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We saw many pelicans

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Merida has many interesting street signs

waterBEACH, BIRDS, AND BYGONE CITY

If you don’t fancy the crowds along the Maya Riviera, on the Caribbean coast south of Cancun, Mexico, a great alternative is to use Merida as a base. This pretty Colonial city on the northwest of the Yucatan Peninsula is within easy distance of many famous Mayan sites (Chichen Itza and the Puuc Route, with Uxmal), the northern biosphere, and good sand beaches.

On this daytrip, we went to Progresso for the beach, the sea, and the sun; to Uaymintun

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Progresso beach

for the lagoon and flamingo viewing; to Xtambo for a Mayan ruin and more flamingoes. We returned to Merida on side roads, passing through typical small Yucatecan villages.

We decided on this as an alternative to flamingo viewing at the Celestun Park to the west. On a previous visit to Celestun we felt concerned at how the tourist boats on the estuary are disturbing the birds, especially the flamingoes. Another plus—this way is free.

We drove north out of Merida on Paseo Montejo, noting the richer colonial side of the city, with wide streets, mansions and shopping complexes, and even a Sams Club!

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Part of the lagoon—if you look closely there are a few flamingoes there

Progresso, Merida’s port, is about a 30-minute drive, past a huge abandonned henequin factory (which produced ropes, mats etc), evidence of the previous wealth from this crop; and Dzibilchaltun, another ruined Mayan city with an excellent museum of Mayan history. It’s a worthwhile stop if you’re interested in the Maya. The site also has the famous House of the Seven Dolls, and an interesting cenote (steep-sided natural well.)

Progresso has progressed, compared to our visit four years before. Parking is plentiful along the esplanade, rebuilt after the hurricane a few years ago. All the usual tourist facilities line the esplanade, in a scaled-down version compared to the Caribbean coast, and we found it much more pleasant. A wide sand beach, with beach chairs, palapa huts, and beach restaurants, looks out over the calm blue water, tiny waves lapping.

After a swim, and lunch at one of the beach restaurants, we headed out east along the

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Beautiful birds

coastal road, palm trees on one side, stubby salt-flats bush on the other. There’s a string of development in the narrow strip between the sea and the biosphere, mostly brightly-painted houses, some holiday flats and hotels.

We followed the coastal road to Uaymintun, a small village with a tall wooden lookout tower over the lagoon; a great way to see part of the lagoon and biosphere preserve and do bird-watching, especially with binoculars. (The lookout tower is free, but you can rent binoculars there). The biosphere extends for hundreds of kilometers: lagoons, shallow lakes and waterways with small islands and mud flats. Scores of flamingoes were walking in the shallow water, many still bright pink even though this wasn’t nesting season. We saw many other birds too, including pelicans.

A few miles further on, the sign for Xtambo ruins is on the right. The drive is along a miles-long causeway over the lagoon with views of an amazing number of birds, especially flamingoes. The road is not busy, so stopping is easy. What a marvelous place for viewing and photographing birds in their natural environment: pelicans, oyster catchers, sandpipers, cormorants, white herons, blue herons, turkey buzzards.

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Xtambo

Xtambo ruins are just off to the right after the lagoon, along a narrow dirt road between tall grasses and stubby trees, swampy areas just to the side. The name means “place of the crocodile”, and we could easily imagine there might be a crocodile in there somewhere!

These Maya ruins are bigger than we expected, and much still remains to be excavated. It was a salt distribution center, reaching its peak around 600AD. The bases of two large structures are in a clearing before the main ruins: the low Pyramid of the Cross, and other buildings around a courtyard. All are grey stone, with little visible ornamentation now other than some stone masks. Xtambo was important as the port for Izamal, a bigger town inland, which was far away for people in those days. We’d known that the Maya traded, but did they travel by sea?

There were no other visitors, so we rambled happily around at will. The structures are not

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A mix of Mayan and Catholic beliefs

remarkable, compared to Chichen Itza, for example, but it’s an interesting little site. Of note is the small Catholic Chapel of the Virgin at the base of the temple, built 50-plus years ago after the Virgin of X’Cambo appeared here, showing us that old and new beliefs can co-exist. The view out is to scrubby palm trees and swamp, rather than jungle, but it’s completely isolated, giving us a real feel for what it must have been like thirteen centuries ago.

