Off the beaten path in medieval Lier

Well, OK, it’s something of an overstatement to claim the lovely Belgian town of Lier is off the beaten path, but for anyone who’s been to Bruges recently, a visit to Lier feels a little like you’ve dropped off the map. This is all the more surprising as Lier is home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, an attractive central square, numerous beautiful medieval buildings, and some good eating and drinking options. I’m not sure there are many towns this size – around thirty-five thousand inhabitants – that can boast a similar wealth of riches.

Lier, Belgium

Lier, Belgium

Lier, Belgium

Lier, Belgium

Zimmer Tower, Lier, Belgium

Zimmer Tower, Lier, Belgium

Zimmer Tower, Lier, Belgium

Zimmer Tower, Lier, Belgium

Lier Belfry and Town Hall, Lier, Belgium

Lier Belfry and Town Hall, Lier, Belgium

I knew I was going to like Lier when we were accosted by a dapper older gentleman in a small bar where we were sampling one of the town’s famous beers. He was trying to sell us some lottery tickets for a rubber duck race that is held on the River Nete every year. Any town that holds a sporting event involving rubber ducks is always going to be my kind of place. He was very chatty and gave us the low-down on Lier, and a few good suggestions for how we spend our time in the town.

We’d arrived in the early evening and, conscious that restaurants tend to close quite early in small towns, we headed straight out to have dinner in the beautiful Grote Markt. Our restaurant overlooked one of Lier’s World Heritage Sites, the Lier Belfry (although technically it shares that status with 23 other Belgian belfries). Built in 1369, the belfry is attached to the Town Hall, formerly the Cloth Makers Hall, and together they straddle one side of the square.

The next day dawned bright and sunny, but the weather forecast was for rain so we headed out early to see the town illuminated. Hemmed in by the river and canals, the historic heart of Lier is pretty compact, making walking the centre in a morning very easy. We headed to the town’s iconic Zimmer Tower. Built in a 14th century defensive tower, the extraordinary ‘clock’ was added in 1930 and can simultaneously tell you lots of quite useless stuff, including the ‘age of the moon’, the zodiac, the seasons, and the solar cycle.

More helpfully, it also tells the time, day and month, as well as something called ‘the equation of time’. This is the discrepancy between two kinds of solar time, and is so fiendishly complicated that my brain melted when I read the explanation. Still, it’s a very beautiful thing and Einstein was a fan. I couldn’t help but notice that the globe that was on the clock, was positioned on ‘Belgian Congo’. Given Belgium’s appalling colonial record in Congo, this struck an odd note (no pun intended).

We walked along the river to the second of Lier’s World Heritage Sites, Lier beguinage. This is the quite amazing 13th century complex that housed a community of beguines, lay religious women who didn’t take vows. I’ve seen much smaller versions of these communities (many still only allowing single women over a certain age to live there) in the Netherlands, but the Lier beguinage is huge in comparison. In the early morning, walking through the narrow lanes on cobbled streets was atmospheric and peaceful.

We took a walk through a nearby park and ended up back in the town centre where we found a pleasant cafe for a cup of coffee. I suspect a day in Lier would be enough to see and do most of what is available to visitors, but the relaxed, friendly vibe was inviting enough to make me want to spend a bit more time there. Sadly, we had to be on our way back to the Netherlands, but not before we discovered a truly fascinating fact about the town.

Beguinage, Lier, Belgium

Beguinage, Lier, Belgium

Beguinage, Lier, Belgium

Beguinage, Lier, Belgium

Beguinage, Lier, Belgium

Beguinage, Lier, Belgium

Beguinage, Lier, Belgium

Beguinage, Lier, Belgium

It was here, in 1860, that the first mammoth skeleton discovered in Western Europe was unearthed. The mammoth is in a museum in Brussels, but I’d suggest it’s a fact the town should blow it trumpet about a little more.

Bruges, and the Basilica of the Holy Bloody Pedant

We visited Belgium’s most famous ‘fairytale’ medieval town almost exactly two years ago, and I was looking forward to a return visit and the opportunity to sample some of those Belgium beers that are rarely seen outside of the country’s borders. The weather wasn’t as accommodating as the last time we were here. Frequent downpours made wandering around the cobbled streets a bit of a lottery, but it wasn’t the rain that left a lasting impression, it was the visible impact of mass tourism that I can only describe as ‘out of control’.

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

That statement requires some context. Bruges, or Brugge if you’re Flemish, is a city of fewer than 120,000 inhabitants. A couple of years ago, official statistics show that it received 7.8 million tourist visits, or to put it another way, for every inhabitant, there were sixty five tourists. It’s no surprise that locals cycle around the city even more aggressively than Amsterdammers. It is surprising that there aren’t more accidents. Cyclists and car drivers aren’t very forgiving, and tourist groups wander aimlessly into roads without looking.

