Wednesday, December 24, 2008

English Vineyard

While in the UK a couple weeks ago, I had occasion to go the country's largest vineyard in Dorking, Surrey about 30 minutes from my friends' home. The day was pouring rain - washing out great stretches of road at times so we did not tour the vineyard but had an excellent lunch with a wonderful dry white wine and made some purchases from the gift shop. I repeat some of the material from Denbie's website, including the link. I attach a couple photos of the estate in sunny times, looking for all the world as if we are in France and a link to many more images.

On top of Ashcombe hill (now Ranmore hill) was a farm where John Denby was at one time the farmer. The farmhouse was purchased by a Mr .Wakeford who sold the property in 1754 to Jonathan Tyers, the founder and proprietor of Vauxhall Gardens. He transformed the farm building into a modest Georgian House, which could be regarded as the first 'Denbies' House. …

The Estate now comprises 627 acres, 200 of which are woodlands, and includes 10 estate houses. There is no known connection between the current owner and his name-sake James White, who owned Denbies 200 years earlier who could well be the same James White who was a well known auctioneer in Dorking.

Adrian and Gillian White have five children, one daughter and four sons. It is for them that the Estate has been developed to optimise the use of the land with today's difficult balance between preservation and conservation, at a time when Britain's entry into the European Economic Community (Common Market) has made farming a questionable investment. Lateral thinking, because of farming's depressing position, led to the development of the Estate's south facing slopes, of little grazing value, into a vineyard. Dr. Selley, Professor of Geology at Imperial College, London and longtime Dorking resident, had suggested that Adrian White consider planting vines in view of the similarity of Denbies soil and climate to that of the Champagne area of France.

Subsequently research revealed that vines had thrived in the area previously. In AD 100 the Romans planted a vineyard at Bagden Farm, less than 350 yards from Denbies Estate. In Daniel Defoe's 'A Tour Through the Whole Islands of Great Britain', written in the early eighteen century, we read of Charles Howard of Deepdene House, laying down a vineyard on the south facing slopes of Dorking, "which, they say, has produced since most excellent good wines, and a very great quantity of them." It is interesting to note that in the early 1680's Defoe was at school near Dorking.

The vineyards of Denbies Estate are situated on the North Downs with its famous chalky soil, in a protected valley of south facing slopes. A total 265 acres have been planted which is three times the size of any other in the United Kingdom and has met the promise of producing some of the finest sparkling and table wines in Europe through repeated certification in the annual International Wine Challenge.

For a full history click on this site.

For more photos of Denbie's please click here.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Winchester and Distance Ancestor

When I was young, I thought everyone had a family tree enumerating ancestors, their spouses and children back some 400 years. I didn’t find it unusual to have a gold bracelet that had once belonged to a great great grandmother, her daughter and then my mother all of whose initials were inscribed. I did find it odd that it had skipped my mother’s mother. I grew up with the stories of my great great grandfather who was the captain on a whaling vessel and then subsequently with his eponymously named son and grandson owned the maritime company that sprang from the ship’s ownership. Only very recently I have learned that his house in New Bedford stands today as one of the stops on the Underground Railroad. Quite recently as well and most interestingly (and over two hundred years prior to the captain), one ancestor whom I’d always known had come to the U.S. on the Mayflower now is known to have traveled first to Jamestown, where his shipwreck on Bermuda was the basis of the plot within Shakespeare’s Tempest, and the Butler, Stephano, modeled after him, Stephen Hopkins. Research within the last decade has definitely shown that both these parts (Jamestown and Plymouth) were played by one and the same man whose roots can be traced to Hampshire, England and specifically for a period of his life to Winchester. My very recent visit to Winchester owes its origin to this recent new information about my ancestor. I owe my knowledge of these new facts to the wonderful wealth of information available on the internet that I can read while in Qatar.

I attach a few photos from Winchester of sites that Stephen Hopkins would have seen in the early 1600s. (My commentary is drawn from a Walk-around Guide to Winchester, Wikipedia and other tourist naterial .)

