638 Iraqi relics found in closet

The Iraqi National Museum found 638 artifacts that had been missing for two years. Once returned by the U.S. government, the relics were turned over to the office of the prime minster in Iraq, which is where they were found, according to an announcement over the weekend. They were in a closet in the prime minister’s office.

Following the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003, approximately 15,000 relics fell victim to looting.

According to Qahtan al-Jibouri, the minister of tourism and antiquities for Iraq, “We found these artifacts in one of the storerooms of the prime minister’s office along with some kitchen appliances.”

[photo by Brian Sayler via Flickr]

Bargain hunting in Madrid’s famous Rastro market

Shopping is a fun part of any trip, yet sometimes it’s hard to find something truly unique, something that tells a bit about the culture but stands out from what 10,000 other tourists bought that year. Finding a good souvenir can be a real problem.

In Madrid, you’ll never have that problem. At El Rastro, a giant open-air market that happens every Sunday from about 7am to 2:30pm, you can find pretty much anything. Part swap meet, part flea market, part bargain emporium for cheap imports, El Rastro has something for everyone, and piles of things you’d think nobody would ever buy.

Take this fish-shaped candle holder, for example. It’s hard to imagine someone taking this home, but it’s got a certain lure that made me almost cave in, because it’s so bizarre it deserves a home. Then there’s that collection of door locks behind it. The box contains about thirty of them, and only one still has its key. Is there a market for locks with no key? I do know someone who collects antique keys, so is this just the flip side? Do these people meet somewhere and try to reunite old locks with their long-lost keys?

It’s hard to get out of El Rastro without buying something and just the experience of wandering through the crowd looking at all the cultural detritus is a great way to learn about Spain. El Rastro has been voted by Gadling as one of the ten great markets of the world. Gadling also named it as one of the top ten places to have your pocket picked, so be careful. Madrid’s pickpockets are some of the best in the world, and they loooooove El Rastro.

Armed with a camera, a small amount of cash stuffed deep into a buttoned-down pocket, and no other valuables whatsoever, I headed out to explore, accompanied by Madrid’s leading ghost story writer. Somehow that felt appropriate.

%Gallery-96401%The most popular way for madrileños to visit El Rastro is to go to Metro stop Tirso de Molina and head downhill. This Sunday the square was filled with communist, socialist, and anarchist tables selling mementos of Spain’s Second Republic, as well as books, punk CDs, and lots of pins, stickers, patches, etc. to help you flash your leftist identity. Working our way downhill we ran a gauntlet of cheap imported kitchenware, tools, jeans, and heavy metal t-shirts. Not a bad hunting ground if you need to pick up some disposable clothes to wear on your trip, but nothing that really screams “Spain.” Except for the Chinese-made and very flammable-looking flamenco costumes for little girls.

El Rastro has no core and no real boundaries. Stalls sprawl along side streets and antique/junk shops line both sides of some avenues. Our path was the usual madrileño meander with no set course except a general direction downhill. The further you go down, the more interesting it becomes. Soon the open-air Walmart is replaced by sketches by local artists, handmade crafts, dusty old toys, and tattered movie posters. A circle of old men rummaged through a table of battered VHS tapes. A long table filled with old carpenter’s tools tempted for DIY fans. People selling stamp collections stood next to stalls piled high with used porn and old martial arts magazines.

The pop culture stuff is some of the most interesting. Here you can see what those old men with the VHS tapes consumed when they were kids–comic books with gaudy covers, Mexican pulp novels, and pennants for half-forgotten football (soccer) championships. There’s something very revealing about rummaging through another culture’s nostalgia. Forty years ago Spain was a fascist dictatorship with a struggling economy. Yet Spain was still Spain, and people liked to have a good time. The paper might be cheap, the print a bit blurry, but I could imagine Spanish kids devouring the latest issue of Coyote or Esther as eagerly as we read Superman or Archie. Come summer they’d head to the beach blaring Spanish pop music on that bright green plastic transistor radio, kicking that old soccer ball in the days when it was still inflated.

