Postcard from Brussels

Aside from watching Le Grand Depart of the Tour de France 2019, my beloved and I re-aquainted ourselves with the architectural splendours of Brussels, and some of its fine dining establishments. Our hotel was centrally located, next to the Town Hall and behind Le Grand Place, perfect for pottering around the city’s largely pedestrianised cobbled lanes. Knowing the traffic would be hellish due to Tour road closures, we took the train from the airport to the main station and walked the half a kilometre or so to our hotel which was an oasis of air-conditioned calm – sheer bliss.

Not to be left out, the hotel had embraced the spirit of the Tour with a couple of Merckx bikes, one in the restaurant and one in the bar which also had a signed photo of Eddy on its walls. This was aside from all its references to The Adventures of Tintin, a series of 24 comic albums created by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, who wrote under the pen name Hergé. My beloved and I fondly remember the tales of Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock, the Thompson Twins (called the Dupont Twins in French). 

Aside from it being 50 years since Merckx won his first of five Tours, 100 years since the introduction of the yellow race leader’s jersey, it was also the 90th anniversary of Tintin’s debut, 50 years since the moon landing and 10 years since the opening of the Hergé Museum. That’s one hell of a lot of celebratory cakes or, as we’re in Brussels, celebratory chocolate! Fortunately it was too hot all weekend to be tempted by any of the wonderful chocolate shops, not even those of Pierre Marcolini.

Having arrived later than anticipated we unpacked and headed out to find a place for dinner. We didn’t have to stray too far before we found one that fitted the bill: traditional Belgian fare, long-established family business and the obligatory white linen tablecloths. We were not disappointed. My beloved indulged in mussels and chips (with mayo) – well we were in Brussels – and they were delicious! I may have had one or two…….just to substantiate his claims.

It was evident from the languages being spoken that many cycling enthusiasts the world over were in Belgium for the start of the Tour de France. It was going to be a full house for its first couple of stages. Sated we wandered back to our hotel and a good night’s sleep.

After breakfast, we headed out to the Brussels Expo on the train to collect my press accreditation. Brussels Expo comprises 12 exhibition halls on the Heysel plateau. The five emblematic Art Deco style halls (5, 4, 6, 2 and 10) built around the lake (facing the Atomium) are a legacy of the 1935 World Fair and are truly imposing structures. We hot footed back to our hotel just in time to see the peloton roll past on their way out of town.

We lunched in the hotel bar and were royally entertained by a series of wedding parties exiting the nearby town hall. Tempting though it was to watch the finish live, we had already viewed the packed crowds at the finish this morning before the stage had even started, we opted to experience it in air-conditioned comfort on the large screen.

The hotel had a highly-rated restaurant where we ate dinner after expending a few calories in the gym. Dinner did not disappoint and we went for a slowish amble round town to enjoy its many splendours. Le Grand Place was smaller than I remembered and more gilded – more finery perhaps in honour of Le Grand Depart. However, I had not forgotten how painful it was to walk on those cobbles and had packed uber-comfortable shoes! We even popped into the hotel where we’d last stayed – still splendid – for a nightcap.

The following morning we met up with some cycling friends and walked to the stage start in the Place des Palais, enjoying hospitality in the Village du Depart where we lunched courtesy of 21st Century. We greeted a few more friends in the Bus Paddock, watched the first couple of teams roll off of the starting ramp before continuing our ramble round Brussels, this time taking in the area around Le Petit and Le Grand Sablon. As the crowds began to disperse it was much easier to take photographs of the buildings and their splendid architectural details. Brussels is, of course, home to a number of fine museums but we preferred to continue wandering around in the sunshine.

Again, we watched the conclusion of the stage in our room and visited the gym before heading out to find another restaurant for dinner. We’d spotted a couple of likely candidates on our many walks but these were both closed on Sunday evening. However, one nearby looked promising, and it was. After a delicious dinner, we continued our perambulations before returning to the tranquility of our hotel and another good night’s sleep.

Monday morning allowed us to continue our investigations on foot. The crowds had greatly decreased as the tour circus had left town, sadly most of the museums are closed on a Monday, providing us with an excuse to return. After lunch in the hotel bar, my beloved left by train for London while I flew back to Nice where a security alert had prompted a comprehensive passport check which involved a 45 minute wait in an area where the air-conditioning had caved. Emerging hot and bothered, it was good to see the friendly face of our driver Christophe. Home sweat, sweltering, home but at least my beloved’s presence wasn’t raising the temperature a couple of degrees more.

