Tag Archives: History

Castelmola, Sicily – Medieval Village

From the natural terrace built around the ruins of a Norman castle, you have a spectacular view of the Ionian coast, majestic Etna, Taormina, the Bay of Giardini-Naxos, the straits of Messina, and the Calabrian coast:  on a clear day you can even see way beyond Catania, as far as Syracuse.  You are nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, you are in Castelmola in Sicily.

Castelmoro from below

Part of the attraction of Castelmola is gazing up at it from Taormina (as in the featured photo taken from the main square in Taormina,  and above from another part of the town) and wondering how on earth you can get up there.  It looks like the top of the world, this tiny village perched on a craggy hilltop above Taormina.  Not so long ago the village was inaccessible, visited only by a few intrepid travellers who hiked up the seriously uphill mountain paths for about 90 minutes, or drove up the curving, almost perpendicular road, to the top.  Nowadays a bus makes the 15-minute journey every hour from Taormina and things are changing, although slowly.

 

The result of this remoteness is that the people of the village have kept their dialect, their customs and their lives entirely to themselves.

Casteldemoro

Founded in the 8th century BC it was first conquered by the Greeks and afterwards by Saracens and its interesting mix of customs and traditions reflect this history.  The entrance to the village is marked by an ancient arch of Greek-Roman origin, built in 900 BC, and this dominates the Piazza S. Antonino, the main square of the village.  In earlier times the entry was through a gate carved into the rock which was moved to the front of the castle in 1927.

 

This relatively modern Piazza Sant’Antonio, built in 1954, is one of the main squares of the town and attracts the local elders who like to sit on the benches in the square to watch the village activity and the arrival and departure of the buses.  From this Piazza of white and black lava stone, bordered by a white balustrade and tree-lined sidewalks, there is a panoramic view of Taormina, its town, beaches and islands.

 

From the Piazza, roads lead off to other parts of the village, every corner offering more spectacular views whether it’s over the velvety green mountains with their trails delineated as though someone had poured them in swirling patterns on the slopes or the craggy peaks of the barren side.  The street names, numbers and signs are locally crafted in stone and wrought iron, and the pastel-coloured houses range from palest primrose to sky blues and apple greens.  In fact, it is a typical Sicilian village, better preserved than most, as it has not lost all its inhabitants as have most of those in the interior of the island.

 

That said, a fair number of the inhabitants depart in the winter for the slightly warmer temperature along the coast but during the rest of the year, they man the restaurants, bars and lace and embroidery shops for which the village is famed.

One of the most famous and most eccentric attractions is the Turrisi Bar which has a bizarre display of phalluses in wood, clay and ceramic – a sign of abundance and a good omen as per the Hellenic tradition – in every size, from large stone sculptures to bathroom taps, paintings and wooden carvings.  This ancient emblem of fertility is celebrated here in flamboyant style, and among the gifts available from the shop is the locally produced almond wine in phallic-shaped bottles, referred to, of course, as the “elixir of love”.

As so often in Sicily one passes from the profane to the sacred in the blink of an eye and in just a few steps you arrive at the Cathedral which dates back to the 16th century (rebuilt in 1935), known otherwise as the Church of St. Nicholas of Bari, in the Piazza Duomo. There isn’t a lot to hold your attention here but it has a rather beautiful pulpit and a wooden statue of Mary Magdalene which, I am told, is of the school of Bagnasco.   I confess I had no knowledge of this sculptor but I found a reference to one Rosario Bagnasco who worked mainly in wood, and who was active mainly in Palermo, so I presume it is his work. Looking towards the Bell Tower Before you leave, look to the beautiful bell tower which offers a wonderful frame for a photograph of Mount Etna in the distance behind it.

CASTEL DEL MOLA

So if you find yourself with a day, or even a half day to spare when you are in Taormina, or if you want to see one of Sicily’s loveliest medieval villages, then be sure to visit Castelmola where you will find narrow streets and quiet solitude in a community of just over one thousand residents.  In fact, if you visit out of season and find your way up the mountain to Castelmola you may feel that you have the entire town to yourself.

