Brick Lane Sunday Market

September isn’t quite over, yet the tsunami that marks the beginning of the school year has already started erasing the memory of summer. A few weeks ago I’ve written all about my childrens’ highlights from our summer trip. Today I want to recall one of my own personal favorites, before routine blurs its recollection away.

London has many world-class attractions, from monumental architecture to grand museums. It is also dotted with little markets, hidden in alleys all over the city. Most operate all week long, but have a rotating display of booths: antiques on Mondays, crafts on Tuesdays and so forth. Some operate only on weekends. I really wish I could have visited all of them, but my time in the city was limited. Still, I was lucky to see some. Of those, my absolute favorite was Brick Lane Sunday Market and the alleys surrounding it.

Brick Lane Market is located in an area composed of many small markets that merge into each other. Some are outdoors, others, like Old Spitalfields Market, indoors. They offer everything and anything, from antiques to vintage clothes to arts and crafts to food. We visited on a Sunday, when the market is at its peak, and quite an experience it was!

When my children heard the plan for the day was to visit a market, they noisily objected. “Not ANOTHER crafts market!” they protested. “BORING!!.” But after dragging all over the city from one Harry Potter site to another just to make them happy, I had no intention of giving up. I promised to stay for only an hour or two, and off to market we went.

The place was BURSTING with life. People, noise and music mixed with the smells of many foods. There was much on which to feast the eyes. People were dressed in colorful, interesting outfits. Stall displays were eye-catching, and the arts and crafts booths were inspiring.

Here for example, is an old cab converted into a coffee stall. We just couldn’t pass it by without buying a latte:

An old London taxi turned cafe

And this is a picture of some of the stalls, displaying all kinds of knickknacks:

Vendor booths at Brick Lane Market

One stall sold interesting-looking leather shoes:

Shoe booth at Brick Lane Market

A few stalls sold handbags, though not necessarily handmade (or local. I suspect many arrived on big ships from China):

Bag booth at Brick Lane Market

Appealing foods were everywhere. They were colorful, beautiful-looking and fragrant, and represented every imaginable country. We ended up staying for lunch, tasting vegetarian Ethiopian food, Chinese dumplings, Japanese tempura, and, for dessert, some Dutch chocolate-filled pancakes.

Food near Brick Lane market

Food near Brick Lane market

Tempting food at Brick Lane Market

There was also amazing street art everywhere, scribbled on walls, painted on doors, or hiding high above. Some of the artists had a good sense of humor. Once we realized there were a few threads of art spread around the neighborhood, hiding above eye-level, our entire visit turned into a fun, “Find Waldo” game.

These, all looking to be by the same artists, were posted high above doors on different lanes:

Fun art near Brick Lane Market

Brick Lane street art

Street art near Brick Lane Market

Brick Lane art

My son liked these cute dinosaurs, also spread in two different locations:

Brick Lane fun street art

Fun street art near Brick Lane Market

And I assume these two works represent the same face:

Street art in London

Street art around Brick Lane Sunday Market

There was also a lot of colorful graffiti:

Graffiti at Brick Lane market

This one, around the corner from a mosque, looked sweet and hopeful in a week besieged by terror and fear:

Muslim street art around Brick Lane Sunday Market

And another street painting I liked:

Art in Brick Lane Market

We noticed his little guy right before we left. He is one of my favorites:

Fun street art around Brick Lane Market

Needless to say, we ended up staying much longer than one or two hours. In fact, we spent the entire day at the market. At the end my daughter came to thank me. “Thanks for taking us there,” she said. “It was really fun!”


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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

We arrived in London a couple of weeks before the official opening night of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the new play by Jack Thorne. Previews of the show started opening to the public only a few weeks before. This original story, written in collaboration with J.K. Rowling and John Tiffany, is the eighth installment of the Harry Potter series. It takes place nineteen years after the events described in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It is the only story in the series written particularly for a stage.

As Potter fans, my daughters heard a lot about this play long before we decided to go to London. They followed news articles that discussed it. They knew all about the main-character castings and controversy. Like all their friends, they were very curious about the story line. Of course, once they knew we will actually be in London they begged to go watch it. When we looked into it, however, we discovered that tickets, even for the pre-opening rehearsal stage, were sold out months in advance.

As it happened, the place we stayed at turned out to be only a couple of blocks away from the Palace Theater, where the Potter play was showing. And so, as we toured the city, we passed by it almost every day. Sometimes we walked by more than once. And every day our girls asked to go.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, London

We found out that there were two far-fetched ways to get tickets to this popular show. The first was through the Friday Forty. This was an online lottery that took place every Friday at 1:00 pm. It involved releasing forty tickets for the following week. The second was by going to the ticket office and waiting in line to see if any tickets become available for that evening’s show, through returns or cancellations.