Most of these 7.8 million people visit on day trips, but some 2.2 million overnight stays were recorded as well. That’s nearly twenty times Bruges’ population. On the busiest summer nights 45,000 tourists spend the night in the town. That is a lot of hotel beds, and probably explains why our fairly basic chain hotel was able to charge us over €200 per night. Given the relatively small footprint of the historic centre, that’s a whole lot of people to squeeze in, and the strain is beginning to show.

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Basilica of the Holy Bloody Pedant, Bruges, Belgium

Basilica of the Holy Bloody Pedant, Bruges, Belgium

Basilica of the Holy Bloody Pedant, Bruges, Belgium

Basilica of the Holy Bloody Pedant, Bruges, Belgium

It’s something of an irony that Bruges is known as the Venice of the North because, like it’s Italian twin, I suspect Bruges will become a case study for what went wrong with tourism in the early 21st century. If it’s this busy in late April, early May, I can’t imagine what it must be like at the peak of the summer tourist season. Bedlam? We had a fun weekend regardless, but it’s a shame that the streets are so packed, and every historic building and attraction had a long queue outside.

Perhaps worse than the sheer number of tourists though, is the disdain sometimes shown towards them. We visited the Basilica of the Holy Blood – the queue had a couple of hundred people in it when we arrived – the experience was so awful that we nicknamed it the “Basilica of the Holy Bloody Pedant” in honour of a man who worked there. He single-handedly took it upon himself be the morality monitor of all visitors, walking up and down the queue pushing people while hissing threateningly, “Show some respect”. A truly awful person.

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

I realise that this is painting a grim picture, and Bruges really is a very attractive town. It has good museums, restaurants and (of course) bars stocking many delicious Belgian beers. I’d recommend a visit to the Expo Picasso at the Oud Sint-Jan, it was a real eye-opener. It’s definitely best to get up early and do your exploring before the onset of the tour groups. After 11am the streets just become too packed with large and unwieldy groups of people, not to mention the horse-drawn carriages that career around the streets at top speed.

I’ll leave the last word to the character ‘Harry’, played by Ralph Fiennes, from the film In Bruges (a foul-mouthed comedy about two hitmen hiding in the town). “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s f*****g thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful f*****g fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s f*****g thing, eh?”

Perhaps when they are swamped by masses of tourists doing battle with each other and local residents? Although at least they have some talented musicians.

The Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso

The fountains in the grounds of the Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso must be something special. When we bought our tickets, the woman who sold them to us made a big deal of telling us that the fountains, in all their magnificence, would be working at 5pm. I suspect that she was being sarcastic. It was 10am and, even if we weren’t flying back to the Netherlands before the water started flowing, the likelihood of anyone spending seven hours wandering around the palace and grounds in anticipation of the fountains, seemed far fetched.

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

It was the first of several disappointments. Between the over-officious security guards who surreptitiously but very conspicuously followed us from room to room, and the gardens that were still clothed in their winter attire, La Granja de San Ildefonso might have ended up being an underwhelming experience. Luckily, the setting of the palace in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, the extravagant Baroque architecture and the simply extraordinary gardens surrounded by extensive forests, more than made up for it.

Although it was founded in the mid-15th century as a summer retreat for Henry IV of Castile, the town of San Ildefonso only became the grand royal playground of Spanish monarchs in 1720. It was Philip V, the first Bourbon King of Spain, who bought it with the plan of building a summer palace that would rival the glories of Versailles where, as the grandson of France’s Sun King, Louis XIV, he had been born. At immense cost to the public purse, that is exactly what he did, build a palace renowned throughout Europe.

The palace began life as a ‘simple’ cool summer retreat from the furnace-like heat of Madrid, but it ended up the home of the Spanish government for several months each year. It was repeatedly expanded and the nearby town grew to accommodate all the courtiers, civil servants and diplomats that trailed behind the royal household. Military barracks and vast stables were added, and even a royal glass factory was built in the town. Today, wandering the sleepy streets of San Ildefonso is almost as interesting as the palace itself.

The drive from Segovia to reach San Ildefonso took less than half an hour, although the satnav on our hire car did it’s best to make even that journey a Kafkaesque experience. We found somewhere close to the palace to park and, after fighting our way through an enormous school group, bought our tickets and passed through security into the palace interior. It’s certainly not one of the grandest palaces I’ve ever seen, but the interiors on the first floor are interesting, with ceilings covered in beautiful artwork.

