Saturday, 23 June 2012

Indianapolis: Cars, cream pie... and culture

'Where are you going on holiday this summer then?'
'Oh, right'. [pause] 'Why?'

For the past few months, every time anyone has asked me that question beloved of hairdressers, I've watched their facial expressions change to confusion at my reply and fielded numerous enquiries as to why I'd chosen the Hoosier heartland over... well, anywhere else, really. When Brits go to the USA on holiday, they opt for a long weekend of cocktails and culture in the Big Apple, a fly-drive to Florida or maybe even a multi-stop trip to California's hotspots. But ten days in the midwest? Apparently that's not a particularly common (or even comprehensible) vacation.

Why had I chosen to visit Indianapolis over America's other attractions, or even a European destination? Simple: to see my friend Vicki, who relocated there earlier this year. In addition to visiting her, it seemed like a great opportunity to get to know a city I probably would never have been to otherwise. After all, Indianapolis's pin isn't very prominent on the world tourist map. But as I discovered, it's all the better for it.
The event that puts Indy on the world map

As a city with a population of 830,000, Indy isn't exactly off the beaten track, but nor is it a bustling metropolis playing host to hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Well, with the exception of the final week in May, when the city prepares for the main event in its calendar: the Indy 500. Entirely by accident, I'd managed to book a flight arriving the evening before the big race. Keen to capitalize on my lucky booking, we bought tickets for the race. In the week leading up to 'the greatest spectacle in racing', Indy puts on a festival with a range of racing-related events, including vintage car laps and a street parade. Unfortunately I missed out on these activities, but the atmosphere on race day itself made up for it. As the biggest one-day spectator sport event in the world, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race (to use its official title) draws vistors from all over the globe, including two unsuspecting girls from the north west of England. Put simply, it was overwhelming: foot and four-wheel traffic swarmed towards the Speedway, loaded down with refreshments to last through a long day in the blazing sun.

Ask a Brit for their impression of America, and the word 'big' will crop up somewhere: big country, big roads, big portions. The scale of the Indy 500 definitely fell into this category. In the build-up to the race, more than a degree of patriotism was on show, with renditions of 'America the Beautiful' and the national anthem accompanied by much heart-clutching and hat removing. It certainly wasn't something you'd see in Britain, but the level of evident national pride was quite humbling. When the race finally began, we sat back and watched the 33 cars tear around the track for 3 hours. As clueless individuals whose knowledge came from a quick run-down from Vicki's long-time Indy resident cousin and a few facts gleaned from the official programme, we found our interest came and went in waves: lead changes and crashes sparked it, but our picnic diverted it. The final few laps were undeniably gripping though, with a crash and a last-minute lead change signalling victory for Scottish driver Dario Franchitti. For a full account of the race, read my article on The Travel Belles.

I've got my sights set on the 2013 title

Despite our lack of racing savvy, the Indy 500 was an incredibly enjoyable spectacle. Keen to learn a little more about the history of IndyCar racing and the Speedway itself, we returned a few days later to tour the Hall of Fame and take a spin around the track (on a bus rather than in Franchitti's car, unfortunately). Established in 1909, the Speedway is part of Indy's cultural landscape. But Indy also had plenty to offer on a more typically cultural level, as I found when we explored downtown. Set around a network of canals, downtown Indy is surprisingly small-scale. Of course, there are a number of skyscrapers, impressive government buildings and the awe-inspiring Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, but the centre is relatively compact and easily walkable. Studded with shops, restaurants, sports stadiums and theatres, downtown Indy has plenty to keep both tourists and locals occupied for days.

The waterways that form part of the Canal & White River State Park are an ideal starting point for a cultural exploration of Indy, with a number of museums backing onto the canals. I wandered into the Indiana Historical Society (admission $7), a history museum that's far from fusty. With permanent exhibitions covering different aspects of Indiana's past, the museum's real draw is its 'You are there' areas. I wandered into the 'Busted! Prohibition Enforced' exhibition unsure of what to expect. A friendly attendant explained that the museum's 'You are there' exhibitions use an old photograph illustrating a moment key to an aspect of Indiana's history and recreate the scenario in and around that photograph with the help of period props –and live actors. Stepping inside a recreation 1920 police station, I was greeted by a 'detective' who had recently discovered the state's largest producer of moonshine. He talked me through the crimes of the liquor producer, before taking me into the cells to meet him prior to his trial. A little acting was also required on my part, as I thought up questions to ask both the officer of the law and the reprobate. It's a fun way of bringing history to life, and would certainly help to maintain kids' interest in a museum visit.

The country house at Indianapolis Art Museum

Thankfully for me, no acting was required at any of Indy's other museums, which include the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art and the Indiana State Museum. A few miles out of town, the Indianapolis Museum of Art (free admission) provides over two hundred acres of respite from the city: in addition to the modern, light-filled museum, there's also a country house, formal and informal gardens and a 100-acre art park featuring commissioned artworks. Those who find typical art galleries dull will love the interactive nature of the art park, which actively encourages exploration and offers a space for families to play and picnic in addition to soaking up a bit of culture. There's also an on-site café offering sandwiches, soups and other light fare.

