Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Weird borders

There's something fascinating about the concept of a frontier. There's grass both sides. There's tarmac both sides. But one side is France. The other's Italy. What's going on here?

And borders can be very funny things. Sometimes they can be very logical; the Mason-Dixon line for instance. And sometimes they can be anything but.

For instance there's Baarle Hertog, in Belgium. No, in Holland. No, it's in Belgium.

This site explains. It all goes back to the early middle ages, when part of Baarle was claimed by the Duke of Brabant, and the rest by the Lord of Breda.  The market place isDutch - the church is Belgian. You can play hopscotch jumping between countries.

And it gives citizens unique opportunities. The entire village is made up of tiny enclaves belonging to the Netherlands or to Belgium. If your house frontage borders both, just moving your front door would enable you to move country! That's a brilliant tax dodge.

I seem to remember a lovely story about a prize fighting contest back in the days when boxing was illegal in England. The fighters chose a place where three county boundaries came together; if the police turned up from one county, they could simply jump into another. Of course the police had no jurisdiction in that county and would just have to sit and watch the fight go on.

Sadly, I can't find chapter and verse. But it's a nice tale.

Friday, 26 January 2007

Best jogging tracks

One of the things I like doing if I'm travelling is looking for a good jogging track. If I've got my running shoes, I'm off - before breakfast, perhaps, or late in the evening. It's a different way to see a place, and it helps keep me fit and use a few muscles that sight-seeing doesn't.

My big favourite has to be Bruges. It's flat, and that helps! You can run most of the way round the outer ring canal; that's about 8 kilometres.  I haven't done it all yet, but one day, I might.

Paris: the walkway from Bastille? Well maybe, and I've seen a lot of joggers on it, but you get your aerobic exercise with this one: lots of steps up and down. I prefer the Ile Saint Louis; the leafy, aristocratic quais tend to be quiet (by Paris standards) and the views across the Seine are fine.

I like running beside water, too. So another Paris favourite could easily be the tow path by the Canal de l'Ourcq - a very urban experience from Parc de la Villette and a contrast to the gentility of the Ile Saint Louis. But there are too many bicycles going too fast for my jogging pleasure.

Norwich. Well, this is my usual run when I'm at home in the city. All the way round the Wensum, round the cathedral close, and back to the Adam and Eve pub. That's a mile and a half, and you can do it twice. There's the river; there are swans; there are boys from Norwich School playing football or rugby on the fields by the river; there may be sculls on the water; and there's a big fat cat who sits on the bench in Lower Close and waits for me to pass, and stop for minute to fuss over him.

Last time I went, I'd gone about a hundred yards when I looked back, and he'd already found another foolish human being to tickle him behind the ears. What a tart!

Venice. Definitely the Giudecca. One long quay, with the finest views in the city. The way is flat, of course - you get your exercise on the bridges though.  I haven't measured this one (half an hour or so? I seem to remember.) And no crowds to push your way through.

I saw a jogger out in Cannaregio, by the Scuola della Misericordia. That's a quiet place, with long quaysides.

Rome. Don't even try. I suppose the Pincian hill, maybe, or the park on the Janicolo. But the Tiber banks are just disgustingly full of traffic. And there's nowhere in the centre. Perhaps, one early morning, about 7 am, I might try jogging Piazza Navona in the cart-tracks of the Roman charioteers who ran races here. But no. Rome is just not jogging city - unless anyone knows otherwise.

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

New goodies on www.podtours.co.uk

I've just uploaded some new stuff on the website.

  • My personal selection of the ten top cathedrals to visit in France. Some won't be contentious - but there is one big surprise!

  •  I've added a new set of photos to the 'Labours of the months' series. These come from Abbot Suger's facade of Saint-Denis, near Paris, dated about 1140. They're rather fine and include an unusual scene of two women gossiping by the fire (meant to represent February, but in my experience, you can gossip any time!)

  • A photo-essay on the Marais of Bourges. It was an overcast day but the vivid green of the gardens gives these otherwise melancholy photos a feeling of spring.

