Thursday, June 19, 2008

Warwick Castle - History Lite at a Price

Recently, the editor invited me to tag along on a business trip to Warwickshire. Boasting two of Britain’s leading tourist attractions, Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick Castle and tons of other historic sites, there was plenty to keep me busy.

On day one, I decided to see what Merlin Entertainment Group (owners of Legoland and Madame Tussaud’s) had done to Warwick Castle, Britain’s most magnificent medieval fortress. I had last been there 15 years ago, travelling with three small boys who had found the dungeons and torture chambers very inspiring. They purchased plastic swords; beat the living day lights out of each other while the adults ignored them and soaked up the 1,000 years of English heritage. I don’t remember it being terribly expensive.

The first indication that things had changed came when I entered the courtyard where you pay for tickets. The place had the look and feel of the Magic Kingdom with a lot of focus on line management. On the day I was there it was mid week and pissing down rain so that the control barriers weren’t really necessary. Still, when they asked me to shell out £17.95 for an Adult Walkup ticket ( discounts are available if you book online), I was not amused. What on earth can you do to a castle that can justify such a price?

Well, you can turn it into a wax work exhibition. Warwick Castle has two – the Kingmaker which tells the story of Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, who helped depose King Henry VI in favour of King Edward IV and a Royal Weekend Party which recreates the time when Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick would entertain the likes of Edward, Prince of Wales and Lady Randolph Churchill. Following on the wax theme, you can also have your picture taken with a wax model of Queen Elizabeth for £9 which, I have to say, was absolutely hilarious.

For £17.95 you also get a tour of the Ghost Tower where Sir Fulke Greville was brutally murdered. The tour includes a cast of ghostly actors whose remit is to scare the living daylights out of you and they are pretty good at it. One American lady on my tour burst into tears and assaulted her husband for forcing her into the tower “when you know how much I hate these things”. She wailed all the way to the finish line.

For £17.95 you also get special exhibitions of jousting, birds of prey and demonstrations of siege machines. Conveniently located throughout the site are opportunities to purchase the dear little plastic swords and weapons which are such a hit with the kiddies.

Arguably, the least commercial thing you can do at Warwick is to take the ramparts walk. The best thing about it is that anyone with “mobility issues”, “heart conditions”, “fear of heights” and the like is discouraged to attempt this daring athletic feat which involves climbing some steep narrow stairs. This conveniently eliminates both the tour groups of retirees and the families with small children leaving a much smaller subset of visitors to enjoy the experience. The views over the Warwickshire countryside are terrific.

So what’s the verdict on Warwick Castle? Frankly, it was disappointing. If you don’t mind spending £17.95 and you are not turned off by history lite, I suppose you could do worse things with both your time and your money. But for my money, don’t bother. A much better bet, if you do find yourself in Warwick, is to head for the Collegiate Church of St Mary, the historic church of the Earls of Warwick containing the magnificent Beauchamp Chapel, often described as the most important medieval chapel in England. The Beauchamp Chapel, which was built between 1442 and 1460 for the then phenomenal cost of £2,481 contains a fabulous gilded bronze effigy of Richard Beauchamp, the man who presided over the trial and burning at the stake of Joan of Arc. Of course they don’t charge for entry.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Roman Romance

“What would you say to a weekend in Rome?”

Having sworn off short haul air travel, trying to save some money and bearing in mind we’d been there before, I did not hesitate.

“Sure, that sounds great, let’s go.”

But to go to Rome without the children, to go, as they say, “a deux”, that would be a new experience. This was to be a travel story about romance, about ardent emotional attachments, about dreamy, imaginative habits of mind. We were going to Rome for 48 hours in search of romance but would we find it?

We got off to a bad start thanks to the inexplicable failings of Heathrow’s new Terminal 5. Leaving aside the confusing signage (don’t they test this stuff), you can’t convince me that queuing for 30 minutes for security at 6 o’clock in the morning in a flagship terminal that cost 8.4 billion dollars and 100 million man hours to build is anything short of pathetic. We were told there were problems with both the machines and staffing but this is what got me mad. EVERY store in the beautifully appointed and glamorously lit mega shopping area, including Prada, Dior, and Gucci, was fully staffed at 6:00 am and open for business. So how come the security staff can’t make it on time but the Prada and Gucci staff can? I’m sure I’m not alone in saying - I don’t want a damn handbag, I just want to get on my flight. After cursing air travel in the 21st century and promising never to buy anything at Heathrow ever again, we finally took off for our romantic weekend in Rome.