Well, we didn’t win the lottery despite spending our first Friday afternoon glued to a screen. When my husband and daughters suggested going to the theater to stand in line the following week, I really thought they were crazy. I told them that there was no way they would get tickets. After all, who in their right mind would give up tickets to this show? I said it would be a waste of a precious day. We could, I argued, continue touring the riches of London instead. And I suggested that they should be content with visiting the Studios, and shouldn’t be greedy.

I absolutely refused to stand in line for hours, in vain, on the cold, dreary street. But they insisted, and were willing to wait all day long if needed. So my son and I left them standing in line. The two of us went back to our apartment, expecting to pass the entire afternoon pursuing quiet activities.

To my utter surprise they texted an hour later. Not only were they able to get tickets, but they were able to get them for the entire family. And not only did they get five tickets, but four of them were for the best seats in the house, at the center of one of the very front rows. The fifth was further out, but still on the first floor. WHAT?!?!?!?!


Thrilled after getting Harry Potter Play tickets!

The girls were in heaven! That afternoon our apartment was filled with wild cries of happiness and ecstatic dances. This was followed by earnest preparations, as we all attired our nicest travel clothes and got ready for theater. (Alas, we each had only one pair of well-worn sneakers).

Dancing with Harry Potter Play tickets!

We arrived at the theater more than an hour early. Still, we found a LONG line of people already snaking around the building, filling the entire block:

Lines to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, London

The palace Theater opened as an opera house in 1891, and hosted an array of famous musical since. A gilded, majestic building, it was an appropriate setting for the Potter play:

The Palace Theater, London

The play comes in two parts, on two consecutive nights. Since the script was not yet released when we watched it, we all got pins after the first part ended, asking us to “Keep the Secrets.”

Keep the Secret!

We have never been to a two-part play before, and we absolutely loved it! After the first night our seats already felt like home. We all thought we could easily get used to this and just keep coming, night after night.

Now the script is already published and is available for all to read. Therefore, I will not write about the story itself. Personally, the story didn’t impress me. I thought it didn’t have a lot of new content. But the play was absolutely AMAZING! The acting was superb even in that rehearsal performance, the character casting didn’t bother me at the least, and the special effects were really awesome! Favorite spells like Polyjuice transformations and even flying looked wonderfully convincing. The magic felt very real, even up close.

My daughters ranked this experience as the second highlight of our trip.I ranked it pretty high on my list, too. So, if you plan to head over to London any time soon, I would strongly recommend not reading the script and seeing the play instead. It’s worth it!

The Making of Harry Potter: Visiting Warner Bros. Studios in Watford

We could not complete our Harry Potter London trip without a visit to The Making of Harry Potter, the self-guided tour at the Warner Bros. Studios in Watford. We booked the tickets for this tour several months in advance, immediately after booking the flight. For my kids, this was hands down one of the two highlights of our summer trip.

We spent an entire day at the Studios. There, we oohed and aahed over sets, props, costumes and everything else associated with the making of the movies. Indeed, there was much to admire! The level of creativity, imagination, talent and professionalism involved was truly mind-blowing. J.K. Rowling created a magical world through words (and became vastly famous for it). Translating this world into genuine-looking places and objects, however, required immensely hard work by hundreds of equally-talented (yet mostly anonymous) people. Meticulous attention to detail was evident everywhere, from the building of large sets to the design of the smallest prop. Everything was exceptionally well done, and convincingly real-looking, even from up close.

The first part of the tour took us through some of the filming sets, both big and small. This, for example, is the tiny set of Harry’s room under the staircase. It looked as if Harry was about to return at any moment:

And here is the Great Hall of Hogwarts, which looked and FELT like a magical, medieval, solid-stone structure:

Only to be revealed as a thin plaster facade from the back:

The homes, dormitories and classrooms that appear in the movies looked amazingly realistic and lived-in. This, for example, is Snape’s Potions classroom:

One of my favorite sets was Diagon Alley, which was built for the first movie and then used for all eight. It was exactly the kind of authentic-feeling, old-world street I try (and often fail) to find in my travels, the kind of place I fantasize about. I would have loved to visit some of the stores on this alley (and linger for a long while at a magical fabrics store, had there only been one!):

Even props that were used only once were made to perfection. Here is an appetizing dessert table, looking convincingly chocolaty, but obviously made of something else:

And some of Prof. Umbridge’s outfits, sewn from deliciously-textured PINK fabrics:

The Black Family Tapestry was a true work of art, surpassing real medieval tapestries I’ve seen in museums. We were told that this was originally supposed to appear on one wall only, but that once the graphic designers were done with it the directors decided to dedicate an entire room to this masterpiece:

The Black Family tree

The tour went through a restaurant, where we tasted butterbeer, and through a courtyard that hosted the magical sleeper bus and Hagrid’s motorcycle, among other things. For the second part it took us behind the scenes, offering a glimpse into the thousands of hours put in by the army of super-talented people who made the movies what they are. There were painters who imagined what each character looked like:

Dobby the house elf

Sculptors and others artists made the masks for all the special characters. Here, for example, are goblin masks:

Goblin masks

Technicians and robotics experts who made costumes come to life:

There were architects who designed the sets:

And people who built the models:

Each and every professional and artist involved, no matter their field, earned my utter respect.

