Dispatch, London: Mini is beautiful

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Travel Weekly Ediror in Chief Arnie Weissmann was traveling in London recently. A dispatch follows.

Like many visitors, I’ve seen London from the lofty perspective of The Eye, from the upper level of a double-decker bus and even from the top floor of 30 St. Mary Axe (a.k.a. the “Gherkin”), but I’ve never seen it from the perspective of, say, a large dog.

But now I have. I recently had the opportunity to get a tour of London from the passenger’s seat of a vintage (that is, pre-2000) “Mini,” the predecessor to today’s Mini Cooper.

It is an interesting perspective. As the driver (I can’t bring myself to call the operator of a Mini a “chauffeur”), Alistair Bruton, mentioned, it would be an excellent vehicle from which to pick pockets.

Bruton is actually co-director of the company SmallCarBigCity.com, which has a fleet of four classic Minis to bring tourists (and no small number of Londoners) around town.

It’s a charming way to see the city, in part because it gives you a child’s-eye view of things, and in large measure because it gives you an Alistair’s-eye view of things.

The personable Alistair takes you to his favorite places. Most, but not all, are familiar to people who have been to London before, but even the familiar looks a bit different when you’re just a few feet off the ground. (Alistair says he gives an “underview,” rather than an overview, of the city.)

Alistair is a monarchist and a history buff, full of interesting trivia. He’s opinionated but never negative.

He said that finding old Minis for the company has not been hard (they’re readily available for about $7,000), but finding drivers who fit the profile he’s looking for (“young British guys who are passionate about London and passionate about cars. And have a commercial license”) is the difficult part.

A Mini gets a surprising amount of attention in London. Tourists swung their cameras and phones in our direction. Other drivers rolled down their windows and questioned Alistair about the tours; he quoted a rate of $250 for 90 minutes (he pays travel agent commissions).

When I got out of the vehicle at the end of the tour, a woman immediately came up to me and wanted to talk about the experience (the cars have the name of the company along the side.)

Alistair personalizes the tour with his own favorite landmarks, which included MI-5 (Britain’s FBI) and MI-6 (their CIA) headquarters, as well as his favorite after-hours spot, Gordon’s Wine Bar.

At first, I suspected he just liked to go by Gordon’s because it’s on the very narrow, pedestrian-friendly Villieres St., where the Mini can weave in close among the citizenry. But I decided to check it out the next evening, and was very glad I did.

Gordon’s is London’s oldest wine bar (established 1898), and while it has a great collection of wines, its atmosphere could not be described using adjectives typically used to describe tasting rooms. It is not refined. It is not sophisticated. It is not posh.

It is, in fact, noisy, a bit grimy and has a mix of people as diverse as anywhere I’ve seen in London.

Its overall feeling is friendly, though I suspect that could change if you tried to order anything but wine.

The bartenders look as if they’re all retired pirates, and as you approach them, a sign declares, “No beer. No spirits. We are a wine bar.”

If there was a wine list, I didn’t see it. A chalk board listed the prices of a handful of wines, and there were four barrels of Gordon’s own port behind the barmen. I ordered a tawny port.

There is a dark room with a very low, rounded ceiling, or you could choose to sit along an outdoor passageway lined with tables and cheap plastic chairs. There wasn’t a bar with stools to sit at, so I scouted for an empty chair among the tables.

I found one between two tables. I wasn’t invited into anyone’s conversation, but fortunately, the eavesdropping was excellent. Some samples:

“I found out what train he took every morning, and made sure I was on it. So then his wife goes and buys him a bicycle!”

“I know what’s going wrong. She’s spent 10 years drunk. I did that, and I have nothing against that, but she’s a neurosurgeon!”

“See that flag? See that flag? I slept under that flag.”

I could not see a flag anywhere in the direction the speaker was gesturing.

And I suspect that if there had been a flag, she would have seen two of them.

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