Monday, April 12, 2010

A last hurrah in Londinium

For Kae's last weekend here, we decided to spend it in London – a day or so beforehand. Thank goodness for you can book a bunch of stuff there, and with hotels, you can get a great deal; the catch is you won't know exactly where you're staying until you pay.

It worked better than we could've imagined, giving us a great discount at this really posh hotel, The Grange St. Paul's, in the shadow of the beautiful St. Paul's Cathedral. I mean, I don't think we'll ever stay at a place like that in London again: you get your own plush slippers and robe, every room has this amazing spa bathroom, the smoked salmon in their continental breakfast just melts in your mouth, there's a great pool, etc. Suffice to say that our expectations were exceeded by a country mile.

Inside the Twinings shop
We were hungry when we got in, so we stopped at this gourmet burger restaurant – Gourmet Burger Kitchen – around the corner. They didn't have the selection of The Works, but it was in the same vein. It's amazing how many languages you hear in London, when you don't have loud American geeks behind you joking about poorly formed SQL queries, that is. We had to laugh. I had a tasty boar burger with a real ale from the same farm – Laverstoke Park Farm. Tea and Kae had some frosty milkshakes to go with their burgers.

Somerset House
Then it was time for some shopping. We spent some time in the oldest shop in London, the Twinings tea shop in the shadow of the impressive Courts of Justice, before making our way to Covent Garden; they have some really talented buskers performing there. Actually, before we got there, in one of those incredible coincidences, we ran into a Canadian we'd met on the tube in from Paddington earlier that day: we just standing there, admiring all that is Somerset House – with kids playing in the water, just like that scene in Last Chance Harvey – when we heard this, “Hey! I know you guys!” It's such a small world sometimes.

The girls' ultimate destination was Bravissimo near Oxford Circus, so I left them near the distinctive spire of All Souls Church in search of a pub. Before long, I'd found the Argyll Arms, and had a pint of the Landlord in one hand and William Gibson's Neuromancer in the other – Heaven for me, in other words.

At Ping Pong
Later, we met up and headed back to the hotel for a swim. Well, it turned into a nap for me, but the girls enjoyed the pool. Then it was out in search of Chinese dumplings at Ping Pong on Bread Street. Everything about the place, right down to their slogan – "little steamed parcels of deliciousness" – was so Tea (and Kae :-) ). And they were true to that delicious statement, from the martinis to the dozen or so selections we ordered.

Camden markets was on the docket for Saturday. The tube filled up as we got closer to our stop; initially, I'd thought the tattooed and pierced travellers were the ones heading there – I'd watched a few videos on the markets the night before – but, as we exited like a tide of people flowing out of the station, I realized that the Camden markets has something for everyone. Yes, there are plenty of places to get tattoos and T-shirts of the most irreverent variety, but there are also pottery shops, shops selling beautiful old luggage, guys wandering around with live kangaroos in their shirts, Hare Krishnas beside kids with pink spiked mohawks, and food.

Oh, the food. At times you felt like you were running a gauntlet – an aromatic, mouth-watering one – with Chinese, Thai, Mexican, Japanese, Indian (the list goes on) food vendors lining the lanes, holding out free samples. You could eat a meal's worth of samples easily, and I'm sure some of the people we saw were doing just that. We had a snack of something called a 'chipstix', where they cut and cooked a potato to yumminess right in front of you, on a stick, followed by Mexican for Tea and me, and Chinese for Kae.

Tea with a 'chipstix'
Next was some shopping – we picked up a fantastic old cribbage board, an old collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, and a bunch of comic books from Mega City Comics, nestled right in the middle of the markets – and people watching. We saw this guy who was the spitting image of Duckie – I'm sure he wasn't even born when that movie came out, but he must've seen it, he was that spot on. Then it was down the road for a pint at The Monarch. They had chairs set up on the stage, so we sat where there was no doubt live music later that night.

At YO! Sushi
Finally, it was back to the hotel for a swim – I joined the girls this time – followed by some YO! Sushi before bed. It was our first time there, and I have to say, as tired as I was, it was all really exciting: it's part game, part extra in some futuristic movie, and all tasty.

