Category Archives: 2014

• Belfries of Belgium and France


29th March 2008, 5th July 2009, 21st September 2014,

17th April 2016, 8th/9th October 2016

This expansive World Heritage Site consists of no fewer than 55 bell towers spread across Belgium and northeastern France. As well as being fine examples of Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, the belfries represent the emergence of local government as a force to be taken seriously in Europe. In most towns the tallest buildings were traditionally the church’s spire and the manor of the local feudal baron. As burghers and aldermen grew in stature from the 11th to the 17th centuries, belfries (often co-located with town halls) began to challenge the dominance of the other two institutions.

The WHS known as ‘Belfries of Belgium and France’ can be found in villages, towns and cities alike. They range in height from perhaps 100 feet to three times that.

I have held off from writing about the belfries for a while, but, having now ticked off eight of them on four separate trips it seems acceptable to do so.


29th March 2008 & 5th July 2009


Bruges’s belfry is 272 feet tall and is one of the most prominent on the list. It sits within the separately inscribed World Heritage Site city of Bruges which I went to in both 2008 and 2009. But it is most famous in Britain, perhaps, as a key filming location in the film In Bruges. If you recall, the climactic final scene is set in the belfry. I climbed it on both occasions I visited the city.


21st September 2014


Back in 2014 Natalie and I met up with my friend (who was then living in nearby Luxembourg) and his friends for a weekend in Ghent. My primary motivation for suggesting the city was to see Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, but it was handy that there was also a major belfry in the city. I think this one is more attractive than Bruges’s, and it is also the tallest belfry in Belgium, at around 300 feet.


17th April 2016


This one feels like a bit of a fudge because you have to squint to see the belfry in the picture above. It was in Amiens, which a group of friends and I drove to and spent a weekend in primarily to visit the ornate cathedral. I insisted we get closer to the belfry but was stymied by a faulty satnav, so we ended up never getting a good look at it.


17th April 2016


On the way back from Amiens as we headed toward Calais and the Chunnel home we stopped for lunch in Arras. This belfry and town hall is located on the town’s main square, which is a pretty spot to spend some time. It is also home to one of the ‘Fortifications of Vauban’, a WHS consisting of various 17th century accomplishments of French military engineering.


17th April 2016


After Arras we stopped again in the small French town of Béthune. We drank a coffee in its square, which was less picturesque than Arras but still quite pleasant. This belfry is not nearly as ornate as the others I’ve described so far, but it has its own defiant character that I quite like. I should think this is one of the oldest belfries; it says on Wikipedia that a belfry has stood on this spot since 1346.

Antwerp Cathedral

8th October 2016


In the mould of the Amiens visit we undertook a similar road trip in October 2016 to Antwerp. This Belgian city was one of the world’s most affluent in the Middle Ages, and it has a cathedral to match. We stayed in a hotel right next door to the belfry, but didn’t get a chance to walk up it because there was a service on when we attempted to visit.

Antwerp Town Hall

9th October 2016


Antwerp actually has two belfries inscribed on the list. The second is this magnificent town hall, which is draped in flags. The belfry itself makes no attempt to soar as high as its counterpart at the cathedral, but fits nicely with the rest of the building.


9th October 2016


Dendermonde is a small Belgian town at the beginning of the Scheldt river (which flows onwards to Antwerp). We stopped off here on our way home, and were glad to have done so. This town hall was open to the public and free to enter, so we had a look around at its collection of paintings and the council chamber. The yellow flag with the black lion is the flag of Flanders.


• Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey including Saint Margaret’s Church

Visits: 26th-29th June 2006, 12th July 2014, 9th March 2015, 11th April 2015


This is the fourth of the London World Heritage Sites (the others being Kew Gardens, Maritime Greenwich and the Tower of London), yet it has taken me much longer to get around to completing than the others. Why? Just because Westminster Abbey is a popular tourist attraction and was either very busy or closed when we attempted to visit on several occasions, plus the fact that it costs £20 to get in.


Of the three buildings that make up this WHS, I find the Palace of Westminster the most interesting. This is the proper name for Houses of Parliament – the building that houses the House of Commons, the House of Lords and various members’ offices and committee rooms. When I was a sixteen year old looking for a work experience idea back in 2006 I wrote to my local MP, Sir Alan Haselhurst, and was pleasantly surprised when he took me on for a week in Westminster. Like many MPs, he keeps a permanent assistant, whom I shadowed for a week, opening post and other such tasks. This was nine years ago now, but I still remember well the Prime Minister’s Questions I went in to watch, in which David Cameron compared Tony Blair to David Brent: utterly redundant but still hanging around the office (this was before he finally handed over to Gordon Brown).


To be clear, the picture two above is of me more recently, when my brother’s friend took him, Ross and me into Parliament for a tour and a drink. We entered through Westminster Hall, where Ross is standing, which is used for important ceremonies and state occasions, such as when foreign dignitaries are invited to address the British Parliament.


