Thursday's Child: Petrin Hill, Prague

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The last urban park I’m writing about this month is Petrin Hill in Prague. 

We visited Prague in 2006, when the girls were eleven and eight years old.  Although I’m the main trip planner, I try to involve everyone in choosing what we’ll do while we’re on holidays.  Letting the girls choose and plan at least one activity helps them buy into our trips, and I think it’s one of the reasons they’ve become such engaged travellers. 

Not surprisingly, on this trip my youngest daughter chose to visit Petrin Hill in Prague.  It has everything that a travelling child could ask for – a break from churches and museums, a chance to stretch her legs, a miniature Eiffel tower, and a maze of mirrors.

For my husband and me, it also offered some of the most beautiful views of one of the loveliest cities I’ve ever visited.  Looking down over the red roofs of the buildings and the many bridges spanning the Vltava River, we could have spent an afternoon taking one stunning photo after another.

We considered taking the funicular up the hill, but with those aforementioned legs to stretch, we spent an afternoon walking there and back.  On the way up, we passed orchards, fields and forests, a surprisingly rural aspect of this large city. 

And yes, at the top we climbed the Petrin Lookout Tower for the ultimate city view.  Built in 1891 for the Prague Expo, it’s much smaller than the Eiffel Tower, but actually reaches a higher elevation since it’s built on a hill. 

We walked through the mirror maze before heading back into the city proper, laughing at our oversized and distorted images in a series of mirrors.  Petrin Hill was a terrific way for a family to spend an afternoon!

The Prom Dress

Sunday, March 25, 2012
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll remember that last spring I took my youngest daughter shopping for a grad dress.  She was graduating from grade eight, and we found a dress that was both lovely and age-appropriate.

My oldest daughter is in grade twelve, and yesterday I took her shopping for her prom dress.  It seems early, doesn’t it?  Buying a dress for prom is more complicated than it used to be.  One of the girls in her grade set up a Facebook page (in November) where everyone posts a photo of their dress to avoid duplicates.  So the timing of buying a dress is tricky.  You want it to be late enough that there’s a good selection, but early enough that you’re not scrolling through 120 photos on Facebook every time you see one you like.  

My daughter and I don’t often shop together, other than when she needs shoes.  She’s very independent and enjoys buying clothes on her own. Her preference is to shop at vintage shops or Goodwill.  For one thing, she loves the unique clothes that she finds there.  But just as important, she likes supporting local small businesses, and appreciates the low carbon footprint of buying something and extending its life.  I love her sense of adventure and her individual sense of style.

A prom dress is different, though.  We spent an evening looking at dresses at the local mall, but she was concerned that she’d look like everyone else if she bought a dress there.  So yesterday morning, she and I drove down to Queen Street, the local fashion district.  We’d planned to hit a few stores, but found such an incredible selection at Fashion Crimes that we made it our one and only stop.  For about half the price of a dress at the mall, she tried on an amazing selection of dresses, and narrowing it down to one was nearly impossible.  So we bought two – one for prom, and another that she can wear to a wedding later this spring.  Needless to say, she looks divine in both.

And the best part was spending time with my sweet daughter.  Six months from now she’ll be at university and moments like that will be less common.  I want to hold onto every occasion that we spend one-on-one time together, and recognize it for how precious it is.

She and I loved this mango bread that I baked last week.  We had unseasonably warm weather until a couple of days ago – I don’t think I’ve ever worn shorts and sandals in Toronto in March before.  And that’s probably why I was inspired by the tropical fruit display in the grocery store.  I baked this wonderful mango bread and, with its hints of lime and ginger, it was absolutely wonderful.  As my daughter said, “It’s so good, you don’t even notice the raisins!

Fresh Mango Bread

3 large eggs
3/4 cup canola oil or other flavorless oil
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
2 cups diced mango
3/4 cup raisins
grated zest of half a lime

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line a loaf pan with parchment paper, or butter it to prevent sticking.  Put the pan on an insulated baking sheet or on two regular baking sheets stacked one on top of the other.  (This extra insulation will keep the bottom of the bread from overbaking.)

Whisk the eggs and oil together.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt.  Add the brown sugar, making sure to break up any lumps.  Pour the wet ingredients over the dry, switch to a sturdy rubber spatula or wooden spoon and mix until blended.  The batter will be very thick.  Stir in the mango, raisins and zest.  Scrape the batter into the pan and smooth the top with a rubber spatula.

Bake the bread for 1 1/2 hours, or until it is golden brown and a thin knife inserted into the centre comes out clean.  (If the bread looks like it’s getting too brown as it bakes, cover it loosely with a foil tent.)  Transfer the pan to a rack and cool for 5 minutes before running a knife around the sides of the pan and unmolding.

Thursday's Child: Sibelius Park, Helsinki

Thursday, March 22, 2012

You may not associate the country of Finland with music, but this is my second post about Helsinki, and they’ve both been on the topic of music.  (If you missed my story on Finnish bridal music, it’s here.) 

Helsinki’s best-known city park is Sibelius Park, named in honour of its renowned classical composer, Jean Sibelius.  His most popular piece of music, Finlandia, is a tribute to the pride and patriotism of the Finnish people. 

At the time the park was inaugurated, a competition was launched to build a memorial statue to him.  Hundreds of applications were submitted, and the winning one was designed by Eila Hiltunen.  Comprised of more than 600 hollow steel pipes welded together, it represents the essence of music rather than a particular instrument. (Although it resembles organ pipes, Sibelius didn’t write organ music).  Built in a wooded area, it’s also evocative of a forest, and harmonizes surprisingly well with its surroundings.

