EUROPE 2019 - PART 3
Updated: May 30, 2022
EUROPE TRIP | April 16th-May 22nd, 2019
May 16, 2019
Breakfast today is a quick gobble after a fire-alarm-free sleep, thank you very much. I decline the eggs and sausage offered from the kitchen in favor of porridge and fruit. I’m feeling a little over fed at the beginning of day 4 of our walking excursion in central England.
CK and Barbara have hatched the plan of action. We’ll march up hill to some high pastures, then down to the River Dove at Milldale, then back to the hotel. Sounds lovely and the weather is prime. We’re off.
The way rises almost instantly causing us to puff and huff. But with a cool, steady breeze at our back to keep us dry, we don’t feel as hot and sweaty as we might. Close cropped sheep meadow all around looks like I could hit golf balls in any direction, find it every time, and have a good lie too. They are fuzzy, four legged lawn mowers.
We come across the Tissington Lime Kiln. Its draw opening is 9 feet across. I pose for a photo just to show the scale. It’s a big one. I’m not sure which era it flourished in. I’m frequently surprised by the antiquity of some of these things. I could guess a thing to be 19th century when it is actually 16th. I find that I’m wrong by 300 years sometimes. It’s a fine day to be on the high pastures, enjoying a panoramic view of the territory even though there’s a haze obscuring things about 5 miles away. We pass through various gates and stone stiles, strolling across the sheep shorn grass, congratulating ourselves on such a fine walk.
Eventually we come to the edge of the dale containing the River Dove. Its quite a steep drop down the fields to reach the valley and the village of Milldale. There was once a water powered grain mill here but it was demolished ages ago. Now there’s a charming stone bridge and a few stone houses here. There’s no church! Cool! The pub is a mile away, up the road! Drat! A lady is selling ice cream and sandwiches from the lower floor of an old house. Nice! It feels pleasantly remote until a gigantic, roaring, modern garbage truck rolls up, taking up the entire road space between two of the buildings. There’s also a car park hosting several autos, so our imaginations can’t travel very far down the time tunnel. This is our lunch stop. A park bench by the river is the best seat available. A few seconds of sitting reveals that this is the beat of about 4 ducks who have learned the art of mooching. Not surprising given the number or humans they see and the handouts they must get. They are persistent, insistent, and determined to obtain whatever it is that we have. Just the rustle of a cheese wrapper or a paper bag is enough to have them standing between your feet. The Famous Begging Ducks of Milldale. One of them pecked my hand trying to dislodge some peanuts. Pirate.
From here the walk takes us down the legendary Dove Dale, a stroll along the river bank for a few miles on a well developed path. This area is so scenic that it attracts more than a million visitors per year. Researchers have found evidence of human habitation and hunting activities here from 15,000 years ago, which would have been during the last Ice Age. Izaak Walton, the legendary fisherman of the 17th century, fished this stream and wrote about it in his tome “The Compleat Angler”. A nearby inn is dedicated to his memory. They say that the dry fly fishing is very good here although I see no fish taking anything on the surface. I don’t see any fish at all, actually. I also notice that large stretches of the river, if not all of it, is restricted to members of a private fishing club. So, don’t go getting any ideas about nipping over here to wet your line in this stream. The caretaker will be along to take you away in chains.
The scenery really is lovely, though, particularly now in mid May. My photos struggle to do it justice. I get CK to take my photo on the Stepping Stones.
Back at the hotel we congratulate ourselves again on a fine day roaming the English countryside. A pint of lager and a steak and ale pie await. Today was a last day for a number of guests here so there’s some kind of shindig tonight with music and dancing. I’m not attending that. CK will be, though. We’re here a few more days. Sunday will be our last walking day.
Tomorrow we range further afield to Chatsworth, a place high on CK’s punch list.
May 17, 2019
Today we’re venturing further out to visit one of Christine’s must-see items, the Chatsworth Estate. It will require some motorized travel to get there. A taxi costs some £50 so we plan to proceed mostly using bus connections. We get a shared cab out of the hotel down to the nearest town, Ashbourne, not far, so it only costs £6. From there we hop a bus for £5 which, with a transfer, will get us to Chatsworth.
