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Monthly Archives: November 2016

A Lesson in Avant Garde Architecture For First Time

After its completion, the avant-garde architecture of the now unrecognisable port city was initially given mixed reviews by critics. But not unlike a fine French Bordeaux, Le Havre’s exceptional qualities took a few years to realise – embodied by its bold designs that embraced a new form of urbanism.

Unesco, which made Le Havre a World Heritage site in 2005, helped lead the way, and the city has since reclaimed its place in the spotlight, attracting architecture fans from across the globe. Although Le Havre lacks the medieval atmosphere found in other parts of Normandy, there’s no city like it anywhere in France. Here are a few suggestions for first-timers to make the most out of Le Havre.

Amble past Le Havre’s best architectural sights
One of the best ways to take in the architecture of Le Havre is on a stroll through the city centre. The light is best in early morning or around dusk, when the buildings have a faint roseate glow. No mere trick of the imagination, locals used pulverised red brick from destroyed city buildings in the new construction, which helped cement a link to the past.

On a day of exploring, you can take in grand plazas, blocks of artful symmetry and cunning designs that evoke something far beyond stone and concrete. Even the disused hilltop fortress, a 1km stroll from the city centre, has been converted into Jardins Suspendus, a peaceful oasis of flower-filled gardens and greenery.

Take in the heart of the city
Spread across five hectares, the Town Hall Square (Place de l’Hotel de Ville) is the grand epicentre of downtown, and one of the largest squares in Europe. This vast plaza is also an appropriate introduction to Le Havre. It was designed by Auguste Perret, the mastermind behind much of the city’s post-war design.

Gardens, fountains and sculptures lie at the centre of this light-filled space, with a periphery of striking modern buildings that create a remarkable sense of harmony. The pièce de résistance is the Town Hall, a stolid 72m-high tower that’s visible from the sea and one of the icons of the present-day city.

Experience a cultural eruption at The Volcano
Formerly known as the Niemeyer Cultural Centre, this sculpture-like edifice was one of the city’s most astonishing sights when it was unveiled back in 1982. Rising from a small square just off the Rue de Paris, its voluminous base and sweeping curves tapering skyward quickly earned it the moniker Le Volcan (the Volcano).

Oscar Niemeyer, the visionary architect behind Brasília and one of the grandfathers of modernism, came up with this unusual work – one of his few designs outside of Brazil. On one side of the building a larger-than-life hand reaches out, with a fountain flowing beneath. This is a cast of Oscar Niemeyer’s own hand, a remarkably personal record of the architect’s involvement in the work.

Today Le Volcan (the name was officially changed in 1990) houses a theatre and a public library. The luminous white facade, with its captivating lines, looks better than ever following an extensive renovation project completed in 2015.

A portrait in 1950s living
Take a step back in time by visiting the Appartement Témoin Perret (the Perret show flat). This fully furnished apartment gives a taste of family life during the post-war boom years. All the pieces hail from the 1950s, from the gas stove in the kitchen to the record player in the living room.

There are clothes in the closets and the table is set, the only thing missing is the family – though the tour guides do a fine job bringing those absent characters to life. All in all, it’s an intimate portrait of Le Havre and fine counterpoint to the more abstract architecture outside those sun-drenched windows.

Visit Le Havre’s spiritual beacon
If there’s one building that can’t be missed in Le Havre, it’s the Église de St-Joseph (St Joseph’s Church). The monumental facade, with its 107m-high tower, is visible all over town, and glows like a lantern against the dark night sky. The interior breaks all conventions, with few statues of saints or other Catholic iconography, and an altar placed at the centre of the building, its lantern tower soaring into the heavens above.

Of course, the design might have seemed overly bleak if it wasn’t for the marvellous stained glass windows lining the tower. These are the works of Marguerite Huré, who used some 13,000 pieces of stained glass – all created using mouth-blown techniques, just like in the Middle Ages. The brilliant use of colour creates different moods depending on the time of the day and the changing position of the sun.

