Tower to Tower on the Paris Metro

La Defense, the last stop in the Western direction on Metro line 1,  was planned as a business park in 1989. With its iconic Grande Arche, it has become a tourist attraction in its own right.

The area also boasts “Europe’s largest shopping centre,” on 11 hectares of parks and gardens, with elaborate fountains and 60 modern sculptures, including the works of Calder, Miro and Richard Serra. The arch itself is a giant hollow cube spanning an open space large enough to accommodate Notre Dame Cathedral. Two panoramic lifts make the 110-metre ascent to the “Toit” in 66 seconds. Make the ascent to visit the computer museum, where over 200 pieces are displayed, documenting the computer’s evolution since World War II. Exhibits include an early computer so large you are invited “to come inside”, as well as the first desktop and first laptop. There is also a reconstruction of a teenager’s bedroom of 1980, complete with the equipment that he would have needed to download one song in 24 hours.

The Grande Arche itself is a prolongation of the “historic axis” that starts at the Louvre pyramid, continues through the Carrousel Arch, the Place le la Concorde, and the Arc de Triomphe. From the viewing terrace in front of the arch you can take in a spectacular vista that includes not only the axis, but the Seine valley, too.

Le Toit de la Grande Arche is open seven days a week from 10:00 to 19:00 from October through March and until 20:00 during the rest of the year. There’s a “water ballet” at the AGAM Fountain Monday to Friday from 17:00 to 19:00 and Friday and Saturday at 20:30. Download an audio guide to La Defense to your MP3 player from

There is something undeniably exotic about emerging from the Metro right at the foot of a castle; you need only cross a drawbridge over a wide stone-lined moat to enter the grounds of the Chateau de Vincennes. Now the last stop at the Eastern end of Metro number 1, this was the residence of French kings until Louis XIV moved the court to Versailles. It is complete with a medieval keep and dungeon and its own Sainte Chapelle built to house a fragment of the crown of thorns now kept in Paris.   The Chateau began as a Royal hunting lodge in 1150 and was enlarged and modified over the centuries. The picturesque 50-metre high tower was constructed in 1337, making it the tallest medieval fortified structure in Europe. Take a tour of the dungeon, one of whose prisoners was the Marquis de Sade. The Chateau is now the headquarters of the French Historical Service, which maintains a museum in the dungeon.

The Chateau is open every day from 10:00 to 17:00.
For details, visit Metro Line 1: La Defense-Chateau de Vincennes


Weekend with Vincent


Van Gogh arrived in Auvers-sur-Oise by train from Paris on May 21, 1890. He rented an attic room in the Auberge Ravoux for 3.50 francs a week and immediately wrote to his brother Theo in Paris:  ‘Auvers is strikingly beautiful’. Vincent would still find Auvers beautiful and the scenes he immortalised – the church, the town hall, the fields, houses and village streets – very little changed.

Like Van Gogh, I arrived in Auvers on the Paris train and quickly settled into an inn. Not the Auberge Ravoux, because it is now a restaurant called ‘La Maison de Van Gogh’, but the 17th century Hostellerie du Nord, where Cezanne had stayed on his visits to Auvers.

Then I set out along the picturesque pathways of Auvers, eager to see for myself what had drawn so many Impressionists to the village. Reproductions of 19 canvasses, 12 by Van Gogh, are displayed on panels positioned where the originals were painted. It’s as if the artists themselves were pointing out the views that had appealed to them, inviting you to see the landscape through their eyes.

Auvers -only 35 kilometres from Paris -was ‘discovered’ by the painter, Charles-Francois Daubigny.  In Auvers, he built a floating studio on the river Oise,and in 1861 a house and atelier in the centre of the village. Cezanne, Pissarro, Corot, Daumier and Guillaumin were among those who joined him in Auvers, to make up a flourishing artists’ colony.

A Parisian doctor, Paul Gachet – who painted under the pseudonym of Paul van Riesel – also had a house in the village, where he entertained the leading Impressionists. It was the doctor’s kind assurance to Theo that he would keep an eye on his brother’s precarious health that led to Van Gogh’s stay in Auvers. The experiment, which began so promisingly in May, ended only 70 days later with Vincent’s self-inflicted death.

 But in that time he had produced 73 canvasses, drawings and sketches, among them the most celebrated of his works. In 1990, a Japanese businessman bought one of Van Gogh’s two very similar portraits of the physician for 82 million dollars. The other portrait of Dr. Gachet hangs in the Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

The story of Vincent’s time in Auvers is told in a short but moving video presentation at the Auvers Tourist Bureau. The bureau is also the place to pick up the useful maps, setting out three itineraries that retrace Van Gogh’s footsteps. Vincent walked as passionately as he painted, and to cover the entire circuit would take some seven hours. This is one reason not to limit your stay in Avers to a single day. Another is that, by staying the night, you have the chance to see the village in the early morning light and in the evening when it is free of day trippers And the third is that even two days is barely enough in which to see all there is to see.

