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Monthly Archives: February 2017

City break in Tunis

The country’s location has been a focus for civilizations that have left their indelible mark on a country strewn with relics from bygone eras. An overlapping of cultures, religions and history makes Tunis well worth a visit.

Tunis is recognizably Mediterranean in character, yet bound together by an Islamic thread and North African climate that hold a seductive charm and mysticism. A century of French colonial rule has created an alluring mix within this part of North Africa.

Meandering along Avenue de France, with its’ tree-lined boulevard and pavement café’s set in view of the art deco façade of the Theatre Municipal, one could be forgiven for thinking they were in the South of France. Tunisian men wearing their red Chechiya caps, dark glasses and smoking fruit scented tobacco from their water pipes soon remind you that one has arrived in North Africa.

At the far end of the Avenue beyond the Porte de France arch are the winding alleyways of the medina and craft-filled souks leading toward the Ez-Zitoune Mosque at the walled cities core.

Medina of Tunis – UNESCO World Heritage Centre

The medina, much talked and written about, is the heart of the old town. The origins of Tunis grew out from the warren of dark alleyways, markets, palaces and madrasas that along with the Ez-Zitoune Mosque, still remains the focal point of Tunis. And rightly so, as little has changed over the centuries within this UNESCO listed heritage.

Each twist or turn reveals another surprise; glimpses of tiled courtyards hidden behind weathered wood studded doors or one of the medina’s residences sympathetically transformed into a Dar hotel or romantic restaurant. If you can direct yourself out of the maze of winding paths of the medina, then the Tunis beyond has a diverse range of attractions that step even further back to the origins of Tunisia.

The Bardo Museum founded in 1882, has one of the world’s greatest collections of Roman Mosaics and is a great starting point to puzzle together many of the archaeological sites that can be visited across Tunisia. The museum was a former Beylical Palace, whose origins date to the 13th century, and the building alone is a masterpiece of Arabian style architecture with domed ceilings, cupolas and majestic galleries to peer over. From here the fashionable suburbs of Tunis are nearby and provide an elevated and alternative vision of the city.

Carthage

A solitary column stands upon a plinth of stonework, head and shoulders above the rest of the stone masonry, which is strewn across a site that used to be the Antonine Thermal Baths. The granite column topped by a white capital was one of eight such columns used to support the vaulted roof of the Frigidarium (cool pool). This historical site is part of the city’s Punic-Roman legacy dating back to 814BC in a suburb of Tunis called Carthage. Very few Punic remnants remain, giving a compelling insight into the great tussles for power between the Roman Empire and Carthaginians. The site once coveted by the Phoenicians & Romans is now overlooked by the Presidential Palace of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and close to the Roman amphitheatre used to this day for concerts.

Sidi Bou Said

Beyond the Presidential Palace further up the hill is the village of Sidi Bou Said, the Monmatre of North Africa, perched high above the city with a bohemian style and artistic soul. The white washed walls and signature blue studded doors resting under arabesque arches, are depicted on canvas within the many local galleries. Alongside Carthage are the chic resorts of Gammarth and La Marsa that boast some of the best fish restaurants in the city and views over the gulf of Tunis.

Phoenician, Roman, Arab, Turkish, French, and the native Berber people have all helped define the Tunis of today. The capital is not a dramatic culture shock for visitors, but just enough to feel you have stepped outside of Europe. Whilst many aspects of life is alien exotic and exciting, the French influence in language, architecture and society makes it easy for weekenders to assimilate quickly with the culture. Tunis has a very relaxed and open feel to it, almost unkempt in a refreshing and charming sense making a weekend date with this part of North Africa almost inevitable.

Where to Stay in Tunis

In the heart of the Medina and hidden behind an unassuming entrance is Dar El Medina, an elegantly appointed boutique hotel. Set around an inner courtyard, the rooms of this former residence are nicely furnished with period features and furnishings, reminders of its’ former life.

