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.

Art Nouveau glories at the Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy

Nancy is famous for may things but, perhaps above all else, it was a renowned centre for the art nouveau movement. Art nouveau flourished here after France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine by a newly unified Germany. An event little short of a national tragedy, French citizens in German occupied Alsace-Lorraine were given a terrible choice: become German or become refugees. Tens of thousands chose to leave their homes and migrate across the new border.

"France!! Ou l’Alsace et la Lorraine désespérées" by Jean-Joseph Weerts, Nancy, France

“France!! Ou l’Alsace et la Lorraine désespérées” by Jean-Joseph Weerts, Nancy, France

Nancy was the destination of choice for many writers, artists, designers, architects and entrepreneurs fleeing the occupation. This sparked a remarkable artistic and cultural flourishing, and its effect is seen throughout the town. There are art nouveau buildings all over the centre, shop and restaurant interiors are gracefully decorated in the art nouveau style, including furniture, parks are also laid out in the style. Art nouveau was both a movement of “Art in All” and “Art for All”, and Nancy is a true expression of this philosophy.

You can walk the streets as if Nancy is an open air museum, but the heart and soul of art nouveau in Nancy is the Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy. Once the private house of Eugène Corbin, one of the movement’s most important patrons and collectors, today it houses a museum that tells the story of this region’s love affair with art nouveau. The house was completely designed in the art nouveau style, including the gardens, and is the perfect backdrop for the museum.

The house is in an upmarket suburb – the movement may have been “Art for All” but it gets its finest expression in the homes of the wealthy – and the walk there took us past a number of other art nouveau buildings. The sky was blue and the sun was shining as we entered the gardens of the museum. We strolled around before plunging into the extraordinary interior of the house. It is filled with art nouveau stained-glass, furniture, ceramics, glassware, textiles and sculpture. It’s overwhelming, totally impractical to the modern eye, and utterly mesmerising.

While inside the epicentre of Nancy’s art nouveau movement, blue skies had become bruised with rain clouds and, as we headed back into town, it started to rain. Our plan to walk the town’s art nouveau trails was going to have to wait. Luckily, it was early afternoon and we had a back up plan for a long lunch at Nancy’s fabulous art nouveau Excelsior Brasserie. The exterior is obviously art nouveau, but it gives only a hint of the artistic splendour that awaits inside this Nancy institution.

Art Nouveau, Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau stairway, Musée de Beaux Arts, Nancy, France

Art Nouveau stairway, Musée de Beaux Arts, Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, France

The service might be a little ‘brusque’, to put it mildly, but the traditional Loraine food and excellent wine is accompanied by a ceiling that looks like a whipped meringue, and the furniture is designed by Louis Majorelle, one of the leading designers of France’s art nouveau movement. It was the Easter weekend, and the atmosphere was electric with a holiday crowd. We started chatting to our neighbours on the next table, one of whom was an English teacher from a nearby town.

Her husband was a wine connoisseur, and we shared a glass of the Chablis premier cru we’d ordered under the influence of our indulgent art nouveau surroundings. He took a sip and was horrified. This fine wine from Burgundy was too cold. He called the waiter over, admonishing him for allowing such a tragedy to happen. This started an animated discussion amongst several nearby tables about how awful this was. People actually apologised to us for the waiter’s indiscretion. It felt like we’d wandered into a Jacques Tati movie.

Art Nouveau, Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau building, Nancy, France

Art Nouveau building, Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, France

You might say, “it was just a glass of wine”, but that misses the point. The warmth and friendliness of our fellow diners, their obvious pride in their cuisine, and in wanting us to experience it at its very best, encapsulates something about France that is rare in the rest of the world. It’s a lunch that will stay long in the memory as a result.

Nancy, France’s eighteenth century masterpiece

Despite the decidedly un-French name, Nancy’s central Place Stanislas is one of the most exquisite city squares in France. It’s named after a former Polish King, Stanislas Leszczynski, who fleetingly sat on the throne of Poland between 1704 – 1709, before being deposed and fleeing to the Lorraine region of France. A man of vast wealth, not only did his daughter become Queen of France through marriage to King Louis XV, he held the title of Duke of Loraine for 30 years.

