Archive for May, 2011|Monthly archive page
But like last weekend, my plans got somewhat derailed.
It all started yesterday morning when I woke up to the sounds of a thunderstorm. The plan for the day was to leave Ames early, drive to northeast Iowa, visit Effigy Mounds National Monument, and then head back along Hwy. 20 and stop to tour Cedar Rock – the Lowell Walter house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and located near Quasqueton, Iowa.
I’ve been to Effigy Mounds before and blogged about my experience back in October, but Dave wanted to visit the site, so we decided it would be a nice outing for Memorial Day weekend. And I figured the tour of Cedar Rock would give me something new to write about.
So off we went at about 7:30 a.m. The skies were stormy, but the rain had stopped, and we were optimistic about our chances for a good day. But not far into the drive, we caught up with the storm that had dumped on Ames earlier in the morning, and it started raining steadily.
The Cedar Rock website isn’t exactly stellar, and I wasn’t completely clear on the hours of operation during Memorial Day Weekend, so as we neared the turnoff for Quasqueton, we decided to drop by and check it out. (The highway sign promoting the site said “closed,” by the way.) We got to the gate (which also says “closed”) and drove up to the front of the visitor center just as a DNR truck pulled up behind us. I hopped out to go check out the posted hours, but the DNR rep stopped me and asked if I needed anything. I told her our plans to return to the home later in the day – if it was going to be open. She said it would be open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. for tours on the hour – and that if you don’t sign up for a tour, you don’t get to visit the home. (I thought the website made the guided tours seem optional.) She said the 4 o’clock tour was already full but that she’d sign me up for the 3 o’clock tour if I wanted. That sounded like a reasonable plan.
By the time I finished talking to her and got back in the car, I was drenched despite the fact that I’d been under a large umbrella the whole time. The rain continued as we headed northeast, and the lovely, rolling farmland I fell in love with last fall looked gloomy and sad underneath all the rain and fog.
Undaunted, we continued to Effigy Mounds (near Marquette, Iowa). When we arrived, it was raining so hard and the wind was so fierce, we just couldn’t make ourselves start out on the hike to the top of the site…so we hung out in the visitor center and watched the introductory film. When we emerged, the rain had let up a bit and the wind had died down, so we headed up the hill to the mounds and to lovely (on a good day) views of the Mississippi.
Someday I’d like to walk the full length of the Effigy Mounds trails. But not yesterday. Not in the rain. Although it did stop at times during our hike – and the rain made the green grass and trees practically glow.
After we visited some of the mounds and two views of the river, we walked back to our car…soggy and covered with mud…and headed to McGregor for lunch.
McGregor is the little river town just south of Effigy Mounds where I stayed overnight during my visit last fall. Dave and I ate at Old Man River, the brewpub I liked so much. We ordered onion rings for an appetizer because we were starving. They came out on a plate so huge and heaping with donut-sized rings that we shared them with the table full of strangers next to us.
By the time we’d eaten our lunch, it was nearly 2 o’clock – not nearly enough time to get back to Cedar Rock by 3 p.m. I called guest services to check on a possible cancellation in the 4 o’clock group and, hearing there was none, cancelled our 3 o’clock spot.
So now what to do? I had enjoyed going to Lansing last fall, so we headed up the river road and drove across the steel bridge at Lansing, then to the top of Mt. Hosmer for another view of the river (right). By this time, it had really stopped raining and the day was starting to brighten up a bit. We started back toward Ames via Elon Road – the 13-mile drive along a ridge with scenes of rolling farmland on either side.
Last fall, I was disappointed that The Sugar Bowl Ice Cream Company in Decorah had already closed for the season. So we decided to give it a try – and sure enough, it was open when we arrived. I had a scoop of coconut almond, and Dave – always the adventurer – got vanilla.
Leaving Decorah, I still wasn’t sure what I was going to blog about, but I was looking at the map to decide whether to drive back on Hwy. 9 or go south on Hwy. 150…when I saw some tiny type that said “World’s Smallest Church” just near Festina on Hwy 150. Bingo!
(As we’re trying to find this tiny church, I’m thinking wow, I was just at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City – which I’m told is the largest church in the world. How ironic!)
It turns out that the world’s smallest church – officially called St. Anthony of Padua Chapel – is really adorable if you can find it (turn west at Festina, go down a gravel road, turn left on Little Church Road, go past some farms, and you’re there). I was joking on the way there that the church might be so small we’ll drive right by it without seeing it…and I might have to put a quarter next to it for scale in my photos. But all joking aside, it really was very sweet. You can walk right in and see the stained glass windows and the four tiny wooden pews – painted pale blue and each big enough for two regular-sized people or three tiny people. There’s an altar and some statues, and outside there are more statues and a few old graves and a log cabin.
For a dollar, you can buy a little brochure about the history of the church, which I did. (They sell them in the church’s entryway, on the honor system.) Here is what I learned: St. Anthony of Padua Chapel is 14 x 20 feet, and the belfry is 40 feet high. It seats 8. The church was built in 1885, using stones quarried just across the river. The chapel was built on the site of the first Catholic mission north of Dubuque. The family of Johann Gaertner built the chapel to honor a vow his mother made if Johann, who was drafted into the French army and served under Napoleon, returned safely from the Russian campaign. Or something like that. Relatives of Frank Huber (Johann’s son-in-law) maintain the chapel and grounds, which include Johann’s grave.
