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:
I didn’t imagine it would be so difficult to write about my walk on the Ypres Salient in Belgium, as I followed the course of the World War l battle of 1917 but it’s impossible to write about the horrors of the 3rd Battle of Ypres (also known as Passchendaele) without including great chunks of history to explain just why we were walking there, and a blog is no place for a history essay. That being the case, I have to forget my idea of doing a Monday walk for Jo and just add a few photos with connecting text. A few historical notes will be appended at the end of the blog for those who want to read them.
First though, a few details.
During the course of the war, Ypres was all but obliterated by artillery fire. At the end of what we now call The Great War, it lay in ruins, only a handful of buildings left standing. First-time visitors to Ypres find it hard to believe that this magnificent town with its enormous square surrounded by medieval and Renaissance buildings was completely flattened by 1918. Virtually the whole of the town you see today was reconstructed from scratch, stone by stone, brick by brick during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Rubble that could be incorporated into the buildings was collected, cleaned and re-used and the planners, by referring to the medieval sketches and diagrams that had survived, were able to painstakingly rebuild the squares, streets and beautiful buildings of this ancient Flemish town.
Throughout the town, you will see bronze plaques bearing the outline of the Cloth Hall, the Cathedral and the Menin Gate at street corners. These are the signposts for the 5.5km provincial Heritage Footpath, the most complete footpath in the Ypres inner city.
Ypres had been fortified since about the 10th century and the Ypres ramparts are the best preserved in the country. The town originated on the banks of the Ieperlee and some ten centuries ago it was contained within little more than an earth wall and some moats, parts of which, dating from 1385, still survive. Later, stone walls and towers were added and later still, under occupation by the Habsburgs and then the French in the 17th and 18th centuries, the walls were strengthened, and bastions, advanced redoubts and more moats were added. The Lille Gate is the only city gate left out of the many that existed in the past.
The Ypres Ramparts are wide: strolling them in autumn is delightful as the falling leaves cushion the feet of the walker. The signposted route is 2.6 km long and meanders past lakes and ponds (the remains of the moat), interesting statuary, and through the Lille Gate into a small W.W.l military cemetery filled with the upright white headstones erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, a sight all too familiar to visitors to France and Belgium. The municipal museum is located not far from the gate. Along the route, 23 panels provide information on the various points of Vauban’s ramparts.
There are 198 soldiers buried here, among them the graves of six New Zealand troops who were killed simultaneously by the same shell: their graves are now symbolically grouped together.
There follows some photographs I took on this walk which ended at the back of the Menin Gate, in some ways more beautiful than the gate whose picture we are familiar with at which buglers from the local Fire Brigade play the Last Post every night at 8 p.m. This custom has continued since 1928 when it was first inaugurated, save for 4 years during World War ll when the German occupation prevented it. This year being an Anniversary Year it attracts a few hundred people every night but sometimes there are just a few onlookers, yet the volunteer buglers nightly continue their tribute to the fallen.
A. Engraved on The Menin Gate Memorial are the names of over 54,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth Forces who died in the Ypres Salient before 16th August 1917 and who have no known grave. Tyne Cot has 35,000 names and there are 75,000 engraved on the Thiepval Memorial.
B.Menin Gate Last Post: At 7.30pm the police arrive and all traffic is stopped from driving through the Menin Gate until 8.30pm. For one hour the noise of traffic ceases. A stillness descends and the crowd is hushed.
7.55pm: Buglers of the local volunteer Fire Brigade arrive and stand ready at the eastern entrance of the Menin Gate Memorial. They then step into the roadway under the Memorial arch facing towards the town. The Last Post is played.
C. Of the battles, the largest and most costly in terms of human suffering was the Third Battle of Ypres (31 July to 6 November 1917, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele), in which the British, Canadian, ANZAC, and French forces recaptured the Passchendaele Ridge east of the city at a terrible cost of lives. It had been a battle across muddy, swampy fields taken and lost, then lost and taken again. After months of fighting only a few miles of ground had been won by the Allied forces at a cost of nearly half a million casualties on all sides.
D. The defence of Ypres was essential for the Allied forces as the town was a strategic point blocking the route of the Imperial German Army to the Belgian and French coastal ports (the ‘race to the sea’). Thousands of Allied troops died in the rubble of its buildings, the shattered farmland around it and in the fields and meadows that had been deliberately flooded by the Belgian King to try and prevent the enemy from gaining a foothold. Both sides fought ferocious battles and lived in inhuman conditions to maintain possession. The Allied losses were horrendous but thousands of German lives were also lost on the battlefields around Ypres during their four years of offensive and defensive battles.
