Euro Shock

De­spite high costs in Lon­don, vis­i­tors don’t have to get pounded.

The Washington Post Sunday - - Travel - By Anne McDonough

Princess Twin­kle Knick­ers, not ex­actly the royal I’d ex­pected to see in Lon­don, stood on a small stage wear­ing a red vel­vet half-of-a-dress, a cape and bloomers. Grab­bing the pole in front of her, she wig­gled her bot­tom and her dress dipped back and forth, adding a vis­ual rhythm to the Han­del sonata played by two wigged mu­si­cians in em­broi­dered coats and knee breeches.

It was the first Fri­day of the month, and the au­gust Tate Bri­tain art mu­seum was open late and filled with vis­i­tors in for a night of cabaret per­for­mances, lec­tures and half-price ad­mis­sion to the spe­cial ex­hibit. Works by 18th-cen­tury artist William Hog­a­rth had in­spired the bur­lesque-themed evening; the “Han­del My Knick­ers” pole dance was just the be­gin­ning.

The best part? The bill for the evening’s en­ter­tain­ment came to $7, the cost of a gin-and-tonic in a plas­tic cup.

Bud­get plus, baby. Bud­get plus.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent sur­vey by the Econ­o­mist Intelligence Unit, West­ern Europe is home to eight of the globe’s 10 most ex­pen­sive cities. Oslo is 32 per­cent more ex­pen­sive than New York, fol­lowed by Paris, Copen­hagen and Lon­don. The cold, hard facts: One euro is cur­rently worth $1.33, and the even stronger pound trans­lates to a whop­ping $1.96.

For dol­lar-earn­ing Amer­i­cans yearn­ing to travel, it’s a wake-up smack in the face, and nowhere is that more ob­vi­ous than on Lon­don’s Un­der­ground, where a sin­gle cash ride cur­rently costs four pounds. That’s $7.85 . . . to step on the Tube. Price of a movie? In Novem­ber, I paid $26 for a sin­gle ticket at one of Lon­don’s Le­ices­ter Square the­aters.

None of this, how­ever, seems to be de­ter­ring Amer­i­can trav­el­ers much. A sur­vey by TripAd­vi­sor.com last month in­di­cated that travel to Europe will be up this year, with 50 per­cent of Amer­i­can re­spon­dents plan­ning a trip in 2007, com­pared with 45 per­cent last year. And last month, I was one of them. Some se­ri­ous bud­get­ing was clearly in or­der.

Scop­ing out flights and lodg­ing rates in Lon­don, I quickly con­cluded that book­ing an air-ho­tel pack­age was the only way I could pull off the trip with­out stay­ing at a hos­tel or crash­ing with friends (see “Anatomy of a Pack­age Deal” at right). I chose a ho­tel that was just off the Pic­cadilly Tube line, so trans­port from Heathrow would be cheap if I bought a dis­count tran­sit card at the air­port. And my pack­age deal in­cluded break­fast, so I had four free meals. Now I just had eight oth­ers to pay for, not to men­tion ac­tiv­i­ties and en­ter­tain­ment.

Hence the bud­get-plus plan: Ev­ery­thing I did in Lon­don would have to be ei­ther free or cheap, and what­ever I paid for had to serve dou­ble duty. Luck­ily, Lon­don’s mul­ti­tude of free mu­se­ums and mar­kets can more than sat­isfy a vis­i­tor’s shop­ping, eat­ing and peo­ple-watch­ing crav­ings. Be­fore I left, I scoured Web sites to see what free events were on of­fer, signed up for Time Out Lon­don’s on­line news­let­ter, and noted which mar­kets op­er­ate on which days. If I missed one, it wouldn’t be be­cause of poor plan­ning.

The leg­endary red dou­ble-decker city buses that ply Lon­don streets of­fer the best value bus tour a girl could have. Es­pe­cially if she’s pay­ing with a dis­count tran­sit card: My $3.90 cash fare was re­duced to $1.96.

Though most Routemas­ters — the iconic city buses that de­buted in the 1950s — were re­tired by 2005, some still run along Lon­don’s so-called “her­itage routes,” Nos. 9 and 15; they cost the same as reg­u­lar buses and show off ar­eas of the city most vis­i­tors want to see, such as Trafal­gar Square, Char­ing Cross and St. Paul’s Cathe­dral. There are also plenty of non-Routemas­ter dou­ble-deck­ers through­out the city, and last month the world’s first diesel/elec­tric hy­brid dou­bledecker de­buted; it runs from Palmers Green to Lon­don Bridge Sta­tion and boasts a leafy green de­sign.

