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

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

So How Was Your Vacation?

Labor Day in America has come and gone. School started today in Britain. The summer is over and after six weeks of non-stop travel, I’m back at my desk in London and even though the piles of unpaid bills and letters with bad news are bumming me out, home looks pretty good. It’s nice to be back.

Did I have a good time? You bet I did. Beaching and agri-tourism in North Carolina, driving through France, hanging out in Spain and Paris – all in all, it was a brilliant summer. Did I avoid the crowds? Well, I tried and here are just some of the things I learned this year about crowd-free summer travel:

1) Take your young children to Paris in August

Eloise and I spent 3 days together in Paris and once again I was blown away by how fabulous Paris is for young children.

On Day One we shopped for chic and inexpensive things for autumn and then headed over to the Conciergerie, a former royal palace and prison, to see Marie Antoinette’s last residence before she got the chop. There was lots of gory and vivid stuff from the Revolution’s “Reign of Terror” which Eloise enjoyed and no crowds which pleased me. (n.b. – A combo ticket is on offer with the neighbouring Sainte Chappelle which we bought but for now, I would give that a pass. The chapel is being renovated, the crowds were oppressive for such a small space and the amazing experience that I remember from my youth was incredibly flat. “Nice chapel, Mom, was Eloise’s polite response.)

On Day Two, we spent the entire day in the Luxembourg Gardens. We sailed boats on the fountain and because we managed to conspicuously capsize ours (don’t tell my father the naval officer), we met lots of other children from all over the world. Eloise beat her record on the carousel with the rings, we had superb cotton candy ( according to Eloise) and we managed to squeeze in the 4:00 pm performance at the famous puppet theatre. I thought it was one of the best days I had spent with my daughter in a long time. It was relaxing for me, entertaining for her, absolutely beautiful and the price was right.

On Day Three, we went to the Jardin d’Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulogne. This old fashioned park with its rides and playgrounds and menageries is the nicest “amusement” park you can imagine and once again we spent the day in beautiful and relaxing surroundings which thrilled and delighted Eloise. If we had had a fourth day, we could have happily filled it at the Jardin des Plantes with its museums, zoo, maze and gardens.

It may seem counter intuitive to head for a big city with a small child and I’m sure you’ve heard a million times that no one goes to Paris in August but we had the most awesome time and best of all, we had the place all to ourselves.

2) North Carolina Beaches

North Carolina beaches in July and August are insanely better than anything in Europe. Yes, yes, I know the food and hotels in Europe are superior, but if the goal is blissfully warm water, consistent weather, mile after mile of empty, pristine beaches, no traffic jams, no parking problems and super polite natives during peak periods, North Carolina wins big time. Bald Head Island (my cousin has a great house there which she rents to nice people), Ocracoke Island, Atlantic Beach (getting built up but rent something at Pine Knoll Shores and you’ll be fine), and Duck are places you should check out for next summer if you are looking for very nice beaches with no crowds.

3) Fly Direct, Board Early, Boycott Northwest

This is a cautionary tale but what’s the use of having a bully pulpit if you don’t use it. To save a few dollars, my frugal husband flew to North Carolina with Northwest Airlines via Detroit. On the return flight, after checking in and being issued a boarding pass, the last 20 passengers in line were denied boarding because, according to Northwest, “the flight was overweight”. Now I’ve heard a lot of lame excuses in my time but this takes the biscuit. The whole scene was like a Mel Brooks movie with one enraged man being carried away by the police screaming “take some fat people off the plane and we can all fly!”

My husband was then re-routed over Cincinnati, missed the connection and had to wait 24 hours at a Marriott Courtyard before catching his flight to London.

And the compensation from Northwest? A $100 voucher on his next flight with Northwest- as if! Of course we’ll be taking this matter up with the management of what may be the world’s worst airline so watch this space.