Wednesday, June 27, 2007

London's Best Fish and Chips

Almost everyone who visits London wants to eat “real” fish and chips. NoCrowds fully supports this desire. To hell with endangered fish stocks and cardiovascular disease. When Jeff and I are in the mood for “the real deal”, we, like many Londoners, head for Fryer’s Delight in Holborn, not far from the British Museum.

Fryer’s Delight looks like a 1950s film set. The Formica, linoleum and unflattering lighting are divine. You can smell the place a mile away. Everything is deep fat fried in hearty smelling beef tallow. Everything is greasy. Yummm. In addition to traditional fish and chips, there are pies, sausages, pasties and just about anything you can think of that is politically incorrect and unhealthy. The prices are so cheap they make you laugh. A big piece of cod with chips is less than a tall skinny latte at Starbucks. During the day, the place is filled with office workers and at night a succession of London cabs pull up for take-away.

Fish and chips have been a staple of London’s working classes since Victorian times. In the days when “working” meant hard, physical labour, people valued calories and Fryer’s Delight has made no concessions to modern times or tastes. If you like your experiences authentic and your food heavy and greasy, you’ll have lots of fun at Fryer’s Delight.

n.b. Fryer’s Delight closes for the month of August (we like their attitude).

Fryer’s Delight
19 Theobald Road
Tel: 020 7405 4114
Tube stop: Holborn
Open Mon-Sat 12noon-10pm, takeway until 11pm

Friday, June 22, 2007

Harry Potter and the Garden of Secrets

It’s not often that NoCrowds get a chance to ride the Harry Potter tidal wave. Put “Harry Potter Tours” into Google and you will find over 10,000 entries, everything from Harry Potter’s South of England Tour to the Harry Potter Tour to London for the Release of Book Seven. What an industry! But not one of those tours mentioned the fact that you can visit a screaming mandrake plant, yes, the one featured in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, in a 17th century walled garden in the centre of London.

Founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries for the study of medicinal plants, the Chelsea Physic Garden is London’s oldest botanic garden and one of the best kept secrets in town. Historians, crime writers, gardeners, doctors, film buffs and newt catching kids will all love this four acre site between Royal Hospital Road and the River Thames, not far off the Kings Road

From the weird mandrake plant that actually resembles an ugly screaming baby to deadly nightshade (or “belladonna” because Venetian ladies would use it to dilate their pupils) to the Pacific yew tree used to make the cancer treatment “Taxol”, every plant has a tale to tell. There’s the story of the cotton plants sent from the Garden to the new colony of Georgia in America and the tea plants which were smuggled out of China by the Scottish botanist, Robert Fortune to start up India’s tea business.

On a recent visit with a “twenty something” visiting American, we chose to go on one of the Garden’s guided tours which is included in the price of a ticket. It was led by David, a gentleman straight out of central casting, who somehow managed to educate and entertain an eclectic group of visiting lady gardeners, new age herbalists and us. His descriptions of some of the effects of plant poisons were particularly vivid. When we finished our tour, my young friend remarked, “I loved it. My Grandmother would REALLY have loved it.

If you are travelling with young children, this garden is a wonderful haven in a built-up part of the city where children can run around, go pond dipping for bugs and newts and get something nice to eat at the café. In a Charles Adams moment, I really enjoyed the numerous posted warnings about the hazards posed by the poisonous plants, the bees and the ponds which none of the happy children nor their parents seemed to notice.

All in all, I can think of no better break from the upmarket, but not very interesting, shops of the Kings Road (it’s the same stuff you can get at the upmarket outlets at home) then an hour spent in the Chelsea Physics Garden. It is amazing how many things in our medicine cabinet have a link to this bucolic and historic place and you will be further amazed by the role plants play in our heritage and our lives. If you are looking for a place to eat after your visit, head for Foxtrot Oscar next door. Everyone who has ever eaten there, except me, seems to have been seated next to Prince William and they make a great burger.

Chelsea Physic Gardens
Swan Walk
London SW£ 4HS
Tel: 020 7352 5646

Closest Tube station: Sloane Square

The Garden is open April – October
Wednesdays, 12pm-dusk or 9pm whichever is earlier
Thursdays and Fridays, 12-5pm
Sundays, Bank Holidays and Good Friday, 12-6pm
Admission Charges
£7.00 for adults and senior citizens£4.00 for students*, unemployed people* and children (5-15 years old)*

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

TripAdvisor - Can You Tell the Heavenly from the Horrible?

