And now, for something completely different (thank you Monty Python).
(this was still in my Drafts folder so I’m re-posting it as I’m unsure what is happening. Another mix-up with Blocks?)
Commissioned by the French government on the 60th Anniversary of WWll and erected in 2004 as a monument to the Americans who helped liberate France, this moving sculpture stands at the centre of Omaha Beach.
The beach today is an place of calm and tranquillity but 76 years ago it was an inferno of noise, smoke and slaughter. Here, along a five-mile stretch of shoreline, the men of the American 1st and 29th Divisions, caught off-guard as they had not expected to meet such opposition, battled their way through fierce German defences.
Thousands of Allied troops were killed in the D-Day battle of Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, but it was perhaps the single greatest turning point of World War II.t.
The underground memorial site at Arras, the Wellington Quarry – Carrière Wellington – should be high on the list of things to see when visiting the historic town in northern France.
Most people are familiar with the Somme Battles, Passchendaele and Ypres, but fewer are aware of the sacrifices that were made at Arras: France alone lost 30,000 men. A visit to The Wellington Quarry, which is in the middle of the old city of Arras, reveals a little-known story of World War I and is a good place from which to try and understand the horrors of World War I.
First, a little bit of history to set the scene.
The battles of Verdun which involved the French, and the battles of the Somme which involved the British and Commonwealth in 1916 had been disasters with terrible loss of life. Arras was strategic to the Allies and, uniquely in World War 1, was under British command from 1916-1918, but was under continual bombardment from German troops. To create a new offensive on the Vimy-Arras front, the Allied High Command decided to tunnel through the chalk quarries under Arras which had been dug out centuries before to provide building material for the town. The plan was to construct a sort of barracks, a series of rooms and passages in which 24,000 Allied troops could hide in readiness for the planned attack and for the tunnels to go right to the edge of the enemy’s front line which would allow them to burst out and surprise them.
The Wellington Quarry Museum tells this story of this quarrying, the lives of the townspeople and the troops, and the lead up to the battle of Arras on April 9th, 1917 and a walk through the tunnels lets you experience something of what it was like to live in these depths for two years.
In March 1916 the first of the skilled men required for this job arrived on the Western Front – 500 miners of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, mostly Maori and Pacific Islanders, gold miners from Waihi and Karangahake, coal miners from the South Island and labourers from the Railways. Discouraged from enlisting due to the essential nature of their industry, they were now plunged right into the thick of it, working alongside experienced miners of the Royal Engineer tunnelling company, miners from the Yorkshire mines and tunnellers who had worked to dig out the London Underground.
The first task was to create primitive underground living-quarters, and with superhuman effort they dug 80 metres per day to construct two interlinking labyrinths. They worked only with pick axes and shovels as the Germans were just above them so no explosives could be used . Conditions were primitive and dangerous and although the temperature was a regular 11 degrees, it was continually damp: there were many deaths, many injuries.
By April 1917 they had created a working underground city with running water, lighting, kitchens and latrines: a rail system and a hospital were up and running and space for 20,000 soldiers was found even if it was cramped. Completed in less than six months 25 kms of tunnels eventually accommodated 24,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who, as with the battlefields above ground, gave their sectors the names of their home towns. For the British it was London, Liverpool and Manchester, for the New Zealanders it was Wellington, Nelson and Blenheim. Nowadays, Wellington is the only one of the quarries that can be visited, the others now mostly lost or covered over by buildings and car parks.
In dim light, a lift takes you 20 metres underground, during which the guide starts the extraordinary story of the Wellington Quarry tunnellers against a recorded background of men talking, pick axes hitting stone and the occasional explosion. In breaks in the tunnels small screens pop out with black and white images of soldiers working or at ease and disappear just as quickly.
You’re told about the one bucket of water to a dozen men. You feel the presence of the soldiers, and you hear voices. “Bonjour Tommy” says a Frenchman against footage of civilians and soldiers chatting in the streets. You hear letters written home, and poems from the war poets, like Siegfried Sassoon’s The General.
“Good morning. Good morning” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card”, grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack
. . . . . . .
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
Artefacts left behind by the soldiers are on display, helmets, dog tags, bottles, boots, electrical fittings, railway carts, bullets. Pictures scratched in the chalk of the walls are pointed out, names of sweethearts, and humourous signs like “Wanted, Housekeeper”.