 

 

Postcard from Brussels: Le Grand Depart

Last week-end we were ostensibly in Brussels for Le Grand Depart of the Tour de France. However, I did have a hidden agenda. Brussels is another town that I haven’t visited in over 20 years! On our one and only visit all those years ago I was totally charmed by all the Art Nouveau wrought ironwork which I later discovered was largely the work of architect Victor Horta – more of which much later. This time I’m back for a closer look, but first, Le Grand Depart!

We generally arrive in time to attend the team presentation and most of the team press conferences, but not this year as my beloved had only just managed to shoe horn this trip in-between business trips to Italy and London. Also, because of our forthcoming trip to Australia, we won’t be dropping in on any further Tour stages. Mind you, we’ll probably make up for it next year when Le Grand Depart is in Nice.

I’d timed my arrival on Friday afternoon to coincide with the BORA-hansgrohe team press conference where I’d hoped to snatch 10-15 minutes with Peter Sagan’s wingman, Daniel Oss. Sadly, our Sleazyjet flight was delayed and I arrived way too late to nab anyone. You might wonder why I didn’t target potential 7-times green jersey wearer, Sagan. I’ve already interviewed him and he paid me an immense compliment by saying that I posed him questions no one else had ever asked!

For those of you who aren’t cycling fans. The Tour de France is big, really big. It’s the biggest annual sporting event in the world. That’s the first thing that hits you. There are 4,500 people working on it, and only 176 of those are riding. There is no other annual event, not even other bike races, that comes close to this scale. Yes, there are two other Grand Tours, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana, yet they are family affairs in comparison rather than this State-like occasion.

Everytime I visit the Tour, I’m always impressed with the level of its organisation, it’s superb. I’m beginning to suspect that ASO’s secret is a very low level of staff turnover. Even the volunteers return year after year. Though, much as I enjoy the Tour, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to spend my summer holidays working at it every year.

I’ve been fortunate to attend a number of Grand Departs. My first was in London in 2007, followed by Monaco in 2009 where, working as a volunteer, I scored a great gig. I looked after HRH Prince Albert’s VIP guests. Next up was 2014 in Yorkshire where the crowds had to be seen to be believed. In 2015, we sweltered in the heat in Utrecht. 2016 saw us dodging rain in Normandy, and again the following year in Duesseldorf, Germany. Last year the weather was glorious in Brittany, and again this year in Brussels. Next year, Nice will most likely be my Tour swan song.

The staging of this Grand Depart paid tribute to the maiden Tour victory, 50 years ago in July 1969, of the Belgian legend Eddy Merckx who was omnipresent in the first few stages, particularly the first stage which passed through WoluweSaint-Pierre, where the five-times Tour winner grew up.

On Saturday, the peloton rode round the city’s narrow cobbled streets before heading out through Molenbeek and then Anderlecht, in the direction of the Mur de Grammont (which was also part of Eddy Merckx’s first Tour route). Riders then raced towards Charleroi, crossing a section of cobbles before heading back towards Brussels. They rode past the base of the Lion’s Mound, the battlefield where the defeat of Napoleon’s troops was set in motion. The last stretch of the route paid hommage again to Merckx as riders traversed the streets where Eddy first learned to ride a bike… as well as where he earned his first maillot jaune. Coincidentally, it’s also the 100th birthday of the yellow race leader’s jersey.

We watched the race start which filed past our hotel after we’d been to the Brussels Expo on the train to collect my press accreditation.

profil-general-etape-01

Sunday we met with some of our many friends from the world of cycling and scored a VIP pass for my beloved so that he could join us in the Village du Depart – much upgraded and enlarged this year – and the Bus Paddock. This enabled us to briefly catch up with some of the riders and team staff we’ve gotten to know over the years.

The organiser typically likes to see the leader’s yellow jersey changing hands during the early stages. And, after the first stage was won by the poisson-pilote (lead out man) of one of the more fancied sprinters, someone who didn’t feature on anyone’s radar, it was (wrongly) assumed that the team time-trial would produce a new race leader. But, the previous day’s winner was in one of the more highly ranked time-trial teams who’d recently recruited a four-time world time-trial champion. Not for nothing is German Tony Martin nicknamed the Panzerwagen. This marginal gain helped Jumbo-Visma to pip all the other teams to the post.

