Tag Archives: history

• Le Havre, the City Rebuilt by Auguste Perret

Visit: 2nd July 2017

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Le Havre is a city in Normandy that was heavily bombed during the Second World War and subsequently rebuilt in concrete in the 50s and 60s. It was the final stop on a cycling trip I took in early July with Ross (Chirag having organised the trip and then dropped out on the day of departure!).

 

We started by ferry from Portsmouth to Caen – a six hour voyage that gave time for a long lunch – before beginning our ride west along the coast toward Bayeux. The route took us along Sword beach, which was one of the sites taken by the Allies in the 1944 D-day landings. Sword was assigned to the British, whilst the Canadians had nearby Juno and the Americans Omaha and Utah.

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The ride was enjoyable as we turned inland, leaving behind coastal headwinds for the quiet country lanes of Normandy’s interior. After a while though we began to flag, resorting to my packet of prunes for a final burst of energy as we finally rode into Bayeux.

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The annual medieval fayre was taking place on the day we arrived, so we feasted on roasted meats and watched the townsfolk process by in a wide variety of strange costumes.

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Bayeux is best known as the home of the eponymous tapestry. This was the main reason for our detour to the city, though I was very impressed with the quality of its cathedral.

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We went to see the tapestry the next morning. It is 60 metres long and depicts the Norman version of events leading up to and during the 1066 Battle of Hastings – the last time anybody successfully invaded Great Britain. After Harold Godwinson reneged on a promise to let him take the throne of England, William of Normandy sailed across the channel and defeated Harold in battle. The Normans’ use of longbows is credited with giving them the edge, and Harold was supposedly killed when an arrow, fired high into the air, landed in his eye. Entrance to the museum comes with an audio guide that autoplays, keeping the flow of visitors moving along the tapestry as well as describing the events depicted in a way that really brings them to life. I would certainly recommend a visit to anybody visiting the area – it is one of the most interesting artefacts I have seen on my travels (and is not a World Heritage Site, by the way).

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Unfortunately the previous day’s cycling had taken its toll, and I was too saddle-sore to complete the planned 40 mile ride east to Deauville. So we took our bikes on the train, first travelling to Caen – where we ate lunch and looked around the castle – and then on to Deauville. A resort town on the coast, Deauville was our second night stop.

 

 

The next morning was the final day of our trip and I was ready to get back on the bike. We set off for Le Havre up an enormous hill, and stopped off in Honfleur for lunch (above). We then rode across the wide river Seine and past the large port of Le Havre before arriving into the rebuilt city mid-afternoon.

 

After being almost totally destroyed by bombardment in WWII the responsibility for its reconstruction was given to an architect by the name of Auguste Perret. Setting out his vision in the 1950s he was an early proponent of concrete. He designed a layout featuring wide streets and generally low-rise residential blocks, punctuated by a few taller towers. The tallest building is St Joseph’s Church, built as a memorial to the dead and designed to resemble a lighthouse.

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Unlike much British post-war development in concrete Le Havre is a pleasant place to be. It has not been allowed to slip into decrepitude through the familiar pattern of failed social policies and neglect, so still feels bright, open and forward-looking. There was very little left of the town following the war, but one building that did miraculously survive was Le Havre’s cathedral – a Baroque building from the 17th century. Like St Paul’s in London, with bombs falling all around it the cathedral somehow remained standing.

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We only had a couple of hours in Le Havre before our ferry was due to depart for Portsmouth. So, with that, we rode across to the terminal and boarded with the other cyclists and motorbikes and settled in for the longish journey home. I passed the time reading the Economist whilst Ross paid £6.50 to watch Baywatch II in the onboard cinema.

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• Paris, Banks of the Seine

Visit: 20th June 2017

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This was not my first time to Paris, but it was the first time I have visited in the Age of the iPhone, meaning I now have photographs of it that I won’t lose track of. I have been to the city’s historic centre on three occasions, so I feel comfortable counting it as visited despite the most recent trip being for less than two hours. I went to Paris for primarily to attend the biannual air show in order to research an investment idea. There were some exciting displays such as an F-35 fighter doing aerobatics, but most of my day was spent in the conference halls talking to people about structural components.

