Thursday, November 12, 2009

Thanksgiving in London

We run the best Thanksgiving Soup Kitchen outside the United States. It’s a bold claim but let me offer some supporting metrics. During our time in London, we have served over 370 pounds of turkey to an estimated 420 people. This year we anticipate feeding thirty-three pilgrims hailing from France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, the UK and the United States. And I’m confident that everyone who will celebrate with us this year would agree, London is the ultimate Thanksgiving destination.

For the uninitiated, London might seem like an unlikely place to eat turkey with friends and family but in fact, with roughly 150,000 hungry Americans living in greater London, along with tourists and curious Londoners, it is relatively easy to find an excellent turkey dinner with all the trimmings. Villandry in Marylebone, Christophers in Covent Garden are good options. Hotels such as Browns, Claridges, the Chesterfield, and the Royal Garden all have special Thanksgiving menus with more informal places like Bodeans (with live NFL action for diehards)  offering a more down home options.

If you were to rent an apartment and prepare your festivities yourself, the best butchers such as Lidgate in Holland Park and Randalls in Fulham can source you a fabulous turkey at even more fabulous prices that puts the American butterball to shame. Just be careful about size, most English ovens are smaller than in the States. If you don’t want to cook, Whole Foods in Kensington can supply an traditional meal for up to 12 people with all the fixings.

If you are not yet sold on the idea to come to London for Thanksgiving, here is some more ammunition. Late November is a relatively inexpensive time to fly to London. By contract, moving around the United States over Thanksgiving is congested and expensive. In fact, being at least 5,000 miles away from the 25 million Americans who travel on Thanksgiving Day is a pretty good idea. Also, the day after Thanksgiving is a quite normal shopping day in London. You can have a very pleasant time wandering around the stores which are already beautifully decorated for Christmas and not particularly crowded. Compare that to the riots taking place in malls across America.

In addition, you will receive the warmest welcome from your London hosts. Londoners are rather intrigued with the whole notion of Thanksgiving and they are a bit envious of the fact that Americans take the day off just to ”count their blessings” with family and friends who eat themselves silly and all of this without having to buy any presents. Of course, there is always the story that the Friday after Thanksgiving is the only day a poor Brit with a hyper-active, vacation- hating American boss won’t notice if he is late to work. Well, you can’t win them all. In my experience, just like the original pilgrims, if you invite representatives of the indigenous people to join you, they are always happy to oblige.

And finally, you can achieve the ultimate Thanksgiving experience by paying a visit to the Mayflower Pub in Rotherhithe in southeast London from which the original Pilgrim Father set sail for Plymouth in 1620. This historic pub is authorised to sell both British and US stamps so come armed with postcards to confuse your family and friends.

After hoisting a pint at the Mayflower, pay a visit to Southwark Cathedral to see the memorial to the Mohegan tribal chieftan, Sachem Mohamet Weyonomon who had travelled to London in 1736 to complain directly to George II about British settlers encroaching on tribal lands. Sadly, Weyonomon died of smallpox before getting to see the King and was buried in an unmarked grave on the banks of the Thames near John Harvard and William Shakespeare. Weyonomon’s letter to George II finally reached the hands of a British monarch on Wednesday, November 22, 2006. Yes, one day before Thanksgiving.

So forget the traffic jams, the football games, the shopping malls and the Butterballs. For free spirits who want to “connect to their inner Thanksgiving”, go back to where it all really started and have the time of your life celebrating America’s greatest holiday - in London.
Photo Credit of Queen and Indian Chief at Southwark Cathedral AP

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Why is Lucca so Lucky?

Driving through the imposing medieval walls into the small Tuscan city of Lucca, we asked ourselves three questions:

Why does everyone look so happy?
Why is everyone on a bike?
Where is all the tourist hoopla?

Over the course of our three-day break, we found answers to all our questions.

First, everyone looks happy because they live and work in one of God’s green acres. According to Forbes magazine, Lucca is the second most idyllic place to live in Europe (after Patmos, Greece) and “has all the charm of Tuscany without the crowds … This is a quiet, though classy town, with lawyers and housewives peddling the narrow cobblestone streets past thousand year old churches and made-in-Italy fashion boutiques.” OK, that explains the contentment but …

Why does everone ride a bike? Because the busses don’t fit through the walled entrance and because most of the perfectly preserved historic centre has been pedestrianized. Locals and visitors alike find it more fun and easier to wiz around on bicycles. Bike rentals are everywhere and prices are reasonable (inquire at the tourist office). A highlight for visitors is to cycle the 4 km circuit around the broad, tree-lined ramparts.

But what about the tourist hulabaloo? As Lucca is a classy town and seems to appeal to a more discerning kind of tourist, the “tour bus, fake handbag and warped post card” options you find all over Florence and Pisa are in short supply. We did find lovely and fairly priced Italian linens in a shop called Butterfly on the Piazza S. Frediano and our daughter was able to find beautiful but affordable Italian paper and notebooks at the tobacconist on Via Santa Croce. Cultural offerings including churches, museums and ‘climbable’ bell towers were equally impressive and uncrowded.

Finally, we were delighted with our hotel and the restaurants. Thanks to the suggestion of Italian friends, we stayed at the mid-priced Hotel Ilaria, which was a great recommendation. This hotel benefits from an excellent location, charming staff, and lots of freebies including parking, WiFi, bicycles and drinks and snacks. Our rooms in the annexe, a former 14th century church, were large, nicely appointed and dead quiet. Rates include a generous buffet breakfast.

The best meal we had was at the Buca di Sant Antonio. This romantic restaurant has been a Mecca for the great and the good since 1782. The food and service were excellent. Also good was the Antica Locanda dell’Angelo where we feasted on budget busting truffles. We had a tasty €10-a-head lunch at Ristorante Gli Orti di via Elisa and the Café di Simo, with its belle époque interior, is a great place to see and be seen.

All in all, our three days in Lucca was hard to fault on any count. This town is indeed lucky, and we’ll be back.

Photo from Rex Maximillian's photo stream on Flickr.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Take a Two Minute Trip to the Arctic

Who knew freezing your butt off could be so much fun?

When I heard that National Geographic had opened a store on London’s Regent Street, I thought:
It will be worthy
It will be well done
But exciting retail?
I doubt it.
Well, I was wrong.

Yesterday, on the way to look at kitchen counters at John Lewis (speaking of worthy but boring retail) I stumbled into the Nat Geo emporium and had a blast – literally.

Of all the things to do and see in this huge, glossy, dare I say it, sexy store, it’s hard to beat taking a spin in the testing chamber where you can try out your expedition gear in simulated extreme weather conditions while a thermo camera takes a pictures of your body’s temperatures. Even though I was in street clothes, the friendly member of staff was happy to let me have a go. Oh yes, it was super windy and cold but where else in London can you take a two minute trip to the Arctic?

In addition to the testing chamber, the store is filled with nifty products that would be great to have whether you are venturing down the block or around the globe. I found the shoes, boots, bags and backpacks particularly seductive. As you would expect from Nat Geo, there are inspiring pictures everywhere, a gallery, a space for presentations, a section for children, and a groovy looking café (the only busy place in the store) with world food and music.

It’s hard to imagine that this enormous store filled with relatively esoteric stuff will make lots of money but as an exciting retail destination and as an expression of the brand, it is a runaway success. In the guest book for the store’s current special exhibition on Finland, a young visitor, who obviously had a great time on his visit, put it this way: “I LOVE National Geographic” and that about sums it up.

The National Geographic store can be found at 83 – 87 Regent Street. There is another store in Singapore.

The photo of the testing chamber taken by Philip Meech & Tim Kavanagh is from the store’s website.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Is Your Hand in my Pocket Because You're Glad to See Me

Yesterday, the UN ranked Norway the best place to live based on education, wealth and life expectancy which reminded me that I had an instructive email from Gary languishing in my inbox about the need for travellers on the road to be vigilant with valuables ... even in the best place to live in the world!

Soon after we rendezvoused with our friends on arrival in Oslo, one of them somewhat randomly mentioned multiple signs they had seen mentioning the need to stay vigilant about pickpockets.

Ah well, our friends don’t travel that much, I thought, and haven’t endured multiple “pickpockets are working this area” announcements at innumerable London tube stations. Isn’t that sweet (and maybe a bit naïve) that Marianne is concerned about such things?

The next day we had decided to join the tourist crowds, which we occasionally do, and go to see the astounding sculptures of Gustav Vigeland, Norway’s most well known (and randiest, if you take a moment to study his work) sculptor. Vigeland Park is a huge outdoor museum, and we enjoyed ourselves, despite, or maybe because of the steel grey weather. Recommended, in spite of the crowds.

