Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Art and Easter in London

I experienced a minor panic attack last week when I looked at my planner and realized my semester in London is nearing its end. I dug out my notebook and began scribbling everything I still wanted to do and see in the British capital before my I fly away May 1. Then I got to work.

Thursday afternoon, my friend and I hopped on a red double-decker to Somerset House, a royal house turned ministry office building turned museum. By a stroke of luck, we picked one of the two days this month that the museum conducted free guided tours about the building's history. So, we learned who had lived in the house, we saw the five graves that are curiously in the building's basement and we found out which Hollywood hits had used Somerset House as there backdrop. We also toured the Courtauld Gallery featuring Van Dyck, Rubens, Renoir, Seurat, Monet and Van Gogh, amongst others. Seeing the masterpieces in the regal Georgian house seems entirely fitting for the collection.

Friday morning, I took the tube across town to Westminster Cathedral (for a Good Friday service). Less than a ten-minute walk to Buckingham Palace, I decided it was about time I saw the changing of the guards. I approached from behind the palace and as I came to the gate, I found several hundred people had my same idea. At 10 minutes past 11 (the ceremony supposedly started at 11.30), I could hardly see the guards' red jackets through the iron bars. At least six police managed "crowd control," keeping everyone on the sidewalk. I walked across the street to the center fountain and watched. After about 20 minutes of slower music, which uniformed musicians played sitting inside the gate, everyone stood up and put their chairs away. The massive gold-adorned iron gate suddenly began to open, the band began playing a traditional march and they stamped out in perfect unison. Then another group left and another. The gates closed and all of a sudden, the crowd began to migrate in all directions away from the palace. The end.

Left with a few questions about the iconic ceremony, I walked on to Trafalgar Square, passing the brilliantly colored tulips of Green Park along the way. I grabbed a quick sandwich and walked out to typical London showers. So, I chose an indoor activity for the afternoon -- the National Gallery. Nervous about running out of time in London, I attempted to see the complete museum. A word to the wise...there is a lot to see...probably too much for one afternoon... But, I still could not draw myself away from the masterpieces. I saw a Da Vinci drawing, Caravaggio paintings, Rembrandt, Raphael, a Boilly oil painting (I found the polished detail by the French 19th century painter fascintating), Monet's water lillies and Van Gogh's sunflowers. The collections take visitors through centuries of art in a single visit.

My flatmate and I walked down our steps a few minutes before 9 Saturday morning. With friends traveling over the long weekend and no other plans for that evening, we decided to visit the half-price ticket stand. We had a list of musicals ranked to our preference as we set off for Leicester Square to find tickets. The lady at the ticket booth slowly and painfully dampened our spirits. "The Lion King" was sold out. "Hairspray" was not offering half-price tickets that evening.The only "Billy Elliot" tickets left, even at half-price, topped our price range. And, the list of "no's" continued. Dejected, we headed back into the morning drizzle to catch the tube home. Just next to the station was one more half-price stand and we decided to ask one more time. "Billy Elliot?" No. "Hairspray?" No. "Chicago?" Two half-price tickets, front row, just off-center. Sold to the two ecstatic flatmates standing in the rain.

The dancer in me loved being inches from the action. We saw every wink Roxie gave, a very lucky spot for viewing the subtleties of a Fosse show. "Cell Block Tango," "Roxie" and the finale stood out as my favorite acts. The energy and rhythms made me tap along with the choreography. Being right in the action made the show that much stronger. After the show, the rain outside pushed my flatmate and I into a cozy Italian restaurant just around the corner from the Covent Garden theater. We split a bruschetta and a tiramisu and gushed about the show.

Before dispersing for our respective Easter morning services, my flatmate and I gobbled down quick hot cross buns--my Mom always said they made her think of Easter, and in a weak moment at the grocery store, I grabbed a pack for Easter breakfast. As another friend and I walked into Westminster Cathedral about an hour later, we faced quite a different scene than I experienced Friday morning. The dark brick church was illuminated by enormous sprays of Easter lilies at the front of the cavernous structure. People packed the entire nave of the church to its capacity. And the voices of the full choir filled the space with traditional hymns.

After mass, we met up with friends who had dispersed at different services and found an Easter brunch. We found a pancake restaurant in Chelsea that served thin pancakes with a diameter the size of a car's steering wheel, topped with anything from apples and cinnamon to chile con carne to lamb stew to sundried tomatoes and feta. I ate up every bite of my veggie and cheese pancake, which I found very similar to a crepe. With gloomy weather overhead, we chose to nix the Easter walk through Hyde Park and indulge in Easter naps.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Au Paris!