Now we had reached the bottom of the hill, where some real antiques (and a whole lot of junk) was being peddled. A cluster of stalls did a brisk trade selling ten year-old laptops with cigarette burns, rickety old chairs, and a collection of fine mirrors and glassware that had graced a some stately home a century ago but now were in desperate need of some love and attention. Every price is open to haggling. The prices for cheaper stuff tend to be less flexible, but it’s always worth a try and haggling is part of the fun. Some people get quite animated, showing Spain’s Arab heritage. At times it felt like I was in the bazaar of Cairo or Damascus.

So what did we buy? Remarkably neither of us spent more than 12 euros ($15), although we could have easily spent ten times that.

A collection of three classic films on DVD that was originally part of a newspaper promotion
La sangrientas battallas de Montecasino (part of a WWII series that came every week in a newspaper back in the Eighties)
Buffalo Bill contra Los Fumadores de Opio (a translation of an c.1900 American dime novel, translated & reprinted c.1930)
An imitation Zippo adorned with a symbol of the Spanish Republic


Two dirty old lampshades he plans to use for an art project.

What better way to spend a lazy Sunday morning?

20 great destinations for shopping

Shoppers of all kinds will fall in love with the places that made this list of the top 20 cities for shopping. Whether you live nearby or are planning a trip, this list offers places ideal for anyone in need of some retail therapy.

New Orleans, Louisiana

The French Quarter and Bourbon Street are only the starting point in the unique shopping destinations you’ll find in New Orleans. Stroll the French Market and pick up vibrant art from street vendors, or dash down a side street and discover one of the many galleries and specialty shops that sell one-of-a-kind items. This is also where you’ll find all manner of New Orleans themed clothing, voodoo dolls, postcards, and other tourist finds.

After exploring The Quarter, head to Magazine Street, where many of the city’s college students and young professionals flock. If treasures for the home are what you are looking for, then trek to Aux Belles Choses, a “shabby-chic” shop where the owners hand-pick each addition to their store. For the hottest fashions, try Buffalo Exchange and Funky Monkey, where hip fashionistas trade in their old clothes for new outfits and accessories. Be on the lookout for the latest trends and vintage frocks and accessories.Toronto, Canada
I love the the Distillery District, a pedestrian mall and historical district where a number of Toronto’s emerging artists and designers have shops. Tour the works of art at one of Thomas Landry Gallery’s two locations or browse rack after rack of denim masterpieces at Lileo. Peruse the collections of artists like Wendy Walgate, who create pieces with deep meaning out of familiar materials.

Established in 1975, Courage My Love is a Bohemian shopping mecca and is where Hollywood stylists and starlets flock to accessorize. It’s like looking through a friend’s closet, if the closet just happened to take up an entire store. If luxury is more your style, then make tracks to Zenobia, where a personal shopper will compile a perfect wardrobe for you. Your Zenobia representative will help you craft your style months in advance then have your pieces tailored in season.

Tokyo, Japan
The pomp and ceremony at Mitsukoshi is incredible. Founded in the 17th Century, this Japanese department store chain has the most outstanding customer service I have ever seen. Here you can find everything from traditional Japanese garb to gardening tools. Visit the main store in the Nihombashi District or one of the other buildings placed conveniently throughout the city. Another historical and traditional store is Kyukyodo, which sells stationary and writing supplies. Here, even sheets of paper can be works of art.

Boston, Massachusetts
Boston is a city of American prestige and history. While you are here, take in the sights and enjoy the city’s luxuries. At Firestone and Parson, you can find fine exquisite antique estate jewelry and silver as as well as new baubles. Louis Boston is one of the world’s premier sellers of fine clothing. The staff is second to none, and they go the extra mile to get to know their customers. They will work with you to ensure your new wardrobe matches the current fashion climate and your own personal style. While you are in town, design a custom handbag at Lill Studio or, if you don’t have the time, browse their ready-made collection. This innovative store makes shopping an affair to remember.