On smaller roads south back to Merida, prolific vines are creeping over almost everything, and the jungle encroaches on both sides of the road. It’s not hard to see how they could ‘eat up’ the area again. We passed through a number of villages, all arranged around a central square. This can be hazardous driving. Topes (speed bumps) slowed us down, but people walk along the road, or ride bikes, or pull carts loaded with firewood. Children play in the unpaved streets lined with banana trees, and animals wander at will. Huts with thatched roofs, or low houses with tin roofs and faded, chipped paint, are in dusty yards, with washing draped on fences, pigs tethered to small papaya trees, mangy dogs prowling under acacia trees, and a group of kids playing in the dirt, their noses running.

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Scrubby jungle around Xtambo

This is local life, as it really is, not a sanitized version for tourist viewing. We felt privileged to see this natural version of life in rural Yucatan.

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Merida’s cathedral—one of the oldest in the Americas

PRACTICAL INFORMATION—MERIDA:

Given the sometimes-poor state of the roads, this is more than enough in one day. Start early, especially if you want lots of swimming time. There are gas stations in Progresso, but not on the smaller roads.

Picking up a rental car at Merida airport is very easy. The airport has a Tourist Information desk and an ATM for cash. The best Tourist Information Office is on Calle 60 in town, on the edge of Parque de la Maternidad, two blocks north of the main square (see below). General information at www.travelyucatan.com/merida_mexico.php

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Balloon sellers are popular on the main square

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Traditional Yucatecan dancing

DSCF0045.JPGPlaza de la Independencia, the center of downtown Merida, is a green oasis. On Sundays, the streets around it are closed, so everyone can enjoy the bustling Sunday market, and free music concerts and traditional Yucatecan dancing. Don’t miss the huge cathedral, and the Governor’s Palace, with a series of enormous, strikingly colorful, abstract murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco of Merida, depicting the history of the Yucatan.

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Part of the colorful Merida market

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Many tasty tropical fruits

The Anthropological and Historical Museum on Paseo Montejo has an excellent, although small, collection of ancient Mayan artifacts.

Around the main plaza, and Park Hidalgo—another square one block north—are many restaurants, food stalls, bars, and coffee shops (most with internet connections).

Merida has many hotels in all price ranges. Two of our favorites (with swimming pools, and parking facilities offered) are Hotel Dolores Alba, with rooms arranged around the courtyard of a restored colonial house

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Imagine a hotel in a lovely old Colonial building

(www.doloresalba.com); and Gran Hotel, a grand 100-year-old Italianate building on Park Hidalgo. Tel: +52 999-924-7730, fax +52 999-924-7622, www.granhoteldemerida.com.mx

Friends stayed at Hotel Colonial and were very satisfied, www.hotelcolonial.com.mx (in Spanish)

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Variety of chile peppers

 

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The enormous Vrijthof Square

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One side of the square is lined with very nice cafes

Maastricht is the charming capital of the province of Limburg, right in the south of Netherlands. It has many narrow picturesque streets and small squares, and lovely old houses, many from the 16th and 17th centuries. You also see remains of the old fortifications and old city walls, testament to the town’s strategic importance at a European crossroads and that it withstood 21 sieges over the centuries.

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St Jans Kerk, St Servaas Basilica, and the Hoofwacht on the far side of the square

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The churches lit up at night

Most of its squares are small and enclosed, which is why the Vrijthof comes as a bit of a surprise. In the heart of the city, it is very large, a huge open space lined on three sides with trees, and on one side by lovely café terraces. Many pedestrianized shopping streets radiate out from it. It’s dominated by the vast and ancient Romanesque St Servaas Cathedral, and behind that the St Jans Kerk from the 12-15th centuries.

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Spanish Government House

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Emblem on Hoofwacht

On the south side is the old Spanish Government House (was the residence of the Dukes of Brabant and the Spanish kings), now the Museum of the Vrijthof and painted bright red/pink. On the west is the Hoofdwacht (1700s), once a guard house and now a military headquarters.

