Thursday, 26 April 2007

Strange stays

I quite enjoy finding places to stay that are a bit out of the ordinary. A convent on the Giudecca in Venice (now, alas, closed); a medieval hostelry in Vezelay; little family run hotels in most European capitals.

But those are tame compared with some of the hotels you can stay in.

What about a holiday in a big beer can? The Smukkefest in Denmark offers the chance to sleep in a giant Carlsberg can. Inside is a can-shaped fridge. Inside that are cans of  Carlsberg...

Naturally, the cans are positioned in six-packs!

Ice hotels are springing up all over, of course - though usually seasonal. Nothing original here; I made an igloo in the back garden once (though I wasn't allowed to sleep in it).

Underwater hotels are a bit more intriguing. There's one currently under construction in Dubai - 'Hydropolis' -  that takes the concept much further than the small lodges currently in existence. It would have to be in Dubai - the only country that is currently building its own pyramids, its own new islands (Dutch polder-makers watch out!), and a development called 'The World'.

Costs are estimated to be between USD 300m and 500m. A project of this size and innovative character could surely only happen in Dubai - where two towers, the Burj Dubai and Al-Burj (yes, burj means 'tower' in Arabic, so that's a highly imaginative pair of names)  are competing for the prize of tallest building in the world. It's mad out there.

Of course it was also mad out there in Imperial Rome, the court of Versailles, medieval Flanders, and eighteenth century Bath. Which left us with some great architecture... we can hope!

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Another macabre sight

I already blogged some macabre sights in Europe a while back - now here's something that really is gruesome and a bit different from most. An undertakers' museum!

The Bestattungsmuseum Wien  in Goldegasse covers the entire history of death in Vienna. There are photos of the lying in state of Austrian emperors and presidents; there are coffins, including a weird metal one with a little window in the front; there are hearses, horse-drawn and interior combustion, take your pick!

Unfortunately the site is only in German as far as I can see, which is a pity. But it's worth browsing for the pictures. And I hesitate to suggest it, as my mind is coming up with some rather nasty images here, but there is also a museum shop...

Sunday, 22 April 2007

'Real' food

When I lived in London I used to go to Alfredo's near Angel, Islington for a cup of strong, milky coffee Saturday mornings.

Alfredo's, alas, has gone. It was a real old Italian style coffee bar, gleaming metal  fittings and formica tops, and I loved it dearly. But rising real estate prices and gentrification have pushed out many of these caffs - and Alfredo's was just another victim of redevelopment.

The next best place in London is E Pellici's - going for a hundred years and now a grade II listed interior. It's on Bethnal Green Road, London E2.

There are a few traditional eel pie and mash shops left in the East End, too. Most of them also sell a beef pie for the more squeamish eater. Watch out for 'liquor', green gravy which looks more than a little sinister. There are two in Broadway Market, still, and there's Manze's near the Tower of London (just over the river at 87 Tower Bridge Road). But many have closed - I just heard that Goddards in Greenwich has closed down, and others are struggling.

My favourite no longer serves eel pie and mash but it's still in pristine condition with its counters, tiling, and even the little eel-shaped clips that hold up the wall mirrors. It's now the Shanghai, on Kingsland High Street, E8. A lovely bit of architecture and the Chinese food is rather good, too.

It's a pity that at a time when there's more interest in developing a real English tradition of good cooking, we're throwing out our traditional caffs. I wonder why no bright young English chef has tried fusion-eel-pie? or why the tacky lounge bar feel of Costa Coffee seems so much more alluring to modern consumers than the glitz and shine of Alfredo's or Pellici's?

If you're travelling to London, and fancy seeing these 'real' caffs for yourself, do it soon. They may not be there much longer.

Another brewery to visit

Rather different from other breweries is Belgium's Cantillon.

This brewery, based in Brussels 15 minutes' walk from the Grand'Place and ten minutes walk from the Midi station,  specialises in lambic beers, using natural yeast  for spontaneous fermentation. Its acid and even sulphurous Gueuze and other beers have a distinctive character and invite either wild love - or bitter hatred.

The brewery is open 9-5 every weekday and 10-5 on Saturday. The entrance price of EUR 3.50 includes a glass of Gueuze, which is pretty good value.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Historical convenience

I was looking through the programme of "York Walk" guided walks recently.

They have a Richard III walk, a Henry VIII walk, a Guy Fawkes trail and a Bloody Execution tour. All nice approaches to the task of seeing a modern city through different eyes - making the past come alive.

