Author Archive: Tim Richards

Beaune city and wine tour by Tim Richards

The medieval city of Beaune – sitting elegantly in the heart of Burgundy – had ten ancient and fortified gates. All of them led to small and insignificant  local villages whose names have over the centuries become legends in the world of wine. Pommard, Vougeot, Volnay, Chassagne Montrachet, Nuits St Georges – the list could continue for a couple more paragraphs. Names that excite the palate even before the cork has been drawn from the bottle. clos de v

Beaune is one of those French towns which has been preserved and enhanced by the arrival of the motorway age. The serious tourist can reach it quickly but the thundering north-south lorry traffic no longer threatens its fabulous old buildings. The town is within five miles of one of France’s main motorway junctions. The E60, heaving with traffic from Paris to Lyon splits east for Alsace and Lorraine, while the A36 heads across for Switzerland.

On the edge of the town – within a few hundred yards of the motorway tolls booths – an entire group of modern hotels now caters for the passing traffic. Beaune has Ibis and a string of other low cost places to stay – they’re all a little soulless but comfortable, sensibly priced and accessible. The best thing is that they don’t impinge on the historic town centre. Within the ancient town walls you’ll find more than enough history and wine-tasting for a weekend stay. If your time is short then an intensive day’s walking tour would just about do justice to the town.

First arm yourself with a map from the tourist office in the very centre of town, then across a cobbled street and you’re into one of the most beautiful buildings in Europe – the Hotel Dieu. From the street there’s no hint of the richness and the ornamental grandeur you’ll find inside the courtyard. There the tiled roof in beige, green, red and black suggests you’re in a palace instead of a fifteenth century hospital for the sick and poor. beaune hotel dieu  It’s built in Flemish-Burgundian style with delicate spires and dormer windows. Inside the main ward is nearly sixty yards long and and fifty feet across. Around its sides are twenty-eight cubicles, each with its own four poster bed. At the end of the Great Hall the chapel was originally  dominated by Van der Weyden’s painting of the Last Judgment. It’s now in a separate room where temperature and humidity can be better controlled.

There’s a medieval serenity about the Hotel Dieu. The nuns’ quarters, the kitchen and the linen room are all kept as they were five hundred years ago. If this is the only place you visit in Beaune then your time will have been well spent. So that visitors can enjoy the details of the Last Judgment better there’s a massive magnifying glass powered electrically which can be raised or lowered and traversed across Van der Weyden’s masterpiece. This was one of the first paintings which mastered the technique of illustrating jewellery, which gleams with the extra brightness of a fresh artistic discovery.

THIS BEAUNE NOTRE DAMEBut the Hotel Dieu is far from being the only important sight in town. The twelfth century church of Notre Dame is a remarkably well-preserved example of the Romanesque style. Don’t miss the five wool and silk tapestries behind the high altar. They were given to the church in 1500 and tell the story of the Virgin Mary. beaune notre dame tapestryJust wandering around the pedestrianised streets is a pleasure in itself. Like Bath, Beaune is built in a warm, honey-coloured stone.  Smart wine shops like the Athenaeum and Sensation Vin – and several more besides – display the great local wines with style. You can even buy a board game based on wine cleverly called “Entre deux verres”. Played intelligently it involves a certain amount of tasting as you move about.

Out of town the great wine villages can’t possibly live up architecturally to the reputation of their products. It’s the only disappointment you’ll have in the area though. After all these are working, rural communities. Their only pretensions are to produce fabulous wines through the skills of their people and through the good grace of geography. What was very strange as we drove from Beaune to Dijon was the horde of self-employed vignerons littering the rolling vineyards with their horrid white vans. White Van Man is sadly alive in Burgundy too. pix burgunday whote vansWe drifted into Beaune simply as a break on our journey to the Mediterranean – but on second thoughts why ever bother to hammer-on south at all. Once you’ve seen one Cote d’Azur beach you’ve seen them all. Linger a while here in Beaune instead and literally drink-in the joys of Burgundy.

 

Mons where World War One began and ended… by Tim Richards

I parked my car beside a lock on the Canal du Centre and looked over the gentle, green Belgian countryside. It was utterly peaceful in the summer sunshine. A couple of men were fishing with long rods away to my right as I looked north east towards Germany. Then a flock of crows flew raucously overhead hinting at more violent times.

There are three ways across the canal – a rail bridge and two roads. One hundred years ago last August  the 31st German Infantry Regiment from Bremen found their triumphant route to Paris blocked by the British Expeditionary Force on the south-western bank of the canal.

This is where the First World War began in earnest in the suburbs of Mons. Until the Germans met head-to-head with the British they’d sauntered quite casually through poorly-defended little Belgium. Lieutenant Maurice Dease of the Royal Fusiliers was commanding his machine gun platoon on the canal bank as the Germans opened fire. His entire section was wounded – he was hit five times himself – and became the first British soldier to die. The first among hundreds of thousands.