Heading back to our apartment, we decided to make use of our OsloPass, which afforded us free travel on the entire trolley system, we headed to the station just outside the park gates. I was a tourist among tourists – cargo shorts, backpack, water bottle, camera. Waiting for the trolley, I took this random picture of a couple of people, one of whom (not facing me) would become more important.

The crowd built up, so by the time the train came, there were a couple of dozen of us waiting to get on.As we scrummed to board the train, said guy, newspaper in hand, thoughtfully motioned me and my backpack ahead of him. Interesting I thought, because I had seen him talking earlier to his friend, the guy who was now in front of me. Maybe they’d had enough of each other. No biggie.

Slowly, the guy in front of me stopped, and even backed up a bit, appearing to be waving others in ahead of him. Meanwhile the guy in back kept moving forward, jostling me and poking me with various elbows and knees. Was he just impatient or was that…a hand in my pocket? Suddenly, Marianne’s words came back to me as my mind spun with visions of spending the vacation cancelling credit cards and replacing driving licenses (after all who cares about the cash?)

What I did next came directly from my amygdala – no cerebral cortex involvement, I assure you. I screamed loudly “Hey, give me back my wallet!” and grabbed his newspaper arm (having understood the purpose of the paper now). Tellingly, he did not react at all, which was probably better for both of us, since I was ready for a fight and he was 20 years my junior. Everyone looked at me and waited to see what would happen. By that time I realized that he had not been successful – my wallet was still in my pocket. I know I should have dragged him to the local constabulary, but I was so relieved that I let him go and he melted into the crowd.

SO there is a moral to this story, which by the way, is not about Oslo, since it could happen anywhere. Yes, it’s about being vigilant, but more than that, it is about what a wonderful idea it is to make a scene. Acting like an obnoxious American has its advantages, and it was clearly the right thing to do here. Lorraine tells me that women, especially are taught not to call attention to themselves, even in such circumstances. I can tell you that the vacation would have been a very different one.
The image is from Viegland Park (thanks to and pickpockets or not - I really want to go there!

Friday, October 02, 2009

Thank You American

I need a flight. That was one of my first thoughts after hearing that my aunt Anne had died. I need to be in North Carolina, not London, so I called American Airlines.

I explained to the woman on the other end of the phone, I don’t remember her name, that there had been a death in the family and I understood most airlines had special “bereavement” fares. It felt disrespectful even to ask. Someone has died, so can I get a cheap ticket please. But the American Airlines representative handled it all beautifully. She explained that the airline understood that there were times when a passenger was not able to book in advance. She checked availability on the next morning's flight, quoted a fare that I would have received had I booked way in advance, reserved a nice aisle seat at the front of the plane, processed my credit card and sent me my e-ticket, all in a matter of minutes.

I’ve said tons of ugly things about airlines in this blog. Still, I thought I’d use this chance to thank American for being so nice about one of the saddest requests I’ve ever had to make.

FYI – American Airlines has a daily non-stop from London Heathrow to Raleigh Durham Airport with a terrific new terminal where I cleared US Customs and Immigration in less than 10 minutes. Right now, I can’t think of a nicer or more efficient place for foreign nationals to enter the United States.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Café of the Skinny Dipper, or, Bavaria au naturel

Naked bathing in Bavaria with Gary and Lorraine???

Here's a fun story from the dynamic duo about revisiting old haunts - and the things you never forget.

Rottach-Egern, Germany—

Twenty-one years ago, the two of us traveled to Europe for the first time. The occasion for me was a client’s global management team meeting to take place at a small hotel on the Tegernsee, a beautiful alpine lake an hour south of Munich, and the opportunity for Lorraine was a two-for-one business class deal with Sabena – already leading the industry back then by flying empty planes across the Atlantic from Boston, where we were living at the time.

During the days, I worked intensively with the client’s senior team while Lorraine explored this new world, and then shared her discoveries with me over dinner each night. One particular story stuck with me. She had rented a bike at the hotel, rode it around the shoreline of the Tegernsee, and discovered a glorious café along the way, one that served beer, coffee and a few pastries on a lovely deck literally over the water at the end of a deserted dirt road. The setting was incredible, but the memorable event was when the woman sitting at the other end of her long table finished her beer, paid her bill, walked down the steps of the café’s deck, calmly removed every single article of clothing, and dove into the water.

Fast forward 21 years, and another business meeting has brought me back to Munich, this time on Emirates from Dubai, rather than poor Sabena from Boston. Lorraine decides to come along, and we plan a weekend to rediscover the Tegernsee and see what’s changed.

The first disappointment is that the lovely little rustic B&B that we stayed in back then, the Seehotel Ueberfahrt, has obviously been successful—it is now a 5 storey glass and steel monstrosity with five stars and room rates to match. We stayed elsewhere, needless to say.
But the news improves from there. This time my work was finished before the weekend, so we rented bikes together, rode down the shoreline past a few beaches, and voila! There it was. It had also seen its share of success in the last 20 years. The long tables were replaced by classy wooden café sets for seating two- and four-tops, and a high tech retracting roof had been added, with a nod to Bavaria’s sometimes unpredictable weather. The setting was every bit as beautiful – far away from the hotel crowd at the end of a long peninsula, it is truly a discovery, with a breathtaking view that takes in the length of the lake.

The menu had also gotten an upgrade. We were impressed with the range of traditional Bavarian dishes, although on this occasion, we settled for a mid-afternoon nosh of a Côtes du Rhône rosé and a fantastic trio of chocolate mousses accompanied by perfect fruits and berries. Just the thing to give you the energy for the rest of the ride…

Sadly, I can’t really tell you how to get there by car, because it seems to be relatively inaccessible that way. However, riding a bike or walking west along the beach from the Seehotel Ueberfahrt in Rottach-Egern will get you there quite efficiently – there are occasional signs to the “Strandcafe” to give you a clue. By boat, there is of course a dock, just across a small bay from the “Abwinkl” ferry stop. The GPS coordinates are N 47° 41.754’, E 11° 44.292’, so if you paste those into Google Maps or Earth, or your SatNav, you will have a very good idea of your target.

And no, for those of you who are still wondering, that event that made Lorraine realize she was in a different culture altogether twenty years ago was, sadly, not repeated.

Them’s the breaks.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Room with a View

Last week I went to Paris to try and finish a thesis on how social media networks are influencing activist politics in the Middle East.

I rented a cute little apartment on the 7th floor of a building on rue du Dragon in St Germain des Pres. You can rent it too and the link to the website is here. The apartment has a great view of the Eiffel Tower and is across the street from Cafe Flore, where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir did a lot of their writing. Yes, the setting was atmospheric and inspiring but I think the neighborhood did more for them than for me. I'm still not done with the thesis.

But I am done with academic purdah and No Crowds radio silence. Enough is enough. Still, I am really proud that the No Crowds concept has survived the last four months thanks to the wonderful contributions of expert travellers and reporters, Gary and Lorraine. In fact, I love the idea that all kinds of people can use this platform to talk about all kinds of travel experiences. Long may it last.

Tomorrow, there's more from Gary and Lorraine, but for now, it's nice to be back.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Navigating Away from the Crowds

Gary, top No Crowds reporter and resident geek enlightens us all on the why and how of using a handheld GPS on our travels.

So, you are a confirmed no-crowdite, unwilling to spend vacations within sight of more than a dozen other members of homo sapiens. When the traffic turns left, you turn right. When others queue at the airport, you take the train, or better yet, a tuk-tuk. When there is a fork in the road, you take it, just as Yogi Berra famously advised. You, my friend, had better own a handheld GPS.

You may already have a GPS (or Satnav, as they call them in the UK) either built in or added on to your car. But chances are it’s big and clunky or even physically built in, and goes catatonic when you take it a few feet away from a paved road. Enter the handheld. About the size of an iPhone, these units are wildly useful for all travelers, although you wouldn’t know that from the marketing literature. Are you going to be hiking? Biking? Driving? Boating? Traveling by train, bus or rickshaw? These babies have capability to support you in all of these modes, and among many other services, they can always answer that most important of all questions:

“Where on earth are we, and how do we find the hotel?”

A selection of things you can do with one of these units:

· Get turn-by-turn highway directions to the destination of your choice, wherever you are in the world (like your car GPS, but with a beep instead of the voice)

· Find gas stations, speed cams, hotels, restaurants and other important things

· When hiking or mountain biking, identify trails in geographic and topographic detail (i.e. how steep they are) and where they lead, as well as keeping a record of where you have been in case you need to retrace your steps.

