London in the sun

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In the capital

I caught the train to London after work on Friday, armed with the Dinner of Champions (cheese and onion sandwich and a gin in a tin). Mark had been staying in the capital for a conference at Birkbeck during the week and we decided to extend his stay by a couple of days so I could come down and join him.

The beautiful weather of the last few days was even more unexpected given that it is a bank holiday weekend, and therefore prone to weather fails. It was such a mild, still evening when I arrived at St Pancras at 9pm that I decided to walk over to Fitzrovia, where Mark was having dinner. The streets were full of people enjoying the warm weather and the crowds were spilling out of pubs and bars onto the streets, there was a real holiday atmosphere as I got towards Goodge Street.

Having tracked down Mark, along with several other philosophers, we made our way to Shochu Lounge for some fine Japanese whiskies before heading back to our hotel for a good night’s slumber.

Saturday morning saw us having to move hotel as Mark’s expenses would not extend to Saturday night. This involved a bit of battling with the tube as works on the Circle and District line rendered our trip to Aldgate East somewhat problematic. We eventually made it through, after an impromptu trip to King’s Cross where we made the best of it by deciding to get brunch at Caravan. We sat outside in the sun on Granary Square and it was wonderful.

After finding the new hotel and checking in, we headed up to the National Gallery, where we had tickets for the Monet and Architecture exhibition. Monet is one of my favourite artists, and I have such an incredibly emotional reaction to his works. Something about the skies… The exhibition focused on his use of buildings and structures in his paintings, from bridges and churches through to the Houses of Parliament: not entirely what we would normally associate with Monet, who is perhaps best known for painting natural scenes. It really was superb. There are almost 80 paintings, grouped roughly by geographical location, and in several cases there are series of paintings of the same scene, painted in different light or from different angles, seen together for the first time. The most striking part for me was three large canvases showing exactly the same view of the Houses of Parliament, hung on the opposite wall to several views of the Cathedral at Rouen. Each painting showed its subject in a completely different light: the London series showing sunset, fog and storm clouds, and when placed together appearing almost as a series of dreamlike visions. Beautiful.

From the exhibition we wandered out towards St James’ Park, where we enjoyed the last couple of hours of sun before it sunk below the trees, before heading back up to Barrafina for a reliably fantastic dinner as usual. It was super busy in Charing Cross and I didn’t really fancy facing crowds for a drink, so we took a long slow walk back along the river then through the deserted city and out the other side to the edge of Whitechapel and our hotel.

This morning, feeling refreshed, we checked out of the hotel early and caught a bus to Old Street to get a leisurely Sunday brunch at Lantana. I’d not been before, although Mark had, and it is a joyful place with a creative menu and excellent coffee. I enjoyed courgette bread topped with halloumi and a poached egg and we even got a lamington for pudding: like all good cafes, the Australian influence is strong. We spent the rest of the day ambling in the hot sun and checking out the markets at Spitalfields and Brick Lane, fuelled by freshly squeezed orange juice, the occasional coffee and a delightful tofu steamed bun, before getting the train home to Nottingham in time for dinner.

Having spent a large amount of time in London over recent years, both for work and fun, sometimes I find the city wears me out a little. I’m not a country person, but I’m not maybe a full-on big city person either. I’m a suburban person! But this trip has left me feeling so energised and inspired. I’ll try and get back for another visit soon.

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Trafalgar Square in glorious sunshine on Saturday, around 5pm.

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London architecture.

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St Pancras station. The beginning and the end.

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Fly like paper, get high like planes

I didn’t think it was possible to love a city more than I loved Sydney. But maybe it is.

I am still working that one out.

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Mark was a visiting academic at New York University this past semester, and spent most of September to December living in Brooklyn. I managed to get over to see him for a couple of weeks in November, my first trip to New York City.

About half way through my stay, Mark asked me what I thought of the city. I said that it feels like the centre of the world. And it really does.

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After New York, nowhere else feels like it really matters.

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It is immense and multi-dimensional. Everything everywhere is loud and moving and bright and fast. But if you get tired of that you can find peace and quiet: you can go to Greenpoint and sit on the wharf and look across the water to a gleaming view of Manhattan, you can go to a dark little bar in Bed-Stuy and drink bourbon, you can find a bench in Central Park and watch the squirrels rummage through the carpet of red leaves, you can wander the industrial streets of Bushwick admiring the huge graffiti murals, you can go to the Frick collection and find the little Vermeers, hung unassumingly in the hallway, opposite an eye-catching Renoir.

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There is always a surprise in New York. Even when you think you know what you are getting into, there is always a surprise. Brooklyn’s beautiful brownstones, strolling unexpectedly across that iconic view of the Manhattan Bridge, rye whisky flavoured with rosemary in a Williamsburg bar, Hans Holbein’s portraits of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, hung staring across at each other on either side of the fireplace at the Frick collection, looking back part way across the Brooklyn Bridge to the stunning Manhattan skyline, a singalong to Hey Jude at the Imagine mosaic at Strawberry Fields, the memorial garden Yoko Ono created for John Lennon after his death, the incredible beauty and grandeur of Grand Central, and, perhaps best of all, the moment in the MOMA when we came around the corner to find Van Gogh’s The Starry Night hanging before us, brighter and more glorious than anything else in the room (I might have cried just a little bit).

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Spring in Amsterdam

Back in May, Mark had a work trip to the Netherlands. Fancying a short break, I decided to go over with him for the first long weekend, before leaving him to knuckle down for the rest of the week.

