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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Final Day in London

It's our final day in London and we spend it with my in-laws, walking to the Tate Britain Gallery first thing in the morning, which turns out to be quite a nice stroll for my father and his walker.
The rest of the Wallace clan has gone to go to Paris for a few days and are due to come back to the London apartment this afternoon.

Rich and I are delighted to discover more of John Constable's paintings at the Tate, which are scattered throughout the Gallery,
and of course, plenty of works by Turner, who donated his paintings to the Tate. Of, course, all of this is free for anyone to enjoy, which still amazes me.

Except for having to give the staff your passport in order to purchase an audio guide (which we decided not to do), the Tate is a terrific, spacious gallery in which to roam and the walk there is so pleasant, too.

After the Tate, we find a really beautiful-looking pub nearby named the White Swan and order fish & chips.
We really wanted a Sunday roast dinner, but they don't serve that here, and we're all starving and not wanting to walk much further. On the way home there are plenty of people enjoying an afternoon pint, many with dogs on their laps.

When we get back to our apartment, the rest of the Wallace crew are there. Cheyenne models the Paris skirt she brought for the trip, complete an Eiffel Tower painted on its hem.

Ben can't wait to show us the pet worm he got from a street performer-- it's a red felt charmer you operate from a string in your pocket and he keeps making it crawl all over my shoulder.

Evie wore her beret all weekend, and bought a pillow with the word,"Paris" on it.

For our last meal, Rich really wants dim sum. The kids and Lynda already had their joyous fill at Harrods a few days before,
so Rich and I head to Chinatown again, to get some even more authentic and for a fraction of the price at New China. We have no idea what we're ordering and eye the tables all around us, then settle on spinach dumplings with prawns (the actual dough is made with spinach and these were really tasty), as well as a barbeque pork buns, Hunan chicken buns and sweet corn and chicken soup which is so flavorful.

I save room for a custard bun (my second favorite dessert next to scones), and this time, I know to peel the wax paper off the bottom instead of eating it.

When we arrive at the London home, I have my final tea in the courtyard of our town house and think how wonderful this trip has been.

Rich says we're going to come back within five years, sometime in August, when the Fringe Festival is on in Edinburgh. The next time, we hope we can bring Rich's grown sons and who knows, maybe their future spouses. It could turn out to be a Wallace trip for 14 people and that would be just fine.

We'll have gained a lot of nous by then. I'll remind Ben about the worm he bought in Paris and the first time we had pizzas with smoked salmon on them before downing salted caramel ice cream. And that we all cried for joy when that street painter finished his imaginary planets, creating them for all to see on the cobblestone streets.

I'll remind Rich of Saint Paul's Cathedral, and how, with the help of a guide named Chris, we learned of its beauty-- those heavenly frescos glistening in the sun during Evensong on an afternoon when it was utterly unexpected, and where Rich's kindred spirit, Sir Albert Sullivan is buried.

I feel a little guilty not expecting that a trip could be this wondrous when there's a whole building carrying a sign that says, Take Courage,
one that's been left unblemished and giving hope since World War 2. Or a towering window next to Westminster Abbey's Choir School For Boys with the last name of MILNE on the door. Staring at us through the window, are some of my favorite childhood friends,
Pooh and Piglet. How could a trip not be wonderful with the two of them around?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Royal Day in London

First thing in the morning we head out in the glorious sunshine to begin our Royal Day-- Rich in his new regal gold jacket and me in my red silk flapper dress. The first stop is the Royal Mews, where the Queen's stables are kept. We're a bit early so we shop at the Palace gift store, where I purchase royal mugs for my mum and sister(the official ones with the gold initials of Catherine & William painted on them that cost 4 times as much as the other mugs). I also grab a tea towel for me with the Buckingham Palace unicorn and lion logo, along with some quilted bags in the official Victoria & Albert floral pattern since they're now my favorite royals. (Did you know all royals have their own patterns? I didn't.)

At the Royal Mews, after getting our bags searched, which is protocol at all royal venues, we opt for the guided tour. We pass two lonely-looking horses-- the only horses of the Queen's we'll see for the rest of the excursion. An eager tourist puts out his hand to touch one of the steeds and gets royally scolded and practically admonished by a curt-lipped employee in a long navy skirt and blazer. We all bristle at the verbal lashing from the woman, who turns out to be our tour guide.