Visit the early 17th century Chateau d’Auvers, viewing a 90-minute multimedia journey into the world of the Impressionists and a 20-minute 3D film of Van Gogh’s last days in Auvers. The Chateau figured in one of Van Gogh’s paintings and it was within its park that the tormented artist fired a bullet into his own chest. He died two days later in his room in the Auberge, attended by Dr. Gachet.

Spend a moment in Vincent’s room and visit Dr. Gachet’s house, where Van Gogh often shared a meal with the family. Daubigny’s home and atelier, still occupied by Daubigny’s descendants, is open at certain times, too. (Daubigny and his son, the artist Karl Daubigny, helped by Corot and Daumier, decorated its interior walls as a rainy day project! Van Gogh had deeply admired Daubigny and became friendly with the artist’s widow. Van Gogh painted Daubigny’s house and garden more than once.

On my last morning in town I followed the steep road behind the Hostellerie, past the Romano-Gothic church Van Gogh made famous, to the cemetery where Vincent is buried. Theo lies next to him, their twin graves blanketed in ivy and marked by the simplest of headstones. Across the road, stretches a broad field with a reproduction of a Van Gogh landscape posted beside it, a painting he completed 15 days before he fired the fatal bullet. Only here did I fail to share the artist’s vision. I saw a newly planted field on a sunny morning; he saw crows descending on ripe wheat under a doom-laden sky. In a letter to Theo, Vincent wrote of the painting: “ I did not have to go out of my way to express sadness and extreme loneliness.”

GETTING THERE:   A direct train from Paris to Avers operates weekends and holidays from the first weekend in April to the last weekend in October. Leaves Gare du Nord at 10:08 arrrives in Auvers at 10h43. Return leaves Auvers at 18h06, arrives Gare du ord at 18h39.

STAYING THERE: Joel Boilleaut’s Hostellerie du Nord has 8 individually decorated en suite rooms. The restaurant attracts food lovers from far and wide; book ahead.

To book hotel or restaurant visit the website:

AUVERS TOURIST BUREAU, rue de la Sansonne, Auvers-sur-Oise. Open all year, Tuesday-Sunday and holidays (except  Dec 25 and Jan 1) From April through October from 9:30 to 12:30 and from 14h to 18h ;from November to March from 9:30 to 12:30 and from 14h to 17h.


New Wine in Vienna

A Viennese Treat

In 1784, Emperor Joseph II issued a decree allowing vintners to sell their newly fermented wine without tax and directly to the customer. An evergreen bough, a buschen, hanging outside the gate would signal that the wine was ready. Eventually the vintners began providing wooden tables under the arbors for their guests and setting out a variety of snacks to go with the wine. The rustic wine tavern that evolved from this is called a ‘heuriger’, meaning ‘this year’s’, referring to the young wine. Vienna is said to be the home of the heuriger and from there the concept spread across Austria.

A short taxi ride from the city centre brings you to Mayer am Pfarrplatz, a typical heuriger (and Vienna’s smallest vineyard). They mainly produce Gemischter Satz, a blended wine from two or more different grape varieties grown in the same vineyard and vinified together. This wine has gained DAC status. Other white varieties are Grüner Veltliner, Weissburgunder and Rheinriesling. Red wines to try are Blauer Zweigelt, Blauburgunder and Cabernet Sauvignon. Enjoy a relaxed meal or a simple snack with your wine.

Towards the rear of the garden is the entrance to a newly opened museum, the little house where Beethoven lived and worked in 1817 and where he created his Symphony No. 9. For details of the heuriger and of the Beethoven Museum visit: www. 


A Walk Through English Maritime History


One of the most remarkable journeys you can make from London takes less than a half hour from the city centre and only 12 minutes from Canary Wharf. In that time you can travel by express ferry down the Thames to Greenwich to explore a world that has more in common with the 17th than with the 21st century.

 England’s maritime history seems to have come to rest in this green village on the water’s edge. From the Cutty Sark, the last and fastest tea clipper; to the Royal Observatory marking Prime Meridian it’s all here. . an overview of England’s maritime history that’s as enjoyable as a walk in a park. The park in question, Greenwich Park, dating from 1427, is the oldest enclosed Royal Park in the country. The buildings that tell the story are all within it, in easy walking distance of each other…the Queen’s House, the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory.

The village of Greenwich is worth exploring too. Laid out in 1820, it has kept its old-fashioned atmosphere with meandering narrow streets, quirky shops, and the old covered market that comes alive with craft and collectibles stalls Thursday through Sunday.  There are pubs and restaurants including a famous tavern on the water’s edge, the Trafalgar.

Arriving by boat, you’ll see the masts, spars and rigging of the renowned tea clipper, the Cutty Sark, forming a tracery across the sky. Closed in 2007 after a disasterous fire, she has been restored and sits snug in her dry-dock again.  In 1885, the Cutty Sark set the record for a wind-powered voyage from Australia to England, 72 days via Cape Horn, just as the opening of the Suez Canal made her redundant.  Go aboard to see a collection of figureheads and learn something of life at sea in the late 1800s. Open every day (except Dec 24,25,26) from 10 am, last admission 16:30.

The Old Royal Naval College was installed infour symmetrical Baroque buildings designed by Christopher Wren on the bank of the Thames.

