We weren’t sure about visiting the salt mines near Krakow. They have over a million visitors a year, so mightn’t they be, well, a bit tacky?
Actually no. It was quite a special experience. And a UNESCO World Heritage Site to boot.
They’ve been mining salt in Wielicza since the 13th century. We walked down 800 steps to get to a depth of more than 300 feet to see some of the earlier workings. Further seams can plunge to a depth of over 1000 feet. Miners routinely walked down to their seams, or in the early days, were winched down on precarious rope hoists.
Salt encrusted wooden pit props.
English coal mining is the only mining history I know. So it was wonderful to learn that visiting these mines has been a tourist attraction since the 15th century. There are pictures of elegant 18th century balls being held in the more spacious caverns.
And which English coal mines ever had built in chapels? Miners constructed and ornamented these places of worship so they could give thanks for surviving another day in these dangerous surroundings. They would greet each other ‘God be with you’ (so you survive another day).
A man I talked to at the end said his Fitbit revealed that we had walked 5 km. in our four hours down the mine. Just think how much else I could tell you about this fascinating place if I put my mind to it.
This is a cavern where dancing and other events took place. The walls and floor are made of salt. As are the droplets of the chandeliers.
It’s a story that goes back to the 15th century, when Barcelona already had six hospitals. In 1401 these merged onto a new site in Raval, to offer improved care to the sick.
By the 19th century, these facilities were too small, too outdated, no longer really fit for purpose. A Catalan Banker, Pau Gil, put up the money to fund a truly enormous and visionary project: a whole community of buildings offering state-of-the-art care to the poor of the city. The plan was for facilities of the highest quality, designed in cutting-edge modernist style by cutting-edge Modernista architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner.
Modernism? Think of it as Art Nouveau, Catalan style. You’ll recognise it in the works of Antoni Gaudi. Montaner found inspiration from Moorish architecture. Playful looking mosaics and the light-flooded areas are the special feature of his buildings. What we noticed straight away was bold colour, bold decoration: rich-hued tiled roofs: and within, tiles and mosaics in sunny yellow, grass green, sky blue.
Sun, grass, sky. Why not remind the sick inmates of a cheerful world outside the hospital? Why not have light, airy, high-ceilinged rooms, tiled throughout for ease of cleaning, and because they would never become dingy and faded? Why not build underground tunnels, tiled in cream, so that patients could be moved round the site without being exposed to the elements? Why not build a decent well-lit operating theatre, well-stocked libraries for doctors to consult, and set all these buildings among gardens which patients and staff alike could enjoy?
This was a Christian foundation. Nuns provided nursing care until the 1990s, as they had done since the hospital’s earliest years Mosaics in the building told stories from the Christian tradition, such as that of Saint George slaying the dragon. Other carvings and statues relied on ancient legends. This frog nursing a baby frog, for example, is an old symbol of caring love.
Originally, men and women were separated, but later, the hospital was organised by specialism. Now, although research continues here, modern buildings behind continue the work of the hospital.
The foundation stone was laid in 1902, and facilities were developed until about 1930. Large parts of the site were never built at all, from lack of funds. This isn’t surprising. There is nothing of the workhouse about this place. It’s a beautiful, special site, fully deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage status, acquired in 1997. It only opened its doors to visitors a few years ago, and it’s not yet truly on the tourist trail, despite being just up the road from then Sagrada Familia which is always surrounded by hordes of tourists. Visit it now, while it’s still an oasis of calm. It’ll be somewhere you’ll remember forever.
I’d intended to go into the story of this place in more detail. But a fellow blogger, Restless Jo, whom I ‘met’ only recently, introduced me to a series of posts by a blogging friend of hers, Jude. Here’s a link to the first one, from which you can reach all the rest. She tells and illustrates the history of this place so well that, quite simply, I don’t have to.
We’ve just snuck over to Barcelona. Just for two and a bit days. Just to see Emily, because the last time we were together was in South Korea last autumn.
