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.

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

2017, a year of travel in the rear view mirror

One exception not withstanding, 2017 has been a European year. It’s been a lot of fun exploring new destinations – Burgundy in France, Fruska Gora in Serbia and Granada’s Islamic heritage in Spain; but it’s been even more fun revisiting places I last visited many years ago – the Czech Republic’s Prague, Sweden’s glorious Stockholm, not to mention that one exception, Argentina. In between there have been trips to England and Scotland, as well as around the Netherlands – a country that really punches above its weight.

It’s been a fun year, thanks for joining me on the journey, and I wish you all the best of travels for 2018.

The cheesiest of Dutch towns, Alkmaar

Alkmaar is an attractive and historic town that has thrived on cheese production. The town’s famed cheese market has been around for over 400 years and, provided there’s a steady supply of tourists, it seems unlikely to end any time soon. It’s definitely one of the more touristy things you can do in the Netherlands, but a little bit of ‘cheese’ never did anyone any harm.

Summer and Winter in the English Lake District

I headed across the North Sea with my bike for company to take take part in the Fred Whitton Cycle Sportive in May, and took the opportunity to hike the Vale of Grasmere while the Bluebells were in full bloom. More recently, winter hikes across frozen winter landscapes have included The Old Man of Coniston and Crinkle Crags. Proof that the Lake District is best at any time of year.

Revisiting the delights of Stockholm

It’s taken me over a decade to make the short journey to Stockholm. One long weekend later and all I could think was “Why?” This is, without any doubt, one of Europe’s finest cities. Built across several islands and surrounded by water on all side, crossing from one neighbourhood to another feels like you’re entering a different city. Once famed for high prices, the costs no longer seem so prohibitive and the food has been through a revolution.

Prague, a glorious city blighted by modern tourism

I loved Prague when I first ventured here a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is still one of the great cities of Europe, but the toll modern tourism is taking on the historic city centre and the Prague Castle area is eye-wateringly painful to observe. There are still pockets of calm away from the tour groups, but this visit clashed badly with my trip 25-years earlier.

Ghiga and Arran, Island hopping in Scotland

At 9.5 kilometres long and 2.5 kilometres wide, Gigha was a huge surprise. Rugged and wild, with a peculiarly warm microclimate that makes it very hospitable, I’d never even heard of it before going to a friends wedding on the island. Afterwards we explored the much bigger Arran Isle with it’s wealth of ancient history. The weather was even good, well until the final day.

Wine tasting along the Grand Cru Routes of Burgundy

France is an extraordinary country for many different reasons, none more so that the sheer diversity of its regions. We made a couple of trips to France this year, including to the marvellous cathedral town of Reims, but it was the beautiful and historic Burgundy, and its magnificent capital, Dijon, that really captivated us – the wine was just an added benefit.

Painting the town red, yellow and blue for De Stijl

To mark the anniversary of the De Stijl art movement, the best known proponent of which was Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian, The Hague transformed itself into  an open air gallery that saw entire buildings become huge canvases for the familiar red, yellow and blue Mondrian designs. Even the piano in Central Station got a makeover.

Going back in time in Serbia’s Fruska Gora National Park

Serbia has a long and troubled history, no more so than in recent years after the fall of communism, but it is a surprising, fascinating and friendly country that deserves more international tourists. I visited the historic city of Novi Sad, but it was the landscape and cultural history of the nearby Fruska Gora National Park that made the trip special.

Seville, the beating heart of Andalusia

Spain is one of my favourite countries to visit, Andalusia one of my favourite regions and Seville my absolute favourite town (well, maybe tied for first place with Madrid). It’s almost cliche to say Seville is one of the most vibrant cities in Europe, but there’s no denying there is something going on. A vast wealth of history, coupled with a fabulous cultural heritage and some of Spain’s best food. What’s not to love?