 

 

 

Newport, Isle of Wight, a Second Look

On the green in the middle of the town stands a memorial to the last little chimney sweep to die here, and just a few miles away a lovely old pub is the site of the last hanging to take place.  I’m in Newport, the main town on the Isle of Wight, sometimes referred to as the capital.

Valentine Grey

 

The Island is well known as a favourite holiday resort for walkers, cyclists and families with young children, but Newport itself is often dismissed as merely a shopping area.  Yet Newport was the hub of the Island’s rail network until the Beeching cuts of 1996 closed its railway along with many more on the island.  This was a cut too far as the roads can barely cope with the increased traffic that was the result of such drastic pruning.

The only remaining train line runs from the ferry terminal at Ryde to the resort town of Shanklin with stops at Sandown, Brading and Smallbrook (for the Steam Railway), and the hub of the transport network is now the bus station in Newport where routes from across the Island terminate.

A quick visit to the town and you could be forgiven for thinking it is a town of chain stores from the ubiquitous M & S to H & M and Primark, but this historic town centres on two elegant squares surrounded by Georgian and Victorian architecture, and the town’s quay from which goods from all over the world were shipped along the Medina River from the port at Cowes, is just a short walk away.

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Riverside Pub in Newport, The Bargeman’s Rest

Swans float serenely on the river ignoring the canoes and kayaks, the sailing boats and the odd small yacht or two that are on the water, and on the terrace of the Quay Arts Centre people relax with coffee and cakes, tea and crumpets or lunch.  Inside the Arts Centre is a constantly changing art exhibition, dance classes, open mic occasions and an upmarket shop selling exquisitely crafted goods in silk, silver, ceramic, pottery and paper.

There was an extensive Roman settlement on the island and there remain two Roman villas, one of which is open to the public and whose remains provide a fascinating insight into country life in 3rd century Britain.  Discovered in 1926 when foundations were being dug for a garage, subsequent excavations revealed the remains of a late Roman farmhouse built around 280 AD with a superb bath suite, underfloor heating and remnants of mosaic floors.  You can peep into a Roman kitchen and see a slave preparing a Roman feast and there is a hands-on activity room where you can make a mosaic, repair a broken pot or weave a blanket.  Outside, the plants Romans would have used are grown in the beautiful herb garden.

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Carisbrooke Castle – Copyright David Hill (Flickr)

Newport is probably more famous for the nearby castle of Carisbrooke in the village of the same name, but although there have been fortifications on the Carisbrooke site since Roman times, what one sees today dates largely from the 12th to the 15th century.

Carisbrooke Castle Copyright David Hill (Flickr)
Carisbrook Castle – Copyright David Hill (Flickr)

Carisbrooke Castle is most famous as the place where Charles I was held prior to his removal to London and his execution by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians. The castle is said to be haunted by the King’s young daughter, Princess Elizabeth, who died during her incarceration in the Castle.

The donkeys of Carisbrook Castle are very popular with children of all ages.  In previous centuries, water for the castle’s occupants was drawn from the 150 foot deep well by two donkeys powering a draw-wheel, walking approximately 270 metres to raise one bucket of water.  When the castle lost its defensive role this practice stopped.

When the castle was restored in the 19th century, the equipment was renewed and the donkeys have been raising the water for the benefit of watching visitors ever since then. English Heritage is keen to say that the donkeys enjoy the exercise and are never over-worked.

Nearby Parkhurst Forest is home to two prisons which together make up the largest prison in the UK: it was once among the few top-security prisons in the United Kingdom. Their names, Parkhurst and Albany, were once synonymous with the major criminals who were housed there, it being presumed that any escapee would have a problem getting off the Island (as indeed it proved on the few occasions when a breakout occurred).

Crowds enjoy the music festival ©VisitIsleofWight.com

The famous Pop Festival shows no signs of losing popularity despite competition from other towns and cities across the country.  Seaclose Park on the east bank of the River Medina has been the location for the revived Isle of Wight Music Festival since 2002 and it is one of the key events in Newport’s events calendar!

