Transport to train station: 8 AM. What?!? No! This can’t be! But alas, that was indeed the schedule.
No Sunday in the Park with George…. and Jeff and Michael and Mary.
As I’d posted before our trip, I had hoped we’d be able to spend a little of our Sunday morning on the l’Île de la Grande Jatte– where Georges Seurat spent much time sketching and painting. I guess it was just an art/theatre geek thing. I’d hoped we wouldn’t have been leaving Paris before noon– 10 am at the very earliest. I guess that moment just wasn’t meant to be. Maybe next trip. (You hear that George and Mary?)
The night before, Michael and I somehow managed to pack our large and carry on suitcases inside each other so they would go on the truck ahead of us to the ship. (They told us we could send one bag ahead.) This way we didn’t have to lug a big suitcase on the train.
Everything actually worked out perfectly. We got up, had breakfast, and then it was time to head to the train station. No waiting around, killing time.
We arrived at the Paris station, Gare de Lyon, with plenty of time to look around the beautiful, building before boarding the high speed TGV train to Avignon.
It was hard to believe that after the whirlwind adventure we’d had so far– the ‘main event‘ was still ahead! Broadway On the Rhone! This would be our fourth cruise with Playbill Travel but our first-ever river cruise.
We arrived in the south of France (Avignon) in just under three hours. Even though there wasn’t a lot of unique scenery to speak of, it was a relaxed, comfortable trip.
We were warmly greeted and welcomed aboard the S.S. Catherine by the crew and encouraged to visit the buffet. The rooms wouldn’t be ready for a couple hours so we ate and explored. We saw a number of people had arrived that hadn’t gone to Paris first– so we said our hellos and ended up camping out on the top deck.
It was empty up there– a beautiful sunny day and little hot. We guessed most were choosing to stay inside where it was cooler.
After a bit, we saw people coming up the stairs. It was none other than Grammy and Emmy Award winner, John McDaniel and his niece! We made introductions, had a nice conversation and then they were off to explore around the ship some more.
A crew member came around and told us we could check in and go to our rooms but our bags might not be there until later. When they arrived, we had enough time to unpack and take a short nap before the security/excursion briefing in the lounge.
The ship set sail, unceremoniously, while the meeting was going on. That was followed by cocktails on the upper deck and the introduction of our cruise’s entertainment: Liz Callaway, Paulo Szot, James Barbour, and Rebecca Luker; with music director, John McDaniel.
Our ship, the S.S. Catherine, is a small ship, specifically suited for river cruises. It only accommodates 159 guests and 57 staff in 6 suites and 74 staterooms. It has to be short enough to fit under the many low bridges. We would also be passing through 17 locks on the Rhone river from Avignon to Lyon.
The ship has most of the amenities of a larger ship, just scaled down. There’s one large dining room (most ships have three or more) and a big lounge that can hold everyone at one time. There’s also a smaller bar with a ‘pool’ that would be better described as a large hot tub. The only things missing are a gift shop and casino.
One of the first things I noticed, after the Murano chandelier in the lobby, was the beautiful modern art lining all the hallways. Tasteful and appropriate.
At 7 pm we met our friends for an enjoyable dinner and then retired early. I always feel exhausted on travel days, I’m not sure why. Looking forward to a new adventure on the day ahead!
Travel Date: May 21, 2017 Sunday (Day 9)
If you had only one day to explore one of the world’s most famous cities– how would you approach it? Would you try to see all the important landmarks? Take a tour? Explore on you own?
There’s obviously no real right or wrong way to do it. You just have to go with your gut instincts.
Today was our one full day to discover Paris. Actually, we only had eight hours before a champagne river cruise on the Seine– the kick off for our Playbill Broadway cruise which officially launches tomorrow from Avignon. We had dinner reservations booked immediately following, so we had to make the most of the day.
I had ideas of where I wanted to go– but was determined I wasn’t going to get bogged down (and in a rush) with a packed itinerary. I just wanted to experience Paris and with few strings– let it happen organically.
At breakfast, we FINALLY got to see our friends, George and Mary. They are the easiest couple to travel with– and so much fun!
Michael was feeling a little under the weather, so when Mary and George said they’d accompany me on the first leg of the journey– he chose to stay at the hotel and rest.
So we headed out, uphill, in the direction of four places I’d included on the master list of places I’d like to see.
Montmartre. Montmarte was the trendy neighborhood of days gone by. Writers and artists such as Hemmingway, Piccaso, and Van Gogh once spent their days here. Though considered touristy today, I found the area quite charming and peaceful. Corner parks, tree-lined streets, cafes, street vendors– all culminate in a rather exciting, yet tranquil experience. I wanted to see the iconic windmill of Moulin Rouge, the I Love You Wall, and Sacre Coeur— in addition to just soaking in the atmosphere of Montmartre.