The Westgate was built as early as the 12th century with later additions in the 13th and 14th centuries. It stands where a Roman gate stood 1500 years ago and when the defensive needs of the city declined, it was put to use as a jail and debtor's prsion. The grooves down which the portcullis would have been dropped during an emergency and five openings through missiles would have been fired on anyone attaching the gates are visible. Alas, the small museum with armour, weapons, household objects and a painted ceiling created for the marriage of Mary I to Phillip of Spain in 1554 and the roofwalk from which Winchester can be viewed are closed during the winter months and so I couldn't visit.

The Great Hall, built between 1222 and 1236 for Henry III, is considered to be the finest medieval hall in England after Westminster. Throughout its history the Hall witnessed many events and for most of its life has been a legal and administrative center and today is physically joined to the modern law courts. High on the west wall is the famous round table, made of oak and 18 ft in diameter. Dating from the 13th century it has hung in the hall from at least 1463, although at the opposite end until 1873. It is believed to have been painted for the visit to Westminster of Charles V and Henry VIII in 1522. The design is of a robed King Arthur with the names of his knights around the circumference.

The east end of the great hall was painted in the 19th c with a great tree showing the names of parliamentary representatives of Hampshire from the earliest times. On this wall are the Wedding Gates of Prince Charles.

The first cathedral in Winchester was begun in 642 by King Cenwealth of Wessex. The present version was started in 1079 with many alterations through the 16th century and today is renowned for, among other things, the longest nave in Europe. Although Stephen Hopkins' parish chursh was St. Thomas, Winchester, he surely would have known the cathedral. The Norman foundations consisted of a great raft of logs laid on bogland and by 1900 the cathedral was sinking. William Walker, a diver, worked under the foundations in black water for five years, removing the peat and decayed timber handful by handful so that the structure could be underpinned with concrete.

I close with a lovely Horse and Rider by Elizabeth Frink (1975) that looked cold in the December light rain but must be charming when the sun is out and leaves are full.

News from here

A compilation of recent news items that shape our lives here in Qatar.

From a very recent internal email to all students and employees:
"Please note that internet services in Qatar have been affected by the breach of three of the four internet sub-cables in the Mediterranean Sea, linking the Middle East and India with Europe and America. Engineers from Qtel are working to source additional alternative routes to maintain speed and connectivity but, in the meantime, you may experience delays accessing external web pages. Work to repair the cables is currently underway, although this could take several days to complete.
Thank you for your patience." Delays continue ...

Qatar celebrated its National Day - commemorating the establishment of the State of Qatar in 1887 by Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed bin Thani. I was trapped for over 30 minutes in traffic as a parade passed by - first wonderful horses and then camels, all with riders dressed in native outfits. Of course, no camera since I had been trying to get groceries. Below are some excerpts from the local newspaper.

DOHA: It was a day to cherish and a night to remember as Qatar’s history, achievements and visions were presented in all its glory to an admiring public and curious onlookers. “The Qatar National Day celebrations exceeded our expectations,” said Salman Almass Al Qubaisi, director of administrative and financial affairs and state bureau; and a committee member of the Qatar National Day Organising Committee. “The members of the Qatar National Day Organising Committee are very happy with the turnout of the event. And we saw many people along the Corniche having fun with family and friends, and enjoying the shows since morning,” said Al Qubaisi. Thousands gathered at the Corniche to witness the shows—from the parade in the morning, to the light and water show in the afternoon and early evening, to the spectacular display of fireworks at 10pm.

(I saw the fireworks from my apartment.)

New Islamic Museum and culture news:
DOHA: The total number of visitors to the newly-opened Museum of Islamic Art has crossed the 30,000 mark within two weeks of its opening to the public. Both local and international visitors joined the rush to see Qatar’s new cultural landmark during the period, the Qatar Museums Authority has said. The largest Islamic museum in the world resounded with the footsteps of 1,500 visitors on December 1, the day it opened to the public. Visitors of all ages enjoyed the museum’s permanent collection featuring more than 800 pieces of priceless Islamic art and the first temporary exhibition ‘Beyond Boundaries: Islamic Art Across Cultures’ – all free of charge. more ...

