Ask a Local: Three Days in London, England

To be honest, I have been to London maybe 100 times (really, I have). Usually for short visits, sometimes as long as one week. During the Summer Olympics of 2012, I was in London for more than three months.  I am going back there next week, too!

 

 

 

 

 

So I sometimes get a little big-headed and think “I know London.”

Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha

Fortunately, I also have friends (Dimi and Lisa) who have lived there many years now. Whenever I travel back, they give me great ideas of new things to see and new places to eat.

Shameless plug: I often visit the London Gallery to see this painting. It is also the cover of my novel, “The Salome Effect.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is what happened my last visit!

I made a late decision to go so had trouble finding a reasonably priced place to stay in the center (more accurately the west end, where I usually sleep). Not to worry, I found Hampton by Hilton London Docklands. Nice hotel, really great breakfast buffet, excellent staff there, too. A slight drawback was that the commute was close to an hour from downtown, although very easy (use the DLR or Docklands Light Railway: clean, efficient, fast, and on time!). Also if you are planning a late night, watch the times of the final train or you might get stuck with an expensive cab fare!

Bletchley Park (Home of the Codebreakers)

If you saw the terrific film “The Imitation Game” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, or are (like me) a bit of a military history geek, you know what Bletchley Park is. During World War II a super secret base located north of London (that would be Bletchley Park) housed a bizarre machine designed by some very smart people and operated by England’s military forces (actually most of them here were women). The machine, called ENIGMA broke the codes used by Germany in all their radio transmissions. In a war, there are many moving parts, for certain. But it can be pretty easily argued that breaking the German secret codes and thereby understanding everything they were doing played an absolutely crucial part in the Allied victory.

 

 

 

 

 

The high level of secrecy surrounding ENIGMA and Bletchley Park have only been relatively recently de-classified. Opening the once secret installation to the public and turning it into a fascinating museum is part of that process. I spoke to some of the staff who told me there are expansion plans still in the works that will make the place even more interesting.  But for now, I highly recommend a visit to this glimpse into the past. It is both a grim reminder of the cost of war and a celebration of the achievement of very smart, very dedicated people.

 

Museum of London Docklands

I think most visitors to London these days pretty much ignore the non-royalty history of one of the world’s most important cities. London was (still is, actually) a port city. Goods, food, and people flowed through London to get to pretty much anywhere else in the world. That activity dates back centuries and continues today. This museum tells the story of the docks, once the vibrant business center of London. A portion of the exhibit explores the darkest aspect of the trade through these docks – the movement of slaves. Another portion discusses the brave men and women who continued their vital work in the face of massive air raids of World War II. Yet another recounts the lively, bawdy night life that you would expect to find. The modern revitalization of this area is also presented.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you google “stuff to do in London” or something like that, my guess is the Docklands Museum doesn’t show up too high on the list. That is unfortunate, in my opinion. It is a well put together museum and the staff are eager to answer questions and improve your experience. If you visit London, make a point of going here.

 

The Ferryman

I went to the Gielgud Theater on Shaftesbury Avenue to watch this stunning play. I warn you, even though there was a live goose, a live rabbit, and a live baby on stage (not all at the same time, mind you) this is not an evening filled with laughter. It tells a difficult story of love, loyalty, ambition and betrayal. As a writer, I think “story” is most important. But the performances I saw by a talented line up of actors, and the staging by a superb crew were simply off the charts great. The Ferryman has been running in London for more than a year, so no telling how much longer it will be there. But if you are a person who likes the theater, add it to your list.

 

OK, now it is time to talk about food and drink.

Dishoom

This is a hot new line featuring Indian cuisine. There are (I think) four different Dishoom restaurants in London, but I went to the one near Covent Garden. Very nice inviting interior, simply fantastic wait staff and food that was crazy good. Check the web site to get the details about making reservations. Certain times of day they don’t take them at all, other times they do but only for groups of 6 or more, etc. Not to worry, if you show up with no reservation, you can wait in their cocktail bar!