The ground floor is less interesting – the rooms come with life-size statues, too many of which are plaster cast replicas – and we passed through quickly hoping to get into the gardens before they were flooded with schoolchildren. If the interiors are somewhat disappointing, the massive gardens really aren’t. The walk along the central avenue behind the palace passes a cascade of fountains (not working until 5pm) to a viewing point on a small hill. The views back to the palace are tremendous.

It was still early and there were few people around as we wandered lovely pathways through woodlands sprinkled with ornate fountains. Occasionally, we were given vistas down tree-lined avenues to snow-capped mountains in the distance. We eventually made our way back to the palace and went into the town to find somewhere for lunch. There was a small market but the town was still very quiet. It’s hard to believe this was once the epicentre of Spanish government.

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

San Ildefonso, Spain

San Ildefonso, Spain

Sierra de Guadarrama, Spain

Sierra de Guadarrama, Spain

We had to get back to the airport for our flights, but our route wound steeply upwards on hairpin bends through the Sierra de Guadarrama, until we eventually reached the ski resort of Estacion Puerto Navacerrada. Here, on the boundary between Castile y Leon and Madrid, we admired the views back towards this fantastic Spanish region and made plans to come back.

Unearthing ancient history in beautiful Segovia

If the quiet nighttime streets in Segovia’s medieval heart are anything to go by, most people seem to visit this magnificent town on day trips from Madrid. During the day the streets buzz with activity, and tour groups crowd into the 12th century Alcázar, around the square beneath the monumental aqueduct, and through the narrow lanes that connect the two. At night though, the town has a different personality, the streets empty and the sound of footsteps on cobbles can be heard echoing in alleyways.

Alcázar, Segovia, Spain

Alcázar, Segovia, Spain

Segovia, Spain

Segovia, Spain

Alcázar, Segovia, Spain

Alcázar, Segovia, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

I’m glad we spent a night here, it allowed us to get a sense of the rhythm of life in the town. Perched high on a rocky outcrop and surrounded by walls and medieval gates, Segovia is an historic gem. By the time the Romans arrived around 80 BC, there had already been a settlement here for 700 years. When the Roman Empire disintegrated in the 5th century, they left behind the extraordinary aqueduct that is still the most impressive feature of the town.

Moorish invaders captured Segovia in the early 8th century, ushering in three hundred years of Islamic rule. It was recaptured by Alfonso VI of León and Castile in 1079, part of the centuries-long Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsular. It was shortly after this that Segovia’s other major attraction, the Alcázar, was built over the original Moorish fort, which in turn had been built on top of the Roman fort. It was to become one of the principle royal residences of Castile.

The Alcázar was the site of one of Spain’s foundational moments in 1474, when Queen Isabella I was proclaimed Queen of Castile. She would go on to marry Ferdinand II of Aragon, uniting Spain’s Christian kingdoms politically. Together they completed the reconquest of Spain from the Moors, and then commissioned Christopher Columbus to discover the Americas. The slightly odd Central European spires that adorn the Alcázar today, were added by King Philip II when he married Anna of Austria. Presumably to make her feel more at home.

We started our day with a walk through the quiet streets to the Plaza Azoguejo, over which towers the 28.5 metre high aqueduct. It truly is an amazing sight, not to mention an incredible feat of engineering. The whole thing stretched for 16km, delivering water from the River Frío into the heart of Segovia, and didn’t use any mortar or cement. We walked under the main arches of the aqueduct and then turned up some steps to follow the route it takes through the town.

It’s majestic and a little surreal, people’s houses co-exist ‘cheek by jowl’ with the arches as the aqueduct cuts through sleepy neighbourhoods. We strolled the full length of the remaining structure before wandering back downhill to the historic centre. We popped into the Mesón de Cándido, one of the town’s most famous restaurants, for a drink and then headed back through the town towards the Alcázar. Things were busier now, with plenty of tour groups milling around, but it’s fairly easy to lose the crowds if you avoid the main streets.

The Alcázar is a fantastical building, all narrow towers and pointy turrets, which is said (probably wrongly) to have been the model for the original Disneyland castle. We went to buy our tickets and the man behind the counter asked if we were European Union citizens. “Yes”, we said, “from the UK.” He gave us a pitying smile and said, “It’s free for EU citizens, but not for you for much longer.” Yet another reminder of the loss every British person will suffer when Brexit happens.

