Endings and Beginnings

 

As 2018 slips into 2019, I thought it fitting to explore the theme of change. My destination today is Rotterdam, originally just a muddy, Rhine village settlement at the turn of the first millennium. Now it is the second largest city within The Netherlands.

We were fortunate to be able to explore this ancient city which remade itself after a catastrophic bombing in WW2 virtually destroyed its medieval heart. When Nazi Germany invaded Holland, a threat was made to bomb its cities if the country did not accede to the enemy’s demands. Reluctantly, the government acceded… but the bombers were already airborne when the Dutch army capitulated.  Thousands died in the inferno that followed.

I thought to find this city, known for its port and important commercial harbour, battered – a sad place, harsh on the eye, lacking colour and design.

Instead I found a city which has remade itself with some breathtaking architecture. The glorious city of Amsterdam is only a train ride away. After just a twenty minute stroll from Rotterdam train station, you will find the amazing Markt Hall and beyond it, the bright yellow cube houses designed by architect Piet Bloom.

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IMG_0734 (2)The Markt Hall is unusual … an aircraft hangar shape. Into its curved internal and external walls nestle a multitude of windowed residential apartments. Within the Hall’s centre, a busy indoor market flourishes with over one hundred food stalls, cafes and restaurants on several levels. Most astounding of all are the massive artworks – The Horn of Plenty – massive, brightly coloured flowers and insects – sprawling across its interior ceiling. Some describe it as The Netherlands’ answer to the Sistine Chapel. I loved it!

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IMG_0740 (2)Beyond a nearby park, your eye will seek out the contortionist Cube houses – one of which is open to the public. Just behind, you’ll find a picturesque portion of the historic old harbour offering safe mooring to ancient-looking boats and waterside restaurants.

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Not far from Rotterdam’s centre, only a short train ride away in fact, you’ll find a cluster of windmills, that are also worth visiting, mainly because they are off the tourist trail. One has been transformed into a restaurant.  Time restrictions prevented us from eating there, though we partook of the Dutch Gin (a very different beverage to modern gin) on offer at the bar. Though the sails are now quiet, the shadowy interior with its aromatic wooden walls adorned with old photos and paraphernalia must have borne witness to many dramas. These surviving sentinels offer an appealing peak into The Netherlands’ history as a maritime trading nation, its ingenuity and ability to overcome challenges.

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We left Rotterdam, hopeful of a return visit sometime in the future… a tribute to this resilient city which has faced down a painful past to make something new and wonderful and unexpected. Such is the transformative power of change…

 

 

A Medieval Journey

Fancy a drive? Not far from Conwy in northern Wales, the road curves along a lush river valley. Soon, you come to a village nestling beside steeply wooded hills.

Trefiw holds a slice of magic for me with its lovely stone mill still in operation beside a raging stream, complete with a cafe. But my fancy is taken by a tiny church. Inside St Mary’s, you’ll be taken aback to find a life-size knight kneeling at the altar. Just who is he and why is he here?

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Storyboards explain the mystery…

Centuries past, Prince Llewellyn the Great, a medieval warrior and knight – the Lord of Snowdon, rode along the same path with his family and entourage to visit his hunting lodge. His wife found the existing church, high up in the forest, too difficult to access so the prince built another one on the valley floor.

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You can almost hear the exhausted pleading in her voice and the Prince’s deliberations and efforts trying to please this, his much younger wife who was relatively new to her demanding royal duties.

I think this place is special for there are not many sites in Wales where you can walk in the footsteps of the Prince. His adversaries succeeded in their attempts to obliterate his memory, knocking down palaces, slighting castles and destroying the priories which he set up.  Why is greatness attributed to him and why was he such a threat to his English neighbours?

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Known for his military victories  – a master of diplomacy and strategy, he also made many changes to aspects of Welsh life.  Not all his initiatives were welcome, especially around the medieval rules of hereditary accession, but literature flourished under his rule and he was a generous religious patron. Trying to modernize his country, he implemented aspects of the Magna Carta, changed laws, settled internal disputes and built castles to counter the aggression of the Marcher lords over the border. All this is in a country of farmsteads rather than towns; no roads to speak of, only bridal pathways within a wild mountainous landscape blessed with an unforgiving climate.

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St Marys has been rebuilt a number of time but its footprint remains unchanged. Walking into this slice of welsh history, there is a palpable feeling of times past… a whispered love story between Llewellyn and Joan (the illegitimate daughter of King John) whose tragic tale is well documented in Sharon Penman’s Welsh trilogy.

We stayed nearby. The warm and welcoming Groes Inn offers a cosy muddle of bars and beams. After a scrumptious meal and a tasty wine or two, it’s a comfortable place to reflect on your journey.

