We were lucky enough to take a trip to London, northern England and Paris in the fall of 2014.
Note: Due to a camera mishap mid-trip, we lost our photos of England, and have substituted some publicly available photos for that portion of our trip.
We spent a few days in London at the beginning of our trip.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, the Tower of London installed an art exhibit featuring over 800,000 ceramic red poppies, each commemorating a British or Commonwealth soldier killed during that war. Poppies are apparently the first flowers to appear on a rehabilitating battle field, and are the subject of a famous WWI poem. Viewed from certain angles, the poppies could be seen as a river of blood, a mute reminder of the horrors of war that was more eloquent than the comprehensive, but oddly triumphalist, WWI exhibit at the Imperial War Museum.
We also saw a play, King Charles III, a near-future fantasy about the accession of Prince Charles to the English throne. England has a “constitutional” monarchy, although it has no constitution. The powers of the monarch vis-à-vis the Parliament are strictly limited, but there are no comparable limits on the power of Parliament vis-à-vis the people. In the play, Parliament has just passed a bill strictly limiting the freedom of the press, and the fictional Charles decides one of his limited powers is to refuse to sign the bill. Mayhem ensues. We enjoyed the political dimensions of the play – should England have an analogue to the US Supreme Court – and appreciated the numerous Shakespeare references.
We had some wonderful ethnic food in London. We ate creative Peruvian food at Lima, and very good Indian food at Chutney Mary’s (although neither chutney nor Mary were in evidence). Elsewhere in England, we had good breakfasts, and the tea was good.
We have a particular interest in medieval cathedrals, but our previous visits to English cathedrals have been somewhat disappointing. Many of England’s medieval cathedrals are relatively lacking in interior decoration. That’s because during England’s civil war in 17th C, Puritans destroyed the stained glass and statuary as relics of “Papism.” Much of the interior decoration in English cathedrals today are the result of 19th C renovations.
York Minster is an exception to this general rule. During the 17th C Civil War, York was attacked by Protestant forces. But in order to prevent a prolonged siege, the city negotiated a surrender of the city in return for an agreement to spare the stained glass. The church’s great East Window is currently in the middle of a multi-year restoration, but several of the restored window panels, or “lights,” are currently being displayed at “eye height.” The windows had a distinctive yellow color that I haven’t seen used much elsewhere.
Most of the statuary was destroyed, particularly Madonnas. A local guide showed us a rare survival – a Madonna carved into the portal of a chantry door, near York Minster – so well hidden that even standing right underneath it was hard to discern.
The statues of English kings in the cathedral were spared, so at least we have a sample of contemporary sculpture.
There are plenty of other things to see in York. We were particularly impressed by Jorvik, a museum of the Viking era (Jorvik was the Viking name for the city). The museum included a Disneyesque(in the best sense) recreation of the Viking town as it might have looked in the 10th C – located just about where it actually existed. The best feature of the museum were local archeology students who acted as museum guides, explaining how we can use bits of bones, pottery and other detritus to reconstruct how people lived, what they ate, even how they died – interesting for children of all ages, and a really creative use of an excavation that was really little more than a garbage dump.
We also visited Castle Howard, an aristocratic mansion built in the late 17th C. The interior of the house was somewhat disappointing – apparently, the original owner lost his lucrative court position just before the house was completed, and neither he nor any of his descendants ever really had enough money to maintain the house properly. The façade of the house and the grounds are magnificent, though. The house will be familiar to contemporary audiences as the setting for both versions of Brideshead Revisited (both the recent movie version and the 1980s BBC TV version starring Jeremy Irons).
York has an active theater scene, and we saw two plays while we were there. One was a two-woman play about Nell Gwynn, who ponders her future as her lover Charles II lay dying. Another, the Kite Runner, about modern Afghanistan, is perhaps more familiar from the recent movie version, but it makes for compelling theater. It was a little strange, though, to be watching a play in England written by Afghan-American now living in San Jose, and partly set in San Francisco. Why haven’t there been more American productions of this play?
We visited Durham Cathedral as a day trip from York. Durham is still a relatively small town, and the cathedral remains a center of local life much as it has been since the Middle Ages. Graduations from the nearby University of Durham, for example, are held in the Cathedral. Most of the stained glass in this Cathedral is modern. We were particularly struck by this delightfully contemporary rendition of the Last Supper. This window was underwritten by the local branch of Marks and Spencer, continuing a tradition of local sponsorship of stained glass that goes back at least as far as Chartres.
We spent nearly an entire day in Lincoln Cathedral (just as well – it was one of the few rainy days on our trip). In the morning, we took a “floor tour,” covering the magnificent interior, as well as the excellent 19th C stained glass. In the afternoon, we took a “tower tour” which provided access not only to the bell tower, but also the usually inaccessible upper story of the cathedral, including a catwalk that passed right in front of one of the rose windows. In between, we visited the Cathedral Library, which was featuring an early manuscript of the medieval encyclopedia of Bartholomeus Anglicus, a 13th C English scholar. This work (which I encountered in college) is a delightful compendium of the facts both real and imagined and is the source for many of the wonderful flights of fancy in Umberto Eco’s Baudolino.
