In one of my visits to Strasbourg, we visited the Ligne Maginot. This is a line of hidden fortifications, that France built after the World War I in order to protect the country from a potential attack from Germany, especially in what referred to Lorraine and Alsace, two regions that have changed nationality several times in the history.
This defines line was made up of 45 main forts, and 97 smaller ones, and pursued several specific goals: serve as early alarm, hide the mobilisation of the French army, and protect the country in case of an attack through that border.
The mentioned forts consisted of underground bunkers, where the soldiers lived, waiting for an attack. Its construction employed a 25% of the whole country budget, between 1930 and 1935, and was made of the highest quality, with plenty of electrical appliances.
We visited one of these forts, and could imagine the life there. 580 men, called themselves, crew, as life in those forts was more similar to a submarine than a “regular” fort. This fort had 6 towers on the surface to attack (with guns) and to surveil, and more than 500 meters of underground tunnels. Other forts had several km of tunnels, though.
In the end, this line did not prevent the invasion of France, as Germany took the “long way” through the Netherlands and Belgium, and France could not check the effectiveness of such a large investment.
More than one year ago, I went to the famous La Rioja in a long weekend trip. This region is famous for its red wine, and it attracts a lot of tourism interested in wine. As you may expect, gastronomy was a key aspect of this trip too, although we tried to incorporate some culture into the picture.
While entering in La Rioja from Madrid, our first stop was Santo Domingo de la Calzada (A), which is part of the Camino de Santiago route, which was hosting some local festivities.
We also visited Calahorra (B), mainly because we stayed there, and we especially enjoyed Logroño (C), and its famous Laurel street. A street plenty of bars, where you can try as many different wines as you can imagine, while enjoying the tasty local food.
We could not leave the wine region without visiting one of the many wineries there, and we chose the most famous one due to its renovated architecture: Marqués de Riscal, by Frank Geary, Guggenheim’s architect, in Laguardia (D). In this visit, we went once again through the wine making process, which is always very interesting, and I always get some new insights. This time, I got to know a couple of tips for controlling the wine quality.
They control the variety of grape, the field where it is grown, and its age; and they also make sure the number of grapes per area is limited too. This winery produces 5 million Rioja bottles a year (4 of them are Reserva), and 60% of them are for the international market (that still leaves an impressive amount of 2 million bottles only in Spain!).
Not being long enough in Ireland is a safe way to make a wrong decision. If you decide to explore the Northern part of the island, you will miss the South. If you go to the South, you will leave aside the fantastic North.Our wrong decision this time was to explore the North during Easter holidays (in 2014… some posts take longer than expected!).
Ireland is an island which is divided in two different countries. The Southern part is the Republic of Ireland, which is a country in the Euro zone, using the metric system (i.e., kilometres) and mostly catholic. Northern Island is part of the United Kingdom, using British pounds, the imperial system (i.e., miles) and with a strong division of protestants and catholics in their population.
This is the outcome of a number of historical happenings. All was initiated with Henry VIII, who wanted the divorce and founded a religion that accepted it. In the 17th century, England sent a Scottish King to the Ulster region, who also “imported” protestant Scottish peasants to the nowadays Northern Ireland. Ireland joined England in 1800, and all their representatives in the Parliament had to be protestants (or say so, at least). In 1916, the Easter Rising ends up with a Free State that led to today’s Republic of Ireland. The population that remained in the North are a mix between the original catholics from several centuries ago, and the protestants that populated the area around 200 years ago. They do not get along very well, and have been fighting ever since.
We had three bases in Ireland during this trip: Dublin, Londonderry and Belfast. The first one is obvious and recommended in any trip in this area, as it is a living city with lots of entertainment opportunities… although you should pay attention if you go in Easter with some closing days; the second one was very convenient to explore the Northernmost coast, and we though Belfast would be similar to Dublin… but it is not.
Newgrange (A) was my first excursion in Ireland. It is a set of constructions, from the Neolithic that were discovered by chance in 1699 when they were removing stones to build a road. There are 37 satellite tombs (with more than 100 people) around the main one, which hosts remains of five people. This construction took three generations to be built (note the life expentancy by then was less than 35 years) and it is quite surprising that the material used (white quartz) was brought from a distance of at least more than 80 kilometers. The main tunnel, which has several curves, channels the sunlight to a specific point in the centre of the tomb only during the solstices. If you are not impressed yet, let me remind you that Neolithic was 10,000 BC.
Dublin (1) is a must in Europe for a relaxed weekend trip. A very intense city thanks to its university, with its fantastic Trinity College, hosting one of the most beautiful libraries in the world, and some of the oldest books in History. Their pubs are also worth a visit… or that is what I heard because they are all closed in Easter Thursday (yes, that was our “Dublin day”).
