Moving to Berlin: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know

It may be a little unfair to use Lady Caroline Lamb’s assessment of her tempestuous lover, Lord Byron, to describe Berlin, but ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ seems to fit the city’s character. At least in part*. Just like Byron, there is also culture and beauty in abundance, but let’s face it, any city that identifies as strongly as Berlin does with the currywurst is a risk taker. The iconic sausage smothered in thick curry sauce is a staple of the city’s street food scene. There’s even a museum devoted to it.

Mural in former GDR Council of State building, Berlin, Germany

Mural in former GDR Council of State building, Berlin, Germany

This improbable culinary treat was invented in 1949 in post-war West Berlin after a chance encounter between Herta Heuwer, owner of a food kiosk in Charlottenburg,  and a British soldier who introduced her to both tomato paste and curry powder. The original recipe is rumoured to have contained Worcestershire source and, presumably after a lot of experimentation, the legend of Berlin’s favourite snack was born. I’m not a food purist, but currywurst is only safely consumed after several drinks.

Currywurst aside, Berlin has a growing reputation as a world-class foodie city, and it’s possible to find cuisines from around the world in its diverse neighbourhoods. It’s just one sign of Berlin’s evolution into a cultural melting pot that transcends its past and makes it one of Europe’s most extraordinary urban areas. The cat has been out of the bag for several years now, and the city once described as “poor but sexy” by its former mayor has been transformed into a vibrant metropolis.

Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

Schlossbrücke, Berlin, Germany

Schlossbrücke, Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

U-Bahn, Berlin, Germany

U-Bahn, Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

It’s definitely still sexy, but it’s hard to claim it’s still poor despite a cost of living quite some way below that of many European capitals. It may not yet rival San Francisco or London for creative industries, but it’s rapidly becoming Europe’s startup hub. This doesn’t always sit easily with ‘old’ Berlin, and the resistance and protests that have greeted Google’s relocation to the city is indicative of a counter-culture underbelly, which gets full exposure during the annual May Day riots.

It’s not only global tech brands that are changing the demographics and geography of Berlin though. The city is experiencing a period of rapid growth and change, the reviled gentrification is making itself felt in almost all parts of the city. In response to a chronic housing shortage, new buildings are springing up everywhere, and construction cranes seem to form the upper canopy of jungle Berlin. The nature of the city is changing, and maybe not for the best, but it feels dramatic and exciting.

Brandenburg Tor, Berlin, Germany

Brandenburg Tor, Berlin, Germany

Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin, Germany

Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Street art, Berlin, Germany

Street art, Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Throw into the mix Berlin’s unique history that encompasses its development as the capital of a newly united Germany in 1871, the freewheeling decadence of the Weimar Republic, the rise of Nazism, destruction during the Second World War, and a divided city during the long decades of communist rule. Reminders of this past are everywhere, but as recent fights between developers and those who want to preserve remnants of the Berlin Wall show, that is no longer certain in the future.

Combine all of this with a bizarre love of bureaucracy and a dysfunctional approach to public services – the next available appointment to register our new address is over six week away – makes this is a complex and perplexing place to live. It’s hard to disagree with Lorenz Maroldt, editor of the local Tagesspiegel newspaper, when he says, “It is hard to escape the impression that Berlin’s government has a certain contempt for its citizens”. Unique amongst European capitals, Berlin is a financial drain on the rest of the country.

Reichstag, Berlin, Germany

Reichstag, Berlin, Germany

River Spree, Moabit, Berlin, Germany

River Spree, Moabit, Berlin, Germany

Unter den Linden, Berlin, Germany

Unter den Linden, Berlin, Germany

Street art, Berlin, Germany

Street art, Berlin, Germany

Currywurst, Berlin, Germany

Currywurst, Berlin, Germany

As one of my colleagues reminded me, it’s the mix of Berlin’s Byzantine bureaucracy and bizarre rules – Why don’t people cross the road when there are no cars? Why are Germans obsessed with the way you urinate? – that can make new arrivals feel a sense of dislocation. But, she assured me, it wouldn’t take long before I feel “so comfortable that I’ll never want to leave”. Challenge accepted.

* This was written before I discovered the cellar to our building had been broken into, and the ‘secure’ unit where some of our possessions are stored was smashed open. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the would-be thief didn’t steal anything. Mad, Bad and Dangerous to know indeed!

Moving to Berlin: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Everyone warns you about the housing ‘crisis’ in Berlin. But only when you’re standing on a street early on a Monday morning to view an apartment, surrounded by thirty other hopefuls, does the true horror of the situation become clear. It wasn’t even one of the more desirable areas of town, but this is Berlin 2018 and all bets are off when it comes to finding an apartment. People attend viewings expectantly, in the hope that Berlin’s capricious housing gods will look favourably upon them.

