Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Winter in Quebec City - an atmosphere apart

Snow is falling so fast in Quebec City it seems someone is dumping it into the wind with a giant shovel. When we arrive at our hotel the street outside is clear. Less than two hours later there is a covering of two or three inches.

We scurry round the corner into Rue St Paul, to the nearby Café St Malo. Many early settlers came from the French port of that name but it’s doubtful they had to put up with storms as sudden and violent as this. Would our flight be delayed next day? The hotel receptionist thinks not. It takes more snow than this to disrupt life in French Canada. “This is our winter”, he says, waving away our concerns.

Outside the Café Quebecers pass by in the teeth of the storm, jacket hoods up. Inside it is cosy and crowded. Fish soup is followed by boudin noir (black pudding) and apple. My wife chooses confit de canard. We share a local pudding: sugar pie. The service is slower than you expect in North America. Eating, as in France, is an event.

In the morning it is still snowing. We go to the Fudgerie beneath the old fortress ramparts, to buy delicious chocolate fudge with pimento – a hot shock in the throat. In the Rue Petit Champlain, boutique and restaurant owners are clearing snow from their doorsteps. The sky is slate grey but the narrow street, formerly a place of poverty but now a honeypot for tourists, could hardly look more festive.

This is Quebec’s Basse-Ville, the lower town which lies between the St Laurence River and the city ramparts. A funicular runs from there to the upper town, which is presided over by the pompous Chateau Frontenac a grande dame of a hotel built by the Canadian Pacific railroad company, now operated by Fairmont, where Churchill and Roosevelt met for a conference during the Second World War. Eschewing the railway we climb the staircase, which, in its original, wooden incarnation, became known as the “breakneck steps”.
At the top we head for the Battlefield Park on the Plains of Abraham, where in the late summer of 1759 Wolfe defeated the French General Montcalm in a battle which lasted not much more than 30 minutes and effectively decided the future of North America. The two commanders, who could hardly have been more different - the former tall and lean, the latter short and stocky – were both killed. Now they share a monument.

Earlier, we wanted to look at Anse au Foulon, the little bay where the British forces landed, but the steep route up which they dragged their cannon was too icy for cars, and was closed. So we contented ourselves with a view of the St. Lawrence nearby, close to the statue of General de Gaulle, who upset all but French Canadian separatists with his notorious “Vive le Quebec Libre” speech in 1967 in Montreal. It is easy to see why Wolfe was so anxious to take the besieged city before winter. The Plains' undulations are pillowed white. The river is a crazy paving of ice floes moving rapidly on a flood tide. 

The ice would have crushed the wooden warships of the British navy. We duck into the interpretive centre to watch audio visual presentations on pre and post battle history. They are not designed for tourists with long attention spans.

We pick our way gingerly along the walkway high above the river, the snow becoming increasing slushy underfoot. It can be bitterly cold here in winter – take layers of clothing and warm hats – but today the temperature hovers just above freezing. The main purpose of our trip is to go skiing at resorts close to the city. Wintersports are ever present in town, too. Quebecers go sledging and cross country skiing where Wolfe and Montcalm faced off. You can pay to hurtle down a toboggan run erected close to the Chateau Frontenac. There's an open air skating rink, floodlit at night, on the Rue St Jean. During our visit a huge ramp, where snowboarders are performing aerial gymnastics in international competition, looms over a downtown freeway.

But you do not need to be either a skier, snowboarder or be able to stand up on skates to enjoy winter in Quebec. Winter carnival, when there are ice and snow sculptures and all manner of events, is a good time to go.

Though I have visited before, some years ago, the Frenchness of it, and the superb quality of its cooking, still surprises. France, that is, but not as we know it. The nasal dialect makes locals hard to understand, even to a dedicated Francophile. The bavette (skirt) cooked rare at a bistro called Le Hobbit is of elk rather than the beef you might get in France. But there aremoules mariniere with frites to be had all over town and the two different hotels we stay in – the Manoir Victoria and Le Germain – Dominion - have excellent, light croissants and pains au chocolat or breakfast. Both are fine bases for exploration. They are located respectively in the upper town, close to the ramparts and down by the port in the lower town. The former, with recently refurbished rooms, originally opened in 1904 on the site of a Turkish bath which had been built to service guests at an earlier hotel across the street. The latter has been developed in boutique style by converting the former headquarters of Dominion Fish & Fruit Limited and a neighbouring bank.

There's something rewarding about being in a distant city in bad weather. You feel closer to the spirit of the place. It is still snowing when we leave for the airport. In the taxi we reflect that in such conditions, departures from the UK would be heavily disrupted. Our connecting flight is bang on time. We may have fretted about delays, but for Quebecers, this has just been a routine winter's day.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

New Dublin flights

British Airways  had started flying to Dublin from London City Airport. It's operating up to five round trips a day. The airline is also upping the number of flights it operates from the Docklands airport to Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Wilfred Owen trail open: travel news

Beach? We want more say long haul travellers
Long haul travellers are beginning to abandon the conventional beach holiday in pursuit of more varied experiences, according to tour operator Hayes & Jarvis. In its annual survey of trends the long haul specialist says customers are increasingly combining coastal stays with city visits and cultural or heritage tours. It reports huge growth in its African safari bookings, which have increased almost threefold this year. Vietnam has seen the strongest growth, with bookings up 98%, it claims. Next comes Brazil, up 55%, followed by Kenya (+51%), Tanzania (up 37% and South Africa(+35%).

