The Joys of London and Barcelona
“The Joys of London and Barcelona,” with photographs by Marcia Jacobson, The Syracuse Post-Standard Sunday STARS Magazine, June 2, 2013, 5-7.
Along with Paris, Rome, Florence, and New York, London is one of my and my wife’s five or six favorite cities in the world. I have been there in every season, which some would categorize as two: 1) the rainy season; and 2) a handful of widely scattered days when an orange disc know in some cultures as the sun appears.
Redcoats in the Tube (Subway), London
My wife and I like to go to Europe in mid-March, often to visit two or at most three cities. This gets us away from the greyness of upstate New York and often into warmer climates. Readers of these pages may recall that last year it was Paris, Rome, and Florence. While the weather in more northerly London is chancier than Italy or Spain and even more erratic than Paris, we expected warm weather in Barcelona. In our eight days and seven nights in London, we planned on theatre in the evening and therefore less leisurely meal times. We thought a slower pace in our five nights four full day Barcelona stay would enable us to get some sunshine and linger over tapas.
In fact, our London weather was unusually cold and rainy. But the people in London are warm, friendly, helpful, and gracious, even gregarious. They are far different from the stereotypical keep-to-your-selves, gloomy Londoners--still affected by the aftereffects of World War II--that I found when I first visited in the early sixties. People actually talk to you on the Tube and graciously respond to your requests for directions.
Our coach (also know among frequent flyers as steerage or sardine class) air ticket on British Airways (New York-London-Barcelona-New York via London) cost about $1200. On balance, I like British Airways’ service and food more than that of some of other carriers, but not enough choose them every time I fly to Europe. British Airways also offers for a little more money a slightly higher level tourist class—called premium economy or world traveller plus-- to which we were upgraded on the London-New York segment.
As soon as you arrive in London, I suggest buying what is called an Oyster Card for a week for less than $50 (30 pounds at about $1.60 a pound) and you can take tubes (subways)—an excellent system and the world’s first and, I, think, best-- and buses to your heart’s content. One way tube rides cost almost $7 so it makes no sense not to buy these week passes; you can also buy day passes for $11, and there are many other options.
Ramses II, Egyptian collection, British Museum, London
On a first visit, of course include Buckingham Palace (and the changing of the guard), Westminster Abbey, Parliament, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Hyde Park, and the Tower of London. If time permits, day visits to Oxford or Cambridge are fun. We return to some of these sites on each visit, but we also pursue our interests in museums and theatre. As one returns to cities, as I have to London, it is fun to watch a city evolve. For example, Southwark has become in recent years a nice area with the Globe theatre and interesting markets as well as funky restaurants. This time I enjoyed a visit to Southwark Cathedral, with its long history that began in the year 606.
Most museums are free although special exhibitions at the same museum can require a special fee up to $20 or so.
The National Gallery has one of the world’s great collections of paintings. It is always a pleasure seeing some of my favorites: Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks (another version is in Paris), Raphaels, Titians, Caravaggios, Rembrandts and the Velasquez collection which is the best I have seen outside Madrid, to say nothing of the three Vermeers in residence (one of which is on loan). This museum also has fine Impressionists and Post Impressionists holdings. Next to the National Gallery is the National Portrait Gallery another favorite and especially fun for a history buff.
The Tate Modern, which we never miss, had a collection that runs from the high modernism of Matisse, Picasso, and Mondrian through the twentieth and early twenty-first century. Another day we went to the Wallace collection, where highlights are an Andrea del Sarto, a nice Titian (Perseus and Andromeda), a few Rembrants, some wonderful Jan Steens, and quite a collection of 18th century French paintings, particularly rococo. While we were there, the Wallace was featuring a Murillo exhibit.
The Wallace collection has some great paintings, but some dis-attributions typical of wealthy families collections. I am far from an expert, but my eye could have told the collecting family that a few of the former Rembrandts were not Rembrandts.
Ramses II, Egyptian collection, British Museum, London
Another great museum is the Courtauld, which does have a nominal charge. While we were there they were featuring an exhibit entitled "Becoming Picasso, Paris 1901," including works I teach such as "Yo, Picasso,” and some of the great paintings of isolation and melancholy from the early blue period. The Courtauld also has a great permanent collection, from pre-Renaisance through Matisse and Modigliani, including the great British 18th century paintings of Reynolds and Gainsborough, and should not be missed.
No visit to London is complete without a visit to the British museum with its wonderful Egyptian collection and the so-called Elgin Marbles, notably the sculptural frieze from the Parthenon. The Greek government thinks that these Parthenon antiques should be returned, but the British feel that have preserved and displayed them as a world treasure.
Also recommended are the Tate British with its wonderful Turners, and the Victoria and Albert, the great museum of crafts and design, with its wonderful Raphael biblical cartoons (sketches) for the tapestries covering walls of the Sistine Chapel.
One of the joys of London is excellent theatre, and the prices of tickets are lower than New York. Be advised that the best way to get tickets for plays you don’t want to miss is to book online. You can buy discount tickets at various booths in the theatre area for the shows that are not selling out.
