|Subject: Trip to London and Italy (Long)|
My wife, daughter, and I went to bases in London, Como, and Florence for a little over two weeks. Como and, especially, Florence, were familiar but wonderful sites (this was our 9th trip to Florence-number 10 comes up on November when I give a paper at a conference to which my wife has graciously agreed to accompany me). Rather than wax on at length of the wonders of Italy, which I have done many times here, I will simply ask those curious about our hotel (the Nizza), favorite restaurant (the Giglio Rosso), jewelry store (Vaggi's), sights (the Duomo, Synagogue, Piazzale Michelangelo, the Arno, the Uffizzi, etc.) to write me directly. For a final note on Italy, let me say how superb a lunch we had with Marco de Angeli, his sister, and friends in Milan. We even had a second generation member as Alessandra, who has met with us each year, brought along her daughter Sara.
Turning to London, we had heard that one got "sticker shock" from the prices. I am happy to say not so if you are careful (while I am at it, I will issue a few caveats). This is from the perspective of someone who last visited London in 1980, but is fairly familiar with its layout.
1. We stayed at the Hotel Elizabeth, which has an excellent location a few short blocks from Victoria Station. Our feelings are mixed. On the one hand, the breakfast was superb, its location unbeatable, and its price $170-$200 a night for 2/3 of us (our daughter arrived a day after we did and left a day early) reasonable. However, the layout is awkward-rooms are located between floors on the lift so you have to carry baggage up and down stairs. The staff, though polite, was not very informed about the simplest matters in London. Like most of the service help, they were not British, which may explain things in part. However, we had a marvelous trip to Liverpool St. Station with an Ethiopian taxi driver who was extremely knowledgeable. I gather that he had to be so in order to obtain his taxi driver's license, but the point is that foreign birth is not an absolute impediment to knowing London.
2. We took Ryanair from Stansted to Italy and back. Watch out. Their prices seem ridiculously low, but their baggage limits are even lower so we had to pay a hefty tariff even though we were well below the usual International limit. It was still cheaper than flying on a major carrier, and Stansted is no harder to get to than Gatwick). However, they were amazingly chintzy-you had to pay for water on the flight, they had no fixed locations to check luggage at either Bergamo or Pisa, and, funniest of all, they passed out in-flight magazines trying to sell their memorabilia and then collected the magazines at the end of the flight. They are patterned after US carrier Southwest Airlines, but Southwest is nowhere near that chintzy. I think it fair to say that if you are flying for a short period of time with very little luggage, Ryanair is unbeatable, but be prepared to pay unexpected overweight charges if you are anything more than a backpacker. Even if you are, take snacks and water!
3. Speaking of Stansted, the travel guides tell you that you catch the Stansted Express from the Liverpool St. Station, which is true, but incomplete. If you are nearer Victoria Station (which has many more hotels), you can catch the Tube to a stop along the Express' way, which may be far more convenient.
4. Pub food was thousands percent better than it was in 1980. In fact, we ate at the same pub, which was near our hotel, nearly every night. It was also quite reasonably priced ($10-15/meal)
5. Dickens is alive and well. Besides seeing people out of the pages of his book, I was stunned by the level of drunkenness at the local pub (the ones I had frequented previously were not "locals" in that sense). Thank goodness for mass transportation which kept them from driving (or perhaps, let them drink themselves blind in the first place?)
6. Speaker's Corner was wonderful, though perhaps lighter in talent than in the past (some locals agreed with my observation that there were too many bible thumpers of the kind one sees on US TV continually). It is also free.
7. A visit to Parliament is also wonderful and free. We stayed over an hour listening intently to debate on Iraq in the House of Commons. The House of Lords was a bit of a snoozer, though.
8. Every civilized person needs go to the British Museum, if only to look at the Rosetta Stone, cradle of our understanding of early language.
9. On the slightly negative side, the once-great Oxford Street area is rather tacky, save for Selfridge's.
10. Of course, Harrod's, some distance away in Knightsbridge is the unforgettable store it always has been.
11. We really got a kick out of Portobello market which has greatly expanded from the days that items were on bridge tables. Among the unexpected treats was the performance of a Klezmer band (such bands play Jewish music from Eastern Europe).
12. There are at least two competing tour buses that take you around London for 24 hours, letting you get on and off as you please. Make sure you take one that includes a boat trip up the Thames to Greenwich. The entire trip was a bargain at about $30 US/person.
13. As touristy as it seems (and is), the Changing of the Guard was still fun. Don't expect the bands to play Elgar, Handel, or the like. This time it was James Bond!
Ira H. Bernstein Arlington, TX