This leads into St Stephen’s Hall, above. Although it looks and feels like a mere corridor, this is where the original House of Commons stood – and its dimensions were exactly the same. St Stephen’s Chapel – as it was known until it burned down in 1834 – was used from the early days of Parliament, in 1547. Imagine the above space with choir stalls on either side – it was this layout that gave rise to the adversarial nature of politics that we still enjoy our current Commons chamber today. It is hard to fathom how, for example, the 658 MPs elected in 1802 would have fit into this small chamber, given that our present 650 members cannot even fit into the new, larger chamber.

On our recent visit there wasn’t anything as exciting as PMQs going on, so we went in for a couple of local government debates in both the Commons and the Lords. It was a strange experience to pass familiar faces in the corridors of power – although they aren’t exactly A-listers by most people’s standards we were sad enough to be impressed by seeing the likes of Norman Lamont and Margaret Hodge just walking past.


Rewind the clock a bit now, and we are back in July 2014, when Natalie and I first tried to get into Westminster Abbey. It was far too busy at the time, so we made do with the smallest part of this WHS, which is St Margaret’s Church. Standing adjacent to Westminster Abbey, it is free to visit and a lot quieter. Since Westminster Abbey was originally a Benedictine Abbey, a church was required for the day-to-day worship of parishioners in Westminster. Both Samuel Pepys and later Winston Churchill had their weddings here, and Sir Walter Raleigh was buried here after his execution for disobeying orders.


The final part of this WHS for me was Westminster Abbey, the 10th century Gothic masterpiece just over the road from the Palace of Westminster. This is a special place for us Brits because it is where coronation ceremonies have been held ever since 1066, as well as the site of at least 16 Royal Weddings (including, of course, that of William and Kate in 2011).


Natalie and I were surprised at the sheer number of tombs that the abbey contains – so many that it feels like its primary purpose is to be some kind of grand mausoleum. Inside you can see the tombs of Henry VII, Richard II, Elizabeth and Mary, among many others. There are also memorials to non-royals, such as Newton and Shakespeare, and a notably large one to that old Angophile Handel. And there is of course the famous Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, a simple black marble stone surrounded by poppy wreaths.


The most impressive part of the abbey to my mind was the Henry VII Lady Chapel. Topped with an intricate fan vault ceiling, the room’s stained glass windows allow in a burst of bright, colourful light.

One of the other details I particularly liked was the solemn medieval statuary above the side entrance to the abbey. This was the period in art when two concepts really came together for the first time – the Greek-style depiction of what the artist could see (i.e. realism) and an Egyptian-style emphasis on symbolism (focusing on what really matters in a scene). According to E.H. Gombrich’s ‘The Story of Art’, which I am currently reading and which I would recommend to anyone – it was the Christian artists who began to impart their feelings into their work, to convey the importance of Christ and God to the illiterate masses, newly converted from paganism.


The audioguide in the abbey is narrated by Jeremy Irons, which somewhat softens the blow to your wallet of the high entry price. Having ticked this one off, I am left with only St Paul’s Cathedral on the list of major London sites I haven’t yet visited (also very expensive). In terms of WHSs, I now only have one more left to see in the south of England, and that is Canterbury, which I think we will have to pay a visit to later this summer.

• City of Valletta

 Visit: 31st December 2014 – 4th January 2015


By Tom

After booking a last-minute trip, less than a week before departure, Natalie and I visited Valletta over New Year 2014/15. The weather wasn’t nearly as hot as it was when Ross and Louise visited in August 2013 – in fact we spent January 1st huddled up indoors as it poured with rain outside. Fortunately it brightened up on the following days, and you can see some blue skies in the pictures from the other post I wrote about the island, dealing with the Megalithic Temples.


The City of Valletta held a public fireworks display at midnight which was well-attended. I was pleased to hear the familiar strains of Auld Lang Syne as the Mediterranean night sky was filled with a riot of colour. Malta is south of two African capitals: Tunis and Algiers – making it one of the most southerly reaches of Europe.

Louise’s comment about Valletta being a sepia-toned city is an apt description. I would further characterise it as being Italian in feel with a distinct British twist. I took particular pleasure in all of the ‘Britishisms’ that dot the urban landscape. As well as the distinctive red post and telephone boxes pictured below, I spotted zebra crossings and traffic light buttons the same as ours. We hired a car for the temple tourism and it was a slight relief to find that they still drive on the left there.


We visited St John’s Co-Cathedral, which is notable for housing two of the finest paintings from Caravaggio’s oevre. He was the original ‘bad boy’ of painting – in fact the reason he was in Malta when he painted these works was because he had fled from Italy after having killed a man in a duel (he was also accused of a second murder, as well as pederasty – which seems a not unreasonable proposition, given some of his other paintings). The finest is The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist – which is the only extant signed painting by Caravaggio, and is said to be the first depiction of a ‘tragedy’ in modern (meaning post-Classical) art. It would appear Ross is perhaps the ‘bad boy’ of World Heritage Site blogging because I recall photography being forbidden in the Oratory of St John’s, but the picture he took is below.


Whilst we stayed in an Airbnb-sourced apartment in the centre of Valletta, we did coincidentally dine on our final evening at the Phoenicia (the hotel Ross and Louise stayed at). Whilst the place does exude a certain cachet, I am sad to report that the food was disappointing.