DOHA: Qatar is grateful to renowned architect I M Pei for presenting the iconic Museum of Islamic Art (IMA) to the country and the whole world, said H H Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned here yesterday. “The priceless monument Pei has offered us will be the cornerstone of the region’s culture and tradition,” she added.
Sheikha Mozah was addressing a seminar on “Islamic Architecture from Tradition to Modernity”; a discussion held in honour of Pei at the newly opened museum yesterday.
“Our idea is to enhance this museum as an epicenter of the region’s arts and cultural movement,” she said. more ...

DOHA: Hollywood icon Robert De Niro signed an agreement with Qatar Museum Authority (QMA) here yesterday to launch the next edition of New York’s world-renowned Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) in Doha. ...The first Tribeca Film Festival Doha, featuring 40 films, is to run from November 10-14, 2009, at the Museum of Islamic Art. more ...

Qatar to assist developing countries fight poverty
UNITED NATIONS: Qatar is spearheading efforts to promote trade and cooperation between developing economies as a part of an economic strategy to help the world’s poor work together in pulling themselves out of poverty. Qatar’s ambassador to the United Nations Nasser Abdulaziz Al Nasser, opened a four-day conference in New York recently to debate a process economists have called “South-South Development”. The Global South-South Development Expo 2008, which closed on Friday, saw Al Nasser joined by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other advocates of fair economic growth in midtown Manhattan. Doha’s envoy, who is also the president of the UN General Assembly’s High-Level Committee on South-South Cooperation, emphasised on the importance of forging such an economic alliance. more ...

Boat with medical supplies defies Israeli blockade
DOHA: A boat chartered by Western pro-Palestinian activists, docked in the Gaza’s fishing port yesterday morning, carrying urgent medical aid supplies and a Qatari delegation. The boat named Al-Karama (Dignity) was the first to successfully break Israel’s naval blockade on the Gaza Strip, which is a part of a series of sanctions Israel applied on the territory after the Hamas movement seized the territory in 2007. Prime Minister of the defunct Palestinian government Ismail Haniyah expressed his gratitude over the arrival of the boat at the Gaza Port. He viewed demonstrations staged in Arab and Islamic capitals that called for lifting of the Gaza siege as evidence that Arab people could no longer tolerate the Israel blockade. more ...

Divorce, Saudi Style
RIYADH: A Saudi court has rejected a plea to divorce an eight-year-old girl married off by her father to a man who is 58, saying the case should wait until the girl reaches puberty, a lawyer involved with the case said. “The judge has dismissed the plea (filed by the mother) because she does not have the right to file such a case, and ordered that the plea should be filed by the girl herself when she reaches puberty,” lawyer Abdullah Jtili said after a court decision on Saturday. The divorce plea was filed in August by the girl’s divorced mother with a court at Unayzah, 220km north of Riyadh just after the marriage contract was signed by the father and the groom. more

from today's paper, news you can use ...
DOHA: The Ministry of Public Health yesterday denied what has been circulating through SMS that a street vendor has been selling perfumes, which, if sniffed could cause death. An official at the Public Health Ministry denied as baseless these rumours, which said 18 persons were killed and another 35 persons were rushed to intensive care units as a result of these perfumes. The official affirmed that such rumours were completely untrue and called on the people not to spread such rumours and messages, which created panic. The Ministry of Public Health urges people to notify the Ministry of Public Health on 5511847 in case of receiving such SMS.

