences where the emperor would conduct business. Emperor Shah Jahan actually was imprisoned here for the last eight years of his life where he could see his creation, the Taj, in the distance.

Thali time

Maybe it’s India’s ancient religious history. Or perhaps it’s all the trash in the streets. But there’s something about India that makes you want to cleanse.  (There’s also something about India that makes many tourists want to wear enormous parachute pants that I don’t see on any locals, but I digress.)  Our cleansing centers around food and drink. While in India we have been vegetarian and sober, a sort of detoxing for our indulgences in Europe.  We stuck to these ideals in Agra, where the food is mostly geared towards the touring hoards.  While we enjoyed a decent thali at a restaurant our favorite meals were on the streets.

Local Agra living

Fried potato chaat

Our first and last meal of Agra took place in a little corner where three chow mein stands setup shop each night.  For a snack, we enjoyed samosas or a fried potato chaat with chickpeas, tamarind, onions and mint chutney.  For the most part, we found these in or around the market streets in Agra.  These extended south of the Taj within a winding labyrinth of lanes with few other tourists.

Taj Mahal from the south riverbank

Just before our train to Delhi, we walked past the the east gate to the Taj, straight to the riverbank.  A Hindu temple occupies this site, but they don’t mind you sticking around the admire the rear Taj views.  Surprisingly we were the only tourists there to watch the sunset light up the magnificent building. It was a peaceful way to say goodbye to an understandably crowded treasure of the world.

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Bringing the Heat to Chicago (by Carmen)

Me and Cloudsrest aka The Bean (2011)

Nathan in the Windy City (2011)

Chicago is a place of extremes, at least when it comes to weather.  Nathan and I last ventured to the Windy City in March 2011. It was cold. Freezing cold.  The kind that turns your nose bright red, makes your fingers ache despite the gloves, creeps up through your shoes to numb all your toes. This summer our 4th of July trip to Chicago coincided with a heat wave.  It was hot. Sweltering hot.  But I much prefer heat to ice so I was happy.

Beach off Oak Street

I have a ton of family in and around Chicago so most of my visits center around winter holidays.  It was a treat to come during the warmer months and we tried to take advantage as much as possible.  For example we went to the beach right in downtown. Lake Michigan might not have waves but it is refreshingly cool on a day that is over 100 degrees.

In front of the Monadnock Building

Model city at Chicago Architecture Foundation

Even without the beach downtown Chicago is one of my favorite places to be.  I love the high rise buildings, which I appreciate even more after taking numerous walking tours over the years from the Architecture Foundation.  On their skyscraper tour I learned that the elegant Monadnock Building, completed in 1891, was built using tried and true brick instead of new at the time steel construction methods.  In order to reach 16 stories, the walls at the base are 6 feet thick!

Carbide and Carbon Building – my favorite

On another tour I found my absolute favorite high rise – the art deco Carbide and Carbon.  It is simple and classy but stands out due to its unique colors.  Grey granite, slate green, copper, gold, silver all come together beautifully.

View from the Chicago River

The Tribune Building

This time we took the Architecture Foundation’s boat cruise up the Chicago River. We learned about the huge mix of styles along the water; from early 20th century beaux arts to modern Greek revival; from the Sears Tower (once the world’s tallest) to the new Trump Tower.

Frontera Grill

But let’s be honest. The real reason we are in downtown is to kill time between meals. Particularly meals at Frontera Grill.  This is Nathan’s all-time favorite Mexican restaurant. Owned by the Top Chef Masters winner Rick Bayliss it serves up some scrumptious Mexican fare. This time we ate sopes, queso fundido, grilled spring onions, and stuffed jalapeños.  As usual, it was all delicious.

Xoco

Bayliss’ food is so popular he has three restaurants on the same block! For a more casual experience than Frontera we head to Xoco.  It offers sopas y tortas (soups and sandwiches) that are to die for. Nathan and I shared a cochinita pibil (slow cooked pork) sandwich and pickled pork knuckle sopes. Another specialty of Xoco is thick hot chocolate – you can watch them grind the cocoa beans right in the front of the shop.

Deep dish Chicago pizza

Another regular stop for Nathan and me is Pizzeria Due.  Deep dish pizza is a very personal choice for any Chicagoan.  Everyone has their favorite. Pizzeria Due wins points in my book for the crumbly cornmeal crust.  But while their sauce is good, I think certain San Francisco pizzerias have them beat.

Pierogies at Staropolska

Moving out of downtown gets you to some of Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods.  The city has the largest Polish population outside Poland. This means some damn good pierogies (potato, cheese, meat and/or cabbage dumplings) are to be had.

Smoked pork butt at Laschet’s

Over in the German neighborhood, my cousin introduced us to Laschet’s.  This is what you think of as a homey Midwest beer hall – fake wood paneling on the walls, old fashioned stained glass dome lights, thick dark carpeting. We had a feast of traditional German foods such as schnitzel, spatzle, potatoes, sauerkraut, etc.  We washed all this down with some smooth pilsners.  Fortunately, none of us came down with what the restaurant name indicated.  Even when Nathan ordered the smoked pork butt.

Bread pudding at Floriole

Chicago has more than just heavy meals.  Over in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, we found a sweet little cafe serving light sandwiches and salads.  We treated ourselves to a tasty bread pudding. It tasted very familiar to us.  Turns out that the owners used to work at our favorite San Francisco bakery, Tartine!

Goose Island Brewery flight

Another treat was a brewery tour of Goose Island.  This company makes some delicious custom brews for Frontera Grill so we knew we were in for some good stuff.  Their actual facility is rather small, so after the 15 minute explanation of the brewing process, I was wondering why the tour cost me $10.  Then we walked into the banquet room.  Two long tables were lined with 5 tasting glasses at each seat.  It was great to taste a range of their beers, from pilsner to IPA. The most interesting was a gluten-free beer that was made from quinoa, resulting in a pinkish color.  It tasted something like a cross between beer and sparkling wine.

The best hot dog

I made you wait for this last food picture.  That’s because we always have to wait for it.  The line for Hot Doug’s seems to always be minimum 1 hour. We’ve done the wait twice, once in 20 degree weather!  So is it worth it? The answer is yes. Their version of the classic Chicago hot dog is sublime. The dog, poppyseed bun, mustard, relish, spear pickle, onions, sport peppers and celery salt all come together in a beautiful medley. Feeling adventurous, like we always are, then try a foie gras hot dog or one from alligator meat!  Add duck fat fries and a variety of sausage alternatives to choose from and you understand why it’s worth the wait.

Nathan, Lucy and Albert

This trip to Chicago is made possible through generosity of my cousin, Tracy, in hosting us in her home.  Also, special thanks to Lucy and Albert for making room on the couch for us.  Until next time, Chicago!

Chicago sign at hip salvage store

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