Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Three Days in London

The last time I visited London was 12 years ago. Patrick and I were there for a week in early autumn. We were not impressed. Yes, the museums were fascinating, but not surprising so; something you would expect from the country which at one point owned half of the world. The Rosetta Stone and Elgin Marbles in British museum are real world wonders. But the tourist attractions were not enough to bring me back to London. The city was not appealing; people didn’t look attractive, the eating experience met the existing stereotype of British food, the best theater performance was actually an American import. There were no reasons to come back to this overpriced and charmless city.
This year it happened that my school friend, who lives in Moscow was going on a business trip to London. I really wanted to see her and travelling to Moscow is not an option (one day I might write about that). She invited me to come to meet her in London. I took a few days off and arrived in London on a mid-April morning. The taxi took me from the Paddington Station to hotel near St. Paul Cathedral. The driver took a scenic route and I immediately realized that something was different. This was not at all the city I remembered. I’m not sure why this happened. But the only reasonable explanation is that I had changed not the city of London. I knew I was going to love it this time.
As soon as I shook off the travel fatigue, I left the hotel for a walk and lunch. I was a bit concerned about where to eat, since my preliminary internet investigation on eating in London was not fruitful. Right next to the hotel were plenty of little eating places. To my surprise all of them looked pretty good. I selected a little café called Apostrophes (http://www.apostropheuk.com/) mostly because I saw through the window that they serve Illy coffee. I walked inside and the place looked, smelled and felt right. My instinct didn’t fool me and the first meal was a huge success.
A superb lunch provided a strong support for the initial positive impression. The next destination was a book store for a detail city map and maybe a travel book. I decided to skip the book after brief review of the available selection, as the interesting books were pretty thick and, in addition to my Nikon, would severely limit how much I could march around the city. I discussed it with the store clerk and he offered a nice compromise: basically just a detail map with the short description of major attractions. It turned out to be a great choice – almost no weight and I didn't get lost once!
I hit the streets and they were lovely! The people, the buildings, store windows, old telephone booths; everything was full of charm. One of the major attractions was that it is so varied and eclectic: people of different races, restaurants with food from around the world, buildings from different eras. On the top of that, there were the gardens all around the city in full glory of blooming April.

I could not stop taking pictures.

The Fleet Street doesn't look at all like in Sweeny Todd, but still exciting and full of life:

And the combination of old, not so old and new:

The next day my destination was the museum of Albert and Victoria. I don't even know where to start with that. How about the logo. The modern designers still have a thing or two to learn from the old masters!

A few years ago at the NY Metropolitan museum I saw a textile exhibit from there and it was very memorable. Back then I thought that if I was ever in London again I will check it out. With museums I have a personnel limit of two hours; this is how long I can enjoy a museum without diminishing the experience by being overwhelmed with information and images. Walking around I kept thinking that I needed at least three or four visits here to get a good idea about the collection. It reminded me of my trip to St. Petersburg about thirty years ago (OMG!). I spent one week going to Hermitage every day.
Just to illustrate the variety of decorative arts in the collection here are a few samples:
The metal work:

The lace:

The art nouveau garden sculpture:

The midlevel grotesque in sculpture (never seen that before!)

And the marvelous fashion exhibit by Yamomoto with amazing commentary:

After that I went to a lovely Japanese place for lunch with this view from the window.

How could I possibly have not seen the charm on the first time? I’m pretty sure that the one thing which definitely changed in London is food and for me that is a make or break factor.

The first shopping expedition started at the Liberty. This is my favorite store in London. It is housed in the magnificent Tudor building constructed from the timber of two ships. I never bought anything there and most likely never will, but the clothes and the setting of the store brings one as close as possible to a museum experience. The joy of gorgeous rooms with fireplaces, stained glass windows and the exquisite garments was extended by a fashion event where champagne and hors d'oeuvres where served to the customers and visitors like me ;)
The Liberty experience warmed my appetite for shopping and the next day I decided to go to more democratic place - Oxford Street.
I rapidly got disappointed and turned on to Bond Street for more visual pleasures. As usual I prefer the luxury window shopping to the affordable real one. It is more enjoyable, the merchandize is so much better, the people watching is more fun and the savings are amazing due to the fact that I can’t buy anything :)
Just take a look at these lovely windows:

Or the London dandies at the street café:

Or the windows of the very expensive jewelry store decorated perfectly right

for the customers modest enough to cover the hair

but flaunt enough to parade their wealth with Louis Vuitton head scarf :)

The Refined Madam drink at Waldorf Hilton http://www.worldclassuk.com/ViewCocktail.aspx?c=2871&b=0

was the finest finishing touch!
Is it fun? Viva London! The next time with Patrick!