In contrast, we ate at a wonderful restaurant set inside Valletta’s great bastions – or casements – called Rampila. It was here that I had far and away the best risotto I have ever eaten, and the service was impeccable too. The experience was made all the more satisfying by the fact that we found it by chance on New Year’s Day after tramping round the whole city in the rain only to find that all of the other restaurants that were open (not many!) were fully booked.

Malta became part of the British Empire back in 1814 but its proudest moment was during the Second World War. Despite fears that Mussolini would gas the island Malta played an important role in the war due to its proximity to Axis shipping lanes. They had a rough time but showed exceptional bravery, so much so that King George VI awarded the whole island the George Cross which is still on the Maltese flag to this day.


One other thing worth mentioning, whilst not in Valletta, is a visit we made to Mdina. This walled city feels worthy of a WHS nomination of its own, reminding me of a better-kept version of Kotor in Montenegro. Built on the top of a hill in the centre of Malta island, the city has the dubious honour of having been a location used in Game of Thrones (as was the Azure Window on Gozo). Natalie was pleased as punch to see it in person, and I have to say I was just as impressed at the imposing grandeur of Mdina’s St Paul’s Cathedral.


Malta’s rich history was another of my favourite aspects of the visit (I note Ross missed out Napoleon’s France in his list of the island’s conquerors, which was booted out by yours truly [plural], the British). Just roving around the island you come across manifestations of the myriad of different civilisations who have called the place home.


• Piazza del Duomo, Pisa

Visit: 13th/14th December 2014


Pisa – specifically its leaning tower – is one of the most well known World Heritage Sites, up there in terms of name recognition with the likes of the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids of Giza. This kind of site has a tendency to be overly touristified, so we decided to visit in the off-season and found it to be duly quiet. It was just a quick one-night trip, which was made easier by the proximity of Pisa airport to the city – so close in fact that we walked from the airport to our hotel in the centre and back (3 km)!

The inscription in this case refers to the Piazza del Duomo, which is a large, walled green square on which there are four notable buildings. In the picture below you can see the cathedral in the centre and the baptistry on the left. To the right is the leaning tower and hidden behind the cathedral is the cemetery.

Checking into our hotel, a couple of minutes walk from the piazza, it seemed we were the only guests there that weekend. We were given a fairly grand room with a domed ceiling, decorated with a putto fresco. Since there was still some light left in the afternoon we headed to the piazza to visit the cathedral and the baptistry. I was surprised to find out just how old the buildings are – I had assumed they were built during the Renaissance in either the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries, but in fact they date back to the eleventh and twelfth, making them Romanesque in terms of cultural epoch.


If you only go inside one of the buildings on a visit to Pisa you will be pleased to hear that my advice is to go with the free one: the cathedral. It was begun in 1064 and constructed from marble.


The ornate pulpit pictured below is a work of Giovanni Pisano, and is thought of as one of the most significant works of all medieval sculpture. It is when looking at works such as this that Michelangelo’s claim comes to mind that sculpture is the highest form of art.


Another highlight of the cathedral is the Ascension of the Virgin painted in the dome. As with the Sistine Chapel, this work exploits the geometric properties of a church’s dome to heighten the portrayal of Mary ascending to heaven.


The large Christ Pantocrator mural in the cathedral is a reminder of the building’s age. This depiction of Jesus as a learned and omniscient deity is particularly prevalent in Byzantine-era church buildings.


We next went into the Baptistry, which houses a cavernous space, with pride of place given to its baptismal font.


Inside the Baptistry is another Pisano pulpit – this one by Giovanni’s father, Nicola Pisano. Its legs rest upon lions, which was a touch I liked.


We walked up the stairs to see the interior from above and were surprised to see one of the building’s security guards stride into the middle of the floor and begin to sing. This was done for the purpose of demonstrating the Baptistry’s acoustics, which were certainly very impressive.

By now the evening was drawing in, so we put the sightseeing on hold and went for some food. We found a cafe pretty near the piazza and ordered a selection of cured meats and cheeses as well as a bottle of Italian wine I have recently become a fan of: Sangiovese Caparzo.


The next day we went back to the piazza to check out the leaning tower and the cemetery. I wouldn’t really recommend paying the €15 or so that it costs to go up the tower, as it is best appreciated from the outside. One cool experience you do get for your money, though, is the very noticeable feeling of lopsidedness upon entering the tower’s entrance.


The tower’s purpose is as a bell tower, and it began to lean pretty much straight away during construction. Somehow it has stayed standing over the centuries, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that the Italian government started to think seriously about structural engineering to prevent a topple. They convened a group of engineers and mathematicians from around the world who cogitated at length before they were finally spurred into action by the collapse of the Civic Tower of Pavia in 1990. The tower of Pisa was closed to the public and an extensive renovation took place that reduced the tilt from 5.5 degrees to 4 degrees.

The last of the four buildings on the piazza was the cemetery, known as the Camposanto Monumentale. It is said to have been built upon soil from Calvary – the site of the Crucifixion – brought back from the Holy Land in the Fourth Crusade.