You are almost lulled into a false sense of normality as you listen to the sounds of men talking and laughing. Then you reach the end and your guide points to where the exits were dynamited to enable the men to go up the sloping passageway that led to the light, over the top and into battle at 05.30 on the morning of 9th April, 1917. It was snowing and deathly cold when the order was given to burst out of the quarries. It was Easter Monday.
24,000 men erupted from the earth: initially the assault was a success. The Canadians seized Vimy Ridge; Monchy-le-Preux was taken; the soldiers of Australia, Britain and the Commonwealth fought hard and the Germans, taken by surprise, were pushed back 11 km. But then the Allied troops, on orders from above, were told to hold back, during which time the Germans, who had retreated, re-formed and called up re-inforcements. Every day, for two months after that, 4,000 commonwealth soldiers died, before the offensive was eventually called of.
The film of the battle (which those in charge considered a success by the standards of the time) can be seen upstairs as you exit.
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 21 51 26 95
Entrance adult 6.90 euros, child under 18 years 3.20 euros
Open Daily 10am-12:30pm, 1:30-6pm
Closed Jan 1st, Jan 4th-29th, 2016, Dec 25th, 2016
I have an urge to go to Provence again. I think it’s because my lavender is thriving this year and that the rosemary, thyme, sage and oregano are flourishing as never before that makes me want to immerse myself in the pungent scent of wild herbs crushed underfoot and the juniper, golden broom, and cistus that cover the hills of Provence.
I like the journey there too, on the Eurostar from London (less than 6 hours): with a change at Paris, there is enough time to enjoy a leisurely meal to get the trip off to a good start. The views from Paris down to Avignon of tiny, half-deserted medieval villages perched on steep hillsides, red geraniums and lime-green ferns tumbling over balconies, fertile valleys of yellow corn and wheat, occasionally highlighted with a blaze of red poppies like a Van Gogh landscape, and the occasional field of wild irises and lavender, always make me happy that I’ve taken the train to this corner of France.
Avignon: The best viewpoint is from the Gardens of Rocher des Doms above the Palais des Papes. The gardens are not worth the trip for themselves, but there are benches on which to sit to take in the peacocks and the panoramic views over the entire city and the surrounding areas.
If you visit only one monument, make it the Papal Palace, the Palais des Papes, which includes the Popes’ private apartments with some fabulous frescoes, and is one of the musts of Avignon. This emblem of the city, an awe-inspiring monument to the importance of Avignon in the Christian world of the Middle Ages was built in the 1300s by two popes – Benedict XII and his successor, Clement V. It was to become the biggest gothic edifice in all of Europe and is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, along with the episcopal buildings and the Saint Bénézet Bridge.
Next to the palace is the Notre-Dame des Doms Cathedral, built in 1150, with the statue of the Virgin Mary, entirely covered in gold, 6 metres high and weighing 4500 kilos, protecting the city from the bell tower.
The historic centre radiates from the Place de l’Horloge, a popular square bordered by cafés and restaurants. Just like the Place du Palais higher up you could spend the day just watching the street performers. Here is the City Hall built in the mid 19th century over a former cardinal’s palace. Next to it is the 19th-century municipal theatre which houses the Avignon opera.
Avignon is a city full of ancient dwellings, museums, churches, chapels and art galleries and you can easily fill a week here without leaving the city but it also has a hippy, boho area. In the Rue des Teinturiers, a delightful cobblestone street dating from the Middle Ages, the street is lined with wine bars and small restaurants, and artists and musicians mingle here in a village-like ambience. Then there is bourgeois Avignon on one side of the main avenue, the Rue de la Repúblic, a chic designer clothing and luxury shops area. The other side of Repúblicc leads to the Place Pie and the Halles, the famous covered market and meeting place for the people of Avignon.
But most people come to Avignon to see the famous bridge, the St. Bénézet Bridge, built around 1180 (by a simple shepherd, or so goes the story) to link the city to Villeneuve-les-Avignon. Over the years, war and flooding took their toll on the bridge and today, the 12th-century St. Nicholas chapel along with four arches of the bridge are all that remain of the original structure.
The historic region (Luberon) between Aix-en-Provence and Avignon is often cited as being the most beautiful in France, rolling hills streaked with lavender and medieval villages perched on craggy rocks.
