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Sunday, January 24, 2016

Posh London: A tour of St James Street

St James Street, photo courtesy of S. McKee

London:  So you’ve viewed the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, heard the Beefeaters’ fascinating stories of lopped off heads and deep dungeons at the Tower of London, scaled the heights of the London Eye, and glimpsed St Paul’s from the all-metal Millennium Bridge.
The St James Palace
Time to get off at the Green Park tube station and find your way to the St James area, which I choose to call Posh London.  In truth there are lots of Posh Londons, but my favorite is the few blocks near the Palace of St James.  You know about the Palace, right?  Once the home of the Royal Family, it is now used for ceremonial occasions and not opened to the public.  One of those occasions was the signing of the treaty creating the Charter of the United Nations in 1941. 

Did you know Ambassadors to Great Britain still present their credentials there?  Yes, the U.S. Ambassador’s title is Ambassador to the Court of St James.

That’s the nutshell version.  But, you might want to know it was built by Henry VIII on the site of a leper’s hospital,  and often served as a royal residence until 1837, when Queen Victoria officially moved her residence to Buckingham Palace.  Some lesser royals still have apartments there.

Besides the historical references, why even mention this red brick wonder to an avid shopper and bon vivant?  Simple. In early England, where there was royal blood, there was tons of money.  So, it’s here that London’s oldest shops sprang up, many of which still open their doors to those of lesser bloodlines, with fat wallets, who crave the finer things in life.

Here’s a very short list and one that will occupy a very full Saturday.

1676 – Lock & Company, 6 St James Street.  It’s both the world’s oldest hat store and one of the oldest family businesses.  Winston Churchill bought hats here and so did Admiral Lord Nelson, Britain’s greatest naval hero (Trafalgar Square is named after him.)  Walk to the back of the shop to see history behind glass. Go upstairs to find ladies hats.  All hats are designed and made locally.

1698 - Berry Brothers & Rudd, 3 St James Street.  London’s oldest wine store. They also sell spirits to everyone, including the Royal Family.  Been in the same spot and run by the same family for eight generations.  Walk into the shop and be greeted with smiles and cordiality.  Check out the ancient plank floors and gasp at the variety of wines and spirits from around the world.  They also do special events and tastings by appointment.  Ask to speak to Alice!

Don’t neglect the narrow alley right beside Berry Bros & Rudd, Pickering Place.  Walk through the alleyway to the smallest square in London, which used to be called Stroud’s Court and was also the site of the Embassy of the Republic of Texas.  

1707 – Fortnum & Mason (around the corner), 181 Piccadilly, a fine food emporium, which also has floors of other luxury goods.  The store was begun by William Fortnum, a footman to the court of Queen Anne, who began selling candle stubs from the palace, and used his earnings to establish a grocery store.

1730 – Floris, 89 Jermyn Street.  Begun by a Spaniard, Juan Famenias Floris and still on the same site, owned by the same family.  A perfumery?  So what?  So, Floris 89 is the scent favored by Ian Fleming and also his creation, James Bond.  The counter and wooden display cases date to the Great Exhibition of 1851.  Walk in and be lovingly cloaked by a wonderland  of scents.  The soaps are so luxurious I use no other.  But, on the off chance you don’t see what you’re looking for, Floris is happy to blend a bespoke scent for her ladyship.  If you’re lucky, as we were, the owner will be traipsing through and if so, be sure to shake his hand, mention my name and note the perplexed look on his face.  However, if you see Donika, please say hello.

1787 – James J. Fox (once Robert Lewis), 19 St James Street,  is a cigar store.  Even if you don’t smoke, at least take a moment to peer through the window at the store where Winston Churchill bought his Habanas.

1790 – D.R. Harris & Company,  29 St James Street, began as Harris’s Apothecary (Harris was a surgeon)  Another place for wonderful floral perfumes and shaving products, still at the original spot.

1797 – Hatchard’s Books, 187 Piccadilly.  Back up a second and let’s go back to Fortnum and Mason’s.  Hatchard’s, Britain’s oldest bookstore is right next door.  So?  If you’ve seen one bookstore…..forget that old saw.  Hatchard’s is home to many of the world’s wonderful authors, and by that I mean they stop here frequently.  Want a signed copy?  Autographed books seem to be on every shelf, in every room, and there are lots of rooms.