The excursion starts off well enough. We catch a bus in Ashbourne, ride for 20 minutes to the transfer where we supposedly have 5 minutes to wait. I need the loo, so I hustle away to that. Two minutes later, CK is at the loo door shouting that I need to get on the bus at once. It is too late when I arrive. A bus was waiting at the transfer point but was not displaying its proper route number so we thought it wasn’t ours. Then, just as it pulled out, the driver changed his route number to the one we were looking for and sped away. Now, the driver of the bus we arrived on told us to get back on his vehicle and that he would chase ‘our’ bus, try to catch it, and get us on it. And he does it! He runs us up town about 6 blocks to where ‘our’ bus was passing in the opposite lane. Our driver shouts out the window for him to hold for 3 passengers. Out we leap, cross the street, and run aboard. This new driver orders us to sit without looking at our tickets. He bleats that he is behind schedule. He complains bitterly with his dispatcher over the radio. He’s in a peevish mood. It’s another Mr Toad’s wild ride. Trying to make up time, he takes alternate routes through narrow lanes not meant for cars much less an enormous bus. And like Rowling’s Night Bus the whole rig seems to magically squeeze up to get through impossible spaces. We hope he’s taking us where we want to go. After a few minutes we are the only riders. Taking a bus in the UK is an adventure. I can’t think of any US bus driver who would chase down another bus just to deliver some transfer passengers. Remarkable.
Somehow we arrive safely at Chatsworth. This palacial operation is the haunt of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and has been since 1549. And, as so many of the British nobility have realized, they must sell tickets, sandwiches, ice cream, and souvenirs to support their sumptuous estates. And because this is a Duke’s digs, not merely an Earl or a Viscount, the ticket is £22 per person. Ouch. But it has more than just dusty old forgotten glory to unearth and gaze upon. It has been used in more than half a dozen films and was named by Jane Austen as a place visited by one of her characters in ‘Pride and Prejudice’. I think the more modern lore is why CK wants to visit.
So, we are here. The first thing is to tour the house. With few exceptions it is much like many of the other over-built homes of the Ancient 1% that we have toured. One chief exception is that this one is larger, befitting this aristocrat’s desire to project his inflated influence. There are a lot of painted scenes on ceilings, too, all looking very baroque in style. I’m unable to discover how many square feet this house commands but my guess is that it compares with the Palace of the Popes we visited in Avignon which ran over 161,000 square feet. When viewing this kind of excess I can’t help thinking that these Dukes of Old had such an unending stream of wealth that they had to invent projects to spend it on.
The grounds of the estate are staggering. Over 1,000 acres, much of it landscaped by Lancelot “Capability” Brown in the 18th century. Garden space under cultivation is over 100 acres. There are several distinct garden types and dozens of features to inspect. We walk around a fair bit of it but can’t see it all, of course. Most impressive for me was the 19th century rock garden. CK couldn’t get over the acres of bluebells blooming under the trees in some of the less developed areas. We can see that back in the day, this might have been enjoyed by ladies and gentlemen on horseback in proper dress, of course. But today there’s a colorful tractor pulling carts of tourists slowly along the paths. We’re on foot and feeling good about it.
We spend several hours gawking at all the building, garden, and artwork required to support the majestic name of the Cavendish family, getting our money’s worth as much as possible. But it all has to end, mostly because we’re tired, stunned, and dinner will be served at the hotel promptly at 7:15. Be there or go hungry. We grab an expensive cab back because the buses just don’t operate regularly at Chatsworth this time of year. Tonight is a ‘carvery’, which is to say a buffet with three kinds of roast meat, all of which, I’m sorry to note, are overcooked to the point of sadness. My theory is that the chef knows very well how to do it the right way. He simply chooses not to because he’s learned that overdone meat generates fewer complaints. All-inclusive experiences come with this kind of possibility. I don’t get upset about it. There is plenty to eat other than the roasts.\
The lunch custom here at this HF Holiday hotel is to order your sandwich directly after dinner. I did so the first day, their BLT option. I haven’t ordered it since. Their version of bacon is actually much like the Canadian style but less interesting. To a Brit, bacon is a cut of pork loin that has been cured briefly in salt brine and cooked to the point of safety. It is a profoundly tasteless source of protein. This bit of pork, bread, butter, lettuce, and tomato is known as a BLT here. I detected no mayo at all. What we call bacon in the US is what they call pork belly. I’m afraid to order pork belly here out of fear of how they might prepare it. They probably don’t even offer it at this establishment. So, I load up my lunch sack with the snack items on offer and there’s plenty of that. No sandwich, thanks.
