A brilliant weekend in St Augustine

We have had some hectic weeks with work projects lately. We decided that we would have a bona fide weekend and get out of the house and away from the computers. We ended up spending a lot of time in St. Augustine, which is one of our favorite cities.

Friday night, we drove up to St. Augustine to visit a bookstore there. Elise was in need of some more challenging chapter books to read. I have written before about how she’s something of a kid naturalist, so I have been trying to find books that play to her interests. I highly recommend Jane Goodall’s My Life With The Chimpanzees for children. It talks about being an ethnologist in an extraordinarily conversational and engaging tone, and she provides a lot of details about her childhood that children would love (living in a creepy old manor house, her uncle allowing her to ride his racehorses, her grandmother “giving” her her favorite tree in their backyard for her birthday, her dad’s Aston Martin). I think I am going to try to read The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle to Elise sometime, which Goodall says was the first book she fell in love with as a child. She read the book three times after checking it out from the library, and then was given her very own copy for Christmas. It was then that she decided she absolutely must go to Africa.

I also found Deborah Hopkinson’s The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel, which is a story about learning to control a cholera outbreak. It should be a fun introduction to epidemiology and a transition to our next science book, which is on the history of medicine.

After we had done our damage at the bookstore, we went to Elise’s favorite restaurant on the A1A in St. Augustine Beach, which is Tide’s Oyster Company and Grill. Elise loves, loves, loves oysters, and Tide’s gets these positively enormous oysters from the Gulf of Mexico. They remember her there, the seven-year-old who can put away a dozen raw oysters on her own. The oysters at Tide’s will separate the people who genuinely like to eat oysters from the folks who ritually choke them down “when in Rome.” They are so big you have to consume them in multiple bites. Our server told us that she’s had tables get upset before because they were so freakishly large.

It was the perfect evening to sit outside at Tide’s. There were storms all around us, but they stayed away from the restaurant’s patio. We were able to enjoy the constant, cool ocean breeze and an incredible lightning show in the distance.

Driving home from St. Augustine on the A1A, we saw an amazing moonrise over the water. We pulled the car over and walked out onto the beach at Marineland, in the dark, with only moonlight on the whitecaps.

We often refer to a line from the movie A Good Year, where Russell Crowe’s character talks about how all of his childhood memories take place at or around his Uncle Henry’s vineyard in France. “Are they good memories?” he is asked. “No,” he replies, “they are grand.” I hope this is the way Elise talks about her childhood when she is an adult. She had the kind of parents who would take her to dance on the beach under the Moon at close to midnight, because that’s important to do.

We had so much fun sitting by the beach on Friday that we decided to do it again on Saturday. In the evening, we headed over to Flagler Beachfront Winery, along the A1A in Flagler Beach. To be honest, we went there with very low expectations. Boutique wines almost always taste like Hawaiian Punch to me, and seriously… a vineyard in steamy, hot Florida? But we found a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay that were actually quite fantastic. For dinner, we had plates of meats and cheeses and toasted baguettes. It was wonderful. Elise, obviously, could not enjoy the wines, but she had a grand time tasting and critiquing the array of cheeses. Surprisingly, I think her favorite had been rolled in ground espresso. I am constantly surprised by her palate.

The party behind us on the patio at the winery was there to celebrate a lady’s 29th birthday. It would seem more than a few of the people who showed up to the party were not, in fact, her friends and were simply there for the wine, based on some of their (rather loud) exchanges. She did not seem to be enjoying her birthday at all. Although I initially begged her not too, Elise insisted on walking up to the lady’s table and singing “Happy Birthday” in her sweet, little voice (albeit at the top of her lungs). Everyone around her whipped out their phones to record the kid serenading a total stranger for her birthday. The lady, who turned out to be a school teacher here, was so moved by all the attention that she looked like she was going to weep. “You don’t understand,” her friend leaned over to tell me, “your daughter just made her night. Probably even her year.” Here I thought we were going to be humiliated by the whole thing, but it turned out to be a wonderful act of kindness. We were joking that with Elise’s love of languages and her love of people, she’s probably going to end up an ambassador.

On Sunday, we kept the bona fide weekend going by heading back up to St. Augustine. This time, we went to the A1A Ale Works in historic downtown, overlooking the harbor and the Bridge of Lions. (The lions are a reference to Ponce de Leon, who is ubiquitous in St. Augustine.)

