Friday, December 16, 2005

Merrie Olde Mainz

Every year at this time, travel companies make hay selling packages to Austrian and German Christmas markets. There’s nothing wrong with the idea. Christmas markets look wonderful, sound lovely and smell great. They offer the chance to purchase charming gifts and decorations, but they are not “NoCrowds” experiences. Just the other day, my local paper ran the story of a mother who wanted to take her child to the large Christmas market in Stuttgart, Germany. As there were no rooms available anywhere near Stuttgart, she and the daughter slept on the night train, did the market and rode the night train back. In a word - uck!

Well, my crowdphobic friends, I have discovered that only 20 minutes from the highly efficient Frankfurt Airport, the Mainz Christmas Market, in operation since 1788, offers all the benefits of its more famous cousins without all the aggravation.

Situated on the Rhine River, the city of Mainz has been an important trading centre since Roman times. In addition to its historic Christmas market, Mainz has a magnificent 12th century cathedral, a wonderful old town with beautifully restored half timbered houses, the Gutenberg Museum and a fantastic Roman temple right in the middle of a shopping arcade. Lovely vineyards and farms can be found minutes outside the city centre.

The best thing about a trip to the Mainz Christmas market is that it has everything that makes these affairs so special: stalls selling hand made decorations and gifts, mulled wine ( both red and white, but the white, found next to the large Pyramid, is the best), roasted chestnuts, rides for children, bell ringing and a beautiful life-size crèche. What the market does not have is lots of cheap and poorly made stuff. As was explained to me by the locals, the allocation of stalls for the Mainz Christmas fair is very strict and those guys selling cheap goods from China/Africa/India don’t stand a chance.

It’s a good idea to visit this market both during the day and in the evening when the magnificent cathedral is illuminated. There is a full schedule of special events including special Advent music, childrens’ activities, craft demonstrations and more. The events are listed in a brochure which you can find at almost any stall.

Last weekend when I visited the Christmas market, I had a leisurely stroll before dinner, enjoying the lights, smells and the mulled wine. The serious shopping I reserved for the next day when I found a colourful Christmas pyramid driven by candles, special molds for Christmas baking, lots of handmade beeswax candles, gingerbread men and plenty of small animals and figures for stockings. The merchants were helpful and friendly. I felt like the market was intimate but everything was there. I had a lovely time.

After shopping, we retired to the Old Town for lunch at Dr Floette, a wonderful “old style” German restaurant on a beautiful square of very old half-timbered houses. Dr Floette is that type of German locale I now greatly miss after ten years of living in London: the atmosphere is convivial and informal, the portions are large and the price is right. If you go to Dr Flotte’s on Saturday and see a handsome couple looking like Grace Kelly and the Prince she should have married, these were the friends that brought me there. Be sure to say hello to Gabi and Michele.

If you are looking for a hotel in or near Mainz, I would also go with Gabi and Michele’s impeccable suggestions. In town, they like the the Favorite Parkhotel, a family run hotel in the main City park. If you are looking for something a little less formal in the neighboring countryside, they recommend the Landhotel im Battenheimer Hof in Bodenheim. In either case, excellent train and bus service make renting a car a nice option, but not a necessity.

The Mainz Christmas Market
24 November until 23rd of December
Monday – Thursday
11:00 – 21:30
Friday 11:00 – 21:00
Saturday 10:00 21:00
Sunday 11:00 – 20:30

Dr Flotte
Im Kirchgarten
Tel: 49 (0)6131 234170

Favorite Parkhotel
Karl-Weiser Strasse 1
55131 Mainz
Tel: 49 (0)6131 80 150
Fax: 49 (0)6131 80 15 420

Landhotel im Battenheimer Hof
Rheinstrasse 2
Tel: 49 6135 7090
Fax: 49 6135 70950

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

White Trash Xmas in London

My husband says I spend too much time writing about "namby pamby" stuff. OK, Jeff, get a load of this. Tina C, famous for her 1996 album, No Dick's As Hard As My Life, will be performing at the Barbican in London in a show entitled I'm Dreaming of a White Trash Xmas.

And here's a description of the show:
"Tina C is on a mission…to reclaim White Trash. Check in your wardrobe - if you have at least one denim item then you are, regardless of financial income or skin colour, at a profound level, White Trash. What better way to celebrate this new found status and Jesus’ birthday all in one with Tina’s beautiful Xmas show? This show promises to be the ultimate office party – sincere, non-denominational, profoundly moving religious experience all wrapped up with some jaw-dropping country songs and a whole mess of American lovin’. "

From the 15th to the 30th of December. Tickets are £12. For full details, click here.

Now who says I'm no fun.

Friday, December 02, 2005

London's Wallace Collection

We run the best Thanksgiving Soup Kitchen outside the US. It’s a bold claim but let me offer some supporting metrics. During our time in London alone, we have served up over 250 pounds of turkey to an estimated 300 people. This year, the turkey weighed in at 27.5 pounds and looked suspiciously like a small child. It’s not surprising then, that after all that buying and cooking and washing, and talking and drinking, I wanted to take Friday off and prowl around London with our annual Thanksgiving houseguest from Germany. We were headed for the British Museum to see the big exhibition on the Persian Empire when I realised that in my post pilgrim haze, I had directed us onto the wrong bus. This realization came to me as we rounded Marble Arch. “Quick, get off Margery!”

And there we were, slightly worse for wear, standing on Oxford Street in the crazy run up before Christmas in need of a plan. “I know, we’ll head for the Wallace Collection.” Only 3 blocks from Selfridges, in an imposing Georgian mansion, this museum houses an absolutely fabulous collection of fine art amassed by the Marquesses of Hertford over the course of four generations. The house is jam packed with paintings, porcelain, furniture and armour but for me, on that day, the best part about the Wallace Collection was that it represented an “oasis of calm”. Finding serenity in Central London at any time is difficult, but finding it one month before Christmas is a miracle.

Much of the Wallace Collection was amassed by the 4th Marquess of Hertford, a stalwart NoCrowds proponent if ever there was one. Brought up by his mother in Paris, and one of the richest men in Europe, he was considered witty and intelligent, was friendly with Napoleon III, but seemed to prefer living with his treasures as a virtual recluse. He managed to get out enough to produce an illegitimate son who inherited and enhanced the collection which was ultimately given to the nation by his widow, Lady Wallace in 1897.

Like the Musee Jacquemart-Andre in Paris and the Frick Collection in New York, the Wallace Collection demonstrates what a vast fortune could accomplish in the days before income tax. There are Fragonards and Watteaus, Rembrandts and Rubens, Canaletto and Velazquez. If painting is not your thing, there is furniture, porcelain, sculpture and glass and if, like my long suffering husband, you have had your fill “of all that namby pamby stuff”, there is a vast collection of arms and armour that could keep all the Rambo members of your family amused.

After spending money you don’t have at the surrounding stores, it is lovely to enter this majestic house without opening your wallet. The audio guide is a snip at £3 and the gift shop is more tasteful than most. The restaurant, Café Bagatelle, serves morning coffee, lunch and afternoon tea in a pretty sculpture garden and is managed by the same French company that runs the Michelin-starred Jules Verne restaurant on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower.

I have been to the Wallace Collection countless times, each time delighted with the experience. The house, its location, the collection, and the ability to enjoy it all without crowds and tour groups makes this “oasis of calm” just off Oxford Street one of my favourite destinations in London.

The Wallace Collection
Hertford House
Manchester Square
London W1U 3BN
Tel: 0207 563 9500

Open daily 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM except Dec. 24, 25, 26
Admission: Free
Bond Street Tube

Photo of Jean-Honore Fragonard's "The Swing" 1767, from the Wallace Collection.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Top Paris Hotels Fined

According to today's Financial Times, "six of Paris's most opulent hotels, where rooms cost on average more than EUR700 (£479) a night and suites can cost more than EUR6,000, have been fined by the French competition watchdog for collusion. The Bristol, the Crillon, the Geoge V, the Meurice, the Plaza Athenee and the Ritz, all renowned for their historic buildings, squadrons of attentive staff and Michelin-starred restaurants, were found to have regularly exchanged confidential commercial information."

I've been sitting over my morning's paper trying to decide whether this story tells you more about top end French hotels or top end French bureacracy. Regardless, it is another compelling reason to go for smaller, more charming and more interesting hotels or even better, live like a native, avoid the price fixing and rent an apartment.

