Travels through History – France – Pezenas

Extract from the book ‘Travels through History : France” available here

Pezenas is a wonderful old town in the Languedoc. The town has been in existence since Roman times and became wealthy due to the sale of woollen cloth. In 1456 the States General of Languedoc met here for the first time and then the governors of Languedoc made the town their residence. Pezenas had become an important place in the south of France.

In 1647, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin – better known as Molière – began travelling the Languedoc with the company called “L’Illustre Théâtre”. In 1650, the little company arrived in Pézenas and over three months they entertained the States General of Languedoc. In 1653, the company gained the favour of the Governor of Languedoc, The Prince of Conti. During his stay in the Languedoc and Pézenas,  Moliere was inspired to write some of his most famous plays including Don Juan.

The association of Moliere with Pezenas is reflected in the Scenovision Moliere interactive exhibition in the Hotel Peyrat. Moliere’s life is played out in five different rooms going from the triumphs he had at the court of Louis XIV to the tragedies of the later years when once again he wandered around France, but this time with a theatre company in decline. There is a cutout of Moliere on Place Gambetta sitting along with Boby Lapointe, a Pezenas singer, outside the Tourist Information. Nearby a cat was sitting in a box, looking for all the world as though it had just been delivered as part of a service for locals who wished to rid their house of vermin. The cat eventually stirred and flopped onto a nearby cafe table. The cat stared towards the horizon and completely ignored my attempts to make it purr.  

In Pezenas there is a former Jewish ghetto and the visitor can see the place where the gate was situated which was locked at night to keep the two communities apart. When you see the names of the streets, Porte du Ghetto and Rue de la Juiverie, you will know you are in the right place. It might have been me, but the streets in the ghetto seemed higher and  narrower than in the rest of the town. I then headed through the Porte Faugeres and came across the most marvellous market.

The market stalls were down both sides of Cours Jean Jaures all the way from the War Memorial to Place du Marche des Trois Six. The end of Jean Jaures where I started was mainly cooked meats and cheese, with the stall owner handing out free samples to hungry looking passers-by. Next to the cheese were three vast pans of paella, topped with large prawns, and the owner was shovelling large amounts into plastic containers for eager buyers. Next door the bagette stall was doing a brisk trade with people placing the bread in their rucksacks before cycling home. Someone had placed a table on the pavement and dumped some nice-looking women’s blouses on to it. These were being eagerly sorted by two dozen women looking for a bargain or two. The movement of the ladies around the table was extremely well co-ordinated and I got the impression most of them did this on a regular basis.   

On the other side of the street, the stalls were more handicraft oriented with pots, majolica tiles, and dishes. Then more souvenirs and collectibles became available until at the Place de la Republique the market became all fruit and vegetables with most items such as apples in piles rather than plastic bags. The vegetables had been pulled out of the ground recently – some had been cleaned and some had not – everything shouted “fresh”. In front of the St-Jean church were the snack stalls selling nuts, figs, dates, and dried fruits. On the opposite side was a hat stall with items for every occasion, even for the times when you are carrying your dog around a market, which many people were doing here.  

Travels through History – Northern Spain – Leon and the Holy Grail

This book is a travelogue about the cities of northern Spain.

I travelled to Valencia, Barcelona, Pamplona, Burgos, San Sebastian, Valladolid, Segovia, Leon, Gijon, Oviedo, Santiago de Compostela, Pontevedra, A Coruna, and Vigo on board the fast, modern trains of the Spanish railways.

Here is an excerpt about Leon:

The history of Leon starts with the Reconquest although The Romans had a settlement on the site in the first two centuries after Christ. As the Christian forces pushed the Moors further south, the Asturian king Ordono II moved his capital from Oviedo to Leon in 914. As more territory came under the city’s control, they split its administration between the city of Leon and the county of Castile. In 1035, Castile became a kingdom in its own right, with Burgos as the capital.

Leon is on the Way of St James pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. It is a very popular destination and stopping off point because of the Cathedral, built between 1205 and 1301. The North Tower and the extraordinary cloisters were completed later, in the 14th Century. The cathedral was built on some former Roman baths, built by the Legio VII Gemina, and these baths covered a larger area than the cathedral does.

Before entering the cathedral, I looked at the western facade with its huge Rose Window and two towers. Even from outside there appears to be a lot of windows. It’s interesting to work out where the load bearing of the towers and the detached nave is happening. The flying buttresses are substantial and I could only wonder how the architect had worked out how so much stained glass could be in place in such a large edifice.

