London and environs – Mr. Elgin, give back those marbles!

I have always wanted to visit the British Museum in London, but that was before I knew how much the place resembled an evidence locker. Herewith I offer a vituperative rant.

We went to the British Museum to visit a nice variety of artifacts that were missing from the Parthenon and various sites in Egypt, among other places. Perhaps the most famous of the plundered loot at the British Museum are the so-called “Elgin Marbles.” I’ve always thought this was a dumb name. I have images of Lord Elgin in his short pants kneeling over a circle in the sand shooting aggies and cat’s eyes with his kindergarten chums. But no, the “marbles” are massive marble sculptures that were removed from the Parthenon at the turn of the 19th century. Extremely dedicated readers of this blog will remember that we visited the Parthenon last year and that I suggested that perhaps it was time for the museum to give back the stuff that Elgin took.

Britain claims that Elgin procured the stuff fair and square – he was given permission to appropriate the sculptures by the government in charge. The problem is that the government in charge at the time was made up of conquering Turks, not actual Greeks, and allowing Elgin to cart off Greece’s cultural heritage was the equivalent of selling Big Ben off the back of a truck.

There’s a display exhibit that offers a tepid defense for the theft. First, they say that removing the sculptures protected them from damage due to poor air quality and other environmental hazards. Is the UK going to invade China and remove the Great Wall because Beijing smog is bad? Next, they say that presenting the sculptures at ground level, as they do in the museum, is better than having to stare up at them at the Parthenon. I don’t buy it. Finally, they say that having the sculptures divided between the Acropolis Museum in Athens and the British Museum in London provides visitors with multiple perspectives on the works. Please. Each one of these arguments is worse than the one before. Using their logic we should cut down Big Ben and send half of it to New York and display it on the sidewalk somewhere so everyone can see it up close.

We also had the pleasure of seeing much of what was missing at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, including the head of a decapitated sculpture whose body we visited in Egypt. Raise your hand if you don’t think the head and the body should be reunited. Oh, and we saw the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone! Give that back!

We saw the headless body in Egypt. I say we reunite them.

We saw the headless body in Egypt. I say we reunite them.

Okay, I’m done with my rant. It would be more honest if they said that they stole the stuff fair and square and they’re not giving it back, rather than insult people’s intelligence by pretending to use reason and logic. I feel better now…well…not really.

On to less controversial London-area experiences.

We’ve been to London many times, but we’d never ventured too far from the city center. Our daughter’s new roommate’s parents Anthony and Allison live in Cambridge (from which they both graduated), and they invited us up for an utterly charming day. (By the way, our kid is now an official New York City apartment dweller – your donations or just your pity are most welcome.) It’s only about forty five minutes from London’s King’s Cross station, but a visit to Cambridge is a trip waaaay back in time. The university dates back to 1209 and it feels like a movie set. Of course there were smart-looking students doing their thing, but there were also distinguished-looking ladies and gentlemen of a certain age wandering about, some of them even wearing robes. These folks take their education seriously. The architecture isn’t bad either. Anthony treated us to a great lunch and then walked us around campus, where he pointed out a number of the great architect Christopher Wren’s buildings, including the library at Trinity College, Anthony’s alma mater. To top it all off, there’s a charming little river running through it, and you can sit in a boat and be paddled along by a student gondolier.

The lovely River Cam running through Cambridge.

The lovely River Cam running through Cambridge.

After a mid-afternoon tea shop interlude, we headed off to what’s called an “evensong” service at the extraordinary fifteenth century King’s College Chapel, in which the program was almost entirely sung. It was kind of like an ecclesiastical Les Miz. Actually, it was like the kid’s version, because there was a choir of prepubescent boys, sounding like dozens of pan flutes, rising seven stories up into the largest fan vault cathedral in the world. Zamfir would be proud.

This may be the thing I like best about England – it’s so very English, and it’s old but functional. You can wander into a three hundred year-old pub, a six hundred year-old chapel, or an eight hundred year-old university and my guess is that a time traveler wouldn’t get lost. If they would just give every else’s old stuff back, the place would be damn near perfect.

Haggis, Neeps, and Tatties – an Edinburgh delight!

Edinburgh is a damn near perfect city for tourists. It’s small and manageable, lots of the museums are free, and it seems that there’s a pub on every corner. There are lots of touristy tsotchke stores, but they all seem to sell Scotch whisky, kilts, and scarves, so it’s not too bad. People are generally quite nice, and if we speak slowly and clearly, they can understand our thick American accents without too much trouble.

