A LONDON ESCAPE PACKED WITH CULTURE AND FUN

by Francoise Yohalem and Mary Gallagher with photos by Mary Gallagher

The end of winter-early spring is a great time to journey to London. After my not visiting for more than two decades, an irresistible travel bargain with Virgin Vacations for a 4 day week-end lured me back to this exciting city. Although Mary visits frequently, she never turns down another opportunity! The end of March weather was much better than we expected and flowering trees in St. James Park were at least 3 weeks ahead of Washington’s cherry blossoms. There also seemed to be few tourists competing for Londoners’ graciousness, a blessing in such a popular destination.

It’s difficult to pick and choose what to do over a long weekend with such rich eclectic selections throughout the city. As experienced travelers or by trusting dumb luck, we didn’t believe in having the trip too tightly planned in advance. The basic strategy was to see as many museums as we could manage, walk-walk-walk, experience the diversity of the city and shop in the unconventional and exotic street markets rather than expensive stores. On top of Mary’s list was High Tea at the Ritz and for me the new Tate Modern museum. Other cultural experiences would be determined by circumstances, mood, weather and energy level!

Perusing several well known guide books on the flight, hands down the best and most workable turned out to be London for Less – published by Metropolis International based in London and readily available in the US. The sites and attractions were organized in the most logical manner, by area, with the pages color coded in a group for each section of the city. Easy to read with enough information to help but not overwhelm. They include a card offering extensive discounts for restaurants, attractions and more. The books heavy duty plastic cover provided a sleeve for an excellent separate city map. Metropolois has a variety of guides for Paris and other cities, we would certainly buy them again.

Our Virgin-Atlantic Captain Another part of our agreed plan was to follow a somewhat limited budget “generally” by eating in reasonable ethnic restaurants, using public transportation and not buying souvenirs! Actually that was to save up for the splurges. The rather unfavorable exchange rate for the American dollar easily helped decided a number of these issues for us.

After a smooth and wonderful flight with the highly professional and competent Virgin crew, great food – that was a surprise- Heathrow continued the mood with an efficiently organized friendly welcome. The British are always so proper.

By 11:00 a.m. we had checked into the beautiful and historic Landmark Hotel in Marylebone, the West End neighborhood, across from the Marylebone metro stop and one of a multiple of hotel options available through our Virgin Vacation package.

The Landmark opened originally as the Great Central Hotel in 1899 and is one of the last of the great Victorian railway hotels. Originally it was designed around a vast central courtyard that allowed horse drawn carriages to deposit guests directly into the heart of the property. During the roaring twenties this area was transformed into a dance floor and today is the soaring eight story glass roofed atrium with palms and other foliage – now the Winter Garden.

Our quiet and extremely large interior room with sitting area and desk overlooked the atrium and was freshly decorated in a soft pleasing palette and featured every amenity. The bathing, dressing and toilet area were each separated and especially well laid out for two people sharing a room.

Another perk of Virgin Vacations generous package was the airport to city transfer. Our van driver, a native Londoner, who had a great knowledge and love of his city, strongly recommended we visit his favorite museum: The Wallace Collection, located within a few blocks of our hotel.

Somewhat tired but wanting to get into the new sleep pattern and invigorated by the exciting sights and sounds, we walked along Baker St. and stopped for lunch around a corner on Dorset Street at the cozy Italian Ristorante Anacapri, one of London’s more than 11,000 restaurants. Here we enjoyed a appetizing three course lunch that included a wonderful pate, relish plate, choice of fourteen different pastas and glass of wine for a very reasonable $12.00. Certainly not the “outlandish prices” we had been told to expect. We were fooled and did eat the bread forgetting that frequent European custom of charging extra for bread even when it is placed on your table or perhaps it was really a “cover” charge on the bill! Meanwhile the lunch, staff and owner were delightful and we were quite pleased.

The Wallace Collection was quite an experience for even these weary travelers. Imagine New York’s Frick Collection with 100 times more treasures! This national museum, now free like all other London City museums, is located in a perfectly proportioned town house built in the 18th century facing an elegant classical residential square.

