Five reasons to go to London: Reason 3 - Awesome Theatre

In spite of a few disillusions I experienced on my last trip to London, this city continues to be THE place to check out some awesome theatre. Thank the Muse!

I go to the theatre most times I’m in London. But I’m not into musicals, so I usually look for my “poison” outside the famous West End (although one can see more than musicals in West End).

I love going to the National Theatre (https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/ ), in the South Bank area, with its three stages and an incomparable 25 new shows a year. This summer it was Chekhov season and I felt so tempted…

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Layover in Barcelona

What do you do if you have a longer layover? For example, if you have a 7 or 8 hour layover in an awesome city? Do you sit at the airport and browse through all its shops, over and over again? Do you take a nap on the uncomfortable plastic chairs? Or do you try to make the best of it?

Sometimes longer layovers are unavoidable. Maybe there were no earlier connection flights. Or maybe they were fully booked by the time you bought your trip.

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Five reasons to go to London: Reason 2 - Alternative Culture

The alternative culture scene was always been present in London. But it has changed and the traditionally alternative neighbourhoods too.

When I first went to London, back in 1999, it was not uncommon to come across a punk in the street. Or any other alternative subculture, for that matter. Coming from a country not yet totally comfortable with what was considered alternative culture, I was marvelled by the freedom I could witness in London streets. I felt rude when I stared at a punk, a metalhead, a goth or anyone with a different look from the standards I was used to. I was a plain, mid-twenties, young lawyer. And we didn’t have alternative subcultures in the middle of main streets in Lisbon. But London did and it was normal. It was ok. It was just everyday life. No one even paused or stared. And I loved it!

I loved that sense of freedom. The idea that you can be anyone you want. That you can rebel, just because, and you can show your disapproval of society by discarding its external signs of compliance.

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Travel guide or internet search?

When preparing for your next trip do you prefer to consult a travel guide or to do some internet search on the subject?

When I began travelling, internet was not this incredible instrument it is today. And certainly not in Portugal. Most people did not own a computer, there were basically no internet cafés and internet access was not easily available. So, all we had were travel guides.

For my first trips I didn’t even had a travel guide. Just had a few ideas on what I wanted to see and do, and that was that. Most of those times I was fortunate to end up making local friends who showed me around. I have wonderful memories from those trips and some long lasting friends.

And then I decided to go to London in 1999. That’s when I bought my first travel guide. It was a Baedeker’s and I still have it. It accompanied me during my 3 first trips to London, like a faithful friend.

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Five reasons to go to London - Reason 1: Multicultural Cuisine

From the top of your head: last time you went to London what did you eat? British traditional cuisine? Or all sorts of international cuisine? I’m guessing the second, right? When I think of London, its multicultural cuisine is one of the first things that pop to my mind.

When I first went to London, back in 1999, I tried to taste traditional British cuisine. But apart from pub food, pies and pasties (specially Cornish), I didn’t really enjoyed the local British delicacies. And I still don’t.

The fact that I did not become a fan of British food and the exorbitant prices of regular restaurants, made me turn to ethnic food. And I found a huge, tasty offer.

A meal at an ethnic restaurant costs, usually, less than a third of the price of the same amount of food at a traditional British place. We can find countless restaurants and joints, everywhere, providing all sorts of international cuisine.

While in London I’ve tasted, or come across, the following types of cuisine: French, Moroccan, Greek, Lebanese, Italian, Indian, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Malaysian, Caribbean, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Australian, American, Turkish, Cypriot, Mexican and Colombian.

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Tiziano Terzani, about the English and London, in 1993: “There is someone somewhere, whom nobody voted for, that pushes the world to spin faster, so that men become more identical, in the name of something called “globalization”, whose meaning few people know and even less claim to seek.” (loosely translated from the portuguese edition)

Five reasons to go to London

In the next few days I’ll be writing about my five reasons to go to London.

I’ve been to London last week, for the fourth time. Big Ben? Seen it. Several times. London Tower? Likewise. The Houses of Parliament? Ditto. So, what is there to do / see?

I’ve always loved London, but I must admit that, 8 years after my last visit, I was a bit disappointed by the massification of tourism and how it’s impacting in the city’s identity. I looked for the old memories and the quirkiness that made London unique. But I couldn’t them. Instead I found the same tourist shops I see everywhere, the same big coffee shops and restaurant chains, the same products and the same massive uniformed consumption culture.

So I felt I needed to rediscover my very own five reasons to go to London. And so I did:

  1. Multicultural cuisine: London has always been a hub for international cuisine. There you can taste food from all over the world. And for all budgets. But it seems that now, more than ever, it’s becoming an intrinsic part, not only of London’s identity, but of the Londoner’s culture.
  2. Alternative cultures: The alternative cultures and subcultures were always present in London. But the scene has changed. And the neighbourhoods too. Don’t look for it in Camden anymore. You’ll have a hard time finding anything more than touristic attractions. Look out for the new spots…
  3. Awesome theatre: Some things never change. London continues to be THE place to check out the best plays.
  4. Pub culture: Nowhere else like London! I loved Dublin’s pub scene, but London remains the hot spot for pub life.
  5. Free museums: If seeing “old stones” and art work is your thing (it is mine) than London allows you to see some of the most iconic man-made objects free of charge.

