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A taste of London

Covent Garden an ideal hub for food, fashion... and Freud

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LONDON -- Taste a sliver of the Stinking Bishop at a famous cheese shop, try on a pair of "Freudian slippers" at the house where Sigmund Freud lived, dine at a posh restaurant and then attend a private movie screening, go white water rafting -- it's time to check out some of this city's lesser-known special attractions.

You might pay $500 to spend a night at the tony Covent Garden Hotel.

Or, on the other hand, you could spend $60 to enjoy a dinner at the hotel's equally upmarket Brasserie Max and afterward head downstairs to see a movie in the hotel's private screening room.

This must be what it feels like to be rich or famous: You sit down for a leisurely gourmet two-course dinner with wine (or three courses without wine, or a fancy afternoon tea) on a Saturday. Then you are escorted downstairs to the private screening theatre with its 47 Poltrona Frau, red leather seats, to watch a first-run, art-house or classic movie, complete with popcorn (salty or sweet) and have wine, coffee or tea served to you before the show begins.

The 58-room five-star hotel (10 Monmouth) is in a building, which used to house Hopital et Dispensaire Francais, originally opened in 1867 for "the benefit of distressed foreigners of all nations requiring medical relief."

A great place to start exploring London is this Seven Dials area of Covent Garden ( where Beatles' manager Brian Epstein lived and where Monty Python was produced. Covent Garden itself was accurately depicted in My Fair Lady as the historic market that it was in the past.

Today you find all sorts of brand-name and indie shopping, fashion, beauty and grooming, hip food, fancy food, healthy food, and theatre -- some 120 outlets within a six-block area.

As well as the Covent Garden Hotel and its Saturday night Film Club (you need to book well ahead for popular movies), some of my favourites include:

-- Superdry (1-3 Earlham), the urban outerware and denim label with Japanese, vintage American and British design influences.

-- Wild Food Caf} and Juicery (Neal's Yard), with very fresh, creative and healthy, mostly vegetarian meals and beverages.

-- Neal's Yard Dairy (17 Shorts Gardens), home of the Stinking Bishop cheese -- soft and sort of stinking but very tasty -- and dozens of other cheeses you can sample, as well as special cheese classes.

-- Cambridge Theatre (Earlham and Mercer), where Chicago ran from 2006 to 2011 and which now features the hit musical Matilda -- a must-see for both kids and adults.

Because I was born in London and have frequently returned, on this visit I've spent most of my time exploring Covent Garden, the location of my hotel (The Fielding Hotel, 4 Bow Street). It's an approach I've also used during return visits to other cities such as Paris.

This way, rather than revisiting the usual tourist attractions, you can really get to know life in the community where you are staying, and the shopkeepers and other locals come to know you.

Of course, it's still enjoyable to revisit major attractions like Buckingham Palace, Soho, Trafalgar Square, the British Museum, the Thames Embankment, Big Ben, the London Eye (a giant ferris wheel), and so on -- all of which are within easy walking distance of Covent Garden.

A wonderful source of attractions and itineraries -- Free London Attractions, London One-Day Itineraries, Family Activities in London, Day Trips Outside London -- is the site designed by London and Partners, the city's very helpful and efficient tourism organization (

Then there are the lesser-known attractions like the Freud Museum (20 Maresfield Gardens, Finchley), established in the house where Freud and some of his family lived after escaping the Nazi threat just before the Second World War.

I was born a block away from that Freud house. The Freuds had been friends of my parents when they all lived in Vienna. I remember visiting the three-storey Freud house when I was a child and being impressed by the elevator, which still works today.

The house, now a museum with Freud's famous psychoanalysis couch and other historical memorabilia, has a shop with assorted Freud merchandise and souvenirs including those $30 Freudian slippers (

When sightseeing, the fastest way to travel around London is on the underground train (a.k.a. the Tube). But it is so far underground you often take very long escalators and at Covent Garden there is a five-floor elevator designed to reach the platform level.

Above ground, I lucked out and had a "blast from the past" ride when one of the 10 remaining open-backed double-decker buses pulled up to the bus stop.

The 60-year-old bus had a conductor who still calls out "tickets" -- even though most people have electronic Oyster cards, which the conductor must register on a hand-held device.

All the 7,500 other buses have a permanent reader you activate as you get on the front of the bus; the driver now deals with tickets.

I planned to have a quick Japanese snack at the very upscale and trendy Zuma (5 Raphael Street, Knightsbridge).

But when fellow Aussie and sommelier Alastair England heard I was from Down Under, he organized a couple of special dishes and it became more like a dining event.

Then onto the 5,272-seat Royal Albert Hall -- my first visit -- and a Royal Tier Box at the Coronation Classics concert with cellist Julian Lloyd-Webber (Andrew's younger brother) as one of the soloists.

And then for something completely different: White water rafting ... in London?

Head to the 2012 Lee Valley Olympic site, 40 minutes out of the city, where you can challenge those rapids from $80 a person, as well as enjoy canoeing, hiking and other activities.

London is a city where you can start out only intending to walk around the block -- and because you can't go past all the interesting attractions, large and small, end up coming back six hours later ... perhaps even carrying a pair of Freudian slippers.

-- Postmedia News


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 3, 2013 E3

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