(Last year an SMS mesage circulated about an impending hurricane that caused enough panic among some to have workforces let go - not ours - the same was tried this year but debunked early. An interesting demonstration of the power of SMS.)

and finally, Weather
(from end November):
DOHA: Qatar received scattered rainfall across the country yesterday, and the weatherman has forecast chances of more showers today. The Met department officials termed yesterday’s rains as “scattered but almost all across the country”. The daily weather chart forecast “partly cloudy to cloudy weather with a chance of scattered rain today.” The weather report also forecast relatively cold weather. Early yesterday morning, Doha received light scattered rain. Ruwais, Dukhan, Al Khor, Abu Samra and Mesaieed also witnessed light drizzles. Doha witnessed very light rain in the noon that lasted just a few minutes. The weatherman forecast a maximum temperature of 27 degrees Celsius and minimum of 19 degrees today. The easterly to southeasterly wind is expected to blow at a speed of six to 14 knots inshore and eight to 17 knots offshore. Winds are expected to whip up waves.
from Dec. 1:
Doha: The Emir H H Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani will take part in the Istiska (rain-seeking) prayers tomorrow morning at the Al Wajba prayers ground. These prayers come in line with the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him), who performmed Istiska prayers at the time of rainfall delay.
As I recall, the last time this was attempted, hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans ...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Not in Kansas

Despite the news that discusses global economy, global warming and U.S. politics, I am routinely reminded that I am not in Kansas anymore, as Dorothy so famously proclaimed. Two recent news stories demonstrate this point. In the first, we see the interest in Doha in having a spiderman scale buildings, specifically a local hotel - in the NY Times I have read on numerous occasions about the arrest of those who scale tall buildings. In the second I post a note on the front page today about local weather.

DOHA: Alain Robert, “French Spiderman”, will be scaling the La Cigale Hotel building in Doha on December 6 and 7.
Famous for scaling skyscrapers, Robert has climbed 85 giant structures around the globe, most of which he has scaled using only his bare hands and climbing shoes.
His second time in Doha, Robert will be climbing the building sans safety net.
“The management invited Robert to climb the building on December 6 because maybe, it’s not finalised yet, but maybe, we’re going to formally open our hotel by then and his presence would be interesting to the guests as well as the people in Doha,” a hotel employee said.

Yet from the NYT we read
December 2, 2008
Times Building Climber Is Sentenced to Three Days of Community Service
The first man to climb the facade of The New York Times Building last summer pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and will pay also pay a $250 fine.

Invitation v jail ? such is the difference.

Also from today's Doha paper we read

DOHA: Qatar received scattered rainfall across the country yesterday, and the weatherman has forecast chances of more showers today.
The Met department officials termed yesterday’s rains as “scattered but almost all across the country”.
The daily weather chart forecast “partly cloudy to cloudy weather with a chance of scattered rain today.” The weather report also forecast relatively cold weather.
Early yesterday morning, Doha received light scattered rain. Ruwais, Dukhan, Al Khor, Abu Samra and Mesaieed also witnessed light drizzles. Doha witnessed very light rain in the noon that lasted just a few minutes.
The weatherman forecast a maximum temperature of 27 degrees Celsius and minimum of 19 degrees today. The easterly to southeasterly wind is expected to blow at a speed of six to 14 knots inshore and eight to 17 knots offshore. Winds are expected to whip up waves.

This translates to temperatures of 66 - 81 degrees farenheit. Yesterday as I left to get groceries it started to sprinkle - what seemed to come down was muddy wet - and my car was streaked with mud spots. Oddly enough my car spun out on the little wet there was. The image below is of a rare tornado a few weeks ago in the northern area. Weather rarely lingers - in N.E. it is said if you don't like the weather than you should wait a few minutes - even more true here. In the afternoon a friend called to ask what my weather was - she had some rain, I had none.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Obama from Qatar

After weeks of collectively holding our breaths, here there and everywhere we can finally start to breathe again.

