Here’s a recap on my latest journey.
London’s becoming a regular destination for me, whether for a theater run or as a stopover on my way somewhere else. This time I’m meeting close friend Gary Conrad, who took his 11-year-old Philadelphia grandson Owen Conrad on a four-day see-everything trip to London. And by “see everything,” I mean it. Gary has recounted the amazing list of sites and experiences he shared with Owen. and it was impressive. When I arrive, Gary has deposited Owen on American Airlines for a solo flight back to Philadelphia using American’s unaccompanied minor program. Now he has to put up with me for four days.
Unlike New York, where I’ve kept count of the number of hotels I’ve stayed at (I’m up to an amazing 81), I’m not sure of the number in London…probably around 30. This time I’m staying at The Goring, where the Middletons and their family and friends and townfolk were lodged during William and Kate’s wedding. While you maybe wouldn’t describe it as luxurious, an accurate capsule description would probably include the words elegant, stylish, polished. (It’s a place Alison would like a lot.) I booked the cheapest room in the house and it was spacious and comfortable, my street exposure bright and airy, the decor traditional but fresh and colorful. The lobby is somewhat ordinary, but the bar is very nice (and popular). When Gary and I meet for a drink, all of the tables in the bar are “Reserved”. At first the host insists on sitting Gary and me outside on the far corner of the lawn, but as soon as he realizes I’m a “resident” one of the reserved tables magically became available and we have a drink. Sounds slightly snobby and unwelcoming, but I think it was just one of the facts of life at the Goring. Overall I really liked the place and recommend it.
That evening we go to a play in Southwark (pronounced “Suth-ark”), London’s trendy neighborhood across the Thames near Southbank. We saw a play called “Sunset at the Villa Thalis”, about a loud, pushy, rarher obnoxious American couple who invite themselves to a villa in Greece rented by an English couple Terrific dialogue if you enjoy Americans being mocked. Very, very good first act, the second act not as cogent or entertaining. But we agree we liked it and we’re glad we went. Dinner afterward was at The Wolesley, a place Alison and I went during our last trip to London and which continues to win raves as one of London’s hottest restaurants (GQ rates it #1). Great menu, good food, the best table in the house. Loved it.
We train down ninety miles southeast of London to Chichester in the morning, then check into the Chichester Park, a 3-star property that we are forced to stay in after the Goodwood Hotel cancelled all reservations since the Qatar folks, sponsors of Glorious Goodwood, insisted on taking over the entire hotel. There apparently is quite a furor over this by the longtime Goodwood Hotel regulars who had been going there for years, and then even more furor when it turns out that not all of the rooms of the hotel are filled by the Qatar guests. The Chichester Park is a cheaply built ‘50s English quasi-country hotel– a dull, bland place (at least it’s clean) occupied by a fair number of t-shirts and tattoos.
At all of our events during Glorious Goodwood, we are picked up by taxi, all of which I prearranged due to our extreme difficulty in getting cabs on short notice last year. This year we have friendly, courteous drivers who are always on time, while others we meet are being told “no taxis until midnight”.
Out at the Goodwood Racecourse, we enjoyed the rather extravagantly priced 90-GBP three-course luncheon at the Sussex Bistro, which provides Gary with a look at the “better” English people. We spend another 40 GBP on admission to the Gordon Enclosure, the “middle class” section of the grandstand where you climb a steep flight of stairs to your seating area and fight for a seat before each race. At least you’re sitting rather than standing all day. The racing turns out to be good, with the featured turf mile $1M GBP Sussex Stakes won by The Gurkha, a horse with part-American ownership that might be brought to the U.S. for the Breeders Cup Turf Mile. Betting-wise, the day was mostly a loser for both of us until I score with a $140 winner in the last race.