Now, if you like seeing gilded carriages in their garages without the glory of witnessing them in a parade led by Windsor Greys and filled with smiling Royalty, then you'll like the Royal Mews.
But even though I'm an avid horse lover, seeing a bunch of carriages cordoned off in their stalls without animals or people, made them appear like empty hulks, however shiny, and it was disappointing. What brightened our tour, though, was the rare chance that we'd picked the one day of the year when a carriage club rides through Hyde Park.

With the permission of the Queen, the club uses the square in the Mews to prepare, so we did see plenty of beautiful horses (and Windsor greys!) along with lots of wide-brimmed hats and morning suits as the club of wealthy Brits sipped on champagne before setting off on their journey.

We time our tour to finish just before the Changing of the Guard and head outside to the Palace Gates. The throngs of people are more than I'd imagined for the daily guard-changing. "Must be at least 5,000 out here," Rich says to me, holding my hand tighter. We work our way across the street in a mad dash before clambering behind the barricade in front of Victoria's Monument, which is the best vantage-point to catch the band. From what I've read,it's also the most enjoyable part of the ceremony anyhow. And I can't imagine hiking onto Rich's shoulders to peek through the Palace gates in order to catch a glimpse of the guard change. While we wait for the band a friendly Canadian-- a man from Ottawa here with his daughter, takes our picture.

I hear the sound of the musicians approaching and am happy when it crescendos as it gets nearer, drowning out the frantic chatter from the lady beside me, who is trying to block my shot with her camera.
Once the crowd clears, we walk to the Queen's Gallery. I thought I'd love the Mews and just feel sort of tepid about the Gallery, but it turns out to be quite the opposite.

"Make sure you visit the loos," the young lady checking my purse tells us. "They're the nicest in all of London." And I think she must be right. After dabbing some lovely lotion onto my hands in the marble and mahogany-paneled loo, Rich and I head up to the Gallery to view, "Treasures From The Royal Collection," a menagerie of art forms acquired by British kings and queens over the last 500 years.

The domed ceilings and massively-tall hunter green walls of the Royal salons are enough to intrigue me, and make a stunning backdrop for the Sevre porcelain, the Rembrandts and Flemish oil paintings. Some six-foot tall themselves, the pieces are all priceless and owned by the British Monarchy-- the dowry, I suppose of the newest Princess, Catherine.

It's the most manageable and enjoyable collection in a Gallery I've seen-- just 4 rooms joined by glass doors and the British Royal lineage.

I love the collections. In particular, the ones of the Prince Regent, who became George IV, and the most prolific collector of important works in British Royal history. He's filled his salons with paintings by Stubbs, Van Dyck and Rembrandt,and I'm so delighted to discover them through the audio tour, which is included in admission and you must take it if you go. They don't just read what appears on the plaque beneath each painting; Royal curators and art critics literally transport you into the world of King George-to-be: serenading us with music from the century of the paintings we gaze upon, whilst (I couldn't wait for a reason to use that word)listening to the explanation of what makes the pictures so grand, or important.

It's an hour of blissful time-travel-- and a kind of cultural-revolution for me--discovering some startling stories behind the paintings that give me plenty of story ideas. But we must be heading to Rubens, which is across the street from the Royal Mews, where we're booked to have the afternoon tea I've been waiting to enjoy for the past three months.

You have to reserve months ahead to get the window seat for tea at Rubens in the Palace Hotel Lounge, and we sink into the plush cushions of the settee, peering out at the Mews.

"You sure I won't be the only guy doing this?" Rich asks me. "Of course not," I assure him, even though there are two women beside us enjoying the champagne tea and no men in sight. Rich's interest perks up when he eyes the tiered cake stand on display in the window, laden with sweets and scones dripping of chocolate.
"Are those ours or display?" he asks. We wait to find out as our server welcomes us to tea and asks us which pots of tea we'll be having. Since you can have as many as you like, I go for the Earl Grey to start and the pot is about a 5-cupper,poured gingerly into my porcelain teacup through a sterling silver strainer by a smiling young man who says it's their custom blend. It's so fragrant and delicious, I get Rich to try it. He agrees it's the best traditional tea he's ever had, even better than his Rooibos red bush.