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At Le Bourget airfield it was extremely crowded and extremely hot, so when I finally escaped the crowds after the show was over it was a breath of fresh air to have some down time by the banks of the Seine. This was my first time using mobile data abroad – since the hated EU have recently banned phone companies from charging their extortionate roaming fees – and it was extremely useful to be able to navigate around using Google Maps.

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This World Heritage Site covers an area around the Seine as it runs through central Paris – stretching from the Eiffel Tower in the west to Notre Dame in the east. I opted for the eastern end, heading first to the facade of Paris’s famous cathedral, above. This Gothic masterpiece feels similar to the cathedral in Amiens, particularly because of the huge number of figures depicted in miniature statues above the front doorways.

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Two natural islands sit within the Seine – Île de la Cité, on which stands Notre Dame (above) and Île Saint-Louis, where the top photograph was taken.

There has been a settlement in Paris since prehistoric times, but it was during the 17th to 20th centuries that it really developed into what it is today. The wide avenues and carefully laid-out street patterns were the result of deliberate planning by Baron Haussmann in the 19th century. This was to be the model for a number of New World cities, particularly in Latin America. I noticed that Parisian feeling for sure in Buenos Aires, which is the only major Latin American city I have visited.

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Since the great ‘renovation of Paris’ the city government has enforced regulation to protect dozens of specified views throughout the city. Like London’s protection of the view of St Paul’s from various angles, this means no new buildings may be constructed that spoil parts of the urban vista. The developers of the skyscraper district La Défense, however, got around the protection of the view of the Arch de Triomphe from the Place de la Concorde by building outside city limits, but going taller than any Victorian-era planner had ever envisaged.

These photos of/from the Eiffel Tower are Natalie’s from her visit this January. I went up the tower years ago and enjoyed the view. From up here you can really appreciate Haussmann’s layout of the streets and also the sheer size of the city.

I have not yet been to either Paris’s main art galleries – the Louvre and the Orsay – or the WHS-inscribed Palace of Versailles – so a proper revisit is definitely on the cards.

• Byblos

Visit: 25th May 2017

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One of the best aspects of my year at business school has been the new friends I’ve made and the diversity of their nationalities. So when two of my coursemates from Lebanon offered to show a group of us their country I was intrigued. I think it’s fair to say that this is not a country I would have gone to off my own bat, so when I heard there was a trip on it was clear that I should seize a rare opportunity to visit this region with the aid of local knowledge.

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So about a dozen of us booked flights to Beirut and 5 nights in an Airbnb. Our hosts, Bassam and Hala, arranged for us a minibus and a programme of sightseeing/partying. Byblos – the only World Heritage Site we were able to visit – came early on in the trip. It is located on the Mediterranean coast about and hour’s drive north of Beirut. We travelled there via a beach and a fantastic winery, where we had a classic Lebanese lunch including fateh, hummous and batata harra.

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That’s not our whole group there because amusingly unfortunately Jason, Walter and Dayo had missed our flight out the previous day after leaving too late for the airport and getting stuck in traffic. They were able to talk BA into letting them onto the next day’s flight for no extra cost, but it was a shame they missed out on this first day.

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We got to Byblos in the early evening and walked in along an ancient entrance route lined with Corinthian columns. When I mentioned this was an old city, what I meant is it has been continuously inhabited since the Neolithic era (7 or 8,000 BC), making it definitely one of the oldest cities in the world. It was under the Phoenicians – a Mediterranean civilisation centred around modern-day Lebanon – that it rose to prominence. The name Byblos comes not from Phoenician (in which it was called Gebal) but from the contemporaneous Ancient Greeks. Meaning ‘book’, the name’s origin comes from the importance of the city in trade with Ancient Egypt, from which it imported large quantities of papyrus paper.

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The picture above is of the citadel in the heart of ancient Byblos. This dates from the Crusades, when it was built by the Christians using stone from the remnants of the Roman garrison that had previously been set up here. This area, on an outcrop sticking into the sea, has not seen modern building work on top of it. The currently-inhabited part of the city is visible in the background, rising up into the hills that run down the length of the country.