The wide streets of Brussels had provided the ideal route for an impressive team effort, with few turns and a series of false flats, that truly tested riders’ technical skills, terminating at the Atomium, built for the Brussels World Fair in 1958. So the jersey stayed firmly put on the broad shoulders of Holland’s Mike Teunissen for another day.

The newspapers estimated that 500,000 people were in Brussels to watch Le Grand Depart and it was true! Not that I counted them but the place was jam-packed with tourists and fans. Brussels put on a good show, not dissimilar to that in Leeds in 2014, making me wonder whether Yorkshire’s Sir Gary Verity had been acting as a consultant. But no in the land of cycling and Eddy Merckx, there’s an excess of expertise even if they also called their volunteers « Tour Makers. »

Postcard from Villany

Our bridal pair had chosen the village of Villany for their wedding celebrations largely because the bride’s grand-parents had once owned a vineyard here and the family had spent many happy hours in the area which is just two hours by car from their home in Budapest.

While wine-making in Villany can be traced back to Roman times, much of it had been developed more recently, largely by Swabian settlers who were encouraged to emigrate to the Kingdom of Hungary in the first half of the 1700s. The settlers were industrious, working incessantly to rebuild the countryside devastated by Ottoman rule and replanting the vines.  Centuries later Villány, the southernmost of Hungary’s 22 wine regions, is one of Hungary’s top wine regions, known for its award winning reds and rosés.

This is also where Hungary’s very first wine route was set up: in addition to the protected, landmark cellar-streets, old press-houses and small family businesses, wineries operating with state-of-the-art technology welcome visitors with open doors. Consequently, the region is popular with wine tourism. Most of the wine cellars are located on a wine route in close proximity to each other – along the main road! They are open for wine tasting and some wineries, like Bock and Gere, even offer accommodation.

If you’re thinking of spending some time in Budapest, this town would provide a lovely, relaxing (and inexpensive) extra couple of days. Plus, you could expand your wine knowledge!

Our Hungarian Wedding

We’ve been to weddings in other European countries, but never Hungary. In truth this was a Franco-Hungarian Alliance between a couple who’ve been together for around 16 years. Of course, friends and family were delighted that they were finally tying the knot.

Couples these days seem to spend 18-24 months planning their nuptials largely because of the availability, or lack thereof, of their venue of choice. The pair in question wanted a relaxed, traditional Hungarian style wedding with the reception in the Hungarian countryside, at a vineyard. This, like many of their events, was organised a couple of months ago with everyone pitching in to help with the last-minute arrangements.

A number of obstacles were thrown in the plucky pair’s path. Fortunately, none were insurmountable. The Pope almost put paid to the event as it clashed with his recent visit and available Catholic priests were rarer than hen’s teeth. Then the chosen church was closed for renovations but luckily one nearby became available.

All this uncertainty meant bookings were made at the last moment for the Ascension holiday week-end. We decided to fly via Vienna so that if there were further mishaps, or it was cancelled, we could at least enjoy a long week-end in the Austrian capital. Yes, we had a Plan B which rather amused the parents of the bridal couple.

Both my beloved and I have previously visited Hungary a number of times. Indeed my first visit was way back in 1972, well before the births of the bridal pair, while on a 6-week German language course in Vienna. I went on a trip down the Danube and spent a day in nearby, then communist, Budapest.

You could see the vestiges of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in its architecture but it was a grey, sad place by comparison with Vienna. I next visited several times in the early 90s when the bank I was working for handled the country’s first ever privatisation (a ceramics company) and helped a well-known UK supermarket get a foothold in Eastern Europe. However, this would be our first trip to Hungary’s southern-most wine producing region which borders both Croatia and Serbia.

While neither of us speaks Hungarian, we managed to communicate with everyone using a mixture of German, French, English and hand signals. It felt more like a family wedding than that of my beloved’s nephew last year in UK where we knew hardly any of the guests. By comparison we know both the bride and groom’s immediate family and many of their wide circle of friends.

We flew into Vienna on Thursday evening and drove to Shopron, a border town that specialises in medical and dental tourism – we were not tempted! We stayed at a family-run hotel in the Old Town which was delightful, as the few photos I took (above) show, and dined on yet more asparagus. It’s a wonder I’ve not become slim and pale green!

