I've had a love affair with London since I was a small child. Perhaps it's because at the time I knew the history of that city better than any other European city, save perhaps Athens. At one time I could recite all the names of the kings and queens of England in order, had read a half a dozen Dickens novels -- I wanted to see where Conan Doyle's Holmes resided, Fagin's den in Saffron Hill and where the Barretts of Wimpole Street lived. We wandered in the then sketchy districts around the old Marshalsea, listened to rants at Hyde Park's Speakers' Corner, and watched the swans in St. James.
London is still as exciting to me, but now in a much more modern and edgy way -- as a multilayered cosmopolitan metropolis in the throes of 21st century change.
I have a kind of strange respect mixed with frustration when I think about La Fromagerie, one of the best shops for French cheese in London. On the last day of a trip I went there with the intention of purchasing some Brie de Meaux, some real Camembert, and with any luck, a really good Epoisses to take back with me. (Customs officials, skip the next few paragraphs)
Okay, yes, they're illegal cheese here in the US. It's one of the more boneheaded regulations here in the states that treats young, perky raw milk cheeses as if they were heroin. Don't even get me started on the "sealed for your protection" mentality -- it drives me nuts. So there I am at La Fromagerie. I'm standing in a refrigerator the size of my living room and it's FULL OF CHEESE. Surrounded by wheels of Brie de Meaux, fantastic goat cheese nestled on straw mats, I think to myself I'd like one of everything.
I begin by asking for a wedge of Brie, and the fromager, a Frenchman, asks will I be serving it tonight? Um, no... I say sheepishly. I'm actually going to be flying back to San Francisco (the whole thing is coming out now, I'm no good at lying) and I want to take back some cheese. Oh, says he, to San Francisco? I'm screwed, he's going to tell me it's illegal.
"Oh no," he says, "The Brie I cannot sell you. It would be no good. You take it, it will be fifteen hours in a plane -- by the time you get there it will be a disaster, " his voice rising on "dee-sa-STAIR!"
He's not going to sell me the cheese because it won't be perfectly "a point" when I arrive in San Francisco??
"Non, non," he waves his hands with finality, "If I sell it to you it would be terrible, and you would say I sold you bad cheese. Non."
"But, but I don't know anybody here. I live in San Francisco."
"It does not matter. You would say to people I didn't know what I was doing."
What, do you think I'm the kind of crazy person who would purchase a wheel of Brie and then get on the Web and post about the experience or something? What about a log of the St. Maure? Non! An uncut wheel of the Vacherin? Non! A Charolais? A Chaource, you mean? No, a Charolais. Non!
In the end, I had to wait until he was occupied by another customer. I snagged his youngest looking assistant and bullied them into cutting me a bit of Brie de Nangis and took a bit of Berkswell, just to placate him.
Bottom line? The place to go if you want serious cheese. Just don't tell him you're a cheese smuggler and practice your poker face.
British Museum,Great Russell Street, (0171) 636 1555 Tube: Tottenham Court Road, Russell Square, Holborn.
National Gallery, Trafalgar Sq. (0171) 839 3321. Charing Cross Leicester Square. This wonderful gallery, founded in the West End in 1824, houses the impressive National Collection of Paintings, which features more than 2,000 individual works.
National Portrait Gallery, 2 St. Martin’s Pl, (0171) 306 0055. Charing Cross Leicester Square. The National Portrait Gallery in the West End houses portraits of famous people in British history from the Tudors to the present day. Royal portraits painted through the ages remain popular, as does the only known portrait of William Shakespeare.
Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Rd. (0171) 938 8500. Tube: South Kensington. The Victoria & Albert Museum occupies a gorgeous facility near Kensington Gardens and houses more than 4 million objects in 146 galleries highlighting cultures from around the world.
Tate Museums, Tate Britain, Millbank. (0171) 887 8000. Pimlico. Although the Tate Modern relieved some of its parent’s most contemporary stock, the Tate Britain in Westminster boasts some of the kingdom’s most choice works. Its robust holdings represent British art from 1500 onwards and include items by Hogarth, Turner, Constable, Blake, and Gainsborough. Tate Modern, 25 Sumner St, Bankside. Tube: Southwark. After the Tate Modern opened its doors in the South Bank to rave reviews, it became London’s latest not-to-be-missed museum. With a spectacular selection of modern art - both well-known and undiscovered - the Tate divides its collection into Landscape/Matter/Environment, Still Life/Object, and Nude/Action/Body.
Somerset House, The Strand, at Waterloo Bridge, (0171) 873 2526. Temple. Built on the grounds of a Tudor palace, this grand 18th-century structure now houses shops, restaurants, and three museums. The priceless Courtauld Collections of Old Master, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art along with items by Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and Turner. The Hermitage Rooms replicates the interior of the Winter Palace and displays some of the St. Petersburg museum’s acquired works. The Gilbert Collection features exquisite decorative arts, especially gold and silver objects, enamel miniatures, and micromosaics.
Sir John Soane Museum,13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, (0171) 405 2107. Tube: Holborn, Temple, Chancery Lane. Eccentric architect of the Bank of England, Sir John Soane left his house to the nation on condition nothing be changed, and the result is a phantasmagoria of colors, perspectives, and artifacts.
Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. (0171) 799 2331. St James’s Park or Victoria, Green Park, or Hyde Park Corner. A selection of HM The Queen’s valuable collection of paintings is on display in this gallery. Some of the world’s most celebrated artists and artisans are represented, including Dürer, Van Dyck, Monet, and Fabergé.
