Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities -- My Week in London & Paris (Part II of III)

(See also Part I and my London travel guide)

As I began detailing in this post, a few weeks ago--OK, now over a month--I had an opportunity to go to London and Paris on the cheap, so I was in the former and then the latter from a Saturday through the following Friday. In London, I stayed with my friend from Chicago, Paolo, who was there on business and put up in a corporate apartment.

In Part I of my travelogue, I got up to about 1pm on Monday, the prior three hours of which I fruitlessly wasted standing in line for a day-of ticket to the da Vinci exhibit at the National Gallery in London.

Monday Afternoon

After that fiasco, I went over to the TKTS booth and was fortunately still able to get tix for the evening show Paolo and I wanted to see. More on that later.

From there I headed to Carnaby Street, which is essentially a 3-blocked pedestrianed shopping district in between Picadilly Circus and Oxford Circus. In the 60s, Carnaby was the epicenter of "swinging London." If you can imagine Pete Townshend and Brian Jones and Ray Davies and Marianne Faithfull, and a bit later Paul Weller and retroactively Austin Powers, well, they probably shopped on Carnaby Street (or wanted you to think they did).

Despite my many past visits to London, I have never knowingly walked through Carnaby Street, so I wanted to do so, especially in getting to Oxford Street, which I hadn't strolled since my initial visit in 1993.

The first Carnaby St. store I saw, coming from the South, was Pretty Green, which takes its name from a Jam song and is owned by Liam Gallagher, formerly of Oasis. Big pictures of Liam, and Paul Weller, were in the windows.

The Pretty Green clothing line was rather pricey and didn't really appeal to me, but the shop clerks had a refreshing lack of attitude. And in the basement of the shop, there was an exhibit on The Who's Quadrophenia album. It wasn't all that stupendous, but worth a look as it had some nice relics like the master tapes.

Other than Pretty Green, Carnaby Street is now rather disappointingly filled with American stores, like American Apparel, The North Face and Vans.

I got some stuff at a store called Soccer Scene, stopped for Fish 'n Chips and a lager at a pub called Shakespeare's Head and got a great cookie at Ben's Cookies. It was fun walking in the footsteps of history and thinking of the days when Hendrix played the nearby Marquee Club, but I can't report that Carnaby Street remains all that swinging.

Now, back to Oxford Street after a 18-year absence. You see, when I first visited London in 1993, I stayed at a Youth Hostel just off Oxford, with Oxford Circus being the closest tube stop. So that was the center of my world on my first, and what remains the longest, exploration of the British capital. But I recall feeling that Picadilly Circus was considerably cooler than Oxford Circus, so though it's only a tube stop and relatively brief stroll away, I'd never gotten back to Oxford Street during my London visits of the '00s.

It was nicely nostalgic to walk east on Oxford from the Circus to the Tottenham Court Rd. Tube stop, and there was more foot traffic on Oxford than I'd seen around Picadilly or elsewhere. It seemed really vibrant, even abuzz. I went into a couple stores, but at this point don't remember which or why. I also strolled around Soho Square, where several media companies have offices. I remember seeing Paul McCartney's MPL Communications headquarters there in 1993, but didn't notice it this time. But there was a good bit of construction going on.

It required a tube ride to get there, but my next stop was Westminster Abbey. I've been to, and toured, the Abbey at least once or twice, but like the architecture, history and all the famous souls buried underneath. It was around 4:30 and the church had been closed to general tourists since 3pm, but a few people were lining up for a 5:00 service. I figured, what the heck, a good way to see the abbey, if only a limited section, for free. And I got the sense that many of the other attendees were also tourists. There was no spiritual awakening, but it was kind of cool.

Theater Review

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Palace Theater, London

Priscilla is a musical that has been quite successful in London--it opened right around my last visit in April 2009--and is now also running on Broadway. I had never seen it, but Paolo had already seen it 4 or 5 times and really raved about it. So I was excited to see it, more than any other show currently in London, most of which I had already seen.

Based on a 1994 film of the same name that I also haven't seen, it is about two drag queens and one transsexual who travel from Sydney to Alice Springs, a remote resort town in Australia. The music is performed and sung live, but consists of what I can best summarize as old disco hits. This isn't technically true in all cases--you can see the song list on Wikipedia--but high energy numbers included "I Love The Night Life," "Shake Your Groove Thing" and "Hot Stuff," sometimes sung by a trio of divas high above the stage.