Sunday meant that it was time to say goodbye to Kae – we preferred au revoir – so we hired a car (at a flat rate that ended up saving us money – to say nothing of our backs) to take us to Heathrow, saw Kae off, and took the bus home from there. We all agreed it was a fantastic weekend. London's amazing for that: I think you could go there 52 weekends in a row and never retrace your steps or do the same thing twice.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Days out with the naked chef

For the second week of Kae's visit, we decided on a few day trips. First, we took the train to Cardiff for the day, planning to do some of the things we didn't get around to the first time. After browsing the arcades for a bit, we made our way to Cardiff Castle, signing up for the premium tour. I'd really recommend that tour to anyone that has a day over here: it's close, and the castle truly is regal in that storybook sense you don't often find. Plus, our guide was knowledgeable and colourful, and made many references to the beautifully carved Canadian pine throughout (before she saw my TUNS backpack!). The Bute family had a number of beavers represented in the roof garden in particular, in honour of Canada, actually. The best bit? The guide saying, "By the way, those aren't squirrels with machine guns near the top of the fountain." You may just be able to pick out what she was getting at in the picture to the right.

Then it was off to Jamie's Italian for some lunch. Well, from the moment you enter that restaurant, you know you're in for something different. And while most of you will know this about us, just to be clear, we eat out a lot; not so much here -- it isn't really part of the culture, frankly -- but we've certainly eaten in all sorts of restaurants.

Jamie's Italian is easily twice as good as any restaurant I've eaten in.



And I'm not some naked chef fan-boy. :-) I had absolutely no expectations going in.

I think Tea and Kae would agree with that assessment of the place; they certainly enjoyed themselves. The quality of the ingredients is amazing, and what really sets it apart -- I've never tasted olives, bread or Italian meats like those -- but it's the little things too: like offering the antipasti tray based on how many will be eating it, and offering half portions of everything -- 'cause, frankly, it turns into a six course meal despite your best efforts, so you need to pace yourself.

But it's more than that: the selections are simple, yet inspired. I had a 'winter salad' with my penne arrabiata, and I quickly ended up pushing it to the middle of the table with a "OMG, you have to try this!" Pumpkin, two types of onion, pine nuts, balsamic vinegar... It looked beautiful, and was like nothing I'd ever tasted before; yet, it was so simple, I think I could make it (assuming I could get the same quality ingredients, of course). And Kae's tiramisu was another example: as she put it, "The orange changes everything!"

And, finally, as if that wasn't enough, the atmosphere was relaxed in a way that isn't normally comfortable. If the waiter or owner has as much time to talk to you as these guys did, it normally means it's a slow night, and you feel the undercurrent of how difficult that business is. At Jamie's Italian, it seemed perfectly natural. We talked to one waiter about his many years working with Royal Caribbean, and another on how often they see Jamie, and his hopes of returning to Australia soon. Really great guys, but knowledgeable too: they knew where everything was made or came from... O.K., enough. I repeat, I'm not a fan-boy; it was just that good.

We finished up the day with the Cardiff Centenary Walk, and then caught the train home, planning our next day trip.


We decided that some time at the spa in Bath would do us good, followed by more good food at the Jamie's Italian in that town. :-) Yes, folks, we went to that restaurant on back-to-back evenings. And while the spa was a bit disappointing -- the view from the rooftop pool was lovely, but the saunas, steam rooms and hot tubs were not nearly hot enough -- the restaurant was just as good as the one in Cardiff, if not a smidge better (just 'cause, Will, our waiter that evening, was so much fun).

Stella at the Pig and Fiddle
Prior to the spa, however, we stopped in at the Pig and Fiddle for something to tide us over. The ale and cider was great, as was the food, but the star of the show, far and away, was Stella, the pub cat. She was hangin' out in her bed, havin' a grand ole time.

Finally, another highlight would have to be the book shops: Topping & Company Booksellers of Bath was fantastic, with all sorts of signed copies and upcoming readings. And Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights was just like someone's home: such a great selection, with water in decanters on end tables encouraging long hours of reading and browsing. They even advertise reading spa holidays, which, while still a mystery to me, sound awesome!

Up next: a weekend in London.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Tea and Jae... and Kae! in the city of lights

If Dublin has a pulse, Paris has grace; and such grace. At no time have my thoughts and words felt less adequate, or A Moveable Feast more impressive.

She is a lady: in the young woman standing outside her shop, "un café" in one hand, a cigarette in the other; in the older man in a tweed coat hopping on his bicycle, his thin scarf flapping in the breeze.

Chillin' at our apartment
We got an afternoon train to London, and the Eurostar to Paris, arriving in the early evening. We spent a few hours exploring the neighbourhood around our apartment that first morning. Our arms full of warm bread, and delicious meats and cheeses, we congratulated ourselves on this breakfast fit for any Parisian. One point on the local grocery store: the milk that doesn't need to be refrigerated seems to be very popular in Paris; it was all we could find in our neighbourhood. And I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it's all "facile à digérer." With the sheep's milk cheese, I was good to go!

