14 November 2013

Christmas magic in Bruges

Bruges’s Christmas markets are a major draw to one of Belgium’s most enchanting cities during the festive season. Several dozen wooden huts cluster in the main Markt square, where a temporary ice rink glitters with thousands of lights. Horse-drawn carriages clop on the cobbles in front of the historic restaurants lining the square, their crenellated rooftops adorned with yet more Christmas lights. No business has missed the chance to cover itself with tasteful wreaths, lights and baubles.

In the shadow of the looming 15th-century Belfry, visitors warming their hands on glasses of mulled wine wander among the stalls looking for Christmas gifts. They have plenty to choose from: among them, Christmas decorations, toys, jewellery, leather handbags and ceramics. There’s also a substantial number of stalls selling warm woolly hats, scarves and gloves, which come in handy when the chilly wind rustles through the square.

When the shoppers run out of fuel, they head to the food stalls where they fill up on delicious braadwurst sausages, waffles, apple fritters and – a gratifying sight on a cold day – tartiflette smothered in gooey reblochon cheese. Those wanting their fix of Belgian friet (chips) queue up at the distinctive green fast-food stalls that stand guard outside the Belfry.

A brief walk down Steenstraat leads to Bruges’s smaller, more intimate Christmas market at Simon Stevinplein. Sparkling white lights drape the trees in the centre of the square, where the wooden huts form a ring. Here you’ll find artisan cheeses, jams, honeys and, this being a tobacco-loving nation, a stall selling everything you need to roll your own. There’s a mini funfair here too, as well as more stalls selling handicrafts. I carry on my annual tradition of adding a new decoration to my tree, this time a cute-looking ceramic Father Christmas who’s hanging upside down. Don’t ask me why.

The Christmas markets in Bruges aren’t the only place for gifts. Affluent, agreeable Bruges has a large number of upmarket and trendy shops selling women’s and men’s clothing, many of which line the parallel shopping streets of Noordzandstraat and Zudzandstraat. Kitchenware shops thrive too, tempting you with more gadgets than you ever thought you needed but realised you just had to have.

Then there’s the chocolate. Chocolatiers are everywhere, selling everything from kitsch souvenir chocolates to exquisite creations crafted by hand. Some of the chocolates look too good to eat, and the Christmas ones shaped like snowmen and Father Christmas look too adorable to take out of the box. The ones shaped into large breasts are another story.

Then there’s the beer. If your idea of beer heaven is a shop that includes a “Beer Wall” selling almost 800 varieties (with different glass to match), head to 2be, a shop housed in a 15th-century former mayor’s house on Wollestraat. The beer lover in your life will thank you for the beautifully presented boxed sets, and those who don’t care for the stuff will be happy with other Belgian treats including chocolates and biscuits. There’s an inviting café attached, where the terrace overlooks the canal.

To continue the self-indulgent festive mood I found myself in, I explored two of the more unusual attractions that recall so much of the city’s history. This being Bruges, that meant chocolate and chips. The chocolate museum, Choco-Story, tells the fascinating story of how first the drink and then the solid form became such desirable foodstuffs. You don’t have to have a sweet tooth to become engrossed in the displays looking back over centuries of chocolate’s history. The visit finishes with a demonstration that will have you heading straight to the nearest chocolatier. (Or the museum shop, if you can’t wait that long.)

A more savoury story is told at the Friet Museum. The scent of fried potatoes wafts over displays explaining how the humble tuber has become such a staple part of the world’s diet. By the time you’ve reached the vintage kitchens showing how chips (or friet, or frites, or French fries) were fried in decades past, you are more than ready to visit the café and scoff a cone of chips (with mayonnaise, of course).

Even the most dedicated chocoholic and chipoholic need more substantial feeding, though, and can choose from hundreds of restaurants in Bruges. Cafedraal in Zilverstraat is a classy restaurant in a 15th-century house, where mouthwatering seafood and meat dishes are served under cosy wooden beams. The Blauw Wit beef tournedos were cooked to a perfect rare state, served with chunky Belgian chips.

Afterwards it was only a few minutes’ walk back to my hotel, the comfortable and friendly three-star Maraboe. It’s central yet has its own car park – an essential thing if, like me, you travel by DFDS ferry and car. After all, it would be a bit difficult to lug all that food and drink home without one.