Things instantly took a turn for the better when we arrived at the atmospheric Hotel Locarno, a 1920s time capsule located on a small street just off the Piazza del Popolo. The Locarno is so bathed in sepia tones, so “out of time” and has so much faded charm, that you can’t help but think you have stepped onto a film set. In a way, you have, something that was recognised by the film director, Bernard Weber, who made the hotel both his home in Rome and the star of his 1978 film, Hotel Locarno, about a collection of characters who sought refuge from the modern world within it walls.

We were hooked instantly although our room, despite high ceilings and old fashioned furnishings, was nevertheless rather poky. Well, we did ask for their cheapest room. La Sorellina (the baby sister now living in Sydney but also back in town for a visit), who knows the hotel well, assures me that the deluxe rooms and suites are grand affairs. In the end, we were ridiculously happy at the Locarno, despite the poky room. Every thing else, the location, the public spaces, the bar, the roof terrace, the free old fashioned bicycles (perfect for riding in the nearby Borghese Gardens) put us in a wonderful, and yes, very romantic mood.

And what do people in search of romance do for fun in Rome. They eat. Thanks to the La Sorellina, we had one of those lunches that you can only have if you know someone. In this case, the restaurant was on the via del Croce, two blocks in from the via del Corso and I think it was called “Frescatteria” although it’s hard to be sure since the place has no number and no sign. There also was no phone, no credit cards and no coffee. The food was great. We had excellent stracetti and at €18 per person in one of Rome’s most expensive neighbourhoods, it was an absolute bargain.

Don’t you dare write about this restaurant, La Sorellina admonished at the end of the meal. Of course, writing about something and being able to find it are two different things but if you head down the via del Croce at lunch time and you see a small room crammed with people eating, go in. You’re probably there.

After lunch and to satisfy our desire for more romance, and a cup of coffee, we headed for Caffe Greco, Rome’s oldest and most atmospheric cafe on the via Condotti. Yes, its touristic and expensive but at the same time, the place still has much of the incomparable elegance that made it a favourite of the intellectual giants of the times. Chopin, Berlioz, Wagner and Mendellssohn, Goethe, Byron, Shelley and Keats, they all took their coffee there. Hans Christian Andersen lived upstairs. Blink, and despite the hordes of Japanese tourists, you are transported to another time when it was common to wile away the hours in Napoleonic splendour. The ageing waiters in frock coats (ours had a large bandage slapped up the side of his head) add to the old world atmosphere. La Sorellina reports that Caffe Greco is at its best in the early evening when the tourists have mostly departed and the Italians like to meet for a post shopping aperitivo.

That evening, we ate fish with La Sorellina and family at the Monserrato. It’s an intimate place where the day’s catch is prominently displayed as you come in the door. Needless to say, you would only put your fish out for all to see if they were very, very fresh. The Italians would spot a bad one in a heartbeat. We ate spaghetti vongole with gusto. Throughout the meal the Sorrelina’s children were clucked over and indulged and gazing down the table crowded with food and lively with conversation, I reflected on the fact that in Rome, even family dinners have a romance all their own.

On day two we continued our pursuit of great meals and civilising experiences. We spent a interesting morning at Trajan’s Market which has been newly reopened after a $7.6 million renovation. The results are impressive and go a long way to help visitors visualise what is no longer there. Later, we had lunch on the terrace of Da Giggetto in the old Jewish ghetto, stuffing ourselves on fried artichokes, zucchini flowers and bucatini all’ amatriciana and dinner at Trattoria da Settimio all’Arancio where the bistecca Florentina is so huge and obscene that they have to hang a side extension off your table to fit it all in.

Sadly, after 48 hours of indulging our appetites, admiring beauty and celebrating civilisation, it was time to return home. We had gone to Rome looking for romance and had been seduced, yet again, by that singular experience that is the Eternal City.

