Ever since I read Eat, Pray, Love (confession, I never got passed the “Eat” part) I was obsessed with Italy and the idea of exploring that incredible country. The food, the wine and the glourious picturesque landscape. As I was needing to make a hasty retreat out of London (a blog for another time) and looking for a journey that was not only great for the soul but a treat for the rest of my senses I decided to do a three day solo trip to Cinque Terre, my own mini version of Eat Pray Love. I am calling it “Eat, Drink, Repeat and I think I decided I want Chelsea Handler to play me in my movie adaption unless of course if Charlize Theron is dying to play me.
London is a ever fascinating town. There is always something to see or something going on. No time is this more true than in the spring. They refer to May and June as "the season". Royal events, galas, Royal Ascot, Henley, Wimbledon and regal garden parties. Of course the dress, protocol and the invites to attend are strict and are hard to come by. But I am going to let you in on how this Canadian girl came to London and got invited to these royal events... became the Queen's biggest stalker ...AND more importantly how you can too.
LONDON'S MOST FAMOUS ALBUM COVER LOCATIONS ~ RE-VISITED
It was Mick Jagger who said anything worth doing is worth over-doing. I would like to add that it is also worth redoing and revisiting. So with my strong love of music and exploring London I went out to re-visit the locations of some of the most famous album covers in music history and see just how they look today. Some were not that easy to find... but others you could not miss.
SEVEN SISTERS CLIFFS, EAST SUSSEX ROAD TRIP
If you are anything like me the lack of sunlight as you approach the dead of winter is so unbelievably depressing. Living in London it actually starts getting dark at 3:30 in November AND we haven't even got through the worst of it. So what is that saying, make hay when the sun shines? So in order to survive the long, dark winters you have to make the most of the short sunny days and a road trip is exactly the way to do it.
Ever bored with London? Ok, that is a trick question. But sometimes you need a get away. Turn down the volume, unplug, breathe fresh air and exhale. New Forest is just the wonderful escape to do just that. Just a two hour drive south of the hustle and bustle of London where the only traffic you are likely to hit are a herd of wild horses taking their own sweet time crossing the street.
So Christmas has come and gone (phew). The Christmas lights on Regent and Oxford Street have been packed up for another year. Even the iconic lights of Piccadilly Circus, London's Time Square have been shut down until the fall 2017 to go through a major upgrade. Did you know that aside from World War ll and the funerals of Winston Churchill and Princess Diana these lights have not ever been turned off.
So what is London thinking? Right on top of Blue Monday as well, known as the most depressing time of the year. Seriously, the holidays are over, you have gained five pounds (which you swore you would not let happen again this year) your credit card bills have arrived in full sobering force, spring is no where in sight, you have already broken all your New Year resolutions and you have not been able to shake that 4 week long cold. So is London in the dark? Not a chance. This city makes the most of their very long winter nights (that start at 4 in the afternoon). So even though some of the lights of London have been shut down, others have been springing up. Here are two of the most colourful, brightly lit places I visited to help make the most of the long, London winter nights.
Winter Lights Festival at Canary Wharf
31 international artists showcase some of their most inventive pieces working with light and sound. A lot of the work is interactive and it requires you as a viewer to participate to further create the artist's vision. I don't recommend going on a rainy night as lot of the exhibits are outside and there is a bit of a walk required between exhibits. The Winter Lights festival has a lot to see but here are a few of my personal highlights.
Angels Of Freedom
Angels of Freedom. Five different set of giant angel wings and halos where you can put yourself in the picture and become an angel.
This is a large installation that is surrounded by sound, water and light. Looks a little like a egg shaped spaceship. You can walk in and get immersed in its size and incredible visuals from every angle.
On Your Wavelength
One of the trippiest exhibits is where the light, music and sound is controlled by the participants mind via an EEG headset. You stand in front of this large scale light tunnel fitted with over 30,000 lights and your mind creates the journey that you will experience. It looks like you are in your own personal Sci-Fi movie....actually you are.
Another exhibit I enjoyed was the Canadian exhibit called Digital Skin. You can be digitally painted with light and visual images by a friend or by the charming artist himself, Mateo. He then shoots a short video that gets emailed to you that you can share it on social media..or on a blog.
Here they project giant colourful images on a wall of water and mist that becomes the canvas for this art form. The eerie sounds also adds to the overall experience.
So if you are in London and want to see this, (and I highly recommend you do) it is only around to January 27 and it is free.
And far away...on the other side of town in Chiswick they have begun celebrating the Chinese New Year with The Magical Lantern Festival. Although Chinese New Year is not officially until January 28th London has already started to break out the red lanterns. I will report back on that celebration as I have been told that outside of China London has the biggest celebration of the Chinese New Year. Should be quite the party. I am guessing we will be seeing a lot of red.
Magical Lantern Festival
The Magical Lantern Festival is a colourful enchanting one hour night-time walk through Chiswick Gardens where these giant lanterns would tell stories of Chinese history or transport you with some iconic images around world. It did have a Disneyesque feel to the place and I had to fight against my very strong urge to burst into song and sing, It's a Small World After All, as some of the lantern exhibits felt like they escaped from a theme park. Still impressive.
I personally loved that France and UK celebrated shoes in bright lights. Shoes need much more celebrating in my opinion.
But there were also the more traditional Chinese influences with the camels travelling the Silk Road, or their traditional red lanterns and temples.
What I thought was genius, about halfway through the park as my frozen toes and fingers where telling me I have had enough there were these fire pits and they were selling over a dozen different types of homemade marshmallows to roast. I bought myself a toasted coconut marshmallow and roasted it over the over fire.