Marrakesh, Morocco
For Western travelers, Morocco is an exotic and exciting shopping destination. This is why the winding streets around Marrakesh’s Djamaa El Fna Square, with its labyrinth of treasures, plus its hustlers and haggling shopkeepers, is a must see. For a dizzying array of local and international herbs and spices, visit Herboriste du Paradis.

Beijing, China
Beijing is a flourishing shopping city set in the shadow of the iconic Great Wall. You can visit the traditional night market and pick up the usual tourist trinkets, but it’s the quiet cultural revolution taking place here that really gets me excited. China’s art scene is exploding, and I’ve found that it’s easier than ever to find works by contemporary Chinese artists. Formerly a state owned factory district, the 798 Art District is an amazing collection of designer boutiques and galleries, where you can find everything from pop art to chic designer clothing. It is breathtaking to see how the artists-in-residence have transformed and divided their space.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Abu Dhabi is a land of luxury and excess for travelers. Enjoy the modern feel and energetic nightlife, but I would suggest visiting shops with a more local feel. Al Motahajiba sells traditional head scarves and Muslim dress, but you can also find glamorous party dresses and formal wear. Some of these dresses will leave you breathless (but so might the price tags). And, if you truly want to experience Middle Eastern luxury at its best, shop at The Paris Gallery, where you will find traditional perfumes and exclusive luxury products.

Mumbai, India
Mumbai is a bustling, busy, and sometimes dirty city. My favorite shopping destination was Mangadalas Market, where there are plenty of bargains on everything from textiles to clothing, both modern and traditional. This is a great place to find accent pieces (and fabrics to make your own) for your home. Women should definitely check out Naina’s, where you can order customized saris. And, Cottage Industries Emporium has an unbelievable selection of crafts made by skilled Indian artisans.

Tahiti, French Polynesia
For me, Tahiti is THE place to buy pearls. You can find the natural marvels in every shape, color, and size. At Te Tevake Creations, carved mother of pearl and natural pearls are used in exquisite jewelry combinations. Robert Wan offers pearl jewelry in distinctive designs. If you’re looking for more traditional arts and crafts to prove you were here, try the market Le Marche.

Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul is full of fascinating bazaars and traditional retailers. I loved navigating the stalls at The Grand Bazaar, even though I only got to experience a handful of the loud, bustling marketplace. It has more than 4,000 shops and was established in the 15th Century. The Spice Bazaar is much smaller, but the selection of edible treasures in the form of spices, teas, and more is dizzying. And, at Melda Silverware, the traditional silver is simply stunning.

— The above was written by Wendy Withers, Seed contributor

Ala Moana Center in Honolulu, Hawaii

I stumbled upon the Ala Moana Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, while searching for a place to buy sandals and I ended up spending hours there. Besides having almost 300 popular stores, the indoor/outdoor setup of the Ala Moana Center provides the ideal environment for both enjoying the Hawaiian heat and cooling off.

Chinatown in Seattle, Washington
Having visited the Chinatown districts of many cities, it’s safe to say that Seattle’s International District beats them all. Besides the shopping, it offers numerous art galleries, restaurants and bars. The Venus Karaoke bar is a must for experiencing karaoke the traditional Asian way, in a private room without strangers watching as you belt out a tune.

Desert Ridge Marketplace in Phoenix, Arizona
As I strolled around the Desert Ridge Marketplace in Phoenix, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was walking in a stunning desert park. It’s a place where you can easily spend an entire day. After visiting the shops, I enjoyed an outdoor dinner as I watched the sun set. After the meal I relaxed and painted pottery at the As You Wish Pottery Painting Place, and played video games at Dave & Buster’s while waiting for it to be finished.

Georgetown Flea Market in Washington, DC
The Georgetown Flea Market is perfect for bargain hunters searching for vintage items. Perusing the market is half the fun, rummaging through the antique pieces wondering what you will find. I was lucky enough to come across 3 vintage 1950’s dresses, all for a discounted price significantly lower than anyplace else I have purchased them in the past.

