A Maginot Line classic

Ouvrage Hackenberg, one of the largest forts in the Maginot Line, is composed of 17 combat blocks, working gun positions and shell hoists, an electric train and over 10 kilometres of tunnel. If you are interested in history, military or otherwise, the informative and lively guided tour is time very well spent.

The fort was built during the 1930s as part of the French defensive line named after the incumbent Minister of War, André Maginot. As one of the largest and first built it was so symbolic that it was chosen for a visit by King George VI during the phoney war in December 1939.

The fort saw action in 1940 when it was eventually surrendered to the Germans following the Armistice and later in 1944 when it was captured from German forces by General George Pattons 90th Infantry Division.

A guided tour of the fort takes approximately two and a half hours. Travel throughout the extensive galleries is by foot and by electric train. Extensive exhibits give a very good idea of what life would have been like for the defenders of Ouvrage Hackenberg and fully operating gun turrets, shell hoists and electrical generators add to the atmosphere.

Having entered the fort through the ammunition entrance and spent some time underground, it is fascinating and refreshing to find yourself stepping outside the fort through one of the infantry entrances onto green and forested hills complete with tank traps, barbed wire defences and machine gun cupolas; the very view the opposing forces would have had of the fort.

I would thoroughly recommend a visit to Ouvrage Hackenberg.

Details: Hackenberg Fort


What a beautiful place to build a castle

If you travel along the coast road between Bushmills and Portrush, you will come across the dramatic setting of Dunluce Castle. Built in a strategically brilliant but a practically ridiculous setting, the castle is now a ruin. It’s a complete wreck, but therein lies its charm.

The first castle at Dunluce was built in the 13th century. In subsequent years, the castle went through the hands of a number of powerful local families including the McQuillans and the Clan MacDonnell.

Legend has it that at one point in the history of Dunluce, a large part of the kitchen collapsed into the sea leading the lady of the manor to refuse to live there any more.

The castle has been featured on a couple of album covers and appears in a number of films.

Details: Dunluce Castle


A subterranean city of bones

The Left or south bank of the Seine in Paris contains large deposits of limestone. From the 12th century onwards, these deposits were mined to produce building materials for the expanding city of Paris. Mining activity was haphazard and mostly undocumented.

As the city expanded outwards, buildings were erected over the former mines. From the 17th century, the network of mines below the city began to cause problems for the buildings above. A Commission of Mines was appointed to investigate and shore up the myriad tunnels beneath the city.

At around the same time, the cemeteries within the city boundaries were under considerable pressure and it was decided to use a part of the old mine workings to store the contents of the city cemeteries. The whole process, taking place mostly under cover of darkness took approximately two years to empty the Paris cemeteries.

The catacombs contain the bones of over 6 million people.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the bone repository was converted to a visitable mausoleum or ossuary. A visit involves a small number of stairs and nearly 2 kms of walking.

The Catacombs are open daily except for Mondays and some holidays.

…and you will get your bags searched on the way out!

Details: Catacombs of Paris


The most photographed trees in Ireland

If you watch Game Of Thrones, you might recognise this impressive avenue of beech trees from series one. Aside from an appearance on the cult HBO show, this beautiful natural phenomena is one of the most photographed and painted attractions in Northern Ireland and is a favourite for wedding photographers.

Planted by the Stuart family in the eighteenth century to impress visitors to their home, Gracehill House, this magnificent site has become known as the Dark Hedges.

Legend has it that a mysterious Grey Lady appears at dusk amongst the trees. Silently gliding down the avenue, she disappears into thin air as she passes the last beech tree.

We didn’t see her ourselves, but this beautiful place certainly has an otherworldly atmosphere.

Details: The Dark Hedges


Black cab tour of Belfast

When you visit Belfast, you’ll meet plenty of friendly people and you certainly shouldn’t avoid the recent troublesome history of the region, it’s a major part of where the modern city of Belfast finds itself. The Belfast of today is a very safe and friendly destination for tourists, with excellent restaurants, a warm welcome and a good pint of cold Guinness as the icing on the cake.

But what to see and what to do?

Whatever else you decide on, it’s a cracking good idea to take a tour of some of the literally hundreds of murals that bring to life the struggles that have sculpted this often forgotten corner of the British Isles. And who better to guide you on that trip than someone who lived through those terrible times?

The history of the city is writ large on the houses and the kerbstones. During the ‘Troubles’, murals, flags and painted kerbstones all had significance to the residents of Belfast. Disregard the signs and the warnings and you could easily find yourself in the wrong part of town. Most of the violence and enmity between the different communities has disappeared now that the province is at peace, but the signs and more particularly the political murals remain.

Bobby Walsh was a taxi driver throughout the Troubles. Together with his business partner Paddy Kane, he runs the best Black Taxi tour company in Belfast. Bobby tells the story of Ireland and particularly Northern Ireland from the perspective of someone who has lived through a turbulent period of recent history. His depth of knowledge and his fascinating personal insights make this trip a must do.

I lived in the London area throughout those turbulent times and whilst I had a fairly good grasp on what had been going on, I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t realise that one of the major catalysts for the civil rights movement in 1969 was the fact that many adult members of the Northern Ireland community were not entitled to vote.

Paddy makes a serious subject interesting and engaging. Don’t miss out.

Details: Black Cab Tours


Easter Sunday at Reims Cathedral

There are surely many reasons for a visit to Reims. Not least amongst them is the superb gothic Cathedral of Our Lady, which is arguably finer than its more famous cousin in Paris. The ancient kings of France certainly thought so, as they were crowned here between 1364 and 1825.