Click here to see the full Financial Times story.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Paris Bits & Pieces

Some observations for visitors to Paris

All lovers of art and haters of lines should invest in a Paris Museum Pass which provides free, unlimited priority access to over 70 museums including the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, the Musee Rodin, the Musee national Picasso and the Chateau of Versailles. It is hugely and perversely satisfying to saunter past the long lines, flash your card and slip inside. One, three and five day passes are available. There are lots of places to buy a Museum Pass: at any museum or monument involved in the program, at major Metro stations and at any FNAC store in the city. Cards can also be purchased in advance over the internet from a huge range of providers, just enter Paris Museum Pass into your search engine.

1 day pass for EUR 18
3 day pass for EUR 36
5 day pass for EUR 54

Unfortunately, these passes will not get you into any special or temporary exhibitions. To cut the line for special exhibitions, buy your tickets in advance at any FNAC store located throughout Paris. If you understand rudimentary French, you can buy your tickets over the internet which can be collected at any FNAC saving even more time.

With that said, I want to warn NoCrowds readers from the useless indignity of purchasing tickets in advance for block buster exhibitions at the Grand Palais. I saw 2 shows there recently and in each case, the experience was lousy although the exhibitions should have been fabulous. Even with your timed ticket, you wait outside in a line of irritated fellow ticket holders. The number of people inside the exhibition space is ridiculous. It is almost impossible to see the canvases. The rooms are hot and claustrophobic. I won’t be going back regardless of what is on offer.

Speaking of crowds and museums, for years, I have struggled to find a good place to eat lunch near the Musee d’Orsay. One senses that most places too close to the museum can be sloppy and expensive and not much worried about serving up a good meal. After seeing a terrific temporary exhibition of Russian art at the Musee d’Orsay recently, my husband and I discovered a good value, good food, good experience restaurant on rue de Bellechasse which is confusingly named “Le”. It is a small space but had an appealing atmosphere. I had the lunch formula for EUR 15 which was well prepared and satisfying. Service was good. The place was filled with Parisians who obviously enjoy a well priced, well prepared lunch in a neighbourhood not known for it. “Le” is now my post Musee d’Orsay hangout.

20, rue de Bellechasse
75007 Paris
Reservations: 01 47 05 11 11

Speaking of restaurants, my friend Glenn, an American in Paris who offers lovely apartments to rent at Paris Apartments Rentals has recently posted his top ten restaurants for visitors to Paris. Check it out and add your own.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Musee Nissim de Camando

Nothing in the guidebook’s description prepared me for the utter sadness of the Musee Nissim de Camando. A short walk from the Musee Jacquemart-Andre on the border of the Parc Monceau, the elegant mansion built to resemble the Petit Trianon at Versailles is known for its beautiful and extensive collection of 18th-century French decorative arts and furnishings. Yet it is the story of the fabulously rich and doomed family de Camando, once described as the “Rothschilds of the East” which makes this museum one of my favourites in all of Paris.

I think it was Voltaire who recommended that one always “begin with the conclusions” and so it is in the Musee Nissim de Camando. Passing through the doors of the entrance to this magnificent house one finds a plaque on the wall which states simply and brutally, “Mme. Leon Reinach, born Beatrice de Camondo, her children, Fanny and Bertrand, the last descendents of the founder, and M. Leon Reinach, deported by the Germans in 1943-44, died at Auschwitz.”

So who was this family? What was the story behind the house and its collection? How was such fabulous wealth amassed? Why did such fabulous wealth not save them?

The story begins with Moise de Camondo, a member of family of Sephardic Jews who built a banking empire in Constantinople which in 1870 opened a branch in Paris. Over the years, Moise became an important collector of 18th century French art and antiques. After marrying a beautiful and rich young woman who bore him two children, she runs off with the horse trainer and leaves Moise to continue filling his house with treasures and dining with the likes of Marcel Proust. During the First World War, Moise’s only son, Nissim, dies in combat. (There is a touching letter of condolence from Proust in Moise’s changing room.) In 1935, Moise dies and leaves his mansion and the collection to the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in memory of his son. His daughter Beatrice, having married the artist Leon Reinach, devotes herself to horses and riding and perishes in Auschwitz.

In addition to this haunting story, the museum scores accolades on two other accounts. First, the collection of 18th century French decorative arts is amazing. The pieces are displayed precisely as Moise de Camondo placed them with such care during his lifetime. If you want to avoid the crowds at Versaille but still capture the sense of life as a French aristocrat before the revolution, go to the Musee Nissim de Camando.

In addition to capturing the interiors of the 18th century French aristocracy, the house also succeeds in demonstrating the life of wealthy high society at the turn of the 20th century. One can easily imagine lunching with Proust in the elegant dining room overlooking the Parc Monceau. The kitchen downstairs gives a fascinating insight into the infrastructure required to produce those lunches.

But finally, it is the de Camondo’s glittering rise and terrible fall which defines ones visit to this museum. Like the family in the “Garden of the Finzi-Contini”, the de Camandos had every reason to believe that they were secure in this fabulous world they had created. In the end, neither their immense wealth, their exquisite taste nor their powerful friends could save them.

Musee Nissim de Camondo
63, rue de Monceau
75008 Paris
Tel: 01 53 89 06 05 ( in French)
Metro: Villiers, Monceau

Open : Wednesday – Sunday (closed Mondays and Tuesdays)
10:00 -5:30 pm

Tarif: EUR 6

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Musee Jacquemart-Andre

According to my sons, both movie moguls in-waiting, it’s the story that matters. You can take a good tale and make a bad movie but never a good movie from a lousy tale. With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that visitors rave about the Musee Jacquemart-Andre in Paris because, at its core, it’s a cracking love story.

Back in the late 19th century, the son of a hyper-rich, Bonapartist, Protestant banking dynasty, Edouard Andre, devoted to collecting all aspects of the fine arts, commissions a portrait from a young, Catholic, royalist painter, Nelie Jacquemart. Nine years after the picture was painted, Andre marries the artist and forms one of the greatest art collaborations in French history. The couple spend the rest of their days amassing a superlative collection, including works by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Botticelli, Fragonard and David and die childless. The mansion and its contents are then bequeathed to the Institut de France and the legacy is secured.

To visit the mansion today, the excellent audio guide unfolds the Jacquemart-Andre story in room after sumptuous room, here a Tiepolo ceiling, there a Donatello statue, walls that could be opened up using hydraulic jacks to provide for parties for over 1,000, a Venetian smoking room for him, a studio converted into an Italian sculpture gallery for her. Their taste was so impeccable, their manners so good and their wealth so immense, that they refused to bid against the French state on important pieces even though their budget vastly exceeded that of the museums

The Institut de France has done a marvellous job presenting the house and contents. The garden is lovely and the original dining room has been converted into a restaurant and tea room with a spectacular Tiepolo ceiling. There are beautiful 18th century Belgian tapestries hanging on the wall and Louis XV consoles around the room. Lunch and afternoon tea are available and you shouldn’t miss this chance to dine under a Tiepolo ceiling.

As mentioned, the audio guide is interesting and there is a treasure hunt for children which my nieces recently took and judged to be big fun. These young ladies ( 8 and 11 years old) went so far as to say that “perhaps museums weren’t so boring after all”. I generally don’t like gift shops, but the one at Jacquemart-Andre is fine.

So there you have it, a Paris love story where an unlikely but blissfully compatible couple devote their life and vast fortune to the pursuit of beauty. Vincent Minnelli had a whiff of this story’s potential when he shot some of the scenes from Gigi in the Jacquemart-Andre mansion. Hollywood, listen up, hire my sons and make this movie.

Musee Jacquemart-Andre
158, boulevard Haussmann
75008 Paris


Open every day from 10 to 6
The café is open from 11.45 to 5:30

Metro – Either Miromesnil or St Philippe du Roule
A five minute walk from the Champls-Elysees and the major department stores

Full rate Eur 8.50
Concessions available

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

I Love Paris

I love Cole Porter and Cole Porter loved Paris. And he was right that every season is wonderful but I love Paris best in the late fall when the Parisians are out in force and the tourists, in large part, have departed. The light is low and romantic, the food is hearty, the new collections fill the stores and the cultural calendar is in high gear.

This year, my husband and I went for our late autumn visit with the added frisson, if one were to believe BBC and CNN, that France was in flames and curfews would keep us all locked inside. After 4 straight days of running all over the city using every form of public transportation, I can confidently say that central Paris was not on fire, I witnessed no disruption nor did I feel the least bit apprehensive.

