Thursday, 30 November 2006

No food please, we're Belgian

We're so used to many symbols that we don't question them. No entry signs, one way signs, signs for men's and women's toilets...

But I came across one in Ghent that amused me, because it was slightly different.

I've often seen, in Italy, the 'no food in the church' message with a picture of an ice cream.

But in Belgium, of course, ice cream is only one of the two ubiquitous foods.

So the sign gets a picture of a cone of chips, with a big red X through them.

Monday, 27 November 2006

Academy of Urbanism

I've just seen the Academy of Urbanism Awards 2006. They include one of my favourite places - Borough Market,  London. It's a great story of regeneration.

Borough Market was always a thriving market, just on the south bank of the Thames, across from the City of London. With Southwark Cathedral, the new Globe Theatre, the remains of the Bishop of Winchester's medieval palace, a wonderful galleried inn, and some fine pubs, as well as the market underneath the railway viaducts, it was a great area to explore - slightly seedy and undiscovered, but full of interest.

Borough Market has now become a mecca for foodies. It still supplies fresh produce for the restaurant trade, but it also has a good retail trade. My one doubt, though, is that it's no longer a food market for ordinary people - it's expensive deli land.  Even so, it's good to see new life being breathed into markets. Others in London have been killed off, or like Covent Garden have just become heritage-style shopping malls.

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Gothic collapses

Having been amazed by the octagon of Ely cathedral I got round to wondering how many cathedrals had their towers collapse.

Quite  a few it turns out. Winchester in 1107 - the central tower collapsed. They should never have built so close to the river - the entire cathedral needed underpinning in the 1900s.

Lincoln's tower fell in 1237. Ely's in 1322. Looking at the west tower that still survives, if Ely's central tower was taller it must have been impressive - and was definitely dicing with death, structurally speaking. Chichester lasted out the middle ages only to collapse dramatically in 1861.

Beauvais, probably the most adventurous technically of all the French cathedrals in its pursuit of sheer height,  had two major upsets. First, the vaults of the choir collapsed in 1284. When it was rebuilt, the number of piers in the apse was doubled, making the whole thing look rather squashed and dark. Then the central tower fell down in 1573.  The cathedral was never finished and the back of the transepts is still just shored up, over four hundred years later.

And at Norwich, though the fine Norman tower still stands, two spires were lost before the one that survives today.

It seems that medieval builders lived with the risk of catastrophic failure - and sometimes with the reality.

Monday, 20 November 2006

More fun for less

Travel can be expensive. Loads of hotels would like to relieve you of a couple of hundred euros a night, and restaurants aren't much less greedy for your wallet. Add in a few visits to the sights and you can end up spending more than you want to.

But you can have more fun for less. My tips?

- seek out the places behind the railway station. Quite often, a few hundred yards away there are some great little bars and restaurants.

- use the markets. I lost weight, kept fit and saved money in Venice going down to the Rialto market to buy strawberries, grapes, satsumas, and apples to keep hunger away during the day. Many markets have great fast food for very little. It's usually local-style fast food, too - churros y chocolate in Spain, choucroute or andouillettes in France (though I don't do andouilletes, they're just too rank for me, I eat merguez sausages in a baguette instead).  And you get a great atmosphere. Restaurants near markets are often good - they're using today's produce, fresh.

- Find small, family run hotels. Sometimes you don't strike lucky - more often, you find a cheaper hotel than any of the chains, with a bit of character. Often, too, you'll find whoever's  behind the desk is a mine of information on the town and its customs.  They may be able to recommend good places for a meal. Use resources such as to look for somewhere.

- Get off the beaten track. In Bruges, for instance, just heading out of the touristic centre of the city towards the north or east can save you money on your dinner or drink.

- Swap traveller's tales. I met up with a couple in the de Garre bar in Bruges who told me where they usually stayed - a nice hotel I had passed up as looking too expensive! They also recommended me some great places to eat. And don't overlook the locals as a source of information. I stopped for a bottle of beer at the beer shop in Akademiestraat in Bruges - and managed to find out where I ought to stop for beer and a bite.