Honestly I cannot recall ever enjoying something so much as I did that marshmallow. I am contimplating returning just for the marshmallows. Tickets are £18 for adults and £12 for children (the marshmallow £1.50). It is a nice thing to do on winter's night but dress warm. It wraps up Feb 1.
So thank you London. I, for one appreciate all the things you are doing to make the cold dark, bleak winters more beautiful and bearable. And again...a special shout out to those wonderful.. WONDERFUL people with the homemade marshmallows. You bet I am still dreaming about them.
One of the downfalls to living in London is how dark it gets so early in the winter. It starts getting dark at 3:00 in the afternoon which could make even the most festive of people want to climb back into bed and scream bah humbug. However it feels that the whole city of London is celebrating this time of year. London has decorated its streets, storefronts and buildings for the holiday season and I have to say God Bless them everyone.
The lights of Oxford and Regent Street are magical. Hyde Park has a Winter Wonderland theme park, there are pop-up skating rinks, colourful markets and in and around every corner there is a beautiful reminder that this time of year is special. Even Pokémon Go is into the Christmas spirit as their poster child and mascot Pikachu is popping up all around London wearing a red Santa hat (don't ask me how I know this). If you are planning to visit London I strongly urge you to come for Christmas. For those of you who can't be here this time of year or you are here and looking where to go, let me show you some of the highlights that makes London come alight at Christmas.
Oxford Street & Regent Street
One of the most magical places to be at Christmas is on Oxford and Regent Street. At the centre of the most beautiful shopping area in London the city has spared no expense in lighting blocks upon city blocks with twinkling strings of lights crisscrossing the streets, giant angels with wings that span the entire street or the over 1700 beautiful snow-ball like orbs that go on as far as you can see. Over 750,000 lights on Oxford Street alone.
I was coming out of the Bond Street Tube station the other night (actually it was late afternoon but it was already dark so it felt like night) and the contrast from coming up from the deep dimly lit London Underground to be greeted by the incredible lights of Oxford Street you actually heard people gasp at its splendour.
Even if you are like me and you refuse to get into the Christmas spirit until WELL AFTER all the Halloween decorations have been taken down and given a long rest it does makes you feel like you are in the middle of Frank Capra's film It's A Wonderful Life and you and Geroge Bailey are dancing down the streets of a electric Bedford Falls.
Covent Garden is one of my favourite places to be anytime of year in London but come the Christmas season Covent Garden turns it up to 11. What makes this super special aside from the incredible decorations and lively atmosphere is usually there is some incredible opera singer or a string quartet playing inside the Apple Market (not to be confused with the Apple Store). The acoustics are incredible and it creates the perfect soundtrack to such a beautiful place to shop and see the sights.
Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park
This is the 10th year and every year I have been told it is getting bigger and better. Free admission to get into the Winter Wonderland park but once there you can choose to buy tickets for Christmas shows, ice skating or the many rides. I walked through both during a weekday afternoon (very quiet) and on a evening weekend (not so quiet). If you don't mind the crowds I'd suggest the evening.
Again everything is lit up and sparkles. There is a giant Bavarian Pavillon that has live entertainment, wood burning fires, plenty of gluehwein (I call it mulled wine) and bratwurst (I call it a pale hotdog). The band had everyone jumping although covering more hit's of the 70's than Christmas songs. But who doesn't love a giant group sing-a-long anytime of year to Sweet Caroline? Nobody, that's who. Even though it felt to me way more like Octoberfest than Christmas it was tremendous fun. Lots of Christmas market stalls to buy those stocking stuffers as well.
If you grew up in Canada like I did you take for granted that ice rinks are everywhere and it is just part of life in the great white north. In London the only time you really see ice skating is over the Christmas season. There are several pop-up ice skating rinks that are quaint and are a throw back to a simpler time. Christmas carols are playing and there is hot chocolate or mulled wine for when your feet and fingers get cold (although in London it never gets "Canada cold").
As few folks in London actually have skates (or need them) you can rent them at the rink and for a small cost you can spend some time skating around and around outside some pretty fantastic historical places like the Natural History Museum (my favourite exterior in London), Somerset House and Hampton Court Palace. It's important to note that you should pre-book tickets, especially on the weekend. As these rinks are only seasonal their demand is high. The Westfield Mall in Sheppard's Bush has turned their main atrium into a giant indoor skating arena with live entertainment. Lady Gaga surprised the crowd and turned up there the day after I was there and sang a surprise gig under their giant snow globe on the roof. How awesome that would have been to see.
There are many pop-up Christmas markets all around the city. Mostly little chalet-like booths selling holiday wares and stocking stuffers. Some with old fashioned carousels or simple rides or one at South Bank that has a 80's themed rollerskating rink. They all have plenty of food and drink options and is a nice festive alternative for a place after work to get a pint.
A few of the popular markets are the Southbank Market and the Christmas Market at The Tate. Southbank and Tate are both on the south side of the river so you can have a lovely stroll from one to the other. The markets on one side of you and the wonderful London skyline on the other. Wow.
The Shops...ooh the shops
Once again I believe that Selfridge's has outdone itself in the Christmas window department. The entire store is covered with ever-green and tiny little white lights. The windows feature 12 sequinned Santa's each in a unique situation like in a hot tub or a ski lift. Each Santa suit has over 6,000 hand sewn sequins. The windows themselves have over 114,000 baubles, 2 tonnes of glitter and five of them have a state-of-the-art sound system which uses vibration of the glass panes to create its own soundtrack. 40,000 man hours went into these windows that started back in June. Wow....I mean WOW!!!!!!
Fortnum & Mason's flagship store on Piccadilly is like walking into a live Christmas window with the added benefit of the aroma of cinnamon and clove tea being handed out as you enter the store.