English Seaside Towns

1. Aldeburgh, Suffolk

Aldeburgh is a charming, traditional, unspoilt seaside town with a sand and shingle beach. There is a traditional boating lake for model yachts, local museum, and historic 16th-century moot hall. The fishermen still draw their boats up on to the shore and sell fish from the beach. Some say that the fish and chips here is the best you can get on the East Coast.

This was once a busy port famed for its shipbuilding acumen. This is where Sir Francis Drake’s ships “Pelican” and “Greyhound” were built and local men sailed with Drake on these vessels. Sadly, the industry declined when the river Alde silted up.

Aldeburgh is internationally famous for its association with the Albeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts begun by Benjamin Britten. Look out for his stature along the beach front. The festival is in June each year and has many events in and around Aldeburgh.

There is a good range of accommodation available from good quality bed and breakfast establishments to three star hotels. There is also a wide range of restaurants from cosy cafés to starred restaurants and plenty of querky, independent shops.

2. Blackpool, Lancashire

With miles of gorgeous beaches combined with the Pleasure Beach theme park thrills and spills, Blackpool has it all. It’s a town full of firsts: the only beach in Britain to have three piers along its Golden Mile, faster roller coasters, bigger clubs, even the biggest mirror ball in the world as well as world-class shows, cosmopolitan restaurants, vibrant nightlife, an active sports scene and breathtakingly beautiful scenery on its doorstep.

You can also enjoy quiet moments by strolling through leafy Stanley Park, Blackpool’s horticultural and wildlife treasure. Close by is the resort’s small but perfectly formed Model Village and Gardens.

Hop on a tram and trundle along twelve miles of Promenade. Marvel at the musical high-tide organ which joins the ever-growing range of giant sculptures and eye-catching artworks on New South Promenade.

At the heart of Blackpool’s famous Golden Mile is the Sea Life Centre, home to more than 40 fascinating displays. Nearby is one of Blackpool’s oldest attractions, Louis Tussaud’sWaxworks, inviting you to meet the famous and the infamous in its many galleries.

Down at the Sandcastle they’re having a permanent heat wave! White knuckle water chutes, swirling slides and the giant Typhoon Lagoon wave pool combine to offer a full day of family fun.

3. Brighton & Hove, Sussex

This vibrant city, on the south coast, just 49 minutes from central London, is fashionable, funky and loaded with so much style that you can forgive it’s seaside for its pebble beach. And many do as on a sunny day it’s filled with sun seekers and deck chairs. It’s famous pier is home to a fun fair, sweet shops and quaint tea rooms.

Away from the beach is the magnificent royal palace, elegant Regency architecture, museums and superb shopping.

Don’t miss the Royal Pavilion, home of King George IV, and probably the most exotic, extravagant royal palace in Europe. Stroll along the Victorian Pier and the beachfront, where stylish bars and cafés spill out onto the curved paving, jostling for space with surfer shops, giant sculptures, buskers, fresh fish and artists’ studios. For shopping, try The Lanes, smart and chic, and the bohemian North Laine, both good for antiques and designer clothes.

There are museums and galleries galore, special events throughout the year from car rallies to carnivals, and England’s largest arts festival in May. For nightlife, there’s theatre, music, dance and comedy, lively pubs and bars and around 400 restaurants. And there’s a great choice of places to stay – ritzy 5 star seafront hotels, jazzy places with Moroccan style courtyards, minimalist townhouses and traditional B&Bs.

The newest attraction is the British Airways Eye. A donut like observatory glides gently up to 138 metres making it the world’s tallest observation tower. It was the brainchild of Marks Barfield Architects, creators of the London Eye. You will get 360o views across Brighton, the South Downs and, on the clearest days, all the way to Beachy Head and the Isle of Wight.

4. Cromer, Norfolk

Cromer with its rock pools and miles of part sand part shingle beach, lies in a key position on the Norfolk coast. When the North Sea rides high, it is Cromer’s Lighthouse that flashes out a guiding beam and its famous lifeboat that is ready to answer any calls of distress. You can combine a visit to the lifeboat with a show by heading to the Pier and Pavilion Theatre.