The cemetery contains Roman sarcophogae and large frescoes, though they have not all survived the travails of time and war (the building was hit by an Allied bomb in WWII, which caused a huge fire). The restoration is still a work in progress.

Although it was only a short trip we were soon finished with the WHS and had time to spare. Pisa is not a town with a huge amount to keep tourists occupied, but there are a couple of other sites of interest. One of these is the often-overlooked National Museum of San Matteo, which houses a valuable and extensive collection of twelfth to fifteenth century artworks. Highlights include numerous ancient crosses and polyptychs and a Donatello bust. We were almost the only visitors in the museum, which is kept shrouded in darkness for the sake of the artworks, giving it quite a reverential ambiance.


We still had a little time left after this, so decided to fast forward in time several hundred years and check out the Modigliani exhibition at the Palazzo Blu. I had never really looked at this artist before, but, with the help of an audioguide, we were soon familiar with him. Modigliani is known for painting figures with elongated necks and faces, which we learned were inspired by figures depicted in Gabonese folk art.

And with that it was time to leave Pisa, our first visit to Tuscany. Although it is often visited as a day trip by those using Florence as a base, we found Pisa does also work as a standalone destination so long as you don’t plan to spend more than a couple of days there.

• Works of Antoni Gaudí

Visit: 1st November 2014, 28th March 2015


By Tom

With winter drawing in the appeal grows of seeking out the last vestiges of warmth in Europe. I figured the Costa Brava was as good a candidate as any, so booked a weekend trip to Girona, flying from Bristol. Although Natalie and I stayed in a hotel in Girona, we didn’t see much of the town as we used it as a base to visit two relatively nearby places of interest: Barcelona and Figueres. The weather was kind to us, and it was more like summer than late autumn.

Ryanair has been a pretty reliable airline for us lately, and true to form we were rolling down the runway a full ten minutes prior to scheduled departure. On arrival we took a ruinously expensive taxi into Girona and checked into a pleasant hotel ASAP in order to get the customary arrival beer in before bed. Door to door the trip had been only around four hours – meaning I hadn’t had to take any time off work in order get there.

On Saturday morning we got up fairly early and went to Girona railway station to catch a train to Barcelona (about 40 minutes journey time). The station, however, has a strict policy whereby they refuse to sell tickets for a train due to depart within the next ten minutes. For us this meant that instead of the 09:30 train we would have to wait for the 10:45. Given that we had only planned to spend the daytime in Barcelona before coming back to Girona for dinner, I was not too pleased about having my visit cut short by 75 minutes because the obstinate ticket vendor didn’t trust our ability to get to the platform in ten minutes! So I went to a machine, paid for our tickets on card, mentally cursing the ticket seller. As it turned out he had some justification for his rigid rule, because the platforms were quite a distance away…you had to go out of the concourse…along a corridor….down an escalator…through a security checkpoint…into another concourse…past a ticket inspector…down an escalator…and down another escalator to the platform. Natalie couldn’t get over how overbuilt the station was for the couple of trains per hour that pass through there (I told her it was a legacy of the credit-fuelled Spanish construction boom of the mid-noughties). Nevertheless, we managed to get there in time, so my comment is really that they should let people take their chances with the 10 minute window, perhaps with a caveat emptor, rather than having a blanket ban on all sales to able-bodied people.

We soon arrived into Barclona Sants station and took the Metro to a place called Diagonal. Our first point of call was Gaudí’s Casa Battló – one of his most striking works (and also the most expensive to visit, at €21.50).


Casa Battló

The building was not designed by Gaudí from scratch, but was heavily modified by him. Wealthy textile manufacturer Josep Battló i Casanovas, the owner, was fed up of his grand house being known as one of the most boring apartment blocks in the district. This was in 1901, when Gaudí was already famous, so Battló knew the man to call.


The building is known for its avoidance of straight lines wherever possible; walking through its rooms and courtyards you see curves everywhere – just taking a stroll around the house makes you feel a little queasy.


Aside from the front facade, which is evocative of a scaly undulating sea with birds nests for balconies, the other highlight is the roof, with its decorated chimneys. Gaudí was known for his desire to liberate humdrum functional items from mediocrity, which explains why he departed from the ordinary so overtly here.


We didn’t visit the nearby Casa Mila because it is currently encased in scaffolding (as well as costing another €20). The scaffolding is tastefully covered in a wrap that shows an image of what the building looks like – but somebody has gone and put a giant advert over the top of it, rather ruining the effect.

We walked next down La Rambla to the less famous Palau Güell. Like Park Güell, it was built for Gaudí’s most famous patron, Eusebi Güell. Güell was an industrialist and an extremely wealthy man. According to the in-house audio guide, he has been ranked by Forbes as among the top 20 richest people who ever lived, with a fortune of €75bn in today’s money.


Palau Güell (Güell Palace )

This building doesn’t immediately strike you as a Gaudí, given its more restrained appearance. Built largely in a dark marble, it is sumptuously decorated with ornate ceilings and stained glass windows. Unlike much of Gaudí’s other work, this building does not eschew straight lines and right angles.


