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!

Spain/Portugal Welcome

More to See in Barcelona

If you’re already familiar with Barcelona’s five top tourist sights, what next?

1) If you’ve seen the Sagrada Familia, then visit a secular masterpiece of Modernista architecture the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau. Another of Barcelona’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites this one was designed by Lluis Domènech i Montaner in 1903 to express his belief in architecture as therapy. It is still a fully functioning hospital (though it appeared as language school in Woody Allen’s film, ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona.’) Guided tours in English at 10:15 and 12:15 daily.

2)If you’ve visted the Cathedral of Barcelona with its ornately carved organ stalls, discover Santa Maria del Mar, the church beloved by Barcelona’s residents.  Despite being torched by anarchists in 1936 this medieval basilica with its beautiful 15th century rose window, still exudes an impressive serenity. The building of the church during the Spanish Inquisition is the background to a prize-winning novel  ‘The Cathedral of the Sea’ (lldefonso Falcones 2006).

3)If you know the Boqueria Market. wander through the Mercat Santa Caterina, just down the street from the Cathedral. From a distance you will spot the huge undulating canopy – a mosaic of 325,000 multicoloured Spanish tiles- that stylishly covers what was a rundown neo-classic market.   Enric Miralles who also worked on the Scottish Parliament Building was one of the building’s designers.

4)If you’ve been to the Picasso Museum, take the funicular up to Monjuic to the splendid Fundació Joan Miró. Housed in one of the word’s outstanding museum buildings (designed by Sert) Miró’s vibrant abstracts have a worthy home. Calder’s ‘Mercury Fountain’, a tribute to the mercury miners of Almaden, is here too.

5) If you’ve walked the length of the Ramblas.  you surely will find yourself walking it again.  Built over a dried-up riverbed it is itself like a river – its population of strolling pedestrians, bizarre living statues, flowers, birds and small animals for sale is constantly changing.  And look for the inlaid mosaics by Joan Miró. .. a large white circle bordered in grey with blue and yellow circles within  it. The artist’s signature is on a tile on the perimeter.


Day Out From Stockholm

If you tried to invent the perfect destination for a day out from Stockholm, it would be hard to improve on Sigtuna.  Situated not far from Arlanda airport, it is a picturesque, lakeside village full of history, old buildings, and enough cafes, restaurants and little shops to round out a visit nicely.

Sigtuna Main Street

From the point of view of history, Sigtuna has a head start. It is Sweden’s oldest mediaeval town. Dating from 980 AD, its single main street still winds along the same narrow route as it did in the middle ages. Of course many of the old houses have disappeared and all but one of the churches, but those that remain are original, standing where they were built.  Beckoning laneways- some of whose Swedish names translate evocatively into Crooked, Broad, Cross, Long and Noisy – lead down from the main street to the lake.

Sigtuna’s main street  is lined with tiny shops.  Its tiny ‘Main Square’ holds an even tinier town hall, the smallest in Sweden, maybe in Europe.  Built in 1744, it contains royal portraits, baroque chairs and a crystal chandelier. It’s small but sophisticated, and the same can be said of Sigtuna. The shops may be picturesque old wooden buildings, but the merchandise is surprisingly stylish with cutting-edge clothing designs and expe nsive handicrafts, too.  In addition to clothing shops, Sigtuna’s bookshops, antique shops, and toyshops can keep a browser entertained for hours. Take a break, though, in the ice cream shop or perhaps ‘Tant Brun’s, where homemade cakes are served with coffee from a copper pot. The café is in the oldest house in Sigtuna-late 17th century.  Most visitors will have to bend sharply to enter through the low doorway.

Thanks to the curious custom of jettisoning rubbish into the street and then covering it over with planks as needs be, recent excavations have revealed the town’s domestic history. You can explore it for yourself in Sigtuna’s appealingly undemanding museum, housed in a red wooden house at the end of the main street.

Staying overnight in Sigtuna

This could become the highlight of a visit if you secure a booking at the 26-bedroom  “1909 Sigtuna Stads Hotell” at the Western end of Sigtuna’s main street. Sweden’s ‘smallest five star hotel’ it is one of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World and routinely plays host to visiting dignitaries; US President Lyndon Johnson stayed here when attending the funeral of Dag Hammarskjöld’s funeral in Uppsala.  It has all the facilities of a very modern hotel, but was meticulously restored in 2001 in pure 1909 style. Wooden paneling and carvings recreate the atmosphere that King Gustav V knew on his visits. The rooms and restaurant, which serves Swedish food with an international touch, are decorated in pared-down Scandinavian style.   The hotel is a 15-minute journey from Arlanda airport. Details at www.