7 Best Places to Visit in EUROPE

1. THE ALBANIAN COAST

Looking for Mediterranean sun and sand, but your budget doesn’t quite stretch to Capri or the Côte d’Azur? Simply head further east and you’ll find sun-drenched beaches untouched by modern development. Albania is one of the cheapest countries in Europe, and as yet under explored by the tourist hordes. On its southern Ionian coast, steep grey mountains frame azure seas and golden sands.Saranda – almost in touching distance of Corfu – is a handy entry point from Greece, from where you can aim for the beaches of Ksamil and nearby islands. Cheap seafood, warm seas and a smattering of isolated Greek ruins and Ottoman towns: the perfect recipe for a classic European sojourn.

2. SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA

Though the scars of Sarajevo’s past as a city under siege are still evident – in the remnants of mortar shell explosions, filled with red resin to form “Sarajevo Roses” and in the museums documenting the horrors of Sniper Alley – today’s city buzzes with life.One of the most welcoming capitals in Europe, its central district of Baščaršija is a delight to wander through, browsing in the Ottoman-era bazaar or lingering over a Bosnian coffee, while the after-hours scene is quirky and cool, with tucked-away drinking holes and an ever-evolving club scene.

3. BANSKO, BULGARIA

Hitting the slopes without breaking the bank can be a challenge – not least as the main Alpine resorts are located in some of the most expensive countries in Europe. However, eastern Europe has a few intriguing ski destinations, including Bulgaria’s Bansko on the Pirin mountain range.The country’s main ski resort, with good beginner and intermediate runs, is reached via a scenic – but very slow – narrow-gauge railway. The town itself has considerable charm beyond the tourist development, with numerous traditional old pubs hidden down its cobbled alleyways.

4. THE CZECH REPUBLIC

Though ever-popular Prague is not quite the dirt-cheap city break destination it once was, you’ll still find the Czech Republic to be a good-value country for independent travel. The country that invented Pilsner is justifiably famous for producing some of the world’s best beer – at pretty good prices.In Prague, the choice of watering holes ranges from traditional beer halls and monastery taverns to a new generation of microbreweries. Continue the Czech beer trail with a visit to the Pilsner Urquell brewery in Plzeň, before striking out to the country’s lesser-known spots, such as charming Olomouc, a pint-sized Prague without the tourists.

5. ESTONIA’S BALTIC COAST

Known for its popular capital Tallinn, little Estonia also provides swathes of wilderness, with beautiful stretches of coastline, a scattering of islands and forested national parks along its long Baltic coastline. An hour from Tallinn, 725-square-kilometre Lahemaa National Park is best explored by bike. You can cycle its coastal paths, discover rugged coves, windswept beaches and fishing villages, and sleep on hay bales in a farm.Venture further west, and the summertime resort of Pärnu has fantastic beaches, while the island of Saaremaa offers more pine forest countryside and very affordable spas.

6. LEIPZIG, GERMANY

Berlin is an anomaly – it’s one of the few capitals where the cost of living is lower than the national average, a legacy of the country’s former divide, which still means former East Germany is notably cheaper than western centres like Frankfurt and Munich. As prices gradually rise in gentrifying Berlin, there are other eastern cities to venture to, including buzzing Leipzig.The city that kick-started the 1989 protests that led to the country’s reunification has long had a fierce, independent spirit. Over the past few years, it’s also developed quite a reputation for its thriving artist enclaves and offbeat nightlife, a scene that is in constant flux, with old industrial buildings, such as former cotton mill the Spinnerei, converted into cutting-edge spaces.

7. LONDON, ENGLAND

London and budget aren’t words that usually go together. However, with the pound currently reaching historic lows, now is a good time to visit. But it’s not just a currency thing – London has more free world-class attractions than any other European city. TheBritish Museum, home to enough treasures to satisfy the most curious of history hunters; vast Tate Modern, with stupendous views from its terrace and ever-changing art collections; the Natural History Museum with its magnificent dinosaurs; and beautiful Victoria & Albert Museum – all free, all of the time.