Barbican Art Gallery, Silk St, Barbican Centre, level 3. (0171) 638 4141. Barbican. Although it’s said to occupy one of the world’s ugliest buildings , this gallery in the City of London hosts a variety of exhibitions dealing with historic and modern art. The gallery presents a range of exhibits that concentrate on individual artists, genres, themes, and the like.
Dalí Universe, County Hall Gallery, Riverside Bldg, next to the London Eye, just across Westminster Bridge from the Houses of Parliament. 20-7620-2720. Tube: Westminster. Boasting more than 500 works, this permanent exhibition in the South Bank area beautifully captures the curious, creative genius of the world-famous Spanish surrealist. Individual pieces are set up within a maze-like space, and as you browse, TVs and surround sound broadcast Dalí’s movies as background ambience.
Dulwich Picture Gallery, College Road, (0181) 693 5254. Designed by Victorian architect Sir John Soane, the Dulwich Picture Gallery is a small but unusually choice collection of old masters, including works by Poussin, Claude, Rubens, Murillo, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Watteau, Gainsborough. Originally assembled for the King of Poland in the 1790s, it was given a home in Dulwich when Poland was partitioned.
Geffrye Museum, Tube: Liverpool Street, Old Street. Accessible by bus, from Liverpool Street Station to Kingsland Road, or a longish walk from Old St. One of London’s hidden gems - though not easy to get to on public transport - it's well worth the trip. Converted from a row of almshouses, it’s a museum of interiors, with real rooms from every period of history (from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II), laid out as they would have been at the time. A very good collection of 20th century interiors has just been added, as well as a walled garden.
Wallace Collection, Manchester Sq, Hertford House, Tube: Bond Street or Baker Street. (0171) 935 0687. Occupying an elegant, 18th-century home in Mayfair, this superb but overlooked museum was first opened to the public in 1900. Its stunning collection includes 18th-century French paintings, sculpture, Sèvres porcelains, Venetian glass, and miniatures. Among the artists whose works you’ll encounter are Watteau, Fragonard, Boucher, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Velázquez.
THE ODD PLACES
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry is where the bells for Big Ben were struck, not to mention the Liberty Bell itself. Do not ask for whom it tolls... 32/34 Whitechapel Road, London E1 1DY, UK. Tel: (011-44) 020 7247 2599, Fax: (011-44) 020 7375 1979, email@example.com
James Smith's umbrella and cane shop is one of the oldest in London, and whether you're looking for the latest German Knirps foldable fiberglass umbrella, or a Malacca wood ivory handled cane, this elegant place makes a great stop.
London's a literary Mecca, and what better place to browse than the antique and vintage buyer's dream, the South Bank Book Market on the Queen's Walk between the National Film Theatre's cafeteria and the foot of the Waterloo Bridge. Find out of print books, as well as old magazines, maps and prints.
Leadenhall Market, Gracechurch Street, in the City of London behind Lloyd’s, open Mon-Fri. This covered market dates back to the 14th century. Among the vendors are cheesemongers, butchers and fishmongers. The ornate structure, painted green, maroon and cream, and cobbled floors of the current building (designed in 1881 by Sir Horace Jones who was also the architect of Billingsgate and Smithfield Markets), was used to represent the area of London near the Leaky Cauldron and Diagon Alley in the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Okay, I can't not mention the little moss green Freed of London shop at 94 St. Martins Lane, London WC2N 4AT, Tel: (011-44) (0)20 7240 0432. If you're a ballet dancer, this tiny shop, stuffed with walls of peach satin clad instruments of torture is Mecca. Here you can actually get properly fitted for a pair of pointe shoes, find your perfect maker, heck, you can get your foot traced for your maker. (You can't meet your maker -- for that you'd have to go to their Hackney factory workshop.) Freed still adheres to a medieval system of years of apprenticeship that lead to a position as a master cobbler. Each cobbler marks his shoes on the sole with a symbol, and dancers become almost unreasonably attached to their makers. Drama ensued recently when it turned out that the popular Mr. J will be soon retiring. I discovered on this broadcast that Mr. Crown, whose shoes I used to wear, is named "Raymond."
Anything Left-handed, 57 Brewer Street, W1, near Piccadilly Circus. This place's name pretty much sums it all up --a south-paw's dream.
Looking for the ultimate supply store for your project happy geek? Try Labour and Wait, 18 Cheshire Street, in the East End at the Aldgate stop, below Bethnal Green Road. Crystal radio kits, vintage styled kitchenware and a pleasing assortment of gewgaws for anyone looking for the unusual.
Arthur Beale, 194 Shaftesbury Avenue, WC2 (011-44) 020 7836 9034, near the Tottenham Court Rd station. This well-supplied chandlery was established at the turn of the last century, but has all you could need for a seafaring adventure.
Cufflinks -- why are they so impossible to find here in the States? So why not try Cuffs & Co? (I didn't say they were all tasteful...) 30 Covent Garden Market, The Piazza, London WC2E 8RE, Tel: (011-44) 020 7379 7889, or 4 Greenwich Market, Greenwich, London SE10 9HZ, Tel: (011-44) 020 8465 5710
Yes, the London Eye is touristy, it's the most sedate Ferris wheel you'll ever ride ("Is it going to start soon?" asks my husband, who is hoping for at least the mild swing of the Roue de Paris.) But it's still one of the best views over the Thames you can find.