The I Love You Wall is the new Love Locks (more on this later) of Paris. Le mur des je t’aime is where love comes together in every language. Artist Frédéric Baron with the help of Claire Kito (oriental calligrapher) created the 612 tile mural described as “a link, a place of reconciliation, a mirror which reflects an image of love and peace.”
The phrase “I love you” is written 311 times in 250 languages with splashes of red representing parts of a broken heart.
You can visit the wall (free) at Butte Montmartre, Place des Abbesses, in the Square Jehan Rictus, Paris.
Near that square is Eglise Saint John de Montmartre. So many churches in Europe (unlike the U.S.) are open for prayer and visitation, all day, 7 days a week. We couldn’t resist stopping and admiring its architecture.
As we strolled through the streets, I thought we might view the Basilica of Sacre Coeur. We were already too close to it to find an unobstructed view. We came across a steep staircase– and with only a little convincing, George and Mary agreed to make the climb. This led to two more steep climbs that took us directly to the base of Sacre Coeur. There is an incredible overlook here with an expansive park below.
The overlook was the most crowded spot we visited in Montmartre, but that wasn’t a drawback– there was a carnival like atmosphere in the air.
George and Mary had been there before but it had been 30 years ago. Both agreed that it was worth the climb to experience it again. I was just happy to be there with them. Michael would have loved this spot too– but not the climb!
We then began the steep descent, heading back in the direction of our hotel, taking different streets, continuing to explore as we went. It was the perfect way to spent part of a day in Paris.
When we got back to the hotel, I only had time to freshen up, get Michael and then we headed back out in the direction of the River Seine and the Île de la Cité. One of two remaining natural islands within the city of Paris.
We passed the Louvre and reached Île de la Cité and spent some time at Notre Dame de Paris. Featuring French Gothic architecture, it was completed by 1345, survived damage during the French Revolution, and received its first major restoration in 1845.
It’s a beautiful cathedral. Even though there are usually long lines of visitors waiting to get in, they move very quickly. Visiting is free, although there is a charge if you want to climb the narrow stairs to the bell tower. (Which we didn’t do.)
My one regret– in our effort to keep moving, was that I forgot to find Paris Point Zero. It is the marker that supposedly designates the exact center of Paris and France. It is the point from which all distances in France (from Paris) are measured.
From there, we walked along the River Seine until we reached the Square du Vert-Galant and Pont Neuf bridge. The square is a park honoring Henry IV of France. The Pont Neuf bridge is the oldest surviving bridge across the Seine.
You may have heard of Love Locks on the Pont des Arts bridge. The affixing the locks to the bridge was used to symbolize love. In just five years the bridge was covered in locks. Officials feared for the weight and damage they were causing the bridge. They were removed– an estimated million padlocks, in 2015. Well, they are reappearing on other bridges, including Pont Neuf.
Reaching the bridge quicker than we expected, we had some time before the rest of the group would arrive for the Playbill Champagne River Cruise. We walked around the point of the island and enjoyed the views from Pont Neuf– just soaking up the atmosphere.
We met our friends at the boat launch and prepared for a lovely cruise on the river. The private event was organized by Playbill Travel.
Janet and Ken arrived, having been delayed a day by a flight cancellation, and we were all thrilled to be reunited.
After we got off the boat, we had a little time before our dinner reservations to wander Pont Neuf. We also had a birthday surprise for Janet. There was a quaint little vintage jewelry store (Jeanne Danjou et Rousselet) on the island where we had a gift– wrapped and waiting for her. Janet loved the surprise.
We had found the store online (back at home) and picked out a vintage necklace, as a gift from all of us– that they graciously agreed to hold for us to pick up in person. Michael and Mary went in the store with Janet while George, Ken and I watched from outside the shop window. They even resized it for her on the spot.
Our restaurant was just around the corner, on a square where a number of people were playing Boules (Bocce in Italy). We arrived promptly at 7 pm at the charming and historic, Restaurant Paul for dinner. The food and the service was great– a perfect birthday celebration for Janet.
After dinner, we caught the sun setting on the Seine. A stunning combination of color and light playing off the water and bridges as day turned to night.
We got back to the hotel and packed so we’d be ready for our early morning transport to the train to Avignon.
I added at least another 9 miles walking today. A pretty fulfilling experience. My own unique introduction to Paris, the City of Lights.
Travel Date: May 20, 2017 Saturday (Day 8)
Here are some additional photographs from our day in Versailles:
Travel Date: May 19, 2017 (Day 7)
We were really looking forward to visiting Versailles. We got our tickets in advance and had made plans with our friends, Laura and Cass to spend at least half the day there. Most days the gardens of Versailles are free– except when they have the Musical Fountains Show or Musical Gardens as it is called. Today was one of those days.
Our tickets included the Palace, Grand Trianon, Petite Trianon and Marie Antoinette Estate, in addition to the the special garden show. There are a variety of ticketing options, including special tours (only a few are in English) of portions of the Palace that general ticket holders don’t get to see. We did not add any additional tours and I can assure you that there is plenty to overwhelm your senses without them.