So if Newport, Isle of Wight is on your itinerary, please wander around its streets and alleyways, look at the façades of the houses and try and guess in what century it was erected.  Find the row of old Alms Houses and if time permits, take a walk along the banks of the Medina River and try and visualise the days when sailing ships sailed up here from Cowes carrying a cargo of rice from Carolina.  And when it comes to time to eat, whether your taste runs to Mac & Cheese, Burgers, or Fine Dining, Newport can supply you with the best, with the Golden Arches for fast food and Hewitts and Michelin-starred Thompsons for truly superb food.

The Guildhall, Newport.jpg ©VisitIsleofWight.com

 

Palermo: Caravaggio to be Returned?

You may remember that when I wrote about the Serpotta Stuccoes, I mentioned that the Caravaggio masterpiece, Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, had been stolen from the altar of the Oratorio and that the replacement painting was not something one could really admire.

I was more than pleased, therefore, to read in The Guardian a few days ago, that there are hopes that the painting may be recovered soon as Italian investigators have received information that the painting, which was stolen in 1969, could be hidden in Switzerland.  The head of Italy’s anti-mafia commission last Thursday said that the information came from a former mobster-turned-informant who revealed that it had once been held by Gaetano Badalamenti, a ‘capo di capo’ (boss of bosses).  The informant told the mafia investigators that Badalamenti (who has since died in America where he had been convicted of heroin trafficking) had been in touch with an art dealer in Switzerland.

To have this masterpiece returned to the Oratorio of San Lorenzo would be something wondrous for the people of Palermo, as when the criminals stole the painting by cutting it from its frame with razorblades everyone presumed it was lost forever.

Rosy Bindi, the head of Italy’s anti-mafia commission, told The Guardian that they have collected enough evidence to launch a new investigation and to request the collaboration of foreign authorities, especially those in Switzerland.

Leoluca Orlando, mayor of Palermo, who has helped Palermo transform itself from a  stronghold of the mafia to a European Capital of Culture, said that the city was no longer dominated by mobsters and godfathers, that it has changed and now demands the return of everything the mafia had stolen from it.

The return of this painting to the Oratorio will be an event to be celebrated throughout Sicily.  I hope it happens soon.

Meantime, here are a few of the pictures of the 16th-century stuccoes from the Oratorio that I originally posted.

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Among my (Japanese) Souveneirs

Having decided that sentimentality has to give way to practicality when one has downsized and lacks room, I am making strenuous efforts to clear away the bits and bobs that one brings back from one’s travels.  I’m not talking the sort of souvenir that one puts on the sideboard or has pride of place in the hall, I’m talking about things like programmes, tickets and other ephemera.

And none that I have short-listed to be disposed of are causing me such a problem as these below.

The Menu on the right is not crumpled, it is the style of paper on which it is printed.

Hand-painted menus are a feature of most of Japan’s Ryokens (traditional Japanese-style hotels) and it was one of the pleasures of the meal to be presented with these delightful examples of Japanese art.  Not only were the delicate floral designs lovely to look at but the papers were all of a high quality, often marbled or embossed.  The smaller paper was usually the actual menu, folded and tucked inside the larger menu page.

The dishes on which the food was served were equally beautiful, dainty, thin porcelain bowls and plates on which the food was arranged so artistically it seemed wrong to disturb it just to satisfy hunger.  I will confess, I didn’t always enjoy the food.  There was an amazing amount of small dishes but the texture of so many seemed slimy (an overabundance of abalone in many cases), and when I did get a dish I could enjoy it was of minuscule proportions.

However, here are some pictures of the food.  Enjoy these while I try and decide whether I can throw away these lovely menus, or if I can think of another use for them.

All these pictures were taken by one of my travelling companions, Steve Moore, who enjoyed the food on every occasion.  I think it shows in his compositions.

There was usually one dish that had to be cooked personally, so a miniature barbecue or a dish of oil would be on the table (one for each person).  Nothing too difficult, small pieces of Kobe beef, fish fillets, that sort of thing.

As the menus were in Japanese we were never sure of what we were eating.  The waiter/waitress took great care to explain each dish but sometimes there was no translation for what we were faced with, something very pink turned out to be ginger, something that looked like a bean was a paste formed into the shape of a bean.

Imagine the time it took just to arrange these items on the plate.

And now, for something completely different.