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Stanislas Leszczynski street art, Nancy, France

Stanislas Leszczynski street art, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

It is Stanislas who’s responsible for the town’s 18th century architectural centrepiece, and I would defy anyone not to feel a sense of amazement upon seeing this UNESCO World Heritage Site for the first time. It’s a masterpiece of urban design, intended to unite Nancy’s old medieval quarter with the ‘modern’ 18th century city. Originally the seat of government for the Duchy of Lorraine, the square is surrounded by magnificent buildings. This includes the City Hall, Opera House, the truly excellent Musée de Beaux Arts, and several restaurants.

We’d arrived late the previous evening after a long drive from the Netherlands, but were keen to explore so skipped breakfast in the hotel. We strolled along a pleasant canal in the early morning sun before heading into Place Stanislas. The town was quiet with only a few people on the streets – it was Easter weekend and everything felt a little sleepy. For the first time in a long time, it was warm enough to sit outside one of the square’s restaurants for breakfast. We relaxed and admired our surroundings.

Afterwards, we strolled around the square before walking underneath the Arc Héré, a mini-Arc de Triumphe, into the grand Place Carriere, at the end of which sits the Palais du Gouvernement and the former palace of the Dukes of Lorraine, now a museum. We made a quick visit to the museum as most of it was closed for renovation, but the lovely Parc de la Pépinière is next door and we walked through it back to Place Stanislas. The sun had disappeared and it started to rain, luckily the Musée de Beaux Arts is a fine indoor alternative to exploring the town.

Inside the magnificent 18th century building, the museum houses a superb collection of Baroque and Rococo art, as well as a more modern collection on the ground floor. In the basement, excavated around the foundations of the town’s medieval fortifications, is a wondrous collection of Daum glassware. One of France’s most prestigious glass makers, Daum was founded in 1878 and was central to the art nouveau movement for which Nancy is renowned. The museum has over 600 items on display, all hand made.

The weather was hit-and-miss throughout our stay, but the rain had stopped by the time we re-emerged. We walked through interesting streets past the cathedral, a vast but plainly decorated building, until we reached the covered market. It was a busy day in the market and we had a lot of fun ‘window shopping’ around the food stalls. Across the Place Charles III outside the market, and backed by some of the ugliest high-rises ever imagined by an architect, sits the 16th century church of Saint-Sébastien, worth a visit for its lovely interior.

Nancy is known as “little Paris” and, while that might be a stretch of the imagination, it is certainly an attractive place. Night was falling as we found a small cosy bar to try a selection of regional beers (a big deal in Nancy) and some regional foods, including the most famous of all, Pâté Lorrain (a delicious savoury pie). We wandered back into the Place Stanislas, which was now beautifully illuminated, before returning along the quiet canal to our hotel.

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Back in the big cheese, exploring Gouda

The last time I visited Gouda I’d been living in the Netherlands for less than six weeks. It’s taken nearly four years to revisit this picturesque town, but it was worth making the short trip – it’s a 20 minute journey from The Hague – if for no other reason than to visit the glorious interior of the medieval Gothic church, Sint Janskerk, world famous for its truly extraordinary stained glass windows. The seventy-two luminescent 16th century windows are the reason Sint Janskerk is an UNESCO World Heritage site, but it also claims the title of ‘longest church in the Netherlands’.

City Hall, Gouda, Netherlands

City Hall, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Cheese, Gouda, Netherlands

Cheese, Gouda, Netherlands

Cheese, Gouda, Netherlands

Cheese, Gouda, Netherlands

When I was last here in 2014 the building was closed, this time Sint Janskerk was not only open, but the winter sun was illuminating the stained glass and the vast interior space of the church. Some of the windows are 20 metres high and represent distinct phases in Dutch history, between Spanish rule and Dutch independence, and between the pre- and post-Reformation Catholic and Protestant churches. In some windows you can see Philip II of Spain, in others William of Orange. Both using the windows for their own propaganda purposes.

There is a fantastic self-guided audio tour of the church – if you visit definitely take the audio tour – which recounts both the history behind the windows and the meaning of the stained glass. Anticipating the beginning of the Second World War, the windows were removed and placed into storage in 1939. Not all of the originals have managed to make it to the 21st century and there are some modern windows, including one celebrating the liberation of the Netherlands in 1945.