It is the case that France has a complex and serious issue on its hands which will not be easily resolved but the current flash points for visitors to Paris remain in the northern “suburbs”. It is probably a good idea to avoid the train from Charles de Gaulle Airport that passes through the effected area and I would not visit the Basilica of St Denis, resting place of the Kings and Queens of France for the foreseeable future, but for anyone planning to go to Paris, fear not, this is still a fine time to go. And Paris remains, the most loveable of cities.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Jeff Mason's Southern Part of Heaven

Today marks a significant leap forward for NoCrowds as we post our first guest contribution. Jeff Mason, a friend and early strong supporter of this site, presents the idea that visiting American college towns offers a superior way to see America. Yes, we did promise recently to focus on Europe, but all rules can be broken for the right reasons. The right reasons here are 1) Jeff’s approach is perfectly NoCrowds focussing on ways to take back the travel experience and 2) he is one of the world’s experts on Chapel Hill. Anyone who has this much passion for a small southern town is unquestionably our kind of guy. For Europeans coming to the U.S., Jeff presents a first class concept about how to see the real America. Read on and I think you’ll agree.
North Carolina's Southern Part of Heaven

When traveling in America, one of the hidden opportunities to experience the best the country has to offer is to visit a “college town.” The environs generally offer a cosmopolitan town or village embracing expansive lawns surrounded by classroom buildings, bookstores, restaurants, and arts and sports venues.

The atmosphere is often charged with youthful exuberance and intellectual pursuits. Since many of the colleges located in these towns are also some of America’s more prominent liberal arts institutions, it also a good opportunity to encourage your kids to study hard so they can attend someday.

While crowded during the academic year, in summer and on weekends, these bucolic spots are deserted and offer a chance to take quiet strolls through the campus and enjoy the local fare in a more leisurely mode. These towns cater to students, so food for the stomach and mind can be had at a much lower cost and with less stress than in a large city. Plus, if you are like me, it is the chance to take advantage of things we neglected to do while we were in college ourselves.

While many such towns exist throughout the country – Charlottesville (University of Virginia), Princeton, Ann Arbor (University of Michigan), Hanover, NH (Dartmouth), Oxford (University of Mississippi), to name a few – one of the more popular is in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

The town of Chapel Hill is home to the first state supported university in America – the University of North Carolina. It was founded by veterans of the Revolutionary War who dreamed of a new democracy in which all citizens had access (and duty) to an education. Chapel Hill’s major thoroughfare, Franklin Street, is named for Benjamin Franklin, who was an ardent supporter of public schools and drafted large parts of the University’s charter.
From very humble beginnings, the village and town have evolved into centers of scientific research and liberal arts. The town of Chapel Hill, part of “Research Triangle Park”, is known worldwide for it technology research. A former University president described Chapel Hill as “a town touched by a strange magic,” and that feeling is easily captured during a late morning or early evening walk from Franklin Street through the McCorkle Place quad in the oldest part of the campus

While newer than most of the other buildings on the quad, the Morehead Planetarium, located adjacent to Franklin Street, offers daily planetarium programs, science exhibits and chances to explore the night sky from its observatory. American astronauts trained here until 1975. On weekdays, the Planetarium also serves as the official “Welcome Center” for the University, where you can obtain maps, directions and schedule a campus tour.

The Coker Arboretum, located just behind the Planetarium, is a quiet 5-acre sanctuary of trees, flowers, birds and meadows. A botany classroom, many trees or shrubs are marked with an explanation about their unique nature. As with much of the campus, students use the arboretum for romantic walks, reading or lying in the sun.

If a stroll through the arboretum takes its toll, return to McCorkle Place and relax on the bench in front of “Davie Poplar,” which campus lore maintains started as the tree branch which the University’s founding fathers placed in the ground to mark where the campus would be built. (It is actually much older.) The nearby “Old Well” is where thousands of freshmen have sipped water, hoping the stories were true it would bring them good luck with their examinations. A few steps way is “Old East.” the oldest state university building in the country and a National Historic landmark. For many years, it was the only classroom building and dormitory on campus.

Today, the main campus consists of over 700 acres and almost 26,000 students, a highly respected faculty and one of the largest library systems in the country. The Wilson Library, at the end of the next quadrangle (Polk Place, named for a graduate and the 11th U.S. president, James K. Polk) houses the largest archive in the country about the American South, along with a large library of rare books and other special collections. On any given day, exhibits outside the main reading room can range from a death mask of Napoleon to Jack Kerouac’s manuscript scroll of his famous book, “On the Road.”

Being a liberal arts university, during the academic year the campus offers almost nightly performances by students in its Dramatic Arts programs in theatres located primarily along Cameron Avenue, or its popular professional theatre group, the Carolina PlayMakers Repertory Company. Memorial Hall is the venue for the Carolina Performing Arts Series, which brings professional performing artists to campus about 30 weekends a year. Similar to many colleges, these productions often explore current issues and new artists that cannot be produced at larger venues that demand higher ticket prices.

One block north on Columbia Street you will find the Ackland Art Museum, which displays part of its 15,000 piece collection in galleries devoted to major art forms and history.

Of course, no trip to Chapel Hill is complete without running into some famous athlete who graduated from the university. While many “Carolina” graduates are leaders of America’s largest financial institutions, prominent journalists and authors, actors and politicians, two of its more famous alumni are former NBA star Michael Jordan and world soccer star, Mia Hamm. It is not unusual for them and other alumni to return to the town to visit, particularly in the summer months.

Finally, no trip to Chapel Hill is complete without a stroll down Franklin Street and dining or relaxing at some of its more popular restaurants and pubs, which include the following:
· Top of the Hill . A microbrewery and restaurant that overlooks the major downtown intersection of Franklin and Columbia Streets.
· The Lantern. A small and popular restaurant specializing in Pan-Asian cuisine.
· 411 West. A popular Italian restaurant.
· Crook’s Corner. Famous for its classic “shrimp and grits” entrée.
· Elaine’s on Franklin. Regional cuisine.
· West End Wine Bar. A large selection of wines and beer.
· CrossRoads Restaurant. This restaurant, which is part of the university owned Carolina Inn, offers southern cuisine and is a short walk from Franklin Street. Each Friday in the summer and fall, the Carolina Inn provides concerts on its front lawn and porch, generally by local bluegrass groups.

This is just a small sample of the excellent restaurants near campus. But it is the vibrant pace of life in a garden like atmosphere that makes many people refer to Chapel Hill as “The Southern Part of Heaven.”

So, if you want to enjoy a quiet weekend or summer day in America, visit a college town. You get the cosmopolitan feel of a large city, without the crowds and noise, and a chance to mingle with some of the best and brightest of the next generation.

About 15 minutes west of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport, just off Interstate 40 West. Approximately 4.5 hours south of Washington, D.C., and 2.5 hours from both the North Carolina coast and mountains.

The Carolina Inn

Siena Hotel

Courtyard by Marriott

Fearrington Inn

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Amsterdam's Attic Church

“We’re off to Amsterdam”, we announced to our son, Mac. “Whatever you do, do not take Eloise into the Red Light District”, was his only reaction. And so, of course, we did. This was after we saw the line for the Anne Frank House, our original destination. With a line winding well around the corner, our Plan B was to head for a small museum on the border of the city’s notorious sex district, where we found the wonderful “Our Lord in the Attic”, a seventeenth-century town house museum with a clandestine church in the loft.

The Amstelkring Museum is one of the oldest canal houses open to visitors in all of Amsterdam. The atmosphere is straight out of “A Girl with a Pearl Earring”, the light, colour and furnishings are pure Vermeer. On that basis alone, this house is worth a visit but the “money shot” can be found in the church on the top floor which has an exuberant Baroque alter, seating for 150 and a substantial 18th century organ. The church is still used today for special masses, weddings and concerts.

The need to construct a clandestine church arose during the 16th century when celebrating the Catholic mass in public was forbidden. Ingenious solutions such as “Our Lord in the Attic” sprang up all over town. The Amstelkring Museum houses one of the finest examples of a hidden church to have survived virtually in its original state.

You can find the entrance to the Museum on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal. When we arrived in the late morning, there were a smattering of visitors, no lines, no tours and no hassles. Touring the house gives an excellent insight into the domestic arrangements of a wealthy merchant family during Holland’s Golden Age. In addition to the church, highlights of the house include an archetypal Golden-Age parlour with centuries old plaster work and a kitchen of similar vintage with hundreds of beautiful and charming 17th century tiles. Many of the rooms house Catholic artefacts. Don’t miss the completely weird collection of “crucifixions in a bottle”, like ships only in this iteration it is Christ on the cross.

Between the winding stairs, the Hollywood ending of a church in the attic and the tiny gift shop, Eloise enjoyed her visit. Anyone who has trouble navigating stairs would find it less fun. There is a useful, to-the-point guide in English and you should budget about an hour to guide yourself through the house.

