Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Wimbledon: The Back Story

Every year in late June, millions of tennis fans from around the world settle down to watch the Wimbledon championships on TV. Much of the commentary is devoted to the special traditions and atmosphere of the tournament. A few thousand fortunate individuals get to experience the event from inside the All England Tennis Club. For anyone who has the patience and endurance to wait in line all night, tickets can even be purchased on the day.

While anyone who manages to get into the championships raves about the experience, unless you are a former champion, a captain of industry or a member of the royal family, access to the club during the tournament is a hassle. But anyone who loves tennis can participate in the Wimbledon experience and still avoid the hassles and the crowds by visiting the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum located in the leafy London suburb of the same name and take a “Behind the Scenes” tour of the grounds.

For years, NoCrowds couldn’t be bothered to do this. It wasn’t on our usual beat, we weren’t that interested in tennis and at £14.50 to see the museum and take the tour, it was pretty expensive. What got us motivated was the arrival from Shanghai of the complete set of Chinese “terracotta” tennis warriors, featuring the world’s top eight tennis players which would be on display at Wimbledon until March 2008. The press coverage had been intriguing and the whole idea sounded weird enough to be interesting.

As it turned out, while the terracotta tennis warriors were fun to see, we were taken completely by surprise at how much we enjoyed the museum and tour. In particular, we loved the innovative ways the museum went about presenting the personalities of the game. We were fascinated by the story of the French player, Suzanne Lenglen, (1899 – 1938), winner of 37 Grand Slam titles who shocked the staid British fans by wearing daring outfits and casually sipping brandy between sets. We found the “hologram” of John McEnroe talking about the great players of his era hugely entertaining, and we loved looking at the display of the Williams sisters outfits which continue to titillate British audiences. Towards the end of our visit, we had the good fortune to run into Manny, as charming a museum guard as you will ever meet and a bit of a tennis savant, who played clip after clip of the great moments in Wimbledon history for us. We got to watch the best matches of his favourite players (Agassi) and our favourites (McEnroe, Borg and Connors). Our hot tip for anyone thinking of visiting the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, ask if Manny is working that day and go and find him.

After about an hour in the museum, we joined a small guided tour of the grounds led by a Blue Badge guide who really knew her stuff. We were concerned when she mentioned that the tour would take 1 ½ hours, thinking we just weren’t that interested, but once again, we were surprised at how the story of the club and the game held our attention.. Highlights of the tour include the BBC television studio (the views of London from the top of the building are amazing), the Press Interview Room and lots of areas in the Millennium Building normally closed to the public. As the 1 ½ hours flew by, we thought about how much more fun it would be to watch Wimbledon this year with the whole back story of the tournament in our heads. We also thought about how convenient and pleasant it was to get closer to the Wimbledon experience without getting closer to the crowds.

Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum
Museum Building
The All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club
Church Road, Wimbledon
Tel: 0208 946 6131
Fax: 0208 947 8752
Email: museum@AELTC.com

Open daily 10:30 am – 5:00 pm (except during the tournament)
During the winter, there is one tour per day except at weekends when there are two. Visitors should reserve a space on the tour by internet or phone.

We were also surprised at how easy it was to get to Wimbledon. There are lots of ways to do it (to see them click here). We chose to take the District tube line to Southfields station and walk for 15 minutes.

The cost for an adult is £8.50 for the museum and £14.50 for the museum and tour.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

It's Off to Work We Go

And we thought Heathrow was bad. That was until we read last Friday’s article in the Daily Telegraph about the rise of criminal gangs in Sweden using dwarves to steal valuables from the luggage of unsuspecting passengers.

According to Swedish police, gangs are hiding dwarves in luggage which is then placed in the storage compartment of long-distance buses. Once the journey has begun, the stowaways unzip the bag, rifle through the belongings, steal the goods, zip themselves back into the bag and wait to be collected by their partners in crime. They are reported to have made off with thousands of pounds of jewellery, cash and other valuables in recent months.

And if you think this only affects Swedes, the article cited the fact that Swebus, which transports thousands of holidaying Brits across the country, has also been targeted. Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Travel Planning

Planning a fabulous two week adventure in California over Easter should be loads of fun. Right?

Is it just us or has even the business of planning travel become more difficult? With all the electronic options and choices, it should be more efficient but everything is taking longer and frankly, we’re not having much fun. In fact, almost every aspect of the planning for our California trip thus far has been down right frustrating.

