Monday, January 20, 2014

Victorian London: Alive and Kicking

(Terraced homes in Holland Park. All photos by LBG, December 2013.)

One of the most fascinating aspects of London is that it's a layer cake of history. The city doesn't seem to grow up as much as it seems to "grow over": Roman foundations are covered with medieval cobblestones which are then overlaid with Victorian brickwork. Manor estates turn into Rococo pleasure gardens which turn into Edwardian hospital grounds. No matter where your interests or passions lie --  in the Romans, Tudors, Bloomsbury bohemians or even Sex Pistols -- the footprints of every culture are still there, you just have to know where to look.

Below, three fantastic Victorian-era destinations that will make you feel as if you've tiptoed back into the nineteenth century:

1. Paradise, by Way of Kensal Green 

By day, this restored pub is a gastronome's dream with fresh, locally sourced cuisine and one of the best Sunday lunches in London. On weekends, it turns into a nightclub where you're likely to bump shoulders with Kate Moss and Jamie Hince, and also hosts special culinary dinners by the likes of Alex James, Blur bassist turned cheese farmer. 

This is the bar in the front room. Coffered ceiling, check. Gray mirrored bar, check. Tufted leather chairs approaching retirement, check.
(Website HERE.)

Design note for the brave: If your walls are peeling, shellac over them.

You're in the main dining room now. Doesn't it have such warmth and energy? Let's break it down: Gray walls. White floorboards. Gilt-frame paintings. Vintage birdcage pendant lamps. Flea market antique furniture. Secondary colors: Gold, black, cabernet, burgundy, brown.

I ordered a traditional pork roast with Yorkshire pudding and greens. Delicious. It nearly made a man out of me.

I don't know if the Paradise was ever a private residence, but it certainly feels like it. In addition to the pub and restaurant on the ground floor are a variety of rooms upstairs for dining and drinking in. I love how the stairwell has cleverly been transformed into a nook for entertaining, don't you? That area is usually such a dead space.

Upstairs, the tarnished glass chandeliers, shaggy greenery, and general attitude of crumbling glamour lend a distinctive Miss Havisham quality to the place...and I mean that in the best possible way, of course.

Only one of the rooms upstairs was unlocked, but if this one is representative of the others,  a return visit is definitely in order. 

Now about that name. It refers to a line in a G. K. Chesterton poem called "The Rolling English Road" about how the Roman roads were all straight and precise but the Englishman, usually being drunk, created reeling and rolling ones. Funny, right? The Paradise is next to the famous Victorian cemetery, Kensal Green, final resting place for writers like William Thackeray, Anthony Trollope and Harold Pinter.

For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.
                                                      ~G. K. Chesterton, "The Rolling English Road"

We walked through the cemetery afterwards and I spied this haunting tombstone. "My heart lies in England, too," I thought to myself.
(Kensal Green Cemetery, 2013.)

2. Tea at the St. Pancras Hotel 

If you watch "Downton Abbey" then you're familiar with St. Pancras Station -- Lady Edith is always alighting here to visit her paramour. The station, designed in 1863, has recently undergone a 2oo million pound renovation and the former Midland Hotel inside has been magnificently restored. Whether you're catching a train or not (the Eurostar leaves from here), it's worth popping your head in--if only to say you've visited one of the greatest Victorian buildings in London.
(Hotel website HERE.)

I oohed over the colorful Gothic-inspired halls with their fleur-de-lis wallpaper, carved marble arches and ornamental tile work...

...and Luca aahed over the absolutely gigantic train shed (my camera only captures about an eighth of it). If you've read the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, then you know a child can never look at a train station clock the same way again. 

We had a restorative pot of tea in the Booking House Bar...

...where I discovered the most amazing tea strainer I've ever seen.

Look, it's a tiny umbrella-shaped bristle that fits into the spout of your teapot and prevents the leaves from coming out with the tea. Why don't they sell these in America?

3. The Charles Dickens House

I visited the Dickens House years ago but it's undergone a renovation so I was eager to see it again, and since my son Luca loved reading "The Christmas Carol" in school last year, I was hopeful there wouldn't be any foot-dragging.

Before the redo, the museum was drab and fusty (and I say that as a fervent Dickens fanatic). You had to peer across roped doorways to see anything. Now, the entire house is open, and they've annexed the house next door and opened a café and tiny gift shop. Period Victorian furniture has been added to Dickens' original possessions to give the house a cozy lived-in feel. 
(Website HERE.)

The master bedroom was dark and still, a perfect sanctuary after a long day of writing.

When we went downstairs, there was a group of school children getting dressed up as scullery servants to "assist" with dinner preparations.

I don't envy the woman who had this job.

Why, thank you, Charles. How kind of you to offer me a hand up these stairs. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Straight Outta Antwerp

Apartment o1 at Boulevard Leopold was like a feature out of the World of Interiors. I almost prayed for some kind of cataclysmic weather event that would keep us trapped there forever. 
Those silvery green walls.
That opulent beaded chandelier. 
The antlers reaching yearningly from the wall like the outstretched hands in Jean Cocteau's 1946 surrealist fantasy La Belle et La Bete. 
It gripped my heart.
It doesn't matter what your favorite design style is, I promise you if you walk into this room all you will think is, "I'm home."
(All photos by Lisa Borgnes Giramonti.)

The apartment's enormous windows looked onto Boulevard Leopold in the heart of the city's old Jewish Quarter. The owner, Martin, has furnished it in keeping with the city's Art Nouveau history. The green blur on the velvet sofa is my son -- he didn't want to leave the room either.