Whereas many big cities have goofy tourist traps like wax museums or Believe-It-Or Not joints, the dorkiest tourist attraction in Edinburgh is something called The Scotch Whisky Experience, which includes a theme park-style trip in a whisky barrel through a virtual distillery, hosted by a moustachioed 19th century hologram. After the ride is over, visitors get a short course in how Scotch is made (complete with scratch and sniff cards – no joke!), followed by a tasting and a visit to the world’s largest collection of whisky bottles. And you get to keep the tasting glass! It was the best tourist trap I’ve been to in years. Oh, and my favorite part about the place is that they offer tours for schoolchildren! You gotta love Scotland.

The whisky hologram - goofy as hell, but fun.

The whisky hologram – goofy as hell, but fun.

For all you people who cringe and whinge about the thoughts of haggis, please get over yourselves. As for the vegetarians among you, well, I suppose it’s all meat to your ilk.

Anyway, haggis. Basically, they take a bunch of sheep parts, grind them up, add some spices and oatmeal, and boil the whole thing. That may sound a little nasty, but I think it’s delicious. It’s basically like giblet stuffing. If you think of it that way you’ll be just fine. It’s traditionally served with a small mound of pureed parsnips and a pile of mashed potatoes, and sold as “haggis, neeps, and tatties” which sounds like a Scottish strip joint if you ask me.

One of the important features of haggis, neeps, and tatties is that you get your meat, your vegetables, and your simple carbohydrates in a package that doesn’t require teeth. I suspect that nursing homes across the country rejoice in this.

Haggis, Neaps, and Tatties - actually quite yummy.

Haggis, Neeps, and Tatties – actually quite yummy.

There’s more to Scottish cuisine than haggis. One extremely good example is a place called Timberyard, a gastropubby joint that is up there with the best places we’ve eaten on this trip. Like many hipster havens, the restaurant is a repurposed old warehouse, complete with exposed ductwork and brick, and the ingredients are sourced from local organic farmers who sing their kohlrabi and salsify to sleep.

Timberyards - hipster shmabulous food in Edinburgh.

Timberyards – hipster shmabulous food in Edinburgh.

There are small batch microbrews and staff with 1920s haircuts and fluffy beards and armloads of tattoos. I know that this makes me shallow, but I always take these to be promising signs.

We tucked in. We started with one of those dishes that makes me groan with unctuous, savory ecstasy – a duck pate served with a duck heart speared on a small stick. It was as if Donald Duck’s girlfriend cheated on him and this was all that was left of him – an impaled heart and a pickled liver.

Donald Duck's heart and liver on a plate.

Donald Duck’s heart and liver on a plate.

Donald’s loss was our gain. We followed with a bright salad of prawn, crab, fennel, mustard leaf, and dill that was happiness and light after all that gothic drama. Then there was a smoked curd topped with thin sliced pickled beets, served with this stuff called ramson, or bear’s garlic, which is a garlicky bulb that grows around here. After that we had a bass with a crispy skin, some kind of yummy foam, and a bit of turnip that was as close to a perfect fish dish as I’ve had. Then came the main event – smoked beef with an arrangement of ingenious accompaniments – braised daikon that had been shaped to look like a lotus root, pickled cauliflower stalks, as well as braised or pickled cabbage and kohlrabi (presumably the ones that were sung to sleep by their farmers). The beef had been smoked and then grilled, but mercifully only just past rare. Getting rare meat in these mad-cow-mad British Isles practically requires a bribe accompanied by a liability waiver. But these tattoo parlor enthusiasts know what they’re doing, and they served up their beef the right way, bless them. I, for one, will be the first to donate to their legal defense fund.

My mother has joined us for the last leg of our trip, which has been great fun. She’s been an avid follower of the blog and when she joined us in Argentina in January I asked her to pick another place to meet us, and she chose Scotland. She seems to be having fun.

My mother enjoying the company of a Scottish highlander.

My mother enjoying the company of a Scottish highlander.

There is no shortage of dandy cultural things to do and see here. The Scottish National Gallery has a great collection of medieval and renaissance art, as well as Scottish art, and it’s free. As is a rambling but very informative museum of the City of Edinburgh, which helped me get my bearings and better understand Scottish history. We also climbed the 287 steps to the top of Scott Tower, dedicated to that famous but impenetrable author, Sir Walter Scott. (A brief digression – when I was a young actor I appeared on a celebrity edition of Wheel of Fortune. Playing for some lady in the Midwest, I was about to solve the puzzle but crashed and burned when I couldn’t come up with S_r Wa_ter S_ _ tt. Or something like that. This did not inspire me to read Ivanhoe, but I will nevertheless never forget Sir Walter Scott, that bum.)

