(Sometimes there just isn’t a clever title to be had.)
Day 3, and we’re really starting to feel the press of constant travel. Well, Lisa’s constant travel. She had been on a (family) business trip to the U.S. the previous week, with about a day between Italy and the leaving, and a day between arriving back and then heading back out to the U.K. We knew it could be tough, which is why we made sure to arrange for a great big juicy carrot dangling right in front of us: the National Gallery, London. We hadn’t even been thinking of this museum when we planned the trip, but as usual we did a scan for events in the locations we’d decided to travel to, and lo and behold the National Gallery is putting on The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael. That’s right, in one month we’ll have seen exhibitions featuring 50% of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And the art should be good, too.
Once again, the location of our hotel in Whitechapel paid dividends as we were moments away from multiple tube stops. And so, in about 20 minutes we were exiting the Embankment station – which prompted its own wave of nostalgia as we realized we’d been on this very street 15 years earlier. On our first trip off the continent (and really, except for a pop down to Cozumel, Mexico it was our first trip ofut of the country together) we had stuffed the itinerary to the point of breaking, so eager were we to take everything in. This included discovering that Ian McKellen was going to be in Stratford-Upon-Avon during our visit, fronting a Royal Shakespeare Company production of King Lear. Not surprisingly, the entire run had sold out moments after going on sale. But hey, that’s what eBay is for, right? (Or it was in 2007 at least.) Thus it was that we had been on that same street, at that same station entrance, to rendezvous with a nice young woman from whom we were purchasing tickets. She has always stu1ck in our memory for her bewildered/bemused “you must really want these tickets.” Neither of us remember how much we paid, our minds sensibly blanking out the horror like an encounter with Cthulhu.
In any case, we scooted up the little side street and, crossing that weekend’s river of bicyclists (part of some event or other for Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee) with the assistance of police officers, we go through a side entrance marked off specifically for the Raphael exhibition. An exhibition of his work is, by its nature, going to be robust; Raphael was incredibly productive both personally and through his extraordinary workshop which he oversaw. In other words, there is a lot of Raphael out in the world, and a major museum can call in a lot of favors (and spend a lot of Credit Suisse’s money) to fill out the exhibition. It was expansive. It was beautiful. It was also, I must admit, a little inscrutable. The Donatello exhibition we’d just been to did a magnificent job of contextualizing his place in the continuum of artistic development. What I can tell you from this exhibition is that Raphael sure was good at art. That said, he was very, very good at it and we did not feel like it was wasted time, at all.
After the Raphael we had a meal at “Muriel’s Kitchen”, a restaurant within the National Gallery. It must be said: our visit in 2007 left a lasting impression as far as museum food was concerned. To wit: we never had a good meal in one. Either the food was cheap cafeteria quality (mostly sandwiches in plastic containers), or else the service was atrocious. In London there is a common practice to include an “optional gratuity” on the bill, which seems even worse than just having a tipping culture, but whatever. At one of our meals on that trip, I actually went to the trouble of going up to the cashier and “requesting” a new bill with the optional service taken off. I honestly don’t remember if they asked why, but if they did I’m sure I told them; we were steamed. Honestly, neither of us recalls the details, other than being both slow and inattentive, and hopefully you’ve read enough of our posts by now to know that we full well understand the differences in European dining culture and it was bad even on their relaxed scale. Anyway. Muriel’s Kitchen cemented our feeling that, while still not food that you’d go out of your way to get to, if you eat at the museum you’re going to have an ok time. That may sound like damning with faint praise, but we were genuinely tickled. It meant that we could take a break within a museum (we did it a few times) without having to leave the premises and then dive back into another portion of the building. In this case we poked around in the permanent collections. The National Gallery is not actually that large a museum. Certainly it is dwarfed by the Louvre and the Uffizi Galleries, and I suspect even the Musee D’Orsay is bigger. However, what they’ve done is most excellently curated the collection so that it still impresses with both quality and diversity. Plus, they have most of the Waterhouses, which are worth a trip by themselves in my opinion.
After another stuffed-full day of art, we rewound our commute to get back to our hotel, where we packed ourselves up and had something to eat. It was an amazing way to punctuate our first “quick” excursion to another country, but after that we were looking forward to coming to rest at home in Braga.