We went for a wander around Gouda’s historic streets. It’s a pretty place with plenty of old buildings, including the very ornate town hall, the old cheese weighing building and numerous canals lined with merchant houses. It was Saturday and there was a market in the main square, which was a little disappointing but did at least have several cheese stalls. On a bitterly cold day, we mooched around for a couple of hours through narrow streets and along the town’s canals, until we came across the De Roode Leeuw, the Red Lion windmill, which still produces its own flour.

Ringed by an outer canal, which began life as the town’s defensive moat, the historic part of town isn’t very big and, even with a visit to the town museum, half a day pretty much covers Gouda. We made our way back to the town centre for lunch in one of the restaurants surrounding the main square. Almost every Dutch town has a square like this, and almost every square has a collection of restaurants serving up traditional Dutch fare. In Gouda that included a dish I’d never eaten before, cheese soup. Tasty and warming on a winter’s day.

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Sint Janskerk, Gouda, Netherlands

Kaaswaag, Gouda, Netherlands

Kaaswaag, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Historic centre, Gouda, Netherlands

Afterwards we popped into the historic Kaaswaag, the cheese weighing building, now the tourist information office and a cheese shop that offer a variety of cheese tastings. We passed up the opportunity to sample yet more Dutch cheese, instead we found another cheese shop, ‘t Kaaswinkeltje, which was serving some weird and wonderful cheeses, including a blue cheese and a black cheese. Call it heresy in this most Dutch of cheese towns, but we left with three different French cheeses.

The oldest tree in the Netherlands, Doorwerth Castle

It’s said that, while looking at a painting during a visit to Kasteel Doorwerth, a woman suddenly felt “cold and very scared”. This terrifying ordeal is now claimed to have been an encounter with the supernatural, and it’s not the only time ghostly activities have been experienced within the walls of this castle on the banks of the Rhine, in the Dutch province of Gelderland. Such is the paralysis-inducing fear people have been subjected to, a British paranormal psychologist (whatever that is) came to the Netherlands to investigate. He’s said to have witnessed the horrifying sight of two “vapour-like mists”.

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

People seem to love a ghost story and, even on the freezing cold day I visited, the castle was busy with visitors. Given Kasteel Doorwerth’s dramatic location close to the Rhine and backed by woodlands, and a violent history stretching back to the 13th century, it hardly seems worthwhile trying to add the extra drama of supernatural goings-on. As I cycled along the banks of the Rhine I could see the castle in the distance. It looked very peaceful sat in the Gelderland landscape, but looks can be deceiving. This castle has seen a lot of action.

During Operation Market Garden and the Battle for Arnhem in September 1944, the castle was heavily bombed. Medieval building techniques were no match for modern warfare, and it was reduced to a tragic pile of rubble. It took 37 years, but the castle was fully restored to its former glory and reopened to the public in 1983. This wasn’t the first time the castle had been destroyed though. The first recorded mention of it comes in 1260, when it was besieged by the Bishop of Utrecht, who ordered it to be burnt to the ground.

At that time it was mainly a wooden building, when it was rebuilt they took the sensible precaution of using bricks. A huge defensive tower was added, as was the moat that still surrounds the castle today. I walked across the drawbridge over the moat into the lovely courtyard, in the centre of which is an ancient tree said by many to be the oldest in the Netherlands. It struck me that the tree might have been the inspiration for the  white tree of Gondor from the Lord of the Rings.

The tree, an acacia, was planted in the late 16th or early 17th century, and has a very impressive circumference of around seven meters. It’s clearly famous as people were taking selfies in front of it. After enduring sub-zero temperatures on the way to the castle, the courtyard was sheltered from the freezing wind and bathed in winter sun. I sat on a bench and warmed up a little before going inside. Oddly for the Netherlands, there was only information in Dutch, but some rooms had people in period costumes explaining things.

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

The castle’s not large and I was back in the courtyard in less than an hour. I got back on the bike and headed to Arnhem. It was only afterwards, sat in a cafe eating a warming bowl of erwtensoep, that I discovered a bizarre link between Doorwerth Castle and Kirkby Lonsdale, the small market town where I went to school in northern England. I was part of Bentinck House at school, named after Lord Henry Cavendish-Bentinck, a large landowner in the area.