Leon Cathedral has between 1,800 and 2,000 square metres of stained glass, depending on which source you trust, an area second only to Chartres cathedral in France. Rich red and gold colours bathe the interior in places. There’s an openness about the place, a strange way to describe the feeling that you can view most of the interior from wherever you are standing.

I would recommend visiting the cloisters as they are beautiful and peaceful. There’s still the hint of some frescoes which show how colourful the decoration must have been when first painted. I also visited the museum of religious art and would recommend this too, but if you have to choose between the two, I’d select the cloisters.     

The other major site of Leon is the Basilica of San Isidoro dating from the mid-12th Century and built into the city walls on its southern side. Before entering look at the two doorways on the western facade, whose reliefs are of the ‘Descent from the Cross’ and the ‘Sacrifice of Abraham’. Above the latter, visitors can spy San Isidoro riding a horse.

Fernando I, who united Leon and Castile in 1037, founded the basilica. It was built to house the bones of San Isidoro and act as a mausoleum for Fernando and his successors. The tombs of eleven kings and twelve queens are in the Panteon Real, a portico of the basilica. They painted Spanish Romanesque frescoes on the walls at the end of the 12th Century. A Christ Pantocrator in the dome and an agricultural calendar on an arch are still visible. A highlight of any tour of the treasury at the basilica is the Chalice of Doña Urraca, a jewel-encrusted onyx chalice which is alleged by some people to be The Holy Grail. The cup belonged to Urraca of Zamora, daughter of Ferdinand I of Leon, and has been in Leon since the 11th Century.

In March 2014, a book was published called The Kings of the Grail. This book claims the chalice, or part of the chalice, is the Holy Grail, and this led basilica staff to withdraw the chalice from display, because the crowds seeking to visit the museum were too large for the treasury to accommodate. The museum now displays the chalice in a separate room in the tower next to the old library at the very end of the guided tour of the Basilica Treasury. The room is not open to individual travellers.

The authors, Margarita Torres and José Ortega del Rio, claim they had traced the origins of the chalice to the early Christian communities of Jerusalem. Some recently discovered papers in a Cairo archive provided this information. The chalice was transported to Cairo by Muslim travellers and was later given to an emir on the Spanish coast. From there, the chalice came into the possession of King Ferdinand I of Leon, father of Urraca of Zamora, as a peace offering by a Moorish ruler from Al-Andalus. The dating suggests the chalice was made between 200 BC and 100 AD. Salah al-Din, known in the West as Saladin, was the main opponent of the crusaders in The Third Crusade. When his sister fell ill, he requested a piece of the grail be cut off and sent to him, so it would cure his sister, which it duly did. 

There’s plenty of sights outdoors in Leon. The train station is due west of the old city just over the River Bernesga. When you arrive in Leon station, it’s slightly confusing as the station is a terminus, so even long-distance trains from Barcelona / Irun / Bilbao heading to Galicia go out of the station the same way they came in, rather than going straight through.

My travels

I have written six books about the history of places I have travelled to. If you are interested in history and / or travel then you should check out these books. I travel because my own father always said he would travel after he’d retired, but he never got the chance because he died from cancer when he was 49. I travel for him when I go to places as well as for myself.

These books are travelogues rather than travel guides and so cover only the places I visited, because I don’t feel I can write about places I haven’t been to.

They are as follows:

Armenia and the UK

Armenia is full of monasteries, fortresses, and people who are passionate about their past. The traveller is always aware of the importance of religion and history in this little-visited country, whose only open borders are with Georgia and Iran. In the UK, I describe visits to Leicester, Derby, Manchester, Bristol, and Cardiff.

South-eastern France

A truly fascinating part of the world. Most people are familiar with Provence and the Cote d’Azur, but Languedoc and Roussillon have much to offer, especially if you like mysteries and the history of religion. There are spectacular castles such as Montsegur, Peyrepertuse, Queribus, and Puilaurens, there are the cave paintings at Niaux, and the restored citadel at Carcassonne.

Greek Islands

This book keeps it simple and covers nine Greek Islands: Symi, Patmos, Samos, Syros, Paros, Tinos, Delos, Mykonos and Rhodes.

Northern Ireland and Scotland

A series of essays about visits to the murals of West Belfast, the award-winning Titanic Centre, The World Heritage Site of the Giant’s Causeway, the seven little-visited stone circles at Beaghmore, and the dramatically situated Dunluce Castle perched high on the cliffs in Antrim in Northern Ireland. There are further stories about the island of Lewis and Harris, Edinburgh, Dryburgh Abbey, and Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland.