This morning was sightseeing. I’ll just show you a single photo of the Hospital de Sant Pau, a truly wonderful complex of modernist buildings, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You’ll get the full tour once we’re back home.
This afternoon was hot. No better way to spend it than catching up with Emily over a leisurely lunch sitting in a tree lined square. It’s what the Spanish do best.
In 1132, thirteen Benedictine monks from York fetched up in a wild and isolated place we now know as the manicured and lovely parkland setting of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal. The Archbishop of York had offered them the land so they could establish a pious community based on silence, prayer and simplicity.
Over the years – over the next four centuries – they built a community with all the trappings of a large village: sleeping, living and working quarters, an infirmary, guest accommodation, a mill, a tannery, quarrying, as well as the daily focus of their lives, the Abbey church itself, where they worshipped eight times a day.
Their principal source of income was from sheep, whose wool came to be valued at home and abroad. Merchants from all over Europe to buy and trade.
The Abbey site could not sustain enough sheep for this thriving business. Lay brothers (the manual workers of the monastic world) were sent further and further afield to establish small working sheep farms – granges. During the 15th century they came here, and built the house in which we now live.
It’s changed a bit of course. Who knows how much of the house is truly original, though the stone-built walls are a traditional, sturdy and strong build? We no longer live in an upstairs dormitory, as the lay brothers did.
The Victorians divided the place into rooms for the servants of the country house which was built and attached to the grange in the 18th century. The animals and working quarters are no longer downstairs, though the old, spacious and business like kitchen hearth still exists.
As I make the eight mile journey from here to Fountains Abbey I like to think of the heritage our home shares with this wonderful UNESCO World Heritage site. Aren’t we lucky?
1592 was a terrible year for Korea. The Japanese invaded. They raged through the land destroying all they saw. They burnt ancient temples and state-of-the-art palaces as well as ordinary homes. Little was left.
Imagine an England in which every cultural icon was destroyed in WWII – Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, York Minster, Salisbury Cathedral, Chatsworth….. that’s the kind of morale-destroying disaster Korea faced in 1592.
Rather than accept these losses, Koreans rolled up their sleeves and built everything again, on the same site, and to the same design. Not just once, but in some cases several times, as a consequence of later invasions and revolts. Unlike our own historic buildings, these structures are made not from stone or brick, but from the wood from monumental long-lived trees with statuesque trunks and mighty branches. These palaces and places of worship are carved to traditional patterns and painted in an accepted range of colours with time-honoured designs and images. To our eyes, these palaces and temples look fairly similar. But once we overheard a group talking – ‘Look, anyone can see that’s twelfth century: not a bit like the 15th century style we were looking at earlier’.
Here’s Seoul’s Changdeokgung Palace. It was first built in 1408 for the Joseon royal dynasty and designed with an extensive natural garden in harmony with the topography of its surroundings. The Japanese burnt it down in 1592. It was rebuilt in 1608, burnt down during a political revolt in 1628, and again by the Chinese Manchu-Qing. Each time it was faithfully restored to its original design. The long Japanese occupation of Korea from 1911 to 1945 saw it heavily damaged yet again: once again it’s been restored, though only about 30% of the original buildings remain.
Against the odds, this palace and its grounds together form a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognised as a fine example of Far Eastern palace architecture and garden design in harmony with their natural setting. This is a fine and tranquil place.
When teachers bring parties of children to Fountains Abbey, we often tog them all up in monastic robes, and explore the site with them .We want them to get a feel of the day-to-day life of a mediaeval monk. What? Prayers eight times a day? No underclothes? No talking? No heating? They’re impressed, in a horrified kind of way.
Then they go away, with only brief notions of the story the Abbey itself has to tell. Or why the place is a roofless ruin.