At Home in Rome’s Wine Academy

Il Palazzetto has its feet on the ground on Vicola del Bottino but its head in the air. Its rooftop terrace looks out across Rome’s famous Spanish Steps. In between are the five elegant floors of the International Wine Academy of Roma.

For centuries, Il Palazzetto was one of the favourite residences of an aristocratic Roman family. Abandoned in 1980, it lay empty until 1998, when film director Bernardo Bertolucci used it as the setting for L’assedio (The Besieged), the story of a pianist’s romantic pursuit of a beautiful African servant.

In September 2002, Il Palazzetto opened as the “Wine Academy of Roma,” an informal club and meeting place for wine lovers. Today, a pre-dinner guided wine tasting in the library, or a gastronomic lunch or dinner in the garden (roofed and heated in winter), is the kind of refined delight which makes Rome “Rome.” The work of transforming an abandoned historical building into a luxurious and welcoming setting for the appreciation of fine wine took three years. It began when Roberto Wirth, owner and manager of Rome’s ultra-prestigious Hotel Hassler, acquired Il Palazzetto in 1999. He decided, along with a group of like-minded friends, to express his own enthusiasm for fine wines and food by making Il Palazzetto the headquarters of an International Wine Academy.

The subsequent renovation of the palazzo brought to light ancient materials and finishes such as the original marble pavement of the ground floor which dates from the year 500AD, and the wrought iron of the magnificent spiral staircase, dating to the end of the 1800s. As other architectural details were uncovered, they were restored and reinstated, bringing the building back to harmonious life.

Responsibility for coordinating the educational activities of the Academy was entrusted to Steven Spurrier, who established the Wine Academy of Paris in 1973 and the wine course at Christie’s in 1982. He orchestrates the daily wine tastings, the lunches and dinners at which food and wine are carefully matched, and the various educational courses, which are held at the Academy on a half-day, weekly or full week basis.

Four beautiful bedrooms – one with frescoed walls – have been opened on the upper floors of Il Palazzetto making it possible for a lucky few to stay in an historical palace in the heart of Rome.

Wine tastings, guided by a master sommelier, are held Monday to Friday between 6 and 7 pm. A platter of gourmet cheeses and cured meats accompanies the tastings. €20 per person; reservations are essential. For those who prefer to taste wine on their own, Il Palazzetto’s wine bar is ideal for a casual glass of wine; there are 400 to choose from, along with a cheese and meat platter or an appetiser. Il Palazzetto’s restaurant, under Chef Antonio Martucci, serves modern Italian fare combining fresh ingredients in adventurous ways.

For more information, or to make a reservation for a wine tasting, lunch or dinner: telephone +39-06-699-0878; email; visit; or write Il Palazzetto, Wine Academy of Roma, Vicolo del Bottino, 800187, Rome, Italy.

Il Palazzetto’s bedrooms each come with stylish bath en suite and continental breakfast. For full details and to book visit

France/Italy Welcome

Four Layers of Rome

Rome is built on a crust of history. It seems that wherever they break through, a secret museum is found lying beneath the ground. Currently, some 400 excavations are accessible, varying in degree of difficulty presented by the site and in terms of the amount of red tape required to arrange a visit.

One which requires no forward planning, but offers an easy walk through a four-layer cross section of Roman history, is the medieval Church of St Clemente. Simply descend a staircase in the nave to arrive in an earlier Basilica, larger than the one above it, built around 375 AD.

Both churches are richly decorated, the 12th century church with mosaics, the earlier one with frescoes. Sacked by the Normans, it became the foundation for the present church and lay forgotten until 1827 when a determined priest started the 40-year excavation project that brought it to light.

Down a further level is one of the best preserved shrines to Mithras yet found under Rome. This Persian religion, popular with the Imperial soldiers, had more followers than Christ at the beginning of the 4th century. The religion involved the sacrifice of a bull, and in the floor is the channel down which the blood of the animals ran. There are rooms with stuccoed ceilings, the dining room with stone benches, and what is thought to have been a schoolroom for young initiates.

Finally, under this pagan temple, you visit the still unexcavated foundations of the Roman buildings burned in Nero’s great fire and walk the cobbles of a 1,900-year-old Roman street, now 30 feet underground. The Church of San Clemente is at Via San Giovanni in Laterno, open every day from 9.00 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. and from 3.30 p.m. to 6.30 p.m.