The Balkans

The North Macedonians build a fountain and upset the Greeks. Villages on the road to Lake Ohrid fly Albanian flags instead of North Macedonian ones. Kosovan taxi drivers believe fundamentalists are being sponsored in their country by former foes. Dubrovnik is so popular a one-way system is now in operation on the city walls. In Sarajevo, the place the First World War started is not easy to find, but evidence of more recent atrocities is. Memories are long in The Balkans, contrasts and contradictions are all around. History is always in your face, reminding you nothing stays the same for long in this most fascinating corner of Europe.

North-East England

This is a travelogue about my visit to certain parts of the North-East of England and all the history a visitor can see in a very short time. Places vary from the large city of Newcastle with its iconic bridges across the River Tyne to smaller gems such as Durham with its magnificent Norman cathedral. Tourists can find Roman ruins in abundance and large, modern sculptures along with lovely market towns, small villages with a Brigadoon feel to them, and vast swathes of open countryside that hasn’t changed since The Romans looked northwards from Hadrian’s Wall.

9 Greek Islands – Symi

I have written seven books about the history of places I have travelled to.

I travel because my own father always said he would travel after he’d retired, but he never got the chance because he died from cancer when he was 49. I travel for him when I go to places as well as for myself.

If you are interested in history and / or travel then you should check out these books. Please bear in mind the books are travelogues rather than travel guides and so cover the places I visited and the experiences I had. 

Greek Islands

This book keeps it simple and covers nine Greek Islands: Rhodes, Symi, Patmos, Samos, Syros, Paros, Tinos, Delos, and Mykonos. They are all different and all lovely.

This is an excerpt on Symi.

Arriving at Symi Town is the loveliest way to begin any visit to a Greek Island. The bay has low hills on all sides and on those hills are stacked differently coloured ochre Italianate mansions, each one a slightly shade to its neighbour. The slope of the hills means these mansions appear in neat rows above one another, leaving the visitor spellbound by the man-made beauty. Added to this are lines of sail boats, small ferries, and large yachts bobbing rhythmically on the swell by the quay. 

The wealth of Symi has been based on sponge diving and shipbuilding. Indeed just over a hundred years ago, these two industries meant more people lived in Symi Town than lived in nearby Rhodes Town. Symi has always been famed for its shipbuilding and legend has it that Symi provided 3 ships for the Greeks in the Trojan War. Nowadays tourism is the main earner, with enough expats staying on the island to allow some businesses to remain open all year round. Some of the houses built in the last two centuries have fallen into disrepair and the more you explore, the more ruins you will find. 

Symi Town comprises two different areas, the lower town of Yialos and the upper town of Horio, though there’s no real boundary between the two other than an individual’s physical fitness, as the best way to get between them is the 350-step Kali Strata path, starting from behind a pizza restaurant in Yialos.

Yialos stretches around the main bay into the smaller Harani Bay, the main area for shipbuilding in times past. Some boats are still repaired here, though the majority of the vessels tied to the quay are small, multi-coloured fishing boats, piled high with nets, straight out of a photographer’s dreams. On the hill above is a Greek Orthodox Church. Heading around the headland is one of the ways to get to the community of Emborio with its quiet beach and taverna. Emborio offers great swimming and snorkelling opportunities and the water is incredibly clear – the boats almost appear to be floating on air. It’s a lovely walk to Emborio along the road overlooking the sea, but Symi Town’s land train does come in this direction too and there are also taxi-boats who call in. 


Travels through History – France – Narbonne

Extract from the book ‘Travels through History : France” available here

The Via Domitia was constructed in 118 BC around the same time the first Roman colony in Gaul, Colonia Narbo Martius (Narbonne) was founded. The Via Domitia connected Italy and modern day Spain. The road crossed the Alps by the Col de Montgenèvre, followed the valley of the Durance, crossed the Rhône at Beaucaire passed through Nîmes and headed for Narbonne, where it met the Via Aquitania (which led toward the Atlantic Ocean through Toulouse and Bordeaux).

Narbonne had soon become a crucial strategic crossroads of the Via Domitia and the Via Aquitania, an important place in the Roman Empire. After their sack of Rome in 410 AD, the Visigoths made Narbonne their capital. In 711, Muslims came to Spain from North Africa and in 720 the Saracens occupied La Septimanie, as Narbonne was known in the ancient Visigoth Provence.

In June 732 Sultan Abd el-Rahman conquered Bordeaux, laid siege to Poitiers and marched on Tours. In October 732, The Sultan was defeated and killed by Charles Martel’s Frankish Army at Moussais-la-Bataille (Vienne), 20 km from Poitiers (the Frank’s heavy cavalry wiped out the Saracen’s light cavalry). This didn’t stop the Narbonnaise Saracens attacking Provence and the Rhone valley from 732 to 739. In 739, the son of Charles Martel, Pepin, and Liutprand, king of the Lombards, crushed the Saracens at Marseille and threw them out of Narbonne. The Saracens remained in the south of France until 983 when Guillaume, Count of Provence, captured the Saracen stronghold of la Garde-Freinet.