On Vrijthof, you can almost forget you’re in the Netherlands. When you stand in the middle and look around, it doesn’t look or feel like other Dutch squares, as it’s enormous and is the cultural heart of the city. It’s usually wide and open, but also hosts jam-packed events: from Carnival; to becoming the beautiful backdrop for the concerts by local favorite Andre Rieu; to the Preuvenemint, the Netherlands largest food festival.

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The cafes in early evening  light

What’s in a name? According to one tradition, the name means “free place” or “sanctuary”, but it more likely derives from the German for cemetery, two of which were known to have occupied this site.

The square was built on the marshes of the River Jeker. The area was

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Note statues far left, and the fountain front

originally unsuitable for building but by medieval times was used as a military parade ground, an execution site and a pilgrims’ meeting place. Every 7 years, the Fair of the Holy Relics attracted pilgrims, craftsmen and traders to the lively square. Something of this spirit is recaptured in Vrijthof at Carnival time these days.

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St Servaas as backdrop to 2 of the Carnival statues

The square’s connection to Carnival is strong. Besides being one of the main venues for carnival activities in the city, it boasts several permanent carnival reminders. On the SW corner is a group of 5 colorful and oddly-shaped sculpted figures of different sizes. They depict players from a carnival marching band (see details in an upcoming post).

Close by is a small fountain, whose 5 bronze figures depict masked carnival figures dancing hand-in-hand. Called “Hawt Uuch Vas!” by Frans Gast, 1976.

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One side of the square is lined with lovely old buildings, now cafes, bars and brasseries. One, roughly in the middle, is a bit more ornate than the others. It’s the Grand Café Momus and it used to be the carnival hall. Their logo is still a carnival mask, which features on the chairs and menu.

We ate there one evening—see an upcoming post.

 

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First view of the Western Wall and Plaza

First view of the Western Wall and Plaza

View from the women's side of the Plaza

View from the women’s side of the Plaza

The Western Wall, or the Kotel, or the Wailing Wall

(Note: this is a longish article—I really wanted to try and understand this complex subject)

What is special about the Western Wall? The wall has withstood time and has witnessed war and peace. I am not Jewish, and I have not visited Israel before, so I wanted to try and understand the significance of this wall, which is the most visited site in Israel today.

(For other sights in Jerusalem, I’ll post another article later).

In order to understand what the Western Wall is, we need to go back three thousand or so years. Long before a temple was built on this mount, Abraham came here to sacrifice his son Isaac, and Jacob slept here, dreaming of a ladder to heaven. Then called Mount Moriah, its summit was where Solomon built the First Temple on the land that his father King David bought from Aravnah, the Jebusite, 3,000 years ago.

Diagram of old Temple

Diagram of old Temple

The Temple stood for around 500 years, until it was destroyed by the Babylonian conqueror Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. The Holy Ark and the Ten Commandments, which were in the Temple, vanished and the Jews were expelled from the land of Israel. They were allowed to return 70 years later and built the Second Temple.

Closer view of the Wall today

Closer view of the Wall today

King Herod (who ruled 37-4 BC) decided to rebuild that in 19 BC. He had a problem, though: the Temple was on the peak of a mountain where there was limited space. Herod, who was known for huge building projects (such as the port at Caesarea, and his palace at Masada), decided to build four massive supporting walls around the mountain and transform it into a level platform. Which he did, and built the next Temple on the new platform.

In 70 AD, during the Jewish rebellion against the Romans, Jerusalem was conquered and the Temple destroyed.

After the rebellion, Jews were not allowed to return to the Temple mound and the Kotel (Western Wall) was the closest they could come to that area. The Western Wall is the most sacred, because the Temple (and its inner Holy of Holies) had been built closest to that wall. Since then, the Western Wall has been the center of Jewish belief. For Jews, touching the stones links them with their nation and heritage, and their long turbulent history.

Today, people from all over the world converge here, to see, to feel, to pray, and to wedge notes and requests between its timeless stones.

Bar Mitzvah. Taken by me from over the dividing wall

Bar Mitzvah. Taken by me from over the dividing wall

Women's side of the Plaza---note the women standing on chairs looking over!