Tomorrow, the ladies have specially prepared a most wicked route for walking.
May 18, 2019
We’re up this morning expecting a soggy, rainy day but, surprise, the weather gurus have taken the threat off. The day promises to be cloudy but dry. Nice. Perfect, in fact.
CK and Barbara select a walking route designed by the HF staff but they notice a flaw that needs correcting. There’s a pub stop but it appears just two miles from the start. We all agree that this needs to be re-arranged so that the pub visit happens two miles from the finish. This requires the walking guide to be reverse engineered. The ladies leaned into this task last night while I wrote for the blog. This walk is called “The Five Churches”. CK is expected to inspect all except one.
Breakfast has settled into a routine by now. My choices don’t go much beyond fruit, toast, and coffee. CK is down to yogurt, cereal, fruit, and a scrambled egg. We’re ignoring the mountain of food that could be ours for the asking.
The first part of the route takes us over some ground we’ve traveled earlier in the week. We walk to Ilam which takes us down to the Dove Stepping Stones and along the River Dove for a spell. At Ilam we see church #5. We’re counting down since the walk is backwards. We’ve already been inside this church so it gets a skip-over. While CK and Barbara are inspecting other parts of Ilam, I amuse myself on a park bench in the company of three crows who demonstrate their skills snatching peanuts out of mid-air. And the ice cream truck is closed, too early in the morning for that. CK teases me about it.
Our route takes us over the pastured ridge to Blore, which is hardly anything at all in terms of a village. A hamlet might be closer to the truth. It has a church, though. St. Bartholomew’s, built in 1100. Not much to it except for an elaborate alabaster tomb containing the bones of a William Basset (one of Queen E. II’s ancestors) who died in 1601. On the Churchly Countdown, this is #4.
It’s a fine day, though overcast. We’re hiking over hill and dale drinking cool English air tasting faintly of cowslip and wild garlic. And there’s often the perfume of fresh sheep poo to bring us back to Earth.
Church #3 is part of a private estate, Okeover Hall. We can see it from our path but there’s no visiting. We’ve seen private chapels as part of nobleman’s estates but we can’t remember a private church. And here we are. Now we’ve seen one.
The route notes provided to us aren’t as detailed as we like. We have a map as well as a narrative but we still get it wrong-ish on three separate occasions. We are assisted by two farmers and a gentleman walking his dog. In one instance we expect to make a turn at a particular farm but walk past it. The neighbor farmer tells us to turn around and go back. He assures is that the bulls in the field are nothing to worry about. CK and Barbara have reservations about this.
The next time we need assistance is in Mapleton, the location of the Okeover Arms, a pub which is appropriately stationed next door to the church, #2 on our countdown. This fellow halts on the sidewalk, noticing our puzzled conversation, asks where we are going. We say, “Thorpe”, which prompts him to launch into a cheerful monologue of the 4 or 5 different ways we can do that. Eventually we gain focus on the route we want and just like that we’re on our way toward a brushy corner of the graveyard and there’s our marker and gate. Thanks given and off we trudge.
We’re getting close to Thorpe, which marks the end of our march today but just before we find the proper road we find ourselves befuddled in a farmer’s hayfield. We know we’re on the right route, we just can’t find a boot track through the tall grass leading to the stile that exits us out of the field. The farmer sees us trampling his grass down so he rumbles out to meet us in his tractor. He turns out to be helpful and friendly. I was half expecting something else. Turns out we were simply in the wrong corner of the field. A better reading of the map would have solved it but there’s inexperience for you. It would have been confusing in any case because he had strung live electric fence across the path. We had to use the plastic grips of our walking sticks to lift it high enough to crawl under without getting an electric nip.
