Big Dam Bridge

Big Dam Bridge signThe name says it all. This bridge was built as the longest pedestrian- and bicycle-built bridge in the country spanning 4,226 feet across the Arkansas River, connecting Little Rock and North Little Rock. It is part of the Arkansas River Trail.

Big Dam Bridge

On a trip to Arkansas this winter, I discovered this bridge and naturally had to add it to my list of bridges I’ve walked across. The intention of my trip to Arkansas was to visit friends but also to get a break from the cold northern winter by heading south. When I bought my tickets in January, the Little Rock region was having 60 degree weather. A month later when I arrived, the high was 26.

View of Pinnacle Mountain from the Big Dam Bridge

View of Pinnacle Mountain from the Big Dam Bridge

View toward downtown Little Rock showing Rebsaman Park

View toward downtown Little Rock showing Rebsaman Park

By the time we reached the half-way point of the bridge, we were frozen stiff. The farther we got on the bridge the stronger the wind got, probably creating a wind chill factor closer to 20 degrees or less. After admiring the views from the midpoint for a minute, the cold and wind forced us to turn back toward the car.On the Big Dam Bridge

Top 10 Bridge Travel SitesWhile I didn’t make it all the way across, I can still say I’ve been on one of the Top 10 Bridge Travel Sites in the US. Now I just have to find the other 9 sites.

Conquering the Dome

St. Paul's Cathedral Cake

Shortly after facing the dilemma of how to create a dome for my Blue Mosque Architectural Dessert Masterpiece, I saw an gingerbread creation of Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral which used rice crispy treats to form the shape of the domes of this cathedral.  I held onto this idea for almost a year in preparation for my Third Annual Architectural Dessert Masterpiece.

St Paul's Dome  St Paul's Cathedral

For this one, presented and eaten December 2012, I chose St. Paul’s Cathedral.  First, because it has the perfect dome for trying the rice crispy method.  Second, because St. Paul’s was a significant part of my trip to London earlier in the year.  I experienced a wonderful view of the City despite minor issues with heights and major issues with claustrophobia.  I successfully climbed to the top of St. Paul’s (at least as high as they allow tourists to go) and made it back down again.  The first flights of stairs to come back down were particularly challenging as they were very narrow and steep with very short ceilings–it reminded me of the first and last time I went caving as part of a school trip in 8th grade, where I somehow managed to crawl through impossibly small places.  The praise of my teacher, Mr. Wolfe, from that occasion was essential in helping me make it down the stairs at St. Paul’s.  Thanks, Mr. Wolfe, you were my hero this time!!

Top of the Dome Looking Down

In making my St. Paul’s Cathedral Architectural Dessert Masterpiece, the design was influenced by the memory of how long it took to create the Gingerbread Blue Mosque.  I determined to take a quicker route this time around by baking sheet cakes and cutting them out in the shape of St. Paul’s.  Again, I referred to my textbook from my Western Architecture course (see Parthenon Cake post) to determine what the appropriate proportions were in cutting out the shape of the Cathedral.  To approximate the proportions in height, I made a double layer cake, plus additional layers at the towers and dome.

Aerial St. Paul's Cathedral Cake

The dome was made using the rice crispy treat method, which ended up being much more challenging than I anticipated due to the stickiness of rice crispy treats.  It did not work to try and shape the dome in my hands.  I ended up using wax paper to form the shape, but found the rice crispies still stuck to the wax paper, but not as badly as to my hands.  Then, I frosted the whole creation, using chocolate frosting as an accent color to suggest the different color of the domes (including those on the front towers) from the rest of the building.  I also used the chocolate frosting to indicate the break in design from the lower and upper portions of the exterior walls.  Chocolate Crunch Bells were used for the small domes on the front towers.

This one was easy to cut like a normal cake for eating and tasted quite good.

Gingerbread Blue Mosque

Gingerbread Blue Mosque Blue Mosque

Figuring out how to design an accurate representation of the Parthenon out of cake and cookies (see post) was an intriguing task that set me on a new hobby of designing models of existing buildings out of deserts.  Beginning with my second Architectural Dessert Masterpiece, all my creations are based on buildings/structures that I have personally encountered in my urban explorations.