Women’s side of the Plaza—note the women standing on chairs looking over!

What is the Western Wall Plaza?

This is the cleared area in front of part of the Western Wall, and is the setting for many national events, such as the Priests’ Blessing at Pesach and Sukkot, candle lighting at Channukah, swearing in of Israeli police and armed forces recruits, and Jerusalem Day ceremonies. It is also a popular place for bar and bat mitzvahs of young people from Israel and abroad. The Plaza today is part of an open synagogue, which is why men and women are separated like in many synagogues.

When we visited, there were two bar mitzvahs in progress, which the men in our party could easily see from their side of the divided plaza. However, the women could see too, as we could stand on a row of chairs and look over the wall! (This seemed a little incongruous to me in such a holy place!). Everyone should cover their heads, and if you don’t have a covering, then a volunteer group will give you one. There’s also a table when you can pick up a slip of paper and a pencil, to write a note to put into the wall.

Until about 700 years ago, the entire length of the Western Wall was accessible. Gradually, the city’s Mameluke and Muslim conquerors built up against it. Jews continued to pray at the wall and had to wind their way through narrow alleys to reach it. This ended in 1948 when Jordan occupied Jerusalem’s Old City and Jews were denied access to the wall. When Jerusalem was reunified in 1967 the plaza was cleared and Jews could again approach the wall, which became a symbol of national unity.

One of the large vaulted passage ways below today's Plaza and city streets

One of the large vaulted passage ways below today’s Plaza and city streets

Our guide, Shani Kotev, points out details on part of the tunnel wall

Our guide, Shani Kotev, points out details on part of the tunnel wall

Do we see the entire Western Wall from the plaza?

What one sees from the Prayer Plaza is actually only a small part (about one seventh) of one of the original four walls. About the same stretches to the right as you face the wall, and the rest to the left, into the Western Wall tunnels.

If you think that huge wall in the Prayer Plaza is impressive, then you will be astounded by what you see underground on the tunnel tour. You can only do this on a guided tour, which needs to be reserved in advance usually. I’m told that many tourists don’t know about this tour, which is a great shame, as it really does extend our knowledge and appreciation for this massive construction of Herod’s.

Our day tour, with guide Shani Kotev, included the tunnels luckily. The main tunnel is adjacent to the base of the Western Wall and is under buildings of the Old City of Jerusalem—residential neighborhoods built over ancient structures from the Second Temple period.

Below, we saw special bath houses for ritual cleaning, as the Jews of that time approached to pray at the wall. Even today, in the tunnel is a small synagogue at the closest physical point to the Holy of Holies where women come to pray.

Our host points out some of the masonry marks

Our host points out some of the masonry marks

The cistern underground today

The cistern underground today

We noted parts of Herod’s wall with massive stones, including the Western Stone. It is the largest stone in the wall, supposedly one of the heaviest objects ever lifted by humans without powered machinery. It is 45 ft long and between 11-15 ft wide with an estimated weight of 520 metric tons.

Note part of the market street that used to run along the wall and where Jesus may even have walked. At the northern part of the Western Wall, remains were found of a water channel that supplied water to the Temple Mount. The exact source of the channel is unknown but it passes through an underground pool/cistern called the Struthion Pool, which they think gathered rainwater.

Parts of the tunnel have concrete supports that reinforce the ancient streets above in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter. Visitors today leave the tunnel through the northern exit, which leads to the Via Dolorosa. This exit was specially created so visitors didn’t have to retrace their steps back to the entrance by the Prayer Plaza, and only opened in 1996 after much deadly protesting by Arabs. Still today, the entrance is only open during the day, due to security reasons, and a guard sits at the exit.

So much history is here, concentrated in one place, that it’s almost overwhelming. To do the Western Wall and tunnels tour you need about 2-3 hours, and then perhaps it’s a good time to find lunch in one of the small cafes dotted all over the market street area. We went to a hommos (hummus) place for falafel, hummus and pita bread, which was great.