While ordering on line some weeks before your visit is a good idea, do leave some nights for discovering opportunities that are not widely advertised. The hotel concierge will book tickets and doesn’t take a commission or expect a tip as in the US. For example, we saw a fringe theatre performance of Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage at The Rose, the site of London’s oldest theatre where Shakespeare performed in 1590. It was very good, although the theatre had no heat (and never does) and gave out blankets to the audience. Also without bathrooms, it is not for the weak of heart on a cold night or indeed perhaps any night.
Perhaps the most stunning and haunting performance was the Arthur Pita’s Royal Ballet’s production of Kafka’s Metamorphosis: 80 minutes without intermission, featuring the acrobatics of the wonderful Edward Watson. We had seats on stage for James Graham’s This House, a splendid well-acted, lively play at the National (the Olivier) about the machinations and human side of Parliament in 1970s at a time when Labor either just lacked or barely held a tenuous majority. Sitting on the stage was great fun since actors sometimes would be sitting next to us before jumping up and making a speech or clamoring for attention.
Cheese shop, Southwark, London
Our theatre experiences included a fine production of The Winslow Boy, Terence Rattigan’s well-crafted 1946 post-war play based on actual 1908 case of a boy at Osborne Naval College accused of stealing and expelled. We finally caught up with Warhorse, which was cancelled by Hurricane Sandy the night we had tickets in Manhattan. Warhorse is a great spectacle with its puppetry, but it is not a great play. To me, it seemed to be more like a children’s story with limited dialogue, notably in the quite loosely structured second of two acts. It was in fact written originally by Michael Morpurgo as a children’s novel (1982) and in 2007 turned into a play.
Hotels: London and General Observations
Over the years those who have read my articles or heard me discuss travel on radio have asked me to discuss this subject in an article on European cities.
For the city vacations, a nice hotel is part of the experience. I don’t subscribe to the view that “we are not in the room much anyway, so why does the room matter,” particularly for those of us who are not twenty-six and cherish some hotel time.
The JW Marriott (Grosvenor House, Park Lane) is an excellent full service hotel located near the Hyde Park Corner and Bond Street tubes. It is in Mayfair, quite an elegant area. The hotel has the largest ballroom in Europe and hosts major events. The attentive staff is worthy of its five star hotel classification. The gym has quite nice weights and aerobic equipment. On balance, it is one of the nicest hotels at which we have stayed.
If you frequent one hotel chain, you can get access to the Executive lounge with complimentary breakfast, perhaps a room upgrade, and free Internet. In our case now it is the various hotels brands owned by Marriott, but we have in the past stayed regularly with Starwood. In the case of this JW Marriott, the Executive lounge was open every day for high tea with delicious scones and ample dinner snacks for nights, which were sufficient when we had theatre tickets and did not have time for a full dinner.
The points accumulated from prior stays at Marriott hotel helped pay for our stay. If you use the hotel chains’ credit cards instead of an airline credit card, you get rewards more quickly. Certainly, in terms of dollars spent, the Marriott Visa is a better deal than, say, my US Air Master card or other airline cards I have held.
On our prior two London visits, we had stayed at the Hotel Russell in the Bloomsbury area, closer to theatres and in the same neighborhood as the British Museum. While not as luxurious, it is more than adequate.
Wallace Collection, London
Dining in London:
Because of our focus on theatre and museums, we put less emphasis on dining. It is always a problem to eat a full meal before 7 or 7:30 theatre unless one skips lunch. London now has a host of great restaurants by star chefs like Gordon Ramsay, but these don’t work before theatre. We enjoy moderate price Indian restaurants like The Chambli (146 Southampton Row, Bloomsbury) or Hasan Raja (84 Southhampton) More elegant Indian is at Vereaswamy (99 Regent Street) which we have enjoyed over the years but it deserves some time.
Also recommended for pre theatre: Pho, part of a small chain of Vietnam restaurants is a good value (163-165 Wardour Street, Soho). Soho has a host of moderately priced Chinese restaurant although they are not as quaint as the four table venues of my youth. The Steakhouse at our JW Marriott is pricey but excellent with impeccable service.
On to Barcelona
Barcelona is Spain’s second largest city to Madrid. But with its sea setting, beaches and harbor, Barcelona is the more beautiful and tourist friendly. I have been in Spain at this time of year when the weather was much warmer, but we had mostly early spring weather in the fifties and low sixties.
On my first visit to Barcelona in 1968, the longtime dictator Franco was still suppressing the population of Catalonia, the region of Spain for which Barcelona is the capital and largest city. Indeed, outside of the cities behind Iron Curtain, which I had visited by then, Barcelona was if not the grimmest, greyest city I had visited in Europe, a strong contender. My memory is of people wearing dark, even black, clothes, During Franco’s dictatorship that began in 1936 and ended with his death in 1975, people were not permitted to assemble in more than very small groups. The next time I visited two years after the 1992 Olympics, it was a city transformed into one of the most ebullient, colorful, even hedonistic cities in Europe. Now Barcelona is renowned as one of the European wonderful cities to visit, with a wide range of cultural and social pleasures.