People either love the statue or hate it and, as it was being built, there were many more in the “hate it” camp.  After it was finished, there was so much outrage over the statue that a second one was added, responding to people’s concerns that a statue dedicated to someone actually depict what they looked like.  Because if any of us had a statue built in our honour, we’d want to be remembered like this:

Thursday's Child: Retiro Park, Madrid

Thursday, March 8, 2012
Last week I wrote about one of my favourite parks, Park Guell in Barcelona, Spain.  Today I’ll share a completely different park that we visited on the same trip, this one in Madrid. 

Retiro Park is a beautiful city landscape, just a short walk from our hotel and the Prado museum.  While Park Guell celebrates the natural beauty of its surroundings, Retiro features sculptured trees and meticulous flower gardens.  Long paved promenades lead through the park, meeting each other at right angles. 

Built in the 17th century, the park was originally intended for the sole use of the Spanish royal family.  The gardens were made open to the public in the 18th century, but admission was restricted to those who were formally dressed.  (Admission rules have been relaxed somewhat since then.)

The heart of the park is a large manmade lake in the centre.  We spent an hour rowing around the lake, taking time to admire the enormous monument of King Alfonso XII by its side.  After disembarking, we meandered around its perimeter, enjoying the musicians and street artists.

One of the saddest days in the history of Madrid happened in March 2004, when a series of coordinated bombs struck its commuter train system.  A year after the bombings, 192 olive and cypress trees were planted in Retiro Park, one for each victim of the attack.

We weren't aware of the significance of those trees on the day we visited, but there was something about Retiro Park that seemed emblematic of the city of Madrid.  It's what we chose to do on our first afternoon in Madrid, our first afternoon in Spain, when we were still mastering the basics of the Spanish language. And as we enjoyed our lunch by the lake in Retiro Park, we felt like we had a little insight into this beautiful city and its magnificent country.

The Ultimate Canadian Food

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A few years ago, we visited our friends the Jay family at their cottage.  For dessert at one meal, they graciously provided butter tarts from the Sweet Oven in Barrie, Ontario.  We sat around the table, enjoying these wonderful tarts and a great conversation, then Garth said, “Hey, let’s go look at the pictures from our last trip.”  We wandered off, but soon realized Garth and Andrew were missing.  We crept back into the kitchen to find the two of them shamelessly finishing off the last two tarts.

I believe butter tarts are the ultimate Canadian food.  Maple syrup, poutine, and peameal bacon all have their supporters, but I defy any of them to compete with the joy of the first bite of a butter tart.  (And, if you’re Garth and Andrew, with the last bite of your second butter tart.)

For anyone who’s never eaten one, I offer my profound sympathies.  And an explanation.  Picture a miniature pecan pie, slightly runnier, with raisins and (perhaps) walnuts instead of pecans.  When I think of butter tarts, I think of my mother’s cookie plate at Christmas, where they’re always the star.  I think of dinners in my church basement when I was a kid, where I nibbled them as slowly as I could to make them last longer.  I’ve loved butter tarts my whole life. 

So why do I rarely eat them?

As you know, I love to bake, so it’s very unusual for me to buy desserts.  And butter tarts are a lot of work.  I consider it a major task to make a pie shell, so how much more work is it to make twelve (or more) little tart shells?  So as much as I loved them, butter tarts weren’t happening in this house. 

And then I found this recipe.  Instead of using tart shells, a very simple base holds the filling. Don’t tell the purists, but I think I like this even better than butter tarts, because you get as much filling in the last bite as the first.  To my Canadian readers, I present this easy version of a true classic.  To my international readers, I present the first bite of the rest of your life.

Butter Tart Squares
(adapted from Best Recipes Ever)

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar

2 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup packed brown sugar
2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla
pinch salt
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional; I used them and loved the result.  If you don’t use walnuts, I’d add extra raisins)

For base:
In bowl, beat 1/2 cup butter with granulated sugar until smooth.  Add flour and mix until just combined.  Press into the bottom of a 9 inch square pan that has been covered with parchment paper.  Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes.

For filling:
In bowl, stir melted butter with eggs.  Mix in brown sugar, flour, baking powder, vanilla and salt and stir to combine.  Stir in raisins and walnuts; pour over base.

Bake at 350 degrees until top springs back when lightly touched, 20 to 25 minutes.  Let cool before cutting into squares.

Thursday's Child: Park Guell

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Any time we visit a new city, we try to check out at least one of its parks.  Urban parks are often what make a city livable, and ideally should accommodate both tourists and locals.  This month, I’ll write about some of the loveliest parks we’ve had the pleasure to visit.

One of the most enchanting ones was Park Guell in Barcelona, designed by Antoni Gaudi.  If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know how I love Gaudi’s work (I’ve written about La Pedrera  and Sagrada Familla, to name just two).  His park, although quite different from those buildings, was as stunning as anything else he’s designed.

This project reflected Gaudi’s love of nature.  He incorporated natural designs throughout the park, from seashell motifs to the colourful dragon fountain at the entrance.

One of the strongest characteristics of the park is the amazing tile work throughout.  Gaudi used cast-off ceramic pieces to create unimaginably beautiful mosaics on everything from the underside of the viaduct to that iconic dragon fountain.  In the central core, tiles decorate the benches that wind, snake-like, through the area.

A footpath under the viaduct is lined with columns designed to look like trees, another way in which Gaudi made the architectural structures in the park mirror the nature around it.  But these columns often contained fanciful designs, as in the photo below:

We loved Park Guell so much that we returned on our last day in Barcelona to see it one more time.  To me, it represents everything that’s great about a city park – it’s unique, and both approachable and challenging.  And it feels like it belongs exactly where it’s built.