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A Bit of Welsh Magic!

Take a step back in time to the kingdom of Wales and one of my favourite castles.  Dolwyddelan is reputed to be the birthplace of Prince Llwellyn the Great but it also held great strategic importance, guarding a  mountain pass through the Vale of Conwy. So much happened here during the Welsh struggle against an aggressive neighbour. It didn’t end well…

Eventually it was captured by King Edward, and garrisoned by an English army. Lewellyn ap Gruffydd, grandson of the prince, was murdered in the mountains nearby,  bringing the Welsh dream for independence to an end. But the magic still remains as the wind whistles around the ruins of a magnificent castle.094

 

 

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A Welsh Treat

Fancy a slice of yeasty, buttery goodness, enriched with tea-soaked dried fruit, spices and warmed marmalade? Just out of the little market town of Llanwryst on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park, you’ll find a gem of a tea house, nestled beside an old stone bridge on the edge of the River Conwy. Once a residence – later a courthouse and now managed by National Trust, it is a perfect place to relax and indulge in a home-made Welsh treat – Bara Brith or “speckled bread”. My idea of heaven!

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123Include an ancient chapel, a short wander way, and you have the perfect day! For inside the musty confines of St Gwrst, there lies a stone sarcophagus, thought to be the coffin of Llewelyn the Great –  perhaps just a little hard to believe given the treatment dished out by the English to the abbey where he was buried further north – but who knows? Add some intriguing carvings, and I’m a happy traveller, wandering the misty by ways of history….

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This area of Wales on the edge of the Snowdonia National park is breath-takingly beautiful, and it is no wonder its native people fought so hard to keep its heritage, ancient culture and language intact. But the Welsh princes were weakened by internal division – royal sons fighting amongst themselves for a share of lands and patrimony – and the external might of the Plantagenet kings, succumbing eventually to King Edward 1st whose stone castles stand testament today to those brutal times.

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Llanwryst, too, is a pleasing place to wander about, owing its quiet, steady, well-to-do air to a trade in wool, clocks and harps…

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Back over the bridge and the briskly flowing Conwy, the tea house is a quiet spot – just the place to reflect on Wales’ shadowy, violent past whilst enjoying a slice of its peaceful rural heritage.

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A Castle Too Many

The northern borderlands of England and Scotland proved a bloody ground for its inhabitants. Once a part of early Scotland, a village at Warkworth grew up around a motte and bailey timber castle after the Norman invasion.  By the 12th century,  its keep and walls were built of stone and the fortress stood watch over a strategic loop of the River Coquet.  The powerful Percy earls, enemies of The Bruce, received the gift of the castle and surrounding lands and  played host to King Edward 1 in 1292. With the Scottish Wars of Independence in full swing in the early 1300’s, vain attempts to force a political settlement saw the lands of Northumberland and Yorkshire set ablaze.  By virtue of its location, Warkworth experienced the horror of being placed under siege, twice, by the forces of Robert the Bruce. And with the arrival of Sir Jamie Douglas and his raiding war parties, the villagers must have run for their lives from those hard-bitten warriors on their sturdy ponies.

But when the Scottish and English crowns were joined, there was less demand for such strategic strongholds in the north, and the great fortesses of Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh, and Alnwick knew a measure of peace from the Scots. Still the land was not at rest whilst alliances grew and tumbled with the Wars of The Roses.

It is hard to imagine the ordinariness of family life in a castle but Warkworth Castle’s smaller size apparently made it more suitable for a domestic residence leading the Percy earls to prefer it as a family home rather than the stiff grandeur of Alnwick Castle. In more recent times, the earls of Northumbria gained possession. Now the castle is in the care of English Heritage and its picturesqe ruined structures hold only memories.

So if you are travelling through the awesome countryside of Yorkshire and Nothumberland, stop off at Warkworth’s pretty village just a short distance from the coast. Enjoy its beauty and peace but spare a thought for the families, now long-gone, who must have endured immense hardship trying to survive the political and social upheavals of the times.

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Beaumaris Castle

Fancy a visit to a tiny Welsh town on the Island of Anglesey? Back in the late 13th century, King Edward I, that all-powerful English king, chanced to build a castle there, his last as it happens in his efforts to subjugate the Welsh. Fortunately he was strapped for cash, probably due to those pesky Scots in the north and his endless warring with the French.

Sited on the Menai Straits, Edward knew any troops besieged at Beaumaris could be sustained with supplies from his ships. The castle was constructed to refute any land-based attack as well with its moat and state of the art concentric castle-within-a-castle technology. Edward’s legacy of massive stone castles in Wales is a stark reminder of the man’s energy and determination… dark days indeed.

