Monday, September 29, 2008

The Wellcome Collection

Idle hands are the work of the devil. Ask any parent.

If you find yourself in London this winter, either as a resident or a visitor, a great way to entertain your children without entry fees or crowds is to head for the Wellcome Collection on the Euston Road.

The Wellcome Collection is a museum about the human condition as seen through the prism of medicine, the body and art. Well, that’s how grown-ups see it. Children will see it as a very cool place to look at weird and wonderful stuff such as artificial limbs, fake eyeballs, diagnostic dolls, amputation saws and male anti-masturbation devices.

This treasure trove of artefacts once belonged to Henry Wellcome, a boy from America’s Wild West who ended his days as a great philanthropist and knight of the British Empire. The museum also brings medicine forward since the time of Henry Wellcome’s death in 1936, with galleries that focus on current issues such as genomes, new ways at looking at our bodies and modern maladies such as obesity.

There are frequent special exhibitions, and a free Young Explorers Pack which helps children engage in the experience. The Wellcome Library, including 2.5 million books, manuscripts, archives, films and pictures on the history of medicine, serves as a great reminder to our kids that there is more to human understanding than can be found by a quick search on Google.

From a NoCrowds perspective, this place is a real winner. Particularly on the weekends, when the Science and Natural History Museums in South Kensington are heaving and unbearably crowded, the Wellcome Collection, by contrast, offers a superb experience for families where you have the peace and space to enjoy it. It’s easy to get there, being just around the corner from the Euston Station, and there is a pleasant café if your brood becomes peckish as well as a gift shop for the ubiquitous, “If you behave, I’ll get you a nice treat at the gift shop.”

Wellcome Collection
183 Euston Raod
Tel: 0207 611 2222

Galleries open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00. Sunday at 11:00. Library closed on Sunday.

Photo courtesy of the Wellcome Collection webite.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

There's No Such Thing as a Free Flight

Everyone knows that there is no such thing as a free lunch. I know this. I've heard it from my parents and told it to my children. So why did I waste an hour of my time chasing an illusion?

I was supposed to be working on an article for my church magazine but found it hard going and decided to reward myself with a bit of distracting email. In my inbox was this weeks Top 20 travel deals from Travelzoo where the editors comb hundreds of companies for their best sales and offers. It’s a bit of middle class travel porn, fun to look at but I’ve never been tempted to do more than that.

Then one of those offers from Ryanair caught my eye

£0.02 return flights to Europe including ALL taxes.

Wow, I wonder where you can go? Maybe I’ll surprise the editor with a quick trip somewhere if it really is only £0.02 per round trip flight.

I do lots of research and spend lots of time doing it. Then I decide I will only use the airport close to our home in southwest London because the expense and hassle of getting to the northern airports ruins the fun and savings. This pretty much limits our options to Ireland. So I find some free flights to Dublin, spend lots of time filling out stuff and declining the extra charges for priority boarding, luggage and travel insurance. I confirm that I am a citizen of an EU country and have the docs to prove it (you can’t check in online unless you are, otherwise, there is a charge for airport check-in). I provide all my credit card details and then, Ryanair hits me up with £16.04 of handling charges for using a credit or debit card – or any card for that matter.

OK, I've had enough. I exit the Ryanair site having successfully wasted an hour and not bought any free tickets which really cost £16.04.
You were right Dad, about a lot of stuff and especially about those lunches.
Image courtesy of the San Diego Zoo website.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Renting Cars in Europe

The Sorellina called the other day.

“Hey, where is the link and info for that good car rental company? I’ve been all over NoCrowds and I can’t find it.”

Well, baby sister, the name of the company is Auto Europe and the link is

Auto Europe is a company that acts as a broker for rental cars in Europe and many other international destinations. They always have good prices and good customer service, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I have used Auto Europe for years. I have rented every thing from economy “micro” cars to enormous mini vans. Their rental contracts are all inclusive and I’ve never had a surprise, a dispute or a problem when using this company.

There’s nothing particularly glamorous about renting a car but if you are looking for good value and service, check out Auto Europe.