Wilfred Owen trail opens
A trail following the last footsteps of the young First World War poet Wilfred Owen has been opened in Northern France. The 6km (33/4 miles) route starts the Maison Forestière, or Forest House, where Second Lieutenant Owen and his men sheltered in a smoky cellar before advancing in an attempt to cross a canal at the village of Ors, just under 20 miles east of Cambrai. The house is now both a sculpture and a museum commemorating the poet, is transformation designed by British artist Simon Patterson. From there the trail leads through woods to the spot on the canal bank where, on November 4, 1918 - and only a week before the ending of hostilities Owen fell. The action resulted in the award of two posthumous VCs to other officers. Free audio guides to the battle which lead to Owen's death are available from the Cambrai Tourist Office. They can also be downloaded in English on to smart phones from www.tourisme-cambresis.fr/audioguide

Tenerife hotel group offers guided walks
A Tenerife hotel group is offering guided hiking packages this summer. The deals are available from Adrian Hoteles until the end of September. The group includes the five star Hotel Jardines de Nivaria and Roca Nivaria Gran Hotel, and the four star Hotel Colon Guanaha. Packages include seven nights’ accommodation with a private guide and a choice of walking in various parts of the island, among them Mount Teide National Park, the Anaga Rural Park, the Masca Gorge and the Monte del Agua. The hotel will provide guests with picnic bags and water for the excursions. Also included in the price is a massage to soothe aching muscles after a day’s hike. Prices at the three hotels - flights are not included - start at £960, £897 and £777 respectively.

Soho hotel opens

A Soho property used by Charles Dickens as the model for the home of Dr. Manette and his daughter in A Tales of Two Cities has been converted into a hotel. The 78 room Nadler on Carlisle Street was once the base of 18th century London's School of Arms and Manners and was bombed in 1941 during the Blitz. It offers free wi fi, secure high speed broadband for £1.95 an hour or £5.95 for 24 hours and 30 minutes of free local and national calls per day. Continental breakfast can be delivered to rooms, which have "mini kitchens" and flat screen TVs in rooms with links which allow guests to stream their own content.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

A Polish Enlightenment

To begin with, the soup. Served cold - this was a day when temperatures had topped 30C - it was an inspired blend of broad beans chanterelles and herring. If you had drunk it in a Michelin starred restaurant in France you would not have been disappointed. But this was Poland.

                                                   Chanterelles in a Warsaw market

Tell friends you are travelling there and they don't quite know how to react. "Hm - interesting", responded a colleague of my wife. Perhaps the image lurks of a dour, east European country, which had no time to rise from wartime heroism and tragedy before being slapped back down by Stalin.

It's not a beach destination, though Sopot, on the Baltic, which is known as the summer capital, is an elegant seaside resort by any yardstick. Though the Tatra mountains provide drama in the far south its landscapes are generally flat or gently rolling. And when it comes to city breaks, only Krakow has made it on to most travellers' shortlists. None of this should dissuade you from going.

                                                                    Krakow Castle

Some understanding of Poland is essential to a grasp of 20th century history. In Warsaw we made for a surviving section of the wall which once segregated Jews in one of two ghettos, before they were transported to the death camps. Around one third of the capital's pre war population was Jewish. A 91 year old Polish man leaned over a nearby garden railing and explained that he had appointed himself unofficial caretaker of this small stretch of brickwork because, like countless numbers of his countrymen, he had spent time in a Soviet gulag, and understood suffering.

                                                                     Ghetto wall

Later we turned down Chlodny Street, which divided the large and small ghettos. Jews were obliged to cross it by bridge. The tramlines on which other Poles rode through the divide are still there. We were en route for the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising, a state of the art tribute to a doomed act of defiance. There were two uprisings in the city, one by the ghetto Jews, the other by underground fighters hoping to hasten liberation from the Nazis in summer, 1944. The Museum commemorates the latter. Perhaps its most affecting exhibit is a rolling sequence of black and white film of the fighting, shot by rebel propagandists. Fighters take cover behind barricades, teenage couriers scurry, women stir a cooking pot in the rubble, a couple wed amid the mayhem, the groom with one arm in a sling.

Argument has raged over the uprising: foolhardy? inevitable? Certainly it was betrayed. From the viewing terrace of the Palace of Culture and Science, that hulking Soviet power statement described by wry locals as "Stalin's gift", you can look out across the Vistula river and imagine the Red Army, sitting restless, ordered not to go to the insurgents' aid, waiting to enter the city until they had surrendered and their strongholds had been razed by the Germans.

