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Wrapping up the Grand Tour    

6 Nov
6 November 2017.
Our Grand Tour brought us to places new-to-us and also to locations we consider old friends. Our last stop: London for a fortnight. This was our fourth trip to the fabled city. We love it!

Dating to 1610, this is one of few buildings to survive the Great Fire of 1666.

People often ask me why we go back to the same places. While exploring and discovering unfamiliar places is exciting, going back time-and-again to a location allows us to dig deeper and experience things the one-time traveler doesn’t have time to discover. 
Since we’ve already seen the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Greenwich, the Cabinet War Rooms, Westminster Abbey, the British Museum, and St. Paul’s, what’s left?
Plenty. Here are the sights, sites, and activities that filled our two weeks. Note that only two of these were repeats from prior visits.
  • Victoria & Albert Museum for the Pink Floyd Exhibit
  • London Walks “Shaken not Stirred 007 Pub Walk” on Saturday night
  • London Walks “Little Venice” walking tour on a sunny Sunday
  • Self-guided walk through “The City” (in the Rick Steves’ Guide)

    View from lunch at Darwin Brasserie. Decent food, great view!

  •  The Sky Garden Darwin Brasserie for a view of London from 36 floors up in the “Walkie Talkie”
  • Liberty Department Store (old, classy, beautiful)
  • Fortnum & Mason (Scored some yummy cookies)
  • “Wicked” at the Apollo Theatre (Well-done but rather silly)

    Did you know that many Tube stations feature artwork particular to the location? Guess where this one is.

  • London Underground Tube Tour with Insider London (Very interesting history and operations)
  • Portobello Road Market
  • Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising (We were nearby in the Portobello Road Market and figured “Why not?”)
  • Hyde Park Italian Water Gardens and a lovely Saturday stroll to Hyde Park Corner with a stop for lunch at Serpentine Bar Kitchen
  •  London Film Museum for the “Bond in Motion” exhibit

    From the “Bond in Motion” exhibit. A couple of dozen original vehicles displayed with other artifacts and movie clips.

  • London Walks “Harry Potter on Location” walking tour
  • Exploration of Hampstead Village and Hampstead Heath (What a view!)
  • Canterbury and the famous cathedral
  • British Library
  • Bletchley Park (Had to watch “The Imitation Game” again after the visit)

  • Westminster Cathedral, home of the Roman Catholic Church in the U.K. with stunning mosaics
  • The National Gallery (Amazing collection! How did we miss this on prior trips?)
  • Kew Gardens (Would love to visit in May!

  • London Transport Museum (second visit)

    The Mail Rail train at the new Postal Museum, now carrying people on a history tour.

  • Imperial War Museum (second time)
  • Postal Museum and Mail Rail Tour (Really off-the-beaten)
  • Sir John Soane’s Museum
  • Other innumerable walks, wanderings, and shopping
We were fortunate to once again rent an apartment from London Connection. This is our third time with LC and I believe we benefit when we rent from the same people multiple times, especially a small, privately held agency like this. A long stay can result in more favorable rates than a shorter stay.

Lorenzo Quinn’s “Love” on the banks of the Thames near Vauxhall Bridge. The same artist did the large hands called “Support” for the Venice Biennale. That is MI-6 in the background.

Our first experience with London Connection was at Christmas 2015, and our second was when we visited with our son in the spring of 2016. We liked the small apartment we had that Christmas, so I arranged to rent it again. However, a week-or-so before we arrived I got word that there was a problem: The flat had to be taken off the short-term market due to an Airbnb problem in the building. LC does not participate in Airbnb, but some other flats in the same building were rented through that service. The renters caused problems with noise and such, so the condo board said, “No more!” It would be 90-day rental minimums effective immediately. Tom Moore, the owner of London Connection, rebooked us in a flat considerably more expensive than the little one we had chosen, but of course, it was a complimentary upgrade. They really took care of us very well. We ended up staying in a new-to-us section of town, the very swanky Mayfair. The flat was in a mews house, once the residence for the horses and carriage drivers who served the important Georgian and Victorian families. Here’s a link to the flat.  It is a bit quirky in that the entrance stairs are very steep and narrow (think housing for grooms and their families 150+ years ago), and the second staircase inside the apartment was sort of a spiral, again narrow and steep. But once inside, we were in the lap of luxury.

