London is a large city in England, known around the world for being approximately 1,009 kilometres north of Daglan. (Okay, it’s known for other things too.) Earlier this year, I decided that we should visit London for my birthday on February 24 — and that we should take the Eurostar train through the Chunnel, and stay at a grand hotel (the newly revamped Savoy), and eat at marvellous restaurants, and see marvellous friends. So that’s exactly what we did this past week.
We blitzed the trip in just three days — Wednesday through Friday — but it was action-packed and thoroughly enjoyable. Here’s a review of the hits and the misses.
Friends and family. This was a great chance to see our friend Parvez from Toronto, who works much of the time in London. We had a terrific evening with him Wednesday at the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge (harrumph), first in the bar and then at Koffmann’s, the new restaurant opened by one of the pioneers of great French cuisine in London, the legendary Pierre Koffmann. Then on Thursday, a wonderful reunion with my wife’s cousin David and his lovely wife Christine — meeting up at the Savoy, then at a four-hour lunch (!!) which I’ll report on separately, and then for a post-lunch cocktail at the Savoy’s American Bar.
St. Pancras International Station. It’s a long train ride from Gourdon, France, to Paris, and then on to London. Easily the highlight of the trip itself was St. Pancras, the terminus of the Eurostar journey from Paris. What an amazing station — one that should be seen by every architect and planner who is ever called upon to design a train station or terminal. It’s a brilliant example of how to combine old and new, with soaring glass, beautiful wood floors, brilliant signage, and nice shops and amenities. If you’re ever in London, see St. Pancras — whether or not you’re catching the Eurostar train.
The Savoy. I stayed at this grand hotel many, many years ago when I worked for a major British multinational firm. Today it is part of the Fairmont chain of first-class hotels, and it’s quite wonderful. After a three-year renovation project, it’s retained most of its great features — the Savoy Grill, the American Bar, the elegant decor, the first-class staff — while being nicely modernized. You’re greeted by name as you exit your taxi and enter the hotel; you’re escorted to your room and registered there; the service and food is excellent. Having said all that, my wife and I still feel that some of the Fairmont hotels in Canada are equally impressive in their own way, notably the Chateau Laurier and the Chateau Frontenac.
Pied à Terre. This is the restaurant, on Charlotte Street, where we had a wonderful four-hour lunch with my wife’s cousin and his wife. It’s so good that I’ll post a separate piece just on the restaurant.
The city. Paris remains my sentimental favourite, but I have to confess that my heartstrings were pulled by London on this trip. I’ll quote from the book Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson, which I re-read on the train up to London: “I can never understand why Londoners fail to see that they live in the most wonderful city in the world. It is far more beautiful and interesting than Paris, if you ask me, and more lively than anywhere but New York — and even New York can’t touch it in lots of important ways. It has more history, finer parks, a livelier and more varied press, better theatres, more numerous orchestras and museums, leafier squares, safer streets, and more courteous inhabitants any other large city in the world.” What struck me on this visit was just how big, how varied, how positively Big City London really is. We loved it.
The London taxis. If you’ve ever had the misfortune to take a taxi in Toronto, and the great good fortune to take a taxi in London, you truly understand hell and heaven. In London, spotless cars, well-maintained, well-designed, and driven by knowledgeable and friendly drivers. In Toronto, not.
The Gare du Nord. We have been to this Parisian train station before, to take the TGV to Brussels, but on this trip we had to spend a fair amount of time waiting for the Eurostar to London. What a failure, a lack of vision, a lack of care. The waiting area for the Eurostar to London is basically a long corridor without sufficient seating, around which are the usual rows of boring fast-food outlets. Nothing charming, nothing noteworthy — nothing to indicate that you are about to board a train that will take you all the way to another country through a huge tunnel carved below the English Channel. The French authorities should be ashamed.
And guess what? That was the only “miss” on the whole trip.