In Sicily? Visit Syracuse

Syracuse Harbour

Syracuse, on Sicily’s southeastern coast, has been an important city for 27 centuries. It has broad avenues, a busy harbour and some splendid baroque architecture.

It also has some of  the best Grecian ruins on the island. In the Piazza Pancali, flanked by an open market and a row of office buildings, stands the enormous temple to Apollo, the largest existing Doric temple in Western Europe.A few streets away, an ornate 18th century cathedral has all but swallowed the imposing remains of a 6th century BC temple to Minerva.The massive columns stand out clearly against the Duomo’s interior walls.

 Near it are stone quarries and enormous caves. One of the caves is called the “Ear of Dionysius” because its extraordinary acoustics supposedly allowed the tyrant Dionysius to eavesdrop on the prisoners held within it.The tomb of the scientist Archimedes, who was born in Syracuse in 287 BC, is in the northwest corner of the Neapolis.

A modern Archeological Museum was opened in 1988 to exhibit the fruits of a 20-year dig in the area. Its outstanding treasures are the “Venus Anadyomene,” a Roman copy of a Greek statue and an enthroned goddess dating from the 6th century BC. It’s an easy-to-visit museum with a wealth of geological and historical artifacts. In the centre of one room stand  two rather forlorn plaster casts about the size of small ponies – the skeletons of prehistoric male and female dwarf elephants.The female seems to have a huge eye socket in the middle of her forehead and it’s thought this gave rise to the Cyclops legend. It was actually part of the respiratory system, but you can see how the story started.


Off Season Gem: Corsica

It’s not too late to see what the south of France was like before it  became the South of France. Go to Corsica. Not in the months of July or August,  when Italian and French holidaymakers overrun this small granite mountain marooned in the Ligurian sea, but in spring or autumn. Then the sombre peaks, the translucent sea, the vibrant light of the Mediterranean sun will seem to be your own happy discovery and the locals will be pleased and slightly surprised to find you in their midst..

My first visit was in May, the maquis was in bloom… the  nearly impenetrable ‘maquis’  which first sheltered Corsican outlaws and then the resistance fighters of WW2.  A soft sweet fragrance  rose from the tangle of vegetation on the lower slopes of  forested, brush-covered mountains….rock roses, lavender, thyme, sage, tree heather  cistus, asphodel.  It drifted through the open windows of the early morning train from Ajaccio to Bastia where I was going just for the ride, just because the route was called the most picturesque in Europe when the narrow-gauge tracks were  laid in 1888.

We travelled north along a spine of  mountain ridges on tracks which seemed no wider than a tea tray, often hugging the mountainside so closely one could have picked wild flowers from the rocks in passing. The views on the other side, over bottomless ravines and dark green valleys, were like 19th century engravings with seldom a house or a glimpse of a road. In the distance lay jagged, black peaks some traced with snow, pine, beech and chestnut  forests,  glacial lakes, white-foaming streams.  We passed over iron bridges so narrow they  disappeared underneath the railway car and for a few moments it was  as if the train had taken to the air.

The long steady climb up to Vizzavona, a town at the half-way point of the legendary cross-country trail, the  GR 20, caused  the train to wheeze like an asthmatic and justified its nickname: the Trembler. At 906 km, the air was cold, passengers searched out open windows and closed them before we set off again, downhill to Bastia, the island’s largest town and commercial centre.. We arrived right on time,  four hours, 155 km, 12 bridges, 34 viaducts and 38 tunnels after leaving Ajaccio .

Yachts in Bastia’s Old Port were overlooked by weathered 19th century houses and a baroque cathedral. Restaurants with starchy tablecloths and rows of wine glasses were readying for the evening. But before they opened, the train returned to Ajaccio, with me, a clatter of teenagers from the university in Corte, and an elegant  blonde carrying a florist’s red rose wrapped in cellophane. She was on her way to Ponte Nuovo to lay the rose at the bridge where French troops ultimately defeated the Corsicans and Corsican independence ended. Between 600 years of Italian rule and annexation by France, their autonomy had lasted only 14 years. The cause of freedom echoes around the hills of Corsica still, punctuated from time to time by the bombs of the FNLC.