How the Minster was Built includes a visit to the stonemasons' yard, a practical demonstration of something you usually can only imagine -  the actual work of the mason.

But the one that really caught my fancy was  the Historic Toilet Tour.

From Roman hygiene (though of course, being pedantic, the word 'hygiene' comes from the Greek) to nineteenth century promotion of public decency, by way of the medieval garderobe, it covers the bare necessities of excretion through the ages.

But I wonder if they know when toilet paper was invented?

Shops worth seeing

A recent visit to York and Edinburgh showed me that city centres don't have to be full of Benetton, Boots and Woolies - other shops can, and do, thrive.

Plaisir du Chocolat doesn't strike me as a quintessentially Edinburgh shop. No tartan for a start. And self-indulgence is not a Scottish trait (other than indulgence in austerity; having one less blanket on the bed for instance...) But this shop on Canongate picks the whole area up - no tat, it's a superb chocolatier and tearoom.

And I've not seen anything quite like Bertrand Espouy's chocolates before. Each one is printed with a design - black leaves on the 'Antilles' ganache, art nouveau designs on 'Sheherazade' pistachio and 'Piemont' gianduja, and bright red roses on 'Ronsard' tea-infused dark chocolate.

A less elitist sweet tooth is in evidence at Jim Garrahy's Fudge Kitchen in York (58 Low Petergate). And here that other nice trend, watching the craftsman at work, is also in evidence - when I was there they were rolling out the rum fudge and the whole shop stank of rum (this is not a complaint, of course).  Retail theatre par excellence.

Now darn it wouldn't you know I've lost the contact details for the best shop in Edinburgh, a fantastic little place on Victoria Street that sells all kinds of alcoholic distilled concoctions - cranberry gin, orange and mint cream (think Bailey's only with a twist), some fine whiskies, and other drinks - all made in England by craft distillers. The alembics on the plain wooden shelves glowed in the sun when I walked in, making the whole shop sparkle, and what made me sparkle even more was a free taste of the excellent distilled cider. I never made it to the Bow Bar at lunchtime after all.

However someone on Tripadvisor seems to have suffered from the same alcoholic haze that hit me shortly afterwards, as they had also forgotten the name - so a quick Google helped me find Demijohn. Definitely worth a visit if you're in Edinburgh.

I like shopping in French towns, too. Chartres is a particular favourite - my boyfriend's French place isn't far from there - with a bookbinder's, a fantastic chocolate shop (actually a branch of Maison du Chocolat, a small chain) that does chocolate with red peppers, a street full of delis, a fine art deco butcher's shop still in use for its original purpose, a dolls' hospital, a good second hand bookshop... or Rouen, also a great shopping place as long as you steer away from the Rue du Gros Horloge - there's an art shop by the cathedral, a shop selling replicas of Romanesque sculpture near the Aitre Saint Maclou, more second hand bookshops... Yes, we like Rouen!

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

William Morris - local hero or national asset?

Sad news that Walthamstow council in London is downgrading its support to the William Morris gallery.

Morris is probably best known for his design work. If you enjoy fine printing you may know of his Kelmscott Chaucer; he also wrote romances, translated medieval poetry, and had a huge influence on art theory of his day. He painted, designed stained glass and furniture, and was a practising architect. A Renaissance man - three hundred years late.

Morris was also a committed Socialist. And that meant something rather different to him from what it might mean to a modern politician. He believed that everyone had the right to beauty in their lives - and that everyone should also have the right to a job that was satisfying and gave them pride.

William Morris is a major figure in the development of English art and design. So it's disappointing that one of the major galleries devoted to his work may be downgraded - and eventually close - because a local council wants to save money.

I don't think it should be a council funded museum at all, anyway. It's a national treasure.

England is full of local museums. Often, the main exhibits are three gas masks from the Second World War and an old mangle to show the way our foremothers did their washing. Maybe a couple of flints found by a metal detectorist, and some old maps. These are characterful little museums, but no single one is really irreplaceable.

But the Morris Gallery is something else.  It needs to be saved - and invested in for the future.

Because in a world where McDonalds asks its employees to have 'passion' for the soggy cardboard food they serve, and where the ugly and the futile is all around us, William Morris is important: "Have nothing in your houses that ou do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."


Visit the Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, north-east London (or on the web).

Sign the online petition to save the William Morris Gallery (and yes, I've done so already).

More about William Morris on Wikipedia, with some good pictures, if this has whetted your appetite.