Carnaby Street, made famous in the 60's for their avant grade hippy generation has kept to that theme with a Carnaby Christmas Revolution with giant overhead signs and lights lining the streets with messages of Love, Peace, Kiss and Rebel .
Here Comes Santa Claus...oh wait...Here he comes again...and again...and yes again!
On the lighter side of Christmas, London celebrates a newer tradition called "Santacon". Thousands of people fill the streets of London dressed as Santa (or the occasional elf or reindeer) and sing Christmas songs and spread the holiday cheer...and well... drink the holiday cheer. This now has become a worldwide celebration with now over 50 countries taking the jolly old man in red to the streets in masses.
I got this friendly group of Santas early on in the parade/pubcrawl but this event goes all day and with everyone carrying their "cheer of choice" plus they do make the occasional stop to "water the reindeer" at a few pubs along the way this to me has all the potential for one very festive, jolly looking drunk holding tank gathering later in the evening. Only an hour in and lets just say, the reindeer games had already begun.
Everyone was in fine holiday form and you can see what I mean when you click on the pretty dancing elf above. The video with the two Singing Santas is funny if you watch what is happening behind them as they are joyfully singing a Christmas song all the while a Santa and a reindeer are going to town on one another. Yup, reindeer games.. On the official Santacon website they ask you to behave and not be "that" Santa. They do have a family friendly route that does not pass by any pubs (how they map that out in London I cannot imagine) but why confuse your little ones with all those Bad Santas?.
Finally... my last observation. London is not afraid to say "Merry Christmas". In North America over the years I have personally found the so called "political correctness" of wishing someone Merry Christmas has gotten out of control sucking the life and colour out of this holiday. They have stopped saying Merry Christmas and replaced it with a generic "Happy Holidays" in an attempt to not offend anyone not celebrating Christmas. Toronto City Hall came under fire recently for having a Christmas tree in their lobby. Seriously....who is the person that could object to something so beautiful? Even Starbucks came under attack with their holiday snowflakes and winter decorations on their Red Cups. Getting some sort of weird public pressure to remove any decorative seasonal images on their cups. So Starbucks yielding to pressure left them just plain red. Then once again Starbucks was attacked for being "anti-Christmas" for having yielded to pressure removing the wintery images some were complaining about in the first place. Too Christmasy OR just too red? Talk about you can't win.
Cut back on the caffeine people... it's a snowflake. This year there are 13 different winter inspired Red Cups, all contest winners designed by Starbucks customers. Lets see what controversy this invokes. I celebrate Christmas and would not be offended if someone wished me Happy Chanukah, an outstanding Kwanza or Gong Hey Fat Choy at Chinese New Year. Actually the opposite, I'd be honoured to be recognized with that blessing around anyone's faith or holiday.
So MERRY CHRISTMAS everyone!!!!!! It doesn't matter what faith you are, a Christmas tree (not a "holiday tree" as they suggested renaming it at Toronto City Hall) can be admired and enjoyed by all. Let the lights shine and twinkle and help fill in the darkness. Have a safe holiday and celebrate responsibly. And remember if you lose your shoe at night it is not because you are in a fairytale, it's because you are drunk!!!! Be a Good Santa, call a uber! Coz you never know who is watching you. Ho Ho Ho.
HIGHGATE CEMETERY...IT WILL LEAVE YOU BREATHLESS.
London is a very busy, noisy city. Something usually going on around every corner. So where do you go when you want a truly peaceful, beautiful break from the city din? A cemetery that's where. Highgate Cemetery to be specific. It is a magnificent, albeit unusual place to go for a walk ... and only a little creepy (get to that in a moment) but as one of London's most haunted places you would expect nothing less.
Opened in 1839, it was at one time one of the most prestigious and fashionable places to be buried in London. But in the 1970's the cemetery was pretty much abandoned and fell into great disrepair as they did not find it profitable to maintain. So it was prime pickings for grave robbers and vandals.
Highgate was rescued by a charity and now much has been restored. But part of the real beauty of the place is that much is overgrown, uncultivated and wild. Some graves have tree roots wrapped around them, almost like the roots were trying to contain someone who was trying to get out.
There are two ways to visit this place (short of being an actual customer). Highgate is divided into East and West grounds. Anyone can come and pay the entrance fee of £4 and stroll the East Cemetery freely. However the West is by a guided tour only and you would need to book and buy a ticket for £12. I recommend you pre-book if you want to visit the West Cemetery, as the tours are kept small so they can fill up quickly on a nice day.
The tour was great, especially if you are someone who wants to get some history and backstory of the place and who is buried there. Our tour guide was very "colourful" and not at all what I would expect for a graveyard tour guide. He gave us a fantastic slant on some of the outrageous, adulterous, scandalous love stories that were buried behind the tombs. Stories where not only were the "happy" couples laid together in a crypt for all eternity but also their lovers. Although I am guessing whomever "went" first likely had no idea who else they would be sharing their eternal resting bed with.
WHO'S BURIED THERE?
Like most old prestigious cemeteries there are some noteworthy people buried there, over 850 of them according to Historical UK Society. Of course not dissimilar to the Blue Plaque people most of the names I do not recognize. There are avenues upon avenues of dead poets, artists, London Mayors, princes, Royal Academicians and Fellows of the Royal Society. Most famous of all their "eternal visitors" would have to be Karl Marx, the "father of communism". He is buried on the East. There are over 170,000 people currently buried at Highgate.
Home to the Macabre.
So what's a walk through a cemetery without some haunting ghosts stories? Highgate not surprisingly is listed as one of the most haunted places in London and known for its strange going-ons and home to the macabre. From many a ghost sighting, to reports of Red Eyed Ghouls, Highgate even has its own acclaimed Vampire aptly called the Highgate Vampire that reportedly haunted the cemetery in the 1970's.