- When you do want to splurge,  do it properly. One really fantastic meal every week is worth it. Go for the best - don't be at home to Mr In-Between. On Mont Saint-Michel, it's La Mère Poulard - just omelette and lamb gigot is the traditional meal, and you wouldn't believe the difference between eating it there, and in one of the other places on the island. The omelette is delightfully fluffy and the lamb tastes wickedly sea-salty.

- Eat seasonal! If you're in Holland at the right time, try an all-asparagus menu (yes! even asparagus ice cream!). In Cefalu, Sicily, one restaurant does an almost all artichoke menu - that's the local crop - though they don't do ice cream (or didn't, when I was there).

- Make sure to look around for the best room rate. Hotels don't have a single rate - you could pay a range of different prices for the same hotel, sometimes depending on the web site you booked through. If you're going to arrive late, sometimes local tourist offices have bargains going just before closing time - this worked well for me in Cologne, Worms and Speyer a few years back.

- Get return tickets or weekend tickets on public transport. Bruges to Ghent is seven euros each way - or seven euros return, at weekends. That's quite a saving.

- Go off-season. It's obvious, but just a few weeks either side of the season can make a big difference. Don't go to Venice during Carnival unless you're really, really determined to see it. You might also want to check out commercial exhibitions - for instance anywhere around Hanover is going to triple in price and halve in availability when the big computer fair CEBIT is on in March.

- Remember the metro exists! You don't have to stay in the centre of London or Barcelona - or Paris. Look for hotels out of town, but close to the underground or Metro system. I quite like La Villette/Porte de Pantin area in Paris -  still a bit edgy, but with fine walks along the Canal de l'Ourcq and in the Parc de la Villette, and just a few stops from Gare du Nord on the metro. Prices are a lot lower than in the centre. And there's an Ibis hotel with lots of little ethnic restaurants charging relatively little for a solid dinner.

A day in Ely

Off to Ely to research a podtour. I already knew the cathedral well - so I thought.

But I obviously didn't know the town. There are some lovely medieval buildings tucked away around the cathedral, all part of the monastery in the Middle Ages, and many now part of the King's School. I hadn't given them a glance before.

Prior Crauden's chapel is a particularly nice building. It's tiny - well, compared to most churches. And it's beautifully delicate; a narrow, high box, with turrets, buttresses, and the most lovely traceried windows. A perfect miniature which feels just as if it's come out of a medieval manuscript.

Then there's the Great Hall.  Boring, I thought, looking at it from the front - a classical frontage, probably seventeenth or eighteenth century. Go the other side, though, and you can see the original medieval fabric. As so often, appearances are deceptive!

I think for me that's the fascination of touring in Europe. Sometimes you do come across a building perfectly 'of its age' - Versailles, for instance, or Chartres Cathedral. But more often, you find layers upon layers of history.  Rome, in particular, is a city like an onion - peel off one skin and you find another layer underneath.

Anyway, I now have to write up and record the Podtour. It should appear on towards the end of this year.

Thursday, 9 November 2006

An excellent book

I've just been reading Jean Bony's  'French Gothic architecture of the 12th and 13th centuries'.

That's a rather unimaginative title and some of the work is hard going. But if you've ever visited a couple of French cathedrals and found yourself, perhaps, instinctively liking one and not the other, or trying to work out why they feel so different, it's worth ploughing through Bony's book.

Bony knows all the architectural history, the structural engineering (how and why these buildings actually stand up) and the documentation. But what he has that really distinguishes this book is a feeling for the artistic quality of the architecture.

He believes that Gothic isn't about technical means. It's not about flying buttresses, vaults, or pointed arches - though these technological innovations have their place in helping Gothic architects achieve what they wanted. Instead, he sees the origins of the Gothic style in a desire for lightness, for volume, for height - and later on, for 'self explanation', architecture that evolves a logical relationship between its component parts to reflect the orderly universe of scholastic thought.

