London | London, UK

Posted by on February 24, 2001

I want my readers to know that this column is, now and again, ahead of the curve. Or it would be if I wrote my travel stories immediately upon my return.

On a recent trip to London, I was feted for my birthday at a marvelous restaurant in South Kensington called The House. When I received GOURMET magazine upon my return, guess what restaurant was featured on the London page?

London is rocking and reverberating as the hottest city on the planet, or so it appears, even to old fogies. The Tate Modern is overrun with people, and I’m not sure why, except for the hype. I do admit that the Louise Bourgeois installations are fascinating, and I’m a huge fan of reinventing old factory buildings and the like.

The best new new thing in London is the London Eye. It is the world’s biggest Ferris wheel, all white and shiny, and hanging over the Thames right across from Parliament. Sounds sacrilegious, doesn’t it? But so did the Pompidou Center in Paris when it first appeared. So withhold your judgment and put it on your list. In fact, book as soon as you get to London, and pray for good weather. The website is www.ba-londoneye.com, or call 0870-5000-600, to book by credit card.

I will now give you the best travel tip that I’ve come across recently. There is an inexpensive hotel right behind the Eye, in the former County Hall building, which also now houses a (more expensive) Marriott Hotel. The Travel Inn is brand new, has very pleasant rooms, and could not be in a better location for a whole lot of London attractions. You can find it on the web. It’s about 69 pounds per night, double. I’m planning to spend a couple of nights there myself on my next trip. Granted it does not have the charm I equate with London, but its location is virtually unbeatable.

It will be possible only because I will then return to the beautiful West End, which has such fabulous quirky shops and restaurants, such bucolic leafy squares, such history, and which most everyone thinks about when they think of London.

You must really focus in London, due to its size and diversity, (much like New York) and thus each trip seems to be to a different city. So your impressions do very much depend on where you stay, and what you do while you are there.

Let me just give you a stream of consciousness sketch of our 6 days in this vibrant capital. First of all, (another hot tip) we got a tube pass. This was a hilarious exercise, since I had forgotten to bring the required passport-size photos. There is a “quick-photo” in almost every tube station, so all was not lost. Except that you really must read the directions, in order to get a proper photo. Suffice it to say that the photos cost almost as much as a week’s tube pass. It’s officially called a “travel card,” and it can be used on the underground, the buses and the district train line, all within the number of zones you opt for. I feel very strongly that the convenience of the pass is as valuable as the discount. All you do is flash your pass, or run it through the turnstile for a short or a long trip all over the city. The pass also makes a great souvenir.

Our sightseeing consisted mostly of museum visits, antique shopping in Kensington Church Street, and the usual restaurant search.

The venerable Victoria and Albert Museum is a treasure trove, and has been correctly called the nation’s attic, like our Smithsonian, with endless examples of almost each category of artifact. Its latest draw is the new Photography area, and the whole museum has been spiffed up.

We also noted that Somerset House has become very popular, with its stately rooms, formerly dreary meeting places for bureaucrats, now restored. In fact, it has a chic minimalist gift shop, and a much sought after restaurant. It also now houses the fabulous Courtauld Collection. This is one of England’s most important and best-loved collections of paintings, including world-famous Impressionist and Post-Impressionists. We also saw a wonderfully eccentric display of icons from the Sinai, Byzantium and Russia, including several which have never before left the monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai.

The National Gallery, with its new Sainsbury Wing, is a joy to wander. Well organized and beautifully displayed, its art works reward an afternoon spent strolling the broad corridors and well-placed vistas. Both it and the V and A have inspiring gift shops.

We went to the National Gallery after an elegant lunch at the Criterion Brasserie, one of the famous Marco Pierre White’s restaurants. This establishment is the biggest surprise in Piccadilly, not famous for its up­market restaurants. Touted as “London’s only neo-Byzantine restaurant”, its décor is charmingly bizarre, with lots of marble, potted palms, a vast bar topped with ornate drum lamps, ornate marble walls, and a glittering gold mosaic arched ceiling “designed to evoke images of Arabian nights.” The food was superb, as was the wine, and lunch at a fixed price of fifteen to eighteen pounds, depending on the number of courses, was a bargain indeed.

I forgot to mention shopping as one of our pastimes on this recent trip. I have never been disappointed in Liberty, and on this occasion I was newly impressed by Liberty’s ability to roll with the times. The quality and service is excellent, and the new products are clever and broad in price range. I cannot say the same for Harrods, which just seems to get more and more crowded with tourists, and can be endured in sound bites.

The unique shops on Walton Street are examples of the best that London has to offer, but one of my all time favorites is still the General Trading Company near Sloane Square. If it’s antiques you are after, London is a bottomless pit, but one of the very best streets is the aforementioned Kensington Church Street. Browse through its website at www.antiques-london.com  to see some of the museum pieces available on this long street. There’s a tube stop at either end.

See how easy it is to fill six days with pleasure in London? And I didn’t even describe the walks along the Thames and the visits with new and old friends. And of course there was the birthday dinner.

Betsy Shequine never tires of London, and would love to learn the language so she can converse with the natives.

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