After a two-hour-and-15-minute train ride, it took me a minute to catch my bearings as I stepped onto the platform. I was in Paris! The Eurostar high-speed train makes the 214-mile trip an easy jaunt from London, through the "Chunnel" (which only takes about 20 minutes) and across the French countryside.

My friends and I had all eaten sandwiches on the train, but by the time we checked into our hotel around 10 o'clock we were in desperate need of a little refreshment. We found a cafe down the street with tall glass doors lining the front, outdoor tables and French food. We scrolled the menu for something to snack on. But, neither the frog legs or croque monsieur sandwiches struck our stomachs. We ordered wine and asked the waiter for a baguette, but he said they ran out of bread for the night. We toasted our drinks and hoped the next day would promise a more appetizing spread. So, when the waiter came out of the kitchen carrying a heaping plate of French Fries, we looked at each other wondering how we had missed the familiar fare on the menu. Much to our surprise, he set the piping hot plate down in the middle of our table. "From me," he said. I suddenly found a warm affection for French cuisine.

The Paris weekend was not just vacation, but a study trip for my architecture class. First thing Friday morning, we saw the "Grande Arche" (the 1982 version of the "Arc de Triumph" -- a square arch big enough to fit Notre Dame underneath). We toured the Villa Savoye, a weekend home designed by French architect Le Corbusier. Don't let the 1920s date deceive, the geometric lines and flat roof of this second home looks contemporary even by today's standards. Walk in the front door and a ramp leads up to the second floor. From modern to decadent, we continued on to the Palace of Versailles (arguably the most opulent in all Europe). Visitors get a flavor of what's inside as soon as they pull up to the gate; it's all gold. The Hall of Mirrors alone boasted over a dozen crystal chandeliers and the pristine formal gardens stretched in all directions around the palace. We finished our day's tour at an architecture museum just across the river from the Eiffel Tower.

After dinner that night, one of my friends suggested climbing to the top of Montmarte Hill to the basilica, Sacre Coeur (because everything worth seeing is always on top of a hill). As soon as we climbed the last set of stairs to the top, we knew exactly why she wanted to come up. Sitting on the steps of the Byzantine-style church offered a spectacular view of Paris, the lights of the buildings and Eiffel Tower flickered across the jet black sky. Though I expected to be nearly alone in front of the church at 10:30 on a Friday night, I was quite wrong. Bring snacks, bring a bottle of vodka and bring your friends -- half of Paris was enjoying our view. We found a convenience store and a bottle of wine, and soaked in the Parisian night. And on our way down the hill, we happened upon an outdoor cafe, a waiter named Niccolo and some delicious chocolate crepes.

The next morning, we jammed the morning with Paris sights. We walked the Latin Quarter, saw Sorbonne University, poppped into Notre Dame, crossed the River Seine and finished at the Louvre. We spent the rest of the afternoon in the art haven. We saw sculpture by Michelangelo, the arm-less "Aphrodite" from the 2nd century and Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa." The famous lady will never disappoint viewers, but a rope keeping visitors three yards from the painting and protective glass left me feeling that I could have more closely examined the painting from a book than in my 60 seconds in front of the masterpiece. I found the profile view of the Mona Lisa most interesting -- a scene of outstretched limbs waving cameras toward the wall. Another highlight of the museum was seeing the remnants of a medieval castle which were discovered underneath the museum when the recent subterranean renovation occurred. Visitors can walk along the old castle walls which mark the size and shape the mammoth structure had been.

That evening we saved the Eiffel Tower for after dark. After waiting in line about 20 minutes for a ticket, we got on the double-decker elevator to the first floor. We walked around the observation deck and took in the spectacular view of the city. Then, up we went again. A second elevator takes the fearless all the way up to the top of the spire. It's a little like being at the top of the Sears Tower, but instead of more than a hundred floors of offices between you and the ground, there's only a few steel criss-crosses. Just don't think about it... There's also an incredible view of Paris -- my favorite was looking up the River Seine.

By the time we reached street-level, waited around for the light show at 10 o'clock, caught the metro to the Latin Quarter where we had planned dinner and found a restaurant, we finally faced food at midnight. Baguettes and Dijon never tasted so good -- the waiter refilled our bread basket three times before the end of the meal. Along with my carbs, I ordered one of my French favorites: French onion soup (just "onion soup" in Paris).

