Tuesday, March 25, 2008

London Pt. 2

The night before we had spied a place not too far from the hotel that offered a cheap breakfast: free croissant with a coffee, or something along those lines. So we went there and got the special along with a fruit salad to counteract the previous days' emphasis on fried foods, and breakfasted while perusing our free copy of the Times with other early risers. We needed to be up and on our way at a reasonable hour to get to the half-price theater ticket window before it opened to be assured decent seats. Once we got there we realized they didn't have anything we were really excited about seeing--all the half price tickets for shows we wanted to catch were sold elsewhere. So after dithering for a bit we gave up and left.

We then went to the place where Billy Elliot was showing and didn't get tickets there, as the only ones left were obscured view seats. The woman at the counter leaned waaaay over to show us exactly how we'd have to sit in order to see the stage well. Not interested. We crossed over to the south side again to check out one more place that might be viable, taking a nice stroll along the waterfront to get there (affording the opportunity for Jack's shot of Parliament), but they had standing room only. Oh well--another of Jack's dreams dashed.

Fortunately, by this time and with this amount of wandering, we were well-placed and hungry enough to go to one of the restaurants we had picked out, a modern Polish joint called Baltic in the middle of nowhere. The streets were quiet with very little foot or car traffic, perhaps because the area was presided over by the teetotalers, who don't stand for a lot of guff.

There was hardly anyone in the place when we got there, and the white walls and skylights of the former coach house made it seem even emptier. We were seated at a cozy table and ordered some beverages and appetizers. I got a mushroom soup and Jack got some kind of eggplant-goat cheese deliciousness. The soup was very tasty--lots of chewy, flavorful mushrooms in a base that I couldn't stop sopping up with the fresh rye bread I had selected from the giant basket we could pick from. (This is after I had cleaned out the little pot of beet/horseradish spread they provided with the bread.) Jack's thing was good, but I was too busy with my soup to notice it much. For our mains I got pirogies filled with cheese and mashed potatoes and Jack got the blini sampler plate, which came with caviar and smoked fish and other delicacies. The service was respectful, the setting pleasant, the food well-executed, and all in all it was a great experience.

Happily floating towards our next destination, we made our way to the Tower Bridge, crossed and entered the Tower itself. The Tower, it turns out, is not a literal tower, but a complex of buildings that acted as a prison, detaining people who were out of favor with whichever royal family was in power at various points in time. We opted to get the audio tour, which allowed us to learn some interesting facts that we otherwise wouldn't have. Did you know that Sir Walter Raleigh, one of those guys you vaguely remember from history books as having something to do with the English colonization of America, was incarcerated in the Tower THREE TIMES, and was eventually beheaded there? This in addition to all his trips to the Americas. The man got around. (Note: this is not on the audio tour. But the desk where he did much of his writing is in one of the rooms, and one makes a mental note to find out why he was there. They do talk about two young princes who were murdered nearby for some reason having to do with the shifting tides of power.)

We arrived at the Tower towards the end of the afternoon and thus didn't get to examine everything as closely as we would have liked. We did get to see ravens and fake diamonds and real diamonds and this room where people appeared to have been confined for quite some time, if the depth and intricacy of their etching on the walls was any indication.

Having successfully made it through two meals without any fried foods, we rewarded ourselves with fish and chips for dinner at a place called Rock and Sole Plaice. This was supposed to be the oldest fish and chips place in London, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense given their name. Did a simple description of what they sold accidentally turn into a bad pun over the years as new forms of music were invented? We may never know. After we figured out there was table service in the basement, as opposed to the unruly scrum ordering takeout upstairs, we managed to squeeze through the kitchen and descend the stairs to grab the last spot. The walls depicted an elaborate aquatic mural, giving the room an air of a deep-sea dive. We ordered the...um, fish and chips (there was also chicken on the menu, but why?) and Greek beer. The food was very good--light and crispy batter and fresh fish within. We each got a different fish, but I couldn't tell the difference between the two. The chips were also tasty, and the tartar sauce was homemade and pleasantly dilly.

We had scoured the listings in Time Out to discover if there were any evening options for us, and after striking out at the free jazz place we went to the £5 jazz place, which was actually a restaurant with a stage and a large bar area. It was crowded as sin, but after procuring some (very large) glasses of wine some people left and we got one of the bar tables. The band started and played some nice but not all that compelling standards. We slowly sipped our wine and enjoyed watching the stories play out in the dining area in front of us, which was almost like a second stage.

We must've looked like we were not that committed to staying, because I noticed people eying our seats, keeping track of our every shift that might indicate we were leaving. We did end up going after an hour or so, and I offered the chairs to some people next to us who had been enjoying themselves and ignoring us. As soon as we got up, though, a guy accosted Jack and asked whether we would give him and his lady friend our seats, and we had to turn them down. Tough luck, dude.

Friday, March 21, 2008

London revisited

You will recall, no doubt, the tragedy that was our last visit to London in 2000, me with a badly sprained ankle from our Cotswolds journey. Riding the tourist buses back and forth through town. Limping through the British Museum. Jack's dream of visiting the Tower of London deferred. The flaming Greek cheese, which was pretty much the highlight of the whole thing. And the really bad Chinese liquor.

