Thursday, December 13, 2007

How to Avoid a $6,110 Lunch

NoCrowds was tasked recently with finding a nice place in London for a large family to have Christmas lunch. The first place we called sounded very nice with a luxurious menu, a visit from Santa and a broadcast of the Queen’s speech. When we did our sums, however, we were not amused.

Before drinks and service, lunch would have been a whopping £3,055 and as our client was American, that would have made it a $6,110 lunch. By the time everyone had something to drink and with the gratuity included, it would have been over $7,000. Needless to say, we looked elsewhere, but we bring this up to make a point. Much of what goes on in London restaurants these days is a total rip-off. Converted into dollars and it is an even bigger rip-off.

So imagine our concern when we received a call from the Sorellina who was in town and offering to take us out for a festive lunch. What to do? Do we pick something posh and stiff our baby sister or suggest for the umpteenth time that we make out way to the eponymous noodle shop, Wagamama. But wait. Hadn’t we read recently that the top rated L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Covent Garden, the very same Joel Robuchon who was voted the “Chef of the Century” by his peers, was offering a two course lunch for £19. We checked it out and mon Dieu, yes, there is a Santa Claus and so off we went.

The L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon more than lived up to its reputation. It was dark, sexy and stylish. We sat at the counter and watched the cooks work and enjoyed ourselves tremendously. We both began with pumpkin soup which was rich, creamy, sophisticated and just right for this time of year but the real treat was the main course of whiting with Robuchon’s world famous mashed potatoes which are rumoured to be 70% butter.

Now whiting is not a noble fish. According to fish expert, Alan Davidson, “It is commonplace that the flesh of the whiting, steamed, is good for invalids.” In the hands of the L’Atelier, however, whiting is sublime - fried delicately and presented “en colere” (biting its own tail). It just goes to show that in the hands of the talented, even humble ingredients taste luxurious. That certainly was the case with the very buttery mashed potatoes.

And now the punch line to this piece. What did this sexy, inventive and perfectly conceived lunch end up costing? With the addition of wine, water, dessert and gratuity, the Sorellina ended up spending £68. As she put it later in an email, “considering how expensive ordinary food in London is, I thought [the price] was pretty good. If you didn't order the wine it would have been very reasonable but then who wants a great lunch without wine.”

We agree.

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon
13-15 West Street
London WC2H 9NE
Tel: 0207 010 8600
Lunch: 12pm-3pm
Dinner: 5:30 pm – 11pm

Photo courtesy of Joel Robuchon website

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities at Christmas

It was the best of times – Christmas. It was the worst of times - Global Credit Crisis. For NoCrowds, it was time to leave London for Paris to prepare for the season’s festivities. We love Paris during the run-up to Christmas. London is very jolly too, and we’ll be writing more on that later, but it is our view that the season really plays to Paris’s strengths. We love the elegant decorations, the profusion of lights, the celebration of food and the luxurious shopping.

We also love travelling to Paris from London by train. Eurostar service between the two cities is the one form of travel that has not become more disappointing in recent years. In fact, it recently got better. The opening of refurbished St Pancras International Station and the new high speed rail service means you no longer lumber out of poky Waterloo and chug through the Kent countryside but rather, pull out of a sleek architectural icon and race along at impressive speed, shaving 20 minutes off the trip. It did cross our mind that at a cost of £800 million for the station and £6 billion for High Speed 1, it cost £340 million for each minute saved, but hey, who’s counting.

Sadly, after a massive PR campaign which promised that St Pancras would “set new standards in station hospitality” with “unrivalled service and comfort”, we saw no improvement to the check-in, security procedures or amenities over those at Waterloo. Somehow, we missed Europe’s longest champagne bar which supposedly runs for 97 meters right beside the Eurostar platform (all we saw were trains) and the Wow Factor everyone was talking about only became apparent as we briefly entered the magnificent glass shed that, when it was built in 1868, was the largest enclosed structure in the world. Perhaps the facilities will get better. We suspect that although they claimed to have opened on time and budget, they weren’t really finished. With that said, we love the Eurostar service and are very happy to be 20 minutes closer to Paris.

As for Paris, we were once again enchanted. From Gare du Nord, we took the Metro on an efficient 15 minute run straight to the heart of the Left Bank and the world’s oldest and chicest department store, Le Bon Marche. Last year at Christmas we had this to say about the place and our view hasn’t changed one bit.

“At Bon Marche, you can find something fabulous for everyone on your Christmas 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.”

This year, mindful of the deteriorating economic outlook, we did what every prudent French woman does, we did our “looking” at Bon Marche but we reserved our buying for Monoprix. Last year we had this to say about the Monoprix and once again, our view hasn’t changed.

“After spending a morning in Bon Marche, we recommend that you head for Monoprix for food, stocking stuffers and lots of great inexpensive gifts. 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 we know, and you shouldn’t miss taking a look, we always buy our Christmas food items at Monoprix. Over the years, financial constraints have taught us that you can purchase excellent quality Foie Gras, Marrons Glaces, 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 we don’t think anyone has ever spotted the difference. Monoprix is also great for cheap but chic clothes and accessories and all kinds of “mess” that you need for Christmas. If Woolworths had style, it would be Monoprix.”

Having shopped till we dropped, it was now time to turn our attention to restaurants. For many years we have been eyeing the restaurant across the street from our apartment, Chez Dumonet Josephine. For years, our conversations went something like this: “We should go someday. Doesn’t look like much from the outside. On the expensive side, don’t you think.” But we had recently read that Chez Dumonet Josephine had fabulous food while perfectly delivering the vintage bistrot experience. After finally making our way across the street, we are happy to report that it is, indeed, a treasure.

Not only has the place not changed since the 1920s, we doubt it has even been painted. The missing door handle to the kitchen has been replaced by a piece of rope, the floor is uneven and the lighting unflattering. But the food, oh we had such gorgeous, lovely food including the best beef bourguignon in town, escalopes of fois gras with grapes that were magic and a miellefeuille that could feed a family and make you weak at the knees. Best of all, we were surrounded by other diners also savouring the kinds of meals and experiences you can only find in France. Globalization be damned. We ate as only the French can eat and it was divine.

The next day we continued our Christmas preparations by visiting E. Dehillerin, a legendary store for professional cookware in the 1st Arrondisement. For anyone interested in cooking and food, a visit to Dehillerin rivals just about any experience you can find in the City of Lights. This atmospheric store has been in the same family since 1820 and makes no concessions to the 20th century, much less the 21st. Close your eyes and it is easy to imagine that you are Mrs. Monet shopping for copper pots to take out to Giverny. The day we were there, however, there was a Japanese tour group racing around buying tiny gadgets and gizmos to fit into their tiny apartments back in Tokyo but we thought the store staff handled the invasion with relaxed good humour. Although tempted by the fabulous pots and pans at excellent prices, we took our direction from the Japanese and bought an assortment of items with which to eat snails and other small gifts.

Be sure to leave plenty of time to pay for your purchases at Dehillerin as bar code readers and the like are not to be found. In fact, it took three members of staff, and a considerable amount of time, to process even our small order. In any other store at Christmas time this would be annoying. At Dehillerin, buying gifts for your foodie friends becomes an experience. And that is why, year after year, we return to Paris at Christmas looking for magic. And we always find it.

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

Monoprix Dragon
50, rue de Rennes
Metro: St Germain des Pres
Hours: Mon – Sat from 9:00 to 22:00

E. Dehillerin
18 et 20 rue Coquilliere
Metro: Les Halles
Hours: Monday 9:00-12:30 and 2:00-6:00
Tuesday – Saturday 9:00 to 6:00

Chez Dumonet Josephine
117 rue du Cherche-Midi
Photo by Arnold Pouteau/Flickr

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Our Favourite London Loos

NoCrowds has been thinking a lot lately about toilets. The topic has been on our mind since we read last month that the Mayor of Paris was taking the matter of public urination in hand (no pun intended) by inventing “le mur anti-pipi”, a special kind of wall which undulates and miraculously sends the jet of pee back in the direction of its creator. Now that is a man of action!