The restaurant/brewery has an upstairs balcony with ornate wrought iron like one might find in New Orleans. It’s sufficient shelter on a stormy night, so long as the storms are coming from the west and not from over the ocean. We enjoyed watching the city and the boats in the rain. (Though not as entertaining, a bride who was posing for pictures with her wedding party on the bridge ended up drenched and fled the downpour over muddy city streets. She will probably have to have her dress emergency cleaned before the big day. Summer storms in Florida are no joke, y’all. You have to watch the sky.)

We had a neat conversation about what kind of communications equipment to get for our future boat with three chaps who had sailed down from Savannah that day. They seemed to be contractors with the Coast Guard, as they were talking about their efforts to locate a missing boat.

Putting away the paella at the A1A Ale Works.

Walking back to our car, the Cathedral of St. Augustine was all lit up for a nighttime service. We had a wonderful view of all their stained glass windows in the darkness. I feel like we are constantly finding new and unusual spots in the Ancient City.

A wonderful weekend playing in the most beautiful corner of the world. We need to do this more often.

Byzantine Art in St Augustine

After our survey of Moorish architecture, we backtracked several weeks in our history lessons to the Byzantine Empire. St Augustine’s historical downtown is also home to the St Photios Greek Orthodox National Shrine, with a lot of wonderful examples of Byzantine art and iconography.

The shrine also has several holy relics, including an altar made with bone fragments of St Theodora. Theodora, wife of the Byzantine ruler Justinian, is one of E’s favorite people from history. Before being empress of the Byzantine Empire, Theodora was a circus performer with her family and trained bears.

The Lord’s Prayer in both Greek and English.
Mosaic with gilded tiles.
The shrine is full of frescoes like this one.

Moorish Architecture in St Augustine

Flagler College in St Augustine
In addition to being the oldest city in the United States (founded in 1565),
St Augustine also has one of the most beautiful skylines in the world.

One of our recent history lessons was on Tariq bin Ziyad and the Islamic invasion of North Africa and Spain. It is a great story when it comes to capturing the imagination of a young child. Tariq was a Berber man in North Africa, born a slave. When the Islamic armies captured Tariq’s hometown, he converted to Islam and joined them. He made his way through the ranks of the military and became a general. He landed in Tangier in a very different position than he started out.

Spain, which had been settled by the Visigoths (the barbarian tribe that had caused Rome so much grief), was in turmoil after their king died in 710. The noble families invited Tariq to come help them oust his sons. Tariq did not turn down the invitation, but had other ideas… to conquer Spain for Allah. He loaded up his armies in ships and made the short trip to Spain. After his men had made it onto land, he ordered them to torch the ships they came over on. They would conquer the region or die trying. It was pretty much the Berber equivalent of the Spartans’ “come back with your shield or on it.” (This is also the origin of the rock of Gibraltar.)

Anyhow, as part of our studies, we listened to music influenced by Moorish Spain and looked at pictures of Moorish architecture. (See Meditation in Moorish Spanish Cathedral in Cordova and Moorish Cloac.) Fortunately, we live just outside of St Augustine, where almost the entire skyline (what was of Henry Flagler’s construction, anyway) was heavily influenced by Moorish architecture. So this afternoon, we went to St Augustine for tapas at the Columbia, a Spanish restaurant (the original is in Tampa) and to tour the Villa Zorayda Musuem.

The Villa Zorayda Museum in St Augustine is a built-to-scale replica of the Alhambra Palace in Granada. It started off as a private residence, was used as a gentlemen’s club and speakeasy during Prohibition, and then eventually was made into a museum.

The interior of the museum. A wonderful place to see Moorish architecture.
Sultan’s couch, made to fit around several pillars in the middle of the museum.
You can see the detail that went into the carved walls.

My favorite part of the museum’s collection is this “sacred cat rug” in their Egypt room. The rug was made by weaving the fur of cats that roamed around the Nile. (You know the Egyptians were rather fond of cats.) The cat rug is somewhere around 2,400 years old and supposed to curse anyone who steps on it. Kind of crazy to think that this cat fur is older than Jesus.

The sacred cat rug.
A table with a very ornate mother of pearl inlay of peacocks.
More of the Moorish architecture.