The grounds of Versailles covers over two thousand acres of which 213 acres are formal gardens. What you see when you visit, particularly in the Palace itself, is pretty astounding. Especially when you consider it began as a hunting lodge! Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King, had an unwavering determination and vision to create what Versailles was to become. He chose the sun as his emblem because of its association to Apollo– and it was the symbol of peace and art.
The Château de Versailles and the gardens were designated as one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1979.
Putting this post together was a little difficult with so much to cover: which photographs to use, how much history/facts to include, and of course, the experience itself. (I’ll be posting more photos of Versailles in a separate blog post, immediately following this one.)
If you are interested in the history of Versailles and Louis XIV, and I promise you, it is really fascinating — I encourage you to explore the subjects online. I’ll try and keep my inclusions here- brief; and focus more on our experience.
The four of us took a taxi to Versailles, arriving about a half hour before the Palace opened. This gave us plenty of time for pictures of the magnificent exterior. Then, while Michael and Laura waited in line, Cass and I took turns running back to take a few pictures in the gardens (The Orangerie) before it had a chance to get crowded.
The Palace. There aren’t enough adjectives to describe the beauty and grandeur of the Palace. Versailles, rightfully, is on most top ten lists of the most beautiful palaces in the world.
The effort made to maintain and restore the Palace is some of the best I’ve seen in our travels. In so many places we’ve visited, you find faux finishing used to repair, restore or represent what had been there originally. I didn’t notice any of that here.
Every room is dripping in its uniquely-styled opulence. Ceiling mural, elaborate moldings, wall and ceiling medallions, gold leaf everywhere– it doesn’t stop. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
The palace is absolutely stunning! I stepped outside to wait for the others to finish in the Battles Gallery and saw the crowds of people lining up to enter. It made me really glad we arrived early.
While waiting, I noticed the military presence outside the Palace. Actually, it was the most visible of our entire trip.
When the others came outside, we decided to head out to the gardens. Cass suggested we establish a time and meeting place in case we split up but the consensus was it wasn’t necessary at this point.
The Gardens. There are more than 50 fountains and water features in Versailles. My biggest disappointment was the fountains aren’t continuously working. Being that is was a Musical Fountains Show or Musical Gardens day, I expected to see more flowing water. We never did see any of the larger, world-renowned fountains working.
We were told different fountains come on briefly, at different times, throughout the day. You either had to wait by a fountain, or hope to pass one that was working. Since they charge more money for this, I would have thought there would be a schedule and/or a map assisting you in enjoying them. This wasn’t the case. There are maps of Versailles but no indication when the individual fountains would be running.
As we wound our way through the garden maze, we heard music ahead. Tucked in a secluded section, we found a modern water show in progress. This was nice, but I would have rather seen the many older fountains working.
The views of the garden are breathtaking. There is something new to see around every turn– statues, alcoves, private garden enclaves– they never end. There are large map boards strategically placed throughout, to help you find your way around.
After some wandering, we made our way to the Grand Canal and the Apollo Fountain.
Walking from the Palace to the Grand Trianon, Petit Trianon and Marie Antoinette Estate covers about two miles- one way. There is a tram (for a fee) that can transport you as well. We didn’t discover the tram until we were halfway through the gardens, along the canal– and decided we’d walk the rest of the way to the Grand Trianon– knowing we’d probably take the tram back to the palace after we’d seen the other features of Versailles.
Grand Trianon. We reached the Grand Trianon, divided in two sections by a peristyle (breezeway). Louis XIV had this built as a retreat. His getaway from the nearby palace.
Getting Lost. Taking my last picture, I exited the final room of the Grand Trianon, to look for Michael who had been ahead of me. Cass and Laura were just a room or two behind us in the chateau. I got outside– no Michael. I went back in, getting stopped by a guard– and was told I had to wait there. I saw Cass and Laura coming though – but no Michael.
We got outside and just waited. Where was he?
WWMD? What would Michael DO?
Not disappear. But he had.
To make a long story short(er)… we waited… worried… went ahead… backtracked– about three hours went by before we found his whereabouts. We wouldn’t see him again until we got back to the hotel.
Going on through the park, we passed several small buildings and more sculpted gardens before reaching the Petit Trianon.
A guide pointed us in the direction of the Marie Antoinette Estate, more like its own little village. He neglected to tell us that the main house was under renovation. It was completely covered up, in fact.
We looked at a few of the small cottages and then decided to backtrack, hoping to find Michael along the way.
When we got back to the Grand Trianon, we discovered the tram stop and decided to take it back to the Palace. Just as we got on, there was a brief downpour– with some hail. Luckily, it had stopped by the time we reached the main entrance. Laura had cell service, so we called the hotel and left messages, hoping to find Michael, or at least to let him know we were on the way back.