To begin with, because we had complex multi-city bi-coastal flights to book, including one leg with unaccompanied minor, we could forget about using websites. The only way we could even price the options was to call each of the airlines, which is not the end of the world, but it is not efficient and we were in endless voicemail holding patterns with every single one. We would have given American Airlines our business so that we could fly back to London via Raleigh Durham, North Carolina but the first reservationist didn’t know how to enter our booking and never call back as she promised. As it turned out, AA was much more expensive so forget it.

OK, we decided to try British Airways. While our tickets were being held for payment, BA pilots announced that they would go out on strike over Easter. OK, we’ll try Virgin Atlantic. Too late, everyone got ahead of us with limited availability and much higher prices. OK, we’ll go back to BA and pray hard they don’t strike. But the BA system could not process the payment for our daughter’s ticket because the address we provided did not match the address for our credit card. Says who! We know where we live. We called the credit card company and they said of course they matched and that the payment had been authorised. Back to BA, who said that the payment for our ticket had gone through but our 10 year old daughters was considered a“high risk” payment so no go for her. It is 48 hours and counting and BA is still trying to sort this out.
[ Addendum: The problem is now resolved. The BA ticketing agent was really great. Three cheers for BA for providing good old fashioned service.]

But NoCrowds does not want to write depressing travel stories. What we need to do is improve our travel planning and consumer protection skills. We think there are lots of people in the blogosphere who can help us and for most of yesterday, we have been searching websites for inspiration. Here’s what we’ve found:

For content, we love World Hum, a wonderful site with great writing. We were delighted to find that we share their approach to travel, which focuses on the experience, not the destination. For example, when we put “California” into World Hum’s search engine, they pointed us towards two stories which reignited out excitement for our upcoming trip: “Tom Petty’s Los Angeles, from a Travelodge to a long day in Reseda” which looks at the city as a sound track (we’re loading up our iPod) and the New York Times story “Big Sur without Crowds” which is about as close to the NoCrowds sweet spot as you can get.

For practical information, tools and links for tackling some of the peskier aspects of travel planning such as where to find an affordable last minute ticket, negotiating with car rental companies and what to do if your flight is cancelled, we like Smarter Travel, Upgrade:Travel Better , Tripso and Elliott. Much of the material about the state of the travel industry makes for depressing reading but we’re sure that the only way for things to get better is for travellers to arm themselves with information and fight hard for their rights.
Those are some of the sites we found useful for travel planning. If you have any sites to recommend or suggestions about what to do in Los Angeles, Route 1 and San Francisco, we are all ears.
Photo courtesy of the Daily Telegraph

Friday, January 18, 2008

The British Library - Five Stars and No Crowds

London is blessed with five star attractions such as the British Museum and the National Gallery, so much so, that visitors really are spoiled for choice. Unfortunately, major attractions often come with major liabilities such as long lines and high costs. For years, NoCrowds has been singing the praises of undervalued institutions, arguing that the overall experience was better with the little guys than the superstars. After yesterday’s visit to the British Library, we are happy to report that this national treasure offers the best of both worlds, the collections of a superstar and the experience of a hidden gem.

The British Library has been around since 1753, founded as part of the British Museum, to preserve the collections “for Public Use, to all Posterity.” By the middle of the 20th century, the library had badly outgrown the world famous Reading Room where Karl Marx wrote Das Capital and planning began for a new library which, after lengthy setbacks, opened in 1998. It is, according to the Harvard University’s LibraryNotes, “the only major public building to be built in Great Britain in the 20th century. No other project, since the building of St Paul’s Cathedral …took so long to construct or was surrounded by so much controversy.” Like St Paul’s, the British Library is now considered an architectural triumph and on that basis alone, is worth a visit.

As impressive as the building is, what NoCrowds found even more inspiring was the celebration of human creativity as recorded in the books, manuscripts, maps, and music scores on display. Over the course of a morning at the British Library, and without giving a media mogul a single penny, we saw the original specimens of what can only be described as mankind’s greatest hits: the Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, the Beowulf manuscript, Shakespeare’s First Folio and much, much more. From the audio archive, we had the thrilling experience of hearing Virginia Woolf talk about the art of writing, James Joyce read from Ulysses and Alice B Toklas describe the day she met Gertrude Stein. We shared these treasures with only a handful of visitors and it was an awesome moment to realise we could savour our experience of the Magna Carta in a room all to ourselves. For our money, cultural tourism doesn’t get better than this.