We had decided to drive through the countryside, via Lake Balaton, rather than speed down the motorway to our destination. The lake was lovely and I could understand why it has long been a holiday hotspot. The countryside was largely given over to arable farming and nothing of note aside from this former fort (pictured above) until we reached our destination where vines reigned supreme.

The bridal couple had thoughtfully provided details of hotels in Villany and we’d booked the only Hotel with a Spa to while away the few hours that hadn’t been pre-organised for us. We were the only wedding guests to select this option so we could easily escape from the week-end long party for a few moments of peace and quiet.

The celebrations kicked off on Friday evening with a welcoming drink and nibbles in the neighbouring wine bar owned by the proprietors of our hotel who appeared to own large tracts of the village. We opted for an early night, wanting to look our best on the morrow, and assume the bridal pair did likewise.

The wedding was held in a church in a neighbouring town as the one in Villany was being repaired. But, when we drove there early the following morning, we discovered there were three churches. We parked the car and made a panic call to the groom who confirmed that by chance we’d happened upon the right one. Being early worms meant we’d been able to bag one of the few parking spots nearby and it was clear we weren’t the only confused wedding guests milling about.

A large number of the Hungarian contingent had wisely come by coach in which they would return much later, after the wedding dinner. However, it was fitting that, as a former professional cyclist, the groom arrived on a bike. The bride wisely chose a more conventional form of transport for herself, her father and her six bridesmaids.

The priest conducted the ceremony in French and Hungarian otherwise we’d have been none the wiser. Thereafter, we took a horse-drawn cart for an apero and the civil service held among the vines which had previously belonged to the bride’s grand-parents. In a flash, the reason for the choice of location became obvious.

We then had a welcome lull in proceedings, an opportunity to slip into another, more relaxed outfit and enjoy time in the spa until the wedding dinner kicked off at 19:00. The chef came from a nearby restaurant and cooked up a storm, much of it over fire. He prepared more than enough for dinner for 100 that evening and for lunch for 55 the following day.

Entertainment was provided by a fabulous singer from the Budapest Opera and a local DJ who played exactly the same selection of tracks as if the wedding had been held in the UK. I suspect DJs the world over would have done likewise.

We didn’t stay until the bitter end but slipped away at midnight while the wedding party was inspecting the wine cellar. We’d arranged to meet the following morning at a nearby sculpture park, half-way up a steepish slope, to blow away the cobwebs.

The following morning, we enjoyed a wander around the park but the rest of the wedding party was MIA (missing in action) though they rallied sufficiently to enjoy the left overs from the night before. I suspect many of them had missed breakfast. By now people were starting to drift home and numbers were much reduced. 55 at lunch was whittled down to 25 by dinner held at the restaurant which had provided the chef who’d prepared the wedding dinner.

Our time in Hungary was drawing to a close. We’d much enjoyed the delightfully relaxed celebration and I’m sure we’ll be back someday. The next day we drove back to Vienna and our flight home. It’s fun to travel, we’ve had a busy couple of weeks, but it’s also nice to get home.

 

Postcard from Zurich

I have spent a lot of time in the past in Zurich, mostly on business trips. My maiden visit was in the early 80s while working as an internal auditor for an American bank. The audit team used to stay in a hotel halfway up the Adlisberg, overlooking the city, and at weekends I’d ascend the hill to stay at its more expensive parent hotel (pictured below after its Foster makeover) which had a fabulous open air pool. Obviously, weekends during the winter months would be spent in a ski resort. Thankfully, all this was well before the advent of EasyJet and the like, meaning a return flight to London would be around £500, which was what I could therefore spend at the weekend. Not bad eh? Let’s just say that I toured Europe’s 5* hotels and resorts on those weekends.

Despite job changes, I continued to travel regularly on business to Zurich. Unsurprising, given I have always worked in financial services. Consequently, it’s a town I know well though I’ve not been back for around 10 years – doesn’t time fly? That said, I wasn’t expecting too many changes to the Old Town.

My beloved had dropped me off at the airport en route to visit his client and I’d taken the train into the centre – much the quickest and cheapest option. I was always amazed that work colleagues took taxis at 10 times the price of the train fare, particularly on a Friday evening when the traffic in Zurich was murderous and it could take over an hour by taxi versus 15 minutes by train to reach the airport.

I began my wander round town heading along the Bahnhofstrasse. The part closest to the station I find far less interesting as it’s home to shops you can find everywhere. About half-way down the road, a subtle change takes place at the Sculpture Pavillion. Thereafter, it tends to be individual and designer shops, plus banks.