Bonifacio, the much photographed cliff top village at the southern tip of the island, is Corsica’s main attraction. To get there, I took the bus from Ajaccio, which  plunged along the twisty mountain roads and through the tiny hamlets like an armour-plated elephant. We stopped to pick up passengers in the hilltop village of Sartene of which it has been said ‘it breathes war and vengeance’. It has also been called the most Corsican of Corsican towns. On its shadowy, steep streets famous vendettas have been plotted calling for a death inflicted on one family to be revenged by a death in the other . This could  carry down through generations with the cause  of the conflict becoming obscure even to the participants. Today the vendetta is said to be just a memory, but it is the brand name inscribed on the blades of a range of stiletto knives.

The journey to Bonifacio ended in a huge parking lot overlooking  a narrow yacht harbour edged with open-air eating places and small shops. Sheltering thefjord-like inlet are white limestone cliffs 60 metres high, their base  deeply eroded by an incessant wind and a turquoise sea..’The King of Aragon’s Stairway’, 187 steps carved into the cliff face, leads obliquely from the shore to the citadel and the mediaeval city. From above you gaze down on  Sardinia, 12 km away to the south. From below you  gaze up at houses perched so close to the cliff edge they look as if they might topple into the sea. In 1966, one did.


Museum of the Liberation

On August 25, 1944 – after 1,533 days and nights of humiliation, deprivation and fear – the Nazis were driven out of Paris  and the city was free. De Gaulle led the grand march of the victorious French and Allied troops down the Champs Elysees, where the incoming Nazi troops had paraded on June 14, 1940.

On the 75th anniversary of this day, in August 2019,  the Museum of the Liberation which preserves these memories opened in its new home in the historic pavilion Ledoux on Place Denfert-Rochereau. I  visited it once in its previous hard-to- find location above the Gare Monparnasse; the eclectic collection of artefacts on view – wartime newspapers, photos and posters, ration books, uniforms, documents and much else.- produced a collage that was both affecting and personal. The story of these extraordinary days it told through the histories of two exceptional men: Marshall Leclerc and Jean Moulin, one who served France under the battle flag, the other who worked in the shadows.

The aristocratic Philippe_Leclerc_de_Hauteclocque, known simply as Leclerc, took part in the Normandy Invasion of 1944 as commander of the Free French 2nd Armoured Division. This illustrious division was the one later assigned by the Supreme Allied Commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower,  to liberate the French capital. When  Leclerc died in a plane crash in Algeria in 1947, he was accorded the honour of being buried in a crypt in Les Invalides. 

The  underground work of the leader of the French resistance forces, Jean Moulin, is the other focus of the museum. A local government administrator from Bezier, Languedoc, Jean Moulin was entrusted by De Gaulle with the difficult task of unifying the French resistance efforts.  He was twice captured  and tortured by the Gestapo.  He died in Gestapo custody. His presumed ashes were interred first in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris before being transferred to the Panthéon on 19 December 1964. 

The museum traces the overall history of the war, as well as the stories of some of the ordinary people who endured it, through thousands of objects, both military and domestic and hundreds of eye witness reports; it  puts in context the period between the two World Wars, the events of the African campaigns, the Normandy beachheads and eventually the liberation of Paris.

The museum is open daily except Monday. Admission free.

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‘Awesome’ Warsaw

The drive into town from Warsaw’s sparkling Chopin airport took an hour instead of the usual twenty minutes.  Policemen had directed traffic off the main roads to make way for officials in a hurry – a motorcade of black cars with blacked out windows. Caught up in a maze of one-way streets, Hubert, our guide and driver muttered and honked his way towards our hotel, swerving around corners, weaving through the heavy traffic.

Misha, my 14-year-old grandson and traveling companion for the weekend, was buckled into the seat next to me.  ‘Cool,’ said he as we ricocheted onward. Meanwhile, I had plenty of time for a first look at Warsaw, a sprawling, tree-less complex of wide streets and ugly overpasses, the surrounding buildings ’60s communist-era blocks.

We sped on, passing the Palace of Science and Culture, Joe Stalin’s unloved ‘gift’ to the Polish people.  Modern, glassy skyscrapers are springing up all around it, reducing it to the stature of a souvenir paperweight.  Some of the famous chain hotels are in this area and so was the main stop on the single line metro.

But we were staying at the edge of the Old Town and a final diversion brought us to the Mamaison Hotel. Here were narrow, cobbled streets, trees in blossom, medieval architecture along with plenty of small shops and inviting restaurants.