Dinner was had at a deserted restaurant in the town of Chichester (for some mysterious reason the entire town was deserted…right in the town’s busiest season…no explanation) chosen by EnglishmanTipster/Journalist friend Neil Morrice, who was accompanied this year not by his omnivorous buddy Angus, but by “Jerry”, a former 15-year professional soccer player in the English Premier League, generally regarded as the world’s best. Alas for Jerry, the Premier League didn’t land a big TV contract until the year after he retired, so he never really cashed in on his sports stardom. We had a great time, and it turns out the food at the “restaurant with almost no customers” was really good.
Day Two at Goodwood starts out with a gorgeous blue sky and slowly degenerates into a weather disaster. The largest crowd of the year has come ready for the party of the year, gaily spread out on the back lawn and the paddock enclosure seating areas.
Suddenly, dark clouds creep ominously toward the racecourse, eventually producing a steady drizzle followed by rain followed by an all-encompassing fog that made it impossible to see the horses circling the course, leaving the huge crowd with nothing more than the announcer’s call. Even the track announcer demurred at times. making it clear to the audience that he often had no idea which horses were where. Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of smartly dressed patrons who had assembled this Ladies Day, the dressiest day of the meet, were packed together inside the humid grandstand interiors , milling around and bumping into one another and spilling beers and drinks on each other. All the while, Gary and I, who had purchased seats in the Richmond Enclosure, the upper class potion of the venue, sat high and dry with a finish line view (at least we could see the closing seconds of each race) and having a very successful betting day, cashing four winners in the first five races.
That evening we travelled out to a classic countryside pub called The Fox Goes Free, which has become a go-to après race destination in West Sussex, where we had drinks out in the backyard and a delicious dinner.
We have to hustle this morning, taking an early train back up to Victoria Station, then heading over to the Chesterfield Mayfair to check in, then rushing over to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre for the matinee performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which in all actuality turned out to be A Midsummer Day’s Nighmare. I’ve been to London maybe thirty times, go to all kinds of sites and events and theater productions and this ranks as the absolute worst thing I’ve ever done in that city. The Globe, which was reconstructed by wealthy American donors, the Philadelphia Wanamakers, an attempt at a replication of the original, with a large open space for “groundlings” (who have to stand for the entire ordeal) and ringed by three tiers of cramped wooden benches (one of their most lucrative concessions is the rental of seat cushions and seatbacks). The performers are the most amateurish of amateurs, pratfalling and mugging their way through scene after scene, their diction unintelligible, their dancing (yes, there are repeated choreographic episodes inserted into the Shakespeare classic) was dreadful, their acting awful, their humor humorless (although some patrons inexplicably laughed from time to time). Luckily I had brought along a sweater and a jacket, which I converted into a makeshift cushion, but even that double layer of padding couldn’t alleviate the numbness of my rear end as the first act dragged on and on and on. There is no second act, at least not for us, as we instead opt to walk along the banks of the Thames (where Gary runs into one of his Pasadena cardiology patients) for the next hour.
The evening’s scheduled event is to be a performance by a classical (or so we thought) guitarist from Denmark at the Italian restaurant inside the Royal Albert Hall. Turns out he is a jazz guitarist accompanied by a heavy-handed piano player who drowns out much of the guitar music with his frenetic, over-eager imitation of Dizzy Gillespie. As mentioned, the performance was given inside a section of Verdi, the hall’s restaurant, and a crowd of about 40 jazz enthusiasts were gathered in the room. The guitarist struggled to be heard over the soundings of the piano player and the clatter of glasses and plates as the audience ate their dinners. Gary and I end up seated next to a Jazz vocalist and the violinist partner who bob their hears and wiggle their shoulders to the jazz beat. We eventually engage them in conversation during the breaks and enjoy their company (although not so much that we stay for the entire performance. It was starting to get late and cutting into our pub time.)