And what's marvellous is the way he looks at Laon (yes, I'm biased, it's probably my favourite French cathedral) not as the first step in a new architectural style, but as an artistic creation. He seems to relate directly to the anonymous builder, who achieved a marvellous play of forms, which interpenetrate,  move around, telescope, create transparent and recessive planes.  Yes, there's a lot of technical stuff. Even I got bored in places... but the book is a great preparation for really understanding the Gothic style.

And Bony managed to get access to quite a lot of place you can't normally go. Into the triforium galleries, up on the roof, even into the roof space so that he can show how the vaults are put together on the top side. The photographs are consistently excellent. He also introduces documentary evidence for a number of cathedrals you'll never get to see - because they have been destroyed in wars or revolutions.

The downside is the price, a stunning £48.95 from Amazon. (ISBN 0520055861). Track it down in a public library if possible; I did.

Beer is the teacher

I remember in the Czech Republic being told 'pivo je ucitelj', beer is the teacher. (My Czech may not be very good; I was after all learning it with the help of several beers.) That's 'in vino veritas' adapted for a beer-drinking country.

Well beer has recently taught me a lesson. I was working at Norwich Beer Festival as part of the cellar team. It's a good job; you get to do the quality control (though by the end of the week, believe it or not, this really does become a chore).

I have decided preferences in beer. I like it dark - the darker the better. Milds, stouts, old ales, that's my thing. I don't drink IPA. I don't drink lager (except for Budvar black lager of course.. ) I like sweet beers, I don't like hops.
So why is it that my favourite beer of the entire festival was a pale, hoppy, citrusy IPA? Thornbridge's Jaipur IPA to be precise. Damn, that's lovely stuff!

So what did the beer festival teach me? NOT TO BE PREJUDICED.

That applies to beer. It applies to people. And it applies to travel. How often do I hear someone say 'I don't like modern architecture', or 'I can't get on with the Baroque', or 'I don't like big cities', or something like that? People who won't visit Versailles because they're not into palaces.

So - don't be prejudiced. We all have our preferences, and I'm very clear what mine are. But keeping an open mind is more fun.

A strange form of spontaneity

I came across something quite fascinating this morning - a 'fall colors update' telling you where in the US to go to see the autumn colours of the forests.It even tells you which stage of colour have been achieved where.

It seems slightly wrong, though. It's like chasing hurricanes - which I gather has become a sort of sport and has even generated a tour operator specialising in hurricane safaris! (Though admittedly, he's only letting professionals in on the act, presumably because they come with their insurance already fixed).

For me, autumn colours ought to be experienced spontaneously. You're out there, and suddenly the sun shines in a certain direction, or you round a bend in the road, and it's as if someone turned all the lights on; the landscape  is glowing with red, orange, yellow. It happened to me on a stormy day walking a circuit from Kendal - the sun came out, and the trees were all below me, wonderfully sidelit; and then again driving down a valley in the French Vexin, when we rounded a corner and came over the top of a crest,  and there was a whole amphitheatre full of autumn forest.

I know you can drive to see these marvellous forests in the US. But I do wonder whether the experience is ever going to be quite as gratifying as the spontaneous, unexpected glimpse of glory you get purely by  accident.

Perhaps that's a paradox. After all I write tour guides for a living - trying to structure people's experiences. But at some point, spontaneity is the thing that really makes travel come alive - and you can't structure that.
So let's celebrate the accidental, the unexpected, the spontaneous. Happy autumn.

Monday, 6 November 2006

Roots and routes

I've always been a great believer in walking as a way to understand places. If you've walked to Santiago (or cycled, or even like one disabled lad I met, been taken by car, sleeping in a refuge each night with his helper),  you understand something about the place and the pilgrimage that isn't accessible to people who've  just arrived at Santiago by air.