DOORWAYS: London, Tokyo, France

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:

Lots of Interesting doorways in Honfleur, France
Lots of  old doors in Honfleur, France
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Can’t resist including my favourite pub in Belfast
Doorway of Restaurant in Kyoto
Not exactly a doorway, but a delightful entrance to a restaurant in Tokyo
The Strand, London
The Strand, London

 

Oldest Door in Town
Pezanas, France (Oldest Doorway)

 

 

Very iold door, Noyes, France
A Very Old Door in Noyes, France

 

 

 

 

 

A Walk on the Ramparts of Ypres

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.

Menin Gate at night
The Menin Gate just before the ceremony of The Last Post

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 Panorama (sort of)
Panoramic View of Ypres centre with the famous Cloth Hall on the left – © Mari Nicholson
Ypres by night
Ypres at Night with famous Cloth Hall on left –  © Mari Nicholson

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.

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On the Ramparts at Ypres – © Mari Nicholson
Ramparts Walk
Ypres Ramparts

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.

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A peaceful spot in the Lille Cemetery on Ypres’ Ramparts – © Mari Nicholson

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.

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Six New Zealand soldiers buried here together as they were killed by the same shell – © Mari

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.

Menin Gate (back of)
The Menin Gate from the Ramparts side

 

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Notes:

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.

 

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Journey’s End at Ypres – In Remembrance

I thought my first post after my trip to Belgium last week would be about my walks around the battlefields of Ypres, but my mind is so full of the experience of seeing R.C. Sherriff’s play Journey’s End, performed in an Ammunition Dump in that Belgium city, that I want to talk about that instead.

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This particular run of the play finishes on November 12th, so I urge anyone in that area or anyone who can reach it easily, to book quickly to see the play (details below).

Journey’s End is the only drama about the First World War written by a playwright who actually fought in the war.

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R. C. Sherriff

 

Exactly one hundred years ago, Sherriff fought at Passchendaele in the 3rd Battle of Ypres and approximately 90 years since the play was first staged in London (with Laurence Olivier in the lead) it is being staged by the UK based MESH Theatre Co. in an old restored ammunition dump with 3-metre thick walls made to resemble the dugout in which the play is set, in Ypres, the town that was razed to the ground and re-built.

The action takes place over 4 days prior to the disastrous battle of St. Quentin and deals with the physical and mental ordeals of trench warfare experienced by a group of British officers during the run-up to the battle, the changes wrought by the war on one officer in particular (an alcoholic at just 21 years old, a causal effect of the war) and the effects of shell-shock on another.  Only a few forward-looking medics took much notice at that time of what we would now call PTSD but which then was often considered cowardice, or if you were lucky, shell shock (after being named such in 1915).

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A Walk on the Ramparts at Ypres  © Mari Nicholson

The ‘Theatre’ is accessed through a couple of hessian sacks serving as a doorway to the dug-out, the setting is atmospheric, lighting restricted to a few candles and two or three oil-lamps which barely illuminate the smokey trench.  Seating is limited to about 80 seats which surround a centre space on which the action takes place, the acting is powerful and emotional and being immersed in the atmosphere of the trench makes for a very moving experience.

The current run extends to November 12th with tickets at €15. Matinees 3.00 Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays with evening performances at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the performance running just over 2 hours.

If you don’t manage to see it this year, make a note in your diary that the company will be performing it again in 2018, the centenary of the end of the Great War, at Thiepval, France from 18th September – 8th October and at Ypres, Belgium from 10th October to 12th November.

Menin Gate at night
Waiting for the Last Post to be Played at The Menin Gate  © Mari Nicholson

 

 

 

Strasbourg – Cross Roads of Europe

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.

A-Strasbourg-Square

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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 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.

Flags-of-all-Nations

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.  It is near the confluence of canals by the Pont Couverts.

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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 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

Cathedral-from-the-canal

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 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, mime artists and clowns.

Oldest-House-in-Strasbourg
This is the oldest house in Strasbourg

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.

Facade-of-the-Oldest-House-in-Strasbourg

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.

The Batorama Tour departs from the Quai outside Palais Rohan, adults €12.50.

A ticket with unlimited tram and bus trips valid for 24 hours is available for €4.30. Also, you can rent bikes (vélhop) for $5 per day.