Just as we were getting in a taxi, Michael responded. He had just gotten back to the hotel. (It turns out he had been waiting by an exit at the Grand Trianon that we didn’t even know existed. Then he went on his own adventure, searching for us as we were searching for him.) He was safe, we were safe. A sigh of relief.
On the way back to the hotel, we had some terrific views of the Eiffel Tower. If we’d been any closer, it would have been hard to get all of it in a picture.
Back at the hotel, Laura and Cass went up to their room and Michael came down and met me out front. We recounted our search efforts, vowed to never let that happen again– and then Michael informed me that the day’s drama wasn’t over yet.
Our friend Janet had emailed Michael to let us know that her flight from the U.S. had been cancelled. She and her son, Ken wouldn’t be arriving until the next day. We’d already prepaid for dinner and a show so we had to find someone to take their place.
We found our friends, Marilyn and Rita, who had experienced their own misadventure that day– and were thrilled to join us.
Paradis Latin. All of us met in the lobby (including Laura and Cass) and then got a car to Paradis Latin. Like Moulin Rouge, this was one of several venues catering primarily to tourists. We all had a really nice time. Dinner was very good and the show was pretty much what we expected. Topless showgirls and shirtless men, a comedian, an aerialist– song and dance — including the Can-Can. An enjoyable evening, though by our standards, a bit overpriced.
We’d had quite a day and walked over ten miles! In spite of the drama, it had been a pretty fulfilling adventure.
AND— we had another great travel story to tell. Let’s just hope it’s the last one of its kind.
Travel Date: May 19, 2017 (Day 7)
Our five days in London had flown by. Still feeling the exhilaration from yesterday’s incredible adventure– we got up, packed, and prepared for the next leg of our journey. We had coffee outside the lobby of St. Pancras, as had become our morning routine, enjoying the bright morning sun and going over our schedule.
After breakfast, I walked the grand staircase, one last time– just relishing the beauty of it. I love St. Pancras. It’s hard to fathom that it barely escaped demolition and is now fully restored.
As guests in the historic part of the hotel, we were entitled to VIP service for the Eurostar to Paris at the adjoining St. Pancras International Railway Station. We were met in the lobby and escorted to the station, through customs/immigration– all the way to boarding and stowing our luggage on the train. It couldn’t have been easier.
Traveling Europe by high speed train is a fast, convenient and inexpensive alternative to air travel. From London to Paris took us two hours and twenty-two minutes. From St. Pancras International, the Eurostar took us through the Channel Tunnel and across the French countryside before arriving at Paris Gare du Nord. The distance is nearly 3oo miles. (By car the trip takes over six hours.)
I’d like to give you a highly romanticized version — riding the rails. Truthfully, from the scenery outside my window, it could have been a train ride anywhere in the world.
The one thing I did notice was for a good portion of the trip, we’d pass a church steeple seeming to stick up out of the fields every few miles. I saw dozens of these and they all looked similar.
Don’t get me wrong– some of the scenery was beautiful– it’s just not unique. I say this for anyone considering the train option purely in hopes of seeing a different world of small villages, farms and sights unique to France.
None of that really mattered to us though– because we were on our way to a new city. We’d be experiencing Paris for the first time.
We arrived at Paris Gare du Nord and found our driver waiting for us at the end of the track. He escorted us out of the station and drove us to our hotel. Our stay at Hotel Scribe had been arranged through Judy Perl Worldwide Travel that handles the bookings for Playbill Travel. We arrived a day earlier than many of the people going on the Broadway on the Rhone cruise, who were also doing the pre-cruise stay in Paris.
After checking with the desk, we had a little time before our room would be ready, so we went for a walk through the neighborhood– part of the 9th arrondissement. Just down the block from our hotel was the Palais Garnier. It’s consider one of, if not the most famous opera house in the world.
The Palais Garnier is the setting and inspiration for Gaston Leroux’s novel, The Phantom of the Opera, adapted into many movies and of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular stage musical.
After a pleasant walk, we returned to the hotel and got settled in. We checked the weather and were trying to decide if we should chance the threat of rain. A storm was rolling in and decided not to risk it.
We heard from our friends, Laura and Cass and met them down in the lobby. After a little catching up, we decided to go to dinner at a cafe/brasserie recommended by the front desk. They got us a reservation and we headed there, just across the street. It was pouring rain!
The restaurant was packed. Capucine Cafe is a lovely little place with great food and plenty of atmosphere. We were seated by the window on the second floor–with a nice view, as the rain continued to flood the street below.
We had a great time catching up, with our conversation bouncing from topic to topic. Then before heading back to the hotel, we planned our big day ahead. Tomorrow the four of us were heading to Versailles.
Little did we know– it would be a much bigger adventure than we were expecting!
Travel Date: May 18, 2017 (Day Six)
Our last full day in London was to be a very wet one, start to finish. We’d actually been pretty lucky with the weather– mostly sunny days and temperatures slightly above the norm for this time of year. There was no way we were going to let a little rain dampen our spirits. We grabbed an umbrella and headed out for another busy day.