Useful Addresses

Hotel Locarno
Via della Penna 22
Tel: 39 06 361 0841
Fax: 39 06 321 5249

Somewhere on the via del Croce
No phone

Caffee Greco
Via Condotti 86
Tel: 06 67 82 554

Ristorante Monserrato
Via Monserrato 96
Tel: 0668 73 386

Da Giggetto
Via del Portico di Ottavia, 21a
Tel: 06 6861 105

Trattoria da Settimio all’ Arancio
Via dell Arancio 50
Tel: 06 68 76 119

Photo: Couple in MG, Ruth Orkin, 1951, Florence

Thursday, June 05, 2008

48 Hours in Berkeley or Why I Envy my Son

At last, we arrived in Berkeley. I was beside myself with excitement but filled with questions. America’s epicentre of student radicalism looms large in the imagination of anyone raised in 1960s America. This was the home of the Free Speech Movement and a place where students had put their careers on the line to fight for civil liberties. But what would it be like in post 9/11 America, where would Berkeley now come down on the civil liberties versus national security debate and what would Eloise make of it all.

In every way, Berkeley exceeded expectations. Eloise’s expectations were simple. She just wanted to hang out with her brother and so we did. He proudly gave us a tour of the beautiful University, where Nobel prize winners are so numerous that they have their own parking spaces. He drove us around the lovely Berkeley hills. We watched him play a spirited match of Ultimate Frisbee. Eloise attended a Game Theory class at the Haas School of Business and to the surprise of the other students, launched herself into a discussion of Red Bull marketing. While this was going on, I attended a presentation by Matt Kistler, SVP for Sustainability at Wal-Mart. Although Kistler convinced me that Wal-Mart was paying serious attention to the environment, I still had trouble connecting his remarks to my experience as a Wal-Mart customer. Nevertheless, I valued the fact that Berkeley had organised the debate, that Kistler had agreed to speak and that I was allowed to attend.

As part of Eloise’s sentimental education, we paid a visit to the activists who set up shop daily on the campus’s Sproul Plaza. At the time, Free Tibet was the hot topic. We also had a lengthy discussion with a young woman named “Citizen” who was handling communications for the Memorial Oak Grove Tree Sit, a group that has been living for over a year in trees which the University would like to cut down to build a sports center. Eloise suggested that we throw some food into the trees for the campaigners but Citizen said we should join the Sunday gathering of grandmothers who were resupplying the treesitters. Otherwise, we might get arrested. Of course, there are always two sides to every story and the counter-argument to Citizens position was well articulated in an open letter sent to all students by the UC Berkeley police chief. If you’re interested, you can read the letter here. Eloise and her brother (who supports the University and as a Native American studies major in college, claims that the Indian burial ground argument is rubbish) had lively debates about the issue.

In addition to the treesitters, we also made a point of visiting the Code Pink:Women for Peace (aka the Pink Ladies) campout in front of the Marine Recruiting Office which was also attended by a large contingent of Berkeley police and a group who opposed the Pink Ladies waving American flags. This time, Eloise felt the police presence was out of proportion to the threat posed by the singing women in pink outfits and we had another discussion about civil liberties, free speech and national security. I was really happy that Eloise had a chance to see an American city that was so engaged in debating the big issues of the day. She takes so much flack in Europe for her American heritage. The next time she is accused of coming from a country of apathetic ignoramuses who don’t care about the rest of the world, she can respond, “I have been to Berkeley and I know better.”

But our stay in Berkeley was not all protestors and politics. It was also about the pleasures of an interesting hotel, fabulous food, and the great outdoors. While in Berkeley, we stayed at the historic landmark hotel, the Berkeley City Club which was built by Hearst Castle architect, Julia Morgan, for a woman’s organization dedicated to fostering social, civic and cultural progress. Much of Morgan’s signature style, used to such great effect at Hearst Castle, such as the gorgeous 1930s swimming pools and the flamboyant Moorish Gothic architecture, can also be found in this wonderful club and hotel in Berkeley. The hotel rooms are comfortable, paying tribute to the club’s genteel antecedents and feeling much like a very nice bedroom at your granny’s. Rooms look out over either the San Francisco Bay or the Berkeley hills. Staff is appealingly eccentric. Arriving back late one evening, the desk clerk used us as an impromptu focus group to critique the cover of his new 1980s disco compilation CD. The City Club’s location, a block away from the UC Berkely campus and a few minutes walk from the BART rapid transport system, couldn’t be better. For all of this we paid $125 a night for our room with breakfast included which I felt was good value given that we were staying in a fantastic bit of history in such a great location.