As for other creepy bits if you go on the guided tour you can request going into a crypt. Which of course I did. The crypts are just like you would imagine, dark, dank and very, very creepy. The air is very heavy and damp and the smell is something I could not find the words to adequately describe. We were only allowed to go in so far as some of the coffins were actually falling apart and you could see the old skeletons falling out. Also out of respect for the dead we were not permitted to take any photos inside or trust me you be looking at one now. I do love this photo below if we are talking creepy. Looks like someone was trying to escape.
Many a movie and novel featured Highgate as a eerie backdrop for telling its story. Tales From the Crypt, From Beyond the Grave, Taste the Blood of Dracula to name a few all took place at Highgate. In the BBC series Porridge, a character claims that this eldest daughter was conceived on Karl Marx's tomb (might have to watch that series). It has even made itself into the gaming world by being Level 6 in the Nightmare Creatures game.
Highgate is truly a beautiful, haunting walk and I will return again and again. Although I have not nearly seen even 1/4 of all the grounds and only heard a fraction of the stories and tales of those who rest there, I have already found my favourite tombstone. It is the grave of Thomas Sayers. His tomb is guarded by the stone image of his mastiff, Lion, who was chief mourner at his funeral. One can never underestimate the love of a dog....even in the afterlife. For it has been said that one of the best places to bury a dog is in the heart of their masters or in this case one of the best places to bury the master is in the heart of the dog. Go explore.
Normally I am reporting in on the interesting "going-ons" in London...and I love doing that. But this month I find myself what feels like a million miles away in the beautiful lake district of Ontario, called Muskoka. So instead this week I am going to let you in on a Canadian secret, it's the incredible summer life in Muskoka.
For those who are looking to explore Canada, its beauty, its wilderness or even its summer social scene Muskoka is the place. New Yorkers have the Hamptons, Torontonians... if they are very lucky have Muskoka .
LIFE IS BETTER ON THE DOCK
Even if you don't go "in" the lake and personally since there is nowhere around to get a good blow-out I say, why bother getting my hair wet, life is unquestionably on the dock. Whether it is canoes, kayaks, swimming, jet-skis, boating, reading trashy magazines or ... writing a blog the dock is the centre of all things Muskoka.
It is the perfect place to snooze, recharge or entertain. It is true what they say, life is better on the dock.
COTTAGE LIFE IS WHAT YOU DO IN-BETWEEN MEALS.
Eating AND drinking is an incredible part of life in Muskoka. In fact cocktail hour can sometimes start with your eggs and bacon in the morning and not end until... well ...your eggs and bacon the next morning. I love the summer social scene, from the bar on the dock always ready for visitors, to planning, cooking and sharing meals with friends and family. Also what makes life different at the cottage is the men folk all seem to gather around the BBQ and actually cook. I mean it! They are cooking dinner...AND enjoying doing so. Can I ask, as a general rule how many guys know how to turn on their oven at home? There must be something primal about cooking on a BBQ and I for one am happy to see it. Just wonder how we can bring even a tiny bit of that primal BBQ mentality around a four burner gas stove in the kitchen?
When not eating at the cottage there are some fun seasonal restaurants nearby. Grand Electric in Port Carling is great for fish tacos and a cold Corona but prepare to wait in line, or you can wait at Frankies Surf Club (when there is not a wait to get in there). The JW Marriott Muskoka Chop House for steaks and great wine (all year) and on the casual side of dining for a chicken wrap, burger or salad Turtle Jacks. In Rosseau, Crossroads is still a local fave and new this season in Port Carling is The Cottage Bistro, great menu, offers cooking classes, open for lunch and dinner and takes reservations.
If you are in Muskoka and really want a fun, rocking night the best place to do that is the Kee To Bala. "The Kee" as it is known has been a concert hall since 1930 on Lake Muskoka and has hosted some incredible acts over its incredible history. Musicians like, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong and more recently Snoop Dogg, RUSH and Drake have all passed through and shook those giant barn doors by the lake.
SUNSETS & SHOOTING STARS
During the summer my favourite time of day is sunset. In Muskoka during the summer months we can watch the sun go down from our dock, chardonnay or rosé in hand around 9:00 each night. Some summer evenings, if it's a clear night one can watch meteor showers in the way of shooting stars. Lots of opportunities for wishes to be made.
DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A COTTAGE HO?
So before the days of cottage ownership I was as a self proclaimed "Cottage Ho", relying on friends with cottages for weekend invites. If you are looking for a career as a "Cottage Ho" the terms are similar to that of the Chalet Slut or The Sofa Surfer, you come bringing at least one incredible meal for the entire group. From appies to dessert. You bring some great wine that will last the length of your visit and at least one special bottle as gift for your hosts. Fresh flowers always go a long way too. Trust me you follow these simple guidelines and you should always have a place to chill for the weekend.
WHERE TO STAY IN MUSKOKA..if you are not ho-ing it?
Before we bought our lake house (aka cottage) we would rent a place for a few weeks each summer. There are some incredible places to rent if one does not own a cottage. There are a number of online sites where you could find a place to rent. They can vary from a small cabin in the woods to a monster 10,000 sf mega cottages with staff. Even people who own these monster multi-million dollar places in Muskoka (Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Cindy Crawford, Martin Short) still call them "cottages" although trust me, that definition is totally out of whack the moment there is a place to land your helicopter.
My favourite Muskoka resort hands-down is the JW Marriott The Rosseau Muskoka. Condé Nast Traveller rated it Number 7 of 20 of top resorts to stay in Canada. I have stayed there many times prior to my cottage ownership days or if there was a lack of a good Cottage Ho-ing opportunity. There are some great restaurants, golf (not that I golf), pools, tennis, lake activities and a spa. Great place to have a romantic weekend.
