Saturday, December 13, 2014


Just when you think you have your travel itinerary all charted out, something comes up and throws another event in. Fortunately, our trip to Houston was pretty casual, and we waited until we got here to figure out how to spend our days. Good thing, because we discovered that there was a huge Gingerbread House competition going on not far from our hotel on Saturday.

Good so far . . .
Now this is no ordinary Gingerbread  House competition; it is put on by AIA Houston, an Architecture Association in Houston, so these houses should be well designed.

We walked down in the morning and got to see the beginning of the process. Everyone was checking their designs, and teams were cutting out pieces of Gingerbread and getting materials ready. Even at this early stage we could see that there were two distinct camps, those that made really fancy traditional Gingerbread houses and those that used gingerbread to make something really cool. There was Star Wars, Frozen, Disney Princes Castle, Shrek, Houston City Hall, The Titanic, and many others.
Under Construction

You could easily see that some of these teams were dead serious, with uniforms, team hats, or matching T-Shirts. The rules seem pretty simple; there is a set limit to the size of the base, gingerbread is provided, but teams could provide their own, all material must be edible, and nothing can be pre-assembled or pre-cut. After wandering around watching the beginning stages of the construction, we decided to explore elsewhere and return to see the finished houses near judging.

Cool, but not much Gingerbread
After a trip to an outdoor skating rink (Yup, skating in Houston at 22°), retrieval of a lost hat (mine, not Regis’) and a wine shopping trip, we returned to the competition. The world globe was sitting on the base rather than elevated on candy cane legs, and the Titanic had completely collapsed, but most teams were just putting the finishing touches on their creations.

Grand Hotel Budapest
My favorite was the Grand Hotel Budapest, because it was really a traditional Gingerbread house of extreme proportions, but the 1950 woody wagon with the Airstream trailer was an emotional favorite even though there was not a piece of gingerbread to be seen.

We did not get to see who actually won, but check out the website when it is updated with the 2014 winners.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Under Houston

Under Houston
The first year I retired, I accompanied Regis on a “Business” trip to Montreal, and I discovered the lengthy underground tunnel system there. In Montreal, I can see the benefit, with four feet of snow and -20 C temperatures, so I was surprised to hear that Houston, Texas also boasts a tunnel system connecting most of their downtown buildings and attractions. Since our French Canadian friends must want to avoid the cold, I have to assume the Texans are using the tunnels to avoid the 35+ temperatures in the summer.

A walk up to the next block from our hotel took us to a building with access to the over 6 miles (Montreal boasts over 20 miles) of tunnels beneath Houston. An escalator ride down one level put us in the tunnel system.

This is a well-organized and well-designed system, with maps and clear directions. We were able to find our way to one end and then back underground to within a block of the pub where I heard a cold beer calling me for lunch.
Looking up at Houston

Most of the “tunnels” are simply walkways running under the streets connecting buildings, but there are also some sections that are relatively long. Most look like they were designed into the plans for the buildings and contain many restaurants and shops along the way, and all except the last section we explored were purpose built “Tunnels” rather than just opening and connecting basement hallways as much of Montreal is, and most are elegantly finished in tiles and brightly lit with built in lighting.

These tunnels are very well used and I was very rarely able to get photos without people in them. We spent the afternoon exploring this intriguing transportation option in Houston, and although you miss the blue sky and the 20+ weather of Houston in December, I can see the attraction in escaping the heat of August.

And it did lead me nicely back to that cold beer I had calling me from across Houston . . . . .   

Down on the Bayou

Not the nicest beginning . . .
A quote in the magazine Houstonia says “For the longest time, bayous are just one thing to you: EW, which is to say they’re, slimy, teeming with dangerous characters, disease, and secrets – secrets contained in dumped garbage, old cars, the occasional human torso.” Not exactly a glowing endorsement for tourist attractions, but it was down in the historic district and seemed it might be an interesting place to walk along the water.

Our first day in Houston, we went for a walk along the Buffalo Bayou. On the map it looked like a river, and although a bayou is defined as “Chiefly Lower Mississippi Valley and Gulf States,  marshy arm, inlet, or outlet of a lake, river, etc., usually sluggish or stagnant. “, even when we got there, it looked like a muddy river. Fortunately, Houston has made a decision to develop this area, and it has been turned into a quite nice place to walk. There are miles of paved trails along both sides of the Buffalo Bayou, and it seemed to be used by many runners, walkers and cyclists.
A few highways . . . .

This area might have been forgotten and neglected and indeed might have become just as in the above quote, because it does have a few negatives. The ring road around the downtown area of Houston follows the Bayou – probably cheaper to use this land than expropriating useful property for highways, so much of the trail system actually winds under the highways, sometimes three deep above you.

Canoe - not very watertight
The first part of this trail almost put us off walking it, as we saw a number of homeless folk coming up from the trails, but we also saw some cyclists so we decided to try the walk. The first part was a bit rough, and you could see the homeless squats up under the highway supports and I noticed a number of open power boxes where power was being stolen and a few hidden areas where people had obviously been living. All along the trails were signs forbidding “Overnight Camping”, and I imagine it must be an ongoing chore to roust the homeless from the inviting shelter areas under the highways.
Tourists on the Bayou

As the trails progressed it got better and better and turned greener and more developed. At the end there were canoe launches and numerous inviting benches and garden areas. All in all, it was a lovely morning walk “Down on the Bayou”.