Palau Güell was Gaudí’s first major project, and represented to his patron an enormous gamble. Güell, like Gaudí, was a Catalan nationalist, and shared Gaudí’s political concerns for the working classes. But when they began their architect-client relationship, money ceased to be relevant. Güell’s accountant apparently lamented “I fill Don Eusebio’s pockets and Gaudí empties them”.


But for the man who could afford anything, commissioning such a novel architect to build him a palace was a way of distinguishing himself from the other plutocrats of his day. The picture above shows the ceiling of the three story inner hall, featuring a cupola filled with holes that let the light in so it resembles a starry sky. In this hall Gaudí placed an organ of his own design, which is still played to this day.


Intricate ceiling design

All the other rooms in the house appear secondary to the central hall, which acts as the focal point around which the rest of the building converges. However that is not to say they are of inferior quality. Below you can see the Shakespearean stained glass windows in the bedroom of Güell’s eldest daughter.


Hamlet & Macbeth

The 18 colourful chimneypots and ventilation ducts on the roof of the palace cannot be seen from street level, but that doesn’t seem to have bothered Gaudí. Since the Güell Palace was finished in 1889 – some 17 years earlier than Casa Battló – this roof art can be considered a prefiguration of what was to come.


Roof of Güell Palace

On finishing up at Palau Güell and exiting via the servants’ staircase we walked across the city toward Gaudí’s most famous work of all – La Sagrada Familia. Barcelona has the atmosphere of a relaxed and vibrant city, in which you can walk through tiny alleyways and emerge without warning onto open squares full of cafés. Its tall townhouses reminded me of the centre of Buenos Aires, although surely the inspiration ran the other way.

I have visited the Sagrada before, about eight years ago on a school music tour. Then, the insides were full of scaffolding and I had no interest in architecture or churches – in fact all I remember about it is being quite bored. This time around, however, was a totally different experience.


Up close, the sheer size of the building becomes apparent, and the ornate decoration on the outside of the building is a sight to behold. But it was upon stepping inside that the ‘wow factor’ really hit me – the interior looks to be pretty much complete now, and there is no scaffolding left.


The sheer cavernous enormity of the space is something I have never experienced before. More so than most churches, the interior is full of colour. Gaudí designed the columns to resemble trees and branches. I am surprised to read on Wikipedia that there are numerous larger churches in the world, including some that I have visited – because this certainly felt like the largest to me. Perhaps that is a testament to the brilliance of Gaudí’s design.

He started work on the Sagrada Familia in 1883 at the age of 31 and it consumed him for the rest of his life. Famously, today it is still unfinished, though a target date of 2026 is being talked about. One of the reasons the project has taken so much longer than anticipated (it had initially been expected to be complete before 1900) was because Gaudí preferred to evolve the design during construction, rather than rigidly to follow a set plan.

The huge towers are topped with ‘crowns’ that resemble bishops’ mitres. Each tower is dedicated to one of the twelve apostles, who all became bishops – so it was Gaudí’s intention that the twelve towers of the Sagrada Familia would also appear to ‘become bishops’.

The building was nowhere near completed when Gaudí died in 1926, and work has continued to this day. Given that he was one of the most celebrated residents of Barcelona at the time, presiding over its most important ever construction project, the story of his death comes as quite a surprise. When out walking one day in June he was hit by a tram. Although not killed outright he was severely injured. But because of his shyness (he rarely allowed himself to be photographed) he was wearing shabby clothes and people did not recognise his face, so he was mistaken for a beggar. Those who came to his aid found taxi drivers unwilling to take him to hospital, and when he was eventually brought to one he was not exactly rushed into the operating theatre. When the people of Barcelona found out who he really was it was too late and he was dead.

Our final stop for the visit was at Park Güell, which is up a rather steep hill overlooking the city. There is in fact an outdoor escalator that you can take up to it. Unfortunately we only found this out on the way down. After labouring up to the top you are rewarded with an impressive view of Barcelona.


The colourful mosaics adorning the walls of Park Güell are an immediately recognisable Gaudí trademark. They were not built using the expensive materials of the Güell Palace, though, but consist of scrap fragments of broken tilework that were discarded by tilemaking factories.


A key aspect to the design of the park was Gaudí’s decision to follow the contours of the steep hillside on which it was sited. So instead of levelling the land he built raised walkways and cut tunnels for paths. The open area  you can see above (which Gaudí called ‘the Greek theatre’) is completely flat and thus collects rainwater very quickly, so without adequate drainage would be at risk of collapse. The solution was both to make the surface porous and to make the Doric columns that support it hollow, allowing water to flow down through them.

At the end of a long day of sightseeing we headed back to Girona. Of the seven inscribed properties that make up the Works of Antoni Gaudí World Heritage Site, we saw four. Of those we didn’t see, one was the Casa Milà (undergoing renovation), another is the Crypt in Colonia Güell, out in the hills way out in the west of Barcelona, and the last is the Casa Vicens – which I had intended to visit but completely slipped my mind. Certainly we will revisit Barcelona, and I will tick off the rest then.


