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