17 June 2019

Portobello Road, Portobello Road - Streets Where the Riches of Ages are Stowed

When we booked the Pink House in Notting Hill for our home in London, we had no idea how just how close we would be to the world-famous Portobello market. Turns out, that we were less than two blocks away, but lucky for us Lonsdale Road is closed to vehicular traffic on that end, so we still had a very quiet neighborhood experience!

Thus we spent our Saturday morning in the ‘hood. For breakfast, we walked the mere two blocks to the Ottolenghi bakery and brought some incredible pastries back to enjoy the morning from our rooftop terrace. The selection of pastries and goodies was mouth-watering and it was very difficult making our final selections, but I decided to go classic with a croissant and a pain au chocolat while Michael ordered a muffin and something lemon. I think.  I didn’t take notes and he’s not right here for me to confer with, so I could be incorrect.

After polishing our breakfast off to the last crumb, we walked over to explore the market. While I was expecting the tchotchkes and the made-in-anywhere-but-England souvenirs, I wasn’t prepared to see the smorgasbord of foods, both prepared and fresh, that were on offer. It was crowded everywhere, as you can see from the photo above, and it was almost overwhelming in terms of stimulating all of the senses at once.

I’m not a fungi fan myself, but it was still fascinating
to see so many varieties in one place
The Ginstitute. Alas, we never made it back here to partake, but I love the name.
Walking around in the hot sun made us feel thirsty and the scents of all the yummy foods on the air almost made us regret the Ottolenghi, especially when confronted with the fragrant paella in a pan whose diameter had to be damn near my height (!).  After the crowds started to feel like too much, we bought a smoothie served in a fresh pineapple shell to quench our thirst and then moved perpendicular to the market to escape the sea of humanity.

We found a lovely wine shop where the proprietors let us sample an expensive ginger liqueur that we’d seen many times before but didn’t want to drop $45 on a bottle without knowing whether we liked it. (It was delicious and we walked out with some nip-sized gins to share with folks back home.) We walked down lovely street after street and soaked up the very English atmosphere. Michael even located the “whoopsie-daisy” gated park from the Notting Hill movie so naturally we had to take a photo there.  We even discovered the world’s smallest working car and the local public toilets.

Even the public toilets have great maps to show you where you  are.

We were enjoying the sunshine and the fresh air, so for the second half of the day we decided to keep going in the same vein. Our London Pass included the zoo, so that’s where we headed.  En route, we made a pitstop at the 221B Baker Street to pick up some presents for Michael’s sister whose one request was for a souvenir that feeds her Sherlock love. From there we took the bus (another form of excellent public transportation that the wonderful city of London has to offer) to the zoo. 

221 B Baker Street
Double decker!
I have ambivalent feelings towards zoos in general, even when they’re as nice overall as the London Zoo is. Michael feels similarly conflicted, and I was as surprised as anybody when he said that he was interested in seeing the special spider exhibit. I love the man, but to say he’s not a fan of spiders is to engage in the most careless of understatement. 

The zoo itself was spacious and some of the exhibits were lovely, but some seemed so restrictive that they made me deeply sad, like the penguins and the giraffes.  One that we both enjoyed, though, was the butterfly enclosure, and Michael really liked the squirrel monkey exhibit, where he shot an adorable video of a mother & baby. 

I loved this tree near the flamingo pond
Perspective is everything in this photo

The canal on the edge of the zoo
Once my phone told me that we had clocked six miles already that day, we decided to head back and organize something for dinner. One bus ride and one tube ride later, we found ourselves wandering Queensway to figure out where we wanted to eat.  It was my choice this time, so after perusing various menus from every corner of the globe, I chose Alwaha, a Lebanese restaurant, because I love the spice profiles and it’s not something we can easily get at home.

Between the early hour (we’d skipped lunch so we were famished by 5:30) and the fact that it was during Ramadan, we had the entire place to ourselves. We shared a flatbread called Manakeish Bil Jibneh, which was topped with halloumi and spices, I ordered a grilled lamb dish while Michael opted for the grilled prawns with garlic and lemon. One shared glass of arak later, and we were two very happy customers.

OMG, these prawns
Arak, a traditional Lebanese spirit that tastes of licorice
The restaurant had a very simple decor and we enjoyed our window seats as we watched the world walk by.  I was completely taken by the beautiful calligraphy by the artist Mouneer al-Shaarani. They were framed without anti-glare glass, so I couldn’t get very good shots of them, but if they had been even remotely within my price range, I would proudly have one of them on my walls right now.

We had a leisurely stroll home, enjoyed a canned gin & tonic on the rooftop terrace (ugh -- why is that even a thing in England?!) and retired to the basement to watch a little Netflix. Which for us meant alternating episodes of Dr. Who and The Crown.  When in Rome, right?

Stay tuned for Shakespeare and college reunions...

12 June 2019

Views from the 11th Century

Our first view of the Tower

Our plan for Friday was to spend time with two London spots that are both historical and uber-touristy: The Tower of London and Westminster Abbey. Our London Pass gained us entrance to both, so after a quick breakfast we took the tube to the City of London. I also had the anticipatory eagerness of meeting an internet friend for the first time.  Though Kayleigh of the Nylon Admiral blog and I had been bonding for years over books (Harry Potter in particular), we’d never met in real life. Since she hails from Australia and I live in New England, it tickled me that we would cross paths for the first time in another country altogether. Squee!