Villages like Gordes, a compact hilltop town at the foot of the Vaucluse Mountains which is one of the trendiest places to live in Provence. The ancient Borie village, an impressive complex of stone houses which was once the homes of shepherds and agricultural workers before the industrial revolution, was lovingly restored in the 1970s by a team of archaeologists and locals. There are 300 of these in Gordes.
Roussillon: This area has to be visited, if only for the startling ochre colour of the earth as it is located in the very heart of the biggest ochre deposits in the world. These natural pigments are used throughout the village, the walls of the houses being washed with the traditional ochre rendering, the many different oxides in the ochre sands combining in countless shades.
The hills are streaked with it, and an Ochre Trail has been laid out and marked.
Ochres was mined by the Romans
during their settlement of Provence but only became a widespread, industrial product in the late 18th century when Jean-Etienne Astier had the idea of washing the ochre-laden sands to extract the pure pigment. Today, though natural ochre faces strong competition from synthetic pigments, it remains unrivalled for use in certain applications.
Arles and Aix de Provence. More like Spain or Italy with narrow streets and shady squares it is the gateway to the Camargue. Arles has a Roman theatre ringed by cobbled, medieval streets and is one of the most interesting towns in France.
It was home to Van Gogh in the 1880’s and because of this the town now has a flourishing artistic centre. Buy books on Van Gogh and postcards here which you won’t find anywhere else. The elegant spa town of Aix is Cezanne’s own town where you can visit his workshop and take a guided tour of landmarks in the life of the painter and that of the writer, Emile Zola.
After Arles, Van Gogh went to the pretty little town of St. Remy which nestles at the foot of the magnificent Massif des Alpilles, now classified as the Parc Naturel Régional des Alpilles. Stroll along the boulevards under the shade of century-old plane trees in the evening and raid the boutiques and art galleries for bargains (well, perhaps not, the Provencals are not as slow as Peter Mayle made them out to be and they strike a hard bargain).
And then there is Baux de Provence, officially classified and labelled as “one of the most beautiful villages in France” (by the French).
About 15 Kl from Arles this is a village high up in the limestone-mountains of Les Alpilles, located on a 245m. rocky plateau from where magnificent views of Arles and the Camargue can be had. It is rich in cultural treasures, with 22 architectural monuments classified as “Historic”, including the church, chateau, town-hall, hospital, chapels, houses, doorways and many items of furniture.
The village (pop. 400) has been painstakingly restored, beautiful Renaissance façades and ‘hôtels particuliers’today serving as art galleries and museums, visited by more than one-and-a-half-million tourists a year, even though the visits must be made on foot.
The narrow streets leading up to the Citadelle des Baux are lined with bistros and restaurants with terraces hanging over the cliffs – all with views to die for. Many of these restaurants have international reputations and offer high quality dining.
I’ve probably missed off your favourite village: this is just a sample of what you can see comfortably within a week using local buses. Many years ago we toured the area by car but I found the local transport both easy to understand and very efficient.
I read in the news that Theresa May, Prime Minister of Great Britain, is to travel to France to lay a wreath on the graves of two young British soldiers who were killed during World War 1. One of them was the first man to die in that ‘war to end all wars’ and the other was the last man to die. It reminded me that I had visited Saint-Symphorien cemetery where they are buried, a couple of years ago and I thought I would re-post my original piece but to my surprise either I hadn’t posted anything about that particular battlefield or I had somehow deleted it.
However, it is still in my mind now so I thought I would just put up a few photographs of the cemetery because it is so different from all the others in France, being in woodland, and having a more peaceful appearance. It is also the only cemetery, I believe, in which both British and German soldiers are buried together. My visit to Ypres last year was very different. There massive cemeteries like Tyne Cot just filled one with a deep, deep sadness as the ranks upon ranks of white gravestones spreading across the fields could not but remind one of the carnage of that war.
First though, the gravestone of the young James Parr of the Middlesex Regiment who was the first man to die, on the 21st August 1914.
And the gravestone of Private George Edwin Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers who was killed on the outskirts of Mons at 9.30 a.m. just 90 minutes before the Armistice came into force.
And just to finish on, not far from here is the spot where the first shot was fired in that war.
And the steely grey canal over which many battles were fought in this area.
