Monday, September 05, 2016

Marvellous Margot House

Margot Tenenbaum, my favourite Wes Anderson character, was the inspiration for my new favourite hotel in Barcelona – Margot House. Like Ms. Tenenbaum, the hotel is private, stylish and interesting. Numerous smart touches make this a very special place. For one, the location on the busy Paseo de Gracia. The fact that this very remarkable hotel is located on the second floor (no signs) gives it that secretive Margot touch.

In addition, there is a library, a well stocked, help-yourself bar and bicycles. The breakfasts were beautifully prepared and generous. The vibe is modern, slightly Scandi but supremely comfortable and deliciously quiet for such a swish and bustling neighborhood. In fact, it feels like you are staying at someone’s fab private house who has conveniently left you to enjoy yourself with their very accomodating staff. We took over the place for my son’s wedding in July and certainly stress-tested their ‘bonhomie’. They could not have been more charming and accommodating.

I cannot say enough good things about Margot House. The owners have created a brilliant, unique experience in a fantastic city and I must congratulate them on what they have achieved.

My feelings about this hotel are similar to Royal Tenenbaum's when his fake terminal illness has been exposed and he is being thrown out of the family home:

Royal: Look, I know I'm going to be the bad guy on this one, but I just want to say the last six days have been the best six days of probably my whole life.
Narrator: Immediately after making this statement, Royal realized that it was true.

Photo: Me in my garden in London trying to look like Margot

Monday, January 25, 2016

Back to the Future in Berlin

According to Claudia Schiffer, “Berlin is like being abroad in Germany.” I agree with Claudia. Berlin is idiosyncratic and the best place I know to try to understand German history and culture, both of which cast an enormous shadow over this remarkable city. On every street, at every corner is an Imperial story or a Nazi story or a War story or Divided City story. The list goes on. And if you are younger than I am and interested in the new stuff, there are gay, alternative, techno and graffiti stories – all to be had for a price point considerably less than New York or London. Berlin is old and new, dynamic and depressed, hip and historic – all at the same time.

I was there recently thanks to an optimistic football/soccer supporter and a team that let him down. Convinced that Chelsea Football Club would win the Champions League, the Editor took a large apartment so that our large family could attend. No Champions League final for Chelsea. Instead we invited friends one of whom was a former resident of the great city, to join us for 4 intensive days of tourism. Caveat emptor – if you are looking for a post on the gay/alternative/techno/graffiti scene, you need another blog. We’re too old for that.

Anyway, we had a blast - the monuments, the museums, the restaurants and the coffee houses, all tied together by an efficient and user-friendly public transport system. But, it’s a big city and you have to be strategic about how you tackle it.

A great way to start is to join some kind of city tour that gives you an overview. We splurged with a guide and private car, the advantage being that we were able to pack a ton into half a day: the Victory Column, and Bismark monument, the Bundestag, the Brandenburg Gate, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the site of Hitler’s bunker, Check Point Charlie, sections of the Wall – some decorated - and the Charlottenberg Palace. Our guide, a Brit with a penchant for WWII and strong views on everything, was great. We saw a lot, learned a lot, and the scene was set for the rest of our visit.

Also a good idea is purchasing a Berlin WelcomeCard that includes travel on the public transport system and discounts or free entry to over 200 tourist attractions.

Cultural Highlights

The magic No Crowds moment presented itself on Sunday when we were at the Neues Museum sharp at the opening and had Nefertiti and the entire Egyptian and Trojan collections entirely to ourselves. It’s analogous to having a private moment with the Mona Lisa. Granted it was January. Actually you should go to Berlin in January if you want to avoid crowds. There weren’t any. Yes it was cold but hey, it's winter.

The Pergamonmuseum was also fairly empty, probably because the show-stopping Temple of Miletus was closed for renovation to reopen in 2020 but there is still plenty to see including the Market Gate of Liletus, the Ishtar Gate and the Processional Way from Babylon.