The story was enjoyable, with plenty of humor, and made Priscilla much more a theatrical work than Thriller (reviewed in Part I), but the show basically revolved around the high energy songs. Though many were quite fun, in sum it seemed like too much of the same thing. There were also a few song choices that seemed iffy, but I'm guessing rights clearance issues may have been a factor. As a piece of entertainment, Priscilla--the show's name comes from that of the hot pink tour bus of the traveling entertainers--was more good than bad, but I wasn't nearly as enthralled as Paolo. I'm glad I saw it, but don't see it as a show for the ages.


Tuesday morning, I left Paolo's apartment even before he left for work and went for a long walk. The photo at right shows the Shard, a Renzo Piano skyscraper that I didn't walk past on Tuesday, but had on Sunday and Monday. When finished, supposedly in May, it will be the tallest building in the European Union.

The Shard, which is near the London Bridge Tube station, was  fairly close to Paolo's flat, but on Tuesday morning, I walked in the other direction in order to reach Tower Bridge, also nearby.

I think the Tower Bridge is the most beautiful bridge in the world, although quite a different structure than the Golden Gate or Sydney Harbor Bridge.

It's possible to walk to the top of the Tower Bridge, but there's a fee involved--and also a bunch of stairs--so I didn't bother. But I enjoyed walking across it, looking out over the Thames, and winding up next to the Tower of London.

The Tower of London, whose "White Tower" dates back to 1078, is one of the best tourist sites in London, but I've toured it twice, so I was content just to take photos from the outside.

The Tower Bridge is at left, with the Tower of London shown below.

It was a somewhat brisk morning in London so I got a good hot chocolate and a couple great pastries at a stand called apostrophe near the Tower. 

I then walked through the City of London business district, probably not far from where Paolo was working and wound up at my specific destination: St. Paul's Cathedral. I had been there--and to the top of the dome--before, but not on any of my recent trips and felt it deserved learning a bit more about.

On a prior trip to London, I had discovered an excellent outfit called London Walks, which conducts several different tours throughout the city. In the past, I had taken an Oscar Wilde tour and a Dickens/Shakespeare tour. 

This time, the available tour that appealed to me most was one called Secrets & Splendors of St. Paul, taking place at 10:30 Tuesday morning.

When I arrived at the majestic St. Paul's, I discovered that it was the site that Occupy London was occupying. I thought that the tent city there was rather impressive and would have tried to strike up a conversation, but didn't readily see anyone to talk to. And though I generally support and respect the Occupy movement--at least theoretically--I couldn't think of anything that I would ask the London occupiers.

But I was somewhat annoyed at how irritated my London Walks tour guide--who was otherwise quite good--seemed to be by the protesters, who at that point were so peaceful as not to be seen or heard.

The tour--which added onto but discounted the normal admission price to get into St. Paul's--was quite worthwhile. It didn't include a trek to the top of the dome or the Whispering Gallery partway to the top, as the tour guide said she was afraid of heights, but I didn't feel the need--or legpower--to do that again, anyway.

I learned about how St. Paul's was saved from devastation during World War II when much else around it was destroyed. As it was explained, the German "bombs" weren't explosives, but rather fire sticks; buildings weren't blown up, but simply burned down.

With Winston Churchill insistent that St. Paul's must be saved, dedicated groups of Londoners would stand atop the dome and as the fire sticks rained down, they would field them and douse them in sand buckets before they could do much damage. Hence, St. Paul's survived, largely unscathed.

I also noted some of the tombs in the crypt, including famed painters like Reynolds and Turner, and directly beneath the dome, Lord Nelson.

After seeing St. Paul's--no photos were allowed inside--I made my way to the Leicester Square TKTS booth and got a discounted pair for the show Paolo & I desired for the evening.

Although London has several excellent art museums I easily could have chosen to visit on my last afternoon in town--including the National Gallery once again, the Tate Modern and Tate Britain, Victoria & Albert Museum and more--I made my way to the Courtauld Gallery, which I had been to once before but wanted to see again.