Looking through some images last night reminded me of a trip I took a few years ago visiting the places where the Impressionists had painted (sometimes standing exactly where they had stood as they worked), places like Rouen, Honfleur, Etretat and Le Havre in N. France. The idea behind the trip was to look at the reality of what the artists had painted and then to make a connection with the painting by viewing it in a nearby gallery.
Where and what they painted at the time was a complete change in the art world, helped by pre-mixed paints in tubes and new vibrant hues like chromium yellow and French ultramarine that freed them from the chore of grinding up lapus lazuli and mixing dry pigment in linseed oil to make colour. With these aids, their style of painting could now evolve and they were able to paint ordinary subject matter outdoors, capturing the momentary, transient aspects of light and the ever-changing colours of the clouds.
Stained Glass Window in Rouen
Spire of Notre-Dame Cathedral
Claude Monet painted more than thirty versions of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Rouen, a church which is a mishmash of architectural styles spanning four centuries, but which is mesmerizing in its scale and grandeur. As we stood facing the church from the opposite side of the square from where Monet had painted the church, rain was pouring down its exterior walls. But Monet had painted many rain-washed scenes of the Cathedral so that was good.
The Musée des Beaux-Art in Rouen has a particularly fine collection of Impressionist paintings and when I came face to face with Monet’s misty, murky impression of the rainswept sumptuous west face of this massive Gothic structure, I was nearer understanding why so many were painted in the rain.
Rouen is a maze of cobbled streets lined with beautifully preserved or restored half-timbered houses that lean crookedly together: more than 100 of these houses date back to the Middle Ages. Many of these streets lead from the Cathedral to the famous Rue du Gros Horloge with its lavish Renaissance clock centred in an elegantly carved arch, and then to the city’s hub, the Place du Vieux Marché ringed by cafés and restaurants housed in 16th – 18th century buildings, and famous as the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. An iron cross set in a simple little memorial garden marks the spot and a daringly designed slate-covered church dedicated to the saint stands next to it.
Not far from Rouen is atmospheric little Honfleur, a town unlike any other in Normandy where the 10-storey high timber and slate-faced buildings that surround its 17th century Vieux Bassin has made it one of the most photographed towns on the Seine. Bright trawlers jostle together in the old harbour to sell succulent seafood on the quayside, seafood which is later served up by the many waterside restaurants.
It is here that Eugène Boudin and a like-minded group of friends from Paris formed the Impressionist movement. Attracted by the beauty of the town and the quality of its light they used to gather at the nearby Côte de Grace Hill above the town, and paint the scene before them, edging towards something experimental and new, using short, broken brushstrokes of untinted and unmixed colour, painting wet paint on to wet paint instead of waiting for one layer to dry, which led to intermingling of the colours. Later, they would drink and dine in a simple 17th-century farm dwelling, Ferme St. Siméon, now a luxurious and very expensive hotel.
The delightful and intimate little art gallery, Musée Eugène Boudin, founded in 1868 by Honfleur’s best known artist, considered by many to be the father of Impressionism, has one of the best collections of Boudin’s own works – including the wonderful Port de Dieppe – as well as a vast collection of paintings by artists like Jongkind, Isabey, Monet, Dubourg, Mettling, Pissarro, Renoir and Dufy who came to be known as “the Honfleur school”.
Honfleur was also the birthplace in 1886 of the musician Erik Satie and it is worth spending an extra hour or two in the Maisons Satie where you are led from one room to another to the accompaniment of Satie’s music backed by a series of stunning Satie-esque visual effects – like the white piano in an all-white room that clanks and jangles maniacally.
A surfeit of art and too many Museums can lead to an inability to be a discerning art critic, so a trip to La Bouille on the banks of the Seine, a favourite spot for Alfred Sisley to paint, came next. Packed with art galleries and good restaurants, this charming village is a haven of peace. To see it from the river, you can board a cruise from Rouen and enjoy the scenery along the way, the many little villages along the curves of the Seine and the village life of France. Canoes and kayaks swish through the water, a little ferry chugs across the river transporting passengers and cars between Duclair and La Bouille, and Sahurs and La Bouille and if you stand by the landing stage and gaze downstream to the loop in the Seine, you are looking at a scene often painted by Sisley.