The gorgeous medieval town of Cesky Kumlov

I loved my travels in the Czech Republic, but the remarkably well-preserved town of Cesky Kumlov was a real highlight. Nestled between bends of the Vltava River, the town feels like it hasn’t changed much since the 15th century. It also boasts a dramatic castle, and is home to lots of good hotels and restaurants.

Exploring fjords from historic Bergen

Bergen is a gloriously historic town set in the most picturesque landscape imaginable. Venture outside the town and you can quickly find yourself walking on the roof of the world with vast panoramas over the surrounding mountains and fjords. Or, take a train, a bus and a boat, and another two trains, to explore the magical Nærøyfjord and the Flam railway.

Into the Andes, the Argentinian Lake District

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Argentina a few times now, but had never been to the renowned Lake District region. A visit to San Martin de los Andes and Bariloche made up for that oversight, and opened our eyes to this truly magnificent region. A broken big toe prevented much hiking but our tiny hire car took us to extraordinary places all the same.

Laon, medieval capital of France

It’s almost impossible to imagine today, but long before Paris became capital of France and went on to become one of the most famous cities on the planet, Laon, a little know and remarkably tourist-free town near the Belgian border, was the medieval capital of France. It gained this distinction during the reign of the Carolingian dynasty, the most famous member of which was Charlemagne. Power shifted to Paris in 987 AD when Hugues Capet claimed the crown and made it his capital.

Almost impossible to imagine that is, but for one thing: the Cathédrale Notre-Dame. Sitting like a vast crown over the city, the cathedral can be seen from kilometres away, and it gets more impressive the closer you get to it. It’s a building that lends a certain majesty to the city, even though when it was built in the 12th century, the city’s royal status had long gone. It’s a rival for any of the more famous churches we’d seen on our trip.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Laon, France

Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Laon, France

Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Laon, France

Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Laon, France

Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Laon, France

Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Laon, France

Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Laon, France

Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Laon, France

I knew nothing of Laon’s great history before arriving in the town. We stopped here only because a brief description in our guidebook said it was interesting, and it was a convenient spot to break the journey back to the Netherlands. We hadn’t booked a hotel and were lucky to get a room at Hotel Les Chevaliers, a converted 18th century house. The friendly manager gave us the low down on the city and a few suggestions of places to eat, and off we went to explore.

Arriving late in the day, and with ominous storm clouds gathering, we made straight for the cathedral down streets lined with ancient buildings. The cathedral was closed but as the sun set it was fantastically illuminated. We walked around this immense building and down some of the neighbouring streets, before returning to the Place du Parvis de Mortagne in front of the cathedral. We found a restaurant and ordered dinner.

It was a warm evening and we had front row seats of the cathedral’s facade. When the rain came, we moved under the umbrellas unwilling to lose our view of this magnificent building. A rainbow came out and crowned the entire scene. It was a great introduction to this historic place. Laon was occupied in both World Wars, but it and the cathedral survived without any serious damage. One of the reasons why, in 1940, Adolf Hitler visited it.

We went for a walk through the town, which is strung out along the hilltop. There was a bit of action in a couple of youthful bars but, to all intents and purposes, the town was fast asleep at 9.30pm on a Thursday night in summer. The next morning dawned grey and damp, the previous evening’s weather stubbornly refusing to improve. We set off to explore and to see if Laon had woken up from the previous evening’s slumber.

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Maybe it was the weather, maybe the urban neglect that we saw around us, but Laon began to make us a bit depressed. This wasn’t helped by being served the worst pain au chocolate I’ve ever eaten. Cardboard with something brown but not chocolate in the middle. Many historic buildings are not open to the public, and the 7th century Abbaye Saint-Vincent was burned down by teenagers in 2008 and is yet to be fixed. Those that are open seem to keep erratic hours. In desperation we went back to the cathedral.

In the cathedral, jaunty Christian pop music was blasting out as several hundred school children were ushered in. Their teachers were desperately trying to keep them quiet, which was a little like trying to hold water in a sieve. The futility of the situation at least made me smile. We wandered around in the vast interior space, before the music got the better of us. As we left the sun came out briefly, but we’d already decided the best thing to do in Loan on a damp and chilly Friday morning was to leave.