The bulk of the collection was acquired in the 19th century by the third and fourth Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace. Most of the twenty-five galleries are filled – floor to ceiling – with great French 18th century paintings, sculpture, furniture and porcelain, together with Old Master paintings. The museum boasts the largest collection, anywhere, of French bronzes from the 16th to 19th century, watercolours by Richard Parkes Bonington and an exceptional wealth of Medieval and Renaissance works of art. Four of the galleries are filled with arms and armor.

The museum has an active side including special days when costumed historical interpreters gamble, flirt and carouse in the galleries. Visitors can join Comtesse de Beaune at the gaming tables! There are free guided tours, family activities, join the conservators to “wind the clocks” and many special study day opportunities. One could easily spend three days in this treasure-filled home and return on a regular basis but we only had three hours.

Fighting jet lag, we decided to return to the hotel by walking through the neighborhood’s lovely residential streets, enjoying rows of elegant town houses with elaborate ornamental balconies and multicolored flower plantings at their entrances. Around one corner, we spotted Selfridges and mustered the little energy we had left to do “comparative merchandise evaluation” but no serious shopping. They had so many places to buy espresso, Mary was panting so I finally gave in and we enjoyed a cup while gazing at wonderful contemporary furniture and several displays of vintage clothing, jewelry and other collectibles.

After a nap, we had a quiet outstanding dinner in the beautiful dining courtyard of the Landmark. A particularly nice touch of dining here is the piano player up on the first balcony playing popular classics from every period and the gentle sounds float throughout the giant open space.

My roasted Gressingham duck breast with a sauté of foie gras and Mary’s Angus beef rib eye were consumed with gusto and we only had a little space left to “test” the Tempura of exotic fruits with coconut dip for dessert. The fine food, prepared from quality ingredients, ambience of seemingly dining in a garden under the stars plus professional service provided a pleasurable finish to an easy flight and our first action packed day.

The next morning after a bountiful buffet breakfast at the Landmark, we each purchased week-end Travelcards (less than $20.00 each) that allowed travel anywhere throughout Greater London, using the underground or the city buses. The system has several varieties of cards for one day or longer time periods of travel. To avoid waiting in lines, it is more efficient and a better value to buy a card that fits your visit. Because this tube – subway – metro system is over 100 years old the stops are wonderfully frequent and often several can place you within blocks of your destination.

Since the implementation of a fee for cars to enter the city, traffic is somewhat more manageable but not always. Road and other construction projects created jams on some streets and at one point we jumped off the double-decker bus and were able to walk to Trafalgar Square quicker. The Central line of the underground has been out of service for a few months and that made occasional roundabout changes in what could have been a direct route.

Riding the Jubilee Line, we arrived at the Tate Modern, situated in Southwark on the south bank of the Thames not far from London Bridge, as they opened at 10am. Arts organizations and alternative exhibition spaces are moving into this changing neighborhood undergoing radical urban renewal and one of the benefits of the Queens anniversary is a wonderful paved walkway “The Queens Way” or the Millennium Mile along the river.

Located in a fascinating historic area and next to the famous rebuilt Globe Theater, the Tate Modern, one of four Tate museums, opened in 2000 in the amazingly transformed Bankside Power Station. There are photos of the building with its original interior and just thinking of cleaning it, to start, is awesome.

The spare dramatic setting already attracts more than 2 million visitors a year by displaying the greatest collection of international 20th century art in Britain. Organized in a non-conventional approach, the collection presents the art of the last hundred years in four themed sections.

In addition to its first-class permanent collection, the Tate Modern offered several excellent temporary exhibits, including the awe-inspiring site-specific installation by Anish Kapoor that fills its enormous Turbine Hall. It is so large that a total photo is impossible and standing underneath certain areas seems a bit like being inside “living skin”.

After a coffee pause at the museum’s café, we walked across the Thames on the new elegant and slick (safe at last!) Millennium bridge, quite a contrast to the Medieval-looking Tower Bridge nearby. We landed on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of the old City and swung into a conveniently located tourism office to load up on brochures.

