Friday, 4 October 2013

Shutdown in Washington DC

Today the streets of Washington DC are quiet. Temporary metal fences have been pulled across the entrances to museums and monuments and hastily laminated signs hang at an angle: “Because of the federal government shutdown, this facility is closed.” With all but the most essential US government staff sent home, attractions across the city (and the country) have had to close their doors to visitors.

The majority of Washington’s museums are operated by the Smithsonian Institution, a government-run organisation. On a normal day this is good news – it means the museums are free. But today it is bad news – because every last one of them is closed. Want to visit the National Museum of American History? You can’t. Want to see the Declaration of Independence? Tough. Want to pay your respects to World War II veterans? Sorry.

Today, walking along the Mall, heart of the world’s largest museum complex, is like exploring a film set. Apart from the odd lone jogger, there isn’t a person in sight. Leaves tumble along empty pavements and even the refreshment kiosks are closed.

I head instead to 9th Street and take a seat at the counter of Lincoln’s Waffle Shop. The FordTheater across the street (where Lincoln was shot) has closed its doors and disappointed tourists who haven’t yet heard the news wander up and then away again. People stop to take pictures of the signs on their mobile phones. Even the waffle house is quieter than normal; though on the upside, with the markets running scared those waffles are slightly cheaper than they were a few days ago.

But all is not lost. The solution for visitors lies just a few steps away, at the International SpyMuseum, and in the Newseum. These privately operated museums continue to open as normal and there are plenty of them to explore. Visitors can also still enjoy the exteriors of the city’s buildings – the White House, the Capitol, the Washington Memorial. The architecture of these attractions is perhaps their most impressive feature anyway – and that is one thing that cannot be shutdown. 

Thursday, 29 August 2013

New Miner's Route at Wieliczka Salt Mine

“Room for one more” I am told as I am gently nudged into what looks to me like an already-full-to-capacity lift. The doors are pulled across behind me with much scraping of metal and we move up – by about five metres.
This will happen twice more before we can finally descend the 57 metres into Wieliczka salt mine. This is so that we can load more people into the lift’s other levels, packing us in quite literally on top of each other. It is hot, cramped and uncomfortable – I feel like I am getting an insight into the life of a miner already, just a few minutes into my three-hour tour.
This is the new Miner’s Route, and it starts with this descent by lift down the oldest existing mine shaft to be found here, the Regis shaft. The lift is not completely enclosed and so I watch the shaft’s walls rushing past as we descend at a speed of four metres a second. By the time we reach the bottom, just 15 seconds later, I am completely disorientated – and very glad of our guide.
He leads us along tunnels only just tall enough to avoid bashing our hard hats on the ceilings and points out the wooden beams holding it all in place. At various points on the walls and particularly in the joints of the wood we see cauliflower-like deposits of salt – it feels like salt is seeping out of every one of the earth’s pores here.
But the most remarkable thing is the size of the tunnel network. Just 1% of the mine is open to visitors and yet we walk for hours, clambering up ladders and marching down endless flights of stairs. There is chamber after chamber to explore. We see the remnants of the so-called “Hungarian dog” transport system, a simple wooden cart pulled along runners in the ground, and are taught everything from how to measure the methane levels in the air to how to use a pickaxe to dislodge salt from the walls.
We really start to feel like the novice miners we have been cast as, trudging along in our grey boiler suits, and I must be doing something right because I am picked out to navigate our way back to the lift. I am handed a map of the mine and that feeling of disorientation immediately returns, there are tunnels in every direction, looping off and circling back on several different levels. I turn the map this way and that and eventually identify a couple of landmarks. A few minutes later we arrive at our final destination – a modern lift back up and out into the sunlight.
We have reached a depth of 101 metres but there are still hundreds of metres below us, not to mention another 240-odd kilometres of tunnels we haven’t even set foot in. This is a truly vast mine. We may have hacked off a chunk of it with a pickaxe on this tour, but we have barely scratched the surface.

Wieliczka Salt Mine is located just outside Krakow, in the south of Poland. The Miner’s Route tour costs 76 zloty (about £15)

Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Edinburgh Festival

Colourful flyers are being thrust at me from all directions. My phone is beeping with a reminder that it is time to see a show (what I have no idea). I have a sandwich in one hand, a bottle of water in the other and frankly, my feet hurt. I am standing – not even walking now – on the Royal Mile and I am going to have to admit that I am lost. This is the Edinburgh Festival and it has completely overwhelmed me.

I am not easily overwhelmed. I deal well with the frenetic, am not afraid of choice and tend to operate at a pace few others can keep up with. But it turns out that the festival is not something to “keep up with”. Grand plans to see everything, stick to a schedule, attend every recommended show, all go out of the window as soon as you step out of your hotel – and don’t even think about picking up that phonebook-thick programme.  

