Saturday, June 13, 2009

Trooping of the Color, Wallace Collection and Dinner at Sarastra

Friday, June 13, 2009

The Trooping of the Color:
I guess that after all the exciting, fascinating, marvelous experiences I have been having in London, I had to have one disaster--and it came today. I decided that I would go off to the Trooping of the Color--supposedly one of the most important events in the royal calendar. Free tickets are distributed by lottery several months ahead of the event and the lucky ticket holders have assigned seats on the Horse Guards Parade where they watch a series of military manoeuvres (or something of the kind--nobody seems very clear what goes on there!).

The Queen herself is present on this occasion and she arrives at the venue in a golden carriage from out of Buckingham Palace with other members of the royal family in attendance. I had heard, from the garrulous web, that non-ticket holders were welcome to line the Mall to watch the parade pass by. Apparently, after the military troops finished their 'show', the royal procession returned to the Palace and just a little later, they would appear on the first floor balcony to wave at the crowds who then raised their heads upwards to the skies where a fleet of planes then zoomed above them and all the way along the fluttering flags of the Mall. It seemed a worthy sight to witness and if I, Samuel Pepys-like, was going to provide an accurate account of my year in London, I figured it had to include this red letter day!

So I left my flat at 9. 45 after a hasty cereal breakfast, took two buses to arrive at Trafalgar Square from where I walked briskly to the Mall already despairing at the sight of the vast, (and I mean mammoth) crowds that had gathered there ahead of me. If I had any hopes of seeing anything at all, they were rudely dashed to the ground. People were standing at least six thick all along the Mall, their kids propped up on their shoulders. It was just impossible to gain a glimpse and I almost abandoned my plans to stick around and half thought of turning back right then and there...when I decided not to give up so easily.

So I walked the length of the Mall hoping to find some crack open somewhere through which I could squeeze. No such luck. By the steps leading up to the pedestal on which stands the sculpture of the Duke of York, I attempted to join the throngs and for a few minutes actually did think I might see something. A few people had found a way to get to a terrace (private property apparently) and sit themselves on it and I joined them. Of course, it wasn't long before at least fifty more people climbed a ladder that took us up to the terrace and that was when all hell broke loose.

An aggressive and really irritating policewoman came shouting at the top of her voice and demanded that we get right off as we were trespassing on private property and she threatened to arrest all of us if we did not get down at once. Oh blimey, I thought! That would make a story, wouldn't it? Getting prosecuted in London??? The sad part was that most of the folks up on that terrace were foreign tourists who could not understand English anyway and had no idea what she was yelling at them! You can bet I chickened out and, with the rest of the crowd, scrambled down that ladder before you could say "Trooping the Color". Well, talk about adventures-- I seem to collect them like stamps!

Well, after that fiasco, try finding a spot! It was simply impossible. The totally irritating policemen and women seemed to find only that part of the parade route to monitor and they were at it constantly, urging people to get off the steps and keep the paths clear and growling out all sorts of instructions in the rudest fashion possible. In all my time in London, I have never seen nor heard more revolting and insulting policemen and women and I can just imagine how they must have treated those protesters at the G20 summit meetings. All people wanted to do was a get a glimpse of the proceedings, for heaven's sake. Where was the need to be so mean about the whole thing?

Being the obedient idiot I am, I did what they said and kept the stairs clear and left the throngs to deal with them. I simply wanted to put as much distance as I could between me and those barking lunatics who suddenly seemed to feel empowered by the fact that so many vulnerable people were at their mercy. I found a spot much further down the mall but I have to say that I didn't see very much. There were contingents of soldiers on horseback (and god knows I have seen enough of those during my year in this city) and then I caught a fleeting glimpse of Princess Anne, the Princess Royal making her way to the venue, but I did not see anything else beyond that.

In a few minutes (make that seconds), it was all over and I thought to myself, "I cannot believe I was threatened with prosecution for this bit of nonsense!" Of course, it might have been a case of having consumed a whole bunch of sour grapes. I bet those folks who had the prime spots along the route did not think the whole pageant quite so stupid. Anyway, I turned to leave when I heard an Englishman announcing to his family that if they had the patience to stand there for another hour, they would see the procession in reverse (returning to the Palace) at which point, they would see the planes fly up above.