As you'd expect from a state whose signature dish is sugar cream pie, much of the food available in Indy doesn't exactly fall into the 'healthy' category. As something of a food-lover, I was impressed with the range of cuisines available, with everything from tapas to burritos to hearty American cooking on offer, as I'll be exploring in a future post.

The Monument

An uncommon holiday destination Indy might be. But an incomprehensible one? It shouldn't be. Down to earth, low-key but with a packed cultural and sporting calendar plus plenty of affordable eateries, Indianapolis is a perfect place for a vacation if you ask me.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Getting out of town: Woodstock

When you live abroad, starting a blog to document your experiences seems like a great idea. Every day holds the potential for a new experience, sight or snapshot. When I began Tales of a Brit Abroad in 2010, it motivated me to make the most of living in Madrid by exploring the city beyond the tourist hotspots. It also gave me even more of an excuse to escape the capital at weekends and spend time getting to know the rest of Spain.

Since moving back to the UK, it's been understandably difficult to maintain this blog: after all, I'm no longer a Brit abroad. Fortunately, I travel enough to make the occasional post possible. But what all these weekend trips overseas have made me realise is how little I've seen of my own country. Unless I have a friend who lives somewhere, chances are I won't have been there. It's embarrassing really; I've probably been to more provinces in Spain than I have English counties. This needs to change: after all, who knows how long I'll be based on this island?

When I was recently offered the chance to visit Woodstock, I accepted gladly. After all, the pretty little Cotswold town is only 8 miles outside of Oxford, my current home. Despite this, I'd only ever driven through Woodstock once, en route to Blenheim Palace on the outskirts. 'A big rock festival was held here in the 60s', my mum announced as we drove through the sleepy streets. My 15-year-old self looked back at her witheringly and said, 'That was in America'. So I knew there wasn't going to be any rock and roll on the agenda for this visit, but I was hoping for some relaxation, good food and a touch of luxury.

A watercolour of Woodstock by local artist Rod Craig

The word 'England' conjures up many different images, but I imagine that if many of those overseas were asked to picture an English town, they'd think of somewhere like Woodstock. Located in the beautiful Cotswolds area of southern England, Woodstock is one well turned-out town: think honey-coloured sandstone buildings peeping out from under a veil of ivory, cute local shops with painted wooden window frames, cosy pubs and a church so picturesque it's a listed building. Low-key and easy to navigate, it's an ideal weekend escape for city dwellers. Those seeking a bit of culture with their mini-break can tour grandiose Blenheim Palace, Winston Churchill's birthplace and the home of the current Duke of Marlborough. With stately rooms and acres of gardens designed by Capability Brown to explore, the palace could keep you occupied for hours. Intensive sightseeing's optional though: a stroll around the central streets, popping in and out of cafés, pubs and shops is more than sufficient for many visitors. For me, the main attraction of Woodstock wasn't to be found in palatial surroundings or out on the streets, though: it was on my plate.

Hampers deli

For somewhere so small, Woodstock isn't short on dining options. To stock up on the finest English produce to take home, whether it be local bread and cheese or gourmet charcuterie, Hampers Food & Wine Company can cater to your cravings. There's also an on-site café if waiting until you get home just isn't an option. Traditional afternoon teas can be found at Harriet's, which has a dangerously tempting array of sweet treats, while more hearty British fare is on offer at Woodstock's many pubs. For casual dining, there's also Brothertons Brasserie, which serves a range of well-prepared British dishes (such as wild boar casserole with mash). If you're looking for something upmarket, it's got to be The King's Arms, which was recently awarded an AA Rosette. I opted for traditional Sardinian fare at Italian restaurant La Galleria: it may look like someone's lounge in the late 1980s, but the quality cooking was timeless, and the restaurant's popularity undeniable: every table was occupied. Woodstock's pick of places to dine only looks set to increase: top chef Marco Pierre White has recently obtained a hotel in Woodstock, which will also house one of his Wheeler's gastropubs.

Hope House

Quality cooking is equally important at Hope House, as I discovered over breakfast the next morning.  The ancestral home of the Money family was converted into a boutique B & B in 2009, and with just three swish suites, it's an exclusive address. With roll-top baths, sofas you can sink into and ludicrously comfortable beds with designer bedlinen, a stay at Hope House certainly provided both the luxury and the relaxation I'd been hoping for. The locally-sourced breakfast was second-to-none, with a huge variety of cereals, fruit, yoghurt, home-made pastries, cheeses and meats – and that's before you get to the cooked breakfast options. With all the components of a full English (plus a few extras) served in any combination of your stomach's desire, even the fussiest of customers can't go wrong at Hope House.

My weekend in Woodstock taught me something: instead of getting out of the UK, I need to get out in the UK. When I'm lucky enough to have beautiful towns like this on my doorstep, there's really no excuse.

I was a guest of Hope House. You can read my full breakfast review here.
Images courtesy of Wake Up To Woodstock.
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