It’s at the heart of the most dramatic complex of architecture and landscaping in the British Isles, recognized by UNESCO as the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site.  Visit the chapel in the East Wing with its exquisite pastel plasterwork and the Painted Hall in the West Wing. It took 19 years to complete the allegorical paintings that cover its wall and ceilings. A plaque on the floor commemorates Admiral Nelson’s lying in state in this hall in 1806. The uniform jacket worn by Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, with the fateful bullet hole clearly visible. is displayed in the nearby National Maritime Museum.  This is the biggest maritime museum in the world with three floors of absorbing displays covering a range of themes from explorers of the past to biodiversity. The museum takes full advantage of cutting-edge presentation to bring the story of the sea to life. You may get seasick but you won’t get bored.

 The exquisite ‘Queen’s House’, the first truly classical building in England, is set back from the river and enjoys a glorious view over the park. Designed by Inigo Jones in 1616 for Queen Anne, it was finished after her death by Charles 1st for his French wife, Henrietta Maria, who made it her home.  The Great Hall retains its original painted woodwork and the 1630 marble floor. The beautiful ‘tulip staircase’ was the first cantilevered staircase in Britain. Now part of the National Maritime Museum, the Queen’s House is used to display a selection of the maritime-related paintings and drawings belonging to the museum.

At the top of the hill, and at the top of the ‘must see’ list for Greenwich, stands the Royal Observatory, the home of the Prime Meridian of the World and of Greenwich Mean Time. The walk up the hill to the observatory offers marvelous panoramas but becomes very steep towards the end. An alternative approach is to take the little train that departs for the Observatory from in front of the Maritime Museum on the half hour.

If you have any interest in astronomy, navigation or in under-sung heroes, this is the place to come. The four great timepieces by John Harrison are here. It was Harrison who worked doggedly for 27 years to devise a timepiece accurate enough to determine longitude at sea.  There is also a fascinating collection of original telescopes and regulators in their original settings plus a selection of the museum’s 7,000 scientific instruments. You can visit the octagonal room designed by Christopher Wren in 1675 “for the observer’s habitation and a little for pompe’.

The first Astronomer Royal. Flamsteed worked not here, but in a shed in the garden from which he got a better view of the skies. . His job was to draw a map of the heavens sufficiently accurate for astronomical navigation and he worked at this task nightly for 47 years. This small building became the heart of the expanded observatory. A brass strip on the floor marks the first important Greenwich meridian where Flamsteed set his first astronomical quadrant. There are three later meridian lines, those of Halley, Bradley and Airy- the last was recognized in 1884 as the prime meridian of the world. Straddle it, and you have one foot in the western hemisphere and the other in eastern hemisphere.

A bright red ball on the northeastern turret of Flamsteed house climbs a mast at 12:58 and drops at 13:00 Greenwich Mean Time. So that ships on the River Thames could calibrate their chronometers by its fall, the ball was added to the turret in 1833.

NOTE: The museums are normally open daily from 10:00 with last admission at 18:30, but schedule sometimes varies.  Check with the official site:  for current information. 

GETTING TO GREENWICH: By far the most evocative way is to come downstream on the Thames Clipper Riverline. You can board near the Tower of London, or at later stops along the route such as Canary Wharf. Alternatively, Docklands Light Railway stops at ‘Cutty Sark’ for maritime Greenwich.

STAYING THERE: A modern 151-room hotel within an easy walk of all the sights of Greenwich is the London Greenwich Novotel.


Dresden, Lusting for Gold Discovering Porcelain


Well over 300 years ago, the Saxon Elector Augustus the Strong developed what he called his “porcelain disease”. Obsessed, he squandered immense sums on importing pieces from China and Japan, at that time the only countries in the world with the secret of the manufacture of “white gold”. In 1701,Augustus learned that a 19-year-old apothecary, Johann Friedrich Böttger, claimed to be able to turn lead into gold.Augustus, badly in need of gold to underwrite his extravagant purchases of china, ordered the young man brought to Dresden to demonstrate.Not surprisingly, Böttger’s attempt failed.

 Augustus promptly imprisoned him in the Virgin’s Bastion – underneath today’s Bruhl Terrace.Not content to let Böttger lay idle, Augustus set up a laboratory in the depths of the bastion and instructed Böttger to discover the formula for producing porcelain. Six tormented years later, in December 1707, Böttger showed Augustus the results of the first successful firing of white porcelain. He gradually perfected his technique and in 1709, officially presented his invention.

The next year,Augustus founded a porcelain factory in Dresden.To protect the secret of its production from industrial espionage, the factory and the dwellings of the employees were eventually established at Albrechtsburg Castle in nearby Meissen.The Meissen Porcelain Manufactory is still there and makes a good day trip from Dresden.

For the full, fascinating story of the invention of European porcelain, read Janet Gleeson’s book,  The Arcanum.