With the UK about to depart the EU after the 2016 Referendum, albeit with only an extremely narrow margin of Leave votes, my thoughts turned to my visit a few years ago to that lovely city, Strasbourg, site of the European Council and European Parliament.
This delightful city, full of 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 it 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. People from different countries working together and mingling in Strasbourg’s squares means that the city continues to be the crossroads of Europe.
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 appeal, enhanced by the half-timbered Medieval houses that sit 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 the 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 architectural display of concrete, steel and glass.
If you take the boat cruise, the Vauban Dam will be pointed out, a defensive lock which allowed the entire southern part of the city to be flooded in times of war will be pointed out. It is near the confluence of canals by the Pont Couverts.
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 method 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, the historic part of town, 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 get to 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 is the liveliest place 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, mimes 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.
But 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 Strasbourgeon 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.
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.
Honfleur is not 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.
Castell Sant’Angelo across the Tiber – Photo Mari Nicholson
The Tiber has been the soul of Rome since the city’s inception, and it could be said that Rome owes its very existence to this strategically important river on whose banks the first settlements were built. The two sides of the river are joined by more than thirty bridges, creating a fascinating setting for the archeology and history of the eternal city.
Several of the old Roman bridges no longer exist, in Papal Rome and in the modern city seven were built in the 19th century and ten in the 20th century.
The Tiber (named after Tiberius who drowned in the river) is unlike rivers like The Danube, The Seine or The Thames as there is little activity on the water. In the summer, various boats convey tourists along the stretch of the river, but in general, it seems underused. However, along the Lungotevere, the boulevards that run alongside it, human traffic always seems to flow.
Flooding was a regular occurrence before the high embankments were built in the 19th century when there were houses located along the banks of this navigable river which was used for fishing and bathing. Over time, however, silting and Photography 101: Connectsediment build-up meant that the river became unsuitable for navigation.
Looking down to Cavour Bridge, Rome
As in other cities such as Bangkok, Seville, London and Paris, tour boats were introduced along the river to give locals and tourists a unique opportunity to view the city. This is a great way to take in the panorama, and immerse yourself in one of the most evocative cities in the world.
A stroll along the Boulevard is also a favourite pastime and a visit to Castell Sant’Angelo and the Jewish Ghetto and Synagogue, which are both situated along the Tiber can be combined in a “Tiber walk”. There are many restaurants, cafes, and bars down by the river so sustenance is not a problem: these are very noticeable at night when the warm lights from their windows illuminate the Boulevards.
The Tiber, Rome – Mari Nicholson
Whether you opt for a dinner cruise, a daytime hop-on-hop-off cruise, or a private jaunt, along the way you can admire the great Palace of Justice, designed by William Calderoni; Sant’Angelo Castle, one of the oldest monuments of Rome; St. Peter’s Basilica, Tiberina Island, a picturesque island linked by one of the most famous bridges in the city, and the innumerable bridges that span the Tiber.
Ponte Sant’Angelo Looking towards the Castle – Mari Nicholson
When the surface of the Tiber is calm and the monuments that span the river are reflected in the still waters, they increase one’s delight in the vista they offer across Rome. Ponte Sant’Angelo (by the castle of the same name), Ponte Fabricio, Ponte Rotto, Ponte Garibaldi, they all offer a sense of the history of the city.
The first named, Ponte Sant’Angela is the most spectacular, being embellished with angels carrying the instruments of Christ’s passion, and was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini whose fountain in Piazza Navona is one of the most photographed in Rome.
The Ponte Sant’Angelo was erected to ease the movement between the Vatican (which was also connected to the Castell Sant’Angelo) and the commercial area across the river.
The Vatican City is the only zone controlled by the papacy today, but in earlier centuries papal dominion was exercised over the entire city, hence the need for easy connection with the commercial area of the settlement. Three energetic popes, Urban VIII (1623–44), Innocent X (1644–55), and Alexander VII (1655–67), harnessed the versatile talents of the great artists nd sculptors of the day to build monuments and beautify areas all over Rome but especially in the Vatican area.