My favorite attraction by far, however, was Holyrood Palace, the Scottish residence of the Queen. She comes up to Edinburgh as part of the Royal Family’s annual summer vacation to Balmoral Castle. Holyrood is an intensely Scottish place, though, and visitors can see the bedroom of Mary Queen of Scots, as well as the anteroom where her private secretary David Rizzio was murdered by Mary’s jealous husband, Lord Darnley. You just can’t make this stuff up. When the Queen is in town, the palace is used for royal events, where she has hosted heads of state, and even Pope Benedict. In the off season, though, for fifteen bucks you can wander the halls where all this history continues to take place. It’s as opulent as you might expect, but it’s still very much a working building, which makes it special.

Holyrood Palace, where my mother went missing.

Holyrood Palace, where my mother went missing.

The most exciting part of the visit happened when my mother went missing. She’s small, but she’s not that small. I retraced my steps and then re-entered the building from the front and worked my way through the entire building, but I just couldn’t find her. I spoke to several security guards, who issued A.P.B.s on their walkie talkies, but nobody had seen her. I finally did the intelligent thing and sent her a text. Turns out she was off in the Palace Gardens. Who knew?

Finally, we had the get the bad taste of Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake out of our mouths, which we did quite effectively with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a very moving play about autism, based on the novel by Mark Haddon. It’s also on Broadway and it was just nominated for a best play Tony, and I hope it wins. Good heavens, but it’s fun when theater is this good.

We will soon be heading north to another castle, near Inverness, because we just can’t get enough of all this Scottish castle stuff. By the way, yesterday was May Day, an official bank holiday here in Scotland, which is meant to commemorate the coming of the warm weather. This must be a joke. We’re freezing our bippies off, but then again, this is Scotland.

The best place ever – our two days as royalty in Traquair, Scotland.

We just left the coolest place on earth, at least if you like old Scottish estates, history, and stuff like that.

Traquair House in Southern Scotland - maybe my favorite stay of the trip.

Traquair House in Southern Scotland – maybe my favorite stay of the trip.

I’m referring to a little piece of history in the south of Scotland called Traquair House. The oldest part of the house was built in 1107 as a hunting lodge for the kings and queens of Scotland, and it’s considered the oldest inhabited house in Scotland, whatever that means. Over the years, the house was expanded by a long line of family members who have continuously occupied it since 1491. Think about it – this house has been occupied by the same family since the year before Columbus set sail for the New World. The family includes its current resident, the 21st Laird of Traquair, Lady Catherine Maxwell, who, on our first night there, led a tour through the place with the ease and grace of a darned good docent.

The fact is that the Maxwells and the Stuarts (who were on the other side of the family tree) probably never had the kind of money that the really really rich people in these parts had, so this is no Versailles. Instead, it’s just an amazingly cool old house that still has its original furnishings, and in addition to being open for tours and running a cute little gift shop, they rent out three rooms to the public. Good for us.

Oh, and they have a brewery that has been making beer, on and off, for hundreds of years, fermenting the stuff in three hundred year old oak barrels from four hundred year old recipes that they found in the house’s archives. And this is not the nun’s tinkle that passes for beer in most of the world – this is some serious dark, malty, Scottish ale that weighs in at 7 or 8 percent alcohol. This stuff will warm you so you don’t have to wear leggings with your kilt.

Oh, and to ensure that Traquair House is the single greatest accommodation on the planet, it has screamy fast wifi! What more could a person ask for?

There is nothing I didn’t like about Traquair. There is a hedge maze in the back. A maze! On our first night, Janine and I decided to give it a go. Within minutes, we were hopelessly lost inside the quarter mile of dead ends when it started raining. Oops. Yet somehow that added to the ambiance, although we were pleased that it soon stopped raining.

The view from our window.

The view from our window.

Our room was big and lovely. Like many old estates, the house has been added on to over the years, and our room is relatively modern, having been completed by 1599. It has a very cool canopy bed and it looks out over the maze at the back of the house. The house itself is open for tours during the day (although our room has a very impressive-looking “private” sign on the door) but when the people go away it’s just us and nine hundred years of history to keep us company.

Our room, which becomes the family's master bedroom in the winter.