Here in London, we take a more considered approach with the London Assembly conducting an investigation into the alarming decline in public toilets. The 53 page document makes depressing reading. Did you know that the number of public toilets in London has decreased 40% since 1999 with each toilet now serving approximately 18,000 Londoners? The Association of Professional Tourist Guides and Guild of Registered Tourist Guides have formed an “Inconvenience Committee” to challenge the poor state of toilets in this country and the impact on the tourist industry. OK, we’re convinced. There is a real problem.

In response, we are working on a definitive guide to the best places to go to the toilet in London which we plan to complete by the 2012 Olympics, thus saving the government from total embarrassment and earning us a fortune. In the interim, here is the list of our current favourite places to go. Being former New Yorkers, we’re not big users of the public facilities, which, for the record, is a stupid prejudice since public loos in London, diminishing though they may be, are pretty nice. What we prefer, though, are pleasant, hassle-free places that we have counted on over the years. Quicker than Starbucks (always a queue) and classier than McDonalds. Here’s our list of some nice loos in London. Feel free to add your own.

Around Piccadilly/Green Park

Waterstones Piccadilly
203 -206 Piccadilly
Open 10 to 10 Monday through Saturday and 6 on Sunday

Waterstones on Piccadilly is the largest bookstore in Europe. Housed in what was once the Simpson’s Department store, toilets are amply distributed though out the building. This is a great place for a pit stop and peek at the new titles and best of all, Waterstones stays open until 10 pm.

Around Mayfair

Brook Street

Of course, all the grand London hotels have great loos but this is our favourite. A nice place for a break when Central London makes you crazy. Ladies loos conveniently located near the entrance. A great place for an expensive drink if you want to restart the whole process.

Around Oxford Street

John Lewis Department Store
Oxford Street
9:30 to 7, Thursday until 8 and Sunday 12 until 6

You gotta love a store that is still owned by its employees. This large quintessentially English retailer has plenty of loos with the quickest and easiest to be found to the rear of the building off the stairwell. Also great for home furnishings, fittings and appliances.

Around Sloane Square

Peter Jones Department Store
Sloane Square
9:30 to 7, Wednesday until 8 and Sunday 11 until 5

Call me old fashioned, but I also love the atmosphere in Peter Jones, part of the John Lewis Partnership. If you are looking for middle England, here it is in all its glory - properly dressed ladies, helpful staff and sensible products. And the loos reflect this sensibility. They are plentiful and sensible and to be found on alternating floors of the main stairwell. Take your granny. She’ll love it.

Around High Street Kensington

Whole Foods
63-97 Kensington High Street
8 to 10, Monday through Saturday and 12 to 6 on Sunday

The loos at recently opened Whole Food ( up the stairs and at the rear of the food court) have yet to be discovered by shoppers and are infinitely nicer than the ones at Marks and Spencer. Good for a break and a baguette. Stays open late and if you spend over £100 ( three or four heritage tomatoes should do the trick) the parking is free.
Photo of Marcel Duchamp's Fountain by Alfred Stieglitz, 1917

Monday, November 19, 2007

Three Emails = One Good Hotel

The countdown to Thanksgiving has started. The fact that 34 hungry pilgrims are coming for dinner on Thursday has distracted NoCrowds from the business or researching and writing. Instead of scouring the countryside for the undervalued and overlooked, it’s time to check the chairs, cutlery and glasses and corner the London market in sweet potatoes and pecan pies. With so little time, imagine our delight to open Outlook this morning to find three emails that did the job for us.

Let’s begin with the email from Sandy.

The dollar’s unstoppable decline will make our premise - Europeans want to wander through the ‘real America’ - more compelling and actionable every day.

Here’s my precise prediction of what happens next:

1. The Saudi's will finally realize it's silly to recycle petro dollars--$20 Billion per shot--into the U.S. economy, via Chelsea Clinton's Hedge Fund. They'll get a better return by digging a hole in the ground than investing in S&P 500 and Russell 2000 equities.

2. The market, reacting sharply to this betrayal, will fall, quickly, by 10-15%...a few 1,000+ point daily drops.

3. Like the Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen, who reportedly refused to accept payment for her services in dollars, the Saudi's might just do the same, prompting a grave dollar crises.

4. At this point, Michael Bloomberg, who's been lately silent about his Presidential ambitions, will step forward, propose a turnaround plan and figuratively AND literally buy the Presidency. Like Abraham Lincoln before him, Bloomberg will assemble a all-star coalition government, and hopefully attract the best and brightest minds from both sides of the aisle.

5. By 2010, the dollar will begin to turn around. The Saudi's will resume their petro-dollar recycling. The market will stabilize and also turn around.

6. In summary, we've a three
year window to get the nocrowdsamerica blog off the ground!”
He’s right, we thought. We need more content about America!

We then opened the email from Jeff about the Carolina Inn which stated:

The Carolina Inn and Carolina Crossroads Restaurant Earn AAA Four Diamond Ratings
11-15-2007 CHAPEL HILL, N.C.
The Carolina Inn, one of the state’s most renowned hotel properties, continued that elite status with recognition as a 2008 AAA Four Diamond Hotel Rating. Meanwhile, its signature Carolina Crossroads Restaurant also was given an esteemed 2008 AAA Four Diamond Restaurant Rating.
Befitting the good news, The Carolina Inn will open its doors for five weeks of holiday activities during its 10th Annual “Twelve Days of Christmas Celebration” from Dec. 2-Jan. 6. A 10-ton sand sculpture depicting the final verse of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” carol, Breakfast with Santa, Teddy Bear Tea Parties and three community fundraisers highlight some two dozen events.
Long recognized as one of America’s “cultural resources worthy of preservation,” The Carolina Inn is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and recently broadened that lofty stature with the announcement that it was among the Historic Hotels of America members joining the Preferred Hotel Group Brand.
He's right, we thought, the Carolina Inn is a perfect place to feature in NoCrowds America.
Then we opened the email from Gary where he suggested:

Some interesting things you can do when pointing out new destinations to people. You can include a “Google Earth” type map which has photos pinned to it from people who have been to the area and have posted them. Here are a couple of examples—note that the little blue markers are pictures that people have taken and posted online.

The cinqueterre:,9.481201,10,h/


Kew Gardens Henry Moore sculptures:,-0.298090,15,h/

The catacombs of Paris:,2.350966,13,h/

Gators in Myakka River State Park in Sarasota:,-82.293520,14,h/

Basically, you can see these places through the eyes of ordinary visitors before you, rather than tour book authors. It’s kind of cool. That means that as you post new no crowds destinations, you can create a link like this to allow readers to explore on their own.

Well, at least this geek likes it.
He’s right, we thought. What a cool tool and so here is the link for Chapel Hill:,-79.054707,15,h/

And here’s why we think the Carolina Inn is worth a visit from Europeans in search of the “real” America. The Inn is old fashioned, in the best sense of the word, reeks of southern hospitality and gracious living and the food is absolutely superb. For much of the year this hotel is informed by the energy and enthusiasm of alumni who return again and again to the university town to relive the glory of their youth. While all of this luxury and ambience comes at a price, with an exchange rate of 1 US$/ 1.46 €, the Carolina Inn start to look pretty reasonable. Tonight, for example, you could have a large room for as little as €81.05. Not bad for a top rated hotel in a really fun town. With American Airlines offering direct daily non-stop service from London to Raleigh Durham, Chapel Hill is closer than you think.

The Carolina Inn
211 Pittsboro Street
Chapel Hill North Carolia 27516
Tel: 919 933 2001
Fax: 919 962 3400

For information on Chapel Hill, click here and for more information on travel in North Carolina click here.

Photo of the interior of the Carolina Inn courtesy of the hotel’s website.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Mummies, Dodos and a Dead Philosopher

How would you like a peek at the world’s oldest gynaecological papyrus? What about a long extinct dodo? Care to commune with a dead philosopher? All this and more is waiting for the intrepid visitor to the collections of University College London with a free afternoon and a sense of adventure.

University College London (UCL) was founded 180 years ago to provide higher education to anyone not served by Oxford and Cambridge, which in those days meant anyone who was not male, prosperous and a member of the Church of England. Over the years, the UCL has amassed more than half a million artefacts and specimens. Much of this material is available to the public and all the collections are free of charge. NoCrowds spent an afternoon at UCL recently and now ranks the collections as one of the top undervalued attractions for visitors to London.