We’re now down into the village of Thorpe which contains church #1 on our countdown. We ignore it and walk directly to the hotel bar where tea and single-malt await. We’ve had 8 miles of up & down walking plus detours.
Dinner is another plate served by the kitchen containing items peculiar to British food culture. My appetite isn’t very keen to begin with and now it is reduced even further. The wine is nice, though.
Tomorrow is our last walk here in the Peak District.
May 19, 2019
We are still at Peveril of the Peak country house for one more full day and that day is today. Again, the weather forecast had a 50% chance of rain hovering over us but took it off sometime overnight. Now we have a forecast of cloudy and dry with a high of 61F (16C). Just right for walking. Our luck has been fairly miraculous regarding the weather. We have seen zero rain all week and prime walking conditions.
Breakfast: toast, egg, fruit, coffee and a short consult on the route for the day. Actually, the plan hatched by the ladies is an improvised version based on ways and paths shown on the Ordnance Survey map as opposed to the pre-scouted ones offered by the hotel. To my mind, this is a more organic way to use the maps. Understanding the amazing amount of information they contain, such as topography lines, landscape features like farm fields and stone walls, ruins, ancient burial mounds, patches of trees, helps the walker navigate a sometimes confusing landscape. What the maps don’t have are compass point directions. I might be able to guess a reason for this but I’m not completely sure. I’ve never been trained in orienteering but I reckon a few lessons would be useful if we were trying to find an infrequently used way in fog or rain. That said, a considerable percentage of the fun is in using the OS maps.
CK and Barbara do not forget that Church #1 on yesterday’s Five Churches Walk was missed as we returned to Thorpe. This is St. Leonard’s just a few blocks away from the hotel. Once visited and inspected our walk from yesterday will be officially complete. This is another 11th century Norman installation with 10 centuries of maintainance and modification added to it. And, of course a necropolis lies in stationary orbit around it. Today is Sunday but we don’t see any activity here in preparation to receive The Faithful. Curious. But I don’t think I’ll worry about it.
From here we’re off across the down and dale to the village of Fenny Bentley. The map promises CK another church so that’s where we find ourselves in short order. We find 20 cars parked on the street here and the musical notes of the organ are drifting across the gravestones. They are having Sunday, Christian style. CK and Barbara briefly debate waiting until they finish. I interrupt them with a polite hope that they don’t. Agreed to not wait, off we go to inspect the only other feature we might be interested in, the Pub. The Coach and Horses isn’t far off but it is shut. A fellow opens the door, puts his head out and asks if he can help us. We ask him when he opens. “Noon,” he says and that’s that. Barbara observes that this is likely the moment that church lets out. Makes sense. The minister probably disapproves of the pub being a competitor on Sunday.
No matter. The OS map comes out for a quick consultation. It tells us to backtrack a couple of blocks along a busy roadway to find an abandoned red phone box where there should be a marker for walkers. We find the phone box but we need a couple more careful scans to find the marker. There it is, post and all, buried under an 8 foot tall mop of ivy.
A quarter mile later, we angle toward the north across a field populated by sheep and, surprise, the only llamas we’ve seen in the UK so far. There are half a dozen of them mingled in with the sheep. Our route takes us through their field, so off we march. Somehow, our approach gets the attention of the largest of the llamas who comes galloping downhill at us at full speed. I’m the first one he encounters. He’s charging directly at me. I square up to face him with the presumption that he’ll pull up. He’s not slowing down. I blink and take an arthritic leap to the side just as he digs his hooves into the turf, halting inches away from me. Then he puts his nose directly in front of me. I expect him to drench me in llama spit. Thankfully this doesn’t happen. I reach out to stroke him and he allows it, but he’s clearly agitated. He wants to stay close to us and repeatedly nudges up as if he’s guiding us away from the other llamas and sheep. We walk carefully through his field staying close to its border with him shepherding us along. When he gets too close to us, I gently offer him my walking stick and he seems to respect that. As we gain a certain distance from his flock, he stands down from DefCon 1 and lets us pass through the next stile unmolested. We don’t have to be concerned about the bulls in these fields, but the llamas? En garde, sil vous plait!