I hopped on a dou­ble-decker and snagged a front-row seat on the up­per level, shoot­ing un­ob­structed pho­tos through the win­dows. You see the city dif­fer­ently from such a high perch; from the bus, the vin­tage signs above the James Smith and Sons Um­brella Shop (est. since 1830) on New Ox­ford Street read like po­etry: Life Pre­servers Dag­ger Canes Sword­sticks

I’m sure a guide would have pointed them out had I been on a hop-on/hop-off tour bus; I liked hav­ing the $33 dif­fer­ence in my pocket.

Ar­riv­ing on a Fri­day, I had checked into my pack­age-deal digs in the busy West Lon­don neigh­bor­hood of Earl’s Court and set out ex­plor­ing. Two blocks from the Tube, the My Place ho­tel turned out to be a Vic­to­rian town­house on a quiet street lined with more of the same, just off a busy road with a post of­fice, sta­tionery stores, two lit­tle gro­cery stores sell­ing $6 bot­tles of wine, and more take­away food shops than I could count. My adopted neigh­bor­hood wasn’t posh, but it was just right. And my tiny dormer-style room was, mer­ci­fully, six floors above the ho­tel’s at­tached, some­times noisy and some­what cheesy night­club.

The Bri­tish Mu­seum should top any cheap­skate’s to-do list, be­ing not only mag­nif­i­cent but free. I made that my first stop, park­ing my­self in the con­tem­po­rary Court Restau­rant un­der the glass-and-steel roof cov­er­ing the mu­seum’s in­ner court­yard: A spot of tea was in or­der, with a view of the grand Read­ing Room a story be­low.

Watch­ing re­searchers ponder texts and vis­i­tors walk in, look up and mouth “wow,” I put away a pot of tea, two per­fect scones with jam and clot­ted cream, and four cu­cum­ber-and-cream-cheese sand­wiches with a bit of cress and mint, all for about $17. Com­pared with the cost of tea at Brown’s Ho­tel (about $64), the Ritz ($71) and the Dorch­ester ($58), I got off easy. Still, to jus­tify the cost (and stay within bud­get), I con­sid­ered this meal not an in­dul­gent snack but a late lunch. (Sadly, now the view of the Read­ing Room will be less than stel­lar as prepa­ra­tions are made for the “First Em­peror: China’s Ter­ra­cotta Army” ex­hibit open­ing in Septem­ber.)

Next stop: the Tate Bri­tain, where Princess Twin­kle Knick­ers wasn’t the only star. No, there was also Le Gateau Choco­lat, a large man in a pur­ple-and-gold gown per­form­ing a drag opera with gusto. And — though I never fig­ured out what, if any­thing, she had to do with the Hog­a­rth ex­hibit — a wo­man milled about dressed in a red-and­white-striped shirt and hat, with black glasses, as if stag­ing a real-life Where’s Waldo in the mu­seum.

Wan­der­ing the mu­seum’s long Du­veen Gal­leries, I was cap­ti­vated by “State Bri­tain,” an in­stal­la­tion of more than 600 peace ban­ners and dis­turb­ing posters ad­dress­ing the war in Iraq. It’s a replica of the “peace camp” that stood in Par­lia­ment Square from June 2001 through last May, when it was dis­man­tled on or­ders of the gov­ern­ment; the ac­tivist who es­tab­lished it main­tains his protest, sans camp.

En­ter­tain­ment and an ed­u­ca­tion for the price of ad­mis­sion: Free.

“Go ahead, just dunk and dip,” said Hayan Samara, a ven­dor at the Terra Rossa stall in Bor­ough Mar­ket. The mar­ket has been at its cur­rent site near Lon­don Bridge in south­east Lon­don for more than 250 years, and around in some form since Ro­man times.

The hunk of bread went first into the Jor­da­nian olive oil, then into the zaatar, a fra­grant herb mix — and then into my mouth, which had been very ac­tive since en­ter­ing the mar­ket that Satur­day morn­ing. I was free-sam­pling my way around the mar­ket. On Fri­days and Satur­days, the ven­dor ranks swell and it’s a form of sharp-el­bowed en­ter­tain­ment as well as a place to get some eat­ing done.

Many of the wares are not cheap. I chat­ted up lo­cals Stephen Doughty, Philip Haines and Sonja Haines at Bedales, a shop with one en­trance on Bedale Street and the other through to the mar­ket. The bill for their an­tipasti would come to about $26 be­fore drinks and tip. Still, you can make a proper, in­ex­pen­sive meal out of your Bor­ough wan­der­ings, as I saw so many do. Those with lit­tle trays of scal­lops with ba­con and toast ($7.80) had been to Shell Seek­ers; the ones who stopped by Turnips held white cups with bar­be­cued veg­etable wraps ($5.90); and the folks walk­ing near Maria’s Mar­ket Cafe were tear­ing into steak and mush­room bun sand­wiches ($6.90).