All photographs © Adam Batterbee

19 July 2013

A French road trip in style

Given the choice between taking a seven-year-old Ford Focus and an admittedly borrowed but shiny new Peugeot RCZ on a 1,500-mile trip through France, it was hardly a tough decision to make.

A chance conversation at a press lunch resulted in Peugeot lending me its latest sports coupé for my 10-day jaunt through western France. It wouldn’t be a test drive as such – just the opportunity to see how the low-slung RCZ sports coupé would cope on narrow winding country roads leading to hilltop villages as well as long stretches of motorway.

It would be a little while before I could show off this really quite beautiful car, however. The “dolphin-blue” RCZ sat patiently below deck during the civilised overnight crossing on Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to St Malo. And then it went straight to the underground car park of the Grand Hotel des Thermes while we explored the underrated port of St Malo. But finally the car had a full six hours of being on view – and duly admired by passing motorists – as we headed south through the Pays de la Loire’s lush green countryside and Poitou-Charente’s endless sunflower fields towards the Dordogne.

I could see why the car turned heads. It resembles the Audi TT in shape and design, but has none of the WAG stigma attached. It’s also considerably cheaper than an equally tooled-up TT: mine was the six-gear GT HDi with all the bells and whistles and its on-the-road price is just over £25,000.

It was also immediately obvious that taking a fuel-efficient diesel on a long road trip was a good idea. The display showing the remaining miles before the next fill-up actually went up as we cruised along the motorway; the car was dutifully calculating that a steady speed along a smooth road was doing wonders for fuel efficiency. In fact, I didn’t refill until after 550 miles, and there was still fuel left in the tank.

I could also set the speed limit to prevent me from unwittingly breaking the law. Going at breakneck speed along French autoroutes is becoming a thing of the past, I’ve noticed over the years – at least among French drivers. Satnavs aren’t allowed to show locations of speed cameras any more, but then I had no desire to go above the 80mph motorway limit. And the car’s low position gave me the impression I was going much faster than I was.

It was only on the rather bumpy D roads towards my destination near Bergerac that I noticed that the extra-wide tyres and 19-inch wheels made the ride a bit harder. But then on the stretches where single-lane carriages briefly opened into two lanes – uphill, as they invariably do – the engine’s power made overtaking easy work.

We could nip past lumbering Dutch caravans that clogged the roads leading to the Dordogne’s most popular medieval villages: Beynac, Les Eyzies, La Roque-Gageac, Domme. Sunflowers lit up the fields along the D roads between the half-timbered village houses of Issigeac and Monpazier’s handsome arcaded square. These roads were quieter, made for pootling along – which suited the RCZ just fine.

The car would have plenty of time to glide through its six gears as we sped along the motorway through Limousin on the way north to the Loire Valley. The landscape flattened out somewhat as we reached villages along the confluence of the Loire and Vienne rivers, broken up occasionally by limestone ridges housing troglodyte caves. The car was getting heavier by this point, as the temptation to stock up on Saumur reds and rosés was proving too much. Luckily the boot was much bigger than you would expect from a coupé, with two narrow seats in the rear adding extra room. Indeed, the whole interior was remarkably spacious, with plenty of legroom and comfortable sculpted front seats.

There was just enough time to fill the boot to capacity with a last-minute shop near Calais before the return ferry crossing and the drive home. I was hoping against hope that the Peugeot driver might get lost on his way to pick up the car. Sadly he didn’t.

Images © Adam Batterbee

14 July 2013

Bastille Day – France en Fête

The French don't call their biggest holiday Bastille Day, of course. For them it's la fête nationale, or simply le quatorze juillet – even if half the country celebrates on the 13th rather than the 14th of July. If geography is on your side, you might be able to catch back-to-back festivities. Over the years, I've had the luck to be in France on both nights, and each experience has been as diverse as the country itself.

The village experience
If you're a Francophile, Bastille Day in a small village reinforces every reason why you love France. Last summer, while I was in the Lot Valley, I was taken by my hosts at Lot Cycling Holidays to the small village of Rampoux on 14 July. Several hundred people were squeezed into two long marquees, where €16 bought you five courses of rustic food and unlimited wine and water – capped off with creamy rounds of cabécou cheese. A band played old-fashioned French songs that required no dancing skill apart from a basic ability to waltz. There was raucous singing that went on till the early hours, and at some point I imagined they had set off the fireworks. We didn't stick around long enough to find out, as we had left by 2am. It was one of the most enjoyable nights I'd ever had in France.