There is just so, so much of it. Because this is not just one festival, but a collection of several. My main focus is the Festival Fringe but zoning in on this does not narrow things down – because the Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world. There is music, comedy, theatre, cabaret, dance and everything in between. There are hundreds of venues, thousands of performers and what feels like millions of spectators.
Time to calm down. I step off the street into a basement where a comedy show is promising free cake. And suddenly I get it – I need to let the festival take control. So that’s exactly what I do. I stay on for the next show, partly because it is half price as I’m already here, and partly because it sounds fun. I duck into random shows when it starts to rain, choose what to see based on being in the right place at the right time, and start talking to those flyer distributors. 
It is fabulous. I discover that the Book Festival on Charlotte Square is an excellent retreat from the melee and has great coffee. I sit knee to knee with strangers to hear Ben Champion’s hilarious Autocorrect song and am challenged to confront society’s prejudice of those with so-called “special needs” at Rai Lina’s Thpethial. I even find a love of Scottish folk music – complete with bagpipes, fiddle, guitar, flute and traditional dance – at Breabach’s fantastic Assembly Rooms show. 

No, I didn’t see everything I thought I would. And no, I didn’t end up seeing anything I actually took a flyer for. But I did see a man squeeze himself through a tennis racket – and I did have a fabulous time. I will definitely be back next year.

Tune has small but perfectly formed budget rooms with double beds, power showers and fast wifi. Located opposite Haymarket station it is on a direct line into Waverley station and is just 20 minutes walk from the Royal Mile and Princes Street.

Monday, 26 March 2012

New and improved: Kensington Palace reopens

Kensington Palace used to hide behind hedges and trees, tucking itself away as if embarrassed to be hogging so much valuable central-London parkland. But not any more. As of today (March 26,2012) the palace reopens to the public after a £12 million renovation, proudly announcing itself with a grand new entrance. There’s no missing this royal home now, its 17th-century, red-brick frontage is clearly visible across sharply cut lawns and wide expanses of welcoming pathway.

And it’s all change inside too. The palace is now divided into four separate “routes”, each one focused on a different part of the building’s royal history.
Take the King’s route and you’ll find yourself climbing the magnificent Kings staircase to enter the state apartments. Many of the rooms seen here were used for entertaining, and performance company Coney – who have been integral to the palace’s redevelopment – have designed a game for visitors to see if they can make their way through court and reach the King. This taps into the social climbing scene of Georgian London and is designed to help visitors to understand the stories the Palace has been the backdrop to over the years – although it is rendered somewhat unnecessary by the sheer grandeur of the rooms themselves, which had me goggle-eyed as I craned by neck to view the intricate ceilings.

The Queen’s route features even more of Coney’s interactive, installation-style interpretation and at times this feels a little laboured. Again the rooms themselves have much of interest to offer, and the interactive approach can become a little tiresome. There are whispering columns all over the place and visitors simply seeking a seat can find themselves jumping up again in surprise as disembodied voices take their ear.

Some of the additions are poignant though, with the dining room a particularly emotive spot. Here Coney have introduced 18 little wooden chairs, each one representing one of Queen Anne’s lost children. It is difficult to see this forest of tiny seats and not feel the impact of this one family’s neverending loss and it is this personal approach to the royal family that is sure to have visitors enthralled.

Each of the four routes leads back to the Hub, where you’ll find a luminous lace sculpture by Loop.pH, which for me was reminiscent of the redesigned Kings Cross. This does not detract from its beauty though and it’s easy to see how this web of light has improved this incredibly dark central space.

From here the Victoria route leads into the Victoria Revealed exhibition which continues the palace’s new personal theme by attempting to uncover the life of Victoria and show her as being more than the large, scowling woman so many people think of her as. Each room has a theme and the one dedicated to her relationship with Albert is particularly moving, with quotes from love letters they wrote emblazoned on everything from the walls to the carpet. Her stunning ivory wedding dress is on display here too – the first time it has been for over a decade.

Further rooms show her childhood toys, her attitude to her work and the impact of her grief when her mother and Albert died in quick succession. Artefacts on display include a teething ring from the royal nursery, sketches Victoria and Albert made of each other during their first year of marriage and Victoria’s set of watercolours, all of which add up to create a picture of the monarch’s daily life.

Perhaps the most striking room however remains the Red Saloon, where the 18-year-old Queen held her very first Privy Council. The room has been painstakingly and beautifully restored and evocative details such as moving shadows on the walls and yet more quotes scrawled on the (reproduction) table bring the gravity of this location home.