We’re trying to get to Tissington again, just for the fun of it but taking a different way. This route isn’t frequently traveled, therefore there are no boot paths. The OS map is necessary for navigation as we cross over several hay fields both mown and unmown. Arriving in Tissington we notice some prep being done for the Well Dressing coming up May 30 (I describe this in a previous post). The backboards for the designs are floating in the pond. The idea is to soak them and coat them with damp clay. The clay holds the flower petals in place and the moisture in the boards keeps them fresh.
We’ve already visited Tissington with a tourist’s eye a couple of days ago. Today we stop for tea and to nibble our sack lunch. Before marching 2 miles back to the hotel we must go to the Edward and Vintage Sweet Shop one more time. It’s all about the ice cream. I see a flavor called Whiskey and Ginger. I must have it. It is amazing. I may have to experiment with making this one at home. I learn that the folks who produce this are so particular about their milk production that they plowed up all of their pasture to replant it with the proper grass. The original grass the cows were eating made their ice cream taste bitter, so they say. Yum, that’s good ice cream crafted, literally, from the ground up. Best in the UK, no question. And I didn’t travel across a continent and an ocean to have just one. I’m going back. This time I order a scoop of Rose and Cream with a second scoop of Rum and Raisin. Genius. But, wow, I’m full to bursting with dairy product.
The waddle back to the hotel is well known to us, having done it once earlier in the week. I’m ready for a food coma on arrival. CK goes for a short stroll in the pasture behind the hotel getting one last look at the landscape before the packing begins.
Tonight there should be fish on my plate at dinner. There is. It isn’t bad.
Tomorrow we scoot out of here, bags in hand, off on a train back to St. Pancras Station in London.
May 20, 2019
Today we leave Peveril of the Peak country house behind. We’ve had a fine week of roaming English farm and village country where the leafy greenery fills every corner and flowers seem to be in bloom everywhere the sheep can’t reach. It occurs to me that we didn’t notice any deer. Flowers in people’s gardens seem to proceed unmolested without an enclosure. This lends evidence to the possibility that deer were exterminated here long ago. Odd.
The weather was just right for walking all week: cool air, dry conditions. Despite all the unmown hayfields we walked through, I never had a wet boot. The forecast had threatened rain over the weekend but none of it materialized. Our luck in the UK has been amazing that way. We’ve only been seriously rained on when we were crossing the Pennines in Yorkshire two years ago. We had a good room at the PotP Country House, the chief benefit of which was the scalding hot heated towel rack in the bathroom. It would dry our washed items overnight. The valve was broken on the thing so the bathroom was always about 85F. We couldn’t shut it off.
Food was tailored to the British taste. I can often fall in with that but after a week I was ready to seek out something with more character than, say, a Dick & Jane Book. Breakfast was wholesome and, if desired, sumptuous with the full English breakfast as an option: Eggs, English bacon, sausage, tomato, beans, potato. And there were lots of cold choices with fruit, yogurt, cereal, toast, etc. Lunch was a brown bag that we took with us. We were to order a sandwich the day before and there were several choices, none of which were attractive to me except, maybe, peanut butter and jelly which Barbara ordered every day. The evening meal was difficult. I enjoyed soups and salads quite well. However, the main dish was consistently not to my taste unless it was fish. As I mentioned before, all the meat was severely overcooked. Alternatively, had the food been outstanding, I might have overindulged. The plainness of it kept my consumption at a lower level, a good thing.
A cab takes us from the hotel to the Derby Station. Our train to London leaves shortly after 11. Ninety minutes of rail travel should deliver us to St Pancras. The train is full. Finding a place to stow the luggage isn’t easy. I find that I have to hold my backpack on my lap. CK asks for help with her crossword puzzle. Sometimes I can summon a solution.