And don’t forget the open spaces: spend a day tramping across Hampstead Heath, another meandering along the South Bank or perusing East End markets and you’ll get more of a sense of city life than if you’re stuck in a queue at an overpriced attraction. For food, opt for the popular street-food markets and your budget will stretch further – you might even have enough left for an overpriced pint.

Joys Of Winter in The Lake District

The Lake District is one of Britain’s most popular hiking destinations, but in winter it sees far fewer walkers. Ben Lerwill went to beat the crowds and take in this stunning landscape out of season.

They do a mighty fine goulash in the Dog & Gun, using a recipe that’s been bringing in hikers for five decades. It’s the kind of sustenance the body craves after seven cold hours on the fells. We spill into the rosy warmth of the little Keswick pub, peeling off damp jackets and stamping the muck off our boots. The windows are fogged with condensation. Two pints are pulled, food ordered, a corner found. We settle. “Yep,” says Daniel, one long swig later. “Tired.”

The two of us have travelled up to the Lake District for four days of winter walking. A trip here is always something of a meteorological lottery, so by arriving at the start of the year there’s already an acceptance that getting chilly, and probably soaked, is a given. It helps take the uncertainty out of the equation.

At the same time, it’s also a season that heightens the solitude and bristling drama of the hills. We’re here – with about seven months to spare – to beat the summer rush. And when you’re alone on Maiden Moor in February and it’s blowing a gale, you know about it.

We’re starting in the northern fells with a long, looping yomp around the slopes above Derwent Water. The morning is shrouded in low cloud, rendering the islands in the middle of the lake as ethereal outlines.

At the river bridge, there’s a man lobbing a ball into the water for a soggy spaniel. The dog is half delirious with joy. We veer south and clamber up past the falls of Greenup Sikes.

My last time in the Lakes was a winter two years ago, when everything had been snow and ice. The temperatures are less fierce now, but the winter skies are still raw and blustery. Beds of wilting bracken lie across the slopes, coating the hills in a coppery red. We pause to watch a sparrowhawk glide past us: it tilts its wings to gain speed, then disappears over the brow of the rock.

For the next few hours the massed grey clouds tease us, revealing deep views then closing them up again. At the pinnacle of Cat Bells, a sudden, mighty panorama opens up to the west. We debate: is that Grasmoor? Grisedale? Ten minutes later it’s gone, and we hike on into the spitting wind, gossiping our way back to Keswick.

The mountain forecast is poor for the next day. Bad visibility, relentless rain, but little wind. There’s a chance of beating the cloud by rising above 750m, so we opt to trek up Scafell Pike – not a handsome mountain, but the tallest of them all.

The results are glorious. After a two-hour climb we find ourselves in the clear, striding above a thick bed of cloud, every underfoot sound made crisp. At the summit we gorge on sausage rolls and apples, the highest, hungriest men in England.

Neither of us are true, feral outdoorsmen – picnics yes, pick-axes no – so by the time we thread our way down the gully under Broad Crag and join the downhill trail, the distant lights of the Wasdale Head Inn have taken on the feel of a promised land.

It’s cold early evening when we arrive. The famous old climbers’ pub sits near-isolated in the valley. There’s a log-burner glowing in the bar, and Yates Bitter on the pumps. A blackboard reads: “No, we don’t have wi-fi. Talk to each other.” It’s a hard place to leave.

The following morning we’re spoiled. It dawns a billowing, bracing February day, with wind rushing through the dales and a charged, purple atmosphere on the uplands. We’re now in the southern fells, and make the most of the conditions by snaking our way up to the Langdale Pikes. The tops are gusty but the views are extraordinary: an ocean of ridges and clefts, Windermere glinting in the distance, sporadic sunbeams spearing through the clouds. In six hours of hiking, we pass one other walker.

People obsess over the Lake District. Some dedicate – even lose – their lives to it. It has much to do, I suppose, with how consuming the place can feel.