Before catching the train home Sunday afternoon, we made a few quick stops. We saw the famous cemetery, Pere-Lachaise (resting place of notables from Oscar Wilde to Frederic Chopin to Jim Morrison). We walked the perimeter of the Centre Pompidou (the Parisian arts center built inside out). And, we took a stroll through one of Paris's more inviting parks in which we encountered half the city either jogging or taking yoga classes in the mid-morning sun.

Au Paris...a city of lights, a city of art and a city of renowned baguettes.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The fam comes to London

I walked up the escalator in Heathrow's terminal three and on the bench ahead sat my Mom, my Dad, my brother and little London! We found the Underground's ticket office, bought everyone oyster cards (the "golden tickets" to London's tube) and headed back to the center of the city to start their week of spring break.

With too full a schedule to let jet lag interfere, as soon as they dropped their bags, it was straight to Portobello Market in Notting Hill -- my favorite outdoor market full of antiques, jewelry, books and food. We found the "Travel Bookshop" from the 1999 Hollywood classic (a favorite in our household), Notting Hill. We also found the "house with the blue door," which had been painted black (an attempt by the homeowners to go incognito from swarming fans). Then back to Portobello Road for some shopping and a drink at (what we coined) the "purple pub" to reconvene and show off our loot. Back in central London, we walked the River Thames to catch a glance at Big Ben, a traditional pub dinner and a late-night ride on the London Eye (London's trademark ferris wheel).

After years of Dad taking me on his favorite runs, on Sunday, I finally got to take my Dad on one of my favorite runs: down Southampton Row to the River Thames, along the Embankment to Big Ben, past Downing Street and the Guards House, through Trafalgar Square, past Charring Cross Station and the Savoy and back home to Bloomsbury. I think he liked it...

Later, the whole family caught the Italian mass down the street from my flat and headed over to the east side of town. I wanted to take everyone to my other top London market, the Sunday UpMarket on Brick Lane. After surveying the pots of simmering curries, thai noodles, falafels, crepes and baked goods, everyone chose their favorite. This time I tried the Japanese pancake -- a flat cake of cheese, cabbage, veggies and a soy sauce drizzled on top with a soy rice cake on the side. The rest of the fam chose an eclectic mix from crepes to pot stickers to cous cous. As I sat down to eat with my Mom and sisters, my Dad and brother were sitting down a couple tables away with a Brit to learn the rules of a board game that resembled a cross between checkers and marbles.

Later that evening, we made our way back to Covent Garden for dinner and a last drink at the Princess Louise (a treasure of a pub just around the corner from my flat) before having to bid my older sister farewell. Her flight took her back to D.C. the following morning.

The first few days of the week were a blur of class by day and London with the fam by night. I made a quick wardrobe change Monday after class and met the fam for a fish and chip dinner at "Fryer's Delight," not much to look at, but still the best fish and chips I've had in London. Then, off to Leicester Square to see "Les Mis," a treat for anyone who loves music or theatre. The voices, set, story and overall effect were unforgettable. In the intimate Queen's Theatre, the show blew me away. We finished the night with gelato sundaes from one of our favorite Italian restaurants in Soho with my roommate and her Mom.

Wednesday afternoon, the family decided to take a romantic train journey out of London to the English countryside to see Salisbury, Stonehenge and Bath. Forget "romantic train journey, think "National Lamphoons comedy of errors." My family learned long ago, "phone first" on vacation. We forgot the lesson. First we rushed out of a crowded tube to catch our train from Paddington Station. But, my stomach fell to my toes as I looked at the departure board, which was not displaying our train. Our train left from Waterloo Station -- I had written down the wrong one. So, back on the rush-hour tube trains across town. We jumped on a 5:20 p.m. train out of London just before it pulled away. But, smack in the height of rush hour, there was not a seat to be found on the train. It was not exactly the image of cross-country train travel I had painted for my family, but an adventure nonetheless.

We found seats after the train cleared out after the first couple of stops and pulled into Salisbury about an hour and a half later. We found a delicious dinner at a classic Salisbury pub, "The Haunch of Venison" and settled into our cozy hotel, "The Red Lion."

We nearly got blown away at Stonehenge the next day and spent the better part of two hours exploring Salisbury Cathedral. Then back on the train (this time a bit more relaxed) to Bath.

