Colmar

Quirky buildings bedecked in timber and pastel hues? Check. Romantic punts and a river known as Little Venice? Check. Frolicking otters, storks and Europe’s largest wooden carousel? Again, check.  Nestled in Alsace near the German border past the hill affectionately referred to as the ‘Ballon d’Alsace’, is the pretty little city of Colmar, widely considered to be the crowning glory of the Alsatian wine route.
As well as being the birthplace of Pierre Hermé (Vogue Magazine’s ‘Picasso of Pastry’ & ‘Dior of Desert’), Colmar is arguably most well known for being the hometown of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the designer and sculptor of the iconic Statue of Liberty. The cityscape was also depicted as the magical and kaleidoscopic backdrop to 2004 Oscar nominated anime ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’. Based on the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, the stunning animation of Studio Ghibli and the Walt Disney Company sets the scene for a captivating story of love and conflict.

Over the centuries, Colmar – along with the rest of the Alsace region – has found itself torn between countries, religions and cultural identities – (changing nation and language from German to French and back again in 1673, 1871, 1919, 1940 and 1945). Today, with its bijou French streets framed by historic architecture straight out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Colmar offers up a heady mix of art, heritage and fine wine. Each building and street has a fascinating story lying dormant amongst the cobbles and timber, defined and underlined by its unique blend of German & French history and cultural identity.

Colmar

Quai de la Poissonerie

How did we decide upon Colmar as our first destination of our Euro Road Trip 2015? As we drove off the ferry in St Malo, plans to stay a night strolling around intra muros were scuppered when we found ourselves faced with heavy rain. Having not really planned our first destination other than knowing that we wanted to head in the direction of Germany, we typed Colmar into the satnav and continued onwards. A siesta at a Formule 1 in the early hours of the morning (oh the glamour) outside Paris and a cross-country drive along the Alsatian wine route later, we had reached the heart of Colmar.

We decided to stop at an Ibis Budget (modest, but believe me it was a step up from the Formule 1) – whereby Josh found himself momentarily locked into a one-way system and had to drive round in circles whilst I was unceremoniously booted out of the car to go and find a room. But we were soon in the hotel, unpacked and ready to go on the prowl for the top recommended sight on trip adviser – Petite Venise (Little Venice). With a map procured from reception, we were on our way.

We suddenly caught a glimpse of Petite Venise as we turned a corner, reaching the Quartier de la Krutenau. Having had bad weather for most of the drive from St Malo, the sight of the sun breaking through cloud above the roofs of the pastel pink, duck egg blue and pistachio buildings was certainly atmospheric. With basking carp and little barques transporting sightseers down the waterway, I almost expected the other passers by to burst into song, or for a posse of animated bluebirds to swoop down and present us with a Lady and the Tramp bowl of spaghetti or a bouquet of flowers. Of course, neither of these things happened as we gazed upon the scene, however the highlight for me was glimpsing an otter playing underneath the pontoons and jetties of the houses lining either side of the Lauch river. (Fact – there is a stork and otter sanctuary in nearby Hunawihr).

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The river Lauch used to be a focal point for commerce and fishing – and Colmar’s links to its fisherman heritage are evident in the names of some of its streets and quarters (Rue de la Poissonerie & Quai de la Poissonerie). After a thorough exploration of the Fisherman’s district, someone (…Josh) decided that it was time to find something to eat, and as neither of us are particularly keen on fish (despite coming from an island and despite the fact that one of us – mentioning no names – has spent a lot of time recently fishing off isolated rocks on the west coast) we had to give the fancy fish restaurants along the river a miss. After some debate on whether we were brave enough to sample the regional delicacy of choucroute (aka. sauerkraut & sausage) we settled on a cute shabby chic inspired bolthole on the grand rue called Le Caveau de St Jean. With menus presented on chalkboards and vintage singer sewing machines forming part of the décor, the cuisine and ambience proved alluring to tourists and locals alike. The cosy caveau became so busy over the course of the evening that punters had to be turned away at the door.

IMG_1566Having suitably wined and dined (on a quirky combo of basil and strawberry crémant d’Alsace & salad accompanied by what seemed to be marmalade) it was off back to the hotel through the eerie old worldly streets. En route, we admired the elusive choucroute’s name in lights.

IMG_1582Before setting off for Germany in the morning, we had a quick stroll around the Champs du Mars, taking in the majestic wooden carousel (as well as some croissants). Protected from the elements, the carrousel built in 1900 features medieval characters and is reportedly the largest of its kind in Europe.
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For a pitstop to the past, why not take a journey to Colmar? This delicious chocolate box bonbon of a city is waiting for you to unwrap it and discover its history. Plan a trip in summer to enjoy dining out by the river Lauch at its best or go during the Easter holidays to be surrounded by festivities and unusual chocolate sculptures (including your generic Easter rabbit, rabid rabbits and even a parade of Olafs from Frozen).

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Where I’ve been hiding…

 

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You can find my most recent articles, event photographs and Instaglam features for Gallery Magazine Guernsey (and one rogue article for Gallery Magazine Isle of Man) at issuu.com… or alternatively, click the links below for some of the highlights! I was also recently asked to work on some artist biographies for the Collections : Private exhibition which is currently taking place at Candie Museum in Guernsey. The exhibition features work by Picasso, Twombly, Hirst, Robilliard and Beuys and I thoroughly enjoyed having the opportunity to research these renowned artists and contribute to such a fascinating exhibition!

Keep watching http://www.lavalisedelouise.com  – I’m back and I mean business…

http://www.gallery.gg/caring-carers/

An article for the Guernsey Alzheimer’s Association 
 
http://www.gallery.gg/dancing-life/

Guernsey Arts Commission : Arts in Health

http://www.gallery.gg/lines/

An ode to the Breton stripe!

http://www.gallery.gg/phoenix-rising-ashes/

A sneak peek into the art of chainsaw carving…

http://www.gallery.gg/children-chernobyl/

Meeting the children of Chernobyl.

Guernsey goes global

Guernsey jumper and waves

They say that if you wait long enough, then anything from the past will eventually come back into fashion. And true enough; over the decades we’ve seen all sorts of unlikely fashions from yesteryear experience a new lease of life on the high street Disco pants, eighties neon and double denim… I’m looking at you.

However, I’m sure that I’m not the only one who was slightly amused and bemused to see our very own Guernsey jumper (which is over 400 years old) hit the headlines recently. At first, it may seem quite hard to imagine how a fisherman’s jumper, with humble seafaring origins, could make it into a glossy spread in Vogue – and be sported by none other than world renowned supermodel Kate Moss. Recently the Guernsey was promoted on ITV news by intrepid explorer Ben Fogle – It seems official; the Guernsey is in the media glare, it’s being worn by the fashion set. Celebrity endorsement has elevated our much loved Guernsey jumper into the upper echelons of glamorous knitwear. Forget cashmere and forget angora… it’s all about the Guernsey.  It’s never been cooler to be seen in vintage look clothes, brogues and chunky knits that could have been worn by your grandparents.

The Guernsey or ‘Gansey’ is a garment that was originally valued for its practicality. Knitted using oily lanolin wool, it serves as a great insulator against the elements. It’s important to remember that not so long ago, the main stays of the Island’s economy were the tomato trade and the fishing industry – the latter job requiring the fisherman to be outdoors in all weathers and temperatures.  The Guernsey was therefore seen as a vital item of clothing. Traditionally, a wife would knit a Guernsey for her husband – once completed, she could sleep safe at night, secure in the knowledge that her fisherman would be snug in his woollens, mostly protected from harsh winds and relentless sea spray.

