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sabato 24 dicembre 2011

My London calling

I consider London my third home. I was born in Naples where I spent almost half of my life before moving to Milan for the second half. In the meantime for many years I spent almost all of my summers in England since I was thirteen until I was eighteen when I spent actually six months there to take the Proficiency exam (long before TOEFL was invented).Then I decided to move there after my Law School degree for two years. Then I went to the US but that's another story. Of course I cannot write of all the places there are to see ( Tower of London,National Gallery, Westminster Abbey, Houses of Parliament and so on..) because for this there is Lonely Planet guide. Mine is more of a introspective summing up of the places and feelings of the last times I have been to this marvellous city, I have been in love with since I wasn't even a teenager. I have taken this from my mom who lived there in the '60 s, the swinging London years, when she remembers of the Mods and the Rockers, the Beatles and the Stones, Mary Quant, Twiggy, Carnaby street and all that. My parents informed me that apparently I learnt to walk in London so probably this is the reason why I am so attached and I'll never let go of the deep love and passion I have for that city. Therefore, as you might have understood, I'm absolutely biased so it's up to you if you want to take my word for everything I'll write about it. London has known moments of great happiness and enthusiasm as well as very dark and tragic moments of my life since it has accompanied me through my teenage, young and adult years. I have to admit that after going to the US for a few years and then back home, I had not been in London for many years until one day I decided it was time to end this self-inflicted ostracism. The first impact has not been the best : I wasn't exactly in a very happy moment of my life and taking a stroll down memory lane was not the best idea. So my first time back was overall quite bad. Then I went again and this time I ridiscovered our long term relationship as it's always been. The last few times I have been there, I have always gone to hotels, amongst which I would like to mention: Hilton Kensington located in Holland Park, that I found on a last minute deal at a very convenient price, The Commodore Hotel in Lancaster Gate, situated in a lovely square just two minutes away from the Tube, and the best of all London Lodge Hotel a beautiful little hotel just off Cromwell Road in the Earl's Court area. Coming to food what can I say? I can't really suggest anything : there is everything you want in London and when I say everything I mean EVERYTHING. As far as I am concerned there is a certainty when I go there, and that's called WAGAMAMA. This Japanese noodle reataurant was in Tottenham Court Road once and I remember that my friends and I used to queue up for what seemed to be hours to be seated at one of the long communal tables where we would eat the best noodles of all times in giant bowles of soup. Now it's all over the place :there is a Wagamama in every corner including Heathrow Airport.
There are also very good gourmet restaurants like Roka in Charlotte Street which I recently discovered, or Benares a fusion Indian restaurant where chef Atul Kochhar prepares his delicious inventions. Speaking of Indian food though, London is the place where to find the real thing and for me this was Khan's in Bayswater (the best Korma)or Lahore Kebab House actually Pakistani, in the Whitechapel area . I remember it to be the best curry in town. Otherwise if you care to venture there are many places in Brick Lane which is now the place to go to on Saturdays and Sundays instead of Portobello or Camden Market (which are still exetremely crowded though). It could be also called little Bangladesh given the predominance of Bengalese people in the area. When I went there they was a big celebration for the Bengalese New Year.That's when I discovered that just off Brick Lane there is a little farm where to play with lambs and ducks called Spitalfields City Farm where a big group of farm animals live freely in a little piece of nature in the middle of the neighboroughood.
Lambs at Spitafields City Farm
