Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Les Causses and Les Cevennes

By Lucy Daltroff

It may be our nearest neighbour, but France still has some undiscovered gems, often neglected by the average British tourist.   Take Les Causses and Les Cevennes. A remote area, but one that has much dramatic scenery included within its 3000 square kilometres - all of which has recently been granted UNESCO World Heritage status for “continuing evolving cultural landscapes”.  The largest area ever to be added to the list.

Remote, and historically too poor to host many cities, there is real beauty in the natural parks and valleys in this territory which stretches all the way from the Lozere, down to the area just north of Montpellier, embracing the 4 counties of Aveyron, Gard Herault and Lozere.

Entering the region is stunning in itself, if approached, as I did, via the tallest bridge in the world and the marvellous engineering achievement known as the Millau Viaduct.  Designed by our own Norman Foster and opened in 2004 it is elegant as well as useful - spanning the large Tarn valley and providing a direct route for visitors travelling from Paris to Spain. It cost £272 million and was entirely privately financed.  Although taller that the Eiffel tower and 1.5 miles long, -when I saw it first on a cloudy day it appeared ethereal and delicate - a sort of sculpture, floating overhead.

The sheep grazing grasslands of the surrounding countryside have for 11 centuries supported a thriving lambskin glove trade, which has historically given employment to many local Jewish people over the years.  It was one of the few trades which was allowed to be followed when there was heavy discrimination elsewhere.  Wandering through the small historic village of Meyrueis to the east of Millau, I saw a plaque commemorating the Jewish quarter, confirming that the people that lived there worked as glove makers - and money changers - and rather ominously, that they stayed until the end of the Middle Ages.

Spurred on by this notice I decided to visit the famous Causee Glove Factory in the centre of the town of Millau, to watch the gloves being made by hand for top international fashion houses.  The specialisation of each of the 42 workers was intriguing whether it was the cutting of the leather or the sewing on of the decorations.  It takes four hours to produce each pair and an on-site exhibition shows the many celebrity end-users, who include both Madonna and Kylie Minogue

Nearby is a completely different tourist attraction.  The Chaos (meaning heap of Rocks) at Montpellier Le Vieux is one of the most phenomenal block fields in the world.  It’s a strange collection of varied shaped dolomite slabs extending over 120 hectares.  The whole area was once covered with a vast shallow sea and enjoyed a tropical climate.  Then a hundred million years ago the thrust resulting from the formation of the Alps and the Pyrenees gradually lifted the young rock which resulted in the high plateaux of the Causses - and replaced the sea.

Since then years of erosion and rain have made some of the ruins look like ancient cities - complete with pillars and arches, while other rocks take the form of human or animal faces.  So it was no surprise to hear that for hundreds of years local villagers were frightened to visit and it was just inhabited by wild animals.  Even now, local shepherds tell the story that the fairies founded this ancient city, then got tired of it and went away, leaving it to fall in ruins. Today it can be discovered by a selection of walking paths or a dramatic zip line.  I took the popular, specialised train, and found that although it was really crowded this did not detract from the extraordinary surroundings.

Visiting Cirque de Navacelles, was another wonderful spectacle of nature.   It is the largest canyon in Europe carved out of the limestone thousands of years ago by the river Vis. Viewing it from a newly built viewing platform and looking at the fantastic panorama is both remarkable and unexpected.   Right at the bottom of the canyon is a waterfall and one of the most beautiful medieval hamlets in France.

The lack of large conurbations mean that conventional hotels make way for more  unusual and interesting places to stay.  In the Causses the architecture is mainly stone built while the Cevennes has more organised buildings, intertwined with narrow alleyways.  Accommodation ranges from castles to country house bed and breakfasts, and most are quirky, fun and full of character.

There is another story to this remote area.  It has long been a refuge for the Hugenots who practised religious tolerance.  During the Second World War “Le Juste de Cevennes” were the brave inhabitants, many of them Hugenots, who risked their lives sheltering Jewish children and so defying the Vichy Government that had power over this part of France.    Evidence of these selfless acts are now to be found some way away, in the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, where a small, new glass museum contains more information of the individual intriguing wartime stories of courage and subterfuge.

Fact Box

Lucy flew to Rodez from Stansted Airport







Friday, 31 May 2013

It’s a tongue in cheek television programme and one of the first mass holiday destinations but I am curious to find out what Benidorm is really like.

“Who can see the rhino? ” said Dennis our driver as we climbed up a steep mountain above the town. Things were getting more and more bizarre I thought, until I realised the rhino was actually the animal-shaped mountain to the right of us.  We had decided to take a jeep trip away from the beautiful beaches and towering hotels of Benidorm and thanks to Marco Polo Tours in a surprisingly short time were driving along the Sierra Aitana mountain range. Nearby was the second highest, but most prominent, peak, Puig Campana , popular with mountaineers and serious climbers.  It looks as though a square hole has been sliced out of its summit and legend has it that Roldan, a giant, created the gap because he had been told his wife would die when the sun set behind the summit. By creating a great notch in the mountain he could enable her to live a little bit longer.

