The Log of Moira
These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>
For several years, Larry’s closest friend from his IBM days had suggested that we join him and his wife (also an IBM’er) and perhaps some other folks on a sojourn to Tuscany, in northern Italy. The idea was to stay at a villa owned by yet another IBM’er, this one in London. The London IBM’er was also a London rock star of some note: it was quite a villa. We fixed a date of May, 2009 for the Italian adventure.
The first task was to get from Guatemala to Tuscany, which turned out to be a very long trip. Not being interested in chaining together interminable airplane flights, and having the freedom of time, we decided to break the trip in London for rest and recuperation before moving on to Tuscany.
Both Larry and I like London and enjoy the charm of the place. And we wanted to see what had become of the Connaught Hotel!
London’s charm, I think, comes from the architecture and the gardens. The architecture is not great, monumental, or even as outlandish as is often suggested by Prince Charles. I think its beauty is in the ordinariness of all the Georgian-style buildings, and the fact that the height of the buildings is limited to a comfortable range, and not overwhelming to the pedestrian on the street, notwithstanding the occasional high-rise building mostly found in the financial sector of London known as “The City.” Sprinkled throughout are numerous cathedrals, churches, and museums, and the arches commemorating the successes of the British Empire.
I find it difficult to get lost in London… just look for St Paul’s Cathedral or Big Ben and get back on track. The beautiful gardens seem to flow into the streets. It is hard to find a street unadorned with street trees or planted areas filled with flowers. Thanks to Sir Christopher Wren and John Nash, London seems to fit together with its distinctive classical look. While London has been rebuilt and rebuilt after various misfortunes and disasters, it feels like it has been waiting for you for hundreds of years, each year adding more patina and class.
We enjoyed walking through many parts of London. When we tired of walking, we used the “Tube,” and were delighted by its ease-of-use and cleanliness. With an Oyster Card issued by the Tube stations we could ride the Tube or the bus all over London for a large discount, up to half off the single-ticket price.
We visited London in the midst of the worldwide recession, but London and her citizens seemed prosperous. There were numerous cranes at work building large residential and office buildings. The recession may be affecting some of London’s banks, but the rest of the city seems to be doing just fine, thank you very much. The restaurants were not full at 7pm, which is early for Londoners, but we ate at a very good French bistro closer to 8:30pm one night and the restaurant was full. Restaurateurs said that there was some slowdown from last year but not a great deal.
We found London to be very expensive. The dollar was running about 1.4 to the Pound sterling. Not bad, but London appears to be more expensive than New York. The next time we come through London, particularly if it is for a week or more, we will rent an apartment. I do need to start the apartment search early. On this trip I waited too long to find what I really wanted.
Years ago Larry and I discovered the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair. While we have always felt that the hotel was out of our price range to stay in, we have enjoyed the beautiful wood-lined bar and Restaurant Helene Darroze. Some our favorite meals have been at the Connaught, especially a memorable scallop dish about which Larry still raves. I think the Connaught reminds us of the old Clift Hotel in San Francisco before it was so absurdly renovated by Ian Schrager. We had heard that the Connaught, too, had undergone a mayor renovation, so it was with some misgivings that we made a dinner reservation, hoping that the good taste of the Connaught had survived. We weren’t disappointed. The hotel has been “updated” and renovated, but so carefully and with such good taste that it just seems that a lovely wand was waved over the building. Both inside and out the modern amenities and the beauty of the architectural features, particularly the original woods, were properly united. It is beautiful and so pleasant to visit. We had dinner at the Helene Darroze restaurant and were delighted that the quality was still there.
Having seen much of historical London before, we focused on the Thames this trip. We took a tour boat from the Westminster Pier to Greenwich for the day to see again the Greenwich museum on the discovery of the Longitude. We visited the National Maritime Museum, both the Maritime Galleries and the superior Royal Observatory (where you are able to stand in two hemispheres by straddling the Prime Meridian).