While waiting for one of the famous red double-decker busses to take us on to the Ritz for high tea, a British mother with teenage daughters asked Mary for directions and then was mortified and amused to hear her American accent giving the precise location of their destination. She seems to have a way of assimilating into any culture.

Located in the heart of London with views along Piccadilly to Hyde Park Corner, Piccadilly Circus to the other and spectacular views over the Royal Gardens of Green Park towards Buckingham Palace, makes just approaching the Ritz wonderful. Gazing down the Long gallery from the reception foyer your view is unrestricted – straight through to the other end of the hotel. In that distance, you can catch a glimpse out the huge Restaurant windows of the hotels Italian Garden.

Due to security issues, no portion of the hotel is open to visitors just wanting to wander through on a whim or take a photo or two. Guests staying at the hotel (95 rooms, 38 suites), having tea or a meal are welcome and provide the only way to get a glimpse of the splendid interior of this magnificent French Renaissance property. Although there is also a very popular casino on a lower level.

Built in 1906 by hotelier Cesar Ritz with French architect Charles Mewes, the seven story Ritz was inspired by the chateaus of France and was the first important large steel frame building in London. This style of construction allowed for a previously unknown open spaciousness and the ability to use very large windows. Not all of its almost 100 years had been kind but now after six years and sixty million dollars in a total and faithful restoration, its Belle Epoque glamour and legendary status is retained for future guests and admirers.

The Palm Court offers a spectacular grandiose setting for tea. Complete with marble steps, a mirrored back drop, light streams from the glazed roof, gilded plasterwork, ornate columns, charming sculpture and loads of green plants.

We enjoyed the spirited waiters – who doubled as photographers as every table seemed to be celebrating a special occasion – and felt quite elegant and spoiled while savoring our “Tea-for-Two” tray of never ending delectable finger sandwiches –smoked salmon was our favorite and luscious scones and pastries. We at tasted everything with seconds on quite a few! Here is where Mary enhanced her reputation well beyond daily gallons of espresso coffee (and still sleeping at night) to include slathering entire pots of clotted cream on everything! Actually she didn’t come to London for the culture just the clotted cream!

Each month, the Ritz Restaurant, the Rivoli Bar and the Palm Court feature a special salute to the season and holidays with unique dining creations. As an example, a five course lunch is offered for Mothering Sunday (similar to our Mothers Day) and mothers are presented with a gift by the restaurant manager. Reading through the various menu options made it a true temptation to stay for dinner or return for the very popular dining and dancing in the stunning Restaurant on Friday and Saturday evenings.

The Ritz provides three tea services seven days a week at 1:30pm, 3:30pm or 5:30pm. Reservations are a must and should be made well in advance. Our tea was ?29 per person and another option includes champagne. A formal dress code is observed with no jeans or exercise clothing allowed. Men are required to have jackets and ties. This legendary splurge “Putting on the Ritz” in the footsteps of histories rich and famous amply sufficed as our evening meal! Truly every rooms is a movie set.

After the Ritz, I immersed myself in the wonders of a stupendous “Aztecs” exhibit, receiver of rave reviews, at the Royal Academy of Arts, located since 1837 in the nearby Burlington House. The 250-year old RA is one of my favorite museums in London. It has an exciting program of major exhibitions including, in the summer, an often controversial annual showcase of contemporary art. There is a large comprehensive gift shop and pleasant restaurant. Once again, as we experienced over and over in London, all the exhibits of this monumental museum, available just on this particular day, were beyond my viewing capacity and would require a lifetime of faithful attendance.

Francoise, Mary and Maria Theresa at the Landmark Hotel Meanwhile, Mary – already slightly museum-ed out, elected instead to explore the street markets, Fortnum and Mason and the atmosphere around this colorful Piccadilly neighborhood. The food hall at Fortnum and Mason is best to visit after oneRoasted Scottish Salmon at the Landmark has eaten!