A walk along the Tiber, and then up the imposing obelisk and olive-tree-lined road to the Vatican is an exercise in itself and you can be forgiven if you decide to postpone visiting St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum until another day. It can take a long time to do justice to them both. A trip to the top of St. Peter’s is a worthwhile exercise but be warned, there are many steps to the top. A lift goes part way only.
Part of Bernini’s Magnificent 4-Rivers Fountain in Piazza Navona – Photo Mari Nicholson
How to get there: Ponte Sant’Angelo: Metro Line A, Lepanto stop. Boats leave from nearby. Buses 23, 34, 40, 49, 62, 280, 492, and 990. Tram 19.
Connections between rooms in castles are well documented, less well known is the connection between the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome and the Vatican City.
The Castel of Sant’Angelo, the massive fortress-like building on the right-hand side of the Tiber, was originally built by the Emperor Hadrian (117-13 AD), as a monumental tomb for himself and his successors, not far from the Mausoleum of Augustus near the edge of the Vatican fields.
By the 5th Century, the Mausoleum had been included in the defensive system of the city walls, and from the 10th century onwards it had become a fortress, the Castel Sant’Angelo, its purpose being to defend the Vatican, to which it was linked by a special passageway (the Connect). Originally the Mausoleum was surmounted by a gilt bronze statue of the emperor in a chariot.
Below is a photograph taken from the cupola of St.Peter’s at the Vatican and the Castell is quite some way from it, on the left-hand side just beyond the patch of dark green trees that can be seen.
Looking down from St. Peter’s, Vatican City.
Looking Down from the Cupula of St. Peter’s in the Vatican, towards the Castel S Angelo. Photograph Copyright Solange Hando.
The Mausoleum was incomplete when Hadrian died but he was buried there one year later in 139 AD. The bridge connecting both sides of the Tiber had been built by Hadrian to facilitate direct access to the tomb, a more elaborate bridge than any other Roman bridge at that time: it survived until the end of the last century by which time it had become known as the Ponte Sant’Angelo. The two end spans were rebuilt at the end of the last century and only the three central arches are originals from the period 130-134.
Ponte Sant’Angelo, Rome: Photograph copyright Mari Nicholson
Postman’s Park in London contains a simple but evocative Memorial to unsung heroes of the 19th and early 20th century, in the form of a collection of glazed Doulton plaques on a wall protected from the elements by a loggia. Each of these plaques commemorates someone who, in tragic circumstances, died a hero, trying to save the lives of others.
What and where is Postman’s Park in the City of London?
First the name: the park acquired the Postman’s Park name because during it’s heyday in the 19th century and before it became the site of the Memorial, it was popular as a lunchtime retreat with workers from the General Post Office in nearby Clerkenwell, long since demolished.
Situated between King Edward Street, Little Britain and Angel Street and just round the corner from St Paul’s Cathedral whose steps are normally crowded with tourists hugging backpacks and guitars and where the streets are full of bankers and financiers bursting with self-importance, it contains a gallery of tiled memorials to extraordinary people who were, nonetheless, just ordinary citizens.
The brainchild of the Victorian painter and philanthropist, G.F. Watts (1817-1904), a radical socialist who felt deeply about the dreadful conditions of the London poor, and who had twice refused a Baronetcy, it is now regarded as a Memorial to Watts who made no attempt to hide his dislike of the greed of the upper classes of the time.
About the Tiled Memorials
A long, high wall covered with Royal Doulton ceramic plaques, decorated in burnt orange and blue, names, ages, occupations and means of death engraved on the tiles – this is a wall before which people have been known to stand with tears in their eyes. Tragedy after tragedy told in a few simple phrases, bring to life drownings, raging fires, train disasters, and runaway horse accidents, in which these workers and children had saved someone’s life by giving their own.
There is seating under the plaques and the garden area of the park is a restful place with bright flower beds and a gently trickling fountain, interesting shrubs and flowering plants. Of special interest are the large banana tree, musa basjoo, which flowers in late summer, and the dove tree, davidia involucrata. In fact, Postman’s Park is a perfect place for a lunchtime picnic.
In 1887, Watts wrote to The Times to suggest the creation of a park to commemorate ‘heroic men and women’ who had given their lives attempting to save others. This, he said, would be a worthy way to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee year.