Monet’s Rocks – Mari Nicholson
Monet’s Rocks – M Nicholson
The quality of light that floods Normandy attracted the painters to the coast at Etretat where the spectacular setting between cliffs eroded into arc-like shapes brought Boudin, Monet, Courbet, Isabey, Delacroix, Degas and Matisse here when it was still a fishing village. They came to paint the natural arches and stone outcrops (one needle rock stands 70 metres high) shaped by the thundering waves: they came also to paint the beach scene, for Etretat was a fashionable town in the 19th century, popular with Parisians and writers like Flaubert, Gide and Maupassant were regular visitors.
(It is still popular with visitors from Paris and Le Havre). From every angle on the promenade, you can see the scenes the impressionists worked on, but the best view is found by climbing the steps from the promenade and walking along the path at the top of the cliff.
Etretat may have attracted many visitors from nearby Le Havre, but that port city has its own magnificent steel and glass Musée Malraux right on the waterfront, recently revamped to make use of the optimum light.
Many people pass speedily through Le Havre without realizing that the local Museum houses an unbeatable collection of paintings by the local born Raoul Dufy, full of the dazzling blues and vibrant colours for which he is known. Eugêne Boudin, the other impressionist who lived here, is represented in the Museum by over 200 canvasses. Monet was brought up here from the age of five (and taken under Boudin’s wing when he was 15 years old), painted several masterpieces, including the one that some believe gave the name to the group, Impression Soleil Levant (Impression Sunrise) from a position just in front of the museum. The collection includes the square Giverny waterlily painting and one of his brooding paintings of London’s Houses of Parliament.
I knew little of Impressionism before I went looking at the paintings with a ‘painterly’ eye but now I no longer view thundery skies with the jaundiced eye of the philistine. If there is a bright yellow sun I know that the Impressionists would depict the shadows as violet, and if the shadows are blue I know that the sky must have had strong orange tints. Now on my walks, when I see changeable and tumultuous clouds I think of the skies I saw, often stretched across half a canvas, and I think, “That’s a Boudin sky” and I don’t even mind that they herald rain.
Monet hated the tag “Impressionism” but whether he liked it or not, it was this that defined the movement. Unspoilt Normandy, rich in beguiling light, ever-changing skies and the winding Seine made the perfect studio for the painters.
Stained Glass Window in Rouen
Spire of Notre-Dame Cathedral
Notre-Dame Cathederal, Rouen
Notes: I would hate people to think that Rouen’s Musée des Beaux-Art only has a collection of Impressionist paintings. It also houses a fine collection of work by Renaissance and Flemish painters, plus a magnificent Caravaggio and a whole roomful of Veronese (plus it is rich in paintings of Monet’s vibrant poppies).
If time permits, do eat at one of the glass-screened restaurants in Etretat.
Le Havre had to be massively rebuilt after the city’s obliteration during the second world war, but it still retains some old Breton architecture in the St. Francois quarter.
A town often overlooked in the Languedoc area is Pézenas, graced with elegant 17th and 18th-century houses of mellow, honey-coloured stone adorned with graceful, wrought iron balconies.
It was once the capital of Languedoc but lost that honour in the late 17th century although it continued to thrive as a trading centre for over 100 years afterwards: if you are there on a Saturday you should visit the market which hasn’t changed much since those days. It further declined as a trading hub when it was bypassed by the railways in the 19th century and became something of a backwater. This could be seen to have been to its benefit, however, as it has managed to preserve much of its charm from earlier days and to have escaped the ravages of over-development that have afflicted so many other French towns in the area.
During the town’s heyday, Pézenas was one of the favourite towns for the cosmopolitan elite to visit. Travelling players made regular stops here and provided the main entertainment of the day, one of whom, Jean Baptiste Poquelin, known to us as Molière, frequently made Pézanas his base.
The famous playwright toured with a troupe of jobbing actors and in the process of acting and playwriting in Pézenas, he became the town’s favourite son. In fact, so popular was he that he acquired the patronage of the Prince of Conti, governor of Languedoc, at whose court in Pézenas they often performed.
At the Place Gambetta lies the heart of this medieval town and this is where Molière would spend much of his day chatting and drinking coffee in the cafes, and visiting the tradesmen in the square among whom he had many friends. Today, the square is a place of many delightful cafes and it gives one the chance to sit and relax while thinking about the famous resident, and maybe even reading some of his work which is available from many of the shops around.