· Plot boating trips on detailed nautical charts, with complete details about buoys, lighthouses, ports, obstacles and water depths. Boaters will also appreciate anchor drag and shallow water alarms.

· My particular unit even has information like “water temperature” and “depth”, which, although completely undocumented, make me think that it could be used while scuba diving.

· …and, if you are taking pictures, regardless of your means of conveyance, the unit will be able to encode each photo with information about exactly where in the world it was taken.

One example: The Garmin Oregon 300

As a confirmed iPhone lover, I couldn’t imagine using buttons and wheels to navigate around a map, so the Oregon seemed like a good solution, since it is completely touchscreen driven. It set me back about $350 from Amazon in the US, along with another $100 for a detailed road map and high level trail map and marine chart that covered all of Europe, from Poland to Ireland and Finland to Malta (detailed topographical maps are also available, if you’re an avid hiker). I gave this thing an unplanned test on the first day out when I slipped on a hiking trail, and managed to break my fall on a rock outcropping with the Garmin – smashing it on the rock screen side down, with all my weight behind it. End of story, I thought. As you can see, it came away with some impressive scratches (as did I), but nothing else, and continues to work perfectly. I think of the scratches as proof that I really used the thing, and wear them proudly. Try that move with an iPhone and see what happens…

It’s all about the maps

Once you choose the right GPS (or even before you choose it), make sure you can get the right digital maps, either on CD, a chip that goes in the unit, or downloaded from the maker’s website. Frankly, the unit is completely useless without them. Garmin, for example, has a dizzying array, but they let you view each map online to see whether it has the information you will need. The maps also need to be compatible with the actual unit, and that’s not always easy to figure out. But in the US and the UK especially, the available maps go to and beyond the detail of the old USGS topo maps we used back in the day when we were hiking the Appalachian Trail. The map specification is open, so for example, the Norwegian Trekking Association sells its own Garmin-compatible detailed trail and topographical maps on chips that can be loaded into your unit. And of course, there are a wide range of detailed nautical charts from around the world to make any weekend sailor happy.

There is also no end of things you can do, post holiday, with all of your GPS memories. EveryTrail ( allows you to upload your trip information and photos to create a photoessay and map of your travels, and you can even let others “fly” your route in Google Earth and have your photos pop up like road signs, showing the sights along the way…
A century ago, John Masefield, the English poet laureate, just needed “a tall ship and a star to steer her by”. It may be a lot less poetic to be able to have that star in your pocket today, but hey – if it helps us each find our version of the “lonely sea and the sky”, who can blame us?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Frodo's Summer Place

More from our intrepid correspondents, Gary and Lorraine. This time they provide a great guide to hiking in Norway.

It turns out that Peter Jackson got it wrong. His love of the southern hemisphere kept him from seriously considering the very best location for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, much to his detriment. But if you want to see the place where Frodo and Gandalf, as well as the Vikings would feel most at home, then you must avoid the South Island crowds and come to up-country Norway.

[Remember that Tolkien himself was a big fan. The recently published “Legend of Sigrud & Gudrun”, written before any of the Middle Earth books, retells a classic Norse legend and contains many passages that were later put to use in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.]

Yes, I know—mention a vacation in Norway and we all think of the fjords, and in fact they are every bit as breathtaking as we ever imagined. Our rental house was directly on the Aurlandsfjord, a branch of the biggest fjord in Norway. Hundreds of kilometers from the sea, this saltwater body plays host to schools of dolphins and a wide range of sea life thanks to its tides and depth (in some areas, nearly a mile). We looked across the fjord at a topography that varied from steep cliffs with Norway pines growing impossibly out of cracks, to sheer rock faces with cascading waterfalls originating at the snowfields that were still visible if you looked up.

However, those characteristics also create a friendly environment for those massive floating high rises known as superliners . Despite their 10 storeys of staterooms and roof-mounted waterslides, even these ships are rendered insignificant by the surroundings. And, if you time your fjord-level touring for days when the liners are elsewhere, you can have quite an authentic experience getting to know this world heritage site without the attendant onslaught of hundreds of camera-snapping cruise passengers intent on winning the “number of photos per port” competition.

Indeed, when we come back next year (and we will), we will rent kayaks at the little-known and unadvertised site at Gudvangen on the narrowest fjord in Norway, and put in at the isolated towns and verdant grasslands that line the beaches on both sides. From our observation, two kayaks at a single beach clearly constitute a crowd.

But it is up country – beyond the reach of the passengers who must be back at the dock at 4 for a 6:00 pm sailing – where the crowds truly end and the magic of Middle Earth begins. Let us tell you about one excellent day as an instructive example.

We started the day inauspiciously in Flåm, a cheesy tourist town dedicated to the cruise boats with nothing to recommend it save the Flåm railway, the Flåmsbana. The hard working railway rises 800 meters in 20 km, and so takes you to the Norwegian treeline in a bit over an hour, with magnificent views all the way. It also has the distinction of being a completely self-sufficient, energy-wise (halfway up the mountain we passed the hydroelectric plant built on a year-round waterfall that supplies all the electric power needed for the operation).

Take the first train in the morning at around 8:30, which often leaves before the cruise liners have finished docking (you can buy your tickets the night before, but not, as they proudly proclaim, on the internet). We did so and alighted at Vatnahalsen, near the end of the line, and within seconds we were alone, and very much in Middle Earth. Our chosen trail (a section of what was originally a supply trail for those building the Oslo-Bergen railway a century ago) took us along the shores of three pristine alpine lakes, each at a higher elevation, and emptying into the lower one through a dramatic waterfall. It was so perfect that we imagined them to be a water feature carefully built in the back garden of some upscale giant. We were high enough at the first lake to be above the evergreen line, so we were surrounded by airy birch forests that would have make Galadriel feel right at home. Rather than block the sun, birch seems to amplify it and add subtlety and a certain otherworldly quality.

Like Frodo, a morning of walking always made us a bit peckish, so by the time we had made our ascent to the second lake, our minds began to fill with cravings for second breakfasts, or at least elevenses. Alas, this was a wilderness trail - no guide book, no topo map had so much as mentioned any culinary establishment along the entire trail. Should we raid our lunch stash early, or soldier on until the crack of noon?

Imagine our surprise and delight, then, as we emerged from a section of forest, and there, on the lakeshore ahead of us, was Seltuft, the establishment of one Sue and Anders Fretheim ((the lone white house in the photo above). On the shore of the lake, at the base of a spectacular waterfall (with another dozen visible in the surrounding mountains), the place surely possesses one of the top ten locations of any eating establishment on earth. While sheep grazed contentedly by the barn across the track, the front yard hosted a couple of cyclists consulting maps and fixing a flat at the scattered picnic tables and stone seating. While perhaps not destined for a Michelin star, Seltuft was a Norwegian hiker’s Valhalla, with good hot coffee and what the signs said included “is, vaflen & øl, etc” (ice cream, waffles and ale). Sue fired up the waffle maker for us, and we drank our coffee while Anders answered our questions about fish in the lake (plenty of trout), and told us the sad story of the Norwegian salmon fishery. Almost extinct, he said, thanks to salmon farming, which delivers antibiotic-laden fish to your table while assuring that healthy wild salmon catch the increasingly drug-resistant diseases of their farmed brethren, and die either from them or the pandemic infestations of sea lice, also from the farms. We vowed never to eat farmed salmon again, and we headed back to the trail thinking that Norway was better for thoughtful, curmudgeonly innkeepers like Anders.

From Seltuft, the trail wound up the edge of a narrow canyon, strewn with boulders that had once calved from the cliffs above, which now formed obstacles in the class 5+ rapids below us. The monolith-sized rocks could have easily hidden an army of orcs, so we kept our guard up, just in case. But we were happy to be walking, taking in scenery which alternately reminded us of secluded lakes in New Hampshire or the Swiss Alps, trout streams in Montana, or the heather-covered dells of Scotland. We imagined that in many parts of the world, the breathtaking scenery would have been accompanied by admission fees, river tubing concessions, hot dog stands, gawking photographers and many, many signs declaring that the management was not responsible for you falling off the trail…but none of these were in evidence.