His letter to The Times did not stimulate any interest, however, but in 1898, St Botolph’s Church at Aldersgate purchased land that had previously been owned by the City Parochial Foundation, and they approached him regarding the Memorial. So, on the site of the former churchyard of St. Bolophs, there was erected a 50ft long open gallery along the wall of which he planned to place glazed Doulton tablets commemorating acts of bravery, each one detailing a heroic act.
One of Britain’s leading tile designers at that time, William de Morgan, agreed to work with Watts. Their collaboration, first unveiled in 1900, is what you see on the early plaques when you visit Postman’s Park.
About the Tiles and Plaques
The plaques could easily be overlooked in the somewhat hidden corner of the park, but these beautiful hand-lettered tiles hand-painted at the Royal Doulton factory, when once you see them, live with you forever. Each one tells the story of a boy or girl, man or woman, who died trying to save another at the expense of his own. Told in a few poignant words, they nevertheless manage to paint a picture of a life unfulfilled that ended in tragedy. Take, for instance,
the young Alice “daughter of a bricklayer’s labourer who by intrepid conduct saved 3 children from a burning house in Union Street Borough at the cost of her own young life”. Or
William “drowned in the Lea trying to save a lad from a dangerous entanglement of weed”.
The stories seem almost Dickensian until the very real tragedies these plaques represent hit home and one realises that this was real life, not fiction. Life was harsh for those who didn’t own land or property of some sort in those days: violence and disease were everyday events. Prostitution and child abuse were rife in late-Victorian London, and these children who died, many of them orphans or ‘indentured workers’, each and every one of them would have been working at some poorly paid job.
Reading the tiles one is struck by the occupations that don’t exist any more and the causes of death that remind one of nothing so much as a Victorian engraving – a runaway carriage of four with a child trampled beneath the horses, a boy in the Thames (probably a mudlark) attempting to swim to land with his friend in his arms.
G.F. Watts and his Reasons for Erecting the Memorial
GF Watts wanted to use his art as a force for social change and his intention was to build a memorial that honoured ordinary people, people who would not have had a burial tomb at Highgate, Brompton or even St. Pancras & Islington Cemetery.
Watts had for many years collected newspaper reports of heroic actions and the plaques were based on these cuttings.
It was planned to have one hundred and twenty tiles in place for the opening, but sadly, it was only possible to erect four. By this time Watts was too ill to attend the unveiling and only nine more were added during his lifetime. His wife Mary, took over the work and added what she could before her death. Then, 78 years later, in 2009, the Diocese of London added a new tablet to commemorate one Leigh Pitt who rescued a nine-year-old boy from drowning in a canal. The plaque reads:
Leigh Pitt, Reprographic operator, aged 30, saved a drowning boy from the canal at Thamesmead, but sadly was unable to save himself. June 7, 2007.
Today you can see rows of blank spaces, although no doubt there were unsung heroes in the intervening years who were never commemorated.
This wall of tiled plaques to these forgottenLondoners is one of the city’s most moving Memorials and in 1972, along with other key elements in the park, it was Listed as a Grade ll site.
Postman’s Park in Recent Film
The BAFTA and Golden Globe-winning film Closer which stars Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Jude Law and Clive Owen (based on the play of the same name by Patrick Marber) references Postman’s Park in that the character Alice Ayres (Natalie Portman) fabricates her identity based on Ayers’ tablet on the Memorial which the film character had read.
It seems a shame that King Alfred, the man who defeated the Danes and united the English, has gone down in popular history merely as the man who burnt the cakes. But the city he made his capital does the man proud and it is impossible to stroll through the ancient streets of Winchester and not be aware of how “the Great” came to be added to Alfred’s name.
An unspoilt city and England’s ancient capital (the Court was mobile during the Anglo-Saxon period but the city was considered the capital of Wessex and England at the time), the cobblestones, buildings and monuments of Winchester, just an hour from London, ring with history. If you like big bangs and all things military, it is also home to a host of museums dedicated to all things warlike. Surrounded by water meadows and rolling downland, it offers the best of city life – modern shopping, quirky open air events, and great entertainment and it can be covered in a day (although a couple of days will show more of what is on offer and allow trips into the surrounding villages).
