London for the Holidays

It’s no secret that I’m absolutely crazy about Christmas lights. Actually, I love Christmas in general but light displays are a particular favorite of mine. We normally don’t travel at that time of year, since both Bill and I prefer to tour during the off seasons to avoid crowds and the inevitable price hikes. We enjoy spending the holidays at home surrounded by decorations, trees, and of course lights!  This last Christmas was a departure for us. We decided to spend the holiday in London—land of roast goose, plum pudding, and Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” It is also known for pulling out all the stops where Christmas light displays are concerned and we had to see it for ourselves.

Best London Lights Photo Ever (Blog)
Regent Street at night

This city is not exactly an economical place to stay, particularly in the high season. But with a little advance preparation and homework, we were able to enjoy the delights of the metropolis without breaking the bank. First, we made our plane and lodging reservations months ahead of time. We secured a great one-bedroom flat in the Fitzrovia neighborhood on We were familiar with the area, and the Goodge Street tube station and bus stops were a short walk from the flat. With a pair of comfortable shoes, a scarf, and a jacket there were many areas we could just walk to and not have to rely on public transport at all. London is best seen on foot so you don’t miss anything. There’s something about strolling through the city and really getting a chance to stop and look up. We both love to spot architectural details and this is problematic when riding the Tube. Buses are better but the scenery whizzes by. Walking is also a great way to discover an interesting pub and duck in for a pint.

London 15 (blog)
Covent Garden was only about 20 minutes’ walk

It was nice to have a full-sized one-bedroom flat—well, full-sized for London anyway. On our last trip we waited too long to make room reservations and ended up in a private hotel on Gower Street. The room consisted of a small bathroom and no real closets, just some pegs to hang your coat or purse. There was a bed with two small end tables and a TV mounted to the wall. You had to sidestep and hug the wall to get in the bed. That room ran us approximately $160 a night. It did include an outstanding full English breakfast though.

The Fitzrovia flat on the other hand, was great for us. It had a full kitchen, complete with large refrigerator/freezer, range, and washing machine. The living room came complete with sofa, TV (with about a million satellite channels), and a table with two chairs for dining. The bedroom held a comfortable queen-sized bed and plenty of closet space. No sidestepping here! The neighborhood was perfect for us and close to lots of pubs, grocery stores, shops, and our favorite fish and chips place. The bathroom, with its nice shower/tub, completed the very comfortable arrangements. The whole thing cost less than $70 a night when all was said and done, which is ridiculously cheap in London. Be aware though, that recent changes to the law will have an effect on, and it’s not clear yet what that effect will be.

We’ve been to London many times so we’ve seen most of the “big ticket” attractions. We wanted to indulge in a few of the lesser known gems. One of these was Charles Dickens’ home and museum (48 Doughty Street, WC1) where it was all decked out for a Victorian Christmas. You can pay extra for an audio tour, but we opted for the small booklet that described each room and its significance. It was a delightful experience. We are both fans of Dickens’ works and it was wonderful to see the desk where he wrote and the dining table set with custom china plates adorned with characters from The Pickwick Papers. If you are a literary fan visiting London it’s worth a visit.

Winter Wonderland (Blog)
Haven’t I seen this movie?

One annual attraction during the holiday season is the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. It was actually a bit disappointing, although that’s mostly owing to the fact that we live in Germany and in the words of that famous Carly Simon song, “nobody does it better.” It was mostly an amusement park with many rides that looked like they were from Oktoberfest. In fact, we found out that several of the rides were from Oktoberfest. They had a Bavarian village selling bratwursts, and dry pretzels at London prices. If you read my last post about the Christmas season in Germany, you’ll know that we’ve gotten a little spoiled by the Christmas markets of Germany (and France). But we soon ventured out into Hyde Park, clutching some pretzels that we intended to feed to the birds. Bill spent some quality time feeding some very greedy swans, several of which ate right out of his hands. We had more fun spending time with the swans than at the faux German Christmas park.

Bill and the Swans 4 (Blog)
Sorry guys, I’m all out…

One thing that most definitely did not disappoint was the city of London all dressed up in Christmas finery. As seems to be usual for us, the weather was lovely for nearly our entire stay, so we did a lot of wandering. We spent several evenings strolling down the streets where the light displays were the most spectacular. Our vote for the most magnificent presentation was Regent Street. Glorious angels spanned the width of the thoroughfare with wings that shimmered and twinkled. It was splendid and a sight that I will always cherish.

A window at Fortnum's
A window at Fortnum’s

The retailers all seemed to be in competition with their lights and window displays as well as their interior decorations that were occasionally breathtaking. Everyone hails “Harrod’s” as THE store to go to. I say it should be “Fortnum and Mason.” F & M is the epitome of everything that is wonderful in a store. High quality goods, lush decorations, and personnel all dressed in black and looking like they just stepped out of the pages of Vogue Magazine. I always feel slightly underdressed when I cross the threshold. Of course, high quality means high prices but we always leave with a little something such as rose and violet chocolates, or the queen’s favorite ginger biscuits in a decorative tin.

Cheese Glorious Cheese (Blog)
Happy Christmas, Lloyd!

