Friday, February 27, 2009

Hats Off to the V&A

I nearly got fired for a love of hats.

It all started with Lilly Dache, a French-born American-based milliner who dressed the great and the good in post war America. Lilly Dache designed hats for Audrey Hepburn, Carole Lombard and my grandmother. I know this because I inherited some of those Dache hats. I’ve hauled those hats all over the world. I love them.

But back to almost getting fired. It was in the days when I was selling computers door-to-door. As usual, I was behind quota. It was the end of the month and I was desperately scrounging around for someone to buy my stuff.

And then, I walked by this divine little hat shop. Oh my God, just look at those hats, so special. So fabulous. I looked up. The name on the store front was ‘Suzanne Dache’. Could she possibly be related to THE Lilly Dache? I’m now hyperventilating. OK, I have to go in and ask. She was and I spent the rest of the afternoon on a critical day at the end of the month trying on hats.

If you feel this way about hats, run, fly, drive – do whatever it takes to get to the hat exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum in London. Curated by Stephen Jones, who has designed hats for everyone from Princess Diana to Beyonce, this show has more than 300 amazing hats including the hats from the film “My Fair Lady”, hats made by Balenciaga, hats made for Queen Victoria and Boy George and of course, hats made by the late, great Lilly Dache.

If you love hats, you really have to see this show. Even the little hats you can buy and make yourself in the gift shop are awesome. I’ll be going back again and again.

Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones will be at the V&A until May 31, 2009

Photo Credit: Conde Nast

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Cha Cha Moon: Its cheap but not very good

How we wanted to love Cha Cha Moon, the Chinese fast food emporium created by Alan Yau of Wagamama fame. You see, we love Wagamama. Perhaps too much. We eat there all the time and have for years. We recommend Wagamama to everyone who comes to London as the best fast, inexpensive meal in town but after the 1000th Chicken Chilli Ramen, one starts to wonder if there is some other place to eat that is cheap, cheerful and good.

Alas, Cha Cha Moon is not that place. Despite being in a fantastic location near Carnaby Street (with another outlet opening at Whiteleys Shopping Center in Bayswater this weekend), despite the hip d├ęcor, and despite being really cheap with main courses ranging from £3.40 to £5.50, the food at this Cha Cha Moon is just not very good. We had three different main courses with noodles: chicken, crispy duck and seafood. As Eloise, who is always a good eater, picked politely but unenthusiastically at her chicken, we were in perfect agreement that everything was OK but not great. And such is the demand for cheap eats in London that despite being mediocre, unless you get to ‘no reservations’ Cha Cha Moon early, you’ll be waiting a long time for a seat.

So it’s back to Wagamama for us. When we want Chinese, we'll head for one of the twelve Ping Pong Dim Sum outlets instead. Its not so cheap but oh, so much better. For cheap and cheerful Indian, we head for Marsala Zone. Anyone with suggestions on how to eat well in this town for under a ‘tenner’, we would love to hear from you.

Cha Cha Moon
15 – 21 Ganton Street
London W1F 9BN
Tel:0207 297 9800

Opening this weekend at

151 Queensway

Photo Credit: Anelia Jetsetter on Flickr

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Maltese Falcon Trumps the Da Vinci Code at St John's Gate

Tired of the Da Vinci Code? Me too. All that stuff about Jesus and Mary Magdalene getting it on. Oh please.

So if you don’t want to join the trekkies doing the Temple Church/Kings College/Westminster Abbey tour of London but are still fascinated by the story of warrior monks who set off from London to defend the faith, head instead to St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell. There you will find the museum of the Order of St John, a British Order of Chivalry inspired by the Knights Hospitalliers, a religious order similar to the Knights Templar, who fought and provided medical care during the Crusades and later become the rulers of Rhodes and Malta.

The best time to visit the museum is on Tuesday, Fridays and Saturdays at either 11am or 2:30 when guided tours of St John’s Gate and Grand Priory Church are on offer. Otherwise, you can show yourself around the galleries which contain medical, religious and military artefacts as well an exhibition explaining the work of St John Ambulance, the modern first aid charity which traces its roots back to the work of the Hospitalliers in 11th century Jerusalem.

What this quirky small museum lacks in size it makes up with lots of interesting information about the Order. We loved the medicinal jars which were made from the earth of St Paul’s cave, also considered a good snake bite remedy at the time. There are some very fine altar pieces and a wonderful model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. We learned that Swedish mid-summer began as St John’s Day and that we can thank the Hospitallers for the herbal remedy St John’s Wort.

In addition to the galleries, there is a small but good gift shop. As befits a first aid charity, there are also large, spotless toilets. Admission is free although a donation of £5 is asked for the guided tours. On the day we were there, we had this wonderful little museum all to ourselves.