View of Benidorm
Even riding in a jeep on a fairly ordinary off-season day, the views are magnificent, and it was good to find out that Mark and Dennis from Marco Polo also arrange bike trips, horse riding and other outdoor adventure sports in the highlands.

Back in Benidorm, with its familiar pubs, English fish and chips restaurants and penchant for fun, it’s easy to forget that a change of pace is possible and an unspoilt countryside is waiting to be discovered.

Despite its annual 6 million visitors, the old town -  the birthplace of Benidorm - is still intact. The 18th century church by the sea with its gleaming blue dome, and the cobblestones of Carrer dels Gats with its small archways, are reminders of the fishing village it once was, before the onslaught of tourism began, way back in 1961.   It was then that the decision was made to build upwards rather than outwards, leaving space for parks and swimming pools in order for the seafront to be accessible to all.

I went up to the 52nd  floor  of the four star Gran Hotel Bali, the tallest hotel in Europe, to get a panoramic view of Benidorm, and its two sparkling beaches Levante and Poniente.    Besides cleanliness  they are also known  for their  beach libraries where  it is possible to leaf through newspapers and books in both English and Spanish and the fact they are easily accessible for  wheelchairs. The roof of the Bali gives a good view of the little triangular off shore island simply referred as L’illa, a twenty minute boat ride away and one of the well known symbols of this tourist community.

Every half-hour boats go from the main port in the centre of town,  to the island.  It’s a journey worth taking.  Once there, a protected walk leads to the summit, an ideal place to witness the many birds who call this island home. It is also possible to step down, inside a bright yellow  “Aquascope” - a cross, between a submarine and a glass sided boat - and glide through the waters, viewing the variety of fish and marine vegetation, which also makes it a good area for scuba diving

Restaurants abound in the town and the food is usually fresh and  varied  although the Spanish do have a tendency to sometimes put pig inside vegetable dishes.

Benidorm is famous for its theme parks.    I visited two that were interesting for adults but undoubtedly the main emphasis is for children.

Terra Natura is a zoo, based upon 3 continents;  Europe, Asia and America, replicating both the animals and eco-systems,  and successfully fills the twins roles of fun and education.   My favourite occupant had to be Shusto, a year old rhino and the first to be born in captivity in Spain.   Mum, Shiwa, looked very pleased with her offspring, and after a 15 months pregnancy, there was every reason for her to feel proud.
Terra Natura  - Baby Shusto

Mondomar Park is famous for its water performances.  I saw the performing dolphins, which were brilliantly choreographed and made a wonderful show.  The empathy with their trainers was evident and it looked natural and well organised.   That is if you are not sitting in the two front rows of the audience, who get soaked.

Mondomar Park  - Performing Dolphins
One evening I visited the Benidorm Palace, not knowing quite what to expect and truthfully fearing the worst.   So many times I realise how bad it is to have preconceptions, and this was one of them.  The show was of the highest quality and it was easy to see why it had been awarded Europe’s best cabaret theatre and nightclub for 2012, beating Paris’ Moulin Rouge. The packed audience of 1500,  mainly sit at tables and are served a good meal during the show.  The dancers, musicians and acrobats were fabulous and the evening excellent.

Coming back home after a busy few days, I began to realise how much more there is to do and explore in Benidorm than its stereotype image leads us to believe.

I flew Monarch Airways.  www.monarch.co.uk

And stayed at the Flash Hotel www.flashotel.com


Escorted jeep safari www.marcopolo-exp.es
Specialist sport operator.  Escorted jeep safaris in 8 seater vehicles - full day from €59 (Under 12 yrs €48) including entrance to

Mundomar www.mundomar.es dolphin & sealion shows, animals, conservation & play areas.

Terra Natura  www.terranatura.com animals in natural settings, attractions, shows & rides, conservation & breeding programme

  Further information

 www.en.visitbenidorm.es (in English) and www.facebook.com/visitbenidorm

Monday, 21 January 2013

Riding in the Andes - Ecuador
Learning how to open a coconut in Samoa
Gruyere - in Switzerland