Whimsical art in a park near our apartment.

We cooked dinner in quite a bit since we had a very nice kitchen and we enjoyed many a pub lunch. A roast for Sunday lunch is a must so we popped just around the corner from our flat to The Audley. We had the best hamburger ever at the Morpeth Arms pub, found a delicious flatbread pizza at the Serpentine Bar Kitchen, indulged in a gastropub dinner at the Queen’s Head Piccadilly, ate lunch with a view at the Sky Garden’s Darwin Brasserie, stumbled into the very sweet Greenhouse Café near the station in Kew, had unbelievable luck in Bletchley with our blind choosing of Pasha Med Turkish Bar & Grill, visited our standby for Indian at Punjab, “discovered” the charms of Le Pain Quotidien, and found pretty-darn-good-almost-Italian pizza at Bar Remo. Whew!

The street where we lived for two weeks.

A saving strategy given the steep staircase issue was shopping online at Waitrose and having our groceries delivered. I’ve done this three times now in London. I set up a delivery for an hour-or-so after we check-in, so while we are unpacking the delivery person shows up with the wine, water, breakfast items, staples, and supplies for our first dinner or two. Saves on schlepping.
In contrast to the start of our trip, we had almost no rain and temps were moderate in London. The storm Ophelia which hit Ireland and SW England made for some breezy days, but I think I deployed my umbrella only briefly one day in two weeks.

Little known Little Venice. Rather untouristed, peaceful.

Spending two weeks in London allowed us to become familiar with our neighborhood, sort out transportation options, and feel “at home.” We didn’t have to rush from sight to sight and could deviate from our plan to take advantage of discoveries. A long stay gave us a front-row seat to changes in the neighborhood. Window displays moved from fall to Christmas themes, decorations went up over major shopping streets, and pubs started to promote holiday parties and menus. We started to feel rather local. We tired ourselves out most days and relaxed at home with a simple dinner in the evenings.
Over the course of eight weeks, Sept 3-Oct 28, we walked an average of 15577 steps per day, covering about 330 miles according to my pedometer. We rarely took taxis and never rented a car. 
It was a perfect end to our eight week Grand Tour. Following are a few more photos just in case you are interested. 

 

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Paris pleasures

21 Oct
21 October 2017.
No matter how many times we visit, I get a little thrill to be in Paris. After arriving by train at the fabulous Gare de Lyon, our Algerian-born-married-to-the-mob-Italian-speaking taxi driver whisked us to our pied a terre near the Opéra Garnier and soon we were looking over the rooftops of the city.
Paris was quite the change of pace after a week in Pesaro and Bra. We hit Avenue de l’Opéra on Saturday afternoon at high shopping time. Mamma mia! I was feeling a bit panicky as the crowds swarmed left and right! No one seemed to walk to one side or the other and enormous families took up the whole sidewalk. Kind of reminded me of Roma, and not in a good way!

Every Paris album needs a gratuitous Eiffel Tower shot.