OMG! How hard is it to find an apartment in Berlin? U-Bahn advert, Berlin

OMG! How hard is it to find an apartment in Berlin? U-Bahn advert, Berlin

It’s a scene witnessed countless times across Berlin each and every day, and one that’s become all too familiar to us. Each apartment viewing follows a similar routine: you view the apartment, then hand over bundles of paperwork to an estate agent, including employment contracts, pay slips, references, credit ratings, and a family member as a hostage against non-payment of rent. Okay, not this last thing, but the process feels pretty exploitative.

Back on the street you enter a housing twilight zone. If you’re lucky you hear that you weren’t shortlisted, but mostly Berlin’s landlords and estate agents feel no need to communicate with you. These are glorious days to be an estate agent. Writing as I am from our new apartment, I can just about laugh about it now, but it’s a dehumanising process. Of course, the challenges don’t end there. We arrived in our new apartment only to discover that the light sockets – all fourteen of them – had been removed.

Mitte, Berlin

Mitte, Berlin

Molecule Man, Berlin

Molecule Man, Berlin

Bear in a train station, Berlin

Bear in a train station, Berlin

Street Art, Berlin

Street Art, Berlin

Berliner Pilsner, Berlin

Berliner Pilsner, Berlin

We moved here at a good time, summer in Berlin is legendary. People hit the streets, parks and lakes in their droves, and life is lived outside in those few precious summer months before the onset of the grey and cold winter, for which the city is also famed. Berlin felt welcoming and we’ve embraced it despite all the petty irritants that come with moving to a new place. Pride of place is the stark contrast between the modern, liberal international city and the German love of rule-based living and bureaucracy.

The experience of registering our residency has convinced me to abandon plans to open a German bank account. Gone is the one digital identity I needed to access every service known to humanity in the Netherlands, to be replaced with … paper. Berlin is only just embracing online, which seems strange in a city that is the epicentre of digital start ups. That, though, is less irritating than the 19th century attitude to marriage or, rather, towards unmarried couples.

Street Art, Berlin

Street Art, Berlin

Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin

Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin

Alexanderplatz, Berlin

Alexanderplatz, Berlin

Bear on a bridge, Moabit, Berlin

Bear on a bridge, Moabit, Berlin

Russian War Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin

Russian War Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin

In the Netherlands, unmarried couples can share a health plan. Want your partner to have the same rights in Germany and you’ll have to get married. It’s as if the German state is pimping unmarried couples up the aisle into the arms of the Church. Not that they make getting married easy. Many Germans go to Denmark to tie the knot and get the tax breaks that come with wedded bliss. The result is an additional €2,000 per year in healthcare fees. That just seems immoral.

One of the more striking things about our new home is the number of people who are living rough. I’ve lived in London, where the problems are significant, but after living in the Netherlands where you rarely see homeless people, the number of homeless in Berlin is a real shocker. Given the lack of available housing in almost every price range, it’s hardly surprising, but that doesn’t make it easier to accept. Although, it does mean there’s a thriving recycling industry – beer bottles carry a refund in Berlin.

Friedrichshain, Berlin

Friedrichshain, Berlin

River Spree, Berlin

River Spree, Berlin

Street style, Berlin

Street style, Berlin

Old Post Office, Mitte, Berlin

Old Post Office, Mitte, Berlin

Homeless in trendy Prenzlauerberg, Berlin

Homeless in trendy Prenzlauerberg, Berlin

That might not mean very much unless you know about Berlin’s beer drinking culture. At almost any time of day or night you can spot people on the streets drinking from a bottle of beer. Drinking in public is not just legal, it’s perfectly normal, and to underline this the cost of beer is very low, often cheaper than bottled water. No wonder drinking beer seems to be the number one pastime. For homeless people, a near endless supply of refundable beer bottles appears to be a financial lifeline.

Besides a couple of forays into some of Berlin’s more interesting neighbourhoods and a few visits to museums, we’ve not seen a great deal of the city. Too much time has been devoted to finding an apartment. Now we have a place to call home we can finally start to explore. Winter may be on the way, but I can’t wait.

Wolfenbüttel, where Casanova and Jägermeister collide

Despite a long and grand history, and a wealth of ancient buildings, Wolfenbüttel is an unassuming sort of place. Yet, amidst an old town that still contains over six hundred timber-framed buildings, there are even grander sights that make a visit here truly worthwhile. The most dramatic is Wolfenbüttel Palace, a Baroque masterpiece that served as the residence of the Dukes of Brunswick for over 400 years. I could barely believe my eyes, it was as if a highly decorated wedding cake had dropped from the sky.