The small town experience
Purely by chance I was in St-Girons in the Ariège one year on 13 July, intending just a quick stopover before going on to Carcassonne where I had planned to spend the festivities. I had no idea that St-Girons was one of the towns that celebrated on the 13th, so a stroll into the centre of this pleasant riverside town in the Midi-Pyrénées quickly revealed a massive party going on. More dancing, market stalls, dodgem cars for the kids and an impressive display of fireworks for such a small town.

The slightly bigger town experience
That brings me to Carcassonne, which has the second-largest fireworks display in France. (Paris comes on top, naturally.) The fireworks are set off behind the ramparts of the medieval citadel, La Cité, where the display has all the drama of a five-act play. By the end it looks as though the Cité is on fire. Utterly compelling.

The seaside town experience
A bowl of mussels on the quayside of Sète, followed by cheesy French bands playing in the main square. Then a manic bash on the dodgems before a cocktail at the water's edge and a brilliant fireworks display. I could think of worse ways of spending a July evening in Languedoc.

The twin town experience
Antibes and Juan-les-Pins sit side by side on the Mediterranean, barely a kilometre apart. By sheer luck, I was in Antibes on the 13th when they hold their festival, and in Juan-les-Pins on the 14th for theirs. As restaurants in Antibes were advertising hugely overpriced menus for the night of the fête, we decided to stock up on food from the market in Cours Masséna and have a picnic on the balcony of the seafront flat we were renting. The fireworks were being held just next door on the beach, where an orchestra was playing the theme tunes from James Bond films. It was entertaining, but there was none of the carnival atmosphere I'd seen at other celebrations. Meanwhile, in Juan-les-Pins, we were guests at the jazz festival on the 14th, when the organisers time the fireworks to go off between sets. Jazz on a summer's night and fireworks lighting up the Mediterranean. Pure magic.

05 July 2013

Rimini: La Notte Rosa

La Notte Rosa is like New Year’s Eve all over again – but with better weather and thousands more people enjoying the balmy summer air. Every July since 2005, this 100km stretch of the Adriatic has been putting on one of Italy’s liveliest festivals, la Notte Rosa, which translates inelegantly as “pink night”. Sounds better in Italian.

Everything is draped in pink – from the ancient bridge in Rimini’s old town to the hotels and bars lining the seaside strip. And everyone wears something in that colour, even macho Italian men who nonchalantly don garish pink wigs, T-shirts and shorts. Somehow, they pull off the look with complete panache.

Thousands of people stream through the streets of Rimini, all in a relaxed mood, stopping now and then to dance to a band performing on a street corner. Fireworks along the coast are set off at midnight, but that’s not the end. The party goes on all night: if you’re lucky enough to be awake after 5am, you just might catch one of the world’s biggest beach barbecues on the wide stretch of Rimini’s sands. Or sway along to the music of the pianist who managed to stay awake all night to serenade the partygoers draped on the sun loungers.

You might wonder why everyone joins in with such gusto in a festival that has no obvious link to the region. Usually festivals celebrate a seasonal event (such as a wine harvest) or some of the wonderful food produced in various parts of Italy. But la Notte Rosa has no such straightforward history.

La Notte Rosa was inspired by the summertime Nuit Blanche (White Night) in Paris, when the French capital’s art galleries are open all night in a festive atmosphere. So why pink? The local Rimini politician who came up with the idea rather liked a festival that celebrated womanhood – hence the pink. That gender segregation didn’t last long, though, as people of both sexes wanted to join the fun. It quickly turned into a festival that celebrated the beginning of the summer season.

For such a busy event, the atmosphere is remarkably chilled. The streets might be packed with people of all ages, but no one is in a hurry to get anywhere, and nor is alcohol an important part of the evening. The result is an incredibly genial and happy atmosphere that is positively infectious.