1805 – Truefitt & Hill, 71 St James Street.  Although not on the Bond Street site where it began, I cannot but mention the Guinness Book certified ‘Oldest Barbershop in the World.’  They’ve been cutting hair for the families of nine British monarchs, dating back to George III.  Mention a man of note and he’s probably had his hair cut here, from Winston Churchill to John Wayne and a galore of blue bloods, extending to the present day.  Yes, Truefitt & Hill’s barbers journey to Buckingham Palace to cut the hair of  H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh, but other Royals come to them.  I chatted with some of the employees who had nothing but good to say about The House of Windsor.  Gentlemen all. Of course services come at a price.  Walk in, sit down and tell them how you want your $65 haircut done.  While you’re there, be sure and say hello to U-la.  (U = oo, as in school)

As a personal endorsement, I use no other products than T & H shaving cream (Sandalwood), aftershave balm, and men’s cologne, all of which come in a variety of scents.  Once I discovered these exceptional products, I suddenly looked forward to shaving again.

photo courtesy of S. McKee

photo courtesy of S. McKee
So, now it’s time for a drink.  No better place in St James than Dukes Bar in the Dukes Hotel (35 St James Place, a small alley off St James Street).  It’s where Ian Fleming came to loiter, drink, and plot Bond’s exploits, and where they serve the Vesper martini described by 007 in Casino Royal.  Yes, it is pricy (about $27), but  it’s worth every penny to settle into a bit of butter soft leather, feel the comfort that permeates the gentlemen’s club atmosphere, hear the history, and see such a famous drink mixed just for you, at possibly the most famous watering hole in London.  For more, see my blog at:

Which brings up the question, what does luxury mean?  More expensive?  Exclusive? Often, but that’s far from the whole story.  In the St James area, not only do you get shops that withstood the test of centuries, but shopkeepers and clerks and hairdressers and bartenders who absolutely know their business and their exclusive products.  Take the case of footwear.  

1866- John Lobb Bootmaker, 9 St James Street, which is called by Esquire Magazine the most beautiful shop in the world.  Here you can have footwear made that fits your foot exactly, and with quality you find in few other places.  Many of the greats I’ve mentioned came here for their shoes and boots, as did Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.   Ladies, they will make your shoes, too.  Buy Lobb footwear and you own them for life.  Never out of style.  Need repairs?  Easily done.  After all, the people who make your shoes know your foot.  The fitter.  The last-maker (wooden form).  The pattern cutter. The clicker. The closer.  The maker.  The socker.  The tree maker.  Check out the web site to read about all these meticulous people who hand construct every step of the way, from precise measurements to finished product.   A pair of men’s shoes run in the neighborhood of $5500.  But, check out the complete price list.

More about luxury.  How about the less expensive items, such as perfume and toiletry?  At Floris, you’ll find a package of three bars of soaps that cost about $15.  Pay about the same price for a tube of shaving cream at Truefitt & Hill.  At both places the clerks will explain the exact ingredients and how each item is made.  What do you get for your money?  Soaps that feel like silk on your skin.  Bars of soap that never crack because they’ve been triple French milled.  Shaving cream that will make you look forward to your next shave and make you swear you’ll never use anything else.

On your next trip to London, do yourself a big favor and wander the streets around St James.  What an experience!  Craftsmanship and service still live!  Now, I’m going to sit back and have another sip of this almost indescribably delicious martini…want to join me?

Friday, December 11, 2015

Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial

A Christmas Story no American who cares about valor will ever forget.  Our debt to The Greatest Generation is memorialized at The American Cemetery and Memorial near Luxembourg’s Findel Airport, just outside Luxembourg City.

You stride through the elaborate gates, look at the magnificent mosaic presentations of troop movements in World War II, but even at the sight of 5076 white crosses and Stars of David, it’s easy to overlook what it all means.  Aside from the sacrifice of young Americans in defense of their country and the bulwark against the totalitarian Nazis regime, you’re still left in ignorant awe.  There are young men and old interred here and at the head of them, in a grave set apart, lies a leader among leaders, General George S Patton, Jr.

Is this just another graveyard, like so many others?  Unfortunately, we are accustomed to seeing rows and rows of white crosses, from a war that cost us about 360,000 men and women killed. What’s the story?  Or to put it another way, what makes this military cemetery different.