See a good description here: http://www.biblewalks.com/Sites/WesternWallTunnels.html

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Artist's sketch of the hippodrome in Roman times

Artist’s sketch of the hippodrome in Roman times

Ruins of the hippodrome today, unfortunately recently flooded by the Mediterranean

Ruins of the hippodrome today, unfortunately recently flooded by the Mediterranean

An animal panel, but note small human figures on the far right

An animal panel, but note small human figures on the far right

While touring in Caesarea, Israel, our guide Danny the Digger made a very interesting observation. We wandered through the ruins of the Roman city built by Herod the Great, including the hippodrome. On the lowest level of the seating stands, facing into the actual racing oval, Danny pointed out a series of mosaic panels with pictures. Many are animals, some are abstract. All are colorful and seemed designed to be seen by both the contestants and the viewers on the opposite side.

Danny mused that these might be the ancestors of our modern stadium advertising billboards. Fascinating concept! Seems like the Romans came up with everything.

An absract design

An absract design

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General view of Memorail

General view of Memorial

Even today, people still bring items to remember and honor the victims

Even today, people still bring items to remember and honor the victims

The mission statement of the Memorial is “...May this Memorial offer comfort, peace, hope and serenity.” It succeeded admirably for us.

At 9:02am on April 19, 1995, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was destroyed in the largest terrorist attack in US history up until that time. One hundred and sixty eight people died, and thousands of others were affected in countless ways.

A couple of months ago, we re-visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial, dedicated on April 19, 2000, the five-year anniversary of the attack. I knew it was a highly significant memorial, but I wasn’t expecting to be as moved as I was on our first visit years ago. Significantly, we were still very moved on this recent visit.

Looking from Gate 9:01 across the Reflecting Pool to Gate 9:03

Looking from Gate 9:01 across the Reflecting Pool to Gate 9:03

Gate 9:01

Gate 9:01

In these troubled times, especially in the aftermath of 9/11 and other more recent horrific shooting sprees, and bombings, a visit to a memorial such as this serves to remind us of the suffering of individual people regardless of where the troubles occur, and of people’s amazing ability to rebuild, to heal, and to make meaning out of tragedy.

We wandered around the outside Memorial first to see the site and setting for this tragedy. What draws one’s eyes immediately is the chain-link fence along the edge. From afar it’s a blur of colors and shapes, but as you get closer the details emerge—a teddy bear with a picture below, a sock, a T-shirt, a card, flowers, a flag. The fence is covered with these kinds of items, so touching, so personal, giving tragedy a face. People are still bringing things, all these years later.

The huge Gates of Time, framing the moment of destruction (one inscribed with 9:01am, the moment before the destruction; the other with 9:03 am, the moment after the destruction), are at each end of the Reflecting Pool, which has replaced the street where the bomb went off. These Gates of Time illustrate so clearly just how quickly a tragedy can happen, how quickly lives can be lost and changed forever.

Some of the Memorial Chairs

Some of the Memorial Chairs

Survivor Tree in late winter

Survivor Tree in late winter

The highlight is the Field of Empty Chairs, in the green grassy area that was the site of the Murrah Building. There are 168 chairs, one for each life lost, including 19 smaller chairs for the children. The chairs are made of bronze and stone, each glass base etched with the name of a victim, and individually illuminated at night.

A park ranger told a poignant story of how the final chair design was chosen. Apparently many people liked the chair concept, perhaps because so many of the victims were office workers who frequently sat on chairs. The adults at the meeting wanted to discuss this further, but a 10-year-old boy stood up and said that he didn’t care what the other people said. He liked the chairs, because any time he missed his dead mother he could go and sit on her chair and it would be like her lap and he could remember her. Who could resist such a touching statement?

Another high point is the Survivor Tree, a large American elm that was badly damaged by the blast but, with lots of care, has survived. It is a symbol of resilience, both of Nature and of humans. We found the circular promontory around it a good place to sit and contemplate the whole Memorial.

The Reflecting Pool reflecting the Museum

The Reflecting Pool reflecting the Museum

The Oklahoma National Memorial Museum in the former Journal Record Building, also badly damaged by the bombing, has interactive exhibits on two floors. It takes you on a chronological self-guided tour of the story of the bombing and its after effects, divided into ten chapters. Many graphic and moving pictures, video clips and interviews, and artifacts rescued from the blasted building, combine to give a very personalized and poignant experience. We were stunned and shocked all over again. I felt as though these atrocities had been done to me too.