I loved this museum and once again our visit reinforced how valuable it is to skip anything that draws too many crowds, no matter how worthy. I have heard that getting to the Anne Frank House first thing in the morning solves the problem. Never mind, when Eloise is older, she can meet Anne Frank through the pages of her diary but for now, we were completely charmed by this small museum on the borders of the Red Light District with the surprising secret church in the attic.

Museum Amstelkring
Oudezijds Voorburgwal 40
1012 GE Amsterdam
The Netherlands
Tel: 31 (0)20 646604

A 7 minute walk from Amsterdam Central Station and Dam Square

Opening hours:Monday - Saturday 10.00 -17.00Sunday and holidays 13.00 - 17.00closed on January 1 and April 30

Adults € 7.00
Children € 1.00
Students € 5.00

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Dennis Severs House

You won’t find it in 1,000 Places to See Before You Die but David Hockney once described Dennis Severs House as “one of the world’s five greatest experiences” and who is to argue with David Hockney?

I had heard the story of the house for years from my friend Laura who has visited countless times and was an acquaintance of the house's American owner and creator. The story goes like this. Dennis Severs, who moved to London from California as a young man, purchased a derelict house in Spitalfields, a then decidedly unfashionable and unsafe section of east London, and found his life’s work.

For thirty years, using an imaginary French Huguenot family of silk weavers as the residents, he created a house for them to live in as he imagined it would have been in the Georgian/Regency/Victorian era, depending on the room. And there he lived for 30 years, with the past, but without running water or electricity. Yes, that would have required a chamber pot.

Fast forward to the 21st century and today's visitors are invited to participate in the imaginary family drama, sadly without the presence of Dennis Severs who died in 1999. The motto of the house sets the scene, “Either you get it, or you don’t.” As was explained to me at the doorstep of the house, “this is not a museum”. OK, I thought, so what is it?

Much has been written about what Dennis Severs house is: a time capsule, a still life drama, a frame into a painting, a tableau vivant. On entering through the gas lit front door, this house is an opportunity to use all your senses to imagine the past. In each of the 10 candle lit rooms, the family's presence is felt by the still steaming cup of tea, the half eaten egg, the creaking floor boards, the sounds of clocks and carriages. There are the smells of family life: the pomanders, the damp laundry, the candles and the hearth fires. You can hear whispers, church bells and horses’ hooves on cobblestones.

At the front door, you are instructed to be silent as you guide yourself through the series of rooms. Although I usually hate being told what to do, the silence enhanced the experience, creating the possibility of getting lost in another time. This is an experience where you can ease drop on the past in a completely non touristic way. It is, simply, fantastic. Don’t trust "1,000 Places", do believe David Hockney.

Visiting the house takes about an hour but be sure to save time to wander through Spitalfields, named after the Hospital and Priory “St Mary’s Spital” founded in 1197. Spitalfields today describes itself as "quirky, historic, trend settingly modern, tatty and smart” and I think that about captures it. There are plenty of interesting buildings, interesting Londoners, a daily market and lots of stalls selling all kinds of food. Before my visit to the Dennis Severs House, I had lunch at the Arkansas Café which is rumoured to serve the best hamburger in London, but being a good southern girl, I had the barbeque pork sandwich. It ain't North Carolina, but for London, it was down-home delicious.

Dennis Severs House
18 Folgate Street
London E1 6BX
(closest tube station is Liverpool Street)

Tel: 00 7247 4013
Fax: 020 7377 5548

The house is open every Monday evening (except holidays). Times vary according to the season. £12 Reservations required ALSO the 1st and 3rd Sunday of each month between 2- 5 PM £8 no reservations AND lunchtime between 12 – 2 PM on the Monday following the first and third Sunday. £5 no reservations .

There is also a special Christmas Installation with additional opening times. Check the website.

Note about children from the website: “ a most absurd but commonly made error is to assume that it might be either amusing or appropriate for children.”

Arkansas Café
107b Commercial Street ( you can also enter from the market)
Tel: 020 7377 6999
Open weekdays for lunch and Sundays

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Ostia - Harbour City of Ancient Rome

I could write a book, and maybe I will, about dragging children through museums and monuments. More often than not it is a fat bribe that does the trick; the promise of something good to eat and the chance to pick out a nice gift in the shop. And so it was with real excitement that I read Nick Trend’s article in the Daily Telegraph about taking his family to Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome. Here I had found the description of a perfect NoCrowds adventure, a huge, totally underutilised archaeological site that had engaged and entertained a family for an entire day. Who could resist.

We ended up inviting Eloise’s godfather to join us for our excursion. In addition to being an avid historian, a fluent Italian speaker and pretty good translator of Latin graffiti, he also owns a car. The 20 mile drive from Rome was easy enough but for anyone without an Italian speaking, driving godfather, there are also good public transportation options such as the metro and even the possibility of travelling by boat. The official site of the Soprantindenza gives the most up-to-date opening times but is only available in Italian. Try if your Italian is not up to snuff.

After the noise and incessant activity of Rome, Ostia seemed to us to be a green, romantic haven. In its hey-dey in the 2nd century, this would not have been the case as a thriving population of 100,000 inhabitants went about the business of supplying the city of Rome with goods imported from every corner of the ancient world. Within this city devoted to trade and commerce, with a main street that runs for over a mile, one can still find the remains of apartment buildings, hotels, brothels, bars, baths, communal latrines, workshops, storage buildings, a forum, temples and more.

During our visit, we had this 10,000 acre ancient harbour city virtually to ourselves with only occasional sightings of badly behaved Italian school children. Eloise was impressed by their irreverence. One of our Italian friends who read this posting feels strongly that these children must have been French. In any event, Ostia is a completely relaxed place where children can climb happily over the ruins and no one seems to mind. I’m sure the archaeologist do, but there were none evident during our visit. While extensive, Ostia is smaller than Pompeii and one comes away with a real sense of how a Roman town was laid out and operated. But it was the connection to Caroline Lawrence’s children’s mystery story, The Thieves of Ostia, which made the site come alive for Eloise. The book opens in the Necropolis as did our visit and as we continued to uncover the locations described so accurately by Lawrence in the story, Eloise began to buy in to the idea that not all tourism promoted by her parents is boring.

As a NoCrowds experience, Ostia rates 5 stars and demonstrates that within easy reach of Rome, one can still wander alone through the skeletal remains of an ancient city and have an intellectually absorbing, bucolic and and amusing time. This is what tourism should be all about. Go there.

Ostia Antica
Viale Romagnoli 717
Tel: 06 565 00 22

The ruins of Ostia Antica are open seven days a week, from 9 in the summer and 9:30 in the winter. Admission 5 Euro. Allow at least four hours for your visit.

Monday, October 17, 2005

When in Rome

A great event in my life took place when my sister packed up and moved to Rome. That she found a fabulous, if slightly eccentric, apartment in the ancient centre is a big help to NoCrowds Europe, so thank you, Alexa, very much.

Certainly, Rome ranks in the upper echelon of crowded and complex cities. Tourists have probably been saying as much for centuries, and many of the monuments such as the Coliseum and the Trevi Fountain are examples of places that have been completely compromised by the numbers. And still, as with any great city, Rome has its share of wonderful NoCrowds experiences.

Take, for example, the Galleria Doria Pamphilj off the Via del Corso with the main entrance on the Piazza Collegia Romano. The gallery is part of the largest palazzo still in private hands where the princely family is in residence and very much present. Here you have the opportunity to view masterpieces of the 17th century by such artists as Titian, Raphael, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, and Velasquez as well as sculpture by the likes of Bernini and family furniture and artifacts. Unlike more typical museums, every effort has been made to show you exactly how the family lived with and displayed this amazing and still intact collection. And if great works of art were not enough, there is even a chapel complete with the mummified corpse of the family saint which should hold the attention of even the most museum-phobic child.

Included in your EUR 8 price of admission is an excellent audio guide where the voice guiding you is Prince Jonathon Doria Pamphilj who speaks the most beautiful English I have ever heard (Click here to find out why and to read about his legal battles with his adopted sister). The prince takes enormous pride in his family’s history, art collection and Palazzo, and tells a cracking tale of how this complicated family and their fortunes and artwork were assembled. After spending a couple of hours with his irresistible, velvety voice, I was reluctant to give back my audio guide.

According to Pamela Keech, sculptor, installation artist, historian and contributor to one of my favourite guidebooks, City Secrets Rome, edited by Robert Kahn, “ for a very simple, yet utterly breathtaking effect, visit in winter at dusk and contrive to be in the galleries when the turn the lights on … with endless crystal chandeliers and sparkling wall sconces.”

