Thursday, January 29, 2009

I Love Paris When It's Striking

“You’ll never get back to London tomorrow. A national strike will shut down everything. There will be no Metro, no taxis, it will be complete chaos. Stay put.”

That was the advice of a Parisian friend but did we listen? No, we did not. Despite my visions of climbing over the barricades singing the Internationale with my suitcase, the Editor wanted to get back for a meeting and so we went.

Here’s what the media was reporting:

Ø 195 demonstrations across the country over the economic crisis
Ø Eight major unions participating – hundreds of thousands of workers striking
Ø Estimated cost of industrial action - €300 – 400 million

Here’s what we encountered:

Ø A blissfully deserted Paris (felt like August)
Ø Fully functioning Metro with empty trains
Ø Fully function Eurostar service to London (we arrived ahead of schedule)
Ø The best and easiest trip home ever!

Here’s what we learned:

Ø On days of national strikes, the French stay home, but you shouldn’t
Ø Stay underground, and stay away from the Bastille
Ø The French enjoy a good protest and you can too

Since we don’t expect economic conditions to improve any time soon (by their own estimates, the nation lost €300 to €400 million today), we expect these general strikes to continue but that’s no reason to stay away from this fabulous city. To paraphrase Cole Porter, “I even love Paris when it’s striking.”
Photo credit: Reuters

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lantana Cafe

How we relish finding good independent establishments. Hospitality seems so much better when it’s delivered up by an owner on a mission. So when we received this email from our well connected Australian friend, Trish:

“For the best coffee in London, you must visit my cousin’s café, Lantana, at 13 Charlotte Place – you can read her excellent blog too at

we thought it was entirely possible that she was related to the maker of the best coffee in London.

First, we checked out the blog, Scrambling Eggs, which was, indeed, wonderful. Anyone who writes this well with this much heart (see her post on English pubs for example) deserves our support. We need to get to Fitrovia and check this place out.

Ah Fitrovia. It’s not our usual beat, but we love going there, as much for the idea of its louche, bohemian past as its current status as media and advertising stomping ground. Walking around the area north east of Oxford Circus, you can almost imagine the streets and taverns populated with the likes of George Orwell, Dylan Thomas and Augustus John, who was rumored to pat the head of every child he met in passing, just in case it was his. Sadly, current residents are less colorful.

We arrived at Lantana on Charlotte Place in the middle of the lunch time rush, found a table and contemplated the menu. There were some good looking salads but I went for the corn fritters with rocket, oven roasted tomatoes, roast garlic, lime aioli and bacon pictured above. From the great list of ingredients, it was the bacon that finally did it for me - the last and best indulgent embellishment.

The Editor chose the steak sandwich which arrived on good bread with rocket, tomato, caramelized onion and horseradish crème fraiche. However, it was the Bundaberg ginger beer that we ordered which sent the Australian at the table next to us into paroxysms of homesickness. “Oh my God, that is soooo Australian.” Which makes sense since the owner of Latana, Shelagh Ryan, is an Australian on a mission to serve quality food (she has a real thing about properly scrambled eggs) and drink to deprived Londoners.

And what about that coffee? Well, we didn’t have any. It’s a boring story about the impact of caffeine on aging “who-whats” (and if you don’t know what that is I not going to tell you) but the authoritative Time Out says they make some of the best coffee in London so we reckon they do.

Even without coffee, we really enjoyed our lunch at Lantana. The café manages to be hip and cosy all at the same time which ain’t an easy thing to do. The music was a wonderful compilation of updated old favorites. The atmosphere was just right as were the prices (£7 to £8 for those fantastic mains described above.)

The next time we’re in Fitzrovia, we’re heading straight for Lantana, and this time, we’re going to have some of that great coffee.

Lantana Café
13 Charlotte Place
London W1T1SN

Open for Breakfast, Lunch and Tea, Monday – Friday 8-6 and Saturday 9-5

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Yes We Can

When you’re wrong, you’re wrong.

Yesterday, we called Madame Tussauds the most over priced tourist attraction in London.

Today, we spent an amazing hour at Madame Tussauds kicking off the inauguration of Barack Obama.

It began as a publicity stunt. Madame Tussauds, to promote its new wax representation of Barack Obama in the Oval Office announces that on inauguration day, all Americans get in free. We decide to go, despite our cynicism about the place. We’ve always thought of Madame Tussauds as scraping the bottom of the tourist barrel. Too cheesy, too dumb, too celebrity-driven but hey, free entry (day tickets cost £25/$34.75) is always a temptation.

When we arrive at 9:15 in the morning, the line stretches down the street. We meet lots of excited Americans clutching their passports. At 9:30, we’re in and begin the long march past Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, past Madonna and Elvis, past Camilla and Diana until we finally arrive at the Oval Office. The press is there eager to ask Americans what this day means to them. We talk to a security guard who wishes some American optimism would infect the UK. We talk to a man with a son in Iraq who has a very personal interest in change. An American Dad has brought his children in their school uniforms. A group of young people with balloons arrive. They cheer and pose. We all cheer. We’re a long way from Washington but it’s really exciting. Its fun. Its inspiring. Pinch me. This is Madame Tussauds!