As I waked over a small bridge and through the ornate entrance I was keeping good company. King George I of Great Britain, Frederick the Great of Prussia, and Peter the Great of Russia were just some of the aristocratic luminaries to have visited before me. Even more importantly, between the Thirty Years’ War and the Second World War, the building has suffered almost no war damage. Given the serious fighting that took place in this region in 1945, that is just short of miraculous. There’s a good museum inside.

Wolfenbüttel Palace, Germany

Wolfenbüttel Palace, Germany

Wolfenbüttel Palace, Germany

Wolfenbüttel Palace, Germany

Wolfenbüttel Palace, Germany

Wolfenbüttel Palace, Germany

Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Wolfenbüttel, Germany

I only came to Wolfenbüttel as a way of breaking the journey between The Hague and Berlin during our relocation to the German capital. I’d read that it was a historic place, but had no idea the town was this beautiful or that this was its 900th anniversary. My first impression wasn’t so great though. Thanks to a dodgy satnav, I ended up parking next to the prison. I later discovered that Wolfenbüttel was a Nazi stronghold in the 1930s and the Gestapo executed hundreds of political prisoners in the prison.

I made my way to the historic centre past a lot of timber-framed buildings and a couple of historic churches. I found the tourist office in Wolfenbüttel’s lovely Stadtmarkt. The square is home to a statue of Duke Augustus II, one of the town’s most famous rulers, and the man who created the second most wondrous sight in Wolfenbüttel, the Herzog Augustus Library. With over a million titles today, a third of which date from between the 12th and 18th centuries, at the time of his death the collection had 134,000 books and manuscripts.

It’s at the library in 1764, that one of the great figures in European history enters the scene. A man known more for his amorous entanglements, Casanova was primarily a man of letters. This was one of the great European libraries and he spent several days here researching his translation of Homer’s Iliad. The tourist literature was silent on whether he had been involved in any assignations. The library is home to one of the rarest (and most valuable) books on earth, the Gospels of Henry the Lion. It might sound like a children’s book, but it cost over €9 million at auction in 1983.

The library’s famous associations don’t end there. The philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and the dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing were both librarians here during their lifetimes. Not bad for a small town, and given all this I’m genuinely surprised that there were so few people on the streets, and few signs of other tourists. I figured they were all at the one place that has put Wolfenbüttel on the map in recent years. The one place I wouldn’t venture. For this, surprisingly, is the home of Jägermeister.

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Having once been ‘forced’ to drink Jägermeister by a ‘friend’ who claimed it to be the elixir of life, I can confirm that it is in fact like drinking a liquid herb salad mixed with poison. It was invented here in Wolfenbüttel in 1934, presumably as a way of cleaning the drains. Against the odds it was a hit with the German public. The sickly concoction of 56 botanical ingredients is still made here, only today it has a global audience. A fact I find almost impossible to comprehend. You can take a tour of the factory. I didn’t.

The Renaissance glories of Château de Villandry

No trip to the Loire Valley would be complete without visiting at least one spellbinding château. That though creates its own dilemma: with so many extraordinary château to visit, which one is the one? We went to the magnificent Château de Chenonceau two year’s ago, which was swamped with tour groups by mid-morning but is still an amazing place to visit. I did some research over dinner and decided the Renaissance glories of the Château de Villandry would be an appropriate Loire finale before driving back to the Netherlands.

Jardin de l’Amour, Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Jardin de l’Amour, Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Jardin de l’Amour, Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Jardin de l’Amour, Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

While this is one of the most beautiful, and certainly one of the most visited, of all the Loire’s château, people don’t really come for the building. At Villandry, people visit for the spectacular gardens. The château sits close to the Cher river, about 40km away from my base in Amboise and, despite arriving just after it had opened, the car park was already pretty busy. I made my way in, just sneaking ahead of a large school party, and soon found myself clambering to a terrace with exquisite views across the gardens.

The elevated view provided sweeping vistas over the 9 hectares of manicured grounds that are divided into six distinct gardens. They are mostly formal gardens, but there is also a kitchen garden of herbs and vegetables, and an area furthest from the château that is more like a wild garden. On the terrace you can see the symbolism of the garden designs. The jardin de l’amour is a patchwork of boxed hedges filled with flowers that are symbols for Tender Love, Fickle Love, Tragic Love and, of course, Passionate Love.