As you wander through the old town you will sometimes find yourself in a different world, alleys lined with houses with chimneys, gables, arches, windows and doors dating from the 14th right up to the 19th century. It is here that you will find the medieval Jewish quarter, just one road where a few buildings carry a Jewish emblem. Jews were able to live quietly here, in an amicable relationship with their Christian neighbours despite having been expelled from France in 1394 under the orders of King Charles Vl. (When I was there a few years ago there was talk of a Jewish Museum being opened in the quarter).
Pézenas has a tradition of fine craftsmanship and you will find many craft shops on your walks through the town, from woodwork to stone carving. New crafts are well represented too in the form of boutique-style fashion shops where the designs range from quirky to haute couture.
The Tourist Office on Place des Etats du Languedoc is one of the most interesting I’ve ever come across, as it is contained, along with the town’s ancient prison, inside the Hôtel Peyrant on Place des Etats du Languedoc.
The building is interesting in its own right, once offering accommodation to aristocrats as well as prisoners. You can explore the old jail but to get the best out of a visit to the Hôtel, try to make time to see the wonderful Scenovision Moliere, a 3D show about the famous playwright that takes place over five acts, each performed in a different room of the building. Details herewith.
The 3D film show in French and English is presented on the upper floors of the tourist office. daily 9am-noon and 2-6pm Monday to Saturday (from 10am on Sun) with a break for lunch, with extended hours over the peak summer season with no lunch break. Adults €6: children €4: families €15
Pézenas Tourist Office, Hotel Peyrat, Place des Etats du Languedoc
Writing is at standstill at the moment as I have an eye problem that prevents me from working on the computer (or it takes so long that I can’t do it anyway), so as doorways seems a popular feature of blogs, I thought I’d dig out a few of my favourites. The featured image is of a street of blue doors in East London, the others follow:
With the UK about to depart the EU albeit with an extremely narrow margin of Leave votes, my thoughts turned to my visit a few years ago to Strasbourg, site of the European Council and European Parliament and one of the loveliest places in Alsace.
This delightful city with its medieval churches and half-timbered houses seems to have become a byword for what some in the UK see as a hijacker of British sovereignty. Which is a shame, because that idea is blinding people to an elegant, international city of great charm that in the Middle Ages was referred to as The Crossroads of Europe. At that time, goods from the Baltic, Britain, the Mediterranean and the Far East poured across the borders to be traded for wines, grain and fabrics and just like today, when the languages of the 46 member states can be heard in the squares and streets of the city, traders speaking a dozen different languages, met and conducted business. The city continues to be the crossroads of Europe as people from different countries work and mingle in Strasbourg’s squares just as they did hundreds of years ago.
Once a free city within the Holy Roman Empire, Strasbourg later came under periods of French and German rule, which has given the ancient centre a unique appearance, half-timbered medieval houses sitting alongside elegant French-style mansions. In 1988, UNESCO classified Strasbourg as a World Monument, the first time such an honour was given to an entire city centre.
It is an easy place for visitors to discover as the traffic problems that beset most big cities have been solved here with a combination of canal boats, a sleek and comfortable light rail system, local buses, and pedestrianised squares. Although it presents itself as a folksy-like small town, Strasbourg is very international, cosmopolitan and multilingual.
GRAND ILE ISLAND
This is the historic part of the city where you will find the main sights and using the 142-metre high spire of the Cathedral as your landmark, you will soon find your way around Strasbourg.
The city’s charm has much to do with its canals which surround the Grand Ill island where Petite France, is located. A 70-minute boat trip (open-top in fine weather) on Batorama’s Twenty Centuries of History, circumnavigates the whole of the Grande-Île before skirting the 19th-century German Quarter. The turn-around point and good photo opportunity is where the European Parliament, Council of Europe and European Court of Human Rights are head-quartered, a magnificent display of concrete, steel and glass.
On the boat cruise you will see the Vauban Dam, near the confluence of canals by the Pont Couverts, a defensive lock which allowed the entire southern part of the city to be flooded in times of war. It is
They even grow grass between the tramlines in the street
Walking around the canals, especially in the early part of the year when everything seems green and lush and the spring flowers are out in abundance is an equally attractive way of seeing the main sights. This is a city that loves nature and it takes pride in decorating every bridge and windowsill with baskets of flowers, changed according to the seasons.