Originally from Germany, Bentinck’s were Counts of the Holy Roman Empire. Through marriage they inherited lands in the Netherlands, including Kasteel Doorwerth. The family also had an English branch, started by Captain John Albert Bentinck in the 18th century. Despite his Dutch and German parentage, his grandfather was the British Earl of Portland and he inherited lands in England. The Cavendish-Bentinck after which my school house was named, was a halfbrother of the Duke of Portland. The connected history of Europe’s aristocracy never ceases to amaze.

A bridge too far, remembering the Battle for Arnhem

The history of Operation Market Garden and the Battle for Arnhem during September 1944, is something every British person of a certain age knows. The epic film, A Bridge Too Far, recounts the story and features a stellar cast. So visiting the sites of the battle, and cycling over Arnhem’s all important road bridge, held a lot of meaning for me. The road bridge, and the nearby railway bridge, were deemed so critical to Allied plans for the invasion of Germany that 35,000 Allied troops were committed to the operation.

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Had it succeeded the war might have been shortened by a year. After the successful D-Day invasion and rapid success in France and Belgium, the Allies had run out of steam. The plan was to flank German defences and attack from the Netherlands. The British chose to ignore intelligence reports that two German tank divisions were stationed near Arnhem. Airborne troops were ill equipped to fight tanks and support from ground troops took too long to arrive. Hoped for victory turned to tragic defeat.

I started the day with a visit to the excellent Airborne Museum at Oosterbeek, a small village outside Arnhem where much of the fighting was concentrated, and where British troops would form a defensive pocket before being overrun by German forces. The museum is based at the former Hotel Hartenstein, which was used as the British HQ. The top floors recount the backdrop of the battle, including original film footage and photographs, as well as recorded testimonies from civilians and soldiers, from all sides. It’s well done and incredibly poignant.

John Frost Bridge, Arnhem, Netherlands

John Frost Bridge, Arnhem, Netherlands

Old Church, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Old Church, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Old Church, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Old Church, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

On the lower floors, the museum has recreated realistic battle scenes from the streets of Arnhem and the trenches around Oosterbeek. After the museum I visited the Allied cemetery where many of those who died were buried after the war. It’s a tranquil spot. I cycled through the village to Oosterbeek’s old church, which was the scene of intense fighting. The church suffered significant damage, as did many of the village’s buildings. It’s a sleepy, prosperous looking place today, the events of 1944 were devastating.

My route along the banks of the Rhine took me away from Arnhem before crossing over a modern road bridge and returning me along the other bank of the river back towards the legendary Arnhem bridge. This involved cycling 20km into a headwind in sub-zero temperatures. By the time I crossed it my feet were little more than blocks of ice, the side of my face most exposed to the vicious wind was numb, my nose ran and my eyes streamed. In the town are more reminders and memorials to the battle that took place here.

The offensive that might have ended the war a year earlier, ended in failure. Allied troops would be pushed back, the Germans would launch their counter-offensive in the Ardenne, and the people of the Netherlands would be forced to endure a brutal occupation for another eight months. The consequences of defeat would be severe. Swathes of Arnhem were destroyed and hundreds of Dutch families were refugees in their own country.

Dutch civilians, under German occupation for four years, had greeted the paratroopers ecstatically, believing this was the start of their liberation. The reality afterwards was extremely bitter. The German command extracted reprisals against the Dutch with impunity and, during a harsh and unforgiving winter, Germany blocked food shipments to the occupied parts of the Netherlands. Dutch civilians were deliberately starved.

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

This became known as the Hongerwinter, the “Hunger winter” or the Dutch Famine of 1944-45. Starvation and malnutrition were widespread, with an estimated 22,000 people dying before the country was liberated in May 1945. Many of the soldiers who took part in Operation Market Garden blamed themselves for inflicting these horrors on the people of the Netherlands. The memorial outside the Airborne Museum pays testimony not only to this, but to the fact that the Dutch never held them responsible:

50 years ago British and Polish Airborne soldiers fought here against overwhelming odds to open the way into Germany and bring the war to an early end. Instead we brought death and destruction for which you have never blamed us. This stone marks our admiration for your great courage, remembering especially the women who tended our wounded. In the long winter that followed your families risked death by hiding Allied soldiers and airmen while members of the Resistance helped many to safety.