Abbey of St. Martin, Laon, France

Abbey of St. Martin, Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

For all its wealth of history, Laon seems unloved. There are many abandoned, decaying buildings, shops are closed with boarded up windows. No surprise then that the town’s population has been in slow decline from a peak in 1975. The traffic is a curse, beautiful medieval streets are little more than open air car parks. It’s an undignified state, for a once dignified place. All the more surprising because Laon is the capital of the region and has many qualities to recommend it.

The contrast between the city’s heritage and its seemingly parlous present reminded me of a New York Times article I’d read about Albi in southern France, often described as the jewel of the Midi-Pyrenees. The two towns have many similarities, including out of town shopping centres that seem to be draining life from the old town. As we drove towards Belgium we passed through this area. Hundreds of cars outside hypermarkets told their own story.

A stroll along the River Yonne in under-appreciated Auxerre

Arriving in Auxerre in the late afternoon in the middle of a thunderstorm didn’t seem very auspicious. Not for the first time in my life, I felt a little underdressed in shorts and flip flops. Luckily, the torrential rain didn’t last long, and we were soon heading into the lovely medieval town centre on freshly washed city streets. The old town is designed for exploration, with a maze of fascinating narrow winding streets that take you past a procession of half-timbered houses that have been here since medieval times.

Timber-framed medieval houses, Auxerre, France

Timber-framed medieval houses, Auxerre, France

Timber-framed medieval houses, Auxerre, France

Timber-framed medieval houses, Auxerre, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Auxerre, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Auxerre, France

Abbey de Saint-Germain on the Yonne River, Auxerre, France

Abbey de Saint-Germain on the Yonne River, Auxerre, France

I haven’t seen this many timber-framed houses since I was in Troyes, an hour to the north. In population terms, the town is less than half the size of the town where I grew up. Yet it felt much the bigger, more cosmopolitan of the two. It has glorious churches, including the 5th century Abbey de Saint-Germain and the 13th century Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, as well as many other medieval buildings. The 15th century clocktower with a golden sundial and moondial is the most impressive.

After spending a few hours walking the streets it started raining again. We decided to go for dinner. I’d read that Auxerre didn’t have particularly good restaurants, but the Restaurant Poivretsel, tucked away on the Place des Cordeliers, is one of the nicest we visited on this trip. As I sipped a fine Chablis and nibbled some delicious cheese, I made a mental note to thank the receptionist at the hotel who’d recommended it. The next morning we’d explore Auxerre more, but this was a good final night in Burgundy.

Auxerre’s big draw is the ancient Abbey of Saint-Germain d’Auxerre. The extraordinary crypt, home to the tomb of Saint Germain, Bishop of Auxerre until 448 AD, is the main attraction. The Abbey’s history is reflected in the history of the crypt. Bishops from across the centuries are buried close to Saint Germain. Well they would be if his coffin wasn’t empty. Over the centuries, pieces of the former Bishop were dispersed as relics until, finally, there was nothing left.

The Abbey is now a museum and when we arrived early the next day two tourists were asking about a tour of the crypt. They were speaking in English and, when the woman selling tickets told them the tour was only in French, they decided not to bother. We bought tickets and she radioed that we were on our way. No one else was on the tour, so I asked the guide if he could speak slowly to accommodate my terrible French. To which he responded, “Why don’t I do the tour in English?” Such is life.

The crypt is famed for its ancient frescoes. In 1927, crumbling plaster walls covered in 17th century frescoes revealed other frescoes from the 9th century, some 800 years older. History is piled in layer-upon-layer in the crypt, it felt a bit like a scene from The Da Vinci Code. Sadly, photography isn’t allowed, but I can say with certainty that a tour of the crypt is unmissable. Afterwards, we wandered through quiet streets to the River Yonne and walked along the bank taking in views of the town.

