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

Sunday, March 22, 2009

It's Mother's Day Somewhere

It’s Mother’s Day in the UK. Sure, the economy needs stimulating but this year’s commercial badgering to remember, love and shop for Mum is a bit much. Microsoft just sent me this. “Make her day even more special with Windows Live.” Hey Bill Gates & Co., I’ve got news for you, my mom’s not here. It’s not like she’s gone to heaven or gaga or anything like that. She’s fine but she lives in the US of A so today is not her day. But all this Mum marketing has made me miss my Mom.

I love my Mom. She rocks. Give her a worthy battle and she’s good to go. I was a pretty impossible child and she certainly never tired of trying to straighten me out. She did all kinds of cool stuff that I didn’t appreciate at the time, like climbing Everest or hanging out with the Touareg tribe, or drinking Brezhnev under the table. But even then I knew that my Mom was the best “get out of jail free” card a girl ever had. The bigger the trouble I produced, the more heroic was her response.

So here’s to you Mom in America from daughter in England. Today’s your day. You rock.

Mother's Day 2009

March 22, 2009

United Kingdom

May 10, 2009

United States
New Zealand
South Africa

May 31, 2009

May 3, 2009
Hong Kong

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ditch the Lonely Planet and Follow Samuel Pepys

I don’t use my London guidebooks anymore. I’ve found a better compass.

It was the story which ran in the London Sunday Times, Hot gossip as Pepys and Austen go blogging, which gave me the idea. By using ,which is an internet presentation of the diaries of Samuel Pepys, the renowned 17th century diarist who lived in London, I would, in the parlance of Twitter, follow Pepys.

Every day I receive an email describing what Pepys got up to on the same day in London 300 years ago. Sometimes it’s exciting stuff involving plague, fire and the execution of a king but sometimes it’s about shopping for gloves or philandering at a public house. Some days he’s at the Guildhall on business or Covent Garden for pleasure. Regardless of what Pepys was up to, he lived life large in 17th century London and following Pepys today is tons of fun.

For example, on March 12, 1665 Pepys did much business in the Royal Exchange, so on March 12, 2009, I went too.

Whereas Pepys would have conducted his affairs in a building which served as the centre of commerce for the City of London, I found a shopping mall filled with some of the world’s most expensive stores such as Bulgari, Tiffany and Hermes. The restaurants were mostly full but the stores were almost entirely empty. I had a pleasant wander around. They have fantastic loos and an unexpected statue of Abraham Lincoln in one of the entrances. I admired the diamonds and the watches, I swooned over the scarves but got in to trouble with the security guard for taking pictures. Like Pepys, who saw plenty of political, social and financial upheaval in his time, I couldn’t help thinking that in its present form this Bonfire of the Vanities monument to ueber-consumption couldn’t be long for this world. So thank you, Samuel Pepys for my instructive afternoon in the dying days of City excess and as Pepys wrote on the day three hundred years before, “and so home to supper and to bed.”

Portrait of Samuel Pepys by J. Hayls, 1666

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

When Memories Write Back

Oh, the joys of blogging. How else can you publish a story and then one of the people you write about writes you back.

There I am, 6:30 am at my dining room table checking what came in over night. Doesn’t look too exciting. Wait. What’s this? Oh my God, it’s an email from Suzanne Dache, daughter of Lilly, and one of the heroines of my piece on the hat show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The very same Suzanne Dache in whose shop I spent the afternoon trying on hats instead of selling computers ( Jim – my long suffering boss at that time – if you are reading this too, I’m sorry but it couldn’t be helped.)

“Thank you for your super kind and complimentary mention of my mother, Lilly Dache, in conjunction with Mr. Jones whose work she greatly admired. And thank you for remembering my store on 64th Street. You wrote so beautifully about the exhibit, I might just go to London to see it.”

Ah, the lonely hours spent writing my little stories have all come good. I am in correspondence with millinery royalty.

“My parents loved London, and March is their "Love Month" (Married March 13, 1931 in Palm Beach, celebrated 50 romantic years with friends, at La Coquille Club in l981.)They loved staying at Claridge's Room 144 and loved London fashion. I have dozens of photographs of London's street fashion, my father used to take in the 70's, when we went together.”

Can’t you just see it, Palm Beach in the 30’s, La Coquille Club in the 80’s, Room 144 at Claridges. The clothes, the hats … How glamorous. How romantic.

“Please extend my sincere appreciation to Mr Jones and those responsible for the exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I’m overwhelmed!”

Oh, for the love of hats. I’m overwhelmed too Suzanne, yes, I surely am.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Pining for Italy but Stuck in London

“Signore, Signora, how nice to see you again.”

Not a bad welcome for a restaurant we hadn’t visited since last November. As we sat down the Editor asked, “Have you written about Alba?”

No. And that’s weird since we’ve been coming here for ages. It’s one of our favourite restaurants in London. Sometimes you forget to mention the best things in your own backyard.

Alba is everything we love in a restaurant. It’s been owned by the same family for the last twenty years. Its low key and good for conversation. It’s not cheap but the prices are fair and the prix fixe lunch and dinner menus are a bargain. During the season, they have a truffle menu to die for. The food, mostly from the north of Italy, can also deviate into interesting regional specialties. The wine list contains hard-to-find Italians at reasonable mark-ups. If you are going to the Barbican which is around the corner, it’s a great post theatre option.

The night we were there, we were hugely excited because they had puntarelle on the menu, a classic Roman dish you almost never find in London but alas, we were too late. It had all been gobbled up at lunch. Instead, we started with octopus and squid followed by culingionis (potato ravioli) that had just been flown in from Sardinia. Covered in butter and fresh sage, and so beautiful to look at, the culingionis was divine. We washed it all down with our favourite wine from Sicily, Nero d’Avola. Total damage was £75 and worth every penny.

After dinner, the maitre d’ who, over dinner, had sung the praises of his home town, Tropea, in Calabria took us over to the computer to show us some pictures of the beaches and the church where he was married that is pictured above. All the while, one of the waiters from Venice rolled his eyes in that way that Italians have when they are forced to acknowledge other parts of Italy than where they were born. For the record, the photos of Tropea were so beautiful that the first thing we did when we got home was check flights into the closest airport in Lanezia Terme.

No Crowds complains a lot about eating out in London, a town plagued by high prices and poor service, but our dinner at Alba last Friday was just about perfect. We basked in the glow that comes from being treated like cherished regulars even though we only go occasionally. We became devotees of culingionis and we got some great travel ideas for Calabria. If you are pining for Italy but stuck in London, a meal at Alba may be the next best thing.

Alba Restaurant
107 Whitecross Street
London EC1Y 8JH
(220 m from the Barbican main entrance)

Tel: 0207 588 1798
Fax: 0207 638 5793

Open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner
Photo credit: Wikipedia