The Guernsey has a simple yet unusual shape. For example, if you look closely at a Guernsey, then you’ll notice that the sleeves are much lower on the arm than on your standard jumper. The sleeves are stitched on below the armpit, (knitted on by hand to the main body of the jumper as a finishing touch) allowing for unrestricted movement – something that is a priority when you’re controlling a boat in unpredictable weather. The tightly woven stitching on the sleeves denotes different maritime symbols, such as rigging, ropes and waves breaking upon the shore. Occasionally, certain patterns on a Guernsey could be used as an identifier for men from different families or parishes. So you’d be able to tell your Queripel from Torteval from your Le Page from Castel just by his clothes. Looking back now, this creativity may have seemed like a cute personal touch, however this decision to customise the Guernsey was not fashion based. The grisly truth, was that the unique pattern meant that if a man had been lost at sea and his body eventually washed ashore, the pattern of his Guernsey – the lanolin wool not being damaged by the sea – would lead quickly to his identification. The high symmetrical neckline meant that the Guernsey could be worn back to front – if you got one side dirty or it started to show a bit of wear and tear then you could just flip it round. It was seen as an enduringly loyal item of clothing – iconic Guernsey.

Guernsey jumpers and stockings are historic objects with a rich heritage – and date back as far as the 1600s when English wool was first imported to the island. According to the BBC and The British Museum’s  ‘A History of the World’ project, Guernsey knitting even had royal connections – Mary Queen of Scots is said to have been executed in her favourite pair of Guernsey stockings.

If you go down to the Fermain Tavern today, there’s a fair chance that you will see one or two middle aged professionals (and maybe even a sixth form student) wearing their Guernseys with nonchalance. However, if you ask these finance types why they wear their fisherman’s Guernsey, you’ll notice that they’ll tell you their sentimental reasons for doing so with a typical Guernsey donkey sense of pride. My sixteen-year-old brother even asked for a Guernsey for Christmas – and when I questioned him why, he replied that not only was it an ideal garment for outdoor pursuits (you’ll often find him down the shooting range on a Sunday) but also that he liked to support local industry. Furthermore, it reminded him of his roots and heritage. “If I’m looking for a quality jumper, then why wouldn’t I go for the best?” The Guernsey is not disposable fashion – for many it’s an heirloom.

So what do we make of the Guernsey becoming ‘on trend’? Well, we won’t settle for anything less than the very best, will we? It’s only natural for it to be modelled in one of the world’s leading fashion bibles and by top models. Because what does a publication such as Vogue, Kate Moss and the Guernsey have in common? They’re timeless.

This article was written by Louise Le Pelley (of http://www.lavalisedelouise.com) and appeared in the Fashion section of Gallery Magazine Guernsey’s 2014 Passion Issue

Lounging around the Louvre

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Want to know why my satchel is so big? That’s because “it’s FULL OF SECRETS” (i.e. many clothes and an iPad)

I left the planning of the first day in Paris down to the resident Parisian – Florence is a classy miss with a passion for culture and beautiful things so I knew that I was in good hands.  We bid farewell to Claire, who had a lot of essays to work on, and were off on the metro to the Palais du Louvre to spend a leisurely Sunday morning sauntering around the shops in the Carrousel du Louvre. We started off with a coffee break in Starbucks ( The irony of going on a cultural trip and ending up at Starbucks within the first five minutes has been pointed out to me. There is both a Starbucks AND a McDonalds under the Louvre which is frankly a bit surreal. We were hoping to use their wifi. There was none. I clearly hadn’t adjusted to the parisian cold yet and thought that a frappucino would be a wise idea… wrong). Starbucks was followed by a taste test of the herbal teas on offer in L’Occitane en Provence, and scent smelling in Fragonard before we were suddenly inspired by the great masters and decided to give some of the art themed products from the Carrousel shops a test drive – there were quite a few cool gadgets, such as this ‘Bhudda slate’ that allows you to draw a design with water before slowly absorbing and erasing your scribbles masterpiece.

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After purchasing a few postcards, it was time to get down to business – we headed up the escalators to visit the famous Musée du Louvre, which is one of Paris’ top tourist attractions. The Louvre is one of the largest museums in the world, famous for its stunning architecture, art collections, glass pyramids and for paying host to Leonardo di Vincis’ famous ‘Mona Lisa’ (‘La Joconde’ in French), the mysterious portrait of a woman with a winsome smile… or smirk, depending on how you view it. Whenever I’ve walked past the Louvre in the past, it has been absolutely heaving with people, however we were lucky enough to visit on a relatively calm day.  If you want to visit the Louvre at peak holiday times, then in order to make the most of your day I would advise arriving early to avoid queues and planning the sections that you want to visit well in advance. An audio guide  in English (and many other languages) can be downloaded as an app for android phone and nintendo 3DS XL (I found the nintendo 3DS XL partnership quite intriguing) using the Louvre’s wifi network.

 To our delight, we were able to get in for free, as free entry is offered to any citizen of the EU (with a valid id card) under the age of 26. This excellent initiative is also available in other Parisian museums and I really believe that it is a great way to promote the preservation of art and culture to young people. We picked up some plans of the museum, flashed our identity cards and started our visit on the lower floor. Here we were greeted by formidible giant busts (including the bronze bust of Emperor Napoleon below on the left… and this gentleman with rather impressive sideburns on the right) and the medieval foundations (and moats) of the palace building. The ground floor foundations are all that remains of the Louvre’s first incarnation as a medieval fortress.

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Leaving medieval France behind us, we climbed up some stairs and embarked on a journey through Ancient Egypt. After viewing tools, trades and jewellery (Florence was particularly taken with the scarab amulets), we arrived at the section devoted to Egyptian mummies and burial customs. The devotion to respecting the dead through ornate handiwork, elaborate coffins and the practice of complicated preservation techniques such as individual embalming and burial of organs is both fascinating and bewildering to contemplate.

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I found the collection of mummified cats particularly intriguing – in Ancient Egypt cats were worshipped and the death of a cat would be treated with great reverence and ceremony. Upon death, cats often received the same mummifying treatment as pharaohs – as you can see below.

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At first glance this motley crew of cats looked like a collection of long lost bedraggled stuffed toys – it was only on closer inspection that we realised that the seemingly cute painted gauze or plaster faces were in actual fact concealing some rather grisly remains underneath. The bodies are tightly bound with intricately patterned bandages brushed with resin. The organs would originally have been removed for individual embalming – in order to retain their shape, the bodies would have been stuffed with sand or earth before bandaging. Embalming the remains of a dead body ensured that the spirit that once resided in the body would be able to progress on into the afterlife. Occasionally pets were even sacrificed and mummified upon the death of their owner, so that their remains would be able to be placed side by side in the tomb, ensuring that the owner would have a companion with which to cross over into the next life with. Cheerful thoughts!

After a substantial amount of time contemplating Mummies, we headed onwards through the Louvre… gazing upwards in awe at the palatial gold lacquered ceilings.