Alcázar, Segovia, Spain

Alcázar, Segovia, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Segovia, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Segovia, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Inside, the Alcázar is just as fantastical. The Hall of the Galley and Hall of the Kings, both have the most extraordinary ceilings, decorated with gold leaf and images of Kings and Queens past. We made our way around the building until we emerged into the sunlight outside the armoury. The views were spectacular, and it really gave us a clear idea of how the Alcázar is constructed on a cliff edge. All that history had given us an appetite, so we wandered back through the town to the Plaza Mayor for another tour around the tapas bars.

Segovia, Roman history and Golden Age glories

Our first sighting of Segovia was glorious. The magnificent city skyline, framed by the snow covered Sierra de Guadarrama, was breathtaking. Close up, the town becomes even more exquisite. As we drove into the centre in an attempt to find our hotel, we passed the ridiculously dramatic Acueducto de Segovia, a perfectly preserved Roman aqueduct that was built in the 1st Century AD, and has survived intact for close to 2,000 years. It’s an awe inspiring sight, that put me in mind of the Roman city of Jerash in modern-day Jordan.

Roman aqueduct, Segovia, Spain

Roman aqueduct, Segovia, Spain

Roman aqueduct, Segovia, Spain

Roman aqueduct, Segovia, Spain

Medieval centre of Segovia, Spain

Medieval centre of Segovia, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Segovia, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Segovia, Spain

Segovia cathedral, Spain

Segovia cathedral, Spain

If a 2,000 year-old aqueduct was the only reason to come to Segovia, it would be more than enough. But this town of fewer than sixty thousand people, punches well above its weight in many other ways. The whole of the medieval old town is an UNESCO World Heritage site. Segovia is a place that perfectly embodies the history of Roman, Moorish and Christian Spain, and the grandeur of the country’s Golden Age, beginning with the Reconquista and encompassing the discovery and conquest of the New World.

Walking the streets of the ancient centre between the turreted 11th century Alcázar, the 16th century Gothic cathedral and the 1st century aqueduct, is a little like being in an open air museum, only one with far more life. Despite its many historic monuments, Segovia during the day is a vibrant place with pleasant squares where families gather, and narrow winding cobbled streets that ring with the sound of voices. At night it was much quieter, the action transferred indoors to a selection of excellent tapas bars and even better restaurants.

Segovia is a weekend destination for Madrileños, and has fabulous places to eat its legendary food. This is the home of the cochinillo asado, or roast suckling pig, served with head and feet, and ‘carved’ using a plate. Not sure why, but that’s the way they do it in Segovia. Even more special though is the cordero lechazo asado, or the roasted leg of lamb. We ate this dish at La Concepción in the Plaza Mayor and it was truly delicious – they also do the finest carajillo I’ve ever had in Spain. Nobody comes to Segovia to lose weight apparently.

We were staying in the Hotel Convento Capuchinos, a former monastery and church that date from 1637. It was a fittingly historic place to spend the night and had views over the Río Eresma and valley below, including the 13th century Templar church of Vera Cruz. Built not long after the city had been captured from the Moors in 1079, it’s modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

The day I made the effort to walk all the way down hill, and make the steep climb back up, to visit, it wasn’t open. This was a shame because the church was built, or so legend has it, to house a fragment of the cross that Christ was crucified upon. It was brought back to Spain from the Holy Land after one of the Crusades. Inside, the church is said to contain a unique chamber where new members of the Knights Templar would stand vigil, night and day, over this famous piece of wood as part of their initiation

We’d arrived in the late afternoon and once we’d found somewhere to park – always a challenge in medieval Spanish towns – we checked in and set off to unearth a tapas bar or two. Luckily for us, that is not difficult. The Plaza Mayor, which is dominated by the cathedral, has several good options running around the outside of the square. We started in one corner and worked our way around, stopping at places that looked good or had a crowd. We weren’t disappointed.

View from the cathedral, Segovia, Spain

View from the cathedral, Segovia, Spain

View over Segovia, Spain

View over Segovia, Spain

Medieval centre of Segovia, Spain

Medieval centre of Segovia, Spain

View over Segovia, Spain

View over Segovia, Spain

View over Segovia, Spain

View over Segovia, Spain

Afterwards, we were just in time to clamber up the bell tower of the cathedral before it closed. The views were magnificent, the whole town was laid out before us, as were the same snow capped mountains that we’d driven through to get here. From our vantage point we planned the next day’s excitement and then went to see if we could book a table for dinner at one of Segovia’s most popular restaurants, Restaurante José María. The  cochinillo asado was calling to us.