From the US –
From United Kingdom –
From Australia –

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Reluctant Yankee at Crook's Corner

When we were growing up in New York, my mother, the transplanted southerner, did a good job of convincing me that as privileged and glamorous as things were “up North”, the real business of life was all happening down in North Carolina. She was never explicit about it, but I got the message.

Take for example, funerals. The funerals for each of my southern grandparents were memorable affairs. They took days. There were tons of relatives and food and stories. By contrast, when my “larger than life” Aunt Carol died up north, the poor old girl got an hour’s slot at the Frank Campbell funeral home on Madison Avenue. Well, that was all I needed to know about the difference between North and South. I am, I confess, a reluctant Yankee.

I am even a more reluctant Yankee when it gets down to food. New York food is fine in many ways. But everyone is in such a rush or on a diet. How come everyone eats at their desk? You usually get only one dessert with your meal. Nothing on your plate was grown, picked or prepared by someone you know.

Southern food, on the other hand, is mythic, defiant and endless. “We’ve raised it and grown it and now we are going to eat it – lots of it - right now!” That was the attitude I remember from my southern summers. I sure did love those platters full of fried chicken and country ham, the corn bread and biscuits, the butter and snap beans and field peas and fresh-picked corn and those glorious pies and cobblers. “Oh yes, I’ll have some of everything, thank you very much.”

And that is why, whenever I am in North Carolina, I love to visit the legendary Crook's Corner restaurant in Chapel Hill.

You’ll find Crook's Corner at the western end of Franklin Street, the main artery of Chapel Hill. It’s in a funny old building with hub cap siding and a pig on the roof. It doesn’t look like much from the outside. When the weather permits, you can choose between the 1950s interior or the outdoor patio. It’s the same choice you would face at any family reunion or church picnic. Inside = air conditioning and noisy southerners talking up a storm. Outside = fat indolent flies made drowsy by the heat. Take your pick.

I was there recently with my daughter and aunt, a mini YaYa Sisterhood convention. The conversation with our charming server went something like this:

“Are the tomatoes good this evening?”
“ Yes Mam.”
“What about those figs with country ham?”
“Yes Mam, they’re delicious.”
“And the jalapeno cheddar hushpuppies?”
“Well, everyone loves those. They’re very popular.”
“OK, we’ll have tomatoes and figs and hushpuppies and shrimp and grits and some crab cakes. Oh, and bring some okra too while you’re at it. By the way, are you married?”
“Yes Mam I am.”
“Too bad, I have a son who graduated from Chapel Hill. He lives in Charlotte now.”
“Yes, Mam”

The evening went on like that. Swatting flies, eating, trying to fix up our sons, and telling stories. The food was all wonderful and nostalgic but kind of expensive. With tip, we spent $112 which is pretty good when you consider how much we ate but pretty expensive when you consider we were eating tomatoes and okra and grits and hush puppies. Never mind. As the New York Times put it, “this is sacred ground for southern foodies.”


Crook’s Corner
610 W. Franklin Street
Chapel Hill, NC

Monday, September 08, 2008

Provence without Crowds

Provence in summer can make you crazy. On the one hand, the region offers one of the world’s most seductive landscapes and sensuous lifestyles. On the other hand, the entire charmed experience can be ruined by the crush of tourism and the problems which arise when lots of foreigners with lots of money invade. Between the high prices, the traffic and parking problems and the irritated locals, it is easy to decide that Provence in high season is oh so lovely but just not worth it.

This year, while driving back to London from northern Spain, we stayed with some savvy friends in the Luberon, made famous by British author, Peter Mayle in “A Year in Provence”, who introduced us to a magical village that seemed to solve the problem of how to visit Provence in high season without crowds.

Goult, located near the famous hilltop towns of Menerbe, Bonnieux and Lacoste, is a delightful place tucked up on the side of a hill that has somehow escaped the attention of tour buses and groups. That’s not to say that you won’t find tourists in Goult but you won’t find many. The atmosphere of the town was surprisingly quiet, chic, in an understated way and decidedly slow. We visited on a warm day in August and had our pick of parking places in the Place de la Liberation in front of the Romanesque church. The fact that we could park so easily was already a huge advantage, as was the fact that the children could wander safely through the narrow, quiet streets. A few tourists, like us, were wandering around appreciating the splendid views from the ramparts, admiring the windmill and photographing the lovely ancient stone houses.