Debrecen Hungary

The plane landed, the orchestra started playing and the locals got out of their cars and clapped.
That is when I realised the real significance of being on the first flight from Luton to Debrecen, Hungary’s second city.
As a glass of champagne was thrust into my hand it was explained that this new low-cost route from Wizz Air was going to run twice a day, three days a week. While the Hungarian community was obviously thrilled, I was eager to find out what it all meant for us Brits.
Debrecen is a gateway to the east of the country, the northern Great Plain region, 120 miles east of Budapest, and is known for its natural spas with medicinal properties and is also a haven for birdwatchers. Add to that, good local wine, delicious, cheap food and lots of Jewish history.
The city has just 200,000 inhabitants and is famous for its International University, specialising in science. There are over 25,000 students, including 300 Israelis, studying medicine — and it has an attractive main building at Nagyerd and the largest university library in Hungary, with over six million titles.
Debrecen is known for its Calvinist heritage and the celebrated church, Nagytemplom, is impressive, although in keeping with tradition, decoration is kept to a minimum. I do recommend going up the 61m tall tower to see the Rákóczi bell, the largest in Hungary, and to sample the excellent views over the plain. From there it is possible to see the main street, Piac utca, below with its numerous good eateries. These include Pergö Palinkázó — modern food beautifully presented and excellent value. There are also some small museums devoted to folklore traditions and national artists. To the north is Nagyerdö Park — meaning great forest — where the country’s oldest nature conservation area can be found, as well as a zoo, skating rink and the Aquaticum — a water park, pool, hotel, and restaurant, all based on the beneficial effect of the city’s spa water.
I stayed in the new and comfortable Hotel Divinus, at the side of the forest, with its large bedrooms and own attractive spa.
The city is also known for its many celebrations including the five-day flower festival starting on August 15.
A Jewish presence in Debrecen began in 1840 and as the city grew, so did the community, at one time reaching 12,000 as the city became one of the major political, financial and cultural centres of eastern Hungary.
Many leaders in commerce and industry were Jewish and they also comprised 80 per cent of the professional classes.
Yet just 4,000 survived the Second World War of whom 10 per cent made Aliyah. Others moved to the west, and only 1,200 stayed.
There are now just two Orthodox synagogues remaining. The first, built on the Pasti Street in 1894, close to the historical city centre, has recently been beautifully restored.
Rabbi Dr Asher Ehrenfeld showed me around and told me that the following weekend he was officiating at the marriage of a local girl and an Israeli medical student.
He explained that almost half of his congregants are from the university. Every morning and evening there is a minyan. There is also mikva, and a kosher restaurant and he has an attendance of about 300 Kol Nidre.
The second synagogue at Kapolnas Street was officially opened in 1910 and is now mainly used for community events. Just south of Debrecen, Hungarospa is Europe’s largest bath complex. The warm waters are full of natural minerals, including iodine, bromide, calcium and magnesium, known to help rheumatism.
Talking to some of the people in the baths, it turned out that they were there free, their treatment paid for by their own countries’ health services. This medical tourism to Hungary is expanding as its success rate rises.
It’s not all serious though; Hungarospa is dotted with geysers, fountains and swimming complexes, and as I tried out the different pools I thought what a far cry it was from the days of Hungary’s communist austerity.
I was quite unprepared for my visit to Hortobágy. The largest protected area of the country, which became Hungary’s first national park and as the only vast, grassland in central Europe has been an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999.
The unique flora and fauna, the living shepherd’s traditions, the cowboys with their amazing equestrian skills and the folk art are considered as something unrivalled in Europe. The native grey cattle look enormous and extremely healthy and I found out were exempt from mad cow disease. The great fishponds are the largest resting place for migrating birds in central Europe and it was a real experience to see them flying overhead as we toured the area in its own special train. It was a real European safari.
The famous Tokaj wine region is based around the village of Mád, and right in the centre I had my biggest surprise: a little baroque building built in the 1790s turned out to be a beautifully restored synagogue that has won a European Prize for Cultural Heritage from the pan-European Federation for Heritage based in The Hague.
The prominent position of the building in relation to the two Christian churches shows the way that once the various faiths co-existed here in peace. Inside, the Budapest-based architects Peter Wirth, and his wife, Agnes Benko, have sought to recreate the way the synagogue looked in its heyday.
Although one wall plaque features a poignant list of 800 local Jews who were deported to their deaths during the Holocaust.
A small exhibit tells the story of the local Jewish vintners and wine merchants in Mád and other nearby villages, who bought, sold, produced and transported wine to much of central Europe.
The community was utterly destroyed in the Holocaust, and the synagogue today belongs to the Hungarian state, which financed 90 per cent of the $800,000 restoration.
It is a state that is not free of hostility towards Jews even in this day; the third biggest party at the last election, Jobbik, gained a sixth of the vote, on a platform that includes anti-Semitism.
Much later, overlooking the vineyards and sampling the delicious different varieties of wine, from dry to sweet, I couldn’t help thinking of this moving reminder of Hungary’s history.
FLY Wizz Air Flights are from £110 per person return from London Luton to Debrecen. Wizz Air is the only airline to fly direct to Debrecen from the UK. www.wizzair.com
STAY Hotel Divinus Rooms are available from €132 per double room for two people, including buffet breakfast www.hoteldivinus.hu/en,
Tel: +36 52 510 900
MORE INFO www.visit-hungary.com