Thursday, March 5, 2015

Trip to London - final entry

I am devoting this, my last post on our trip to London, to brief descriptions of a number of places we visited during our trip.
The London Eye on the South Bank of the Thames  was intended as a temporary feature when it was constructed for the Millennium celebrations.  It quickly became one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions and is now here to stay.  Although it has been described as a giant Ferris wheel, a cantilevered wheel is more accurate.  Unlike with a Ferris wheel, the cars are self-contained, do not dangle, and can accommodate a few dozen people (there were about eight people in our car).  I never had the slightest sensation of vertigo even as we approached the peak.  As it’s one of the tallest structures in London, the Eye offers a great way to take in much of London in one glance and get a lay of the land - I was able to get some good photos from there.  I recommend the London Eye as an early stop for first time visitors.

Photos from and of the London Eye
If you’re going to the Eye, it’s logical to also visit the London Dungeon next door, especially if you have kids (visitors to either attraction have the option to purchase tickets for both at a discount).  The Dungeon is a haunted house type attraction slanted toward the scarier parts of pre-20th Century London history – both historical (Jack the Ripper, Guy Fawkes), and fictional (Sweeney Todd).  It was all in good fun, but those with questionable hearts (and backs) should probably avoid the Drop Dead ride.
The Tower of London is one of the most famous sites one can visit in all of England.  So much history has occurred here, and the best way to learn about it is to wait for one of the periodic tours led by the iconic “beefeater” Yeoman Warders.  After the initial tour, which includes the Scaffold site where notables such as Anne Boleyn were executed, visitors are taken to the Royal Chapel (where visitors are reminded to remove their hats and “silence that instrument of the Devil, the Mobile phone”).  From there, visitors can roam on their own to such structures as the White Tower, which features collections of armor and armaments – including Henry VIII’s armor, which features an enormous codpiece that was symbolic of his rank.  Tickets are £24.50 so be sure you give yourself plenty of time to get your money’s worth for the visit.
The Tower of London -
Dan was very impressed with Henry VIII's "armor".

Entry to the London Zoo is expensive, £22 at the gate for adults, £16.50 for kids under 15.  The selection of animals is not especially noteworthy.  A quick summation is that if you’ve been to the Cleveland Zoo (entry to which is only $12.25 for adults, $8.25 for kids under 12), then you’ve no need to visit the London Zoo – at least that’s my impression after spending several hours there.
Dan & I did not partake of shopping at any of London’s more upscale stores.  Frankly, neither Selfridge’s, Harrods, nor Fortnum & Mason hold much interest for either of us.  We did visit Foyles and Waterstones bookstores, along with several independent shops – including Gay’s the Word.  I was reminded of my days living near Boston, when I’d spend hours perusing bookstores there – most of which are now sadly closed. 
We did, however, sample some of the gay nightlife in Soho.  Our favorite place was Village, which featured a very friendly staff and daily events.  Village has two main level bars, along with a basement bar with a small dance floor which opens on Saturday.  On our last night there, I was persuaded to do something I hadn’t done in over 20 years – sing Karaoke.  Dan joined me for a duet rendition of the theme to Goldfinger.  Despite its rather small footprint, Admiral Duncan is likely the most well-known gay bar in Soho – perhaps in all of London.  Both times we went there we found ourselves being hit on - which, as someone who’s pushing 50, I found rather flattering.  A nice way to cap off the evening was to head to Snog for a frozen yogurt.

At Admiral Duncan
Scenes from Village
Final thoughts…
Ages ago, my 8th Grade history teacher described Britain as “Socialist, that’s one step from Communist.”  (Then again, my 8th grade history teacher also said that Hitler was a homosexual and that Franklin Roosevelt knew about the attack on Pearl Harbor in advance, both conspiracy theories that have been soundly refuted by the empirical evidence.)  Well, even with the presence of the NHS – which no politician would dare propose to abolish – the British would never refer to their nation as Socialist, and I heard their leaders specifically refer to their system as Capitalism while watching the news there (which is far more substantive than our news, by the way).  I saw more evidence of the entrepreneurial spirit, more “get up and go”, and more small businesses during my time in London than I’ve ever in any American city.  Those who read my blog with any regularity know I am an inveterate booster for redevelopment in Cleveland.  But ten days in London firmly put Cleveland’s fair-to-middling efforts in perspective.  We have a lot to learn.
Dan & I had a wonderful ten days in London.  We found the people to be kind without being obsequious.  Despite cautions I’d read in travel articles warning of crime, we felt completely safe.  Indeed, the biggest crime related story I heard about while in London was the mugging of a retiree in the lobby of his building – while there were several shootings in Cleveland during the same time period.   It’s worth pointing out that police in England, with rare exceptions, do not carry firearms.  Indeed, a proposal to arm them with Tasers is being met with some resistance.  London has a variety of cultural events, restaurants, nightlife, and tourist attractions that will appeal to anyone.  There’s always plenty to do here.  It’s also quite practical as a jumping off point for other areas of the UK.  But ten days afforded us barely enough time to scratch the surface.  There’s so much to see, from Abbey Road to Brighton to Stonehenge.  We will most assuredly visit there again. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Food, Glorious Food.

