The fine arts are more than just blooming in today's London, they're positively aflame. The English capital's fantastic profusion of art shows, galleries, museums, exhibitions and events now runs nearly year long, and started off with a big bang this past October, with a schedule that goes through next June at least.
In addition to the usual places where art is displayed that are so familiar to visitors (the National Gallery, the British Museum, the Courtauld Gallery and dozens more), here are just a few more recent developments of note:
Maman, the huge (30-foot) bronze spider by Louise Bourgeios, stands near the Tate Modern, neatly framing St. Paul's Cathedral across the Thames if you want a good photo shot, as part of a retrospective at Tate Modern of her works that runs until January 20, 2008. The American artist is 95, her works ageless in my opinion. Admission £10. Tate Modern, tel. 011-44-20/7887-8888, www.tate.org.uk.
At Kew Gardens, against a backdrop of fall foliage, you can see 28 of Henry Moore's large-scale sculptures in the biggest outdoor exhibition of his work ever held in the UK. The sculptures dot the lawn within easy walking distance of one another, and admission (£12.25) allows you to visit the rest of the gardens, including the famous greenhouses, as well. There are also four different spots where you can have lunch. (I recommend the Orangery.) Kew Gardens, www.kew.org.
The Frieze Art Fair, now in its fifth year, closed on October 14 after its successful run at Regent's Park, and will pop up again in 2008 from October 16 to 19. Among other events, they had a symphonic performance of "Hallucination City," scored for 100 electric guitars, and included a sculpture park for the first time. More than 1,000 artists from 28 countries were represented in the displays of 151 galleries. Unlike Art Basel and some other famous venues, the Frieze exhibits only contemporary art, such as "Untitled" by American Richard Price, which was a custom-made yellow 1970 Dodge Challenger car. Admission (in 2007) £12.50 and up. Frieze Art Fair, www.friezeartfair.com.
At the Royal Academy, "An American's Passion for British Art" is open through January 28, 2008. It's the collection of Paul Mellon that he gave to the Yale Center for British Art, being 150 items including paintings by Reynolds, Gainsborough, Constable and Turner, among others. Admission £8. Royal Academy, tel. 011-44-20/7300-8000, www.royalacademy.org.uk.
Liverpool will be the European Capital of Culture in 2008 (Luxembourg had the honor this year), and that city is getting ready even now. The Turner Prize moved north from London and is presenting important works by leading British artists there through January 13, 2008 at Tate Liverpool. Free admission. Turner Prize, tel. 011-44/151/702-7400, www.tate.org.uk.
I was taken to lunch at Texture, a new restaurant on London's Portman Square, where the meal was so gorgeous in appearance that one of the two friends who invited me said "it's performance food, an artistic experience, with overtones of eating." "With an under-rehearsed staff," added her friend. The towers of food once famous in trendy '90s restaurants are gone, replaced by expressionist three-dimensional "paintings" done in various shapes, colors and forms of fish, veggies, foams, oils and seeds. All dishes are £8.50 each, one offering being "Tomato and Artichoke Textures," which featured a confit, roasted, dried and raw artichokes, with tomato water and Kalamata olives. I had that, and enjoyed the lineup on a rectangular dish, with artichoke tea that came in a test tube on a little rack. The main course was Icelandic cod, with bits of chorizo, accompanied by a brandade and Parmesan crispy bread. All this was delicious, if delicate. They have a fish tasting menu costing £55 for the whole table (up to five or six persons, I suppose), involving Mediterranean tuna, Scottish scallops, Icelandic cod, soup and desert. There are paintings on the walls for sale, of course. Texture, 34 Portman Square, tel. 011 44/20 7224-0028, www.texture-restaurant.co.uk.
The Art of Getting Around
Readers of the excellent Frommer's Guide to London will have found good advice for how to get around London to see all this art. Having tried underground, bus, train and taxi on my visit last month, I can give out a tip or two learned through recent experience. By all means get the Oyster Card. It costs a "deposit" of £3, anything you put in over that going to the cost of discount fares. In Zone 1 travel, where most of what you want to see will be, a single cash underground fare that goes for £4 will be only £1.50 using the Oyster Card, which you press flat against a yellow card-reading device at entrances to the tube, on buses, etc. Similarly, a single cash fare on the bus (in all zones) for £2 costs just £1. By the time you have taken a couple of rides, you have paid for your deposit, and all after that, for 24 hours, is discounted at 50% or better. With the purchase, you get a cardholder and rules. Among the latter: if you don't use the card for two years, you have to reactivate it or claim your unused money back, or loan the card to a friend to use. You can buy the card at major tube stations, and at 2,200 ticket stop machines scattered around town at important bus stops. It's even good on a few railway lines. Oyster Card, tel. 011-44/845 330-9876, www.tfl.gov.uk/oyster.
