Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Visit from a Harry Potter Fan

There's no shortage of ways to indulge your inner Harry Potter fan in the London area, so when my friend Ann -- one of the biggest HP fans I know -- planned a visit with her husband, Matt, she took advantage of as many of them as she could.

No Potter fan should visit London without booking tickets for the Warner Brothers Studio Tour, where you can see all the sets, props, and costumes from the eight Harry Potter movies that were filmed there.  Ann and Matt went on their own, since I did the tour last summer with my equally fanatic sister.  If you've seen the movies, you will love it!  If you've only read the books, you'll still be impressed with the incredible attention to detail.

This was a particularly good time to be visiting London, as Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, was starring in a West End production of The Cripple of Inishmaan
Yes, that's him!
We went to an afternoon matinee, which we all enjoyed.  The play is a dark comedy set on a remote island in Ireland in the 1930's.  While Radcliffe's Irish accent was a bit weak (which made him easier to understand than some of the other actors), he did an impressive job with the physical demands of the titular role.

Now I can add Harry Potter himself to the list of actors from the films that I have seen perform live in London.  I've also seen Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom) in Our Boys, and Warwick Davis (Professor Flitwick, Griphook the goblin) in Wimbledon's Panto version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  I wonder who will be next?

After the show, we had some time to kill before dinner, so we toured some nearby filming locations, including a couple tiny streets resembling Diagon Alley and a sweet shop that inspired Honeydukes.
Ann is inside buying candy
After a very decadent dinner at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, we walked through Trafalgar Square on our way back to the train station.  There was a scene in one of the movies where the Death Eaters fly over the square, and this is also where the premiere of the final movie was held, as nearby Leicester Square was undergoing massive renovations in preparation for the 2012 Olympics.
Matt, Ann, and Josh in Trafalgar Square
Trafalgar Square at night
We spent the final day of their visit enjoying some of the other delights that London has to offer, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, afternoon tea, and a nice stroll around Kensington.
Afternoon tea at the Milestone hotel
(Note the 1923 Wimbledon painting behind us.)
Ann in Kensington Gardens
And then it was time for them to head home -- way too soon!  Ann and I have been friends since we were 9 years old, so it was great to spend some quality time with her and catch up on the goings-on back home.  If only we could apparate back and forth!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Reggio Emilia

When most people visit Italy for the first time, they go to Rome, or Venice, or Florence. My first trip to Italy was to Bologna. I did eventually make it to those other cities, but I never would have guessed that the first place I would revisit in Italy would be...  Bologna!

Why Bologna?  Well, our friends Rob & Diana had invited us to meet up with them during their 2-week tour of Italy, and that's where they happened to be over the weekend that we were able to join them.  More specifically, they were staying in the nearby town of Reggio Emilia, but we had to fly into Bologna to get there.  We rented a car at the airport, and as we  neared the exit for Reggio Emilia, I saw a familiar sight:
A familiar sight - the Calatrava Bridge
And then an unfamiliar sight.  This train station was designed by the same architect, but had not yet been built when I visited the area last June.
The new Reggio Emilia train station, by the same architect
This part of Italy (the middle of the top of the 'boot') is known for its food more than its sights.  It's mostly agricultural, and the landscape reminds me quite a bit of central California, where I grew up.
We made our way through the maze-like streets of Reggio Emilia to the Hotel Posta, which overlooked the main square right in the center of town.
Hotel Posta
Built in the 13th century as a palace, it has been a hotel since 1515!  The room below is over 800 years old, and can be rented out for weddings, meetings, and other events.
Taking a peek at the "Del Capitano del Popolo" room
Despite being mid-July, it was pretty quiet in the hotel, so they upgraded us to a suite.  Aptly enough, it was right above Rob & Diana's suite.  Josh and I used to live in the apartment above Rob's many years ago, so we were all very amused to find ourselves back in the same configuration.
The view from our room
Rob's travel agent had recommended this part of Italy because it is not very touristy and 'off the beaten path.'  Indeed.  It's a lovely little town with nary a tourist in sight, but there's not a whole lot to do in Reggio Emilia. The whole town essentially shuts down in the afternoon (and then comes back to life in the evening), but we were content to wander around and catch up with Rob & Diana and their friend Angela, who had joined them for part of their trip as well.
One of the MANY churches
The dome interior
Remnants of an ancient mosaic floor
A nice park
An unexpected flag
Church exterior
The theater
We spotted lots of interesting graffiti as we walked around.  I understand why we borrowed the word from Italian.
'Four Eyes' meets 'Six Eyes'
"Pearls before Swine" (a brand of beer)
Italian birds can't spell
Ginger T-rex Red Sox fan?
It's hard to see in this photo, but there is a gargoyle chained to the top of the wall by the tower.  We were convinced it came to life at night.
Impressive gargoyles
Hanging garden
Italian version of Tesco
Market in another piazza
Franciscan church with a nice mosaic
Another church
Church interior
Part of the original city wall
Our hotel had a sister property in a historic farmhouse perched on a hilltop just outside of town, so we made arrangements to go there for dinner one night.
Angela, Diana, Josh, and Naina at Cavazzone
It was a bit hazy, but we still enjoyed the view of the countryside before dinner.