We eventually found our pace, managing to weave creatively, clinging to one another and refusing to be separated. We found the nearby Monoprix (no thanks to the apartment rental agency which gave us the wrong address) for groceries and headed back “home” as Ric, who had been nursing a cold for a couple of days, was feeling the full fury and needed some chicken soup and downtime.
Prepared chicken soup was something we had trouble finding in Italy. Not so in Paris! Lovely chicken broth with vermicelli (not just “noodles”), a fresh baguette, some nice white wine, and early-to-bed.
So we took it easy in Paris. The weather was not bad. Only rarely sunny but, as we like to say, at least it wasn’t raining. Overcast is fine as long as I do not have to deploy an umbrella while touring. We managed to explore some places we had not been in our prior visits, take some long walks through familiar neighborhoods, and have some fine culinary experiences as well.
Below, a selection of pictures from our stroll around The Marais on a nice sunny day.
Ric thought I was crazy to suggest a tour of Père Lachaise Cemetery, but after a two-hour wander we were both happy we’d gone. Crowds were light early on a fall Sunday, and by the time other tourists and Sunday gravesite visitors appeared, we were leaving. So many famous writers, musicians, philosophers, singers, artists, statesmen, and military figures are interred here! Not all are figures from bygone times. One of the artists from “Charlie Hebdo” that was murdered in the attacks of 2015 is in Père Lachaise. Memorials honor war dead and there are several moving monuments to the Holocaust.
Another less-known site is the Jacquemart-André Museum. I have had this in my sights for a few visits and finally found time to go. What a fabulous place! While quite popular with French visitors, we heard no English this day.  This is a private museum created in the mansion of Édouard André (1833–1894) and Nélie Jacquemart (1841–1912) to display the art they collected during their lives. And what a collection it is! They apparently had unlimited funds, no kids (which helps), and could not stop collecting. The reception rooms and private quarters alike are from another era and a lifestyle we only see in films. There are masterpieces by Donatello, Luca Della Robbia, Botticelli, Signorelli, Perugino, and more. Italy seems to have been their favorite country-of-origin.
Part of the mansion was used in the 1958 film “Gigi.”
An unexpected bonus was a special exhibit, “The Hansen’s Secret Garden” the private collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art collected in just two years (1916-1918) by a Danish couple, Wilhelm and Henny Hansen. Renoir, Matisse, Degas, Gauguin, Monet and more. We were dumbfounded to trip across this and had the privilege of up-close viewing in a very intimate setting. The exhibition is supposed to go to other major museums around the world, although only Ottawa is singled out on the website. If it comes to a city near you, go.
Food in Paris is very important, and food experiences are very important to the Bartons. We were, however, a bit tired of restaurants after a week without a kitchen. The chicken soup night was a relief and we also decided to make a nice French ratatouille in honor of our visit to the capital. This became the prime component of a few relaxed dinners at “home.” There were some excellent culinary experiences, too.

Moules alla Meuniere at Au Trappiste. The waiter will recommend a beer to pair. Frites on the side, of course.

I was in a mood for moules et frites. We tracked them down at two decidedly different venues: Au Trappiste, a Belgian beer emporium that also served great mussels, and Leon de Bruxelles, a mussels-specialty chain that also had some decent Belgian beer. I usually like my mussels sautéed in wine ala Meuniere, but after trying Leon’s Provençale style as well as au Roquefort, I need to expand my repertory at home. My cravings were well-satisfied. Leon is definitely on our list for the (inevitable) next trip to Paris.
We splurged on one dinner/tour, Bustronome. Unfortunately. Ric was still not feeling well and could barely taste the food. Since it was pre-paid he bravely went along. I found the food quality and creativity excellent although the wines were nothing special. We were served a 6-course meal and although the fish wasn’t one of my favorites, everything was done nicely, very fresh, very beautiful. Portions were appropriate to a 6-course meal so we didn’t quite waddle away.
The nighttime tour of Paris was terrific. We drove slowly through the streets on the double-decker bus passing almost every landmark you could name: Place du Concorde, the Louvre, Opéra Garnier, Musée D’Orsay, Invalides, La Tour Eiffel, and more. The bus has a panoramic glass roof and since all diners are on the second level, everyone had a great view. (The kitchen is on the bottom level.)
A couple of years ago we enjoyed a phenomenal meal at Les Papilles, where you eat what they are cooking. At least at dinner, that is the case: no choices, one set four-course menu. We went for lunch this trip and at lunch there are a few bistro meal choices. We aren’t fools. We ordered the chef’s recommended entrée et plat. This day it was a delicate cauliflower soup served with bits of bacon and cauliflower with a dollop of crème fraiche followed by a delectable porc en cassoulet. How they do it out of a kitchen the size of our master bathroom, I do not know. The owner, Bertrand Bluy, is no slouch in the selection of wines and brought us a lovely carafe that is far beyond what most would offer as house wine, well-matched to the day’s menu. Luckily Ric was feeling much better and able to taste and enjoy the food. 
We love going to the market wherever we are traveling and we shopped at Monoprix on Avenue de l’Opéra several times.The first time we checked out it was with a young man who was very engaging with the customers that went before us. Nice to us, but with a language barrier no real kibitzing. The next time we went to his station, as usual he was visiting with people then turned to ring up our items. He indicated to me that some dark chocolate we had would not scan. (I can understand enough French in situ.) Bummer. He set the chocolate aside and rang up the rest of the order. I turned to tell Ric the chocolate would not scan and could see he was irritated. (We like a square of dark chocolate after dinner.) Then the cashier laughed and handed me the item in question. “Joking,” he said. I guess we were accepted as regulars at that point. The Opéra Market was also a find, just around the corner from our flat, with an assortment of products that puts 7-Eleven to shame in a space not much larger than some walk-in closets.
Of course even Paris can have bad food. You can read about a terrible pizza experience which I will post soon over at Our Weekly Pizza. (Hint: Dominoes would have been better.)
So we bid adieu to Paris, her fine moules, amusing grocery clerks, and bad pizza. The Eurostar whisked us to London from where I will resume our story when I have time. À bientôt!
And if you haven’t seen enough, here are a few more photos from lovely Paris. 