On my way along the Strand, I stopped to have Indian food for lunch at a restaurant named Sitar (I had forgotten the name, but just reminded myself via Google Maps street view). I didn't order all that much, some samosas, garlic naan and a half order of a curry with cheese, but it was all good.

The Courtauld Gallery, part of the Courtauld Institute of Art, is within a large building called the Somerset House, which dates back to 1776. There was a ice rink set up in the courtyard, but I didn't join the skaters. The multi-floor gallery isn't that extensive, but it's collection is excellent, with three of the highlights shown below. Though not free like the National Gallery, admission was a very reasonable 6 pounds. I really enjoyed it and was glad I made the effort to get there.

I was supposed to meet Paolo for high tea at the Cavendish at 5:30, but gladly had some time to stop into two nearby shops, one planned, one unplanned.

I had read about a rock 'n roll photo gallery called Snap Galleries because in the past couple years it had an exhibition on photos taken by Eric Meola for Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run album. They still had a few of those photos, as well as an oversized book of BTR session photos, but it was also fun to see other classic photos, of the Beatles, Stones and others. The gallery director was a friendly guy, named Guy, and was fun to talk with.

Through far from being able to afford anything I saw, I really enjoyed two Abbey Road outtakes that were in the windows. After all these years, it's a bit off-putting to see the Beatles walking in the opposite direction than on the album cover. 

 The other store, I stopped into twice--once because it looked cool, then again a few minutes later when I still had some time and decided I wanted to buy something--was a book store called Hatchards. I hadn't ever heard of it, but they claim to be "the oldest surviving bookshop in London," dating back to 1797. But what caught my eye was all the signed editions they had, of new books by people like Umberto Eco, among others.

On my second time through Hatchards in a matter of minutes, I figured I'd pick up something for my friend Dave, who's a voracious reader. A paperback called War Damage caught my eye, as it was one of the store's best sellers and signed by its author, Elizabeth Wilson. As I brought it to the cashier, he said, "You just missed her, she was just here signing."

Dave reports that the book was pretty good.

So then it was time for high tea, an experience I'd never had. As such it was quite enjoyable to sit within a luxury hotel--the Cavendish--and be served tea with finger sandwiches and pastries. Sure, it felt a bit pretentious and wasn't really "my thing," but as theater--for about half the cost of a half-price theater ticket--it was pleasant to observe and even partake in.

Then it was time for a show Paolo and I were both looking forward to, a recently-opened musical based on a popular movie. Unfortunately, it wasn't as good as we had hoped.

Ghost the Musical
Picadilly Theatre, London

Although before departing for London I had noted that reviews of Ghost--the new musical that had opened in July--were rather lukewarm, I still felt it was something I wanted to see. Not only was it one of the few musicals in London yet to play Broadway, or Chicago, for that matter--a Broadway opening is now slated for April--but though far from fanatical about the movie, I recalled it favorably. I figured "how awful could the musical be," especially as the reviews didn't seem to be that negative.

Well, and Paolo would concur, it was pretty darn awful. In fact, about the only good thing I can say about it, is that the actors who played the leads--as did Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze in the movie--were, not surprisingly, rather attractive.

But they weren't particularly great singers or actors, and I didn't like the guy who played the creep, Carl, but perhaps that meant he did his job well. And though we got an understudy for Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg in the movie), there was something rather distasteful about her character.

I was somewhat surprised to learn that the movie's writer, Bruce Joel Rubin, had written the musical's book and collaborated on the lyrics, with Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics) and Glen Ballard. For even though Ballard is noted for many schmaltzy pop ballads, you'd at least expect the music of Ghost to be tuneful. But forget trying to remember any of it over a month later; it was forgettable before we were out of the theater.

In fact, enough time has passed that I can really enunciate all that was wrong with Ghost, just that it seemed hackneyed and amateurish. With many video projections substituting for real sets (although there was also actual scenery), what in small doses seemed inspired, in full felt cheap.

Anyway, it was a disappointing way to end my time in London, as the next morning--quite early, especially in light of a looming transit strike--I would leave Paolo's flat, head to St. Pancras station and take a 2 hr. 20 minute train ride to Paris.

When I post Part III, that's where I'll resume and promise to keep it brief.

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