Our bedroom had painted murals, another beaded chandelier and more of those magical gray-green walls. The black velvet pillows added decadent punctuation points to the stark whiteness of the bed. 

Down a little corridor was Luca's bedroom. History Lesson: Old houses in Antwerp were built on different levels, so when residences were joined together, homeowners solved the issue of different floor heights by building these delightful M.C Escher staircases everywhere -- you're continually going up into one room, down into the next. 

You can see our bedroom at the top of the stairs.

Eventually, we tore ourselves away from the hotel. The oldest part of the city was only about a fifteen minute walk, but it was easy to lose yourself wandering through the narrow cobblestoned side streets. Mick Jagger's design wisdom loomed. "I see a red door and I want it painted black," I kept humming to myself. "No colors anymore I want them to turn to black."

These 16th century skyscrapers flank the Grote Market and were built by the guild houses of Antwerp. Each building vied to be the most impressive, hence the variation in height and rhythm...and those fabulous golden ornaments on top. "I'm prettier! No, I'm prettier!" (The mother in me: "You're ALL pretty.")

On the streets, it was wet and cold and the locals' garb conjured up visions of "The French Lieutenant's Woman. " Once inside, however, people would peel off their monastic shrouds to reveal a kaleidoscopic wardrobe worthy of local hero Dries van Noten.

That's Antwerp to me in a nutshell.
Outside, cold, gray, forbidding.
Inside, a Fabergé egg of splendors.

Once you start to approach the old part of the city, all "straats"  lead to the cathedral. It dominates the silhouette entirely. In case you were wondering, the tower "points toward God like a finger."

Can 2014 please be the year we bring back big knobby ornamental hardware?
The combination of that elegantly carved wood with those primitive iron studs is titillating--like a duchess dating a blacksmith.

Travel Note: When you travel with two males, it is VITAL that you build in frequent treat stops. This can make or break your vacation. Blood sugar levels must be maintained at a constant level, especially if your wish list includes any shopping. Frituur No. 1, considered to have the best french fries in Antwerp, was a hit. Bonus: twenty kinds of ketchup. The curry-flavored one demanded refills.

The male mood restored, we were museum-bound.  I figured I had a good two hours before my comrades took a downward turn. As it turned out, the places we visited  -- The Plantin-Moretus, the Rubenshuis, former home of Peter Paul Rubens, and the Mayer van den Burgh -- earned an enthusiastic two thumbs up from everyone. Luca loved the M. C. Escher staircases, Piero was mesmerized by the kitchens and I loved every square inch of everything.

What's not to love about a room upholstered in leather? 

And walls of silk? (This is what I mean by Antwerpian interiors feeling like jewel boxes.)

And velvet-curtained four poster beds?  I always thought the beds were so short because people were more petite. Turns out that, in Antwerp anyway, people slept sitting up because it was believed much more beneficial for the digestion. 

If we're bringing back knobby ornamental doors, then we have to bring back rugs on tables too.

If someone asked me for the ingredients of an Antwerpian interior, I would write down these words on a piece of paper and hand it to them:

Oil paint.
Red brick.

My husband Piero was besotted with this stove. His dream is to have a hearth like this in our kitchen one day--which of course is so über practical for our Los Angeles climate.

At night the hipsters came out to play. 

 We walked home through streets glistening with rain...

...and discovered that our room was even more enchanting by night. 

The next morning, we headed downstairs for breakfast. 

Antwerp is moody in the morning. 

We ate in a garden room with red-topped tables and wooden settles upholstered in green leather. 

Eat, I urged my men. Keep those blood sugar levels steady. Mama wants to do some serious perambulating today. 

While they ate, I took photos of Flemish leather-bound books,  preserved butterflies, religious iconography...

...and curiosities under glass. You know, the things one normally take photos of.

Here's Martin. He owns this incredible joint. He shyly told me that Mario Testino had shot a fashion shoot there recently (in our very hotel room no less). Well, of course he did, Martin! Your table tableaux alone are enough to merit a magazine cover.

Honestly, is there anything sexier than a dark morning? They're so strangely creative. 

The most sunlight we saw the entire time we were there was at the Cathedral of Our Lady. Somehow, the exterior gloom, when filtered through those glorious Gothic windows, transformed itself to heavenly light inside. 

If we're bringing back knobby ornamental doors and rugs on tables, can we also bring back dusky medieval jewel tones like brown sapphire, smoky topaz, ruby and carnelian?

After the cathedral, we made a quick fuel stop at La Confiserie Burie, one of the countless candy stores that appear at least once on every block in Antwerp. 

Once purchased, this hapless little frog prince didn't stand a chance.

If you go to Antwerp, be sure to take a walk along the river Scheldt. 

A few minutes walk from the Scheldt is the most important new museum in Antwerp right now, the Red Star Line Museum. (It opened in September 2013.) The Red Star Line was the sister company of the White Star Line, owner of the ill-fated Titanic. If you wanted to emigrate to America or Canada in the last 2oo years and you didn't leave through Southampton, your trip started in a warehouse in Antwerp.

Below is a vignette of a first class passenger's experience--not all people experienced a privileged crossing like this. In the museum, we passed through former showers, interrogation rooms and medical inspection areas. If you made it across the ocean and the Ellis Island inspectors deemed you unfit (lice, a stubborn cough, etc.), they sent you back to Antwerp at the Red Star Line's expense. 

It was haunting, it was inspiring, and I highly, highly recommend you visit it if you ever can.  

And that was it.
Our two days and nights went by in a flash.

When we arrived at Antwerpen-Centraal to catch a train to Brussels where we would transfer to the Eurostar, workers were setting up this gigantic purple slide. If only our train had left thirty minutes later! 

Next stop: London.


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