Not for nothing is the Château de Villandry known as one of the most romantic of all France’s châteaux. The flower colours match the type of love: yellow for betrayed love, red for love rivalries that ended in bloodshed. It’s ridiculously picturesque, but also has a love story and great romance to go wth it. Joachim Carvallo, a Spanish doctor, and Ann Coleman, met and fell in love while they were living in Paris, where she worked in his medical research team.

She also happened to be heiress to a US steel empire, which was convenient when they fell in love with the dilapidated château in the early 1900s. They ploughed both their money and passion into returning Villandry to its past glories. The love garden reflects their passion for each other and the château itself. I’d timed my visit well, the gardens were in full bloom. I left the terrace and spent a couple of hours meandering around the grounds. It was very peaceful.

The château was built in the 1540s on the site of a much older castle, which in 1189 was the site of one of the great moments in Anglo-French history. At Villandry, Henry II of England – the king who had Thomas Beckett murdered – surrendered to Philip II of France. Henry’s son and future King of England, Richard the Lionheart, had defied his father to support Philip II, whose daughter, Alice, Richard was supposed to marry. He, of course, left for the crusades and never married Alice. Complex things, royal families.

The new château and gardens were built by Jean Le Breton, who served François I of France as finance minister, and was the first of many illustrious owners. Villandry was also home to the Marquis de Castellane, who served as ambassador to Louis XV. Later, Jerome Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, would take up residence here. The buildings and gardens are today an UNESCO World Heritage Site, an honour that, despite all of Villandry’s famed owners and history, properly belongs to Joachim Carvallo and Ann Coleman.

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

‘A well spent day brings happy sleep’, Leonardo in Amboise

Amboise has two world-class attractions, the Château Royal d’Amboise and the equally extraordinary Château du Clos Lucé, or Clos Lucé as it is almost universally known. It was to here that I headed after a morning exploring the history of Château d’Amboise, but first it was time for lunch. The exit from the château disgorges you onto a street directly opposite La Cave, a wine shop that offers charcuterie and tastings. I took this as a sign of divine providence, sat in the shade and ordered a glass of the owner’s own Vouvray wine.

The heat was now ferocious, the mercury rising to a terrible 38°C. It took an immense amount of determination not to head to the air conditioning of my hotel room. Instead, I plodded uphill towards the estate where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life as a guest of the French King, Francis I. Amidst wonderful gardens, the Italian genius of the Renaissance spent his time inventing and painting. The story goes that when he left Italy for France, he carried with him the Mona Lisa.

Château du Clos Lucé, Loire Valley, Amboise, France

Château du Clos Lucé, Loire Valley, Amboise, France

Château du Clos Lucé, Loire Valley, Amboise, France

Château du Clos Lucé, Loire Valley, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

It would be fair to call Leonardo one of the most influential painters of all time, but as a visit to the Clos Lucé proves, he was a man of many talents. He had an endless thirst for knowledge that led him to become an expert in many disciplines, including engineering, botany, architecture, mathematics and music. A mind never at rest, inventions seemed pour out of him: prototypes of tanks, airplanes, helicopters and an adding machine. Not to mention musical instruments, water pumps, bridges, the parachute, sculptures and anatomical studies.

It wouldn’t be unfair to call him a genius. Yet despite all of this, it is Leonardo the artist that is most popular. The Mona Lisa may be the most well known piece – and he was still working on it when in Amboise –  but it’s the 1490s painting of The Last Supper that is his true masterpiece. All of these different aspects and periods of Leonardo’s life are covered at Clos Lucé, and perhaps it is testament to his enduring popularity that when I arrived at the entrance (dripping in sweat) there was a queue of thirty people.

In fact, the whole of the magnificent gardens and the period interior of the house were packed with people. I was so hot that once I had my ticket I headed into the gardens and the shade of some nearby trees. There is a trail that leads around the gardens, and I followed it past reproductions of various inventions and of his drawings and paintings hung amongst the trees. The mysterious eyes of the Mona Lisa could be seen peeking between trees in a shady glade.

Although there were a lot of people, the gardens were quite peaceful, and I spent a good hour meandering around before plucking up the courage to go into the house. There are some fascinating displays and lots of good information about the man, his times, and his work. It was crowded though, and the heat was suffocating. I rushed my visit just to get back outside and into the shade of a tree. Afterwards, I strolled back into the town and along the banks of the River Loire.

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

In the end, I had to give in to the temptation of the air conditioner, and went to cool off at the hotel. Later that evening I had a table booked at the restaurant Chez Bruno, run by the same people who run La Cave. As well as a well stocked cellar, they do excellent food. It felt like fate that, just a few days before we would leave the Netherlands for Germany, a Dutch couple sat at the next table. We struck up a conversation and shared a few glasses of wine. A fine end to a well spent day.