I had, however, more than I could stomach for one morning. I have seen the Queen twice in the past year (once at Crathie Kirk near Balmoral in Scotland when the entire family except Anne had been present not even two feet away from Llew and me) and once on her way to the Opening of Parliament in November when I was much closer, had a chance to take pictures, etc. So, no, I did not feel disappointed that this morning turned out to be such a damp squib. I just felt annoyed with myself that I had even bothered to come out to the Mall on a morning like this. How so many tourists had descended on the city of London was beyond my comprehension.

It was nice, however, to see the Mall all festooned in Union Jacks, each flag post topped by an impressive crown! I did get a few pictures by holding my camera aloft but they only give an idea of the number of heads that were in front of me! It reminded me of a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade that I had once attended in Manhattan where hundreds of people standing in front of me meant that I saw nothing of the floats--the balloons, however, soar high up in the air, so those I did see. However, I had sworn then that I would never attend the parade in person again and that it made much more sense to watch it on the box in the comfort of my family, I have never gone out again to brave the autumnal cold in New York at the end of November. In recent years, of course, we have been too concerned about getting our turkey roasted on time to even bother about what the telly has been bringing into our homes.

Browsing Along Marylebon High Street:
I took a bus from Piccadilly that took me through Regent's Street and on to Marylebon where I jumped off to walk along one of my favorite of London streets--Marylebon High Street. This one street has so many of my best-loved shops--great for browsing, window shopping or buying (Cath Kidson, Rococo Chocolates, Daunt Books, The White Store) and a lovely bunch of coffee shops (Patisserie Valerie, Paul's Patisserie, Le Pain Quotidien, etc.) that it is always a pleasure to wander down it at leisure.

As it turned out, within moments, I came upon a garden market named, cutely enough, Cabbages and Frocks. Inside, there was the usual arts and crafts stuff--beautifully tailored coats, leather bags, one-of-a-kind jewelery--and stalls selling foods (there were some really pretty cupcakes). But most things cost an arm and a leg at these places and, I suppose, the prices are justified when you consider that everything is handmade, not mass-produced. I was very lucky indeed to come upon a stall selling nothing but cashmere garments--from scarves to full-length sweater jackets and coats. I almost bought a cashmere coat but then it was too large for me and I had to pass it up--bummer! However, I was very pleased with the two cashmere scarves I found (one for Llew and one for me) and a very swanky pair of Versace sunglasses. Those were truly a steal at the price I paid and I was delighted.

Wandering Through the Wallace Collection:
More rambles down the High Street took me in and out of my favorite stores until I arrived at my next destination: the Wallace Collection. I had last been here about five years ago, but had only seen the Highlights then and had no time to study the rest of the items on display. This afternoon I intended to linger at leisure and to wander through the vast rooms that make up this grand mansion.

The Wallace Collection--perhaps the country's finest and most opulent private art collection--is
housed in an elegant mansion just off Marylebon High Street and right behind Oxford Circus. It is truly a pity that but for the art connoisseur and the well-informed, so few people know about this place or visit it. Yet, it is stunning, to say the very least, and anyone with a love for the 18th century and its ostentation would find themselves in a private Mecca. And entry is free to boot! A recent Restoration has brought renewed grandeur to the place (as if it needed any!) so all special exhibitions are temporarily on hold.

Inside, there is an abundance of fine and decorative art works collected by the Dukes of Hereford, especially the 3rd Duke, who, amassing these works, spent almost the entire fortune he had gained from his wealthy wife. They have been left to the nation which explains why there is no charge. It is, therefore, one of the cheapest treats you could ever have in London and it is a mystery to me why so few people know about it. I guess you can call it one of London's best-kept secrets.

If I was sorry that I missed the special exhibition on Sevres porcelain at the Queen's Gallery when Chriselle was here (it was scheduled to begin a week after our visit there), I need never have worried. The collection of Sevres porcelain in this one place--Hereford House--is enough reason to visit it. Indeed, what is thrilling about it is not just the exquisite beauty of each piece but the interesting provenance--so many of these tea and coffee services and dressing table sets belonged to Europe's royal families including such colorful historical figures as Madame de Pompidour herself! In fact, she single-handedly saved the porcelain factory from becoming bankrupt by getting the King (Louis XVI) to bail it out and, in doing so, made it fashionable again.

There is also a great deal of Boule and ormolu furniture and if your taste runs towards the OTT (Over The Top), the ultra-decorated and the Baroque, you will be thrilled at the wealth of bombe chests, writing desks and bureaus and staggeringly massive armoires that you will see in striking inlaid and marquetry designs. But, for me, of course, the greatest aspects of any such collection are the paintings and there are any number to make your mouth water in this one building.