As for food, eating in Berkeley is like dying and going to heaven. Starting with Peets, the cult-like purveyor of coffee and tea on the corner of Walnut and Vine, to the nearby Cheese Board and Pizza Collectives (no boss, no manager, no non-owner worker) which serves some of the best tasting cheese, bread and pizza found anywhere in the United States, to the small restaurant across the street, Chez Panisse, which single headedly created a philosophy of food that changed the way America eats, this is a city which cares passionately about what it eats.

During our stay we ate at a remarkable delicatessen called Saul’s that could give Katz’s Delicatessen in New York a run for its money. The pastrami sandwich brought tears of homesickness to my eyes. Our dinner at the Chez Panisse Café, was everything I hoped it would be. We loved the lively informality of the Café, which looked like more fun than the shrine-like restaurant to “Saint Alice” downstairs. We had asparagus with lemon, ricotta and herbs, halibut with leeks, turnips, potatoes and romesco sauce, duck braised with artichokes and rosemary and polenta and Lee chowed down on a large piece of rib-eye roast with potatoes, spinach and anchovy butter. Prices were fair with starters ranging from $7.50 to $14 and mains from $17 to $28. There was even a 3 course prix fixe for $28 which looked good.
We also had a fabulous pizza lunch with root beer from the Cheeseboard Pizza Collective sitting, in clear defiance of the law on the grass median right in the middle of Shattuck Avenue, just like everyone else.

On top of all the amazing places to eat in Berkeley, the city also has one of the coolest owner/operator grocery stores in America. If you want to see what Whole Foods was like before it went the way of ‘big organic’, head for the 40,000 square foot Berkeley Bowl, located about one mile south of downtown Berkeley. The produce aisles will blow your mind. There’s an aisle as long as a football field devoted just to citrus, another just for mushrooms. People from all walks of life and income levels were in there shopping up a storm. Prices were fair and the quality and selection was extraordinary. This may sound silly but I found this grocery store very inspiring. Every American deserves to eat better and owner/operated businesses deserve to succeed. I thought the Berkeley Bowl pointed the way to how both those goals could be achieved.

In addition to the incredible food, another thing that blew our minds during our stay was a trip to visit the coastal redwoods in the Muir Woods National Monument. Just 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, this is the sole remaining stand of old growth redwoods trees in the Bay Area and one of the last on the planet. It’s a heavily visited place but you can easily get away from the crowds by taking one of the many trails leading out of the valley. And its more than worth the effort. There is something about these awe inspiring, ancient trees, some more than 1,000 years old towering more than 250 feet above your head, that puts your place in the universe into sharper perspective. After communing with the majestic trees, we headed for the Marin Headlands, which, along with Muir Woods, is part of a 75,398 acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Seeing so much magnificent (and valuable) land saved from development, stretching for miles along the Pacific Ocean within spitting distance of San Francisco, was also an inspiring experience. As we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, I had the thought that being envious of your own child was unattractive and un-maternal, but in the case of my Bay area son, I couldn’t help myself. This place is just too perfect. Come see for yourself.

Useful Addresses

Berkeley City Club
2315 Durant Avenue
Tel: 510 848 7800
Fax 510 848 5900

Peets Coffee & Tea
2124 Vine Street
516 841 0564

The Cheese Board Collective
Bread and cheese: 1504 Shattuck Ave
510 549 3183
Pizza: 1512 Shattuck Ave
510 549 3055

Chez Panisse Restaurant and Café
1517 Shattuck Avenue
Café reservations: 510 548 5049
Restaurant reservations: 510-548 5525

Saul’s Restaurant & Delicatessen
1475 Shattuck Avenue
Tel: 510 848 3354

Berkeley Bowl Marketplace
2020 Oregon Street
510 843 6929

Muir Woods National Monument
Tel: 415 388 2595
Admission: $3
Open 8am to sunset or 5pm in winter

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

San Francisco

As we drove north from Carmel, road and hotel weary, we looked forward to getting out of the car and back into a city. At last, we pulled up to a lavender/blue house which clung spectacularly to the side of a steep hill in the Noe Valley section of San Francisco. This was the home of my west coast cousin the Art Diva, and I was keen to see how she had “set up shop” with her family since the days when we had been playmates in New York. Waiting at the window of the welcoming house was Lucy, the Diva’s daughter who was the same age as Eloise.