The installation erected in 1983 was designed by Swiss artist and sculpter Max Bill, and comprises 63 equally sized blocks of Black Forest granite. I like to think it’s saying something about Zurich’s solidity and security as a financial services centre. I also think it inspired a former employer’s logo.

The sun was shining as I continued to wander along the Bahnhofstrasse, which leads directly to the lake of Zurich. As I did so, I passed Paradeplatz, the centre of Switzerland’s financial sector, the heart of the Bahnhofstrasse and an important interchange for the tram network. In 17th century it was known as the “Säumärt” (pig market) as a livestock market was regularly held there. At the beginning of 19th century, its name was changed to Neumarkt (new market) and then, 50 years later, to Paradeplatz.

I continued in the direction of the lake, noting the large Friday market set out on the other side of the road. On reaching the lake, I took a few photos, before crossing the Limmat river to take a few photos of Niederdorf.

I didn’t however have time to wander around Niederdorf though it’s an interesting area, fondly referred to by locals as the “Dörfli” (little village). Like the Limmatquai, which runs parallel to it, Niederdorf is a pedestrian zone with loads of small shops hidden down the alleyways, while in the evening it transforms into a thriving and somewhat noisy area thronged with students and tourists in its many restaurants, bars and clubs.

See the imposing church with its twin towers? That’s a Zurich landmark. Legend has it that Charlemagne had the first church erected as a monastery on the graves of the city’s patron saints Felix and Regula. In the first half of 16th century, the Grossmünster was the starting point of the Reformation in German-speaking Switzerland. The theological school, which at the time was part of the monastery, became the University of Zurich. The church features stained glass windows by Sigmar Polke and Augusto Giacometti making it well worth a visit, just not today.

Instead, I chose to wander around the Old Town reaquainting myself with my favourite shops and restaurants. As in Munich, a significant amount of roadworks were taking place all over town. It looked as if it might have something to do with the city’s water supply, though it was hard to tell. This merely added to the usually parlous state of its traffic, though many of the smaller alleys are pedestrianised.

I also passed on a visit to the Fraumünster, it was simply too nice a day to spend much time indoors. However, it is a lovely building – with magnificent doors and windows by Giacometti and Chagall – founded in 853 by King Louis the German. This church, with its convent, was inhabited by the female members of Europe’s aristocracy. The convent had considerable influence and enjoyed the patronage of many kings, and up until 13th century the abbess had the right to mint coins! Ownership of the church and convent passed to the city of Zurich after the Reformation.

As always, I love looking at the architecural detailing particularly that on the medieval houses along many of the contorted, cobbled and narrow lanes. The guild and town halls from the Renaissance period offer a particularly attractive backdrop to the city and speak much of its multifaceted past.

After a delicious lunch at one of my former haunts, I decided to walk further around the lake which would make it easier for my beloved to pick me up. I’d had yet another lovely stroll down memory lane.

Postcard from Lake Konstanz III

Aside from the cities of Meersburg and Konstanz, there are three islands on the lake well worth a visit or, in our case, a revisit.

Mainau

The 110-acre garden island of Mainau is renowned for its carpets of flowers and greenhouses. It has nearly 10,000 rose bushes, lots of different types of gardens, thousands of butterflies, a 13th-century baroque palace, plenty of restaurants, a petting zoo and a magnificent arboretum. Plus, as you wander around the gardens, you get tantalising glimpses of the lake.

It is an unquestionably beautiful place and one of the most visited sites in the area, with over two million visitors every year. It’s the place my late mother – a keen gardener – always wanted to visit when she came to stay. She, my father, and their friends, spent many a happy hour wandering through its gardens.

On the Thursday, we took the boat directly from Meersburg to Mainau. Given the time of year, we expected the island to be ablaze with colour, and we weren’t disappointed. We’d missed the spring bulbs but the rhododendruns were still in full bloom.

Reichenau

To the west of Konstanz, and directly opposite where we once lived in Hegne, is Reichenau. Declared a UNESCO world Heritage Site in 2000 because of its monastery, the Abbey of Reichenau. The abbey’s minster church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Saint Mark. Two further churches built on the island were consecrated to Saint George, and to Saints Peter and Paul. Reichenau’s famous artworks include (in the church of St George) the Ottonian murals of miracles of Christ, unique survivals from the 10th century.