Warsaw’s ‘old town’ is in two sections- the ‘old’ old part (13th century) and the ‘new’ old part (15th century). Each has its own lively square. The Barbican, a brick rampart with a park-like walk on top, separates them; a walkway through a covered arch- a shelter for musicians and souvenir sellers- leads you from one to the other.  There are a few gift shops featuring amber from the Baltic Sea, ice cream and waffle shops with the offerings pictured on posters outside.  Misha opted for a waffle slathered with whipped cream and topped with cherries.  Waiting on the queue he’d also picked up the Polish word for ‘thank you’. It sounded something like ‘chink way ah’ (it’s spelt dziękuję). It was all the Polish we had between us, but almost everyone we met on a short break spoke at least some English and seemed anxious to try it out .Castle Square is also a place to get a perspective on Warsaw’s Old Town itself.  A panel outside the enormous Baroque palace, now a museum, shows what was left of the structure after WW2; along with 85 percent of the city, the castle had been reduced to rubble by the departing Nazis.

 The Old Town, including the castle, has been reconstructed brick by brick using 18th century etchings of Warsaw as a guide.  In 1980, UNESCO made the Old Town a World Heritage site.We looped back around the Barbican towards the hotel. Restaurants had taken over parts of the road as ‘annexes’ and dinner was being served in the warm spring air. One enterprising bistro had installed benches and tables for four on platforms that would swing back and forth if you pumped them.  Who could resist? We shared a plate of mixed dumplings and went on to pork cutlets. The menu was in English as well as Polish, portions were big, prices were low. Add a 10 percent tip.

Next morning Hubert took us to visit Europe’s newest Science Museum, the Copernicus Science Centre.  Once inside (and there are queues especially on weekends) you get an electronic card with your ticket; activate it at a kiosk near the desk, and from then on use it to set in motion any or all of 450 interactive experiment: enter an operating theatre, address a convention, generate your own electricity, feel an earthquake, watch a tornado build, watch robots perform. You could spend a day here. There’s a cheerful, inexpensive restaurant on the ground floor of the museum as well as a gift shop full of scientific toys.  The museum is closed

Two days down, one to go and it was Sunday. There seem to be more churches in Warsaw than in Rome. Most of them were draped in giant photos of Pope John Paul II who was to be beatified in a few days. Once the Archbishop of Krakow, he is very much a Polish hero. We stopped in at St. Hyacinth’s Church. In the vestibule were photos of the ruins of the 15th century building after the Nazis had destroyed it. Captions explained that the church was a field hospital during the Warsaw uprising; five hundred patients were buried alive in the basement when the building was demolished.  It seemed time for us to visit one more museum, the Museum of the Warsaw Rising, to see what prompted that awful reprisal.

This museum opened in 2004, the 60th anniversary of the uprising. Established in an old power station, it sets out the cause, effect, and aftermath of the two months in 1944 when the people of Warsaw tried to wrest their city back from the Nazis. There are eyewitness accounts and photos of all kinds.  The more ‘graphic’ photos are shown in a kind of stone well in such a way that smaller children can’t see them. Misha could see them and did and then watched a five-minute 3-D film, ‘The City of Ruin’, a computer-generated ‘flight’ over what was left of Warsaw in 1945, it is based on the evidence of over 2000 photos of the devastation.  It’s designed to put Hitler’s savage revenge in a form the younger generation can absorb.  I can report it worked for Misha. “Awesome,’ he said. For details of opening hours and admission charges:

On the Nazi’s heels, came the Soviets who stayed for the next 44 years.  They left behind the ugly concrete suburbs and the Palace of Culture whose mammoth Communist Party meeting hall now houses rock concerts. A few ‘Milk Bars’ remain, too (originally they served only dairy-based food). Many of these utterly basic canteens have closed down, but the survivors have become a tourist attraction, a glimpse of life under Communism. There’s a Milk Bar beside the Barbican. Look for the words ‘bar mleczny’.

And here’s a tip. Don’t say ‘thank you ‘ in any language in any restaurant until you’ve paid your bill. In that context ‘thank you’ means ‘keep the change’.

Staying there: Mamaison Hotel Le Regina is the only hotel in Warsaw’s Old Town. Bring your togs for a dip in the indoor swimming pool. Check rates on their website:

Or rent an apartment. lists one right on Warsaw’s Old Town market square.

Our tour guide was Hubert Pawlik, “Warsaw city guide’, who also met us at the airport. Contact him at +48 502 298 105 . Visit:

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