The final route is, inevitably, Diana, and leads into a display of five of her dresses, three of which have never been displayed in the UK before. It is a small collection but anyone interested in fashion will appreciate the importance and elegance of these dresses, and fans of the Princess are sure to flock here for a close-up look at some of her most well-known outfits. The fact that this area is self-contained also means that there’s no need to wait until the end of the tour if this is really what you’ve come to see.

And that is the beauty of the Palace’s new design. Not only is the whole place more immediately welcoming thanks to its new entrance, it is also much more visitor friendly as you explore. Whoever you are interested in and whichever period in history you most want to explore there is something for you here. Just be careful where you sit!

Adult tickets cost £14.50 or £13.50 when booked in advance online. Children under 16 can visit for free. The gift shop and café can be visited without paying the entrance fee.

Real wizardry: the new Harry Potter London attraction

“You may never look at Quidditch the same way again.” This is Daniel Radcliffe’s (aka Harry Potter’s) parting shot as he and his on-screen classmates Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) and Emma Watson (Hermione Granger) introduce visitors to the Making of Harry Potter studio tour.

This brand-new attraction in the outer reaches of London’s northwest claims to uncover the secrets of the most commercially successful film series ever produced. Nothing on display here has been specially created for the tour – a Universal theme park this is not.

But just because you won’t find thrill rides here doesn’t mean that there’s nothing thrilling to see – and the start of the tour has that air of theatricality we have all come to expect from the theme parks. After the short introductory film the cinema screen disappears to reveal the door to Hogwarts’ Great Hall and passing through these famous doors is genuinely dramatic. The set was one of the first to be completed, as well as one of the largest, and the actors hadn’t seen it until they began filming – meaning that Radcliffe’s jaw-drop expression in the Philosopher’s Stone is as real the solid York stone on the floor beneath your feet.

Around the hall you’ll find robes belonging to characters from each of the four houses (Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin) and Harry Potter’s first ever set of robes are pointed out by staff and duly photographed by excitable fans. You can spend as much time in here as you like and any ardent fan is sure to find it hard to move on, imagining not only the scenes played out in here from the films but also the parties the cast and crew have held in here over the years.

It has to be said that the Great Hall is the high point of the tour, but that is not to suggest that the rest is not engaging – or, dare I say it, even magical. The sets on display include the Wesley’s “Burrow”, Dumbledore’s office, the Potions classroom and Hagrid’s hut, and you can see everything from the sorting hat to the door of Gringott’s vault. A display of wands shows clearly how each character was waving around an entirely different (and character-specific) wand and highlights the level of detail which runs throughout all of the films.

And that is what is most enthralling here. Seeing the sets and props of a much-loved film can often be something of a disappointment, as you discover unpainted plywood hiding in the corners and unfinished props meant to be seen only from one angle. But Harry Potter is different – everything created for these films was lovingly produced as if at any moment the whole place would come to life and a bunch of actual witches and wizards would require it all to be pressed into service. Some 17,000 wand boxes were individually crafted and handpainted for the scenes filmed in Ollivanders wand shop, yet only a couple were seen and even then only for a few seconds. They were then blown up by the special effects department (so can’t be seen here). In Dumbledore’s office there are 48 portraits on the walls, each one of which was painted twice, once with the character awake and once with them asleep, and switched over for night scenes accordingly.

Seeing the sets and props here means seeing them for longer than you will have done on-screen and this is one of the joys of a visit. In the Creature Shop you can see the Monster Book of Monsters snapping its fang-like teeth and wonder at the lifelike appearance of models of characters including Hagrid and Dobby the House Elf, while outside you can climb aboard the Knight Bus and sit in the flying Ford Anglia. In Diagon Alley you can gaze into the windows of Ollivanders and Wesleys Wizard Wheezes and through the magic of interactive touchscreens the interior sets area offers the chance to explore the Marauder’s Map.

Although at times the tour feels very museum-like, with displays featuring quotes from crew and information about production issues (such as the challenge of making the films before the books were even finished), this is also a family attraction and there is plenty for the kids to enjoy. At the Burrow a series of mounted wands can be used to control props inside the set so visitors can chop carrots or knit a scarf (although one of these was already broken when I visited), and there are passport stamps to collect and hidden snitches to find.

The tour’s most theme park-like component is the Disneyesque “Quidditch Photo Experience”, an opportunity to sit on a moving broomstick in Hogwarts robes and have your picture taken against a computer-generated backdrop. This is sure to attract those eager for a souvenir but at £12 a photo it smacks of money-making and, to me, felt like an unnecessary intrusion – especially when everything else here is marketed as “authentic”.

The tour ends on a high note though, with the final room being home to one of the film’s most impressive props – a model of Hogwarts castle. There is little that can prepare you for the truly stunning craftsmanship and the sheer amount of hard graft that has gone into creating this striking model and emotive piped-in music makes this an emotional experience for many a fan.