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One of the most interesting aspects of museums is of course learning the stories behind artefacts on display. The Louvre has an astonishing number of artefacts, which are all of an extremely high value…. but if you forget the value of the objects just for a second, I’d like you to imagine yourself going back in time. You are a noble at a birthday party, and you receive a charming gift of home-ware…

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A jug with your own face and fancy dragons sculpted onto it …”Oh thanks darling, you shouldn’t have…”

ANYWAY, we were gazing up at golden ceilings and heading onwards through the Louvre towards the most valued painting in the world – the ‘Mona Lisa’. As we followed the numerous arrows pointing the way to her, we noticed that the number of people in our vicinity increasing at a fast rate. By the time we actually entered the room where the painting was displayed, we were faced with a real hullabaloo. The ‘Mona Lisa’ is actually surprisingly underwhelming – compared to other works in the room, it’s quite a small painting, cased under thick bulletproof glass (to protect the grand dame of the museum from attack) and surrounded by a cord barrier. It’s not the kind of painting that you can stand in front of and gaze at for ages as to get a glimpse up close you have to weave through the crowd (the ideal manoeuvre to get to the front is kind of a cross between a slithery eel and a slalom skier)  whilst avoiding elbows and camera phones to the face. The real challenge is trying to get a photo of the ‘Mona Lisa’ without any  other tourists in the frame….

Florence accepted the photography challenge. As you can imagine from my eel/slalom skier description before, this feat required some quite skilled choreography – however she managed to get a couple of photos of me that almost look as if we had the room all to ourselves for a private view (LIES).

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We soon escaped the throng to have a look at other paintings in the room – our favourite was the immense and colourful crowd scene  ‘The Wedding Feast at Cana’ painted by Veronese in 1563. This is the largest painting in the Louvre’s collection and it covers the entire wall opposite the Mona Lisa. It’s quite interesting to observe how such a vast theatrical painting remains largely ignored, living in the shadow of ‘Mona Lisa’ and her many admirers. The fact that the painting is a crowd scene ironically reflects la foule in front of the ‘Mona Lisa’. After having earlier spent quite a bit of time with the cats of Ancient Egypt, we especially enjoyed spotting the cat that appears in the bottom of ‘The Wedding Feast at Cana’. If you make a trip to the Louvre, see if you can spot it!

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We viewed a few more paintings (including ‘The Coronation of Napoleon’ by Jacques Louis David which was breathtaking) before deciding to replenish our oxygen levels by going outside to admire the architecture of the Louvre alfresco. En route, I took a few photos of portraits that particularly caught my eye – ‘The Empress Josephine’ by Pierre Paul Prud’hon (1805) and “The Young Martyr” by Paul Delaroche (1855). Josephine de Beauharnais was the first wife of Napoleon – her former residence the Château de Malmaison is considered a Napoleonic national museum and is located in Reuil-Malmaison, just a few RER stops outside Paris.

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Below you can see one of the iconic glass pyramids situated in the courtyard of the Louvre. Although they were quite a controversial concept when first installed, they have since become beloved Parisian landmarks.  The large pyramid was completed in 1989, it’s just that little bit older than me!

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The Louvre has its own ‘Arc de Triomphe’ – the ‘Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel’ is a miniature version of the larger ‘Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile’ (situated on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées). The baby arch is made out of rose marble and although both structures were planned at the same time, the miniature was actually completed 28 years before its larger counterpart. After going around in circles for a while, admiring the ins and outs of the courtyard, we decided to head head back inside to the first floor of the Richelieu wing to see the state apartments of Napoleon III.

Victor Hugo famously referred to Napoleon III as “Napoleon le petit” (Napoleon the little), implying that Napoleon III was diminutive in both stature and grandeur. The grandeur that Napoleon III was lacking in character (according to Hugo) was clearly hiding in the interior décor of his state apartments.If you’re planning a visit to the Louvre, this section is not to be missed – the sheer opulence and decadence has to be seen to be believed.

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1488252_10152084016743119_761284383_nThe tiara that you can see above was originally part of the French Crown Jewels collection – after having been sold many years ago (1887 to be precise) to a private collector in DURHAM it was acquired by the Louvre in 2002 (I was excited by this connection, as you can tell by my apparent need to take a photograph of a sign… all that pomp and sparkle and I thought it imperative to take a photograph of a sign… honestly)

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After perusing the apartments and indulging in one last photo opportunity (I just loved the joyous stag, it reminded me our Collingwood stag statue back in Durham), it was back down to the carrousel in an attempt to source food and an internet connection so that I could send off some articles – I ended up leaning against a plinth in the apple store. We then parted ways as Florence had a busy evening of studying ahead of her, whilst I was off to meet my mum, who coincidentally had just arrived in Paris for a course on French tax, in Villiers.

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Food was to be found at Casa Belucci, a cute Italian restaurant in Avenue de Villiers (http://www.lacasabelucci.com) We were enticed in by the chic red lip sofas (reminiscent of the italian siren of the silver screen Sophia Loren and Paris’ classic ‘Crazy Horse’ cabaret show). We were presented with free shots of mushroom soup, before sharing the’Romana’ pizza and ‘La Riviera’ salad. Dessert was a raspberry sorbet and pistachio icecream coupe topped with cherries and pistachioscalled ‘L’Amarena en Folie’. All in all, it was an excellent way to conclude the day! Many thanks to Flo for joining me in being a culture vulture tourist for the day!

Fun & Frolics in Theatreland

Musical Theatre has always been a big love of mine. If you’ve been following my blog recently, then you will probably have noticed a few comments here and there about my eagerness to catch a West End show whilst I was sightseeing in London.

 I decided to designate my sixth day in the Capital as “Musical Day” and woke up with the sole aim of hunting down a cheap theatre ticket. No booking online or in advance for me – it was all to be done on the spot. My tactic of turning up for things at the last minute (but always on time, I hasten to add) has been frowned on a lot throughout my life – however, there are some perks to living in organised chaos… (For one thing, I have learnt how to apply eyeliner on a moving bus without gouging an eye out) and you’ll see later how I lucked out with tickets. Going to see a West End Musical or show is one of the typical activities recommended (…by travel guides, newspapers and social media etc.) for tourists wanting an unforgettable experience on their London trip. 

There are over 40 theatres on London’s West End and the area has come to be known over time as “Theatreland”. There is something inherently magical and glamorous about a trip to the theatre – the excitement truly begins when you’re stood on the grey London pavement and suddenly get the first glimpse of  bright theatre lights. As we’re still currently in the festive whirl between the lead up to christmas and New Year, it’s the perfect time to sit back on a plush seat and let yourself become completely immersed in the glitz and emotion of London’s shows. You can even get involved in the theatrics afterwards by voting in the WHAT’S ON STAGE awards online – the voting closes on the 31st January 2014. http://awards.whatsonstage.com/awards/vote

After reading several theatre reviews and checking out the publicity for lots of different shows, I had my heart set on seeing two shows in particular. “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Matilda the musical”. The shows differ wildly in style.  “Phantom” was adapted for the stage in 1984 from Gaston Leroux’s 1910 gothic novel  and is a melodramatic love story set at the turn of the 20th Century. It’s a classic, decadent musical that has been at “Her Majesty’s Theatre” for 27 years.  The extravagant costumes, stage design and mask of the phantom have become iconic and the musical is still being nominated for awards to this day. “Matilda the Musical”, on the other hand is a contemporary musical – it has been at The Cambridge Theatre for just over two years and has wickedly comic lyrics by Tim Minchin. It’s a bubbly and enchanting adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1988 book “Matilda” – the young actors and actresses manage to channel Dahl’s mischievous wit through the music, lyrics and script with aplomb.

I was quite torn between the two shows as I had initially only budgeted to attend one, however it was my lucky day… as I managed to see both! By turning up 1 hour 30 mins – 30mins before a show, I ended up having the opportunity to see not one but two West End Musicals on the same day for the price of one premium seat – making a grand saving of £85.50 in total. I turned up at 1:00pm to inquire about Matinee tickets at Phantom’s box office. I was feeling a little bit awkward about turning up by myself and bracing myself to be shown the door, but really needn’t have been apprehensive as the attendant put me at ease by offering me a seat straight away.

