Monday, April 30, 2012

Afternoon Tea at the Lanesborough Hotel

A few weekends ago, a group of lovely ladies organised a surprise baby shower for our friend to celebrate her impending journey into motherhood. The hostess decided on a ‘tea party’ theme and what better place to enjoy the quintessential British high tea than the luxury Lanesborough Hotel on Hyde Park Corner. With accolades including the The Tea Guild's Award of Excellence 2011, UK Tea Council's Award of Excellence 2010, and Best Afternoon Tea in London 2008, we knew we were in for a special treat at the Lanesborough.
Afternoon tea is held in the opulent Apsleys Dining Room surrounded by brocade walls, chandeliers, plush chairs, and fine china. It’s definitely a lovely place to celebrate a special occasion. We were seated at a quiet corner of the dining room so Baby Jacob, our friend's one-month old son, could nap peacefully. Baby gifts, toys, and a bouquet of flowers adorned the white linen clad tables including a three-tier diaper ‘cake’ I made as a gift for the baby.

For the next two hours, we devour decadent trays of sweets, tea sandwiches, scones, and clotted cream all washed down with pots and pots of Earl Grey tea. But first, we started off with a glass of Tattinger champagne with strawberries and cream. By my books, it wouldn’t be a celebration otherwise. I'm waiting for the arrival of my first baby niece in June to pop open the Moet & Chandon I bought in Champagne, France.
The staff then brought us an amuse bouche, a parfait filled with berries and chocolate. Amazingly creamy, delicious, and almost too pretty to eat. Next came the three-tiered tray of sandwiches, mini cakes (carrot, red velvet, banana nut), chocolates, and friands, followed by several savory tarts. Then came the scones (amazingly dense!) and fruity tea cakes served with heavenly Devonshire clotted cream, strawberry jam, and a lovely lemon curd, which was my favorite as I love any desserts (or cocktails for that matter) with lemon. It was truly an afternoon of sheer decadent and overindulgence.

Needing a break from our sugar high, we proceeded with baby games created by the talented hostess, which was a lot of fun. The games included 'guess the number of pins', baby food tasting (rice cereal with peaches anyone?), how big is mama’s tummy (don't worry, mama-to-be didn't take offense), and what’s in mama’s diaper bag?. We all received awesome Philosophy bubbles as prizes to take home.  Then it was on to opening adorable baby gifts.
It was a wonderful afternoon with the beautiful mama-to-be and her lovely lady friends. Congratulations – we can’t wait to meet Baby McN this summer!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Transylvania, Romania: Land of Myths and Mountains

When I first read Bram Stoker’s classic “Dracula,” I harbored ever since a romantic and mythical perception of this mysterious country, hence why Romania made it onto our travel list in the first place. Slightly off the beaten European tourist path, Romania is a largely overlooked and underrated destination. Filled with majestic natural beauty, rustic villages, unique and stately castles, and defined by a long and complicated history involving Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia, Romania is worthy of a short break at the very least.  However, minimize your time in Bucharest, another typical sprawling Eastern European city filled with Soviet-era construction and planning, but not much more.

Under the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s dictator from 1965 to 1989, much of Bucharest’s old architecture was destroyed and replaced with nondescript concrete block towers, which now define most of the cityscape, making Bucharest a mostly drab and ugly city.  However, in recent years, the transformation of the central neighborhood Lipscani into its former “Old Town” glory has revived what was once a ruined sector of the city and is now the preeminent entertainment destination for young capital dwellers and travelers alike. 

Bars and cafes spill over into the pedestrianized streets and sidewalks, while clubs burst with revelers and pulse with house and techno music. I would not be surprised to see Bucharest join the ranks of Prague, Krakow, and Tallin as the new target for British stag parties in the near future.  However, as far as we could tell, this was pretty much the extent of Bucharest’s entertainment options, although I’m sure there are more historic sites around the city that we did not have an opportunity to squeeze into our short time.  

Transylvania is a very large region, but if you are limited on time, it is best to base yourself in Brasov.  The train to Brasov from Bucharest’s Gara du Nord train station takes approximately two and a half hours, with a stop in Sinaia along the way. Here you can take some time to see Peles Castle, a quirky, fairy tale-like, 19th century palace built by King Carol I, but largely conceived by his eccentric wife, Queen Elizabeth.  Set against the dramatic backdrop of the Carpathian Mountains, Sinaia is also worth the stop to take in the stunning views.


Nearby to Peles Castle, literally just a further walk down the path, is the Sinaia Monastery, the namesake of Sinaia itself and named after Mount Sinai in Egypt. There is also a World War I cemetery on your way up to the castle. Sinaia is small and most people stop in Sinaia for a few hours enroute to Brasov from Bucharest.