My other recco is Windermere House, they call themselves "Lady of the Lake". It is the country's oldest hotel although was totally rebuilt to its former glory a few years back when a fire brought the place down after a movie shoot accidentally set the place a blaze. It has all the amenities one would require for a luxury stay.
If you have mini-van full of children I would suggest a more" kid valued" place called Cleveland's House. Think the movie Dirty Dancing but on a much smaller and way less sexy scale...and sadly no hint of the Patrick Swayze hot dancing instructor. They have a great program on the dock for kids to learn to wake-surf or waterski and families do tend to return year after year until the parents can't take it anymore. DO NOT go there unless you are happy with the sound of children everywhere. Their minimal wine list is not going to even come close to help numb the shrieking of children in the dining room. They do have babysitting if you have to escape and the JW Marriott is right next door. Come with kids or stay away.
There are many small boutiques, local designers, antiques, fairs, farmers markets that run all season. So if you get tired of sitting on the dock you could spend the day poking around shopping and finding treasures.
SOON...BACK TO LONDON
I will enjoy each sunset and muggy Muskoka summer day for all good things must eventually come to a end. Pretty soon it will be time to put down the rosé, pack the car and get back to the moderate temperatures of London. But in case you are wondering... my heart will and forever be sitting on the dock, by the lake in the last hours of the Muskoka summer sun....and this guy will forever be beside me..smelling just a little too much like wet dog.
My London Photographic Bucket List. Tick and... tick!
I am relatively new to Instagram. I have not figured out exactly how everything works nor do I understand why a photo that I thought was so awesome only gets something like 6 "likes" compared to the thousands of "likes" someone got for posting a photo of their breakfast. But even in my confusion I have to say I really like Instagram. So I wondered where in London are the most Instagrammed places? London is 3rd as the most Instagrammed city (after New York and Paris) so you know there are a ton of photos being pushed into the atmosphere. So with the help from Instragram and their geotags I found out and created my London Photographic Bucket List.
So counting down ... here are The 10 Most Instragrammed Places in London. Some might even surprise you.
10. VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM (V & A)
Two museums hit the Top Ten List. I love going to museums and even more so now that I live in London. They are most often free and there are some incredible things to see.
9. THE BRITISH MUSEUM
The interior of this place is incredible. It rivals its millions of artifacts
8. HEATHROW AIRPORT
This one was surprising as the airport itself really lacks any great visually interesting places that I have seen to support its high ranking. I guess its ranking in this list has to be chalked up the volumes of people saying hello and good-bye at the airport, plane spotters or like this photo here, me taking a photo outside my window just after take-off.
Ahhh Harrods. One of London's most iconic and high-end department stores. Even though the store occupies over 1,000,000 square feet (largest department store in Europe) most of the photos are taken on the outside as is it such a beautiful building. Inside, the famous Harrods Food Hall is a close second in the Insta-world as their food hall is spectacular. Harrods was the home of England's first escalator which at the time was no more than a leather conveyor belt. Apparently it made some people so nervous that there was a free shot of Brandy that awaited them on top to ease their nerves. I think Harrods need to get with that program again as their prices scare me and I would like my nerves "eased". But boy is this my happy place. There is a dress code in Harrods and people have actually been turned away for not looking the part. I will keep that in mind next time I am in my sweats and Converse.
6. BUCKINGHAM PALACE
Buckingham Palace comes as no surprise. Home of the Queen, it attracts tourists from all around the world.
5. CAMDEN TOWN
Camden Town is a fantastic, colourful area of town and rich with photo opps. The market stalls that line the streets and Regent's Canal are always lively. Buskers are top notch and the retail by London standards is inexpensive... although AllSaints has moved into the hood. Some fun vintage shopping too. I have been several times to Camden and there is always something new to see. If you go, go hungry. Great selection of food.
4. BIG BEN
Known to most of us as Big Ben, its name now (it has had several names) is actually the Elizabeth Tower that sits at the north end of the Palace of Westminster. Big Ben is actually the nickname of the giant bell in the clock. The way the late afternoon light hits the building is so fantastic it is worth timing your visit around then. Big Ben says its just after 4:00.
3. THE LONDON EYE
Or as I call it... one big mother of a ferris wheel! I mean really big. I would suggest pre-ordering tickets if you plan on taking a ride because without doing that the wait could be nuts. There are a lot of great shots that can be taken not actually on the London Eye but rather around it although the view is great from inside on a clear day. But if you are looking for that magic shot I would wait until dusk as the view is wonderful. It was fun (albeit pricey). Close to Big Ben and some other touristy things to do.
2. HYDE PARK AND KENSINGTON GARDENS
Hyde Park combined with Kensington Gardens (adjacent) is one of London's largest parks at over 350 acres. So it is no wonder why there are so many photos taken there, it is actually larger than the Principality of Monaco. There are always so many things happening in the park. Hyde Park has hosted many concerts however interesting to note that both Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney had their microphones actually turned off when they played past the 10:30 noise curfew. How could they do that to Sir Paul??? Springsteen I get, he is American and he does play on.
FEEDING THE BIRDS IN HYDE PARK
One of my favorite things to do there and so sorry if I sound like Mary Poppins is feed the birds, and I am not talking pigeons. Aside from the swans (which are indeed lovely but way more aggressive than their appearance would suggest) there is a place in Kensington Gardens just south of the Peter Pan statue that in the morning and early evening you will see people standing still with their arms outstretched.. sorta looking like they are doing Tai Chi. There are these green tropical birds and they will come and eat out of your hand if you keep very still. I would never think that one would see tropical birds along with palm trees in London. Love that this city surprises. Bring crackers with you and you will have them eating out of the palm of your hand, literally.
And finally...drum roll please...The number one Instagrammed place in London is...