Certainly one of the big benefits of your visit is the chance to view one of the most important paintings in all of Rome, the Velasquez portrait of Pope Innocent X, a key figures in the family’s history, in a room specially designed to showcase the painting. Spending time with this portrait in relative peace and quiet is a great gift. During my entire time in the Galleria, I saw not one single tour group, no one prattling on with a raised umbrella, which is remarkable considering the fabulous artwork and the fabulous setting. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the Galleria is not that easy to find. And as a final word of caution, do not make the mistake of heading for the Villa Doria Pamphilj which is in a different part of the city or for the Palazzo Pamphilj on the Piazza Navona which also belonged to the family.

What you should head for either before or after your visit to the Galleria is the Portico D’Ottavia in the ancient Jewish quarter (about a 10 to 15 minute walk) and the restaurant Hostaria Giggetto, a favourite of Roman and tourists alike. The same family has been serving up classic Hebraic roman cuisine for 3 generations. The atmosphere is lively, family oriented and fun. Don’t miss the mouth watering and memorable Jewish specialty “carciofi alla giudia” which are whole artichokes flattened and fried. Giggetto’s is always full but also seems to have an endless series of room. On the weekends or if you want a table on the outdoor terrace, it’s important to book. A meal should set you back somewhere between 40 – 60 Euros.

Galleria Doria Pamphilj
P.zza del Collegio Romano, 2 – Rome
Phone +39 0606797323
FAX +39 066780939

Opening hours
Friday - Wednesday 10.00 - 17.00
Closed on Thursdays, 1 November, 25 December, 1 January, Easter Sunday, 1 May, 15 August

Full price: Euros 8 Reduced (over 65, students, groups): Euros 5.70

Hostaria Giggetto
At the Portico D’Ottavia
Via del Portico d’Ottavia, 21/A

Phone + 39 06 6861105
Fax + 39 06 6832106
Closed Mondays
Price Euro 40 - 60 a head including wine

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

What's in a Name?

Thanks to some excellent advice, we are sharpening our focus and improving our service. From now on, No Crowds Europe will do exactly that, focus on the best that Europe has to offer while stamping out the mass produced moment. We will improve the way we deliver information with more and better organised itineraries and contact details. And, we are going to solicit more contributions and reviews from like minded travellers who are determined to take back the travel experience. If you love to travel in Europe, but don’t like where the travel industry is taking you, join us.

Monday, October 10, 2005

A Fun Day Out with Jane Austen

We planned to take out daughter to the Hans Christian Anderson exhibit at the British Library, but we were too late. It had closed the week before. Foiled in my original attempt to improve Eloise’s mind through literature (after all, she was named after literary heroine), I suggested that we drive out to Hampshire to visit Jane Austen’s house. Groans all around. “Who is that stupid Jane Austen and why do we have to visit her boring old house?” And from my husband came the lament that it was quite a long drive just to commune with some “namby pamby”woman’s writer. Still, I had just seen the latest feature film version of Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley and there was no putting me off.

Following an inauspicious start but with the promise of a slap-up pub lunch in a pretty English village, we set out for Chawton, home of the Jane Austen House and Museum. We stopped for the promised lunch at The Chequers (tel: 01256 862605), in Well near Odiham. This is an attractive pub featuring a vine covered terrace, cosy rooms with good food, good beer, attentive staff and appreciative locals, most of whom had on riding clothes or were walking dogs.

After lunch and a ten minute drive, we arrived at Jane Austen’s pleasant 17th century house where she lived with her mother and sister from 1809 to 1817. Her years in the house were her most productive and it was there that Austen wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion while revising Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility which she had written some years earlier.

Inside, the house is filled with everyday objects used by Jane and her family including furniture, dishes, jewellery and examples of needlework as well as pictures and correspondence relating to her writing. One of my favourite objects was a letter about Pride and Prejudice, written by a bed stricken Winston Churchill during the war, where he described “how he envied these people their quiet life”.

Even Eloise was struck by the small size and humble nature of Austen’s writing table which measured no more than 2 feet in diameter. “She wrote all those stories on that!” Eloise was also interested in the fact that Jane used the creaking door into the front dining room to alert her to intruders during her writing sessions whereby she would hide her work. This initiated a lively Q&A as to why women in the 18th and 19th century hid their writing and often used boy’s names to get published.

The bookstore within the house also has an extensive collection of Austen’s work including rare editions as well as biographies, literary criticism and works related to the period. Hard core fans will be delighted.

The beautifully tended gardens surrounding the house contain plants, shrubs and herbs that would have been used in gardens during Austen’s day. Also interesting is the little donkey cart which Jane used during her mysterious last illness when she was too weak to walk unattended, which can be found in the old Bakehouse.

Following our visit to the house, we had tea at Cassandra’s Cup Tea Rooms and Bed & Breakfast (Tel 01420-83144) across the road which had excellent cakes and where a double room with bath will set you back £55. We then walked the five minutes to the lovely St Nicholas Church, resting place of Austen’s mother and sister and had a peak up the road at the “Great House”, Chawton House, which had belonged to Austen’s brother and would have been most useful in teaching Austen how it felt to be a poor relation which she so eloquently described in her books.

On the drive home, I asked for my family’s critique of their day out with Jane Austen. As Jane Austen often does, she had worked her magic on husband and daughter. Gone were references to “stupid” and “namby pamby”. Eloise wanted to know more about this lady. That night, we took out the 10 year old, 4 hour long BBC production of Pride and Prejudice and although some was lost on her, Eloise understood the spirit and intelligence of Elizabeth, the haughty attraction of Darcy and the pure romance of the thing. “Will they get together in the end?” she kept asking.

Addendum – Getting to Chawton

To reach Jane Austen’s house without a car is detailed on the website, which from London would involve a train and bus ride and a walk. My suggestion for fans of Austen would be to first visit the interesting and historically significant nearby city of Winchester, particularly the Cathedral where she is buried and then make your way to Chawton. A good place to both eat and sleep in Winchester is the Wykeham Arms.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Camden Market

It was serendipity that took me to Camden Market. I happened to be in north London, it was a perfect day, I was wearing comfortable shoes and I was on a roll writing about markets. Thus it was that I found myself on the Regent Canal towpath heading for Camden.

The path is a quiet, languid refuge in a hectic town. Sunk down below the level of the roads, long, thin boats putter past at slow speeds. The route meanders through the London Zoo, past warthogs and mountain goats and beneath the elegant Snowdon aviary. After the Zoo, you pass a floating Chinese restaurant, the Feng Shang, which is a fun although expensive place and then along the gardens of interesting looking North London houses.

After a 30 minute walk, I arrived, late morning on a weekday in Camden Market which is really a series of markets loosely clustered around Camden Lock and Camden High Street. Having just finished John Irving’s 800 page novel “Until I Find You”, which is largely set in tattoo parlours, I felt I was right back in the pages of that book. Everything you can possibly do to the human body is on display in Camden.

As for the markets, they are hugely popular with both tourists and youngish Londoners. It is here you will find “alternative” everything. Some of it is “alternative” rubbish for the tourists, but scattered around, if you look hard for it, is original clothing, furniture and objects that you won’t find with traditional retailers. If you are a Goth (as in ‘like a Vampire’), everything your black heart could desire is here. As well, it’s the place to go if you want to buy kinky or vintage or designer rip-off clothes. There were tons of irreverent T-Shirts and greeting cards as well as acres of used leather shoes and jackets. In short, it is the closest thing you’ll find in London to a souk filled with the good, the bad and the awful. I’m coming back with my daughter. She would love this stuff.

There’s plenty of food available, much of it ethnic. It looked pretty good but it was too early for me to eat. There are pubs located around the Lock that looked fun. Even though I was way past the demographic (average age 19) and looked like the very unhip mother of 4 that I am, I found the atmosphere relaxed and welcoming. I didn’t buy anything but I had a good time.

So where do I stand on Camden Market? I reckon if you are my age it’s a good place to go to see what young people are up to. If you are young, it’s a good place to go. If you’re a visitor to London, it’s interesting to check out the alternative scene, and if you arrive by foot along the Regents Canal, it is a lovely walk.

And finally, when I was studying in London oh so many years ago, I used to spend my free time parading up and down the Kings Road, happy in the knowledge that everything on that street would be objectionable to my parents. Now that the Kings Road is a middle class shopping slum, I’m happy to know that Camden and its markets still exists.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Borough Market

On his way to sack London in AD 43, Aulus Plautus and his Roman legions found a market on the south side of the river near what is today London Bridge. 2,000 years later, you too can launch a raid on the most exciting place to buy food in London.

