Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Day In Utrecht

Away from the coastal marshlands of Holland that would take centuries to reclaim much later, Romans founded a fortress. They named it Traiectum (ford) as this is where the Rhine, which used to flow much more northerly in the olden days, was forded. As Romans also decided that this was as far to the north as their empire was going to expand, they put Ultra (the farthest) in front of the name. Many centuries after their empire collapsed, the two words would come to be shortened to simply Utrecht.

There is a big 400-year- long blank in the city's history between the time when the Romans left and its sudden shot to prominence as the centre of Christianity of the Low Lands. Those were the Dark Ages of Europe: while the Japanese were busy blending perfumes and competing in love poetry, in the Western extreme of Eurasia assorted tribes were dragging a beastly existence on the ashes of the Roman Empire. Nothing is known of Utrecht of those days until it erupts with a succession of churches, archbishops and cathedrals starting in the 8th century.

A full-blown city thanks to vibrant trade, Utrecht long remains independent under the rule of its powerful bishops. Their authority however was constantly challenged by the wealthy citizens. When the city was incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire, emperor Charles V had a hard time asserting himself. The castle he built trying to exert his power over of his new unruly subjects was quickly demolished in a revolt. Thus were born traditions of civil liberties that are considered to be the root of European individualism and civil rights.

It is no coincidence that the treaty that put foundation to the later Dutch Republic was signed in Utrecht, the famous Utrecht Union. Nowadays, Utrecht is the central seat of the Old Catholic Church, right in the middle of a staunchly Protestant area. In true adherence to the Utrechter spirit, Old Catholics broke away from Rome outraged by the declaration of the Pope's infallibility.

Unlike canals in other Dutch cities that are actually the remnants of the lakes and marshes left amongst reclaimed land, canals in Utrecht, which always stood on the firm ground, are what is left of the river port: artificial arms of the Rhine. They even look significantly different: former warehouses are on the lower level, they are connected by stairs to the upper, street level where the houses are situated.

The city centre is full of historical buildings. A few modern brutalist monstrosities cannot overshadow the delightful constellation of medieval and Art Deco edifices, of which the Dom Tower is the main star attraction. It stands right on top of the 2000-year-old Roman fort Ultra Traiectum to which Utrecht traces its origins. Coincidentally, this where all distance in the Netherlands are measured from.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Lille - Boulogne-sur-Mer - Brouwershaven

In these days of oil hysteria driving to France just for groceries would be deemed crass. Even before they started making us feeling guilty about burning fossil fuels we always combined business and pleasure: stocking up on essential foodstuffs and sightseeing.

This time our objective was threefold: shopping in Lille, visiting my school teachers in Zeeland and last but not least a day in Boulogne.

Here is a short photo album of our trip:

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Normandy - Brittany - Jersey: La Connection Anglo-Française

Pro's: "Culture, nature and great food."
Con's: "The more you come, the more you understand you've hardly yet seen anything."
In a nutshell: "The inexhaustible treasure trove of delights for culture vultures and gourmets."

England and France - two major world cultures so common yet so different that love and hate each other so much. The English may envy the hedonistic Gallic lifestyle and excellent healthcare system, the French - the successful Anglo-Saxon world expansionism and infinitely superior rock-n-roll music, but in reality the two nations share more than a centuries-long spirit of rivalry. In April-May 2008 we travelled 2,670 km to see where the twain meet, mix and, on occasion, mate: Normandy, Brittany and Jersey, exploring the best sites in the culturally rich area of Anglo-French contact.

Besides such lofty pursuits like visiting Claude Monet's garden in Giverny, Richard the Lionheart's castle in Les Andelys or Victor Hugo's place of exile on Jersey, we went to admire the natural wonders of Étretat and Côte Emeraude. Brought up on French literature, I derived a gigantic kick from following the footsteps of Flaubert, Maupassant and Verne. We also found a great delight in immersing ourselves in the lowly pleasures of gluttony, for besides numerous historical vestiges the region is justly famous for its abundance of prime quality seafood.