What if she doesn’t like me?
Eloise, of course, she is going to like you. You’re related. Anyway, I like her mother and she’ll like you. How could she live in such an awesome place and not be nice. Just get out of the car.
Mom, you are so weird.

Weird I may be but I was right about Lucy and San Francisco. The girls hit it off and San Francisco was gorgeous and cool and perfect. I just couldn’t believe my eyes. Here was a city with unique, well-preserved neighbourhoods and with spectacular panoramic views. Here was a city where you were never far from nature, a city with a passion for food, with a comprehensive public transport system and health care access for all. The only thing that wasn’t great, after southern California, was the weather but as I put my fleece jacket back on and ignored the rain, I was reminded of something one of my sons’s once said about London. “Mom, you should be grateful that the weather is crap, otherwise everyone would want to live here.”

During our whirlwind visit to San Francisco, thanks to the Art Diva, we covered a lot of territory in a short amount of time. We saw the outside of the striking and controversial de Young museum in the Golden Gate Park and the inside of the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park. We drove around the kaleidoscope of neighborhoods. We saw the relics from the Summer of Love in the Haight, the uber-mansions of the rich and famous in Pacific Heights’ and the gayest scene on earth in the Castro.

Best of all, we spent the better part of Saturday wandering around the Ferry Building Marketplace and farmers market, which is a ‘must see’ destination for anyone who loves food. Not only is the beautifully restored Ferry Building an important city landmark but Northern California’s proximity to some of the best farmland in America has created a cornucopia of some of the loveliest, freshest, and most interesting food you’ll find anywhere in the US.

The people who go to the market are pretty colourful too. At one farm stand piled high with extremely beautiful ‘heritage’ beans, a woman stops, and with a strong accent of undeterminable origin, launches into battery of questions, “What are those beans? Do you really cook them? I never cook them. When do you cook them? Why do you cook them? How do you cook them?” The pretty young woman who was selling the beans patiently answered the bean inquisitor’s questions. After all that, the sale was not made. Fascinated by it all, we bought the beans instead.

Speaking of San Francisco and food, thanks to a reservation made several weeks ahead by my well organised son, we also were able to enjoy dinner at one of the city’s best known restaurants, the Zuni Café. Even living in London, I had heard about Judy Rodgers, who had trained with both the Troisgros brothers in France and Alice Waters in Berkeley. I really wanted to try her famous Zuni Roast Chicken and was determined that if it was better than mine, I would buy the cookbook and incorporate the technique. Now I roast a good chicken, but the Zuni chicken was far better, being more flavourful and more succulent. The secret is to salt the bird at least 24 hours in advance, buy a small chicken and cook at a very high temperature. While my son and I enjoyed the chicken, Eloise was wolfing down an order of pasta with wild sausage and rapini. Starters included the gnocchi ricotta with wild nettles (superb) and a rich and earthy lentil soup. The vibe was friendly and informal and while the service was imperfect with a few pacing problems and missed details, we ate lots of great food and had lots of fun. Maybe I’ve lived in London too long, but I also felt that the cost, at $145 for three people, represented good value given the quality of what we were eating.

After several days of imposing on the Art Diva’s generosity, it was time to return the uncool red Chevy Impala and Garmon Girl to Avis, hopped on BART rapid transport and head across the bay to Berkeley, the world’s most famous counter-culture playpen and temporary home to my oldest son who was studying at the University.

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park
De Young in Golden Gate Park
Tel: 1-800-777-9996
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.

Ferry Building Marketplace
One Ferry Building
Tel: 415 693 0996

Marketplace hours:
10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Monday – Friday,
9 a.m. on Saturday
11 a.m. – 5 pm on Sunday

The Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market Hours:
10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Tuesday
8:00 a.m. – 2 pm Saturday
Tel: 415 291 3276

Zuni Café
1658 Market Street
Tel: 415 552 2522