The Museum of the Order of St John
St John’s Gate
St John’s Lande
Clerkenwell London EC1M 4DA
Tel: 020 7324 4074
Photo Credit : Wikipedia

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

London's North End Road Market

Fulham Life CB011

The first time I saw North End Road market, I didn’t get it. It didn’t look like much. Lots of ragtag stalls selling very ripe fruit and veg, batteries, fish, candy and suitcases, that kind of thing. But now, I head for North End almost every day and for me, it’s a quintessential London experience – vibrant, incredibly cheap, rough around the edges and lots of fun. It’s the only place where I am still regularly called young lady, or darling, or ‘luv’. Open six days a week, but best on Fridays and Saturdays, the market runs between Lillie and Walham Grove roads on London’s North End Road in Fulham.

One of the reasons I love North End Road market is its local history. Since 1887, residents of Fulham and passers by alike have come to the market in search of a bargain. Many stalls have been run by the same families for generations. The clamour of traders calling out their products and prices, the polyglot of languages and the rush of traffic make North End a bustling, multi-cultural place where ethnic foods sits next to English cauliflowers and purple sprouting broccoli to satisfy an increasingly diverse group of shoppers. Preserved lemons from Egypt, Camembert cheese from France, milk fish from the Philippines and plantains from the Caribbean are all part of the North End offering.

As well as the diversity of products, people come to North End from across London for the amazing prices. A dozen lemons or a bowl of avocados for a pound is common. Sometimes, whole boxes of tomatoes or oranges are sold for that price. The market provides a real benefit to anyone trying to stretch a budget or follow their doctor’s advice to eat more fruit and veg. Avid cooks and foodies go for the fresh and exotic ingredients, restaurants go for a quick resupply and children head there for the discounted sweets while their mothers search for inexpensive shoes. In effect, North End becomes a community meeting point for Fulham's old and young, well off and the struggling, long times resident and the recently arrived.

For visitors to London, North End is an “off the beaten track” opportunity to see an authentic London market without tourists. It is not very big and definitely not picturesque like Portobello or upmarket like Borough but its where ‘real’ Londoners, in anoraks, burkhas, track suits and school uniforms all come to argue, joke, discuss the state of the world and bag some of the best food bargains in town.

Photo credit: Christopher Bruce for All Saints Church Fulham on Flickr

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Back to Belize

It was social media that got us thinking about Belize, the small country in the north eastern corner of Central America we last visited in 2006. After seeing us on Twitter, Kevin from Turneffe Flats, a fishing, diving and eco-marine destination on Belize’s Turneffe Islands got in touch.

Looking at the information and website for Turneffe Flats, we vowed straight away to get back to Belize. This small English speaking country (about the size of the state of Massachusetts) completely beguiled us the last time. We explored jungles, rain forests, and caves full of ancient Mayan artefacts and human sacrifices. We were bums on a beach, we saw amazing flora and fauna (including the world’s only jaguar reserve), and visited the spectacular ruins of a lost civilisation. And with the lowest population density in Central America, Belize was anything but crowded. In fact, for our money, Belize is one of the best destinations in the world to find all the elements that make for a perfect holiday: relaxation, adventure culture and education.

And the next time we go back, we’ll give serious consideration to a visit to Turneffe Atoll and Turneffe Flats. We love the idea of an informal but “grown-up” (as in electricity, air conditioning and good food and booze) isolated lodge on a virtually uninhabited island. Even though we neither fish nor dive, which are Turneffe Flat’s specialties, we can definitely get in to all the other things on offer: snorkelling, kayaking, all kinds of tours to visit the animal and marine life, opportunities to learn about the Maya and even a Belizean cooking class. And we appreciate the fact that Turneffe Flats, through 1% for the Planet, gives 1% of its revenues to support organizations promoting conservation and sustainability of habitats such as Turneffe.

A word of caution. Turneffe Flats is an expensive option for the independent traveller, roughly $2,000 per person per week for the Adventure Program described above and more if you fish or dive. But everything is included, the Trip Advisor reviews testify to the quality of the operation and anyway, do we really want a lot of cheap accommodations being built all over one of the world’s most biologically important and fragile ecosystems?

OK, we’ve convinced ourselves. In 2009, somehow, we’ve got to get back to Belize.

Turneffe Flats
Telephone – 501 220 4046
Toll free from the US – 888 512 8812

Friday, February 06, 2009

How to Beat the Line at the Arab Institute

Last week, we headed over to the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris to see the exhibition “Bonaparte and Egypt, Fire and Light” about Napoleon’s sensationally disastrous campaign in Egypt which nevertheless became a propaganda victory back home.