The Monument to the Great Fire of London is the world’s tallest isolated stone column. It is most commonly referred to as The Monument. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, it stands to commemorate the Great Fire of 1666. It’s hard to get a perspective of its size in a picture– so consider that there are 311 steps that go up to a viewing platform at the top.
One of the interesting things we found online before our trip was the Sky Garden in the Walkie Talkie building, 20 Fenchurch Street.
The building itself, nicknamed for its unusual shape, is considered by many as “the worst building” in the U.K. Completed in 2014, it has 34 floors, the top three made up of the Sky Garden, bars and restaurants.
The Sky Garden is London’s highest public garden and it offers an uninterrupted, 360 degree view of London. It’s free to visit but tickets are required. It’s highly recommended you reserve them in advance because it is frequently filled.
In spite of the cloudy skies and rain-spattered windows, the views were spectacular. There is an open air observation deck on one side, with rest of the views through large panes of glass.
It started raining again so we took the Tube as close as we could, to our matinee performance of Les Miserables. Why Les Miz? Yes, we’ve seen many professional productions– in NYC and on tour. Maybe even a dozen. BUT we’d never seen it in London– where it all began. AND it’s Michael’s favorite musical.
Les Miserables has been running continuously in London for nearly 32 years! One fact you may not know, is that the events in the show, occur around the June Rebellion (or The Paris Uprising of 1832) NOT the French Revolution (1789-1799) as many people believe.
At intermission, we both commented that we thought is was way to fast! Now, when Michael agrees that something is too fast– it’s too fast. When we see shows, he’s always saying they could pick up the tempo. Sure, a performance differs from one to the next– but this, apparently, wasn’t a fluke. A friend who saw it two years ago asked if they were still speeding though it.
I found the differences in staging from the original Broadway production interesting. (I’m assuming this is still the original staging.) Some things worked better than others and I could also see why some were changed. All in all, in spite of the pace, we still enjoyed it.
It was pouring rain after the show. We headed over to the Savoy Theatre and picked up our tickets, hoping to find a place for dinner nearby. While we were there, we went in the Savoy (Hotel) to check out the lobby.
We found a place across the street for dinner– appropriately called Eat. We did.
And, yes, still raining.
Our last show this visit– and another one of the reasons we came to London: the musical Dreamgirls.
A little backstory is necessary. We saw Amber Riley (Glee) was starring in the London production and really wanted to see it. I went to order tickets, front and center, and I had the option of getting the same seats with something called ‘blue box’ for the same price. This said it included a drink and snack. Okay… same price… why not? The tickets were about 80 pounds or $102 USD. At New York ticket prices, it would have been a minimum of $149– probably over $200 because these would be considered ‘premium seats’ — without a ‘blue box’.
I purchase the tickets. Done. Then get a message (after they were paid for, no refunds) that Amber Riley doesn’t perform all the Wednesday night shows! Not happy. Then the show opened in London, won a number of Oliver Awards, including Best Actress (Riley) — so we just kept our fingers crossed. Maybe we’d get lucky.
We get back to the theatre for the show… soaking wet from the rain and they held us at the door. No, clue what was going on. Then the usher tells us we’ve been upgraded to ‘red box’. Huh? We waited until they escorted us to a private lounge where we were given drinks and snacks until we would be escorted to our seats just before the lights went down.
At the busiest point, there were only eleven people in the lounge and we had two servers. They also held our wet things in a private coat check until after the show.
So why the VIP treatment? No clue! We just kept our fingers crossed that the good luck would continue and Amber Riley would walk out on that stage. Our hostess told us they’d meet us at the interval and bring us back to the Ambassador Lounge for drinks– this was just way too cool.
We took our seats– and I think we both held our breath until Effie walked out on that stage. Exhale. Amber Riley was performing!
All I can say is WOW! Everything about the show was perfect. It was beautiful to look at, full of power and emotion– and every single cast member was amazing. Problems we’ve seen in past productions with pace and flow were nonexistent. Riley stopped the show with And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going and Listen (added to this production from the movie) with her costar during the later.
It was magic.
This Dreamgirls will definitely never leave me.
Sometimes the stars align and everything is right.
Tonight was simply beyond wonderful.
Travel Date: May 17, 2017 (Day Five) Wednesday
We started the day at the Tate Modern. This was the one day we’d pretty much scheduled out ahead of time, start to finish, knowing that later, we’d be spending eight and a half hours at the National Theatre. We chose to visit the Tate Modern this morning because of its close proximity to the theatre and we hadn’t explored the South Bank.
The Tate Modern hosts a large collection of international modern and contemporary art from 1900 to the present. I didn’t know until after our visit that the building itself was the former Bankside Power Station. This explains its unusual, cavernous design.
It was built by the architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, coincidentally, the grandson of architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott, who built the hotel we were staying in– St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott also designed the Waterloo bridge and the famous red telephone boxes.