Back to the Landmark for a quick rest and dinner with our old friend Maria Theresa Hernandez, an outstanding fiber artist and teacher who has moved back to London after years in the states. Once again we enjoy the hospitality of the Landmark and shared a unique goat cheese brulee starter and the freshest Caesar salad with real anchovies and whole wheat croutons. Entrees encompassed Sea bass and roasted Scottish salmon while we caught up on all the art news from both sides of the Atlantic.

The next morning we hopped into one of the famous Black London taxi’s for a quick trip to our next hotel, the Montague on the Gardens at Russell Square. A member of the deluxe Red Carnation Hotel Group, the Montague is located a block from the British Museum in a quiet area of the Bloomsbury neighborhood within walking distance of the theater and restaurant district. We enjoyed crossing through lovely Russell Square to reach nearby underground stations (three are within a five minute walk: Russell Square, Holborn and Tottenham Court) feeling perfectly safe in the neighborhood day or evening.

The hotel is tastefully and sumptuously decorated in a style that makes you feel like the treasured guest at a wonderful Victorian manor home. Many of the beautifully furnished public rooms overlook a block long, secluded garden belonging to a Lord across the way. On some special occasions, he will allow the use of this area for a garden party. There is a more than adequate modern fitness center on the lower level to help get the jet lag kinks out.

All the guest rooms (93 with 11 suites) in this historic property are decorated with period antiques, flowery fabrics, and although some are small they are efficiently arranged to include every amenity. Subtle details like a historic frieze, running at chair rail level around the gracious dining-room, depicting a stunning panoramic view of the Port of London of long ago, Deep red walls and open cabinets of tastefully chosen antiques continue the theme through the various lounges.

The intimacy of the property, even the composition and presentation of your plates at meals are subtleHot Breakfast Choices reminders that you are immersed in a conspirational soothing comfort that comes from a genuine thoughtful concern to provide service to all who visit.

The entire staff is very professional, courteous, friendly and seems to communicate any questions or assistance a guest may need through out their ranks. No need to constantly repeat you question. Families with children of all ages were treated very well here.

We enjoyed some of the best meals of our trip in the Blue Door Bistro, all beautifully served on period dinnerware. The buffet breakfasts are substantial with classic selections of hot and cold entrees with many side choices. The pastries were this dieter’s downfall!

A nightcap in the Terrace Bar continued our “to the manor born” feeling and live jazz is on some evenings. We were told that the cocktails concocted here are famous all over London!

A special pre-theater menu in the Montague’s Blue Door Bistro included a traditional “fish-and-chips” dinner and it was great with huge quantities of fresh batter fried white fish, crispy fries – not at all grease laden as I remembered from pubs a longtime ago. Also a testament to this kitchen abilities. We all three had it as our entrée even newly minted Londoner Maria Theresa!

We were hoping for a really warm day to sit on the rear decks or as a fine alternative take tea in either of the two conservatories overlooking the gardens. Her is the perfect place to enjoy Traditional Afternoon Tea or dessert and coffees after the theatre. High Tea and Cream Tea are served at The Montague which is a member of the Tea Council Guild of Teashops. Unfortunately in an effort to see all that one could cram into each day, Mary had to be content with scones and clotted cream with her dinner one evening much to the surprise of a very proper waiter. But he managed to find it in the kitchen and she ate every crumb.

Duke of YorksOff to the theatre and as it was raining, we took a taxi to the historic 65 seat, Duke of Yorks Theatre on St. Martins Lane, in the heart of the theater district, near Leicester Square. The performance was long-running Irish play “Stone in your Pockets” a humorous take on the Hollywood film industry coming to rural Ireland.

The theater, designed in 1892 by Walter Emden and originally named Trafalgar Square, was renamed the Duke of York’s three years later when a letter was received “indicating” that the future King George V was desirous of the name change. This stage has seen many notable events including the inaugural flight of Peter Pan in 1904, Equity was founded here in 1920, and Puccini was inspired to write Madame Butterfly after attending a performance of David Belasco’s play of the same name. Regularly heard is the theatre’s ghost: a female figure dressed in black said to be ‘Madame’ the wife of the first owner, slamming shut a door every night around ten.