After so many trips to the Northwest of France last few years, I still have a sense of unfinished business. On the way back home, I, in my navigator's seat, am always busy drafting plans for another visit to cover what we had to skip this time. Floyd says it is a form of greed, which is a deadly sin. Mea culpa, but this year I walked to the Mont St. Michel so I'm sure it's been forgiven.

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Highlights of the trip:

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Amsterdam - Lille - Mer-les-Bains - Dieppe - Miromesnil - Roeun - Le Mesnil-Esnard - Giverny - Les Andelys - Fécamp - Étretat - Pont de Normandie - Honfleur - Saint-Quentin-sur-le-Homme - Mont St. Michel - Roz-sur-Couesnon - St. Marcan - St. Broladre - Cherrueix - Mont-Dol - Le Vivier-sur-Mer - Saint-Benoît-des-Ondes - Cancale - Pointe-du-Grouin - St. Malo - Barrage de la Rance - Dinard - St. Lunaire - St. Helier - Grouveille - Gorey - Five Oaks - Amsterdam

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Lille - The Nearest Bit Of France

If you beat the traffic around Utrecht and Antwerp it takes only 2 and half hours from Amsterdam to the nearest French city in the northernmost corner of the Hexagon. Lille is not big on tourist maps and some people even wrinkle their noses when you mention it but it is beautiful enough to me. The historic centre, the Vieux Lille, is charming, there is a citadel, a maze of cobbled streets with café terraces, grand squares and attractive Flemish Gothic buildings. I also like that in every neighbourhood there is at least one Auchan hypermarket where I can stock up on good quality French groceries in one stop (say, Carrefour, let alone Leclerc, just doesn't cut it).

The city's other name is Rijssel (pronounced 'rice-cell'), which is Flemish: Lille became permanently annexed to France only in the times of Louis XIV. Historically it is part of the Flemish Low Lands and it is obvious from the Belgian-looking architecture and simple hearty food with un-Gallic names like waterzooi, potjevleesch and speculoos. Northerly vegetables like leek, potatoes and chicory as well as fresh sea produce from the coast are featured prominently in the local diet. The drink of choice here is beer, most often the iconic Ch'ti - the Lille area is even referred to as the Ch'ti Land. It makes way even in soup called soupe flamande. Lille forms part of the Moules Frites Belt that extends as far in the north as Dutch Zeeland - steamed mussels with French fries (served with mayonnaise, never ketchup!) here is the answer to American burger-based fast food. Finish those off with typical sweet aromatic wafers and you won't know you're not in Belgium any more.

Paradoxically, just over the Flemish border you will be very hard pressed to find anyone who can understand Dutch. As everywhere else in France, dialects and local languages have been pro-actively uprooted since the 1789 Revolution: there is now just about 80 thousand Flemish speakers left in the area and, as it goes, they are mostly countryside-dwelling grandpas and grannies.

Lille deserves a full report but this time we only spent their a night, so here is a glimpse of night-time Lille.

Tip: Don't order seafood platters in restaurants, don't even buy ready-made one in supermarkets: go to the poissonnier section in Auchan and pick a lobster, a crab, a box of oysters, then shrimp, bulots and amandes half a kilo each, perhaps crevettes grises and bigourneaux if you like those (I do!); then get some lemons, baguettes, mayonnaise and a couple bottles of Muscadet or cidre brut and you have a slap-up seafood dîner for two. Drive on to a scenic location for an additional aesthetic kick.

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Mers-les-Bains - A Bourgeois Seaside Resort Par Excellence

Little touted outside France, the Ivory and Spice Route takes you around the best attractions of Haute- Normandie – Norman castles, attractive seaside resorts, and numerous chateaux built with money mostly procured from trade in spice, ivory and slaves.

The route starts in Mer-les-Bains where the flat expands of the Low Countries finally give way to the photogenic chalky cliffs of the Côte d'Albâtre, the Alabaster Coast. Mer-les-Bains, a resort town built up with colourful turn-of-the century villas, forms one commune with the cliff-side Le Treport (great seafood restaurants) and the inland Eu (a royal château). Victor Hugo, Jules Verne and Gustav Eiffel used to come here on holidays and just like in their time the area teems with Parisians flocking to the closest beaches from home they can find.