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Lebanon is a complicated nation, governed by a constitution that delicately ensures an even distribution of power among the various ethnic and religious groups who were so violently opposed to one another during the country’s civil war in the 1970s and 80s. From its independence from France in 1943 until the outbreak of war in 1975 Lebanon was a glamorous destination for the internationally mobile. Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando used to take their yachts into Byblos harbour and Beirut was the Dubai of its day. Since peace was restored in 1990 the country has never managed to restore its allure to the outside world, which of course is a shame because it has much to offer.

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Lebanon contains the largest remaining community of Christians in the Middle East, and they coexist peacefully with the Sunnis, Shia and countless smaller sects such as the Druze. This boy, celebrating his first Communion, was a good reminder of that. The country has seen more conflict since the Civil War ended, when Israel severely bombarded it following rocket attacks in 2006, but the system did not fall apart.

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Beirut, many of its buildings still scarred by bullet holes, was a charming city to spend most of our time in. Although it has its no-go areas (in particular, the Foreign Office warns against travel into the southern neighbourhoods controlled by Hezbollah), it has plenty of nice parts. We toured the campus of the American University of Beirut (set up by Americans but no longer run by them), the marina, the student neighbourhood of Hamra and the bars of Gourard Street.

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Beirut’s main Sunni mosque is an exquisite building, particularly on the inside. Since Islam does not permit depiction of the human form Islamic art focuses instead on geometric patterns and Arabic script.

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Our other day’s excursion Hala took us far up into the hills to track down Lebanon’s national tree. The cedar features on the country’s flag and its banknotes, and has long been prized for its properties as a building material. The tree flourishes in cooler, damper conditions than prevail down by the coast – which is why it is quite often seen here in England too, nowadays.

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Like when I visited Madeira last December it was hard to believe, up here in the cool mist, that it had been warm and sunny only a few hours earlier down by the coast. Our guide in the cedar forest showed us ‘the actual tree’ upon which the flag design is based, though I was a little sceptical myself when I saw it.

When all was done we felt sad to have to leave Lebanon. The country had been very hospitable and fun to spend time in, and all excellently organised by Hala. Lebanon has four other WHSs, but unfortunately they are in areas that are a little riskier for Western tourists (though Bassam would contest that!). If the war in Syria is ever resolved and the region becomes a little less volatile I would love to return to Lebanon and see the rest of it – but for now, I have seen plenty enough to know that I like it.

• City of Graz – Historic Centre and Schloss Eggenberg

Visit: 4th/5th April 2017

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Graz – Austria’s second largest city – sits 150 km southwest of the capital. We travelled between the two via the Semmering Railway and spent one night in Graz after three nights in Vienna. After checking into a hotel near the centre of town we caught one of the city’s many trams to the suburbs, amongst which is located the Schloss Eggenberg.

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Although I had timed our visit to fall just after the building reopened for the spring its interior was unfortunately closed off because of an inconsiderate film crew. Graz is on the UNESCO list for its Baroque buildings, of which Eggenberg is apparently an example. It is described as the finest residence in Styria, the second largest of Austria’s nine states. But, as I say, we weren’t able to go inside and see what all the fuss was about.

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So we caught the tram back into the centre just as the heavens opened and the city was deluged with rain. Lacking umbrellas, we just rode until the downpour stopped, which meant a slightly longer-than-expected walk back to our hotel.

IMG_2347It meant we got to see more of Graz’s historic centre with its ornately-decorated medieval buildings. On reflection, it reminds me of three previously-visited World Heritage Sites:

  • The rebuilt historic centre of Warsaw – for the decorated buildings in what I’m going to describe as ‘autumnal’ colours
  • The city of Luxembourg – for its rapid changes in elevation and its prominent sleepy river adding to a pervasive sense of dampness.
  • Bern – for its squat pillars and arches – as in the ‘Swarovski’ building, above. And for being a fellow four-letter city.

About that elevation: the city is built on mostly flat ground around the river, but there is a steep promontory rising high in the centre. At the top is a clock tower, so the following morning we climbed the many steps to get a look at the view.

