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London: 5 best April values

By Alex Robinson
January 12, 2022
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Courtesy Alex Robinson

The buds, birds, and butterflies of spring are waking from the harshest winter in a generation. Londoners, too, are waking…etiolated maybe, but all set to enjoy the pleasant April weather. Here are 5 ways to join them in having a good time—without breaking your budget.

Bluebell woods, mid-April–mid-May

England's ancient woodlands are bursting into blue bloom and forest floors are carpeted with hundreds of thousands of wild bluebell flowers. This tiny, brilliant hyacinth is a specialty of southern England. The best place to see the floral display is West Sussex—less than 40 miles south of London. woodlands.co.uk, free.x

The London Marathon, April 25

The starting gun for the key sporting event of the new season fires at 9 a.m. on April 25, when some 40,000 runners will take to the streets of south London and the city center. The event is one of the World Marathon Majors (a series which also includes Boston, Chicago, New York, and Berlin), meaning that the world's best athletes will be competing alongside thousands of amateurs raising money for myriad charities. Many runners will be dressed in bizarre costumes. See the site for the Virgin London Marathon to find a route map and a table with estimated timings for runner arrivals, gauged by ability. virginlondonmarathon.com, free to watch.

St George's Day, April 23–25

While the Irish, Welsh, and Scots joyfully celebrate their national saints's days, the English have traditionally been more rueful. Celebrations in the capital this year buck that trend, with a host of events on and around Trafalgar Square. These include concerts, English food-tasting (avoid the boiled vegetables and opt for the puddings), cabaret, comedy, and street theater—all free. Plus, a St. George's day Rugby match at the national rugby stadium in Twickenham. visitlondon.com, free to watch.

The Enchanted Palace, through June 2012

First-time visitors to London may think that the capital's only royal palace is the Queen's residence. But Buckingham is merely one of several. Kensington Palace has been a royal residence since William of Orange moved here in 1689, and Queen Anne and George II lived and died here. More recently, the palace was the erstwhile home of Diana Princess of Wales, and in honor of her fashion-conscious spirit, the palace is now staging a phantasmagorical exhibition of quirky British clothing. Exhibits include "a dress of tears" by Aminaka Wilmont, based on the ancient tradition of collecting tears at times of mourning; an installation of hats by milliner Stephen Jones, inspired by 18th-century busts of great philosophers and scientists; a Vivienne Westwood dress inspired by the spirited Princess Charlotte (1796–1817); a soundscape of ticking and chiming clocks by Boudicca, accompanied by "dresses the colour of time" circling the room; and an origami dress by William Tempest, which appears to vanish into its surroundings. hrp.org.uk, entrance to the exhibition is included in the admission fee for Kensington Palace, about $18.

La Linea London Latin Music Festival, April 22–30

You'll hear more languages spoken in London than perhaps any other city on Earth. A great way to experience this is to attend the La Linea festival. While you'll find no Luso, Spanish, Italian, or Brazilian acts playing, you'll discover that it's a lovely excuse for watching the city's increasingly numerous Latin-American Spanish-speakers to kick off the winter blues and warm-up with tango, salsa, and meringue. Highlights this year include Kid Creole, the Gotan Project's Victor Villena, and Amparo Sanchez. comono.co.uk/lalinea, free.

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Inspiration

Turin: The Shroud unshrouded

The famous shroud of Turin—believed by some to be Jesus Christ's burial cloth—will be on display for the first time since its intensive restoration in 2002. It'll be a chance for travelers to judge the success of the repair effort, which involved removing a system of patches sewn onto the cloth by 16th-century nuns hoping to repair fire damage. Nearly 2 million pilgrims and tourists may visit the Turin Cathedral for the display now through May 23, says CNN.com. (Pope Benedict XVI will visit Turin on May 2.) Book a free ticket to see the Holy Shroud (Santa Sindone) at sindone.org. Reservations are necessary to get within viewing distance of the relic; otherwise, you'll only be able to enter the central nave of the cathedral. MORE The Instant Turin app—available on iTunes or at instantcities.com—helps travelers explore the Italian city through photographs, searchable descriptions of tourist spots, and Google street maps. It's free for downloading until Saturday, April 24th, after which it'll be $3. Budget Travel: Tips on visiting Turin

Inspiration

Rome: Free admission during Culture Week

If you're lucky enough to be in Rome between April 16 and April 25, you'll save some euros on visits to all state-run (and most city-run) museums and archaeological sites. Admission is free at the Mercati di Traiano, the Musei di Villa Torlonia, Centrale Montemartini, and other institutions participating in the 12th annual Culture Week. There are a few notable exceptions to the free rule: the Musei Capitolini, the Museo dell'Ara Pacis, the Planetario e Museo Astronomico, and the Scuderie del Quirinale, host of the buzzed-about Caravaggio exhibit, which still goes for the regular admission price of $13.50 (€10). The Italian Ministry of Culture has also organized free tours—in Italian only—of smaller gems such as the 16th-century Palazzo Zuccari, normally closed to the public (011-39/06-699-941), and the Villa dei Quintili (011-39/347-8235-240). A little further afield, the ruins and frescoed homes of Ostia Antica, an ancient port city, are also free during Culture Week and make an easy day trip from Rome (011-39/06-5635-8099).