We all use TripAdvisor - 24 million visitors a month compared to Frommer’s 2.5 million books a year - but do we use it well?

This is the question that Nancy Keates of the Wall Street Journal asks and answers brilliantly in her recent article “Deconstructing Tripadvisor”. Her advice on how to “study the reviewer”, find the up-to-date details and compare Tripadvisor to other review sites is excellent. She also provides insights into the company’s business model that will make you a better consumer of the service.

If you use TripAdvisor, and you should because it is a useful weapon in the travel information arsenal, you should read this article. Just read it quickly because the WSJ claims that since I have not paid for a subscription, the link will only be available to me, and hence to you, for one week from today. How silly is that.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Take your Family to Talloires

When the Fletcher School of Tufts University scheduled its annual European alumni gathering in Talloires in early June, we took the opportunity to organise a family holiday in the Lake Annecy region in France’s Savoy Alps during Eloise’s school holiday. We have been in the area many times but always in winter for skiing, never stopping during our mad dash from Geneva Airport to the larger resorts of Les Trois Vallee or L’Espace Killy. I have many things to thank the Fletcher School for - an education and a husband whom I met there - and now I can add to the list the fact that the school has introduced us to one of the best NoCrowds destinations in Europe for a family vacation.

To begin with, Talloires is dead easy to get to being roughly one hour from Geneva Airport by car. And while most airfares during school holidays rise to usurious levels, our British Airways flight from Heathrow’s Terminal 4 was inexpensive and filled mostly with bankers and well-dressed pensioners which was a refreshing change from the “flying bus” discount airlines we normally use. Naturally, the ever efficient Swiss were well organised on the other side and we were through customs, into our discount rental car and on the road in no time.

For our first evening, we elected to stay in the Faverges district in the mountains above the southern end of the lake and the scenery up there really is breathtaking. We stayed at Au Gay Sejour, a lovely converted 17th century Savoyard farmhouse with an excellent restaurant in the tiny hamlet of Seythenex. When we arrived, we were warmly greeted by Madame Gay who runs the front of house. We dropped off our bags and immediately took a hike through the countryside which included watching the cows being brought in for milking, exuberant horses enjoying fresh spring pastures, cherry trees loaded with fruit and lots of beautiful wildflowers. After our walk, we enjoyed drinks on the terrace while the children of the village played a naughty spitting game in the square below us, using the water from the ancient village cistern. Eloise, in the interest of making friends and improving her language skills was keen to join in, asking Jeff how one might say “May I spit at you” in French.

Dinner that evening in the hotel’s “Mistral Gourmand” restaurant, prepared by Monsieur Gay, featured fresh ingredients from the region presented in inventive ways. We had suckling pig, wild fish from Lake Annecy, snails, asparagus and fois gras as well as an excellent selection of Savoie cheeses and crèmes brulees flavoured with violets and mints. We washed it all down with a very good Vin de Savoie 2006 Chignin Mandeuse. As a demonstration of Monsieur and Madame Gay’s bonhomie, just as we had finished our meal and were about to leave the now empty dining room, guests arrived who had obviously gotten lost, were famished and very apologetic. Madame couldn’t have been nicer about it and they were served dinner despite the fact that it would mean a very late night for the proprietors.

After dinner, we got a good night’s sleep in a comfortable room at the top of the house with a lovely view down the valley. Breakfast, although expensive at €12 per person, is worth it because there isn’t an alternative within walking distance and the little extras such as fresh orange juice, alpine yoghurts and real hot chocolate make the meal more than just your average hotel continental breakfast. All in all, I really enjoyed this hidden alpine treasure and would recommend it to anyone looking for an unspoiled mountain refuge with professional service and excellent food. Quality comes at a price, particularly in this part of the world and we ended up spending €146 for our triple room and €202 for dinner. But it was a great way to start the holiday. After our fine breakfast, we bid farewell to Madame Gay, climbed back in the car and made our way down eastern shore of the lake to the lovely village of Talloires.

