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September 12, 2018

Leave It To Legendary London




Let me try to calm down and explain it better to you.

I traveled to London for a long weekend to spend time with Marc's sister, Alex, and her husband, Cory, who are currently living near Cambridge.

I realize Cambridge is not that close to London.

But with a few expensive train rides, anything is possible!

There were four parts to this weekend, all of which could stand on their own as great moments. I'll take you through the three others before I get to gushing about Tommy Steele and Glenn Miller. [OMG. Focusing.]

Honorable Mention... Tea!

My adorable and delicious tea picnic came from B Bakery (also known as "Brigit's Bakery") in Covent Garden. It was August, I wanted to walk around, and the picnic was a fantastic idea. Until it started raining and never stopped. I did have an umbrella, and I did find a covered door stoop, and I did enjoy my tea time, much to the amusement of the British people passing by.

I could have totally let the rain ruin my tea picnic, but instead, I just accepted it as London luck. I mean, how many other opportunities will I really have to spread clotted cream and strawberry jam onto a scone outside in the middle of a downpour?

Third Place... Wine!

Alex and I got to meet up with Michael, one of the Vilas' "umpteenth umpth cousins" (there are hundreds of them, and this one, we think, is a 4th cousin). Michael has lived in London for years, and he suggested we meet at Terroirs.

We enjoyed some great wine, of course, but then also the very creative and tasty share plates while catching up on each other's news and stories. Food in London is always impressive and Terroirs follows that standard excellently.

Second Place... Church!

Somewhat spiritually incorrect, but this is just the honest truth (and at least it's ranked ahead of wine, haha). Plus, Pastor Tim Chaddick is still young and not quite as limited edition as the winner of this blog post. Back story: when I was in college north of Los Angeles, my friends' and my favorite church to road trip to was Reality LA in Hollywood.

Pastor Tim is a very gifted speaker and communicator, and he always just lays the truth down in a direct and transparent way. His Easter sermon circa 2008 is still the best sermon I've ever heard. Anyway, Tim Chaddick and his family have ended up at Reality London, and I knew it was time to wrap a Sunday into a trip to visit Alex and Cory. It was everything Reality LA had been ten years ago and more, embellished with British accents and expat friendliness.


I will NOT apologize for FREAKING OUT. I planned this weekend around seeing Alex and Cory, having at least one tea time, going to Reality, and taking in some random theatre show. I had just been on a high from seeing Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again!, and thought Mamma Mia! might be a fun idea. Thought about Aladdin, pretended Hamilton was an available option, and Alex just told me straight up: "Christy, pick whatever you want because I probably won't be that into it anyway."

I'll take a carte blanche no matter how it comes! I went through the listings once again, and I read, "Tommy Steele in The Glenn Miller Story." You might be asking, "Who's Tommy Steele?" but I was asking, "Who's Glenn Miller?"

Because, people, Tommy Steele is in two of my favorite old movie musicals ever: The Happiest Millionaire and Finian's Rainbow. One involves frozen crocodile pets and the other a magical pot of gold. Both are perfect.

After I figured out who Glenn Miller was and that his entire genre of big band and swing music is exactly part of my journey of discovering my most adored kind of music, my next question was, "Wait. How is Tommy Steele still alive?!"

He's 81 years old and still performing live on the West End. See what I mean by limited edition?

Plus, his run of The Glenn Miller Story was already scheduled and planned to last just seven weeks in London.

And 9-year-old little Christy Swagerty who remembered Tommy Steele's hilarious Irish butler and leprechaun movie parts already had plans to be in England that weekend.

If you can try to imagine even half of what I was feeling during this show, then you'll know it was overwhelming. Tommy Steele appeared on stage and my eyes filled with tears. It was being in the presence of a legend. His dynamic spirit and contagious energy filled the entire London Coliseum and he interacted with the audience and costars alike with ease, grace, and generosity. His enormous smile radiated all 81 years of loving to make people laugh and sing. Also of note was how funny it was to see such an old man "running" (more like trotting) across the stage during various numbers. But Tommy Steele could hack it!

Besides Tommy Steele's magnanimity, the production itself was awesome, of course. The stage was set with lighted arches that could become any color to fit the scene and number. The choreography included both tap and swing dancing, all wrapped into perfectly selected vintage costumes, tuned expertly to Glenn Miller classics like "Chattanooga Choo Choo," "Moonlight Serenade," "Pennsylvania 6-5000," and my personal favorite, "In the Mood." Pleasantly surprising was the inclusion of very famous "At Last," which turns out was written for one of Glenn Miller's films, Sun Valley Serenade (that I made Marc watch with me after I returned home).

Never mind the fact that Glenn Miller died during World War II at the all-too-soon age of just 40 years old and Tommy Steele was acting as a man half his age. If anything, it made it a little bit sillier and more nostalgic. Apparently, Tommy Steele was inspired by Glenn Miller's music on the radio as a child and was thrilled to play this part on the stage because it was all of his favorite music!