Until this year. Now they can come with their teachers and ‘Act the Facts’. They’re given props – perhaps a simple cape, a feathered cap, a woollen robe, a crown . These turn them into an early monk, a master mason, an Italian wool merchant, a dastardly baron, or even Henry VIII.
They have a script. It’s a melodramatic pastiche telling the Abbey’s turbulent history. Simple God-fearing beginnings, then powerful prosperity, then war, plague and corruption all leading to the final action. Henry VIII dissolves the monasteries.
The question at the beginning of the play is –
‘Who destroyed the Abbey?’
Acting it out, the children lose their places, stumble over words like ‘Cistercian’ and ‘lavatorium’, and forget which character they’re playing.
Honestly, what’s the point? It’s too complicated. They’re learning nothing.
Then they reach the end. We ask them to line themselves up. Twelfth century characters first, then thirteenth… and so on, through to those who bring the story to an end in 1540. We ask them which century was best.
And that’s when we realise how much they’ve learnt. They talk passionately about the simple piety of the early days set against the laxity of later centuries. They discuss austerity versus comfort. They talk feelingly about the plague, and the reasons for the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
And in telling the story of the Dissolution, they’ve solved the mystery of why Fountains Abbey is a roofless ruin.
Back at school, there’s so much for their teachers to build on. The ruin has brought history to life.
Come and see it for yourselves. We can’t promise you a feathered cap, or a cardboard crown, but you could join one of the regular tours. You’ll get a real taste of history as you soak up the special atmosphere of this special site.
A few months ago, I got a job. Not for the pin-money, because I’m not paid a penny. But I’m richly rewarded. I signed up to be a volunteer for the National Trust, at the property nearest our home, Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal. Cistercian Abbey, Georgian water garden and mediaeval deer park…. no wonder it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Since we moved to Ripon, we’d loved spending time there, so I got to wondering….what would it be like to volunteer there? What could I do? What might be involved?
The answer turned out to be…almost anything you want There are dozens of different roles, from gardening to guiding. You could drive the mini-bus or form part of the archaeological monitoring team. You could work in the shop, or in the admissions areas. Badged up, you could wander the grounds, being alert to the needs of visitors who’d like a potted history lesson or to find their way to the toilets. You could work in the wildlife team, helping look after and monitor all those ancient trees, or the herds of deer. You could turn to when there’s a special event, and put out chairs. And you’re quite entitled, over the years, to change your mind and try something else.
I for instance, started out as a visitor assistant at the Victorian High Gothic Church of Saint Mary’s in Studley Royal Park. It’s a real masterpiece of Victorian architect William Burges, but it turned out not to be ‘me’. I admire the building hugely, but it doesn’t involve me at an emotional level as the ruined abbey does. So I quit. No hard feelings
But I shan’t be quitting the Learning Team. Our bread-and-butter is sharing a Day In the Life of a Monk with schoolchildren. The children dress up in monk-style habits, and tour the site getting in touch with the brothers’ silent and family-free routines, led by one of the team. We examine the roofless, windowless Abbey and try to picture the church back in its prime. We imagine the vast space, illuminated only by candles, as the monks worshipped there eight times a day, from 2.00 a.m. onwards. We visit the refectory where the monks dined, in silence, once a day. Did those monks eat meat? What about potatoes? No? Why not? We visit the Warming Room and imagine having just four baths a year, shaving our tonsures with oyster shells. We discuss bloodletting. We talk about all the daily routines. Maybe the children remember only a few of the facts later, But we hope they are moved by these atmospheric ruins, and return later with their families.
They might come though, to experience the natural environment of the grounds: they might go pond dipping, or on a walk where they try to use all their senses by listening, touching , seeing, smelling and so on. Or make mosaics based on what they’ve observed. Or go den-building in the woods. They’re as sure of a grand day out as are the volunteers in the team.
I’ve ended up doing all sorts of stuff I’d never have thought of attempting. Car park attendant on Bank Holidays? I didn’t think so. But it turns out to be fun togging up in a hi-viz jacket, barking out radio messages on the walkie-talkie system, getting in touch with your inner traffic cop, and generally being a welcome face to visitors as you help them manouevre themselves into the busy car park.