After lunch in a quiet glade above the river, we finished our ascent at the third lake, located incongruously on the far side of that main railway line high in the mountains. The tracks popped out of a tunnel on one side and back into one on the other, as if the planners had wanted to make sure that even their cosseted passengers didn’t miss this valley in their haste to get to Oslo. Finally above the treeline, the lake was surrounded by bald, lichen covered peaks dotted with snow (in August, mind you) and a mind-boggling assortment of cascades, rivulets and waterfalls. The quiet, nonstop roar of the falls was very much a part of the setting.

Returning the way we had come, we were treated to a new set of views down the valleys and canyons as we descended. Tradition, we felt, demanded that we check in with Anders on the way back, but this time to the accompaniment of a glass of a light Spanish red. He asked how far we had gone, and nodded in approval, as if to dismiss those newfangled mountain bikes parked in his yard as some technology fad. Hiking, now that was the Norwegian way.

Frodo, Sam and Gandalf would have approved…and in fact, as we left the inn, I could have sworn that I caught a glimpse of them sitting at a corner table, talking in low tones and planning their next adventure in Norway’s Middle Earth.

What you need to know

1. Norway is green for a reason. Bring wet weather gear, and be prepared for glorious sunshine and 20 degree temperatures, or rain and 10 degrees, even in August. In our experience, the occasional shower did nothing to diminish the grandeur of the surroundings, but rather enhanced it.

2. Aurland (a practical base of operations in the region, with an excellent hotel and a scattering of fjordside cottages for rent) is about 2.5 hours by car, 3.5 hours by train from the Bergen airport. Oslo, with more international connections, is 5-6 hours away. We suggest renting a car to give you the maximum flexibility to get to the trail heads and other points of interest.

3. Norway is expensive, especially restaurants and particularly wine at restaurants. If you are up for it and have the facilities to cook, buy your food at the markets. They are far more reasonable, and the state liquor stores, called the Vinmonopolet, have an excellent and competitively priced selection of bottled and boxed wines from all over the world at reasonable prices. A crisp sauvignon blanc poured from a Nalgene backpacker’s bottle may be inelegant, but it sure does go down well with charcuterie, wholegrain bread, olives and Norwegian Jarlsberg.

4. The country has an obsession with hot food at picnics, which means that you can pick up an A4-sized disposable charcoal grill at any grocery or convenience store. We found them very serviceable, although a bit too bulky to bring on a long hike.

5. The Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT) maintains a massive system of hiking trails along with serviced and unserviced cabins throughout the country, much like the Appalachian Mountain Club does in the US. Their website is quite informative, and their shop in Oslo carries every map and guide you could imagine. If you aren’t going to Oslo, you will find the Tourist Information offices in Aurland or Flåm carry a reasonable set of topographical maps and hiking guides for the area.

6. Norway’s laws concerning the right to roam are even more tilted toward the hiker than the UK’s. As a hiker, you can go just about anywhere you please, across anyone’s land, as long as you do no harm. Not surprising that hiking and cross-country skiing are the two most popular outdoor pastimes in the country.

7. For those with a hankering for an adrenaline rush (or with teenagers with excess energy to burn off), the trail we took is part of a system which can be ridden on a mountain bike. The trail, which descends all the way to Flåm, is identified by Lonely Planet as the steepest bike trail in the country. Truly a white-knuckle ride, and don’t expect to see much of the scenery on the way down – you will be totally focused on staying alive. You can rent bikes at Finse at the top of the run, and return them when you get to Flåm, where they will have their brakes replaced after every use and shipped back up-mountain.

To see a map and slide show of Gary and Lorraine's Vatnahalsen hike, click here.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Monsoon Mumbai

No Crowds guest reporters, Gary and Lorraine of Trattoria dal Billy fame are at it again. This time we find them in India, as they put it, "an unlikely candidate for No Crowds."

What do John and Yoko, Alfred Hitchcock, Queen Elizabeth, Roberto Rossellini and Hillary Clinton have in common? Wait for it…wait for it…yes! Of course, they have all been guests at the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai. Having opened in 1903, the hotel has had plenty of time to see its share of royalty. But how on earth could such a destination qualify for this blog? A classic hotel in a crowded city of a very crowded nation? No crowds?

The answer lies in a single word: "monsoon". The common wisdom is that western and central India are to be avoided in July, when the skies open up and once again assure that this part of the world stays as green and verdant as Dubai (our current address) is brown. But Mumbaikars have a bit of a different attitude towards rain than, let's say, Londoners - they love it! As we watch from our room in the Taj's tower, people gather by the sea wall near the Gates of India, fervently hoping that the record high tides will send a wave crashing over the wall and drench them, which happens on a regular basis. Of course, they're already wet from the rain, but they laugh and cheer just the same.

The Monsoon Taj

But I digress. The point here is, the Taj during the monsoon is two things: uncrowded and amazingly inexpensive. For something close to $200 per night on the weekend special, we were awarded a 12th floor room facing the harbour and overlooking the Gates of India. And the crowds? Well, we were the only people in the gym each morning. We were the only swimmers in the pool most mornings--a classic pool, by the way, 3 metres deep, and with two majestic lions jetting fresh water. For two days we were even the sole occupants in the outdoor Palm Lounge for breakfast. The ceiling fans, wicker and lush greenery everywhere created a wonderful alternative to the antiseptic, air conditioned breakfast buffet which, inexplicably, the other diners had unanimously chosen.

So our conclusions about the Taj at monsoon time are as follows:

1) There is no way in the world they can make a profit in July--this is about making sure the brand's flagship property continues to deliver superior guest experiences, whatever the cost. Example: We had an average of three waiters to ourselves at most meals.

2) Regardless, they do not reduce their staff or cut back on any services in any way. Empty restaurants are open their full hours, and the pool and gym are fully attended throughout the day.

3) Service and hospitality are frankly, beyond belief. A bit more about this…

Having lived in Dubai for the last year or so, we are used to "pseudo-service" - the appearance of good service which is in fact well-meaning members of the south Asian diaspora rigidly following a script laid out by an uncreative and unforgiving food and beverage manager. Plates and settings are whisked away before your last bite clears your teeth, leaving you fighting to keep your silverware for use with the next course.

But it's different at the Taj. Most importantly, everyone seems to be happy. The "good morning, sir", "Good morning, ma'am" is invariably accompanied by a warm smile, a comment about the weather, or perhaps something remembered from the previous encounter--"would you like the table with the view that you enjoyed yesterday?" or "how was your visit to the museum?". Unless it's all an elaborate ruse, these people are very happy with their jobs, and they are truly glad to see you. Once, as we strolled the outdoor gallery past the pool being greeted heartily by hotel staffers standing at parade rest on either side, I had an image of how another, more famous couple might feel walking down a similar hallway--did someone just say, "good morning Mr. President"?

A night at the Zodiac restaurant was a continuation of the incredible experience. If anybody knows how to cook vegetarian, it must be the chefs in this country, so we both chose the "vegetarian degustation" menu, anticipating a sampling of everything Indo-French cuisine could offer without involving animals. When the waiters carefully placed four knives and forks next to our show plates, we knew the evening would be rewarding. The succession of tastes and fusion pairings included not one, but two soufflés--truly a meal to remember. Since we had booked at the laughingly early hour of 8 pm, we had the place to ourselves for the first couple of hours. Well, to ourselves, the entire waitstaff, and a wonderful piano player who played passable smooth jazz and took requests. I know it's corny, but you really have to have "As time goes by" played some time during an evening like this.

Finally, it would be hard to mention this hotel without reference to the attacks of 26/11. The Palace side of the hotel is still mostly closed, undergoing what are delicately referred to as "renovations" by the staff. Entering the hotel now involves scanners and security checks - the most I've seen this side of Riyadh. Armed security guards and police are everywhere as you enter, but then seem to fade into the shadows--I'm sure they are still there, though. But the spirit of the place is unrelentingly upbeat--nobody, they seem to be saying, is going to keep us from creating a world class experience for those of us clever enough to realize that this was the right place at the right time.

Café Leopold

A short walk from the Taj is an experience that is at the same time completely different and exactly the same - Café Leopold. Like the Taj, this establishment was also a target of the terrorists on 26/11, but with that same indomitable spirit, it reopened 2 days later, and has been open ever since. It wears its wounds proudly, with no attempt to hide them. Once we sat next to a wooden column which had two neat holes from a bullet entering and exiting, and another time in front of a shuttered window, much photographed by patrons, with every bullet hole untouched. The staff, who must have lost some colleagues that night, are clearly taking satisfaction in making this place hum the way it always has.