The wide variety of artistic styles here, span from late Impressionism to modern sculpture and art in advertising. Overall, I found the museum quite stimulating and well conceived. Even though I find a lot of modern art not to my taste, there were many works and artists represented here for whom I have a great fondness.
We left the museum with plenty of time for an enjoyable walk along the Thames. There are many restaurants and shops along the South Bank and quiet little parks as well. This area of the embankment is known as The Queen’s Walk.
The rest of the day was spent at National Theatre’s production of the Pulitzer Prize winning play, Angels In America. The opportunity to see it was the catalyst that brought us to London (prior to our cruise) instead of NYC.
Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia on National Theme is Tony Kushner’s 1993 play in two parts, entitled Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. It’s an epic journey that explores AIDS and Homosexuality in 1980’s America.
The National Theatre’s production features impressive performances by Andrew Garfield, Russell Tovey and Nathan Lane, among many others.
We were lucky enough to purchase excellent seats, in a combined event ticket, that included both parts presented in one day. The entire run of the production quickly sold out after going on sale.
Each part also had two intermissions. We had about a two hour break between parts one and part two for dinner, that we spent at a nice restaurant between the theatre and the London Eye. The actual run time, including intermissions (but not the dinner break), was just over eight and a half hours.
The production is incredible. The time flew by. Honestly, the experience is nearly impossible to describe. The revealing (or realization) of the Angel at the end of the first part was pretty ingenious — as frightening as it was beautiful.
I have to say that I cannot imagine seeing Millennium Approaches and Perestroika separately. They are so closely woven and dependent on each other in the scope of the entire piece. This is a historic work– it not only captures a dark moment in history– it is ground-breaking in its structure and form.
When we left the theatre, we entered the misty night air and walked across the Waterloo Bridge to the Tube. We couldn’t help stopping on the bridge and enjoy the wonderful night view of London.
Travel Date: May 16, 2017 (Day Four)
It’s our third day in London and Michael decided he wanted to spend the morning relaxing at St. Pancras. I decided to head over to the British Museum by myself. Michael’s not a huge fan of museums so I was on my own.
British Museum. I arrived at the museum shortly after it opened and the line to get in moved quickly.
Like all the national museums in the U.K., there is no admission fee to get in. Just one of the things I love about London.
There are many museums in this city– most with a particular focus. The British Museum is dedicated to human history, arts and culture or could otherwise be described as hosting antiques, artifacts and relics from different civilizations throughout history.
In grading a museum, I usually prefer a number of things: a balance of what is displayed, the layout of the exhibition space, the way a story is being told, and the ambience of the building itself.
Unfortunately, this was not my type of museum. The British Museum has more than 8 million pieces in its collection and tries to display too many of them at one time.
The galleries are overcrowded with relics in what feels like haphazardly-placed displays, causing each room to be a congested maze. Add the large number of visitors to that and it becomes too claustrophobic.
Compound that– though galleries are loosely sectioned by civilization, types of work, etc. — there is no easy-to-follow story or way to simply navigate through the museum’s collection.
I made my way through most of the exhibitions but did so pretty quickly– searching for pieces that might catch my eye. Sadly, I found very little interest here and was more anxious to get out of the crowded spaces so I could breathe again.
I can’t help but make the comparison to searching for a special find at an overcrowded flea market. Michael made the right decision to pass on the opportunity. He would have hated this experience.
In the afternoon, we found ourselves exploring the area of Victoria Embankment. We were on a quest to acquaint ourselves with new areas of London we hadn’t yet explored. It was an enjoyable walk that led us over to Somerset House, one of the places we didn’t have a chance to visit before.
Courtauld Gallery. Friends of ours had recommended the Courtauld Gallery to us which is located at Somerset House on the Strand. It is a small gallery with an extraordinary collection of Impressionist work.
I absolutely loved it. The collections, the ambience and the display were all handled to perfection.
I think we spent more time here than I did at the mammoth British Museum this morning. Works by van Gogh, Seurat, Monet and Degas were all beautifully displayed.
My big surprise was finding Georges Seurat’s painting, Young Woman Powdering Herself (1888-1890). I have a reproduction at home and have always loved this piece.
If we’d have had more time, I could have easily spent several more hours here. I can’t fully explain it. I found the art here thrilling to behold. I definitely hope to return here again.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? One of our most anticipated performances was tonight’s production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? at the Harold Pinter Theatre.
We couldn’t have been more pleased. Why is it that you have to travel to London to see a truly great performance of an American classic?
It starred Olivier and Bafta award-winning actress Imelda Staunton (Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance); Olivier award-winner Conleth Hill (Game Of Thrones, Stones In His Pockets, The Producers); Olivier award-winner Luke Treadaway (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Fortitude, The Hollow Crown) and Imogen Poots, in her West End debut (A Long Way Down, Jane Eyre and Me And Orson Wells).