LondonDerry (2) (or Derry, depends on what are the speaker’s political views) does not have a lot to see. Some murals remembering the Bloody Sunday and the Troubles, and a fortress, but it was a good place to start our journey through the Northern coast of the island. In this coast, we visited Portstewart, the Dunlace Castle (great location) (B), and the Giant’s Causeway (C), a geologic formation formed by basalt columns that were formed after a volcanic eruption got in contact with the water.
Belfast (3) was for me the biggest deception of the trip. We thought it would be nice to sleep in a big city, as it would have more life than other places, but we did not see any life there. Maybe the day (Sunday in Easter) was not the best one too. From the visitor point of view, Belfast is known for hosting the shipyard where the Titanic was built, and for the sadness of having the conflict between catholics and protestants still alive. The two neighbourhoods are still separated by a wall, which have several gates, that are closed during nights and on special days (Easter Sunday, for instance) to avoid more problems.
Tabarca es una isla que está a unas 10 millas al sur de Alicante, con apenas unas pocas casas y restaurantes y unos cientos de metros de playa, pero a pesar de ello es uno de los puntos más visitados de la Costa Blanca. No lo es tanto en el mes de diciembre, pero fue el destino de mi primera salida náutica familiar. El 26 de diciembre hacia un muy buen día para las fechas que eran, pero casi no había viento con el que practicar bien la navegación a vela para mayor disfrute para la tripulación (y capitán!). En cualquier caso, aprovechamos para rodear toda la isla, amén de fondear para comer a bordo, y disfrutar de una de las últimas puestas de sol de 2015 a bordo (foto by mi hermano). En cuanto al área de patrón, fue mi primera salida como único patrón a bordo, y el atraque (maniobra siempre complicada) fue el más limpio que he hecho nunca; por lo que estoy satisfecho, y voy “pasándome pantallas”.
Belgium was not in my list of next destinations, but as I had to go there for a Toastmasters meeting, I decided to extend my stay for a week and discover it. Belgium is a country, which is not known for their touristic interest (especially for a one-week long trip), but that would allow me to be more relaxed during that time, which is also nice. After checking with friends with some local expertise, I decided to establish my base in Brussels after the 3-day meeting in Leuven, and do day-trips from there, and then go to the Netherlands in the weekend.
Belgium is a quite complex country in spite of its small size. Nowadays, we see a clear language difference: the Northern people speak Flemish (Dutch), while the Southern ones speak French. The only officially bilingual city in the country is Brussels. This is the outcome of a very convulse history with many countries invading this area for centuries (for instance, French language in Belgium is the result of an invasion back in the 5th Century). Belgium has been under Spanish, Austrian, French and Dutch rule, before its final independence in 1830.
Independence did not bring them peace, though. Belgium was also invaded in both World Wars. It was after the World War II, in 1948 that together with France, Germany, and the other countries in the Benelux, the first seeds of the European Union were planted. The goal was to avoid more wars in Europe, and the vehicle to do so was an agreement on one of the most important resources in Europe: the coal and the steel in Central Europe. It all began with a cooperation agreement on the coal and steel, led by Robert Schuman (French Foreign Affairs Minister), in 1950. Their idea was that, being the coal and the steel strategic assets, if they agreed on it, it would be impossible to enter again in a war. This first intention evolved into more aspects, like an economic union or the citizenship, as well as growing the number of countries, and the main institutions of the European Union were established in Brussels: the Parlament (although its official headquarter is Strasbourg), and the Commission, apart from several agencies.
Apart of Europe HQ, Belgium is worldwide known for one more thing: beer. They have hundreds of them, with a specific glass for every single beer to boost the characteristics of the beer. Everything has a beginning and beer history in Belgium is quite interesting. In the Middle Ages, water quality was not that good, and Saint Arnold (who happens to be the patron saint of the brewers) promoted that people drank beer instead of water, so that some diseases could be avoided. Beer was at that time brewed mainly in the Monasteries, and this production started to happen as well outside the religious circles. In the 19th century, the monasteries brewed again as a way to get funds, due to a bad financial situation provoked by the religious crisis. Nowadays, beer production, even if originally made by monks, has been outsourced, except six of them, the Trappist, which are still brewed in active abbeys: Chimay, Orval, Westmalle, Rocheforst, Achel, and Westvleteren.