The first stop on our self-guided tour was the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. After navigating a building site, signing-in with security and dodging a student here and there, we made our way up a flight of stairs and through a study area to emerge into a gloomy room filled with crowded cabinets. It took a while for our modern sensibilities to click into this old fashioned way of displaying antiquities, not to mention the run-down state of the facilities, but half way around the first room we were hooked.

What makes the Petrie so interesting is the way the “stuff” of daily life in the Nile Valley sit alongside some of the greatest finds of Egyptian archaeology. Funny drawing on small chips of limestone, think of scratch paper, can be found near a fragment of Egypt’s oldest calendar. The museum includes both the world’s oldest dress and the world’s largest collection of Roman period mummy portraits. Despite the fact that only a portion of the 80,000 objects are on display and that the facilities are atmospheric but decidedly shabby, we were nevertheless able to imagine daily life in Egypt in a new and exciting way.

While the quality of the Petrie collection compares favourably with the Cairo and British Museums, unlike those immensely popular institutions, the Petrie was completely empty for the duration of our hour-long visit. Plans are underway to move the collection to purpose built galleries in a new University building which will do much to improve the Petrie’s profile and accessibility so if you want to see mummies without kiddies, get over to the Petrie sooner as opposed to later.

After the Petrie, we backtracked through the building site, around the corner and into the Grant Museum of Zoology. It’s the kind of place that if you hate asking people for directions, you’ll probably never find it. Go on and ask because you really don’t want to miss this Victorian time capsule. Crammed into a space not much bigger than your kitchen, the Grant is a crazy, Noah’s Ark collection of pickled, preserved and mounted creatures. Weird looking lungfish that can breathe air, a huge elephant’s heart, rare dodo bones and approximately 55,000 specimens all vie for your attention.

The last remaining zoological museum in London, over the years the place has been flooded, bombed and threatened with closure but on the day of our visit, a class of art students were intently working on drawing specimens and it added to the experience that the museum was still being used for research and teaching. In fact, we were the only tourists there which meant the volunteer guide was delighted to explain everything to us in colourful detail.

Saving the best for last, after the Grant Museum we headed for UCL’s main building where the weird and wonderfully preserved body of Jeremy Bentham sits in a cabinet prominently displayed in the main hall. The philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, one of UCL’s spiritual founders best known as the father of utilitarianism, had stipulated in his will that his body be preserved for posterity. In 1852, the glass fronted cabinet with Bentham’s “auto-icon” (his terminology) was donated to UCL.

Many stories surround what UCL describes as its “most famous possession”. One story goes that Bentham is regularly wheeled in to attend meetings of the College Council and that his attendance is always recorded as “present but not voting”. Another version of the story claims that Bentham does vote in cases where the Council vote is split, in which case, Bentham invariably votes for the motion. Another legend states that King’s College London stole the head and used it as a football. The truth of the matter is that Kings did steal the head but returned it after a ransom of £10 had been paid to the charity, Shelter. After the incident, the head was moved to the college’s vault. Are these stories true? We hope so. In any event, we now are of the opinion that no university worth attending should be without a dead spiritual founder in the front hall. In a word, awesome!

For London visitors with big appetites for the unusual and undiscovered, the collections of University College London deliver on so many levels. They’re fun, free, atmospheric, uncrowded and perfect for anyone of any age. Get there quick before the rest of the world figures it out.

Useful Addresses

Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
UCL Malet Place
London, WC1e 6BT
Tues-Fri 1-5pm & Sat 10-1pm
Tel: 020 7679 2884
Fax: 020 7679 2886

Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy
Darwin Building, ground floor
UCL Gower Street
London WC1E 6BT
Mon-Fri 1-5pm
Tel: 020 7679 2647
Fax: 020 7679 7096

Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon
UCL South Cloisters
Mon-Fri 7:30-6pm
Photo of Jeremy Bentham's Auto-Icon courtesy of the UCL Bentham Project website.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Last Chance Museum

NoCrowds is always on the prowl for London’s undervalued treasures. Some of our favourites include Dennis Severs’ House, the Sir John Soane’s Museum and the Old Operating Theatre. These are places where you can have a big experiences, as judged by their uniqueness, without big crowds. Yesterday, we found another, the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art in Bloomsbury but you are going to have to really hurry if you want to see this wonderful small museum. On December 21, 2007, the Percival David Foundation museum will close forever and the finest collection of Chinese ceramics outside China will be put into storage. According to the notice tacked to the museum’s entrance, the collection will be “unavailable for 2008” while a new wing is built to house the objects at the British Museum. Having some experience with British builders and completion dates, we don’t expect to see this collection any time soon.

There are lots of reasons why you want to hurry and see the Percival David Foundation museum before it closes. For a start, the ceramics, many of which belonged to Chinese emperors, are exceptionally beautiful and you can learn a lot about Chinese history and culture as you work your way through the cabinets of rare objects dating from the 9th to the 18th century. To get a taste for how exquisite these ceramics are, click here.

More importantly, this may be the last chance to see this world class collection in blissful solitude in a peaceful house on a romantic square in a part of London favoured by the writers, artists and intellectuals of the Bloomsbury Group. When we visited the museum yesterday afternoon for over an hour, we counted only two other visitors. We even enjoyed the “its all over” atmosphere conveyed by the friendly staff and the shaggy condition of the building. In an age of blockbuster art shows and all the discomfort that goes with them, it was wonderful to see a blockbuster collection in a calm setting. At the end of our visit, we stepped out onto leafy Gordon Square, dogging the students hurrying to class at University College London while admiring the houses next door that had once belonged to John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Wolf, Clive Bell and Lytton Strachey.

If and when this collection reappears at the British Museum, (and we can find absolutely nothing about the plans or arrangements on either the British Museum or Percival David websites, which makes us suspicious) you will probably have to fight for a timed ticket and wait in line to see such extraordinary objects. I am basing this assertion on the current hullabaloo to get in to see the The First Emperor – China’s Terracotta Army and when one considers the countless number of Emperors who ate, drank, worshiped and admired the 1,700 objects in the Percival David collection, our advice is to go now and beat the crowds.

Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art
53 Gordon Square
London, WC1H OPD
Tel: 44 (0)207 387 3909

Opening times
Monday – Friday 10:00 – 12:30 and 1:30 – 5:00
Admission Free
Image of Yuan Dynasty Temple Vase (1351) from Percival David Foundation website

Monday, November 05, 2007

Hey, Burger TV - We're Not That Stupid

I know that many NoCrowds readers are expatriates and when I read in Friday’s newspaper about the launch of a new television channel called Burger TV targeted at expatriate Americans, I paid attention. According to Patrick Brunet, a director of the channel, “When you are an American living outside your country you miss two things: your television shows and a good burger.” Mr Brunet, you cannot be serious.

Ask any American expatriate what they miss, and it won’t be that. Nine times out of ten the response will be, ‘I miss my parents or brother and sisters or children’, sometimes we reminisce about places, landscapes, or times of the year, but in the 15+ years that I have lived ‘outside my country’, I have never once heard anyone say they missed “homely US dramas, game shows and news programmes.” For that matter, I rarely hear anyone say they miss a good burger. Food can loom large in one’s memories of home but a good burger, Mr. Brunet, is not my heart’s desire. More to the point, I’m not as stupid as you think, nor is any expatriate I have ever met.

Burger TV’s attempt to sell rehashed populist rubbish to overseas Americans deserves to fail and I’d put good money on the fact that it will. But I am really intrigued with the whole idea of national longings, what are the things we miss when we travel or live abroad and why? I’d love to begin a discussion of this topic and invite every reader to send me (either via email or the comments section) a description of the two things you miss when you are living or travelling outside your country. I would love to publish this material which I know will be much, much more interesting than anything on Burger TV.

And what do I miss most? I miss driving up to our farm in North Carolina under the long line of now grown live oaks, which my mother planted when I was a child. And not a day goes by that I don't miss eastern Carolina barbeque.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Ratatouille's Paris

We were in Paris last week and I had a really big idea about using film “hooks” to create better travel experience for children. In my role as children’s travel anthropologist, I would take Eloise to all the places immortalized in Pixar’s charming new film, Ratatouille, which is set in Paris, to see if the connection to the film could be used to enhance both the fun and the educational impact of travel.