PETITE FRANCE, STRASBOURG (a UNESCO site)
The number one attraction in Strasbourg is Petite France, a photographic cluster of 16th and 17th-century half-timbered houses reflected in the waters of the canal. These houses were originally built for the millers, fishermen and tanners who used to live and work in this part of town. If you have taken the boat tour, you may like also to take a tour of the historic centre with an audio guide (€5.50) from the Tourist Office which will introduce you, via a winding route through the narrow streets, to a truly fascinating old town.
NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL Opening hours: 7am-7pm
The Cathedral, an imposing red sandstone edifice, stands alone in its square and towers above the city. It was the tallest building in the world until the 19th century and is the second most visited cathedral in France after Notre Dame in Paris, receiving 4 million visitors a year. Built in 1439 it is considered to be an outstanding masterpiece of Romanesque and late Gothic art with outstanding 12th-century stained glass windows. Inside is one of the world’s largest astronomical clocks.
Try to arrive at the cathedral by noon to get a good viewpoint for the 12.30 display of the famous Astronomical Clock. The procession of sixteenth-century automata was designed to remind us of our mortality. Afterwards, you can climb 332 steps to the platform below the cathedral’s twin towers for a stunning view.
The narrow street that leads to the cathedral and the Place de Cathedral are the liveliest places in Strasbourg, especially in summer, and are filled with outdoor restaurants that remain open late into the night. Entertainment is in the form of jazz musicians, mime artists and clowns.
And finally, Strasbourg’s Christmas Market has a high reputation but its popularity may be its undoing. After a few evenings of mulled wine, yuletide cake, Silent Night and Adeste Fidelis, a spring or autumn visit begins to look very attractive.
Strasbourg is a city that has a very special charm at any time of the year and the organisations that dominate its life are what still guarantees peace in Europe. If you are looking for culture, cuisine and character, Strasbourg is hard to beat.
A few recommended eating places: Expect the usual French coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, crème Brulee and crepe Suzette, but be prepared also for the German influence of pork and sauerkraut.
First up though, is wine. Strasbourg is the capital of one of France’s premier wine regions and if you are in the mood to sample some of the best, head for Terres à Vin, 1 Rue du Miroir, tel +33 3 88 51 37 20, with several by-the-glass options from €3.20 to over €10).
Pain d’Epices, 14 Rue des Dentelles, for indulgent gingerbreads and cake and for the heady scents of spices.
Master-Patissier, Christian Mayer, offers a tea room second to none in Strasbourg at 10 Rue Mercière, just a few yards from the cathedral.
Maison Kammerzell 16 Place du Cathédrale, tel +33 3 88 32 42 14, where the oldest section dates back to 1427, is a Strasbourg institution. Occupying rooms on four floors, you can sample the house speciality of fish sauerkraut if you fancy that but there are many less thought-provoking dishes from which to choose, average €40 for three courses.
Au Pont Corbeau, 21 Quai Saint-Nicolas, tel +33 3 88 35 60 68, – a warm and welcoming place where the onion soup is so thick you could stand your spoon up in it. A modest but excellent wine list available. Average €32 for three courses.
Just literally bridges. I thought of all sorts of ways in which to interpret the challenge, but when I started looking through my photos I decided to go with the obvious. It’s too hot for serious thinking today, so here is a selection of some of my favourite bridges.
Above – Sur le Pont d’Avignon
Amsterdam, Triana Bridge Spain, and Ponte Vecchio Florence, Italy
Rome, Italy: Pisa, Italy: and the famous painted bridge at Lucerne, Switzerland
La Somail, France, Linked houses in Strasboug, Williamstad, Curaco from our cargo boat.
The Daddy of them all – the bridge at Avignon, France.
I’ve written before about Honfleur, my favourite French town, but before this year I’d only visited it in summer. I arrived in France on New Year’s Eve this time, not by car as I had done before, but on a ship which sailed down the Seine from L’Havre to Rouen.
On the journey we looked out on a wondrous scene of frost-covered trees on the banks of the river, trees which at first I took to be silver birch, so thickly covered in frost were they.
I had never seen anything like this before, and it was made more fascinating by the fact that there were also pockets of greenery where the frost had not reached.