A thumbnail of the saga goes like this: from 16 December 1944 until 25 January 1945, the German Army, under Adolf Hitler’s direct orders, fought what would be their last great offensive.  It was a final, desperate effort to fight the western allies to a stalemate and free Hitler to concentrate on the Russian front.  The battle has many names.  The Ardennes Offensive, or in French Bataille des Ardennes, or in German Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein, Operation Watch on the Rhine.  The American Army referred to it as The Ardennes Counteroffensive, but the press coined the name that stuck, The Battle of the Bulge.

But, why Luxembourg as a place for an American Cemetery?  Look at the map.  Luxembourg and Belgium were where Germany thrust the sharp end of its last spear.

In short, the German forces massed and struck almost undetected.  The object:  Cut the allied forces in two and secure the channel ports, preventing reinforcements and devastating the allied war effort.  Very ambitious.  Had it worked, even if the allies had been only stifled for a year, the German Army had a bare chance of rearranging the final outcome.

What stopped the Germans?  Lack of sufficient fuel and fierce allied opposition.   The American line bent, but did not break, the most famous example being the 101st Airborne Division at the small town of Bastogne, but there were many others.

But the 101st couldn’t hold out indefinitely.  On 19 Dec, General Eisenhower discussed with his staff how to respond.  How fast can we get more troops there?  General Patton said, Give me 48 hours.  Everyone else at the meeting said it couldn’t be done.  Patton’s 3rd Army was heavily engaged in contact with the enemy.  He’d have to disengage, turn the 3rd Army 90 degrees, and march his 23 divisions from Metz, France to Bastogne, some 90 miles north, in winter, under attack.  But, having few other options, Eisenhower decided to let George Patton give it a try.

While watching his men heading toward the Germans surrounding Bastogne, he said, "No other army in the world could do this. No other soldiers could do what these men are doing. By God, I'm proud of them."  Bastogne was relieved shortly after Christmas, 1944.

Luxembourg has not forgotten.  The land for the cemetery is granted in perpetuity.

That’s what so special about these graves and these men who have lain here some 70 years, including a far sighted general, intent on victory, who drove his men hard, and himself even harder.  What lost dreams lie in these graves.  What sacrifice they represent.

Enjoy a Merry Christmas and give a thought to all those men and women, throughout our history, for whom Christmas is now just another cold December day.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Small Glimpse of German Christmas Cheer!

This is the time for Christkindlmarkts.  Yep, in Germany the Christmas markets are in full swing across  the land.  Sure, you’ve heard of the big ones in Berlin and München, and so forth, but you don’t have to wander far to find smaller versions.  In my opinion, sometimes smaller is better.  No huge crowds.  No long lines for eating and drinking…essen und trinken.

The market in the photos took place a couple of weeks ago in a nearby city.  What do you think of when you think of Christmas markets?  Things to buy and eat?  Christmas ornaments?  Well, there’s all that, of course, but even more, a German Christkindlmarkt is a place for friends to gather for steaming cups of tea with rum, or mugs of Glühwein, that spiced and sugared red wine concoction.  Local bands play Christmas music.  The aroma of roasting meats fills the frosty air.

Choirs of school children, bundled up and showing off their weeks of practice, belt out choruses of traditional hymns and Santa Claus classics.  By the way, here are a couple of ‘Did you know?’ items.


Over here, Santa Claus is St. Nicolas and he delivers small gifts to children on St Nicolas Day, 6 December.  Family members exchange gifts on Christmas Eve.

Do the early Christmas markets make a little more sense now?  Another thing to factor in is that Advent (the four Sundays leading up to Christmas Day) is a big part of the holiday season, so celebrations begin about 1 December and go through to the 25th.  Advent means ‘coming’ in Latin, the season leading up to the coming of Jesus.

In Germany, at least for the present, Christmas is a religious time.  But, that doesn’t mean there are no Christmas trees!  There are plenty and the custom dates back to the middle ages.  Parents traditionally decorate the trees in secret.

There’s the German Christmas season in a nutshell.  Go out with friends and family and find a Christkindlmarkt, large or small.  It’s a social season!  Sip that tea and rum, or glug that Glühwein!  And, as they say in Germany…  Frohe Weihnachten!!!  Happy Christmas!!!