There’s a lot to tell about last week and my renewed London experience. Stay tuned: there’s more to come about this top five…

Prague in colours

Vysehrad

A beautiful park sitting on top of a hill, just off the centre of Prague. The park is inside a X century fort. In the park we can find the lovely church of St. Peter and St. Paul.

The Slav Epic

An impressive cycle of 20 large canvases painted by Alphons Mucha, depicting the history and mythology of the Slavic people (National Gallery).

Spanish Synagogue

The most amazing synagogue in the Josefov. It's also the newest, built in 1868, with a lavish moorish interior, influenced by the Alhambra, in Granada (Spain).

Maisel Synagogue

Originaly built in 1592 and rebuilt after the Ghetto fire of 1689, it houses an exhibition of objects related with the Jewish religion, such as precious Torahs.

Wenceslas Square

Grand Hotel Europa is a beautiful art nouveau building. Nowadays it is closed and the doors and lower indows sealed with wooden shutters

Loreto Monastery

A lovely Baroque monastery, it is the most importante Marian pilgrimage destination in Bohemia. These two querubs can be seen in the Church of Nativity.

Loreto Monastery

The most prominant item in the façade is the clock tower and its famous chime, playing every hour.

Saint Vito's Cathedral

This gothic Roman Catholic cathedral, located inside Prague's Castle, is the seat of the Archebishop of Prague.

Saint Vito's Cathedral

West end of the cathedral - it is currently used as an entrance for the tourists.

Puppets

Prague is famous for its traditional wooden puppets. The best puppet stores are in Malá Strana.

Nerudova Street

When walking on Nerudova Street, in Malá Strana, pay close attention to the façades: you will discover lots of misterious house symbols. Its origin dates back to the Middle Ages and they were meant to improve orientation, as there were no house numbers at the time.

Saint Nicholas Church

There are two Saint Nicholas Churches in Prague. This one is in Malá Strana and was built in the beginning of the XVIII century.

Astronomic Clock

First installed in 1410, in the Old Town Hall. Well worth watching the "Walk of the Apostles" .

Portuguese heritage in Benin

Last year, during one of my work trips to Togo, I seized the opportunity to take a sunday trip to Benin, to learn more about the portuguese heritage in Africa.

Ever since I begun travelling to Togo, in 2013, I wanted to take the chance to visit the city of Ouidah, in Benin. It was a simple 115 kms (71,46 miles) drive from Lomé.

By the end of the XV century Ouidah was already  an important portuguese slave trade post. And by the XVII century the Portuguese built the fort of São João Baptista de Ajudá to protect that infamous trade.

During the XVIII and XIX centuries several other european countries set trade posts in Ouidah. The kingdom of Dahomey (Benin’s name in those days) came under French rule in the late XIX century and gained its Independence in 1960.

After Independence, in 1961, the authorities of Benin demanded that the Portuguese turned over the fort. Instead, they burnt it before leaving.

In 1987 Portugal helped in the restoration of the fort (funded by the portuguese Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation). It was clearly a late mea culpa from the portuguese government. But it was also an important step to preserve the portuguese heritage in the world.

I visited the fort in June 2015. The first surprise: the fort’s signage is still written in Portuguese. Including the visiting hours.

Portuguese heritage – Fort of São João de Ajudá

The second surprise: there is no resentment towards the portuguese. It would be so easy to resent the first Europeans who traded slaves in Ouidah! But they don’t. They welcomed me and were happy to show me the original portuguese documents on display at the fort’s museum. The guide’s face lighted up when I started to read the Old Portuguese text. He wanted me to teach him how to do that.

He also told me the story of the slave trade in Benin and its key role to its relations with Brazil (the slaves’ main destination). It is a sad piece of History but the Beninese embrace it as part of their heritage. And they are proud to tell us how their native religion (the Voodoo) influenced Brazilian Candomblé.

The slave trade history is everywhere in Ouidah. Under the patronage of the “Route des Esclaves” Project we are invited to follow the last few miles of the slave route and visit the places where millions of Human Beings lived before being piled up in a slave boat to the American continent.

Route des Esclaves – Slave’s Memorial

The “Slave Route” is a UNESCO Project aiming to achieve a better understanding of the causes, forms of operations, stakes and consequences of slavery in the world (check it out at http://www.unesco.org/new/en/social-and-human-sciences/themes/slave-route/).