A cross between Rick's Café in Casablanca and the alien biker bar from Star Wars, it is packed with customers of all sorts at all hours (definitely NOT a "no crowds" experience). You can see abayas, saris, turbans, All Blacks tee-shirts and LL Bean walking shorts, and there are always a couple of those fifty-something skinny American guys with grey ponytails who seem to pitch up in the far corners of the world. It serves an eclectic menu that includes hamburgers, nachos, vegetable pakoras, paneer tikka sandwiches, sweet and sour shrimp and the best garlic naan this side of, well, Mumbai. To say it's a good deal doesn't quite capture it. Let's just say that a wonderful multi-Asian meal with a pitcher of Kingfisher (that is, a yard-high column of beer with a spigot at the bottom) set us back exactly 1/20 of our tab at the Zodiac. And the good news (besides the reassuring presence of armed security at all the entrances) is that the recent nonsmoking ordinance in the country means that you can actually see from one side of the place to the other.

So if you're in south Asia and looking to avoid the crowds, just remember…Monsoon Mumbai.

Photo from Terra Trippers photostream on Flickr.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Last Three Feet

“The really crucial link in the international communication chain is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact, one person talking to another.”
Edward R. Murrow

Why did those Harvard kids create Facebook? The website talks about giving people the power to share and making the world more connected. Rubbish. Having just completed 6 weeks on a campus right down the road from Harvard, I know the real reason. Mark Zuckerberg had lots of homework. He was trying to avoid his homework - and presto – Facebook.

For the rest of us, procrastination does not lead to such obvious riches. My own case is instructive. Right now, I am sitting on a farm in North Carolina. I am way behind on my thesis. I haven’t written anything for No Crowds in over a month. I have 173 unread emails.

I blame everyone. Is it my fault that my southern family is super time consuming or that my son brought his girlfriend for a visit, that French friends touring the American South parked their RV in the yard? Can I help it that lightening struck the house and fried the broadband? Who can write with so much company and no broadband?

On the other hand, I have spent time with my parents (in their 80s) and my sister and family (from Australia) and helped take care of my sick aunt (getting better). I’ve met my son’s girlfriend (brilliant and fun), watched the Frenchies charm the pants off everyone (no more talk of “cheese eating surrender monkeys” in this town) Maybe I haven’t been procrastinating. Maybe I have been following Edward R Murrow’s advice to focus on the crucial “last three feet”. Maybe this unplugged summer has created something more valuable than Facebook after all.

Photo of Edward R Murrow and Harry S. Truman from Wikipedia

Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Secret Life of Students

I used to wonder about these things but I get it now.

Why you refuse to go on a food plan. It’s all you can eat and it’s cheap.
It really is gross and not cheap either.

Then why can’t you stick to a reasonable food budget? There must be lots of cheap food around college campuses.
Have you seen the price of a cup of coffee lately. You can only eat so many burritos. It all adds up.

Why are there so many “lost key” charges on your bill?
It’s really easy to lose your keys and the University charges are punitive.

Why can't you get along with the campus police?
Because they don't like students. We're their 'bad guys'.

How can your clothes get soooo nasty. Don’t they have machines at your school?
Yes but they are expensive and inconvenient.

I send you things through the mail and you don’t even bother to go to your mailbox.
I can’t open my mailbox because its 1,000 years old, has a fiddly combination that doesn’t work.

What’s this “Incomplete” on your transcript. You have nothing to do but put your head down and finish your work.
So have you seen the syllabus for my course – 8 mini-papers, one big paper, a presentation, a simulation and a final not to mention the reading. Finishing ain’t as easy as it looks.

Why don’t you call?
Because I’m having too much fun.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

University Challenge

What are No Crowds favourite destinations in America? College towns. Think, Berkeley in California and Chapel Hill/Durham in North Carolina - and there are so many more.

A quick survey on Twitter produced this list of favourites:

Cambridge, Massachusetts
Madison, Wisconsin
Charlottesville, Virginia
Princeton, New Jersey
Ann Arbor Michigan
Santa Cruz, California
Providence, Rhode Island
Hanover, New Hampshire

Without much effort, you could put together an awesome trip across America just visiting towns with colleges and universities. They all share characteristics that make for great travel destinations. And you don’t have to be young or a student to enjoy them.

They are all cosmopolitan. They always have some interesting (non-chain) places to stay. They have lots of restaurants at all price points and tons of bars, cafes, bookstores and art house cinemas that stay open late. The campuses are invariably beautiful and filled with arts and sports venues that are open to the public, all at student prices. There’s even pretty good public transportation. It all boils down to big city amenities without the crowds, the cost or the stress.

Are you sold on the idea yet? Well, we are. So much so that for the next six weeks we will be “embedded” at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University just outside of Boston finishing a degree that was begun 32 years ago. To make the experience more authentic (and because we’re frugal and lazy) we’ll be living in the dorm, something we haven’t done since Jimmy Carter was President, the Red Army Faction was on trial and Apple Computer was incorporated.

OK, it’s been a while but we think it’s very cool that the University is supporting this Ueber-mature student in her late but sincere desire to finish up. This project would also not have been possible without the support of the Editor and family:

“Hey Mom, you’re living in the dorm. Jesus, you’re gonna hate it. Imagine living with 100 people just like me”.

“Hey Sis, don’t you remember that there was always some crazy old lady on campus and you always wondered what she was doing there. Now you ARE the crazy old lady on campus. Have a great time.”

Monday, May 11, 2009

Beam Me Aboard, Mrs Reffle

Stardate 1314.5. As Americans flock into cinemas to see the new Star Wars movie, No Crowds headed for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in London to check out the Linley Sambourne House. It’s not exactly the Star Ship Enterprise, but a visit to the perfectly preserved Victorian house at 18 Stafford Terrace is also a voyage of discovery, this time of the 1890s, that is equally loveable. It’s life in London, Jim, but not as we know it.

To visit the family home of the celebrated cartoonist Linley Sambourne, who lived at 18 Stafford Terrace from 1875 to 1919, you need to book a guided tour. Two options exist depending on the day and time. Either you go around the house with a “regular” guide or, on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, you can be a guest of the Sambournes and be taken round the house by a member of the family household. In our case, the guide was the housekeeper, Mrs Reffle, who met us at the door in Victorian dress and all in a tizzy as we were not expected, - even though, as the 21st century website recommended, we booked our tour in advance.

But being a gossipy and cheery soul who clearly enjoyed spilling the beans on the family more than seeing to the housework, Mrs Reffle showed us straight in to dining room and proceeded to regale us with the cost of the house (£2,000) and the wall paper (£70) as compared to her annual salary (£25), plus what went on the other evening at Oscar Wilde’s house and the amount of claret and champagne consumed at the previous night's dinner party. With a raised eye brow, Mrs Reffle pointed out the table upon which Mr Sambourne, who had a penchant for taking ‘artistic’ photographs of naked women, posed his models and the more sedate desk where Mrs Sambourne kept the family accounts.

And so it went as we travelled through the five story house. Thanks to the fact that the Sambourne’s were concerned with presenting a fashionable and artistic home and that virtually nothing has been altered in the place since the 1890s, we spent a perfect hour time travelling through the Victorian universe under the guidance and steady hand of Captain Reffle. The children on our “trip” had a splendid time as did the adults.

London has more than its fair share of excellent time-travelling tourist attractions; Dennis Severs House, the Old Operating Theatre and the Ben Franklin House come immediately to mind, but as good as they are, I have never seen a group of tourists turn themselves over to an experience with quite the same enthusiasm as at Linley Sambourne House. This is tourism with a twist and the combination of the perfectly preserved house and tour guiding theatrics is an absolute winner. Go Saturday and Sunday afternoon and give Mrs Reffle out best.

The Linley Sambourne House
18 Stafford Terrace
Tel: 0207 602 3316

Photo courtesy of the Linley Sambourne House

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Vienna: A City of Dreams - Old and New

Vienna, city of dreams. Former capital of a vast empire. One of the best stage sets in Europe. The traumatised birthplace of modernism and the eastern outpost of the western world. A magnificent open air museum of charming manners and irresistible pastries. And once upon a time, I lived there.

It was 1976 but it may as well have been 1889. It was hard to tell the difference. I was holed up in a tiny Biedermeier apartment with no heat but thanks to a fortuitous introduction, was taken in hand by a family of minor aristocrats whose old world eccentricities exceeded all expectations. I was besotted, with them and with the Hapsburgs, Gustav Klimt, Sigmund Freud and The Third Man.

So when the Editor suggested that we head for Vienna for three days, I practically wept. I love no city more than Vienna but how would the reality of Vienna 2009 compare to my memories of Vienna 1976?

