Tuesday, January 30, 2007

London's Museums of Health and Medicine

One of the books I enjoy browsing when I want to avoid writing is Mark Fisher’s Britain’s Best Museums and Galleries. During a recent romp through Fischer’s section on London, I was struck by how many London museums focus on medical and health related topics. Further investigations lead me to the website, London’s Museums of Health and Medicine, which provides information about visiting the twenty-one, that’s right, twenty-one medical museums and health-related collections that can be found in this city. I know medicine makes for big business but who would have thought it could also be big entertainment. I immediately called the doppelganger, who comes from a prominent medical family. “How about a day out visiting medical museums?” Most folks would have politely declined. Game as ever, the other Kate was in, and we were on.

We began the morning at the Florence Nightingale Museum on the site of St Thomas’ Hospital in Lambeth. I really wasn’t terribly interested in Ms. Nightingale or her story but the museum was open at the right time on the right day in an easy part of town to meet Kate. This was our first piece of good fortune because the Florence Nightingale Museum was wonderful. It’s a small but well thought out place which tells a powerful story about a formidable and enigmatic woman who changed the course of medical history.

For a little longer than an hour, we were equally fascinated and inspired by what Florence Nightingale had achieved and how she went about it. Starting life as a cosseted daughter of a wealthy Victorian family she went on (with considerable resistance from family and friends) to become a national heroine and life long campaigner for hospital reform and the promotion of the nursing profession.

In addition to the well thought out displays, there is an interesting film on her life which runs for 20 minutes which brings the whole story together. Florence Nightingale’s life is a great tale and this museum tells it well. All in all, our medical museum marathon was off to a good start.

After the Florence Nightingale experience, we headed for the attic of an 18th century church near London Bridge which is the home of the Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garret. I had heard about this place for years and it sounded completely weird and wonderful. From the moment we began to climb the 32 winding and treacherous stairs to emerge into a gift shop that was a combination of Aladdin’s Cave and my son’s room at University, I knew we had hit pay dirt. Here was another atmospheric London destination, up there with Dennis Severs House, 19 Princelet Street and the John Soanes Museum, all examples of places where the past comes to life.

The story goes like this. The Church of St Thomas Apostle was, in one form or another, the parish church of St Thomas’s Hospital from 1215 to 1862 when the hospital packed up and moved to Lambeth to make way for a railway line. Left behind in the attic of the church were Britain’s oldest operating theatre and an herb apothecary. It is a complex story how an operating theatre ended up in a church attic but suffice it to say, operations in those days relied on a good source of natural light and the church attic was both well lit and convenient as it stood on the same level as the female ward of the hospital. After St. Thomas’s Hospital moved, the theatre remained hidden and largely forgotten until the site was rediscovered in the 1950s.

What the visitor experiences today is a totally gruesome and riveting reminder of how far medicine has come since the days of the old operating theatre when patients were blindfolded, gagged and tied to what looked like a kitchen table with a box of sawdust underneath to catch the blood. Many of the surgical instruments from the time looked like props from a horror movie. Specimens taken from patients, such as huge kidney stones, rotten lungs and gigantic tape worms add to the fun. This place tells it "like it was" without softening or modifying the story for modern sensibilities. I thought it was fabulous but to make sure I was not the only one who found this museum nauseatingly sublime, I spent a long time leafing through the guest book. Most of the comments read something like

“Disgusting, creepy, revolting, fascinating, I loved it.”

The doppelganger liked it too and bought lots of postcards of toe amputations to send to MD relatives. If you have children, they'll love it.

After such a brilliant morning, there was nothing left to do but to go and have a bang-up lunch two minutes down the road at the Tapas Brindisa in Borough Market. We were lucky to get a table and with a no reservations policy, that can be said of everyone in the place. We started with a perfect plate of Iberica de Bellota charcuterie consisting of ham and sausages from the famous Iberian acorn fed pig. We then moved on to squid with aioli, chorizo, clams and ham and cheese with honey. The focus at Brindisa is on ingredients which are excellent. The atmosphere is crowded, noisy and fun. Prices are typical for London which means expensive, especially for tapas. Lunch will set you back approximately £20 per person.