Saturday, Nice, France
Saturday was to be a day of surprises. Gary departs early that morning to catch his flight to Philadelphia on his way to L.A., so I take the opportunity to sleep in the first time on the trip. In the afternoon, I fly from Gatwick to Nice, where I am planning to attend the races at a small track called Gagne Sur Mer. I’d been dreaming of visiting this track for years, and planning it for months. Cagne Sur Mer…the name conjures up images of men in seersucker suits and white hats, in the company of beautiful young blond women in flowing dresses and wearing elaborate hats or fascinators, all just off their yachts or away from their villas on the Riviera. Names can be deceiving.
Surprise No. 1 on this Saturday appears when I arrive at my hotel, the 5-star Boscolo Exedra, only to discover that it sits in front of two blocks of construction fencing. Inside I can see monstrous digging equipment and construction supplies. Turns out that the City of Nice is building a new subway from the Port to the airport, and the current jobsite is right in front of my hotel. Fortunately my stay will be for Saturday and Sunday nights, so there will be no construction activity over the weekend. But still, what an eyesore.
The Boscolo Exedra is a gorgeous hotel, all brilliant white inside, minimalist except for the enormous nude on the main wall in the lobby. The theme is carried over to the rooms, which are impressively large, with a low-slung white king bed floating in a sea of white carpet, white desk, white bath…you get the idea. They have me on the Fourth Floor in the front, directly over the construction site. Normally the scene outside would have immediately disqualified the room, but somehow the room’s ambiance is so soft and lovely that it cancels out the distraction outside, so I settled in.
One of my (many) quirks is that I like…read need…to have a small electric fan in my room, not for coolness, but for “white noise”. The pleasant hum eliminates the stark stillness of a completely silent room and sings me to sleep. Virtually every hotel I stay in is able to accommodate this request, so I asked the front desk attendants, twice, to arrange for Housekeeping to put a fan in my room.
On my way back from the front desk, I stop by the Concierge Desk to check on my arrangements for the next day at Cagne Sur Mer… transportation, my reservation at the posh Le Paddock restaurant, etc.
Time for Surprise No. 2. “Tomorrow’s racing has been cancelled,” says the Concierge. What!!!? I’ve travelled halfway around the word to go to this track and now there’s not going to be racing there? I asked the Concierge to call the track to double-check. “No racing tomorrow. He continues: “They are racing tonight at 8:30.” Tonight? It’s 7:00 P.M., but I’ve got time to run upstairs and change, catch a train over to the bucolic town of Cagne Sur Mer, take a taxi to the track and be there in time for the first. So off I go.
I get to the train station at 7:45, catch a train that will get me to Cagne in 18 minutes, and everything will work out. I have negative vibes as the train pulled out of Nice Ville. Along the way are the suburbs of Nice, containing those dreadful projects that in France produce the terrorists who feel they have no place in French society. Out the window I see endless graffiti and laundry hanging from grubby apartment back porches, a scene reminiscent of the old South Bronx. As we get within five minutes out of Cagne, I begin to wonder: how much is this scene going to change in five minutes? Answer: it doesn’t. I disembark at Cagne to find a worn-out town with quite unattractive residents. Worse, a town with no taxis. So, map in hand, I hoof it over to the track, a mile to the track’s outer entrance, then another kilometer from the outer entrance to the ticket booth. A half hour wasted. Oh, well, at least I make it in time for the second race. I enter through the gate and go through the clubhouse and out onto the track, where I see…well, I see Surprise No. 3…
Trotters!!!!!!!!! Trotters!!!!!!!! I hate trotters!!!!!!!!! It’s against my racing religion to watch, much less bet on, the trotters. I abandon my principles. I’ve come all this way and endured the rush over here, so I might as well stay and get as much out of the experience as I can.
The Cagne Sur Mer racetrack, more formally known as the Hippodrome de la Cote d’Azur is not much to look at, although maybe in the daytime it looks a little better. It is, in fact, right on the sea, which one can see from the upstairs seats and restaurants, but the grandstand and racecourse themselves are very homely, reminiscent of a fairgrounds track in California. In the end I stay for three of the remaining six races, lose thirty Euros, have dinner not in Le Paddock restaurant but at a food stand specializing in Merguez sausages, drink a couple of Carling beers, and wave goodbye.