Today the island is better known for its vegetable farms which at certain times of the year smell strongly of cabbages, its annual Wine Festival and the Wollmatinger Ried which is a large nature reserve next to the island. It’s a reeded wetland used by many birds as a stopover during their annual migration.

Lindau

On the other side of the lake you’ll find Lindau which has a magnificent harbour guarded by a Bavarian (it’s in Bayern, not Baden-Wurttemburg) lion and lighthouse, in addition the town is full of medieval half-timbered and painted buildings.

We visited on Saturday when the sun shone, the market was in full-swing and the place was busy with tourists. Like many of the old towns on the lake, it’s not changed much and is instantly recognisable. We ate lunch (more asparagus) at one of favourite spots looking out over the harbour. There’s a boat from Meersburg to Lindau but it takes 21/2 hours to get there so we drove and parked in a new multi-storey car park next to the new entertainment centre, both recently built on the island but outside of the old city walls.

Any trip to the Lake of Constance should include visits to all three of these islands. In fact, it’s hard to think of anywhere around the lake not worthy of a visit, though obviously the more picturesque places like Konstanz and Meersburg are worthy of more than a cursory visit.

 

Postcard from Lake Konstanz II

As I explained in my first postcard, we based ourselves in Meersburg for the duration of our trip. It’s a place we’d visited frequently in the past, generally for a lakeside walk and ice cream on a sunny Sunday afternoon and, of course, to buy some of its wines.

Since we couldn’t stay at our hotel of choice in Konstanz (fully-booked!), we decided to stay on the opposite side of the lake in this one in Meersburg, a well-run hotel which has long been in family hands. Just a short stroll from a handful of restaurants and hotels where we ate our evening meals. Our hotel did have a highly recommended restaurant but it catered for carnivores, not vegans!

Meersburg has a fine and meticulously kept medieval centre surrounded by vineyards and makes a good hub for exploring destinations around the lake. It’s comprised of two distinct areas, the lower town alonside the lake (Unterstadt) and uptown (Oberstadt) where we were staying and featuring in the photos above.

As you can see from the map above, the rest of the lake is very accessible from Meerberg either by boat or with the car ferry to Petershausen, a stone’s throw from Konstanz. While we were often out and about during the day, we returned to Meersburg for dinner every evening.

Most evenings, either before or after dinner, we wandered along Meersburg’s old cobblestoned streets looking up at the historic and colourful facades which included Meersburg Castle, the oldest inhabited castle in Germany, as well as the elegant New Castle (1712-1740) right next to it, which has a fantastic terrace overlooking the lake. The latter once served as the  residential palace of the prince-bishops of Constance.

The Old Castle successfully defended Meersburg and the narrative of its self-guided tour is all about knights and weapons of war. Its Bible Gallery includes exhibits of not only bibles but of the Guttenburg press that first made printed copies. Other museums in Meersburg include the Zeppelin Museum, Meersburg Tapestry Art Museum, Droste Museum, the Town Museum and a Viticulture Museum (wine is a very important part of the culture of Meersburg).

 

Postcard from Lake Konstanz I

This post is about our recent visit to Konstanz, the largest city on the lake of the same name (German: Bodensee) which is Europe’s third-largest lake. It’s one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Germany because, during World War II, the Allies avoided bombing it as it was too close to neutral Kreuzlingen in Switzerland. The city features charming architecture and numerous attractions, all within sight of the water giving it a bit of a Mediterranean vibe. Indeed one could be forgiven for spending one’s time there as if one were at the beach.

We loved our time in Konstanz back in the early 90s, but haven’t visited in awhile, so a trip down memory lane was long overdue. Not unnaturally, my beloved combined our few days of vacation with a couple of client visits.

I consequently got two bites of the Konstanz cherry: the first when my beloved visited one of his clients and the second on the Sunday when we crossed over from Meersburg (where we were staying) on the passenger ferry to spend the day there, lapping up the sunshine and watching the regatta.

On our second day on the lake, we rose early to catch the car ferry for my beloved’s meeting at his former employer. These beauties followed us onto the ferry. Old timers are very popular around the lake.

Konstanz is over 1,000 years old and many of its buildings in the Old Town, known as Niederburg, have the dates of their construction elegantly marked across their facade – you’ll see this when I do a Doors post. The Old Town is criss-crossed with narrow cobblestone alleys extending north from the Münster (cathedral) all the way to the river Rhine. At its heart is the Marktstätte (market place), lined with restaurants and cafes, where one finds the Kaiserbrunnen (imperial fountain) with four former emperors, a three-headed peacock with each head regally crowned, as well as a bronze horse.