Narbonne remained relatively peaceful and prosperous until the 14th Century when a change in the course of the River Aude combined with the plague and the effects of the Hundred Years War led to a decline in the city’s economic situation. Today, the city is once again an important transport hub where thousands of people, including me, change trains from the Barcelona – Montpellier line to the Narbonne – Bordeaux line. TGVs serve both lines.

The place to head is the Archbishop’s Palace, or Palais des Archeveques, in the centre of the city where evidence of the Via Domitia have been found. The Palace’s architectural period ranges over 700 years right up to the 19th Century Hotel de Ville built by Viollet-le-Duc, the man responsible for the reconstruction of Carcassonne. When I visited, the courtyards and some of the rooms of the Palace were being used for photographic exhibitions as Euro 2016 was on and there were pictures of previous European championships as well as images of girl’s football teams from around the world. In another courtyard a series of pictures depicted the great era for Narbonne Rugby Club, when the Spanghero brothers were playing for the team. There were similar sports photographic exhibitions by the Canal de la Robine, again in the open air. In Narbonne, they were expecting it not to rain and that no vandals would cause problems, both of which say a lot about the city in the height of summer.   

The archaeological museum in the Palais Neuf at the Palais des Archeveques has one of the finest collection of Roman paintings anywhere in the world. They mainly came from the archaeological site of Clos de la Lombardia to the north of the city where they adorned the homes of the wealthy.

Some of the paintings come from the House of the Genius. This dwelling covered 975 square meters, and the living quarters were open to a garden that was surrounded by porticos. Many rooms in this luxurious mansion were covered with mosaics of black and white stones. The walls were decorated with frescos. Among these were representations of a winged Victoria, of a genius who is carrying a cornucopia and pouring a libation, and of an Apollo with a laurel wreath. The most amazing fact is that these paintings are still in existence given that in the fourth century the house had a basilica built on top of it.

Travels through History – Northern Spain – Valladolid

This book is a travelogue about the cities of northern Spain.

I travelled to Valencia, Barcelona, Pamplona, Burgos, San Sebastian, Valladolid, Segovia, Leon, Gijon, Oviedo, Santiago de Compostela, Pontevedra, A Coruna, and Vigo on board the fast, modern trains of the Spanish railways.

Here is an excerpt about Valladolid:

Valladolid has a bewildering array of churches, statues, palaces, and plazas. I started in the Plaza Mayor built after a fire in the 16th Century. The buildings are all painted in a rich red colour including the Ayuntamiento or City Hall, which takes pride of place on the northern side. This plaza was the first of its kind in Spain and formed the model for similar squares in Spain and most of South America.

Heading due south through an area of shops including the department store El Corte Ingles, you come to the area called Campo Grande on the far side of which is the railway station. The Campo Grande is a park with shade-giving trees containing a small lake with a jet of water. On the southern side is the Oriental Museum and the Iglesia de San Juan de Letran. The Museo Oriental has the largest collection of Oriental art in Spain. The Augustinian Fathers christianized the Philippines and then headed to China and Japan. As they worked in these countries, they collected the best art they could find and sent it back to Spain. These items including ceramics, sculptures and paintings form the basis of the collection in the 18 rooms of the museum.

To the east of the museum is the Plaza de Colon with a large statue of Christopher Columbus. Heading north again, I came to the Casa del Principe, the house of the prince, a residential building, built in 1906 and an outstanding example of art nouveau architecture. The tower sits above the front door, has five storeys, and is topped by a dome. To the east is the Casa de Cervantes where the writer stayed between 1604 and 1606 during his time in the city, during which period Don Quixote was first published. The inside attempts to recreate the atmosphere of a house inhabited by a seventeenth-century Spanish nobleman.

Close by on the Plaza de Espana is the colossal facade of the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz completed in 1963, which can’t be missed because of the large parabolic arches that reach high up on the facade. I will leave it up to you to decide whether the arches are ugly or not.

Heading up Lopez Gamez street brings you to the area near the Cathedral. Before visiting the cathedral, head right along R Hernandez to the Convento de las Salesas with behind it the Casa Colon. Christopher Columbus died in this house in 1506. The museum is spread over four floors and has many interactive exhibits. There are old maps that take you on a journey through Christopher Columbus’s trips to the Americas. The top floor describes Valladolid in the days of the great explorer.