And some things are quite simply, a privilege. I wish you could have joined me on Sunday evening. After dark, the site was opened to less mobile visitors. For one night only, cars were welcome on site, to be driven s-l-o-w-l-y past the floodlit Abbey buildings. The evening was cold, misty, moody, atmospheric. Night birds swirled above the trees, dampness dripped from the trees, and monks could clearly be heard from within the abbey, chanting their plainsong (a recording, actually, but none the worse for that). I talked to some of the visitors, often very elderly, as their cars and drivers made their stately way through the grounds. Their appreciation of the staff and volunteers who were there helping the evening to go smoothly, though nice to hear, was quite unnecessary. I wouldn’t have missed this experience for anything. A special evening indeed.
And there are other perks. A couple of times a year there’s a ‘works outing’, when volunteers can take a trip to properties in other parts of the country. Here’s one. There are winter lectures for those who want them, to widen and deepen their knowledge of the history of the place There are times to socialise – a barbecue, a quiz night, meals. We’re very well supported, properly trained, and appreciated by the regular paid staff. I look forward to every single thing I do as a volunteer at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal. I feel very lucky.
There was a medieval manor house once. That burnt down in 1716. John Aislabie, who inherited the site, and was responsible for the magnificent water gardens here, rebuilt the site as a Palladian mansion. That burnt down too, in 1946. There is no house any more. But there are some 350 deer.
And on Saturday afternoon, we went to see them, and to find out more. We’d been promised a grey but tolerable day. In fact, it was grey and intolerable, with drizzle turning to driving rain. But if the deer – some 350 of them – could manage, so could we.
Some of them are red deer, the native species of the British Isles, and the largest.
Some are fallow deer. These were introduced to Britain by the Normans, and became prized as ornamental animals, and for hunting. They’re smaller than red deer, and perhaps seen as prettier. They can come in two shades of tan with spotted coats, or in some cases black, or even white. Look at their antlers: quite different from those of the red deer.
And some are sika. They look a little like darker versions of fallow deer (not the antlers though), and were introduced from China and Japan in the 19th century.
We learnt to distinguish one from the other by looking at their size, their antlers, their coats, their markings, their tails. We learnt that deer are responsible for the very neat way in which the trees in the park are finished off. Deer graze the leaves they can reach, thus leaving all the lowest branches and twigs at exactly the same height. They’ll all happily munch bramble, gorse and nettles too: stinging leaves and prickly thorns don’t worry them at all.
At this time of year the males are losing their antlers. They lose and re-grow them every year, which is a terrific drain on their energy, so they tend to take things fairly easy while this is happening in the early summer. Each year until they’re aged 10 or so, they’ll grow larger antlers than the year before, and with more points. New antlers are velvety, so stags will spend time rubbing this soft coating off by scraping their new accessories against the dead wood that’s deliberately left lying in the deer park. They’ll want them to be good and ready for the rutting season when they’ll wrestle other males in the quest to be the females’ Top Stag.
They’ll also enjoy a wallow. We saw muddy depressions here and there where deer have lain down to have a good old scratch and bathe in thick oozy mud. At this time of year it’s to help free themselves of their winter coat as they moult. But it’s a different story in the breeding season. Males urinate into the earth to make it even muddier. Then they’ll roll round in the resulting muddy soup. Their splendid appearance and smell as they rise up, magnificently coated in sticky earth and bits of vegetation makes them thoroughly alluring to the females they hope to attract.
On Saturday, the deer were edgy, a little spooked. Nobody knew why. The large groups we saw were always at a distance, always ready to bolt away. The three varieties of deer don’t really mix, but neither do they feel the need to place real distance between themselves. We didn’t get to see them at close quarters. But we saw them well enough to distinguish one species from another with increasing confidence. A good day then, despite the increasingly dirty weather. We’ll be back when the sun shines, to visit the deer again.
