Tuesday Tip: Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims

Sure, you could celebrate US Thanksgiving with your relatives, but if you happen to be in London this Thursday you have a better option (well, depending on the quality of your relatives): dinner at The Mayflower Pub.

Originally called the Spread Eagle, the Mayflower is the oldest pub on the Thames. That alone would be interesting, but for Americans there is an additional appeal–it is from here that the original Mayflower began its course to America in 1620.

The pub offers a special set meal on Thanksgiving including all the hallmarks of the traditional American feast (as well as vegetarian options!). What better way to celebrate Thanksgiving than by dining at the point from which the Pilgrims set sail?

The Mayflower Pub will be open from 11 AM-11 PM this Thursday, with dinner service from 6-9:30 PM. Reservations are strongly encouraged. Located in Rotherhithe Village, London; the Rotherhithe rail station is the closest overground stop.

Full disclosure: I attempted to go to The Mayflower on Thanksgiving many years ago by walking there from Southwark. I never made it. If you do go, share your adventure with me in the comments below!

Mondays in Maryland: Floating Down the C&O Canal

It cost almost $20 million, took more than two decades to complete, and was already obsolete by the time it was finished: John Quincy Adams’ “Great National Project,” the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.

In the early nineteenth century, the best way to move goods was through waterways. President Adams envisioned connecting the Chesapeake Bay with the massive Ohio River–a direct line of transport cutting through Maryland that would link up two of the country’s busiest waterways.

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal broke ground in 1828. The plan was to build a canal from Washington, DC, to Pittsburgh, PA, an enormously optimistic 460-mile endeavor that would support America’s burgeoning prosperity.

Unfortunately, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, a nearby competing venture, broke ground the same day. The next 22 years would see the two forms of transport going head to head, with the lowly canal losing at every turn. By the time the canal was completed–terminating in Cumberland, MD, 100 miles short of its targeted destination–the railroad was the undeniable king of America.

Despite the canal’s rapidly fading relevance, Marylanders continued to transport goods through its locks and up its narrow waterway. Countless men and women made their living on the canal, entire families enduring back-breaking labor in the ultimately hopeless pursuit of wealth.

The Monocacy Aqueduct is one remaining artifact from this time period. Built in 1833 at the junction of the Potomac and Monocacy Rivers, Monocacy was the largest of the C&O aqueducts.

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Monocacy is often considered the finest canal structure in the United States. Crafted in stone from nearby Sugarloaf Mountain and strongly reminiscent of the bridges in DC, the aqueduct is weirdly polished and fresh looking compared to the riverbanks it spans.

Its massive granite arches leapfrog over the river and cast shimmering half-moon shadows on the water below.

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One hundred years ago, a cacophony of canal boats churned along this aqueduct, heavy cargos of lumber, grain, and luxury goods pressing the crafts deep into the water as braying mules struggled to pull the overloaded boats upstream. Today, the aqueduct is a peaceful jogging trail, with the whispers of lapping water and falling leaves the only noticeable sounds.

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The aqueduct park has interpretive signs explaining the canal’s history (along with bathrooms and picnic facilities), but they don’t quite capture the futility of the project. Families lived and died on the waterway, a waterway that was already unnecessary before it was completed.

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The aqueduct fell into disrepair in the 1920s after a series of devastating floods decimated what life remained on the canal. What remains is beautiful but hollow, the quietly surging water beneath it evoking the relentless forward motion of technology that ultimately rendered the canal obsolete.

Visiting America’s finest canal structure is ultimately a sobering experience. It’s a much-needed reminder that nothing–not even waterways, so critical to humanity’s conquering of the world–stays relevant forever.

If You Go
The Monocacy Aqueduct is an easy hour-and-change drive from either Baltimore or DC. That said, the aqueduct does not have a physical street address to type into GPS, and while there are a few directional signs along the way, they are small and easily overlooked.

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Take either I-70 or I-270 to Frederick, then head south/west on MD Route 85. A few miles after passing through Buckeysville, Rte. 85 splits; bear left onto MD Route 28. The aqueduct turnoff is on the right a few miles later.

The Monocacy Aqueduct is just one of several C&O Canal heritage sites. Countless locks, ferries, and visitors centers can be found along the Potomac stretching north from Georgetown in Washington, DC, to the termination point in Cumberland, MD. Other famous points of interest such as Antietam, Harpers Ferry, and Great Falls are just a few miles inland from the canal. If you can’t make it to the aqueduct, consider visiting one of these other great options!

Tuesday Tip: Visiting the Vikings

The viking age comes alive through the sights, sounds, and, yes, smells at Jorvik Viking Centre in York, England.

Celebrating its 30th year, Jorvik brings 10th-century village living to life through animatronics, reconstructions, and ancient artifacts.

See real objects from York’s viking past and learn about the decades-long archaeological dig that rediscovered these relics.

Then, hop in a “time machine” for a ride through a reconstructed viking village. Your specially designed capsule will enable you to feel the smoke from furnaces and hear the chatter of villagers. Brace yourself as you pass the fish merchant; a blast of air brings the fumes of his catch directly to your stunned nostrils.