While Barcelona is a great walking city, I recommend supplementing walking with the subway. Ten tickets are about $13.35 (about $1.35 to the Euro)and that is better than paying $2.70 for an individual ticket. Less English is spoken in Barcelona than many major Western European Cities on the Continent.
Detail, Barcelona Cathedral
One of the pleasures of Barcelona is walking La Rambla, a pedestrian street with shops and restaurants. A fine activity is to walk the bustling Rambla, less than a mile, from the vibrant port, with its Christopher Columbus monument at one end and the Place de Catalunya at other. The wooden walkway into the harbor is called the Rambla de Mar. It is, in fact, a floating pier.
The huge Antoni Gaudi’s Sacrada Familia basilica has progressed greatly since my 1994 visit, whereas it had merely inched along between my first visit in 1968 and my second in 1994. Indeed in 1994 I thought the Church, begin in 1883, and still mostly unfinished, wouldn’t be completed for hundreds of years, but amazing progress has been made and it will be finished in 2026 or so. Among the most impressive features are both the Nativity and the more recent Passion façades. The Glory façade is not yet completed. The plan is a Latin cross with five aisles, central nave vaults reach 150 feet. When all 18 spires are completed, with the one honoring the Virgin Mary as the highest, the Sacrada Familia will be the world’s tallest church building.
Before this visit, I had thought Gaudi an eccentric, but, in part because of the exhibit in the basement defining his concepts, I now think, with his stress on geometric shapes and natural forms, that he is an architectural genius if, like most geniuses, an obsessive one.
Order your tickets on line—about $20-- and ask for a morning time so that you are not overwhelmed by crowds. One can also visit a number of houses designed by Gaudi; for the less enthusiastic, one can simply view their exteriors.
The Old Town or Gothic Area.
A nice counterpart to a day looking at Gaudi is a visit in the Old Town to see the Gothic Barcelona Cathedral—also known as La Seu. This is one of most beautiful in Europe and constructed from the 13th to the 15th centuries--although mostly in the 14th century--and known for its wonderful gargoyles. Also in that area, the Old Roman Wall is an imposing site.
Little remains of old Jewish quarter—known as the Call-- which flourished before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492. The most striking site is the remains of the oldest synagogue in Europe, possibly dating to the second century, which was discovered in the late 1990s (a brief talk in English or Spanish accompanies the visit; 2.5 Euros).
Expanded and improved since my last visit, the Picasso museum specializes in early and late Picasso, including versions of the 1957 series that uses as a point of departure Velasquez ‘s Meninas. It has very little in between 1917 and 1957. Perhaps its most famous painting is the 1901 Self-Portrait, “Yo, Picasso.”
Gaudi church, "Sagrada Familia"
The hill area knows as Montjuic offers wonderful views of the city, including the harbor, and as well as important sites. We spent a good part of two days there. A visit to the well-preserved 1992 Olympic stadium—actually built in 1929--and site is worthwhile.
Towering above fountains and gardens with a memorable approach by stairs or escalator is the Museu Nacionel d’Art de Catalunya. It has some extraordinary medieval art dating to the 9th century as well as loans from the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid and many less know Catalan painters, I enjoyed El Grecos, Zubarans, a Velasquez and a Goya.
Fundacio Joan Miro is one of best single artist museums I ever visited, and I now see Miro—whom I always liked—with new eyes and understanding. Well-done in every way, with films and wall descriptions in English, Spanish, Catalan, and French.
Other Important Sites
The Palace of Catalan Music is an elegant example of Catalan modernism. Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, abbreviate as MACBA, opened in 1995 after my last visit and is worth a visit for Richard Meier’s architecture as well as for the collection.
Miro Foundation, Barcelona
If you go to Barecelona:
We stayed at the well-located Renaissance hotel (Pau Claris 122 Barcelona, 8009 Spain), a four star hotel just raised to a five but not quite ready for that designation. Owned by the Marriott, the Renaissance chain sometimes lacks, as this hotel did, an Executive lounge. We had some clumsy moments with concierge who wouldn’t book tickets for us, even with our credit card, and keys that don’t work. The rooms were about as small as I ever seen for a five star or even a high-end four-star hotel.
Like many Marriott owned properties, our hotel had a steak house; the food was expensive but quite good. I particularly recommend the tomato salad and the Catalan crème.
The Spanish eat late, often choosing small plates called tapas.
--Tapas, 24 (Diputacio, 269) is considered rightfully one of best Tapas places, and always busy. We thought that the prices, while a little steep, were fair for the quality. Recommended and fun.
--Cathitos (Rbl de Catalunya, 33)—paella, lental soup, some tapas. Respectable but not great.
--Divinus, 28 Passig de Gracia, is chain with moderately priced and decent but not great tapas; the staff slightly cheated on bill. The pizza was terrible and we sent it back.
General advice: avoid Spanish pizza and try local bakeries.