I created my second desert building in December 2011.  While eating the Parthenon the previous year, suggestions were put out about how to create other shapes and buildings such as using jello and creating round shapes.  I was particularly engaged by the idea of how to create a dome.  I had not figured out how to create a dome such as those on capital buildings in the US, but I thought I could create one that would be close to those on the mosques I visited in Istanbul.  I chose the Blue Mosque as a visually interesting structure that would require a diversity of desserts to create.

Gingerbread cookies seemed to be the best way to design the frame of the building given the variety of heights and shapes of the building.  I used sugar cookies for the larger domes and half domes.  I knew someone growing up who was able to create perfectly rounded sugar cookies, no matter how I try I have never been able to create the same effect.  My sugar cookies worked well for the medium-sized domes, but I had to put two cookies together for the larger domes.  M&Ms made great small domes–they were also the base unit that determined the scale of my model.  I think another reason why I chose to create a mosque was so I’d have an excuse to use the Pirouette cookies again, this time as minarets.  I love these cookies, but hardly ever get them.  Using my piping set, I was able to create pointed tops on the minarets and add balconies.

This was by far the most time-consuming Architectural Dessert Masterpiece to create (at least of the four I’ve made so far) because of having to design the required sizes and shapes for the gingerbread cookies and cutting them out and then also baking sugar cookies, which somehow always takes forever.  I also played with “whitewashing” the gingerbread walls, but the method I tried didn’t create the desired effect so I gave up on it.

Eating Architectural Dessert Masterpieces is also an interesting experience, as they often require creative thinking to destruct them.  With the Parthenon, I employed a karate-chop method for cutting through the wafers.  On the other hand, with the Blue Mosque a free-for-all of pulling it apart with your fingers seemed most appropriate.

Gingerbread Blue Mosque Blue Mosque

Pedestrian Bridges: Chicago

BP Bridge

There are two pedestrian bridges connecting to Millennium Park in Chicago.  The first I encountered was the BP Bridge.  I admired the undulating silver sculpture above as I walked past and was thrilled to discover it was a pedestrian bridge.  My excited was quickly crushed as the bridge was closed to traffic due to construction at the other end.  I realized that I have become quite addicted to bridge-walking.  I was on my way to see The Bean before renting a bike to ride along the lake, when seeing this bridge completely sidetracked me.  I had a desperate urge to walk a bridge.  Fortunately, there was another pedestrian bridge nearby and while it was not nearly as enticing, it had some interesting parts.

BP Bridge The Nichols Bridgeway

The Nichols Bridgeway connects Millennium Park with the Art Institute of Chicago.  Both ends had space-age-like toughs, which I assumed were supposed to be a fancy drainage system.  If their purpose is a drainage system, the upper end by the Institute has failed and been turned into a wishing well.

Lower Trough Upper Trough/Wishing Well

The part I liked best about this bridge was that while it looked like the surface was level, there were ridges or “speed-bumps” every few feet.  I wondered if these were merely artistic or if they had a functional value like reducing the slipperiness of the bridge during icy conditions.

Bumpy Walkway The Nichols Bridgeway

Manhattan Bridge: A Multimodal Link

The Manhattan Bridge

When I was planning my walk across the Brooklyn Bridge while in New York City last December, I noticed there was a bridge nearby called the Manhattan Bridge.  I decided to cross to Brooklyn by the Manhattan Bridge and return to Manhattan by the Brooklyn Bridge.  The Manhattan Bridge ended up being the more interesting of the two bridges.

Gateway to the Manhattan Bridge

I found my way from the subway stop to the Manhattan Bridge by following the way-finding signs for the bike lanes in the Lower East End.   This brought me to the left side of the bridge, where I was temporarily upset to see that pedestrians were not permitted to use the sidewalk on that side of the bridge–it was dedicated to two-way bicycle traffic.  I was concerned that I was not going to be able to walk across this bridge and instead would have to cross the Brooklyn Bridge twice (I try to avoid walking across a bridge just to walk back across it; doing so gives me a sense of pointlessness).  Luckily, there are sidewalks on both sides of this bridge (from walking Pittsburgh bridges I know not to assume that bridges have sidewalks on two sides) and the sidewalk on the right side is dedicated to pedestrians.

I suggest that NYC puts up a sign on the bicycle side to direct pedestrians to the other side, which might help encourage pedestrians to follow the traffic directions set up on this bridge–I watched a pedestrian ignore the bicycle-only signs to cross the bridge on the bike lanes.