During the intermission, the people sitting in our row said to us as we walked by, "Aren't you two a little too young for this show?" After we responded with laughter and that I liked the music, etc., the second question came quickly, "And...you're American?!" One of my beloved pastimes: being different and a tad bit confusing for people to figure out.

I held it mostly together until the end, then Glenn Miller's character died and was shown playing his music in heaven while his grieving wife looked on. At that point I was a mess of tears, dancing, and sob-singing. Granted, this is not a sad show; it's a definitely happy show with happy songs and happy dancing that just happens to have a sad ending. However, ever the entertainer, Tommy Steele resurrected for the encore like a true champ, performing three more songs with the audience to sing along. It's impossible to feel sad when shout-singing and jazz-hand-dancing to "Sing Sing Sing" with thousands of strangers and the one and only Tommy Steele.

This theatre experience ranks even above my first shows of Phantom of the Opera and Jersey Boys. It was such an unbelievable and overwhelming combination of the music, the Tommy Steele, the story, the dancing, the singing, the old movies, being in London again, summer nights, and all the depth and memories that naturally accompany each of those things. I felt my mind and emotions being stretched in all sorts of wonderful directions, and, ultimately, it was phenomenal because I loved and learned in every minute of it.

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September 3, 2018

VLOG: Vitoria-Gasteiz & Festival of the Virgen Blanca

I had an absolutely perfect half week in the Basque country of Spain. One day to stroll San Sebastián, a few days to absorb the art that is Bilbao, and my day trip to Vitoria-Gasteiz - where I happened upon their Festival of the Virgen Blanca!

It was a bit haphazard, as I didn't know the schedule or where events were happening, but I stumbled upon enough great moments of games, food stands, and plaza dancing to keep my wandering entertained for the whole day.

Vitoria-Gasteiz is actually the government capital of the Basque Autonomous Community of Spain. The city is situated on several different levels that keep the visitor climbing beautiful steps to new terraced views, cathedrals, and squares. I am so glad I chose this city for my day trip! It was easy to take the bus from Bilbao to Vitoria-Gasteiz (around €6), then I chose to return to Bilbao via BlaBlaCar carpool (about €4) so I could practice my Spanish with the driver. Even without the festival going (always August 4th-9th), Vitoria-Gasteiz has so much to offer in history, architecture, and culture, and I hope you have the chance to experience it like I did.

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August 15, 2018

Bilbao Outdoor Art Walk

Bilbao, Spain, is home to one of three fantastic Guggenheim museums (the other two are in New York City, USA, and Venice, Italy). I haven't been to the other two, but my trip to Bilbao was sure to include this one. However, the city of Bilbao itself is an outdoor art and architecture walk just waiting to be enjoyed. The green spaces, old buildings and churches, and various outdoor displays make this walk around the newer part of Bilbao a great introduction to the current culture of the city and finishes at the Guggenheim to top it all off.

Let's get started at the Jardines de Albia Lorategiak. Notice, most location names in Bilbao also come with a Basque translation. Bilbao is Bilbo, and this park is also called Albiako Loretegiak. Knowing both names can come in handy, as not all signs show both Spanish and Basque!

This is one of my favorite fountains ever. So simple, so serene, and I think a "raining umbrella" would be an excellent invention for hot days.

The Iglesia de San Vicente stands to the north of the park and welcomes visitors with its beautiful sculptures and gardens.

Making our way northwest on Colón de Larreátegui Kalea, we will soon end up in Jado Plaza with the Fuente de los Leones, the Fountain of the Lions.

Next steps are toward Moyua Plaza via Ercilla Kalea, where you will find this gem of a building called the Txabarri Jauregia, a former palace. The square is a hub for the west side of Bilbao with several bus stops, shops, and services available. It's also the easiest place to go to and from the Bilbao airport by bus.

After spending time walking around some busy city streets, we are going to head into the largest green space in Bilbao, the Casilda Iturrizar Parkea, just behind the Museum of Fine Arts.

Take your time wandering through this park to admire the interesting fountains, landscapes, birdlife, duck pond, and people.

As we reach an upward slope in the center of the park, we will be facing the Pergola del Parque de Doña Casilda. It's a quick minute to the shady portico area, overgrown beautifully with vines and mossy plants.

I especially liked the tiling on the floors and columns, and it is probably the best place to read a book and take an outdoor nap in Bilbao.

Leaving the Pergola area on the other side, pretty fountains await you as well as this detailed Estatua de Doña Casilda Iturrizar, the namesake of these gardens and the donor of the land.

As we exit the northwest side of the park, we head back into the city area, where we find the huge Palacio Euskalduna. This event venue has various artistic areas in the front, including this root-like mass. On the way toward the river, there is also an array of geometric street lights that seem to be fashioned after trees.