In London we do the 6 block luggage drag to the Tavistock hotel where our micro-sized room awaits. Barbara and CK are planning to spend the afternoon at the National Portrait Gallery near Covent Garden. For my part, I have seen enough oily paintings of 17th century merchants and Earls to last until at least next spring. I hang out at the hotel and try to discover how to press my dress shirt, the one that has been smashed in the luggage for the past month. Tomorrow I’m using it because we have tickets to the Globe Theater. Merry Wives of Windsor is on the boards.
At 6 p.m. I’m meeting the ladies at Giovanni’s, our go-to Italian restaurant in London. The walls are covered with photos of celebrities who have dined here, many of whom I don’t recognize. Others, I do, such as Cecilia Bartoli, Luciano Pavarotti, Judi Dench, Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, and Kevin Costner. But nobody famous is here tonight, just us three and another party of 4. It is Monday, so the place is quiet except for the songs of Verde and Puccini on the stereo. The food is so good and the wine so expensive. At bottle of Barolo: $83 US but it is excellent. I want to eat the entire menu. We walk back to the hotel, no metro. Yay.
Barbara is flying out tomorrow early so we say goodbye in the hotel lobby. We’ve had an excellent week of walking, enjoying her company very much.
Back at the Tavistock, our space is tiny and our atmosphere overheated, about half the size of the PotP room. We have to throw open the windows, which luckily are the kind that open. This hotel is too old to have those modern, sealed window systems. The downside is that we’ll get the full effect of traffic, sirens, and the occasional wandering madman shouting unintelligibly at 2:15 a.m. I hunt down a house fly. We’re here for 3 nights. Just yesterday our world was green grass and bleating sheep. Welcome to London.
A full day in the big city tomorrow.
May 21, 2019
Our very temporary home base is the Tavistock Hotel in the Bloomsbury neighborhood. From here we range out to only a couple of touristy sites before we return to the room for a quick clean up. We have tickets to see ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ tonight at the Globe.
Last year, CK wasn’t feeling well so I left her to sleep in the room while I went walking. I ended up in Greenwich where I visited the Naval Museum and the Prime Meridian. Today I am retracing steps so CK can get the experience she had to miss. The main exception is that we won’t do the London Eye and we’ll use the Underground all the way to Greenwich.
We actually don’t have a lot of time so we hustle to the Naval Museum. Entrance is free. The place is full of the excited chatter of crowds of school children like the British Museum, I think, every day of the school season. Number one priority is the Napoleonic / Nelson exhibit with his coat and blood stained clothes. He has hero-plus status in England, a near celestial figure who led the fight to defeat Napoleon’s fleet at Trafalgar in 1805. This gave the British total control of the sea for many years. Even though it was 214 years ago, he’s still symbolic of British pride.
Next, we find our way across the expansive Greenwich Park lawn to the Old Observatory and the Prime Meridian Marker. They have created a small museum out of this place, mostly telling the story of the struggle to develop the navigational technology needed to establish latitudinal position at sea. The key was the invention of time pieces that were accurate, portable, and rugged enough to operate aboard a ship. So, this museum is full of clocks. Captain Hook’s worst nightmare was an ardent wish of every seaman and navigator in the 18th century. We also see some ancient telescopes, some of which weigh several tons. The Prime Meridian is marked on the pavement next to the observatory. One side of the line is east, the other is west. Cellphone selfie sticks are swinging around madly here, I have to be ready to duck.
Back to the hotel for a rest and then out again walking through town to the Millennium Bridge, across the Thames to our supper reservation at The Swan, on the banks of the river right next to the Globe. 1.8 miles of urban landscape with considerable swerving and dodging due to autos and humans in our path but we arrive safely. The Swan is lovely and promises my second excellent meal in as many nights. It doesn’t disappoint. My first course is a kind of pickled bass garnished with pickled red cabbage. Delicious. This dish gives me an idea for something I might make at home. Main course is grilled hake, also excellent.