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Whilst randomly turning up at a theatre alone definitely doesn’t guarantee you a ticket, it does increase the chances of getting an awesome seat for a fraction of its original price*. The majority of people go to the theatre on a group outing and as such, there are often quite a few pesky gaps in the seating plan (often caused by groups of odd numbers) just waiting to be sold at a discount to ‘lone rangers’. It’s a lottery which seats will be available last minute on the day – my seat was sold to me for £29.00 (including a £1.00 booking fee) – which was a reduction of about £36.oo. The attendant showed me a seating plan before I purchased my ticket and assured me that the view was not restricted by any pillars (My seat was M10, if you’re curious). It’s a good idea to check the plans of a theatre’s seating before you book/buy your seats as you can sometimes find yourself in a seat with a restricted view (although this is often labelled on your ticket if this is the case).

Ticket carefully tucked into my bag, I left the theatre, had time for a bit of popcorn chicken from KFC in Leicester Square (always the novelty for an Islander with little access to fast food) and returned at 2:00pm to Haymarket. I was quietly buzzing with excitement. Programme in hand, I was shown to my seat and patiently awaited for the show to begin. 

*This is a particularly useful tip for students, however theatres can sometimes offer special discounts, so it is always a good idea to inquire.  ‘Matilda the Musical’ releases 16 pairs of Matinee tickets available for £5 every morning at 10am for 15-25s. 

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The first sight that you see upon being seated in the theatre is the scene of an eerie auction, where long forgotten artefacts from the fictional Opéra Populaire are being split up and sold to punters. It is quite a macabre ghostly start to the show, with poignant lines uttered by the character of Raoul (played by Sean Palmer).  When the line “Perhaps we may frighten away the ghost of so many years ago with a little illumination, gentlemen?” is exclaimed by the auctioneer, the magnificent chandelier (previously hidden underneath a cloth) is swung up to the ceiling from the floor of the stage, dazzling the audience, and setting the scene for the bright and decadent heydays of the ‘Opera Populaire’. It is a truly impressive and literal “Flashback” back to the 1880s – the days when the Phantom reigned supreme. The show is full of beautiful (excuse me for using a cliché) show-stopping and spine-tingling moments – the descent into the catacombs of the opera during the title number “The Phantom of the Opera” and the glitzy party that takes place during the number “Masquerade are particularly impressive. It truly is a feast for the eyes and ears – The majority of the cast are operatically trained.

The Phantom was portrayed with pizazz by Gerónimo Rauch. I expected great things from a vocalist called Gerónimo (he has also played the title role of Jean Val Jean in Les Mis on the West End) and was blown away by his voice. The role of Christine Daaé was played by Olivia Brereton, who was an alternate/understudy for Sofia Escobar – not that you’d be able to tell. The understudies and alternates on the West End are brilliant, and deserve just as much accolade as the actors and actresses that play the title roles. In the interval, I was nudged by the Brummie gent sat next to me  – he was equally entranced by Olivia Brereton’s voice and stunning appearance on stage (… which brings me to another point – I want lustrous curls like Christine Daeé – and I’m sure that there were quite a few girls in the audience who were also experiencing major hair envy) The costumes and set, designed by the late Maria Bjornson, are fantastic and will transport you completely into the Phantom’s operatic parisian world.  I really didn’t want the magic to end – I left the theatre after the performance was over in a hazy daze, humming “Think of Me” under my breath and already making mental notes to revisit the Opéra Garnier (upon which the Opéra Populaire is based) in Paris. If you want to see a big sumptuous show whilst in London then “Phantom” definitely ticks all the boxes – I really want to take my mum to see it. I think that she’d be blown away by the performance – and not only because she hails from the same place as the fictional character of the Phantom (Rouen). The show really brings 1880s Paris to life. 

Night had fallen, and inspired by the decadence of “The Phantom of the Opera” I took an improvised visit to Harrods in Knightsbridge to look at self-playing pianos and fancy clothes. I did not find the pianos, but glamour was to be found everywhere throughout the department store. Having not put any make up on that day, I felt a bit bedraggled and out of place – however I mustn’t have looked TOO shabby as I was welcomed through the doors with a smile. The seasonal shop windows were inspired by a voyage on “The Midnight Express” – Ladurée macarons being the order of the day. 

 

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I snapped out of my Phantom/Harrods induced reverie at about 18:15, suddenly deciding to head back to Theatreland to see if I could get a ticket for “Matilda – the musical”. Very last minute – risky business. Walking around without a map, I ended up at the Lyceum Theatre (home to “The Lion King” – which is a brilliant family musical, you can trust me, I’ve seen it twice) where a helpful usher told me I was going in the wrong direction. Hopping into a cab, I found out that The Cambridge Theatre was just around the corner on Earlham Street – resulting in the cheapest cab fare I think I’ve ever had to pay. The London cabbie was very charismatic – riding in a London cab is always a pleasant experience. I ran out of the cab and into the theatre at 19:00, with the cabbie ‘s cry of “Good luck, darlin’!” ringing in my ears.

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I went straight into the Ticket Office, a little out of breath, expecting again to be out of luck – however, imagine my delight when I was offered a ticket in the stalls worth £85.00…. for £28.50 including booking fee! If there hadn’t been glass blocking me from the ticket attendant, I would probably have given her a hug (ok, maybe not, British sensibilities and all, but I felt ridiculously happy – my total savings on tickets came to £92.50! I spent £57.50 instead of £150!). 

I was around five or six when Danny Devito’s American adaptation of ‘Matilda’ starring Mara Wilson was released – the film quickly became an international cult childhood classic. I read the book by Roald Dahl at around the same age (although I was far from reading “War and Peace” like Matilda) – my dad was an english teacher who wholeheartedly encouraged me to read as much as possible (he still does!) and he often used to cut up several bits of different chocolate bars and make me write down Dahl-esque descriptions and reviews (à la ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’) for each chunk tasted. As you can guess, Roald Dahl was a big favourite of mine – he was a really magical author (also a spitfire pilot!) who understood children and wrote captivating (and more often than not, ‘a little bit naughty’) stories for them in his garden shed. ‘Matilda’ is the story of a remarkably clever little girl with telekinetic powers who gets neglected by her ignorant parents – the moral of the story being that adults are not always right – wisdom does not necessarily come with age. 

The Cambridge Theatre was packed with excited children clutching programmes and wearing ‘Matilda’ hoodies – it’s clearly a popular show to take your children to as it serves as an excellent introduction to theatre. It must have been a massive treat for the children that I saw as I have never seen so many impeccably behaved children in my life.The theatre is quite small and quaint-  the first thing that you notice upon entering the auditorium is the excellent attention to detail.The auditorium walls are daubed with chalkboard paint and chalk scribbles, with multicoloured scrabble style tiles suspended all over the stage and ceiling – before the show starts the letters M A T I L D A are perched on swings on the stage. 