Lincoln was an important center of England’s medieval Jewish community. The “Jew’s House,” which dates to the 12th C and is still standing, speaks to the importance of this community. The position of Jews in medieval England was a difficult one. One of the few occupations permitted to them was money-lending. The Jewish community were considered vassals of the King, and when the King wanted to grant a favor to one of his other vassals, he would often remit their debts (without, of course, reimbursing the Jewish moneylenders). In order to account for what we would call “bad debt risk,” the moneylenders had to then charge relatively high interest rates, making them very unpopular.
In 1255, a group of Lincoln Jews were arrested and executed for the ritual murder of a Christian child. Anti-Semitism continued to run high in England, and the Jewish community was formally expelled from England in 1290, a ban not lifted until the time of Oliver Cromwell. The charges against the Lincoln merchants, now universally acknowledged as fraudulent, are commemorated by a small plaque with an official apology, in English and Hebrew, inside the cathedral.
We were able to rent an apartment on the top floor of an apartment building on the Rue de Rennes, in the 6th Arrondissment. The top floor, as in many such buildings, was originally a garret, often used for servants’ apartments. That’s one reason why, in a 8-story building, the elevator only went to the 7th floor. The owners converted a series of small rooms into a wonderful apartment, albeit one with curved ceilings and an odd floor plan. We had a wonderful view of the Eiffel Tower from the front of the apartment, and Notre Dame from the back. We had a wonderful bakery and an artisanal chocolate shop on our street. And we were only a short walk from Le Grand Epicerie, one of the finest grocery stores in Paris, which made it easy us to cook a couple of dinners at home. Truly special.
We’ve been to Paris before, so we didn’t try to see everything. We visited the recently re-opened Picasso Museum. The renovation has greatly improved the viewing space, but unfortunately, not the viewing experience. The vast collection has been organized according to some metric that is not apparent to the casual viewer. Maybe we should have rented the audioguide.
On the other hand, the Musée d’Orsay has dramatically improved the viewing experience for their outstanding collection of Impressionist paintings. If you haven’t been in a few years, it’s time to go back. We also visited the Musée Monet Marmottan, which we have always thought was a better way to see a selection of Monet’s Water Lilies painting than the Orangerie, even though the latter was specially designed for them. We visited the Musée Jacquemart-Andre, one of the prettiest museums in Paris, which was featuring a special Perugino exhibit based on their wonderful small collection of Italian Renaissance paintings. Another old favorite was the Musée du Moyen Age (formerly known as the Cluny Museum), where it is now possible to see the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at close range. We also made some time for the Musée Guimet, which has one of the finest collections of southeast Asian art outside the region (including some painstakingly made replicas from Angkor Wat.)
We took a day trip to Vaux-le-Vicomte, about 30 miles outside of Paris. When we first visited here, in 1981, you needed a car. These days, you can get there via Paris’ ever-expanding regional railroad network.
Vaux-le-Vicomte was built by Nicholas Fouquet, an advisor to King Louis XIII who clearly expected to have the same kind of power and influence during the reign of his son, Louis XIV. Le Roi Soleil had other ideas. And Fouquet didn’t count on an aggressive young rival, Colbert, who poisonously suggested to the King that Fouquet was stealing from him – a suggestion that seemed to be confirmed by the magnificent house party Fouquet threw for the King at Vaux-le-Vicomte. Fouquet thought the event was a great success. Little did he know that Louis had already decided to arrest him. As Voltaire later noted, Fouquet went to bed a king, and woke up as nothing. Fouquet spent the remaining 20 years of his life in prison, never seeing Vaux again.
Vaux has had the good fortune to be owned by a succession of rich and careful owners, who maintain the property. Today, it is owned by a private foundation, and employs a staff of 80 to keep the place in good condition. The gardens are particularly notable, and are often used as a stand-in for Versailles in both French and American movies. That only makes sense, since after having Fouquet arrested Louis poached Vaux’s garden designer, LeNotre, to do his own much grander gardens at Versailles.
With all of this sightseeing, we got very hungry. We dined at a number of the kind of smaller, family-style restaurants that we enjoy so much. We had roast guinea fowl at Willy’s Wine Bar, deer at Au Biche au Bois, fresh foie gras served on a bed of green beans at Hide, perfectly cooked St. Pierre and langoustines at Dessirier, and a spectacular veal roast at Jadis.
Our best experience, though, was a Huitrerie Régis, a small place not far from our apartment. As the name suggests, this place is all about oysters (minimum order, 12 per person). It is tiny (only 6 tables, very close together, with a couple more outside in fine weather). Ordering is easy – you decide which of the 5 or 6 types of oyster on offer you want to sample that day, and then select a bottle of wine from the small but excellent wine list (most stored vertically above the oyster bar). It doesn’t matter what you order – they’ll be the best oysters you’ve had in your life, shucked right in front of you. About midway through the meal, Régis (the owner) showed up, greeted everyone and asked whether we were enjoying our oysters. This partnership of purveyor, preparer, and server, all united in their desire to make sure their customers have an excellent experience, is the essence of what fine French restaurants are all about. And it’s the reason why so many American imitations, which often forget one leg of that triad, are often so sterile.
We’ll be back!