These days there is sold more seafood than caught and the ports that used to be the launchpads for great expeditions to faraway shores have changed their trade to restaurant business. Mers-les-Bains has never been one of those. It shot to prominence in the 1860s when bourgeoisie discovered that railway travel made a weekend getaway to the sea possible and affordable to middle-class families. The benefits of inhaling iodised air became whole-heartedly adopted in the trail of trend-setting Empress Eugenie. In recognition of that, the town's coats of arms is emblazoned with the motto "In littore floreo" - On the shore, I flourish.

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Dieppe - Maps, Ivory And Scallops

Famous for its scallops and the tragically botched Dieppe Operation during WWII, these days Dieppe is a pretty seaside town with the nearest beach to Paris and a photogenic marina typical for Normandy.

Its name derives from the Norse word djepp, deap, for its haven was such allowing it to become an important sea port: the expedition to found the Nouvelle France, French Canada set out from here. Owing to a rich maritime tradition and good connections with Portuguese explorers, Dieppe was home to Europe’s most famous cartographical school of the 16th century, renowned for its ornate, luxury-edition maps that mysteriously featured Australia before its “official” discovery in 1776 by Captain Cook.

Château de Dieppe sitting on the hill that overlooks the city houses a collection of ivory artefacts, a reminder of the city’s once prosperous trade with Africa. At one time there was even a French colony of Petit-Dieppe on the coast of the Gambia that supplied its big sister in Europe with elephant tusks.

Apart from the scallops, Dieppe’s trademark delicacy is the marmite dieppoise: fish and seafood stewed in cream, cider and onions, lightly flavoured with spices. Mussels and shrimp need to be featured prominently to classify for the appellation.

A few kilometres inland from Dieppe is the Château de Miromesnil – the likeliest birthplace of Guy de Maupassant, the scandalous author, whose books, in my childhood, were the equivalent of the modern-time Internet porn – something that parents wanted to keep as far away as possible from their children. They normally occupied the upper book shelves so that we could only reach them after a certain age. A vain precaution as we were smart enough to use chairs for that purpose.

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Fécamp - Liqueur, Seafood & Norman Vestiges

Home to the Norman dukes’ castle from whence Wilhelm the Conqueror launched his invasion of Britain, Fécamp is now mostly famous for Bénédictine – a sweet concoction of 27 herbs, sugar and alcohol created in late 19th century on the wave of a developing consumerist culture and interest towards all things “traditional and historical”, its name evoking images of medieval monks brewing healing potions. However, just like the pseudo-Renaissance folly of the Palais Benedictine where it is produced, it is a purely commercial creation, a nifty marriage of nostalgia for good old times and mass production technology.

To thank the monks of Fécamp who sided with him during his conquest of England, Wilhelm and his wife Matilda commissioned the construction of a colossal cathedral, making the previously insignificant town a bishopric and rank-of-the-file monks senior clerics. An imposing and lofty example of Norman Gothic, its princely nave majestically towering over the town still impresses eight centuries after its construction. The cathedral stands right behind Fécamp’s town hall, asserting a modern civil authority with an ages-old symbol of power.

Next to Fécamp’s marina is a line of fine seafood restaurants, highly popular with both locals and visitors. That’s probably all that is left from the town’s long and illustrious past as a major fishing port. If you are budget-conscious but still want to savour classic local fish dishes without compromising the quality of your experience, go for set menus - les formulas – to enjoy maquereaux à la fécampoise – mackerel baked in cider with a mussel sauce and moules à la fecampoise – mussels boiled in fresh cream with dried parsley and scallions.

Huge seafood platters – assiettes des fruits de mer – may set you back a little but make for an unforgettable hours-long enjoyment of lobster, crab, prawn, oysters, various shrimp and shellfish picturesquely arranged on bed of crushed ice and edible seaweed. Dry, flinty Muscadet from Nantes is considered the best to complement the delicate flavours of fresh sea produce, oysters in particular.