We order the Afternoon Tea, which starts off with finger sandwiches. (If you go, make sure to try the chicken salad in the shiny buns they call rolls. They are delicious). Rich kindly asks if he can have some more and eats about four. We raise our teacups to the many sightseers on double-decker buses that stop in front of the Mews and eyeing us with envy, as a pianist entertains the room with show tunes from a baby grand.

I go for the Oriental Sencha tea when the scones arrive, little mini-versions of the ubiquitous fist-sized ones served at all the bakeries--some raisin, others chocolate or plain. I love any dessert that's dense and doughy and these are really special. Almost as good as the Henderson's cherry scones in Edinburgh and much lighter-tasting. We have them with clotted cream, house-made strawberry jam,(which I wish they'd sell. They would make a fortune),and a kind of chocolate-hazelnut butter that Rich slathers his entire scone with.

I nibble on a smoked salmon finger sandwich, my second favorite of the sandwiches, as well as a tomato avocado.Finally, I go back to Earl Grey for the top tier of the cake stand.(We get our own, by the way. Turns out the one in the window is the display.)

The top of our cake stand is devoted entirely to sweets like peanut butter milk chocolate mousse, pineapple custard they call a financier, vanilla cheesecake and what becomes the crowning dessert of the trip-- a red velvet-colored macaroon stuffed with fresh raspberries and infused with rosewater and lychee. It's topped with a single petal from a red rose.

A leisurely two hours later and we're absolutely stuffed and tea-logged but surprisingly, we're the first to leave the lounge. So it is true when they say, "Expect to spend the afternoon when you're at tea in London."

On our way home, a London Bobby on horseback stops traffic. The carriage club is just returning to the Royal Mews from its afternoon in Hyde Park.

But I can't imagine them having a more enjoyable time than Rich and I had at Rubens.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Night At The Museum

July 8

It's a beautiful afternoon in London so we walk to the Victoria & Albert Museum.
They're open late on Fridays, and it seems like its quite the posh thing to do, with a DJ rocking out tunes in the foyer and strobe lights pulsating outside.

After looking at a few of the displays on the main floor
(we really loved the golden Buddha's from 550 AD),we make our way up to the Norfolk Music Room,
where a quartet of musicians playing wind instruments will be performing, courtesy of the Royal College of Music.

It's really exciting seeing a display of Yohji Yamamoto dresses on mannequins next to Emma Vallender, who is playing the oboe in a raw silk brown gown. And all the while, the performances itself is in a stunning music room that once graced St. James palace in the 1750's, channeling the time of Mozart and the salons he played in.

In fact, the first piece the quartet plays is Mozart. Emma is so into it, her toes start peeking out of her full length dress and they're painted blue, just like the dresses of so many royals we see in portraits here in the Museum. The free concert transports us through the ages from Mozart, to French modern composer Jean Rivier.

Even though we're sitting in an 18th century palatial room, it all seems modern somehow, and the musicians themselves are so hip and passionate, working themselves into a pink-cheeked hour of classical music that's so good, it should be recorded.

After a standing ovation, we spot the saxophonist on the elevator dressed head -to-toe in leather as he heads home on his motorcycle.

We don't want to leave just yet, so we walk around the museum, past courtly costumes
and a cluster of gigantic foo dogs.
Then we discover another artist that we like quite by accident, while viewing some botanicals. His name is John Constable.
A colleague of J.W. Turner's, Constable, who never traveled outside of England, found all he needed in his home in the Stour Valley.
We are mesmerized by the pastoral scenes of his home region, which he painted in the mid 1800's.

We walk back home passing the Harrod's doormen, then onto Sloane Street where Peugots and Bentleys are parked along tree-lined townhomes as big as our entire street at home in New Hampshire, then finally, into our neighborhood where a local Thai restaurant is still open.

We order pad see ew and prawns with red peppers in garlic sauce along with jasmine rice, which is served in a copper bowl. We polish off the delicious entrees chatting about our cultural evening.I can't imagine an excursion going any better than this one, and yet tomorrow we have an entire day of royalty planned, and the weather calls for nothing but sunshine.