At this point, we cross the river Ría del Nervión O de Bilbao, peeking down to the left at the Maritime Museum and dockyards. But we are on our way to a more curious attraction: the Tigrearen Eraikina, more easily understood as the Tiger Building. The building was home to Correas el Tigre and built in 1941. The tiger was added in 1942, and stands out from all the rest of the buildings along the waterfront park area.

It's best to continue walking along this side of the river in our approach to the Guggenheim. We can cross the river on the pedestrian bridge of Pasarela Pedro Arrupe and have excellent views of the museum's twists, turns, and curves the whole way.

Going along the side to the front of the museum will bring us to the giant flower "Puppy" that is regularly tended to and updated with new colors.

Basque: Ongi etorri! English: Welcome! We have arrived at the Bilbao Guggenheim, and I do hope you have the time to enjoy the interior and art exhibits. When I went in early August, 2018, an absolutely majestic exhibit by Joana Vasconcelos called "I'm Your Mirror" was on display. I'm not one to really sink my teeth into modern art, but her pieces were awesome (Cinderella's coach reimagined as a helicopter, giant high heels made out of pots and lids, large gun made out of old dial-up telephones, an ironic chandelier that cracked me up, and the key piece of a larger-than-life masquerade mask made out of gorgeous antique-like mirrors). I'm positive whatever the Guggenheim puts on display has similar intensity and creativity and is not to be missed!

*Also, make sure you reserve your tickets in advance online if you do not want to wait around. Typically, the museum is most busy in the mornings and the crowds thin out a bit more in the afternoon.

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Bilbao Outdoor Art Walk on iOS & Android

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August 6, 2018

Strolling San Sebastián

I had just one day to spend in San Sebastián, so I battled a minor head cold and walked all over the seaside town, known locally in Basque as Donostia. 

(This town definitely has pharmacies, and Marc and I have since been thankfully cured by their Spanish medicines.)

Basically, if you're a fan of churches, parks, and beaches, you will love San Sebastián. I had an alright weather day, as you will see from my photos. The morning and evening both had cloud cover, but the entire afternoon the sky was bright blue.

The Puente Maria Cristina has four ornate pillar-towers with great horse sculptures on top. This is the furthest inland landmark and a good place to start your walk.

The Good Shepherd of San Sebastián Cathedral is a great walk around and through. It's not that old (late nineteenth century), but its Gothic-Revival style is well-done and interesting for every cathedral tourist.

Parts of San Sebastián reminded me very much of lovely Deauville, France. It has that same clean resort vibe, fancy hotels, and even also its own international film festival. La Concha beach has lots of space and activities along its 1,5 kilometers, and the views include mountains, an island, and the city.

You can go even further down the beach to the west for a climb up to a castle, an amusement park, and a lighthouse.

De Okendo Plaza is home to the Victoria Eugenia Antzokia performing arts theater. It's a fabulous location right smack in the middle of the town, and also where the San Sebastián city buses from the airport end.

Many of the parks in San Sebastián were filled with happy families and friends enjoying the warm weather with a picnic and outdoor fun.

I love this oblong gazebo at Kiosko Boulevard, just east of the City Hall. The stained glass framings along the top are beautifully set within the lacing ironwork.

Heading into the older part of town, the Koruko Andre Mariaren Basilika draws its visitors down the long Kale Nagusia street to its impressive façade.

I didn't have the time to head up to this lookout point, but I am sure the views will be awesome! The Begiratokiko Baluartea (because you'll be able to toss that around with a swell "¿Dónde está...?") can be accessed from behind the left side of the basilica or also around the corner from the San Telmo Museum.

The Iglesia de San Ignacio church was close to where I was staying. It is located very nicely at a curve in the road next to De Cataluña Plaza where many cafes and benches are set up to serve as a sort of main social area on the eastern half of the town.

I know there is a great food scene as well, but I only got around to some magnificent desserts at MEYVI Cafés y Pasteles on the other side of De Cataluña Plaza. It's not often I find a brownie that can beat my own home baked brownies. But this cheesecake brownie and the accompanying dulce de leche coconut bar were two of the best desserts I have ever had. Soft, moist, and full of complimenting flavors. Well done!

Another beautiful church to check out is San Bizente Eliza, also close to the San Telmo Museum.

I had planned to be in San Sebastián longer than just one day, but I changed my itinerary to return to Bavaria for a few days to surprise Marc for our tenth wedding anniversary. Totally. Best. Idea. Ever.

Hopefully when you get to go to San Sebastián, you'll have decent weather like I did and can really take your time walking around the different parts of the city. I'm already looking forward to the next chance I get to return to the Basque region of Spain!

Next up will be Bilbao!

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Strolling San Sebastián on iOS & Android

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