Richmond - One of Europe's Gems

The course of the River Thames.Image via Wikipedia
South East England
Last weekend whilst visiting my aunt in Brentford Esther and I discovered a gem of a place on the Thames in London - Richmond. I’d like to say it’s a hidden gem, but judging by the amount of French and German we could hear spoken in the streets I guess it’s already well known to European tourists. It’s also well-known to English celebrities: famous residents and former residents include Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall, Pete Townshend of The Who and Richard E. Grant. Furthermore, it was for a long time the location of a Royal residence and nearby Twickenham is the hallowed home of English rugby. But as we discovered last weekend there’s an obvious reason for its popularity - it’s a fantastic location.

First of all there’s the waterfront, a scenic walk along the riverfront between Kew Gardens and the Thames ends at Richmond Bridge, where there are pubs and an ice cream vendor as well as plenty of grass and trees and lovely benches to sit on and watch the ducks and swans glide along the river. The other side of the river is flanked by tall oaks and gentle willows dipping their branches into the cool waters of the Thames. Basically this waterfront area really “works” from a design, town-planning aspect - willows, an old bridge, row-boats and river barges, pubs and restaurants - it’s a fantastic space and the only place I can compare it to is the Opera Quays area of Sydney. Although I’d add the following caveat: it feels altogether less exclusive and less like a party you’re not invited to than some of the restaurants of that rarefied part of New South Wales can feel like.

Although Richmond is an exclusive suburb, as the confidence of its celebrity residents attests to, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. The place retains an almost Edwardian glamour - not in its architecture or style but in the spirit of the place. There’s an upbeat vibe to Richmond which is miles away from the “computer says no” attitude of Letchworth and the rest of middle-class England. With wealthy-looking buildings like Heron Square and Aston Martins driving around little streets filled with cafes, pubs, chocolatiers, patiesseries, restaurants and designer boutiques, Richmond exudes a confidence reminiscent of Britain’s so-called golden age when pampered British aristocrats strode the world as if it was their exclusive preserve.

Pagoda in Kew Gardens, LondonImage via Wikipedia
Pagoda in Kew Gardens
We came down to Richmond on the 65 bus from Kew Bridge in Brentford. Departing from Ealing Broadway this bus is probably a good bet for many Australians living in London, another good bus to Richmond is bus 391 from Hammersmith. Riding the bus during summer was like watching a stereotype of English culture, leafy streets liberally interspersed with parks, cricketers dressed in their traditional whites playing on the weekend, it almost didn’t seem real, like something out of an episode of Bodyline or an idyllic Hollywood depiction of England à la Marc Forster’s Finding Neverland.

It was all in all a great Sunday out. We were treated to some Marlborough Sound Sauvignon Blanc outside Adnams Cellar & Kitchen who regularly hold wine tastings in their store. We browsed the selection of designer boutiques and the more affordable department stores and we ate a baguette from the French bakery-chain Paul along the waterfront before walking the Thames river path back to Brentford where we were staying. The best way I can think of characterising Richmond is that has the shopping options of Oxford street mixed with the restaurants and pubs of Covent Garden without being as overcrowded or as over-promoted as either.
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The Search for the Perfect French Restaurant (2 of 3)

A quixotic quest for romance in a time that chivalry has forgot
Part 2 of 3

Chapitre Deux - In which our pilgrims set-off to visit the Court of the Pope only to find themselves 700 years too late. On the way an injury is sustained at Nimes the site of the ancient arena and we have a very nice baguette in Toulouse.

Other than its famous wines and truly beautiful city we had little luck in Bordeaux searching for the ideal restaurant. So we departed on our next leg with only one restaurant to recommend.

As the organiser of the trip and resolute leader of our plucky band, I had already paid for “passage to Avignon” with Rail Europe on the regional TER and Corail Téoz trains; not super-fast like the TGV but still fast and comfortably furnished. We passed vineyards, cherry orchards and wheat fields, we passed canals cut as straight as a Roman Road and winding rivers and creeks, we saw the Gothic steeples of Aquitaine give way to the sun-baked Mediterranean houses of Provence, we saw wind farms and ruined churches, we saw willows and oaks, we saw sometimes green sometimes golden rolling hills and we all strained at the windows trying to catch a glimpse of the walled-city of Carcassone as we sped past. Everything was delightful, even the station food that we ate in Toulouse didn’t seem tired - though we had already eaten countless baguettes in Bordeaux. That was until we came unstuck at Nîmes where we had to change trains - there was no train from Nîmes to Avignon and we were expected at the Palace of the Popes in order to get Papal blessing for our undoubtedly righteous Quest.