Succumbing to the lure of the Loire in royal Amboise

The Loire Valley is a magnet for anyone who wants to immerse themselves in France’s royal history. The lure of the majestic River Loire, beautiful countryside, picturesque towns and villages, and dozens of glorious chateaux with their frequently scandalous pasts, not to mention their lavish formal gardens, is overwhelming. This is one of the most historic and popular regions in the country, and it attracts tourists in their droves. To emphasise the point, UNESCO designated a 300km stretch of the valley as a World Heritage Site in 2000.

Château d'Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Tomb of Leonardo da Vinci, Château d'Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Tomb of Leonardo da Vinci, Château d’Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

We last visited the Loire a couple of years ago, but didn’t have time to visit Amboise. A state of affairs I’ve been eager to rectify ever since I learned of both its royal history and its connection with Leonardo da Vinci. Home to approximately 15,000 people, it’s a relaxed and easy going place despite being one of the region’s premiere destinations for tourism. I found myself there during a mini-heatwave, the temperature reaching 38°C, which may account for why there seemed to be few tourists walking around.

I arrived early in the morning after a drive from Bourges and was able to check into my hotel – always a good sign – before heading off to find breakfast and then making my way to the town’s outstanding sight: the Château Royal d’Amboise. I walked through still quiet streets until I found an open cafe sitting directly beneath the towering walls of the château. The château wasn’t yet open so I made my way to the Pont du Maréchal Leclerc, Amboise’s road bridge over the Loire that also crosses the Île d’Or.

From the bridge the views to the town and château are wonderful. The castle started life as a stone keep in the 11th century, but was expanded over the centuries until it was seized by Charles VII after its then owner was accused of plotting against the royal family. It became a royal residence in 1434 and was a firm favourite of French kings for the next 150 years. Charles VIII even went as far as to die here – by hitting his head on a wooden lintel when on his way to play tennis.

It was during the 16th century reign of Francis I that the castle reached it’s pinnacle. It was to Amboise in 1516 that Francis brought Leonardo da Vinci, and it was here that the Italian died in 1519. His grave lies within the Chapel of St. Florentin in the grounds of the Château d’Amboise. It is one of the first buildings that visitors to the château see when entering the grounds. The interior is very simple, with just a few stained glass windows adding a splash of ornamentation.

I decided to walk through the grounds before visiting the castle interior, I was glad I did as the temperature got uncomfortably hot as the morning went on. During the reign of Francis I there were many more structures than today, several 16th century buildings didn’t survive into the modern era. Demolished in later centuries, the space left behind became the extensive formal gardens. What remains, although not a patch on the 16th century château, is still impressive and the grounds are very pleasant.

The heat by late morning was unbearable, so I headed indoors to explore the château. The castle has seen many famous ‘guests’ including Mary Queen of Scots, who at least was here of her own free will. Louis XIV turned it into a prison, a role it continued to serve until the 19th century. It was here that the Algerian Emir Abd Al-Qadir and his family was imprisoned in 1848, for his role fighting French colonisation of his country.  The château has some furnished rooms, but many are quite bare. It doesn’t take long to go around it.

Tomb of Leonardo da Vinci, Château d'Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Tomb of Leonardo da Vinci, Château d’Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Amboise, Amboise, Loire Valley, France

While it remained a royal residence, after Francis I successive monarchs spent less and less time here. Without the royal court visiting on a regular basis many buildings were unused and fell into disrepair. The nail in the coffin came during the French Revolution, when many decrepit buildings were destroyed. It seems a shame, but it’s compensated for by the extraordinary views over the valley below. From the battlements you can probably see Mick Jagger’s house.

To a valiant heart nothing is impossible, historic Bourges

Bourges is an ancient town, with a history dating back millennia. It was the capital of the Celtic Bituriges tribe, and an important political, economic and military centre in pre-Roman Gaul. Known as Avaricum, in the winter of 52 BC it attracted the attention of Julius Caesar, sent from Rome to crush the rebellion that had broken out amongst Gallic tribes united under the leadership of Vercingetorix. After initial success, the Gauls were forced to adopt guerrilla warfare to avoid a head on battle with Caesar’s formidable army.

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Jacques Coeur Palace, Bourges, France

Jacques Coeur Palace, Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Jacques Coeur statue, Bourges, France

Jacques Coeur statue, Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Avaricum was at the time the largest and best fortified town in Gaul. Caesar laid siege to it and built an ingenious siege engine to breach the walls. It’s estimated that in the bloody massacre that followed only a few hundred of the 40,000 inhabitants were spared death. Despite still having an army of 80,000 the end was in sight for the Gallic rebellion. Defeated at the siege of their last stronghold, Alesia, Vercingetorix was captured and taken to Rome to be displayed as a prize of war before being executed.