Theater goers were allowed to bring drinks and snacks back into their seats after the intermission, this was certainly a new take for us.

After the performance, the rain had stopped and it was a beautiful night so we decide to stroll back to the Montague only slightly veering off course but the streets are busy with theater and club goers and they were happy to point us in the correct direction.

Early the next morning, we pop onto the tube to Camden Town to experience this world-famous market sprawling all along Camden High Street and into side alleys and passageways. Once a rather shabby and exclusively bohemian/artistic neighborhood has now become a trendy destination for everyone from families to skinheads. Thanks to Mary’s spiky red hair and our black leather jackets we blend right in. Most of the shops, whether crowded tented stalls, carved out interior spaces in large warehouses or along the streets, have an ethnic twist. This is probably London’s most cosmopolitan meeting place with many craft outlets, world music, vintage clothing and the Stables Antique Market. Both the wide array of merchandise and the colorful accoutrements of the people around us make for a total sensory experience!

To escape the crowds, one can stroll along the Regent’s Canal to Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill. We enjoyed an excellent inexpensive lunch in a small Middle Eastern cafe. By mid-afternoon the sidewalks are packed and the crowd is reminiscent of the famous Kings Road of the 60’s and 70’s but not quite as many glowing orange and green Mohawk haircuts!

It’s time for us to move on and experience another facet of London via the pristine new light rail system to the Docklands. Here is the “new London”, a fast-growing development in the East End of the city that has become a fashionable business Mecca and a 21st century river-city with expensive lofts, shops, and restaurants along Butler’s Wharf. An extensive underground mall is crowded with shoppers looking at domestics, shoes, jewelry everything you would expect in a suburban mall plus a large grocery store.

In the heart of this 71-acre site is Canary Wharf, on the Isle of Dogs, dominated by Canady Towers the tallest office building in the U.K. designed by Cesar Pelli. We walk around the glossy public spaces outside and in the complex, discovering a collection of stellar works of art installed around elegant piazzas and lobbies, courtesy of the Canary Wharf Group. This is certainly a long way from Camden Town and the traditional West End of the City! What used to be a dilapidated wasteland surrounded by water has become “Post-Millennium London” and is growing fast.

After wandering above and below ground, we think we’re hopping on the light rail but it turns out to be the Jubilee Line housed in a new large open station. In its early stages, Canary Wharf had no mass transit access and this slowed development. Now with the tube stop and light rail it’s boom time again.

Mary had used the half price ticket booths at Leicester Square on previous trips to London so we planned to meet up with Maria Theresa and shoot for a number of show possibilities. Unfortunately like half price outlets in many cities, we should have stopped early in the afternoon. All of our first choices are sold out and we opt for a long leisurely dinner and conversation in a lively inexpensive Indian restaurant. The square is jumping with people, crowding in and out of theaters, restaurants, and pubs. Making our way to the ever convenient tube, Maria Theresa goes back to her home and we are just a few stops to the Montague.

Sunday morning: the weather is grey but dry and we decide to metro to Hyde Park and walk to Marble Arch. Early signs of spring enhance the wide path and we mingle with a happy crowd pushing baby carriages, jogging and enjoying the end of winter. At Speaker’s Corner, a wise scholarly-looking woman perched on a chair gesticulates animatedly as she delivers an anti Bush/Blair harangue that gets mixed response from the crowd. We were hoping for more excitement and speakers but it was a little early in the day. Apparently some presenters like to sleep in on Sunday morning!

Our last day starts with another museum visit and we take the tube to South Kensington to visit the Victoria and Albert, fondly known as the V & A, the greatest decorative arts museum in the world. Again free admission and we sign up for the free orientation tour for an “educated glimpse” into the huge holdings of the 76 miles of galleries. The British Galleries alone include some 3,000 exhibits telling the story of British design from the 16th to the 20th century.