Argentinian, 10 of the best

Cosmopolitan cities, incredible landscapes, perspective-changing natural wonders and amazing wildlife. It’s possible to sip fine wine in the shadow of the Andes one day, and go whale watching off the Patagonian coast the next; or to gaze at the extraordinary colours of the Quebrada de Humahuaca in the dry air of the remote north west, before gasping for breath in the humidity of the Iguazu Falls. A visit to the continent’s most southerly city of Ushuaia can be combined with the aquamarine of the Perito Moreno glacier … and that’s before mentioning the glories of Buenos Aires.

Argentina, it seems, has it all. It’s a country that has repeatedly drawn me back after my first visit over a dozen years ago, with each return visit it only seems to become more appealing. I’ve seen a lot of the country – from the Bolivian border in the far north to Tierra del Fuego in the far south – these are my favourite places.

10. Susques and the Salinas Grandes

The route to the border town of Susques passes over the dramatic Cuesta de Lipan, a road of hairpin bends and mind-bending views reaching an altitude of 4,170m before descending to the vast white expanse of the Salinas Grandes. It’s truly magnificent. Drive further through the thin air of this remote region and you reach the village of Susques, with two beautiful adobe churches decorated with naive frescoes.

The Salinas Grandes in the distance, Argentina

9. Whale Watching in Peninsular Valdes

There are few sights as magical as the phenomenal gathering of southern right whales in the waters off Peninsular Valdes. Taking a boat out in the morning or late afternoon brings you up close and personal with whales leaping from the water, smashing their fins into the water, and slowly raising their tails out of the water. The surrounding area and coastline is also home to a vast array of different species, all worth exploring.

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

8. Mendoza’s wine region

Mendoza is a vibrant town sitting in the foothills of the Andes and is worth a few days of anyone’s time, but the real draw in this region is its world-class wines. The Valle de Uco, south of Mendoza, is one of the newer wine regions and is blessed by stunning landscapes and high-end bodegas offering superb food, wine and accommodations. We could have spent weeks exploring and wine tasting.

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

7. At the end of the world in Ushuaia

Sitting at the top of the Beagle Channel and ringed by snowcapped mountains, Ushuaia is as dramatically located as any town in Argentina. A magnet for outdoor enthusiasts, it has plenty of hiking and climbing opportunities in Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego. A trip down the Beagle Channel is a more sedate activity that brings wildlife sightings and beautiful vistas.

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

6. The Quebrada de Cafayate at sunset

When it comes to scenic drives, Argentina has some of the most extraordinary in the world. The landscape of the Quebrada de Cafayate frequently beggars belief, best seen at sunset when the reds and oranges of the rock formations literally glow in the light. Best of all, you can end your journey with a glass of wine amongst the vineyards of Cafayate.

Quebrada de Cafayate, Argentina

5. El Calafate and the Perito Moreno Glacier

El Calafate feels like a frontier town for tourists, but it sits on the exquisite turquoise waters of Largo Argentina and is the jumping off point for one Argentina’s spectacular natural wonders: Perito Moreno Glacier. It’s hard to describe the sheer magnificence of the deep, luminescent blues of the glacier, but take it from me, it’s an unmissable sight.

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

4. Iguazu Falls

Seen and heard for the first time, the thunderous roar of the 270 waterfalls that make up the Iguazu Falls make for an overwhelming experience. Words cannot describe the sheer beauty of the falls, but this is also a place where the power of nature imposes itself on you. It’s another of Argentina’s unmissable sights.

La Garganta del Diablo, Iguazu Falls, Argentina

La Garganta del Diablo, Iguazu Falls, Argentina

3. The Argentinian Lake District

It really is hard to overstate extraordinary beauty of this region. Bariloche, the main gateway to the region, may not be very appealing, but the mountains and lakes of the region are utterly mesmerising. The Ruta de Siete Largos is one of the world’s most scenic drives, and acts as a good introduction to the region, but the Lanin National Park near San Martin de los Andes is worth travelling around the world to see.

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

2. Along the Ruta 40 to Cachi and Molinos

The Ruta 40 is a legendary road. Stretching nearly the full length of Argentina it is both an endurance test and a window into some of the finest landscapes in the country. In the north west the road is still largely unpaved, but the bone-jarring journey is worth it for access to tranquil adobe villages, high altitude vineyards and scenery to make you weep.