This is all the better to prepare you for the inevitable, the exit through the gift shop. But ignore the sweets that give little change from a tenner and Dumbledore’s £500 robes (yes, really) and spend your time in the wand room instead. Here you’ll find wand boxes printed with the names of every person involved in the films, from JK Rowling to the runner; a sight which really brings home just how much was involved in creating these much-loved films. And that’s the real magic.

The Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – the Making of Harry Potter opens on March 31. Adult tickets cost £28, children’s tickets are £21 and under 5s go free. Audio guides cost £4.95 and are available in English and eight other languages. The nearest station is Watford Junction, from which shuttle buses depart every 30 minutes. Tickets cost £2 per person return.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Rain stops play

When travelling in the UK you expect to change course due to the weather. You pack umbrellas, waterproof trousers, endless coats. You plan for having to retreat indoors at short notice. And you simply assume that at some point it will rain.
Not so in Australia. Travelling here generally requires just a few casual outfits, a decent line in swimwear and lashings of sun cream. You expect to be warm, if not mind-bendingly hot, for the entirety of your trip, and my god, do you expect sunshine.

Yesterday at Uluru it was (at best) 20 degrees and raining. I left Sydney first thing on a flight that should have taken a little under three hours. Six and a half hours later, and after an aborted landing at Uluru and a brief diversion to Alice Springs where we sat on the tarmac and gazed glumly out of the windows, we finally landed at Ayers Rock airport.

I had missed my afternoon’s tour to Mount Connor, a place I will in all likelihood now never see. I had been basically in transit for three days. And I had a hangover. It is fair to say that my mood was not a sunny one.

But then I realised something. I was going to see Uluru in a light that people rarely do. Every picture I’ve ever seen of the sandstone monolith has shown it bathed in sunlight, and emanating the beautiful red glow we all think is a constant feature of the outback. But every so often – and just for a day or two – the rock is clad in swirling grey clouds. Yesterday Uluru appeared and disappeared on the horizon like a mysterious spaceship. I would look out of my hotel room window to see it brooding under a blanket of swirling mist, turn my attention away for a minute or two, and turn back to see just a corner of the rock peering out moodily from behind a darkening fug. I also saw rain like I’ve never experienced anywhere else, pouring out of the sky like marbles and thundering onto every surface with a noise I kept thinking must surely be thunder. I felt marooned in my hotel room and went to bed so early it was practically still light.

But I am lucky – I can come back. My itinerary has been changed and today I fly up to Darwin. Yes, it means I’ll take 12 flights in as many days and yes, I’m exhausted and just a little fed up. But so many of the people who will share my flight out of here today have missed what they thought they came to see. They may appreciate having seen an iconic place in a different light, but they are more likely desperately disappointed that the sunset was obscured by apocalyptic rain, the usually dazzling night sky blotted out by endless cloud cover.

We have seen, yet again, that mother nature is always and unfailingly in control. Travel plans will shift thanks to unexpected rain, an ill wind or sudden changes in temperature, the weather will unpick the very best laid plans – and even in Australia you might just need an umbrella.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Bistro du Vin comes to the West End

Is there anything in life better than a well-cooked steak? For me it is the pinnacle of foodie achievement and I make it my business to check out the choice cuts on each and every menu I find myself in possession of.

Which brings me to Bistro du Vin, Soho. The latest outpost from the popular Hotel du Vin group is only the second to open in London (the first was in Clerkenwell) and is a welcome addition to the West End’s food scene for anyone who enjoys fine but unfussy food washed down with something grape.

The atmosphere here is buzzy and unpretentious with the sort of décor I like to think of as stylish-rustic: plenty of wood paneling, neutral coffee-palette tones and simple modern lighting. Service is informal; you won’t find hushed tones and nose-in-the-air waiters here, instead you’ll get attentive, friendly staff and help with the book-length wine list.

Having visited the du Vins numerous times I knew I wanted steak and built my dinner around this, asking sommelier Romain for something to match the fillet. He suggested the Domaine de Fondrèche Fayard 2009, a meaty blend of Grenache, syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan, which went tooth-smackingly well with the beef and is something I would almost certainly not have chosen myself (I’m a new world aficionado, it has to be said).

I started with the artisan cheese and charcuterie plate which was almost impossible to resist after a quick nose around the Cave au Fromage: a climate-controlled cheese room stacked with more varieties of artisan cheese than your average delicatessen. Served on a wooden board this was the perfect, light choice for pre-steak sustenance, leaving me ready for the hunk of beef to follow.

As ever, the steak was cooked to perfection and as juicy and melt-in-the-mouth as rare fillet should be. The chips were just the right side of salty and the sides I ordered rendered unnecessary by the sheer size of the portions.

I had just enough room to finish with more cheese, allowing me the chance to try even more varieties from the fabulous cave.