Our room, which becomes the family’s master bedroom in the winter.

When we arrived they handed us our keys. Unlike, say, the Marriott, which gives you a cruddy plastic key card, at Traquair you are presented with three ancient skeleton keys. One opened the sitting room in the “new” wing, which was completed in 1695. Another opened our room, and the largest key opened the massive ancient front door to the castle itself. Stay at Traquair and they give you the keys to the castle.

The keys to the castle. No kidding.

The keys to the castle. No kidding.

There are two other guest rooms at Traquair, but there were no other guests while we were there, so we had the sitting room to ourselves. We were encouraged to light a fire and avail ourselves of the honor bar, which was well stocked with a variety of bottles, including plenty of the house beer. We were free to roam the house alone in the morning before it was opened to the public, and we tried out the hidden door that was built to allow the house’s priest to escape when it was raided periodically (the family remained steadfastly Catholic even after Catholicism was outlawed). The servant bells that we’ve all seen on Downton Abbey are still in place, and they still work. We spent some time admiring the bedroom where Mary Queen of Scots slept with her newborn son. We marveled at the two libraries, with more than four thousand books that have never left the house, and were amazed that almost all the furnishings are original to the place.

The view across the house, just outside our door.

The view across the house, just outside our door.

The really impressive thing is that the house is still owned and operated by the family. Lady Catherine, her husband and their three children live here in the winter (she and her husband sleep in our room) but they decamp to another house on the property when the house is opened to guests in the spring. She’s an amazingly down to earth woman who seems to fully appreciate the responsibility of keeping a millennium-long legacy going. On our first night in the house, she led a tour for a group of travel agents, and graciously allowed us to crash the party.

With Lady Catherine Maxwell, the 21st Lady of Traquair.

With Lady Catherine Maxwell, the 21st Laird of Traquair.

The whole thing is fabulously unpretentious, and yet it is deeply, amazingly impressive all the same. If you have ever dreamed of staying at a castle or a manor house, do yourself a favor and come here.

Before we came to Traquair, we spent a few days in the Lake District in northern England.

We arrived at the Keswick Country House Hotel (pronounced Kezzik – nothing here is what it seems) in the area that inspired Wordsworth to write his early environmental poetry.

The Keswick Hotel is one of those big old hotels that you see in black and white movies. Its claim to fame was a visit by the queen sixty or seventy years ago. We had a nice big room with high ceilings and bay windows that looked onto a large green lawn covered with rabbits. In the morning it was a large green lawn covered with rabbit poop. There was an ornate dining room and a cozy pub, and while the place could use a bit of sprucing up, it was definitely a change of pace from all the airbnb apartments we’ve called home for most of our trip.

The Hotel Keswick, where the Queen once stayed!

The Keswick Country House Hotel, where the Queen once stayed!

When we were planning our visit, we saw that there was a theater company in Keswick called Theatre by the Lake, which seemed like a twofer – we’d see some theater and chances are we’d get to see a lake. Community theater can surprise you from time to time – we’ve seen some really wonderful theater  in some far flung places. But it can also be surprisingly, audaciously bad.This was such a time

We went to see a play called Lucky Sods, about a couple from Yorkshire who win the lottery. Well, apparently the only thing worse than winning the lottery is a play about winning the lottery. I felt for everyone associated with production, especially the nervous-looking woman dressed in stagehand black I spotted before the performance sitting in the front row with a script in her hand. It turns out that she was nervous for an extremely good reason. Every few minutes she had to throw a life preserver to a cast member, calling out a line to a drowning actor. I’ve seen a lot of theater over the years, but I’ve never seen a cast as a whole forget their lines as much as this lot did. It was so bad that at one point I wondered if the play was performed by a group being treated by a memory loss clinic, or whether it was some kind of innovative treatment for head trauma victims. Perhaps it was the audacious work of an early-onset Alzheimer’s program. If not, it was one of worst things we’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something. Lest you think I’m being hopelessly snobbish, throughout the play, a woman right behind Janine regularly interjected observations like, “It’s not well done!” to her significant other. At the intermission, Janine was desperate to leave, but with such a small theatre I worried that the certain exodus would demoralize the stalwart but sadly overmatched troupe. Well, I was wrong. Every last audience member returned for the second act, bless them. After all, they’re British and they’re polite. We would hardly have been missed. Janine was not pleased with me. She still wants those two hours of her life back. Like most goofy experiences I’ve had during the past nine months, I was secretly fine with it – at least it would be fun to write about.