Travelling in this area has several common items. One of them are the Béguinages/Beginjhofs, enclosed urban villages, which used to host beguines, single women, who although not making any formal religious vows, formed monastic-like communities where they could live as long as they remain unmarried, which normally meant the whole life. The Belfries are towers that seem to be part of churches, but they are not, as they were built to celebrate civic liberties and wealth in the Middle Ages. Food-wise, I discovered their love for the mussels, which are served with fries (they claim to have invented them too) in almost any place, and of course, waffles and chocolate are also known worldwide. Going back to the actual trip, I started it in Leuven (A), a small town East of Brussels, for a Toastmasters weekend. It is home of the first university in Belgium, and its Town Hall tried to compete with the Brussels’ one in size, although it would be better off in other categories, like its ornate Gothic facade. Its Béguinage belongs nowadays to the University, and is used to accomodate teachers and students.
After Leuven, I moved to Brussels, which seemed to me an interesting city to spend some months or even years as an expat, but probably not the best place to settle down. From what I heard, you should keep your eyes open and safety is not one of their strengths (although I did not experience anything wrong myself). Brussels top sight is of course the Grande Place. It is an extremely nice spot, with the different guild houses competing one to each other in beauty, and a huge town hall.
In the city centre, the Galeries St.Hubert are also worth a visit, the mandatory Manekken Pis (really small one), and the nice atmosphere at the Place Sainte Catherine. The EU-Area is interesting from the point of view that most of the citizens in Brussels work in something related to the institutions, and it also hosts the Parlamentarium, a museum about the European Union which can make you spend a complete morning reading and watching all the info they have. Last but not least, a visit to the Atomium to see this original construction built in 1958 for the Expo is worth the long tram ride.
From Brussels, I did two day trips. The first one was to Brugge and Gent, which are the cities that attract most tourists, and there is a very good reason for that. Both of them keep a medieval atmosphere that makes its visit very entertaining, although most of them were destroyed after the wars, and were reconstructed thinking on the tourism. Brugge (1) was part of the Hanseatic League back in the 14th Century, as its harbour was one of the major ones in the North of Europe. The merchants at that time used to meet at the Inn of the Van der Buerse family to trade, and from those meetings comes the name “Bourse”, which is stock market in French. During the 15th century the Zwin, a big channel that arrived to Brugges, silted up and Brugge had no access to the sea, going through a deep economic crisis till the 20th Century brought the tourism back to the city. Brugge has a number of interesting buildings, and sights, but I would highlight the Gotische Zaal in the Stadhuis.
On the other hand, Gent (2) looks a bit more “normal”, with a nice combination of old reconstructed buildings with newer and more functional ones. Its importance in history is out of question, as it even was the third largest medieval city, only after Paris and Constatinople. Gent also went through some centuries of recession, till the Industrial Revolution brought a number of flax and cotton mills to the city. If you like fortresses, its Belfort is a really nice piece to visit; and the same applies with the Dulle Griet bar in the Vrijdagsmarkt if you like beer. The second day trip covered the East part: Liège and Namur. These are not extremely touristic and not a must in Belgium, I must admit. Liège (3) is today a modern city with a river, and I found it a probably nice place to live, but not to visit. Historically-wise, it was a historic religious center, governed by the Prince-Bishops until the end of the 18th Century, and it has always been a key place for industry: arms and gunpowder till the 17th Century, and home of steel and glass factories since the 19th Century. What I really liked was the way that the train took from Namur to Liege close to the river Mense and with really nice views, before arriving to Santiago Calatrava’s main train station. Namur (4) is a small town with just one interesting item: a fortress occupies a big rock in the middle of the city, which can be visited on your own, offering you nice views of the rest of the city, but nothing impressive either. After a week in Belgium, I still managed to pay a quick visit to the Netherlands. We established the base of operations in Leiden (C), a relaxed town, with an important university and full of nice channels. Our first visit was the Afsluitdijk (5), the Closure Dike, in the north of Amsterdam. Driving through it is quite spectacular, as it is a 32 km-long dike in the middle of two seas: North Sea and the Ijsselmeer. It is one of the main constructions that allowed a big portion of the current Netherlands to emerge. Being in a windy day, with waves at both sides of the dike, it is hard to imagine how they could built it in just 5 years, and almost a century ago… between 1927 and 1932. Saturday afternoon was the right moment for The Hague (6). The city is alive, and hosts the International Court. From a tourist point of view, its Begijnhof is worth a visit, but what really surprised me was the beach area. It has a number of restaurants and many other attractions for the spare time, while the sun sets behind the oil platforms in the North Sea.
Haarlem (7) was the perfect closing for the week on Sunday: channels, the Great Church, mills and a well-preserved Beginjhof, before returning to the Charleroi airport.