Bintang

In Kentish Town which is northwest London, you can find plenty of fun things to do. Funky old stores line the main street, I found one of the best international supermarkets (called Phoenicia) I have ever seen (they had ten different kinds of za’atar and an amazing display of baklava) and I had a great lunch at Bintang. They told me they offer Pan-Asian fusion cuisine. I told them they offer amazing food.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gordon’s Wine Bar

I admit this is a pretty well-know drinkery. Meaning it gets crowded. But wow is it fun and they really do have an impressive wine selection. There is some snacking available, and I can recommend the cheese plate. But go there for the wine. And then stay there for another one!

 

I am fairly certain most people do not need too much convincing to visit London. But I do think if you travel to less known attractions and dine in smaller, cozier restaurants you will have more fun!

 

 

 

 

 

Ask a Local: Three Days in Bucharest, Romania

About ten years ago, I was riding a train from Venice to Turin.  I shared the cabin (this was one of the old-style trains that had little cars with seating for six) with two Italian businessmen. Over the course of the six-hour trip we talked about many things. One of them was Romania.

Romania was interesting to me as one of the lead characters in the novel I was writing at the time (The Salome’ Effect) was a Romanian woman living in Italy. Romania was interesting to the two Italian gentlemen because they were terrified by the massive economic potential there. Upon learning that, I made it a goal to visit. And I am happy to say I have finally done so.

First stop, naturally, was the capital city of Bucharest, where I spent three nights. I set myself up in a centrally-located three-star called Relax Comfort Suites Hotel. Pretty simple place, really. Nothing fancy but it was both clean and air conditioned. I met a woman named Raluca (she worked behind the desk) who was Bucharest born and raised. Based on her advice, this is what I did there.

 

 

 

 

 

How cool is this National Library?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herastrau Park

In the northern part of the city, easily reachable by subway or bus, this enormous (187 hectares) and lovely green space surrounds a beautiful lake and offers a simply wonderful respite from the hustle of city life. Trees, gardens, walking and bike paths, plenty of eating and drinking options, boat tours on the lake, and an elaborate museum honoring Romanian village life are just a few of the reasons to spend a few hours here.

A bar/snack bar/bookstore is one of the many relaxing offers in Herastau Park.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parliament Palace

OK. It is huge. It is the second largest administrative building in the world (largest is the Pentagon). From a standpoint of size and imagination, I guess it is worth seeing. But the impression it left on me was of the sheer folly of it. Romania’s long time crazy and cruel dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu started construction in 1984, trying to copy or at least pay homage to, the great European palaces of the 17th and 18th centuries. Thousands upon thousands of people were employed and much of the small treasury of the country was squandered on construction. It was never used by the Romanian government under Ceauşescu. He called it the People’s Palace, but the people wanted nothing to do with it or him and he was overthrown in a popular revolt.

It does house Parliament offices today but for the most part sits empty, a looming monument to the danger of placing too much power into the hands of one very egotistical man.

It is big and pretty much empty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The National Museum of Art

I confess I can normally visit an art museum for about one hour, maybe 90 minutes if I am in a good mood. This stunning collection kept my attention for almost half a day. The building itself is beautiful, a palace dating back to the early 1800’s. But the collection of works from all over Europe were the real star of course. As I have lived in Europe a long time, and spend many one-hour visits in other art museums, I focused on Romanian artists. Plenty of those, for sure, but look up Theodor Aman. I had never heard of him before, much less seen any of his work. The 19th century master was a painter, engraver and history professor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am no art critic, certainly. But his oils were so life-like and believable. They had an almost ethereal 3-dimensional look to them. Really something.

 

 

 

All that exploring works up an appetite, right? Well, I found Bucharest has both plenty of traditional fare and an exciting international dining vibe. These were my favorites.

Aubergine

 

In the historic (and touristy but also fun) Old Town part of Bucharest. Kind of a fusion between Romanian and Middle Eastern cuisine, everything on my table was fantastic. Among other things, I enjoyed three kinds of falafel and the best baba ganoush I have ever eaten.

 

 

 

Blue Margarita

 

It was not a short trip (a metro ride of about 20 minutes and then a walk for another 20) but this South American restaurant is run by a young couple who had lived in Texas for 6 years. The menu is mostly but not exclusively Mexican, but Mexican is what I chose. And I was not disappointed at all. Plus the margarita was really terrific!