To get a panoramic view of the streets and buildings laid out according to the original Saxon plan, a good starting point is St. Giles’ Hill (a great spot for a picnic), from where you can pick out Hamo Thorneycroft’s famous statue of King Alfred. Then follow in the King’s footsteps from the walls erected to keep out the Danes to what is the largest medieval cathedral in the world. Famous for its treasures, from the sumptuously illustrated 12th century Bible to medieval paintings and a 16-metre stained-glass window 66% of which dates from medieval times, Winchester Cathedral is that much-overused word, awesome.
The newest acquisition is Sound ll, the Antony Gormley sculpture now permanently installed in the cathedral’s crypt where it looks particularly striking when the crypt floods which it frequently does. Even if you don’t make a habit of visiting cathedrals, do make an exception to view this magnificent Gormley work.
Fans of The Da Vinci Code will be interested to know that the cathedral’s North transept doubles as the Vatican in the film of the book, but those of a more classical bent will head for the tomb of Jane Austen which can be found in the nave where there is also a stained glass window to her memory.
The novelist died in Winchester on 18 July 1817 and is buried in the cathedral. While in this part of the cathedral, take note of the black font which depicts St. Nicholas of Smyrna giving an old man three bags of gold for his three daughters, said to be the forerunner of the pawnbrokers sign of three golden balls.
Continuing in the footsteps of King Alfred you could then head up the High Street to the Great Hall, all that remains of Winchester castle, and which for 700 years has housed the legendary Round Table. Old it certainly is, and round, but it hangs on a wall where with its red, black and white colouring it resembles an enormous dartboard. According to myth, the original was created by the wizard Merlin, but carbon dating in 1976 proved that this particular table was not made in the Arthurian 6th century but in the 13th, and this use of HyperPhysics sadly put paid to the legend.
The Round Table, High up on the Wall
Just outside the south door of the Great Hall, is Eleanor’s Garden, a re-creation of a medieval herbarium with turf seats and a camomile lawn, named after Eleanor, wife of Henry III, and Eleanor, wife of Edward I. All the plants you see would have been grown in the 13th century, when floral symbols had priority over design. The rose, lily, iris and strawberry plants represent aspects of religion while the greens – the grass, ivy, bay and holly represent faithfulness.
The oldest continuously running school in the country, 14th century Winchester College which became a model for Eton and for King’s College, Cambridge is nearby. You can join a guided tour for an intriguing glimpse into the medieval heart of the college, the 14th century Gothic chapel with its early example of a wooden vaulted roof, the cloisters (where graffiti carved into the stones during the 16th and 17th centuries is still visible) and the original scholars’ dining-room. As a complete contrast, you could later check out medieval Westgate, a fortified gateway which served as a debtors’ prison for 150 years and where prisoners graffiti is also still intact, albeit rather different from that of the scholars!
One expects to find ghosts in most ancient cities and Winchester is no exception. The most famous haunted Inn is The Eclipse in The Square, where the spectre of Alicia Lisle haunts the corridors. Seventy-one years old when she was found guilty of harbouring rebel cavaliers and sentenced to death by Hanging Judge Jeffreys, she spent her last night here in 1685 listening to the scaffold being erected for her hanging.
At the Theatre Royal in Jewry Street, a wandering apparition haunts the dress-circle and gallery looking for her long lost lover while in the 18th century High Street offices formerly occupied by the county newspaper, the rattling chains of a woman dressed in grey has been known to rattle the staff on more than one occasion.
Streams and waterways punctuate the streets of the city giving it a homely atmosphere – especially when you see someone hauling a fine trout out of the river – and the Bikeabout Scheme means that you can tour around for most of the day for the small registration fee of £10. Reflective jackets and helmets are also available.
You don’t need to cycle of course: there is a good transport system from Winchester to the picturesque villages of the Itchen and Meon Valleys, handsome Georgian colour-washed Alresford (pronounced Allsford) for instance, home of the famous Watercress Steam Railway where you can make a childhood dream come true by riding on the footplate. Later, stroll down the town’s elegant streets with their antique shops, and discreet fashion boutiques or along the riverside where the thatched timber-framed Fulling Mill straddles the River Arle. Alresford is the home of watercress farming in the UK, so expect to sample gourmet dishes made of the green stuff – watercress pudding, watercress quiche and even watercress scones with afternoon tea – in smart bistros, tea rooms and old-fashioned pubs like the Wykeham Arms with its award-winning menu.
