This year was a big anniversary for Mason and me, so he suggested we celebrate with a big trip. That’s how we found ourselves headed for London, Barcelona, and Paris last month.
I love London, but I hadn’t been there in 20 years. Our hotel was perfectly situated near Tottenham Court Road and within walking distance of the British Museum, which absorbed the first whole day. The highlight was tracking down John Dee’s wax seals, tucked in a case in the Enlightenment Gallery. John Dee fascinates me: such a learned man, talking to angels through a crystal.
Luckily enough, the Royal College of Physicians had gathered together some of Dee’s books for the first time since they had been stolen from his house in the 1580s. It was amazing to see his annotations and marginalia in books on medicine, astronomy, and science. They also had one of Dee’s angel-scrying crystals there.
Afterward, we stopped at Attendant Coffee, a truly underground coffee bar inside a remodeled Victorian “public convenience,” otherwise known as a men’s toilet.
One of my cemetery idols suggested an exhibit of David Bowie photos, so we met her there, then went out to lunch. Carole Tyrrell leads iconography tours of Nunhead Cemetery — and I very much would have liked to go there with her, but there just wasn’t time.
That evening, Mason and I took our daughter to the cemetery where our adventures began: glorious Highgate. As we trailed a guide through the western side of the cemetery, 400 feet above the city below, thunder rumbled overhead. I figured that it would be poetic if I met my end, roaming yet another cemetery in the rain. Somehow we all survived and the storm blew past. The highlight of the tour was setting foot inside the catacombs and seeing the old Victorian coffins within.
Our last day in London, I dragged the family to the Tower so they could see the crown jewels and I could visit the Royal Chapel, where the headless bodies of three English queens lie.
Then it was off to Barcelona. This was our third attempt to visit: the first was derailed when the Gulf War kept canceling our flights, the second was prevented when my pregnancy turned high risk and my doctor forbade me to travel. I worried that something would happen to turn us away this time, but instead we had a great time in Spain. All of us would like to go back someday.
Day 1 started off with exploring Poblenou Cemetery, home of this amazing “El beso de la muerte.” We followed that with tapas at a cafe across from the cemetery where Mason accidentally ordered little crunchy fishes with eyes. Talk about morbid.
Monday we finally got to see Gaudi’s mind-blowing Sagrada Familia. It was, by far, the most beautiful church I’ve ever been inside. And the most terrifying: we took the elevator up into the towers, so we could look down over the city. I understood going up that we’d have to climb more than 300 steps down. I didn’t know that they wouldn’t have an inside railing — only a drop of 300 feet straight down inside their coil. Generally I am not troubled by heights, but that first 100 steps down was one of the hardest adventures of my life.
The other highlight of the cathedral was being able to catch a glimpse of Gaudi’s grave down in the crypt. My photos captured a lovely ball of pink light, seemingly sitting on the bench inside the chapel where Gaudi is buried.
Mason tracked down another coffeeshop to perk us up afterward. Satan’s Coffee has the best cold brew I’ve ever tasted. It also played reggae music, which was a hell I had not imagined.
We spent our last day in Barcelona inside the air-conditioned aquarium. My black-and-white patterned dress was a huge hit with the cuttlefish, who each came over in turn to check me out. The aquarium had an enormous tank in which you could cage-dive with their sharks. I was tempted only until I found out it cost 150 euros each (minimum of 2 guests). My daughter would have come along, but 300 euros works out to about $350 for the two of us. Too much to spend on a whim.
Then we were off to Paris. We made the pilgrimage to the Pantheon, so I could visit Alexandre Dumas and Marie Curie’s graves. We discovered the Paris Cat Cafe, but it had no cats, sadly. We visited Van Gogh’s portrait at the d’Orsay and saw the Apollinaire exhibit at l’Orangerie, but this was more a trip for visiting bookstores and eating pastries than for seeing art.
Monday we walked up Rue des Martyrs to Sacre Coeur. Last time I visited, 20-some years ago, you could visit the saints’ bones in the crypt. That was closed now — unless, perhaps, you could see them if you bought a ticket to climb to the dome. We didn’t, so I don’t know.
We roamed Montmartre until we came to the cemetery. The rain waited until we stepped past the gates, but we all had umbrellas and there were many feral cats, so my daughter was entertained as I photographed every single thing that caught my eye.
Tuesday was a quieter day. We wandered the Passage Verdeau, a covered shopping street that offered toy stores, antique shops, and box after box of vintage postcards: pretty much heaven.
After that, we trekked over to L’Atelier des Eclairs, a whole restaurant dedicated to my favorite French dessert as a child. Beyond looking like a jewelry display, the eclairs were amazing. I had red raspberry with cassis, Mason had tart lemon and lime, and Sorrell had the best chocolate thing I may have ever eaten.
We took the Chunnel train back to London the day of the attack on Istanbul. Luckily, we were able to shield our daughter from the lone television in the waiting room.
It was cold in London, but we made one more trip to Waterstone’s Books, to stock up for the flight home. Afterwards, I led a detour over to Treadwell’s Books. I was hoping to find a book on Dion Fortune and the battle waged by British ritual magicians against Hitler during World War II. I came up blank in the first two sections I scoured and was just about to ask when it felt like someone tapped me on the shoulder. There, behind me, was The Magical Battle of Britain: The War Letters of Dion Fortune, edited by Gareth Knight.
In the morning, there was only time for breakfast at Black Sheep Coffee and a stop by Platform 9-3/4s at Kings Cross Station. I picked up the earrings of my house (Ravenclaw, of course) and we were off on the first leg of our journey home.