The town of Brasov is much larger than Sinaia, but still significantly smaller than Bucharest and maintains much of its historic Saxon architecture, especially around the central Old Town area near the Black Church.  Overall, Brasov is a fantastic base for additional excursions to go hiking and for the notorious Bran Castle, or what is more popularly referred to as “Dracula’s Castle.”

Old Town Brasov

In fact Bran Castle’s relationship to Vlad Tepes (the basis of the character of Dracula) is tenuous at best, himself only having lived here for a short time.  The original castle of Dracula conceived by Bram Stoker is a thing of fiction and was only hypothetically located in an area deep inside the Carpathian Mountains which is mostly inaccessible. Bran Castle is the closest you will get to Dracula in Romania, but well worth the visit to learn more about Romania’s medieval history and the strategic importance of this fortress throughout history dating as far back to the Templar Knights. 

Throughout our trip we were hit with very different weather patterns including warmth, sun, heavy rain, and then finally snow on our last day, which was actually a great way to sample Transylvania in all its climate complexities.  Food, drink, and accommodation are generally very cheap.

Although I personally don’t have much of a palate for heavy, meat-dense Romanian fare, one of the best spots in town for traditional regional food is Sergeiana. Having our fill of pork, pork, and more pork, we made reservations for Easter dinner the following night at the amazing Keller Steakhouse. Without any pretension or kitsch, this is an honest and sophisticated effort and the end result is truly high quality steak and very good wine. A bit expensive by Romanian standards, this is probably the best restaurant in town and well worth the money, a bargain coming from London. 


I have no doubts that very soon Romania will join the ranks of the Czech Republic and Hungary as a low cost alternative destination within Europe. As I discovered myself, shattering finally my own fantastical childhood notions, those who come here seeking the thrills of Dracula will uncover so much more in the country’s stunning natural beauty and rich and complicated history.  -- KV


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

One Night in Lille

Enroute to and from the Champagne region, we stayed one night in Lille, a small town where French elegance meets Flemish flamboyance. Long gone is the gritty industrial city; Lille has undergone a major face lift in the past decade thanks to the generous government-sponsored historic restoration project. As Lille sits at the crossroad of several major high-speed trains zipping between France, Belgium, and The Netherlands, as well as the EuroStar train connecting U.K. to the continent, making Lille a convenient place for a quick stop-over. 


In all honesty, you don't really need more than a day to explore Lille. The pretty little town is interesting enough to keep you busy for an afternoon. The attractive Old Town (Vieux Lille) is formed by three interlinked squares: Grand Place, Place du Theatre, and Place Rihour, flanked with beautiful historic buildings such as the stunning Opera House, Chamber of Commerce, and La Vielle Bourse. 


The cute little cobblestone pedestrian streets with stylish boutiques, bookshops, and cafes makes for a lovely evening stroll, if just to admire the eclectic mix of architectural styles, or to smell the aromas of the famous Belgian import -- the delectable waffle. Further afield, the eye-catching Cath├ędrale Notre Dame de la Treille is quite interesting -- a 19th century neo-Gothic church with a bold modern west facade. Rue de la Monnaie, a short walk from the Grand Place, has no storage of restaurants and bars, definitely worth visiting for dining options. 

In a country famous for wines ranging from Bordeaux to Burgundy, and from Loire to Champagne, Lille is definitely located in beer territory. Due to its shared Flemish history, Belgian beers reign supreme here. If you know Keenan, then you'll know he's a huge fan of Belgian beers (see the post where he took his Dad on a beer trip in Brussels). In between sampling Flemish specialities of arbonnade and potjevlesch, we also tasted some great local beers. Belgian beers are typically stronger and contains high alcohol content with some up to 8%, so be careful to pace yourself. 

We'd happily recommend two microbreweries: La Capsule (25 Rue des Trois Mollettes) and Les Trois Brasseurs (22 Place de la Gare). La Capsule has an urban-grunge atmosphere that reminded me of Lanesplitter Pizzeria on Telegraph Ave in Oakland. Great selection of beers, friendly staff, and fun locals. Les Trois Brasseurs is conveniently located near the train station, a great place to kill time over some local brews and some light snacks.

The weekend came and went too fast, but overall I was really happy with our weekend in Champagne and Lille, sampling local 'champers' and beers. After a night in Lille, I found myself on the first train back to London on Monday morning. Amazingly, I left Lille at 7:30am and was at my desk at exactly 8:30am. Yes, one of the perks of living in Europe! Keenan stayed in France for his business meeting somewhere in the middle of Somme Valley, a major battlefield during World War I. The Battle of the Somme in 1916 was one of the bloodiest military operations in history -- over 50,000 British troops lost their lives on the first day of battle alone. I asked Keenan to take some photos if he pass by some military cemeteries.