Fallow deer. There’s just one white one in their midst.
Young red deer.
Deer highways in the grass.
You can see moulted hairs in this recently used wallow.
Thanks to members of the volunteer Wildlife Team at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal for our afternoon with the deer.
Pierre-Paul Riquet. Pierre-Paul Riquet? Who’s he? He’s not much known in the UK, and I’m not sure how much of a household name he is in France either.
But he should be. He’s the brains behind the wonderful UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Canal du Midi. This lovely and elegant canal, opened in 1681, is 240 km. long, and runs from Toulouse to the Mediterranean. It was built as a short cut from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, avoiding a long sea voyage round Spain. The idea had been discussed on and off since Roman times, but the problem was always the same. How to deal with such hilly terrain and how to supply those hilly sections with enough water.
Riquet thought he had the answer. Born in 1604 or 1609, he was a salt-tax collector. Tax collecting was a rich man’s job: at that time, it involved paying all the monies due to the king up-front, and worrying about collecting from the relevant subjects later. A rich man can have a fine home, so Riquet set out to buy the ideal spot, and in 1652, he found it: the ancient but run-down Château de Bonrepos, near Toulouse. It was a medieval building originally, fortified in the 16th century. It interested him because it was a fine site, with splendid views of the Pyrenees (Not today: the weather was awful. Never saw the mountains at all through the gloom). More importantly for him, the surrounding terrain, resembling parts of the nearby Montagne Noire, enabled him to conduct hydraulic experiments round an ancient fishpond on site from which he developed reservoirs and water-filled trenches replicating sections of the future Canal du Midi. Bonrepos, then, was where he worked up his case for showing that the canal could after centuries of simply talking about it, become a reality.
The remnants of the mediaeval building interested him not at all. He had a fine classical building built – 100 rooms. Stone isn’t available locally, so it was built of Toulouse brick, and faced with stucco to hide this embarrassing fact: bricks were elsewhere the material of the poor. He had formal gardens built, orchards, an orangery. Every winter, an iceberg’s worth of ice was wrapped in hessian and floated from the Pyrenees to be stored in an excavated ice-house deep in the woodlands for use throughout the summer.
These days, the château is in a bad way. The stucco’s falling off, the windows are rotted, and the internal decorations are absent or shabby. The inhabitants of the small village where the château stands, Bonrepos-Riquet, bought the property some years ago, and while appealing for and attracting public and private funds, it also relies on monthly working parties of volunteers, who work enthusiastically in the house and grounds to stem the damage caused by wind and weather and to bring about improvements.
We visited today on one of Elyse Rivin’s informative Toulouse Guided Walks , which always focus on those corners of Toulouse and the surrounding area which you never knew about: you leave after her tour feeling an enthusiastic expert. With input from the château’s own volunteer guides, steeped in the story of the place, we formed a picture of Paul Riquet himself. He persuaded Louis XIV of his ability to master-mind the canal, and in 1661, work began, though he didn’t live to see the waterway opened as he died in 1680, leaving enormous debt and financial problems for his children who nevertheless continued the project. The labourers – men and women, up to 12,000 of them – who built the canal were among the best paid workers in Europe, to the disapproval of other less philanthropic employers. He insisted on provision being made for all aspects of their lives, from shops and refreshment to education and worship.
Those plane trees that line the canal. They offered shade, then as now, to those who travel along it. Their root systems bind the soil and offer stability to the canal, and the leaves don’t rot, so as they fall into the canal, they help make a waterproof base. Sadly, these days those trees are afflicted by a virus. One theory is that the wooden boxes which packaged American munitions in the war and were discarded along the canal, carried the infected spores and lay dormant for many years.
First view of the Château
Then we crossed over the dry moat. It was never filled with water.
A once-handsome stucco interior.
A glance through the window created to view that sweeping vista.