Saturday, 20 January 2007

Coming up on www.podtours.co.uk

I've just finished writing and editing a number of new Podtours.

You should shortly be able to download mp3 audio tours of the following sites:

  • Ghent, Belgium

  • Ely - city and cathedral

  • Peterborough cathedral

  • Bourges, France

  • Laon cathedral, France

Meanwhile there are a few more stacked up and nearly ready to go - two tours of Bruges, and tours of Mont Saint Michel, Saint-Denis basilica in Paris, Reims cathedral, and Lincoln.

I'd be very interested in hearing from people about what destinations they'd really like an audio tour for. And I'm also going to be thinking about doing tours of some of the big museums - but rather than trying to do 'the British Museum in a day', take a special subject, whether that's music through the ages, the Etruscans, or the idea of the Orient.  Or say in the Louvre, you could follow different paths depending on whether you're interested in women artists, different interpretations of religious art, or images of landscape and travel.

Nuits lumieres

Following up the theme of son et lumiere, the 'Nuits lumieres' of Bourges go even further, linking the town's lighting with projections of great paintings.

Previous years have seen a Renaissance wedding going on in the Hotel de Lallemant, Gaulish chief Vercingetorix posturing on the ramparts, and s authentic music being played (Monteverdi, Dowland, Vivaldi).  And the council has just put contracts out for 2007-2010, apparently, so it looks like the event is going to continue, every night in June and July.

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Pizza style Française

We had a fantastic pizza the other day. 'Pizza campagnarde' mixes bacon, 'crottin' (local goat's cheese), cream, and onions. I've not seen this one in Italy but it seems quite typically French.

Even more French - and like all the best cooking, decisively regional - is 'pizza berrichonne'. Crème fraîche, pommes de terres, fromage, lardons, oignons  - in other words, cream, bacon, onions, cheese, and potatoes. Potatoes!!!! But it's darn tasty.

It's intriguing what happens to food when it moves countries. Indian cooking in England is nothing like Indian cooking in India (though it goes back to the 18th century - my father once found a recipe for curry in a recipe book from about 1780).  The Italians probably took Chinese noodles as the basis for a rather different form of pasta.

Only German food doesn't seem to travel...

Monday, 15 January 2007

Bourges - coeur de France

Bourges. No one outside France seems to know where it is. "Where is it near?" they say. It's not really near anywhere. At least, it's not near anywhere you've heard of.

It's the capital of the old region of Berry. That's as in 'Les très riches heures du duc de Berry'. Which is significant, because the duke who commissioned that manuscript was a great patron of the arts here in Bourges.  After he died, the rich merchant Jacques Coeur picked up the running, and his palace - rich with carvings, pinnacles and turrets - is one of the finest buildings in Bourges.

We stayed in a lovely little chambres d'hote (bed and breakfast) in the old town, Les Bonnets Rouges, with a view of the cathedral from our windows. The old town mixes fine half timbered houses with beautiful soft stone, cobbled streets with narrow flights of steps. And there's an incredible number of book shops for a town this size.

The great treasure of the town, though, is the gothic cathedral. Apart from one tower, the facade, and a few later side chapels, it's all precisely planned and exactly as it was the day it was finished; a work of impressive unity. A single style, a single mass - no transepts or crossing tower, just one long roofline from west front to apse. (So you can bet that I will be writing and recording a podtour of Bourges cathedral.)

The interior is breathtaking. The nave arcade is exceptionally high, and the inner aisle has its own triforium and clerestory - so that light enters from windows at three different levels. It seems almost as if the church has duplicated itself in this cascade of different heights.

The east end even has its original glass. Now I live close to Chartres so I'm used to a high standard of medieval glass, but this really is amazing. First of all, the glaziers were very clever with their subjects - they put a single huge figure in each of the high windows, but in the ambulatory, where you are close to the window, they created a whole variety of different designs and filled them with narrative episodes of great detail. And as we got to know the windows - we went back three separate times, at different times of day - we began to see how each one has its own distinctive colour scheme. There's one in hot reds, one with more yellow, one that is a deep rich blue, one that seems more a blend of blue and green. Some are hot, some cool. The sensibility that created this scheme has something in common with Rothko, an ability to make colour meaningful. And very cleverly, white glass is used in all the windows to pick out the main lines of the pattern.