Back at the hotel , Surprise No. 4 arrives. When I check my email, I am advised by Air France that various of their crews are commencing a five-day strike and that my flight from Nice to Paris has been cancelled. There is, however, an alternative. There’s one flight later in the afternoon that will be going, but the fare is 475 Euros. Or, if I decide to take a train or bus, they’ll reimburse me up to 120 Euros. The train it will be.
Still another surprise. No fan in my room. I walk downstairs and talk to Lorenzo, the night manager, who to his enormous credit, arranges to get a fan for me. At midnight! Borrowing it from one of the hotel’s housekeepers! Exceptional service from the kind of employee every hotel should cherish. I plan to write the hotel’s CEO.
In the morning I walk back over to the train station to buy my ticket. Obviously a lot of Air France flyers have received the same message, because the waiting time in line will be about an hour. A kind woman helps me use the machine, which knows only French. I can get a 1st Class ticket ton the TGV to Paris for 167 Euros if I’m willing to leave at 7:03 a.m. I book it.
So, with no racing on the schedule, what am I going to do for a day in Nice? It’s a gorgeous blue-sky day, albeit very hot and somewhat humid, so the logical thing to do is to go down to the waterfront, along the beautiful Prominade des Anglais (where the terrorist mowed down the crowd on Bastille Day). Now lining the road are short, thick metal poles that have been installed to safeguard the sidewalk pedestrians against similar catastrophes.
At the beach it’s a dream day. Perfect azure sky. Nice breeze. Not that the beach itself is much of a dream, because it’s not a sandy beach, but one made of stone pebbles, some pretty large. Sunbathing on this beach requires a pretty thick beach towel, maybe two thick beach towels if you’re that girl sunbathing topless atop this rocky bed.
A young Russian couple at the hotel tells me about a hamburger restaurant I MUST try. The TRYBurger. So on my way to Nice’s Old Town, I “try” it .It’s one of those gourmet burger places founded by a former 2-Star Michelin chef who adorns his burger with foie gras and bacon and charges 22 Euros. Rating? Average.
The day gets hotter so I decide to go to a movie…something I love to do in Europe. The Concierge advises that there are no English-language films unless I want to take a train 30 minutes away. Sorry. I opt for the French version of the apocalyptic “Independence Day II,” which I can’t fully comprehend, although I would caution you that if you are planning a visit to Hong Kong, London or Washington, DC, forget about it. They’re all totally destroyed.
The five-and a-half hour TVG train ride from Nice to Paris traverses the French Riviera for about 70 miles until it turns north toward Paris. It’s a beautiful ride.
In Paris I’m lucky enough to have a certificate from Leading Hotels of the World for a free night at the Hotel Bristol, where, despite the fact that I’m a freebie, they treat me royally, giving me a huge room on the fourth floor overlooking their world-famous garden and comping me to a very nice bottle of Chablis. I’m going to treat this as a relaxing day, since (a) it’s August, when so many things in France are closed, and (b) it’s Monday, when so many things in Paris are closed. I take a stroll over to the newly opened Ritz, where Alison’s CEO group will be holding a get-together sometime in 2017 or 2018. The hotel’s group events manager gives me a tour of the property, including the various dining rooms and their very special backyard garden, then shows me a representative “Executive” room…very, very lovely, but a tad small for a room that costs 1,400 Euros a night. I spend the day walking around some of my favorite places in Paris, then veg out at my hotel enjoying the bottle of Chablis before going to a local brasserie for a dinner of l’entrecote and frites.
Tuesday, New York
An uneventful day. Fly from Paris to New York, where I am writing this and where I will go to a half-price TCKT play tonight, then fly home on Wednesday.