By Anne McDonough
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 1, 2007
Princess Twinkle Knickers, not exactly the royal I'd expected to see in London, stood on a small stage wearing a red velvet half-of-a-dress, a cape and bloomers. Grabbing the pole in front of her, she wiggled her bottom and her dress dipped back and forth, adding a visual rhythm to the Handel sonata played by two wigged musicians in embroidered coats and knee breeches.
It was the first Friday of the month, and the august Tate Britain art museum was open late and filled with visitors in for a night of cabaret performances, lectures and half-price admission to the special exhibit. Works by 18th-century artist William Hogarth had inspired the burlesque-themed evening; the "Handel My Knickers" pole dance was just the beginning.
The best part? The bill for the evening's entertainment came to $7, the cost of a gin-and-tonic in a plastic cup.
Budget plus, baby. Budget plus.
* * *
According to a recent survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Western Europe is home to eight of the globe's 10 most expensive cities. Oslo is 32 percent more expensive than New York, followed by Paris, Copenhagen and London. The cold, hard facts: One euro is currently worth $1.33, and the even stronger pound translates to a whopping $1.96.
For dollar-earning Americans yearning to travel, it's a wake-up smack in the face, and nowhere is that more obvious than on London's Underground, where a single cash ride currently costs four pounds. That's $7.85 . . . to step on the Tube. Price of a movie? In November, I paid $26 for a single ticket at one of London's Leicester Square theaters.
None of this, however, seems to be deterring American travelers much. A survey by TripAdvisor.com last month indicated that travel to Europe will be up this year, with 50 percent of American respondents planning a trip in 2007, compared with 45 percent last year. And last month, I was one of them. Some serious budgeting was clearly in order.
Scoping out flights and lodging rates in London, I quickly concluded that booking an air-hotel package was the only way I could pull off the trip without staying at a hostel or crashing with friends (see "Anatomy of a Package Deal" at right). I chose a hotel that was just off the Piccadilly Tube line, so transport from Heathrow would be cheap if I bought a discount transit card at the airport. And my package deal included breakfast, so I had four free meals. Now I just had eight others to pay for, not to mention activities and entertainment.
Hence the budget-plus plan: Everything I did in London would have to be either free or cheap, and whatever I paid for had to serve double duty. Luckily, London's multitude of free museums and markets can more than satisfy a visitor's shopping, eating and people-watching cravings. Before I left, I scoured Web sites to see what free events were on offer, signed up for Time Out London's online newsletter, and noted which markets operate on which days. If I missed one, it wouldn't be because of poor planning.
* * *
The legendary red double-decker city buses that ply London streets offer the best value bus tour a girl could have. Especially if she's paying with a discount transit card: My $3.90 cash fare was reduced to $1.96.
Though most Routemasters -- the iconic city buses that debuted in the 1950s -- were retired by 2005, some still run along London's so-called "heritage routes," Nos. 9 and 15; they cost the same as regular buses and show off areas of the city most visitors want to see, such as Trafalgar Square, Charing Cross and St. Paul's Cathedral. There are also plenty of non-Routemaster double-deckers throughout the city, and last month the world's first diesel/electric hybrid double-decker debuted; it runs from Palmers Green to London Bridge Station and boasts a leafy green design.
I hopped on a double-decker and snagged a front-row seat on the upper level, shooting unobstructed photos through the windows. You see the city differently from such a high perch; from the bus, the vintage signs above the James Smith and Sons Umbrella Shop (est. since 1830) on New Oxford Street read like poetry:
I'm sure a guide would have pointed them out had I been on a hop-on/hop-off tour bus; I liked having the $33 difference in my pocket.
Arriving on a Friday, I had checked into my package-deal digs in the busy West London neighborhood of Earl's Court and set out exploring. Two blocks from the Tube, the My Place hotel turned out to be a Victorian townhouse on a quiet street lined with more of the same, just off a busy road with a post office, stationery stores, two little grocery stores selling $6 bottles of wine, and more takeaway food shops than I could count. My adopted neighborhood wasn't posh, but it was just right. And my tiny dormer-style room was, mercifully, six floors above the hotel's attached, sometimes noisy and somewhat cheesy nightclub.
The British Museum should top any cheapskate's to-do list, being not only magnificent but free. I made that my first stop, parking myself in the contemporary Court Restaurant under the glass-and-steel roof covering the museum's inner courtyard: A spot of tea was in order, with a view of the grand Reading Room a story below.
Watching researchers ponder texts and visitors walk in, look up and mouth "wow," I put away a pot of tea, two perfect scones with jam and clotted cream, and four cucumber-and-cream-cheese sandwiches with a bit of cress and mint, all for about $17. Compared with the cost of tea at Brown's Hotel (about $64), the Ritz ($71) and the Dorchester ($58), I got off easy. Still, to justify the cost (and stay within budget), I considered this meal not an indulgent snack but a late lunch. (Sadly, now the view of the Reading Room will be less than stellar as preparations are made for the "First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army" exhibit opening in September.)