In Ouidah the Project contributes to educate visitors about the facts and circumstances of the Beninese slave route. The places where the slaves were kept (in horrific conditions) have been restored and can be visited. Competent and knowledgeable guides tell us about the traditions and beliefs of those slaves. How they were forced to forget where they came from and how they struggled to imprint the memories in their souls. So that the souls could come back to Africa after they died.

I kept thinking, sadly, “my ancestors did this, this is also a part of my people’s History“.

Portuguese heritage – Fort of São João de Ajudá

Inside the Fort there are still portuguese canons. And Portuguese national symbols, such as the national coat of arms. The Beninese preserve the memory of the portuguese navigators from long, lost centuries. And some of them still proudly bear Portuguese surnames (adopted from their masters). They do not feel shame or regret and they do not point fingers. They came to terms with their past and they embrace their heritage. Even while admitting that the kings of Dahomey were the very first who sold their war captives into slavery to the Europeans.

I came to Benin feeling proud to see the remnants of a Portuguese building 300 years old. With it, I also saw the ugly face of slavery and the infamous commerce that brough wealth to my country. While walking the “Route des Esclaves” and standing at the beach from where so may ships departed, I felt shame.

Route des Esclaves – beach of Ouidah

But the Beninese taught me a lesson: it’s all part of our heritage, the good and the bad. And we must embrace it. Who we are today is a result of all the things that happened in the past. Just like the beninese, the portuguese heritage is what it is because of all these events and circumstances. The Portuguese have a part of Africa in their blood. And they left a part of their identity in Africa.

This is globalization, long before we had internet and social networks. We are all connected, everything is intertwined. And, somewhere in the middle of Africa, I traced the links to my own heritage.

 

Back to London

I’m going back to London in a week. I’ve already been there in 1999, 2005 and 2008 and I absolutely LOVE that city. It lost its number one status when I went to Prague early this year, but it’s still one of my favourite places in the world.

So, what makes me go back?

I’m a sucker for monuments and museums. That’s mainly because I’m crazy about History and I always want to learn as much as I can. And this is a very good reason to go back to London, since it has some of the most amazing monuments and museums in the world.

I can read about History anywhere. At home, sitting in my couch, I can learn the History of this or that people, country, city. I can see pictures of its greatest monuments, the paintings sitting in their National Galleries, the ancient artifacts in their museums. I knew Rosetta Stone almost by heart long before I set my eyes on it for the first time, back in 1999. Of course it is quite a different thrill to behold Picasso’s Guernica at arm’s length and feel absolutely overwhelmed by its immense power, or to be blown away by the mighty pyramids, rising above us, against the mighty desert (and Cairo’s suburbs…). I remember when I went on a weekend break to Berlin, about 10 years ago, I had no real curiosity for the city and all I wanted to see was the famous bust of Nefertiti, at the Altes Museum. That was my only goal for that trip. I did see it and it was as awesome as I imagined it would be.

But these are once-in-a-lifetime experiences. No matter how many times you return to those places, you’ll never feel like you did that first time. So, this is not a strong enough reason to go back, is it?

What truly makes me fall in love with a place is its atmosphere, that unexplainable sense of belonging, a buzz in my ears and the prickling of my thumbs, the dragging of my feet all over the place, until I drop, half-dead with fatigue. And even half-dead I don’t wanna go to sleep, not as long as there are streets to walk, coffee shops to sit at, strangers to observe, things to discover and stories to learn. It’s that “something” that keeps me relentlessly curious about the place. Or the unshakable feeling that I am home, that I just wanna rediscover my long-lost childhood neighbourhood and reconnect with my old friends. The feeling that it’s not about learning, it’s about remembering and making myself whole again.

This is what makes me go back.

And London is no exception.

Since my first visit I felt in love with the city. I loved the majestic, yet gloomy, streets. I could walk them for hours. And the pubs. And the cafés. And then there’s this mix of ethnic groups and underground cultures. There’s a feeling of “anything goes“, mixed with the uptight and somewhat condescending british attitude. There has always been a sense of tremendous freedom and, at the same time, pointing fingers and twisting noses, permanently reproaching the deviation from normativeness. It just makes me want to discover what’s around the corner. What else that city has in store for me.

And then, there’s the cultural scene. There’s no other place like London. Not even New York. Maybe NY has a different edge, but the problem is that it built its reputation around that edge and there’s nothing else. While London has everything: the classic, the new, the plainly old fashioned and outdated, the mundane, the extraordinary, the ethnic, and, of course, multiple types of alternative / edgy events. You can find it all there. Just have to look.

I no longer feel the need to go back to London Tower or to the Big Ben. But I would love to catch a boat and see London from the Thames, again. Or stroll in one of its parks. And I definitely want to go back to Camden (although I think it lost some of its spirit since I first visited in 1999). And go to the theatre. And sit in pubs and drink with friends. I’ll even give another try to the (in)famous fish and chips, which I tasted and recanted back in 1999. Most of all, I want to stop in the middle of a busy street and watch the world go by.