Centuries later, between 1422-37, the town was home to King Charles VII who, with the assistance of Joan of Arc, liberated contemporary Gaul from the English during the Hundred Years’ War. Joan stayed in the town in the winter of 1429-30. It was Charles VII who raised Bourges’ most famous son to prominence following the end of the war. Jacques Coeur was a trader and a very wealthy man. He became a banker to the royal court, a member of the king’s council and was something of a legendary figure of the era.

His position of influence with the king made him even wealthier, as did his pioneering trade deals with countries around Europe and the Mediterranean. Vast wealth and fame brought him many friends, and even more enemies. When his luxurious lifestyle made even Charles VII envious, he was framed for the murder of Charles’ mistress, Agnes Sorel. He escaped imprisonment and fled to Rome, where he took command of a naval expedition against the Turks, dying in 1456 during a battle in the Aegean.

Over the centuries, his life and death became the stuff of legend, and gave credence to his family motto: To a valiant heart nothing is impossible. His glorious, sumptuous Gothic palace in the heart of Bourges is open to the public and is well worth a visit. Outside is a small square with a romanticised statue of Coeur dressed in some of the silks he traded around Europe. Inside it’s quite plain, with few furnishings from the period. To make up for this, there was a temporary exhibition of slightly bizarre video art.

Of Bourges’ many historic associations, one other stands out. It was when studying law here in the 1520s that John Calvin was converted to the reformist religious ideas of Martin Luther. Calvin had originally been studying to join the Catholic priesthood, but his form of Protestantism would go on to have a major impact on the world. All this history, plus a wealth of historic buildings and several good museums, should mean Bourges is a tourist hotspot. Yet even at the Jacques Coeur Palace I saw only a handful of other tourists.

I stayed in Bourges for a couple of days and spent my time wandering the narrow lanes and picturesque streets. There are half-timbered houses dotted around, many of them on a walking route around the town. The walk takes you along the old ramparts, as well as through back alleyways and steep stairways between the upper and lower towns. The streets were often empty of people as I meandered around, giving me a sense that in Bourges, time stands still and is only occasionally interrupted by the modern world.

Jacques Coeur statue, Bourges, France

Jacques Coeur statue, Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

The manager of my hotel had recommended a restaurant in the square next to Jacques Coeur’s former palace. So, on my final evening in the town, I sat at an outside table and watched the sun set in the shadow of the great man’s statue. It was a fantastic end to my time in this wonderful town.

In the footsteps of Spanish royalty in magnificent Bourges

A couple of hours after arriving in Bourges, I was standing in the colourful gardens next to the utterly magnificent Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Bourges. Photographs can tell some of the story, but you really have to be there in person to understand the scale and majesty of the building. Strangely, it wasn’t the cathedral that was occupying my mind. Instead, I was struggling to reconcile the glorious city I found myself wandering around with the fact that I seemed to be the only tourist to have shown up that day.

This itself was cause for conflicting emotions. Bourges is a town filled with riches that richly deserves to be on the tourist trail, yet I couldn’t help but be selfishly grateful for the town’s unfortunate location. A little too far from the Loire Valley’s industrialised tourism, and more than just a short detour from the southern Champagne region, it seems to sit in a tourism no man’s land. That, I figured, was a problem for other people, and I went inside the cathedral to gawp at its spellbinding stained glass and massive interior space.

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

I only came to Bourges because I’d picked up a leaflet in a tourist information centre on a trip last year. It looked like my sort of place, and then I discovered L’Hôtel de Panette. I was trying to keep the costs down on this trip, but the lure of staying in a chateau with an incredible history caused me to splurge for a night. I’m glad I did. The chateau dates from 1418, when it was residence of the Treasurer of Bourges. It passed through many hands until it became residence of the exiled Bourbon ‘King of Spain’, Charles V.

Don Carlos, as he was known, was a reactionary and out of step with the times. When his elder brother died, he tried to claim the throne but met with fierce resistance. This resulted in the The First Carlist War of 1833-40, which ended in defeat for his forces. He fled to France where he was ‘imprisoned’ for five years in the L’Hôtel de Panette, which acted as a de facto court in exile. This can’t have been much of a hardship, or that unusual for him – Napoleon had him and his siblings imprisoned in France during the Napoleonic Wars.