Well. The smallest church in the world. That seemed like a blog to me. So we headed home, tired, wet, happy… and still covered with mud.
I headed to Des Moines yesterday afternoon with good intentions of attending the Iowa Craft Brew Festival. I thought it would be a great mix of two of my favorite things: buying locally and drinking great beer. However, I was a bit apprehensive because I don’t enjoy big crowds nor standing in line, and this festival had some major red-flag issues: It was featured prominently on the cover of the Des Moines Register’s Thursday Datebook, and it was to be held in a relatively small space — 10th Street between Walnut and Mulberry.
Dave and I drove down anyway, excited for the possibility of tasting some new local brews and enjoying what had turned out to be a spectacularly nice early-summer day. We were planning to meet another couple, Jim and Sue Heemstra, and experience the festival together.
When we arrived downtown, we parked our car and walked around the corner to the festival area, only to be smacked with the reality of just how crowded one block could be. People were packed inside the festival area like sardines, and the line to get in was a half-block long. I immediately called our friends to ask if they were already inside (in which case we’d brave the crowd and meet them there) or if they hadn’t made it there yet (in which case I would suggest we bail). Turns out they were about 3 minutes behind us, so we stood and assessed the situation. Ultimately, we decided to spend the $80 that it would cost for 4 of us to enter the festival and go someplace where we could sit down and have a few slightly more civilized beers.
We headed to El Bait Shop, 200 SW 2nd Street, modestly promoted as “home of the biggest selection of American micro-brews in the world” and also known for its friendly patio. This turned out to be a good choice and the first destination in what would become an impromptu Rapture-day Pub Crawl. Obviously if this was going to be some sort of apocalypse, it would be best to go out with a beer in your hand.
The thing about El Bait Shop is that its beer selection is almost too good. We started out planning to each get a different beer and share it, then move to four new kinds of beer, thereby tasting up to a dozen or so different brews. But every time the waitress came around, we’d panic and order the same thing we were already drinking. But between our lively conversation, good beer, and platters of nachos, it really didn’t matter.
After drinking our fill at El Bait Shop, we moved on to Mullets, a newish bar located on the river at 1300 SE 1st Street. There we found another inviting (and very full) patio with an outstanding view of the downtown skyline and Principal Park, where an Iowa Cubs game was going on. We settled for pitchers of Fat Tire (simpler and much cheaper than the beer at El Bait) and a couple of weird appetizers: sweet potato tots and deep-fried pickles. I don’t know if it was the beer or the company, but we snarfed down both baskets in no time.
Once we’d downed a couple of pitchers, we moved on to our third and final destination. Jim called it “that basement bar that I’ve been to before…not sure of the name or exactly where it is, but I’m sure I can find it.” It was actually called Shorty’s and was indeed located in a basement. As it turns out, it’s actually underneath Sbrocco wine bar and restaurant on Court Avenue, but when you enter from the back, that’s certainly not apparent. Shorty’s very much has that “speakeasy” feel to it, and we instantly settled into a table and had one more round of beers before heading out into a thunderstorm that capped off our evening with a fast run to our cars.
Yesterday was not the best day to drive to Rainbow Iris Farm in rural Bedford, Iowa. For one thing, last week’s unseasonably warm weather had turned unseasonably cold. And windy. And it was raining. So there was mud.
Rainbow Iris Farm is located four miles of dirt (mud) roads off of Hwy. 148, very near the Missouri border. The farm manager is Kelly Norris, a 2008 Iowa State horticulture graduate whom I met when I was working on an entrepreneur feature story for VISIONS magazine. The Norris family owns the farm, but Kelly is gardener extraordinaire. He became Iowa’s youngest certified master gardener at age 13, has published a number of gardening books, and encouraged his family (at age 15) to start the iris farm.
The result is a 7.5-acre plot of blooming beauties. Rainbow Iris Farms is currently celebrating Bloomfest 2011 from May 7 to June 3. From shy, delicate, early-blooming dwarf irises to the showy, tall beardeds, irises are expected to bloom throughout this period of time.
When I was there yesterday, getting a perfectly good pair of shoes muddy, maybe a third of the plots had irises in bloom. The rest of them looked like they were nearly ready to pop. It will just take some warm, sunny weather to get them to show off their colors.
Kelly’s irises are unique in that he is a prolific plant breeder. He is creating new cultivars each year. As I tromped around in the mud, exclaiming about the color of this iris and that, Kelly pointed out that the ones I liked were actually crosses between these other ones here and here…I get sort of lost in the genetics of it all, but gosh they are pretty. Kelly says there are 1,100 different kinds in all.
The Rainbow Iris Farm catalog can be accessed online at www.rainbowfarms.net. Order early for best selection! Plants are shipped in the fall.
If you want to take your chances with the weather, visit the farm yourself. Directions can be found online.