This time was going to be different. We were both in reasonably good health for once. This time we were going to walk till our feet were bloody stumps and come home hobbled. On purpose!

Jack and I have different approaches to traveling: he likes to come up with a list of things to do and see, of which we actually get to some percentage. I'm happy to go just about anywhere and look at anything, so it doesn't really matter if I'm in a museum or in a litter-strewn sidestreet. (He is, too, but likes to have a more defined structure beforehand. Usually we'll go to see something famous and then see that the line is too long and decide to head for the nearest litter-strewn sidestreet.) He asked me what I want to do before we left and I said "eel pie!" That was it. I read about them several years ago in a Washington Post travel article. I just wanted an eel pie. Upon further research I discovered that the eel pie place had closed since the article was written so I had nothing.

We got cheap tickets from Ryanair, meaning we were flying out of Brussels Charleroi airport for the first time. Our flight was very early so we hopped on the bus at the Brussels train station for the 45-minute trip and got to the airport before dawn (which is no great feat in January).

Charleroi airport is known for being up until recently the exclusive domain of Ryanair, the granddaddy of cheap European carriers. It's dingy and small and not anywhere you'd want to spend much time--more like a bus station than an airport. There was a cafe at one end and we managed to get an decent cup of coffee there to wake us out of our morning fog since the check-in counter wasn't yet open. The guy operating the coffee machine was also working the cash register, so he'd serve a handful of people and then go around to the other side of the U and ring up the same handful of people, waiting impatiently to complete their transaction.

After we checked in I bought some snack mix at the small shop they had there, which is hands down the nicest space in the building. The woman who sold it to me asked me what my destination was. I forgot that "London" was a different word in French (Londres), so I just said "London" with a French accent which caused her to switch to English. I'll never get the hang of this crazy language.

Upon arrival at Stansted, which was much bigger and cleaner than our departure airport, and which had the most powerful hand dryers known to man, we got on the train to the center of town. We were delayed by some track issue halfway through our journey (I found the announcer more difficult to understand than the ones speaking French on the Belgian rail due to a combination of his accent and the crappy PA system), and in the interval Jack saw an Asian mini-deer flit by in the adjoining marshland. Apparently they're taking over the island and pushing out native species while eating everything in sight. But by god if they aren't the cutest things.

Even with the time change in our favor, it was nearly lunchtime by the time we got into Liverpool station (our flight was also late leaving). We took our time wending our way through the financial district to our selected lunch spot, and we got there at a reasonable time but early enough to avoid the rush.

The restaurant was located down a back alley and was staffed entirely by elderly women. One asked us if we had a reservation and then told us to sit anywhere we liked. We chose a spot that was like a booth cut in half--a wall on one side and three seats facing a wooden divider. Another elderly woman brought us beers. Jack ordered the "chump chop". The waitress asked, "Would you like a side of sausage with that?" Jack readily agreed. How could he pass up a side of sausage? Jack's chosen vegetable was (British) chips. I had a "beef and real ale pie" with pickled red cabbage. The food was just so-so, but the ambiance was lovely. The place began to fill up with hearty laughers and nearly-identical young men in fancy suits. The last unoccupied seat was the one next to Jack, and eventually it was taken by a cheery man who enjoyed visiting every few weeks. He also got the side of sausage, and told us that the people who frequented the establishment were all in the insurance business.

By the time we excused ourselves from our table the place was filled with those waiting for space, and more smoking in the alley outside. It seemed like they were all ready to get their Friday on even at this early hour. Their carbon-copy appearance was really quite disturbing. The only difference seemed to be the hues of their outrageously-colored ties.

We headed back out onto the streets and crossed over to the south side of the Thames via London Bridge. There was a really extensive food market exuding delicious aromas nearby, and we thought about deciding that this would've been a better lunch option, but between the beer and the atmosphere and the sitting at the first place, I think we made the right choice.

Our next stop was the Globe Theater. We paid our money and were told that the next tour would be starting in so many minutes. So we took our time on the exhibit space, which we thought was rather small, but when they rang the bell for the tour we saw that we had only covered a third of it, the talky boring part rather than the mannequin-laden re-creation part. Ah well. The guide was great and seemed to enjoy being there, which really made for a pleasant experience. While we were on the top level, a group of teenage dramatists came out on the stage. Their guide asked them to split up between girls and boys and recite a line, probably from Romeo and Juliet, in unison. First the girls approached and turned away, and the boys responded. It was amusing to be the private audience for what was surely an embarrassing spectacle for some of them.

We went back to the north side on the Millennium Bridge and made our way to our hotel. After checking in and having a little sit, we rushed back out again to try to catch evensong at Westminster Abbey. We hadn't had the opportunity to ride the Underground last time we were there due to my infirmity, so Jack was interested in checking that out. Conveniently, the subway is also a way to quickly get from one place to another. We got some rechargeable Oyster cards from the guy in the booth and were on our way.

