LONDON — As a Californian, I had forgotten that you don't cancel your life just because it rains. If you did, you'd never see anything in London, at least not recently. And there is much to see.
Too much, in fact. It's a travel buffet, and it's hard not to load your plate with a plethora of monuments, historic buildings and churches.
It's important to see that London, but it's imperative to see the lesser-known London, if only to escape the hordes who are coming here for the Queen's Jubilee from June 2-5, World Pride from June 17-July 8, the Summer Games from July 27-Aug. 9 and the Paralympics from Aug. 29-Sept. 9.
By stepping away from the famous sites, you see a different, less daunting London. There's lugubrious London, luscious London, Latino London, liquid London, even low-key and sometimes low-cost London. And if even those get to be too much, there's always leaving London. So welcome to London for the "L" of it, a sort of suggestion box of ideas for a city about to steal the spotlight and always threatening to steal your heart.
If you want to torment your soul, go to the Thames on a foggy morning and listen to Big Ben chime the hour. On the right day, it's bone-chilling and it's free.
If you'd rather focus on someone else's tormented soul, check out the Wraiths of London, a 2½-hour ghost walk in central London, which is said to be haunted by the restless dead. Guide Alan Aspinall, a newcomer to the crowded ghost-walk field, takes his passion for stories, combines them with history and spins your head around.
He talks about Amelia Dyer, a "baby farmer" in Victorian England. For a fee, she and others of her trade took the offspring from unwed mothers and found homes for them. True to her name, Dyer didn't place them; she killed them. She was sentenced to death, but before her execution, she told one of the guards, "I'll see you again, sir." He did see her again — in a vision, or so the story goes. As Aspinall unspooled the tale, a street sign came loose and clanged on its metal post as we stood across from Old Bailey, the criminal court where Dyer was tried. Coincidence?
Departs 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays from Exit 1 of St. Paul's tube stop. Cost: about $13. Info: http://www.wraithsoflondon.com
After hanging with the dead, you may need some antioxidants. Chocolate always works for me, and an organized walk sounded sublime. CityDiscovery's Thursday afternoon trek took a group of us to such little pieces of heaven as Hotel Chocolat, where I learned the proper way to eat good chocolate (take a slice, hold it against the roof of your mouth, let it melt, repeat); Freggo (sample the dulce de leche ice cream with bitter chocolate); Prestat; Ladurée; and Charbonnel et Walker (where the violet and rose crèmes became my new BFF). Or you can skip the tour and go directly to Selfridges, which has many of these under one roof in its food hall. It's a little like eating dessert first, but life is short.
Info: http://www.lat.ms/Jnjsvd. About $32.
On the outside, the Church Street Hotel looks like another stately inn. On the inside? Fiesta! Bienvenidos to a Latin-flavored London, to a hotel so unexpected that you're apt to ask yourself, "Did I take a wrong turn and end up in Oaxaca?" (Not yet, but hold on and you may.)
Each of its 28 rooms is awash with color (mine was a brilliant beach-day blue), and the knickknacks and pictures say "hola." If you haven't come for the décor, come for the price (rates during non-Olympics start at an almost unheard of $145 a night, including breakfast), the quiet and the quirkiness. You pay a price for feeling South of the Border because you're in what feels like far southern London; it's a trek into the city, but I grew to love Bus 36. Note that there's no elevator, the steps are steep and illumination — in my room, at least — wasn't a strong point. Still, the hotel was a bright spot.
Church Street Hotel, 29-33 Camberwell Church St.; 011-44-20-7703-5984, http://www.churchstreethotel.com.
The next-door Angels & Gypsies restaurant is more Iberian than Mexican, but it's hard to resist this small-plates place, where hams hang in the window. The fennel/pomegranate/feta salad alone is worth it, never mind the chorizo tortilla.
Angels & Gypsies, 33 Camberwell Church St.; 011-44-20-7703-5984, http://www.angelsandgypsies.com.
If your hambre won't be satisfied by anything but Mexican, try Wahaca (Oaxaca to the rest of us), which bills itself as "Mexican market eating" with such offerings as tacos, burritos, quesadillas and salads. I tried the green rice (coriander, onion and garlic, $3.70) and piquant pork pibil tacos (three for $6.35). To put out the slight sting of the piquant: vanilla ice cream topped with pumpkin seeds and cajeta sauce (lighter than caramel, $6.35). An indulgence calorically and monetarily but a bueno one.
Wahaca, multiple locations, http://www.wahaca.co.uk.
London didn't make the Economist's Intelligence Unit top 10 list of the 10 most expensive cities in the world — Zurich, Switzerland, can chant, "We're No. 1!" — but you may feel penny-pinched compared with pricey L.A. as your point of reference. We don't, for instance, pay $30 for a one-way express train ride into the city from LAX. Oh, wait. We don't have an express train. Never mind.
For transportation other than the Heathrow Express, here are two words for every London traveler: Oyster card. You'll save major bucks and time if you have this tube/bus/rail card and perhaps feel a little smug as you place it smartly on the ubiquitous "circle" that gives you safe passage onto your chosen mode of transport. You buy the card and load it with however many pounds you like. For instance, if you're riding from Paddington to Piccadilly Circus, you'd cough up almost $7 if paying cash but only $3.20 with the Oyster, a budget aphrodisiac for sure.
Meals too can be budget wreckers. I'm tickled at having found a couple of good places near my hotels that didn't break my bank.