It has what is undoubtedly a beautiful town. It’s most distinguished landmark has to be its fine 14th-century church, which stands guardian over the town. The enhancement of Cromer has been carefully watched over and has progressed on the right lines so that none of its original beauty has been destroyed.

A town renowned for its history of the sea, fishing and crabs; some of Cromer’s finest accommodation can be found offering splendid early morning views of the fishermen bringing their catches ashore or evening views of the sun slipping into the sea at sunset.

A gentle walk along the cliffs will bring you to the Golf Course and Cromer Lighthouse. Continue further along this path and you will eventually come to the delightful village of Overstrand.

If you wish to see Cromer at its liveliest then a visit during Carnival week is a must. For a whole week there are activities organised around the town and on the cliff top and you can be sure of finding something to suit every member of the family.

5. Isle of Wight

The island, located four miles off the coast of Hampshire, was the seaside venue of choice many eminent Victorians, including Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, J M W Turner, Henry VIII and Queen Victoria.

Perhaps they loved the 60 miles of spectacular coastline, with picturesque coves and beautiful bays of golden sand with safe bathing. You’ll be tempted to explore the countryside at all times of the year, following the many paths and trails that reveal the refreshing greens and golds of spring, the vibrant tints of autumn or the magically frosted pastel hues of a winter’s morning. Aside from being an internationally renowned centre for sailing (click hereto book a sailing experience), the island offers countless opportunities to pursue every kind of sport activity. From fishing to golf and windsurfing to flying there is something for everyone.

This diamond-shaped isle is a treasure trove of historic and prehistoric interest. Dinosaurs, ancient tribes, Romans and monarchs throughout the ages have left behind a fascinating trail into the past.

Get there in June for the Isle of Wight music festival. Pitch your tent at Seaclose Park and soak in some sounds.

To get to the Isle of Wight, catch the Red Funnel or Wight Link ferries from Portsmouth and take the car. Or if only on foot, there is the passenger only Hovertravel.

Whale Watching in New Brunswick’s Bay of Fundy

It’s amazing how quickly one can pick up the lingo of an activity. Fifteen minutes out at sea and twenty minutes after clambering into my orange all-in-one weather protector suit that will also serve as a life jacket if I fall overboard, I’m shouting “there’s a blow” along with the best of them.

Okay so I might not be quite ready to be an extra in the remake of Moby Dick but I am having – and I’m sorry but I can’t resist this – a whale of a time. A blow, a soaring exhalation of water and steam – is what marks the great creature’s whereabouts. You scan the horizon til you spot one, you holler and then you go haring off towards it, bumping across the waves in a small swift boat. It has all the thrill of the hunt without any of the cruelty: you come, you see, but they remain unconquered.

I’m whale watching in New Brunswick’s Bay of Fundy where the nutrient-rich Atlantic waters attract more than 15 species from June to November. As a first timer I was more than happy just to see one. In fact we saw three, all finbacks. Sometimes they eluded us, sometimes they granted us the privilege of seeing their 60 ft lengths breach the water and then disappear again into the deeps. They knew we humans were there, said our skipper, but they were indifferent to our presence.

This sense of humankind clinging to the edge of an ocean that is both splendid and scary pervades the coast of New Brunswick, one of the appropriately named Maritime Provinces of Eastern Canada, and accounts for much of its appeal. You can see it in the weather beaten clapperboard houses, in the lighthouses strung along the coast, in the teeming wild life – as well as whales we saw in our two hour expedition porpoises, seals and bald eagles – and in the old fishing traditions. We learned, for instance, in a bit of badinage with the locals reeling in their nets that real fishermen never sit down in their boats – that’s for old men or wimps.

Fundy, in fact, has the world’s highest tides and at Hopewell Rocks, which also has a visitor centre to explain the phenomenon, you can walk on the ocean floor at low tide and gaze up at the extraordinary shapes sculpted over the millennia by the rise and fall of billions of tonnes of water. Six hours later they’ll be covered by up to 48 feet of Atlantic Ocean.