It’s strange that most of us know so little about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which triggered the senseless slaughter of World War I. He was shot far away in Sarajevo, which until recently we didn’t know about – or care about. No one, of course, has ever heard of Maurice Dease. And the unique part played by Mons in the war doesn’t end there. It was just the bloody start with five thousand Germans killed as the British slowed their advance for the first time. It was also in Mons on the 11th of November 1918 that Trooper G.E.Ellison of the Fifth Lancers was the last British soldier to be killed.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission tends forty-eight cemeteries in the Mons area alone and the outskirts of town are full of memorials and plaques explaining the battles. These days the far-off, appalling events of 1914-18 don’t affect the pleasures of urbane, little Mons. It’s a university city of around a hundred thousand people with all the charm of folk festivals, stylish architecture and fine local cuisine.

mons 1Mons used to be the capital of the Counts of Hainaut – and it’s still the administrative centre of the region. The burgers built their first town hall in 1288. The present building was begun in 1458 and it dominates the  Grand Place with its cosy cafes and shops. The Gothic building is worth an hour of any visitor’s time. The remarkable wooden-beamed attic space impressed me as much as the more formal attractions – the tapestries, paintings and the ornamental stone carvings in the Gothic Room or the Wedding Hall.

The Grand Place itself – very much like its even grander counterpart in Brussels – was strongly influenced by the French architecture of the late 1600s. Mons was actually occupied for six years by the French in the 1690s. This area is rightly named the “Cockpit of Europe” To appreciate the layout of the historic cobbled alleyways, the great buildings of Mons and its parks I struggled breathlessly up the hundreds of steps to the top of the town’s seventeenth century Belfry. It’s the only Baroque belfry in the country and its carillon is one of the finest.

Below the great roof of St Waudru’s Church dates from the fifteenth century. Inside are all manner of marvels and oddities. St Waudru’s remains are kept in a gilded shrine which itself looks like a medieval church. They’re paraded through town each Spring ( on Trinity Sunday ) in a unique procession which draws tens of thousands of visitors. St Waudru’s shrine is lifted onto the Car d’Or – the Golden Chariot – and pulled through the city by six, muscular Belgian draught horses. The “chariot” was built in 1780 and decorated by two master carvers. Ten choirboys and the Head Vicar of St Waudru stop at intervals to tell the stories of the saint’s five miracles.

When they get back to the church they have to climb a steep slope into the building. Dozens of helpers rally round and put their shoulders to the wheels. It’s a sign that mortal danger is threatening the city if the chariot doesn’t make it back inside in one smooth ascent.  It faltered badly on the way up the slope in the spring of 1914.

But there’s better yet on Trinity Sunday if you’re a fanatic for folk pageants. In the afternoon Mons stages the world’s most dramatic battle between St George and the Dragon. The dragon’s tail alone is five metres long. It’s a huge wicker-work construction attended by the seven Wild Men of the Woods in ivy-covered costumes and twelve Men in White who manhandle the brute in its mortal battle. St George in his finery is on horseback. It’s one of those big, national events which the King of Belgium attends every year.

mons 2While the centre of Mons has remained quaint and unspoilt over the years – the surrounding countryside was once as spread with coalmines as the South Wales Valleys. It’s called the “Borinage” and it’s where Vincent Van Gogh worked and painted for fifteen months from 1879. Van Gogh’s work hadn’t yet been influenced by the bright, Mediterranean colours of Arles. This was the period of works like “the potato eaters” and dozens of grim, dark sketches of the Borinage’s miners and farm workers. mons van gogh houseHe served in the area as a Protestant pastor, but the strain of the ministry on his already-depressive personality was too great. The Belgian period of his life is vividly re-told at the restored home where he lived  – just a mile from Mons’s Grand Place. If the thought of a mad painter, huge casualty lists from the Great War, and saintly relics sound depressing for the tourist then it’s time to perk-up. The Belgians eat and drink extremely well. The high-quality and high-alcohol monastic beers of Belgium link well with local Mons dishes like marinated rabbit and prunes; succulent fresh trout and pork chops a la berdouille (a marinade of shallots, gherkins and spicy sauce).

The town has several first-class restaurants like the Devos, the Marchal and Chez John. There are plenty of lively bars and there’s an annual gastronomic festival in October. It’s got more museums too – antique fire engines; the Francois Duesberg museum specialises in some fabulous decorative clocks from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in gilt and bronze – and of course there’s a fascinating museum about the First World War.

Apart from the British, who’d learned the importance of wearing khaki in the Boer Wars, many Belgian and French units were still in scarlet and royal blue tunics in 1914 which proved rather too helpful to the Germans. Just out of Mons into the countryside the Chateau de Beleoil sprawls elegantly in rolling parkland.

