Exquisite treasures

  • By Rick Steves / Tribune Media Services
  • Saturday, March 31, 2007 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Squinting at the sumptuous treasures of the Gilbert Collection in London’s grand Somerset House, it occurs to me that you could make a theme tour called “Exquisite London.” It would feature the souvenirs and ego trips left over from London’s gilded age of obscene privilege, plus a few ostentatious knickknacks from our own time.

The Gilbert Collection’s micro-mosaics look like paintings at first. But peering through the provided magnifying glasses, you see a field of pinhead-sized glazed and semi-precious cobbles carefully placed to give shadow and texture. Many of the mosaics feature classic art themes – Venus, the three graces, the Madonna and Child. These were souvenirs that 18th-century English aristocrats brought home from their “Grand Tours” of the Continent.

Then you enter a room of tall, skinny, black pedestals, each crowned with a brilliantly jeweled and gilded snuff box. The highlight of the collection is Frederick the Great’s set of six incredibly ornate snuff boxes – considered part of the crown jewels of Prussia.

The museum’s included audio guide explains that the sniffing of powdered and scented snuff tobacco was an elaborate social ritual in the 18th century, and high-fashion aristocrats had a snuff box for every occasion. The fanciest are so diamond-encrusted, they overexpose when photographed.

For more of the exquisite, let your sightseeing take you to London’s Victorian age. Queen Victoria, with hubby Prince Albert at her royal side, ruled Britain through its 19th-century glory days. Bursting with unprecedented optimism, London threw the first great world’s fair: the Great Exhibition of 1851.

On the towering Albert Memorial, newly restored with three layers of gold leaf, Albert is shown holding a book that most people assume is the Bible. It’s actually the catalog of the Great Exhibition, which Albert spearheaded. Victoria declared that the opening of the fair – which 6 million people attended – was the “happiest, proudest day of my life.”

The profit made from the Great Exhibition was used to buy up land and establish a complex of museums in South Kensington. The greatest of these, the much-loved Victoria and Albert Museum, is a festival of refinement. This vast warehouse takes you from Raphael cartoons of Renaissance Italy, to priceless vases of China’s Ming dynasty, to lumbering tusks carved into a fantasy of tiny figurines for the Indian raja. The highlight is the British Galleries, showing off the snooty best of England’s ultimate country homes and city mansions, and a fine exhibit on the Great Exhibition itself.

If the finery of the V and A puts you in a consuming frame of mind, walk down the street to Harrods, London’s most venerable department store. The free store guide booklet (available at any information desk) sorts out Harrods’ 300 departments and 1 million square feet of display space on seven floors, and directs you to whatever you want: that $30,000 kid-sized, yet driveable, Hummer, or maybe just a fancy snuff box.

To hit Harrods’ high points, start at the ground-floor food halls, with their Edwardian tiled walls, creative and exuberant displays, sales staff in period costumes and lots of tempting theme eateries. Then find the memorial to Dodi al-Fayed and Princess Diana (featuring a wine glass still smudged with lipstick from her last dinner, and the engagement ring Dodi purchased the day before they died). From there, ride up the “Egyptian Escalator,” a reminder that Mohamed al-Fayed, Harrods’ owner and Dodi’s father, is from Egypt – and has lots of money to throw around.

On the fourth floor, hop and skip through toyland (finding the mini-luxury cars) to the Georgian Restaurant, which serves a fancy afternoon tea. For about $36, you’ll enjoy a three-tiered serving tray stacked with finger sandwiches, scones and pastries, and a big, steamy pot of tea while a pianist tickles the keys of a long, long Bosendorfer – the world’s most expensive piano. Or, for a superb lunch on the relative cheap, I buy an over-the-top picnic from Harrods’ deli section and munch on it across the street in Hyde Park’s Rose Garden.

Savoring my white asparagus, foie gras and a delightful tropical fruit plate to go, I mentally round up the most exquisite experiences in Europe: the Bernini statues in Rome’s Villa Borghese, Belgian chocolates in Bruges, the sumptuous Topkapi dagger in Istanbul, the slinky Alfons Mucha collection in Prague and the pastel-flavored worth-the-ransom macaroons of Paris’ finest cafes. Then, surrounded by Britain’s bustling capital and a thousand plush roses, I marvel how big shots and little shots alike can enjoy the many treasures of London. When it comes to exquisite, nothing tops London.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

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