Rouen – the Great Clock
Honfleur is no far from Rouen so it seemed a good idea to take ourselves off there for the day, even though I had presumed the town would be mostly closed up for the winter. But no, the town was as busy as ever with cafés, restaurants and bars open and packed with visitors. As usual, the area around the marina, the Vieux Basin, was the most crowded and we had a problem finding a table at lunch time.
Honfleur, an essential stop on any Norman itinerary, is still a fishing port, and despite its sophisticated yacht harbour and fantastic high-rise houses surrounding it, the town has preserved its rich artistic and historic heritage in its traditional buildings and picturesque streets and squares. It is unlike any other part of Normandy, seeming to bear no relation to industrial Le Havre just across the Seine estuary or the Pays dAuge to the south.
The oldest part of Honfleur lies in the area of the Vieux Bassin, a tangle of delightful cobbled streets and alleys known as L’Enclos, the original medieval town of Honfleur enclosed within the first town walls.
Here you will find the oldest church, the deconsecrated 14th and 15th century St. Etienne’s, a Gothic parish church constructed of chalk with flint and Caen stone. The bell tower is covered with a façade of chestnut wood in the local tradition, as indeed, are many of the old houses behind it.
Behind this is the original 17th-century Greniers a Sel (salt warehouses) the royal salt stores that once contained 11,000 tonnes of salt for preserving the locally caught fish and the Atlantic cod and herring which the fleets landed.
The Bassin is surrounded by picturesque narrow houses, and without doubt this is what catches the eye of every visitor upon their first visit to Honfleur. The real jewels (and looking like jewels too because each one is a different colour) are in the row along the Quai St. Catherine, some of the houses being 10-stories high, with slate roofs and half-timbered and slate façades looking as though they might topple over at any minute.
An interesting fact about these narrow 16th and 18th century houses that are squeezed against one another on St Catherine’s quay is that not only are they all different in size, shape, and colour, but that they also have two ground floors: one opening on to the quay and another one, half way up opening behind on to either Dauphin Street or Logettes Street. Because of this, each house is privately owned by two different householders.
Honfleur’s finest architectural prize is the old wooden Church of St. Catherine which was built by shipwrights in the 15th and 16th century just outside the walls of the medieval town, using wood from the nearby forest.
This is the largest wooden church with a separate bell-tower in France. The interior architecture of the church is quite remarkable, as the shipwrights used their naval construction skills in the building of it (stone was scarce but timber was plentiful in the neighbouring forests) and in shape inside it resembles an overturned double hull. Look closely at the pillars and you will see many irregularities pointing to the crudeness of the tools used in the work. The separate bell tower, opposite the church, is an oak construction built above the bell-ringer’s house and this serves as an annexe to the Eugène Boudin Museum – a must for art lovers.
Honfleur has been attracting painters to the area for generations. Boudin, known as the father of Impressionism, was born in Honfleur and painters such as Monet, Corot, Daubigny and Dufy were drawn to these parts by the beauty and quality of the light. Their work is well represented in the many galleries in the area. The painters usually stayed just outside the town at Ferme St. Simeon, then a rustic auberge, now a very grand and beautiful five-star hotel standing in magnificent grounds.
Honfleur was also the birthplace in 1886 of the avant-garde musician, artist and writer, Erik Satie, and there is a Museum dedicated to the man where you can immerse yourself in his quirky world. Unlike any other museum you’ve been to, this one takes you from room to room to the accompaniment of Satie’s music (via electronic headsets). stunning visual effects and extracts from his writing. Even if Satie is not one of your favourites, this is a very special experience which I’d highly recommend.
It is very easy to walk around this small town and you won’t get lost. However, like many towns, Honfleur has a Petit Train Touristique, a tractor-drawn ‘train’ that trundles around the main tourist spots, operating May-September. If only there for a day, I’d recommend this.
I am Brangien [Brangaine] of Weisefort, Ireland, lady-in-waiting to my cousin Isolde, who became promised to King Marc of Cornwall. His nephew Tristan escorted us to England by ship. But Tristan and Isolde fell in love at sea. As ye may know, or will find out, they cite the philter they drank as the cause, over which I was supposed to keep vigil. I would like to share my perspective of how I have created good in the world through my herbs and observations. There is much to tell, including how I have adopted this odd language. In good time. My life is in God’s hands. –Inspired by the modern French translations of the Tristan and Isolde texts