(If you’re very lucky, you’ll even be able to pick up a scratch-and-sniff postcard in the gift shop to share these pungent odors with friends, family, and the mail of innocent bystanders!)

The experience is hilarious, and wonderful, and everything a museum should be. I guarantee you will not forget about York’s viking past after smelling those ancient invaders.

Jorvik is located within the Coppergate Shopping Centre in York, and is open year round with special holiday hours. Adult tickets are £9.95; advanced booking is recommended for larger groups.

Mondays in Maryland: Boordy Vineyards

It was Prohibition, but Philip Wagner was utterly enamored with wine.

His rented property just north of Baltimore happened to include the remains of a vineyard, and Wagner got to work revitalizing the untended vines. Soon he added his own plants, experimenting with varietals and learning what would grow best in the mid-Atlantic US. In 1933, he literally wrote the book on the subject–American Wines and How to Make Them.

Wagner worked as an international correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, and while on assignment abroad he discovered Vidal Blanc, a French hybrid tremendously disease resistant as well as ideally suited for the Maryland climate. His wife, Jocelyn, smuggled cuttings of the vines back into the US in her purse.

When the Wagners opened their winery to the public in 1945, it was the first commercial winery in the state of Maryland. They named it Boordy Vineyards–legend has it that the name “Boordy” came from a child’s mispronunciation of “Bordeaux.”

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In 1980, Boordy moved to Long Green Farm in central Maryland. A farm since the 1800s, Long Green is today part of the Maryland Environmental Trust, and the historic buildings on site are worth a tour.

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Operations have significantly grown over the years. Two Boordy vineyards in addition to those at Long Green provide the bulk of grapes, while other grapes are sourced from vineyards throughout the US.

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And what of the wine itself? Their three wine series–Landmark, Icons of Maryland, and Just for Fun–provide 18 different options at any given time. The reds in the Icons of Maryland line particularly shine with hints of berries and earthy richness–my favorite is the Diamondback Terrapin Petit Cab. For whites, their Rockfish blend of Seyval, Chardonnay, and Vidal is crisp with–a personal favorite–a savory bite of umami.

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Those who prefer something sweet can choose from the popular Just For Fun series with flavors ranging from spiced wassail to tango peach. The spiced wassail is rich and comforting warmed up on a cool winter evening.

Although often vacant on weekdays, the winery comes alive on weekends. Throughout the warmer months, patrons flock from the city to hear the popular summer concert series, during which lines often start forming more than three hours before the music begins.

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This winter, visitors can look forward to traditional holiday music and winery tours as well as performances by The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory.

Summer concerts, Shakespearean performances, and nearly 20 wines–in 80 years, Boordy has grown from Philip’s private passion to a titan in the winery world.

Visiting the winery today–with its 18th-century buildings, rustic tasting room, and lively weekend crowds–is like watching history unfold. It’s both a peaceful retreat and a rowdy party, a hidden secret and the hottest spot in town.

If You Go
Boordy is at 12820 Long Green Pike in Hydes, a small community about 15 miles from Baltimore. The tasting room is open year-round and tours run daily at 2:00 and 3:30 PM. Check the website for information on holiday closures. Tastings are $5 for the traditional flight and $15 for the landmark series.

Tuesday Tip: Ice Skating in the US Capital

With news that another polar vortex is setting its sights on the contiguous US, thoughts are naturally turning to winter and its cool-weather pursuits.

Three outdoor ice-skating rinks in Washington, DC, are getting ready to open up and herald the arrival of the most wonderful time of year. Rockefeller Center may get all the attention, but the public rinks 200 miles southwest are even more exhilarating!

Washington Harbour
The Washington Harbour Ice Rink will open in a few days and run through March. The rink–normally a large fountain–is larger than that other rink in NYC, and it only costs $10 to skate. Located in historic Georgetown, Washington Harbour is surrounded by restaurants, fine shopping, and an unbeatable view of the Potomac.

Canal Park
The ice rink at Canal Park is a smaller venue than Washington Harbour, but its track-inspired layout is a fun alternative to the usual circular expanse of ice. Located in Southeast DC, Canal Park is $9 and offers ice-skating classes for ages 3 and up. Opened on November 8.

National Gallery of Art
The one near and dear to my heart. Located in the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden on the National Mall, the NGA’s ice-skating rink–with its easy Metro accessibility–is the most convenient of the three DC options. It’s also the most cultured rink, with famous and provocative statues by Miró, Lichtenstein, and more just feet away. Skating is $8 and opens on November 14.

Mondays in Maryland: Fort Howard

A run in with a stranger from Georgia ends not with ominous banjo music but rather a fortuitous change of scenery.

This post was going to be about Todd’s Inheritance, a small residence on the Chesapeake Bay that proved pivotal to the defense of Baltimore during the War of 1812. It was from here that American troops–and the Todds themselves–kept watch for invading British ships.

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The home is on a slow, rural road just south of Baltimore. I arrived expecting a museum and guided tours. Instead I found two informational plaques and no trespassing signs.