After lunch we took the decision to end on a high and head home. Two museums down, nineteen to go. Watch this space.

Florence Nightingale Museum
St Thomas’ Hospital
2 Lambeth Palace Road
London SE1 7EW
Tel: 0207 620 0374
Fax: 0207 928 1760

Opening hours
Monday to Friday 10 – 5, Weekends and Bank Holiday 10 to 4:30
£5.80 for an adult/£16 for a family

Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garret
9a St Thomas’s Street
London SE1 9RY
Tel: 0207 188 2679

Opening hours
Monday to Sunday 10:30-5
Closed 15 December to 5 January
£5.25 for an adult/$12.95 for a family

Tapas Brindisa
Borough Market
18-20 Southwark Street
Tel: 020 7357 8880

Monday to Saturday 11:00 AM to 11:00 PM
On Friday there is a Spanish Breakfast starting at 9

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

What to do in London in a Storm

What wild weather we saw last week. Wednesday brought monsoons and Thursday saw 100 mile per hour winds that brought London to a chaotic standstill as trees, tiles, scaffolding and other stuff flew around town. Londoners, who have a flair for stoic suffering during moments of urban meltdown, just try to get on with their routines.

But what about our visitors?

It’s not really fair to invite them to the third most expensive city in the world, after Tokyo and Osaka, and then expect them to write off a day just because the weather is horrendous. So here’s an idea for a full day of culture, dining and shopping in a central London location between the Strand and Embankment, comprising three superb collections, a good restaurant and gift shops, all to be found under the roof of one world class building. A visit to Somerset House is great in any weather but never better than when London becomes too wet, too windy or just too crazy for running around.

Somerset House was built in 1776- 1801 by George III’s architect, William Chambers for administrative offices, and it's safe to say, civil servants never had it so good. Today, this masterpiece of classical architecture is the home of the Courtauld Institute of Art, the Gilbert Collection and the Hermitage Rooms, all of which represent high level NoCrowds experiences.

Take, for example, the Courtauld Institute of Art, which is generally considered to have one of the finest collections of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings in Britain, as well as old masters, sculpture and an extensive print and drawing collection. In fact, the Courtauld is best understood as a “collection of collections”, formed by the gifts and bequests of a group of fascinating private collectors. The icing on the cake is that you can view many of the mega-masterpieces of art history, such as Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies Bergere”, Edgar Degas’ “Two Dancers on a Stage” and Vincent Van Gogh’s “Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear” in blissful serenity. Thankfully saved from being a pit stop on the itinerary of tick-the-box tourism, the gallery offers a world class collection without the world class crowds.

Across the courtyard, housing an ice rink in winter and a lovely fountain (great for children) with eating and drinking options in summer, you will find the Gilbert Collection of decorative arts focussing on gold, silver and mosaics, as well as the Hermitage Rooms with temporary exhibitions of works on loan from the renowned Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

I would start with the Gilbert Collection, paying particular attention to the snuff boxes. I know that doesn’t sound earth shattering, but this is a gobsmacking collection of boxes, including several magnificent jewelled examples from the collection of Frederick the Great and a fabulous diamond encrusted box which was presented by Catherine the Great to the son of the English doctor who inoculated the Empress and her son against smallpox. A pair of enormous silver gates, also from the reign of the Empress, is, as they say in the Michelin guide, worth the detour. After viewing the collection, be sure to visit the special exhibit on the life and times of the collector, Sir Arthur Gilbert which is fun and fascinating, in a weird California kind of way, with loads of pictures of Sir Arthur with celebrities and an even weirder “Madame Tussaudesque” recreation of his office in LA with Gilbert on the phone in tennis whites.