Forget everything you’ve heard about cuisine in England being dreary.  Forget as well about warm beer, it’s served nice and cold in London.  These two wives’ tales may stem from the immediate post-war years when England was still rationing food and other items.  It’s hard for Americans to comprehend how England suffered during World War II, when attacks on our own homeland have been exceedingly rare.   Imagine fourteen 9/11s spread out over eight months and you’ll get an idea of what it was like to live in London during the Blitz – and many smaller towns weren’t much better off.   As a percentage of total population, the UK’s blood loss was three times that of the US.  Unlike America, which enjoyed a post-war economic boom, the UK wasn’t much better off than post-war Germany.  It took England the better part of a decade before life returned to a semblance of normalcy.  But before I go off on a tangent, let’s get back to the subject at hand.
I must start with a disclaimer: Ten days is not nearly enough time to explore London’s culinary scene.  It would probably take years. 
Though we arrived in London to find that our hotel room had been upgraded to a townhouse with full kitchen, we did relatively little cooking.  Most of the items we purchased at the local Tesco revolved around snack food such as crisps and digestives – along with sodas and fruit juices.  (Tesco reminded me of Giant Eagle, right down to the dreaded self-service registers.  I’ll stick with Heinen’s any day.)  So, we generally dined out twice each day – a large breakfast and a late lunch.  Our hotel also offered complementary wine & cheese from 5:00-7:00pm each day, and we partook most evenings.  Between that and the bars we visited, I probably drank more in London than at any time since I was in my early 20s.
On our first morning in London, after we’d dropped off our luggage, we scouted around for a quick breakfast and found ourselves at, of all places, McDonald’s.  The differences between the American and English versions of Mickey Dee’s are minor – the bacon used on the Egg McMuffin is British rather than Canadian, and the egg is free-range and cooked a bit softer.  Note that you will be asked if you want ketchup or “brown sauce”, which is basically the British version of A1.  Much of London is populated by American restaurants, ranging from KFC to Chipotle, all the way up to TGI Fridays and Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.  Add to that The Book of Mormon, currently playing to sold-out houses in Piccadilly, and one can easily get the feeling that the Yanks have invaded.
On four occasions, we dined at The Cambridge, one of the many Nicholson’s pubs dotting London.  While the menu is basically the same everywhere, each location has its own ambience.  We chose The Cambridge based on proximity to our hotel – we could log onto the hotel’s Wi-Fi from there and get excellent reception, even though it was rather wonky from our rooms.  As the dining room is on the 2nd floor (British would call this the 1st storey, as the Ground floor is the Ground floor), we had a nice view of Cambridge Circus yet felt insulated from the London rush hour.  Nicholson’s pubs are an ideal choice if you want reasonably priced standard fare, including an English Breakfast, Fish & Chips, or just a pint at the bar.  The Fish & Chips featured a generous portion of the juiciest Cod I’ve ever enjoyed, lightly battered and cooked to crispy perfection.  They also have some classic English desserts such as Treacle Cake – a delicious concoction which I intend to import to our kitchen.  

