March 25, 2011

Logistics and Beds - the Nuts and Bolts of Our Recent European Travels

Up to this point I have only shared the sights, tastes, shops, and streets we experienced during our trip to London and Paris. Now I am going to share some logistics about our trip - where we stayed and how we traveled.

In London one of my favorite neighborhoods to stay in is Bloomsbury. It is very central and yet the side streets have a quiet, local feel. On this is trip we stayed in this neighborhood at the Ridgemount Hotel on Gower Street. This hotel is located near the University of London campus and is only a 3 block walk from the Gower Street Tube Station.

The Ridgemount Hotel is a small family run bed and breakfast hotel located in a Georgian row house. The rooms are basic, but clean and the staff is very friendly. Classic English breakfast is served daily downstairs and there is also a community room with free wireless internet and a computer for guests to use. Since we were guests over Christmas there was a festive Christmas tree in the community room and the hotel staff left chocolates and wine in our room on the holiday. This is not a luxury hotel, but it is a warm, friendly, and centrally located place to stay at an excellent price. I liked the homey feel and would happily stay there again!

After several days in London and the surrounding countryside, we headed to Paris. When traveling between England and destinations in continental Europe there are two choices for transportation - airplane or high speed train. On this trip we decided to take the Eurostar train and had a great experience. After leaving St Pancras Station in London, the train speeds across the English countryside before descending underground to travel through the tunnel under the English Channel. Arriving in France the train reemerges to the sunlight and speeds past French farms and villages before arriving at Gard du Nord in Paris. Eurostar is a really efficient, civilized, and stress-free journey between London and the rest of Europe.

Once in Paris we took a cab to the 5th arrondissement where our hotel was located. Referred to as the Latin Quarter, this is a wonderful and vibrant neighborhood. This area of the city is close to Notre Dame de Paris and other sights as well as being home to a university, bookstores, and cafes.

In the Latin Quarter we stayed at the Hôtel College de France. This small family owned hotel is on a side street off Boulevard Saint Germain. It is a charming and cozy with a spiral welcoming lobby and breakfast area on the ground floor and then a spiral staircase or a very small elevator leading to the rooms upstairs. (We determined the maximum capacity for the elevator was one person and two suitcases or two people and one suitcase.) The hotel serves continental breakfast every morning, however it is not included in the cost of the room.

Even though it is right near the bustling center of the Latin Quarter, the street Hôtel College de France is located on is tucked away by the university and remarkably quiet. Since the hotel is only a block and a half off the Boulevard Saint Germain there are several cafes and shops in the local vicinity. This is an excellent for travelers who like independent hotels and want to be near the Latin Quarter and Île de la Cité during their stay in Paris.

Happy travels...

March 16, 2011

The End of This Adventure...

We ended our trip where it began - dinner at Tayyabs.

Again, we arrived early in the evening and found the restaurant already buzzling with activity. Again we brought our own wine to drink with our meal. We ordered many of the same dishes we ordered on our previous visit and a few new ones - paneer tikka, a vegetable kahari dish, roti, and lamp chops for Jonathan.

The food was just as good on our second visit - fresh, spicy, and wonderful! For dessert Jonathan selected four different sweets from the pastry case. We had one made from pistachio, one from milk, one from almonds, and one from lentils. All of them were excellent, but the pistachio was my favorite - it was creamy, not too sweet, and had a rich nutty flavor.

Tayyab’s is not only the best Indian or Pakistani restaurant I have ever dined at, it has also become one of my favorite restaurants. They serve excellent paneer and meats, delicious bread, wonderful vegetables cooked with spices, and fabulous sweets. On my next trip to London, this is definitely the first place I want to go to eat!

March 11, 2011

A Tower and a Bridge

London is an old city. I grew up in New England and, for the new world, Boston is an old city. But, London is different. Here there is a feeling of history in the stones and the alleyways.