Naina & Josh

Diana & Rob

Making good use of the self-timer on my camera

They make balsamic vinegar here, so before dinner we had a brief tour with an explanation of how it is made.  This is a much smaller operation than the huge factory I toured last summer.
Balsamic vinegar barrels
We ate out on the terrace looking out over the city.  Everything was delicious, including the best prosciutto and melon I have ever had.
Lovely terrace
Not surprisingly, we ate very well on this trip.  Lots of ham, cheese, wine and, of course, gelato.
Done with pizza, ready for gelato!
I wouldn't recommend Reggio Emilia for your first visit to Italy, but it was definitely a nice setting to catch up with friends and experience Italian culture and food away from the hordes of tourists.  And, believe it or not, while it was still warm enough to be grateful for air conditioning in our hotel, it was actually a bit cooler there than it was in London that weekend!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

My Day in Court

95% of the time, Wimbledon is a relatively quiet, residential part of London, but for two weeks (aka, "The Fortnight") every summer, it gets a little nutty.  It's time for tennis!
Burger King's "Whopper" takes on a new meaning
The Queen fills in for Nadal and Federer
Morrison's supermarket changes its name in honor of Andy Murray
Viewing screen and lawn chairs set up in the town center
...and in the Centre Court shopping mall
Invasion of the giant strawberries!
I was out of town for the first week of the Championships, but I had a free afternoon on the second Tuesday, so I headed up the hill to join 'The Queue.'  On my way, I bumped into my friend Nancy, who warned me that the previous week some people waited as long as 7 hours to get in, and they had even stopped letting people in some days.  Since that was the only day I could go, I continued on my way, determined to get in.
Since Andy Murray wasn't scheduled to play that day, nor were most of the other big-name players, I anticipated that it wouldn't be quite so crowded.  I was right!  In fact, there was absolutely no queue at all!
Not 'The Queue'; just 'The Walkway'
I walked right in and checked out the schedule of play.  Since I just had a Grounds Pass, I couldn't watch Sloane Stephens play in No. 1 Court, so I headed up to Henman Hill (aka Murray Mound) to see if they were showing her match on the big screen.
The AELTC likes to do things old school...
No such luck.  It was Radwanska vs Li in Centre Court.  Still, it was a good game in a lovely setting, so I stuck around to watch for a little while.
Watching the action in Centre Court from atop Henman Hill
I'd be happy to hang out up here even if there
wasn't any tennis going on.
Then I got some strawberries & cream (a Wimbledon tradition) and headed over to No. 3 Court to watch some doubles matches.  Although most of the seats are reserved, this court has a section with unreserved seating for those of us who didn't get any seats in the ballot and aren't well-connected enough to score tickets some other way.  You can't just buy tickets to Wimbledon -- you have to enter a lottery (ballot) about 7 months in advance, or know the right people.

Unfortunately, as soon as I sat down, it started to rain, and they suspended play and pulled the cover over the lawn.  Darn!  I wandered around the grounds for a while and had a snack while I waited for the rain to let up, and then decided to go back and reclaim my seat when it looked like it was finally coming to an end.  It looked promising when the kids came out and started pulling the cover off the court...
Time to resume play?
But then in started raining before they had even finished, so they put it back again.  Meanwhile, I got a call from my friend Brenda, who was there as well, and she and her daughter came and joined me.
Brenda and I wait for the rain to stop
Brenda and I have a lot in common:  we're American, we spent several years in Berkeley, we live in Wimbledon, we're AWC Board members, and we both have Indian fathers and American mothers.  (And neither of us looks particularly Indian.)  It seemed only fitting that when play finally resumed, we rooted for the team that was half Indian. 
A French guy and a Serbian guy vs an Indian guy and a Czech guy
The French guy was a really bad sport and was reprimanded by the judge for "ball abuse" after he intentionally hit two balls out of the court, so we were especially glad when the other team won.
 Next up: Mixed doubles.  There was another half-Indian team, so we stuck around to root for them as well.
Two Germans vs a Romanian guy and an Indian girl
Once again, we picked the right team to root for, as they won in two sets.  I wonder how these doubles players get paired up with partners from other countries?  How do they train together?  Or even communicate?  I imagine many of them train in the US and speak English, but it still seems odd.
The winners!
We were thinking of heading home after that, as it was much colder than forecasted, and getting late, but we saw that the Bryan twins were playing in No. 12 Court, so we had to see how they were doing.
Decent crowd at 8 pm on a chilly weeknight
It turns out they were also playing a half-Indian (half-Austrian) team, but we still rooted for the Bryans since they are American (and the #1 seeds).  It's no mystery how they got paired up, since they are identical twins.  It was a very close match, and at one point they thought they had won and both walked to the net with their hands outstretched to shake their opponents hands, only to realize that the judge had not called a fault.
The Bryans try to explain their odd behavior

A very close game!
Everyone laughed, and even the opposing team giggled while the brothers regrouped.  There's a great video of it on the BBC site.  If you look closely as the twins are walking up to the net, you'll see a girl in a yellow jacket sitting about 10 rows up.  I'm next to her on the left.

A few minutes later, they did it again, but this time they had actually won!
The Bryans win!
That seemed like a good time to call it a day, so I bid adieu to Brenda and her daughter and headed home.  On my way out, I checked the scoreboard for No. 1 Court to see the results of the men's doubles invitational match.  John McEnroe and Patrick McEnroe of the USA defeated Peter McNamara and Paul McNamee of Australia.  That must have been a
challenge for the announcer!