But let me try to tempt you into one more military visit. Thirty minutes north of town on the E19 towards Brussels you turn-off for Waterloo. After all the more recent conflicts with Germany we can re-focus our patriotism and feel smug about the battlefield where we finally saw-off Napoleon Bonaparte. The visitor centre at Waterloo has been modernised in the last few of years with excellent new dioramas and film shows. All the same you shouldn’t miss the old 360 degree battle diorama.

waterloo There are few more stirring experiences for the British patriot than climbing the huge earth mound on the battlefield to stand beside the great stone Lion and surveying the scene where yet another threat to the British way of life was snuffed out.

Travelling on to Brussels of course, could bring back all the doubts for the Eurosceptics among you.!  And on another sad note – Lieutenant Dease, who I was telling you about earlier – well he was given a VC for his gallantry. Posthumously of course.

FACTFILE.

Mons is a comfortable two-hour drive from Calais northwards past Dunkerque and then eastwards past Lille and towards Liege. It’s motorway or dual carriageway all the way. If you’ve travelled by rail on Eurostar then Mons is served twice hourly by expresses on the Brussels-Paris line. The local Mons Tourist Office in the Grand Place is on +32 (0) 65 33 55 80. And the website http://www.visitmons.be/

Cardiff Bay to Llandaff – a four mile walk

When I was a youngster living in Cardiff the docks area was still known as Tiger Bay. It had a decidedly dangerous feel about it – certainly after dark  when the district’s banks and shipping offices had closed. There were rough, tough pubs and unkempt, weed-sprouting dock basins and wasteland. The world’s seamen still wandered around in groups speaking languages from Ukrainian to Chinese.

It had character all right, but polite society kept away, apart from those risk-takers who fancied taking the chance of finding some local colour. Then in the 1980s the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation began to redevelop the area. Now forty years on there are chic cafes and bars, classy shops and restaurants. Then came international insurance companies in elegant modern buildings, the National Assembly for Wales in its Lord Rogers-designed chamber building, multi-screen cinema complexes and Techniquest which is one of Europe’s best hands-on science centres.

Tiger Bay has become Cardiff Bay and draws crowds of people round the clock and at all times of the year.

PIX WALES CARDIFF BAY PIERHEAD AND SCULP

It has a public art policy with fine modern sculpture dotted around the waterside. And “waterside” is in itself the crucial factor. Nowadays it actually has permanent deep water in its lagoon. When I was young the world’s second highest tidal range meant you stared at deep, oozing mudflats for half the day. Now the barrage allows ships and salmon to pass, but impounds more than 300 acres of lake.

The days of shipping more than ten million tons of Rhondda coal worldwide each year have gone, but it’s still worth walking a couple of hundred metres away from the waterfront to find some of the area’s history. The Victorian Coal Exchange and the grand Natwest bank building in West Bute Street still conjure-up the glory days. The Exchange is now in dire condition and in danger of demolition as shrubs sprout from its upper floors.

I still know older pubs with cosmopolitan dockland character and Welsh versions of Paul Whitehouse’s “dodgy geezer”.

So after wandering maybe a mile around the Bay – and don’t miss the timber-built Norwegian seamen’s church now restored as a café and gallery – head north towards the city centre. There are basically two parallel routes. I’d keep away from the new, five-storey commercially-built flats that line Lloyd George Avenue. It’s dull and characterless in the extreme. Instead follow old Bute Street which will at least offer a little local atmosphere even if it is a bit rundown.

Once you cross to the north side of the main railway keep an eye out for the old Golden Cross pub. Its Victorian ceramic tile murals are worth a quick detour. For more, old Cardiff atmosphere you could look into a couple of other pubs in the centre – the Cottage and the Old Arcade beside Cardiff’s Victorian indoor market. And don’t forget to saunter through the city’s many Victorian shopping arcades.

Cardiff has always been the most popular rugby venue in the world because the stadium is right, slap-bang in the city centre. It’s as if England’s Twickenham ground had been airlifted in next to Piccadilly Circus. The Millennium Stadium towers above everything. You can tour it if you want – but it would be more rewarding to buy tickets for a match.

PIX WALES CARDIFF CASTLE WALL AND TOWER

While the Scottish aristocrats, the Marquises of Bute, were coining it from their industrial developments in the Docks, the third marquis was returning the profits to the city through the castle and the Edwardian civic centre. He employed distinctly quirky architect and designer William Burges – on a budget of £300,000 in mid-Victorian times – to rebuild the castle. The public rooms are an absolute must for visitors. To say they’re rich in design is a huge understatement. This is crazy Victorian Gothic at its brashest and best.