IowaGirl readers will already know that I’m a big fan of Pella, because I wrote about the cheese and pastry shops and historical museum at Christmas time…and I made another run to the bakery when I visited nearby Knoxville to review Peacetree Brewing. It’s one of my favorite places to go.
But it’s been a very long time since I actually went to Pella during Tulip Time. Maybe 12 years ago? I have gotten into the habit of visiting Pella each year the weekend BEFORE Tulip Time. That way, I get to see all the tulips and shop for pastries but avoid the crowds.
I decided to suck it up and actually attend Tulip Time this year because it’s such a spring tradition in Iowa, and because if you don’t go on the actual weekend you miss all the wonderful Dutch costumes and the food vendors.
I should mention that there’s a lot more to do at Tulip Time than smell tulips, eat, and watch the twice-daily parades. It’s a big three-day festival. There are museum tours, art exhibits, a quilt show, 5K run/walk, car show, city tours, flower show, kids’ activities, concerts, and a grandstand show. I am sure they are all delightful. I think every man, woman, and child in Pella is somehow involved in the celebration.
We arrived on Friday afternoon and took advantage of the shuttle parking on the outskirts of town so as to avoid having to fight for a parking place. Our first destination was the food vendors clustered on the side streets. Most of the vendors were selling typical state fair food (walking tacos, pork chop on a stick, burgers, spiral potatoes, funnel cakes). I wanted something unique. We finally found the poffertje stand and bought a dozen of the hot little Dutch pancakes sprinkled with powdered sugar. You can also order them with strawberries and whipped cream. Later, I bought some stroopwafels — thin waffle-like wafers filled with a honey caramel layer.
The tulips were beautiful this year…a little further along than when I normally see them, but fully open and colorful from one end of the town to the other. The beds at Scholte Gardens are my favorites.
People were lined up for the 2:30 p.m. parade long before the parade began. I first thought I’d sit in the grass on the north side of the square, but then the mothers with numerous wailing toddlers and their oversized strollers invaded my space, and I had to move. I ended up standing at the intersection right across from the grandstand on the south side of the square. I watched the parade for quite awhile…loved the Dutch costumes and the many, many adorable children (it seems like there is quite a Fertility Club in Pella).
There were some nice floats, with the Royal Court, cheese and flower vendors, street scrubbers, and much more. It was a long parade. I got bored after a time and decided to go stand in line at Jaarsma’s Bakery before the parade ended and the line would become totally unmanageable. Even during the parade, the line was halfway down the block. But seriously, you can’t go to Pella without going to the bakery.
My feet hurt by this time (note to self: although Pella is a small town, you will do a lot of walking at Tulip Time, so wear appropriate footwear) so we decided to take the shuttle back to our car.
Arriving in Venice is a thrilling experience, because you have to come to the city by boat. In our case, it was two boats for the people and another boat (or maybe two?) for our luggage.
The Veneto region is quite different from where we spent the past four days (Tuscany), and we had to go through the mountains to get here. While we were on the bus we watched a documentary on the history of Venice, which I found very interesting. There are not many cities in the world with the kind of physical and political history as Venice.
We arrived at our hotel in the early afternoon. The Dei Dogi hotel is surprisingly large and elegant, with a huge garden that goes all the way back to the open water. We had a drink and some snacks, got settled into our rooms, and then went for a walk as a group to the famous Rialto Bridge.
Venice is not a huge place – perhaps the size of New York’s Central Park – but it can seem overwhelming at first because there are so many bridges and canals and tiny alleyways. But that’s what makes Venice unique.
After our walk we rambled in small groups, splitting apart and reconnecting here and there for shopping or gelato or drinks. My small group stopped at a bar and I had a beer. Later we ate dinner in a sidewalk café overlooking a picturesque canal.
The next morning we boarded water taxis at the hotel that took us via the Grand Canal (a thrilling ride) to St. Mark’s Square. It was a beautiful warm, sunny day and there were a LOT of tourists with the same idea we did.
St. Mark’s was extremely crowded. And actually it was disappointing because several buildings were undergoing repairs, so there were construction materials covering a few of the facades and foundations. That, plus more freestanding souvenir stands than I remember being there 10 years ago and twice as many people really took away the magic of the place.
But no matter. We did a wonderful walking tour all over the main part of the city, ending back at St. Mark’s. Then we saw a quick glass-blowing demonstration and looked in the showroom at a lot of pretty glass that would not look good in my house.
In spite of the crowds and lines everywhere, a few of us decided to go up to the top of St. Mark’s bell tower. In all of my travels, my experience going up to the top of the tower 10 years ago was one of my very favorites. That time, I went up in the early evening just as the city was drenched in golden light. And while I was up there, looking at what may be the most incredible view in the world, the bells began to ring. It was amazing. I laughed and cried. My experience today might not have been so emotional, and we were up there in the bright light of mid-day, but the view was no less fantastic. I was not disappointed. It might be the best 8 euros I spent the whole time I’ve been in Italy.
The rest of the day was spent walking and eating and looking into shops and walking and drinking the occasional beer. Mostly I took pictures and enjoyed this amazing city.
I can’t believe this is my last night in Italy!