Greenwich Village, New York City
The Greenwich Village shopping experience is unlike any other and is what landed it on this list of the 20 best cities for shopping. Every trip made to Strand Bookstore results in a rare find, and I still love the bright pink fishnets purchased at Ricky’s. The best find of all time? An authentic vintage Chinese wedding gown for the low price of $100, found amongst other unique items at Stella Dallas.

Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Lancaster, Pennsylvania offers diverse shopping. I scored an Amish rocking chair then enjoyed a family-style Pennsylvania-Dutch home cooked meal. The city’s multiple outlet centers prompt return trips every year, and is especially beneficial for school shopping. Extensive sales often bring the prices down to less than $10 an item, and on my last trip to the Lancaster outlets, I left with 12 items for less than $100.

Siena, Italy
The shopping in Siena, Italy provides a noteworthy alternative to the shops found in Rome or Milan. In addition to the many boutiques, Siena offers a variety of weekend markets. I purchased handmade bowls at a tremendous discount as well as several homemade bottles of olive oil that incidentally were selling for $10 more in Rome.

Piccadilly Circus in London, England
A major intersection in London, at first glance Piccadilly Circus doesn’t seem to have much to offer for shopping. However once the weekend comes, Piccadilly springs to life. The weekend market is the perfect place to purchase small trinkets and inexpensive souvenirs. I was able to score postcards, small purse and handmade paper, all on a student budget.

South Congress Street in Austin, Texas

South Congress Street in Austin, Texas, better known as “SoCo,” epitomizes the Austin experience. With a motto of “Keep Austin Weird”, the city boasts several unique and odd places to shop. Staying at the famous Austin Motel on SoCo allowed me to feel like a local, drinking coffee at the trendy Austin Java while taking in the shopping on a daily basis. I came home with loads of fun accessories, one-of-a-kind clothing items and handmade soaps all made by local Austin folks.

The Grove in Los Angeles, California
If you enjoy shopping at a traditional mall, you will love the last of the 20 best cities for shopping, The Grove in L.A. Instead of housing the shops in one building, The Grove spreads the stores across an outdoor pavilion riddled with water fountains. The atmosphere is ideal for taking in the beautiful Los Angeles weather, and I was able to meet several local people who recommended night spots.

— The above was written by Rebecca Reinstein, Seed contributor

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Southwest Michigan’s Sunset Junque Shop

Just north of Michigan’s bustling Interstate 94, along Lake Michigan, is little stretch of old state road called the Blue Star Highway. The little road winds its way along the lake, curving past the picturesque resort town of South Haven, headed up on its way to the cities of Saugatuck and Douglas. Along this rambling road is Sunset Junque Shop, a chaotic, cluttered slice of American nostalgia and vintage paraphernalia waiting to be explored.

Located five miles north of South Haven, the junk shop offers an acre-sized yard bursting at the seams with the detritus of American pop culture. Neoclassical statues lean against old cabinets and fun house props; retro farm equipment and cases stocked with vintage postcards. For music-lovers, Sunset also offers a treasure trove of old vinyl LP’s from the 60’s through the 80’s. It’s a delightfully haphazard and ever-changing monument to American culture.

Whether you’re a antique lover, a casual collector or simply out for some adventure, Sunset Junque is a fun diversion from the monotony of the Interstate – a chance to slow down and step inside a little slice of America’s roadside past before jumping back into the blur of the highway. When you’ve had enough junk shopping, head back to Interstate 94 through the town of South Haven – filled with plenty of shopping, dining options, nice beaches and some great ice cream.

Blickling Hall: a living British comedy

There are two ways to experience Blickling Hall in Norfolk, England: straightforward or quirky. The former is intended, with a veritable army of committed volunteers on hand to explain every detail of the Jacobean house. Soak in the tapestry, portraits and antique furniture. Learn the history associated with each of the many rooms in the major … or, look just below the surface to see how crazy this place can be (unintentionally, of course). As you move from room to room, you can see the oddity that has crept into this National Trust property.