Even the iconography is very different from elsewhere. There are some of the same stories - Saint Denis carrying his head, Saint Nicholas saving the three youngsters from the wicked innkeeper who chops them up - but the windows of the Apocalypse, the New Alliance, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are quite different from anything I've seen before. The format is interesting - the main story runs up (and in just one case down) the middle, but there are little comments on it in the glass to each side. It's like one of those printed Talmuds where the original Mishnah text is surrounded by Maimonides' comments; except that here, the comments are in the form of other episodes from the Bible which relate to the main story in various ways.

Bourges, medieval town par excellence, has another secret too - les Marais (the marshes). Just outside the historic centre, the river has been dammed and sluiced and canalised, to create an area of small gardens. Originally these were market gardens; now, they're mainly allotments.

It was an overcast day and that seemed to suit the flat, marshy land. Some allotment holders had come by car; others poled their way to their gardens in battered black punts. Even in midwinter, artichoke plants bristled, and bright green salads marched in their regulated lines on the fertile red soil.  And behind this all, the silhouette of the cathedral, raised on its hill, brooded against the darkening sky.


Trains from Paris to Bourges take about 1 hour 45 minutes from Austerlitz station. Otherwise, the A71 from Paris/Orleans will get you to Bourges.

Les Bonnets Rouges: in rue Thaumassière: 00 33 248 657 992

beekeeping in Paris

We came across a marvellous thing last weekend - 'Miel beton', or 'Concrete honey'.

It's the idea of Olivier Darné, a graphic artist who installed a hive on top of the Mairie in Saint-Denis a few years ago and sells his honey and honeycombs through the tourist office.

There are hives on the roof of the Paris Opera Garnier, too. Apparently the bees are far more productive than in the country, because towns are warmer, and have a greater variety of flowers and fewer pesticides.  The Opera bees have done so well that there are now hives on top of the new Opera Bastille, too.

The Jardin du Luxembourg not only has its own hives, but offers courses in beekeeping. I'm quite tempted to take it up!

Monday, 8 January 2007

Dining on trains II

Following up my blog on eating on trains - ABC News has an interesting piece on the American trains, which also goes into the economics of providing a train dining service. Most interesting.

I wonder whether the answer is to franchise out the train operation? Perhaps Lufthansa Skychefs would be interested... or Wagamama!

Sunday, 7 January 2007

Supplement cornichons

I hadn't seen this before. We visited Saint-Denis and Saint-Ouen flea market (now an upscale antiques market) today, and had a quick bite to eat in a bar opposite the basilica. Ham sandwiches are four euros, with 'supplement cornichons' - extra for gherkins.

Thirty euro cents to be precise!

Friday, 5 January 2007

Brewery visits in Europe

This is by no means an exhaustive list. But all these breweries run visits on a regular basis (as far as I can find out today). Some of the larger breweries that used to do so, like Caledonian in Edinburg, have now stopped - a pity, since Caley's (as it's affectionately known) is a real museum of brewing history. And I know I have missed a good few out. But if you're that interested in beer you'll know where to find them!

* Elgood's Brewery, Wisbech, UK. Out in the wilds, but it's a good family run brewery and has rather good gardens for those of you who might not be quite so much into beer.

*A double brewery trip if you can get to Masham, Yorkshire. Theakstons Brewery, and its rival Black Sheep - started by a Theakston who left the family business when it was sold to a big brewer (it's now back in family hands).

*Batemans in Lincolnshire can be highly recommended. You get a windmill as well as a brewery and the beer is superb. But you may be beginning to get a bit of a theme here - the best brewery tours in England all seem to be a bit out of the way. Nothing nice and central in London, for instance. Most city centre breweries and maltings are now conference centres and hotels. But there's one notable exception:

* Hydes, in Manchester. And they still brew an excellent mild - not a style that's particularly fashionable today, but with its light hopping and sweet malty notes, one I happen to like a lot.

