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.