The Institut, sitting directly across the Seine from the Ile de la Cite, is a trip in itself. The architects worked hard to bring eastern and western ideas to this surprising building. Our favourite fact about the place is that there are 240 moucharabiehs (think of small metal diaphragms) on the exterior of the south side which open and close individually according to the light. Founded by the French government and 22 Arab nations with the mission of fostering mutual understanding, the Institute has held some blockbuster shows over the years and we have waited in some blockbuster lines to get in to these shows. The reviews for Bonaparte et L’Egypte were good enough to lead us to expect long lines again so we headed over first thing in the morning in the hope of beating the rush.

We entered from the south side (away from the Seine) about 9:50 a.m., passed through security and asked the guard which way to the Bonaparte exhibition. We were told the exhibition had not opened yet and were directed to a waiting area for groups. Just before 10:00, we followed the signs upstairs to the exhibition area. Waiting outside in the cold (at the west exhibition entrance) was a long line of museum goers. The grumpy guard told us to wait in front of the ticket booth until 10:00 at which point we bought our tickets and were the first into the exhibition, which, by the way, would have been worth the long wait in the cold.

Moral of story: Enter before 10:00 am on the south side as if you are joining a group. Head upstairs to the exhibition a few minutes before it opens, look innocent as if you had no idea you entered “through the back door” et voila – you’re at the head of the line. Yes, we know queue jumping is bad, very bad, and there is the option of buying tickets online but you need to speak French and be organised enough to plan several days in advance.

Bonaparte et l’Egype is at the Institut du Monde Arabe until March 29.

A lovely place to eat lunch in the neighbourhood is at the bistrot Le Buisson Ardent on rue Jussieu directly across from the hideous University of Paris campus. With a Michelin guide “Bib gourmand” rating (representing exceptional food and drink at moderate prices), this small, friendly restaurant that once was a coaching inn, has a great prix fixe lunch featuring updated bistro classics such as blaquette de veau and gigot. We prefer the traditional front of house to the more modern rooms as the back.

Institut du Monde Arab
1 rue des Fosses Saint Bernard
Place Mahammed V
Paris 5th
Tel: 01 40 51 38 38
Fax: 01 43 54 76 45
Museum open 10 to 6 Tuesday through Sunday

Le Buisson Ardent
25, rue Jussieu
Paris 5th
Tel: 01 43 54 93 02
Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner
Saturday dinner only

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Hunting in Paris

Paris is full of weird and wonderful museums. There’s a museum of the Paris Police Force (Musee de la Prefecture de Police), a Museum of Freemasonry (Musee de la Franc-Maconnerie), a Museum of Eroticism (Musee de l’Erotisme) and a Museum of Counterfeiting (Musee de la Contrefacon) but our current favourite for unusual subject matter is the recently reopened Museum of Hunting and Nature (Musee de la Chasse & de la Nature) on the rue des Archives in the Marais.

The Museum of Hunting is housed in the beautifully refurbished Hotel de Guenegaud. Built between 1651 and 1655 by the celebrated French architect, Francois Mansart, for the King’s secretary, the hotel is both a rare example of grand Parisian living in the middle of the 17th century and the perfect showplace for the collection. Even if you have no interest in hunting or nature, the building alone is worth a visit.

The collection, however, is a fascinating pastiche of everything to do with man’s relationship with wild creatures and nature: guns, paintings, a stuffed wild boar, stag horn cutlery, a Jeff Koons’ terrier and a phantasmagorical owl ceiling made out of heads and feathers are all part of the story.

We really like the way the museum does not engage in the current political debate on the subject. Hunting is neither promoted nor vilified. Even in the examples where animals meet a brutal end, the relationship between hunter and hunted seems more noble and humane than man’s current practice of industrial animal farming. Along the same line, the collection of guns and hunting accessories are so handsome and so beautifully displayed that one’s sentiments about the evils of all weaponry is also challenged.

This is a wonderful museum on every level: great location, fabulous building and fascinating collection. On the day we were there, we had the place completely to ourselves.

Museum of Hunting and Nature
62, rue des Archives
75003 Paris

Image courtesy of the museum website

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

I Love London When Its Snowing

With 8 inches of snow in London, transport was at a standstill. Six million people did not make it in to work and thousands of schools were shut.

Here's what we got up to yesterday:

Built snowmen

Threw snowballs

Went sledding

Would have gone cross country skiing but couldn't find the boots

Heard a chorus of birds singing in a silent city

Spoke to people we didn't know. Smiled at them too.

With temperatures below freezing, this stuff is not going anywhere anytime soon so today we might go out and do it all again.