If there are children in the party, then don’t miss Marwell Zoo. Home to over 200 species of animals and birds, from meerkats to sand cats, and some of the world’s rarest big cats including the Amur leopard and the snow leopard. There are volunteer guides around the park to help visitors and to explain and illustrate the efforts the zoo is making to rehabilitate endangered animals back in their habitat.
And after all that history and ancient stones, Winchester can still surprise you with its pedestrian-friendly streets, colourful markets and exquisite boutiques nestling beside large-scale stores. The High Street – once the Roman’s east-west route through the city – is home to stylish shops with Regency and Elizabethan bow-fronted windows, while The Square offers quaint pubs and restaurants after your exertions, and everywhere you’ll find bronze and stone carvings, many by famous sculptors. It lies just one hour by train from London, 40 minutes from Portsmouth Ferry Terminal, and 15 minutes from Southampton Airport.
Winchester’s a winner, and whether you taste runs to real ale or English wines, pub grub or gourmet dining, Goth outfits to designer chic, you’ll find it all here amidst the quiet stones that hold history’s secrets.
One hundred years ago Milan had a popular Expo when the city was in the forefront of the industrial boom and on its way to becoming Italy’s capital of finance. A century later and it is preparing for Expo 2015 but it can add to these attributes the fact that it is now an international centre of design and fashion to rival Paris, New York and London: and with 191 foreign communities in the city it can be considered one of the most cosmopolitan in Europe.
I’ve just recently returned from Lombardy where the preparations for the upcoming Expo 2015 has the region in a whirl. It will be big, Big, BIG! and it is already attracting unprecedented attention. With one and a half million tickets to the Expo already sold to China, something tells me this is going to beat not only the 1915 Expo but all the others in between. The site for Expo 2015, which is located on the outskirts of Milan, is themed around sustainability and the desire to guarantee everyone in the world a healthy, safe and adequate diet. To this end, many of the Pavilions will be devoted to food that lends itself to this idea and will give Lombardy a chance to show off its rich and fertile land and the produce that the region produces.
Entertainment in many forms is planned but perhaps the most spectacular will be the world famous Cirque du Soleil which is creating a unique show of music and dance taking its cue from “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” and which will explore and celebrate the elements of culture, tradition, innovation and their relationship with food. Presented nightly, from May 6th to August 23rd, Allavita! will be performed in an open air theatre with a cast of over 50 Italian and international artists.
Of course Lombardy is going all out to showcase its beautiful towns and cities but these need little introduction to those who love food and fashion. When you think fashion you think Milan, the fashion capital of the country. A walk through any of the chic areas like Brera, or through the exclusive boutiques located on the Via Montenapoleone and Via della Spriga,and in the magnificent Galleria Victor Emanuele by the Duomo is an experience dear to the hearts of all fashionistas.
Lombardy’s fine foods and wines stem from the richness of the countryside and the husbandry of the land over many centuries.The feast of flavours that is risotto,osso buco and the casserole dish, cassoeula, accompanied by any one of the 42 wines bearing DOCG, DOC or IGT denomination and superb cheeses such as Taleggio, Pavano, Povolone and Gorgonzola will satisfy the most demanding bon vivant.
Cheeses in Market
Even snacking on antipasti dishes of salami and Parma hams dressed with local olive oils or their special oil flavoured with almonds, is guaranteed to impress.
Culture in Milan
Nor does Milan rely only in fashion and food to keep its visitors happy. That world renowned temple of culture, La Scala Opera House with its seasonal repertoire of ballets, operas and concerts, has just had an upgrade and now its acoustics and level of comfort rival any major opera house. For more experimental performances, film festivals and lectures, the first permanent theatre in Italy, the Piccolo of Milan which is an institution in itself, is where it all happens..
The immense Gothic Duomo of Milan deserves that must used and abused word, awesome, and if you take the lift to the first roof and the winding steps to the top from there, the view is magnificent. Stories of its construction are legendary but experts agree that work on it started round about 1386 and continued until the 19th century, leading to the phrase for a long awaited item “took as long as the Duomo”.
It’s a cliche I know, but one has to say that the jewel in Milan’s crown is undoubtedly Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, the exquisite fresco that even in its faded state, has a glory and a grandeur that draws one in to the scene. This fresco is housed in the refectory of the Renaissance gem that is the Convento of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Leonardo spent more than 20 years in Milan and there are various spots around the city which have connections to him, one being the innovative system of canal locks at the Alzaia del Naviglio Grande which were the first examples of hydraulic engineering in Lombardy and were partly conceived by him.
