London Sojourn

I mentioned in earlier blogs that Charles, my husband and travelling companion, flies gliders. The weather in Florida is not always great for gliding in January so we continue our travel chapter at this time of year usually to distant locales. This year it was my choice, as I have always wanted to go to South Africa and commune with the wild animals.

I prefer to break up long flights with a stop on the way, and London beckoned, as there is a non-stop on British Air from Orlando to Gatwick. If I possibly can, I do a multi-city trip, which always proves to be far less expensive especially if you are flying Business Class. I wrote earlier about this option (see Lists: Bucket or otherwise) https://suddenly70.ca/2016/08/01/lists-bucket-or-otherwise. It proved the perfect place to stop for a few days before our night flight to Cape Town.

Although I used a travel professional for the South Africa part, I planned our London visit after much time on the internet, and communicating with friends for their advice about hotels, restaurants and culture, as London has a plethora of all these.

The flight was splendid even though Charles noticed he left his backpack on the shuttle bus from the car park when we were checking in. Not serious though, it only had his meds, computer, and camera in it. I was very calm,  and just sat and waited by the entrance door to the air terminal. Fortunately the driver had it.Sigh.

We then visited the newly opened British Airways lounge and finally enjoyed a wonderful flight to London. We both slept and somewhat refreshed met Jitu Patel, an old friend and driver, of my sister-in-law, Jane, who spends a great deal of time in London. It is a longish trek in traffic from Gatwick to London Centre so it was great to have this interesting man take us to our hotel.

I had chosen The Haymarket Hotel, which is a boutique style, elegant dwelling in the centre of London on a quiet street a few blocks from Trafalgar Square. It has a terrific coffee bar near the lobby and a beautiful swimming pool in the basement. The room overlooked The Theatre Royal Haymarket, and we could sense the excitement of the area. The bathroom not only had a huge bathtub, and separate shower, but heated towel racks. The air definitely felt fresh in London as it was January, and we had just arrived from Orlando.

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Dog-themed bar in Haymarket Hotel

We both had our raincoats, umbrellas in our pockets, gloves, and I had a fuzzy wool headband to keep my ears warm. We started walking and must have walked 20 miles during our 4 days there. Good shoes or boots are a must. I also wore a small leather jacket under my coat and wrapped a scarf around my neck. I was ready for almost anything in the weather department.

Charles in the rain and wonderful London sites

That first afternoon we ate delicious fish soup at Brasserie Zedel, a stunning, energetic, art nouveau gastro pub. All was well. This was just the beginning of wonderful meals that we shared. After lunch we got our bearings and started to enjoy the bustling neighborhood where we were situated. When the rain started we headed back to our room, I had my bath and Charles his nap and then a glass of wine in the bar.

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First London lunch Brasserie Zedel

It was Saturday night and we were headed to the famed Wolesley restaurant for dinner and were given a terrific spot on a banquette where I could view all the fascinating diners in the high ceilinged room. I had Wiener schnitzel with an egg on top, and Charles had the winner, a delicious curry. Tired, after our flight, walk and food, we headed back to the hotel for some tea and a good sleep. I should mention that I had pre-booked all our dinner reservations before we left America, as London is busy every night. I got suggestions from friends in Toronto and new acquaintances in London, and used my own intuition after reading reviews on the Internet.

We woke to sunshine! After a coffee and juice in the little hotel bar we headed out to the Goya Exhibit at the National Gallery. Before I travel I check out what’s on in a city in the arts, be it music or visual art, and I discovered that we were still in time for this exhibit and bought tickets online, as it turned out to be sold out when we arrived. It was incredible particularly because I have always thought of Goya in a certain blood and guts way, but these portraits, especially the eyes of the subjects, were a revelation, and you could see the development of the artist as the years progressed. You might enjoy reading the review that I have attached in the link to Goya.

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Canada House near our hotel

Almost around the corner from the National Gallery is the Portrait Gallery and I had been told that they do a smashing lunch. Again, pre-booked, as this was a Sunday. We sat by a window where we could view the rooftops of London and wore sunglasses while we ate because the sun was shining in our faces. No blinds here as sun is rare. The full lunch included cured salmon, Lancashire cheese and yellow beet pie for me, roast beef for Charles, preceded by gnocchi with oxtail and berries on top. Pomegranate Bellini’s for me and wine for Charles completed the meal. Then we wandered through the gallery and left to walk many more miles around Trafalgar Square hoping to lose the pounds gained at lunch.

Portrait Gallery lunch in the sun and the view

It was sunny but also very chilly, and I was looking forward to a long hot bath. Not to be. For some mysterious reason the hot water tap turned off in the middle of filling. We eventually got it sorted. The pool although stunning, was cool as well, but bracing as they say, and the films that were playing on the wall kept me entertained while I shivered through my exercise.

Sunday evening we were invited to the home of new friends that we had met in New Zealand the January before. They are delightful people, very knowledgeable about everything. She is a retired BBC Interviewer/Host and he is involved in television production and a great lover of opera.