Squeezed between the North Pennines and the Irish Sea, it always seems far bigger than its borders, folding and contorting itself so endlessly that even when you’re poring over an OS map, it seems impossible that the valleys, peaks and overhangs all find the space to fit together. Wainwright famously described 214 fells, but each one is a world of its own.

The weather hurls its worst at us on the final day. Fuelled by flapjacks and a sense of duty, we troop up into the wet clag to reach the Old Man of Coniston, getting lashed with rain. The view from the summit is non-existent: 360 degrees of murk. Only when we reach the surface of Goats Water on the way back down does the land re-emerge, unfurling a windblown spread of yawning basins and far-off tarns.

7 Tips to Backpacking Through Europe

1. Pick your season wisely

If you decide to travel during the peak summer season, try heading east – the Balkan coastline, the Slovenian mountains and Baltic cities are all fantastic places for making the most of your money. When tourist traffic dies down as autumn approaches, head to the Med. The famous coastlines and islands of southern Europe are quieter at this time of year, and the cities of Spain and Italy begin to look their best. Wintertime brings world-class skiing and epic New Year parties. Come spring it’s worth heading north to theNetherlands, Scandinavia, France and the British Isles, where you’ll find beautifully long days and relatively affordable prices.

2. Take the train

Getting around by train is still the best option, and you’ll appreciate the diversity of Europe best at ground level. Plus, if you make your longest journeys overnight and sleep on the train, you’ll forego accommodation costs for the night. Most countries are accessible with an Interrail Global pass or the equivalent Eurail pass. Depending on your time and budget, choose one corner of the continent then consider a budget flight for that unmissable experience elsewhere. Make sure you check out our tips for travelling by train in Europe.

3. Be savvy about accommodation

Although accommodation is one of the key costs to consider when planning your trip, it needn’t be a stumbling block to a budget-conscious tour of Europe. Indeed, even in Europe’s pricier destinations the hostel system means there is always an affordable place to stay – and some are truly fantastic. Homestays will often give you better value for money than most hotels so they are also worth considering. If you’re prepared to camp, you can get by on very little while staying at some excellently equipped sites. Come summer, university accommodation can be a cheap option in some countries. Be sure to book in advance regardless of your budget during the peak summer months.

4. Plan your trip around a festival

There’s always some event or other happening in Europe, and the bigger shindigs can be reason enough for visiting a place. Be warned, though, that you need to plan well in advance. Some of the most spectacular extravaganzas include: St Patrick’s Day in Ireland, when Dublin becomes the epicentre of the shamrock-strewn, Guinness-fuelled fun; Roskilde in Denmark, Glastonbury’s Scandinavian rival with a mass naked run thrown in for good measure; and Italy’s bizarre battle of the oranges in Ivrea.

5. Eat like a local

You’ll come across some of the world’s greatest cuisines on a trip to Europe, so make sure to savour them. A backpacking budget needn’t be a hindrance either. If you shun tourist traps to eat and drink with the locals, you’ll find plenty of foodie experiences that won’t break the bank. Treat yourself to small portions but big flavours with a tapas dish or two in Spain; relish the world’s favourite cuisine at an Italian trattoria; or discover the art form of the open sandwich with smørrebrød in Denmark. Don’t skip breakfast, either – an oven-fresh croissant or calorie-jammed “full English” are not to be missed.

6. Find the freebies

Being on a budget doesn’t mean you should miss out, even in some of the world’s most sophisticated cities. Many iconic European experiences are mercifully light on the pocket: look out for free city walking tours, try the great Italian tradition of aperitivo in Rome, make the most of the free museums in London and try cooking with local ingredients rather than eating out. We’ve got lists of the top free things to do in Paris, Barcelona, London,Dublin and Berlin to get you started.

7. Get outdoors

It can be tempting to focus backpacking through Europe on a succession of capital cities – but you’d be missing out on a lot. Europe offers a host of outdoor pursuits that animate its wide open spaces, too, from horseriding in Bulgaria’s Rila Mountains and surfing onPortugal’s gnarled Alentejo coast to cross-country skiing in Norway and watching Mother Nature’s greatest show in Swedish Lapland.