The colourful and grimy Borough Market, which operates as a wholesale produce market to the trade during the week, converts in to the gourmet market par excellence on Friday and Saturday. This is where the leading UK producers, food celebrities such as the Naked Chef, Jamie Oliver, locals, City workers, foodies and tourists congregate, consume, discuss and buy food. So popular is Borough Market that in 2003 it won the top prize for “totally London experiences” nominated by the public, ahead of Hyde Park and the South Bank Arts Centre.

The focus at Borough Market is on British artisan producers and it is here you can find every kind of wild mushroom, exotic chillies, truffles, award winning cheeses, and sausages as well as meats and fish and beautiful fresh produce. There is a stall dedicated to garlic, another to blueberries and one devoted to honey produced in greater London.

Compared to the upmarket food halls, the real pay-off in shopping at Borough Market can be found in the opportunity to interact with the individuals who grow, raise and produce what you buy. The stall holders are proud of their offerings and delighted to discuss technique, ruminate on the market and swap recipes. This is where people who love food love to go. This is the place even my French friends respect.

If the food alone weren’t enough, the 4.5 acre Victorian market under a railway viaduct is worth a visit just based on the number of films that have shot scenes there: Bridget Jones, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, Howard’s End and The French Lieutenants Woman. You rarely visit this market without seeing a film crew in operation.

From a “No Crowds” perspective, it is best to get to the market early when the vendors have time to chat and the best products are available. On Fridays, those in the know immediately make their way to the stand of the Spanish provider, Brindisa, which offers a chorizo sandwich hugely popular with City workers. By 12:30, the line for these sandwiches winds around the block. If you are in the mood for a wider selection and a place to sit down, Brindisa operates a lively tapas bar on the border of the market which is also always full so arrive early. In addition to Brindisa, there are tons of great things to eat and drink ranging from real German sausages, seafood, chilli, falafel, grilled venison, specialty coffees and teas and much more.

It is also worthwhile to stop in at Southwark Cathedral on the edge of the market where it is thought that a church has been operating for over 1,000 years. This impressive and historic structure can be visited in peace and quiet, and without an admission charge, unlike the Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s. To experience a different kind of living history, stop in for a pint and at the George Inn, mentioned by Charles Dickens in Little Dorrit and the last remaining galleried coaching inn in London. The George Inn can be found at 77 Borough High Street.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

London Food Halls

It is Fashion Week in London and I want to go shopping, but not for clothes. As the fashionistas check out Top Shop on Oxford Street, I make my way to the food halls of London’s renowned department stores in Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Fortnum & Mason and Selfridges, to scratch a retail itch of a different kind. London has some of the best department store food halls in the world and I’m off to see how they rate as destinations for visitors.

In the battle of the food departments, for sheer magnificence, you can’t beat Harrods. I hadn’t been there for years, not liking the owner or his creepy security guards but with that said, the food halls are fabulous, vast, and filled with the most wonderful tiling and decorations to match the food on offer. The range and selection of meat, fish, poultry, game, prepared foods, sauces, and condiments boggles the mind.

And so do the prices. Harrods charges such a premium that it never fails to titillate the tourists. In every conceivable language they gasp and shriek, “Did you see the price of that fish!” or “$50 for jelly beans!” In fact, sticker shock has become such a part of the experience that most visitors end up meandering through, enjoying the old fashioned richness of it all and then end up purchasing a Harrods’ branded package of tea, jam or biscuits. I can’t recommend doing this when the “souvenir” food selection is so much better at Fortnum and Mason. More on that later.

What did look inviting was the amazing number of in-store eating opportunities. Every possible kind of restaurant can be found in the Food Halls including an Oyster Bar, a Fish Bar that cooks what you choose from the counter, a Rotisserie, a Fromagerie featuring inventive dishes focussed on dairy products, a Pizzeria, a sandwich and ice cream bar and a good looking Tapas Bar in the basement that, because it was in the basement, was peaceful and quiet. The prices were no worse than what you would pay at other informal restaurants in Knightsbridge, about £15 to £20 and the atmosphere was lively and people seemed to be having lots of fun. A less expensive option on a good day is to buy the fixings for a picnic which you can eat in Hyde Park, only a few minutes walk away.

So what is the verdict on Harrod’s Food Halls? I enjoyed my visit but bought nothing. I did see some interesting British producers, learned something about choosing olives and smoking guinea fowl. I had the opportunity to sample lots of delicious products and if you are shameless about it, you can almost eat lunch on what they give away. In short, a feast for the eyes, but keep your credit card firmly in your wallet.

From Harrods to Harvey Nichols is a five minute walk but at least 100 years apart in atmosphere. While Harrods celebrates the abundance of the belle époque, Harvey Nics ( as everyone ends up calling it sooner or later) is a showcase for fashionable 21st century food in sleek packaging and a hip and modern environment. This is food for people who live in lofts or would live in lofts if it weren’t for the kids.

I arrived at lunchtime and there were crowds eating at the in-store outlet of “Yo Sushi”, a conveyor belt sushi chain which was novel and amusing a few years ago, but in actual fact, serves up pretty mediocre sushi. For a serious and lengthy lunch, the Fifth Floor Restaurant has always been a good if expensive option.

From the food shopping perspective, I saw nothing at Harvey Nics that I couldn’t live without. There was a small but good selection of just about everything. The products were well presented and the store is bright, clean and attractive. If you like looking at chic shoppers, this is the place. I suppose if you were in buying shoes and a dress and needed things for dinner, it might be a good alternative or if you wanted modern packaging to match your modern kitchen but as a food shopping destination, it left me cold.

If Harrods is 19th century and Harvey Nics the 21st, Fortnum & Mason will take you back 300 years to the time of the Georgians, when two grocers set up shop on the south side of Piccadilly in 1707. With its wonderful window displays, chandeliers, staff in livery, thick carpeting and royal warrants, it looks and feels like the England of our imagination, filled with British products acquired through the very British activities of hunting, shooting and fishing. Ironically, it is packed with people, none of whom look or sound English.

The staff is well trained and solicitous. They happily will give you a mini master class in tea (they have 67 varieties) or any other product that interests you. The shelves are groaning with amazing condiments, including their famous “gentlemen’s relish”. I even broke down and bought some fabulous looking bottarga (mullet roe from Sardinia) which is almost impossible to get even at the best Italian delicatessen. At £140 the kilo, it’s not surprising that there are few stockist. Happily, you only need a very small amount to make the best spaghetti you’ve ever eaten.

I also was impressed with the sandwiches on offer. These are no ordinary looking sandwiches using all kinds of exotic products and combinations ranging in price from £4.75 - £7.50. With Green Park right down the road, this is another good picnic option. As well, within the store are 3 restaurants featuring very British menus where tourists mix happily with well attired older ladies enjoying their Welsh rarebit or smoked salmon with scrambled eggs. I’ve eaten many satisfying and pleasant lunches at Fortnums. They also serve tea in the afternoon.

For the London visitor even remotely interested in food, Fortnum & Mason is a classy destination. Certainly, the place is filled with tourists but there is more than enough staff and tills (cash registers) that they manage the numbers very effectively. This is the best place in town to buy food souvenirs to take back to your friends. The products are high quality and the packaging looks impressive.

In fact, my idea of a perfect half day in London, all within a 5 minute walk of each other, would include a tour and lunch at Fortnums, an exhibition at the Royal Academy across the road and a trip to Hatchards, the oldest surviving bookshop in London, established in 1797 and frequented by the likes of Wellington, Kipling and Lord Byron. And if you still have not yet had your fill of food shopping, head for Paxton & Whitfield on Jermyn Street, a 200 year old atmospheric cheese shop that Winston Churchill claimed was the only place a “gentleman buys his cheese”.

Finally, we come to Selfridges, arguably the least famous and perhaps the best all around food hall in London. In contrast to the “recherchez du temps perdu” feel of Harrods and Fortnum & Mason, these food halls are white, gleaming and fabulous but unlike Harvey Nics, Selfridges has an unbelievably huge range of product. Every possible cuisine is well represented for both raw ingredients and prepared foods. If you want an excellent German Weisswurst, pigs trotters or sweetbreads, a complete Chinese or Indian or Middle Eastern meal, or some Spanish ham from pigs who only eat acorns, you will find all these things, and much more, at Selfridges.

If you are a serious cook or just love to eat and look at food, you’ll have a fine time here. Just as Selfridges has transformed itself into the “it” department store, this attitude informs the food halls which make every attempt to be on top of the latest food trends which are marketed through demonstrations and tastings. Like all the other food halls, there were lots of places to eat including Oddono’s which claimed to serve real Italian gelato. I tested this claim on the Pistachio and it stood the test admirably. Finally, it can be said that visiting Selfridge’s Food Halls is made even better by the opportunity to visit the department store which offers one of the most exciting and up-to-the-moment shopping experiences in London. And, if you’ve had enough of the craziness of Oxford Street, take 5 minutes to head over to Hertford House on Manchester Square to see the serene and stately Wallace Collection one of the finest collections of 18th and 19th century art ever assembled by a single family.