We would visit the Eiffel Tower, the sewers, the Catacombs, the Alexander Bridge (where Remy forms his partnership with Linguini) and perhaps splash out on a meal at one of the restaurants the animators used as inspiration for the kitchen and dining room of Gusteau’s. All I can say is Pixar must have awesome expense accounts because the list includes the crème de la crème of Paris restaurants: La Tour d’Argent, Guy Savoy, Taillevant, Helene Darroze and Le Train Bleu. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that I was on to something. There was only one intractable problem. A problem I did not want to recognise or accept. Eloise had absolutely no interest in experiencing Paris from a rat’s point of view.

I should have figured it out early in the week when we descended twenty five meters underground and began our hour long tour of the Catacombs. There is some pretty cool stuff down there including the artfully arranged remains of about 6 million people and a warning over the entrance which states, “Halt, for this is the Empire of Death.” There are even Parisians called Cataphiles who are considered experts on the 300 kilometers (roughly 186 miles) of underground tunnels and special police called Cataflics who chase down and issue fines to any unauthorized visitors.

Now I would have expected this spooky netherworld to appeal to any child, especially ones imagining that they were part of Remy’s happy rat family scampering about, but what was Eloise’s reaction? “Mom, maybe we should have gone to the sewer museum.” It was all so disappointing, but I had much more rat magic up my sleeve. Or so I thought,

In fact, I was totally unsuccessful in interesting Eloise in another underground adventure (too smelly), or the Eiffel Tower (too crowded) or the Alexander Bridge (too boring). I was becoming quite desperate. My whole film hook concept was coming apart at the seams but then I noticed an ad for a museum that I had never heard of, the Palais de la decouverte, which claimed to have a L’Ecole des Rats.

Wow, I thought, a school for rats, how fantastic! Already wary of trying to sell the rat idea to my daughter, I pointed out that this science museum, located in the heart of Paris, was offering a special exhibition on volcanoes, a topic about which Eloise would shortly have to make a presentation for her class back in London. I argued that it would be a fun way to do her homework.

“Yeah right, Mom, the whole thing is probably in French.”
“OK, then you can practice your French at the same time.”
“Mom, we don’t talk about volcanoes in French class. We talk about the colour of my clothes and how many brothers and sisters I have and stuff like that.”
“OK, but they have this really great School for Rats. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
“Mom, you have rats on the brain but OK lets go to the science museum. How long do we have to stay?”

As it turned out, we stayed all day and had a fabulous time. The Palais de la decouverte was the big revelation of our trip. It’s a huge barn of a place, lost in time, but conveniently located right behind the Grand Palais. It is relatively unknown, virtually empty and has a 1960s Doctor Demento meets “Back to the Future” feel with museum staff who look like mad scientists in white lab coats. Some of the exhibits, such as the ones on volcanoes and tsunamis are state-of-the art, hands-on displays while other parts of the museum have been left in a dusty, old fashioned state.

Surprisingly, the highlight of our visit was getting the chance to see the rare 1932 film of Inuit life, Palos Brudefaerd (Palos Wedding), which tells the story of the rivalry of two contestants for the love of an Inuit woman. Filmed in Greenland and written by the famous anthropologist and explorer, Knud Rasmussen, the hour long docudrama bears poetic witness to the ancient customs and traditions of a lost way of life that completely captured the imagination of one 10 year old girl from London – and her mother. In a million years, we never expected to be swept away by a 75 year old black and white movie about Eskimos but such is the nature of the many unexpected pleasures of the Palais de la decouverte.

And what about the School of Rats? It was great too with more white coated staff getting rats to perform in front of an appreciative audience of school children. There were neat mazes and puzzles to play with that taught humans how to think like rats. We may not have had a “Ratatouille moment” but we sure learned a lot about rodents.

And it was in the School of Rats that I finally realised why my whole Ratatouille’s Paris idea was rubbish. Ratatouille may be a delightful movie. The way Pixar depicts Paris may be stunning. The French may have embraced this film as their own and I may want badly to eat at the Tour d’Argent, but no little girl wants to follow in the footsteps of a rat. More importantly, no child on a school holiday wants to be a guinea pig for a rat obsessed mother determined to raise every child’s “sentimental” education through better travel experiences.

On the drive back to London, Eloise did her best to make me feel better. “It’s OK, Mom, it really was a good idea but just in case you want to put it in your blog, my favourite things were shopping and that weird Eskimo movie.”

Useful Information

The Catacombs of Paris
1, avenue due Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy
Tel: 33 (0)1 43 22 47 63
Fax: 33 (0)1 43 22 48 17
Open Tuesday-Sunday 10 am to 5 pm
Metro – Denfert-Rochereau

Palais de la decouverte
Avenue Franlin Roosevelt
Tel: 33 (0)1 56 43 20 20
Tuesday to Saturday from 9:30 to 6 pm
Sunday and public holidays from 10 am to 7 pm
Metro – Champs-Elysees Clemenceau or Franklin Roosevelt

Saturday, October 27, 2007

In Praise of Sciacchetra

Now back in London, Gary and Lorraine share their new affection for one of Italy's rarest wines.

Been to Tuscany? Probably. If you have, you’re certainly no stranger to that wonderful fortified dessert wine served after most meals, Vino santo (or often, vin’ santo). A lighter and more mellow digestif than a heavy port or thick sauternes, vin’ santo is the perfect finish for a typical 6 course Tuscan repast.

But wait—there is something better! From the salt-washed hillsides of the Cinqueterre comes a truly astounding experience, which is simply not available anywhere else in the world. Sciacchetera (pronounced shock-a-TRA) is the result of leaving three local varieties of grapes on the vine until they are literally raisins, and then fermenting that intensely concentrated fruit using a unique method handed down through the generations. The only place it is produced is in the AOC of the Cinqueterre, those 5 towns dotted along the Ligurian Sea, each with a year round population of less than 1000. Vines are grown on the steep hillsides facing the sea and the sunset, giving them what are arguably the best views of grapes anywhere in the world. Vineyards are perched on these terraces, held back by thousands of miles of dry stone walls (more stonework than in the Great Wall of China).

This late harvest method creates intense flavours of honey and herbs with just a hint of tartness in a wine that is typically light amber to peach in colour. Try it with the local gorgonzola and you will be in heaven, or go all the way to the sweet side and dip your cantuccini (dried sweet almond cake) in it, just as the Tuscans do with their vin’ Santo. At 18% alcohol, Scciacchetera is not something to take lightly—you’ll enjoy it more if you have a walk, rather than a drive home afterwards. And of course, don’t be surprised at the price. Highly concentrated late harvest wine created with an ancient artisanal method on steep hillsides has its price—you’ll seldom get away at under €10 for a glass at a restaurant, and buying a small (500 ml) bottle of the aged stuff at the local enoteca could easily set you back €100 or more.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Isola Palmaria - Go for the Views

Those intrepid travellers, Gary and Lorraine, are still hard at it in Italy, hiking, eating and reporting on how to get the best out of the Ligurian coast with No Crowds.

The biggest island in Liguria, Isola Palmaria, which site just 100 meters off the tip of the rocky peninsula that ends at Porto Venere, is scarcely mentioned in the tourist guides. While Porto Venere is certainly on the tourist maps, often recommended as the ideal jumping off place from which to tour the Cinqueterre to the north, the island and its two small cousins, Tino and Tinetto, are usually glossed over. Getting there is simply a matter of approaching one of the water taxi services in the harbour and asking for a ride over. The taxis operate in typical Italian mode—they have a published schedule, but actually will take you whenever you want to go. They have a set price, but the thinking behind the pricing is elusive--€ 1.50 one way, € 4.00 round trip.