We spent Thursday evening and Friday exploring the charms of Bath. We saw the namesake Roman Baths in the morning. Steam still rises from the water that still fills the ruins of the baths the Romans used hundreds of years ago. At the end of the tour, visitors can taste the "bath water," which is supposed to be rich in minerals. At the height of the baths, Romans were advised to drink five liters of the "curing" water before breakfast each day for their health. One sip of the warm, iron-tasting water was plenty for me.

That afternoon, we had traditional tea with a family friend and a walk through the picturesque hillside neighborhoods of Bath -- lovely. And, first thing Saturday morning we caught our train back to London.

We toured the grounds of Wimbledon on Saturday afternoon and the accompanying museum. Then we shared a splendid last dinner in London together with family friends at their home in South London. The homemade English trifle dessert was a big hit -- layers of berries, custard, ladyfingers and cream. The evening flew by as food, drink and conversation flowed easily.

And in the early hours on Sunday morning, after lots of hugs and kisses I waved the family down the street and off to the airport. I turned around and walked back up the many steps to my flat with lots of happy memories from my family's and my sister's weeks in London, thrilled to have been able to share all the treasures I've found here.

My better half in London

As I heaved my suitcase (stuffed with goodies from Italy) up the last step of the six flights to my flat, I heard a tiny yelp from my room. My sister came running down the hall to meet me with a bath towel wrapped around her head and arms outstretched to greet me.

She arrived in London just a few hours before I did that day to spend the week of her spring break with me in lovely London. Since she had hit all the "must-see" tourist spots her first time in the city with her high school choir four years earlier, we enjoyed some of the other quainter bits of the UK capital.

Once she dried her hair and I unpacked the dirty laundry from my suitcase, we hit the streets for Covent Garden and a long-awaited sisterly shopping trip. I took her to my favorite tea shop, the boutique that does not have one article of clothing I don't like and we found a theatre shop that sells pop-up books of theatre scenes, vintage play scripts and puppets. On a small wire magazine rack, we also found books of cut-out paper dolls, including the same ones that had entertained us for hours growing up (a set of a Victorian family dolls). We found a pub not too far away and toasted our first pints out together (the first time we were both legal together).

The next morning, my sister experienced the best weather I have encountered in London since I arrived. So, we took the tube to Greenwich to peruse the Sunday markets and stand on the Prime Meridian. My sister walked right over the line -- I had to stop her, pull her back and point to the gold marker before she realized she missed it. We stopped for traditional outdoor market chow -- one of my favorite things to do in London. She tried a cheese and onion pie, I ate a chicken kebab. Then we went for a scenic stroll through Greenwich Park.

The rest of the week flew by: class by day, seeing the best of London with my sister by night. I had Wednesday afternoon off, so we made a visit to the Houses of Parliament. After a quick queue outside, we walked into the Great Hall and watched some of that afternoon's debates in the House of Commons and then in the House of Lords. The subject was (big surprise) the economy. It was something like watching Congress in Washington, D.C. from the public viewing gallery, but the building felt like a Gothic palace and rather than long rows of desks in both chambers, there were long rows of benches. Really, no desks?

That night we saw a London original, "Phantom of the Opera." From voices to set to story, the show exceeded expectations. The female lead's voice boomed through all of Act II and I sat on the edge of my seat waiting for the phantom to pop out at any moment. We found a late dinner after the show, some wine and enough conversation to be the last ones in the restaurant.

Thursday morning we decided to break out of Central London, so we hopped on a train to Cambridge for the day. The intimate village offered plenty of shops to browse, Gothic-style academic buildings and enough bakeries to ruin a tummy line. Before 12.30, some of the colleges opened the gates of their campuses. So, we strolled the gardens of Christ's College -- beautiful flowers, but we both found it a little odd that walking on the grass was prohibited. After a relaxing cafe lunch, we could not resist the sweet smells and delicate-looking cakes in the bakery next door. We each took the baker's recommendation, a sweet plain scone with raspberry jam and whipped cream. Sinfully delicious!

Back in London Friday, we hit the must-sees: Elgin's marbles and the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, Buckingham Palace and Harrods. Taking advantage of the sun, we took an afternoon stroll through Hyde Park. We reclined London-style and tried out the striped lawn chairs on the grass for a while.

After meeting friends for a pub dinner Friday night, we rested up before some other visitors landed in London....