Porto and the Wine Lodges


The town of Porto stretches for nine kilometres along the north shore of the Douro, at the point where the river merges with the Atlantic Ocean. Seen from the opposite river bank, from Vila da Gaia, Porto’s time-worn houses seem to puncture the granite bluffs like red-roofed swallow’s nests.  Portugal’s second city is densely populated,  and its manufacturing complexes and suburbs stretch into the hills, but the old town, the designated heritage site, is tidily compact and easily explored. The atmosphere of the late middle ages survives in the network of narrow streets and alleys tumbling down to the riverfront.  The first royal customs house, the 16th century building on the Rua da Alfandega, is said to be where Prince Henry the Navigator was born in 1594.

 The shadowy streets and tiny shops of the old town centre, along with the colourful waterfront of Porto’s Ribeira district, make for very satisfactory sightseeing in themselves, but there’s much more to see. Visit the 12th century fortress- cathedral and the 18th century former prison, which is now Portugal’s Photography Centre.  Climb the 240 steep steps to the top of 18th century Tower of Clerigos – the ‘symbol’ of Porto- for one of Porto’s best views.  Afterwards, cross the street to Lello’s bookshop for a glass of Port or a coffee. It has been described as  ‘the prettiest bookshop in the world’.  Step into the entrance hall of the Sao Bento Railway Station to view the panorama in tile that covers the walls from floor to ceiling.   Take a taxi to Boavista to visit the severely beautiful contemporary art museum set in the gardens of Serralves.  And while you’re in Boavista, make up your own mind about the controversial Casa da Musica. To me it looked like a cement fist bursting up through the pavement.

Back in the centre of the historic old town, not even the most uncommitted tourist should miss the Igreja de Sao Francisco. Gothic on the outside, baroque on the inside, it took hundreds of kilos of gold to make the interior of this plain-faced church look as if it were carved out of a solid gold nugget.   Literally around the corner is the entrance to the extraordinary mid-19th century stock exchange, the Palacio da Bolsa. You must join a guided tour to see the highlights but they include the stupendous Arab Room inspired by the Alhambra in Granada. This opulent ballroom is where Porto’s debutantes were once introduced to society and is now where visiting dignitaries are entertained.

Also inside the Palacio, you can watch a craftsman in a tiny atelier painstakingly producing Porto’s time-honoured gold filigree jewellery. When I was there, examples of his work included an enormous gold pendant priced at 345 euro and a small golden bowknot at 54 euro.

The art of the goldsmith has a long tradition in Porto. In  1521 the king, Dom Manuel I, ordered that a new street be built – Rua das Flores – with shops beneath and apartments above for the many goldsmiths, silversmiths, jewellers and shopkeepers of the wealthy, cosmopolitan city. Rua das Flores still retains its 16th century atmosphere with azulejo-clad facades, iron balconies and ornamental shop names.

This street, like all the streets in the Ribeira area, eventually slides back down to the river.  Here are the waterfront cafes and restaurants, the cheerful souvenir shops, the moorings for riverboats that offer an hour’s tour under the six bridges. A turn to the left brings you along the Cais de Ribeira to the two-level Dom Luis I bridge linking Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia where the port wine is stored. The views from the upper pedestrian walkway of the bridge are superb and those from the walkway on the lower level are almost as good.

But if the view from the top of the bridge is worth the vertigo, and the view from the tower of Clergos is worth the climb, the view of Porto from Vila Nova da Gaia is worth the journey!    Enjoy it from the grassy promenade that leads along the waterfront and from the restaurants and cafes that line the Rua Dr. Antonio Grenjo.  In the foreground are the picturesque old flat boats that once transported the casks of wine from the vineyards further up the Rio Douro. Now they bounce at their moorings, their dangerous work taken over by tanker trucks. Once a year those that are still seaworthy compete in a good-natured race, crewed by company officials.

Across the road from the promenade are some of the 37 port wine lodges of Vila Nova da Gaia. Other lodges range behind them on the hill.  In these cool dark buildings the wine from the designated Douro region ages in mammoth oaken casks until the addition of brandy stops the fermentation. Carefully judged periods of maturation – from three years to more than 20 years- produce the range of ports:  ruby, tawny, late bottled vintage and the sublime ‘vintage’. The wine lodge tour guide will walk you through the process and reward your attention with sips of the final products.

The export trade in port wine began in 1678 and became firmly established following a treaty between Portugal and England in 1703. Many of the port lodges belong to English families still. The house of Sandeman, for example was established by the Scotsman, George Sandeman in 1790 and is currently directed by his namesake, the seventh generation to manage the firm. The Sandeman lodge on Rua Dr. Antonio Grenjo includes a unique Port Museum tracing the history of port wine. It’s open 9:30 am to 12:30 pm and from 2.00 pm to 5.00pm every day of the week April to October but closed weekends November through March.

About half of Vila Nova da Gaia’s storehouses are open to visitors for a tour and a tasting.  Opening days and hours vary. A booklet with all the details, published by the Port Wine Association, is available free from their headquarters at Rua Dr. Antonio Granjo 207.    

Staying there: The four-star Casa Branca ‘Beach and Golf Hotel’ in Vila Nova da Gaia overlooks the Praia de Lavadores, the erstwhile ‘beach of the washer women’. The washerwomen are long gone and their beach transformed by a modest promenade, which runs between the hotel and the rocky shore.   The Casa Branca is tranquil, secluded and only a short taxi ride away from the Old Town, the port wine lodges and several golf courses

Getting there: Porto has an international airport. Vila Nova da Gaia is a comfortable 3-hour train journey from Lisbon.