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The alien blob in the picture above is in fact not an apparition but a hyper-modernist arts centre. It looks hideously out of place, but I rather like it. Graz has always been an architecturally adventurous city, and it has clearly decided not to preserve itself in aspic – as is understandably (and rightly) the temptation at many World Heritage Sites.

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Shortly before leaving for the return journey I tracked down a local sight: this unusual double-spiral staircase in the regional government building, the Burg. There isn’t any practical purpose to building a staircase like this but it was a good way to show off the area’s wealth and impress visitors. We were certainly impressed by it, but were soon out of time. A relaxing trip on the Semmering Railway returned us to Vienna, where we stopped at the Belvedere Palace en route to the airport, and then home.

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• Palace and Gardens of Schönbrunn

Visit: 3rd April 2017

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Schönbrunn, located in southwest Vienna, is a former royal palace used by the Habsburg emperors. The German language has the word Gesamtkunstwerk, which means a ‘total work of art’, or something that uses a number of different art forms to make up an overall experience. The term is commonly associated with Wagner, but it is also applied to the palace, gardens and zoo here at Schönbrunn. The colour of the palace is called ‘Maria Theresa yellow’ after the only female ruler the empire ever had.

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We set aside a day on our Austria trip to visit the site, catching a bus across town from our hotel. Entry is quite steep, at something like €18 per person for a self-guided audio tour. The palace was built in the 18th century in the Baroque style on the site of a hunting lodge that had been destroyed in the final Turkish siege of Vienna. This was as far as the Ottomans ever got to invading northern Europe – which was worryingly close for comfort to those in Germany and France.

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Most of the rooms were preserved living quarters, with only one room (the Great Gallery, above) really impressing us aesthetically. Here Mozart used to entertain the royal court, and it was also the site of the Congress of Vienna – in which Europe’s new borders were decided at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. After seeing something like 17 rooms our tour ended and we headed out into the grounds. Although nicely landscaped, they could do more with the gardens which, as you can see in the top photo, are not exactly bursting with colour. Also, the fountain was completely dry!

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We had been long looking forward to visiting the world’s oldest zoo, which sits in the grounds of Schönbrunn. Entry is not included with the palace ticket, but was reasonable at around €12. The zoo retains some of the old enclosures that were used in the past but which are not considered suitable for animals today. They stand next to the more modern enclosures and the contrast is notable. Below is a bear cage used from the 1890s to 1930s.

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The most exciting animals in our opinion were the rhinos, polar bears and sea lions. There is also an interesting giant ant colony installation in which a food source is separated from the nest by several metres of perspex piping, allowing visitors to see the ants travelling back and forth to collect leaves.

• Historic Centre of Vienna

Visit: 2nd, 3rd, 5th April 2017

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Vienna had stood out for a long time as a major European city I wanted to visit. The Easter break afforded Natalie and me an opportunity to spend a couple of nights abroad, so I decided to plan a four day trip to Austria. The idea was to visit Vienna and travel to the southern city of Graz for a night before returning to the capital for the flight home.

We arrived on a Sunday morning at a gleaming Flughafen Wien and took a bus into town, followed by a long, long walk (punctuated by pilsner) to our hotel. Our first action was to catch a tram into the centre of town and seek out one of Vienna’s main sights, the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

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This museum is one of Europe’s most important, and it did not disappoint. It has, I think, the finest collection of paintings by the Flemish painter Pieter Breugel – including many of his most famous works such as ‘The Fight Between Carnival and Lent’. One of the other highlights was the grand entrance staircase, leading to one of the more impressive cafés I have seen.

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After the KHM we walked towards Vienna’s centre as the evening drew in. I was impressed with its grandeur – it definitely has the aura of an imperial city, as befits the capital of the former Habsburg Empire. All around are imposing state buildings and Classical statues. Bill Bryson once wrote that if aliens were to land on Earth and seek out its capital they would surely assume it was Vienna.