L’Arte di Venezia

29 Sep
29 September 2017.
Art museums are not high on my list these days. We’ve seen so many. I could live a long time without ever seeing another Egyptian sarcophagus and contemporary art usually leaves me laughing and perplexed, although we have viewed the magnificent Peggy Guggenheim Collection three times. E basta.

Biennale venue, Giardino.

But when you wander into Venezia in the middle of the Biennale, it only seems fitting to take in the event. In this, our tenth trip to La Serenissima, we unintentionally coincided with a Biennale year. So we went. Luckily we got the senior discount.
The venue at Giardino is lovely. I had no idea there were permanent pavilions. In many cases, the building eclipsed the art. Russia’s site and exhibit were very “1984.” That was our favorite of the paid-for venues.
There were some charming pieces around the city that were for public enjoyment. We did not get to hunt down all of them but saw several we liked.

A small portion of Russia’s monochromatic installation.

Korea’s pavilion. The exterior was the best part.

Super-sized and shiny, this rhino contemplates Venezia across the Laguna.

Coinciding with the Biennale was an exhibit at the contemporary museums Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi, a first-ever event where one show completely filled both venues: “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” by Damian Hirst. Three of Hirst’s pieces were visible in Venezia outside of the museums and they were crazy, huge, classical-looking works of art reminiscent of much we have seen throughout Italy. That drew us in. How could this be contemporary art?

One of Hirst’s classical pieces on public display.

It is a big joke. Hirst created a fantasy about a treasure trove of items collected by a freed slave, Cif Amotan II (an anagram*) These are wonderfully displayed, many in a before-and-after manner: encrusted with sea life, barnacles, etc., then polished and gleaming after restoration. The Guardian called it “art for a post-truth world.” Click on any photo for a better view and caption.
Hirst went so far as to stage elaborate underwater photography of the salvage operation of some pieces. All of the curation supported the myth in detail. Only when one read the fine print about the materials used was the gag given away: granite, marble, resin, MDF, gold, silver….
We thought it was brilliant, although many critics were appalled. Hirst has the last laugh as people are pouring in to see it and reportedly many pieces have sold. I hope so: he spent £50 million of his own money and ten years putting the show together. When you are wildly successful, I guess you can take risks.

We stopped on Mazzorbo for lunch at Alla Maddalena. A far cry from Venezia proper.

I have to mention a lovely experience we had away from the crazy crowds. This is one of the reasons people should stay longer in Venezia: to get away from San Marco and enjoy the islands where the Venetian Republic was born.

A short vaporetto ride from Venezia is peaceful Mazzorbo, incorporating a wine resort, Venissa. Might have to contemplate staying here some time.

We often visit the laguna islands, but this time we went to Mazzorbo, specifically for a quiet lunch on a perfect day. While most people head to Burano, we got off one stop early on quiet Mazzorbo. The terrace at Alla Maddalena was full, mostly with people arriving by water taxi. And they were having the taxi wait while they dined! We only heard one other table speaking English. Seemed to be lots of Italians in the know about this place. Prices are reasonable and it was far more charming than the places we usually eat on Burano. No reservation? Plan on eating inside which is where the walk-ins were escorted.