Tee off in the Azores


The Azores are a group of nine islands off the coast of Portugal . Way off. In fact, they are one third of the way to the United States. Volcanic islands, they surged from the sea millennia ago. The crest of Pico, rising 2,351 metres high out of the Atlantic, is the highest spot in Portugal.  Until recently they’ve been known principally as a sort of stepping stone in the Atlantic, a convenient port of call for everyone from Christopher Columbus to today’s long-distance yachtsmen.

Warmed by the Gulf Stream and favoured by an almost constant ridge of high pressure, the climate is temperate ranging from about 11 to 25C.If you knew the Algarve, back before the building boom transformed it, you’ll know what to expect:  a laid-back holiday with golf the primary attraction and seafood the daily dish.

There are two magnificent courses on Sao Miguel, the main island:  the 27 hole Batalha Golf Course designed by Cameron and Powell and the 18 hole Furnas Golf Course designed by MacKenzie Ross (9 holes) and Cameron Powell (9 holes).  Admittedly you’d want to bring your wets to play them, but that’s the price you pay for courses of dazzling lush green, with vistas so remarkable they could take your mind off your game. They are still so under utilised that they may be the most pristine you’ll ever set foot on.

The Batalha and Furnas, along with their clubhouses, are managed  by Verde Golf, part of Oceanico Developments, which is already a familiar name in the Algarve.

The proximity of the Batalha course to the San Miguel airport at Ponta Delgada is a big plus.  From hotel in to course is a mere 15-minute drive and you’ll tee off virtually without delay.

Take a break from golf and enjoy a bit of whale and dolphin watching. Ferry to the nearby island of Faial and join one of the  whale-watching boat trips leaving from the harbour at Horta. In June, July and August they make two trips a day, 8:30 and 16:30. While you’re on Horta be sure to stop at Peter’s Café for one of his famous gin and tonics. Horta is a stop on the international sailing circuit.  A long section of the marina is patterned with colourful paintings done by ship’s crews… a superstition holds it’s bad luck to depart Horta without ‘leaving your mark.’

Try out the other islands too, Hire a car, the roads are good and traffic light to non-existant.   Soak in a thermal pool. Walk or bike for miles in landscapes alive with wild hydrangea, camellia and azalea. Buy local cheeses. Try some of the wine produced on tiny pockets of earth parceled off in a network of lava –stonewalls. Enjoy a meal steamed in a geyser. Eat seafood everywhere. The flavour and texture of the fish from this unpolluted sea is unforgettable,

Staying There:

The nearest hotel to the Ponta Delgada airport and to the Batalha course is a modern 211-room 4 star hotel at the upper edge of town, the VIP Executive, Rotunda de Sao Goncalo Papa Terra, 9500 Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel; email: Website:

The Camoes Hotel is a 35-room, four star hotel in a restored 19th century building.  In the centre of the old town it’s further from airport and golf course by 20 minutes or so but close to shops and a variety of restaurants. Camoes Hotel, Largo do Camoes 38, 9500-304 Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel; email:; website:


Unforgettable Dublin

Dublin’s tourist allure is infectious. People make you welcome, the vibe is relaxed, when it rains there’s always a  warm pub a few steps away. There’s plenty to see and a hop-on-hop-off bus links the most popular tourist sites. In principle you get off where you choose, explore, and then hop on the next bus.But chances are you’ll find the-board commentator so entertaining you might just stay on.

I visited the city for the first time decades ago and, in a sense, never did hop off. Dublin is home now. Visitors ask me what to see, and I’ve drawn up a list (given below). But I still recommend the bus tour. It’s the best way to get an overview and decide what to visit later.  I’ve known people to be in despair because they failed to visit Dublin Castle which, as it happens, isn’t on my list at all.

Here are the things that are on my list:

 Grafton Street — particularly on a sunny Saturday when buskers dot the busy thoroughfare. The street music can range from a string quartet to a tin whistle. I wouldn’t bother with the shops, though — they’re mostly branches of British stores. You might make an exception for Brown Thomas with its famous doorman.

Archbishop Marsh’s Library near St. Patrick’s Cathedral is a perfectly preserved scholars’ library established in 1701. Its most important manuscript — Lives of the Irish Saints -written in Latin, dates from 1400. Marsh’s is closed on Tuesdays and Sundays, and times of opening on other days require forward planning. But it most emphatically repays the effort.

Dublin Writer’s Museum on Parnell Square is a shrine to the writers who have made Dublin famous and is well worth the pilgrimage. Plenty of books, letters, portraits and personal items. There’s a bookshop and a pleasant coffee shop, too, all housed in a magnificent 18th century mansion.

The GPO on O’Connell Street was the main stronghold of the Irish Volunteers during the Easter Rising of 1916. You can still spot the bullet holes on the pillars outside. And inside, plaques capture the significance of this historical focal point.

The Trinity College quadrangle is a popular tourist attraction where time stands still in the centre of the capital city. Join the queue to see the 9th century Book of Kells now enshrined in an orientation centre on the Trinity campus.