Bengalese New Year at Brick Lane
There are many places I used to go to when I was living in London throughout the years and I found out some of them still exist.I cannot guarantee on how they are now but for example Wong Kei our favourite Chinese restaurant in Chinatown near Leicester Square famous for the good(and cheap) food and the very rude waiters is still there and I heard that hasn't changed; neither has Bar Italia, the historic coffee place in Soho where we would go and drink giant cappuccinos while partying in the middle of the night before heading out to other destinations. It was more a place of aggregation than a coffee shop itself and it was famous for the fact that you could meet a lot of people including celebrities maybe just gone out from a jam session at legendary jazz club Ronnie Scotts.
Wong Kei,Chinatown
Bar Italia, Soho
Ronnie Scotts,Soho
Another must do when in London is to go to the theatre: to see a musical if you've neve been, to see some Shakespeare in particular at The Globe , or other productions even minor ones like the ones I have seen the last two times. First I went, with a dear friend of mine to this little off theatreland venue, called Soho Theatre to see Chechov in Hell, an hilarious comedy about Chechov entering into a coma and waking up in London today. The last show I saw ,always with the same friend, was memorable, called Noises Off at the Old Vic,one of my favourites.
The Globe, Southbank
The Old Vic, Waterloo
Ticket for Chechov in Hell, Soho Theatre
In London there are so many things to do that a year would not be enough. I have done many of them so my choices are less usual. For example why not pamper yourself at the lovely and refreshing Lush Spa in Kings Road ? Who doesn't know about Lush cosmetics ? I bet all of us have once in their life bought one of those lovely parfumed bath balls or cake -like soap or even just entered into a shop because of the perfume coming from it. Now this is the thing: there are many Lush shops all over the world but there's only one spa and it's in London. It's always packed but I was lucky enough to find a cancellation in the week I was there. Amazing experience. Trust me: you definitely wanna try it.
Back garden at Lush Spa
Happy and refreshed after Lush
When there's good weather another thing I love doing is to spend the whole day at a park. There are so many in London one only has to choose. My favourite remains Hyde Park and also Saint James. The first is just amazing though. I always think that if heaven was on earth it would be like Hide Park for sure. I usually walk there for hours and lie on the grass just concentrating on this explosion of nature in the middle of the city. I even manage to do my yoga practice and meditation there but if you want to try another place you should definitely try Alchemy in Camden town and most of all you should take a class with my dear friend Alessia who is a renowned teacher there.
The Serpentine, Hyde Park
Hyde Park
Last time I was in London (a few days ago literally) I spent most of the time in the City which has also changed a lot. Futuristic new buildings like the Gherkin are coming up every day almost, and even that area has changed considerably since I used to work there. Some things remain the same like Spitalfields market, and Dirty Dick's is still there after over 40 years I believe. Even that area has a sort of fascination that can drag you in that part of town for a whole day. Another thing to do is to take the new river bus Thames clippers and go from Tower Bridge or the Docklands to Southbank to the National Theatre, the Tate Modern or the London Eye. Very impressive if I think that out on that bank there was basically nothing when I was living there...
The old....
...and the new
Tower Bridge from the Thames Clippers
What else to do in London? Well just about everything... You basically just started. There is no place in the world like this city. There I always felt myself at all times but more importantly I feel free, more free than I feel anywhere else. Yes I could well say that London is freedom and it'll always be for me. Maybe I was a Londoner in a previous life. I'll wait for next call then. One day or another I'll probably become one, at least honorary. I think I deserve it.