There are special events planned throughout the evening. Most are open to the general public, including concerts featuring Italian X Factor winners on specially erected stages by the venerable Grand Hotel. This former home of the film director Federico Fellini is also the setting for a sumptuous private party put on by la Notte Rosa’s main sponsor, Martini. It’s a wonderfully elegant affair, filled with the beautiful people of Italy. But you don’t need to be on the A-list to enjoy la Notte Rosa. It really is a magical feeling strolling along the seafront watching the Italian population enjoying itself. And no matter how late you stay up, there’s always the enormous Rimini beach waiting for you the following day.

Images © Adam Batterbee

25 June 2013

Vimy Ridge: Canada's great sacrifice

For nearly 20 years I’ve been zooming up and down the A26 from Calais to other parts of France. And each time I spotted the sober sign saying “Mémorial Canadien de Vimy”, I vowed I would stop one day and pay a proper visit to this monument commemorating one of the most significant battles of the First World War.

It took a recent overnight visit to nearby Arras to make me realise how easy it is to take in this evocative slice of history in a portion of land ceded by France to Canada. Restored trenches from that 1917 battle wind through one large section of the 107-hectare site, where grassy sections are pockmarked by shell holes. Signs everywhere warn you not to walk in areas where there are still unexploded munitions from 96 years ago. They can’t even use mowers to cut the grass, leaving that job instead to flocks of sheep. (Presumably they’re too light to trigger any explosions – one hopes.)

The horrors of trench warfare aren’t difficult to imagine when you see how close the German line came to the Allies’ defences. It was primarily Canadians who fought in April 1917 to take this vital ridge that had been stubbornly held by the Germans since the early days of the war.

Their success was a pivotal point in the war as well as in Canada’s young history, although the price paid for it was 3,598 dead Canadian soldiers. Their memories are kept alive in the quietly impressive monument designed by Canadian sculptor Walter Seymour Allward. Two towering pylons stand on a giant concrete base, where names of the 11,285 Canadian soldiers killed “somewhere in France” are carved. Among the sculpted figures is a woman who represents the young nation mourning her dead. Its simplicity is eloquent and almost unbearably moving.

Teams of young bilingual Canadians give informative tours of the site, mainly to other Canadians who have grown up with the story of Vimy Ridge. They all want to see for themselves the sacrifice their countrymen made for them nearly a century ago – in this corner of France that is forever Canada.

Images © Adam Batterbee

09 June 2013

Normandy: Blood, toil, tears and sweat

Normandy's D-Day beaches have a tight grip on the mentality of much of Western Europe. And rightly so, considering the vital importance of the June 1944 Normandy landings that finally hastened the end of the Second World War. Even the countless coaches of tourists trudging along coast can't diminish the impact of seeing first hand the scenes of such bravery, ingenuity and, ultimately, horror.

It was unseasonably chilly when I visited, just two days before the 69th anniversary of the D-Day landings. The wind was quite fierce along the Pointe du Hoc between Utah and Omaha Beach, the desolate spot where US Rangers took on the Germans on a rocky outcrop. The gun emplacements are still there, along the with giant craters created by falling bombs. I've seen photos of children playing in the gaping holes, oblivious to their significance. On the day I visited, only a few people were walking sombrely in the dips and hollows, visualising what the soldiers had to endure.

Just east of here is Omaha Beach, where an enormous, stark memorial on the beach is flanked by a modern sculpture that sits in the sea. A middle-aged American man wearing a Vietnam War veteran's jacket stood at the foot of the memorial, lost in thought.

Most visitors head straight to Omaha Beach's American cemetery and memorial, where the simple white crosses of the gravestones stretch into the distance towards the sea. The memorial museum is intensely moving and enlightening – and doesn't just focus on the American aspect of the operation. I thought I knew a lot about the invasion, but, thanks to one display in particular, I learnt about the vital role of the Ruperts, the 500 dummy parachutists dropped during Operation Titanic to fool the Germans. I shan't think of the name Rupert in quite the same way again.

Further east was Juno Beach, where the Canadian soldiers played their valiant role in the invasion. There is no cemetery here; in its place is an evocative and simply eloquent memorial consisting of countless names of the dead on blue plaques. On the way to the beach is a grey sculpture showing Paul Verlaine's poem "Chanson d'Automne", which was the signal the BBC used to alert the French resistance to the invasion.

Summertime on the Normandy coast brings out the crowds on the beach, eager to bask in the sun. It also evokes the memory of so many thousands of Allied men and women, whose sacrifice is inescapable.

Images © Adam Batterbee