Next stop: the Tate Britain, where Princess Twinkle Knickers wasn't the only star. No, there was also Le Gateau Chocolat, a large man in a purple-and-gold gown performing a drag opera with gusto. And -- though I never figured out what, if anything, she had to do with the Hogarth exhibit -- a woman milled about dressed in a red-and-white-striped shirt and hat, with black glasses, as if staging a real-life Where's Waldo in the museum.
Wandering the museum's long Duveen Galleries, I was captivated by "State Britain," an installation of more than 600 peace banners and disturbing posters addressing the war in Iraq. It's a replica of the "peace camp" that stood in Parliament Square from June 2001 through last May, when it was dismantled on orders of the government; the activist who established it maintains his protest, sans camp.
Entertainment and an education for the price of admission: Free.
* * *
"Go ahead, just dunk and dip," said Hayan Samara, a vendor at the Terra Rossa stall in Borough Market. The market has been at its current site near London Bridge in southeast London for more than 250 years, and around in some form since Roman times.
The hunk of bread went first into the Jordanian olive oil, then into the zaatar, a fragrant herb mix -- and then into my mouth, which had been very active since entering the market that Saturday morning. I was free-sampling my way around the market. On Fridays and Saturdays, the vendor ranks swell and it's a form of sharp-elbowed entertainment as well as a place to get some eating done.
Many of the wares are not cheap. I chatted up locals Stephen Doughty, Philip Haines and Sonja Haines at Bedales, a shop with one entrance on Bedale Street and the other through to the market. The bill for their antipasti would come to about $26 before drinks and tip. Still, you can make a proper, inexpensive meal out of your Borough wanderings, as I saw so many do. Those with little trays of scallops with bacon and toast ($7.80) had been to Shell Seekers; the ones who stopped by Turnips held white cups with barbecued vegetable wraps ($5.90); and the folks walking near Maria's Market Cafe were tearing into steak and mushroom bun sandwiches ($6.90).
I ate and was entertained for hours, filling up on free samples of wasabi peanuts and candies from Cranberry, mixed Spanish olives from Brindisa (a small container for about $1.80), a tiny cup of Cotes du Rhone red courtesy of Cartright Brothers vintners, and a massive rosemary focaccia from the Flour Station ($6.90). Total cost of lunch: $8.70.
* * *
London is a great town for free concerts, many of them at churches; St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square is among those famously offering free recitals during the day. St. Martin's on-site lunchtime events are suspended until October, and the evening concerts require tickets starting at about $12.
Instead, I stole into a seat just as the 11 a.m. Solemn Mass began at the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a 19th-century Italianate Roman Catholic church in South Kensington that is known as the Brompton Oratory. Most of the church's Masses are in English, but the one I wanted to hear, with the full choir, was in Latin. I was far from the only one: The second-largest Catholic church in London was packed.
You can't time a visit here just for the music -- the brilliant voices rise and fall between the gospel, homily and other parts of the Mass -- but it's a lovely concert, even for those who wouldn't think to pop into a church on their travels. Plus, the church is right next to two free museums: the Victoria and Albert -- where I took in a vintage biscuit tin exhibit and fell in love with Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel's black-and-white silk "piano dress" -- and the Science Museum, perfect for -- and filled with -- families.
Slightly museumed out, I switched gears from West London to East. The locals I'd met at Borough Market had recommended the area around Spitalfields Market and toward Hoxton Square as "better than Soho, better than Covent Garden." This was new territory for me; $3 and 30 minutes on the Tube later, I was outside the market.
Okay, so I couldn't afford the eye-catching halter top made from a collared button-down ($87), but I did get to meet its designer, Nina Dewey, who makes award-winning womenswear out of refashioned clothing for her label Enienay. Dewey staffs her own stall, as do many of the market's artists.
I watched another designer sew a bag to her customer's specification. I chose five handknit finger puppets in animal and superhero designs. At $1.96 each, they were reasonably priced, and should I need entertainment over dinner, they would serve well.
In the market's tightly packed heart, you can pick up inexpensive fashions (dresses for about $15), "aroma sand" candles ($6.90 for a pack) and bags that, as the vendor demonstrated with gusto, are made from a single zipper. A long string of international food stalls sells everything from falafel ($5.90) and vegetable curry with rice ($4.90) to a $1.85 espresso.
Along nearby Brick Lane, I caught up on avant-garde photography at the Brick Lane Gallery, poked my head into a sample sale offering Vivienne Westwood and Lynne Mackey, and traipsed through the Sunday UpMarket in the Old Truman Brewery. Similar to Spitalfields Market but smaller and open only on Sundays, the UpMarket also offers fashion and food stalls, with Ethiopian coffee, Turkish dishes and tiny designer cupcakes.
I won't admit that I was beginning to flag, but I was almost relieved to discover from my trusty Time Out London that my next destination, the famous and free White Cube gallery, about a 20-minute walk away in Hoxton Square, was closed on Sundays. Tomorrow, then.
Even when your budget is limited, it seems, you can be tired in London, but not of it.