Wednesday 25 March 2015

A walk down memory lane, London

Way back when... Image from HERE
The last time I was in London a feisty redhead married her prince charming.  Back then I joined the crowds lining Pall Mall and caught a glimpse of the bride's veiled tiara as she was transported by carriage to Westminster Abbey to begin her fairytale.
That same year, in that same city, a certain young Australian copywriter was dashing about on Hampstead Heath.  Did we bump into each other?  Unfortunately, no.  We were just two of the many thousands of antipodeans who flocked to London in the mid 1980s.
Neither of us had been back to London since those heady days of the late 1980s and early 90s, but with the lure of cheap flights from Venice, we finally returned.

As the plane wheels touched the tarmac at Gatwick airport, Stefano admitted to feeling slightly ambivalent about visiting the city that had been his home for nine years.  I, on the other-hand, felt totally excited.  I couldn't wait to see what London looked like at ground level, rather than from the depths of the tube tunnels which was all I seemed to remember from my brief time there working as a teacher in the East End.
On our first morning, under familiar grey skies, we set out to visit the new Tate Modern gallery. Emerging from Embankment station, Stefano mentioned with relief that London still looked familiar and more surprisingly, the grey skies were in retreat. 
Reassuringly those red double-decker buses, fleets of black taxis and massive sandstone churches were all still there.  
Then we walked across the Millennium Footbridge to the Southbank and suddenly London's familiarity disappeared as we glimpsed a new, strikingly modern skyline.  
Our week in London was filled with many similar instances.  The familiarity of old haunts mixed with the excitement of new discoveries.
Here are a few highlights from our stroll down memory lane:
Old haunts. 
Much of my life in the mid 1980s revolved around the South Kensington tube station.  In those days, many Australian friends lived nearby, so after teaching in the East End I would catch the Tube to South Ken station, spending many nights sipping a cider or two in the local pubs full of young Kiwis and Aussies.  When we returned to South Kensington this time I immediately noticed that while the tube station had hardly changed, the surrounding area is now filled with trendy cafes, restaurants and bars patronised by Europeans with not an accent from 'down-under' to be heard.
Back in Hampstead, Stefano quickly recognised his old 'gaffe' - the top floor of this smart looking Victorian terrace.  
The Heath was as open and expansive as ever.  However, Stefano commented that although it had always been a 'nice neighbourhood', the streets and houses looked even more picture perfect.
Hampstead, like most of inner London, is booming as young people from all over the world flock to work in this city that seems to be enjoying yet another economic resurgence.

A bit of British culture.
There are so many fabulous galleries and museums in London, so rather than become overwhelmed we followed a plan to savour, rather than overdose on paintings, sculptures and exhibits.  Our strategy was to limit ourselves to the choice of one museum each and to take an introductory tour.  Stefano's choice was the Tate Modern Gallery and mine, the Victoria and Albert museum.
View of the Thames from the sandwich bar on the top floor of the Tate Modern.
Arriving at the Tate Modern Gallery we felt as though we'd been blown into an airport hanger.  The ground floor is a chilly, cavernous space so we were very glad to escape to Level 4 where we joined a free tour,  Structure and Clarity, introducing a section of the abstract art collection.  We thoroughly enjoyed the tour as our volunteer guide was passionately interested in abstract art, and what's more, we understood every word he said, a pleasure we've been missing for the past 20 months.
 Untitled by Donald Judd
Although I'd become familiar with South Kensington in 1986, I have no memories of visiting the Victoria and Albert museum.  It was time to rectify that dreadful oversight, so the V&A was my museum choice.  Sticking to our visit plan, which was possibly even more crucial given the huge size of this museum, we began our visit with a free tour of the British Galleries.  Once again our volunteer guide was delightful: a spritely English woman who ushered us through a maze of rooms, stopping here and there to tell us about some fascinating objects and their connection to historical events.
The most memorable was the famous Great Bed of Ware which was originally built as a tourist attraction in the 16th century, by a group of clever hoteliers from the town of Ware.  Its fame spread throughout the country as apparently four or more couples could sleep together in the giant bed, and it was even mentioned in the literature of the time.  But folk were warned that the bed may have had magical powers, as many reported strange itching and scratching sensations, preventing a good night's sleep!
The V&A Cafe set in the famous Morris, Gamble and Poynter rooms.
Discovering Fulham and Parsons Green 
Although we spent most days exploring the sights of London, it was always a pleasure to return each night to a wonderful apartment in a part of London that wasn't familiar to either of us.  Basement apartments in large terrace houses often seem dark, damp and depressing and I'm sure many of them are, but this beautiful apartment, that we called home for six nights, changed my opinion of below-ground quarters.  
This photo doesn't do it justice.  So cosy and comfortable.
Staying here was an unexpected highlight of our London visit.  We spent a relaxing day enjoying the neighbourhoods of Fulham, Parsons Bridge and Putney.   Fulham Palace was at the end of our street, so after stopping for lunch in the lovely cafe, we enjoyed wandering though the gardens along this stretch of the Thames. 
English gardens
The English do gardens so well.  Although the weather was still quite cool, and sometimes overcast, we couldn't help admiring the lush, immaculate lawns and beautiful gardens just starting to bloom.