And typical of Vienna, the city of dreams, we found it exactly the same and utterly transformed, all at the same time. With the reopening of Eastern Europe, the former capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire got its “backyard” back. The grime of centuries has been blasted off the buildings. The place glistens with purpose and renewed energy. The coffee houses are full of men and women conducting business. Vienna is once again smart and stylish. I never thought I would live to say this: “Vienna is a happening place”.


A case in point was the hotel we stayed in on the Herrengasse in the 1st District, close to the Hofburg (the Imperial Palace) where formerly the Hapsburg nobility built their palaces. Today, the SAS Radisson Style is a sassy 72 room boutique hotel with “art nouveau revisited” décor and a popular bar that is well frequented by locals. Sometimes, it may be a bit too happening. On one of the nights when we were there, the whole ground floor was taken over by the Argentine Embassy. These are not folks who like to go to bed early. But it was fun to stay in a place with some attitude and lots of local action and at £86 a night for one of the best addresses in town, plus free wifi and minibar, it represented good value.


Culturally, things in Vienna have heated up as well. For example and thanks to a tip from one of our twitter buddies @Travelwriticus, we paid a visit to the Karlskirche (St Charles Church) to try out the Panorama Lift. Karlskirche is a magnificent baroque church boasting a spectacular dome covered in frescoes. Following a recent restoration, the scaffolding, elevator and stairs have been left in place so that tourists can zip up by elevator to a platform 32.5 meters/107 feet above the ground and from there, climb more stairs to the top of the dome. Who knew art history could be so terrifying or exhilarating, or that even the most solid looking scaffolding shakes a lot when you walk on it? I loved the sign which said “There may be no more 10 people standing on the platform at one time” although there is no one around to control the number so I spent my air time admiring the magnificent frescoes and counting my fellow viewers. As the actor Christian Bale said after filming Batman on top of the Sears Tower in Chicago, I found it “disturbing but enjoyable”.

Needless to say, there are 1001 cultural things to do in Vienna which we did not get around to but here are two “classic Vienna” things we did do which we really enjoyed:

Belvedere Palace – A spectacular “in-town” palace with lovely gardens and some iconic Austrian art. Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka are there. So are lots of tour groups but they’re widely dispersed.

Kaisergruft – Under the Kapuziner Church lies the Imperial crypt with the remains of 138 Hapsburgs. It’s the best history lesson in town. Most poignant tomb is that of Franz Josef who lies next to his glamorous assassinated wife, Elizabeth, and his son, Crown Prince Rudolf who committed suicide. The most fabulous award goes to the gargantuan “his and her” sarcophagus for Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Francis 1.


As for shopping in 2009 Vienna, there’s good news and bad. The formerly chic Kartnerstrasse has been colonised by cheap, global chain stores. Even the gilded, E Braun & Co building, once a purveyor of linens to the Imperial household is now an H&M but down the street, chandeliers like the ones at the Metropolitan Opera House and the Kremlin are still on sale at J & L Lobmeyer run by the fifth generation of the same family. (If you’re not in the market for a chandelier, you can visit the small but superb glass museum on the first floor.) Loden Plankl, Vienna’s oldest specialty store for traditional clothing on Michaelerplatz still serves up beautifully made, authentic Austrian clothing and the gourmet grocery emporium, Julius Meinl am Graben, is still the place to go for smart foodie gifts, as is the Naschmarkt, a market that has been operating since the 17th century that sells everything from food from around the world to bric-a-brac.

If you are serious about looking for art and antiques, head for the Dorotheum Auction House on the Dorotheergasse which began its life as the city’s pawn shop in 1707. Great for jewellery, paintings and furniture, it’s a wonderful place to browse, no one bothers you, and many of the objects can be purchased over the counter on the day.

Restaurants and Coffee Houses

And what about the food and those famous Viennese coffee houses? Being devoted to the classic Austrian dishes of boiled beef, goulash and schnitzels, we made pilgrimages to our old stand-bys which haven’t changed a bit. Here are three solid, authentic and inexpensive restaurants where you can sample the local specialties and atmosphere.

Beim Czaak – on the Postgasse, run by the same family since 1928 and a solid, atmospheric place with good food. Excellent tafelspitz (boiled beef)

J.S Smutny – on the Elisabethstrasse, a small street on the other side of the Ring from the Opera House. The Editor's favourite. Maybe the best beer and nicest staff in town. They invited us to watch the Chelsea/Barcelona football match with them and we had a blast.

Gmoakeller – on the Heumarkt behind the Konzert Haus, Best all around combination of food, atmosphere and service. One of the oldest restaurants in Vienna and once a favoured hang-out for Crown Prince Rudolph and his ill-fated paramour, Mary Vetsera.

For coffee houses, again we stuck with classics:

Café Central – Next door to our hotel and exactly as a grand, old Viennese café should be. A favourite of Trotsky, Schnitzler and Freud. Lots of tourists but who cares – it’s worth it.

Café Landtmann – a favourite of journos, politicians and theatregoers, this is the place to see and be seen. By the way, the food, that 30 years ago I could never afford, was excellent.

And all too soon, it was time to leave this amazing city returned to life by a new geo-political purpose. Being the new portal to eastern Europe has been good for Vienna but much to my relief, this town has lost little of its old magic. We’ll be back.

Photo of Karlskirche Panoramalift courtesy of "Verein der Freunde und Gönner der Wiener Karlskirche"

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The No Crowds Churchill Trifecta

Yesterday on Twitter comes this tweet from @Project Britain:

”On this day in 1953, Winston Churchill was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II”.

Which got me thinking about Winston Churchill, but also about Project Britain. Who are these guys with all this interesting information about British life and culture? Well I’ll be darned, Project Britain turns out to be a junior (elementary) school in England. Who knew that students aged 7 to 11 (with lots of help from a former teacher) could produce such an awesome website and interesting tweets.

Fired up and inspired by these pint-sized pundits, I decided to do something to celebrate the day that Churchill was knighted and so here goes:

The Churchill Trifecta – No Crowds Top Picks for Celebrating the Life of Winston Churchill

The Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms in London

Winner by a mile is the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms in London. Opened in February 2005, this is the first major museum in the world solely dedicated to the life and achievements of the great statesman. The place if full of interactive exhibits and the latest computer technology which make the huge amount of artefacts, photographs, documents and film really come to life. Young and old audiences alike love this place.

Even more evocative are the underground Cabinet War Rooms which operated round the clock from the start of the war in 1939 to its end in 1945. This is where Churchill, his War Cabinet and members of his inner circle ate and slept during the Blitz and the tour includes Churchill’s bedroom and study, the War Cabinet Room and the Map Room, familiar to anyone who has ever seen an old WWII movie.

Visitor information for the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms can be found here.

Chartwell – The Home of Sir Winston Churchill in Kent

Second off the mark is Chartwell. This was Churchill’s family home from 1922 until his death in 1965. The house and gardens today are much as they were when he lived there, packed with the pictures, books, maps and personal mementoes which give visitors a real “behind the scenes” glimpse into the daily life of the great statesman. The views across the Weald of Kent are glorious.

Visitor information for Chartwell can be found here.

Blenheim – Birthplace of Winston Churchill in Oxfordshire

A solid third is Blenheim, built for Churchill's legendary ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough. A world heritage site, Blenheim describes itself as Britain’s greatest palace and for once, the marketing hype might be right. Fans of the 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. As part of the tour, you get to visit the room where Winston was born and gaze upon a lock of his hair.

Visitor information for Blenheim Palace can be found here.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Writer's House

Rudyard Kipling. We grew up with his stories. We memorized his poems. We watched the movies based on his writing. Who can forget Mowgli, Baloo or Gunga Din? In his day, Kipling was as big as J.K. Rowling and the most famous writer in the English-speaking world. You know him well, but have you ever been to his house?

Well, you can and you should and here’s why. Bateman’s, Kiplings family home and refuge for more than 30 years, and now a National Trust property, has just reopened for the season and of all the literary sites you can visit in the UK, Bateman’s may be the best. First, because Kipling’s life is a gripping story full of contradictions and filled with professional triumphs and personal tragedies, and second, because the house exists today just as it was when Kipling lived there. His Rolls Royce is in the garage. His books and papers are in the study. His Nobel Prize sits proudly on the table.

One of the first things you see as you enter the house is the little window in the entry hall where his American wife, Carrie, who he once described as the ‘Ways and Means Committee’, would screen his visitors. The clues to this man’s life are everywhere, just as he left them. For this, we can thank the ‘Ways and Means Committee’, who bequeathed the estate to the National Trust as a memorial to her husband in 1939.