While the exhibition galleries are an oasis of calm, the rest of the Library is a beehive of activity filled with all kinds of people working on laptops in every possible nook and cranny. We loved the energy of it all and the feeling that the British Library is a thriving contemporary institution. While looking at the long line of 21st century applicants queuing for their readers passes, we wondered if any of them might also change the course of history like former pass holders Marx, Lenin and Ghandi.

At the end of our visit, we paused for a while and just watched the comings and goings. The thought that all these people felt the need to consult the 150 million plus items covering thousands of years of history from all cultures and civilisations, filled us with optimism about mankind’s infinite quest for knowledge. For a moving and memorable experience that is easy on the purse and good for the soul, the British Library is hard to beat.

The British Library
96 Euston Road
London NW1 2DB

Tel: 44 (0)20 7387 0626

Opening times (public areas)
Monday – Friday, 9:30 to 18:00 (until 20:00 on Tuesday)
Saturday 9:30 to 17:00
Sunday and public holidays 11:00 -17:00

Free Admission

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Unusual Places to Go and Stay

Update: March 18, 2009
Jumbo Hostel, Arlanda/Stockholm
Spend the night in a former Boeing 747 which has been converted into a hostel at Stockholm's Arlanda airport. Book the cockpit suite and get an awesome view of the runway.
Phone: 46 (0)8 593 60400
Our editor asked recently where we would like to go for our birthday. Having just pooh-poohed chain hotels in our recent list of New Year’s resolutions, we thought this would be a good opportunity to review our favourite websites describing weird and wonderful getaways from London. Here’s our list. Do you have any suggestions?

Havenkraan, Harlingden, Holland

This could be the ultimate NoCrowds experience, a one room hotel for two in an industrial harbour crane rising above the Wadden Sea in Holland. There are two lifts (think pneumatic tubes) which whisk you up the 17 meters where you will find all the modern cons including a showerbath for two, Charles Eames seating (whoever he is) and a “well designed bed”. Best of all, they let you drive the 65,000 kilo steel crane.
As they say on the website, “Scotty, beam me aboard!” The fact that the editor hates heights may kill this one for us but if you check the website, you’ll see you can also stay in a lighthouse or a lifeboat.

The Harlingden Harbour Crane
Dokkade 5 Harlingden
The Netherlands


The Temple at Stancombe Park, England

Built by the original owner for trysts with a local gypsy girl and set in the famous Folly Gardens of Stancombe Park where Evelyn Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited, the Temple gets our vote for the most romantic getaway in Britain. The price of £797 per night for 2 in low season (with a three night minimum) and £1,015 in high season sadly may put this option beyond our reach. But if we win the lottery, we’re so there.

Stancombe, near Wotton-under-Edge


Dasparkhotel, Ottensheim Austria

Now here’s one we can afford. Built out of recycled concrete drain pipes and located in a municipal park near Linz, Austria, Dasparkhotel is a “hospitality concept” which operates from May to October. Built by artists and conceived as an art installation, the sleeping pods operate on a “pay-as-you-like” system. Each drain pod comes equipped with a double bed, linens, storage, a small window, an electrical outlet and the all important internet connection. Everything else, like toilets, food and running water, can be found nearby in the park. Definitely not for claustrophobics and maybe not as much fun to visit as it is to write about, we still think this novel idea is worth considering.

For reservations: http://www.dasparkhotel.net/reservation/index.php

Baby Jumping in Castrillo de Murcia, Spain

We’ve heard that the running of the bulls in Pamplona has degenerated into a total zoo and is not much fun anymore. For a less touristic and less dangerous (at least for the visitors) festival, this year we’re considering heading for the El Calacho Baby Jumping Festival in Castrillo de Murchia. Every year since 1620 as part of the celebration of Corpus Christi, men dressed as the devil holding whips and truncheons leap over new born babies to cleanse them of evil. The babies are dressed in their finest and laid on decorated mattresses in the street. The festivities are organised by the Brotherhood of Santissimo Sacramento de Minerva who also make it their business to terrorize onlookers or anyone in need of a quick exorcism. To see a video of baby jumping, click here.

At this time, we have no idea where to stay or even how to get there but we’re working on it.

So there you have it, a crane, a temple, a drainpipe or a baby jumping festival. Where would you go?
Photo of the baby jumping in Castrillo de Murcia courtesy of Associated Press

Friday, January 11, 2008

London's Imperial War Museum

Yesterday began in a bad way with filthy weather, domestic disasters and a general sense that we were in a rut and everyone else wasn’t. At times like this, NoCrowds’ favourite trick is to bunk off and be a tourist for a day. Even if we only have a lunch hour to spare, going to see anything that takes us outside our own problems can often help save the day.