Another day we took a boat trip up the Thames to Hampton Court to see how Henry VIII lived with his seven wives <Larry: not simultaneously>. Not surprisingly, being the king and all, he lived quite well against the standards of his time. The modern-day Palace staff in period dress showed the mode of life and the palace infrastructure with many interactive exhibits. Supplying the Court during Henry’s occupancy was a major feat, consuming most of the food production of the surrounding area to feed the population of the Court, which numbered about 800. Even today that would be an ongoing major production—imagine doing that successfully in the late 1500’s! <Larry: We were told that Henry’s Court moved to a new venue around the country several times a year, as the resources of each succeeding venue became exhausted.>
We spent one morning enjoying St. Paul’s Cathedral, starting early to avoid the crowds. To those of you who are irritated by the bureaucracy involved in getting “change orders” approved, you might be refreshed by Christopher’s Wren’s experience. The royal approval given to Wren as architect for the Cathedral included a provision that any change orders were entirely at his discretion. A good thing too! The original plans <Larry: as approved by the Royal commission> included no dome, just a steeple. The dome is assuredly the most amazing change order ever executed! <Larry: Another thing that struck us about St. Paul’s was the extensive use of decorative art in the Byzantine style, which to my untutored eye appeared anachronistic. The guidebooks tell us that the choice of artist and style was done by a committee. ‘Nuff said.>
After being suitably awed by the splendor of St. Paul’s, we crossed over the Thames via the Millennium Pedestrian Bridge to visit the Tate Modern, London’s version of the New York Museum Of Modern Art. I would recommend having lunch at the top-floor restaurant of the Tate before starting the visit to the museum. The view is very good from the restaurant and the lunch is tasty. <Larry: Actually, in my opinion, the restaurant is the best thing in the Tate.>
We made a call on the British Museum, staying until our feet hurt and our absorption of the exhibits dropped to zero. What an amazing place, and it never disappoints. Britain, and especially London, is expensive, but the museums are free. (Don’t expect the cathedrals to be free!)
Our favorite afternoon was our visit to the Globe Theatre. During our previous visits it had been closed for renovation. But this time, we saw Romeo and Juliet from seats with cushions second floor up. Do rent the optional seat cushions if you go… it would have been a very long sit without them. You can still get in for $5 if you want to stand on the floor adjacent to the stage. The floor area was packed standing visitors or students under about 20 years of age.
Unexpectedly, I got the chance to explore Britain’s health care system while in London. For whatever reason, probably too much airplane travel, I found myself with an inflamed and infected ear on our second morning in London. After several phone calls to the National Health Service, I discovered that any visit to an ear specialist <Larry: within “the system”> would come about only after first seeing a general practitioner (GP). Given our time in London and the state of my ear this course of action did not make sense.
There are two levels of care in Britain. The NHS service would have been excellent, I suspect, if I had had the time to wait for it. Fortunately, we had arranged for trip insurance for this trip, which included medical insurance above and beyond our American health insurance.
A visit to the friendly concierge at our hotel (the Park Plaza Sherlock Holmes) helped me along, but the key to swift, though not free, medical care was a small brochure at the hotel concierge’s desk, advertising the Princess Grace Hospital. The Princess Grace Hospital was close to our hotel, and advertised immediate care by specialists if needed with one phone call. I called and was connected with the office of an ENT specialist who could see me that morning! To say the least I was surprised and impressed. The care I received was excellent, though I needed to supplement that care in Florence with a stronger antibiotic.
The care I received was private and based on private insurance. I would have liked to find out what the time period would have been to get care for such an ear emergency through the NHS, particularly in view of the discussions going on in the United States about health care reform. <Larry: So we paid for the service out of our own pockets, submitted the receipts to our US-based health insurance, and have gotten reimbursed that way.>
We had allowed about a week for R&R in London. Saturday, the 9th of May was our date to fly from London to Pisa, Italy, the closest mayor airport to the Tuscan villa that was our next destination. We had arranged our trip from Guatemala using the internet, travel guides (either Fodor’s or Lonely planet), and Skype, as we had done for other trips. Using these tools together we have not needed consultations with travel agents. While big-ticket reservations were made over the internet, occasional details are most easily sorted out through direct conversations with local sources.
For example, the reading I had done did not provide clear answers on traveling between London airports and the downtown. While the black taxis still rule the roadways in London, the fare from Heathrow airport to downtown London was quoted at just over 70 pounds sterling, which I found a bit steep, knowing that the public transportation was generally so good. With some local discussions at our hotel, we found the Gatwick Express, an all-hours train to and from Gatwick airport <Larry: The trains run from roughly 4am to midnight>. It was comfortable and fast, and we arrived at Gatwick airport that morning ready to take British Air to Pisa.
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