From the Gilbert Collection, follow the signs to the Hermitage Rooms which are a short walk away. The Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House, decorated in the style of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, offer the unusual opportunity to see fabulous examples of work on loan from the Hermitage and other collections. From now until April 8, you can see a fascinating and at times quite naughty exhibition entitled, The Triumph of Eros: Art and Seduction in 18th Century France. The impetus for the show was the recent discovery of a collection of French erotic engravings of Tsar Nicholas for which London marks the collection’s international debut. Highlights also include works by Boucher, Watteau and the scultptor, Falconet.

When it is time for a break from all this culture, head for The Admiralty restaurant in the South Building on the ground floor which, because it is accessed via the Somerset House courtyard, is often overlooked and under-utilised. The setting is stylish and the menu Modern British. Lunch should set you back roughly £35 per person. If you are looking for something faster and cheaper, try the Deli, off the Seamen’s Hall or the Café in the Courtauld and in summer, there is a River Terrace Café offering al fresco dining with lovely views of the Thames. If you still need to pick up something for family and friends back home, the gift shops of all three collections have a good selection of tasteful and unusual gifts.

So if you find yourself in London on a particularly bad day and you can not bear the thought of fighting weather and mass transport meltdown, you can make an excellent day of it in Somerset House, London’s cultural emporium par excellence, and short of dashing across the courtyard, you don't even have to step outside.
Photo courtesy of Associated Press

Thursday, January 11, 2007

La Dolce Vita - Family Style

On the surface, Rome does not cater to young visitors. Green space hardly exists*, museums make no concessions for children, restaurants start serving dinner long after most children have gone to bed, and cars and motorbikes play a game of “chicken” with pedestrians that is guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of visiting parents. But this is the surface. Underneath what appears to be an “adults only” city, is a huge and thriving playground for the young and young at heart. We were there last week with two of our four children, aged 9 and 19, and they immediately “got” it. They had a blast and so did we.

In thinking about what made our Roman holiday so appealing to our younger members, I have come to the conclusion that Rome is, for them, one big HBO episode. It’s Western Civilisation for the MTV Generation complete with edgy editing: here Etruscans, there Baroque, look quick, now its Byzantine. Where we see antiquities, they see film sets. When our son, Mac, spent an inordinate amount of time digesting the information in an exhibition on Homer in the Coliseum, I asked him about his interest in the great poet. His reply, “Mom, I saw the movie with Brad Pit”. Ditto for the Coliseum and Russell Crowe.

Regardless of the source, Mac was connecting with audio/visual icons and enjoying it. The same can be said for Eloise who found it hilarious that a wolf would raise a pair of human babies. She also found the human relics in the churches to be quite fascinating as were the cats at Torre Argentina. In between walking around and looking at all the stuff, we had plenty of breaks for pasta-fuelled lunches and gelato (ice cream but taken to a higher level). To summarise, Rome magnificently met the needs of everyone in our party, and we would all go back in a heart beat.

In the hopes that you will bring your family to Rome and have as splendid a time as we did, here are our 10 Key Learnings for Family Fun in the Eternal City.

Stay in the Ancient Centre and Walk Everywhere

If you arrive in Rome via Fiumicino Airport and there are at least 4 of you, take a taxi (€40 fixed if it is a Roman based taxi/€60 fixed if Fiumicino based – it pays to ask for the Roman). Otherwise, the train is a good option.

After that, choose a hotel in the Ancient Centre so that you can walk to almost everything you would want to see. Public transportation is often crowded and sometimes chaotic. (The claim has been made that “neither Freud nor Jung could ever muster the courage to board a Roman bus.” In any event, avoid the #64 which is basically a Pick Pocket Convention.) By contrast, there is no better way to soak up the atmosphere of this remarkable city than by hitting the streets. With frequent stops for coffee, juice and gelato, we heard no complaints from our younger set.