Inspiration

San Francisco: Decoding Fernet Branca

Maybe you've spotted Fernet Branca on a San Francisco bar menu—it's one of the many obscure foodie obsessions of the city. In fact, it's the unofficial drink of San Francisco—particularly among the city's bartenders and young, hip set. For the uninitiated, Fernet Branca is an Italian aperitif and herbal digestive that has a bitter, black-liquorice flavor. Think of it as a less-sweet version of Jagermeister, but with the same punch—Fernet has a 40 percent alcohol content that can cause quite the hangover when overindulging (but it's also an ideal hair of the dog). Fernet is an acquired taste; critics go so far as to compare it to Listerine or cough syrup. But here, the aperitif's popularity teeters on cultlike obsession. In fact, 35 percent of the country's Fernet is consumed in San Francisco. That's a lot of alcohol for a city of just over 800,000. Some prefer Fernet on the rocks, with soda water, or as an ingredient in a cocktail, often as a replacement for bitters. In Argentina, where the liquor is also wildly popular, imbibers mix it with Coca-Cola. But in San Francisco's bars, Fernet is usually sipped straight, sometimes with a ginger-ale chaser. Fernet gained popularity during Prohibition because its medicinal properties kept it legal. But it's use in mainstream bars exploded back around 2005, when several 1920s-style parties were held at local bars. To keep up with the demand, two places in Russian Hill have become the first bars in the country to serve Fernet on tap. First was Bullitt (2209 Polk St., 415/268-0140) and more recently, Tonic (2360 Polk Street, 415/771-5535) has jumped on the wagon. It tastes just the same on tap, although bartenders claim that the slight aeration makes Fernet even better. To get into the spirit (pun intended) head to one of these popular Fernet watering holes: The R Bar in Nob Hill (1176 Sutter Street, 415/567-7441). Perhaps the No. 1 Fernet spot, R Bar serves more of the liquor than any other bar in North America. Haight Street's Hobson's Choice (1601 Haight St, 415/621-5859) specializes in fruit punches, but Fernet is a popular choice regardless, in no small part to bartender Chris "Ferny" Dickerson, a native and Fernet fanatic. North Beach's historic Columbus Cafe (562 Green St., 415/274-2599) offers $3 shots of Fernet. It's a good place to get your feet wet if you're new to the Fernet Branca scene. For more background about the city's Fernet love affair, check out Nate Cavalieri's SF Weekly article.

Inspiration

Paris: Baguette Protocol

Following on our recent story The Best Baguette in Paris, I had a quick chat with Paris foodie Meg Zimbeck about baguette protocol—because it's France, after all, and I figured there must be rules. Meg's food-related adventures in Paris are posted at megzimbeck.com, and she's the founding editor of Paris by Mouth, a new website about eating and drinking in the city featuring renowned foodies like Clotilde Dusoulier, Alexander Lobrano, and Dorie Greenspan. The website debuts in May. Steve: So, I've got my baguette. Do I tear it? Is it gauche to cut it in those little slices with a sharp knife, like some people do? Meg: You know, there's really no protocol here. You can saw it horizontally if you want to have some nice, neat slices, but Parisians also like to handle their bread. Tearing off hunks is perfectly acceptable. If you're eating in a restaurant, it's traditional to place your hunk directly on the table, not the plate. S: Ok, next: Cheese or no Cheese? Jam? M: Both! I like to buy a baguette in the evening and eat half of it with the cheese course after dinner. The next morning, I toast the left-over half and slather it with salted butter and jam. The French call this a "tartine" and you can find it served before lunch in most cafés. In general, though, the baguette is a vehicle for whatever delicious, fatty thing you want to spread on it. S: Salted butter, eh? None of that unsalted stuff for you. M: Live life, Steve. S: How long before I toss the thing away? M: An authentic baguette has a shelf life of only four hours, so bakeries churn out fresh loaves throughout the day. If your bread becomes stale, you can turn it into morning toast (tartine) or just spring for a new loaf. A good baguette only costs around €1.20, so there's really no reason to be eating stale bread. S: How do I ask for it, in five French words or less? M: Une baguette de tradition, s'il vous plaît. The "de tradition" part is important, because a traditional baguette tastes a whole lot better than a regular baguette. It's usually 10-20 centimes more expensive, but totally worth it. S: I know you love picnics. Every time I talk to you you're on the way to a park with a basket of picnic stuff. So here's your chance: Where do I pick up my baguette, what do I pair with it—and what park in Paris do I end up in? M: I'm lucky to live near the glorious Parc des Buttes Chaumont in the 19th arrondissement. For a picnic in this park, I score my baguette from the Boulang'Eury at 98 rue de Meaux. It's on a sweet little market street near the park that also has shops selling cheese, fruit, wine and (if I'm really ambitious) roasted chicken. Another favorite outdoor spot is the Canal Saint-Martin in the 10th arrondissement. For a picnic here, I'll stop for bread at Du Pain et des Idées (34 rue Yves Toudic) and a bottle of wine at le Verre Volé ("The Stolen Glass," 67 rue de Lancry). S: Can I bring wine? To the park? M: Absolutely! There's only one picnic-worthy place where you can't drink alcohol, and that's the Pont des Arts (a bridge that spans the Seine near the Louvre). A very specific law prohibits the public consumption of alcohol at that bridge between 4 p.m.–7 a.m. between May 1st and October 31st. By the way, if you don't have a corkscrew, most wine shops will be happy to open your bottle and to replace the cork. You can ask "avez-vous un tire-bouchon, s'il vous plaît?" Or do your best with gestures and a smile. S: Okay, final question: If I tuck it under my arm and mount my bicycle, can I call myself a Parisian? M: Absolutely! Just promise that you'll skip the beret. S: Maybe I will, maybe I won't. M: Skip it. S: Ok, Thanks for your time, Meg. Next time I'm in Paris, we'll share a drink at 3:59 on the Pont des Arts. M: Sounds risky. Au revoir, Steve.