The show begins at 7:30 but we don’t have to set our phone alarms. A trio of musicians begins to play Dixieland jazz near the theater doors to lure folks toward their seats. These turn out to be cast members, part of the orchestra. We get our seat cushions and a blanket. The Globe is a replica of Shakespeare’s London stage, open to the sky, therefore can get chilly in the evening.
The production is thoroughly excellent, presented on a nearly barren stage as all these plays were back in the 16th century. The back of the stage at The Globe is much like an old Roman theater with three entrances and a second level for balcony scenes, also providing a home for the orchestra/sound effects crew. The cast is dressed, for the most part, in 1920’s costume with appropriate musical effects. Some character’s outfits stray from this quite a bit but somehow it all works. The biggest take-away I have is the clarity of character and story that 21st century Shakespeare productions seem to have, at least at the professional level. I don’t remember Shakespeare plays having this kind of entertainment value when I attended them back in the 70’s. And I don’t think this is just due to my current incarnation as an old fart. I think the whole approach to Shakespeare has changed dramatically. Anyway, the show is terrifically good stuff. Falstaff is played as a dissolute, bad tempered old Scotsman. Very funny. Dr. Caius, the French doctor, is a riot, a total show-stealer.
And that was our Tuedsay in London. One more full day tomorrow and we have no real plan other than to get CK over the the big church, St. Paul’s.
May 22, 2019
Last day in London.
Another breakfast in the Tavistock gets our fires lit and off we go to the Underground. We’re going to St. Paul’s Cathedral. £22 to get in! Ouch.
Photos are forbidden inside Christopher Wren’s religious fortress. In other churches this rule is half-hearted at best. Not here. There is an official minder in uniform every 20 meters. They are serious about selling the postcards and souvenir books in their enormous shop. CK enjoys the deco and monuments while I boggle on the construction. I realize buildings like this are supposed to make a person feel small and inadequate. Well, mission accomplished. Small wonder Charles and Diana chose to do the wedding here. It’s probably the only joint in town that could have accommodated the guest list. Photos were permitted at the top of the dome. We climbed 528 steps to get the view. Worth it! All the biking and hiking must have served us well since neither of us were winded by the climb.
Dome conquered, we descend to The Crypt: This space is not dingey and damp like others we’ve seen. It is tidy and well finished as much as a hero’s necropolis can be. Boxes of old soldier bones fill every niche, covered in glory. Wellington’s are easily found. Also Nelson’s. Nelson is everywhere. Between us we have done pilgrimage to his statue in Trafalgar Square, his flagship, The Victory, viewed the place where he fell, the spot below decks where he died, the bullet hole in his battle uniform, the bullet itself, and his blood soaked clothing. We feel that we’ve run the litany of Nelson’s relics between the two of us but I suspect not. There must be other things like birthplace and favorite pub just to name a few. Good thing he was merely a military hero. Had he been a saint they would have cut him up and shared his parts across the landscape multiple times. There are photo police here in the crypt as well, but not as many and less dedicated to their task. I spot my moment and sneak a pic of Nelson’s tomb. It’s the only photo I have of St. Paul’s interior. I’ll have to peel pix off their website if I want more. But wait! Christine tells me she’s a better pirate than I. She captured some pix and I didn’t even notice her doing it. Bonus points for CK!
The highlight for me: this crypt space has a pipe organ of considerable power. The acoustics are excellent despite all the stone surfaces. I don’t know how that works (I bet Joshua T. could tell me). I might guess that it is because of the shape of the space but I’m not sure. An organist is practicing. He looks like he might be in his mid twenties but he plays like he’s had a lifetime of experience, as good as any I’ve ever heard. I flip on the cellphone’s recorder being careful to shield it from the Cathedral Inquisition. I get 15 minutes of recording before a tour guide totally ignores the celestial thing that is happening here. She herds her group forward, shouting out her script in competition with the amazing cascade of Mozart’s Fantasie in F minor flowing out of the pipes. If looks could kill she’d be deader than Nelson.