As for hotels, I always freeload off my sister in her “palazzo” near the Pantheon. This neighbourhood is hard to beat as it is an easy walk to the Coliseum, Forum, Capitoline, Pantheon, Piazza Navona and Trevi Fountain. If you don’t have a benevolent Sorellina (baby sister) to bum off of, the Albergo Santa Chiara, around the corner comes highly recommended, is well reviewed by Frommers, Trip Advisor et alia and I am told that rates are “discussable” in the off-season.

Take and buy these books

City Secrets Rome – Tiny but full of delightful, idiosyncratic and useful information such as Danny Meyer’s (of Union Square Café fame) review of the trattoria, La Taverna da Giovanni, where he “learned the simple wonders of the Italian table.”

The Families who Made Rome is both a history and a guide with terrific stories and itineraries. It’s a big book but worth the space in your day pack.

Rome, Past and Present – You can purchase this guide book at any tourist or gift shop for roughly €11. The children will enjoy the fact that for each monument, there are overlays showing how it would have looked in antiquity versus what one is seeing today. Some editions come with a CD which cuts back and forth between now and then and helps the whole family make sense of the ruins.

Avoid the line at the Coliseum by buying your ticket at the entrance to the Palatine

Perhaps the smartest thing we did the whole week was to buy a joint ticket for the Coliseum and Palatine at the Palatine Entrance just outside the Forum and to the left of the Arch of Titus. We then sashayed into the Coliseum and past the monstrous line which snaked around the building. My movie mad children thought the Coliseum was awesome.

The Palatine was less of a hit as both the Farnese Gardens and House of Augustus were closed for renovations but we enjoyed the view and didn’t stay long.

See lots of churches – They’re quick, free and each one tells a story

We saw tons of churches during our Roman holiday without a single grumble. Why? Because Roman churches are the perfect pastime for folks with a video game attention spans. We could get in without a wait, did not have to justify an entrance fee by spending lots of time, and saw some pretty spectacular things, such as Caravaggio’s Saint Matthew cycle in the French Church, San Luigi dei Francesi, the frescos and faux dome of San’Ignacio (almost as good as the Sistine Chapel, with an American Indian in full headdress) and the 300 year old, perfectly preserved body of Saint Giuseppe Maria Tomasi ( the same noble Sicilian family as the author of The Leopard) in the Basilica of Andrea della Valle, the setting for the first scene in Tosca.

If you only do one museum with children, make it the Capitoline, the first museum of the modern world.

Back in 1471, in the hope of reviving the antique splendour of the city, Pope Sixtus IV donated a collection of bronze statues, including the famous statue of the She-Wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, which became the basis of what, is today, a superb collection of antiquities. The new galleries which opened last year are a wonderful addition and best of all, relative to the strength of the collection, this museum is way under-utilised.

Go to the Vatican and go as far into the Piazza as your crowd tolerance allows – even seeing St Peters from just the exterior is enough to grasp the scale and monumentality

The day we were there it was Epiphany and hence a total madhouse and we got no further than the life size crèche in front of St Peters, but we did get to see a great parade with emperors, gladiators, boy scouts and some characters straight out of the Life of Brian, and that was enough.

Eat in traditional Roman trattorias

There’s no real reason to blow the budget on formal dining. Roman trattorias are fun, informal and inexpensive. Here are some of our favourites:

Da Armando al Pantheon – try the stracetti con ruchetta

Matricianella – very popular so book ahead

Da Giggetto – traditional Roman/Jewish food

Osteria ar Galletto – also known as Da Giovanni’s – in a lovely corner of the Piazza Farnese (vicolo del Gallo, 1: Tel - 06.686.1714)

Renato & Luisa – our favourite, robust flavours and a warm atmosphere (Via dei Barbieri, 25: Tel –

Due Colonne –relaxed, a bit touristy, but very moderately priced and friendly service (via del Seminario, 122: Tel –

Visit www.mypantheon.com

No matter what the weather or time of year, there is no grander social space in Rome than the Pantheon. As recommended by City Secrets, “Come here first, before you go anywhere else … so the visitor can experience the ancient city as its builders did. After this you can imagine the Roman Forum and Imperial Fora not as a series of ruins but brimming with life.” It is at this point that your children will begin to see that http://www.myspace.com/ is really a cyberspace iteration of the social spaces first conceived and built in Ancient Rome.