Back in Girona we had a reservation at the city’s second most renowned restaurant, Massana. I say second because Girona is home to what is arguably the hottest restaurant in the world right now, El Celler de Can Roca. The Celler however was fully booked for the next eleven months, so there was no chance of getting in there. At Massana we went for the tasting menu, which was a first for both of us. The decor and service were pleasantly discrete, and the food was impeccable, all supervised by Mr Massana himself standing outside the kitchen doors.


Dessert disguised as a savoury dish

Plans for the Sunday before flying home centred on taking the train to Figueres in order to visit the Salvador Dalí “Theatre-Museum” in the great Surrealist’s hometown. Dalí himself designed the museum, so it is just the kind of wacky layout and design that you would expect from his paintings.


If you like the works of Dalí then this museum is a must. It houses a large proportion of his works (though I have been surprised to see just how many of them are in a museum in Florida). Of particular note is a velvet-lined room designed to feel like being inside a jewelry box, in which Dalí has hung some of the paintings that were most important to him. Several of them are unsurprisingly of Gala, his wife (and the muse of several prominent artists before him), to whom he was so devoted.


Main hall of the Dalí museum

In the picture of above you can see one of my favourite Dalí works, the amusingly entitled Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Metres Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Given that this photo was taken from about twenty metres away, all you can see is a pixelated picture of Abraham Lincoln – however, up close you can clearly see the figure of Gala at a window. In fact it is only on looking at it now that I notice just how invisible the Gala figure is. Take a look at a closer photo here and you’ll see what I mean.

Although known primarily as a Surrealist (“The only difference between me and the Surrealists is that I am a Surrealist”), Dalí, like most artists, also experimented with more conventional styles in his early phases.


Figure at a Window, 1925

Other works I enjoyed seeing here were ‘Leda Atomica’, ‘The Poetry of America – The Cosmic Athletes’ (first appearance of a Coca-Cola bottle in art, 20 years before Warhol) and the Arnolfini-esque ‘Dalí from the Back, Painting Gala from the Back, Eternalised by Six Virtual Corneas Provisionally Reflected in Six Real Mirrors’.

 Update: 28th March 2015


Four months later we returned to Barcelona, principally to visit the Palau de la Música Catalana and Hospital de Sant Pau, but we also took the opportunity to tick off two more of the seven sub-components of this Gaudí WHS (the only part we didn’t manage to see on either visit is the Crypt at Colonia Güell, which was both miles outside the city and closed on the day of this visit).


Arriving at El Prat Airport around 4pm, we headed straight to the Casa Mila – which stays open until 8. On our previous visit, this major Gaudí building had been entombed in scaffolding, but to our surprise the scaffolding had since then been disassembled.



At €21 each it is the most expensive of the Gaudí sites, but we bit the bullet and went in there. It turned out to have been worth it because it wasn’t crowded and was very pleasant to spend time on the roof in the evening sun. Like other Gaudí buildings, Casa Mila – also known as La Pedrera – is topped with ornate chimneys, conveying the architect’s philosophy that functional items should be made decorative too.

La Pedrera

Interestingly, this is still an inhabited building, with ordinary people living in apartments overlooking a central courtyard full of tourists like us. As well as the roof and the courtyard, visitors are allowed to wander round the attic floor and the floor beneath that, which is full of period furniture as it was when the building was new.


After La Pedrera there was just enough daylight left (on the last day before the clocks changed) to see the Casa Vicens. This is a fully private residence, so you have to settle with viewing it from outside in the street. It was one of Gaudí’s earliest buildings in Barcelona – a project that helped him to make a name for himself in the Modernisme movement. The house clearly shows the influence of Moorish architecture, a collective memory that has affected Spain in a way that could hardly be imagined in other European countries.

• Flemish Béguinages

Visit: 21st September 2014


By Tom

The Flemish Béguinages is a World Heritage Site made up of 13 separate communities spread across the northern Belgian region of Flanders. The Béguinages of Belgium generally consisted of houses grouped around a central courtyard, focused on a church and inhabited by members of a lay sisterhood – what we would probably call nuns. It seems they differed from ‘full nuns’ in that they did not seek to retire from the outside world, but remained part of the local community. There are two remaining Béguinages in Ghent, which was the city we visited on a one-night weekend trip to Belgium. Natalie and I were joined by Louise, Ross and four of his friends from Luxembourg (Stef, Delphine, Simone & Justyna). They (including Louise, who had been staying at Ross’s) drove up from Lux, whilst Natalie and I flew in to Brussels and caught a train onward to Ghent.

One of my favourite places is Bruges, and Ghent resembles Bruges in a number of ways – being its nearest city of reasonable size and having enjoyed the same status as a booming trading centre at around the same time (in the 13th century Ghent was the second biggest city in Europe, after Paris). It also shares Bruges’s passion for stepped building facades and canal waterways.


St Bavo’s Cathedral

Unusually, the reason I picked this city to visit wasn’t primarily a WHS. Ghent’s most famous attraction is The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb – or the Ghent Altarpiece – by Jan van Eyck. After watching the series Civilisation by Kenneth Clark I took an interest in van Eyck and thought it would be good to see the altarpiece for myself.