In Auxerre, the Yonne is slow moving and busy with pleasure craft. From here you can easily sail to Paris or down to Lyon after linking up with the Canal de Bourgogne. We walked for a while as the sun dodged the clouds, before heading back into town to grab some lunch in one of Auxerre’s pleasant squares. Yet again, a small Burgundian town had managed to upend all our expectations. Auxerre is full of history and culture, and I wish we’d had more time to do it justice.

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Auxerre, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Auxerre, France

Medieval clocktower, Auxerre, France

Medieval clocktower, Auxerre, France

Statue to poet Marie Rouget, Auxerre, France

Statue to poet Marie Rouget, Auxerre, France

Timber-framed medieval houses, Auxerre, France

Timber-framed medieval houses, Auxerre, France

Lost amongst the Grand Cru in Chablis

It was the monks of Pontigny Abbey who realised that the soil and microclimate of the rolling hills that surround the village of Chablis were perfect for growing chardonnay grapes. They planted vines here in the 9th century, from which the current vineyards are descended. What the monks didn’t realise, was that this part of France was once a vast ocean. Proof of this are the millions of fossilised shells beneath the soil, creating ideal growing conditions for some of the most sought after grapes on earth.

The wines fall into four appellations: Petit Chablis, Chablis, Premier Cru and Grand Cru. All are made from 100% chardonnay grapes, and while Petit Chablis and Chablis are good wines, the Premier Cru and Grand Cru are some of the finest to be bottled in France. There are only 100 hectares of Chablis Grand Cru and they are all located just on the edge of the village. Cars whizz along the D965 towards Auxerre only a few metres from the billion dollar business planted next to the road.

Grand Cru trail, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru trail, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

The weather had been a bit hit-and-miss in Chablis, but finally grey cloud gave way to blue sky and it was possible to take a walk through the vineyards. There is a signposted route through the Grands Grus created by the Union de Grands Crus de Chablis. It takes you on small roads and dirt tracks over the hillside across the seven recognised Grands Crus areas: Vaudésir, Grenouilles, Preuses, Blanchots, Les Clos, Valmur and Bougros. Periodically, I’d come across an information board telling me where I was.

Five of these areas came into existence in 1919, two additional areas were selected in 1938. This was the same year a government decree defined the surface area of Chablis Grands Crus at 100 hectares – only 2% of all Chablis vineyards. When you realise this, tasting and even walking through the Grands Crus takes on special meaning. Although, not as special as the sweeping vistas you get over the village and valley below.

As I slogged uphill, occasionally passing a solitary figure tending to their vines, I had no idea of the views that were unfolding behind me. Only when I turned around did the true glory of the area come into focus. In front of me were row upon row of bright green chardonnay vines, the village of Chablis was illuminated in sunlight, and behind the village there seemed to be an endless patchwork of green and gold: vineyards and wheat side by side. It was beautiful.

This area, at the northern most tip of Burgundy, has a highly variable climate. The unpredictable rainfall and sunshine means the quality and quantity of grapes can’t be taken for granted. Severe frosts have led to the loss of entire crops. It’s said, that “the history of Chablis is lined with disastrous vintages”. In years gone by growers used to combat frosts by placing heaters between the vines. Today they are sprayed with water which, counterintuitively, protects the grapes from the worst of the cold.

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Church in vineyards near Chablis, Burgundy, France

Church in vineyards near Chablis, Burgundy, France

Vineyards near Chablis, Burgundy, France

Vineyards near Chablis, Burgundy, France

Burgundy countryside near Chablis, France

Burgundy countryside near Chablis, France

I walked for a couple of hours before making my way back to the village. Soon we were back in the car and heading out into the Burgundian countryside. We set off as the rain began falling, creating an ominous contrast between the forbidding sky and the bright greens and yellows of the landscape. We drove past vineyards which featured in our tasting the previous day, and through picturesque villages, before heading to Auxerre, our final destination in Burgundy.