The much smaller Kaethe-Kollwitz Museum on the Fasanenstrasse is a great No Crowds experience too, hard work but worth it. Kollwitz was an artist who devoted her career to the eradication of poverty, social injustice and the horrors of war and her work is powerful and moving.

The Neue Synagogue on the Oranienburger Strasse, is well worth a visit with an excellent exhibit on the lives of Berlin’s Jews in the Centrum Judaicom.

It’s also worth the effort to visit the Bundestag. You need to register in advance online and have your application accepted. If you can afford it, a great way to get in to the building is to eat at the Kaefer restaurant at the top of the Dome and they handle the security registration for you. The city views from the restaurant are spectacular and the photos and explanation of the building’s history in the Dome are instructive. Lunch was very good as was the experience. And when we came out there was a massive demonstration against the WTO agreement on agriculture (TIPP) with some very colorful and inventive protestors.

Sadly, the Charlottenberg Palace was also being renovated but the Neuer Fluegel & Neuer Pavilion are open and fun to see, especially if you like over-the-top interiors.

Restaurants and Coffee Houses

Because we were travelling with an insider, we ended up eating and drinking at some wonderful places. Highlights included:

The wine bar attached to Lutter & Wegner in the Gendarmenmarkt, serving Austro-German cuisine with a great wine cellar. Atmospheric.

Zur Letzen Instanz (Waisenstrasse 14-16) in the Nikolaiviertel. The oldest restaurant in Berlin with traditional German food featuring  “Man versus Food” portions. Fun.

Restaurant Heising (Rankestrasse 32), an old fashioned, French mother/daughter run establishment where you feel as if you are dining in someone’s elegant home. An experience.

The Orangerie attached to the Charlottenberg Palace for lunch. Convenient, good atmosphere and food.

And two coffee houses stand out for their old world/Central Europe authenticity and appeal – the Café Einstein (42 Unter den Linden) and Café Wintergarden in Literaturhaus Berlin (Fasanenstraaae 23) which is suppose to be excellent for breakfast.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Brighton - A hip and historic day out of London

We had a houseguest recently who wanted to take a day trip out of London. We discussed the usual suspects: Bath, Stratford, Stonehenge and many more and then it came to me, lets go to the seaside city

 of Brighton. An easy train ride from Victoria Station, it has the over-the-top Royal Pavilion, the Victorian Brighton pier and cool little shopping streets called the Lanes with all kinds of crazy stuff.

And so we went. The Indian/Chinese inspired Royal Pavilion was big fun -fantastic and fantastical all at the same time. I’ve been keen to see it for 20 years and I wasn’t disappointed. It was Monday so the Brighton Museum in the Pavilion gardens was closed. Too bad.

The Brighton pier is like most piers these days, filled with rides, arcade games and bad food. But if you try, you can almost imagine what it would have been like in Victorian times, when building a place for pleasure and entertainment jutting into the English Channel would have been exciting. As it was a cool, gray weekday, the rocky beach was empty except for the occasional rough sleeper and teenage smoker.

As part of its alternative and bohemian reputation, Brighton is known for its vegetarian restaurants and we had a superior lunch at one – Terre a Terre on East Street. Their publicity states that it will change your mind about vegetarian cuisine forever. Not really, but it did change my mind about excellent vegetarian restaurants. We loved it.

After our lovely lunch, we wandered around the Lanes looking for a non-homogenized shopping experience. We certainly found plenty of independent shops selling such essentials as vegetarian shoes as featured above. I was ecstatic when I found a bookstore selling desirable books at greatly reduced prices and filled my backpack with as many as it would hold.