My delightful lunch at Alla Maddalena, a mixed seafood grill. Ric had lovely grilled eel.

It was a bit of art-focused trip, more so than usual for us. Punctuated by terrific meals and of course lots of walking in one of the world’s greatest cities for wearing off pasta.

Joseph Klibansky bronze turtles entitled “Baby we Made it.”

Newest shopping opportunity in Venezia, T Fondaco dei Tedeschi in a 16th-century building. Can you say high end?

Sunrise on the Grand Canal.

*I am a fiction

Dash across Germany

16 Sep
16 September 2017.
Relatively speaking, that is, we dashed across Germany. Eight-and-a-half hours by train from Amsterdam to München. Seems long, but it is not much slower than flying when you consider time to-and-from airports, security, waiting time, etc. And it is far more relaxing. I’ll take a train over a plane any day. We read, napped, chatted, and snacked. The only challenge was the six-minute change of trains. Six minutes! We had to go from the end of one very long train, down from the platform through the very busy Hannover station, up to another platform, and run several car lengths. We made it about 60 seconds before they closed the doors. Note to self: never let Trainline.eu schedule our connections. Should’ve bought directly from Deutsche Bahn. The price was great, though.

This passed for a snack in first class on our second DB train. Expected beer and pretzels.

Germany wasn’t really in our plan, but we needed to get from Amsterdam to Ortisei and it was not feasible to do in a day by train. I last visited München in 1972, a few weeks before the ill-fated Olympics. Ric had never been. In order to make the most of our time there, we hooked up with Taff Simon (not yet born in 1972, he observed) of Dark History Tours. Taff is an archeologist and life-long student of history. He shared with us not only the highlights of München (Marianplatz, Frauenkirche, Hofbrauhaus, and so on) but afforded us an insider’s view taking us into places big groups would never go. For example, the big meeting room on the top of the Hofbrauhaus where in February 1920 Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists held their first meeting. Taff led us through historic sites related to the rise of the Nazi party and Hitler’s activities in München prior to WWII, and we were also privy to his insights on the culture, the Bavarian royal family (think of the “Kings Ludwig”), and of course beer.
Click on any photo for a larger view and caption.
We visited a bierkeller our first night, but the stand-out meal we enjoyed in München was Lebanese at Baalbek. What a delightful change from pork, red cabbage, and dumplings! Served with fine Lebanese red wine, we could not have been happier. We are also happy to be back in the habit of walking everywhere. A 20-minute walk before and after a dinner like that is so preferable to dropping into a car and carrying your new fat right to bed.
We are now in Ortisei and delighted to be back in Italia. It feels like coming home. Had great weather Friday morning, if cold (32 F/0 C), so we got in a great hike. We had to go buy fleeces: Didn’t pack them as we had not expected such cold to hit already.

 

In Amsterdam, get away from the damn Damrak!

13 Sep
13 September 2017.
Katerina, Deb, and Catherine will be sad to hear I really did not care for Amsterdam: at least until we got away from the damn Damrak. Our first day wandering this bastion of all things commercial I was almost sorry we came to The Netherlands. The Damrak was crowded with trams, buses, bicycles, cars, and clueless pedestrians maneuvering helter-skelter around one another. It is a wonder more people are not taken out by cyclists. The mayor is now actively discouraging tourism and suggesting people go to Rotterdam instead.

Sunday by the Canal, Amsterdam. Locals kick back with coffee and a newspaper.

Amsterdam, awash in tourists and their trappings, does have quiet sectors where one can appreciate the history, the beauty, and the determination of the Dutch. Like other great cities, one must leave the main arterials funneling tourists who have not done their homework and find the neighborhoods where dogs are walked and Sunday papers are read on sunny benches along quiet canals.

Love the old tile work in the Haarlem station. “Washroom First Class.” 

We stayed in Haarlem, which is quite charming and untouristed as far as we could tell this first week of September. At least the only English we heard was from the Dutch who can switch languages in mid-sentence, so used they are to dealing with non-Dutch speakers. We were quite flattered to be mistaken for Dutch a couple of times having used a rudimentary “Morgen” or “Guten Abend,” in greeting. Even Utrecht, a day trip destination for us, seemed to harbor more travelers than Haarlem. It also harbored a terrific railroad museum where we whiled away a couple of rainy hours.