Reims today is a modern city with an ancient heart, mixing the tram with the bicycle and making way for the walker in its expansive and pedestrianised boulevards. The cathedral almost hides away in the centre, its towering Gothic presence taking you by surprise as you turn into Rue Libergier.

We chose a Sunday to visit. In fact, we chose Easter Sunday. We both wanted to enjoy and take part in the festivities for probably the most important Christian festival of the year. I had already tried to find out if visitors were welcome on such a special occasion but had not been able to get a definitive answer. In fact, I had not found any answers at all.

So we just turned up.

And joined around a thousand other people enjoying the marvelous acoustics and calm grandeur of this beautiful cathedral.

Now call me old fashioned if you like, but if I visit any sort of ‘sacred’ site or building, I’m always keen to keep as low a profile as possible. While this may not be appropriate for the Hindu festival of Holi or the fireworks of the Festa del Rentore in Venice, it is certainly a polite move on Easter Sunday in a cathedral during the service.

It was, therefore, a shame and a distraction that the cathedral authorities needed to deploy volunteers to politely request a stop to filming and photography and to gently impose a little decorum on the not so small number of tourists who insisted that their visit to the cathedral was not to be interrupted by anything as inconvenient as the 45 minutes it was being used for the purpose for which it was designed.

A beautiful, majestic building which is a must see if you are anywhere near the city of Reims or travelling in the Champagne area. Extra special on Easter Sunday.

Details: Reims Cathedral

Reims Cathedral exterior

Where to stay in Venice

An article that starts with the words ‘Where to stay in’ is usually a sales pitch of some kind. I’m afraid I start looking for the vested interest.

So the title for this piece should really have been…

‘Here’s a nice hotel we found when we stayed in Venice recently.’

But that would be to obscure my intention to sing the praises of an entire island.

Cruise ship in the Venice Lido dwarfing the city behind.

I’m sure you have heard the many horror stories about how busy the city of Venice gets, how overcrowded it is in summer and how it has almost turned into a Disney parody of itself. Indeed, just this week, local residents have taken to the streets or rather the waterways to protest at the enormous cruise ships that dwarf the city and disgorge thousands of passengers at a time, all seemingly hell bent on heading for Piazza St Marco for a selfie or two.

And Venice can be like that. Pick the wrong day or the wrong place and your visit will be overwhelmed by tourist hordes. But Venice has plenty of places more civilised than San Marco or the Rialto Bridge.

One of those peaceful havens is the island of Giudecca. The island is large, being narrow and approximately two kilometres in length.

A short vaporetto ride is rewarded with stunning views back across to the main island. A long, wide and largely uncluttered promenade leads from the patrol ships of the Guardia Finanzia to the Hilton Hotel with it’s open air, rooftop pool and eighth floor Skyline Bar. The island is a haven of peace and tranquility.

On the promenade and in the many backstreets you will find peaceful bars and small restaurants that cater to a more relaxed clientele.

We stayed in the Bauer Palladio which was entirely wonderful. The food was excellent, the rooms were first rate and you may breakfast in the lovely and rather extensive gardens. Add on a private shuttle boat to the main island and you have a peaceful and relaxing stay a ten minute boat ride away from the hustle and bustle of St Marks Square.



Venice – things to do

Bauer Palladio Hotel and Spa

The other changing of the guard

One of London’s favourite tourist attractions is the Changing of the Guard. It was even famous enough to be the subject of a poem by A A Milne.

Not everyone realises that there are actually two ceremonies. One, the best known, takes place at Buckingham Palace. The ‘Guard’, in this case, consists of foot soldiers and a marching band.

The Palace ceremony starts just after 11:00 with the arrival of the old guard from St James Palace with musical accompaniment. Between April and July, the guard change takes place daily. The rest of the year, the ceremony is held every two days.

At the same time as the Buckingham Palace guard change, the mounted guard, down the road at Horse Guards Parade, is also changing. Mounted troopers, usually from the Household Cavalry, travel down the Mall and assemble on the Horse Guards parade ground.

During this second parade, there are very few barriers between the audience and the participants. And if you like horses, you can get up close and personal with the Police horses of the escort while waiting for things to happen.

Details: Changing the guard at Horse Guards Parade

Always look up

Many people these days seem to spend a lot of time staring at a small screen. A good proportion of the rest never look above street level. If you do take the time to look above street level, above the anodyne, corporate shopfronts you will often be surprised by what you find.

Modern streets at eye level become Victorian or Georgian terraces above eye level. Glass shop fronts give way to clues about the real history of the neighbourhood at higher levels.

If you look up you will see stuff that most other people miss.

This is particularly true in Piccadilly Circus. Most people who have visited, will have seen the Horses of Helios charging out of the fountain on the corner of Haymarket. Few will have looked up to see the Daughters of Helios flying from the roof above. Known as the Three Graces, they are by the same sculptor as the horses below.

So looking up rather than down can certainly pay dividends. Just be careful you don’t walk into anything…

Details: Piccadilly Circus

The ghost line

I suppose it is a bit cruel to describe the Emirates Airline, the only urban cable car in the UK, as a ghost line. Unfortunately, I’m not the first person to point out that it is severely underused.

So why is the cable car so empty?

If you are a tourist wishing to ride for fun, it’s a reasonable trek out to the O2 / Excel area to take the ride.

If you want to use the cable car as a transport option to cross the Thames, it’s that bit more expensive than using the rail connection and certainly not the fastest way to travel.

But that would be entirely missing the point. If you fancy a cheap adventure ride with spectacular views of the O2, the Isle of Dogs and London City Airport, the effort and the cost are extremely well worth it. And there probably won’t be any queues…

Details: Emirates Air Line