Instead we found at Nîmes a replacement bus service (sound familiar Sydney readers?), but unlike what one would find amongst the good citizenry of Sydney and definitely not something ever to be found anywhere in England, there was a great round blob of people, une foule des passagers, waiting for the next bus to Avignon. Not even the slightest semblance of a queue and as we discovered when one of our gutsy troop received une blessure falling over in the rush of people to get to the bus there was no queue sentiment in the blob either and it wasn’t a good idea to position oneself too strategically unless you were willing to put your elbows to good use. The famous Arènes de Nîmes were of course built by the Romans who’s gladiatorial penchant for blood is today visible in the tauromachie still practised at this ancient site and which maybe helps to explain the dog-eat-dog spirit that pervaded that god-forsaken bus bay.

Thus, long after the sun had set, close to midnight in fact, we finally stumbled through the gates of Avignon, seat of the Papal See. And we were welcomed at the very hospitable Hotel de l’Horloge. There was only one lonely member of staff on duty at the concierge that night and a telephone which never stopped ringing and had to be answered in Spanish, Italian and French; guessing from my poor French that I was a native English speaker the gentleman at the concierge obligingly switched to a near perfect English. There had been a mix-up with our rooms and the computers were down - so sweat running from his forehead and ignoring the persistent ringing of the Italian telephone the host at the Hotel de l'Horloge went upstairs himself to find us an alternate room. Exhausted, we sought our evening repas from a McDonald's that we noticed was open, the stench of which soon filled our otherwise very agreeable chambres.

We woke to the sounds of human traffic, the Place de l'Horloge was waking up and the cafes were filling below. Ignorant of the Mistral winds we had slept with the door to our terrace balcony open allowing the sounds and smells of a Provençal morning to greet us as we awoke. We breakfasted with the usual French petit dejeuner of the 6EUR variety in one of the cafés that open out to the Place de l'Horloge. And we departed for our audience with the Pope.

Soaring above the great city of Avignon, cast in gold and glistening in the morning sun, Jesus - in statue form, guided us towards the Palais des Papes. But to our aghast when we arrived the Palace was deserted, we had in fact arrived 700 years too late. Apparently, in the intervening years since the Popes had abandoned Avignon, a succession of 9 anti-Popes had taken residence in Avignon and left, a heretical new doctrine known as Protestantism had taken root in the country and been almost entirely wiped out in a series of bloody wars and finally le Roi de France himself was beheaded and France proclaimed a republic, bringing liberty to Europe at the end of the bayonets of the Emperor Napoléon. So now the Palais des Papes is the property of la Republique de France and it would seem the seat of the papacy is in Rome - of all places.

We went on a a tour of the old Pope's palace. It was once the central feature of the Avignon known to Petrarch as “a sewer where all the filth of the universe has gathered”. Our guidebook informed us Petrarch knew it as a place where “princes, dignitaries, poets and raiders” came to “beg from”, “extort” and “entertain” the Popes of old. The palace is now a spartan and empty stone building peopled with camera-carrying tourists. Afterwards we had lunch at one of the pleasant yet unmemorable restaurants that open on to the Place de l'Horloge.

The night was troubled; not for me, I slept fine, but some of the crew were complaining of a certain restlessness during the night. It was all explained the following morning by our driver: les mistrals - Mistral Winds - ceaselessly blowing down the Rhône valley. Whilst some people are fine with them, for others these winds can lead to madness, sleepless nights, headaches and sore throats leading people to commit "crimes of passion", they always blow from the North, and we were told are usually strongest just after it has rained in the Lyon region.

That same day however, we were given a hint that we might find what we were searching for here, by coming to Avignon. In the small town of Gordes we found Le Provencal Hotel Pizzeria - don't let “pizzeria” in the name fool you however, this restaurant was the home of a superb Coq au vin and the servings were enormous. My aunt and Esther's mum both opted for soup - which they maintained was nice but I can't imagine a soup ever being nominated for le repas parfait and Esther, foolishly, opted for their pizza - supremely disappointing given how nice the Coq au vin was - so a fantastic restaurant, serving a delicious meal but unfortunately, not le repas parfait.

That night we ate at Le Lutrin just opposite the Palais des Papes. Esther and I had in fact been there the night previous, just the two of us, and had found the atmosphere charming - solid stone masonry, Gothic arches and a great big roaring fire. So we came again, this time we had to request to be let into the same room of the restaurant and not its modern other half, the four of us were sat not in a cosy corner for couples like the previous night but at a great big table for the four of us in the centre of the room. Believe it or not this changed the atmosphere considerably, on the first night we presented a young couple, obviously from les pays anglo-saxon but who earnestly tried to order in French and converse with the waiter in French, who in turn tried to explain everything on the menu in English back to us. However, on the second night we returned, a troop of anglophones with a poor interpreter for the group (me) and we found our reception a mite cooler. To be sure, we returned at a busier time, yet there was still something a little unwelcoming on this second dinner. Our meals were very tasty, in particular I enjoyed my entrée, although simple, it worked very well, an assortment of patés, I had a Magret de Canard as a main and I would also like to recommend the dessert which Esther had - a trio of Crèmes brûlées: lavender, thyme and vanilla and which was also delicious. We washed it all down with an excellent red - Mas de Cadenet (I forget the year - 2006 perhaps).