There are important collections of Indian art, Islamic art, Renaissance sculpture, and the Queen’s collection of cartoons by Raphael. The V & A also has the best museum shop and a very decent cafeteria. They have many programs every day and special family events for weekends and holidays. All the British Museums have web sites that allow you to view their exhibits and also sign up for their newsletters. There is an Art Deco exhibit coming up here soon that will likely be worth the cost of flying back on one of Virgins most reasonable packages to London.

The last evening, Mary explores by one of her favorite ways to tour a city, riding multiple buses from one end of their line to another, then shopping the lively streets of Charing Cross Road with at stop at Foyles “the worlds greatest and last independent bookshop” plus a few used CD shops. Next to Euston station she makes a wonderful discovery of the new British Library building, catching a few exhibits, fifty years of hit music and a snack.

I visit Maria Theresa’s new condominium in a multi-cultural working-class neighborhood way east of the city. Traveling by underground and a train and a perfectly safe late evening return to our hotel. This has been an intense but wonderful “time flying by” visit and we are already planning to take advantage of the next Virgin-Atlantic travel bargain to London!

As you’ll note below many public facilities in London are accessible for persons with disabilities. There are also specific guidebooks available. Please check with the London Tourism office or the specific site you’re interested in visiting for details.

Sources in order of mention:

www.virginvacations.com
Virgin Airlines
Call the helpful reservations department at: 1-888-YES-VIRGIN
For Air Only bookings please call
1-800-253-8649.

London for Less Guide Book
available through mail order in the U.S. by
calling toll-free 1-888-463-6753 (1-888-GO-FOR-LESS).
Outside the U.S. call 1-937-846-1411.
www.for-less.com

The Landmark Hotel
222 Marylebone Road
London NW1 6JQ
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7631 8000
Fax: +44 (0)20 7631 8080
Reservations@thelandmark.co.ul
Website: www.landmarklondon.co.uk

Ristorante Anacapri
Dorset Street half block off Baker
London W.1.
Tel: 0207 935 6441

The Wallace Collection
Hertford House
Manchester Square
London W1U 3BN
Tel: 020 7563 9500
www.wallacecollection.org
Disability access information contact access@wallacecollection.org
Free. Facility includes Café and gift shop.

Tate Modern
Bankside
London SE1 9TG
Information 020 7887 8000 (international +44 20 7887 8000)
Recorded information:
020 7887 8008 (international +44 20 7887 8008)
Southwark (Jubilee Line) and Blackfriars (District and Circle Lines) are the closest underground stations both of which are approximately ten minutes walk away www.tate.org.uk

The Ritz London
150 Piccadilly
London WIJ 9BR
Tel: 0207 493 8181
Fax: 0207 493 2687
Toll free from the US 1 877 748 9536
www.theritzlondon.com
Tea reservations can be made online.

Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington House
Piccadilly, London W1JoB0
Tel: 020 7300 8000/ 8001 Fax
www.royalacademy.org.uk
Disability access information contact education@royalacademy.org.uk

The Montague on the Gardens
15 Montague Street
Bloomsbury London WC1B 5BJ
t: +44 (0) 20 7637 1001
f: +44 (0) 20 7637 2516
Reservations: +44 (0) 20 7958 7731
In the US: 1 877 955 1515
www.montaguehotel.com
www.redcarnationhotels.com

Duke of York’s Theatre
St Martin’s Lane, WC2
Ticket hotline 020 7369 1771
Tickets can be purchased on line at:
www.theambassadors.com/atg/venues/index.html

Victoria and Albert Museum
Cromwell Road
South Kensington
London SW7 2RL
Underground: South Kensington (Piccadilly, District and Circle lines).
Buses: C1, 14 and 74 stop outside the Cromwell Road entrance.
www.vam.ac.uk

The British Library
95 Euston Road
London NW1 2D8
www.bl.uk

Go Further Guide – London Tourist Board
800 520 8719
London Tourist Board’s website www.visitlondon.com

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