The White Tower is one of the oldest sections. I love
that I accidentally caught a bird in flight. Too bad it
wasn’t one of the tower ravens!
Looking down from one of the walls
Built in the 11th century, the Tower of London is one of the oldest places I’ve ever had the privilege of stepping foot in. There were certainly thousands of tourists milling about, but because the grounds themselves inside the wall are so spacious, it didn’t feel particularly crowded.  Some of the exhibits we had to stand in line to see, such as the crown jewels, and others we occasionally had to wait a moment to get close enough to read some of the exhibit placards, but for the most part we could just wander around at our own pace without feeling jostled. I’m not sure that I’d stand in line for more than 10 minutes to get into the crown jewels exhibit, as it was the bit with the most buildup but the smallest amount of payoff, so I guess we were lucky that the queue was moving so rapidly.

With Tower Bridge in the background 
There were a lot of examples of torture devices found on
display for a country where torture was “very rare.” Just sayin’. 
This was carved by one of the prisoners held in the tower.

It would be easy to spend the better part of a day wandering around and taking everything in. We tried to soak up as much of the atmosphere as possible without straining to read every placard, as interesting and informative as all of it was. One thing that we never tired of was seeing the juxtaposition of modern architecture and these thousand-year-old spots.

One part in particular that I liked very much was the chapel that was built inside the White Tower.  I’m not sure why I’m so particularly drawn to ecclesiastical architecture, but I really am. Here’s a panoramic shot of it. Somebody was giving a guided tour in there when we happened upon it, but it’s the sort of place that I would have been happy to sit for half an hour in quiet contemplation if the circumstances had been otherwise.

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Around 1pm we decided to wrap up our self-guided tour so that we could organize lunch. Since Michael and I were trying to make sure we got back to Westminster Abbey for a 3:00 entrance we knew we wouldn’t have a lot of time to linger over food, so it was terrific when Kayleigh suggested that we walk across the Thames to the Borough Market. Well, it was perfect!  What a sea of humanity surrounded by every kind of food imaginable.  I don’t think I’ve seen such incredible comestible variety in one place in my life. We each picked a kiosk, purchased some refreshingly minty iced tea, and leaned up against the wall for a standing meal. I wish I’d had the foresight to take a few photos there, but all I have is the one I took on our walk back to the tube afterwards. 

Photographic evidence of Kayleigh’s and my meeting
This is just the walkway down to Borough Market.
It does not give a sense AT ALL of what awaits at the end!
Southwark Cathedral, across from Borough Marke
We parted ways with Kayleigh, as she had to make her way back home and we had to hie ourselves to Westminster, and on the way to the tube I had to pause to make a photo of the Southwark Cathedral. If the Tabard Inn were still intact, the English nerd in me would have been on the hunt for it. That is where Chaucer’s pilgrims gathered, in Southwark, to begin their journey in his famed Canterbury Tales. Still, it gave me a small thrill. 

Westminster? Parliament? You decide!
So, funny story. After exiting the tube station, we followed the wonderful signage to the correct exit for Westminster Abbey, but either we missed a sign or were simply distracted by a school children protest about climate change, but we ended up at the Houses of Parliament.  I swear, up close, Parliament and the Abbey look an awful lot alike, especially since large swathes of both are covered up in scaffolding.

At least we had something ornate to look at while queuing

By the time we made it to the entrance of the correct building, we were a little dismayed to find a long queue to enter. We had timed our arrival to make the most of seeing Westminster before it closed to tourists so that we would have a small break and then could enjoy an evensong service that begins most afternoons at 5:00 pm. The Abbey was as crowded at the Churchill War Rooms were, and so we all basically shuffled along, bumping into one another as we paused to read a placard or crane our necks to look up. No photography is allowed inside the Abbey, and I would have been more upset except there was no space to take photos of anything interesting without having other tourists in the frame. One thing I would have really liked making a photo of was the Stephen Hawking gravestone, but Westminster provides a better quality image on their website. The latent physicist in me was a little in awe of that, I admit.

I really love this. 
Once we got outside to the cloisters, we had some elbow room, so we sat down for a few minutes to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine again. If it was also opportunity to rest our beleaguered feet after pounding the pavement all day, so be it. It really was lovely, though.

We poked around the Poets Corner, and despite the crowds, it moved me more than I expected to see the burial sites of authors whose work I have loved and studied over the years: Chaucer, Austen, Milton, Equiano, Darwin, and Behn.
The vaulted ceiling directly above
My seat in the quire
Because we were able to linger in the nave after the Abbey closed, we had excellent placement in the queue for evensong. We got seats 19 and 20 in the quire (incidentally, the same seat numbers as we had for the Harry Potter plays), where I made a couple of surreptitious photos because I was feeling rebellious.  The choir was wonderful, and though I didn’t know any of the music, it felt just wonderful to be participating in the service and to hear those incredible acoustics at work. 

After the service, we crammed onto the train again and this time took the tube to Bayswater so we could eat dinner at Maharajah, one of the few restaurants we had chosen ahead of our trip as a place to dine near our neighborhood. There was only one other table occupied when we arrived, but soon enough the small dining room filled up with a truly international clientele.  Based on accents, we were the only Americans there, but we were surrounded by Germans, Belgians, Dutch, and Australians and I indulged in my usual custom of eavesdropping on strangers, many of whom were talking politics, particularly of Brexit.

The good was very good, but I can’t say that it was significantly better than Malabar, where we’d dined our first night in the city. We loved both places and would recommend either one wholeheartedly. There was still quite a lot of daylight as we walked back to our place in Notting Hill, which was closer than we’d first thought, and we made the happy discovery of about a hundred different restaurants within a ten minute walk of our place - about which, more anon. 

We made good use of our rooftop terrace by watching the sunset and enjoying a glass of wine, a perfect way to end our day. 
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