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Everyone seated around me whiled away the time waiting for the show to start by gazing up at the letters and seeing which words they could make out. When the show started, it literally began with a bang (of several balloons) as energetic children burst out from under a table laid out for a birthday party and leapt into the song “Miracle” with witty lyrics and sharp choreography. It was at this point that it really hit home to me just how innovative the show was going to be. It wasn’t long before Matilda’s ludicrously flamboyant and ‘loud’ parents were introduced (Kay Murphy and alternate Mike Denman – who were both brilliant) and got the crowd laughing. Towards the end of the first number, Matilda appears, unloved and melancholy, not in the least bit self-indulgent (unlike the birthday party brats). Matilda is portrayed by four different girls – I saw 10 year old Cristina Fray, who was fantastic – instantly capturing the hearts of the audience from her first moment on stage with her statement “Mum says I’m a good case for population control”. Due to laws regarding the hours that children can perform, the team at Matilda must have their work cut out with the different combinations of children performing each night – not that you’d ever be able to tell, the performance was that polished and perfect. It is no wonder that the show has won so many awards. I predict great things for all the children involved – especially the enchanting Miss Fray.

One of the big attractions of “Matilda” for me was the fact that it was penned by Tim Minchin – I’m a big fan of his ‘beat poem’ ‘Storm’ – and he did not disappoint. The writing almost stole the show – the Trunchball’s hilariously over the top statements were particularly memorable “He should have thought about that before he made a PACT WITH SATAN and stole my cake”. Miss Trunchball was played in drag by the incredible Alex Gaumond. I’m sure if anyone thinks back to their schooldays (especially if you happen to have attended a British public school) then you can think of one or two teachers who derived sadistic pleasure from striking fear into everyone. Alex Gaumond both terrified and delighted the audience with his deathstares, rants and comedic gymnastic routines – and deservedly got one of the biggest rounds of applause at the end of the performance. The beastly Trunchball was perfectly juxtaposed with the delicate doe-eyed Miss Honey (played by Haley Flaherty).

The show ended with showers of confetti (almost as if the scrabble tiles were raining down on the audience, reminding them of the importance of words) and standing ovations for the cast and creative team. It’s a show that truly captures the naughty British comedy of Roald Dahl. I was so thrilled by my day – both by “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Matilda the Musical” – that I walked to the tube from the theatre picking large square shaped confetti off my clothes with an enormous cheshire cat grin on my face. Am I tempted to return to the Cambridge Theatre and bring my ex school teacher Dad, mum and teenage brother? Definitely! It was an unforgettable evening.

Covent Garden Cuisine (with a little bit of cruising around Camden Market)

On the fifth day of my trip, I found myself accompanied through the London streets by some pals from University – three physicists and a mathematician, to be exact. Nick, Tom, Caleb and Daryl (Daryl of Hamleys teddy bear snuggle fame) managed to organise a London meet up day with relatively short notice and it was great to catch up with what they’d all been up to over the summer. We met in the morning at London Victoria –  Nick, who was busy with his fancy jet-set number-crunching job (or so he’d have us believe…), joined us later in the evening. With so many scientists in the entourage, you’d think that the day would have gone ahead with logical precision, however apart from a request from Daryl to visit Chin Chin Labs in Camden, it was a relaxed freestyle day – which was more than ok with me, as you can tell from my previous posts, “magical mystery tours” of random discovery are just the way I like it.

We had a mosey around several different areas of London throughout the day – As the only girl, I found myself outnumbered by the boys, however used this newfound manly troupe as the perfect excuse to finally try out Five Guys burger restaurant. I had finally worked out where the building was and had a hunch that it would be a crowd-pleaser  – from experience, messy burgers tend to be a hit with men. Of course, I have a secret weak spot for a good barbecue bacon cheeseburger (but shush, no-one must know!) and was really intrigued to see if Five Guys lived up to the hype.

I had decided to take my new shoes from Forever 21 for a test drive – they would come to be referred to throughout the day as the “disco shoes” by Caleb and Tom, who both seemed to have an affinity for their apparent 70s look (or more likely, the 70s in general). It took a while for everyone to get used to my new height, as at first glance it seemed as if I had grown about seven inches over the summer. It was a lie. Fashion can be deceiving, folks.


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After traipsing around London Victoria for a while, looking for an “edgy café” for Caleb to get a coffee from, we decided to do a bit of sightseeing, starting with Buckingham Palace. We zipped from Victoria to Green Park on the tube and caught some action at the Palace gates. We were actually lucky enough to see some ornate carriages leaving the palace, which was quite exciting. I think one of the things that I love most about cities, is that even if you visit a landmark several times, you never have the same experience twice as there is always something different to observe or take part in. It was interesting to see the ceremonial dress of different dignitaries – I believe that the blue national costume pictured below is the attire worn by the Mongolian ambassador to the UK.

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After witnessing some artistic Instagram photography attempts at the Canada gates by a certain member of the gang (who is in denial of his passion for Canada and subsequent status as aficionado of all things canadian), we headed to Covent Garden to catch a bit of street magic and busking.  Whilst we were en route to Five Guys – we had decided that we were pretty ravenous by this point – we spotted the official Tintin Shop, which can be found at 34 Floral Street. The street name indicates Covent Garden’s early origins and roots as a flower market (the pun is unintentional this time, I swear). “Les Aventures de Tintin” is a comic book series which was created by Belgian cartoonist Hergé in 1929 and the shop on Floral Street was established in the early eighties. The Tintin comic series has since been adapted into a major feature film and still enjoys popularity today. I remember walking past Le Grand Rex in Paris whilst visiting a friend on my year abroad in 2011 and being awestruck  that the façade of the cinema had been magically transformed into the exterior of the fantastical boat La Licorne.

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Tintin is a classic character known all over the world – on one of my first ever trips to Germany, I stayed in a host family and instantly felt at ease when I spotted a Snowy poster on the wall of the lounge*- Tintin ended up forming the basis of one of my first German conversations.  The comic books have in fact been published in over seventy languages, which just goes to show how international a character Tintin has become over the years. I have good memories of spending the christmas holidays (in particular the night of ‘Reveillon’ – Christmas Eve) as a little girl watching the animated Tintin series (from the early nineties) with my dad, uncle and grandfather – the series was often broadcast on French TV!

Once the boys spotted the Tintin Shop, we all thought that it would be rude to walk right past without taking a glimpse inside… just for the sake of nostalgia of course… 😉

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These tourists walked into my photo with lightning speed – however I do like how these London ladies coincidentally match the colour scheme of the shop! Inside, Daryl and I got sidetracked by the fluffy Snowy toys, whilst Tom and Caleb checked out some of the books – I think that’s what they were up to at any rate, I was too busy being entranced by fluff.

*Snowy’s name in German is Struppi, in case you were wondering – his French name is Milou.

Once we had torn ourselves away from the fluffy Snowys, we were back on track on the hunt for food. Five Guys turned out to be not far from Floral Street and surprisingly there was no queue outside – there wasn’t even much time to enjoy the heaps of free monkey nuts that line the restaurant before we were served with our burgers and fries. Of course, I can’t complain because if we had indulged on the peanuts then we would not have had enough space for the main event! The menu at Five Guys is quite simplistic, however there are several different combinations that you can create from the ingredients on offer. I decided to go for a ‘little’ burger – which was a wise choice, as the portion sizes are massive! I would not have been able to cope with a normal sized burger and I hadn’t even eaten breakfast! Look at the cheesy barbecue bacon deliciousness below, pictured on the bottom right – if I could choose any adjective in the world to describe this burger, I would not go for little! Decadent, perhaps?

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I naively ordered a “regular” diet coke, but soon discovered the novelty of the Five Guys refill ‘coke freestyle’ system – where you can choose from hundreds of different drinks options including combos such as Grape Sprite, Strawberry Fanta, and Raspberry Coke. It was mind-blowing for the first five minutes… until I found myself craving the normalcy of a plain diet coke! When it comes to being served your food, you have to present yourself to the counter to receive your order when the number on your receipt is called. The food is then handed over to you in a plain brown paper bag. The burger is wrapped tightly in foil; as soon as you unwrap it, the squishy bun expands (a bit like a slinky or a sponge) to reveal itself piled high with your chosen fillings.