mercoledì 21 dicembre 2011

Que viva Morocco

In a way this post is connected to my ex boyfriend whom I spent six years with, both for the video of U2 which not only is set in Fes where I spent the last few days of my vacation but also because some lines of the songs are very true " Only love can leave such a mark. Only love can leave such a scar". and for the fact that when I arrived to Marrakech a few years ago on the first day of the year i had just broken up with him for what I then found to be one of 100 times until the definite break up six months ago. Well although I wasn't in a good mood I was staying in one narrow alley in the casbah in Marrakech and I immediately liked the atmosphere and the peculiar smell of leather and spices which was in the air almost in every corner of the city. My sister joined me after a few hours and in the meantime I slept in the peace and quiet of my room in a very nice Riad out of the touristic area. The good thing is, that as a matter of fact you can still be in the casbah but surrounded by typical houses and locals and not by tourists when in this very pretty riad: (A riad (Arabic: رياض‎) is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard- Wikipedia) Riad Sidi Ayoub. Very pretty indeed as you can see by the website. The day I arrived was the day after what they call the Sheep's day but should be called the Not the Sheep's day since it is the day that according to the Coran an animal has to be sacrificed in order to accomplish total submission to God. Well I can only say that if I had been there that day I probably would have stopped eating meat earlier and would have fled the country.
Streets of the medina
Children playing in the alleys of the Medina
There are many places you can go to in Marrakech but once in the Medina you only want to get lost and wonder around the streets looking at all the little shops, stalls in the middle of the street and the houses and riads. Then at some point in your wondering you will reach Djama El Fnaa the main square in Marrakech where you can sit and eat the food sold by the vendors scattered all around who will try to call you all at onece and guide you the tables in the square placed in front of their stalls.
Views of Djama El fnaa
On the southern part of the square there are snake enchanters and monkey trainers who will ask you to take a picture with their little friends.(?)While being there I was wondering about the assumption of many people that being two women traveling around Morocco we were bound to be pestered and hassled by the local men. We were indeed approached a lot but I noticed that unlike other places where I have been, if you tell the men politely that you want to be left alone they DO leave you alone and sometimes they even get offended and apologize. Locals are very friendly and polite ad even walking around at night in the Medina can be quite safe (at least so we were told: we didn't really try it ourselves I have to admit). Then on the south -east end of the square you will find one of the coolest places of the city Narwama Restaurant a moroccan-thai bar restaurant owned by a very friendly local man who speaks perfect Italian since he worked many years at RAI National broadcasting before the Berlusconi era. There are two other places to go to for dinner in my humble opinion and they are all very fancy: Le Fondouk a really beautiful place in the heart of the Medina and Le comptoir a huge place in the new part of the city with a nice bar where to enjoy the local nightlife. Having said that keep in mind that Marrakech is not a cheap place and in fact it can turn out to be quite expensive. As far as sightseeing is concerned there are a lot of old palaces and the big mosque in the main Square but the main thing is to walk around the Medina and as I said you can wonder there for hours. The climate can be very mild during the day in winter but at night it is quite chilly so you need a jacket in winter at al times. It is quite useful also for the wind you will find in Essaouira a nice place on the coast where we took a day trip. This is a very interesting city made of blue and white houses and fishermen's huts. The place is famous for having been the set for Orson Welles movie Othello.
Views of Essaouira and of its walls
After a few days we went to Casablanca only for one day on our way to Fes. Now Casablanca is another story. I didn't like it at all I have to say. If Marrakech had this exotic and warm atmosphere and Essaouira had the typical allure of a fishermen town, Casablanca had this seedy and dark aura which made me a little uncomfortable. Ww tried to go and visit the big Hassan II mosque but it was closed to women that day (damn it) so we just had a peek from outside. fortunately enough we found a marvellous fish restaurant La Mer where it seems to go back in time . It has this nostalgic elegant atmosphere with waiters in a white jacket and black bow tie all speaking French to the many French expats as well as to the locals . It is a very refined place and the food is wonderful. Speaking of food I have to say that Morocco can be very difficult if you are not a meat eater like myself. The specialty is tajine so called for the earthenware pot in which the food is cooked. Usually it is a chicken or meat dish with vegetables and fruit for example meat with prunes and almonds or chicken with lemon and olives. Another one is the pastilla a meat pie made of pigeon or chicken, cinnamon, sugar and almonds. Not exactly my taste not even when I ate meat but many people find it delicious.
Hassan II Mosque
Meat tajine with prunes and almonds
And then we went to Fes, last stop of our brief trip to Morocco. Now if the Medina in Marrakech is big and chaotic the one in Fes is huge and almost impossible not to get lost into. Thousands of narrow streets and alleys going up and down the hill with vendors on both sides and little shops selling dried fruits and nuts, carpets and the famous leather booties. That is the place where I tried a local hammam ( mind you: not the one for tourists) and it was both a good and bad experience. I had to overcome the sense of discomfort which those of you who have been to a real hammam (I insist: not the polished ones for tourists or the ones we have at home) know exactly about and let myself go while the ladies scrubbed me with the peeling glove and the savon noir in the steam while surrounded by many other women peeling tangerines, washing and combing their hair at the same time. In a real hammam you sit on the hot floor (not exactly immaculate) in your underwear and you can't do without physical contact with the people in there (especially the ones who scrub you fom head to toe)but it's a real experience and in the end you're perfectly clean and relaxed with the smoothest skin that you ever had. Bearing that feeling in mind and in heart I feel like I just got out of the hammam when I think of my relationship which is now over after six years and apply what have learnt in yoga. Forgive them and wish them all the best while sending them away never to be seen again i.e. Forget them. And this is exactly what I have done with my ex whom I wish good luck to, while the image of him slowly fades away for good.
Fes Medina
Moroccan leather shoes
Savon noir