European capital of cinema
lose up. A girl works on her laptop while having some banana bread in the Wild Food Café. A hipster is out walking his dog. The dog smells the bread and thows itself at the girl, and so the two young people meet.
It could be the opening scene of a romantic comedy, but it has just happened on a terrace in Neal’s Yard. This colourful pátio, hidden among the buildings around Covent Garden, could serve as a movie set, and the couple could be the stars of the umpteenth remake of Love Actually, this time with a springtime twist and New Age cafés in the background. I moved on without ever knowing if it had a happy ending, but my guess was it did. Before I took my leave, I left a message on the magnetic board that stands in the doorway of the café: “To be continued …”
Inside any carriage you can hear the “modern Babylon” that twice-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli spoke of.
Every corner in London hides a story worthy of the big screen, as if at any moment Ridley Scott were about to appear shouting “Cut!” Novelist Walter Besant knew it. He discovered “something new every day”, even though he had been walking London’s streets for over 30 years. Or Samuel Johnson, who declared that a man who has seen London, has seen as much of life as the world can show.
By simply riding the Tube, you can learn a lot, if not everything, about the British capital. Inside any carriage you can hear the “modern Babylon” that twice-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli spoke of. The street food stalls in Camden Lock Market demonstrate it in tasty ways – all the food cultures of the world in scarcely 30 metres of market, a festival of tastes that include Ethiopian curry, salmon nigiri, tropical smoothies and fresh pasta made as you watch. Alessandro, an Italian polyglot thanks to his stall in Global Kitchen, plays at guessing the nationality of the passers-by as he cuts the ravioli. He is nearly always right. He recommends the Stables Market, an old horse hospital converted into an alternative market. Entrance is through a tunnel that opens up onto more than 700 stalls that offer everything from retro leather handbags to underwear stamped with the Union Jack.
The street markets mark the London week as much as the chimes of Big Ben. On Saturdays, it’s Portobello Market in Notting Hill. On Sundays, the markets at Old Spitalfields and Brick Lane with up-to-the-minute fashions, albeit second or third-hand. Apple Market in Covent Garden has a new look almost daily: depending on the day of the week, it will be flowers or crafts or antiques – like the compasses that Valif sell on Mondays. The market is held inside the historic Market Building, the very heart of the neighbourhood for over 180 years. It is in the same piazza as the Royal Opera House, though there is no need to buy a ticket to enjoy the show: the stone paving serves as a magnificent stage for acrobats, magicians, and street musicians. Oasis’ Wonderwall is playing – the permanent soundtrack of London’s streets.
Posing on Primrose Hill
It rains a lot in London, but not all the time. On average, the city has 1,460 hours of sunshine, and when the sun comes out, Londoners pour into their city's parks. For example, to Primrose Hill, to the north of Regent's Park, where the neighbours gather to see the sunset. It’s a hill, some 65 metres high, with views over all of Central London. Couples sit out on the grass surrounded by picnic baskets that conceal bottles of wine and cans of beer. Selfies abound. You can check it out: to know if the weather is good in London all you need to do is check how many pics carry the Primrose Hill hashtag on Instagram
I hear it again near Westminster Abbey and again near the Millenium Bridge. As I walk the short distance between the suspension bridge designed by Norman Foster and St. Paul’s Cathedral, it starts to rain. Maybe you are gonna be the one that saves me. With the song of the Gallagher brothers ringing in my head, I step inside the church to get out of the rain. Its dome is the largest in the world after that of St. Peter’s in Rome. It was completed at the beginning of the 17th century, replacing the church burnt down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. “The fire destroyed virtually the whole city and when it came to rebuilding they thought, Should we plan the new avenues American-style? Or have more Medieval chaos?” They took the second option, Chris, a student of literature, now working in marketing, tells me with typical English irony. His office is not far from Pudding Lane, where the fire broke out. The low-lying wooden houses of those years have been replaced by Victorian buildings and modern skyscrapers like The Shard or 30 St Mary Axe, better known as The Gherkin.
If Covent Garden with its cafés and restaurants bring to mind tales of romance, then the urban landscape of the City suggests a different type of story. Drama, as in Woody Allen’s Match Point or as with the battles of Thor in The Dark World. The steel and glass skyscrapers are home to sophisticated places serving cocktails worthy of Agent 007, among them the Sky Bar of the Sushi Samba restaurant. London has always been home to James Bond, and not only because it is home to MI6, whose HQ we saw explode in Skyfall. Ian Fleming, the creator of the secret agent, wrote his first novel, Casino Royale, here. Fleming moved into the Writers’ Block in Carlyle Mansions, where Henry James and T.S. Eliot also lived. These luxury apartments are in Chelsea, one of London’s chicest neighbourhoods.
The street markets mark the London week as much as the chimes of Big Ben.
Whitechapel will be its antagonist, closer to the thriller than to glamour. Its fame comes from one of those cases in which reality surpasses fiction: it was the scene of the crimes of Jack the Ripper. The young Sherlock Holmes also investigated several murders in this area, although it must be said that the neighbourhood is much different today when compared to the days of Holmes. Today, Whitechapel Gallery, one of the best of London’s contemporary art galleries, gives cultural life to a zone that can no longer be considered marginal.
The most romantic street in London.
The 1999 movie Notting Hill made it the place to visit. Since then, thousands of tourists have been looking for love in the souvenir shops and antique dealers of Portobello Road. The bookstore in the movie was based on a small book shop on a street perpendicular to Blenheim Crescent. Its interior hasn’t changed since 1981. Veronica smiles at the hundreds of intrigued shoppers who call in on the off-chance of meeting Hugh Grant at the counter. Veronica has been working there for two months and has lived more than one moment of high comedy. One customer asked her – with Julia Roberts looking on from the poster – for the book that Sophia Loren had bought in the film.
Each neighbourhood is a new film set. By simply crossing a London street, you can move from comedy to drama. From the grand department stores on Oxford Street to a small pub in an alley off the Strand. I head back to the city centre. A council worker with the looks of a model sweeps the street to the rhythm of music just off Piccadilly. The scene is so carefully set that the Truman Show syndrome attacks me. But unlike Jim Carrey, I don’t try to escape. As Samuel Johnson would say, “ You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London”. And I add, no woman either. Fade to black.