Call in at the Shelbourne Hotel on St Stephen’s Green for afternoon tea in the Lord Mayor’s Lounge.  Afterwards, wander into the Shelbourne’s Museum, a little treasury of artefacts from the hotel’s long history. White cotton gloves are provided for you  to wear when turning the fragile pages of the old guest books.

Dublin Writer’s Museum on Parnell Square is a shrine to the writers who have made Dublin famous.

The cobbled precincts of Temple Bar are also a must. Wander, check out the shops but keep an eye out for Merchant’s Arch. Pass under it and you’re at the famous Ha’penny Bridge, one of the dearest relics of Dublin’s long history.

The Georgian House, “Number 29” at Merrion Square, offers a wonderful insight into the domestic world of the well-off middle classes who lived in the elegant buildings which line so many Dublin

The Little Museum of Dublin, just a minute’s walk from Grafton Street, is in a beautiful Georgian townhouse at 15 St. Stephen’s Green.A sort of ‘people’s museum’ of 20th century Dublin, every item has been donated by a member of the public.  Look in for a glimpse of the interior plus memorabilia of U2, James Joyce, JFK. There’s a flight of steps up to the  front door . Wheelchair users are invited to telephone  661 1000 in advance for assistance.Open seven days a week from 11 am to 8 pm.

The Chester Beatty Museum, behind Dublin castle, is an 18th century clock tower with modern extensions. It contains a unique legacy — thousands of priceless manuscripts and precious items amassed by Ireland’s first honorary citizen, the New York-born Chester Beatty. He left it all to the Irish people on his death in 1968. The Islamic Collection is world-famous.

 But let’s say you see none of the above and you also miss the Tara Brooch, the Ardagh Chalice, plus the finest horde of prehistoric gold in Europe, all at the National Museum, as well as the dazzling Millennium Wing at the National Gallery and Christ Church cathedral with its hallowed remains.

And let’s say you do spend your day wandering aimlessly, enjoying the streetscapes, perhaps browsing for antiques or second-hand books. And in the evening, venture into a shabby-looking pub where there’s Irish music going hammer and tongs and you order a pint and let the evening slip by as you talk to the locals or let them talk to you. Because if you do, chances are you’ll come away feeling you know Dublin well. And no one would argue with you, least of all me.

The Best of Irish Dublin

Little by little, Dublin has evolved into a European city. Where once it was difficult to discover the Irishness of Dublin beneath its colonial legacy, it’s now a challenge to discern it under its European one. But there it surely still remains.

Where to stay: I like the Clarence at 6/8 Wellington Quay. On the edge of Temple Bar, on the banks of the River Liffey. It’s an authentic “arts and crafts” building, restored to the height of quiet sophistication by the Dublin rock group U2.

Where to eat: European restaurants abound, but for a taste of traditional Irish dishes, it’s the Old Dublin on Francis Street or the Boxty House in Temple Bar.

Shopping: For superb contemporary Irish design and craftsmanship in jewellery, textiles and turned wood, visit the gift shop at the National Museum, Kildare Street. For Irish woolens with flair, including things for children, Avoca Handweavers on Suffolk Street. At the end of Johnson’s Court — off Grafton Street — you’ll find the Powerscourt Townhouse, a shopping centre devised from Lord Powerscourt’s 18th century mansion. On the top floor, the Design Studio is a showcase for Irish-label high-fashion. The antiques gallery on the first floor is a good place to hunt for Irish silver. On the north bank of the river, at 5 Lower Ormond Quay, the Irish Historical Picture Company stocks hundreds of old postcards and photos of Ireland, organised by place name.

Tours: Choose between literary pub crawls, a musical pub crawl, a 1916 Rebellion walking tour and a number of other historical walking tours. Commentary is authoritative, amusing or both. In addition to the hop-on-hop-off bus, there’s a manic outing in an amphibious craft which rumbles around Dublin for 55 minutes, than splashes into the Grand Canal harbour for another 20, weather permitting. The Viking Splash Tour encourages passengers to wear Viking headgear and roar at pedestrians. More fun than I’m prepared to admit.


Day out: If you have time for only one excursion, make it Glendalough, the ruins of a monastic settlement south of Dublin set in the misty hills of Wicklow. Its stone-roofed chapel, round tower, high crosses and ancient cemetery lie wrapped in the solemn atmosphere of 6th century Ireland. It’s even more beautiful in the rain. 

For details of locations, opening hours, and tours, visit the Dublin Tourism Centre, Suffolk Street, which is also just off Grafton Street.


Unmissable London

Even if you’ve never been in London before, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey will look familiar to you. This iconic cluster of spires and towers spells “London” to people the world over. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and London’s number one tourist attraction.Ancient as it appears, however, the splendid Gothic Revival building in which the Houses of Parliament hold their sessions is surprisingly new; it replaced the Palace of Westminster destroyed by fire in 1834.