Wandering around the house it’s easy to see the world through Kipling’s eyes. His fascination with the Indian subcontinent, his need for privacy, the garden he designed and built from the proceeds of his Nobel Prize, his love of children and the tragic loss of his own. As far as drilling down to the details is concerned, the place is staffed with endearing cult-like volunteers with encyclopaedic knowledge of Kipling and nothing pleases them more than when you ask them a question. In addition to the house, there are extensive grounds and gardens with a working mill that was used by Kipling to generate electricity and a tea room that, on the day we were there, was packed with picturesque pensioners enjoying a spring outing.

To reach Bateman’s near Burwash in East Sussex from London, you can either take a train from Charing Cross Rail Station to Etchingham and then by bus or taxi to Burwash or you can drive. Either way takes about two hours. There is an excellent Journey Planner on the Bateman’s website with all the details. If you have a car, Sissinghurst Castle and Garden, another site with rich literary associations, is nearby as is Bodiam Castle, one of the best preserved moated castles in Britain.

The house is open from March 14 to November 1 every day except Thursday and Friday from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm. The gardens and tea room open throughout the year. Opening times can be found here.

Contact Details

Tel: 01435 882302
Fax: 01435 882811

Photo courtesy of the National Trust, Geoffrey Frosch

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

How to Avoid the Crowds at the Rodin Museum? Skip the Museum

Here’s the brief. It’s a glorious spring day in Paris. Too beautiful to be indoors. You’ve shopped, you’ve eaten, you’ve wandered … Its time to feed the mind but your appetite for culture is tempered by the all too perfect weather. Maybe you have a child in tow who needs a romp. And you want to avoid the crowds. So where should you go?

No Crowds favourite Paris destination for moments like this is the garden of the Rodin Museum on rue de Varenne in the 7th Arrondisement. In 1908, the writer Rainer Maria Rilke had this to say about the garden in a letter to Rodin. “You should, dear great friend, see this beautiful building and the room I live in … Its three bay windows fantastically overlook an abandoned garden, where from time to time one sees little rabbits jumping over the trellises, like something out of an old tapestry…” Rodin became so smitten with the place that he ended up renting rooms on the ground floor, coming nearly every day to meet with models and clients. By inhabiting the Hotel Biron until his death and with the donation of his works, his archives, and his collection, the establishment of a Rodin museum was secured.

In 2009, you could hardly call the garden of the Rodin Museum abandoned but it’s certainly not crowded. A visit to the atmospheric garden allows you to stroll around, eat an ice cream, contemplate some of the greatest masterpieces in the history of art and avoid the throngs who instinctively head indoors to see the collection. All for price of a euro which is what it costs for garden only access. And guess what? On a glorious day, its perfectly OK to skip the hot and crowded, although lovely, Hotel Biron because as a master of monumental sculpture, Rodin’s greatest works such as the Thinker, the Gates of Hell and the Burghers of Calais are all outside anyway. Use the money you saved on the entry ticket to rent an audio guide for a fantastic half hour or so of narrative and anecdotes on the life and work of this passionate artist all enjoyed au plein air.

Unfortunately, the museum does not have a separate line or entrance just for the gardens and the wait to purchase your ticket can take 15 to 20 minutes, although last Sunday, we waited for only five. Holders of the Paris Museum Pass, which we highly recommend, get in free and go straight to the head of the line, as you do at roughly 60 other museums in Paris.

Sometimes, carving out a piece of a great experience is the best way to enjoy it. On a perfect day in Paris, perhaps the best way to enjoy Rodin is to skip his museum and go straight for the garden.

Rodin Museum
79 rue de Varenne
75007 Paris
Tel 33 (0)1 44 18 61 10

Opening times from Tuesday to Sunday
11 October to 31 March, from 9:30 am to 4:45 (park closes at 5:00 but ticket desk closes at 4:15)
1 April to 30 September from 9:30 am to 5:45 pm,(park closes at 6:45 but ticket desk closes at 5:15)

Photo from Mike Gadd's photostream on Flickr

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Fontainebleau - The Other Royal Palace

Love the kings. Hate the crowds. That’s my problem with Versailles and here’s the solution: the Palace of Fontainebleau.

Located 35 miles outside of Paris and home to kings and queens of France since the 12th century, Fontainebleau shares several characteristics with Versailles. It is filled with history, enlivened by splendid art and architecture and is surrounded by immense forests, parks and formal gardens.

What Fontainebleau does not share with Versailles is the overwhelming crush of visitors. We were there on a Thursday during the Easter holidays with no lines and no tour groups. Without the modern day mob scene, it was easy to imagine the daily lives of a homesick Catherine de Medici, a renaissance-besotted Francis the First, an imprisoned Pope Pius VII and an emotional Napoleon en route to Elba. Aided by an absorbing English language audio guide, even our 11 year old daughter happily spent 1 ½ hours wandering through this monument to French art, architecture and history. If you are looking for a great day out of Paris, Fontainebleau is hard to beat.

If there is a downside to Fontainebleau, it would have to be the fact that it is not the easiest place to reach. We arrived by car which was an easy 45 minute journey on the A6 motorway out of Paris but a torturous 1 ½ hour journey back in the early evening. Travelling by car allowed us to take a quick side trip to the artists’ village of Barbizon, drive through the INSEAD business school campus, and consume a grand lunch in the forest near the town of Larchant followed by a walk and some rock climbing. If you don’t mind navigating and driving in and around Paris, renting a car for the day would open up your options in this wonderful part of France.

If driving is not for you, here is advice on how to reach Fontainebleau by public transportation gleaned from various blogs and websites:

Take a train from Paris – Gare de Lyon to Fontainebleau-Avon station. Here is a link to a journey planner with schedules and fares in English. The trip should take about 50 minutes.

From the Fontainebleau-Avon station, take Bus #A or Bus #B to the Palace. The trip should take about 15 minutes. Taxis from the station are also available.

SNCF sells a combination train/bus/palace ticket (including guide book) at the Gare de Lyon which cost €26 as of July 2008.

The palace is open every day except Tuesday.
From October 1 to May 31 - 9:30 am to 5:00 pm
From June 1 to September 30 – 9:30 am to 6:00 pm

Our restaurant in the forest can be found near the town of Larchant
La Dame Jouanne
Route de la Dame Jouanne (Chalet Jobert)
Tel: 01 64 28 1623
Open Thursday through Sunday for lunch and dinner

Photo of the Palace of Fontainebleau courtesy of Wikimedia

Monday, April 13, 2009

Enduring Salzburg

Last February, in the post the Myth of Salzburg, we recommended that No Crowds followers avoid Salzburg during late July and August when crowds and prices skyrocket during the famous Salzburg Festival. But what to do if you love hearing world class music in an alpine Garden of Eden but can’t stand crowds? Thanks to a quick visit to Salzburg this April, we now have the answer. Skip the summer blow-out and head instead for the smaller but no less exclusive Salzburg Easter Festival founded in 1967 by Herbert von Karajan.

We stumbled upon this event completely by accident. We were heading for Salzburg for other reasons than music, namely atmosphere and gemuetlichkeit (that untranslatable word that means something like ‘comfortable and charming’) but our first clue that something was a foot came when let us know that our chosen hotel had overbooked and was sending us somewhere else. We were livid and threw a fit. quickly got us two nice rooms at an old favourite, the Wolf Dietrich Hotel and absorbed the difference in price. I couldn’t say who was responsible for us being ‘walked’ but I was very satisfied with’s response to our problem.

Once ensconced at the Wolf Dietrich, we picked up on the fact that Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic were in town with an impressive line-up of opera and concerts. With only 24 hours to spend and an 11 year old in tow, we passed on the performance of Wagner’s Siegfried and headed instead for the large Saturday market filled with special food and decorations for Easter.

It is moments like this, when the artists and concert goers mix with locals and tourists that Salzburg is at its "gemuetlich" best. The city was buzzing but not overflowing. The locals were dressed to the nines in regional finery and everyone was heading home with arms full of pussy willows and decorations to make an Easter tree. The cafes and restaurants spilled out on to the sidewalks and piazzas and everyone has out drinking, talking, posing and debating the affairs of the day.