Today, the L’Hôtel de Panette has several rooms and is a very stylish B&B. It may not be the cheapest option in Bourges, but it is definitely worth every cent. If you really want to splash out, you can stay in Don Carlos’ former bedroom. I checked in and went out to explore the city. The cathedral was my first destination. I approached down a narrow lane, over which the cathedral towered. I’ve become used to finding exquisite churches in sleepy French towns, but it was obvious that this was in a different category.

A Christian temple has been on this site since the 3rd century, but the current building dates from 1195. The most remarkable thing about the cathedral, once you get over its immense size, is the fact that it retains the majority of its original stained glass, dating from 1215. Given the turbulent times the cathedral has witnessed, that really is a feat. It’s now an UNESCO World Heritage Site, described as “one of the great masterpieces of Gothic art … admired for its proportions and unity of its design”. It’s hard to disagree.

L'Hôtel de Panette, Bourges, France

L’Hôtel de Panette, Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

I finally tore myself away from the cathedral and went looking for lunch. Just behind the cathedral is the Rue Bourbonnoux, a quiet pedestrianised street that is home to several excellent restaurants. I had a set lunch in a very good bistro and, fully rested, set off again to explore more of Bourges.

Vézelay, crusader history and the bones of Mary Magdalene

Vézelay is an exquisitely picturesque village perched on a jagged hill with spectacular views over the valley below. It might not be immediately obvious today, but its quiet, winding lanes have witnessed extraordinary history. It was here in 1146, that Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the most influential and powerful churchmen of the time, preached the cause of the Second Crusade to support the Christian Kingdoms of the Holy Land. An audience of over 10,000 people included King Louis VII of France.

It was a critical moment in winning public support for a crusade that ended in utter failure, and led directly to the fall of Jerusalem to the armies of Saladin. Not the result Bernard had in mind. Vézelay’s crusader connections don’t end there though. In 1190, French King Philippe-Auguste and English King Richard the Lionheart, united their armies here on the eve of embarking on the more successful Third Crusade – it failed to wrest control of Jerusalem from Saladin, but managed to re-establish several crusader kingdoms.

Abbey, Vézelay, France

Abbey, Vézelay, France

Abbey, Vézelay, France

Abbey, Vézelay, France

Nun, Vézelay, France

Nun, Vézelay, France

Vézelay, France

Vézelay, France

Vézelay, France

Vézelay, France

Vézelay, France

Vézelay, France

This alone would make the village worth a visit, but this Crusades-related history only happened thanks to the Benedictine Abbey of Vézelay. More importantly, thanks to the Abbey’s association with St Mary Magdalene. Founded in the 9th century, shortly afterwards the Abbey claimed to have acquired relics of Mary Magdalene. One of the most celebrated of Jesus’ disciples, Mary is said to have been present at the crucifixion and that she discovered Jesus’ empty tomb. It was to Mary that Jesus first appeared after his resurrection.

The presence of Mary’s relics was big news (and big business) in medieval Europe, and vast numbers of pilgrims descended upon the village and abbey. Although far fewer in number, pilgrims still come today and there are several guest houses in the village that cater to them. The majority of Mary’s relics were destroyed by Protestants during the Wars of Religion. All that remains today is a finger displayed in a golden case, but even that is disputed as a fake.

In the 13th century, the village of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume in Provence claimed to have the true relics, and this became the official version of the Mary myth. Pilgrims stopped making the trip to Vézelay and transferred their devotions (and donations) to the new relics. Vézelay’s abbey fell into decline and disrepair. By the 19th century it was close to collapse, only extensive restoration in the 1840s saved it. Today, it is both the crowning glory of the village (it literally sits on the top of the hill), and an UNESCO World Heritage Site protected for future generations.

I’d been warned that Vézelay can be swamped with tourists, but when I arrived in the early evening it’s narrow streets were empty and peaceful. In a small place like this I was conscious that most restaurants would be closed by 9pm, so I strolled up to the abbey and wandered down a few cobbled streets before finding a small bistro with outside tables. I ordered a glass of the local chardonnay and drank in the atmosphere and history of this lovely place.

Abbey, Vézelay, France

Abbey, Vézelay, France

Vézelay, France

Vézelay, France

Vézelay, France

Vézelay, France

Vézelay, France

Vézelay, France

Vézelay, France

Vézelay, France

Vézelay, France

Vézelay, France

The following morning I was up early to explore before the coach parties arrived. The village is built so that it climbs up the ridge of the hill, making it long and narrow. A few streets turn off from the one main road, but getting lost is impossible. On the flanks of the village, you get beautiful views over the surrounding countryside. Vézelay has a wealth of historic buildings, many carrying banners of various saints, and a couple of small museums that are worth visiting if you have time.