 

 

Caru’ cu bere

This is perhaps the best known of Bucharest’s traditional restaurants. I have to say the food was really terrific. But the place was hyper crowded as large tour groups (I am talking multiple groups of 30 -40 people at a time) were there. The name means “The Beer Wagon” so that’s a good start. The historic building was purpose built as a brewery and they still make an excellent line of beers. But now it is a also a restaurant that offers traditional Romanian fare from simple to gourmet. The inside is very Art Nouveau, so take your camera along with you. Worth a visit, for sure, but my advice if you are there during a tourist season is to avoid peak hours!

I really enjoyed Bucharest. I recommend not driving in the city. Ever.  But it is a vibrant place with plenty to offer no matter what your taste.

As for the two Italian businessmen I met on that train so long ago, Romania has not yet realized its full economic potential (there is still a good deal of corruption in the government, it seems), but I am pretty confident it will someday. It is already worth a visit – a return visit, in fact. So don’t wait – go there soon!

Ask a Local: Three days in Zagreb, Croatia

In mid-October, we traveled to Zagreb, Croatia for a long weekend. We had never seen it, but had heard plenty of good things about it, so it was time to see for ourselves. My advice: go there. Do it soon!

 

 

 

 

 

Zagreb is the capital of Croatia, a county teeming with beautiful scenery, terrific beaches and exciting cities. In Zagreb, you’ll find very nice 18th and 19th century architecture from the Austro-Hungarian empire. There is a majestic Gothic cathedral in the center of town, and the charming and lively Tcalciceva Street, full of bistros, bars, and cafes.

Zagreb Cathedral

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our lodging was at a place called Zig Zag Zagreb. It offers either traditional hotel rooms or small apartments right in the center of the city. We drove to Zagreb, so it was a bonus they had a private parking garage, as well. We chose one of the apartments as it was equipped with a kitchen where we were able to make breakfast each morning.

We found the reception office, located with their hotel rooms and the parking garage, with no problem. Check in was fast and easy, and getting to our apartment was a three minute walk. The young woman working there was Neda Pontoni.  She was born and raised right in Zagreb so became the local we would ask for advice. Since it was our first visit, our questions dealt with restaurants and museums. Unfortunately we had come to the city on the weekend of a national holiday AND the annual Zagreb Marathon, meaning many of the museums were closed. No matter, the restaurants were open, so our main focus was dining.

We also found some cool graffiti.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And that dining did not disappoint at all. Here is where we ate.

Pod Zidom (Pod Zidom 5, +385 99 3253 600)

Yes, the restaurant shares the same name as the street, just a few steps away from the city’s main market. I loved my stuffed eggplant while my wife had a couscous dish with a mint yogurt topping. Yum.

 

 

 

 

 

Vinodol (Teslina 10, +385 1 4811 427)

We had lunch here and returned later in the day to enjoy a glass of wine. The bar was a little smokey, but the wine was a nice (and inexpensive!) Malvazia.

 

Mundoaka (Petrinjska 2, +385 1 78 88 777)

Small, very cozy, and a very inviting place to eat just around the corner from Zagreb’s central square.  A delicious pumpkin curry soup was just off the charts great! You must try the fresh made bread, too. The service here was really terrific.

 

Royal India (Ivana Tkalcic 1000, +385 1 4680 965)

We always like to try foreign cuisine when we travel. As the name implies, this restaurant serves Indian cuisine. The kitchen is staffed 100% by folks from India, they use Indian imported spices, cook nine different kinds of naan bread right there, and use only seasonal fresh veggies and produce. I have lived in Europe more than 25 years, and outside of London’s Brick Lane scene, this was the best Indian meal I have found.

We also found a terrific wine bar called Basement Bar (Tomiceva 5, +385 1 7774 585). It’s not really in a basement, although you do go down a few steps to enter. The vaulted ceilings make a nice setting to sample from a very impressive selection of (mostly) Croatian wines.

The very cozy Basement Bar is at the foot of one of Zagreb’s funicular trains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We did manage to find one art exhibit open. We rode the funicular train (just outside Basement Bar – very convenient!) up to the Galerija Klovicevi dvori. They had a retrospective of wood carvings by Vasko Lipovac. Fun and funky, to say the least!

