The Magical ABC of London: Accessibility, Base and Cuisine
'Time is so precious now, you don't want to waste it on transfers and traffic jams...'
When I schedule a break away nowadays I submit the plan to harsh scrutiny; it has to comply with what I call the ABC of travel - accessibility, base, and cuisine.
In the old days, I went on city breaks and faffed about, the hotel might be hit and miss, it was often in a less than convenient location and quite regularly I arrived home without having had a decent food experience.
Time is so precious now, you don't want to waste it on transfers and traffic jams. You want to get to your destination quickly and start enjoying your break, in a nice hotel, and you want to be certain that there are plenty of interesting things on.
The elegant city of London never fails in the latter category; it has great museums and galleries, there are always interesting exhibitions and the West End has great shows.
But accessibility and cuisine can both be hit and miss.
However, I struck gold on a recent visit with Hotel Baglioni, part of an Italian hotel group. From an accessibility point of view it couldn't have been better; from Heathrow to Gloucester Road, it was simply a question of one Tube ride, no pricey Heathrow Express or sitting in a taxi in traffic. It was the Piccadilly line all the way and then a five-minute walk to the hotel, right in front of one of the pedestrian entrances to Kensington Park.
Walk one way and you were in Kensington High Street, walk in the opposite direction and you were within minutes of Harrods and Harvey Nicks - a shopper's dream. The Royal Albert Hall and the Victoria and Albert Museum were a stroll away. So accessibility was well and truly ticked.
The hotel came into its own however on b for base. Family is everything in Italy, and Federico who greeted us at reception told us in his delightful accented English we were now part of his family and we were to treat the hotel as our home.
A very stylish home indeed. The decor is minimalist - lots of black and white - with some truly over-the-top features adding personality.
Gold leaf was in abundance, in the decor - one wall of our room was gold as were the wash hand basins in our ensuite - representing, we were told by another staff member, Alessandro, the Italian sun. Yes, they appropriated the sun but in such a charming way, you let them get away with it.
And everywhere classy black and white photos of Italian landscapes, cities and people, including iconic stars like Sophia Loren. Think Fellini and La Dolce Vita.
It was with great difficulty that we tore ourselves away from our room - getting a lift in the hotel's Maserati was a help - and headed for the V&A and an exhibition also harking back to a more glamorous age. Entitled Ocean Liners; Speed and Style, it's an account of the early days of transatlantic travel and its development into a luxury experience. This is superbly done through film, graphics, music and the re-creation of different parts of a typical ocean liner. The narrative outlines how the different shipping companies outdid each other - employing the architects of luxury hotels to design the interiors, sourcing antiques from all over the world. Clothes, luggage and jewellery worn by the wealthier travellers are exhibited and many artefacts from different liners; including Queen Mary and Titanic. Fun parts included extracts from movies filmed on board ships - Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Poseidon Adventure and more.
The V&A's permanent collections are also wonderful - and if you're looking for arty gifts, its costume jewellery is stunning and really good value.
The next day after an excellent breakfast - eggs every possible way, cold meats and cheeses, fresh fruit juices, a range of different breads and pastries and cakes, and of course excellent coffee, we got the Tube to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.
Another wonderful building and home to many world famous paintings, including Van Gogh's Sunflowers, but we were there for a specific purpose - Monet. We associate Monet with impressionism, but the artist had a huge career before impressionism and under its title Monet and Architecture, they explore his oeuvre, exemplified by paintings he did in Paris where he was born, Normandy where he grew up, and places he visited - including Amsterdam, London and the Mediterranean coast.
Some really stand out - the Rouen Cathedral paintings, painted at different times of the day are epic - but somehow he managed to infuse everything, even stolid buildings like the British Houses of Parliament with a dreamy almost haunted quality.
That afternoon, en route to the Tate Modern, for another art exhibition, we lunched on excellent street food at the market near the Southbank Centre. We had wood-fired pizzas but we could have opted for noodles, curries or burgers. Buskers and other entertainers abounded, and extended families sat around in the sunshine on benches and picnic tables munching and chilling - the atmos was great. Street food is big in London and while certain places are legendary, like Borough Market, just south of London Bridge which has been in existence since 1014 and has the best coffee shops, practically every area features a weekend food market with stalls offering cuisines including those from North Africa, Asia and South America.
That night back at the hotel, dinner at Brunello was a gastronomic delight. All the Italian staples were on offer but with chef Albert Rossetti's special twists. I still dream of his roasted lamb with truffle potatoes served with thyme sauce. His pasta dishes were pretty special too.
And it's comforting to note as you're tucking into Chef Rossetti's spaghetti al dente con pomodoro e burrata that Sophia Loren once said of her stunning figure, "everything you see I owe to spaghetti".
Baglioni Hotel in Kensington, London, has rooms from €275 per night on a B&B basis. See baglionihotels.com or call +44 (0) 2037277149.
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