Having conducted a whirlwind survey of department stores and food, I can make the case that visiting food halls is one of the best ways to experience the London paradox, where the city is, simultaneously, living history and cutting edge modern. While Harrods and Fortnum & Mason give you the opportunity to revel in the way we used to buy provisions before the industrialisation and mass marketing of food, Selfridges and Harvey Nics demonstrate how far we have come in the preparation and presentation of the best things to eat from all over the world. In London Food Halls, you can find history, sociology, poetry and some lovely small gifts to take back to your friends. All of these places are spotless, fragrant and a very pleasant place to spend time. If you are on a budget, they even give you things to eat. Forget handbags and shoes, when in London, go for the food.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

How Far is Dulwich?

What an idiot I am. Yesterday, after ten years of living in London, I finally made it to the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It was one of those places I had every intention of visiting and never did. It seemed so far away. Sometimes distance is all in your head. In fact, Dulwich is a mere 4 miles from central London and only an 11 minute train ride from Victoria Station. After a 10 minute scenic walk from the station to the gallery, I found myself in one of the most perfect small museums I have ever visited.

To begin with, the gallery’s setting is an excellent antidote to congested central London. Take the National Gallery, improve the building, shrink it down and then place it in a prosperous, leafy Georgian village, and you about have the feel of the place. Unlike staff at most heavily trafficked museums, this staff, including the guards, seemed so pleased that I had come to see their pictures. And what magnificent pictures they are, representing a virtual greatest hits list of the 16th and 17th century with Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, Canalleto and Gainsborough to name a few.

Sir John Soane designed the Gallery in 1811 as the first purpose built public gallery in England to house the collection of two Georgian art dealers. These founders, Sir Francis Bourgeois and Noel Desenfans, can still be found in the Gallery, buried in the Mausoleum in the centre. It has been said that the iconic building became the basis for all galleries that came after, so if you want to see the “mother of all public museums”, head for Dulwich.

I arrived at the Gallery during the late morning of a lovely autumn day. At that time the place was full of school groups and ordinarily this is not good news. But there was something different about these children. Instead of the usual bored and noisy groups, some of the magic of the place seemed to have rubbed off and the children were actually interested in what they were seeing. In fact, watching the education staff at work gave a big boost to my belief in the benefits of arts education and by listening in, I learned something too.

After about an hour, I decided to visit the Picture Gallery Café for some lunch. This is a busy place, frequented by both visitors and locals, probably because the setting is so attractive. As the wait for tables can be long, if possible, call ahead on 020 8299 8711 to reserve. The food was OK, not great, but good by museum standards. Service was friendly and attentive and the price was correct. I paid £12 for a large piece of poached salmon, salad and beverage including service. Although I’ve never eaten there, right down the road, is Belair House, a serious restaurant in an imposing Georgian house romantically positioned overlooking a park which is another good, if much more expensive, option.

After lunch I went back to the Gallery for a second look. This time, the school children
had departed and I relished the pleasure of having masterpieces such as Rembrandt’s “A Girl at the Window” pictured above all to myself. After another hour, it was time to walk to Dulwich College for the start of my son’s rugby match against the venerable public school. Standing on the rugby pitch of the school founded in 1619 by the actor Edward Alleyn, I thought about what a brilliant “No Crowds” day it had been. All would have been completely perfect had my son not lost his match, but never mind, I will be forever grateful to him for finally getting me to Dulwich.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Dogs, Buses and Ava Gardner

Reading newspapers is one of the great pleasures of living or travelling in the UK. In this weekend’s Daily Telegraph, and having just written about my visit to the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, North Carolina, I was excited to find a reference to Ava in the obituary of the society real estate agent, Bertie Hope-Davis. In the reference to Ava, Hope Davies, who lived off Sloane Square with his dog, Ben, had taught the dog to let himself in and out for walks on his own. “On one occasion, the dog took himself to Hyde Park on the Number 19 bus and, according to Hope-Davies, was returned to the flat by Ava Gardner."

So for those of you who are contemplating a visit London in the near future, I ask you to consider this, where else in the world will you find a dog who takes himself to the park on a bus and is returned by a film goddess?

Full obituary of Bertie Hope-Davies in the Daily Telegraph

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

A No Hassle Drive to Spain

We had a fine time this summer driving the 1600 miles from London to Cadaques on the Costa Brava in Spain and back. I found the whole trip vastly superior to our usual budget airline experience and so here are some of our roadtrip key learnings:

1. If you need to get your car from the UK to the continent, Speed Ferries is a good deal.

This relatively new discount ferry service operating between the ports of Dover and Boulogne is cheap and efficient. We paid £25 to cross the channel on a trip taking 50 minutes on a giant catamaran once owned by the Australian Navy. The service was friendly, running almost to schedule on a busy travel weekend in the height of the summer.

2. Boulogne is a much nicer port than Calais.

Smaller, prettier and filled with history. Right across from the harbour where you dock is the French National Sea Experience Center, Nausicaa, an amazing place which could happily keep an entire family entertained and educated for a full day. The restaurant in Nausicaa serves a very good lunch exceeded only by La Matelote, the one star offering across the road. From the harbour, there is easy access to the A16 motorway.

3. Check the colours before you go

The French travel on highly predictable days and that being the case, the government has instituted a colour coding system. On green days, no heavy traffic is expected, moving from orange to red to the ominous “black”. On a recent black day, traffic jams of up to 100 miles were recorded. If you speak even a little French, you can check out the expected conditions at the website of the Ministry of Transportation and plan your trip accordingly.

4. The Loire is a good place to spend your first night but forget the chateaux

We stopped the first night in the Loire Valley at a delightful, family run hotel La Tonnellerie in the small village of Tavers near the medieval city of Beaugency. The atmosphere in this former wine merchant’s manor house is charming. The rooms, which range in price from €82 to €232 are comfortable and well decorated. Our family room provided much appreciated privacy for all. There is a lovely courtyard and pool which was perfect for our young daughter and we had an excellent dinner “au plein air” which included regional wines and specialties as well as a beautifully presented breakfast. Staff was attentive and seemed genuinely concerned about the quality of our experience. I’m trying to think of something I didn’t like about this hotel – well, our bathroom was a little dark and cramped - but it mattered not a bit given the warmth and attractiveness of the place. I would go back again in a heartbeat.

Inspired by such a lovely evening in the Loire, we elected the next morning to pay a visit to the chateau, Chambord which was a 20 minute drive from La Tonnellerie. In many ways it was a fine idea but not a fine “no crowds” experience. The 440 room castle is spectacular and we thought it would appeal to our daughter’s interest in princesses and all things royal. So far, so good, but even though we arrived close to the opening, the parking lot was full and the place was heaving with tour groups. It’s a big chateau and absorbs an awful lot of people but based the lines to buy tickets, lines at the bathrooms and endless numbers of competing tour groups, I would save visiting the chateaux of the Loire for off season, probably February.

5. Troyes is a vastly superior medival experience to Carcassone

Carcassonne is a perfectly restored medieval city and world heritage site that is also to be avoided at all costs in summer as the crowds are unbelievable. By contrast, on the drive back from Spain to London we had a first class “No Crowds” experience in the wonderful city of Troyes in Champagne and the equally wonderful hotel, Le Champ des Oiseaux which can be found near the cathedral in a collection of beautifully restored buildings from the 15th and 16th centuries.

Unlike so many of the places I’ve just described, this city, so important during the middle ages, is beautifully preserved, charming, uncrowded and packed with museums, shops, interesting architecture and good restaurants. We had a seriously delicious dinner at La Mignardise which can be found at 1, rue des Chats. And finally, after all the history and culture, Troyes seems to be the discount capital of France with factory outlet stores for big time French brands such as Lacoste and Petite Bateau and the savings were huge.

6. Provence is better on a bike

On the return journey, we spent the night in Provence with our friend Patrick who recently left a highly successful career in banking to pursue a love of motorcycles, biking and the open road. Patrick has a motorcycle and bicycle rental company in the fascinating city of Avignon and anyone who is considering biking in southern France should be in touch with Patrick. Why? First, because the many pleasures of Provence are best experienced on the back of a bike. Second, because Patrick is a knowledgeable and charming guy who will give you good advice and rent you an excellent bike or motorcycle at a fair price, and most importantly, because any man who has the chutzpah to trade boring old banking for motorcycles deserves everyone’s undying support.