English Breakfast, Fish & Chips, and Steak & Ale pie
For Dan’s birthday, we headed to Preto Rodizio Brazillian Steakhouse on Shaftsbury Avenue.  In anticipation of our dinner there, we avoided food during the day.  Preto offers the standard Churrascaria fare, similar to Cleveland’s Brasa: You’re given a coaster, green on one side, red on the other.  After starting with a salad and appetizers, the diner turns the coaster green side up.  A gaucho will then bring you a rotation of meat selections until you flip the coaster to the red side.  Since it was Dan’s birthday, we exercised restraint so we’d have room for dessert.  The wait staff was observant enough to place a candle on Dan’s dessert.  Preto is most definitely not a restaurant for vegans or those who prefer small portions, but for omnivores and those on the paleo diet, it’s essential dining.  We also discovered that the location is ideal for people watching.
La Bodega Negra was on the same block as our townhouse.  I would describe it as Fusion Mexican, moderately upscale.  The drinks menu is generous and the atmosphere is convivial. 
Dinner is served at La Bodega Negra
As the southern edge of Soho is also Chinatown, there were a number of Asian restaurants.  I advise approaching these with caution as there seemed to be a wide divergence in quality.  We sampled two buffets which were somewhat inferior to our own local Chinese buffet restaurants.  Also, unless otherwise noted, restaurants in England do not offer free refills on soft drinks.
An exception to that was Ed’s Easy Diner, which we went to on our last night in London.  There are actually several locations, but the one in Soho is the original.  This is a recreation of a classic 1950’s diner, an exercise in Americana which was quite popular.  Each time we passed it, the small space was completely filled.  The reason is simple: generous portions of burgers and fries, friendly service – and free refills on soft drinks.
Chiquito is in Leicester Square, so it’s an ideal place to dine before hopping onto the Tube.  We only went there once, for breakfast.  It says something about diversity in London that we enjoyed an English Breakfast in a Mexican restaurant, served to us by a Polish waitress.
Our townhouse was directly above a Bubble Tea shop.  I’d never tried it before, and doubt I will again.  The taste was nice enough, but I found the texture off-putting.
A note on tipping: Most restaurants include an automatic surcharge which seems to cover gratuity.  But we found it was usually around 10%, which to me is not an adequate tip if the service is good – so we usually supplemented it with cash.

Monday, March 2, 2015

All I Ask is a Tall Ship and a Star to Steer Her By...

Dan & I were fortunate in terms of weather during our trip to England.  Not only did we exchange the subzero temperatures of Cleveland in February for an average of 38-52º in London, it also rained far less in England than one would garner by reputation.  While all but three of our days there were overcast, it only rained on two of those days.  Unfortunately, one of those was during a trip to Greenwich that entailed quite a bit of walking.  Fortunately, we remembered to bring our brolly.
From the Embankment pier, we boarded a Thames Clipper Ferry for the 20 minute ride.  On the way to Greenwich, we passed the Tower of London and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
I wish I’d been able to bring my father with me to Greenwich, because I know he would have loved to see the Cutty Sark
Americans associate the Cutty Sark name primarily with the whiskey brand.  The brand, of course, was named after the ship, and the label includes a rendering of the Cutty Sark in her glory days.  But the connection ends there.  The ship transported tea, and later wool.  It never transported the whiskey that bore the ship’s name.  Amusingly, the scheme to create a new whiskey brand called Cutty Sark for importation into the United States dates to 1923, when Prohibition was still in effect.  The ship is now part of a museum, restored to the extent possible and housed in an ingenious dry-dock type facility with the ship elevated so people can literally walk underneath it.  Despite a fire several years ago, much of the interior of the ship is intact and visitors can get an idea of how sailors lived in the 1800s.      

The Royal Observatory is a 15 minute walk from the Cutty Sark.  Frankly, I found it something of a disappointment.  Little has survived from the site’s earliest era of discovery, and a number of items usually on display were removed for restoration.  Much of the museum revolves around time and the construction of ever more accurate clocks.  Reading how the Prime Meridian was established, it becomes obvious that the location chosen was totally arbitrary and became accepted largely as a result of British prestige during the 19th Century.  Like any tourist, I couldn’t resist the temptation to stand in two hemispheres at once.

Note that if you’re planning to visit both the Cutty Sark and Observatory, you can purchase tickets for both at a discount.
While heading  back to the Greenwich pier, we strolled through the main commercial district.  Greenwich is a totally charming, eminently walkable community with large areas of parkland.  This is the kind of place where one could settle down and escape the noise and whirl of London, yet still commute there easily and live quite well without having to own a car.
After returning to Central London, we enjoyed a late lunch at the Sherlock Holmes pub.  The restaurant is decorated with many bits of memorabilia from the many incarnations of the famous detective, and the standard fare British menu is imaginatively presented.  I greatly enjoyed Mrs. Hudson’s Steak & Ale pie.