Worth visiting at night for the party atmosphere – BoHo Milano as it’s called – this area from dusk till after midnight is a world of party people strolling along canals lit by sidewalk lamps and the neon signs of the bars, cafes and restaurants that line the waterside.
Cremona: Violin Making Centre of Italy
Not far from Milan is Cremona, the cultural centre of Lombardy and important in Italy’s cultural life since Roman times. The narrow streets of the city are rich in history, the red brick medieval towers and the Renaissance buildings offering shade to the grateful Cremonese during the heat of summer. It is also the birthplace of the violin, the most famous centre in the world for the production of stringed instruments since 1566, when Andrea Amati invented the instrument based on the medieval viol. His grandson, Nicolo Amati, and his pupils Antonio Stradivari and Guiseppe Guarneri, then went on to make the best violins in history, but it is to the violin master of all time, Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) that the city owes its fame. The great man is reputed to have made 1,100 stringed instruments, mostly violins, over half of which are still in existence and which today sell for millions of dollars – when they come on the market.
The heirs to the great masters are today alive and well and I was lucky enough to be invited to visit the studio of one, Stefano Conia, a 42 year old master violin maker as was his father and grandfather before him, and I watched as he shaved the wood, varnished the violins and mixed the glues for instruments he was working on. Most luthiers produce only 10-12 instruments per year, most being commissioned and costing upwards of £12,000 each.
The Museum del Violin
Opened in 2013 this exhibition and concert hall is a stunning venue, displaying the magic and mystique of the stringed instruments in walk through sections that display the history of the violin. In the Museo Civico there is a world-renowned collection of more than 60 stringed instruments, early guitars, mandolins and lutes, the beautifully decorated violins of Amati and the inlaid masterpieces of Stradivari in ten rooms each one dedicated to a specific period.
On most days one can hear a short performance played on one of the violins from the collection by one of the young musicians from the Foundation, musicians at the very top of their profession. To hear Meditation from Thais by Massinet played on a 1727 Vesusius Stradivarius as I did, is something just short of magical.
What to See and Do Beyond the Museums
In the streets and piazzas you will find links to both Cremona’s commercial and cultural past, whether it’s the bronze statues of Stradivari in the Piazza of the same name, the house in Corso Garibaldi where he lived and worked from 1667 to 1680, the replica of his tombstone in the Piazza Roma, or the statue to the equally famous Claudio Monteverdi in Piazza Lodi.
Moneverdi, born in Cremona in 1576, wrote one of the world’s first full-scale operas, L’Orfeo, in 1607 and received his first musical training at the Duomo which no one visiting Cremona should fail to visit. The XVlll Ponchielli Theatre, only the third opera house to be built in Italy was named in honour of the Cremonese operatic composer Ponchielli who wrote his first symphony at the age of ten. Best known today as the composer of La Giaconda (Dance of the Hours) which as well as being a well-known ballet featured in the Disney film Fantasia half a century ago.
If it’s summer there is lots to do on the river, boating, excursions, canoeing etc., and if you have a few days to spare you can rent a floating houseboat and go right down to Venice, or next door to Padua for instance.
Expo 2015 will bring many more tourists to the towns and villages surrounding Milan – Cremona, Mantua and Padua. The food in this part of Lombardy is particularly wholesome and the slow-cooking revolution is growing fast. Hotels are plentiful and good but special mention should be made of the Agriturismo movement which has thrown up some superb b & bs in and around the towns where the food is produced, usually organically, on the farm stay.
Tourist Boards will be happy to help with addresses and ‘phone numbers and a useful website for information on what to see and do in Cremona during the Expo period:
The official tourist website of Milan and Lombardy containing information, updates, descriptions, images and videos about the beauties of the area,as well as a range of proposals of travel, accommodation and services offered by Lombardy.
Hotel recommendations in Milan and Cremona area:
Milan: 4* Anderson Hotel: http://www.starhotels.com/en/our-hotels/anderson-milan/
Siracusa (often spelt Siracuse) in south-east Sicily, is often overlooked in favour of the more touristy Taormina but, if possible, the visitor to Sicily should not miss this surprisingly large city that was once described by Cicero as the greatest Greek city in the world.
