Sunday, December 31, 2006

Beyond Airports

It is New Year’s Eve, and time for 2007 Travel Resolutions and Destinations. Here are mine:

2007 European Travel Resolution – Boycott Airports and Airplanes

Airports Suck. Flying Sucks. Not nice language but, hey, neither is the experience. I will remember 2006 as the year that every time I went to an airport, it was like Dante’s third circle of Hell. Weather delays. Security delays. Confusion. Cancellations. Chaos.

I love to travel and I even used to love to fly but this love affair is so over. For 2007, I’m going to think car, boat, train, horse, feet, anything but plane and if you think that will limit how far I can get for a weekend, consider this. I can catch the Friday 3pm Eurostar from London to Paris (£59 return), catch the 8:32 pm over night to Barcelona (£143 round trip with private cabin) which will get me into Barcelona on 8:24am Saturday morning. Return travel is equally civilised departing Barcelona at 9:20pm on Sunday arriving back in London on 11:55am on Monday. Et voila, a great weekend in one of Europe’s hippest and happening cities minus the horrible airport bit. When you consider that for £202 you get travel plus two nights accommodations, the economics work as well. If you’re interested, you can book this and other rail travel on

2007 European Travel Destinations

Bearing in mind my 2007 Travel Resolution, here are the destinations I have on my radar for the next year that I can get to without an airplance with a short explanation of why they interest me.

Islands - Harder to get to and better off for it

Ile de Re – France’s version of Nantucket (my friend Claude says nearby Ile d’Oleron and Ile d’Yeu are less crowded and even better)

Fano – Denmark’s version of plush primitive, stay at Sonderho, Denmark’s oldest inn

Sylt – Germany’s version of the wild but well bred retreat

Herm – 3 miles off the coast of Guernsey, family owned and only a mile and a half long

Ponza – Capri-like but less crowded

Ile de Porquerolles – the Cote d’Azur without the hoi polloi

Isle of Wight – to scratch my itch for an old fashioned holiday plus Osborne House

Corsica – France’s “mountain in the sea”, untamed and un-Gallic with great long distance hiking


Paris – because I can’t get enough
Rome – for the trattatorias and the churches

Venice – an off season gem

Vienna – music, history, whipped cream

Budapest - ditto

Berlin – hip, happening and relatively inexpensive
Salzburg – perfectly proportioned
Copenhagen – for Eloise (Mermaid, Tivoli)

The Great Outdoors

The Lake District – Landscape and literature

Maishofen – So I can hike from my favourite Austrian hotel, Landgasthof Schloss Kammer

Cornwall – to see what all the buzz is about

Hadrian’s Wall – all 78 miles of it

Slovenia – like Austria but less crowded and expensive

So there you have it, a short list of places I'd like to see in 2007. As you think about your own travel plans for this year, I encourage you to take the advice of my favourite philosoper, Yogi Berra:

"When you get to the fork in the road, take it."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A Seductive One Day Christmas Shopping Spree

London’s Daily Telegraph recently published some scary statistics stating that the average mother (always the mother) spends 315 hours preparing for Christmas broken down into:

288 hours shopping
4.19 hours wrapping presents
3.03 hours decorating the house
4.27 hours preparing Christmas lunch
4.38 hours cooking Christmas lunch
11 hours cleaning up the mess

Just the thought of spending 288 hours shopping would send anyone, except my Aunt Gail and Mama Beuna, right around the bend, so here’s an idea that can help you desperate mothers out there cut down the time and increase the pleasure of the annual Christmas shop – abandon your family and head quickly for the Left Bank of Paris.

I can almost hear the intake of breath. Isn’t Paris expensive? Crowded? Aren’t the French difficult? What could you possibly buy in Paris that you couldn’t find in London or anywhere else? Well, here’s the thing. In Paris, it is the “experience” which makes the difference. In Paris at Christmas, women don’t look harassed. In the 6th District, at least, they look like Catherine Deneuve and the stores look like something out of the recent Sofia Coppola movie about Marie Antoinette and the food, don’t get me started on the food. Best of all, in the same amount of time the Telegraph’s survey was allocating for Christmas clean-up, you will be able to get most of your shopping done and eat a great meal. Et voila, your Joyeux Noel is ready to go.

Having been Christmas shopping in Paris every year for the past decade, I now have it down to a fine science and the key learning can be summed up in the names of two stores, Le Bon Marche and Monoprix. The first is a temple to what is chic and luxurious, while the second is the master of value for money. I love them both. Here’s why.

At Bon Marche, you can find something fabulous for everyone on your list. Back in 1870, Aristide Boucicaut, the founder of the world's first department store, stated that his aim was to “seduce the clientele” by presenting the newest products in the most stylish surroundings. Over one hundred years later, the store continues to deliver on that grand promise. The architecture, once described by Emile Zola as a “cathedral to commerce” is large enough to absorb the Christmas crowds but not so large that one feels overwhelmed. Yes, it is expensive, but no more so than you would pay for the same branded goods elsewhere.

From the excellent luggage, travel and ‘clothing for sport’ departments on the top floor to stationary, toys and glamorous children’s clothes in the basement, everything in Bon Marche seduces. In Housewares, even pots and pans look like art work and the area devoted to cleaning products and dustbins feels drop dead elegant. The Lingerie Department has everything from armament for buxom grannies to the flimsiest and most beautiful “what nots”. Throughout the store, people who serve you are, for Parisians, rather nice and decent linguists. Best of all, Bon Marche will wrap everything for you and the presentation is very smart.