In nearly every room, you’ll be introduced to the ceiling. Except in a few cases, what covers your head dates back 400 years. You’ll hear this a lot. The expression “17th century ceiling” is spoken in nearly every room in Blickling Hall by the cadre of zealous volunteers who are quite proud of their overhead cover. It looks about the same in every room – except at the entry, where one of my fellow journos explained a tad condescendingly that the ceiling dates back only to the 18th century (silly me for not catching it). Once you get passed the obviously impressive stuff above, most rooms are packed with furniture and paintings that reach back centuries – they are certainly worth a close look.

None of this matters, however, when you get to the mysterious “17th century cabinet.” On its own, this classic piece is rather plain. Sure, it’s an antique – just like everything else in Blickling Hall. The volunteer staffing the room was great about talking up the cabinet, revealing that the inner artwork was a sight to behold. So, I asked that he throw open the doors for all to enjoy. Instead, he showed me photos of the inside, because the doors are only once a year. “I’m told the pictures don’t do it justice,” the volunteer said.

I’m told?


Alas, he has not been in the house the past several years the cabinet was opened and has not been able to enjoy the experience. But, he’s hopeful for 2009. The doors will be opened sometime in September or October. There is no pomp. There is no ceremony. Hell, there’s no warning! Apparently, the much discussed cabinet is opened sans publicity and sans any sort of planning. So, if you want to peer into the hidden treat at Blickling Hall, it would be smart to call ahead (though you may not get much in reply). Lean on the dedicated volunteers of Blickling Hall, and you may even be able to influence the schedule.

Lobby the volunteers for answers.

If you think a closed cabinet is fun, you’ll be blown away by the rooms downstairs. Before descending to the kitchen where the staff works, take a look at the staff organization chart provided by Blickling Hall. The two positions that stand out are the “footman” and the “odd man.” The former tended to be selected for his “physical attributes,” as the footman traditionally ran behind the carriage to make sure journeys proceeded smoothly. In the modern era, the footman’s duties included schlepping dishes up and down several flights of stairs.

Up until World War II, that was good for a mere £1 a week, though occasional generosity in the form of tips could bump a week’s take to £5. It’s hardly surprising that the last man to have the job didn’t return after serving a hitch in the war.

The odd man’s role at Blickling Hall remains a mystery, as the footman appears to steal the spotlight. I assume he did odd jobs – as the title implies – around the manor, but it’s unclear. Odd man out, perhaps?

When the footman took off for the war, did the odd man get promoted? Or, did he become the mildly strange man? One can only speculate.

Among the last rooms you’ll see is a stunning library containing 10,000 volumes, which Blickling Hall received in the middle of the 18th century. Before that, it was the exercise room. On many days, the children were set loose in the oversized chamber. But, what about the adults? When asked how adults exercised in 1745, the room’s volunteer offered a perplexed look before offering, “I guess they walked … and gossiped.” Dishing burns calories!

One can only assume that the footman and the odd man didn’t use the exercise room much, as they were kept busy enough.

A walk through Blickling Hall is a step back in time, and you can explore the world through lenses that are four centuries old. At the same time, it’s a contemporary comedy, in which volunteer retirees wax in serious tones that can’t help but make you chuckle. It almost seems like a British comedy written by an American.

Either before or after you tour the house, do check out the adjacent gardens. There’s no hint of quirk in this carefully manicured landscape. Wander the trails and hedges … and take a minute to chill (unlike the odd man, who I doubt ever had that luxury).

Whether you see Blickling Hall as a taste of classic England or a bunch of crazy Brits obsessed with ceilings and odd men, the experience is well worth the trek out to Norfolk. Time your stay to correspond to the grand cabinet unveiling – whenever hit may be – and you’ll pick up the rare experience that some on the staff have yet to enjoy!

Disclosure: Visit Britain shelled out some cash for this experience, and British Airways supplied the flights. Any questions about my objectivity? Read the article again. This is far from what they wanted from me.