I strongly believe in avoiding air travel wherever possible. There is no excuse for that level of environmental impact when you can take the train, and Amsterdam is perfectly accessible by train from the UK if you are not too far from London and not in too much of a rush. We headed into London early on a Thursday morning and a Eurostar with a change in Brussels later, we were soon pulling into Amsterdam just in time for cocktail hour.

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We headed into De Pijp for dinner, my favourite area of Amsterdam and full of all manner of bars and restaurants. We decided on pizza at De Pizzakamer, followed by a gander into the central red-light area of the city for some beers at Brouwerij de Prael, a chilled out bar and microbrewery, despite its location. I tend to find the centre of the city, with its raucous groups of tourists, stag and hen parties a bit much, but it’s fun to dip in every now and again.

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On Friday we were up early for a train ride to Utrecht, a smaller university city about 30 minutes from Amsterdam. Mark gave a lunchtime seminar at the philosophy faculty, but before and after we took some time to look round the city.

Utrecht is a little like a smaller, quieter Amsterdam, and had lots of lovely canal-lined streets, interesting shops and lovely cafes. Unfortunately, it was rubbish weather: a bit moist and really dark and cloudy all day. So we spent a lot of time hopping in and out of the cafes, such as the lovely Gys, in the photo below.

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Back to Amsterdam that evening, for Italian food and cocktails back in De Pijp. It was at least warm, so we sat out on the pavement of a cafe and watched the bicycles racing past.

I absolutely love how bicycle-orientated Amsterdam is. The great thing about the Amsterdam story is that it wasn’t always like it is now. Amsterdam was a very car orientated city until the 1960s, when a rising number of road deaths sparked a huge overhaul in public opinion. The cycling culture feels like it has been that way forever, but is actually the fairly recent result of mass human intervention to change the way they live. It is like a glimpse of how life could be everywhere, although sadly I feel we are a very long way off that much mental adjustment in the UK at the moment.

Saturday saw a bit of sun in between a few showers, so we headed for a walk around the Vondelpark, which is huge and lustrous.

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I am just about to sneeze in that photo, not posing.

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We headed to Koffie Academie for lunch: delicious goats cheese toasted sandwich and a little flat white to keep me going for our next stop, which was the Van Gogh Museum.

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Sunflowers in the flowerbeds around the museum! The museum is excellent and very much worth a visit. It traces the whole history of Van Goghs’s career, including one of the famous ‘sunflowers’ paintings, and gives lots of information about his life, family, friends and of course his illness. It was a really inspiring, engrossing couple of hours.

We emerged into beautiful sunshine, so headed back into De Pijp for a glass of wine, followed by a lazy walk along the canals before it was time to head for dinner with friends.

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On Sunday, it was time for me to head for home, but not before a delightful kiwi-brazilian style brunch at Bakers and Roasters. Eggs and toast and coffee and juice…mmmm. Until next time, Amsterdam!

Norfolk discoveries

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Back in April we spent a week in North Norfolk with family. Although I’m quite familiar with various parts of the North Norfolk coastline, I didn’t really know the area we stayed in, near Holt and a few miles inland of Sheringham. I didn’t manage to do a great deal of research before we set off, so our days were rather on the spontaneous side. Holt itself proved to be a lovely little town, full of interesting cafes, antique and vintage shops, independent grocers and even a record shop!

On our way to Pensthorpe Nature Reserve (which is also well worth a visit) one day, we drive past a sign for Binham Priory. Out of interest, we pulled in and discovered this fascinating English Heritage site. The extensive ruins of a Benedictine Priory, founded in 1091, are a brooding presence on the gentle, rolling landscape and are well worth a visit. The ruins also have a sign stating my favourite ever opening hours: “any reasonable time”. This prompted a lengthy discussion on what would not be a reasonable time to be found at Binham Priory…

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Paris at Christmas

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Paris is always a good idea

A couple of weeks before Christmas, Mark and I took a little weekend trip to Paris with his mum. It feels as though we are so often in Paris these days, but that is certainly no bad thing and Paris at Christmas time is always particularly lovely.

I love to see the Christmas lights, and the decorations in the department stores are so stunning. This year, the decorations and window displays at Galeries Lafayette were all made from paper and so were beautiful, sparkling white. The windows told the story of a family of polar bears who made the trip from the North Pole to see Paris, and who ran amok in every department of the store taking Miu Miu shoes, Chanel No 5 and all manner of other treats.

We also popped in next door to Printemps, where we stopped for tea under the dome, next to a rather more traditional tree! Our day of Christmas shopping was rounded off with a trip to Sephora on the Champs-Elysées, where I treated myself to a bottle of Yves Saint Laurent’s new perfume ‘Mon Paris’, as well as a couple of treats from Urban Decay (eyeshadow in ‘Backfire’) and Benefit (powder blush in ‘Sugarbomb’).

As Mark’s mum was with us, we also did a few more traditional touristy things. We visited the Sacré Coeur in beautiful winter sunshine, and decided on an afternoon boat trip down the Seine. We chose an hour’s cruise on the Vedettes du Pont Neuf, which took in the Ile de la Cité to the Eiffel Tower and everything in between. We were sceptical but it was surprisingly good fun and had some unexpectedly interesting moments, including the restaurant that was used as the model for the restaurant in the film Ratatouille!

On the morning before we returned home, we walked to Père Lachaise Cemetery. The whole place was bathed in glorious early morning sunshine and it was so quiet, so peaceful. We didn’t have a lot of time, and we’ve visited most of the famous graves on previous occasions, but we eventually managed to find Jim Morrison before it was time to head back to Gare du Nord and the Eurostar home.

Paris, tu es toujours dans mon coeur. A Bientôt!

 

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