The track you take forces you to understand places in particular ways. For instance, it's linear - you see one church one day, and one the next, and you can't help comparing the two. But it's not like comparing pictures in a museum - you're comparing  what's  in front of you with the memory of what you saw yesterday. You can't go back and take another look.

And also, you start to understand the locality, and something of its history, through what you see. When you've been walking through chestnut forest all day, a stew with chestnuts and mushrooms in the evening seems a natural complement. Or when you've seen three or four roofless castles, you start to wonder when the roofs disappeared.

The pilgrimage routes are obviously focused on this kind of experience. I've walked part of the Via Francigena, from Lucca to San Quirico d'Orcia, following the track of northern pilgrims to Rome, as well as various ways to Santiago. You're following the footsteps of thousands of pilgrims over the years, and that gives the route a particular resonance.

But there are other 'routes' as well, like the Romantische Strasse in Germany, or the Ruta de la Plata in Spain.  The Spanish tourist office in fact proposes a number of routes, all focusing on particular epochs of history or types of art - like the Ruta del Califato, which links sites associated with the Moorish kingdoms of the south. There's a Camino de Sefarad too which explores Spanish Jewish culture and history.

And then of course there's the possibility of following an army (Hannibal across the Alps), or a writer (Thomas Coryate to India), or even a mad morris dancer (Shakespeare's comic Will Kemp who danced from London to Norwich). There are even people already re-enacting Patrick Leigh Fermor's 1930s walk from Holland to Istanbul...

Friday, 3 November 2006

Opening the vin de noix

I made some vin de noix earlier this year. You have to take the walnuts when they're plump but still green, in late June or early July - apparently the traditional approach is between St John's Day (midsummer Eve) and Bastille Day (July 14). Pick 24 of the walnuts, chop them in quarters and put them in a big bucket with a litre of brandy, five litres of red wine, a quartered orange or two and a huge vanilla pod, and then add a kilo of sugar. And wait. And wait. And strain it after about a month, and then wait some more.

Anyway, this month I took a bottle along to Norwich Beer Festival, where this was my fourth year on the cellar team. And we opened it for a taste.

Highly successful! The vanilla and orange come through but there's a wonderful chocolate flavour, too. It's sweet, but not sickly, and it's definitely alcoholic.

I got introduced to this lovely home-made liqueur when I was walking the pilgrim route to Santiago, and stayed in a hotel in Conques. I've never seen it for sale - you have to make it yourself. It seems to fill the same space in the French kitchen that sloe gin does in England or rumtopf in Germany. But I have to say, I like it more.

Local drinks are always worth checking out. Apricot brandy in Hungary; flavoured vodkas in Poland (I'm afraid I'm a girly here - I prefer cherry and honey to the grass flavoured one, which tastes like silage); and local ciders, which never seem to travel far from their orchards, in Normandy, Brittany, and northern Spain.

Just try not to get drawn into a drinking competition. I've seen the aftermath of some - and it's not pretty.

Food on trains

The great days of train travel are gone, I think. In the 1970s train food was sometimes fantastic - except, of course, in England, where it was vile. In many capitals, the restaurant at the station was your best, most reliable place to eat; I remember a fantastic goulash at Zagreb station.

Few trains now have such good food. I rather like German sleeper trains for their quality breakfasts - a big warm roll with butter and honey, and strong bitter coffee. The plastic packaged croissant offered on the Paris-Rome train doesn't even come close.

And a few years ago I had a marvellous meal on a Hungarian/Austrian connection (we were travelling from Linz to Vienna but I think the service had actually started in Budapest). I forget what we ate, but there was a choice of a really good Spatlese wine and 5-puttonyos Tokaj, so we had both... no wonder I've forgotten the food!

Many German  trains still offer a very reasonably priced and well cooked hot meal (or at least did two years ago when I last travelled there). One of my favourites is the garlic soup - the garlic is roasted and then cooked in milk, so it's like a very gentle white onion soup, not aggressively flavoured.