Everything about this production is perfect! Director James Macdonald’s vision brings to life a fresh, contemporary production that is the best I’ve ever seen. He has guided the actors into new territory with their original, rich, deeply-layered performances– paying perhaps the greatest tribute to Albee’s dark and disturbing masterpiece.
What a day!
Travel Date: May 15, 2017 (Day Three)
After a good night’s sleep and no noticeable jet lag, we had a quiet breakfast, then headed out for the day.
Our morning target was Kensington Palace and gardens. We already knew tickets for the palace, which included a special new exhibition, had been sold out for months.
Getting off the Tube we came upon Kensington Palace Gardens, which has been called “the most exclusive address in London” and is also known as “Billionaires Row”. There’s a guard house where you enter the street (and no photography allowed) which is lined with palatial mansions– many are the homes of foreign diplomats, or serve as foreign embassies. Prior to being renamed around 1870, the street was known as The Queen’s Road. It was the MI19 center, The London Cage, during World War II and the Cold War.
The beautiful tree-lined street was nearly silent under it’s shaded canopy.
This led us to the gardens of Kensington Palace. Not exactly sure where we were headed, we walked towards the palace, then around it, until we found the specific garden we were looking for.
I’d like to note that even if you aren’t touring it, you can still get surprisingly close to the palace, which also hosts a cafe that is open to the public. Last trip, we only saw Kensington from across the green of Hyde Park.
We passed the visitor’s entrance and came upon a maze-like path that wound us around to the Sunken Garden.
Our particular interest was that the garden has been transformed into the White Garden, in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death. This was one of Diana’s favorite spots and it has been filled with many of her favorite flowers to mark the occasion.
The White Garden will be open to the public through the summer of 2017.
The Kensington Gardens, covering 242 acres are adjacent to Hyde Park, though crossing over from one to the other goes unnoticed.
We’d visited the other formal gardens on the last visit, so this time we set out in a new direction, down The Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Walk.
As quiet and peaceful as it was, everywhere you looked you’d see joggers, sunbathers, people enjoying family picnics and walking their dogs.
We reached the Long River and in addition to the beautiful swans, we had a great view of artist Henry Moore’s The Arch positioned on the north bank of the river.
We were soon following the Serpentine River, finding many people out boating and even swimming in a public recreation area.
We had successfully walked the entire length of Hyde Park, reaching the Marble Arch. John Nash, designed the arch as the official state entrance to Buckingham Palace in 1827. The design was partially based on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. After years of problems preventing it’s completion, it was finished quickly in time for Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne in 1937. But as Queen Victoria’s court and family quickly grew, it became necessary to build on to the palace, forcing the removal of the arch. It was moved to it’s current location at Cumberland Gate, the northeast corner of Hyde Park, completed in 1851.
If all we’d seen wasn’t enough, our day was just beginning, so to speak. It was just early afternoon and we still had two theatrical performances to attend.
School of Rock is a feel-good show for the entire family. A musical stage adaptation of the 2003 film, that starred Jack Black– it stays true to its source. (Michael and I actually just saw the movie again, shortly before our trip.) The show relies heavily on character stereotypes but that works well for this type of show.
This is an Andrew Lloyd Webber production and his theatrical roots have been based in shows with gimmicks. School of Rock’s gimmick is that all the younger performers actually play their own instruments on stage– something the production doesn’t let you forget.
We both really enjoyed it. It’s lively, uplifting– and just plain fun, with a positive message. It also made me ask the question again: Why are young British performers uniformly better than their American counterparts?
We had one of those frequent London come-and-go rains while we were in the matinee. The streets were wet and glistening as the sun quickly returned to brighten the afternoon. We headed over to Piccadilly Circus and picked up the tickets for our evening performance.
We decided not to eat until after the evening show and spent the little bit of time we had– people-watching and enjoying the street performers scattered around Piccadilly Circus. Michael became particularly captivated by one performer that required audience participation for his act. It was a pretty simple and clever concept– he stood frozen until someone dropped a coin or two in his box and then he would come to life, taking his benefactor and posing them in a variety of positions. He would then add himself to the ‘picture’ with some amusing results.
Here’s Michael becoming part of the act:
The Comedy About A Bank Robbery. It’s hard for me to put into words how impressed I am by the creativity and ingenious work done by the Mischief Theatre Company. We saw and loved their production, The Play That Goes Wrong, last September and were excited to see what else they could do.
Going in, I honestly didn’t think I could have been more impressed than I had been with their last one. Minutes after the lights dimmed, I was proven wrong. By the time we reached the interval (intermission), I had absolutely no idea how they were going to get back to the base premise of the show. Hysterically funny, brilliant and thoroughly entertaining!
If you love British farce, slapstick comedy and really creative word play. See this show!
We’d walked over 8 miles today, enjoyed some of the best parks and shows London has to offer. We couldn’t have asked for a better day!