In 1896, when Cezanne arrived in Talloires to stay at the Hotel L’Abbaye, a converted 17th century Benedictine abbey which has been a hotel since the French Revolution, he commented that the town was a “superb vestige of times past.” Remarkably, when we arrived in Talloires in 2007, we said pretty much the same thing and the view of the bay, which Cezanne immortalised in his painting of Lake Annecy remains essentially unchanged. The atmosphere of the village is elegant and traditional with several exclusive four and five star hotels boasting seriously good restaurants, the most famous being the L’Auberge du Pere Bise, a star in France’s gastronomic firmament and a favourite of such notables as Winston Churchill, the Windsors and the Romanovs.

To try and hold down our costs, we stayed in the nicely situated and less formal three star Hotel Le Lac which is a good option for families. While the rooms could use an update, they were clean and perfectly correct. The pool was large and the garden had a ping pong table which kept Eloise busy. The feel was relaxed, staff was accomodating and internet access was included in our €150 a night triple. Given the number and the quality of the restaurants in the area, I would not go for the hotel’s half-board option and instead of the €15 breakfast (which we heard wasn’t great), we recommend having your petite dejeuner at the nearby Café de la Place, which is an old fashioned neighbourhood kind of a place with good coffee.

Upon arrival, as our hotel was a program participant, we were given a “Talloires en Liberte” card which offered free use of many activities in the village including mini golf, tennis, kayaking and bike hire. (A word of caution, many of the activities are not fully operational in late May/early June.) In addition to the above, there is a medieval castle in neighbouring Menthon where tours are conducted by costumed guides and an enormous Forest Adventure Park where children as young as 5 can scale cliffs and swing through the trees. A daily ferry service from Talloires to Annecy means you can visit the beautiful “mini Venice in the Alps” without the aggravation of traffic and parking problems. Overall, Talloires is a haven for children offering “city kids” like Eloise the chance to explore the village with her buddies like characters out of her favourite Enid Blyton stories.

Along with the many activities, fine dining is a big part of any visit to Talloires. On our first day, we had a fun, informal lunch on the terrace of La Savoyarde overlooking the beach where Eloise played Frisbee with a group of good looking Tufts University students and the next day we had an excellent lunch for a reasonable €50 at the L’abri-cotier Restaurant which is on the lake just outside the village near the l’Aquarama and camp grounds. The restaurant in the La Charpenterie Hotel has a cozy Savoyarde atmosphere and serves a good fondue (If you like that kind of thing) and good, reasonable alternatives if you don’t. As part of the Fletcher Symposium we ate two first class group meals at the L’Abbaye restaurant and “Le Cottage” which are both well known stops on France’s gastronomic roadmap. The fact that both restaurants effortlessly delivered such sophisticated and elegant meals to a group of 80 enthusiastic “networkers” speaks to their culinary capabilities.

And finally, it would not do our visit to Talloires justice if I did not say something about the incredible 11th century priory that is now the Tufts University European Center where our symposium took place. The priory was given to the University by a remarkable couple, the MacJannets, who dedicated their lives to international education and who, through their various schools and camps, left a lasting impact on the lives of Prince Phillip, Indira Ghandi and thousands of other young people. Today, the historic priory is the venue for a large number of programs, courses, seminars and conferences, all of which speak to the MacJannets’ mission of promoting understanding through international education. If you ever had a hankering to expand your mind in one of Europe’s loveliest villages, this is an amazing place and there are course offerings for learners of all ages. As Eloise inquired very early on during our stay, “So, Mom and Dad, how exactly do you get to go to this school?” We told her it was simple – keep your room clean, eat your vegetables, study hard and someday you might be lucky enough to be a student in Talloires.

Useful Addresses

Au Gay Sejour
Le Tertenox
74210 Seythenex

Hotel Le Lac
Rue Andre Theuriet
74290 Talloires

La Savoyarde Restaurant
Plage de Talloires
Route du Port
74290 Talloires

L’abri-cotier Restaurant
Centre Espace Lac
Angon 74290 Talloires

La Charpenterie Hotel and Restaurant
Rue Andre Theuriet
74290 Talloires

Hotel L’Abbaye
Chemin des Moines
74290 Taillores

Le Cottage Bise
Le Port
74290 Talloires

Tufts University
Le Prieure
74290 Talloires