On the way out, we watched tons of people having a great time: kissing Spider Man, playing rugby with Jonny Wilkinson, dancing with High School Musical, having their picture taken with the Queen.

And then we get a Facebook message from Eloise:

“Anyway, I heard that Obama is now in the wax museum. Dad told me. How was it? Can I go there one day?”

We thought about the high prices, the stupidity of worshipping celebrities, the derision we have always felt for the place. And then we thought of all the people who were having tons of fun at Madame Tussauds and the energy, excitement and optimism we saw in the faux Oval Office today so we fired back

Yes we can. Eloise. Yes we can.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Americans Go Free at Madame Tussauds

Quick. What’s the most over priced tourist attraction in London. For our money, it’s Madame Tussauds. At £22.50/$32.52 to see wax representations of Posh and Becks, we reckon there are about a thousand better things to do in this fabulous city with your time and money. But tomorrow, any American in London with “appropriate documentation” can get in to Madame Tussauds for free to see the new wax representation of our 44th president. And at that price, it’s a bargain.

As Madame Tussauds describes the experience:

“Standing in a recreation of the legendary Oval Office, President Obama is in a typical informal and relaxed pose, smiling with arms casually folded, dressed in a tailored suit.

Stepping right into the heart of the White House you can sit behind the iconic Resolute desk used by Presidents since 1880 or pace the ‘American Eagle’ monikered carpet and experience what it’s like to be a World Leader.”

Tomorrow, before the TV coverage commences, we’re grabbing our passport (not our wallet) and heading for Madame Tussauds. Right on, Washington!

Friday, January 16, 2009

An Old Fogey Twitters

A plane crashes in the Hudson River. Twitter breaks the story. This travel blogger needs to understand this thing. Makes attemps. Doesn’t get it. Wonders how Obama found the time to figure it out and almost gives up.

And then, like manna from heaven, Son #1 dedicates his very first blog, A Human Experiment in Living (, and first blog post, Guide to Starting Twitter, to the task of teaching his old Mum the ropes. I am genuinely moved by the time and effort he has put in to the guide. And so I begin.

Eureka! I get it – sort of. I’m not very proficient, but I’m on my way. I’m ready for the next plane crash. I’m ready for the wisdom of crowds. Yes, No Crowds is on Twitter. Check it out @NoCrowds.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Rentals in Paris

Since we’re on the subject of vacation rentals, how about Paris?

For fans of the city, we can think of no finer way to experience the City of Light than by living like a native in your own apartment. If you are looking for a beautiful apartment in your favourite neighbourhood, we know of no better agency than Rentals in Paris.

Rentals in Paris is an agency that has been in business for many years that rents well-appointed apartments in top locations. Things like queen sized beds, modern kitchens and bathrooms, WIFI, cable TV, free long distance phone calls to many locations, hair dryers, ironing boards and irons are all included. Prices compare very favourably to three star hotels but the amenities are superior. And that’s before factoring in all the money you save not having to eat every meal in a restaurant. Rentals in Paris delivers great customer service that is attentive and hands-on. If you have a question or a problem, Glenn Cooper and his staff are there to help.

For an unforgettable experience, why not rent a Paris apartment with Rentals in Paris?

Rentals in Paris

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Vacation Rentals Revisited

In 2005, we wrote about the many benefits for holiday makers of staying in an apartment or house over a hotel. We pointed out that for good value, privacy and authenticity, you just can’t beat renting. In 2009, renting has become an even more popular choice as holiday makers search for ways to stretch their dwindling travel budgets. So, we thought it would be a useful to revisit the topic, but this time, we consulted a couple who are the masters at renting apartments all over the world. Here’s their advise:

We have had great luck with (vacation rental by owner). Too many years of business travel have left us both jaded when it comes to hotels, and years of teaching customer service skills to people in the hospitality industry have left me overly sensitized to hotel service failures. Using VRBO we found a lovely garden apartment in Venice with a walled and rose filled garden; a perfect place to sit and sip a glass of prosecco at dusk. VRBO also led us to a charming two bedroom in Portovenere, a harbor town at the southern tip of the Ligurian Riviera, with a terrace overlooking Poet’s Bay (so named because Lord Byron during his stays there would, on occasion, take an evening swim across the bay). In the late afternoon, after returning from a day of hiking the Cinque Terre trials, I would pick lemons from our garden, and used them to infuse a grappa based aperitif with the pungent flavor and aroma of an Italian summer evening. My traveling companions promptly dubbed my concoction a ‘Portovenere Stunner’, and it, along with a large bowl of olives, became the centerpiece of our sundowner hour on the terrace over the bay.