I decided to try the cajun fries as well as getting a burger (naughty, naughty). Now, I have a confession to make – I am the kind of girl who likes to slather tabasco and jalopeños over everything. When I was living in halls of residence I even had a little spice selection that I would take to meals to douse my plate with – one of my friends ended up calling me Tabasco girl – not my finest moment.  Although my taste buds must be slightly numb from all these years of chilli pepper abuse I actually found that the cajun fries tasted very spicy, so be warned! Again, a ‘little’ sized fries was a crazily generous serving – the cup you can see above was only half the portion, most of the fries were to be found at the bottom of the glorious brown paper bag. So many fries, so little space in my stomach – one portion ended up feeding three of us! We stayed in Five Guys for a while, tucked into an old fashioned 1950s style booth in the downstairs underbelly of the restaurant. The walls are plastered by endorsements from newspapers, bloggers and food critics – not really my taste of decor but the food was satisfying and great value for money. I guess the posters provide you with a bit of light reading if you find yourself on a solitary lunch break!

After leaving Five Guys, we had a look around Leicester Square and ended up venturing into M&Ms World. It was pointed out that it was a great marketing strategy to have such a large pick and mix of chocolates available next to one of London’s top cinema venues – the M&Ms building is vast – just about every kind of kitsch M&Ms memorabilia that you can imagine is spread out over four enormous floors. As you cross the doorway under a maquette of a London double-decker bus (given an M&Ms twist, of course) you are hit straight away with the cloying smell of chocolate. I think it’s probably a marmite experience, in that you either love the shop or hate it… maybe you even love to hate it, as evidenced by point number 3 on the buzzfeed link below …

http://www.buzzfeed.com/robinedds/things-youre-only-scared-of-if-you-live-in-london

I have to admit that I enjoyed looking around the shop –  I definitely didn’t cave into temptation a few days later and return  to buy a handful or three of peanut M&Ms….

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It was definitely turning into a “foodie” day by this point in our reunion – our next stop was Camden Market to visit the place where dessert meets science – the mysterious Chin Chin Labs. Place your order at the small counter, and you can watch as ‘test-tube ice cream’ is created before your very eyes using liquid nitrogen, being frozen into a delicious triangular slab just for you. This was definitely up the boys street – I, however, have not been near a pipette or beaker for years and tend to be scared that scientific equipment will break if I touch it, so it was a slightly surreal experience. There was a choice of four flavours – Tom and I went for Pondicherry Vanilla whilst Caleb went for a slightly more adventurous “limited edition seasonal” flavour, Szechuan Peppered Pineapple (which was actually the nicest in my opinion and turned out to be dairy free). Daryl chose a dark chocolate flavour which was around 80% cocoa and tasted extremely bittersweet. You can choose one sauce or topping from the pyrex beakers displayed on the lab shelves – I was a little bit greedy and went for grilled white chocolate bits AND salted caramel sauce. Caramel pretzels looked like an intriguing topping, but will have to wait for another visit. The tasting was an unusual experience – I find it hard to describe its exact consistency but it definitely felt a lot smoother than ‘normal’ ice cream.

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We walked off all our ice cream on the Camden cobbles – it was an interesting experience to navigate around over the said cobbles wearing the “disco shoes”, but I managed it, just about. Thanks for the patience, guys… the sun was setting over the Lock and the view was breathtakingly beautiful, so we stopped for a while to soak up the scenery. Camden is a very quirky open air market and residential area, which serves as a haven for all sorts of alternative fashion shops, one off street stalls, tattoo parlours, piercing studios and bars. It’s a good place to look for cds, a vintage look dress or if you’re feeling particularly daring, a steampunk-esque corset!

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It was here Daryl left us, as he had to be up early the next day to drive up to Durham to visit the Lumière light festival. And so, the remaining trio retreated to The Lockside Lounge to wait for Nick, who had text us to confirm that he was finally deigning to join us.

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 The Lockside Lounge is a cool haunt – and definitely has a boathouse vibe with its nautical beams. As you may have guessed from previous posts, I love buildings with character and this bar was no exception. I ordered a glass of Burlesque rosé and was informed by the bartender that the label of the wine was chosen because the lounge often pays host to burlesque evenings. Camden nightlife seemed to be pretty vibrant, and I reckon that The Lockside Lounge would be a great place to spend an evening as it had an awesome atmosphere. It also endorses up and coming indie, funk, blues and jazz performers.

The peace was shattered when Nick arrived – he was enthused after a day at work and obviously hadn’t had to go through the tiresome trials of tasting various foodstuffs all day…  We stayed in the bar for a little longer, being updated on his recent exploits in Lithuania and Latvia, before we found ourselves being frogmarched out of the bar and taken to Fire and Stone, a pizzeria on Maiden Lane near Covent Garden. I can’t personally vouch for the pizzas as I was still feeling pretty full from Five Guys and Chin Chin Labs so picked at a salad, but the boys seemed satisfied with their meal choices. Nick claims that it was “better than Nando’s” – high praise indeed.

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I took the opportunity to take a few snaps of the guys looking relatively refined, taking on the role of slightly overenthusiastic paparazzi photographer/a grandmother. Nick helped me accessorise my Mai Tai with aplomb.

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We ended the night sat in a Canadian sports bar called The Maple Leaf just a few paces away from Fire and Stone. We stepped off the street and found ourselves in a forest green canadian log cabin themed interior. Canadian flags and maple leaves were draped all over the bar and I felt as if we’d somehow managed to warp into The Hoser Hut from the popular TV series How I met your Mother. Caleb was in his element. It wasn’t long before he discovered the tempting array of Canadian beers on offer behind the bar…

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I guess you can say that we all had quite a diverse day of café, bar and restaurant hopping! After returning to Victoria via Covent Garden tube station (with its surreal lifts that transport you from the street into the bowels of the underground) it was time for me to head back to Croydon, reunite with Ellie and to begin planning another day indulging in pleasures of a different nature – the theatre! Thanks go to Caleb, Daryl, Nick and Tom for an unusual culinary themed day of sightseeing in the capital.

P.S. Forget the riddle “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”. We had an incident on the tube where Caleb tried to persuade us all that lemon strepsils are as effective at cleansing the palate as chewing gum, much to the amusement of our fellow tube passengers. “Why is chewing gum like a lemon flavoured strepsil?” – the new riddle of our time.

Getting on down in Chinatown

After spending around five hours in a fun bilingual bubble in a London business school, I was back on the tube again, ready for another magical mystery tour (i.e. I randomly got off somewhere that sounded exciting) Throughout the morning and afternoon, I had met some really fun people – including an awesome girl who bonded with me over French camp sites, Dinard airport (read my very first ever blogpost for an insight into the Dinard airport experience!) and… disney princess impressions. Everyone I met had a lot of tips and tricks on what to see and do in London – including where to buy tickets for shows. In fact, the subject of shows and musicals was a great ice breaker and sparked up some lively debate on the best shows to see in London. After saying goodbye and exchanging numbers with my newfound friends,  my first idea was to go and see the ‘half price’ musical ticket booths around Piccadilly Circus to see if I could score any last minute matinee deals – however, at over sixty pounds for an average restricted seat, I wasn’t sold….

Yet. Better deals were to be had later in the week!