The Bear and the Strawberry Tree, revisiting Madrid

Madrid is a city that I’ve visited repeatedly. The heady mix of history, culture, food and nightlife have always appealed to my inner hedonist, but it’s also a relaxed city with a lot of parks and a way of life that seems more human than most cities. Large enough to  offer world class distractions, but small enough to feel intimate and friendly, is how I’ve always thought of Spain’s vivacious capital. Amidst the grand Hapsburg architecture, bustling plazas, top notch museums, leafy parks and buzzing neighbourhoods, Madrid is a city that has everything.

Of course, it also has many of the negatives of cities everywhere, and it was noticeable during our recent long weekend that the number of homeless and destitute seems to have multiplied significantly since our last visit in 2015. Staying close to the Plaza Tirso de Molina, this was only too obvious. Madrid is still dealing with years of austerity from the financial crisis, and it’s very visible on the streets.

Madrid, Spain

Madrid, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

The Bear and the Strawberry Tree, Madrid, Spain

The Bear and the Strawberry Tree, Madrid, Spain

Madrid, Spain

Madrid, Spain

Musicians in the Rastro, Madrid, Spain

Musicians in the Rastro, Madrid, Spain

Madrid, Spain

Madrid, Spain

We arrived in the late afternoon and, after settling into the apartment, headed to the Plaza Mayor for a glass of something cold with some tapas. It might be touristy, but the Plaza Mayor is a wondrous introduction to the city. Perhaps the most perfect square in Spain? There was a time when bullfights were held here, today the closest you’ll get is a visit to La Torre del Oro, an Andalusian bar complete with bull heads and some of the most gruesome photos of toros getting revenge on matadors you’re likely to see – they could put you off your tapas.

We spent the evening bar-hopping in the increasingly trendy Chueca district. Once a rundown area, it has been completely rejuvenated as Madrid’s gay epicentre. It’s a vibrant neighbourhood that is home to some exceptional eating and drinking options, including the Mercado de San Miguel, an old market transformed by adding a couple of dozen bars and restaurants. For all the modernity, there are still some traditions that remain, just pop into the Taberna Ángel Sierra on Plaza de Chueca to be transported back in time.

We recovered the next day with breakfast in the Plaza Santa Ana. You know you’re in Plaza Santa Ana when you see the brilliantly white Reina Victoria, famed for being the hotel of choice for Spain’s best matadors. This is prime Hemingway territory, and off to one side is the Cervecería Alemana, where Hemingway claims to have shared a table with the most beautiful woman in the world. It’s a classic Madrid establishment, with world weary white-jacketed waiters who seem to have worked there for ever.

A morning spent in the botanical gardens and the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum (one of Europe’s finest) was followed by a visit to the Atocha district. Like Chueca, when I first came to Madrid there was nothing very interesting in this district, but now it’s full of bars and restaurants. We walked off lunch through the narrow streets of Lavapiés. Perhaps the most bohemian of all Madrid’s barrios thanks to the high percentage of immigrants that have settled here. This is a fascinating area that retains a sense of its radical working class roots even as gentrification takes hold.

I haven’t been to the Sunday morning Rastro market for twenty years, but it was close to the apartment and handily en route to La Latina and the Royal Palace. My memory is of a genuine flea market with occasional antique stalls, but the modern Rastro seems to be an homogenised mash up of tourist memorabilia that you could get in almost any country on earth. We meandered amongst the uninspiring stalls before trying to find somewhere for an outdoor lunch in one of La Latina’s many plazas. On a sunny Sunday, that’s easier said than done.

Our plan had been to visit the Royal Palace, but it was closed due to a state visit. It’s pretty impressive from the outside, but that doesn’t give a sense of what awaits inside some of the palace’s two thousand rooms. Still we could at least wander through the palace gardens, which were busy with people soaking up the sun. We made our way back to the packed Puerta del Sol and rewarded ourselves with a drink and tapas in the Casa Labra. The next day we’d be off to Segovia, a much needed rest from a weekend in Madrid.

Street art, La Latina, Madrid, Spain

Street art, La Latina, Madrid, Spain

Street art, La Latina, Madrid, Spain

Street art, La Latina, Madrid, Spain

La Torre del Oro, Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

La Torre del Oro, Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

La Latina, Madrid, Spain

La Latina, Madrid, Spain

La Latina, Madrid, Spain

La Latina, Madrid, Spain

Revisiting Europe’s darkest days, Struthof Concentration Camp

The Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp lies deep in Alsace’s Vosges Mountains. The drive to reach it involves winding roads through verdant forests that give little hint of the horrors these hills have witnessed. It is heavily ironic that, before it became the scene of appalling atrocities committed by the Nazis, Struthof was a ski resort with a hotel and restaurant. A place for fun and relaxation. Even today, you could be forgiven for taking in the majestic scenery and sweeping vistas, and thinking that all was well with the world.