1. TOWER BRIDGE
Ta Da. Tower Bridge. Number One! Not a surprise. Often mistaken as London Bridge, Tower Bridge is not only one of London's most recognizable bridges but also one of London's most iconic landmarks. If you are lucky enough to be there when the draw bridge is up it makes for an incredible photo (did not get that timing right so guess I will have to return). Many an selfie has been taken with Tower Bridge framed beautifully in the background.
Although not officially on Instagram's "Ten Most List" I have three honourable mentions to add to the final list. First, the red phone booths. You have to do it, it is so very London. Plus never sure how long they will be around, I mean really when was the last time you used a payphone?
Oxford Street at Christmas...magical.
....and finally Abbey Road. You grab three friends, ask one to take off their shoes and then cross the world's most famous crosswalk. Found the photo blasts on the iphone helped with getting that perfect walking position. Be prepared to ask someone to take photos of you (there are always people around) and you do the same for others.
My parting words, if you are not planning on visiting London anytime soon, do your own "top ten list" in your own city or town. You will learn a ton, it's a fun time and you see more than you ever knew was out there ....
Happy Instagramming all.
Beep Beep. Beep Beep. Yeah!
If ever a time that a city was in need of a celebration it is London and the time is now. After the shock of the UK referendum voting to leave the European Union the country is divided. With the City of London highly supporting the country to remain in the EU to say that the city was in a state of shock and sadness is an extreme understatement. Although the future is extremely uncertain in the UN-United Kingdom one thing that was clear was London could use a reason to celebrate...and CELEBRATE THEY DID!!
We have come a long way and still have a long way to go but the City of London once again celebrated PRIDE WEEK with European’s largest gay pride parade. It was impossible to walk through London without seeing the rainbow flags flying everywhere. My personal favourite being the one that was flying high on The Bank of England building where the Union Jack usually flies. Maybe next year Buckingham Palace could join in. Stores were decorated, banners hung and the city has never been more colourful.
I managed to once again squeeze into position and watch thousands of people, march, strut, skip, dance, prance, sing and play down London’s Regent’s Street. With the incredible turnout it was impossible to say who wasn't participating in this event.
Seemed like everyone was in attendance. London banks, accounting firms, retailers, service providers, sport teams, first responders, police, all branches of the military, religious groups, etc. All were there lending their support to this years prevailing theme, LOVE IS LOVE. It was great seeing the Mayor of London leading the parade. As it should be. But those from Toronto will remember all too well, it is not always how it is. Rest in peace ex-mayor Rob Ford.
In fact I believe that today it would be politically incorrect to not be there as a business. Of course there were a few of the haters or antigay religious groups that will alway be so narrow of mind and heart but I believe their numbers are dwindling. The energy, joy and love was contagious. The variety of people was as vast as London itself. From the dramatic and theatrical to the old military officers walking in their decorated uniforms hand in hand. It was all amazing and at times very touching.
There was even a couple of marriage proposals at this year's parade that have gone viral. My fave is the London police officer proposing to another London police officer breaking ranks during the parade. Talk about your public pressure, all eyes on them. He happily said yes!!!.
I felt the pride, the pure energy as people who society may have deemed “different” had found their pack.
They were cheered and celebrated as they paraded down the London streets to thousands of supporters. There was no judgement only acceptance, love with the occasional Abba or Lady Gaga song. I could not include all of my photos of the day as there were so many but if you want to see more click on my Gallery images. The Guardian and TimeOut London have posted some great photos as well.
Another favourite moment of mine was this giant group choreographed dance number with hundreds of men dancing down the parade route on Regents Street. Cannot imagine how they scheduled rehearsal.
Click on photo. Feel the fun.
So Happy Pride London. Your timing was more important than you could have ever predicted. May the love and acceptance I felt so strongly from that day continue into our hearts as you march forward to an uncertain future.
And take with you Pride Week's very important message...
LOVE IS LOVE.
I had a unique day recently. A VERY unique day. What made it so unique is that the morning's activities could not have been more different from the afternoons. The morning of June 11th was rich and steeped with a regal British tradition, it was the Trooping Of Colour, the Queen’s "Official" 80th Birthday Celebration. She celebrates two birthdays cause she is the Queen of England, and she can. Her real birthday is on April 21st. They push the celebration later in the calendar with hopes of getting better weather and less chance of rain. The Queen of course will not be rained upon, it is her that does the reigning.
Tens of thousands lined The Mall, which is the main boulevard leading up to Buckingham Palace. I personally felt like “Where’s Waldo” stuffed into the middle of the masses. I had heard a couple speaking how they had gotten there at 5:00 in the morning so they could have a good view. Luckily my short experience as a cocktail waitress once again came in handy as I did manage to manoeuvre a decent position along the parade route (right beside the couple who had been there since 5:00AM). Me, I arrived just before "showtime" with my venti latte still hot. It was rich with royal pageantry, the Royal Horse Guards Parade, all decked out in their full regalia, decorated soldiers, full bands on horseback, an impressive fly-by display by the Royal Air Force, gilded carriages carrying British Monarchs and Monarchs-to-be. Even young Princess Charlotte made her first public debut on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
This event was televised around the world. Of course my favourite televised moment is when the Queen told Prince William to stand up while he was crouching down and talking to his little boy. If you haven't seen this video you have to watch. I attached a link. Man oh man what a tough family to be born into. Harder I would think is marrying into that lot. Stay strong Kate. It was pomp, grandeur and royal pageantry as England does best.
Meanwhile….. a few hours later…one park away…. I am in a sea of thousands of naked cyclists.