In the next and final chapter of this story our adventurers head to Paris, encountering on the way trains en grève and the angry gods of Eyjafjallajökull in far away Iceland rain down a cloud of ash upon Europe, leaving our gourmands-errant stranded in Paris and unable to return to England.

Image: Gordes PROVENCE, Tom Häkkinen.
Image: Le Palais des Papes, Tom Häkkinen.
Image: Le Palais des Papes - l'intérieur, Tom Häkkinen.
Image: Decisions decision - Le Lutrin, Tom Häkkinen.

Lost in Translation - a snippet of conversation

A snippet of some cross-cultural exchange with my Year Elevens:

"Sir, can I please go to the water fountain?"
"What? Where do you want to go?"
"The water fountain - to get a drink."
"Oh you mean the bubbler? Yeah sure."
"Wait, what did you call it? The bubbly?"
"No. Bubbly - pfff. Bubbler."
"Yes, bubbler, how could we have possibly thought it was called a bubbly?"
"Yeah? The bubbler - isn't that what it's called? Water fountain sounds like you've got - well, it sounds like your trying to be posh or something anyway."
"So in Australia a water fountain is called a bubbly?"
"Yes, I thought everyone called it a bubbler - water fountain sounds like... well you know, really stuck up or poncey - anyway, to answer your question, yes you may go to the water fountain."

Image: This is what I think when someone says "water fountain", Tom Häkkinen.

The Search for the Perfect French Restaurant

A Quest not unlike those of yore - in search of the divine on Earth.

Part 1 of 3

Over Easter, Esther and I decided to visit France. At the same time, Esther’s mum also decided that that was the perfect time to come and visit her daughter in England. Nevertheless, we weren't going to spend our Easter in dreary old Hertfordshire - Esther told her mum that she was going to have to have a French and English holiday and so we booked tickets for three. All hopes of a romantic escape scuttled I decided to invite my English aunt along as well - she had been very hospitable towards Esther and myself when we first arrived from the distant antipodes - and so we booked tickets for four.

Our itinerary was simple - 9 days, 3 cities and France’s super-fast, ultra-modern Trains à Grande Vitesse were going to take us around in luxury and style. On our previous trip to Nice we had sampled some tasty French bistro cuisine and eaten at some nice French restaurants with an Italian Niçois twist - but Esther wasn’t convinced that we had tried the real, authentic French cuisine which is so famous world-wide. So we set off again on a quest - the quest for le repas parfait.

French breakfasts by the way are miserable - I am completely uncertain as to how the French survive on such peasant fare, especially when winter in most of France is only marginally more agreeable than the winter which rolls onto English shores from the rainy Atlantic. A cup of coffee and a cold croissant (or Viennoiserie) is more or less standard. For which you can pay 2.99EUR or as much as 8EUR in a nice cafe with sunny outdoors tables. Generally you will get an orange juice as well, perhaps some bread rolls and a "fruit salad" that consists of 3 or 4 desiccated pieces of some different types of melon in a plastic cup. Happily, almost all cafes also offer a "petit dejeuner Anglais" or "Americain" - forget about being in France and wanting to eat like the French do and go for this option. Somerset Maugham is quoted to have once said in order “to eat well in England” it is necessary to “have a breakfast three times a day” - i.e. breakfast is the only meal that the English do well. Well in France the exact opposite is the case - a French breakfast will definitely not constitute le repas parfait.

Of course the French make delicious crêpes - just not for breakfast.

Chapitre Un - In which our protagonists scour the capital of Aquitaine in search of le repas parfait.

So the trip began with our intrepid knights-errant taking a British Airways flight to Bordeaux - a city famous for its wine, but what of its restaurants? I should add here that three and even two Michelin star restaurants were beyond the budget that the heroes of our quest had set aside for the perfect dinner. Occasionally Madam (as her mum ironically calls her) and I like to delude ourselves that we can afford the best through expensive and painfully extravagant splurges. However, our more mature relatives anchored this particular odyssey firmly to the middle-to-working class ground from which we receive our wages. So for the most part our merry band dined in unpretentious bistros and brasseries, occasionally at charming restaurants as well.

Thinking of Bordeaux I can’t help but picturing Bilbo and the Dwarves escape from the Elvenking of Mirkwood. Perhaps it’s just the image of all those wine barrels floating down stream. Or perhaps it’s because Tolkien’s characterisation of elves, at once arrogant and stand-offish whilst at the same time merry and hedonistic, doesn’t seem at all dissimilar from the French. In either case, it’s an association that our actual visit to the city was unable to shake.