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Like many Nazi camps its remoteness was deliberate, far away from prying eyes and as a deterrent to escape attempts, but Struthof also owes its location to nearby deposits of pink granite. The camp was established as a base for forced labour to mine the stone for building projects in the Third Reich, allegedly on the request of the Nazi’s favourite architect, Albert Speer. While it was a relatively small camp, Struthof was at the centre of a sprawling network of camps that inflicted immense suffering on tens of thousands of people.

Struthof was a hard labour camp for political prisoners, including resistance fighters from France, Norway and the Netherlands, many of whom were brought here as Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) prisoners. These were men and women who opposed Nazi occupation and who were kidnapped from their homes and sent to camps hundreds of miles away. Their families were never told where they’d been sent, no documentation was kept about them, they simply disappeared.

Conditions at the camp were horrific. Starvation, overwork and mistreatment by the SS guards led to a death rate of around forty percent. Numerous other prisoners were simply shot or hanged when they arrived. The fate of others, as in many camps, was to be experimented on in quasi-medical tests. At Struthof these were performed mainly on Jews or Roma sent here from other camps for that specific purpose. Experiments included the effects of poison gas and ‘treatments’ for typhus and yellow fever. Some were performed on children.

The most infamous of Struthof’s commandants was Josef Kramer, now known to the world as “The Beast of Belsen” from his later role as commander of Birkenau-Belsen death camp. Kramer was commander at Struthof during one of the most notorious incidents, the murder of eighty-seven Jewish prisoners sent from Auschwitz as part of an experiment intended to prove the Nazi ideology of Aryan superiority. There is a big photograph in the illuminating museum of Kramer under guard after his arrest in 1945.

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Eighty-six of the prisoners were murdered (one was shot while trying to escape) in a gas chamber built at Struthof for the sole purpose of performing ‘medical’ experiments on prisoners. The eighty-six corpses were then sent to Strasburg University for further experimentation, becoming part of the Jewish skeleton collection that was supposed to form a lasting scientific exhibit into ‘inferior’ races. This work was done under the direction of a doctor, August Hirt, but it was Kramer who personally killed all eighty-six people.

The camp was liberated in November 1944, by which time all the surviving prisoners had been force-marched to other camps. Struthof was the first concentration camp to be liberated in the west, the Russians had already uncovered evidence of these crimes against humanity, but as the Allied advance pushed further east more and more camps would be liberated. Many were Struthof’s sub-camps. It’s estimated that 20,000 of the 52,000 people who passed through the Natzweiler-Struthof camp system were killed.

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Josef Kramer, Commander of Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Josef Kramer, Commander of Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Struthof Concentration Camp, Alsace, France

Snow in the Vosges Mountains, Alsace, France

Snow in the Vosges Mountains, Alsace, France

Snow in the Vosges Mountains, Alsace, France

Snow in the Vosges Mountains, Alsace, France

Today, the site is an important memorial to those who suffered and died here. Many of the original buildings have been destroyed, but several are still standing within the barbed wire fencing. Above the site on the hillside stands the giant Monument to the Departed, which casts its shadow over a cemetery. Inside some of the buildings are an exhibit on the camp, and nearby is a modern museum dedicated to telling the story of Struthof in the broader context of the war and Nazi occupation, including an excellent film.

While we toured the museum, the weather took a turn for the much worse. Down the mountain it was raining, but at this altitude it turned to heavy snow. The temperature plunged and the roads became dangerous to drive on. It’s an unforgiving climate, and it highlighted just how diabolical winter conditions must have been for prisoners with no heating, few clothes and little food.

In the foothills of the Vosges, the fairytale town of Colmar

Charming courtyards connected by narrow alleyways, cobbled streets lined with half timbered houses, ancient churches rubbing shoulders with centuries-old taverns. The magnificent Alsatian town of Colmar could come straight from the pages of a medieval fairytale. The French author, Georges Duhmal, called it “the most beautiful town in the world”, which isn’t too much of an overstatement, although he never saw it crammed with tourists on an Easter weekend in the 21st century.

Arriving in Colmar after driving the beautiful Alsace wine route, it was hard to imagine anything could surpass the picturesque villages of this fabulous region. Colmar, though, defies expectations. Our first concern upon arrival was to find a parking spot. No easy task. To celebrate Easter the town council had decided to make all the parking free, and the place was packed with people enjoying occasional sunshine in-between frequent downpours. There was definitely a holiday atmosphere.