On the train ride back, my American friend and I discussed what a jolly day it had been, historic and hip all at the same time, a great break from the relentless pace of London and while filled with tourists, ours were the only American accents we heard all day.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Ai Weiwei - a virtual tour of China

Since 2005, No Crowds has been brilliantly supported by the world's most patient Editor. He fixes my spelling, puts up with my inability to keep to a schedule and is good natured about being dragged to 1001 events that might someday produce a post. After we attended the opening of the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, he strongly suggested I write something about it. My reply: well if you feel so strongly about it, you write it. And so, he did

When the NoCrowds blogster wants you to accompany her to a cultural event, the editor refuses at his peril.  Last week we went to the opening of the Ai Weiwei show at the Royal Academy of Arts.  Having braved rush hour traffic and monsoon like rain, I was less than chuffed upon arrival in Piccadilly.

All I had heard about Weiwei was that he was a big deal in artistic dissent.  I thought this is going to be the Chinese “big art” version of Anish Kapoor.  Was I wrong!!  Weiwei, through his montages, takes you on a virtual visit of his country, from the end of the Qing dynasty to the present.  One of his creations is an inverted map of China with a three-legged stool representing Taiwan—powerfully demonstrating the disparity in size between the PRC and its “lost” province.  Another represents the destruction of Chinese cultural heritage to make way for megacities.  He also indicts his government for failing to control corruption, which contributes to a variety of disasters.

In eleven rooms, Weiwei uses different art media to explore the country’s past and present.  Do not be fooled, he is an ardent nationalist who wants China to face up to its glorious past, problematic present and its potential going forward.  His often petty treatment by the Chinese authorities tells us more about their insecurity and unspoken concern that China could be broken up as was the Soviet Union
Until Weiwei, my view of contemporary art was the Impressionists.  They made a big splash disrupting the cosy old boy hold on the Salon in Paris.  Weiwei goes far beyond them impressing us with his use of materials and his commitment to a better China.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Hanging Out in Hunt Country

Back in the spring of 2014, No Crowds wrote about college-touring in the US in Bataan Death March? No our baby is going to college.

Recently, we dropped that very same baby off at the University of Virginia and then high-tailed it down to North Carolina to get out of her way. After a lovely visit with The Tribe – my family and friends in the great State – it was time to head back to London. But first, we had to face the always-horrific drive up Interstate 95 to Dulles Airport. How I hate that highway. I used to love it as a child when we would cruise down from New York with my mother, the Mario Andretti of transplanted southerners, eager to get home. With no regard for speed limits or bodily functions - my brother once had to pee in a bottle - it was all great fun. But I digress.

So daunting was the idea of closing up the farm, driving and then flying all in one day, in the interest of our sanity and marital relations, we decided to drive the day before and spend the night somewhere near Dulles. But where?

Here’s where my father, well traveled and a man of few words, piped in, “Go to the Red Fox Inn in Middleburg, Virginia. Great place. Close to the airport.”

And so we went but we didn’t want to tell our daughter that we were heading back her way and wouldn’t be stopping to take her out for a free meal. In our defense, we thought it was disruptive. So very quietly, we made our way north.

Middleburg hasn’t changed much since I was last there in the 1970s for my sister’s graduation from the Foxcroft School. That’s good. Thank you town fathers, city planners and everyone who has kept out teardowns, dreadful add-ons and McDonalds. This horsey village is charming and filled with unique shops selling tasteful horsey stuff. It’s a lovely place to walk around.

And the Red Fox Inn? In a word – wonderful. Dating back to 1728 and still family owned and operated, there are 25 rooms spread over a number of buildings. We stayed in the dead quiet and comfortable Huntland room in the Stray Fox building,  that includes a terrific breakfast. We also had a nice dinner in the atmospheric Tavern.

The next morning we walked around some more and then took a leisurely drive (Middleburg is 23 miles to Dulles) through strikingly beautiful hunt country with a stop in Leesburg for lunch in the back garden of Shoes Cup & Cork that was very relaxing and the perfect antidote to getting on BA’s cattle class A380 to London.

So if you need a place to stay close, but not too close, to Dulles that is full of atmosphere, good service and good food, look no further than the Red Fox Inn in Middleburg.