In my opinion, the Gallery of Honor is the most touching room in the exhibit. Around the edge of this circular room are photographs of each victim. Many also have items selected by the families, such as watches, medals and awards, wedding or other pictures. The most heart-breaking are the toys with the photographs of some of the children.

We all leave changed in some way. The events themselves were so dramatic, and the message from the Memorial is so powerful, and yet does help soothe some of the anguish. As is written on the Gates of Time, “We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever. May all who leave here know the impact of violence…

The Museum is open 9am-6pm Mon-Sat and noon-6pm on Sunday.

Adults $12; seniors, military and students $10; children under 5 free.

The park is open all the time.

The web site is excellent and has much information.

http://www.oklahomacitynationalmemorial.org

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The side of Rise's building sports a colorful mural

The side of Rise’s building sports a colorful mural

buildingfullRise Coffee, 4180 Manchester Ave, The Grove (the street with a lot of fun murals).

This is a relative newcomer to the coffee scene in St Louis and has become a new favorite for many, including our St Louis family.

It opened in October 2013 in the re-emerging Grove neighborhood. Rise is locally owned by Jessie Mueller and her husband Ron Mueller, and they want to focus on creating a local community in the area. The great coffees and baked items from nearby bakeries (donuts, pastries, vegan cookies, quiche, for example) certainly help with this aim. Their coffee speciality is hand-brewed “pour over” style, which we found very good. They also offer many other kinds of coffees and teas.

At the entrance

At the entrance

signstandAnother notable feature is that Rise encourages “pay it forward” as part of a Coffee For The People program and there’s a corkboard with coffee sleeves noting various cups of coffee or other items that have been bought and paid for by a patron, to be used by another patron. This way, folks who cannot usually afford to hang out in coffee shops will be able to join in this community.

The smallish two-story building has a lounge and kids area on the second floor, as they want to encourage people to linger. The Muellers have used handmade lighting and a mishmash of reclaimed, upcycled furniture. There are many other small interesting touches in the décor, which was Bohemian-inspired, and locally crafted.

Different reviewers have used words like quaint, hipster, a gem, cool, with an eclectic chill vibe, neighborly, and we’d have to agree with them all! The servers are all really friendly and the atmosphere is great.

inside

foodtruckRise now also has a mobile Coffee Truck (probably the first in St Louis), which started in October 2014. It’s co-owned by Jessie Muelller and Nick and Sara Endejan, both of whom have been very involved in the Rise coffee shop—he as the manager and she as a barista.

A very nice place and well worth a return visit.

Check out their website for all the details:

http://risecoffeestl.com

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Hebe Fountain

Hebe Fountain

Lovely old buildings line the square

Lovely old buildings line the square

Hebe Fountains in Court Square Park

At 62 N. Main Street, Memphis, Tennessee

This neoclassical ornamental fountain, the main feature of the square, was donated to the city by city leaders. It dates from 1876 and is a copy after the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822). It’s cast iron, 20 feet high and 35 feet in diameter. In Greek mythology, Hebe was the Cupbearer to the gods.

The fountain has stories to tell: in 1884 one person slipped in and drowned; originally the pond was stocked with catfish, then goldfish, then back to catfish, but so many were stolen, that the practice was stopped; in the 1930s a movement was started to remove the fountain from the square, as Hebe is naked from the waist up, but that didn’t succeed. It has been renovated a number of times.

Cherubs on the fountain

Cherubs on the fountain

Court Square has been one of the symbols of Memphis for a long time and in 1982 it was named to the National Register of Historic Places. It’s a lovely quiet oasis of green, with a gazebo, statues, and places to sit and watch the restored trolleys trundling along on Main Street. Laid out in 1819, it’s on land originally set aside to build a courthouse (hence the name). Some architecturally significant buildings surround the square, and a small flea market operates most days on the edge. People who work around here come and eat a picnic lunch on the grass, and parents bring kids to run around.

Definitely worth a stop, to rest your feet, watch the kids at play and look at the fountain.

The little market has a number of interesting items for sale

The little market has a number of interesting items for sale

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