We soon met up with Ross and the gang, but before that Natalie and I visited the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts. Located near to the main railway station, it is a quiet museum that contains a very impressive and varied – though not overbearing – collection. You start off in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, and, via Baroque, Romanticism, Impressionism and other movements, end up at Modernism and a pile of tables and chairs that must either be installation art or the furniture storage heap of a scruffy janitor.

Some of the more notable works in the museum include an interesting ‘metallochrome effect’ Passion scene by Hieronymous Bosch and, notably, a section of the Ghent Altarpiece – which is undergoing restoration. The task, which is taking around five years, involves the removal of a portion of the altarpiece at a time, whereupon it is worked on by experts in a lab behind a glass screen in the Ghent Fine Art Museum. Compared to viewing the rest of the altarpiece in a hot, dark, crowded room behind glass in St Bavo’s Cathedral, the quiet, cool, white space of the museum allows for a much more pleasant viewing experience. But the best viewing experience of all is found online, at an excellent website the museum has created that allows you to view the altarpiece in phenomenal detail, zooming in dozens of times and comparing a normal photograph with infrared and x-radiography – both of which allow you to see the charcoal underdrawing. The work is noted for its fastidious attention to detail, and the website is probably the only way you can truly appreciate that.

So, after the museum and after meeting the others and seeing the inside of St Bavo’s, it was time to check into the hotel and hit the beers. Unfortunately the apartment I had booked didn’t have proper beds, meaning we had to improvise out of sofas. Still, this didn’t matter too much and we were soon outside trying the full range of brews Ghent has to offer.


The next day, after a continental breakfast, we split up for a bit. Natalie and I went off to see the Béguinages whilst the others went to Ghent’s castle. The first Béguinage we visited was the grandest – the Grand Béguinage de Sint-Amandsberg, situated near to Dampoort station in the east of the city.


The walled mini-town allows anybody to wander in nowadays, and I don’t believe it is still inhabited by Beguines. But it still retains an air of tranquility, and you lose the ambient city noise of engines and car horns once you get inside. We had a look inside the empty church that dominates the centre of the Béguinage and walked around the cobbled roads that surround it.


Having seen the Grand Béguinage, we walked the mile or so to the Petit Béguinage, which lies to the south of the city centre. Along the way we tried to stop off at a number of recommended eateries, but because it was a Sunday almost everything seemed to be closed. Unlike in Britain, where town centres seem busier on Sundays than on weekdays, the people of Ghent still treat the Sabbath as a day of rest. Which is annoying.

The church at the Petit Béguinage is totally different in style to that at the Grand Béguinage. To me it resembled the Catholic churches of Old Goa (though the ones here in Ghent are presumably Protestant, so what do I know?).


The houses of the Béguinages are reasonably old, with one bearing the date 1628 on its frontage. They are mostly in good condition, and all still inhabited – but by what appear to be ordinary people living ordinary lives, just in a slightly extraordinary setting. I say ‘mostly’ in good condition, because the term could not be used to described this wall, which we gave a wide berth when walking by!


There isn’t a museum or anything at the Béguinages – just a sign or two informing visitors of their status as a WHS. So with little else to do we headed back to the group in the centre of Ghent. We bought some chocolates (obviously compulsory in Belgium) and ate a rather overpriced meal where we were forbidden from choosing more than four types of main course from the sizeable menu (presumably to save the chef from actually having to exert himself).


St Nicholas’ Church

The brief trip was by now almost over, and all that remained was for us to say our goodbyes and head our separate ways. Ross was driven back to Luxembourg by Stef and Delphine, whilst Louise, Natalie and I were given a lift to Brussels airport by Simone and Justyna, who were catching a flight to Ibiza.

We arrived pretty early for our flight, and it was delayed an hour, leaving us to sit and talk in the airport bar for a pleasant few hours. Sometimes a flight delay can be annoying (as it was when flying back from Genoa in August), but in this instance it was more of a silver lining than a cloud because it prolonged our stay in Belgium by 3% and allowed us to drink another glass of beer (even if it was only Stella).


• Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison

Visit: 19th & 23rd August 2014

 bgi leftbgi right

By Tom

Ross, Louise and I travelled to Barbados in August as part of a group of 21, to attend a friend’s wedding and take a week’s holiday in the Caribbean at the same time. The trip had been planned for over a year, so it almost came as a surprise when it finally rolled around and we headed to Gatwick airport for our flight to Bridgetown.

Barbados is a small island nation with a population of only 280,000. It is the easternmost island in the Lesser Antilles – about 100 miles east of the main Caribbean island chain. We had rented two villas on the west coast in an area called Fitts Village, right on Barbados’s Highway 1 (which is actually just a single carriageway road). It was a convenient location because the yellow (reggae-blasting) and blue (sensible) buses were available to us all day as they hurtled from Bridgetown to Speightstown and vice versa. Although taxis are cheap on the island, buses are the real bargain at only US$1 a ride.


On one of the evenings we caught a bus down to Oistins, which is in the south of the island near the airport, for the famous night market. The bus was pretty busy when we boarded, but people just kept getting on as the bus progressed until there was literally no room for any more. We spent about 45 minutes packed into this sardine can before spilling out at the market, where we ate some typical Bajan food from one of the many stalls.


