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The rolling fields of Flanders


In Flanders Fields by Jaaq

At the throat of the continent

Like a lot of peoples whose communities have grown up around the coastal waters of northern Europe, the Flemish, or Flemings, of Flanders are a nation held together by their culture, language and history, whilst being stuck in the political regions of other larger powers.

More than six million Flemings live and work in a region that’s spread out over France, Belgium and the Netherlands, originally called the Vlaanderen meaning ‘flooded land’.

Since 862 A.D. they’ve been fought over, invaded, passed around and divided; attacked by the Spanish Inquisition (didn’t see it coming apparently) and withstood the full wrath of Rome over the Reformation.

They illustrate better than anyone the playground mentality that has governed Europe over the centuries; smaller kids trying to get on with their lives whilst quietly hoping to escape the attention of the big bullies marauding about the place and annoying everyone.

Flemish culture survives today through food and festivals as-well as the odd poem, and they even have their own parliament, which represents the Flemish Nation, where feelings of romantic nationalism still run high.

In 2006 some of the more zany elements within the Flemish nationalist movement used a well known TV station to announce that ‘independence’ had been declared and the King and Queen of Belgium had fled the country. They admitted that it was only a joke about 30 minutes later but not before they had sent the entire French region of Belgium into an almighty panic – you crazy kids!

That’s just the kind of country we should all aspire to live in.

The P&O Fleet


The English Channel by jjwilliams

Welcome on board the Pride of Dover

To operate a service like P&O Ferries do, they need to have a fine fleet of ferries at their disposal. So, how many boats comprise the P&O Ferries fleet, linking the United Kingdom and the continent each day?

Of the six main destinations that P&O Ferries sails to, each has a specific flotilla of boats serving it. Those who travel regularly on P&O’s most popular route, between Dover and Calais, might be familiar with some of these: the Pride of Dover, the Pride of Kent, the Pride of Canterbury, the Pride of Burgundy, the Pride of Calais and European Seaway.

The majority of these ferries were built by Schichau-Unterweser in Germany, and include great capacity for cargo alongside their state of the art design. A century ago, the idea was realised that a journey need not just be a functional necessity, but could also be an enjoyable experience – with great liners of the day offering luxurious voyages to prospective passengers. In the early twenty first century, this idea is still alive and well – as you can see by studying some of their vessels.

The Pride of Dover for example, features a family lounge, offshore shopping facilities, high quality coffee shops, bars, food courts and executive lounges. All this adds to the experience, whilst some people just enjoy staying out on desk – enjoying the changing views and the fresh sea air.

P&O have recently announced that they are going to replace both the Pride of Dover and the Pride of Calais. They are to be replaced by two of the biggest ferries to have entered British ports over the next two years. The new ships are to have capacity for 1,500 passengers, 160 lorries and 250 cars on each crossing. You can read more about this news by following this link.

P&O’s maiden voyage


SS Canberra leaving Belfast 1961 by adambangor

For more than forty years P&O Ferries have been trawling Europe’s northern oceans. Here we have a look back at how the story was born, in the winter of 1965.

In December of 1965, Britain was caught in the winds of change. The previous winter had been the last for one of its most celebrated sons, Sir Winston Churchill, and as he was lowered carefully into his grave at St. Martin’s Church in the heart of England – with him could have gone many of the trappings of a dying Britain.

A glorious sweep of change was flowing through society, right before the population’s eyes: on 16th December the Beatles had returned to the top of the charts for another five week stint with the riff-heavy, Day Tripper, a day earlier Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 had performed the first controlled rendezvous in orbit and on 17th December North Sea Ferries (which was to become known as P&O Ferries in time), set off on its maiden voyage from Hull to Rotterdam.

The ferry making the first voyage was called the Norwave and as she made her way steadily across the North Sea, the significance of her journey was not lost on spectators. There was little new in the fact that she could carry 249 passengers, what was revolutionary was the fact that the ship had a capacity for amongst other cargo, trucks, trailers and cars.

Due to the work of North Sea Ferries, Europe was being opened up to the British tourist. This was far before air travel was an economically viable option for many and usual holiday destinations included Southend, Scarborough, Bournemouth and Blackpool. Suddenly, trips to Holland or the north coast of France became a reality. Families could travel for extended periods of time, bringing their car or perhaps a caravan for comfort. The journey of the Norwave was a significant one, connecting the British to the continent in a way that they had never been previously.

That maiden voyage did not pass without its difficulties, weather reports show that there was a howling gale and the ship was tossed violently upon the waves. Upon her arrival in Rotterdam, however, a significant advance had been made in maritime travel: the age of the ferry was upon us.

The historic port of Dunkerque


DUNKERQUE by lalla-ali

Nestled on the French side of the Belgian border…

The phrase “a weekend in Dunkerque” can still conjure up enough terrifying imagery for it to be used as an excellent metaphor for most family Christmases, as I regularly do. However, times have changed since a flotilla of 900 English vessels rescued the entire British expeditionary Force from the clutches of Hitler’s marauding zealots, and it is becoming an increasingly popular mini-break destination.