This isn’t Riquet’s study. But perhaps this 19th century version isn’t too unlike his own.
We’re round the back of the château now.
Stucco in sore need of repair.
This is the orangery, for winter storage of citrus trees. No windows on this side, to protect against the north wind.
And inside. Windows offer light and sun, the roof beams are splendid: soon, this space will be fit for concerts and exhibitions.
And here are some of the volunteers working to make it all happen.
Below ground, back in the château, the original medieval kitchen had its own water supply – a well – useful in times of siege
Put hot coals in the slots, and there you have your plancha for grilling.
Outside in the woods – here’s the entrance tio the ice house.
A volunteer repairs the experimental canal system.
More volunteers work by the lake.
And there’s so much else. Follow the links to get a fuller picture of the story, or better still, visit the Canal du Midi and Château Bonrepos, where this wonderful waterway was conceived and planned.
We’re back in France, to rather strange mid-January scenes. Our local skiers’ playground at Mont d’Olmes appears to have only a dusting of snow, though it claims to have 5 pistes open. Our garden’s full of marigolds flowering alongside the snowdrops, and on a walk yesterday afternoon, dressed in light pullovers, we heard birds singing ceaselessly, apparently to welcome the spring as they busily seemed to be putting winter behind them.
And so it was in England too. We rarely wrapped up warmly, and enjoyed being out and about in the balmy conditions.
Best of all was our trip to the part of the country that includes parts of South Gloucestershire and Witshire and Somerset, to stay with my daughter-in-law’s family. They took a dim view of our lack of knowledge of their end of the country, and set about putting things right.
Everyone knows Bath as a Roman stronghold and as a wonderfully intact 18th century city much visited by Jane Austen. No wonder it’s an UNESCO World Heritage site. We had to be content with a taster session. And we began with a stroll across Pulteney Bridge, which has shops on it, like Florence’s Ponte Vecchio, and along the Avon to enjoy the views of the Abbey and Parade Gardens.
Bath Abbey’s an ancient church, but what we see today- a light graceful building soaring upwards to spectacular stone fan vaulting – is largely the work of the Victorian Gilbert Scott. Every wall is covered with memorials: so many people came to Bath to ‘take the waters’ and then upped and died. Plumbers, admirals, sugar plantation owners, soldiers – they’re all here.
Time for a coffee break. Where else but the 18th century Pump Room, where we decided a Bath Bun was a good idea, a sulphurous glass of spa water a very bad one?
We can’t recommend the Roman Baths Museum highly enough. After spending several hours there, we feel as if we’ve had a real taste of the life of a Roman citizen living, working, playing and praying in Bath during that period. The baths themselves have been very sensitively and imaginatively interpreted. If near Bath, just go!
After that, a quick stroll round the 18th century. The graceful symmetry of streets like the Royal Crescent is so impressive: just don’t look round the back, you’re not meant to.
Next day, we were tourists too. England at its most picturesque. Cotswold villages with solid stone-walled, stone tiled cottages.
Back in the medieval period and beyond, Castle Combe used to be a centre for the local woollen industry. Now, more often than not, it’s a film set, the scene of many a period drama on TV or at the cinema. And Lacock is so picture-postcard perfect that almost the whole village is owned by the National Trust. Great for a relaxing visit. I wonder what it’s like to live there.
We’d mooched happily round these two villages for some while. But after all that we needed to step out and stretch our legs. Kennet and Avon Canal anybody? Brian and Sue chose for our walk the Caen Hill Locks, a flight of 16 locks packed tight together, one after the other, with ponds at the side to store the water needed to operate the locks. We thought our walk up the canal banks used quite enough calories. What if we’d been taking a canal boat up the entire flight and beyond, through lock-gate after lock-gate? This 100 mile canal has more than 100 of them in total…..
A wonderful couple of days then, steeped in history and splendid views and countryside. We’ll be back – if Brian and Sue’ll have us.