Lunch was found at Mcdonalds in Leicester Square – I was originally looking around for ‘Five Guys’, an American burger chain that opened in the UK earlier this year. ‘Five Guys’ is a chain which I’d heard a lot of hype about online (and on “The Londoner” blog), but I eventually caved into my hunger (and the offer of free wifi) and went to McDonalds instead. Casual NB. for the future – Leicester Square actually offers free street wifi to passers by anyway. So if you ever find yourself in London with an unreliable 3g connection and don’t feel like sitting on a coffee shop, head for a stroll into Leicester Square for free wifi! Oh, the excitement…

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As with any city, the London skyline has an interesting fusion of architectural styles! Glass edifices and older buildings from the 1800-1900s nestle together side by side in Leicester Square. After a couple of minutes spent gazing at rooftops, I made my way to Gerrard Street in Soho. Gerrard Street is home to Chinatown, which is only about a minute away from Leicester Square by foot but definitely feels a world away in terms of look and ambience.

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A delicious and odorous combination of spices, meats and sweet treats permeates Gerrard Street. Enthusiastic personnel wait outside their respective businesses in an attempt to entice the passer by to take a seat and indulge in a heady mix of herbal teas, peking duck, sumptuous cakes and… cuttlefish. I was intrigued by the window displays food along the street, displays which often had one or two ‘casual cuttlefish’, tentacles and all hidden amongst a throng of Peking Duck. I wasn’t hungry, thanks to McDonalds – shame on me for not holding out on my hunger and embracing an opportunity to try something different.  My parents visited Chinatown for a meal earlier this year and told me before my visit that the food there is incredible – £20.00 per head will guarantee you an impressive, tasty and unique meal in the heart of London. Next time I go to London, a visit to Chinatown is definitely on the cards… however I might give the cuttlefish a miss. Not a fan of those tentacles! See if you can spot the cuttlefish in my picture below… The character of Dr. Zoidberg from Futurama springs to mind.

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 Taiyaki (top left image) is a little waffle or pancake batter cake which is shaped like a fish – the literal translation of the japanese word  ‘Taiyaki’ means baked sea bream. However, the design is misleading (… is it too cheeky to refer to it as being a red herring?) for the cakes are not fishy in the slightest, being filled with cream and intended to be a sweet pastry accompaniment to coffee! From what I recall, it was around £1.50 for four or five cakes, so definitely a bargain. I was really impressed by the ornate icing which was piped on to the Chinatown cakes and cupcakes – it’s wishful thinking to hope that all the berries cancel out all the calories from the icing, right? Bottom right, you can see ‘Doraemon’ cupcakes.  Doraemon is a blue futuristic robotic cat from a Japanese manga which dates back to 1969. In the bakery windows, Doraemon was a figure that cropped up often as a cupcake topper, only rivalled in number by his popular pal Hello Kitty.

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I did not succumb to iced temptation, but headed back to Covent Garden to gaze some more at the indoor market shops and beautiful christmas lights – I especially enjoyed the 15ft topiary reindeer placed outside the market. Giant baubles adorned the inside of the Piazza, glittering and glinting magically like disco balls in the evening lamplight. I felt a little bit like one of the Borrowers.

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After Covent Garden, I met up with Ollie and his girlfriend Lucy to check out a Blues Bar behind Hamleys toyshop called “Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues” – it’s an intimate venue with cool blues and overpriced nachos – we listened to the live music and had a drink. We decided to refrain from buying nachos*, instead we found some food  round the corner at a takeout noodle bar called (rather questionably) “Wok to Walk”. We had a few jokes over the name – do you really want savoury noodles on your morning commute? There is also a noodle bar in Durham, our old univerisity town called “Woksup” – it seems to be a running theme or trend for noodle bars to have puns in their name. The noodles from “Wok to Walk” were great though, and I had a lot of leftovers thanks to the portion sizes being so generous. After saying our goodbyes, I was even stopped by a woman boarding my train back to Croydon who found the pun on the noodle box amusing… I guess the marketing ploy worked! On the journey back to Croydon, my thoughts were full of daydreams of Chinatown – I’m already looking forward to a return visit sometime in the future!

*(this could have been a massive mistake! Perhaps the hefty price tag of £8.95 was justifiable. Perhaps we missed out on the best nachos that London could ever offer. I guess  it will remain a mystery for now. The mystery of the ‘potentially’ overpriced nachos.)

Hustle and Bustle on the Baker-loo Line

After a day of glorious autumnal sunshine came a day of drizzle. My umbrella was whipped out of my satchel and had to report for duty as I traipsed the wet and foggy streets of London – however, the day didn’t remain too dark for very long as I soon found myself surrounded by THE FIRST FESTIVE LIGHTS OF CHRISTMAS. More on that later.

I spent the morning working out my interview route, which involved a stop at Finchley Road station. It’s a small but quirky stop that has a friendly cobbler and a mini fruit market stationed just outside. Once I’d successfully completed my ‘test commute’ I hopped back on to the tube and headed off to Baker Street in Marylebone.

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This street is most famous for being the residence of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous fictional character, Detective Sherlock Holmes, who according to the books, lived at 221B Baker Street. 221B Baker Street used to be a fictional address as the Baker Street addresses only used to go up to number 100, however the address now belongs to ‘The Sherlock Holmes Museum’. Sherlock Holmes is an iconic character from British literature and I loved seeing the influence that his creation has had upon the street itself – from kitsch cameos of his face adorning the tiled walls in the underground, to Sherlock themed memorabilia shops on the street itself.

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Several actors have portrayed the character of Sherlock Holmes over the years – from Basil Rathbone, who inspired the 1986 Disney classic “Basil the great Mouse Detective” ( a childhood favourite of mine, although the film had some terrifying characters. The peg legged bat and the fat cat haunted several of my nightmares) to the most recent Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch, a British actor who has sparked the internet meme “Otters that look like Benedict Cumberbatch” and has achieved an impressive cult following… getting both otters and Sherlock Holmes trending worldwide.

Image(The picture is taken from The Huffington Post and is originally credited as Red Scharlach/Daily Otter) 

There is a new series of ‘Sherlock’ starting on January 1st 2014 with a mini episode previewing on Christmas Day, so if you’re in the London area, why not mosey on down to Baker Street and get yourself warmed up for some festive ‘Sherlock’ viewing!

Baker Street is also a short walk away from the world famous waxwork museum, Madame Tussauds, which is situated on Marylebone Road. I didn’t go into the museum as I think it’s probably an activity best enjoyed with friends or family… It’s recommended to take a camera with you to make the most of numerous photo opportunities with the famous waxworks. Remember – I was ‘the lone ranger’ at this point – I didn’t fancy being ‘that tourist’ taking selfies in the corner with a waxen Kate Middleton. The entry price is steep at around £30 a ticket, however the long queues and positive reviews speak for themselves. You can often save a few pounds by buying a ticket for Madame Tussauds in combination with tickets for other attractions (i.e. otherwise known as a *drumroll*… combination ticket). Definitely an attraction that I will try in future.

Onwards and upwards from Baker Street, my next destination was Oxford Circus. And here is where the bright lights come in! Oxford Street was full of  festive cheer and christmas light garlands – I popped into the Disney Store (those famous words, I can’t ever walk past without going in for a gander) where all the new merchandise for Disney’s new christmas release “Frozen” was on display. The Disney Store on Oxford Street is the largest in Europe – and of course was decked out accordingly for the Christmas season.

