The 50 best UK pubs

The pub is a great British invention. Here, experts pick their favourites for Sunday lunch, picturesque settings, craft beer, history and more. All (but one) are child- and dog-friendly

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.

10 of the best places to eat in Marrakech, Morocco

Food from these colourful markets, street-food stalls and cafes is not only delicious, it’s often cheap, too – and a great way to explore this bustling city

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 – France – Provence

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

Gordes looks spectacular as it tumbles down the hillside towards the Luberon Valley. The houses and hotels appear well-kept and largely unspoilt with clumps of trees and the occasional swimming pool breaking up the sporadic pattern of buildings. Gordes doesn’t immediately strike the visitor as a place where wealthy people live, but that is probably the appeal. Gordes is classified as one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, one of just 156 French villages with that classification.


Around a hundred years ago, Gordes would have looked very different. Dilapidated houses were being abandoned by the villagers and the whole village was falling into ruin. This began to change slowly once Cubist painter André Lhote discovered Gordes in 1938 followed by Marc Chagall, Victor Vasarely and other modern artists who visited and spent the summer in Gordes. Gradually, Gordes became the place where painters, musicians, and film directors wanted to be seen. The houses were restored and the prices soared as artists took a second home in Gordes.


Today, Gordes is one of the most visited places in The Luberon with some of the most costly housing on the planet. The art shops are expensive as are most of the places to eat. However, most visitors seem to amble around the castle and main square, so the back streets tend to be almost deserted allowing the lucky visitor to sample the quietness with just the bees buzzing in the bougainvillea and birds singing in the sunshine. There is a chance to admire the cobblestones, the lovingly restored walls, and the intricate chimneys and roofs.


There is a view over the valley towards the village of Roussillon, which is built on ochre. In between Gordes and Roussillon are some of the most photographed fields in the world. Here is grown lavender in lovely lines disappearing into the horizon. Surely there is no other place in the world with such vibrant and contrasting colours as ochre and lavender in this close a proximity. However, all is not sweetness and light. When the lavender is blooming there is a stampede of photographers to certain places with views of the purple-streaked fields, so much so that the police have to restrict access. In 2015, one photographer tried to mow down with his car some people he felt had deliberately got in the way of his potential prize-winning photograph. Luckily, he missed the people and hit a telegraph pole instead. There are murky, hidden depths even in the loveliest countryside.


Roussillon is another beautiful village teeming with tourists drawn by the ochre cliffs and the colours of the village houses, which reflect the seventeen different ochre tints once quarried here. However, after I passed the shops selling lavender products for all occasions, the streets were nearly deserted and I was able to admire the semi-detached houses with shutters painted in strikingly different colours from their walls and doors. A funeral cortege was making their way through the village and a book of condolences was open on a pedestal by the side of the road. Local people stopped and nodded their head as the procession passed them on the way to the church.   


The ochre quarry is close to the centre of the village and there is a trail around it called the Sentier des Ocres. There are two actual circuits, one shorter than the other, taking visitors through the multi-coloured former quarry, which was of the main contributors towards the tens of thousands of tons of ochre that was exported around the world between the early 1800s and 1958. Production then stopped because the quarrying was undermining the village – there are limits after all. There are still other working ochre quarries in the area, but their output is low compared to the heyday of 1929 when 40,000 tons of ochre was transported around the world from the quarries of Provence.


Les Baux-de-Provence, north-east of Arles, occupies one of the ridges of the Alpilles hills. Visitors have to leave their vehicles outside the village and walk up to the historical centre. Entrance to the fortress above the town is at the far end of the village. The buildings are almost all 16th- and 17th-Century churches and mansions hosting museums such as the art in the Hotel de Manville and the nativity figures in the Musee des Santons.


The main attraction in Les Baux is the Chateau, the fortress above the village, which was razed to the ground on Cardinal Richelieu’s orders. Siege engines and catapults lie around on the bleak plateau, skeletal reminders of the weapons of war of the 17th-Century, although these replicas are used for occasional re-enactments of the brutality of sieges four hundred years ago. The views over Provence and towards the Mediterranean are worth lingering over with many olive trees in the fields closest to Les Baux.


The ruins are fun and enough of the fortress has been recreated to give the visitor some idea of the size and defensive strength of the place. The Coat of Arms on the flag fluttering from the highest tower is that of the Lords of Baux with the 16-point silver star of the Nativity. The village became a centre of Protestantism in the early 1600s and tried a rebellion against the crown. In 1631, tired of conflict, the people negotiated with Louis XIII for the redemption of the castle territory and the right to dismantle the fortifications.


The name bauxite – aluminium ore – is derived from Les Baux where it was first discovered by geologist Pierre Berthier in 1821. The mines were in the area named Val d’Enfer to the north of the village. Dante visited this area of twisted rocks in around 1307 and drew sufficient inspiration from the weirdness he had seen to write the Inferno. The mines eventually closed at the end of the 20th Century and now they form part of an audiovisual experience using the post-industrial landscape to great effect.This attraction is called Carriere de Lumieres and as visitors proceed through the exhibition images are constantly projected on to all the surfaces. The theme of the imagery changes from year to year.    


St-Remy-de-Provence is inextricably linked with Vincent van Gogh because of the year the artist spent at the St-Paul-de-Mausole psychiatric hospital in the town. 150 of his most famous paintings were inspired by the surrounding area. He was not confined to the hospital, but couldn’t go more than an hour’s walk away. The places where he painted some of his most famous work are indicated, although the subjects of the paintings as Van Gogh painted them are not always still there. St-Paul-de-Mausole is still a hospital and art therapy forms part of the treatment of the patients.


Near to the hospital, and separated from it by a road and fields of sunflowers, are two Roman structures called Les Antiques that originally marked the entrance to the Roman town of Glanum. One is a triumphal arch commemorating the Roman conquest of Marseilles and the other is a mausoleum to two grandsons of the Emperor Augustus. Greek colonists from Marseilles built a town at Glanum between the second and first centuries BC. Then the Romans came along and built another town which lasted until the 3rd Century AD. The main reason for building a town here was a spring, which not only allowed people to bathe in its health-benefitting waters but also meant water could be used to feed the Roman baths and to provide underfloor heating in their houses. Those Romans were so clever and, once again, all of this was done 2000 years ago.          

Swap stops: Barter Week offers ‘free’ stays in exchange for skills

With properties in more than 60 countries, the world’s first Barter Week will allow the budget-conscious to swap goods or expertise for accommodation