Early morning light on Molinos, Argentina

1. Buenos Aires

Argentina’s capital is a city about which people eulogise, and with good reason. This is one of the world’s great cities, grand European architecture mingles with pulsating Latin American culture that, from working class Boca to upmarket Palermo makes for a vivacious and vibrant whole. It’s easy to resort to cliche when describing Buenos Aires, but this Quixotic city on the Rio del Plata is one that everyone should experience at least once.

Tango, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tango, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Serenity along Ruta de los Siete Lagos

We spent our last night in the lovely Andean town of San Martin drinking locally made beers and talking politics in the Fass Bier bar, before having some typically Patagonian food in one of the town’s best restaurants, El Regional. It seemed like a fitting end to a fabulous few days in this extraordinary region. We were heading south to Bariloche, and our final internal flight back to Buenos Aires, before departing for the European winter. First though, was the pleasure of driving back along the Ruta de los Siete Lagos into the Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi.

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Leaving San Martin you drive for a few kilometres along the shores of Lago Lacar, the road rises upwards before turning away from the water through wooded hillsides en route to Lago Machónico. Here we stopped at the mirador to take in the views, before heading off-road along the Rio Hermoso to the beach on Lago Hermoso. To describe the view down the lake to distant snow capped mountains as beautiful simply doesn’t do it justice. I could have spent hours drinking in the vista.

The Ruta de los Siete Lagos is the sort of place where superlatives become redundant through overuse, and it wasn’t long until we reached the even more enchanting view over Lago Villarino and Lago Falkner. The two lakes are separated by a short river over which the Ruta 40 passes on a narrow strip of land. The lakes and their surrounding mountains are mesmerisingly picturesque, we’d brought lunch with us and we almost had a picnic on the shore of  Lago Villarino. In the end we decided to carry on to Lago Espejo Chico.

This, it turned out, was an inspired choice. On the banks of one of the most beautiful of all Patagonian lakes, we sat in glorious silence and ate our lunch under a bright blue sky. The pristine waters of the lake were so clear we cold see every detail of the lake floor. It counts as one of the nicest settings for a meal ever. It only lacked a chilled bottle of something sparkling. After lunch we took a stroll on the lake shore before heading along the final stretch of road to Villa La Angostura, where the Ruta de los Siete Lagos ends.

Just outside the town the road is joined by one that comes across the border from Chile. The change is almost instantaneous. There is far more traffic and a lot of heavy vehicles. After the Ruta de los Siete Lagos it feels like you’re abruptly thrust back into the real world. It’s not a pleasant experience. The route south towards the airport at Bariloche traces the shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi, it would be our final view of the Lake District. It’s taken me a long time to visit this extraordinary region of this extraordinary country, I hope to be back soon.

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Lago Huechulafquen and the glorious Lanin National Park

There can be few more magnificent sights than the incredible landscapes of the Lanin National Park. The Vulcan Lanin, a 3,776 metre high snow-capped conical volcano, is the most dominate feature of the park. Its massive bulk was a constant companion as we drove down the dusty dirt road to the park entrance at the eastern end of the deep blue Lago Huechulafquen (Long Lake in the indigenous Mapuche language). The wind whipped down the lake, creating small waves, and the views across the water to the mountains were beautiful enough make you weep.

Lago Huechulafquen, Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lago Huechulafquen, Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lago Huechulafquen, Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lago Huechulafquen, Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

We set off early from San Martin, reaching the dusty town of Junin de los Andes on the Ruta 40, before turning away from what passes for civilisation in this part of the world into the wilderness. We were headed to Puerto Canoa, which is less a port and more a jetty sticking out into the western end of Lago Huechulafquen. You can drive further along the road, but time was short and our small car was woefully underpowered for a journey of several hours on bumpy gravel roads. Once we’d walked on the beach at Puerto Canoa we turned back to San Martin.

The Lanin National Park was formed in 1937, and is the third largest in Argentina. It would have been wonderful to have had the time to do some hiking and climbing here, but that will have to wait until next time. Prior to the permanent arrival of European Argentinians in the region at the end of the 19th century, there had been a thriving indigenous culture here. Even today, there are Mapuche communities and farms along the route to Puerto Canoa. It must be an isolated existence, especially in winter when they’re at risk of being cut off by snow.