See the Trevi Fountain at night, the later the better

The Trevi Fountain during the day is a sad state of affairs – wall to wall bodies punctuated by aggressive buskers and souvenir sellers. The crush of tourists in the small piazza completely spoils the experience but if you wait until after dinner when the tour groups have long departed, the difference is astounding. The later it gets, the better the experience and the illumination is pretty terrific as well.

On the way back, it's fun to have a gelato from Giolitti (via degli Uffici del Vicario), one of the best known gelateria’s in town. As they advise in City Secrets, “Just follow the ice cream cones”.

“This is Rome, You Can Do What You Want”

The best piece of advice we received during our visit came from our friend and native Roman, Stefano, who, when we admonished Eloise for something she was doing at the dinner table, responded with considerable charm, “Ah, but this is Rome where you really should let her do what she wants.”

In the end of the day, that is what makes Rome so magical for anyone, young or old. It’s the “attitude” and way of looking at life, and even if you are only visiting, you have bought yourself a wonderful, temporary ticket to La Dolce Vita, so go ahead and enjoy it for as long as it lasts.

* A friend, who considers himself Roman although he informs me that he is not officially considered one, as his family has not been Roman for at least seven generations, has taken issue with my statement about the lack of green space pointing out that:

"Rome does have some green space. Actually quite extensive: Villa Pamphilj, Pincio - Villa Borghese, Villa Ada, Villa Torlonia, The Janiculum Hill. They are all "central". Of course, if we talk about something like the London gardens things are different. However, there are smaller open spaces: Villa Aldobrandini (next to the Trajan Markets, on Via Nazionale) has a hanging charming garden with great views; the Giardini del Quirinale (how central can you get?), the "Circus Maximus" with the Caracalla Baths boulevard and the Villa Celimontana, the Aventine Hill with the lovely Giardino degli Aranci (aka Parco Savello) overlooking the city from South-East."

So there you have it - the real scoop (not the tourist take) on green spaces in Rome from an almost official Roman.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Ultimate Burns Supper

Heavy rains and high winds may have cancelled Hogmanay (New Years) celebrations across Scotland, but here is an idea about how to participate in Scotland’s greatest celebration that is guaranteed to happen no matter what the weather or where in the world you are.

Forget virtual travel experiences (they don’t serve whiskey in cyberspace), what you really need if you want to feel as if you have taken a trip to Scotland is a good Burns Night Supper. These suppers have been in existence for over 200 years and Scots and anyone who has a fondness for Scotland, poetry and partying on or about January 25, gather across the globe to celebrate the life, the works and the philosophy of
Robert Burns.

Until now, unless you were a Scot (or a client or close friend of one), the idea of sourcing a haggis and addressing it seemed totally daunting. But that was before Clark McGinn solved the problem for the rest of us with his definitive work,
The Ultimate Burns Supper Book. This wonderful little book tells you everything you need to know to get in on the action whether you are a guest, a host or even just a couple enjoying a Burns Night Supper a deux.

Clark’s advice is so comprehensive, practical and fun, that there is no longer any excuse for missing out on the festivities. No matter where in the world you are, you can be an honorary Scot for the night. Having lived in the US for a period, Clark even knows which American butchers can get you a proper haggis (his favourite comes from Oregon). From invitations to recitation, it’s all in the Ultimate Burns Supper Book. So go ahead, buy the book and give it a go. Why? Because, in the words of Mr. McGinn, “A good Burns Supper creates a community amongst those present, based in equal parts on the conviviality of good company, the joy of fine Scottish food and drink, and the insight into our essential humanity captured by the songs and poems of one of the greatest Bards of any time in any language.”

Photo of Clark McGinn and haggis courtesy of