It was The World Naked Bike Ride. Thousands of cyclists strip down and ride through the streets of London naked. Although there are many awareness campaigns attached to this ride the main one seemed to be bringing awareness to cyclists and biking safety on the roads. Some bodies were painted with the words "can you see me now?"... and see them you could. I felt like I had walked into a alternative universe. Like a Garden of Eden revival but with a real absence of Eve. It was more like Adam and Adam...and Adam...etc.
Right about now you should be thinking, were there not any naked women? The answer was, not that I saw. There were a few topless and some in bikinis but did not see any women "au naturel". Not that they were not allowed to participate or even encouraged to go as "bare as they dare" but I ask you this, how many women do you know who would voluntarily want to get naked, have strangers judge their bodies as they ride through the streets of London so people like me can take pictures of them and post them on the internet? Not this girl. Does that sound like something most women would want to do? It is the guys, they love being naked. With all sorts of shapes, sizes, ages and races they were all totally and fully comfortable strutting around like peacocks letting it all hang-out. Of course as a North American woman I was not really use to the "hanging-out" look of the European "pea-cock". More accustomed to the trimmed up North American bird. So very quickly, two guys are sharing a hospital room. "What are you in for? I'm getting a circumcision.""Damn! I had that done when I was born and I couldn't walk for a year!" Haha. My only circumcision joke.
I think the rest of this blog is much better told in photos than in words, although I am having a hard time (no pun intended) finding PG photos of two thousand naked men on bikes. My girl Chelsea Handler got her photo taken down by Twitter and Instagram for posting a topless photo of herself imitating a famous photo of Vladimir Putin riding a horse without his shirt. They deemed it "indecent"! My pics are a tad more (or sometimes less) overt than Chelsea Handler's boobs. It did make for some great late night television fodder on her show. Miss that show. Love that my link (if you clicked on her name) is in The Business Insider UK, a very corporate publication that covers important business news. Guess they were covering the political Putin angle rather than Chelsea's hooters.
This ride is now in over 40 countries and growing. Just don’t think most of them run on the same day as their ruling monarch's birthday party.
So God save the Queen, God save those thousands of naked cyclists for making us look, and the City of London for hosting these side-by-side events. For I cannot think of anywhere else in the world that these two events, so different in every conceivable way could happen on the same day, a few blocks apart.
And for those wondering, it rained cats and dogs on the bikers. They clearly do not have the connections of The Royal Family.
P.S. You didn't think with thousands of naked men there weren't at least half of them that looked like this guy? I just knew that if I led with him you likely would have stopped reading.
I run entirely on caffeine and sarcasm. In that order. So as I have been strolling the streets of London with a venti latte in hand I have been seeing these blue medallions or plaques all over the city with names and sometimes professions that I have never heard of. For those of you that don’t know what a Blue Plaque is let me give you a very brief description. Blue Plaques (not always blue but mostly) are given out by the London Heritage Society to recognize people of importance (not always British) who have lived, died or done something big in London. It usually marks a home, place of business or site where this notable event occurred. They are everywhere around London and currently there are over 900 Blue Plaques adhered to the walls of buildings commemorating that special person who spent time there. They are kinda a big deal. There is even one across the street from me, writer James Joyce (him I know) which I guess is what started my curiosity for these plaques.
So how is it that of over 900 names I have absolutely no idea who most of them are? That is not to say just because I don’t know who they are doesn’t mean they are not worthy of such a distinction. Maybe it is I who needs to brush up on my British history. But I think most Londoners don’t’ know these names either unless of course they are either massively noteworthy i.e.) Winston Churchill or Mozart or are directly tied into a local Quiz Night question and answer, then at the very least my English cousins absolutely would know who they are. I think the reason most people don’t recognize these Blue Plaque names (assuming that they don’t) is that a lot of them lived a very long time ago plus some, as I have discovered truly are very obscure. Lets start with Luke Howard 1772-1864 “Namer Of Clouds”. What an interesting profession (caffeine is in full effect and now the sarcasm). I could and would happily name clouds and proudly accept a Blue Plaque for doing so. I even know what I would name my first cloud, “Bam Bam”, a name quite suited for a cloud I think. Named after my first family cat (not Barney Rubble’s son, although that technically is who the cat was named after).
Who could deny the contribution of one Joseph Grimaldi, Clown. Check out his picture. Maybe he was the first creepy clown to start scaring children? Or Queen Victoria's dentist Sir Edwin Saunders. I am guessing that back in Queen Victoria's day it was dentists like Sir Edwin that helped give Britain the reputation they still have to this day for perfect teeth. Another “interesting” one is Tom Cribb, “Bare Knuckle Fighter”. I can only guess that in the time of Mr Cribb's dedication (early 1800’s) there might have been a serious shortage of candidates who fought with covered knuckles.
But in amongst the obscure and ancient there are some that I not only know, but adore. People who made a little dent or impression on me personally. So I went in search of my own "Blue Plaque Walk of Fame" looking for those that made a difference... to me.
The first on my list is one of the newest inductees this year, Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury. He just got his plaque almost 25 years after his death. Can you believe it has almost been 25 years? The London Heritage Society has a 20 year rule before they will consider giving a Blue Plaque. They want to make sure that the person is still relevant years later, just like Joseph Grimaldi, Clown. I first saw Queen back in high school with Dave Bradshaw on my very first concert-date (where are you now Dave Bradshaw?) That was a few summers ago. Even now a generation later you would be hard pressed to find someone who can’t shake his or her head in perfect timing to Bohemian Rhapsody a-la Wayne’s World or sing We Are The Champions at some sporting event. The plaque was put on his childhood home in Feltham, west London where he first lived as Farrokh Bulsara when he and his family immigrated to England from Zanzibar.