If only other cities would follow the example of the English.  
Yes Venice and Milan, I'm thinking of you.  

A real highlight of our trip was catching up with friends who have made London their home.  
Roger, Sally and Johnny treated us to a wonderful home cooked 'Anglo-Indian' banquet,  
and Esther took us on the best tour of our week in London, a walk through the Borough markets and along the new Southbank.  It was fabulous to catch up with these friends who we'd not seen in many years, and yet the years disappeared as shared adventures were reminisced.  
We didn't travel to Buckingham Palace by carriage, but after all those years of nonchalantly driving past it Stefano finally succumbed to the magic of this castle.  A fitting end to our six day fairytale in London.

Arrivederci Londra, e domani un giro in le colline.

Where we stayed:
This apartment has set the accommodation bar very high.  I don't think we will find better on our trip home.  Found it on Homeaway CLICK HERE
Where we ate:
COTE Brasserie
As the apartment was so gorgeous we mostly enjoyed eating at home, but we did venture out a couple of times.  We had a delicious three course meal at Cote Brasserie, 45 Parsons Green Lane for the bargain price of 11.90 pounds, the only catch, you had to be seated by 7.00pm.  So when in London...

Saturday 14 March 2015

Venice surprises

Our first stop on the long road home was Venice. We arrived at night with low expectations.  It had been raining and cold in Milan.   As soon as we exited the train station the beauty of the grand canal took our breath away.
From the outdoor deck on the local ferry, il vaporetto, Venice glistened, shimmered and glowed.  We agreed that the incredible view was worth every chilly minute.
Venice is blissfully quiet.
 It probably shouldn't have come as a surprise, but no cars means no traffic noise.
And while we joined many hundreds of tourists snaking our way along the narrow streets, or flocking to San Marco piazza and the Doges' Palazzo,

most of the time the paths and bridges were empty, 
with just a gondola or two, quietly slipping by.
The island of Burano was vaguely familiar to us,
but the intensity of the colours was surprising, as were the number of people taking 1000s of photos. Even photos of people taking photos.
Of course we got lost, but there are many signs pointing to the key landmarks, so finding our way through the maze of paths, canals and little bridges was surprisingly easy.
We even found an excellent gelato thanks to our friend Caroline, a Venice local.
But the biggest surprise for both of us was how much we loved Venice.
Almost thirty years ago we'd visited Venice on chilly, drizzly winter days.  We remembered only the dampness, the smells and the pigeons. Well actually, I only remembered the pigeons.
After a week of wandering through Venice we've surprised ourselves by becoming fans of this incredible city, in spite of the ongoing pigeon plague.
Venice was a surprisingly relaxed place start to our homeward journey.
Arrivederci a Venezia e salute a Londra.

Where we stayed
A basic but warm one bedroom apartment, in a handy location close to the train station. Definite bonus was that we didn't need to wheel our little bags too far over the cobblestone streets. Homeaway link CLICK HERE
Where we ate
We didn't find any fantastic places to recommend except for the Gelateria Nico, where the locals get their gelato CLICK HERE

Saturday 7 March 2015

#NoFilter Milan: Window on the city

Christmas window display, Dolce & Gabbana on via Della Spiga
Milan is a great place to go window shopping.  It's flat so very easy on the feet, has a gelateria on almost every corner for refreshment as you stroll, and it has some of the most beautiful shop windows in all of Europe.  The place in Milan that is most famous for stunning displays is the aptly named Quadrilatero d'Oro, the Golden Rectangle. This little area of interconnected streets is where all the main fashion labels of Italy, and many from abroad, have their flagship stores.  Here you can see elegant displays of the latest fashions in almost every window, but it is the displays of Dolce & Gabbana on via Della Spiga that take first prize. 

The windows of Dolce & Gabbana go beyond simply showing their exquisite clothes and accessories as they are planned to tell a story of the season.  Whether it's a lavish Christmas banquet, or the scent of spring from the balcony of a Sicilian family home, their displays produce spontaneous reactions of wonder and surprise.