I ate and was en­ter­tained for hours, fill­ing up on free sam­ples of wasabi peanuts and can­dies from Cran­berry, mixed Span­ish olives from Brindisa (a small con­tainer for about $1.80), a tiny cup of Cotes du Rhone red cour­tesy of Car­tright Brothers vint­ners, and a mas­sive rose­mary fo­cac­cia from the Flour Sta­tion ($6.90). To­tal cost of lunch: $8.70.

Lon­don is a great town for free con­certs, many of them at churches; St. Martin-in-the­Fields in Trafal­gar Square is among those fa­mously of­fer­ing free recitals dur­ing the day. St. Martin’s on-site lunchtime events are sus- pended un­til Oc­to­ber, and the evening con­certs re­quire tick­ets start­ing at about $12.

In­stead, I stole into a seat just as the 11 a.m. Solemn Mass be­gan at the Church of the Im­mac­u­late Heart of Mary, a 19th­cen­tury Ital­ianate Ro­man Catholic church in South Kens­ing­ton that is known as the Bromp­ton Or­a­tory. Most of the church’s Masses are in English, but the one I wanted to hear, with the full choir, was in Latin. I was far from the only one: The sec­ond-largest Catholic church in Lon­don was packed.

You can’t time a visit here just for the mu­sic — the bril­liant voices rise and fall be­tween the gospel, homily and other parts of the Mass — but it’s a lovely con­cert, even for those who wouldn’t think to pop into a church on their trav­els. Plus, the church is right next to two free mu­se­ums: the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert — where I took in a vin­tage bis­cuit tin ex­hibit and fell in love with Karl Lager­feld for Chanel’s black-and-white silk “pi­ano dress” — and the Science Mu­seum, per­fect for — and filled with — fam­i­lies.

Slightly mu­se­umed out, I switched gears from West Lon­don to East. The lo­cals I’d met at Bor­ough Mar­ket had rec­om­mended the area around Spi­tal­fields Mar­ket and to­ward Hox­ton Square as “bet­ter than Soho, bet­ter than Covent Gar­den.” This was new ter­ri­tory for me; $3 and 30 min­utes on the Tube later, I was out­side the mar­ket.

Okay, so I couldn’t af­ford the eye-catch­ing hal­ter top made from a col­lared but­ton-down ($87), but I did get to meet its de­signer, Nina Dewey, who makes award-win­ning wom­enswear out of re­fash­ioned cloth­ing for her la­bel Enienay. Dewey staffs her own stall, as do many of the mar­ket’s artists.

I watched an­other de­signer sew a bag to her cus­tomer’s spec­i­fi­ca­tion. I chose five hand­knit fin­ger pup­pets in an­i­mal and su­per­hero de­signs. At $1.96 each, they were rea­son­ably priced, and should I need en­ter­tain­ment over din­ner, they would serve well.

In the mar­ket’s tightly packed heart, you can pick up in­ex­pen­sive fash­ions (dresses for about $15), “aroma sand” can­dles ($6.90 for a pack) and bags that, as the ven­dor demon­strated with gusto, are made from a sin­gle zip­per. A long string of in­ter­na­tional food stalls sells ev­ery­thing from falafel ($5.90) and veg­etable curry with rice ($4.90) to a $1.85 es­presso.

Along nearby Brick Lane, I caught up on avant-garde pho­tog­ra­phy at the Brick Lane Gallery, poked my head into a sam­ple sale of­fer­ing Vivi­enne West­wood and Lynne Mackey, and traipsed through the Sun­day Up­Mar­ket in the Old Tru­man Brew­ery. Sim­i­lar to Spi­tal­fields Mar­ket but smaller and open only on Sun­days, the Up­Mar­ket also of­fers fash­ion and food stalls, with Ethiopian cof­fee, Turk­ish dishes and tiny de­signer cup­cakes.

I won’t ad­mit that I was be­gin­ning to flag, but I was al­most re­lieved to dis­cover from my trusty Time Out Lon­don that my next des­ti­na­tion, the fa­mous and free White Cube gallery, about a 20-minute walk away in Hox­ton Square, was closed on Sun­days. To­mor­row, then.

Even when your bud­get is lim­ited, it seems, you can be tired in Lon­don, but not of it.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY DANIEL VAS­CON­CEL­LOS FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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