But what I found puzzling is that they didn’t put the Blue Plaque on his home in Kensington, the house where he lived and died in as “Freddy Mercury”. It was rumoured that when he knew he was dying Mercury and band mate Brian May wrote the song “The Show Must Go On” in this house, foreshadowing Freddie’s impending death. There was even a question if Freddie would have been even able to sing this song as he was very sick at the time. But Freddie was quoted as saying, “I'll fucking do it darling, vodka down”. And did it he did, he lacerated that vocal. Clearly Brian May really meant the show must go on as he is currently touring Queen again with American Idol finalist Adam Lambert taking on lead vocals. Great vocalist Adam but sorry Brian May, Queen is not Queen without Freddie Mercury.
So I visited Mercury's house in Kensington and now almost 25 years after Freddy died people are still there, leaving hand-written notes, writing on the brick wall that surrounds the mansion with lipstick (or a Sharpie), leaving flowers at the very unassuming gate surrounded by an 14 foot wall, marked with graffiti by a thousand different fans. When I came to check it out there was a small group of people there signing the wall, taking pictures. One woman wiped a tear from her eye, looked at me and smiled. Almost 25 years later the shrine created by his fans still lives on! I walked away very touched thinking that no one should never, EVER underestimate the power of music.
Only a few blocks from this house was another house that Mercury use to live in. What I also found odd that not only was there no mentioned of Freddie at this house but rather there was a plaque for someone else. A one Mr. Edward Linley Sambourne, a cartoonist who lived there between 1844-1910. I am certain that if Mr. Sambourne had he been living he would have happily and proudly shared some wall space with Freddie Mercury.
Next on my tour was the infamous horror and suspense film director, Alfred Hitchcock. He was on a very busy street not far from Freddie but truly a world away. What was so fantastic about Hitchcock’s house was it looked like something out of one of his horror films. It looked like if Norman Bates had a flat in London this is where he would be living. It was dark, rundown and gave me the creeps. How totally prefect.
I then went off in search of Oscar Wilde in Chelsea. He lived in a much finer neighbourhood and street than Alfred. I have to say that I love everything about Oscar Wilde. There were a few other unknown plaques on his street but honestly it was too much effort to find a place to rest my latte to take a photo as I was there to see Oscar. Interesting that his plaque did not say "writer" but rather, "wit and dramatist". I am guessing Wilde for sure knew a little something about drama in his life but not to say he was a writer? Seriously? How did that happen? On a similar theme American actress Ava Gardner recently got her Blue Plaque. Her plaque doesn't refer to her as an "actress" even though she acted in over 60 films, but rather a "Movie Star". I guess unless you are quoting Shakespeare the Heritage Society doesn't consider it acting.
I quote Oscar Wilde more often than I do any other "wit and dramatist" with the single possible exception of Dr. Seuss who sadly could not be part of this tour. My favourite quote of Wilde’s and it likely summed up how he lived his life is, “once is curiosity twice perversion”. So true, especially if you have ever been to Vegas. When I was in Paris a few years ago I visited his grave in the Père Lachaise Cemetery. His tombstone was a large Egyptian-like sculpture and it is now protected by a giant enclosure of plexi-glass. On the plexi people would kiss it deliberately leaving their lipstick marks. I was not able to find out what the significance of the lipstick on the tomb of a gay man was but if you ever get a chance you must visit this cemetery, it was fascinating. The Doors frontman Jim Morrison is also buried there. His gravesite is littered with empty Jack Daniel's bottles. That I get.
I then went off to Marylebone in search of John Lennon. I had my ear-buds in and “Imagine” was the soundtrack that accompanied me. This tour really is enhanced with music. Randomly a song by Julian Lennon (John’ son) called “Lucy” came on that I didn’t even know I had in my music library. It played as I was standing outside of Lennon’s house. How serendipitous. It is crazy how much Julian sounds like his dad and I wondered if the chorus “we still love you Lucy” had anything to do with Lucy in The Sky With Diamonds? The house was a typical but lovely English row house, well kept and somehow I think the plaque saying John Lennon lived there immediately increased the property value.
Have a listen.
I then walked to Mayfair to see the two neighbours who lived next door to each other hundreds of years apart. Composer George Frideric Handel of 25 Brook St and at number 23 and a totally different type of musician to Handel, rocker and member of the 27 Club Jimi Hendrix. It certainly took away some the “edge” that I associate with Hendrix that his house was in Mayfair, a very posh upper-crust neighbourhood. You would have thought based on his persona and clearly how he lived (and died) he would have been in a neighbourhood that was artsy and have a lot more edge, like Shoreditch. Not in the heart of the most expensive shops and exclusive hotels in London. There is now a Jo Malone store on the street level of his former house. He would have not approved but I am guessing it smells much better now than it did when he lived there.
Finally, and this visit was mostly inspired by Bruce and my dad, I went to Belgravia to visit the home of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. More personally significant to me was that Ian Fleming also wrote "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (clearly I am not a Bond girl). I loved Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and was very afraid of the evil villain the Kid-Catcher as a child. He still is in my opinion one of the greatest villains of all time. Fleming lived on a very nice street in a very wealthy neighbourhood and he too had a few Blue Plaque neighbours that I have never heard of. The London Heritage Society has come under fire lately for being a prominently white, male panel that allegedly tends to favour white, male honourees. Does this not sound just like the Oscars? I think Jada and Will Smith would happily fight against this injustice too if they had even the slightness thing to gain from this.
I will continue to explore and learn about these Blue Plaque people who I am certain at some point, in some real way contributed to the world of London even if was to name clouds. There is still Vincent Van Gogh, Mozart, Charles Dickens, Keith Moon, Charlie Chaplin or Noel Coward (for my mom) that are on my list to find, see and take a moment to remember. For in the words of the incredible and very quotable Dr Suess, “oh the things you can find, if you don’t stay behind”.