 Big Ben, the 13-ton bell in the clock tower, first rang out its variation on a theme from Handel’s Messiah in 1859. Westminster Abbey, on the other hand, is authentically, awesomely, old. British Monarchs have been crowned here since 1066. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the soaring vaulted ceiling, the stained glass, the monuments and memorials, which range from effigies of Elizabeth I and her half-sister, Mary Queen of Scots to statues of 10 contemporary martyrs, including Martin Luther King Jr.

Find your way through the cloisters to the Abbey Museum. This modest room houses the oldest known panel painting in England. A 13th century retable, it was taken down from the High Altar in the
16th century and by the 18th it was being used as the lid of a chest. It was sent for restoration in 1998 and returned to the Abbey in 2005. And if you’ll settle for paste gems instead of the real thing you can save yourself a trip to the Tower of London to see the Crown jewels. Replicas of the Coronation Regalia, used for rehearsals of the ceremony, are displayed here. (The museum is “usually” open every day but only from 10.30 to 16.00 on Sundays.)

The Abbey’s College Garden is another hidden treasure. This leafy space is open throughout the year but is especially beautiful in the spring when its apple and cherry trees are in bloom. In the summer, lunchtime band concerts are sometimes held. (Garden is open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; in winter from 10.00 to 16.00, in summer from 10.00 to 18.00.)

The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre across Broad Sanctuary from the Abbey was finished in 1986; it included a bug-proof room on the fourth floor for Prime Minister Thatcher’s top-level meetings.

Visit Big Ben, Parliament and Westminster Abbey

 Only UK residents may climb the clock tower’s 335 stairs to see Big Ben (to be rechristened Elizabeth Tower.. Big Beth?), but all are welcome to visit the Houses of Parliament (for details, see To tour Westminster Abbey, simply pick up an audio guide, free with your ticket. If you prefer to wander on you own, your queries will be answered by one of the colourfully gowned Abbey staff members. (The Abbey is closed to tourists Saturday afternoon and Sunday; otherwise, last entrance at 15.30 or 18.00 on Wednesday.) Experience the Abbey as a living church by attending evensong, sung by the Westminster Abbey Choir. (Evensong sung at 15.00 Saturday and Sunday, and at 17.00 on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. On Wednesday, the service is spoken.)

For sidelights on London, stroll down Parliament Street…

From Broad Sanctuary and Parliament Street to Trafalgar Square is less than a mile – but it’s a mile packed with insights into London history.

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom occupies the restored art deco building at the corner. Visitors are welcome to drop in on court hearings and watch bewigged barristers at work. The atrium coffee shop is open to the public.

The Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms are tunnelled under Government Buildings (detour down King Charles Street). This is the secret bunker from which Winston Churchill directed World War II. The warren of 27 rooms includes all the necessary offices, plus Mrs Churchill’s bedroom with chintz covered arm chair. (Open daily, last admission 17.00.)

Downing Street leads off Parliament Street but iron gates block access. Join the sightseers on the left for the best view of the Prime Minister’s home at Number 10.

Where Parliament Street becomes Whitehall, mounted cavalrymen stand guard under twin arches. Since 1750, this has been the Household Cavalry’s headquarters; here it prepares for ceremonial work such as the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Walk under the arch to the Household Cavalry Museum. Inside, through a glass partition, you can glimpse the day’s work being carried out in the stables. (Open daily until 17.00.)

Directly across Parliament Street, visit the Banqueting House designed by Indigo Jones for King James in 1622; its crowning glory is an astonishing ceiling by Rubens. The Banqueting House was designed as the setting for royal masqued balls, but is best remembered as the site of King Charles’s execution in 1649. (Open 10.00 to 17.00. Closed Sunday and for private functions.)

In Trafalgar Square – the geographical centre of London – a statue of Lord Nelson surveys the traffic from his plinth. Behind him, the huge National Gallery houses one of Europe’s major collection’s of European paintings. (Open until 18.00 but on Friday until 21.00.)

Around the corner from the gallery is the porticoed entrance to St Martin-in-the-Fields. Don’t fail to experience the sublime interior of this 18th century church. It features an intriguing East Window, designed by an Iranian-born artist. The church holds free concerts, usually at 13.00 and 19.45. The popular “Cafe in the Crypt” is downstairs.

Something to read:

If the War Rooms under Whitehall kindle your imagination, you’ll love Double Cross: the True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre.

The five key D-Day spies were one of the oddest military units ever assembled: a bisexual Peruvian playgirl, a tiny Polish fighter pilot, a Serbian seducer, a wildly imaginative Spaniard with a diploma in chicken farming, and a hysterical Frenchwoman whose obsessive love for her pet dog very nearly wrecked the entire deception. Read it and wonder how they kept it all straight.. and made a massive contribution to winning the war.

France/Italy Welcome

Another Side to Venice

In his Companion Guide to Venice, the British art historian Hugh Honour wrote that to approach Venice in any way but by sea “is like entering a palace through the back door”.

To understand what he means take a water taxi from the airport. From your boat your first view of the city is the majestic white dome of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute. Punctuating the low skyline of Venice, as indistinct in its envelope of mist as a painting by Turner or Monet, it is the iconic symbol of Venice.