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201For the modern traveller, especially for the history lover, there is much to see in the area and the town which has grown up around the castle. It’s some time since I was there last but my memory is of a clean, quiet village. Having not long read Sharon Penman’s fantastic series on the medieval Welsh princes, I was keen to retrace elements of that period and had been looking for the Priory of Llanfreas where Prince Llewelyn had imprisoned his wife, after her affair with the ill-fated William de Braose, a Norman Marcher lord. He was hanged for his treasonable act; Joan and her prince eventually reconciled until her death a few years later. Given such a layered, complex relationship – of love, a very public betrayal and retribution, and reconciliation – Llwellyn was inconsolable. Joan’s sarcophagus was reputed to lie in one of the churches though her remains had disappeared and the stone vessel used as a horse watering trough. Today, as so often happens, doubt has been cast upon this legend. The priory which existed to the north of the town was destroyed in the dissolution of the monasteries and Joan’s remains with it. Where she lies remains a mystery.

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Undeterred, the town of Beaumaris and its castle proved a fine consolation….just a short walk from the castle, I was happy to wander the ancient streets admiring a fine range of quirky buildings, even stopping for a dram along the way.

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194212The foreshore was a dog walker’s paradise and a picturesque spot to absorb the beauty of the mountains across the waters of the Straits. Not for the first time I wondered at Joan’s imprisonment within sight of,  but so far from, her home.

Of course, King Edward’s plans for his castle had not even been thought of then and the town of Beaumaris didn’t exist.

Poor Wales – all that darkness and destruction came much, much later.

 

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With all there was to see, I missed the puffins… maybe next time! Perhaps I’ll see you then?

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Saint Malo

IMG_0107One of my favourite reads, ‘All the Light You Cannot See’, is set in the ancient French port city of Saint Malo. The Author, Anthony Doer, charts the impact of the war on a six-year-old blind girl, Marie-Laure, and Werther, a young German lad. The story so poignantly drawn, made me want to walk the streets of St Malo which were destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944 and took decades to reconstruct.

So, one morning earlier this year, I left our hotel to wander the streets of this stunning town. You could almost sense residents stretching, yawning, awaiting their café au lait and croissants. Beams of sunlight slid down the tall elegant buildings, chasing away the shadows of the narrow-cobbled streets. Shutters clanged. Dogs sniffed at tell-tale signs of activity from the previous night.

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From the walls of the Citadel – solid, stalwart battlements of granite, I watched the tide depart, exposing sandy stretches of beach, connecting this spit of land to nearby islands. The cathedral dedicated to St Vincent remained closed as did the many cafes and restaurants that feed the many French and English visitors, who come to enjoy this delightful city.

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Over in the port, ferries deposit folk from the nearby Channel Islands of Guernsey and Jersey. These islands share, in part, Saint Malo’s history – links with early Roman invaders from the first century, and the Celts who slipped across the Channel to escape the early Saxon and Viking incursions.

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Saint Malo became home to bands of corsairs, who sheltered their vessels in the nearby riverine estuaries. During the medieval and late medieval periods, French kings endorsed piracy and raiding, particularly against the English whose ships were made to pay tolls for using the waters of the Channel.

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From its port, explorers set sail. One of its famous sons, Jacques Cartier, sailed the St Lawrence river and charted new territories, naming Canada as a French province. Around 1590, Saint Malo even declared its independence from France and Brittany, and saw its fair share of internal strife before control was resumed under the French royal flag.

IMG_0111The city is full of surprises: one of the interesting buildings I came across was the International House of Poets and Writers in Rue de Pelicot. Established in 1990, under the auspices of UNESCO, writers of all nationalities, known and unknown, are welcome to attend the organization’s literary programmes to support creative endeavours.

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One writer, whom I could imagine attending, might have been Jules Verne whose grand tale ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea’ comes to life in Anthony Doer’s novel. It plays a thematic role allowing the children to escape for a brief time from the horrors of war. Though Verne was a Breton native from Nantes, the city of Saint Malo seems to have welcomed him as a second son. Indeed, his exploits may have resonated with the resilient and adventurous Malouins.

IMG_0085With this in mind, we were pleased to be able to stay at The Hotel Nautilus – one of the few buildings which escaped the bombing in WWII: the Allies believed the city to be filled with enemy soldiers when in fact, only a few hundred remained to man the Anti-Aircraft facilities. Today there are no signs of the devastation and the exquisite reconstruction is a testament to the proud people of St Malo, both past and present.

Of course it is not all about the past and galleries display a quirky sense of fun with their art works, adding another layer to this fascinating city with its unique history. Sadly, my visit to Saint Malo was all too brief but I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and look forward to going back one day.

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