GNER now does good food on the London-Edinburgh run, but at a horrible price - £35 for one person and that wasn't pushing the boat out, just a normal meal with a small bottle of beer.  Worth it if the boss is paying (he was). Anglian Railways did a lovely restaurant meal on many of their trains from London to Norwich, which you could wash down with local beer (Adnams, fortunately, not Greene King). But now One has taken over the route the  service seems to be less regular than it was.

Few French trains have  anything decent. Some just have vending machines. My technique in France is to find a good kebab or sandwich shop near the station (not in it) and grab something for the train. A few TGVs, apparently, are now offering a sort of packaged lunch you can order, but it's cold, and it's costly.

Italy is also  rather poorly served, at least on the trains I've been on. (I discovered a little trick last time I was in Milan, though - look for the restaurant where the off duty train drivers are eating!) By the way, as a part-time French resident, I am mystified as to why the Italians call croissants 'brioche'. It's like calling bread cake!
When I compare the various European rail networks, it's Germany, Austria and Hungary that seem to win the competition. The UK is too pricey - the English seem to have an idea that good food is only for the wealthy - and France and Italy too poor.

And that's odd.  I would have thought that the French would always beat the Germans  when it came to food, but when it's on a train, the Germans win hands down!

Tired of the city?

I used to travel a lot on business and often ended up with a 'spare' weekend in one of the cities I was visiting. Third or fourth time out, I got a bit fed up with Prague and Budapest. I was tired of the big city, and I wanted to see something a bit different. So I thumbed through a couple of guidebooks, and found a couple of side trips.

Most cities have some great escapes. Here are a few thoughts for how to escape the smoke and the traffic for the day:

  • Paris. Take the pedestrian way from the Bastille out to the Chateau de Vincennes and its park. It's just a few kilometres mainly along the top of an old railway viaduct and it's a world away from the busy boulevards. Or take the metro to Saint Denis - the first work of the Gothic age in Paris, and the mausoleum of French kings, located in a gritty northern suburb near the gleaming arena of the Stade de France.

  • Budapest - take the rail or bus to Szentendre - a little Serbian village on the Danube dominated by the fine spires of its orthodox churches. It was an artists' colony for years and still feels like it.

  • Hamburg - an hour's train journey gets you into Lubeck, probably the most beautiful of all the Hanseatic towns of north Germany with its fine Gothic brick architecture.

  • Florence - take a trip uphill on the bus to Fiesole, with its amphitheatre, old church, and fine views over the countryside. It couldn't be more different from busy, commercial Florence.

  • Venice - get the boat that goes furthest out in the lagoon, to Murano, Burano and, eventually, Torcello. Torcello's fine Byzantine cathedral and baptistery are better known than they were, but if you wander round the island you can still find solitude in the moody marshes.

  • Barcelona - take the train for about an hour to Girona, a pretty town on a hillside overlooking its river. The Gothic cathedral, 'Arab baths' and old Jewish quarter are attractive and you can still wander out into the country, though the city has grown recently.

  • London has some fine country walks in Epping Forest, at the far eastern end of the central line (that's the red one on the tube map). Or at the other extreme, take a trip out west by train to Hampton Court, Cardinal Wolsey's fine Tudor palace stolen off him by King Henry VIII and used by the royals ever since. If you fancy a longer walk you can get lost in the famous Hampton Court maze.

  • Frankfurt. Although it's a major financial centre, full of skyscrapers, Frankfurt has some decent medieval buildings and fine museums - and great cycle lanes! But if you're bored, then you can easily get to Mainz, with its marvellous Romanesque cathedral and fine baroque streets.

  • Paris (again) - take a train to Chartres, with the cathedral and city on its hill over the river Eure.  Probably the best cathedral in the world, to steal a phrase from Carlsberg.

I'd be interested to see what other people can come up with. The idea is to find side trips that don't involve a car, that don't take up more than an hour travel each way and can be done easily in a day, so you're 'back home' in time for dinner.