The main attraction though is the Abbey, and it was to there that I headed. Inside was the rather odd sight of some nuns doing the vacuuming. I wandered around, but the interior is pretty plain, although some of the sculptures on the entrance and pillars are fascinating. I found the crypt and the alleged finger of Mary Magdalene, and was then back outside wandering the streets. A couple of hours later I had seen the village in its entirety, so hopped back in the car and set off for Bourges.

An encounter with General de Gaulle on the Cote des Bar

Charles de Gaulle is perhaps the most iconic French statesman of the modern era, his shadow is cast across the most significant events of 20th century French and European history. The leader of the Free French Forces during World War Two, his exhortation to the French nation, broadcast on the BBC during his exile in London after the fall of France in 1940, set the tone for the struggle against the Nazi occupation: “Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not be extinguished, and it will not be extinguished.”

Colombey-les-deux-Églises, France

Colombey-les-deux-Églises, France

Charles de Gaulle's grave, Colombey-les-deux-Églises, France

Charles de Gaulle’s grave, Colombey-les-deux-Églises, France

Côte des Bar champagne route, France

Côte des Bar champagne route, France

Côte des Bar champagne route, France

Côte des Bar champagne route, France

Charles de Gaulle's cemetery, Colombey-les-deux-Églises, France

Charles de Gaulle’s cemetery, Colombey-les-deux-Églises, France

Charles de Gaulle's cemetery, Colombey-les-deux-Églises, France

Charles de Gaulle’s cemetery, Colombey-les-deux-Églises, France

His career, both as a military officer and as a politician, is the stuff of legend. It made a small detour to Colombey-les-deux-Églises, the village where he lived in the final years of his life, and where he is buried, a must. This peaceful little spot is conveniently at the start of the Cote des Bar Wine Route, an area of champagne producing vineyards just to the south of Troyes. I would follow the sleepy route through lovely countryside and picturesque villages to Vézelay, a dramatic medieval village on a hilltop; but first I’d pay my respects to the General.

I found the church and cemetery where de Gaulle is buried, it’s filled with tributes to him from all over France. Surprisingly, I was the only person visiting the cemetery, but I figured that most people must be at the de Gaulle memorial just outside of the village, home to an enormous cross on top of a hill. I didn’t have time to visit the exhibition, but I did want to see the memorial. This, a rather embarrassed woman told me, would cost €13.50. She didn’t seem surprised when I decided not to visit. It was a shame, but I had a long drive through champagne country ahead.

Easier said than done. The tourist office in Colombey-les-deux-Églises didn’t have any information, or a map, leaving me with only some sketchy information and a small scale map that I found online. I headed towards the tiny village of Rizaucourt-Buchey, which seemed to be one end of the Côte des Bar champagne route. Here, I hoped to unearth the grape-related road signs I’d seen on other champagne routes to guide me south-west towards Les Riceys, the other end of the route.

Under vast skies between these two attractive villages, I came across beautiful rolling countryside filled with vineyards, wheat fields and picturesque villages. This area definitely plays second fiddle to more famous champagne regions further north, but one article I read claimed this was emerging as one of the ‘hottest’ champagne regions in the country. I must have been ahead of the trend curve because I hardly saw another human being for large parts of the journey.

The obvious thing about this region, is that the vineyards are much more dispersed than the densely planted areas around Reims and Épernay. The steep chalky ridges dotted with bright green vines are still there, but there are more patches of woodland and immense, sweeping fields of wheat and sunflowers. In some areas I drove for several kilometres without seeing a single grape. It was harvest time for wheat and many kilometres were spent stuck behind massive tractors on narrow lanes.

Time, it seems, is irrelevant in this region. It is, however, a region with a long memory. The Côte des Bar has an understandable chip on its shoulder thanks to an early 20th century dispute with the more prestigious champagne regions to the north. Despite the northern producers buying champagne grapes from here to add to their own wines, in 1908 they lobbied for its exclusion from the official champagne region. In the most French response possible, the Côte des Bar growers rioted.

Côte des Bar champagne route, France

Côte des Bar champagne route, France

Côte des Bar champagne route, France

Côte des Bar champagne route, France

Côte des Bar champagne route, France

Côte des Bar champagne route, France

Côte des Bar champagne route, France

Côte des Bar champagne route, France

Côte des Bar champagne route, France

Côte des Bar champagne route, France

Côte des Bar champagne route, France

Côte des Bar champagne route, France

The region was eventually allowed to be categorised as a “second champagne zone” in 1911. Justice was only served in 1927 when it officially became a champagne region on a par with the other regions. That’s politics champagne style. I spent the best part of the day meandering around the region, and was glad I’d made the effort. It’s absolutely beautiful.