Speaking of some of the best places, if you’re looking for cheese, you must stop at Paxton & Whitfield (93 Jermyn Street, SW1). This wonderful cheesemonger has been in business since the mid-1700s and at the same storefront since 1835. They received the Royal Warrant of Appointment to HM Queen Victoria in 1850 and they still hold several royal warrants to this day. Winston Churchill once observed “a gentleman only buys his cheese at Paxton & Whitfield” so of course we had to as well. They are known for having the best quality English Stilton in the country along with some of the finest artisan cheeses anywhere. We ventured into the packed shop a couple of days before Christmas where we stood in a long line that snaked around throughout the back of the store to make it to the cheese counter. It’s normally much more sedate. Everyone took the craziness in good humor (or more properly good humour) because they knew that Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without some cheese from Paxton and

Fortnum and Mason 7 (Blog)
Fortnum’s again

Whitfield. Our patience was rewarded with a lovely porcelain crock filled with their finest Stilton for us to take home to the flat and enjoy with water crackers. If it was good enough for Queen Victoria, it was certainly good enough for us!

I could go on about our Christmas holiday in London, but I will save some for later posts. I haven’t even started on Bill’s quest for the best ale and pies at some wonderful traditional pubs. So until then we’ll just say, “Cheers!”

Merry Christmas!

Like a fairy-tale forest

I’ve woken up to yet another day of freezing fog here in Germany. Everything outside has that just-arrived-in-Narnia look. Snowy white frost decorates the tree limbs and turns them into something magical. But along with the magic comes the loss of the lovely view from our bedroom balcony. Everything looks like it’s encased in a hazy bubble where the horizon has vanished and been replaced with a white void that appears to go on forever. This seems to happen every winter here. And what gets me through it, you might ask? German Christmas markets! Germany has a long tradition of setting up Christmas markets in towns and cities throughout the country. It is one of my favorite things during this season.

Lilies (symbol of Wiesbaden) hover over the market

Nobody does Christmas quite like the Germans. Christmas markets seem to pop up in just about every town that has more than 15 residents. Shoppers bustle about, looking for that one-of-a-kind gift or decoration. Most of the markets run for about a month, starting in late November and ending just before Christmas. The dizzying smells will immediately make your mouth water and your stomach growl for a bratwurst that has been roasting on a metal grate suspended over a heavily-stoked fire. Or you can dive into a greasy, deep-fried, and perfectly delicious tray of Kartoffel Puffer. These yummies are a cross between a hash brown and a potato pancake and are served up with a side of apple or garlic sauce. Yes they’re bad for you; yes you need a stack of napkins to catch the oil as it drips from your fingers; but heck, when in Rome (or Mainz, or Trier)…

The angels open the festivities

I get the impression that the different cities compete to have the best combination of lights, food, vendors, entertainment, and great holiday atmosphere. This year Wiesbaden gets my vote for the best opening ceremony. They put on a spectacular show with lights, music, fireworks, and (I kid you not), flying angels! A massive crane is used to suspend what looks like a large lighted birdcage holding two lovely ladies dressed up as angels. They come complete with large feathered wings and long, flowing blond hair cascading down almost to their toes. Even though they are secured in a cage structure, they hang precariously out of the large openings on either side. Their arms and wings wave as they scatter what looks like stardust but is actually tiny flecks of gold paper. The lights are off everywhere except for the spotlights illuminating the angels as they make their descent—first to the mammoth Christmas tree that lights up to a wave of their hands. They hover over the main stage to an ethereal musical backdrop by Enya. One more wave of the hands and poof! All the lights of the market are lit and fireworks shoot out from the angel cage. It really is quite spectacular and oh, so German!

The temperatures drop and everything is illuminated in a way that you could have only imagined in your dreams. Your frigid fingers happily wrap themselves around a decorated mug filled with either hot chocolate or the spicy, syrupy, gluhwein (spiced wine). There’s always a small deposit of about 2 Euros for the mug, which I happily relinquish. The cups are usually different each year with special commemorative artwork, and they make wonderful souvenirs.  Personally, I think gluhwein should never be consumed anyplace else but out in the cold at one of the Christmas markets. Not everyone likes it, but I enthusiastically gulp it down to the last drop because it warms me down to my toes.

Have a heart…

Then there are the Lebkuchen vendors. Lebkuchen is basically gingerbread and the Christmas markets are filled with vendors selling giant heart-shaped lebkuchen cookies. They are decorated with a sugary frosting that is hard but tasty. I’ve watched many a little girl or boy chomping down on that spicy cookie that almost looks bigger than them. You can hear the crunch from a block away as their teeth break through the icing. I’m sure the local dentists love the Lebkuchen tradition.

A display of lighted paper stars

I also enjoy that feeling of the way life used to be. Life without a net. As you roam around the typical market, you’ll see all kinds of wonderful sights that you’d never cast your eyes upon in the ever cautious and over-protective American way of life. Here at a German market you’ll see dogs meandering around—usually on the leash held by an attentive owner—sometimes not. Children sway on makeshift swings made of rope with no buckles, restraints, or protective padding anywhere. If they fall and maybe skin a knee, they get up, brush it off, and go swing again.  It’s not uncommon to see electrical wires duct taped down on streets, attached to poles, or stretching precariously overhead. Unguarded generators or connections are usually well within everyone’s reach with very few barricades. It’s tempting to imagine that if you stumbled or got shocked, you’d be blamed for not paying attention. And everyone has a great time, young and old alike. As I mentioned above, gluhwein will warm you up, but it can also light you up! Alcohol is consumed with gusto at these events and yet I have never seen anyone appear to be the worse for it. I have seen natives bursting into song, but no fisticuffs.

One day, I will be back home shopping in an American mall somewhere at Christmastime. I will be riding on an escalator looking at the perfectly set decorations and wishing for just one more glance of a Christmas angel overhead suspended from a cage. And I’ll yearn for the chance to step over some cables duct taped to the pavement without a single warning sign in sight.

Looking for (and finding!) some Christmas cheer

Frohe Weihnachten from les Deux Petits Cochons!