On one of our last days in Europe we visited the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge. Sandwiched between the tall buildings of London’s financial business districts and the modern architecture on the south side of the Thames, this medieval castle is dwarfed. In centuries past it must have been an impressive sight - huge stone walls and towers on the sitting guard on the edge of the river. Protected by a moat, embankments, and walls it also stood formidable against any enemies. This place has watched history unfold in this city for almost a thousand years.

We began our visit with history on the Tower Bridge. This bridge is one of the iconic pieces of London architecture. It majestically spans the Thames linking the historic side of London with the more modern South Bank.

After walking along the bridge we headed to the entrance of the Tower of London. On all my visits to London, this was going to be the first time I went inside the castle walls. (Perhaps the almost £20 ticket price had something to do with that... However, this time since I had my husband Jonathan to explore the castle and share the experience with that seemed okay.)

Once inside we began to realize just how much there is to see at the Tower of London. In addition to the White Tower, there are the castle walls and many other buildings. There are also several exhibits, including the crown jewels and numerous sets of armour belonging to English kings.

When you visit the Tower you have two options, to explore on your own or take one of the guided tours led by the Yeoman. We decided to take the independent approach and began walking around the castle walls and the various buildings along the edge of the castle grounds. From there we went to the chapel and finally ended our visit with the exhibits in the Jewel House and the White Tower.

Like Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London is full of history. While the Tower started as a royal residence, but was eventually used as a prison during the time of King Henry VIII. This is where that king held two of his wives and many others prisoner before having them executed. Several of his victims are buried under the floor of the chapel.

One thing I did not expect to see was the historic graffiti. We often think of this type of art (or vandalism) as a modern phenomenon, but that is most definitely not true. At places around the Tower of London you can see where visitors and prisoners inscribed their names or messages into the stone walls. In particular, Catholic monks and priests held captive by Queen Elizabeth I carved passages from the bible and elaborate drawings in addition to their initials and calendar dates or years.

We walked around for over two hours and still did not see everything... It was fun and interesting to visit a place that has been witnessing history for for so long.

March 6, 2011

Enjoying Bread and Wine Back in London

After a week in the City of Lights we returned to London. On our first night back in England we took the tube to Liverpool Street station and walked towards Spitalfields Market for dinner.

Our dining destination was St. John Bread and Wine. A white facade with black letters mark the building that houses this dining establishment. Inside the decor is equally understated - the focus here is food. This restaurant is known for serving quality, well prepared (mostly classic British) food. In addition, they are known for preparing all types of meats, including those that are traditionally considered economic cuts. (There are also vegetable and fish dishes on the menu.)
After sitting down our waiter served us a plate of bread and butter. Jonathan selected some wine from a chalkboard list, and then we began to review the menu of the day. They offer both smaller plates and main courses, all of which vary based on what is in season. We ordered green olives, Jerusalem artichokes, and a beetroot salad with horseradish dressing to share; in addition, Jonathan got crispy pig skin and mutton with quince.

The olives were lovely - large, crisp, and flavorful. The beet salad was fresh and earthy with an excellent horseradish dressing. Jonathan thoroughly enjoyed crispy pig skin. He was surprised to find his mutton dish was actually a cured meat - like a ham, but originating from a different animal. However, he enjoyed that was well. The artichokes were roasted with crispy, slightly-caramelized edges and were served with arugula. This was our favorite dish - so much so that we ordered a second serving.

Next I ordered some British cheddar and Jonathan got a dish called “middle white faggot and swede”. Before ordering the dish, he did ask the waiter for some explanation. We learned that "faggot" in old British cooking is a bundle, and in this case it was a bundle of meat. Then she continued to explain that swede was a vegetable. (I later learned from Wikipedia it another term for rutabaga because that vegetable is often called a Swedish or yellow turnip.)

Jonathan’s intriguing dish arrived and looked like an over-sized meatball served on a root vegetable purée. The cheese was very good - a wedge of fabulously intense cheddar served with raisin bread. It was the perfect end to meal after a week of eating chocolate and sweets south of the English Channel!

St. John Bread and Wine is a simple, yet elegant restaurant. Stark, yet cozy. It is a place you will want to order a second dish of vegetables and enjoy your bread and wine.