After spending a morning in Bon Marche, I recommend that you head for Monoprix for food, stocking stuffers and lots of great inexpensive stuff. With outlets throughout Paris, the nearest Monoprix to Bon Marche is near St Germain des Pres at 50, rue de Rennes. Don’t let the tiny woman’s accessories area upstairs fool you. All the action is in the basement below.

If Le Bon Marche is all about luxury then Monoprix is about value for money and even though the food halls at Bon Marche, called La Grande Epicerie de Paris, are the finest I know and you shouldn’t miss taking a look, I always buy my Christmas food items at Monoprix. Over the years, financial constraints have taught me that you can purchase excellent quality Foie Gras, Marron Glace, Pain d’Epices, Pates de Fruit and all the elements for an elegant Christmas Eve dinner at Monoprix for considerably less than Bon Marche and I don’t think anyone has ever spotted the difference. Monoprix is also great for cheap but chic children’s clothes, socks and stockings and all kinds of “mess” that you need for Christmas. If Walmart were a manageable size and had some style, it would be Monoprix.

Having raided these two dramatically different stores, or perhaps in between raiding, it is time for a reward. There are lots of first class places to go for a drink and something to eat, but I always head for the Nemrod. It may look like just another brasserie, but the food, service and atmosphere are, as Patricia Wells wrote in the IHT “well above par”. Just around the corner from Bon Marche at 51 Rue du Cherche-Midi, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, the atmosphere is bustling and very Left Bank. Everything is good, but the salads exceptional, especially the Salade Auvergnate. Lunch should set you back about €60 for two.

So there you have it, a one day Christmas shopping spree where at least you will enjoy your financial demise. If there is one thing the French understand better than anyone else, it is luxury goods and the one department store that has more luxury than all others is Le Bon Marche. If you fill in the gaps with goodies from Monoprix, Christmas, to paraphrase Marie Antoinette, is a piece of cake.

Le Bon Marche
24, rue de Sevres
Tel: 01 44 39 80 00
Customer Service: 01 44 39 82 80
Metro: Sevres Babylone
Hours: 0930-1900 Monday through Wednesday and Friday. Open until 2100 on Thursday and 2000 on Saturday
50, rue de Rennes
Metro: St Germain des Pres

Hours: Mon – Sat from 9:00 to 22:00

Le Nemrod
51, rue du Cherche-Midi
Tel: 01 45 48 17 05
Open Mon – Sat from 6:30 to 23:00
Reservations at lunch and dinner recommended

Monday, December 04, 2006

How to Slow Down Christmas

At this time of year, I envy Eloise. For my nine year old daughter, Christmas comes too slowly and is filled with magic. Not for Eloise the seasonal “to do” list which seems to take over the experience and always ends in panic. This year, I am determined to recapture the Christmas that feels like Eloise’s, which comes too slowly and is filled with good cheer.

In London, I can think of no better way to get into the Christmas spirit than by paying a visit to the Geffrye Museum’s exhibition of Christmas Past. Now in its seventeenth year, this exhibition provides masses of interesting information about 400 years of English Christmas traditions and decorations. This scrupulously researched exhibit shows Christmas in all glory and depravity and drives home the point that, as the Guidebook to the exhibition states, "people have been complaining for centuries that Christmas isn’t what it used to be.”

As opposed to running around stores and getting anxious, I found it hugely instructive and entertaining to spend a couple of hours last Friday looking and thinking about our changing attitudes to Christmas. I was amazed by the Tudor’s enthusiasm, the Parliamentarians disdain (From 1644 to 1660, Christmas was outlawed by an Act of Parliament) and the Georgian’s disinterest. Equally engaging were the nostalgia of the Regency period and the family focus and revived musical interest of the Victorians.

In each of the twelve rooms, which are decorated in the festive style of the period, you get a wonderful sense of how people felt about Christmas and what it meant to them. As I wandered through the Post War rooms, I was charmed by the older visitors who were sharing with each other what Christmas had been like for them during the period. “Well, in those days, we didn’t have a fridge or a washing machine so …”

The Geffrye Museum of English Interiors, located in Shoreditch near the City is always an uncrowded and pleasant place to visit but never more so than at Christmas. The “Christmas Past” Exhibition makes you happy to be part of age old traditions and customs that reach far beyond frenetic shopping and partying. Each of the twelve rooms gave me at least one good idea of something I could do in my own home to make the holidays more beautiful and special. The gift shop has lovely books about Christmas plus plenty of tasteful and well priced decorations. Best of all, on a busy afternoon in the run-up to Christmas, my life really did slow down for a while and was filled with good cheer.

The Geffrye Museum
136 Kingsland Road
London E28EA
Tel: 020 7739 9893

Open Tuesday – Saturday 10 AM – 5 PM
Sunday and Bank Holidays 12 – 5 PM

Christmas Past: 400 Years of Seasonal Traditions in English Homes will run from 28 November 2006 – 7 January 2007

Picture of Elizabethan strips of "bacon" made from sugar and served as a delicacy at Christmas from the Geffrye Museum Advent Calendar for December 4.