The Transport for London people have a wide variety of helpful publications, available at major Underground stations. Among them is a map entitled "Continuing Your Journey from (name of station)," with maps showing exact locations of bus stops near the Underground station and where the busses travel to, a street index, plus a map of the area showing important sites. (Near Marble Arch, for instance, the map shows Hyde Park, Speaker's Corner, the American Embassy, churches, synagogues and mosques, Marks & Spencer, Selfridges's and public toilets. It doesn't show the newly purchased house at 29 Connaught Square of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, but it could have.) Also look for the Tube Map brochure, "A Visitor's Guide to Travelling Around London,""Your Guide to Fares & Tickets," and a "Tube & Bus Map Out Your Day" brochure, which shows key bus routes and tourist attractions in central London and a complete tube and train map. Transport for London, tel. 011-44 20/7222-1234, www.tfl.gov.uk.
If you want a taxi, look for one cruising on the streets or ask where the nearest taxi rank is located. If you are packing your cell phone, you can text HOME to 60835 and get back one taxi and two local licensed minicab phone numbers sent straight to your mobile. (Not available on certain networks.) Speaking of which, if your home cell phone doesn't work in the UK, you can buy a new one there for £30 or less that includes some minutes of air time and often picture and texting capabilities. A good source is one of the many Carphone Warehouse stores, where you can also buy cheap SIM cards, tel. 011 44 800/049-0049, www.carphonewarehouse.com.
Getting Out of Town
By train. Getting from London to Heathrow Airport is best accomplished on the Heathrow Express out of Paddington Station, taking from 19 to 23 minutes (depending on which terminal you go to). Be prepared to get off at the first stop at Heathrow for Terminals 1, 2 or 3, and stay on to the second stop for Terminal 4. As I had too much luggage (including books, a vital purchase when I visit London), I was approached by a young lady train agent at the Paddington Terminal who offered to pull one of my rolling cases, and we had a nice chat as we walked the length of a parked train to reach the train I wanted lined up behind it. She declined a tip, by the way, saying she was not allowed to accept one. The walk from the train to the Terminal elevators at Heathrow is fairly long, but free trolleys are available at trainside for your bags. Your BritRail pass can be used on this trip, I learned. Otherwise, the cost is £15.50, first class £24.50 one way. Departures every 15 minutes throughout most of the day. Heathrow Express, www.heathrowexpress.com.
Getting to and from Gatwick the sensible way has long meant the train to Victoria Station if you are aiming for central London. That costs £14.90 one way and takes about 30 minutes, departures every 15 minutes throughout most of the day. Gatwick Express, www.gatwickexpress.com.
From Stansted Airport, the excellent train (45 minutes) to Liverpool Street Station costs £12 oneway. A taxi from there across London to Marble Arch at about 9pm cost me £18.
You could also take a taxi to Heathrow, but be prepared to spend about £60 for the privilege, and you may encounter traffic jams. If you have little luggage, you might want the Underground, though it can be crowded and you do have steps in some stations (even if there are escalators, they are frequently supplemented by steps someplace along the route). Transport of London says it's only 51 minutes from Piccadilly Circus to Heathrow The cost is just £4 cash, £3.50 Oyster fare peak hours, £2 Oyster fare other times.
You can avoid the cost of a taxi or tube/bus fares to Paddington Station for the Heathrow Express by ordering a bus from National Express, the big bus company, which runs a new bus service directly from central London hotels to Heathrow costing £22 and to Gatwick £24. As with taxis, you face possible road delays getting there, however. Dot2Dot, www.dot2.com.
If you're planning a trip on Eurostar, note that departures to the continent shifted from Waterloo Station to the newly redone St. Pancras International Station as of November 19, 2007.
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