Thursday, March 27, 2008

England Travelblogue: Eats and Treats

As my previous posts indicate, there are copious historical monuments to see when you're visiting England. In addition to the ones I've already written about, there are places like Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and more.

But traveling isn't just about ogling all the major monuments one can find. It's equally important to make some time to check out local eateries and shops. You get the chance to mingle with the people and there are plenty of opportunities to buy neat souvenirs at the latter, sparing you from spending all your money on toffee tins in the shape of double decker buses and telephone booth keychains.

So while my England itinerary was pretty packed, I made it a point to do a little shopping and exploring while I was in London. None of these places are obscure by any means, but they added some variety to my typical-tourist schedule, so I'll be discussing my favorites here.

La Crêperie de Hampstead
This glorified shack can be found in Hampstead, a picturesque suburb of London. I was lucky to go at a time when it wasn't very crowded, but I've heard that there are often huge lines at this fairly legendary place, full of people waiting to get their savory or sweet crêpes. I never thought you could buy crêpes from a cart on the side of the road, but you definitely can in Hampstead. And the amazing thing is, they're really really good! Possibly even better than any crêpes I've had at proper sit-down restaurants. All you have to do is put in your order, watch them prepare your crêpe of choice, and then eat it up once they've rolled it up and presented it to you.

I got a mushroom crêpe with garlic sauce that was absolutely delightful and I will most definitely go back for another one if I'm ever in the area again. Plus points for the Crêperie: the prices are very reasonable (most of the items on their surprisingly diverse menu seemed to be in the £3–£6 range, and while I'm sure this varies, this means that the oh-so-filling crêpes cost less than $10). Also, there is a tube station in Hampstead, making it easy for those staying in other parts of London to visit the Crêperie.

Covent Garden
This lovely little shopping district in London is a great place full of mainstream and offbeat shops, restaurants, and a couple of touristy spots such as the London Transport Museum. It's well known for the Covent Garden Market, filled with stalls of jewelry, clothing, home decor, and more. The area is bustling with activity and is also famous for the presence of street performers. While standing in the piazza and contemplating where to go for lunch, I was able to witness a very cheesy, yet energetic magician's act that kept the crowd oddly mesmerized.

Fun Find: I had my fair share of fun looking at the colorful jewelry available in the market area of Covent Garden. But I experienced my greatest moment of delight when I stumbled upon The Tintin Shop at 34 Floral Street. I've been feeling incredibly nostalgic for Tintin books and cartoons recently, so I couldn't believe my eyes when I realized that there was an actual store devoted to him. The shop caught my eye with a simple signboard featuring the title character and his dog. And before I knew it, I was inside purchasing a notebook, postcards, and a magnet, all the while resisting urges to purchase pins (badges) and other pointless, but adorable goods. The store contains everything from t-shirts to pencil cases. So if you're a Tintin fan, or even only moderately nostalgic for the days when you might have read Tintin comics, you absolutely must stop in this shop.

Camden Market
Last but not least, there's Camden Town's Camden Market, one of the most popular visitor attractions in London. This is the place to go if you're looking for a slightly different shopping experience. Punk-inspired clothing stores are everywhere and you can pass through countless stalls featuring band t-shirts, unique tote bags, hand-painted clothing, ethnic foods, and handmade jewelry. I was able to buy myself a fun pair of earrings in the shape of eighth notes, along with a messenger bag featuring an image from one of my favorite Lichtenstein paintings.

Noteworthy: I really enjoyed myself at Out on the Floor, a multi-level record store that sells the majority of its music in vinyl format. I've been yearning for a more "old-school" music shopping experience lately, especially since I tend to order most of my music online ever since one of my favorite local music stores shut down.

Anyway, Out on the Floor has really great variety — you can buy blues, punk, post-punk, Britpop, and lots more in vinyl format. I was able to find a couple of fun 45 rpm singles to send to friends and I was happy to discover that the man working on the floor with the Britpop albums was very willing to help me find what I was looking for. When I asked if they happened to have any Blur vinyls, he confessed that it's very rare for a person to find them.

But though I did not prod him much further, he actually went off and came back with an armload of used Blur CD singles and imports, even pointing out that they had some "Coxon." (Here, he was referring to solo albums by former Blur guitarist, Graham Coxon). I was really thrilled by this, not just because I was able to pick out a Blur single, but because the guy was actually very nice! As much as I love browsing through actual record stores, I must admit that I've soured on the experience a few times thanks to the elitism of holier-than-thou store clerks.

In addition to this lovely record store, I just had a lot of fun exploring the Stables Market portion of Camden Market. This area has an old-fashioned element to it, but is simultaneously very 21st century, thanks to the presence of alternative, subculture-oriented stores and stalls. I was very intrigued by the presence of Cyberdog, a store that made me feel as though I had been transported into a futuristic rave. Brightly colored, sci-fi inspired clothing is everywhere and some of the items were quite strangely designed. But while its products don't necessarily match my tastes, Cyberdog still managed to be a fun place for me to walk through.

Going through these parts of London, I realized that it wasn't necessary for me to go shopping all over town. I realized that it is fairly possible to have a unique shopping experience at these hotspots. So if you ever find yourself in town, make it a point to stop by some of the places mentioned above. Doing so will definitely help make your trip more memorable.


ToastyKen said...

Did the nice record shop clerk look like John Cusack by any chance? :P

Radhika said...

Alas, no - he was a bit older and looked nothing like him.