In Bordeaux, Madam and I found a restaurant that would definitely find itself in the “charming” category. But, as the name suggests, La Casuccia, was simply too Italian to constitute the perfect French restaurant. The actual restaurant was a gorgeous old sandstone building and it is situated not far from the waterfront and Bordeaux's spectacular Miroir d'Eau and Place de la Bourse. The pizza we ate was very nice - and a very affordable option; but being Bordeaux the real prize-winner was the wine that was recommended by our hosts. Unfortunately I can't for the life of me remember its name and wish I had taken a note of it at the time. Mains were in the 15-30EUR range. And I'm sure that if such a restaurant existed in Sydney its popularity would ensure queues outside the door - but nevertheless we still hadn't found our repas parfait.

In our next chapter our band of intrepid travelers leave for Provence and Le Palais des Papes - encountering a train service en grève and reaching Avignon too late.

The Silly English

One thing I’ve noticed over here is the English predilection for all things silly. Silly songs and ditties, dressing up in silly outfits, silly practical jokes, whimsical place names and of course English comedy which revels in all manner of silliness.

Not convinced? Consider Monty Python’s “Fish Slapping Dance” or “Ministry of Silly Walks” - why are they hilarious? The fish slapping dance is just stupid - but you can’t help laughing. If you’ve been watching England’s none too inspiring performance in this World Cup you might’ve noticed alongside the obligatory fat-man-without-a-shirt and women with crosses of St. George painted on their faces, that the more creative fans had created bizarre outfits, dressing like Knights Templar or schoolboys. Enjoying a meal just last Saturday on an evening at Covent Garden we couldn’t help notice a large bunch of girls on a night out dressed as devils, and in fact everytime we’ve been to London we’re sure to see some people dressed in silly outfits - although lately it’s been mostly England flags thanks to the World Cup.

And whilst we’re on the subject of football - those silly football songs:

Who ate all the pies?
Who ate all the pies?
You fat bastard,
You fat bastard,
You ate all the pies!

Or the songs that Man. U. chant when playing Liverpool. Because what rhymes with scouse but “eating rats in your council house”? Whilst some of them are vulgar and some hateful for the most part these football songs are just plain silly. I’m always amazed at how much enjoyment English football yobs seem to get from singing songs like “He’s tall, he’s red, his feet stick out the bed, Peter Crouch, Peter Crouch”. All of England’s poetic abilities seem at their best when just being silly or ridiculous, from Stevie Smith’s “Our Bog is Dood” to Spike Milligan’s “Teeth” and Roald Dahl’s “The Pig” - poems that just revel in the ridiculous. Even Shakespeare’s Iago when recommending England to the Venetians in “Othello” can only recommend them for their drinking and their silly songs.

McDonald’s, advertising their wares in this nation of poets have had perforce to adapt and invent some silly poems of their own, referring to their various customers “passing by”: “the Gothy types and scoffy types and like-their-coffee-frothy types”.

Have I mentioned silly place names? In neighbouring Hitchin there’s a “Butt’s Close” , many Australians would be familiar with London’s “Action Town” I mean “Acton Town” and another town in Hertfordshire is the quaintly named “Biggleswade” - which just sounds silly. These are the silly names I can think of on the spot - but if you do a google search: “Little Sodbury”, “North Piddle”, “Puddledock” - there are many more!

So how to explain English silliness? Upon first arriving in England I couldn’t but feel frustrated at the prevailing “can’t do” attitude in all aspects of customer service over here. The country’s sales assistants seemed to take the Mike Atherton “oh well, we did our best” approach to everything when the they have not really made any effort. And believe me, it is even more frustrating than the Australian “she’ll be right attitude”. In fact, one of the lowest points settling in over here was when I bought my first weekend trip to Paris - 700GBP for a Eurostar trip, accomodation in a seedy part of Paris in a Best Western that even the cab driver had never heard of and a day trip to Disneyland. But in the Thomas Cook that I’d visited, it seemed like the service assistant was stonewalling me the entire time; every suggestion that I tried was greeted with a furrowed brow, a wipe of the glasses, some erratic typing and a “computer says no” response. Eventually I settled with the overpriced trip through exhaustion - I’d never left a travel agent so depressed before in my life. Doctors surgeries were even worse. I now book all of my travel arrangements on the Internet and don’t get sick. But on the plus side, I wouldn’t be able to appreciate Little Britain’s Carol Beer without first visiting Thomas Cook, Hitchin. And whilst the English might pride themselves on having the rudest most unhelpful sales assistants in the world, they also know how to “take the mick” and don’t take themselves too seriously - a character trait that Australians could well do with learning.