Further along the coastal trail you can stop off at Cape Enrage with its lovely old lighthouse and take in the full panoramic sweep of the bay, a view described by a leading Canadian guide as the best in the country.

New Brunswick is unspoilt and still relatively undiscovered but it would be misleading to suggest it is unsophisticated. Saint John, for example, is part historic city, part modern powerhouse, a bustling port and regular stop-off for the big cruise ships, an industrial centre with a giant papermill and other factories and a supplier of energy to the USA. But it also has a walkable centre with enthusiastic guides who’ll tell you all about its old houses, cemeteries, parks and churches They’ll also proudly insist that Saint must be spelled thus in full and that there’s no ‘s’ on John – they don’t want you confusing them with St. John’s over in Newfoundland.

Further down the coast is the charming resort of St. Andrew’s by the Sea, built around the 1900s as a summer retreat for successful men and their families. So it has their holiday cottages (in reality fine houses with wrap-around verandahs), an attractive main street with interesting galleries and shops, a good golf course and the grand Fairmont Algonquin Hotel presiding over everything from its position above the bay.

Fredricton is the provincial capital, an old riverside garrison town and site of some fine buildings including the Legislative Assembly, Old Government House, the Anglican cathedral with gold dust-flecked windows and streets of houses of every period. Its most famous son Lord Beaverbrook, Daily Express proprietor, chum of Churchill and Britain’s wartime Minister of Aircraft Production, gave it an art gallery, a playhouse and several university buildings.

The city is a great place for festivals – we were there for the jazz and blues one – but there are also country, folk and classical music, literary, film and Scottish festivals. Most are modestly priced and the city with typical Canadian civic pride and social conscience also makes many of its permanent attractions free including open air cinema shows and walking tours.

In all these places you can eat well, particularly if you choose something from the sea: the fresh catch of the day in a roadside diner, maybe, or something grander with lobster and scallops in a smart restaurant.

New Brunswick deserves to be better known by Brits: we have a long standing connection with the area having settled it first in the 17th century and then more expansively in the 18th. It’s relatively near – only a six and a half hour flight away – and by North American standards relatively compact – about 300 miles by 200 – so it’s easy to fit quite a lot into a short time.

You don’t need to stay by the coast of course. Inland there are lakes and mountains (the northern end of the Appalachians), recreated historic settlements like Kings Landing, golf courses, farmers markets and arts and crafts studios and plenty of outdoor activities including wildlife watching and hiking trails. And for those who are feeling romantic the little town of Hartford has the world’s longest covered or kissing bridge.

Lille a Flemish City in Northern France

Just 20 years ago, Lille was an ailing industrial town with only a defunct textile industry to show for itself. Since then it has undergone a multi-million euro face lift, attracted world-famous designer shops into its gabled buildings, became a feted university town and got itself onto the Eurostar network.

With its Flemish culture, its Ch’ti dialect, and gorgeous Flemish architecture, Lille has lots to offer Le Weekender.

Why go now ?

Lille’s streets are ablaze with festive lights and the Christmas market is in full swing. Eighty wooden chalet shaped stalls grace Place Rihour, roasting chestnuts and selling jewellery, toys and gifts. Don’t miss the waffles and gingerbread.

Nearby at Grand’Place a big ferris wheel offers a bird’s eye view over the city and there’s a merry-go-round dancing to the sounds of Noel.

Life is a Cabaret

Spend an evening at the all sequins and feathers dinner and cabaret show at La Prestige Palace (think mini Moulin Rouge) for a spectacular show. After a three course dinner, the pink and silver curtains draw open, the drums roll, and out come the dancing girls and boys singing tunes like Hello Dolly in Franglais and of course Life is a Cabaret.

Shopping

You will find world famous designers such as Hermès, Louis Vuiton and Lacoste in rue de la Grande Chaussée to smaller boutiques by individual designers on Lille’s oldest street, rue de la Monnaie so named after the royal mint. The best department store is Printemps (think Debenhams) on rue Nationale or pop by the market in Wazemmes on Sunday morning and rub shoulders with the locals.