Monday, August 8, 2011

LONDON DAY 9, July 8th

Our first Friday in London was a bit of a wet one, as the showers lingered from the night before. But we're determined to visit Westminster Abbey with my in-laws. My father-in-law needs a walker to get around, so we take a taxi to the Abbey first thing in the morning.
There are two long cues on either side of the entranceway, which is a bit confusing, but after 20 minutes in line, a guard spots us with my father-in-law and ushers us in. I must say, the Abbey's pretty crowded so it's difficult to get a good look. With very little light inside on a gloomy day, even the Waterford crystal chandeliers gifted by the Guinness family, however wonderful, don't provide much illumination.

"It's over two thousand years old," Rich reminds me,"don't expect it to have the kind of lighting that we're used to." I know he's right, but after the mystical experience at St. Paul's, which was so unexpected, I've set my sights quite high for the Abbey, which some say is even more exciting to tour than St. Paul's.
At first a Catholic monastery until the fifteen century, the monks were soon banished and sent to France.
Recently, incredible Catholic murals that resemble icons have been discovered on the walls near Poet's & Writer's Corner and are being restored.
We wait to take a guided tour, and of course, I'm anticipating another Chris to enlighten us with lots of tidbits and behind-the-scene gems like in St. Paul's, but it doesn't happen. The many little chapels where paintings and tombs are kept are so crowded, we're ushered in single file and told to keep moving, with no time to linger.
Regardless, seeing the Abbey and being surrounded by such history up-close is worthwhile, even if the Italian tour group races to get to a chapel before we do. Having been a royal wedding watcher since I was a child, it's thrilling to follow the same checkered-tiled path that the former Kate Middleton took toward the altar, and walking around the Victoria Cross where she left her royal bouquet to the unknown soldier.
Then our guide unhooks a rope around the altar, the high altar where Kate and Prince William were married and tells us to follow him. Follow him? Up to the hallowed altar we all saw on TV and where only Prince Harry and the Bishop or whoever it was that married them, were allowed to be on?
This is amazing. Then our guide opens the door on the screen behind the altar, where Kate and Prince William and the Queen and Prince Charles stepped through after the ceremony. "Come on!" he tells us. So now we're not only traipsing across the floor of the high altar,(no wonder Kate was a bit nervous, I would have been terrified, as the only bright light in the entire Abbey is shining down on us), but we're going through the doorway and into the shrine.

"It's like we're behind-the-scenes in a museum where only the curators go," I whisper to Rich. In this shrine, kings from the past 10 centuries are buried and it's here where princes are signed into kings, just a few feet from where they might be buried. We walk along the rugged chapel floor set in 1268, careful not to crumble up too much dust. Being amongst these royal tombs where the bones of such kings as Edward I lie,(he had his coronation here, too, in 1296), is both exhilarating and eerie and certainly brings history into the present moment. It's as if the last thousand years of British life are literally at your feet.

"All the royal tombs are full," our guide informs us. "The last one buried here was King George in 1760." But I'm still stuck on King Edward I and his massive gilded bronze tomb; he was said to be six foot four. I can't really describe it, but the shrine actually smells like history- a mixture of moss and marble that's weathered thousands of years of living, coupled with musty cobwebs, bones and incense. And all around are ancient tapestries and the scent of burlap and really old dust. It's not a place I'd like to get locked into over night, but it's hard to tear myself away. I've never been beside bones this old-- or surrounded by such a long and consecutive line of humanity--in this case, the British Royal family.

The number of Royals and well-known British icons buried in the Abbey is astounding, from Mary Queen of Scots (she's in the South Chapel and you must go and see her), to Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters, each with marble busts or tombs to mark their importance. I'll always remember the likeness that Mary's son King James I made of her on the tomb, with her long and regal marble fingers, Elizabethan collar and wavy locks-- erasing any image of her beheading-- how she appears to be sleeping peacefully when her life was such a tortured one.

Part of the Abbey is "open air" on the way to the gardens, which were closed,
and also en route to the gift shop, which leads to the display of the Royal Wedding. The little exhibit has many stunning photographs that are nearly life-size.

By the time our tour ends we're starving and just a short walk from The Albert, where my father-in-law can have roast beef.
Rich and I enjoy a second round of carvery bliss then decide that tonight, we'll head to the Victoria & Albert Museum, for their late night Friday, and see the concert performed by the Royal Conservatory.