The highlight of our visit was a long lunch on the terrace of the Café de la Poste which was filled with a jolly mix of locals and their dogs, tourists of every nationality and lots of children. It’s best to reserve or arrive early as the place fills up quickly. We had a wonderful time. Service was incredibly slow and slightly haphazard which bothered absolutely no one. More importantly, the plat du jour and several lunch menu options offered very good value. Everything was delicious.

Whiling away that blissful afternoon on the terrace of the Café de la Poste with all the sensual tastes and smells of Provence, we gave serious consideration to returning to Goult for a longer stay. Located in the Parc Naturel Regional du Luberon, Goult is a wonderful jumping off point for walking and bicycling. Surrounded by some of the most fertile agricultural land in France, the food in the markets really is too good looking to eat. An internet investigation revealed that there are several places to rent in and around Goult including the town’s rather fabulous chateau which can accommodate up to 14 adults and 10 children. Compared to the prices of hotels, even the Chateau ends up looking like a bargain. There’s no doubt about it. We’ll be back.

Café de la Poste
Rue Republique
Tel: 04 9072 23 23

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Baffled about Barcelona

Dear Dr. NoCrowds,

Our son has requested that we celebrate his 21st birthday in Barcelona. At the same time my mother-in-law will be turning 80 and my husband wants to assemble the family for a big reunion. The young people want to be in the center of the action., preferably near the Ramblas. The old folks want something comfortable, quiet and safe, preferably away from the crowds. Safety for my mother-in-law is a big issue as she has already had her purse snatched several times in Barcelona. Given current exchange rates, we are also mindful of cost. Can you recommend a solution that will keep everyone happy?

Baffled about Barcelona

Dear Baffled about Barcelona,

You are in luck. Here’s the way to meet everyone’s needs, have a ball, stay safe and keep to your budget. Put the young people up at the Hostal Opera which is superbly located just off the Ramblas next to the Liceu Opera House. This small hotel provides basic accommodations and is perfect for the hard partying members of your group who are just looking for a place to sleep. With prices ranging from €46 - €90 depending on type of room and season, Hostal Opera represents excellent value for the location and at the same time is clean and safe.

A few blocks away from the Hostal Opera, you can put the rest of your party at the wonderful Hotel Montecarlo. Located directly on the Ramblas, the Montecarlo is an oasis of calm in the center of town. From the moment you step into this refurbished 19th century palace, you will be struck by how the pandemonium outside simply disappears. Décor is cool, serene and elegant. Staff is charming and helpful. Rooms are well equipped, spotless and absolutely silent. There is a good bar downstairs and a sun deck with lounge chairs and great views of Barcelona on the roof. If you need it, secure underground parking is available. For this quality hotel, rates are reasonable with a standard double running €175/night.

For a fun place to sample the tapas action near the two hotels, duck into La Boqueria, Barcelona’s large public food market with an entrance off the Ramblas near the Liceu Opera. An especially lively opportunity to sample local seafood plucked straight from the sea and grilled in front of you is the Bar Boqueria where a generous seafood sampler for two will set you back €28. You may have to wait a while to find a seat but the experience is worth it.

For getting around town, check out Go Cars, for GPS guided and narrated tours in a cute Wall-E kind of mini car.

While in Barcelona, do keep an eye on granny’s bag and tell the young folks to stick together as the Ramblas in the wee hours can get dicey. Enjoy your family reunion in one of Europe’s most exciting cities.

Useful Addresses

Hostal Opera
Sant Pau 20
08001 Barcelona
Tel: + 34 93 3188201

Hotel Montecarlo
La Rambla 124
08002 Barcelona
Tel: +34 93 3188201

Bar Barqueria
Mercat de la Boqueria
Tel: 93 4126462

Go Cars