Thursday, March 31, 2011

Brittany spares us a great weekend– 26-27 March 2011

After years of Brittany Ferries' email deals hitting our inbox, we finally succumbed to a special offer on a return trip Poole to Cherbourg. It is a service that they have revived for the summer and were obviously attempting to drum up some business; and, to that end, it worked as we left London after work on Friday and boarded the Barfleur at 23:15 for the overnight crossing.

We slept reasonably well on the reclining chairs and were ready to roll when we berthed at Cherbourg at 0730. The empty French roads and motorways that are such a contrast to England whisked us quickly to our destination of Dinan in Brittany, which our travel guide assured us was the jewel of the province.

As we were heading for a B&B we had read about, the SatNav fortuitously took us into Dinan via the attractive old port where the town was founded. A narrow cobble steep street up from the “port” on the River Rance to the Chambres d'Hotes Le Logis du Jerzual where we secured our accommodation before setting out to follow a walking trail around the old town at the top of the hill. The settlement moved up from the riverside in the 14th century, to enable better defences to be constructed and which now provide wonderful views as you walk along the town walls.

The area is famous for galettes (buck wheat brown crepes) and crepes and taking advice from the guide book we stopped in at Creperie Ahna to sample their scallop and mushroom galettes washed down with the local cider in a pottery cup. Simply wonderful!

Having finished our tour of the extremely picturesque pedestrianised centre of the old town we made our way back down the hill to the river and set of upstream for Lehon, a short 30 minute stroll away, Before we set out we built up our blood sugar levels with another local treat, a warmed Kaugn Amann au Pomme, an absolute must for anyone not on a diet visiting this area. Lebon has a ruined castle at the top of the hill which affords wonderful vistas over the old town and abbey below.

After returning to Dinan we settled for an early dinner of galettes and flambed crepes before retiring at an extremely unsociable hour. Clearly, we had not slept quite as well as we thought on the trip across. Breakfast on Sunday morning was a real treat with fresh crusty baguettes and warm feather-light croissants.

Suitable fortified we set off to explore the Breton coastline, heading first for Cap Frehel. We had spotted a post-card in Dinan with a picture of Fort La Latte on the peninsular so headed there, only to find that it did not open until 14:00. Not wanting to waste 2 hours sitting in the car-park decided to drive along the coastline and check out Breton fishing villages.

It would probably have been a good idea and a scenic trip if it wasn't for the sea-fog rolling in, so we abandoned that scheme and headed back toward Cherbourg via Dinard – which didn't really impress so we skirted around the back of St Malo and headed for Cancale where after a short stop at the headland we finally found an attractive sea-front and stopped for an afternoon (very expensive) coffee.

We were now 2.5 hours from the ferry at Cherbourg and we had 3 hours before check-in so it was time to head for home, taking the motor-way as we sped past the vista of Mont St Michel in the distance and then taking a slightly different route from our outbound trip which gave us a great view of the cathedral in Coutances lit up in the sunlight.

Fortunately there were no holdups en-route and we were in the ferry queue in good time. This was probably just as well as once we arrived at French customs we sat and waited and waited and waited while car after car went through on the other queue. I have no idea what all the travellers behind us in the queue must have been thinking and finally I got out and asked the officer if there was a problem. “Non, just waiting for a stamp, monsieur” was the reply. We had arrived at a customs post that clearly did not have a stamp with which to stamp our passports; the customs equivalent of a pub with no beer!

Eventually the official stamp arrived from somewhere and we were allowed through. Would it really have “spoiled some vast eternal plan” (as the Fiddler famously asked) if we had been allowed out of France without a stamp?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Daffodil Weekend – 19 – 20 March 2011

Lesnes Abbey in East London, has an area of ancient woodland, where wild daffodils flourish every spring. Saturday was such a glorious day, that we would have expected plenty of people to be there enjoying these wonderful woods, but the marketing hype calling it “a hidden treasure in the heart of suburban London”, was proved to be correct.

The area is just one of many beautiful and tranquil spots with loads of history. The Abbey was built by Sir Richard De Luci, chief justice to Henry II, probably as penance for his involvement in the murder of Thomas a Becket. Now a ruin, with high-rise blocks on the skyline behind, the abbey is at the foot of hills where the wild daffodils are a lovely glimpse into how woodlands used to be.

While is East London, we decided to travel north to the other side of the Thames, and check out the Olympic Park. Near Pudding Mill Lane station, is a viewing platform with the grand name of Viewtube. The stadium is looking good, and nearly ready to go, with the red ArcelorMittal Orbit Tower one-third built, and the velodrome behind.

On Sunday we visited the RHS gardens in Wisley, to use our new annual pass. The early daffodils are coming out there, with many varieties still a long way off opening.

The laboratory and lecture rooms building was built in 1916 to look like a country home. We were fooled by it, until we read the history of the building.

The gardens were interesting, even this early in the spring, it will be a pleasure to keep visiting through the summer. The Royal Horticultural Society should be the experts at the iconic English country garden.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Tallinn – 12- 14 March 2011

Sitting in a hotel room in the picturesque 14th century city centre in Tallinn, Estonia watching the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake on the BBC and CNN is an amazingly surreal contrast. While Japan, and the world has been reeling from the effects of nature unleashing the power of 17500 nuclear bombs, we have been peacefully wandering around one of the Baltic's, and Europe's most attractive treasures.