The Sully wing of the Louvre
Fortune smiled on us as we ducked in and out of the rain that first day. One of our favourite ways to begin a trip is a city tour, to get our bearings and change our itinerary as sights grab our eyes. This trip was no different, and we had excellent (sheltered) seats on the double-decker bus for most of the tour. That done, it was time to see a bit of Louvre – with kilometres of galleries, we didn't kid ourselves about seeing more.

Looking down on the Sully courtyard
We'd planned to take one of the tour boats on the Seine that evening, presuming the weather cooperated. The rain was light as we left the Louvre, so we decided to have a bite to eat near the Pont Neuf quays and catch the last tour of the evening, around 10 p.m. The restaurant of the same name was warm and quaint, as were our hosts. Up to this point, Kae had been a bit self-conscious about her French – which Tea and I took as perfect, incidentally, and a life-saver on more than one occasion. At the end of our meal, Kae admitted as much to our hostess, who assured her that she expressed herself very well. I think that left her tickled for hours afterwards.

The next day we caught the Metro to Montmartre, in the eighteenth arrondissement. The view from the steps of the Sacré-Cœur was wonderful. Walking around the cobblestoned plazas, past cafe seats facing out on artists sketching folks and cutting their silhouettes out of paper, was more than a little surreal; similar to other experiences I've had – in Quebec City, for example – in that I could now understand what they were imitating. It was so natural here; like drawing breath, for them, I'm sure.

In Montmartre Cemetary
We stumbled upon the Montmartre Cemetary; literally an awesome sight: above-ground tombs and mausoleums, most more elaborate than I'd ever seen, stretching out to the horizon. The avenues through it are named, and compost bins for the many, many flowers sit at every corner.

Moulin Rouge was our next stop, in the heart of the 'red light' district. Obligatory photos taken, we decided to find some sustenance to get us through to the evening's entertainment: a fondue house that Tea had read about. Tea had onion soup – yes, Stephen, they drop the French part here :-) – and Kae enjoyed a cheese plate, as we took in the foot traffic; Paris really has some of the best people watching I've seen: everyone is so different, from their dress – formal or casual, it is always deliberate – and mannerisms, to their features; I could've been imagining things, but it seemed that I'd never seen such a variety of noses, chins, skin tones, facial hair... tall and lanky folks beside others so small you could only think 'miniature.' Silly, I know, but it's true!

The fondue house was fully booked, but the owner assured Kae that he would find a spot for us a bit later. We consoled ourselves with more wine at yet another brasserie, and by the time we returned, there was a significant queue. Thankfully, Kae is very memorable – as we all know! – and we were seated without too much fuss. Well, what a restaurant! I barely had time to take in the raucous atmosphere in what really amounted to a narrow room before a baby bottle of the vin rouge was thrust into my hand. Ah, hold on to your hat, I thought to myself.

I lost time that night.

I figure it's important that a writer acknowledge that up front. I remember moments right up to my head hitting the pillow, but many of them seem more like last grasps at dreams as I write this. I'm told I was very happy throughout, managing against all odds to avoid making a fool of myself. Thank goodness I had two lovely ladies looking after me, otherwise I surely would've left all my belongings behind as I hopelessly wandered the streets of Paris.

The next day was a bit rough.

I turned a year older, and felt all of those 365 days over the course of that morning. Then it was off to the Latin quarter, walking around the old haunts of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Orwell. The market streets were just as Hemingway described them so many years ago: narrow and chock full of carts offering fruit, cheese and seafood, with amazing pâtisseries and book shops in between. Oh, and a rack of rotisserie chicken, with the potatoes roasting away in the drippings tray at the bottom. (It smelled amazing!) And the vendors warmly greeting their regulars with a kiss on either cheek, and such joyful expressions that you'd swear they'd been years apart.

The Panthéon
We then made our way to the Panthéon and the Sorbonne, through streets full of young life. It was at that moment that the last of the austre grace that had marked my first day in the city melted away: yes, the city of lights can be elegant, but no one who walks through Montmartre or the clusters of students around the Sorbonne could fail to feel its warmth.

With our train scheduled to depart at 3 p.m., we spent our last morning shopping in the Galeries Lafayette, taking in the stained glass of that amazing ceiling to the main building, and ladies' accessories worth the GDP of small nations.

No, Tea, our luggage isn't that big. ;-)