A local route – D940 – follows the original Roman road and takes you to the next jewel of Haute-Normandie.

The Limestone Arches Of Étretat

The busy seaside village of Étretat draws huge crowds thanks to the Falaises d’Étretat –gigantic limestone arches protruding into the sea. In the classic Normandy way, the top of them is lush green and flat and as always the contrast is quite dramatic.

The 70-metre-tall natural wonders won admiration of such grands as Gustave Flaubert and two Spanish Queens, Marie- Christine and Isabella II, who set a summer residence here. The arches resembling elephants dipping their trunks in the sea became featured on paintings by Eugène Boudin, Gustave Courbet and ubiquitous Claude Monet.

Guy de Maupassant spent his childhood in the area: it was here that, in an infamous incident, he ate a roast monkey with Algernon Charles Swinburne, a decadent Victorian poet famous for his depiction of sadomasochism, Sapphic love and bestiality.

A good example of the aristocratic excesses that provoked the French Revolution, the Oyster Park – a series of stone basins – was built here for Marie- Antoinette of the “let them eat cake” fame. Two sloops were in charge of carrying oysters from Cancale in Brittany for a several months of affinage: soaking alternatively in salty sea water and fresh water from the underground springs to acquire a particularly delicate taste. Then they were carted away to Versailles. Right was Talleyrand saying that "those who have not known the Ancien régime will never know how sweet life can be".

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Rouen - The Duck, The Pots & The Cathedral

The city of Madame Bovary and Monet’s Cathédrale series, Rouen has an appealing historical centre painstakingly restored from the heavy destruction of WWII. The very scale of restoration only dawns on you when you see the pictures of post-bombardment Rouen. Still, here and there in the city are left devastated pieces of what used to be magnificent buildings, preserved so as mementos of how senseless and barbarous wars are.

A reminder that Rouen once was the capital of the Norman Duchy is the imposing Gothic Palais de Justice which used to housed Normandy's parliament. Scores of half-timbered houses are turned nowadays into restaurants and smart shops, some of which deal in
Rouen faïence – colourful glazed crockery.

On Place du Vieaux Macrhé, the symbolic centre of the city, one can find La Couronne, France's oldest inn established in 1345. Considered the star-studded guest list, it is quite reasonably priced and promises the best of Norman culinary delights in a historic setting. On the same square French national heroine Jeanne d'Arc was burnt at stake accused of witchcraft at the age of 18. A Post-Modern monstrosity of a monument was erected here during Valéry Giscard D'Estaing's reign to commemorate or rather commiserate the fact.

The city’s gastronomic claim for fame is by virtue of the savage recipe of canard rouennais – Duclair ducks are strangled, roasted, jointed, the carcass is crushed in a special press and the juices are mixed into a blood-based sauce. I strongly suspect that this recipe was invented specifically to give vegans severe nervous breakdowns.

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Richard the Lionheart's Château Gaillard

Set on the most picturesque curve of the Seine one can find, the ruins of Château Gaillard are a crumbling monument to the aesthetic sense and unbridled ambitions of England’s allegedly homosexual king, Richard the Lionheart.

Richard was a notable example of early European integration: a French-speaking Norwegian king of England who married a Spanish princess in Cyprus on the way to a military adventure in the Middle East. He is suspected to be on more chummy terms with the princess’s brother though and, like some expats today, he preferred to live in France whilst running business in England, stating the horrible weather and food in his dominion as reasons of his choice.

A valiant knight and an insatiable adventurer, he commissioned the castle to assert his right for his continental possessions before the French King Philippe August. It took just one year and an extravagant expense to erect the fortifications. Upon seeing the finished castle, Richard is known to have exclaimed: “Quel gaillard tu es!” – “Aren’t you jolly pretty!” thus giving it its name.

Next year he was killed by a lance in the siege of a fortress and four years later Château Gaillard was successfully sacked by French forces. Just over one century later, Marguerite of Burgundy, Louis X’s adulterous wife, was first incarcerated here and then strangled to death with her own hair.

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