We arrived here mid-day Saturday after a 2:20 hour flight from Luton and a short bus ride from the airport brought us to the old town of Vanalinn, in the centre of Tallinn. While it is possible to see the modern glass-clad tower blocks from viewpoints in the old town, one is not really aware of the modern world while wandering around the centre which was saved from destruction by the Soviets primarily because they never actually got around to completing their 1960s plans.

A hill called Toompea close to the sea was the reason the old fortified town was located here and now Toompea provides a wonderful series of viewpoints which overlook the colourful roofs and buildings below encircled by the remains of the old fortified town walls.

After spending a wonderful afternoon simply wandering around taking the sights we went to one of the more touristy restaurants near the town square. Olde Hansa is done out it medieval style complete with troubadours to entertain the guests. After an extremely filling meal in good hearty style we treated ourselves to their delicious rose flavoured desert.
The St Olav's Hotel provided a wonderful breakfast which lasted us through the day as we took the tram out to Kadriorg Palace and the nearby ultra-modern Kumu Art Museum. The Palace dates from the time of Peter the Great and has housed several Russian royals as well as their Soviet replacements and is now an art gallery of old masters. The more modern art is housed in a modern purpose-built gallery located nearby.

The tram dropped us back near the Rotermann Quarter where old industrial buildings have been converted to a shopping area complemented with modern buildings and shopping centres. The harbour is nearby with the inner marina totally frozen over but the ferries and cruise ships were still busily coming and going.

From the harbour we traced the path that any one on a Baltic cruise would take as they walked from their ship to the old town, passing the old KGB Headquarters where the basement windows are all bricked up to muffle the screams from those inside “assisting the KGB with their enquires”.
Dinner was at the Peppersack, where again we enjoyed wonderful cuisine.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Sent to Coventry – 6 March 2011

The londonmidland train company ran a 'Great Escape' promotion, finishing on Sunday, when, for only £10, you could get a day-pass to travel to any destination on its line. We booked tickets for Sunday, and debated where to go. A long journey would leave us less time at the destination, so we decided on Coventry, two hours from home.

Coventry was featured in a war-time exhibition, when we recently visited the London Transport Museum. We were aware that they had suffered heavy bombing on 14th November 1940, due to the many factories in the city, aiding the war-effort. 500 aircraft dropped 30,000 incendiary bombs, damaging 111 factories and 2000 houses were damaged beyond repair. The loss of life was double that in the Christchurch earthquake, but the Christchurch disaster left five times as many houses needing demolition.

After seeing photos of the devastation in Coventry, we were surprised to find quite a significant number of original buildings when we did their town trail. A well designed walk takes in what was left of the old and highlights some of the innovative reconstruction.

Spon Street is a collection of picturesque old half-timbered buildings, moved and regrouped in one street, to give a feel for how parts of the city used to be. The centre of town was rebuilt as the world's first large scale pedestrainised shopping area. This model has of course been copied in many countries since then.

Coventry is well known for a number of things, one being the extremely modern cathedral, built next to the bombed out shell of the original cathedral. The new building is stark and extremely modern for its time. It did make us wonder what will be the shape of the new Christchurch Cathedral will be if they have to demolish the current one . They too will have the scope to radically reshape the look of their new city, and maybe in time (like Napier) it also will become a draw-card for visitors to marvel at the new look they have created.

The second thing that Coventry is famous for is Lady Godiva. The well known story is immortalised in a statue in the town square. She opposed her husband raising taxes, and he said he definitely would go ahead, unless she rode naked through the town. This is also where the expression 'Peeping Tom' comes from, as all the townsfolk hid indoors with their curtains closed, to give her privacy, except for Tom.

The next thing that springs to mind for Coventry is the British motor industry heritage. It was production home of Daimler, Jaguar, Humber, Triumph, Standard, Morris etc, in fact 120 motorbike and 130 vehicle manufactures have operated in this city. The museum has the largest display of British made vehicles in the UK.

It was a great day out, complemented by excellent food, thank you londonmidland for the great escape!

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Walking into History – 26 & 27 February 2011

The British Museum has completed their 'History of the World in 100 Objects' project, and we were able to complete the 'treasure hunt' on Saturday. This time last year, we did part one, which was the first 30 objects, and they now have a self-guided tour for the entire 100 objects.

The overall concept is to get an overview of world history from prehistory to the present time. It must have been an exciting (and difficult) project to select the objects from the huge collections.

We planned to attend an auction at Lord's Cricket Pavilion on Sunday, so decided to take a tour of the Lords Cricket Ground in the morning.

As Lords is very close to Abbey Road, we took the opportunity to do another 'historical walk' . Although it was quite early on Sunday morning, we were not the only tourists there, taking photos on the iconic pedestrian crossing, just near the Abbey Road Studios. I wonder if the Beatles could have imagined that in 2010, this would become the only 'listed' pedestrian crossing in Britain!

The tour of Lords was interesting, starting in the museum, where we saw the original Ashes Urn and the current Waterford Crystal trophy; then the members room; dressing rooms; a walk through the stands; and finally the new Media Centre. This futuristic, spaceship-like building has, as you would expect, a commanding view of the sloping pitch.

Next time we see a test match on TV, we will be able to imagine the members enjoying the game, both in their members room or the stands, and the media beaming the game to us, from the very 21st century Media Centre.