Colmar, Alsace, France

Colmar, Alsace, France

Colmar, Alsace, France

Colmar, Alsace, France

Colmar, Alsace, France

Colmar, Alsace, France

Colmar, Alsace, France

Colmar, Alsace, France

Colmar, Alsace, France

Colmar, Alsace, France

Colmar, Alsace, France

Colmar, Alsace, France

On the way back to the hotel from a distant car park, I found myself walking by a canal lined with colourful timber framed houses. This is Colmar’s famous ‘Petite Venice’ district. A description that is definitely an overstatement. I don’t care how attractive they are, a couple of canals don’t qualify as a French Venice. Not even a small one. It was here that I first came across metal squares on the streets emblazoned with an engraving of the Statue of Liberty.

This is a nod to the town’s most famous son, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor who designed New York’s most famous landmark (Gustave Eiffel built it). We were told that there was a reproduction of the Statue of Liberty sitting on a roundabout on one of the roads that comes into Colmar. Not exactly the same as sitting at the entrance to New York harbour, but an entrance of sorts. The metal squares mark the town’s main tourist trail, which you can follow with the help of a map from the tourist office.

While the sun was shining, we headed out to explore the town. Colmar isn’t a big place, and wandering around aimlessly seemed like a good way of discovering its historic streets. Founded around the 9th century, Colmar has witnessed a lot of history. One bizarre episode came during the Thirty Years’ War when, in 1632, it was occupied by Swedish forces who, needless to say, were quite a long way from home. It was a fleeting occupation, and the town was passed between French and German control for the next three centuries.

Like the rest of this region, that Franco-German heritage has left an indelible mark on the town. Despite a turbulent past, Colmar has survived without significant damage. Even heavy fighting in this region during the liberation of France in 1944-45 left it largely untouched. Its perfectly preserved centre really must count as one of the most remarkable in France. The historic quarter is made even more pleasurable by the fact that it’s pedestrianised, although when so many tourists are visiting over Easter the streets can hardly be considered hazard free.

Colmar, Alsace, France

Colmar, Alsace, France

Colmar, Alsace, France

Colmar, Alsace, France

Colmar, Alsace, France

Colmar, Alsace, France

Colmar, Alsace, France

Colmar, Alsace, France

Colmar, Alsace, France

Colmar, Alsace, France

The sheer number of tourists would come back to haunt us when we were looking for somewhere for dinner. Almost all restaurants were fully booked. When we eventually found somewhere that had a table, we took no chances and ordered a bottle of Pinot Noir, rather than risk trying one of the region’s mysterious white wines. Emerging after dinner, the streets were practically deserted, and we made our way home with only the sound of our own footsteps on the cobbled streets.

In the morning we’d be heading back to the Netherlands, but not before visiting a much more troubling period of this region’s history at Struthof Concentration Camp.

The wine routes of Alsace

There are some familiar wine names in this peculiarly German region of France – Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Noir – but there are some wines I’d never heard of before taking the winding roads through this fantastically beautiful region. Sylvaner, Auxerrois and the virtually unpronounceable Gewürztraminer, to name only a few. This unfamiliarity adds to the allure of a journey through the villages and vineyards of Alsace, and seems to complement the complicated cultural and historical backdrop of the region.

Dambach-la-Ville, Alsace wine route, France

Dambach-la-Ville, Alsace wine route, France

Dambach-la-Ville, Alsace wine route, France

Dambach-la-Ville, Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Bergheim, Alsace wine route, France

Bergheim, Alsace wine route, France

Dambach-la-Ville, Alsace wine route, France

Dambach-la-Ville, Alsace wine route, France

This was one of France’s first wine routes, and is one of the most celebrated. The route is 65-years old this year but some of the vineyards and winemakers have been around for centuries. At 172km in length we didn’t have time to do the whole route, or to visit more than a handful of the ridiculously picturesque villages that are liberally scattered around Alsace’s rolling hills. The main villages, while attractive, also attract coach loads of day trippers, and can be a bit of a mixed experience, but you don’t have to go too far off the main tourist trail to find more tranquil spots.

We started our day in Obernai and, after the previous day’s rain, were glad that the sun was back in the sky. Our destination was the town of Colmar in the south of the region, famed for both its wealth of historic buildings and its ‘Petite Venice’ canal district – an overstatement for sure, but it’s still a pretty part of the town. In between, we spent several hours meandering around the countryside and sampling a wine or two. It was a glorious journey along narrow roads with vineyards nestling up against villages of half-timbered houses.

This is a part of France where many of the villages have Germanic names – Kintzheim, Kayserberg, Mittelbergheim, Bergheim – thanks to a convoluted and frequently violent history between the two countries. German names extend to food, as we discovered over a lunchtime flammküchen, better known as a tartes flambée in the rest of France. Giant pretzels were on sale in almost every village we visited. Alsace’s split personality makes it a disorienting place to visit. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been surprised to have bumped into Hansel and Gretel.