The tour ended in the gift shop, where artists of a different kind performed a different kind of magic:

We left the Studios with full hearts, full bags and empty wallets.

Everything Harry Potter

The reason we ended up in London this summer was my daughters’ passion for anything Harry Potter. Over the years the two of them read and re-read the books many times, and watched all the movies repeatedly. For several years on Halloween they dressed up as characters from the series. When young, they dressed up as “good” characters such as Hermione. Later, as they entered their teens, they preferred to dress up as more wicked, goth-looking Death Eaters.

A few years ago they forced us to visit Disney World, where we spent a couple of LONG days pacing up and down Diagon Alley. The girls coerced us into standing FIVE TIMES in the exceedingly long lines leading to Olivander’s Wand Shop. They hoped that a wand will choose them, as it did all young wizards. Little scientists as they were, they soon realized that the wands seemed to have a pattern: they always picked kids from a specific part of the store, one time a boy, the next a girl. And so, on the fifth attempt, my girls managed to squeeze right into that golden spot. Lo and behold, viola! — a wand picked one of them! A rather expensive one at that, as we later learned at the checkout counter…

This year, after much begging, the kids finally got their way. When summer came, we all made a pilgrimage to the Mecca of Pottermanina. Fresh off the plane, exhausted from a long flight and completely jet lagged, we had to hike all the way to King’s Cross Station to look for Platform 9 3/4. Those of us who were concerned it’ll be hard to spot soon realized there was nothing to worry about. There it was, right next to the Potter gift shop, at the end of a super-long line of giddy tourists. There were actually two or three 9 ¾ platforms, one next to the other. Each had it’s own line and half a shopping cart (the other half supposedly disappearing into the wall), flashed again and again by professional and amateur photographers alike.

Platform 9 3/4

The next day we went to Leadenhall Market, the filming location for Hogs Head:

Leadenhall Market

Then we crossed Millennium Bridge. This is the bridge the Death Eaters destroyed in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince:

Millennium Bridge

When we went to the London Zoo a few days later, our very first stop was naturally the reptile exhibition:

London Zoo

The Potter obsession even touched our only day-trip outside the city. Between visiting Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral we squeezed in a quick visit to Lacock Village. This picturesque, beautifully-preserved medieval hamlet was established in 1232. People have continuously lived in it ever since. Even now, the existing houses date from the 18th century or earlier. The the National Trust now owns the entire place. Lacock Village is a true gem of authenticity of the kind I find really exciting. Walking around town truly feels like going back in time:

Lacock Village

Not surprisingly, this beautiful village appeared in several movies. To my kids, however, only the Potter movies mattered. And of all the nice houses, only one was worth a thorough look. The building they cared about appeared in the Philosopher’s Stone, where it was featured as the outside of the Potter birth home at Godric’s Hollow:

Sadly, we couldn’t visit Lacock Abbey, another Potter shooting location. The abbey was closed when we arrived.

Of course a Potter trip could not be complete without a day at the Warner Bros. Studios. But that, I think, is worth its own post.

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Inspiration: London!

This summer my family and I traveled to London, where we spent two incredible weeks touring the city. We visited most of the major tourist destinations, as well as to some minor ones. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see all the museums, but we did go to many of them. We tasted food from around the world and had the obligatory tea at Harrods. In addition to sight seeing and eating, we also saw two amazing shows, and learned some history. Every now and then we rode double-decker buses as well as the Tube. Mostly, however, we walked anywhere we could, between seven to ten miles on an average day!

London was vibrant, lively and exciting. The days were very long (it was already bright at 4:00 am, and there was still some light at 10:00 pm). The weather, as expected, was mostly chilly and gray, spiced by the occasional drizzle or rain. Yet, the streets were always packed, even late at night. Food, music and ART pulsed throughout the city.

As a historian, I loved the layers of the past peeking from every corner. As an artists, I enjoyed seeing the great variety of London art, integrally woven into this great metropolis: old and new architecture, Gothic and modern sculpture, official public art next to street art, and, of course, the vast riches of art collected from all over the world and from different eras, displayed at the many museums that dot the city, free of charge for all to see.

Here is an example of how old and new architecture merge flawlessly to make the urban landscape:

London Roofs

And these are modern sculptures, segments from a series, looking very much in place at the Tower of London:

Monkey sculptures in the Tower of LondonMonkey sculptures in the Tower of London

This three-dimensional drawing stood at the financial district:

London Art

And in a side alley somewhere I spotted a waitress painting on a window:

London Window Decorations

The art displayed in the museums was a humbling testament to the great things humanity can achieve. I found it was quite exciting to stand in front of world-class creations, both ancient and modern, which I knew well from art history lessons. Here are but a couple of examples from the British Museum:

British Museum treasuresBritish Museum treasures

This art-infused environment was very invigorating. Creativity, it turns out, is catching.


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