                                                                    Stalin's gift

Those few weeks are seen by some as the start of the Cold War, whose conclusion is celebrated further north, in Gdansk. Like Warsaw's Old Town, this once wealthy trading port was blown to smithereens at the end of Word War II, and painstakingly recreated in all its glorious detail. Now its pedestrianised Long Market is busy with tourists, lined with cafés and shops selling the amber for which it is famous. 

                                                           Gdansk Long Market

At Roads to Freedom, close to the gates of what was once called the Lenin Shipyard, there are grainier images. The shipyard was the birthplace of Solidarity and the workplace of Lech Walesa, one the movement's instigators and its eventual leader. As its name indicates, the museum chronicles Poland's emancipation. Communist paranoia is remembered in the form of a phone box, where callers were warned their conversations would be earwigged. Austerity is illustrated by a mock up shop with gaping spaces between the few essentials on its shelves and a curious device designed to enable customer to tell whether eggs were sufficiently fresh. And the revolt which spelled the end of the regime is recalled in detail - by bullet holes in a protester's jacket and the workers' famous 21 demands, handwritten and posted at the shipyard gates.

Reminders of Europe's twentieth century traumas are never far away in Poland. Even down south in the Tatra mountains holiday resort of Zakopane, the old cemetery contains the graves of an Olympic oarsman killed in the uprising and a ski jumper who refused to teach his technique to the occupying Germans, choosing instead to smuggle men and materials across the high mountains to and from what was then Czechoslovakia.

                                                      Tatras - the Sleeping Knight

But don't let all that blind you to the country's more distant past. Take a trip from Gdansk to the massive red brick ramparts of Malbork Castle, stronghold of the Teutonic knights. 

                                                                    Malbork Castle

On no account miss the Wielicza mine, near Krakow, one of the first UNESCO World Heritage sites, where salt was mined from the 13th century until a couple of decades ago and be amazed at the subterranean chapel, built by a group of devout miners, whose floor tiles, chandelier crystals, altarpiece and religious reliefs are all carved from salt.

                                                                         Salt altar

And leave time to simply watch the Poles at play on the thronged streets of Sopot or Zakopane, drinking and eating at outside tables, queuing for placki - potato pancakes to eat on the hoof, wander along Novy Swiat in Warsaw, a boulevard, lined with busy restaurants, cafés and bars, where the city's youth sets off on a monthly roller blade marathon around the capital, and you get the sense of a nation released. That sense comes home even more strongly in Warsaw's gleaming new Terraces shopping centre where out local guide's father, who lived through food shortages, still lingers for hours, taking in the consumer revolution.

                                                             Warsaw looks forward

If description of the soup starter was ammunition to persuade sceptical friends, so was the most memorable main course - roast goose on a bed of wild mushrooms, eaten amid a "forest" of tree trunks painted with strawberries at AleGloria, a Warsaw restaurant opened by star chef Magda Gessler. It's no use pretending most Poles can afford such cooking yet. But if you still imagine Poland through the black and white images of old news bulletins, consider that Gessler recently began presenting a Polish TV version of Masterchef and you will surely acknowledge that you are way behind the times.

How: Polish intercity rail tickets can be booked at https://bilet.intercity.pl/. There are fast trains between Krakow and Warsaw (3hrs) but travel on some routes, including that between the capital and Gdansk, which is being upgraded, can be slow. Luxury hotels are relatively cheap in Poland. Our bill for two for three nights with an extensive buffet breakfast at the five star Westin Warsaw was just over £340. The Polish National Tourist Office is at www.poland.travel/en-gb.

        This article first appeared in Scotland on Sunday's Spectrum Magazine

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

New rights for EU air travellers

Airlines will no longer be able to leave passengers in the dark about delays or cancellations under new consumer protection rules proposed by the European Commission. They will have to tell customers what is happening as soon as possible - and in any event no later than 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time. And as soon as this information is made available they must provide information about the estimated new departure time. The rules on compensation for delays will also change. Currently airline have to fork out after three hours - but they can't often fly in spare parts or lay on an alternative aircraft that quickly, so they frequently cancel the flights altogether because that can cost them less than feeding delayed passengers and maybe paying for accommodation. Now the deadline for compensation will be five hours for intra-EU flights less than 3500kms. For other international flights it will be nine hours up to 6000kms and 12 hours on journeys longer than that. If they are stuck aboard an aircraft on the tarmac for an hour or more, customers will have the right to air conditioning, use of the toilets, medical assistance and drinking water. After five house they will be able to demand refreshments and food - or get off the plane if they want to abandon the flight. The proposal also clear up another area of confusion by stipulating that if the airline can't provide a seat on one of its own services with 12 hours, delayed passengers will have the right to switch to an alternative carrier (or carriers). It clarifies the compensation passengers can expect if they arrive late because the delay causes them to miss connecting flights. And it attempts to remove doubt over the "extraordinary" circumstances which airlines rely on to avoid paying out. Natural disasters such as the 2010 ash cloud from Iceland or an air traffic control strike will qualify. But technical problems discovered during routine aircraft maintenance will not. The new rules, which will apply to all airline flying in and out of the EU must be approved by the European Parliament. They are likely to come into force next year at the earliest.