Some critics sneer at Masters Super Fish (191 Waterloo Road, 011-44-20-7928-6924) about a block from the H10 London Hotel, where I stayed for about $220 a night, but my early evening fish and chips dinner was tasty, and the place was full of regulars. If you're going for the décor, don't. If you're going for a nice meal of fresh fish (which doesn't have to be fried) for about $15, do.
My best find (thanks to Time Out London) was Bonnington Café (11 Vauxhall Grove, http://www.bonningtoncafe.co.uk), not far from the Kia Oval cricket ground, which puts it off the path. But I did have a sit-down lunch of vegetarian squash/chickpea curry over rice and a nice green salad for $8 (also open for dinner). It's about the dishes, not the décor, at this community-run eatery. Afterward, stroll around the square and you'll see Bonnington's pocket park (and head over to the Harleyford Road Community Garden while you're at it). Because especially in the coming weeks, London promises to be anything but an oasis of calm.
Perhaps because we think of London as stately, we also think of it as sedate. This would be incorrect. Victoria station at afternoon rush hour makes an L.A. SigAlert look like a garden party. Eventually, you're going to need to remove yourself. You can leave London (see below) or you can remove yourself from the chaos. Or both.
London is loaded with gardens — more than 2,500 of them — chronicled at http://www.londongardensonline.org.uk. I sampled several but fell madly for the Royal Botanic Gardens, or Kew. You have to want to visit Kew — it was a 90-minute bus/train/bus ride for me — but the Sturm und Drang is worth it for the sheer absence of Sturm und Drang.
The 300-acre Kew is dotted with structures (Waterlily House, Kew Palace, the Orangery restaurant and more), each of which is a little magic pocket of surprises. I suggest taking the tram ride ($6.35) around the garden and then putting on your dancing shoes to hobnob with the birds, bees and, alas, the jets that break the reverie.
Admission: $22 adults, free for children 17 and younger. Info: http://www.kew.org.
Contrast Kew's open spaces with the nine-mile Regent's Canal, a waterway and towpath enclave that's a buffer from urban insanity. Start at the Canal Museum, a one-time ice house, near King's Cross. Its history lesson on ice cream is more interesting than its discourse on the man-made canals.
On the mile and a half walk from the Canal Museum to Camden Town, I encountered bikers, joggers, strollers, moms, babies, dogs, swans, ducks and the occasional graffito. Water trickled through the locks like the tinkle of aquatic piano keys.
The bubble burst at Camden Town, reminiscent of the Orange County swap meet but with more global food offerings and less charm. A sugar infusion at vegan Cookies & Scream buoyed my spirits, as did embarking on the London Waterbus Co.'s canal boat bound for Little Venice. The 50-minute ride (about $12.30 one way) put me back in the bubble as it glided past Regent's Park, through the London Zoo and by Italian manor houses, depositing us at Browning's Pool near the renovated Rembrandt Gardens. There, willows wept but a bride and groom beamed as they posed for post-nuptial pics. Blue skies and young love — does it get better than this?
Canal Museum: http://www.canalmuseum.org. Admission about $6.35. Regent's Canal: http://www.waterscape.com/canals-and-rivers/regents-canal. London Waterbus Co.: http://www.londonwaterbus.com.
London is all about the liquid — the 60 billion cups of tea Brits drink each year, the 27 million pints of beer quaffed each day, the 23 or so inches of rain that fall, on average, in London each year. You'll find enough tea/coffee houses and pubs (although they're said to be disappearing at the rate of two a day) to slake your thirst, but your personal shelter from the storm needs a special place, and that place is James Smith & Sons, which sells umbrellas and walking sticks. It's been a going concern since 1830. I could not leave without buying an umbrella, silly for a Southern Californian.
James Smith & Sons, 53 New Oxford St., http://www.james-smith.co.uk.
Although it was raining, I didn't need the umbrella for my trip down the Thames on the Thames Clipper, which is really an enclosed commuter boat. It's an overlooked way of seeing London like a local — a local in a hurry. It leaves slowly from the London Eye, but just past the Tower Bridge, it goes full tilt on its run to Greenwich. No narration, but you can figure out the sites yourself.
It seemed only right on my liquid tour to stop at the Cutty Sark, an 1869 clipper ship that in its prime carried tea from China (and later wool from Australia). Queen Elizabeth II reopened the ship last month, almost five years after a fire gutted it. Now it sits in a steel cradle, its beauty restored, pointing proudly at this section of the 205-mile Thames as if to say, "Landlubbers are lame." You walk enough in London, and I promise that's true.
Cutty Sark, part of the Royal Museums Greenwich, http://www.rmg.co.uk/cuttysark. Admission: About $20.
What's more romantic than dinner in London? Just about anything, but definitely dinner in Paris. I'd booked the Eurostar for this fast train trip to France, leaving on the 3 p.m. speeder to Paris and returning about 9 p.m. (You gain an hour, so you'll arrive about 6:30 p.m. at Gare du Nord station.) The countryside blurred by, fields of yellow rapeseed exploding with color amid patches of vibrant spring green. From the Gare du Nord, I walked across the street to Terminus Nord, ordered a glass of wine, some escargot and a steak with béarnaise sauce and fries, which sound less sinful as pommes frites. Tab: $75, not including tip. Effect: Made me giggle at the silliness of it all. Next time: I'll stay longer. Or be more adventuresome with my restaurant choice. Or go to Brussels, which you can also do for less than a day. If you book far enough in advance, a standard nonrefundable ticket for Brussels or Paris can be about $100, round trip. Leaving London made me long for it, and I returned, happy but tired, just before midnight to log a little more shut eye before continuing one L of a trip.
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