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Meringues and a lovely after dinner moment with our host

Their townhouse in Westminster is stunning and exudes warmth. We started with champagne and smoked salmon and then Sue made a simply delicious Ottolenghi chicken dish with honey, nuts and rose water. Rice, salad, claret, cognac and then a tour de force dessert of meringues with pistachios and fresh fruit completed this incredible home cooked feast. The dining room is on the bottom floor of their house with a giant Aga stove, and the dining table made for the room can seat 14, a must when you have 8 grandchildren. Lovely new very hospitable friends. I could have discussed opera with Hugh all evening.

Monday arrived cool and cloudy. I had my swim, crazy as I am, and then we headed off to Charles’ choice, The Churchill War Rooms. Charles loves history and I thought I would just humour him and go, but I had to be dragged out of there after three hours of absorption. The exhibit is heart rending and informative. I learned so much about the war and Churchill and stood crying during the films of his funeral. This is certainly worth a visit. Then we walked more miles and thought about what we had seen and decided a nice Dim Sum would be appropriate for our lunch. We went to Soho where we found Yataucha. Delicious and creative food, even if the tables and chairs were built for very tiny people. Then we walked back to the hotel with our iPhones guiding us, very long walk, and very cold.

Incredible War Rooms and pastural scene outside

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Yataucha dim sum desserts

We went to see a double bill of plays in the evening with the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company at the Garrick Theatre. Dinner was planned for after. Harlequinade a very frothy farce starring Branagh was preceded by a one woman show called All on Her Own starring the inimitable Zoe Caldwell. Both plays were a delight. We then walked from the theater to find our restaurant choice for the evening called J. Sheeky Atlantic Bar. Sounded fun, but I thought the name was Cheeky and we did a lot of wandering and asking and checking with google, but finally found it a few steps from the theatre and it was terrific, very old London, and the oysters were delicious., despite the fact that Charles teased me, and I giggled about the mistake.

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Riki and friends

More walking back to the hotel for a good night of sleeping. The next day we went to the Courthauld Gallery, which is impressive and part of the Courthault Institute. We went primarily because there was a gliding exhibit, but it turned out to be disappointing. The art on the other hand and the environment was charming, and we ate lunch there well actually at Somerset House at Tom’s Kitchenknown for their homey food. We had fish pies. Cozy little appealing room, and a large terrace used in summer.

A young couple in the Courthauld and the view beyond
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Pub pleasure in the cold

We then walked off lunch (there is a theme here) and went on a tour of Westminster Abbey which was awe inspiring and informative. We had wanted to go for a ride on The London Eye, but it was closed for service, and like two nutty tourists we took a boat ride on the Thames and froze because we chose to sit outside. We also decided we could walk back to the hotel miles away and I went on a search for a pub where I could have a cognac and warm up. We found a typical one on some small street and sat at the bar and engaged the publican in conversation. Once he knew we were Canadians he was full of stories. I convinced Charles to take a taxi back to the hotel.

The Eye and the hustle of a London street

Naps over, we prepared for our evening adventure at The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. I had booked excellent seats months ahead through our friend, Hugh, who is a member of the Opera House. It was also suggested that we eat dinner in Paul Hamlyn Hall Balconies, the restaurant that sits overlooking the old Covent Garden in a vaulted glass enormous structure. I had to pre-order dinner before we left Orlando from the pre-fixe menu. Sue also suggested that we arrive early and have a glass of bubby in the famed champagne bar and watch the people.

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At the opera

At the appointed hour you get your table and are served a starter and the main course. We both chose Dover sole, fileted at our table and awesomely good. Then we went in to our seats and saw the first act of Puccini’s Tosca, then during intermission we returned to our table and dessert was waiting for us.

Tosca is one of my favourite operas. The soaring melodies, drama and intrigue make for a compelling evening if it is sung well. It revolves around the three main characters, Tosca, Scarpia and Cavaradossi. I know all of it intimately even though it was never in my repertoire because I just didn’t have the ‘Tosca’ voice, large, rich, and able to soar effortlessly over the orchestra. Angela Ghiorghiu is a glamorous singer and a very good actress, but her voice just didn’t cut it for me. I think she is a bit old now at 51 (who am I to talk?).The timbre is lovely and I think she is a Royal Opera House favourite, but I just hear Sondra Radvanovsky’s voice in the role and I am undone. I consider her the great soprano of our generation. The tenor, Riccardo Massi, and baritone, Samuel Youn were first-rate.

We enjoyed the entire evening although we had to take out a small mortgage to pay for the tickets and dinner, but getting back to age, might as well do this now, I always rationalize.

Then to bed and up early to prepare for our big trip to Cape Town. On our way out of the hotel I spotted a beautiful young woman with four children, one a baby that was being stuffed into a snowsuit, and recognized Kate Blanchette as the mother; more stunning in person than on film. Naturally I was curious about her and asked the hotel front desk staff what she was like with them. They opined that she was truly lovely and very nice to one and all. Some of the stars that had stayed there previously were not in that category.

I am writing this now in Orlando and it is busy December. I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy Hanukah.

More to come about our magnificent experience in Cape Town in the next blog.

Always,

Riki

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