Tourist Office, 17 Place de la Cathédrale

Montpelier: Antigone Area

Montpelier had been experiencing rapid growth since the 1970s.  The city was on line to become the new regional technology centre and there was a need for expansion and for more public housing.  In 1979, the newly elected municipal council of Montpelier, with far-seeing vision, decided to develop a whole new district to provide for this expansion and link the centre to the River Lez.  The plan for the stunning development incorporated a west-east axis consisting of a landscaped boulevard and a series of squares enclosed by residential blocks each of seven-stories, to terminate in a new waterfront “port” along the Lez.

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Magnificent Buildings along the 1 Kl-length of Antigone – Mari Nicholson

Thus did Antigone, surely the most attractive of new developments in France, c0me into being.  The 1-Kilometre length of this development was built on the grounds of the former Joffre Barracks, located between the old centre of Montpelier and the River Lez which meanders along the eastern side of the city.  It is known as the Champs-Élysées of Montpelier and the master plan was designed by Spanish architect, Ricardo Bofill – who also designed the majority of the buildings – as a series of grand neo-classical structures with pediments, entablatures and pilasters on a gigantic scale.

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Neo-Greek Statues with Fountain – Mari Nicholson

The Antigone squares are idealised, perfectly proportioned Renaissance spaces with grand names like La Place du Nombre d’Or.  Neo-classical Greek statuary that harks back to another age is dotted about the boulevards and plazas in streets that were planned to allow a paved walkway from Place des Echelles de la Ville to the River Lez.  A continuous movement of wheeled devices and small battery-powered minibuses provide transportation within the mall.

Antigone is an enormous project in every respect.   It includes about 4,000 new dwellings and 20,000 sq. meters of commercial space, the Languedoc-Roussillon regional government headquarters, office space, various government offices, restaurants and cafes, schools with special housing for students and artists, sports facilities, and underground parking.  This new development is town planning n a grand scale.

among the water spouts with Greek statue centre – Mari Nicholson

The only other project of this size and scale designed by one architectural firm is the Karl Mark Hof in Vienna, but this has a mere 1500 dwellings as compared to the 4,000 at Antigone and almost no other services.

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On the River Lez there are various watersports for the public – Mari Nicholson

A visit to this remarkable area of Montpelier makes it easy to see why it continues to attract worldwide attention.

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Japan – Land of the Rising Sun

I have had this image of Japan for years, of a country of kimono-clad beauties, beautiful gardens landscaped with flowers and red bridges, temples, and Bonsai, and, you know what, it is just like that.

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Kimono-clad Japanese Lady

I  didn’t manage to cover the whole of Japan on my trip, that will take a few years, but I did chance upon many instances of the above as well as the frenetic crackling neon of Tokyo with shopping on Ginza, the surge of people crossing the road at Shinju and suspicious bars behind curtained doorways off the main streets: the traditional craft shops in Takayama; the Ryokans where you sleep on a futon and eat only Japanese food: Kamikochi in the Japanese Alps, a sublimely tranquil place for walking and cycling, where snow-capped mountains surround fast-flowing rivers, and monkeys cavort among the bamboo, and where the birdsong is so sweet it stops you in your tracks: Kyoto, ancient capital of Japan with its traditions and spectacular sight-seeing: Hiroshima with its sombre Peace Park and its nearby island of Miyajima, and Hakone where the image of the ic0nic Mount Fuji changes depending on time of day and weather.

To say it was culture shock is putting it mildly whether it was from seeing a racoon on a lead being led along the street, to seeing a dog in a ‘dog-pram’ being wheeled around a park, to witnessing day in and day out, the regiment of ‘salarymen’ coming and going from their businesses all dressed in their uniform of black suits, white shirts and dark ties. The men of this most conservative of nations never sport coloured shirts.

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Japan

The kimono-clad women and young girls I saw, and the few men I glimpsed dressed in traditional garb, I later found were often Koreans who hired the kimonos when they were in Japan.  Many Japanese hire them also, as the cost of buying a good kimono, or a special one, can be astronomical, and they are nearly always worn for weddings.

So, join me as I blog about my trip on later pages, let me know if I can answer any questions you may have, or just log on and say ‘hello’.

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