Behind the square is the Konzilgebäude (council hall) which was erected in 1388 as a warehouse. Now a concert hall, statues of locals Jan Hus and Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin stand beside it. Also close by is the beautifully frescoed 15th-century Hohenzollernhaus, 16th-century Rathaus (city hall) and Haus zum Rosgarten, once a medieval butchers’ guild and now a museum for the region.

The majestic Konstanz münster (cathedral) was the church of the diocese of Konstanz until 1821. First mentioned in 615 AD and consecrated in 1089 AD, it features Romanesque and Gothic designs while its spire pokes high into the sky and can be seen all around the city. To the side of the cathedral, you’ll see a glass pyramid which protects the Römersiedlung, the remains of Constantia Roman fort.

While my beloved was at the meeting, I meandered around the town. Little had changed though the town had expanded with a new shopping mall and the on-going renovation of more roads in the Old Town. It was fun flushing out all my old haunts, most were still flourishing. The town was pretty busy as there’s plenty of (German) Bank Holidays in the month of May though many of the visitors were obviously retirees. Indeed, the whole lake is a very popular German holiday spot.

I knew my beloved was having lunch with his client so I decided to try out a newish establishment built into the town’s old walls. It turned out to be an inspired choice. I enjoyed a prawn and shaved asparagus salad, washed down with a glass of Prosecco. I was tempted by a dress in one of my favourite shops but it rather dwarfed me, the proportions were all wrong. Quite obviously intended for a taller German.

After walking all over the Old Town, I met up with my beloved and we walked along the lakeside, one of our old and regular perambulations, checking out what had changed. One of our favourite restaurants had been updated and subsumed into the neighbouring hotel. The renovation was superb but the menu no longer tempted us. We’d eaten many a Sunday lunch on its balcony either on our own or with my parents – happy days! Obviously lakeside properties  – fantastic property porn – command a premium and there were a couple of new builds to admire but much of the lake is unchanged for all to enjoy.

We wandered back to the car feeling a wee bit footsore and decided to pay our old neighbourhood a visit. Again, not much had changed in Hegne. The cloisters had been enlarged to include a teaching facility, there was a town hall next to the fire-station and opposite our old flat which had sprouted photo-voltaic panels and a red and white striped awning. The rest of the main road was unchanged though there were more dwellings lining the hill.

More importantly, the local restaurant was still knocking out its mega-schnitzels. We had never, ever seen anyone finish one of these. Pretty much everyone, including us, left with a doggy bag. Content we drove back to our hotel in Meersburg where we enjoyed more local wines to wash down more asparagus at a neighbouring hotel.

On our Sunday trip, in glorious sunshine, we took the passenger ferry direct to Konstanz where we were welcomed by the familiar and impressive statue of Imperia. Erected only in 1993, it was initially controversial but has since become a landmark. It’s a satirical depiction of a nine-meter-tall courtesan holding a pathetic Pope Martin V and Emperor Sigismund. It grandly rotates on its pedestal and refers to a short story by Balzac, La Belle Impéria.

We had  a gentle stroll around town before lunch on the terrace of the city’s main hotel. A place where we’d enjoyed many a meal in the past. The hotel, a former cloister, has been renovated in recent years but the ambience remains warm and the lakeside views spectacular. And, yes, we had more asparagus!

Postcard from Munich

Munich’s another of my regular stomping grounds. I know it well so any trip here gives me a welcome opportunity to check out some of my favourite haunts and see what has changed since my last visit in December 2017. I was particularly keen to see the area behind Marienplatz which has been under reconstruction for some time and would surely be finished by now.

When you say “Munich” most people think of the Oktoberfest (Beer Festival) or the Marienplatz, home to its Christmas market, a large open square named after the Mariensäule, the column in its centre, flanked by the Old and New Town Halls. One of the most famous features of the latter is its elaborate Glockenspiel cuckoo clock where a carousel of figures dance at 11:00am, midday and 05:00pm.

Torrential rain meant my trip to Munich took an unexpected turn. My beloved had dropped me off at the Bayerische Hotel (header photo) where, after using their facilities, I walked out with one of its loan brollies. However, not even this, combined with my raincoat, was sufficient to keep the pouring rain at bay.