For a lark and a bit of exploration we light out from St Paul’s to a part of London known as Little Venice. This is the Junction of Grand Union Canal and Regent’s Canal. Robert Browning, a minor deity of literature, is associated with this place. We don’t have much time to spend here, just long enough for a light bite of lunch next to the canal in the shade of Sweet Gum trees while Mother Swan swims by with her tiny cygnets in tow. Presently we must grab the Underground back to the room for a short rest and clean up before our evening plans come into focus.
Two days ago we were in the Covent Garden Theater zone when CK noticed a playbill on the street announcing “Man of La Mancha”. It wasn’t the title that caught her eye, but one of the stars. Danielle de Niese is playing Aldonza. DdeN is the blazing New Hotness on the opera scene these days. A world class soprano, superb dancer, and actress, with billion-watt glamour. Plus, she’s a nice person. She’s got it all going. What the devil she is doing, slumming it with this production we have no idea. Perhaps she’s cultivating a reputation as a trouper with no Diva complex. But no matter. At least it is the Coliseum with the English National Opera orchestra. A decision is made over dinner to go to the Coliseum box office and get tickets for the Wednesday matinee. The box office is open and the ticket lady has some nice seats for us. Just as the transaction is being made, I mention how excited we are to get a chance to see Miss de Niese on stage. “Oh, she won’t be singing the matinee, only the evening performance.” Arrgh. She is the only reason we want to attend this shallow, 54 year old, fossilized chunk of cotton candy. Kelsey Grammar, refugee of Cheers and Frasier, is in the lead role. Double arrrgh. We deftly shift our request to the Wednesday evening performance and yes!, we can get them. And so, this is Wednesday evening, our last night in London and we’re going out in style. Another meal at Giovanni’s <we haven’t found a better Italian joint yet>, then the theater to see DdeN. At Giovanni’s we see Pino Ragona this time as well as his brother Roberto. These are fun fellows and they love making jokes and being friendly. We do a wine-soaked group hug-photo. The food is sooo good here. The memory of those all-inclusive meals in France and The Peak District presents a contrast that amplifies my appreciation.
And now, the Show.
“Opera is when a man gets stabbed in the back and, instead of bleeding, he sings.” – Robert Benchley.
When it comes to Broadway musicals this quote should be amended thusly: “…he sings things he shouldn’t.” I ought to continue to be banned from writing reviews of Broadway musicals because there may be only two or three of them that haven’t made me search for a dark hiding place underneath my seat. “Man of La Mancha” isn’t one of them. It has three, perhaps four, worthy musical numbers. The show could be immensely improved by eliminating all the rest of them. I’m making it very clear that the only reason I’m attending this performance is to be within 100 feet of Danielle de Niese and her voice. She could sing ‘Three Blind Mice’ or ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ and I’d still pay real money to hear it. Here is Michael Billington of The Guardian: “Even Danielle de Niese’s fine voice can’t save ENO’s out-of-sync commercial collaboration – no matter how how many times they play The Impossible Dream.” I agree. Even CK calls Kelsey Grammar a piece of stone that has heroically ginned up enough enthusiasm to become a piece of wood <I’m taking some poetic license here, I’m sure she’ll understand>. Honest due must be given to his baritone singing voice which is not unpleasant. He is mic’d, however, as is the custom these days. I saw no microphone on DdeN.
That brings to mind the sound tech. It was perfection as far as I’m concerned. I compare it to the last two musicals I attended, both of which were horribly mixed and over amplified to the point of blinding white noise. “The Book of Mormon” was the worst <sorry, Tom>. This is the London stage, after all, and things are expected to be tikkity-boo. They are.
Danielle de Niece doesn’t disappoint. She sings brilliantly. All the Impossible Dreams are belted out and Cervantes’ bones stir somewhere, uncomfortably. There was even ice cream at intermission!
We find our way home on foot, about a mile back to the hotel, through a lively London evening. We have some packing to do. We’re flying back to Seattle tomorrow.
That’s all for this year’s adventures in Europe. The daily posts will take a pause until we launch another expedition somewhere. I may make exceptions, putting up the odd post on occasion.
We had a super time.
Ciao for now.