But we were feeling way too sorry for ourselves to be consoled by mere art and architecture, no matter how inspiring. And then it came to us that the perfect way to bask in our misery was to visit the one museum in London for which we have no affection – the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth.

When our sons were small, they loved going there. As you can imagine, the little action men loved the big guns, big planes and big armoured vehicles, oblivious to the fact that the museum’s brief was to cover all aspects of modern conflict with equal time for friend, foe, combatant and civilian.

What we took away from those visits so many years ago was that this was a very dangerous museum, dangerous in the sense that it was so even handed and so well done, that at some level, war seemed an inevitable part of the human condition. We didn’t like that idea then and we don’t like it now so charging over to Lambeth like a ‘just give peace a chance’ reincarnation of John Lennon seemed a cathartic and reasonable thing to do.

Now the first thing to know about the Imperial War Museum is that it is housed in a grand building, formerly the Bethlem Royal Hospital which, for centuries, was the major lunatic asylum for London, more commonly known as “Bedlam”. Well, how appropriate is that, we thought as we read the background material on the way to the site. The fact that enormous guns from the HMS Ramillies and HMS Resolution guard the entrance and that lots of men were milling around the guns enthusiastically taking pictures only seemed to wind this old peacenik up even more.

Once inside, we bypassed the Large Exhibits Hall containing the most important weapons and vehicles in the collection (and most of the boys and men) heading straight for the “My Boy Jack” exhibition (until February 24) which chronicles the relationship between Rudyard Kipling and his only son who died in the Battle of Loos in 1915. What makes the story so poignant is that Kipling’s son, who was practically blind, would never have been allowed to fight were it not for his world famous father who marshalled all his influence to gain his son a commission. The exhibit contains original documents and material used to make the television drama by the same name which starred Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame. Both the film and the exhibition are extremely moving and to be recommended.

From there we tackled the First and Second World War Galleries which are extensive and, we hate to say it, superbly done which include a walk through recreation of a WWI trench complete with “special sound, lighting and smell effects”. We had to battle our way through “The Children’s War”, which tells the story of WWII through the eyes of Britain’s children which was packed to the gills with modern day British school children who, surprisingly, seemed quite interested in these remote childhoods of air raids, evacuations and ration cards. At this point, we began to suspect that we were going to have to write something more than just “this is a place with big toys for big boys” review. Nevertheless, there was tons more to see before we passed judgement.

On the second floor, we spent a long time in the Art Galleries which contain a good collection of modern British paintings exploring the theme of war. In the same room as John Singer Sargent’s famous painting “Gassed” there is a new work by the artist, Steve McQueen, “Queen and Country” commemorating the British service men and women who have lost their lives in the Iraq conflict. Sadly, this exhibit is a work in progress and will continue until British forces leave Iraq.

On the same floor, there currently is a fascinating temporary exhibit (until March 30th) entitled “Weapons of Mass Communications” which uses posters to explore the relationship between advertising, publicity and government propaganda. Unlike the rest of the museum this exhibit was populated by hip media types, some with quite amazing hair, who seemed to be looking for new ideas.

On the fourth and fifth floor of the Imperial War Museum visitors will find two exhibitions on the Holocaust and Crimes against Humanity. As you can imagine, these exhibits are difficult to visit and even more difficult to adequately describe. In any case, we advise that you leave them for last. We found them informative and very, very sobering. Many of the visitors left comments in the guestbook that they had found this Holocaust Exhibition to be more powerful than either of the museums dedicated to the subject in Washington and Berlin. We also thought that the specially commissioned film on genocide and ethnic violence in Armenia, Nazi occupied Europe, Cambodia, East Timor, Rwanda and elsewhere should be compulsory viewing for anyone trying to gain a better understanding of conflict in the 21st century.

Following these two exhibitions, we decided it was time to call it a day. Once again, we went away convinced that this museum does too good a job of articulating what to us is so inexplicable. Despite all mankind has learned and despite all human achievement, in the words of Helmuth von Moltke “War is also part of God’s creation.”

The Imperial War Museum London
Lambeth Road
London SE1
Tel: 0207 416 5320

Open daily from 10 to 6
Free admission

Monday, January 07, 2008

Food and Travel

Last night, our family in London celebrated the Feast of Epiphany (the visit of the three kings to the baby Jesus) with a delicious Galette des Rois, acquired from the French bakery, Paul, on the Kings Road. Galettes are a type of cake, typically filled with frangipane, in which a small porcelain figure is hidden. The person who gets the piece of cake with the figure is King or Queen for a day and wears the crown that is usually supplied with the galette with enormous pride.