The journey along the lake shore is stunningly beautiful, and involved regular stops for photos, and occasionally to allow cows and horses time to cross the road. The main tourist season hadn’t started, so despite the many camp sites and hostels where you could spend the night, we only saw a small number of people and vehicles. Mostly it was just us and nature. As we made our way along the road we crossed creaky wooden bridges over crystal clear glacier fed streams. The water is intensely cold.

At Puerto Canoa you can take a boat out on the lake and onto another two lakes that are connected by rivers. It was very tempting, but the boat wouldn’t leave for another hour and takes around two hours. We already had a long drive back to San Martin on mostly unpaved roads, so we passed up the opportunity and instead went for a stroll along the black volcanic sand beach, had a paddle in the lake (very cold) and then got back in our dust covered car and retraced our route.

Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lago Huechulafquen, Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lago Huechulafquen, Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lago Huechulafquen, Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lago Huechulafquen, Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lago Huechulafquen, Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lago Huechulafquen, Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Spectacular Andean landscapes on the Ruta de los Siete Lagos

The Ruta de los Siete Lagos is one of the most dramatic and beautiful road trips in the world. The sheer grandeur of the spectacular Andean landscapes through which you pass en route from Bariloche to San Martin de los Andes is, quite simply, breathtaking. I’ve waited twelve years to make this legendary trip, ever since I ran out of time on my first visit to Argentina. I’d seen photos, heard reports from other travellers, and my expectations were high. I need not have worried, the sun shone in a blue sky and our journey was accompanied by snowcapped peaks, wooded hills and aquamarine lakes.

The landscapes are vast in this part of the world, and in winter they can be very hostile, but on a glorious early summer’s day the 200km route from Bariloche to San Martin is simply extraordinary. The Seven Lakes route officially starts in Villa La Angostura, a bustling tourist village on the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi, and covers around 100km of winding roads through the heart of the Argentinian Lake District – although the first 100km to reach Villa La Angostura is almost as dramatic.

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

The route takes you past more than the seven lakes it’s named after, but those seven – Nahuel Huapi, Espejo, Correntoso, Escondido, Villarino, Falkner and Machónico – are magnificent sights in their own right. The road is remarkably free of heavy vehicles, and remarkably well maintained. Only light tourist traffic seems to use it, which makes it a perfect route for cycling. We saw a number of cycle groups, as well as individuals. From the comfort of a car it was easy to envy them, but the climbs on the route are severe.

We decided that, since we’d be coming back along this same route, we wouldn’t spend too much time stopping and exploring on this leg of the trip. We were keen to reach San Martin in good time, but the journey is so beautiful we couldn’t help but stop to take in the views, and take more photos than was entirely necessary. There are places where you can stop and hike to various sights, including the Cascadas Ñivinco, a series of dramatic waterfalls.

We reached San Martin around lunch time, the final section of the route runs down hill alongside the huge Lago Lácar. The attractive town nestles at the eastern end of the lake, while the western end almost reaches the border with Chile. It’s a fantastic sight. Keeping with the luxury travel theme of the rest of our trip, we’d booked into a spa in San Martin, with a heated outdoor swimming pool. Perfect for floating and watching the stars at night. We checked in and went to explore the town.

San Martin was founded only in 1898, when a border dispute with Chile forced the Argentine government to settle the region. Before that, few Europeans had been into this area and it was still populated by the indigenous Puelche peoples. It’s a small and sleepy place of around 25,000 inhabitants and, like Bariloche, it depends entirely on tourism for its modern existence. Unlike Bariloche, it has retained much of its original charm. We met several people who’d relocated here from Bariloche for that very reason.

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

San Martin de los Andes, Patagonia, Argentina

San Martin de los Andes, Patagonia, Argentina

San Martin de los Andes, Patagonia, Argentina

San Martin de los Andes, Patagonia, Argentina

San Martin de los Andes, Patagonia, Argentina

San Martin de los Andes, Patagonia, Argentina

San Martin de los Andes, Patagonia, Argentina

San Martin de los Andes, Patagonia, Argentina

We stopped into the tourist office to get some advice on excursions, as well as eating and drinking options in town. There’s no shortage of restaurants and cafes, even the ubiquitous microbrewery movement has made its way here. We found an outside table ordered food and Patagonia beer, and planned our trip into the Parque Nacional Lanin for the following day.