Patrick can be found near the train station in Avignon at Holiday Bikes Provence, 20 Boulevard St. Roch or by phone on +33 (0)6 70 95 04 72 or

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Break the Trip with Ava

Oh, how evil is Interstate 95.

The north/south artery of the east coast of the United States, once a monument to American motoring, is now a filthy, fume clogged, congested menace of a road overfilled with rampaging cars and trucks. The only place to eat is at nasty fast food restaurants whose rancid fat knocks you back before you get out of the car. Tacky chain hotels dot the landscape. It’s a horror.

But chances are that if you are travelling on the east coast of the US, sooner or later, you too will find yourself on 95. If so, and if you are heading south, I have a suggestion for how you can get only one mile off that road, have a neat “No Crowds” experience for an hour or so, eat an inexpensive and authentic lunch and maybe even bag a bargain or two.

Five hours south of Washington and one mile off I95 at Exit 95 in Smithfield, North Carolina is the Ava Gardner Museum . That’s right, a museum dedicated to the life and times of the Hollywood goddess, one of Smithfield’s most famous native daughters. Even if you have never been interested in Ava Gardner, Hollywood, movies or movie stars, this is a wonderful gem of a museum.

First, Ava Gardner was as drop dead gorgeous as they come. What’s more, she had an interesting if tempestuous and ultimately sad life with lots of equally famous husbands. The Ava Gardner Museum takes all these ingredients and tells a really interesting story about one woman’s rise to fame during the golden age of Hollywood. I spent a very happy hour in the place recently and highly recommend it. The curatorship is first class. The objects are beautifully presented and well explained. There is an excellent film which introduces the story and sympathetically sucks you in. How the collection of memorabilia and the museum came about is a mind boggling tale in itself. The gift shop has a small but truly camp collection of things to buy which would make superb stocking stuffers for even the most jaded person on your Christmas list. And all of this only a 5 minute journey off that evil road.

If you are feeling hungry before or after your visit, you can get a fine sandwich around the corner from the museum at Marla’s. My children swear that the Italian subs at Marla’s are the finest sandwiches anywhere in the world. I’m not so sure, but they are good. Everything is made fresh to order and the place is packed with locals. Marla’s can be found at 135 South Third Street next to the Howell Theatre. Marla’s opening times are idiosyncratic so be careful. Open Monday and Friday 8-8, Tuesday through Thurday 8-2, Saturday 8-2:30 and closed on Sunday.

Before getting back on 95, if it is a weekday (absolutely forget doing this on the weekend, particularly in the summer) you can pay a visit to a vast outlet shopping emporium, Carolina Premium Outlets, where, over the years, I have found very good buys on lots of branded merchandise such as Gap, Ralph Lauren, Samsonite, Banana Republic and Nike. It’s a big horrible concrete jungle of a place. There’s nothing nice or charming about it but if it is a good buy you want and the time is right, it can be worth a visit.

So that’s my suggestion for how to beat the I95 blues. Can anyone suggest other places along the stretch from Maine to Florida where you can find quick, easy and interesting alternatives to the mind numbing and disgusting chains? I’ve checked out several websites listing Gourmet food off I95 and nice places to stay and when they included chains like Ruby Tuesdays (yuk!) and EconoLodge I knew that No Crowds had a job to do. Together, we can take back the American Interstate experience, one exit at a time.

Beaufort Addendum

I asked my friend, Mase, a Beaufort native, to check my material on his former hometown, and he had this to add:

"The one thing that I thought about that might be interesting to your readers is that "The Dockhouse" is a great place to relax outside with drinks while mixing with boat owners from around the world whose yachts are docked footsteps away in the town marina, listening to live music most nights of the week, or watching people stroll up and down the boardwalk. One of the great pleasures of Beaufort is that it is small and compact, so you are certain to meet people from all over who are spending the night or several days in the marina."

Thanks, Mase.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Beaufort, North Carolina

In Search of Lost Time on the Carolina Coast

Picking up my son at Raleigh-Durham Airport, I stupidly left my copy of Marcel Proust’s “Remembrances of Things Past” on top of the automatic parking ticket machine which, at the time, seemed auspicious. My project for the summer could have been resurrected by Amazon but instead I put off reading Proust for yet another year. Still, my appetite for recapturing the past was more than satisfied during the week I spent in Beaufort, an historic seaport on the North Carolina coast which retains an authentic small town atmosphere despite the crush of modern tourism elsewhere on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Frankly, if I had the mass readership of a travel writer such as Rick Steves, I wouldn’t even be telling you about Beaufort, which I visit every summer. Beaufort is too unspoiled to share.

Established in 1709, the town was once the home of whalers, merchants, fishermen and even pirates, including the notorious Blackbeard. Over 100 historic homes remain which are beautifully preserved by the current residents. The streets are wide, shady and quiet. Gardens are lovingly maintained. Wild ponies can be seen grazing on Carrot Island and local children spend lazy afternoons jumping off the town dock. In fact, children are able to walk around Beaufort as children used to do, on foot or bikes or in boats, unsupervised and just happy to be out of school.

With children or without, it is fun to buy an ice cream from the General Store and walk along the bustling waterfront to soak up the nautical atmosphere. Some of the boats are pretty spectacular, huge yachts hailing from tax havens from around the world. There are ferries to isolated places to swim where, thanks to the Gulf Stream, the water temperature is a blissful 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Also on offer are harbour cruises, ecology cruises, parasailing, scuba diving, kayaking and a ride on a speed boat that looks like a shark, which the locals hate, but my 8 year old daughter finds thrilling. Deep sea fishing and bird watching are also popular.

Beaufort is also the perfect place to walk, jog and bicycle. The terrain is flat, the scenery is lovely and the other walkers, joggers and bicyclists are some of the friendliest people you will ever meet in your life. On my daily run from my parents’ house to the fish factory at the end of town, I would encounter rabbits, cranes, wild ponies and very little traffic. On the other hand, sitting on porches, sipping iced tea and doing absolutely nothing is also a perfectly respectable Beaufort pastime.

There is an active historic association which maintains a small but interesting collection of 18th and 19th century buildings you can visit as well as an historic graveyard, The Old Burying Ground, which looks like it is straight out of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”. My daughter was fascinated by the grave of the girl in the rum barrel who died at sea while returning from England but was brought back to Beaufort in the barrel to be buried. Today, her grave, sheltered by 100 year old live oak trees, is covered in cult-like fashion with toys, trinkets, flags and coins which visitors have left. There is also the grave of a British officer who died on a ship in Beaufort harbour and was buried standing up “in rebel’s ground”.

Families will enjoy a visit to the North Carolina Maritime Museum containing a mind blowing collection of shells, lots of interesting facts and stories about Blackbeard the Pirate and a wealth of information about preserving the fragile coastal ecosystem. Across the street, there is an historic boat building operation where the hardy and practical ships of the past are being lovingly recreated. During the summer, the Maritime Museum holds one day “Build Your Own Boat Workshops” for a child working with an adult. By the end of the day, participants take home proper seaworthy boats that work well and look great, having learned a tremendous amount about the art of ship making.

For such a small town, Beaufort has a good selection of restaurants. Informal sandwiches and local seafood can be found at the Beaufort Grocery Company (which becomes more formal in the evening) and Finz’s Grill while delicious, upscale dining is available at Stillwater with beautiful views over Beaufort Harbor, Blue Moon Café and and the recently opened Sharpies Grill. Your options for accommodations range from 2 inns, a number of good bed and breakfasts such as The Cedars and the Pecan Tree Inn and house rentals, which are a good deal if you are staying for at least a week. Check with Beaufort Realty for rentals.

Interesting shopping can be found in the local stores and boutiques which focus primarily on things nautical and aquatic and the best news of all is that there is not a Gap or Banana Republic in sight. The Rocking Chair Bookstore has a well thought out selection of bestsellers and books of local interest. There are several well patronised coffee shops but no Starbucks.

On the drive down from Washington, D.C. to Beaufort each year, I pass an increasing number of SUVs filled to bursting with families on their way to the beach. I see these hot and irritated folks at the horrible and crowded fast food restaurants which is the only food available on Interstate 95. But I don’t find these people or the frenetic atmosphere they create in Beaufort and that is why Beaufort is the best place I know to relax, recreate, visit, eat and play. It is very southern in a “step back in time kind of way” and has been described, with some justification, as "Nantucket with a southern drawl". It has none of the glitz or hype of its better known northern counterpart. In fact, this is still a lovely small town where friendly residents and tourists peacefully co-exist for a few months. The pace is slow, there is not much to do at night, it is hot during the day, yet after a holiday in Beaufort, I feel that I have successfully recaptured those endless summer days of my childhood where doing anything and nothing was always possible.