Lobster, chips and macaroni at Oistins night market

The food in Barbados consists mostly of chicken, ribs and fish served with rice and beans, cassava or macaroni. The quality was great wherever we went, particularly the chef we had in our house but also the various local food stalls we took the opportunity to eat at. Our first Caribbean meal outside of the house was at a restaurant in Bridgetown. We had to wait a long time because the kitchen forgot our order, but we were compensated with free drinks and when the food came it was well worth waiting for. Below are three of the dishes we tried: jerk fish (top), cow heel soup and fried chicken in an orange sauce. The cow heel soup is what it says it is – the meat and gelatin of a cow’s heel, served with potatoes in a broth.


This was the day of our first visit to the garrison. The WHS is made of the centre of Bridgetown and the garrison area. They are not quite next to each other, but it is an easy 30 minute walk from one to the other. Bridgetown is not a particularly attractive city, but we found it an interesting place to walk around nonetheless. Louise commented that it was the first time she had been in a place where she was an ethnic minority, since this was her first time outside of Europe. The buildings are low-rise and often very colourful. As you can see, it rained during our visit, which was not unusual since August is the rainy season in the Caribbean. We had rain on about half of the days we were there, but luckily didn’t get a tropical storm.


The most impressive building we saw in downtown Bridgetown was the Cathedral Church of Saint Michael and All Angels, built in 1789. We walked along the beach in Carlisle Bay looking for the garrison, taking care to avoid the evil Stonefish that we had been warned occasionally sting people on the beach. This innocuous-looking fish, which blends in with the stones on the seafloor, delivers the most painful sting of any fish, and is up there in the top 10 of worst stings in the world!


After passing through a boatyard, a petrol station and the Barbados Yacht Club we eventually found the garrison, which is a collection of old colonial buildings arranged around a large central square that now contains a racecourse. The building on the left, below, is the main guardhouse, and you can see the some of the colonial-era cannons arrayed on the right. Buildings in the area are still used as the headquarters of the Barbados Defence Force.

IMG_2612-0bgi cannon

It wasn’t until our second visit to Bridgetown several days later that we managed to get inside one of the museums – they close early in Barbados, it seems. For B$12 (£3.60) we went into the Barbados Museum, which houses exhibits on the history of the island through its various phases of rule.


Barbados Museum, former military prison

We went into it wondering if there was any history of human habitation prior to the Europeans discovering it. The answer to that is yes, there is plenty of evidence of indigenous Amerindians, ranging from tools to burial sites – although curiously there were no people there at the point the Europeans arrived. Several theories exist for this:

  1. The overuse and contamination of the island’s limited surfacewater.
  2. Soil erosion caused by overplanting of crops.
  3. Disease introduced by another Amerindian group or possibly the early Spanish raiders who landed on the island before the British.

The history of British rule and the use of slavery in the sugar industry are better documented, and the museum has a number of interesting exhibits on this. It also provides information on the history of the island in the 20th century, leading up to and beyond Barbados’s independence from Britain in 1966.


St Nicholas Abbey

The previous day we had visited the building above (St Nicholas Abbey) in the north of the island. One of the best examples of a Jacobean mansion in the world, it stands at the centre of the St Nicholas sugar plantation. For B$25 (£7.50) we were given a brief guided tour and a rum tasting, because the plantation still makes its own highly-regarded rum (they produce just 42 barrels a year). There was also a wonderful video in which footage of Bridgetown and the plantation taken in 1935 was narrated by Lt Col Stephen Cave, the redoubtable late owner of the plantation whose father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather before him had also owned the property. The footage showed a simpler time when there were no flights from Britain, visitors arrived by steamship and “it was considered impolite to be seen in public without a hat”.

The day after St Nicholas Abbey we returned to almost the exact same part of the island to visit the nearby wildlife reserve. It is like a cross between a safari park and a zoo, in that you walk around it on foot but most of the animals are free to roam where they like within its boundaries. This was Louise’s favourite part of the holiday, and I understand why. As soon as we walked through the entrance we were met by tortoises plodding around and came face to face with monkeys, a spectacled caiman and a new-born deer.


It was at this point that Ross’s famed lack of physical exercise caught up with him when he was photographed losing to a tortoise in a race:

IMG_2646After taking a bus the length of the island back down to Bridgetown we stopped off for one our final meals of the trip, in a local buffet-style restaurant in the centre. Again, the Bajan cooking was excellent, and Louise described this as the best meal she had on the whole holiday. Here you can see chicken, ribs, rice and beans, ‘macaroni pie’ and cassava again. The cassava was a new food for me, and I enjoyed its texture and flavour. I would describe it as somewhere between roast parsnip and carrot. The macaroni that we found so often is also interesting – it is pasta served in a cheese sauce, but it is sweeter than something you might find in Italy, which could be because ketchup or sugar is added.

bgi foodIMG_2661

In conclusion, although the WHS itself is not the most exciting one in the world, Barbados as a whole is a thoroughly interesting place to visit for a week and offers an excellent mix of things to do and beautiful sandy beaches to relax on afterwards with a local Banks beer.