Heading north from the castle you once more have two distinct options. You could stroll past the castle’s “animal wall” with its statues of wild animals and affectionately known by locals as “Cardiff Zoo” and into the thousands of acres of Bute Park and the riverside Llandaff Fields – or head east just a couple of hundred metres to City Hall, the Law Courts, the University, the Wales Office and the headquarters of the National Museums and Galleries of Wales.

The white, Portland stone exteriors are as impressive as any civic centre in Europe and many of the collections in the museum ( particularly the Impressionist paintings) are worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time. Either way head on north through the parkland for another mile. It’s all flat along the course of the River Taff and after crossing the four lane A48 by footbridge you’ll see Llandaff Cathedral ahead of you. It’s interior is dominated by the Epstein “Christ in Majesty”

epstein1

It nestles on the river plain with the Cathedral Green, Bishop’s palace and Deanery on the hill above. Llandaff village has adequate restaurant eating, some friendly local pubs and a couple of quality art and craft shops.

FACTFILE…

The total, straight line walking distance from Cardiff  Bay to Llandaff village is a little over four miles without detours around the Bay area, the city centre or Llandaff. It’s almost directly south to north the whole way. You’d better allow six miles by the time you’ve strolled off the route to see other attractions or buildings. You won’t have climbed more than eighty feet along the entire walk.

GETTING TO CARDIFF.

By Rail …. Cardiff is served by First Great Western trains from London Paddington and by cross country services from the North of England, Midlands and the West Country.

By road …. If you’re driving swing off the M4 just west of Newport where the M48 diverges left and follow signs for the city centre or to give you your first Welsh lesson – it’s called Canol y Ddinas. There’s low cost parking as you approach the centre from the north.

Wales’s three National Parks…

There’s a towering, mountain grandeur in the Snowdonia National Park that simply doesn’t exist anywhere in England. The first successful Everest climbers trained here sixty years ago.  The mountains dominate the landscape utterly.

But Snowdonia also has unexpected gems away from the mountains that we’ll come to later. Eighty miles south east the Brecon Beacons are the finest upland hiking country within three hours of London. This second Welsh national park is also cut-through by deeply forested river valleys and dramatic water falls. Its small towns like Brecon, Crickhowell or Llandovery are unspoilt and welcoming.

Then in the far west of Wales the Pembrokeshire Coast national park has all those intimate fishing harbours with their cosy, welcoming pubs; the rugged clifftop walks; the Preseli hills imbued with Celtic myth and mystery; and beautiful, historic towns like Tenby, St David’s and Pembroke.

tenby

It’s a trio of Welsh national parks which offer not only a huge range of challenging sports to adrenalin junkies, but they are also havens of peace and calm for the more contemplative visitor. There’s enough room for everyone because one fifth of Wales is national park … more than twice what England has. Whether you prefer to arrive by train or bus or come to Wales by car … the transport system will serve you well. By road in particular the three parks are served by motorways and trunk roads from all the great cities of England.

Sizewise – and size does count – Snowdonia is more than eighty miles north to south with just 26,000 year-round inhabitants. The Brecon Beacons are also eighty miles across and with a similar population and the Pembrokeshire park stretching across nearly two hundred miles of rugged coast and beaches has just twenty-three thousand local people.

Let’s pick just three memorable places that defy the stereotypes of each of the parks. In Snowdonia there’s thirty-seven miles of coastline. So drive a mile or so south of historic Harlech to Llandanwg. Stroll the water meadows and visit St Tanwg’s church in the dunes. People have worshipped in this idyllic place since the fifth century.

llanfddanwg

In the Beacons if you’re bored with caving or kayaking then the ruins of Llanthony Abbey are brilliantly evocative of medieval times – or if you’re a 21st century “techie” there are 180 geocaches for you to find through the park. All the Welsh national parks have a fascinating mix of manmade as well as natural attractions. The wars against England have left Wales littered with great castles; our heritage from the Industrial Revolution is spread right across the country.

Porthgain in north Pembrokeshire is a narrow little harbour village. Built into the cliffs are massive, disused stone hoppers from the quarry. There’s a magic desolation about them and when you’ve marvelled at them there’s an excellent fish restaurant and a cosy pub just moments from the seawall.It’s the basic purpose of national parks to preserve habitat, nature and the look of the manmade environment and now Brecon has gone even further with a fleet of rechargeable  electric cars which visitors can hire.

The Renault Twizys have a range of fifty miles and a top speed of fifty. Charging points have been set up in pubs, cafes and hotels. They’ve been opening great swathes of countryside since they began operating in the summer of 2012.

beacons twyzy

Factfile…. The three Welsh national park websites all offer essential safety information like weather forecasts and tide times plus loads more …

http://www.eryri-npa.gov.uk

http://www.breconbeacons.org/

http://www.pembrokeshirecoast.org.uk

For public transport into and around Wales go to http://www.traveline-cymru.info/