Haarlem is much more laid back. Even cyclists are less intense.

Most mornings, we traveled the 15 minutes to Amsterdam from Haarlem via commuter train with students and workers who had parked their bikes in front of the station in confusing swarms. In the evenings, we traveled “home” with the same crowd, enjoying the feeling of being temporary locals who lived in the small town of Haarlem.
We could walk a few minutes to the Albert Heijn market and try to decipher labels to stock our kitchen. We wandered the back streets of Haarlem and took in the history thanks to an obscure book of walking tours I found. The cafes and restaurants of Haarlem were excellent and frequented by the Dutch, not our own ilk. This endeared us to The Netherlands.
The Van Gogh Museum, though lovely and certainly with an incredible collection of the master’s works, was horribly crowded even on Friday night at dinner time. (My introverted and crowd-avoiding self specifically booked tickets for an evening opening that was said to be less crowded.) To our amazement, the museum was not full of English speakers, but mostly Dutch, with some German and Italian sprinkled in. I guess the American kids hanging around Dam Square had little interest in Vincent.

Rijksmuseum before the masses descend. If you go, get a ticket in advance. I cannot believe how many people miss this simple trick at museums all over Europe.

By contrast, the Rijksmuseum at opening on a Monday morning was accessible. We almost skipped it based on our Van Gogh evening. Proving again that getting out early pays, we sailed in shortly after 9:00 and after a highlights tour returned to the main hall to find a rising tide of people as 10:30 approached. The line for those without advanced tickets was a block long outside when we left at 11:30.
We found the Joordan neighborhood as well as the area around the Stopera and Zoo to be peaceful places to roam on a Sunday morning. Re-emerging in central Amsterdam after wandering the Joordan was startling. Much like walking the Champs Elysees in Paris or making the march from San Marco to the Rialto in Venice, if you do not leave the Damrak, Spui, or Leidseplein, you miss the character of Amsterdam, and getting completely out of Amsterdam allows at least a  glimpse into how people live.

This is half of our Indonesian Rijsttafel.

I did not have high expectations for food. Outside of Italy, it can be a struggle for us to be truly happy with meals, so I must comment on some of our best meals here.
  • We were stunned to discover a truly Italian pizza in Haarlem at Pizzeria Back-to-Basics . The owner, Francesco, is a Neapolitan who came to Haarlem 30 years ago. He produces masterpieces from a tiny wood-fired oven and kibitzed with me in Italian. Even the wine was a good Italian negroamaro. (More on that soon at www.OurWeeklyPizza.com.)
  • Another night we experienced the Indonesian rijsttafel, an experience we’ve not had prior and would not mind repeating. At Restaurant Flamboyant, an array of 12 dishes was not unlike a Lebanese mezza. Each dish presented a different flavor palate from mild to spicy, from sweet to savory. Deep-fried tofu, stewed lamb, tender braised chicken, fried bananas, coconut vegetables, zippy sautéed eggplant: too many to name and each a bit of heaven on the tongue.
  • On a stormy night, we arrived soaking wet and found a cozy yet trendy interior and non-traditional menu at Popocatepetl. Pollo asado was served with sweet potato fries (side of mayo, of course!) and Ric’s birria, a lamb stew, was something we’d not seen before on a Mexican menu. The playlist varied from jazz to Mexican and the hang-out factor was huge. No wonder the place is always crowded with the young Dutch.

Happened upon a wedding party celebrating in a little side street.

We did not get to see as many places in The Netherlands as we had hoped. The weather was terribly unsettled and wet for much of our stay so we did not venture to some of the other spots on my list of possibilities. Funny that we timed this trip so we’d have some warm late summer weather in Northern Europe. September is usually amazing. But watching what happened with hurricanes in the U.S. and downpours flooding Italy, we are feeling pretty darn lucky.
Off to München!

Can you tell why this train is called a “dognose?”

I love the little sheep. If I had room in my luggage I’d place one in our yard at home.

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