VRBO rentals can also offer unexpected pluses. In Vienna our landlord kindly met us at the train station and drove us to our flat, and then spent a pleasant hour with a map of the city, pointing out his favorite restaurants, museums and art galleries’ - all an easy walk from our building. Our hostess in Portovenere responded swiftly to our call informing her that dishwasher wasn’t working, and showed up with her husband, father, and two children. The excitement of their arrival attracted the interest of several neighbors, who joined them, and they all crowded into our little kitchen where, after much animated discussion, the dishwasher was enthusiastically dismembered. After more discussion and a thoughtful examination of the dishwasher parts by all, it was concluded that this machine had washed its last dish. As compensation, we were left with a large bowl of pasta, two bottles of wine, and a vase filled with summer flowers, not to mention the warm feeling that we really belonged. From then onward we exchanged a friendly ‘Ciao’ with our neighbors daily, complicit and comfortable in a way that people can be only after dismantling an appliance together. The next day, a new dishwasher was installed and delivered before our return from the hiking trails.

VRBO rentals range widely in price, though I usually try to limit cost to $200 per night. Most recently we stayed in a comfortable 3 bedroom apartment in Prague, located just a 10 minute walk from the Charles Bridge. Our cost was just under $200 per night. Properties are listed with numerous photographs, and a comprehensive description. Landlords will usually take credit cards, or a bank wire, and will provide you with a contract. I’ve been using them for years and never had a problem.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Blue Bottle Coffee Company

Bring me food. No matter what it is or where it comes from, I love receiving food from foreign lands. If I’m not on the road, then the next best thing is for the food of the road to come to me.

Recently, my son brought me coffee from the Blue Bottle Coffee Company in Oakland, California. Mom, this product takes coffee to a whole new level.

He was right.

The coffee has a vivid, romantic aroma. The taste is rich and elegant and a million miles away from Starbucks fare. The Blue Bottle Coffee Company, a quintessential Bay area concern, is small, hip and totally radical about what it does. - taking “freshness and small batch roasting to an extreme not considered practical anywhere else in the coffee business.”

And now comes my favourite part. So where did the Blue Bottle look for inspiration when setting up the company? Seventeenth century Vienna. The story goes that during the siege, Franz George Kolshitsky, an Austrian who spoke Turkish and Arabic, was sent through enemy lines to deliver messages to the nearby Polish army who later helped rescue the city. The fleeing Turks left everything behind: camels, tents, honey and strange bags of beans thought to be camel fodder. Kolshitsky, having lived in the arab world, knew better, taking the 500 sacks of beans as a reward for his heroism. He then opened Central Europe’s first coffee house, the Blue Bottle and started the Austrian craze for coffee.

So here I am in my London kitchen, drinking Blue Bottle Coffee while dreaming of both foodie San Francisco and coffee house Vienna and while Blue Bottle in London is pretty fantastic, if you are in the Bay Area, you can experience ‘the real thing’ at their kiosk in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley at 315 Linden Street or at their café at 66 Mint Street at the corner of Jessie. If you live in the United States, Blue Bottle will ship you some beans and you can check out their on-line store here.

Otherwise, it pays to have a nice, San Francisco based son.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

No Crowds 2008

2008 has been a busy year at No Crowds. More visits, page views, comments and guest posts than ever before. Here’s a look back at some of the year’s highlights:

Unusual Places to Go and Stay – the wild, the weird and the wonderful

Corvara 2008 – Europe’s most undervalued ski resort but don’t tell anyone

Better on a Bus – a review of bus travel options on the east coast of the United States

Big Sur – Nirvana with No Crowds – travels with a precocious 11 year old along the California coast

The Myth of Salzburg – 200 years later and it’s still an alpine arcadia

A Roman Romance – 48 hours in Rome in search of food and love

Baffled about Barcelona – having a ball, staying safe and sticking to a budget in one of Europe’s most exciting cities

Green, Sex, Cancer, Secret, Fat – Magic words to describe a fine French hotel

Hartland and the North Devon Coast – remote, beautiful and unspoiled UK gem

North Carolina and the Great American Holiday – James Taylor was right. Go there.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Fight Back

4:00 pm New Years Eve - Washington D.C.

The Editor returns to his mother’s house after helping our university-aged son open his first bank account.

“You’re not going to believe this. He actually read the entire agreement before he signed it.”

We share a warm moment of parental accomplishment, pack our bags and head for the airport.

7:00 pm Budget Rent a Car Return Desk

“What do you mean our rental costs more than twice our guaranteed rate? No, I am absolutely sure I declined all the extra insurance because we are covered by our credit card. Your agent said to initial ‘here’, ‘here’ and ‘here’ to indicate that I had declined. [Editor confirms this statement to Manager] Yes, I see that ‘accepted’ is circled. Yes, I see my initials.”

OK Budget, there’s no denying that I am an idiot.

But your sneaky practices (late arrival after long haul flight = inattentive customer = padding of contract) have earned you an admonition from No Crowds and lost you a customer for life. Plus, my first resolution of 2009 is in place.

This year, I will read the fine print of every thing I sign very, very carefully.

Just like my son.
Photo Credit: Eloise Hedges