Arriving on the rocky beach which faces the port, we turned left (southeast) and worked our way along the shore to the tiny alleyway next to the island’s one business establishment, an excellent restaurant. Wandering through the small parking lot containing the island’s half dozen motorized vehicles, we stopped briefly at the map and tourist guide kiosk (the entire island is a national park). Moving on to the southerly hiking trail, it became clear why the island doesn’t rate much of a Fodor’s entry. The trails were not particularly kept up (although happily free of litter), and the island overall had a feel of a depreciating outpost from the last war, where the main purpose of the roads and trails was to gain access to machine gun nests and bunkers. Which of course, is exactly the case (little known fact: “The Guns of Navarone” was largely filmed on Tinetto).

After another 15 minutes, we were confronted with the reason why Palmaria should be featured in the guides. The entire island, it turns out, constitutes the best seats in the house from which to enjoy the drama that is the Ligurian coastline. As we rose quickly along the steep mountainous ridge toward the island’s summit, we were rewarded with a serious of glorious views, each with more perspective than the one before. The entire Bay of Poets (named originally for Lord Byron who once swam across it) was laid out in front of us. From south along the coastline to the busy harbours of La Spezia and Porto Venere, to the steep marble bluffs that lead north to the Cinqueterre, the effect was breathtaking. As we climbed, we realized over and over again that the only other way to get such a complete and lofty view would be to charter a helicopter!

Reaching the summit (or as close as we could get to it, owing to the fenced enclosure around the mountaintop weather and reconnaissance station), we had a chance to enjoy the view to Tino and Tinetto and the open Mediterranean beyond. On a previous occasion, my companion had taken the trail down to this far shore, and reported an excellent and deserted beach where the water in October was nippy, but refreshing.

We took the steepest path back down (with plenty of signposts to warn us), and were rewarded with a new set of views. We were also happy to find ropes, fences and guardrails to give us some amount of confidence. As we threaded our way along the very lip of the 200m cliffs on the ocean side, we had the occasional unsettling experience of looking directly down into a colourful local fishing boat. To the north, the huge headlands were in sharp relief, and blended in to the ancient fortification at Porto Venere, where rock and building seem to come together so well that you stop and wonder whether the fort and church of San Pietro might just have been the result of some geological upheaval millions of years ago. The town of Porto Venere that faced us, with it’s multicoloured vertical houses and active promenade along the water was clearly a more recent addition, however

As we neared the base of the mountain, we happened upon a small group of the island’s stunted mountain goats—they’re about terrier-sized. While they wouldn’t let us approach them directly, they were certainly not afraid of us, and gave us a demonstration of how they walk up an essentially sheer cliff without putting a foot wrong. Very impressive. After that, it remained only for us to make our way south along the shore to the dock, where our taxi driver was waiting to return us to the mainland. On our hike, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in early October (when hundreds are hiking the Cinqueterre trails daily), we had not seen another soul.

Isola Palmaria, La Spezia, Italy,9.84202
Photo by Gary and Lorraine

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Trattoria dal Billy - Getting out of the Scrum in the Cinque Terre

My friend Sandy (Mr Soul City for you regular readers) has been after me for ages to get contributions for NoCrowds from my well travelled family and acquaintances. “Well Sandy”, I keep telling him, “they just don’t send me stuff. What am I supposed to do?” “Try blackmail” he advised.

And just when I thought that the idea of creating a community of like-minded travellers was going nowhere, into my mailbox drops this wonderful post from Gary and Lorraine, from the Cinque Terre in Northern Italy. By way of introduction, while most of us dream about someday paying off the mortgage and seeing the world, these two have been living the dream while managing to hold down jobs, raise children and yes, pay off the mortgage. That is why I am particularly proud to offer this review of a great NoCrowds destination from two admirable nomads who I didn’t even blackmail.

Trattoria dal Billy

Manarola is a tiny place nestled on the Mediteranean and practically clinging to the steep escarpment that rises out of the water up into the lesser alps that sit behind this section of the Italian Riviera. It is town number two in the cinqueterre, the 5 lovely staircase-encrusted towns that have spent most of their lives cut off from land based access to the rest of the world. Tourism has definitely come to Manarola, as hourly ferries and the putt-putt local train that winds impossibly through ledges and tunnels disgorge plenty of visitors into the town center, where olive oil shops, basil shops and wine stores stocking sciacchetera, the local dessert wine, abound.

The restaurants on the main gallery through town are packed at lunchtime, but the hardy walker has a wonderful alternative. Perched high on the southern cliff that forms half of the town, a tiny place with the improbable name of Trattoria dal Billy clings to a tenuous foothold almost directly above the town square. With a lovely indoor dining room, but a truly spectacular terrace that boasts 6 – count em 6 – tables, you will find yourself in culinary heaven, literally looking down on the mere mortals crowding into the pizzerias in the center of town. Just a word to the wise—if you’re there in the summer when the crowds are, try to get there by 1:00 which is the very beginning of the lunch hour, otherwise those tables may well have been taken for the duration.

My companion and I decided to start with the antipasto de mare, a combination of cold calamari and incredible lemoned anchovies with warm polpe (octopus) and the most incredibly seasoned vongole (tiny clams) you might ever eat. We weren’t sure how this magic was woven with olive oil, butter, garlic, and fennel, but it served not only the clams but a fair amount of dipping of bread. A very serviceable bottle of Billy’s own vino bianco di Tavola was a perfect accompaniment. Following this, we chose to share the grilled sea bass, sold by the gram. A mere 320 grams later, we were more than impressed with the chef’s ability to perfectly cook this delicate fish to perfection, and finished every mouth-watering morsel.

Sitting back and enjoying the view after the satisfying repast, we enquired after the postres. With our espresso, Billy recommended what he called “something with milk and eggs and cheese and fragole, which was in fact a unique and light cheesecake with the tiniest strawberries I’ve ever seen as a topping. However, enquiries about after dinner drinks brought disappointing results. The sciacchetera, he agreed was magnificent..but he had none. Limoncino? Wonderful way to end the meal. Unfortunately, he had finished the last of it himself last night. We settled for the grappa and happily finished our coffees before heading back onto the cinqueterre trail.

Trattoria dal Billy
Via A. Rollandi 122
Manarola, La Spezia
Photo of Trattoria dal Billy (circled) by Gary and Lorraine.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Gravetye Manor - Where Luxury Meets Value for Lunch

I have been sitting at my desk, staring at the bill for lunch at Gravetye Manor and trying to decide what to say about our experience there last Saturday. I could say that the stone mansion, built in 1598 is lovely, that the gardens, created by one of the greatest gardeners of all times are even lovelier. I could say that once you drive up the mile long driveway the concerns of modern life seem far away and all of this would be true. But the most memorable thing about our recent lunch at Gravetye Manor was that we left thinking it was a great experience and a good deal. At a one star Michelin restaurant in a Relais and Chateaux property, in a place where we least expected to find value, we had a wonderful lunch, arguably a perfect lunch, for a fair price. In the twelve years that I have lived in Britain, I’ve never said that before.

So what made this lunch perfect and why do I consider £81.56 to be great value? For American readers, I know, I know, £81.56 represents $163.12 which is a monstrous amount of money to spend for lunch but you’re just going to have to go to your exchange rate “happy place” and take my word for it that this is a good deal.

As for Gravetye, lets begin with the setting. In the pantheon of English gardeners, William Robinson (1838 – 1935) looms large as the pioneer of the natural English garden movement. Gravetye was Robinson’s home for more than 50 years and as the Gravetye marketing bumf correctly states, “the variety and charm of the arrangements of trees and shrubs, the landscaping and the layout of the different types of garden at Gravetye is still his creation and memorial.” There are few settings for any hotel or restaurant that are quite as lovely as this one.

Moving on to the service, it was both expert and attentive. After suffering for so long from the well meaning but untrained army of young Eastern Europeans who are the engine of London’s hospitality juggernaut, it was blissful to slip back into the hands of proud, skilful professionals who take their direction from Mark Raffan, the Chef de Cuisine and Director, who trained at both Gravetye and with the Roux brothers at Le Gavroche and who was once the personal chef of the late King Hussein of Jordan.

As for the food, it was creative without being fussy, beautifully presented and delicious but what made it great value was this: the 3-course Table d’Hotel lunch for £23 which we both chose. To accompany our three courses, the highlight of which was an excellent English iteration of a bouillabaisse with a variety of fish from the south coast, we chose a reasonable £23 Chateau Hourbanon 1997 Medoc. After lunch, we had coffee in one of the oak panelled sitting rooms, followed by a walk in the justifiably famous gardens.