We got to the church in time to get seats that were not in the choir stalls themselves but with a good view of them. I didn't really know what to expect--I thought maybe the boys would sing for a bit and then it'd be over. In reality it was an entire service with readings and the like. Some guy from the Australian Embassy was invited to the pulpit in honor of the impending Australia Day. The music was sublime. I wondered how much work the kids had to do on a weekly basis to be able to sing like that. I certainly wouldn't have stuck with it, but then again, I'm generally known to be lazy. On the way out we noted the tombs of the famous dead people such as Newton and Darwin as we passed. They didn't really want you eying stuff since you had to pay admission during the day, so we felt good about sneaking some looks in for free.

On the way back to the hotel to develop dinner plans, we decided to pop into a pub for a brewski. Every bar was packed with young people spilling out onto the sidewalks and streets. These people were practicing TGIF as if it was a religion and that day was the final judgment. I'm sure there was some snogging going on at some of these places. Where there's agglomerations of young Brits and alcohol, you can be certain that snogging will follow. We managed to find a place celebrating Australia Day that was slightly less full than the rest and I wiggled my way past the bodies to the bar and procured a couple of beers. I had little faith that I'd be able to locate Jack AND not spill anything at the same time, but he had miraculously found a table and was standing on the foot rungs of the chair waving his arms so I'd see him from across the room. Brilliant, as they say.

Thus restored we eventually decided on a dinner spot in a neighborhood of dinner spots on the northern end of Soho. We ended up at a fancy burger joint. Jack is always researching the perfect non-American burger--he finds that other countries don't get the bun-to-meat ratio right most of the time. When a burger is eaten with a knife and fork, as most uncivilized cultures are wont to do, the ratio doesn't matter that much, but picking it up is the true test of its mettle. The system at the restaurant was complicated--you were led to your table at the back, you looked at the menu, then you went back up to the front and ordered, having memorized your selections AND your meat temperature AND your table number. And the chips were called fries. I had the buffalo burger, which may very well have become the new king of the Most Expensive Burger, as it was something like £12 without any sides. But it was tasty and it was London and I was converting from euros and not dollars so I wasn't complaining.

On the way back we passed an open Roman Catholic church which featured this sign in the vestibule. There seems to be a lack of faith that one's neighbors will do the right thing. I'm glad they managed to get the very proper English word "whilst" in there--that's how you know they're not messing around.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Alst u blieft.

"Ghent is like Bruges, except bigger and it doesn't survive primarily off tourism," we were told. It was also reputed to be Belgium's design and fashion capital. After a year and a half, we had managed to never get there. But our determination finally won out in the end and we went in mid-January.

It was a surprisingly long haul from the train station to the historical center, so by the time we got there (on foot, not wanting to miss any of the charm that the suckers on the tram wouldn't see, although it turns out there wasn't any in that area) we were already half-dead. We briefly oohed and aahed over the neat buildings in the main square and then decided we had to procure some food. We found a nice canal-side establishment called Chez Leontine that couldn't seat the group of eight ahead of us, but managed to find a spot for two next to a wall of tchotchkes that allowed me to take this cool photo of our neighbors. We got a couple of local brews that were produced for the bar next door (and our waiter had to go outside to retrieve them from there), including the closest thing to an IPA that I had tasted in Belgium: Gandavum Dry Hopping. Crisp, hoppy, refreshing. I ordered a passable vol-au-vent and Jack got a delicious seafood version of the traditional Belgian waterzooi.

Towards the end of the meal I went upstairs to use the restroom. Having conducted my business I went to find the flushing mechanism and...all I have to say it was a lucky thing I wasn't trying to snort cocaine.

Thus fortified, we did some more gawking and then went to the Gravensteen Castle, initially the home of a count, then used as a factory for spinning cotton, and at some other point a prison before being forgotten about and falling into disrepair. Since its initial restoration over 100 years ago it has become a popular tourist attraction. There were some lovely views from the top, but the interpretation of the site was limited and I didn't get much out of the visit.

There was no question that Ghent was an interesting town, and the little details one would encounter on random streets would bolster this impression of quirkiness. There's a museum of outsider art housed in a former psychiatric institute that we were hoping to get to, but sadly there just wasn't enough time for that and all the wandering and gawking we needed to do (the giant space that I can't seem to get rid of just heightens the excitement!):

by canals,
in shop windows,
up alleys,
down sidestreets,
through beguinages,
in churches*,
and so on.

Later we stopped for a beer in a little bar off the market square. The waiter didn't remember my order so had to ask me again, and chided me for not understanding his question in Dutch. He said he didn't go to London and attempt to speak Dutch there, so my identity as a stupid American was protected. I attempted to apologize in Dutch ("het spijt me"), but my pronunciation must have been so far off that he didn't recognize that I was speaking to him. Later he said he had been kidding, but I wished he was able to realize that I had given it a try.

*I finally discovered on Wikipedia why St. Nicholas is always shown with a washtub full of naked kids. Check it out--quite gruesome, and some say the inspiration for Sweeney Todd.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Favorite coffee icon

Too bad Santos Palace is mostly geared towards providing coffee to the restaurant trade and the clerk in their tiny retail shop wasn't interested in helping me pick out something good.

There is also a short Belgian movie about a waitress called "Santos Palace", but I haven't seen it.