The Pedestrian Side

This bridge is the most multimodal bridge I have walked with the bike lanes on one side, pedestrian way on the other, and the subway and roadway in between.  While I approve of this welcoming of alternative transportation methods, I am not sure about placing the pedestrians next to the subway tracks.  This does give a barrier between the pedestrians and the noise of the cars, but instead, the pedestrians have to deal with the noise of the subway, which while it is less constant than the cars, it is a little more startling/disturbing.

The Manhattan Side The Brooklyn Bridge

The neighborhoods the Manhattan Bridge links had some similar physical elements, but are clearly used by different populations.  The populations on both the Manhattan and Brooklyn sides use their rooftops, but for different purposes.  On the Manhattan side, the rooftops were covered in graffiti, while the Brooklyn rooftops had new additions and places to sit.  There were also parks on both sides of the East River.  However, the Manhattan side only had a baseball diamond while the Brooklyn side had a carousel and a pirate-ship playground.

Manhattan side park

Carosel Pirate Ship Playground

What intrigues me most about the Manhattan Bridge is that I had never seen or heard of it before and yet it is the bridge shown in the background (multiple times) in the Doctor Who episode “The Angels Take Manhattan.”  Based on my walk on the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, it looks like these shots were taken on the Brooklyn side of the river, in which case it seems like it possible to get the Brooklyn Bridge in the background instead as these two are close together on that side.  To me the images of the Brooklyn Bridge say New York, while (at least before I walked it) images of the Manhattan Bridge just say a place with a bridge and hence water.  I wonder if the Manhattan Bridge is better known in the UK than in my circle?

View like that used in Doctor Who

Caerphilly, Castles and Cheese

Caerphilly Castle

When I arrived in the UK last spring, I realized I had one major flaw in my trip: I hadn’t planned to visit any castles.  Cardiff has a castle in the center of town and my hotel was right across the street from it.  However, I visited this castle on my last trip and remembered much of it: the Roman wall in the basement, the ornate room in the clock tower, the nursery painted with scenes from fairy tales, and the view from the keep.  Looking for a new castle to visit, my guidebook recommended Caerphilly.

Caerphilly is a twenty minute train ride north of the center of Cardiff.  It is a small town and features a castle begun in 1268.  In addition, the guidebook noted that the town is noted for Caerphilly Cheese, a mild relative of cheddar cheese.  As I love cheese, especially cheddar, Caerphilly was an appealing destination to satiate my interest in castles and cheese.

So one morning, I went down to the Central Cardiff station, purchased an open, round-trip ticket to Caerphilly for just a few pounds and enjoyed the short train ride through the Welsh country-side.  Cardiff is very flat, but Caerphilly and the surrounding area are quite hilly.  The castle wasn’t visible from the train station, so I started walking in what seemed the most promising direction: downhill on the main commercial street.  After a short walk, the road made a bend and the shops stopped on one side, leaving a wide view over a green park to the castle and the valley and hills beyond.

Views from the Castle's Keep Views from the Castle's Keep

Views from the Castle's Keep

A Welshman once told me that the only real castles are those in ruins.  Ones like Cardiff Castle that have been fixed-up, renovated, or refurbished in any way are not real.  I thought that he would have approved of Caerphilly Castle.

When I finished exploring every corner of the castle, I returned to the town looking for cheese and lunch.  There were no signs of Caerphilly Cheese anywhere.  There were lots of tourist-y areas and signs directing the way to tourist-like attractions, but none mentioned cheese.  Wikipedia claims that there is a cheese sculpture somewhere in town, but I didn’t see it.  I ended up choosing a quaint little diner (of the early 20th century style, not the 1950s/60s style we think of in the US) as the place to eat my lunch in the hopes that perhaps they used Caerphilly Cheese on their sandwiches, but they did not.

Feeling let down in my hunt for cheese, I returned to Cardiff shortly after my lunch.  Caerphilly’s castle was well worth the trip, but I was beginning to believe that Caerphilly Cheese was a myth.

….

Seven months later, my family and I were visiting New York City for Christmas.  On our last day, we made the requisite visit to Zabar’s.  I had been particularly looking forward to this stop on our trip as the last time I was in Zabar’s I was a kid who knew that there was something special about the shop, but didn’t understand why as I thought the height of culinary perfection was Kraft Mac’N’Cheese.

The first thing that caught my eye on entering Zabar’s was the cheese display.  I quickly went over and scanned the names of all the various cheeses, looking for the exotic one that I was going to take home to try.  Most had names that sounded familiar.  On my second look through, my heart stopped.  There on the shelf right in front of me was Caerphilly Cheese!!