According to Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report which gave Gravetye a lifetime achievement award in 2006, “this timeless Elizabethan stone manse was Britain’s first luxury country house hotel, and nearly 50 years later, it still ranks among the very best of its genre.” Bearing in mind that you can spend much, much more at Gravetye than we did, I really appreciated the fact that we were able to have a fabulous experience at one of Europe’s premier hotels without breaking the bank and without being made to feel that we were anything less than very important guests. We’ll be back.

Gravetye Manor
Near East Grinstead
West Sussex RH19 4LJ
Tel: 44 (0)1342 810567
Fax: 44(0)1342 810080

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Vita and the School Interview

I’ve always thought that visiting gardens was for nice grannies who were members of horticultural societies. The whole business of wandering around looking at plants seemed a quaint pastime, but not really my thing. I certainly would not consider driving 1 ½ hours out of London to visit a garden, but Eloise was interviewing at a school near Sissinghurst, and even I knew that Sissinghurst was one of premier gardens of England, created in the 1930s by Sir Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West. Always fascinated by unusual aristocratic lifestyles and anything to do with the Bloomsbury group, I thought it would be really fun to visit the home of the woman who inspired Virginia Woof to write Orlando. Jeff was convinced we were in for another “namby pamby chic lit” experience but I told him that after Sissinghurst we would head for Gravetye Manor, a country house hotel with an impressive reputation and a Michelin one star restaurant. That improved his mood considerably.

Things got off to a promising start when the lady parking cars at Sissinghurst wanted to have an in-depth conversation about my Hermes scarf. I was wearing my best one in the hope of improving Eloise’s chances of getting into “the school of her choice” although Jeff is convinced that what I wear will have absolutely no impact on Eloise’s school admissions but I’m not so sure. As luck would have it, the car park attendant had the latest Hermes catalogue to hand and we were able to review her favourites and mine. By now, the cars were backing up behind us and Jeff was looking really worried that we would move on to shoes and handbags.

Once inside Sissinghurst Castle, which is a collection of remnants from a 15th century manor, we headed immediately for the central red-brick tower which dominates the garden, climbing straight to the top for the glorious views over the Kent countryside. On the way down the steep circular staircase, we stopped at Vita Sackville-West’s incredibly romantic study where she wrote many of her poems, novels and weekly gardening columns which I found hugely inspiring. Back outside, we wandered around the various garden areas which are arranged like a series of outdoor rooms, soaking in the atmosphere and revelling in the fine weather. Neither Jeff nor I can tell an exotic species from a garden weed but you do not need to know anything about gardening to appreciate the amazing aesthetic vision of Sissinghurst’s creators. The gardens are, in a word, sublime.

After the gardens, we headed for the library which looked exactly as you would hope, somewhat gloomy filled with old rugs, old furniture and lots and lots of books. Jeff was delighted to find that the information about the library had been translated into Catalan and began questioning the nice volunteer about the National Trust’s interest in supporting separatist movements which only goes to prove that this wonderful property has something for everyone.

Soon it was time to leave for the promised one star lunch. As was the case with Blenheim Palace, our last school interview outing, I left Sissinghurst with a long reading list which included revisiting Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (I was too young the first time), Sackville-West’s own writings and her son’s account of his parents’ relationship, Portrait of a Marriage, which was first published in 1973. That one garden could inspire such an outbreak of reading speaks volumes about the magical world-within-a-world that was created by two such supremely talented and unusual individuals. As we left Sissinghurst, I gave a thought to how Eloise was doing down the road. Who knows, thanks to her diligence and my scarves, we just might be back. I hope so.

Practical Information about visiting Sissinghurst:

Sissinghurst is run by the National Trust which oversees more than 300 historic homes and gardens. Even if you are only visiting the UK for a week or two, it could easily pay to become a member of this organisation. By my calculation, if you visit as few as four National Trust properties, a membership already saves you money and you are helping a very good cause. Memberships can be purchased on the National Trust website or at the first property you visit.

Although Sissinghurst was not busy on the day we visited in early October, it remains the most heavily visited garden in England and to protect the garden and the visitors experience, on busy days, the National Trust limits the number of tickets sold and those tickets are timed. Therefore, it pays to call ahead to find out what you are up against. On the website, the point is made that the garden is at its quietest in the late afternoon.

Sissinghurst can be reached from London by taking a train from Charing Cross to Staplehurst Station in Kent and at certain times, the National Trust runs a special link from the station to the property. Check the website for details.

Near Cranbrook, Kent TN172AB
Tel: 01580 710700

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Best of Claude

Claude called last night and mentioned that he had been on NoCrowds but could not find himself.
You might have thought he was having an existential moment but actually it was a reasonable thing for him to say considering how often I have told this charismatic Frenchman that he was one of my main sources of NoCrowds inspiration.

Since the references were all buried in the archives, I promised to send him the links to the stories where his uncompromising attitude and good advice had been mentioned but after producing the list I thought, wow, these are some of my favourite posts, some dating as far back as June 2005. Why not produce a “Best of Claude” list for everyone to enjoy?

And so, I did:

Late Nights in London Museums

Jardin d’Acclimatation

Beyond Airports

And here are contributions from Claude’s wife, Fanny.

No Romantic Life with Gustave Moreau

The Museum of Romantic Life

I had so much fun looking through the archives that I'm glad I didn't mention to Claude to try the search function for NoCrowds which can be found on the upper left hand corner of the site but even if you are not looking for yourself, it's an easy way to find what you need.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Harrods - A Timeless Tourist Trap

I’ve said it before, I don’t like Harrods anymore. I don’t like the current owner who displays a Madame Tussaud waxwork of himself in the Man’s Shop. I don’t like his creepy security guards who enforce the store’s dress code and tell you how to carry your handbag. I don’t like the tasteless Diana and Dodi Memorial on the lower ground floor. With that said, I was in the neighbourhood yesterday and thought it would be fun to drop in on Harrod’s exhibition “Timeless Luxury”, a celebration of the backstories of the world’s most iconic brands. How, for example, officers in World War I would commission Aquascutum, the inventor of the waterproof wool coat, to make coats with deep pockets for ammunition, ergo the name “trench coat” or how Louis Vuitton got his start packing trunks for Napoleon. Well, that sounded interesting.

When I arrived, I was directed to the Harrods Story Exhibition where I learned some amazingly cools things, like the fact that the store embalmed Sigmund Freud, delivered a baby elephant to Ronald Reagan and once employed Dave Prowse, the original Darth Vader, as a fitness instructor. There was an enthusiastic archivist on hand to answer questions. So far, so good, but I felt so sad to have missed the Harrods they were talking about, the eccentric, interesting and admirable Harrods that delivered a crocodile to Noel Coward, and daily fresh herring to Alfred Hitchcock in Hollywood, that would hire you an ambulance complete with a trained nurse or teach etiquette to debutantes. I kept asking myself how the Harrods of yesteryear, the one with class and esprit could have ended up as such a soulless temple of ueber-consumption, more Las Vegas than London.

But what about the brands? To tell you the truth, I only made it through part of the Baccarat Exhibition (very nice) when I started to get what I would describe as a Harrods' headache – too many people, silly prices and sillier rules. Here are some of the things that I missed:

The Ferragamo Exhibition - shoes worn by movie stars and royalty since the 1920s – (Sounded good, shoes are always interesting)

Valentino Exhibition – the vintage Valentino gown that was the inspiration for Julia Roberts Oscar dress (who cares?)

Turnbull & Asser Exhibition – Pieces worn by Rupert Evans and Mick Fleetwood (who?) and patterns of Winston Churchill, Laurence Olivier, Charlie Chaplin and Sean Connery (had potential)

The Little Black Dress Exhibition – featuring Versace’s safety pin show stopper made famous by Liz Hurley (haven’t these people seen Breakfast at Tiffanys? Now that was a ‘little black dress’!)