We stopped in Kintzheim, Bergheim, Ribeauvillé, Dambach-la-Ville and Riquewihr to explore the streets and alleyways. The villages started to blur into one by the time we finally reached Colmar later that same day. I’m sure they all have their own personality, but in the end we could barely distinguish one village from another, so alike are they architecturally. It was Easter which meant residents could give full artistic licence to a truly alarming tendency to decorate buildings with stuffed toys, wooded hearts, stork effigies, eggs and a myriad of other decorations. Some might say it’s a bit kitsch.

There is no doubt that this is a beautiful part of France, and the quaint villages add an extra dimension to the region. I wish we’d had a little more time to allow us spend a night or two in some of the smaller villages and get a real flavour of life, and to sample wines from some of the more than one thousand producers that operate out of these tiny places. I’ve heard Strasbourg is a place that deserves a visit, and it’s only a short distance to the vineyards. I’m thinking autumn when the grape harvest is in full swing and the villages host harvest festivals!

Dambach-la-Ville, Alsace wine route, France

Dambach-la-Ville, Alsace wine route, France

Dambach-la-Ville, Alsace wine route, France

Dambach-la-Ville, Alsace wine route, France

Bergheim, Alsace wine route, France

Bergheim, Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

A journey through Alsace’s fairytale villages

Something very strange happens when you make the journey from Nancy, through the rolling hills of the Vosges national park, and into the glorious Alsace wine region. To all intents and purposes, you leave French France behind and enter German France. This is perhaps the most disorienting place I’ve ever visited in France. On a holiday weekend when lots of visitors from Germany and Switzerland are in the region, you could be forgiven for thinking you were actually in Germany.

The architecture, food, village names, wines and even the landscape all feel ‘not quite French’, and with good reason. Over the centuries, this region has had a very unhappy history exchanging hands between these two European powers. The area was largely under Germanic influence until the 17th century. France only came to control Alsace during the reign of Louis XIV in 1681. For the next two centuries Alsace was a model French province, then came the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

The war, ironically started by France, didn’t last long and resulted in a resounding and humiliating defeat for French forces. The French Emperor, Napoleon III, was captured and a French army of 140,000 men surrendered at Metz. Paris, under siege for four months, surrendered in January 1871. The new German Empire extracted a terrible price, the annexation of Alsace and half of Lorraine. Almost as bad, King William I of Prussia was crowned German Emperor in Versailles.

The loss of Alsace-Lorraine would be a major driver towards war in 1914, and defeat of Germany in the First World War saw Alsace returned to France in 1919. By which time 75% of the population spoke and read German as a first language – German and French are still taught in schools. Alsatian, a German dialect, is considered the main language of the region. It briefly, and brutally, returned to German control in the Second World War, when the Nazi’s outlawed the French language and conscripted 130,000 men into the German army.

Today the picturesque towns, and picture-postcard perfect villages, of Alsace dotted amongst rolling vineyards and nestled amongst hills and forests, give little sense of that violent history. This is a serene place, even over the Easter weekend when coach loads of Italian tourists join the many Germans and Swiss, who come here to spend a few days sampling famous Alsace wines. Even in early spring when the vines are no more than brown stumps in the ground, this is glorious countryside.

We arrived from Nancy taking the 7km-long Tunnel de Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, which was originally burrowed through the heart of the mountain as a rail tunnel in 1937. It costs €6 to drive through the tunnel, but it’s quite an exciting thing to do. We arrived on the other side of the mountains and headed up through the wooded hills past the imposing Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg, the medieval castle that was ruined before being rebuilt in 1908 by German Emperor, Wilhelm II, during the German occupation.

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Alsace wine route, France

Coming down the other side we picked up the Alsace Wine Route trail at the village of Saint-Hippolyte, before wandering through the lovely streets of Kintzheim, streets lined with half-timbered houses. The village is surrounded by vineyards and backed by a ruined 12th century castle. We were headed to Obernai, an attractive medieval town that is also large enough to have a decent selection of restaurants and nightlife, but first stopped off in a couple of other small villages to explore their narrow lanes and admire the ‘gingerbread houses’.

We arrived in Obernai just as the weather turned from sun to rain, and walked through one of the town’s medieval gates to find our apartment. The town was busy despite the drizzle, but quickly cleared out as nightfall fell. A friend had recommended a traditional Alsace restaurant to us, so we booked a table before finding a cosy bar to sample some of the local wines. These were too sweet and too flowery for my tastes, and only served to emphasise the difference between this region and others we’d visited in France.