In Venetian terms, the church is not old; it dates from the mid-17th century when it was built in thanksgiving to “Our Lady of Good Health”, whose intercession was credited with halting a plague that had raged for two years and killed more than one-third of the population of Venice. The competition for the design of the church was won by an unknown, 26-year-old architect, Baldassare Longhena. He promised a building that would be “strange, worthy, and beautiful”. And that does describe Longhena’s octagonal Venetian Baroque building which, though supported by over one million wooden piles, seems to float near the tip of the Dorsoduro, the west bank of the Grand Canal.

One of the six sestieri or areas of Venice, the Dorsoduro (Italian for “hard ridge”) has always been considered less fashionable than the facing bank which is home to St Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace. But from the tourist’s point of view that works in Dorsoduro’s favour. Far less congested and in many ways more atmospheric than the sestieri across the Grand Canal, the area is mysterious and misty in the winter and in summer cooler and more tranquil. With its narrow streets and hidden alleys, Dorsoduro yields up its treasures one by one as if it were turning over playing cards. Although it’s linked with the opposite shore by the Accademia Bridge and the number one waterbus, you can make crossing the Grand Canal an authentic Venetian experience in itself; take the traghetto that runs during daylight hours from a “campo del traghetti” near the Guglie waterbus stop. (Yellow signs on house walls point you to it.) Traghetti are old gondolas, their seats stripped out to make room for passengers who stand on the short crossing, contriving to keep their balance even when the traghetto crosses the wake of a motorboat. You pay your 50 cent fare to the oarsman on arrival at a little wooden pier convenient to La Salute, the new Punta del Dogana art gallery and the Peggy Guggenheim collection of modern art.

If this very Venetian ride across the Grand Canal isn’t excuse enough to make the excursion, here are six more good reasons to visit

1. Experience La Salute

The No 1 waterbus brings you right to the steps of the church; if you come by traghetto, turn left from the landing and a short walk will bring you there. Enter this Baroque masterpiece to admire the ceiling panels by Titian and Tinteretto’s famous painting, the Marriage at Cana. On the feast day of Santa Maria della Salute, November 21, a temporary pontoon bridge links La Salute with the San Marco district. Venetians carrying candles walk across to pay their respects and gondoliers bring their oars for a blessing.

2. Visit the Punta della Dogana

The only building further out to sea than La Salute, is the low-lying Dogana, a 17th century maritime Customs House remodelled by the Japanese architect, Tadao Ando into a chic contemporary art gallery; it opened in June 2009 to house one-half of the ongoing ‘Mapping the Studio’ exhibition made up of art works belonging to the French billionaire Francois Pinault. The other half of the exhibition can be seen in the Palazzo Grassi which also belongs to Mr

The two museums share a
Opening hours are 10:00 to 19:00, with the last entrance at 18:00.
Closed Tuesdays and from December 24 to January 2.

3. Stroll down the Zattere quay

If you follow around the tip of the Dorsoduro you find yourself on the Zattere, a picturesque promenade lined with 15th and 16th century palazzi and churches which front on the Giudecca Canal. Zattere means ‘raft of logs’, and it was here that the wood that floated down river from the Dolomites was landed to be made into ships’ masts and pilings for the city of Venice. Today the Zattere is popular with Venetians for its restaurants (including one whose dining tables are set out on a platform in the water) and Gelateria Nico, which serves what many claim to be the city’s best ice cream.

4. See a gondola repair shop

Turn left off the Zattere at the fondamento that runs along the Rio San Treviso. From here you have the best view of the boatyard, the squero. New gondolas are rarely made here (there are three other boatyards in the city) but when they are, they are built traditionally from seven kinds of wood in a process that takes up to two months to complete. The principal work in this boatyard is the repairing and maintaining of the 350 gondolas still in service in Venice. The picturesque Tyrolian-looking wooden buildings that surround the squero have been home to the same owners for generations and are the original workshops, dating from the 17th century.

5. Visit the Accademia Gallery

This museum covering five centuries of Venetian painting up to the 19th century is so huge – 24 rooms – you should plan your visit in advance, it’s also a good idea to buy your ticket online and save queueing. The Accademia was founded in 1750 as an art school, but had several homes before its move in 1807, under Napoleonic edict, to the present location at the foot of the bridge of the same name. It benefitted from Napoleon’s suppression of religious schools and convents, acquiring many extraordinary works of art.

The gallery is open every day from 8:15, closes at 19h every day but Monday when it closes at 14h. You can find descriptions of the exhibitions – to help you decide which rooms to visit – as well as online ticket purchase at

6. Relax at the Peggy Guggenheim museum.

This small palazzo, with its breathtaking view of the Grand Canal, was where the American millionaire collector lived. The rooms in which her sensational assemblage of modern art is shown still feel ‘domestic’. You can easily imagine the parties, the drinks on the terrace, the lifestyle she led here surrounded by her treasured collection. At the back of the garden is a café where you can enjoy a coffee or a light lunch. Open every day from 10:00 to 18:00. Closed on Tuesdays and on Christmas Day.

For further details, visit:

Take the taxi!

Book your water taxi on arrival in the airport – there’s a desk in the arrivals’ hall – or, pre-book at or Expensive — but way to go!