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“What the heck am I going to write about?” I worriedly wondered as I snapped a few pictures. That’s when the stranger from Georgia pulled over and changed the narrative of this story.

He hopped out of his truck, eying my camera. “They used to open the house to the public,” he told me in a thick twang. “And the fort park is closed today, too. But you can still see the old hospital.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. But, feeling brave, I jumped back in the car and continued down North Point Road in the direction he had pointed me.

Before long the road split into a V, one way the shuttered entrance for Fort Howard Park and the other the open entrance for the Veterans’ Medical Center. I went the only way I could.

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North Point–the bit of land on which the VA Center and the park sit–was first colonized in the mid-17th century. It is where American troops engaged the British as the invaders sailed toward Baltimore, in part of the battle that would culminate in Francis Scott Key writing the “Star-spangled Banner.”

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North Point remained a military stronghold after the battle. The first fort was built there in 1848. Fort Howard followed in 1896.

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Fort Howard held strong until 1940, when it was turned over the Veterans Department. During WWII, a large hospital was built for returning soldiers.

The hospital shut down in 2002. When it closed, the small town that had risen around it vacated, too. Now all that remains are the boarded-up remnants of a once-thriving community.

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If You Go
You can visit this ghost town yourself any day of the week. Take 695 to the Edgemere exit and then continue along North Point Road until it deadends at Fort Howard (9500 North Point Road).

Mondays in Maryland: America’s First Cathedral

Maryland is a land of firsts. This land produced the world’s first telegraph line, the first performance of our nation anthem, and–shockingly–America’s first cathedral.

Places of worship dominate the American landscape, and so it is curious that such a small state would house the country’s first cathedral. The reason is all down to history. Maryland was founded by aristocrats interested in creating a haven for persecuted English Roman Catholics, and from then on Maryland has maintained close ties with the Catholic Church.

Those close ties were recognized in 1789 when the Pope created the Diocese of Baltimore. It was the first diocese of the new United States, and Marylander John Carroll was the first US bishop.

Carroll wanted a cathedral to go along with his new diocese. Working with the architect of the US Capitol, he devised a church that would look distinctly American. They opted for neoclassical architecture resembling the new buildings in Washington, DC, rather than the centuries-old buildings of Europe.

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Construction of the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Baltimore Basilica, began in 1806. By its completion in 1821, Baltimore had been elevated to Archdiocese and was now the premiere see of the Catholic Church in the US.

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The basilica is in a regal part of town. A few blocks to the north is the Walters Art Museum; to the west, the historic Enoch Pratt Free Library; to the south, a psychic for hire.

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Regarded as one of the top Catholic pilgrimage sites in the US, the basilica welcomes thousands of visitors each year.

The adjacent gift store capitalizes on this religious interest.

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There aren’t many tourists when I visit. The 8 AM mass is just wrapping up, and a few men in nice suits are filtering through the thin crowd with collection plates on long wooden handles. There are almost more checks than people.

The nave is surprisingly bright and airy, so unlike the gothic European structures that the Baltimore Basilica architects purposefully eschewed.

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High above, the dome’s etchings are reminiscent of Rome’s Pantheon. It’s a false skylight, though, and a new coat of paint gives the space a childlike quality. This part of the building feels ten years old, not more than one hundred.

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Down in its underbelly, the basilica gets much more interesting.

The undercroft is dimly lit. Buttressing arches seem to recede to the horizon. Every sound echoes. The ending hymn resonates from the nave above, vibrating through the dark chambers and rattling the mortar.

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Posters outline the cathedral’s history, its complete restoration in 2006, the damage it sustained in the same 2011 earthquake that cracked the Washington Monument. In the near darkness I can see vibration sensors on some of the more-worrying structural fissures.

The new crypt is a brightly lit beacon at the end of the undercroft. The vault is all sterile white marble, not in any way the image of what a crypt should be. I don’t even bother to take a picture of it.

The old crypt, on the other hand, is the very definition of a tomb. Dark and dingy, with long, heavy shadows in which any sort of nefarious creature could hide.

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I find myself lamenting that renovations took away so much of the basilica’s character. The new paint, the bright tombs–they mute the wonderful history of the building.

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As I leave the dark, echoing underbelly, I see another visitor, camera in one hand, self-guided walking map in the other. We nod knowingly at one another. The undercroft is where it’s at.

Climbing the stairs back to the nave, I think of all the European churches I’ve seen. The undercroft is definitely more in line with those historic buildings, all dust and mood. The nave, meanwhile, is bright and new and, well, American.

But, in the end, it’s fitting that our first cathedral should look toward the future rather than to the past. The neoclassical architecture, the updated renovations, even the on-site gift shop all signal a modern side to the Catholic Church, a new direction for a two-thousand-year-old institution.

It’s no wonder that the last Pope to visit the basilica was the fairly liberal John Paul II. Pope Francis surely can’t be far behind him.

If You Go
The basilica and gift shop are open seven days a week. There are guided tours at 9 AM, 11 AM, and 1 PM Monday-Saturday and at noon on Sunday. Maps for self-guided tours are available on a table inside the nave. Parking in this part of town can be expensive; go on a Sunday for free street parking.