Rue de la Clef is great for browsing through shops selling old records and French comics andEuralille shopping mall (soulless but good for rainy days) by the Eurostar terminal houses around 150 shops.

Culture Vulture

Charles de Gaulle was born in Lille in 1890. His former childhood home on 9 rue de Princesse is now Musée Natale du Général de Gaulle museum [UPDATE: since 1st January 2014 the house is run as a cultural center, not a museum]. As well as insights into what made him tick, you’ll see the room where he was born, his cot and the robe in which he was baptised. Just around the corner is the Saint-André church where baby de Gaulle got to wear it.

Don’t miss the famous Palais des Beaux-Arts at Place de la République. Considered second only to the Louvre in Paris, this magnificent building has a prestigious collection of paintings sculptures and ceramics displayed over 22000 m². Allow at least two hours to enjoy works by Donatello (in particular the Feast of Herod sculpture), Van Dyck, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rubens, Rodin and Delacroix and the impossibly romantic The Kiss by Carolus-Duan.

Unmissable architecture

Lille’s cobbled medieval vieille ville – old town – is dotted with Renaissance architecture. On Grand’Place the stunning 17th century Vielle Bourse, a quadrangle of 24 ornate houses surround a rectangular courtyard where trading took place. Note the cute chubby cherubs, saucy female forms and garlands.

Sun King Louis XVI left his mark on the city too. The Grand Gard once used as military barracks is today the Théâtre du Nord – you’ll see his sun symbol sandwiched between the coasts of arms of France and Lille on its pediment.

Also check out the Opera House on nearby Place du Théâtre. On the façade is Apollo surrounded by his muses. To the left is a depiction of Amédée Cordonnier allegory of Music and on the right Tragedy by Hector Lemaire..

Eating Out

Meert patisserie on rue Esquermoise serves cakes and snacks within its filigree interior. A must-try is their waffles (gaufres) filled with sweet Madagascar vanilla. These were loved by Charles de Gaulle and would buy a box or two to present as gifts to visiting dignitaries. At 25 euros for a box of 13 waffles though, they don’t come cheap.

For local fare head for an estaminet – hop decorated, wooden floored Flemish style restaurant. Specialities include carbonnade flamande (beef cubes cooked in beer and brown sugar), potjelvesch (a cold dish of porc, rabbit and veal) and waterzoi (a mix of three white fish). Drink with locals beers and finish off with the local eau-de-vie genevièvre.

For something a little more gourmet, the family run l’Huitrière on Rue des Chats Bossus is a favourite. At its front is a fish shop that thinks it’s an art gallery – Breton art-deco in style with splendid mosaics of fishermen at work. The restaurant at the rear offers fish dishes such as its signature dish of turbot in potato crust with butter. Impressively, the restaurant has managed to maintain its Michelin star since 1930.

For something a little different consider l’Atelier des Chefs on Boulevard de la Liberté. Pop in at lunch time and learn to rustle up your lunch. This could be seafood and mash or a noodle salad with seared salmon fillets and a soy lime dressing or even foi gras. It’s an educational, nutritional and a sociable. It costs 15 euros and includes a pre-made desert and coffee.

A fine Detour

Make your way to the next town of Roubaix, birthplace of mail order company La Redoute, to visit La Piscine, rue de l’Esperance. This former art deco swimming pool now serves as a museum. Two huge stained-glass windows on either side reflect in the pool to recreate the rays of the sun. Over 300,000 textile relics are stored and come out in rotation. Other displays include art and sculptures and ceramics by Picasso.

Nearby are factory stores at L’Usine, avenue Alfred Motte. More than 200 brands are on sale at 70% off retail prices. Think of it as a giant Primark where with patience you can uncover some amazing clothes for fluppence. Probably the best buys are at Delsey luggage store, Valery Bijoux for heavily discounted jewellery by designers Guess, Diesel and Dolce & Gabbana and at homeware shops like Genevieve Lethu whose fabulously decorative pieces can jazz up any household.