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The main aim of going to Oxford Street was to track down an elusive pair of Forever21 ‘Off Roading wedge booties’ (that name doesn’t sound convoluted in the slightest). It took me a while to find Forever21 (because I had been going along the street in the wrong direction, standard) but I got there eventually and made a beeline straight for the shoe section, WHERE ONE SOLE PAIR OF THOSE BURGUNDY WEDGES WERE ON THE SHELF. It was a ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail ‘moment, I was a bedraggled knight (without coconut shells) and those wedges were the Grail. All I had to do was pounce on them before anyone else could – shoes in hand, I was told by a shop assistant that they were indeed the very last pair on Oxford Street. It was clearly fate. Prancing around the shop floor like a show pony*, I knew that we were meant to be… they were even the right size…

*Or a duck. My 15 year old brother likes to say that I walk like a duck in heels. He’s started playing a ringtone of ducks quacking if I even dare wear them in his presence. Teenagers are so sensitive these days. He’s also a great fan of showing me the video clip below.

Slight digression there. I do apologise. Back to the Oxford Street story. Clutching my Forever21 bag contentedly in hand, I spent a good 45 minutes being entranced by the glitzy window displays of both Selfridges and Marks and Spencer. Fairytales and children’s classics are obviously a big trend this Winter when it comes to department store christmas displays. Selfridges have placed giant versions of iconic gifts being skied and clambered on by miniature snow people and the odd miniature reindeer in their displays. The objects vary from luxury items (such as Charlotte Olympia glittery cat ballet flats) to classic childhood toys (a vat of oversized bright pink play-dough, anyone?),  giving the Selfridges windows a ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ vibe.

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Marks and Spencer, meanwhile,  has been attracting a lot of attention with their Christmas advert starring the gorgeous Rosie Huntingdon Whitely.  If you haven’t seen the advert yet, then you can watch it outside Marks and Spencer on Oxford Street, as it is being played on a loop on a giant screen in one of their windows. Throughout the course of the advert, Rosie transforms from Alice (in Wonderland) to Dorothy, looking fantastic from head to toe, clad in her Marks and Spencer glad rags, naturally. The windows of Marks and Spencer on Oxford Street are clearly inspired by ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and feature a decadent Mad Hatter’s tea party, complete with Alice (aka. Rosie), the  Mad Hatter (ie. the dashing David Gandy) and the other usual suspects…

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 I snapped out of my trance/alice in wonderland reverie when I realised that I had to go and buy my Eurostar ticket for my trip to Paris before the price increased threefold. Arriving at St Pancras International, I was immediately awestruck with the beauty and grandeur of the station… so awestruck that I walked straight past the Eurostar ticket desk and went to the check in instead. Whoops… The queue for the Eurostar ticket desk was quite fraught with tension and melodrama, with several passengers being teary-eyed about missing journeys or having to pay large price differences on their tickets. It didn’t put me at ease …. After half an hour in the queue I was imagining being stranded in London and actually having to live out of my suitcase or on top of the St Pancras street piano. But, I managed to get a relatively cheap ticket for the Saturday, thanks to a lovely member of Eurostar Staff who had the patience of a saint and helped me at the ticket desk. After making my purchase, I decided to buy Ellie some roses and headed back to East Croydon, Eurostar ticket tucked safely away in my satchel, tired but with a big smile on my face.

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Capital hopping with ‘La Valise de Louise’ – London Calling

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As you can tell by the title of this post… I’ve been a bit busy. But fear not! It’s all been worth the while. Read on to voyage with me and learn of my latest ventures… it all began once upon a November…..

November is a strange month, sandwiched between the autumnal novelty of Halloween (which arguably dominates October) and the unavoidable festive buzz of December. November  stomps in and announces the beginning of Winter with fireworks and the ritual burning of things. In some ways, it is like an eager child begging for acceptance –  encouraging us to embrace the warmth of bonfires on cold nights, and to let the decadence and glitz of the Christmas season slowly creep up upon us. It all starts with those fireworks.

November was a rather spontaneous month for me, bathed in the glow of the premature Christmas lights of London and Paris – forget about Christmas tiptoeing into my 2013, I have already spent the past few weeks being duped into believing that Christmas Eve has come early. I’ve been raptly listening to jazzy festive tunes being pumped out of sleek city sound systems and gazing up in awe at big bling-bling baubles.

Rapture? Awe? Being captivated by baubles? I’ve written a lot of posts on this blog (the majority written when I was a student, held captive by the shackles of studying) about my yearning for travel and more importantly, my desire to live life to the full as much as possible. This has been the first Winter in the past decade where I have not had to pull off the dreaded ‘nuit blanche’, those indeterminably long nights where students become essay writing machines in order to meet harrowing end of term deadlines. For me, this has often meant necking back dubious cocktails of diet coke, black coffee and Proplus tablets, silently willing the dawn chorus to pipe down and setting up over 21 alarms on my phone just in case I didn’t wake up from that ten minute power nap. Thoughts of Christmas were always on the back burner until those gloomy essays were done and dusted. However, this year there have been no academic papers to submit. I can completely focus on glittery Christmas sparkles!

So a few weeks ago, when I was asked to go to an interview in London, I decided to turn a day trip into a fully blown holiday and embrace my newly found festive freedom. I packed my suitcase (although I would later find myself cramming most of my belongings into my bright purple satchel as I surfed from sofa to sofa, hopping from tube to metro) bought a last minute ticket, got on a plane and was on my way – on the run! Ready for a big glittery adventure… first stop… London!

I arrived on Saturday 9th November, leaving a deserted Guernsey airport on a cute little local plane with puffins painted on it – I was one of five passengers. Forty five minutes, a copy of ‘The Guernsey Press’ and a free diet coke later, I was warped into a different pace of life, surrounded by jets and queues for passport control. After being ‘stranded’ for a couple of months in Guernsey, it always takes a couple of minutes to adjust to the comparative hustle and bustle of … *in melodramatic tone*   the Mainland.  After walking for miles, I located my case and got on the train to East Croydon – home of Dub-step, ‘the Croydon facelift” and Kate Moss – where Ellie, a friend from Durham University was waiting for me. I had forewarned her of my intentions to visit London and she had very kindly offered me a place to stay. THANKS ELLIE.

Ellie welcomed me into her very fancy student house (which was the Ritz in comparison to the house we shared together during our second year at Durham) where we had the quickest of catch ups before heading out to … Clapham. I was getting to know quite a few boroughs of London in a short space of time.  We sat down in a restaurant and ordered food at 10pm after a little traipse around the area ( i.e we got a bit lost on Clapham High Street), ate with Ellie’s fellow teacher pals and then all of a sudden our plates were whisked away and the place turned into a dance bar. The staff pushed the tables to the wall, and a torrent of people appeared from nowhere and started jiving away in faux fur coats to 1direction. It was slightly surreal. I found myself being handed cocktails, accepted my fate (…having to listen to 1direction) and the night was off on a roll.  We ended up leaving the bar in the early hours of the morning to get the train – we were entertained whilst we waited at the station by the characters of East Croydon who were asking us incessantly for ‘cuddles’ (no cuddles were had) and fighting over pasties – obviously a rare delicacy at three o clock in the morning. Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of this pasty frenzy – you’ll just have to take my word for it.

When we got back to East Croydon, I crashed into bed… my head full of plans to see musicals, sightsee, be reacquainted with KFC popcorn chicken (no KFC on Guernsey *woohoo*) and perhaps most specifically to head to Forever 21 on Oxford Street and track down a ridiculously high pair of burgundy wedges that I’d fallen in love with on the internet. Did I find those wedges? Did I get to see a musical (or… two?) You’ll have to wait for my next instalment to find out! 😉 Although in the meantime here is a picture of an excited tourist in front of Buckingham Palace… yep, it’s me.

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