Nestling on the French side of the Belgian border this busy port, the 3rd largest in France, is surrounded by beautiful sandy beaches and still retains much of its old charm despite the massive destruction it sustained during WWII.

Just a short drive up the E50 from Calais, you’ll discover a town that has passed through ownership by Dutch, French and English rulers, all of which creates that special individuality that comes with having such a rich and diverse cultural history.

Back in the days of buccaneers and breeches it even operated as a fiercely independent and rather lawless port, from which pirates launched raids against rich merchant vessels navigating the channel. Star Wars fans would have recognised it as a kind of 17th Century Mos Eisley Spaceport; described by Obi-Wan Kenobi as a place where: “you’ll never find a more retched hive of scum and villainy!”

But with piracy no-longer a viable lifestyle choice, Dunkerque’s residents have turned to more legal trades, and they now excel as purveyors of those fine and delicate treats that we love to discover when visiting the continent.

Make sure that you visit the Musee des Beaux Arts for a fantastic collection of XVI and XIX century paintings and of course no trip can be complete without leaving time to sample the fantastic local seafood, breads and cheeses, not to mention the regional beers, ciders and wines. Enjoy!

Asturias: a principality with a punch


HDR Mina abandonada de Llumeres (Asturias) by jbarcena

Napoleon’s nemesis

‘Plucky’ is a great word. It conjures up images stubborn ‘little guys’ who refuse to be bullied. Think Asterix the Gaul smashing Romans across a field, only without the performance enhancing drugs.

Soaking up the history of Asturias, one of Spain’s northernmost provinces, you get a feel for the kind of plucky attitude that the little Frenchman-with-the-big-face-hair personified; it isn’t just a taste for wild boar that they share.

Asturianos have been snubbing authority since about 29 BC, when the Roman’s found dealing with their beautiful mountain terrain so difficult. This was followed by invading Visgoths and Moors, between the 6th and 8th centuries respectively, all of whom got an equally bloody nose.

In 1808 they even invented the word ‘guerrilla’, meaning: little-war, when they rose up against the diminutive Gallic dictator Napoleon; having the cheek to declare war against his entire empire and kicking out the French Governor thus inspiring the rest of Spain to follow suit.

However, as I’m sure you are aware, the trouble with pint size fascist tyrants is that once you get rid of one there is always another, and by the 1930s they were up in arms again, this time against Cliff Richard’s arch nemesis General Francisco ‘do-these-jack-boots-make-me-look-taller?’ Franco, who took his war against the Asturias Marxist Workers Movement to its bloody conclusion at the Battle of El Mazuco in 1937, yet the area always remained a kind of Star Wars-esque rebel stronghold.

So when your next visiting the coastal city of Gijon or planning a tour around the capital of Oviedo, remember to leave thoughts of regional domination at home, this may be one of Spain’s smallest provinces, but it certainly packs the biggest punch.

Take a trip to Rouen


Rouen by roblee

We’re all going on a summer holiday

I suspect that I am not alone in regarding Rouen as the base camp for a succession of childhood summer holidays. Striding purposefully along the Rue de la Republique caked in sun block and clutching a fist full of tourist memorabilia, I’ve got the town lodged firmly in my memory as day three of an annual jaunt to the north of France. The day after having stepped off the ferry.

Despite the fact that I have the capital of Haute Normandy bound up in my childhood recollections, Rouen, a relic of one of Europe’s most prosperous medieval cities is well worth a revisit in the present day.

Known for its Notre Dame cathedral and it wonderfully old astronomical clock, sights abound for day visitors. Its buildings also huddle around the banks of the meandering River Seine, giving romantics the chance of late night’s strolls and an essential geographical landmark. However, it is in its social history that Rouen really comes to life.

Traditionally the city was considered to be the capital of the Duchy of Normandy, which immediately drags up connotations with William the Conqueror. Before the archetypal ‘Iron Duke’ started stomping around England, ‘harrying’ its populace, he was raised in Rouen.

Sixty years later, the first Norman king of England achieved the dubious honour of being the first recorded King of England to explode. Bizarrely, following William’s death a fire broke out in the church before his burial had been completed. Hurriedly the Normans attempted to squeeze their dead king into a small sarcophagus, which ultimately proved to be an unwise decision as the body exploded: ‘creating a terrible smell that sent mourners running for the exits.’

Three centuries later on, at the Vieux-Marche, Joan of Arc was bound to a tall pillar and burnt by the nasty English on the pretext of having made an utter nuisance of herself. Thorough as ever, the English burnt her two more times to ensure that she was dead enough.

If these facts are not sufficient fodder for committed history buffs, then they can scoop deeper into accounts of D-Day in the Second World War or the spats between the Normans and the other French regions over the decades as the city is crammed full of interesting museums. Bloody, fascinating and formidable, Rouen has a little more on offer than I gave it credit for when I was eight.

Rouen sits a short drive from the northern French coast and is easily accessible from a P&O Ferry crossing. To find out the latest fares, the best online prices, exclusive offers and latest availability, visit the P&O website.

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