After visiting the market, we headed for the Herzl restaurant in the atmospheric Goldener Hirsch Hotel. This informal restaurant, once the favourite of von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, is a real insiders meeting place, and on the day we were there was a jolly mixture of elegant older Austrian ladies, impresarios, artists and families. A post-lunch walk up to the fortress and along the top of the Moenchberg mountain produced inspiring views of Salzburg and the surrounding countryside and the big discovery of this visit – the Wassermuseum (the Water Museum).

Now who would guess that a museum about water could be a cracker but hidden away underground in an old storage canal on top of the Moenchberg, the Water Museum is exactly that. Open every first Saturday of the month from 12:00 to 16:00*, we walked by at the right time, saw another adventurous couple head inside what looked to be a bunker and so we headed in too. There we met the delightful Raimund Widauer, one of the founding fathers of the museum, who spent a lifetime working for the waterworks of Salzburg. If you speak German, Herrn Widauer can regale you with exciting stories about who and how water was controlled in feudal Salzburg and how water would influence the history and development of the City. If you don’t speak German, we suspect much of the charm of the place will be lost but if you do, we promise this, after an hour with Herrn Widauer, you will turn on your tap with new found interest and respect. At the end of the tour, you get to drink a delicious glass of Salzburg water kept at the perfect temperature and head out into the bright sunshine having experienced a hidden city gem that is completely unique and unfailingly authentic.

As we hiked down the mountain into the city through the back gardens and hidden alleyways of this most perfect alpine city, we reflected how little Salzburg has changed over the last 30 years. We put it this way last year and it holds just as true today:

Like Salzburg’s original tourists, we too go to escape the grind of modern life and commune with a better and more romantic past, a past where women wear beautiful costumes, where everything is served with cream, where a four year old can write a concerto and a singing governess can become a legend. The more the world changes, the more we depend on the eternal, unchanging myth of Salzburg.

* To visit the Water Museum on the Moenchsberg outside the opening time of the first Saturday of the month between 12:00 until 16:00, you may contact the museum to make an appointment. Telephone: 43/662/451515-3203

Monday, April 06, 2009

My Big Fat Cheap Ski Vacation?

Let’s save money by going to Lech/Zurs in Austria, one of Europe’s most expensive ski resorts. That was the plan. So how did we fare? Well, we won a few and we lost a few.

The first winner was Tripit, this awesome free service that automatically organises your trip. You send them your email confirmations and they build you a day by day itinerary. If you believe, as I do, that time is money, then using Tripit saved us a bundle

Transport was also a winner. Our flights on the discount airline easyJet in and out of Salzburg, our rental car from Auto Europe and our £7 easyBus transfers to London were hassle free, on time and cheap. Our return flight was slightly marred by the fact that as of March 30th, easyJet transferred some flights from Gatwick’s South to North Terminal and our arrival was pretty shambolic. We assume they will straighten this out with time. Otherwise, transport during a peak travel period was smooth and inexpensive and how often can you say that?

Accommodation was also on the winning side. In Zurs, we stayed at the Alpen Hotel Valluga, a four star property where our 'Sun and Snow' package included 7 nights half board, an afternoon Jause (a substantial snack) our lift tickets and some extras such as a carriage ride, a Valluga cocktail and a fondue evening (which never materialised). Members of our group spent between €917 and €1,092 depending on the size of the room and we appreciated the hotel’s level of comfort, the good public spaces, the excellent location close to the slopes and the hardworking and charming staff.

On the losing side were our ruinously expensive ski rentals from Sport Ski-Toni which can be found in the basement of the luxurious Lorunser Hotel, a favourite of royals such as Princess Caroline and Queen Beatrix. We ended up paying €196 per person for a 6 day rental. By contrast, in Corvara, Italy, last year, we spent €120. In fairness to Toni’s, the skis were in excellent condition and a quick check of the competition shows that renting equipment in Lech/Zurs is expensive everywhere. Unfortunately, options such as booking equipment on-line for substantial discounts are also not available in Lech Zurs. Next time we might consider paying the additional charge and the hassle to put our skis on the plane.

The other loser was the price of alcohol – much bigger mark ups than at many other resorts. Maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing as it slowed down our consumption. Having learned the fine art of “drinks in the room” from some frugal Dutch friends we always held our cocktail hour in Room 401 which helped keep down our costs.

But enough about money. How was the skiing? In a word – glorious. The Arlberg area, comprised of Lech, Zurs, St. Anton, St Christoph and Stuben describes itself as “a legendary region which has enjoyed cult status for as long as skiing has been a winter passion.” As the only resort I know where they stop selling lift tickets when they deem the slopes to be full, with one of the highest annual snow fall rates in Europe and with 280 kilometers of beautifully groomed pistes, and 180 kilometers of powder runs, hey, they might be right.

So was Lech/Zurs, with its pricey reputation, a good choice for recession skiing? Yes, it certainly was. Was it cheap? Absolutely not, but I don’t think you can beat the quality of the experience at this classic resort. And if you go to all the trouble to ski, then it really matters that the resort has the kind of uncompromising approach to quality that can be found in the Arlberg. By saving where we could (discount transport and accommodation that included our lift ticket) we kept costs to a reasonable level and even though we watched every penny, we always felt welcomed and valued, which is a classy approach to customer service. When every penny counts, Lech/Zurs still delivers value for these challenging times.
Photo of Lech by Leo Meiseder

Friday, March 27, 2009

A No Crowds Plan for Recession Skiing

We are off to Austria to ski. What, you’re not going to Italy?

Yes, for years we have been singing the praises of skiing in the fabulous and relatively underappreciated Dolomites and our past posts about our favourite Italian ski resort can be found here.

But the world has changed and with it our tactics. Here's how we put together a No Crowds recession ski trip.

The first decision we made was not to ski in February when rates are at their highest but to wait for Easter. Skiing later meant we had to go for altitude focussing on the Trois Vallee and Espace Killy in France and the Voralberg in Austria. Little did we know that this would be the best snow in Europe in a generation and even low lying resorts would still have plenty of spring snow.

We also did something we would never do in better times. We played chicken. Instead of booking, we waited and watched as prices fell. Finally, just before Christmas, we pounced on a very good offer from a four star hotel in Zurs, Austria that compared well to what we had been paying for a three star in Italy in prior years. After booking on the low cost carrier, Easyjet, into Salzburg because it was a fraction of the cost of getting into Innsbruck or Zurich and after getting a great deal on our rental car from Auto Europe, we’re good to go. And even though we're going to one of the poshest and most expensive ski resorts in Europe, it won't bust the budget.
Look for us tomorrow morning at 5:30 am clunking through Gatwick Airport in our ski boots which is what we will need to do to stay under the weight limit.

Ski Heil!

A Goldi hunter stands on skis on ice, holding long spear in the Arctic circa 1895. (William Henry Jackson / Library of Congress)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Old Lady's in Danger - Again

Wild speculation. Cataclysmic losses. A gullible mob demanding vengeance. Wall Street 2008? Nope, London 1720. Here’s another one. “I cannot repay you.” Bernie Madoff to his investors. Nope, King Charles II addressing his bankers.

I learned all of this yesterday at the wonderful Bank of England Museum in the City of London. I avoided this place for the last decade, thinking that the story of the Bank “from its foundation in 1694 to its role today as the nation’s central bank” couldn’t be very exciting.

Well, I was wrong. First, there was the South Sea bubble mentioned above where everyone lost their shirt, company directors were arrested and the Chancellor of the Exchequer expelled from Parliament. Then there was the mob’s attack on the bank during the riots of 1780, where the bank was protected by a military guard that was only abolished in 1973. And then there’s that business about the raising of a Volunteer Corp from the Banks’ staff to defend the institution against a French invasion, not to mention being bombed during the Blitz and nationalised in 1946. Phew, it starts to put things into perspective. Over the centuries there have been plenty of crashes, financial meltdowns and public hysteria. We’re not the first and we won’t be the last.

In addition to presenting the history of the Bank, the museum provides several excellent interactive exhibits explaining inflation and other aspects of banking and monetary policy. The exhibits do a good job of communicating complex concepts in ways that are easy to understand and the museum is perfect for students and young adults, although I doubt they will jump for joy when you say, “Hey kids, today we’re going to the Museum of the Bank of England.” Take them anyway because this museum is a real winner. It’s topical, it’s not crowded and best of all during these hard times, admission, the brochure and the audio guide are all free.

Bank of England Museum
Entrance in Bartholomew Lane
London EC2R 8AH

Open Monday to Friday
10:00am - 5:00pm
Closed weekends, Public & Bank Holidays

Tel: 020 7601 5545

Image: Political Ravishment, the old Lady's in danger. James Gillray, 1797