Window shopping is a popular pastime with the Milanese.  After around 4pm it’s a common practice for them to spruce up and step out for an afternoon passeggiata.  Most afternoons, but especially on the weekend, the streets fill with well-dressed Milanese meandering along and stopping to study the latest fashion trends on display.  
The red cross, a symbol of Milan in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele
Another popular place for window shopping is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, one of the oldest undercover shopping malls in Europe.  Whenever I visit the centre of the city, I can't resist a quick stroll through it, not just for the window displays but because of the building itself.  This beautiful arcade with its arched glass domed roof and brilliant mosaic floor was finished just after the unification of Italy.  It is filled with symbols of nationalism and hope for the new country. The shop interiors are equally beautiful and the shop assistants will greet you warmly without pressuring you to buy.  CLICK HERE to read more about the history.
But while Milan is known throughout the world for its haute couture and cutting-edge design stores, there is another lesser known and less glamorous aspect to its shopping that nonetheless adds richly to the fabric of Milanese life. Throughout Milan there is a register of shops of historic value which continue to operate and serve the people of Milan for their everyday needs, like the Ferramenta hardware store which has been run by the same family since 1927.  The little brass plaque beside the front door indicates that this shop is registered on the Bottega Storico list of shops and businesses that have historical value.  I have walked past this old store, located in the design district near via Tortona, many times and it never fails to catch my eye with its beautifully proportioned old windows and eclectic display of everyday items. 
Ferramenta Pietro Vigano, via Montevideo, 8, 20144 Milano
A few weeks ago I went for an afternoon stroll along Corso Vercelli.  This wide boulevard, quite close to Milan's Parco Sempione, is lined with beautiful shops where Milanese of all ages can be seen coming out for their afternoon passeggiata to enjoy browsing along the shop-fronts.  Not only are there branches of the city stores, but there are also some lovely upmarket boutiques.  However, it was down a little side street that I was reminded of the other world of shopping and life in Milan.

Shoes always catch my eye, and down this street it was Antonio's tiny shoe repair shop that stopped me in my tracks.  It is no wider than a pair of French doors and I found him sitting in his sunny shop window carefully repairing a pair of beautiful Italian shoes obviously worn down by their owner's daily passeggiata
Antonio, il ciabattino.
When I stopped and asked to take his photo, "Posso fare una foto signore, per favore?" not only did Antonio happily pose, he then proceeded to give me a little tour of all the machines in his tiny shop and to demonstrate how each worked in the process of repairing shoes.
It's these moments of window shopping in Milan that I enjoy the most, the unexpected friendly conversations. The Milanese have a reputation for being snobbish but I've always found them to be helpful and charming if you initiate a conversation. Practising a little Italian is a great way to break the barriers, but then you'll often find that many of the younger generations will speak English, albeit tentatively and with many apologies that their English is not good. I always reassure them that it will be better than my Italiano!
Are you puzzled by the #NoFilter Milan title to this post?
When we were invited by London Airports to take part in their #NoFilter Milan project, we were intrigued by the concept. This is the fourth city where the project has been conducted. Previous #NoFilter projects have been run in Dublin, Geneva and Madrid and they provide a wonderful collection of ideas and photos showcasing these cities.

For #NoFilter Milan, ten bloggers from Milan were invited to post an entry about an interesting aspect of their city that gives the reader an authentic experience. The photos included cannot be filtered in anyway thus giving a true impression of the real city, rather than a 'doctored' one. Well, as we take photos on a very small Canon camera, and a rather old iphone 4, our photos are never filtered so it was very easy to accept this challenge. We hope you've enjoyed strolling along as we've peeked into some of the windows on Milan. We are looking forward to reading the many posts from other bloggers delving into the many different parts of this city that we've grown to love.

The project will be judged by Sara Rosso from the blog Ms Adventures in Italy. Sara is a an American writer and photographer who moved to Italy in 2003. Her blog is a wonderful collection of Italian recipes, beautiful photographs and useful travel tips for exploring Italy. It is a great resource for travellers wanting to discover the less well known areas of Italy.

For participating in this project we will receive Amazon vouchers to the value of 65Euros.

Tips for taking photos that don't need filters
  1. If you glimpse someone of interest, stop and ask permission to take a photo. Rarely will someone say no and through the conversation that follows you may discover an interesting story or little snippet of history
  2. Light is everything. Interesting lighting makes an interesting photo. Be prepared to try different positions and angles to capture the light illuminating your subject in interesting ways.
  3. Use the different focus periods on your camera, eg the night setting to take photos in the dark.
  4. With an autofocus camera often framing in direct light and then focusing and snapping your subject in a lower light tricks the camera into capturing better light.
Ci vediamo.  Prossima volta in Venezia e Londra.

*** The results of the #NoFilterMilan blogger project are listed HERE  If you're planning a trip to Milan have a look at these great blogs.  So much to discover in this great city.