Fortunately, many of Munich’s shops are in small undercover galleries and arcades but once those were exhausted I decided to pop into one of Munich’s many art museums to shelter from the rain and see an exhibition of Japanese armour. The gallery was largely empty – just the way I like it – and the exhibition was absolutely fascinating!

The collection was started by Gabriel Barbier-Mueller, a Swiss property developer, now based in Dallas who, with his wife, has carefully amassed the collection over the past 25 years. Art collecting is a family tradition, with four generations of avid art collectors who’ve previously established museums in Europe and South Africa, prior to the one in Dallas, which focus on ancient and non-western art and African gold.

I often wonder what it would be like to amass my own private art collection and donate it to a museum for others to enjoy in perpetuity? Sadly, I will need much deeper pockets than I possess to achieve this.

After I’d whiled away a few hours at the exhibition, the rain had abated sufficiently for me to investigate progress on the works for another underground line opposite Dallmayr and behind the Town Hall. I’ll be honest, it looked pretty much as it did two years ago. I can only assume that they’ve uncovered some important archeological remains which have slowed progress on the project to a snail’s pace. Either that or they’re using the same contractors who are undertaking Crossrail in London!

Now, the thorny question of where to have lunch. It’s Spargelzeit (asparagus time) in Germany but they (sadly) are most often anointed in melted butter or hollandaise sauce (eggs and butter) so I settled for a selection of salmon and salad at Dallmayr with a glass of Prosecco.

While I’d been enjoying lunch, the heavens had once more opened so I legged it back to the hotel to return their umbrella where I lingered over a pot of coffee in the lounge until my beloved picked me up. Not quite what I’d expected but a delightful day nonetheless.

Postcard from Palma de Mallorca III

On our recent long weekend trip to Palma we barely scratched the surface of the island. However, I like to understand a bit about the history of places we visit as it provides some context to its architecture. Although the island has long been a top tourist destination, it appears to have enjoyed quite a colourful and tumultuous history and been the holiday destination of choice for many invaders.

It’s thought humans have lived on Mallorca since 7000 BC, but little is known of these early inhabitants. After the Phoenicians and Greeks started using Mallorca as a pivotal trading post, the Romans took over the area in 123 BC although Mallorca’s famous sling throwers made that feat much more challenging than the Romans anticipated.

In 426, Mallorca was sacked and annexed by the Vandals. In 534, the Byzantine Empire conquered it and administered it along with Sardinia. During this period, Christianity boomed and many churches were built. North African raiders regularly attacked the region from 707 until the Emirate of Cordoba annexed it in 902.

The Caliphate’s rule ushered in a new period of prosperity. Many local industries were developed and agriculture was improved by  irrigation. In 1015, Mallorca came under the ruling of the Taifa of Denia, and was an independent Taifa from 1087 – 1114. Thereafter, the Pisans and Catalans laid siege to Palma for eight months. After the fall of the city, the invaders gave way and were replaced by the Almoravides from North Africa, followed by the Almohads in 1203. In 1229 King James I of Aragon attacked with 15,000 men and 1,500 horses, finally taking possession of Mallorca after a bloody three-month war and Jaume II started overseeing the region.

In 1276, after the death of James I, the kingdom was divided between his sons with James II became the king of Mallorca. In 1344, King Peter IV of Aragon marched into the kingdom and re-incorporated the island into the crown. From 1479 onwards, the Crowns of Aragon and Castile were united. Then, in 18th century, after the war of the Spanish succession, Mallorca became part of the Spanish province of Baleares in 1716 by the Decretos de Nueva Planta.

The island was a Nationalist stronghold at the start of the Spanish Civil War and consequently the subject of an amphibious landing in August 1936, intent on driving out the Nationalists and reclaiming the island. Fascist Italy occupied the region until its withdrawal from the island in1939 following the Battle of Mallorca.

Since the 1950s, the advent of mass tourism has transformed the island into a destination for foreign visitors and attracted many service workers from all over Europe, South America and Africa.

Aside from visiting the capital Palma, we also drove along the Island’s south-west coast visiting Port Andratx which is now quite an exclusive area though in the past it too was occupied by the Romans and subject to attacks from Barbary pirates. In the 16th century a system of observation towers was erected on the island as a means of protection against pirates many of which still exist here along the coast. We also visited Port Soller which presumably suffered from similar attacks. Now the only things the two ports have to worry about is the influx of tourists