I was shocked.  I had gone to Caerphilly to get their cheese and been disappointed.  Now, months later on the other side of the ocean, in a small store in NYC, I’d found it.  Needless to say, I purchased a brick.  It was a nice cheese, almost like a cross between a mozzarella and a mild cheddar: smooth, almost creamy, with a slight hint of the cheddar kick.

Sandwich Shops

While in London last spring, I discovered a sandwich shop chain that I fell absolutely in love with: Pret a Manger.  I ended up eating lunch most days at one of their many locations around the city.  The food was great.  They had sandwiches on small baguettes, in wraps, and between two “normal” square slices of bread (which have been cut into triangles, as everyone knows triangle sandwiches taste better).  The flavors of sandwiches included ham and cheese, egg salad, and brie, tomato and basil.  The ingredients were fresh and real–meaning ham of the bone, not sliced deli ham, and arugula instead of shredded, nondescript “lettuce.”  And then the sides to go with the sandwich were interesting, exciting, and tasty.  The chip flavors I remember were “cheddar and red onion” and “sea salt and apple cider vinegar.”  Both delicious!  I was also attracted to the Pret sodas (I normally skip the soda options at restaurants).  I enjoyed the Grape & Elderflower, Apple, and Ginger Beer sodas.

Pret was the first place I had lunch in London and from the first bite, I couldn’t wait to come back and try another flavor of their sandwiches, chips, and drinks.  On my third day in London, I was ready for lunch, but could not find a Pret anywhere near where I was, so I went to another sandwich chain that I had been seeing around.  The style of this other place, the name of which I forget, was similar to Pret, but the taste was no comparison.  After trying this other place, I made sure that I was near a Pret at lunchtime for the remainder of my trip.

Besides the taste, I also enjoyed the convenience of the chain.  All the sandwiches are premade, so all you have to do is grab-and-go.  You don’t have a clerk staring you down while you decide what flavor you want today and you don’t have to wait for it to be made once you’ve made the decision.  All of which suits my personality better.

I cannot think of a sandwich shop in the US that has premade sandwiches.  It seems to me that one of the things the Subways, Quiznos, and the others are after with the don’t make it until it’s order deal is to prove that their food is fresh.  Blimpie’s for example doesn’t even slice the meat and cheese until you’ve put your order in.  Despite being premade, the sandwiches at Pret always tasted fresh and satisfying because they were made with solid food such as dense, but small bread, and chunks of chicken meat.  The chain’s website explains the secret: “Pret opened in London in 1986. College friends, Sinclair and Julian, made proper sandwiches avoiding the obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives common to so much of the ‘prepared’ and ‘fast’ food on the market today….They created the sort of food they craved but couldn’t find anywhere else.”  “Our partners drop off the very best ingredients to our shops everyday. We don’t mind that good, natural food goes off quickly. We don’t keep our sandwiches, baguettes and wraps overnight.”

One of my biggest disappointments on returning home was that I might never get another Pret sandwich (unless they’re still there the next time I’m in London) and instead the only options for buying sandwiches out would be places like Subway and Quiznos.  It was quite devastating.  Like the partners who started the Pret chain, I was going to be craving fresh, “proper” food, but unable to find it anywhere….

But then, I went to New York City for Christmas.  Walking around the first night there, I was thrilled to spot not one, but two Prets.  Needless to say, I went there every opportunity I got.  The options were somewhat different, particularly the chips–there were only boring, regular American flavors and styles to choose from (though they still weren’t national brands like Lays)–but the food was still good.  The egg salad wrap was melt-in-your-mouth delicious.  The roast beef, arugula, mustard-mayo and chicken, bacon, mayo baguettes were also yummy.  They also had the Pret Ginger Beer Soda, which tasted as yummy as the Ginger Beer I had in London, both Pret and non-Pret.  I’ve found Ginger Beer in Pittsburgh, but it’s just not the same.

It turns out that Pret a Manger has set up locations in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.  As Chicago is one of the next US Cities I hope to visit, I know I will be getting another Pret sandwich soon.  I wonder though, if the large, diverse populations of these cities are necessary for a place like Pret a Manger to be successful.  Is it possible for a truly fresh sandwich shop to succeed (and set up multiple branches) in a smaller, less diverse city like Pittsburgh?