Take for instance, two of my favorite paintings of all time: The Swing by Jean Honore Fragonard is here and so is Miss Bowles and Her Dog by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Again, it is worth getting to Hereford House just to see these two canvasses and these were the ones I had seen when I was last here five years ago.

But there is also Franz Hals' famous The Laughing Cavalier (a huge misnomer as the subject is neither a cavalier nor laughing!), Nicolas Poussin's A Dance to the Music of Time, Reuben's Rainbow Landscape (one of the largest landscapes he did--its twin is in the National Gallery) and at least two really lovely paintings by Pieter de Hooch who is one of my favorite artists of all time--A Boy Bringing Bread and A Woman Peeling Apples. These are on current display and I spent a great deal of time just gazing at them as I wandered into 17th century Delft on the brush of this charming painter. There are also a bunch of Watteaus and Velasquezes but by far, the most prominent artist present in the Wallace Collection is Francois Boucher. From small canvasses to really gigantic ones that dominate the stairwell on the way upstairs past the ornate wrought iron balustrade and marble staircase, his women are seen in their fat, pink, buxom glory together with charming cherubs, skeins of fruit and flower and a number of pastoral vignettes.

There was a Highlights tour beginning at 3 pm but by then I had seen most of the rooms on my own and was just too tired to take it. There was also a vast crowd of people (who had probably come just in time for the tour) and if I have a chance, I shall return there on a week day when I can take the tour with fewer people.

I sat in the sunshine outside on what was another spectacular summer's day in London and ate a makeshift meal composed of walnut bread, Wensleydale cheese with ginger and fresh strawberries that I had purchased at Waitrose on the high street. And then, I returned inside to see a few more of the brilliantly stocked and superbly curated rooms. There was a fine restaurant out in the marble courtyard but my extempore picnic lunch was much better enjoyed, I thought, than a formal meal at a table.

Dinner with Tim, Barbara and Hannah:
Then, because I was suddenly so fatigued, I decided to return home and get some rest as I had plans for the evening as well. As soon as I arrived home, I simply threw myself on my bed and curled up like a baby and went off to sleep like a light. When I awoke about a half hour later, I felt re-energized and ready for a nice long shower. I washed and dried my hair and dressed and at 7. 50, I walked back to my former building at High Holborn to keep my date with my former neighbors Barbara and Tim who had suggested I join them for dinner.

Barbara's niece Hannah was present and Tim settled us down well with wine and beer and some snacks as we watched videos of their recent drives through Yellowstone Park and then we set off for the 'Restaurant Surprise' as Tim did not tell any of us where he had made reservations. As we walked past Lincoln's Inn Field, we cut into Great Queen Street and Drury Lane and then the surprise was revealed. We would be eating at Sarastra, a very theatrical restaurant opposite the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. Isn't it marvelous how I can simply walk to all these places and get dinner?? I still can't get over the convenience of the location of these flats in which I have lived.

Well, the decor of the restaurant reminded me a bit of Hereford House because it too was OTT and ostentatious--but not in an ancien regime sort of way--more in a theatrical, contemporary, gaudy sort of way! It had opera boxes along the sides and several diners were hoisted up near the ceiling to eat their meal. We were placed in a cozy niche out of the general din for there were several celebrations on including one rather rowdy hen party. The restaurant could not quite make up its mind what sort of cuisine it served--presumably it was Turkish, but there were maybe two Turkish items on the menu! The rest was a pastische that included Steak Frites and Fish and Chips!

The food, however, though it remained uncertain what exactly it was, was delicious. My Boeuf Bourgignon was absolutely scrumptious and though my portion was huge--it was served over creamy mashed potato--I finished every last bit of it because it was so good. The appetisers that Tim ordered (Scampi Meuniere and Turkish style Aubergines) were passable--the scampi better than the aubergine. None of us had room for dessert and we decided to have coffee back at their flat, so left soon after with me feeling slightly too stuffed for comfort. The walk back home was a good idea and the peppermint tea that followed lulled me well into sleep after Tim escorted me back home to my flat. I need not have worried--the area was buzzing with the many pubs, clubs and restaurants that line the Farringdon area around Smithfield Market.

I fell asleep after a chat with Llew as I had forgotten to carry my cell phone with me and thought that I ought to take it easy tomorrow as I am suddenly quite inexplicably tired.

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