What happens in Croatia stays in Croatia, right?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So we saw some art and ate very well. In other words we had a good time and will return soon!

 

 

 

Italian Book Fair (Part 3)

Part three of my series about authors I met at the Pordenone, Italy Book Fair is Peter Hoeg.

A 59-year old novelist from Denmark, Hoeg is probably best known for “Smilla’s Sense of Snow. At the Pordenone Book Fair he was introducing his newest work, “The Effect of Susan.” This is a futuristic thriller that centers on the title character’s unique talent to get others to be completely honest and open with her regarding their deepest, darkest secrets.

Peter Hoeg at a Press Conference. Before long he had us all on our feet and participating!

Peter Hoeg at a Press Conference. Before long he had us all on our feet and participating!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, we did not talk too much about that book. In fact the most striking characteristic about him  (to me at least) was his deep spirituality. He talked about his morning meditations being one of the most important parts of his day. At one point, he had us standing and shaking hands with each other. He described the handshake as one of the most intimate and important connections between two humans. The act of physically opening the space between two people (in order to shake hands) exposes the heart. He also described how the collection of nerve bundles in the hand sends signals to our brain, which then elicits emotions of trust and generosity.  OK.

We did discuss his writing processes, but everything he said was driven by his spiritual journey. He talked about the beauty of a book is that one lives in it. The writer lives there for three or four years while making the story. The reader lives there for two weeks while reading it. I had never thought of it that way, but then Hoeg’s world view is more spiritual than mine.

He was asked why so many of his lead characters are women. “I think it is important for men to know women very well. By understanding my fictional women, I can be closer to the real ones in my life; my daughters, my mother.”

After the conference, I asked him what was the longest it had ever taken him to finish a book. “The Quiet Girl” was a ten year journey. That journey included destroying 2,000 pages of hand-written manuscript, and then starting over.

Hearing that give me some comfort as I am in year 5 of my second novel now. Will I throw everything out and start over? Not likely. But then I am not in the same place as the fascinating Peter Hoeg.

#PoweredByIndie

 

Ask a Local: Ljubljana, Slovenia

It was a last minute decision to visit Ljubljana, Slovenia this past weekend. I am fortunate to live only two hours away by car, so have the chance to travel there three or four times each year. Luckily, being so close it doesn’t take a great deal of planning.

Ljubljana is a great place for a couple of reasons. Hotels in the city center are plentiful and cheap.  There is a terrific line-up of interesting museum exhibits, live music, cultural events and more. They have one of the very best fresh food markets I have found in Europe (I’ve lived here more than 20 years so have done some research). A very nice movie theater shows first-run films in original language – we went there this weekend to watch “Whiplash,” “The Theory of Everything,” and “Still Alice” all three of which were very good.

Ljubljana's fresh market is one of the best I've found in Europe.

Ljubljana’s fresh market is one of the best I’ve found in Europe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, pretty much everyone here under 40 years old speaks fantastic English, and they love to show off their city.

So when checking in to the Hotel Emonec (highly recommended!), I asked Viva, the twentyish girl at reception if she knew of any restaurants serving good Indian cuisine. Score! Just last November, a restaurant sponsored in part by the glossy UK magazine “Curry Life,” opened for business downtown.

The full name of the place is Curry Life Figovec. The last bit comes from the restaurant that had occupied the space for more than a century. Now, that same space boasts a classy, upscale atmosphere and serves drop dead-blow you away-fantastic curry. If you have a trip to Ljubljana in your plans, run, don’t walk, to Curry Life Figovec ! It is new and excellent and popular, so I recommend a reservation, especially during a weekend. You can call them at+386 1 426 4410.

IMG_1883 IMG_1881 IMG_1879

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since she had given such a good tip with that recommendation, I asked Viva about a café that was right around the corner from where I had parked. She said it was good, so I checked it out the next morning. Le Petit Café has a French bistro feel to it. They serve a nice breakfast (I had a very tasty omelet) and the coffee is excellent – something I treasure. There is also a lunch and dinner menu, so it looks like they are going to see me again later this year!

These two recommendations are an example of why it makes good sense to ask a local!