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Vienna is not a crowded place, which feels odd coming from London. It is also not extortionately expensive to eat in. Since we were trying to keep the budget down we ate exclusively in Gasthauses, or Germanic taverns serving beer and food. The cuisine in this country isn’t haute, so you can find some of the best food at very reasonable prices. Dishes we ate included fried liver, schnitzel and goulash.

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Vienna Town Hall

The city’s cathedral, or Domkirche, is a masterpiece of the Gothic, with a spire that puts me in mind of the Sagrada Familia. Inside, most of the church was weirdly fenced off so we couldn’t get a proper look around.

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One of our main destinations during our time in Vienna was the Schönbrunn Palace, in the city’s southwest. But because that is a World Heritage Site in its own right it gets a separate post. Also covered separately is our one-night excursion along the Semmering Railway to Graz. When we came back to Vienna on the Thursday afternoon we had a little time to spare in the vicinity of the city’s main railway station. Fortunately one of Vienna’s major sites, the Belvedere palace, is within ten minutes’ walking distance.

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Located on a high point, the palace’s gardens decline gently into the distance toward a vista of the rest of the city. I preferred this palace’s exterior to that of Schönbrunn, probably because of its far more ornate Baroque styling. If I one day come back to this beautiful city on the Danube I shall have to give it a proper visit.

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• Assisi, the Basilica of San Francesco and Other Franciscan Sites

Visit: 18th February 2017

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After two nights in Rome Natalie and I got up early to catch a train 90 minutes out of the city into Umbria. Our destination was the hill town of Assisi, a site of pilgrimage for followers of the famous 13th century monk St Francis. From the station it is a ten minute bus ride up to the town, where we had a hotel booked in the centre. I had expected hordes of tourists (like us) but it was strangely deserted our entire time there.

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We started out at the city’s main church, the Basilica of St Francis. It sits at the far west end of the town and the promontory on which the town is built. Inside, the basilica is split into two floors, which I found unusual. We entered at the lower level, which is adorned with frescoes – some of them painted by the early Renaissance visionary Giotto di Bondone. I got told off for taking the photo below, but it gives you an idea of what I’m describing.

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In a crypt beneath the basilica’s lower level are the remains of St Francis himself. In case you are unfamiliar with his story, St Francis was a born to a wealthy family but renounced his worldly possessions in order to devote his life to God. He travelled around Italy to preach and went on to form an order of monks who would live a life of poverty as he did. That order is still going strong today, so you see monks and nuns frequently in Assisi.

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Assisi was once a Roman settlement, as the Temple of Minerva (the same goddess once venerated in the City of Bath) on the town’s main square attests. Like the Pantheon in Rome, it probably owes its survival to its conversion into a church, which is Baroque in style on the inside. On the outside we still have the original Roman front complete with tall Corinthian columns.

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From the main square we walked uphill, passing through a multistory car park built among Roman ruins. At the town’s highest point is a castle keep – the command post for the walls that surround the whole of Assisi. I was able to clearly make out the city of Perugia some 20 kilometres away.

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That evening we had a decent meal, though not as good as the previous night in Rome. I ate the local dish of roasted pigeon, which, as the waiter informed me, is meant to be eaten with your hands. The following morning we had to make our way to Perugia San Francesco d’Assisi – Umbria International Airport from which we were flying back to Stansted. There are no bus links between the airport and Assisi so were were reliant on an expensive taxi service. The silver lining was that our driver offered to detour via the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli, located 5km from Assisi. This was fortunate because the building contains a very interesting artefact and is one of the ‘Other Franciscan Sites’ mentioned in this World Heritage Site’s title.

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The artefact in question is in fact the very site at which St Francis is supposed to have received the word of God. It is a tiny frescoed church, barely large enough for a small group of people to gather in, housed within the more recent basilica. This was well worth coming to see, and – like the crypt in Assisi’s main basilica – felt like a very holy place, and in a different and possibly more special way than the grand cathedrals of Milan, Venice or Rome.

I enjoyed this WHS for its importance in the history of Christianity and its Roman connections, as well as the prettiness of the views over Umbria. We were lucky that it was so quiet when we were there, but I would recommend as a one-night excursion from Rome if you are interested in getting out into the Italian heartland.