Assaulted by Romans, Byzantines, Vandals, Arabs, Normans and Spanish, Sicily has absorbed these foreign cultures and made it her own, perhaps best exemplified in Siracuse’s Cathedral in the Piazza Duomo, the delightful pedestrianised square in the heart of Ortygia, the island in the centre of Siracuse.
The façade of the cathedral is 18th century and like so much of Sicily’s architecture, it was erected following the earthquake of 1693. It is actually built on successive works to the Temple of Athena, the doors of which temple were said to be made of gold and ivory. Round about the 17th century the temple was transformed into a Christian church which later became the Cathedral. Walk down Via Minerva to see how nothing was wasted: one example is the giant Doric columns of the Greek temple to Athena that were incorporated into the church that superseded it.
The Piazza is regarded as one of the most beautiful in all Italy with the Cathedral on one side and various Baroque palaces dotted around the square. Day and night the piazza is full of people, as the ground floors of the once-great palaces are now mostly restaurants, cafés and bars and on a warm evening there is no better place in Siracusa in which to sit and enjoy a café or aperitif.
There are two main areas in the town, the archeological area which includes Greek and Roman theatres and ruins, and Ortygia, a small island that feels more like a tiny peninsula, with beautifully restored Baroque buildings, a number of fine hotels and some great restaurants.
The Archeological Area
In the Neapolis Archaeological Park situated in the northwest of the town, are a number of well-preserved Greek and Roman remains.
The main attraction is the Greek theatre (not to be confused with the more often photographed Greek Theatre in Taormina which has as its backdrop the snow-capped Mount Etna) where the plays of Aeschylus and Euripedes are still performed from May to the end of June each summer as they were more than 2,000 years ago.
Started in the 5th century when Syracuse was one of the great cultural centres of the Mediterranean world, the theatre is considered to be one of the most perfect examples of Greek architecture to have survived and can accommodated up to 15,000 spectators in its 59 rows.
The Ear of Dionysis
The nearby fragrant lemon grove was once an old stone quarry used at one time to house 7,000 Athenian prisoners of war, the limestone dug from it in 500 BC being then used to build Siracuse.
Wander into the vast man-made chamber known as Dionysius’s Ear, a 20m high pointed arch cut into the rock face which owes its name to a visit by Caravaggio in 1608. Used as a prison, the excellent Cathedral-like acoustics meant that the prisoners’ conversations could be heard from outside.
There is also an impressive Roman amphitheatre, approximately 140m long, built in the 3rd Century AD where traditional blood sports took place, gladiators and wild animals providing the blood-letting that was so much part of these offerings. The hole in the centre is believed to have been a drain for the blood and gore – as one guide told me – or, a space for scenic machinery – as another guide told me!
The Archaeological Museum is just a short walk from the park and if time allows, it is worth a visit.
Ortygia, 2,55 Years of History
At only 1km by 500m the best way to see Ortygia is just to wander through the area admiring the Greek and Roman remains, the Norman buildings and the Baroque decorative facades. Enjoy the sun by sitting at one of the many cafes in the area sipping a café or an aperitif, or lunch al fresco at one of the many good restaurants on this tiny island. Take a picnic and sit on the seawalls and admire the fish that swim lazily in the clear waters of the bay.
One could easily walk past the Fountain of Arethusa. filled with white ducks and surrounded by walls of greenery, as it looks so unpretentious.
Legend has it that the Arcadian nymph Arethusa, fled underwater to Siracuse to rid herself of the amorous advances of the God Alpheios and the Goddess Artemis transformed her into the fresh water spring that we can see today.
The ruins of this Doric temple stand incongruously in the middle of the town (you can’t miss it as it’s on a main thoroughfare), on one side of which is a bustling market with sellers hawking clothes, handbags, umbrellas and anything else that will sell.
It seems such a pity that the Temple is not isolated so that visitors could enjoy it in tranquillity, but then it was probably full of bustling life when it was in use back in the 8th century BC when it was at its most active. It is the oldest temple in Sicily and over the centuries it has been a Byzantine church, a mosque and a Christian church.
Plato visited Sicily several times as did Simonides and Pindar, and Aeschylus who sang of its beauty. Its enormous military power made it capable of withstanding attacks from Carthage and Athens and the city remained powerful until the Arab conquest in 878 when it lost its supremacy.
Today Syracuse is a pleasant town in which to spend a few days – more if you want to travel beyond it, say to Noto, a perfect day out.