I’m really not sorry to have missed these exhibits, or Aerin Lauder’s Fragrance debut or the launch of Van Cleff & Arpels children’s collection (I could give up right here and become a Bolshevik) but what I am sorry to have missed is the Harrods that was more interested in pleasing the Royal Family than Kylie Minogue. Almost every visitor to London makes a pilgrimage to Harrods and to be fair, the food halls are fun to wander through, there are lots of nice overpriced places to eat and the toy department is far better than Hamleys. But if you are looking for that great old store – reader, it is gone. What’s left, as they say in the Michelin Guides, is not worth the detour.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Freedom Schooner Amistad

I come from a family of talented sailors but inherited none of their ability or love of the sea. Still, when Jeff asked if I wanted to visit the Freedom Schooner Amistad when it was docked in London as part of its 2007-2008 Amistad Freedom Tour, I jumped at the chance.

I don’t know about you but my natural inclination when someone proposes something worthy and politically correct is to head for the hills but this year a remarkable number of events commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Act of Parliament which abolished the slave trade throughout the British Empire have taken place up and down the country including several at my church in London where Granville Sharp, one of the founders of the Abolitionist Movement is buried. I thought, “if the story of the Amistad is half as absorbing as that of Granville Sharp and the early Abolitionists, then it will be worth trucking out to Canary Wharf, a thriving 21st century megalopolis of global financial institutions, to see this reconstructed 19th century schooner.

The Freedom Schooner Amistad was originally conceived by Warren Q Marr II, former editor of the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine. Inspired by Operation Sail, the 1976 parade of tall ships, Marr believed that by telling the story of the Amistad Incident of 1839, where 53 African captives fought for freedom not only on the seas but ultimately in the United States Supreme Court, the floating exhibit would help build understanding amongst people of diverse backgrounds.

A tall order for a tall ship but thanks to the charisma and communication skills of the remarkable William D. Pinkney, the first Master of the Amistad, who spoke to us during our visit, the message of freedom, justice and the triumph of the human spirit were memorably delivered. In a tour de force of connecting with his audience, which included British aristocrats, American diplomats and the usual assortment of bankers and lawyers, this former Revlon marketing executive gave a powerful demonstration of universal human themes by going off on a “rif” about mothers which Bill told us he uses in every port around the world, claiming “everybody gets it and it works every time”.

The London visit of the Amistad is part of a 18 month, 14,000 mile voyage which will include stops in the United Kingdom, Portugal, Sierra Leone, the Caribbean, Bermuda and the east coast of the United States. My recommendation if you live near any of the ports where the Amistad will call, go, see this unique floating classroom, but most importantly, find Bill Pinkney and get him to tell you the “true” story of the Amistad.
Photo courtesy of the Freedom Schooner Amistad website copyright 2007 Wojtek (Voytec) Wolowski

Friday, September 21, 2007

Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Palace, a UNESCO world heritage site located outside Oxford, really pulls in the punters. I almost turned the car around when I saw the queue on a mid-week morning in the off-season. I despaired as I waited in the restroom with the brigade of pensioners and their aging bladders who had just piled off the buses. I was shocked at the £16 admission price and the sheer commercialism of the place with its three gift shops. I was more than ready to advise NoCrowds readers to give this one a pass until the moment that I walked through the ceremonial East Gate, looked left across the Great Court at the monumental baroque palace and right across the infinitely sublime Capability Brown landscape and fell deeply and hopelessly in love with Blenheim.

Everything about Blenheim is over-the-top, from the story of its conception as a gift from Queen Anne to commemorate the first Duke of Marlborough’s crushing defeat of the French in the Battle of Blenheim, to its size where the buildings and courts cover more than seven acres and the roofs alone have been described as “a small town on another planet” to the park and gardens which are the loveliest I think I’ve ever seen. Blenheim describes itself as “Britain’s greatest palace” and for once, the marketing hype might be right.

Much effort has been made to offer visitors “value for money”. In the palace you can take a guided tour or guide yourself through the magnificent State Rooms as well as visit “Blenheim Palace: The Untold Story” which uses all the latest technology including videos and touch screens to provide a kind of “Upstairs/Downstairs meets Ghostbusters” experience. For my money, they could have dispensed with the politically correct information about the servants and focussed even more on the fascinating and sometimes outrageous family members such as the breathtakingly beautiful and miserable Consuelo Vanderbilt whose millions saved Blenheim through an arranged marriage to the 9th Duke.

Blenheim also was the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill and fans of the great wartime leader will enjoy the Churchill Exhibition which has extensive correspondence the most touching being Winston begging his father to come visit him at school which his father never did and lots of fun knickknacks such as Churchill’s honorary US citizenship proclamation and passport and a collection of Hallmark cards made from some of his paintings. You can visit the room where Winston was born and gaze upon a lock of his hair. If you are a serious student of Churchill, the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms in London has a far more comprehensive and scholarly collection but seeing the memorabilia at Blenheim gives you a very good understanding of the origins of Winston Chuchill’s sense of destiny.

On the day we were there, the Private Apartments of the 11th Duke and his family were open to the public. Based on the fact that the carpet covers were permanently installed and rather dirty, I suspect that the Private Apartments are open quite often although a good show is put on to convince you of your great good fortune to be allowed into the inner sanctum and oh, by the way, there was an additional £4 charge. Still there are enough “treats” scattered about to make the experience worthwhile and the guide was excellent. For me, the highlight was the painting of the pack of Marlboros on the mantel in the TV room (yes, even Dukes watch telly) painted by a someone having a laugh about the family title. Given the family’s connection to Winston Churchill, there was also a painting of a pack of Winston’s but I am happy to report that it was of infinitely inferior quality – like the cigarettes.

Having spent several hours in the palace, in the afternoon we turned our attention to the park and gardens. In the stables, there are two things to see: a film about the development of Capability Brown’s inspiring landscape which I really enjoyed and an exhibit entitled ‘Churchill’s Destiny which celebrates the lives and achievements of the two great Churchill, much of which is geared for a younger audience.

Finally, we took a walk by the lake and cascades and although we barely scratched the surface of the spectacular park, I began to feel completely divorced from the impact of tourism and the 21st century, so strong is Capability Brown’s vision of an 18th century arcadia. We did not have time to visit the Pleasure Gardens which contains the Marlborough Maze, a Butterfly House and an Adventure Playground although this would have had more appeal for Eloise than for me. The Pleasure Gardens are a 15 minute walk from the palace. There is also a little train that can take you there and parking is available.

By 4:30 it was time for us to get back in the car and pick up Eloise who was interviewing at a nearby school. Blenheim, for all the crowds, was as magnificent and inspiring as advertised. I left with a long to-do list: read Charles Spencer’s book Blenheim: Battle for Europe as well as Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan’s auto-biography, the Glitter and the Gold rent the 1969 BBC series the First Churchills from the library, and find a slot in the calendar to make the trek north to see Castle Howard, the other great historic house built by John Vanbrugh. My long list speaks to the power of Blenheim to stick in your head long after you’ve left. I loved it and I think you would too.

Useful Information

The Palace is open daily from 10:30 to 5:30 until 28 October and then Wednesday to Sunday from 31st of October to 9th of December.

The Park is open every day except Christmas from 9:00 to 4:45

Blenheim is close to the town of Woodstock eight miles northwest of Oxford. Train and bus service available.

Blenheim Palace
Woodstock, Oxfordshire
OX20 1PX
Tel: 0870 060 2080
Image of John Singer Sargent's Duke of Marlborough Family in the Blenheim Palace collection

Monday, September 17, 2007

Ham House and the Petersham Nurseries

There’s something about vintage civil war sites that makes for good tourism. This realisation came to me last Sunday when we visited Ham House near Richmond upon Thames with my cousins from North Carolina. These are the very same cousins who had recently taken us to Bentonville, the last major battle of the American Civil War and so I felt we owed them a good outing. Coincidentally, but unwittingly, we ended up taking them to a mansion that had played a major role in the English Civil War which got me thinking about civil war tourism and why these sites are unusually interesting.

We really hadn’t planned for civil war reciprocity. All we were trying to do was show our guests something that the average London tourist never finds that would not tie us up in London’s diabolical traffic. We ran through the options closer to home -
Osterley, Syon, Kew and Kenwood, but we had been to all of them recently and we were up for a change.