Travel Date: May 14, 2017 Sunday (Day Two)
According to schedule, we landed at Heathrow at 8:30 am and breezed through Customs/Immigration. We had arranged a car service to meet us and whisk us off to our London home away from home, the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. We loved it so much last September, we didn’t even have to think twice about staying here again. The added bonus (this trip) was that they have VIP service to walk you through customs and get you boarded on the EuroStar train we were taking to Paris at the end of our stay.
We pre-checked in and dropped our bags, then had a quick knosh in the Chambers Club before hitting the street for the day. (We knew ahead of time our room wouldn’t be ready.) With tickets to two shows, we figured we wouldn’t actually get into our room until late that night.
We’d made a short list of things we wanted to see in London this trip. Since we were just here last September, we’d gotten the touristy- thing out of the way and felt no rush to cram in a bunch of sites. Plus, with our heavy show schedule, we figured we’d just try and do one thing a day and keep things simple and relaxed.
We didn’t get to spend any time in Trafalgar Square last trip, so that’s where we headed first. The large public area, formerly known as Charing Cross, was named after the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar and is anchored by the prominent Nelson’s Column surrounded by statues and fountains.
The National Gallery is located on the square, but being a Saturday, the lines were quite long so we didn’t try to go in.
There were plenty of artists and street performers entertaining the large crowds of people enjoying the weekend. The wind started to pick up and dark clouds started rolling in suggesting we might be in for a downpour.
After a bit of people watching, we headed to the far end of the square, towards St. Martin in-the-Fields church and the National Portrait Gallery around the corner.
After watching The Crown recently, I found out the sketches for Graham Sutherland’s commissioned painting of Winston Churchill were on display at the National Portrait Gallery. (Churchill hated the painting, that was commissioned as gift to him– and his wife had the painting destroyed.) What I neglected to find out was the room in which they are displayed is closed for renovation. Maybe on a future visit.
After exploring the neighborhood a bit more, we returned to Trafalgar Square to relax, enjoying the sights and sounds of the city until we needed to head to our matinee show.
Half a Sixpence. Our first show was a matinee performance of the musical, Half A Sixpence. The romantic comedy was originally produced in 1963 (in London) starring Tommy Steele and moved to Broadway (with Steele) in 1965. I saw the 1967 film version many years ago and remembered it as being a lot of fun.
We weren’t disappointed. We both enjoyed this “poor man- inherits fortune- loses fortune- gets the girl” story, thanks to the energetic and extremely talented cast. Charlie Stemp would have made Tommy Steele proud. It was a great start to our London theatre experience.
The threat of rain gone, the dark clouds had been replaced with sun and beautiful blue skies. We ventured over near Buckingham Palace and revisited the Wellington Arch. It was nice to be able to take our time enjoying the nice spring weather, leisurely, making our way to the theatre nearby.
We had plenty of time for dinner after picking up our show tickets, so we chose to eat at The Other Naughty Piglet. The restaurant boasts a seasonal menu of small plate offerings. Let me just say– the food here is art. The ham croquettes were to die for! For a place that appears so casual and unpretentious– the food is a culinary masterpiece. I’m no foodie and I seldom write much about our meals. This should be an indication of how impressed I was.
Whisper House. Our evening performance was Duncan Sheik’s Whisper House at The Other Palace Theatre. Built where the Westminster Theatre stood until fire consumed it in 2002, it was named the St. James Theatre when is opened in 2012.
Andrew Lloyd Webber acquired it in 2016 and it was renamed The Other Palace. There are two smaller theatres in the complex (a 312 seat main stage and 12o seat studio space) which is now dedicated to developing new works.
When I saw Whisper House would be playing, I had to see it. I’m a huge fan of Sheik and his musical, Spring Awakening. I’d say Whisper House is more a play with music than a true musical. It’s basically a ghost story that takes place in a haunted lighthouse during World War II. The show was originally workshopped in San Diego in 2010 and it was co-written by Kyle Jarrow.
It seemed promising at the beginning. Visually, the show was gorgeous. The opening number “It’s Better To Be Dead” is both haunting and glorious. Much of the music is really good– but at as the show progressed, it (the show) seemed to be troubled on a number of levels. The cast seemed to struggle with the material and the stage chemistry between the actors/characters wasn’t always evident. Initially, it appeared that only the ghost characters would be singing the musical numbers as a commentary– but then later it seemed to hinder the show’s progression.
Director Adam Lenson fails to make this production his own. During one song, for no apparent reason, the cast began to physically express themselves (individually) in a way that directly mimicked Spring Awakening. So much for originality. I also felt that overall, the intensity was lacking, causing the show to drag. I didn’t hate it– with work I think there’s some real promise in this piece.
It had been a long day.
We headed back to the hotel to complete check in, unpack and get some sleep. Our heads hadn’t hit pillows since Thursday night (in the U.S.) and I’m surprised we weren’t even more exhausted.
It had been a great first day of vacation. We’d walked over seven miles today, even with taking the Tube. We were ready for some solid rest.
Travel Date: 5/13/17 Saturday (Day One)