The cathedral dates from the 16th Century and was built on top of the remains of its medieval predecessor. The main point of interest is the retablo mayor by Juan de Juni. Visitors can climb the 70-metre south tower for outstanding views over the city. The main layout was designed by Juan de Herrera in Renaissance style. The original design would have created the largest cathedral in Europe. It was initially planned as the Cathedral for the capital city of Spain, but only 40-45% of the project was completed due to a lack of resources after the royal court moved to Madrid, and because of the expenses incurred when stabilising the foundations of the church.

Around 400 metres north of the cathedral is the Iglesia de San Pablo. If you’re going to see one church in Valladolid, make sure it’s this one. I say this largely because of the carvings on the south-western facade, which are elaborate, beautiful, and numerous. The church was commissioned by Cardinal Juan de Torquemada between 1445 and 1468. Incidentally, the cardinal was the uncle of Tomas de Torquemada, Spain’s first Grand Inquisitor. The church was subsequently extended and refurbished until 1616 with various sponsors and notables asking for additions to the facade. King Philip II and King Philip IV of Spain were baptized in the church.

Beside the seaside: Jay Rayner’s 10 best value places to eat around the British coastline

Oysters in Essex, cheese toasties in Scotland, cod and chips in Cornwall, Jay Rayner on the restaurants, pubs and seafront kiosks worth eating at this summer

Travels through History – Northern Spain – Pamplona

This book is a travelogue about the cities of northern Spain.

I travelled to Valencia, Barcelona, Pamplona, Burgos, San Sebastian, Valladolid, Segovia, Leon, Gijon, Oviedo, Santiago de Compostela, Pontevedra, A Coruna, and Vigo on board the fast, modern trains of the Spanish railways.

Here is an excerpt about Pamplona:

Pamplona is the capital of the Navarre region. In the city, most of the signs are in Spanish and Basque. Pamplona is called Iruna in the Basque language. The city is named after Pompey, the Roman General, who was part of the First Triumvirate (60–53 BC). This was an informal alliance between himself and two other prominent Roman politicians: Gaius Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus, at the end of the Roman Republic.

Pamplona is an important stop for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. I saw scallop shells on pavements all over the city, showing the route to follow to Santiago. A large scallop shell was used as a sign on the exterior wall of a building to indicate this was a hostel where pilgrims could bed down for the night at a favourable rate.

Roncesvalles is just over 30 miles away from Pamplona. Legend has it that here in 778 the Basque tribes defeated the armies of Charlemagne and killed Roland, commander of Charlemagne’s rearguard. This event features in the epic 11th-century poem Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland) and today’s Basques still revere their forefathers for this battle. Camino pilgrims give thanks at the famous monastery in Roncesvalles for a successful crossing of the Pyrenees, one of the hardest parts of the Camino.

Pamplona’s city walls are still much in evidence. I enjoyed the view from the Parque de la Toconera high above the River Arga. The foothills of The Pyrenees looked impressive as was the Portal Nuevo an arched gateway leading into the Old Town. The Portal de Francia behind the cathedral of Santa Maria is well worth seeing too.

They built this church between the 14th and early 16th centuries although the western facade is 18th Century. It’s worth paying the entrance fee to view the fine ceilings of the cloisters, the Barbazana Chapel, the refectory, and the Preious Doorway whose tympanum shows scenes from the death of the Virgin Mary. The finest sight is the tomb of King Carlos III and his Queen, Eleanor, in the nave, a delicate memorial to the couple.

I then enjoyed a pleasant stroll along Ronda Obispo Barbazan on top of the eastern battlements towards the area behind the bullring where there’s a lift down to the canal. This lift is a metallic structure and doesn’t fit in with its surroundings but I am sure the designers regarded it as a bold statement of modern architecture.

Heading back into the centre I passed the statue dedicated to the bull running or encierro. This is an impressive piece of work showing the runners and bulls interacting with each other. One runner has fallen, and a bull is about to charge him with horns lowered. I winced at the impending collision. The other runners keep out of harm’s way and one is waving a newspaper at the bulls.

Nearby is the Plaza de Castillo, located south of the old town of Pamplona and serving as a link between the old town and the new part of the city known as Segundo Ensanche. Like most Spanish squares, it has porticoes on all sides, but there is no uniformity of architectural style as they added the buildings over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries. The facade of the Palacio de Navarra is prominent on the south side and on the eastern side stands the Goyeneche Palace, a baroque palatial house. The square is pedestrians only and at its centre is an 18-metre high music kiosk – what is referred to as a bandstand in the UK – with Ionic columns supporting the roof.

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