“What about Ham House near Richmond? It’s not far and we haven’t been there in years. We can see the house and gardens and walk along the river towpath. Let’s see if we can get a table at the ‘oh-so-fashionable’ Petersham Nurseries restaurant and make a day of it.”

Our well made plan came a cropper early on when we ran into the diabolical traffic we had been hoping to avoid and Jeff and I commenced our usual heated discussion about choice of routes and who chose the wrong route. We spend a lot of time in London doing that. The cousins thought it was pretty funny.

But we finally reached Ham House which is an outstanding 17th century mansion located on the bank of the Thames River run by the National Trust, a worthy charitable organisation that was formed in 1895 to look after places of historic interest for the benefit of the nation. As a rule, you can count on National Trust properties to deliver a quality experience and Ham was no exception.

Ham House was built in 1610 and was acquired in 1626 by William Murray who served as “whipping boy” to the future King Charles I. It seems odd today, but at the time, given the concept of the divine right of Kings, you couldn’t exactly spank God’s future representative on earth when he was naughty. Needless to say, Murray and the Prince became close friends and Murray prospered, undertaking major programs of lavish refurbishments throughout the house, much of which remains intact today.

Following the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, Murray was rewarded for his loyalty by being made the first Earl of Dysart. After his death in 1655, the title passed to his eldest daughter who has been described as a beautiful, ambitious and greedy political schemer who spied on behalf of the exiled King. She also had a penchant for extravagant paintings, furniture and textiles and much of what she acquired can also be seen today.

After exploring the house we wandered around the elegant 17th century gardens and watched a short film which helped bring to life the role of the house and its occupants in the Civil War and Restoration. We saw no evidence on our visit, but Ham House is reputed to be one of the most haunted houses in Britain and much is made of this at Halloween when special ghost tours of the house are given. What we did see, which will be of interest to my relatives who live in Carteret County in North Carolina, were lots of paintings of members of the Carteret family because the eldest daughter of Lord Carteret, later the Earl of Granville and one of the Lord Proprietors of North Carolina married the 4th Earl of Dysart. Between the civil war and North Carolina connections, we were definitely on a roll.

Afterwards, we headed towards Richmond along the Thames River towpath looking for lunch. Jeff had tried to book a table at the Petersham Nursery Restaurant but on a Sunday in fine weather, or any Sunday for that matter, you can forget it unless you book well in advance. Knowing that there was also a teahouse in the garden centre where we could get something light, and determined to see what all the fuss was about, we were on our way. The walk from Ham to the Petersham Nursery takes about 15 minutes through some of the most beautiful and arcadian landscape to be found in greater London. Tucked away behind Petersham Meadows is a very trendy garden center and an even trendier restaurant. Just as I was telling my cousins about all the famous people who live in Richmond ( like Mick Jagger and Peter Townsend), the actor Richard Grant strolls by. It’s that kind of place.

And so is the Petersham Nurseries where Skye Gyngell, the stunningly beautiful, Australian, former drug addict, chef featured in Vogue Magazine prepares very expensive lunches in the middle of a ramshackle garden centre. Upon arrival we bagged one of the mismatched tables and joined the queue for the self-service teahouse. I know I sound like I didn’t love the experience, but I did. We had soup (delicious), cake (freshly baked and also delicious) and tea ( from leaves not bags) and eating in the middle of a fashionable garden centre filled with beautiful English people and their dogs is lots of fun. I highly recommend this place for tea and if you don’t mind being overcharged, I’ll bet the lunches are good too. In any event, my cousins were quite sure they had seen something that was well outside the realm of tick-the-box tourism and we all judged the day a big success.

Useful Addresses

Ham House
Ham Street
Ham (near Richmond-upon-Thames)
TW10 7RS
Tel: 0208 940 1950
The house is open from 31 March to 28 October. The gardens are open year-round.

Petersham Nurseries
Off Petersham Road
Richmond, Surrey
TW10 7AG
Tel: 0208 940 5230
Fax: 0208 605 3447

The Tea House is open Tuesday – Saturday from 10:00 to 4:30, Sunday and Monday from 11:00 to 4:30.

For Café bookings
Tel: 020 8605 3627
Photo courtesy of Vogue magazine

Monday, September 10, 2007

La Villa Duflot Revisited

Those of you who read my post from last year will surely remember my description of the cavorting rats – don’t worry they were out in the garden, not in the rooms - and my suggestion that the hotel acquire a cat. Well, I’ll be darned, they’ve gone and gotten one with the unsurprisingly result that there was not a rat in sight. Everything else about the place remains the same from the secret garden, the retro building, the pretty pool and the excellent food. This is a very useful hotel to know about if you are travelling on the A9 motorway which links the city of Montpellier in southern France to Spain and with the addition of the cat, La Villa Duflot is now even better.

La Villa Duflot
Rond-point Albert Donnezan
66000 Perpignan
Tel: 04 68 56 67 67
Fax: 04 68 56 54 05

Friday, September 07, 2007

On Becoming Salvador Dali

“At the age of 6, I wanted to become a chef. At 7, I wanted to be Napoleon. From then on, my greatest ambition was to become Salvador Dali”
Salvador Dali

N o, no, no. No museums.
But Eloise, this is a Salvador Dali museum. He was totally nuts. You’re going to love it. Even your brothers think he is really cool.
Eloise arches an eyebrow. Are you sure about the brothers?
Dead sure.
OK, let’s go.

And so, off we went to the Teatre-Museu Dali in Figueres, Spain while en route to the seaside village of Cadaques on the Costa Brava. I knew going into it that this was a ridiculously crowded place famous for attracting hordes of Dali devotees willing to wait hours to get into “the largest surrealistic object in the world”. But it was 9:30 in the morning (the museum opens at 9:00 in summer), we were stuck in Figueres until 2:00 in the afternoon waiting for Granny to arrive by train and I was hopeful we might get away with it.

Even at 9:30 there was a good 10 minute wait. While Jeff stood in line, I went over to the Tourist Office on the square as they were advertising City Tours of Dali’s Figueres (including entrance to the museum) for six euros more than the cost of the museum alone. I asked if taking the tour was a good way to avoid waiting in line and the woman at the Tourist Office assured me it was. If you want to see this museum and can’t arrive close to the opening time, signing up for the City Tour plus Dalis Museum at the Tourist Office seems to be a good option.

Once we got inside the Salvador Dali monument, the fun began. “Eloise loved the crazy installation of a Cadillac with strange people inside which seemed to invite bad behaviour from all the fascinated children who where climbing all over the car’s running board to get a better look. The guards didn’t seem to mind. There were all kinds of weird, perverse things to admire like the Bug Lady pictured above. There’s plenty of kinky and provocative stuff to keep the parents amused as well. Hey, Dali’s even buried in the basement. All in all, the Theatra-Musee Dali is a fun, theatrical experience. How good the art is, I leave to the critics. The gift shop, a very important criteria for Eloise, was excellent with a wide range of beguilingly surreal products that were fairly priced.

Emerging about an hour later, we had a chance to wander around Figueres which is a surprisingly attractive small city. We had a relaxing lunch of tapas near the station, picked up Grandma and began to make our way to Cadaques where Dali lived and worked from 1930 to 1982.

Addendum - Dali’s house in Port Lligat, above Cadaques, is also a museum which all my children, small and grown, love to visit. There is a stuffed bear in the front hall and a terrific psychedelic swimming pool with little matadors. You must make an appointment several days in advance but the experience is so amazing it is worth the additional effort.

Useful Addresses

Figueres Tourist Offices
Placa del Sol
Placa Gala i Salvado Dali (July 1 – September 15)
Place de L’Estacio, 7 (July 1 – September 15)

Tel: 972 50 31 55
Fax: 972 67 31 66

Theatre-Museu Dali
Placa Gala I Salvador Dali, 5
17600 Figueres
Tel: 972 67 7500

January – February/ November – December 10:30-17:45
March, April, May, June, October 9:30-17:45
July – September 9 – 19:45

Casa-Museu Salvador Dali
17488 Port Lligat (Cadaques)
Tel: 972 25 10 15
Fax: 972 25 10 83
By appointment only