* Many of the Munich breweries only put on tours for groups. However, Erdinger, which makes one of the best wheat beers in the world, just asks you to phone for a booking. And Andechs, a little way out of Munich, also has an interesting tour - though only in German; but there's the opportunity to enjoy the beer and good solid food in the brewery pub (Braustuberl).

* Plzensky Prazdroj, better known to most as Pilsner Urquell, operates tours. If you've got time to go out of your way, so does its smaller sister Velke Popovice - though the tours are only in Czech. And if you really want to get lost in the back of beyond, an expert beerhunter has uploaded his account of a visit to a microbrewery in a castle in south Moravia, on the way to Brno.

* Staropramen has a new visitors' centre, opened in 2005, in the Smichov district of Prague. If you're short on time this is probably the easiest beer visit in the Czech Republic. To see Budweiser/Budvar, you have to go out to Ceske Budovice (yes, that's how it got its name) - and most of the tours are for parties, but the tour after lunch is for everybody, no reservations.

* The New York Times did my job for me on Belgium!

* In France,  Strasbourg is the home of Kronenbourg,  giant of French brewing. At the other end of the scale, Brasserie Hotteterre, in Normandy, brews what I think is better beer than Kronenbourg in its village farmhouse headquarters, about an hour's drive from Rouen (closer to Evreux).

I'll hope to add a few more as I go - and any comments would also be welcome. But that should be enough to keep beer lovers happy for a while!

Thursday, 4 January 2007

A tale of two brewers

I've always liked breweries. They make a product that I like, for a start. But the brewing process is intriguing, and so are breweries.

Now to me a blast furnace is a blast furnace, and a car plant is a car plant. (And I've seen enough of both in my travels as an investment analyst.) But every brewery is different.

I've seen the Gambrinus brewery in Plsen - home of the original 'Pilsener' lager. I've seen the cathedral of beer at Okocim,  in Poland,  set into the side of a mountain. The huge, shiny, new gleaming steel of Saku Brewery in Estonia, and the 1890s German-made circular malting tower of its rival, Tartu.

(Tartu used to brew the most wonderful range of beers, with a 12% strong Yule beer and a great dark ale, but they seem to have dropped them from the product lineup. A pity - dark beers and stouts are a marvellous if little known part of the Eastern European brewing heritage. Ask for Budweiser Budvar Dark if you haven't tried the dark side yet.)

Now there are more microbrewers on the scene I've had a chance to visit some of them, too. And again, their setups are very individual.

One I know uses all second hand equipment from  other breweries. You can tell pretty quickly as you walk into his place - you'll see plenty of other breweries' badges on the equipment! The money goes into the materials - and the beer is first rate. But this is a Dickensian brewery and if I didn't know better I'd suspect he was the first guy to use Linux for Quill Pens. (I bet you he ends up reading this within minutes of my posting it...)

The other, just down the road from us in France, has obviously bet the farm on his brewery. Quite literally, as it's a new diversification for the family farm. It's all bright stainless steel and spotless floors.  And this doesn't stop him producing excellent beer - notably a triple fermented  biere de Noel which knocks the socks off any of the regular Belgian beers we can get in the supermarket here.

Is there a moral? Not really. The only conclusion I'd like anyone to draw from this story is that breweries are interesting places to visit - and there are plenty of breweries with well planned guided visits. (I'll put some up later.)

Or rather, yes there is a moral. Don't judge the brewery by the brewery tour - make sure you taste the beer!

When in Rome, see as the Romans did

I found a lovely book in Oxfam the other day.

It's rather tackily put together with a fake leather binding made of red plastic,  and didn't look very promising. But when I opened it, I was fascinated.

The book has colour photos of modern Rome, but plastic overlays allow you to see how the buildings would have looked in the time of, say, Julius Caesar, Vespasian, or Constantine.  They're rather poorly done, in fact, but what a great idea - seeing Rome as the Romans did.

I'd love to work on a programme for putting translucent visualisations on an iPod. That would be a fascinating way to walk around Rome. It's so difficult to make lumps of rock come to life, but this little book did it.

And it only cost £1.75.