Food can take us on journeys even when we stay home. Celebrating with a Galette des Rois took this family back to a time when we shared our holidays together in France. We had lots of fun partaking of this very French tradition and the galette from Paul was quite good. Eating Galette des Rois is not a perfect substitute for crossing the Channel but it certainly turned last night’s family dinner into a Gallic inspired celebration.

Thanks to several NoCrowds readers, 2008 is off to a fast start on the subject of food and travel. In case you missed it in the comments section, John Chypre provided a terrific list of international food sites including C’est moi qui l’ai fait which has a good looking Galette des Rois recipe for adventurous cooks who speak some French. For lovers of German food and language, you can also find a recipe for a Galette des Rois (Dreikoenigskuchen) in John’s recommended Chili und Ciabatta. From an American in Frankfurt came the excellent suggestion that we check out the websites for Road Food and Simple Cooking.

Here is the list of all the food sites readers have generously sent in so far. For more details straight from the source, check out the Comments section of the previous post – and feel free to add any great sites for lovers of food and travel.

Cup cake
C’est moi qui l’ai fait (in French)
Papilles et pupilles(in French)
Clea cuisine (in French)
La cuisine de mercotte (in French)
Chili und ciabatta (in German)
Road Food
Simple Cooking

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Determined to Enjoy the Ride

So where did we go for the holidays? Nowhere. It was great going nowhere. No queues, delays, crazy prices and, of course, no crowds.

We’re a bit ashamed to say we loved staying home. People who write about travel should love travelling but, looking back on 2007, what stands out is how disagreeable many of our journeys became. We know we are fortunate to be able to travel and even if we really loved the destinations, we have to admit that getting there was often pretty awful.

We’re determined to travel better this year. We deserve it. For that matter, so do you. To this end, we have come up with some New Year’s resolutions, not about where we will go this year, but rather, what we intend to do in 2008 to put more fun back in the travel experience. Any suggestions, we’re all ears.

What to do about transportation ?

Every time we think of flying, we’ll try to think again. An impractical suggestion when crossing an ocean but for intra-continental travel, we’re going to get better about using trains, cars or buses and stay on the ground. We think the best way to send the airlines a message is by staying away.

If we must fly, we’ll use airlines that have on-line check-in and we’ll only take carry-on luggage. We’re going to get tactical with our credit cards and use those that offer air miles and start going for upgrades. We’ll never again book a flight where we need to be at the airport at 5:30 am (what lunacy) and if we can’t find a direct flight, we’ll look for somewhere else to go. We’ll get better about packing picnics and refuse the meals. We won’t shop in duty free either in the hope that airport operators begin to lose their incentive for us to loiter and consume.

All in all, even if we have to spend more, we’ve had it with being treated like cattle and we’re through behaving like sheep.

No big changes to our accommodation and food strategy

Smaller family owned and operated hotels such as Villa Duflot in the south of France Hotel Planac in the Italian Alps and Pensione Tranchina in Sicily served us well in 2007 and we intend to stay with that strategy in 2008. Considering how many gracious inns and historic properties run by interesting people exist, we see no reason to give Holiday Inn or the Four Seasons our business. We still think Karen Brown’s Guides have the edge on finding charming and historic places to stay and we will continue to follow their suggestions where possible.

To find information on restaurants and all things culinary in places we are going to visit, we love reading both the Chowhound and eGullet websites which are surprisingly good for international destinations. For France, we’re still hooked on Chocolate & Zucchini. We’ll continue to look for good foodie website. Please send us yours.

No matter where we go, we intend to visit a market or food shop and bring home at least one local ingredient. Bringing food home and an interest in a cuisine is one of the nicest ways we know to prolong the pleasure of a trip.

Reading lists before packing lists

This year, before we worry about what’s in our suitcase, we’re going to brush off our library card and hit the books. Not just the guide books but also the novels, the histories, the newspapers and the cookbooks of the places we’re going to visit. Surely, this simple change will have the biggest impact on putting more fun and more meaning back in the travel experience.

In any event, we want to thank our readers for their support in 2007 and we look forward to sharing new uncrowded travel experiences in 2008. As you begin to formulate your travel plans for this year, we encourage you to take the advice of Yogi Berra:

“When you get to the fork in the road, take it.”