The night before the election I received a call from a very dear friend, an African-American with whom I helped start an exchange program between Togo and her (my former) University and with whom for almost 20 years I travelled the LIRR to work each day. We spoke of our optimistic but still cautious thoughts. I awoke at 3:30 am on 'election' day, looked at the computer news and went back to sleep - much too early to know anything. By the time I left for work at 6:25 things were trending our way. A good friend and colleague's husband called me as I pulled out into traffic to say we were almost there but he wished he were in NYC. 30 minutes later she called after I had reached the office but before I got the computer up to report in tears that we won. He's an Egyptian-born American lawyer, she's Greek-born American research administrator. They have two sons, 7 and 10.

The Director of Finance wore a blue suit, the color of the blue maps and Obama's placards, specifically chosen; she's Asian-American, born in Thailand, once married to an Indian and the mother of two early twenties children.

I mention these facts because I expect many were also a bit jolted by McCain's comment to Obama, that it was a great day for African-Americans. He still doesn't get it. Of course it is an incredible day for African-Americans and one that few of us expected could come so fast. But it is also a great day for recent immigrants who continue to make the U.S. what it is and most importantly, it is a great day for all Americans who have watched in despair as our country and its reputation around the world were hijacked by a gang of neo-con thugs who walked over our civil liberties and the constitution in a way that may take quite a while to heal. So when I heard McCain's comments I thought again of what a disaster we just avoided.

After sending am email on this, I received responses concurring with these thoughts as well as this story from one colleague: “I overheard a conversation today in the small town where I work (it's the county seat and much bigger than the smaller town I live in) about how ‘we're the minority now - they have the power now. Did you see those young Obama kids drinking their beer? Is that what we want this country to be?’ etc, etc with ruminations about moving to Australia or the Middle East (although the woman said she didn't think she'd make it in the Middle East because she says what she thinks).” And these folks haven’t a clue…. To attempt to escape what is in the USA by going to the mid-east is as misguided as trying to put Palin in as VP or lipstick on a pig.

The papers are full of what American living around the world felt and how they reacted to the news, many getting up early to witness the decision. Since I am in Qatar I share brief pieces from the local paper here.
Saudi businessman Ali Al Harithi hailed US democracy, which brought a man with a Muslim father to the White House. "This confirms that the United States and its people are not racist. The American people chose Obama, who is African (by origin) and whose father is Muslim, to voice rejection of policies of the conservatives in the outgoing administration," he said. "It also sends a message to (Islamic) fundamentalists in the Arab and Muslim worlds that our clash with America has no racial or religious dimensions," Harithi added. Read the full story at

Doha-based American and a social activist Karen Al Kharouf candidly said, "I am a Republican, but I have voted for Obama because I believe he is capable of bringing the change that he had promised to the world. I am proud to see an African-American becoming the president of the US, for the first time in its history. This is a moment of joy for all the African-Americans who had gone through long periods of oppression and discrimination. …
Intellectuals and social activist were not the only ones keenly following this US presidential elections. Mahmood Alam, 34, who manages Khaleeji 11 Modern Laundry in Najma, asked, "Did Obama win? He will be the first black to occupy the hot seat, is this correct, sir?"

Read the full story at

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Modern Bahrain/Ancient Dilmun

Bahrain, an archipelago in the northern Arabian Gulf and located in the Gulf south east of Saudia Arabia and northwest of Qatar, has long held an important position as a trade center linking Europe and the middle East and the India subcontinent.

Long established as a center for pearls, these are less and less a serious commercial enterprise. The round-about monument pictured here remains a testimony to this long heritage. I show as well two sells, one polished with a pearl added, purchased at a local shop. The other, rough and found in the sand on the site of Saar.

Oil too is dwindling and Bahrain has turned to tourists as a source of continuing income. A major ‘city’ under construction by international firms, Bahrain Bay, typifies how they are approaching the future. From a column by Daniel Altman a year ago (, we read of this development: "What’s amazing is just how much the Bahrain Bay developers have outsourced. Even zoning and planning approvals for the new city - something usually left to government agencies and elected commissions in wealthy countries - will be in the hands of foreigners, in this case the architecture firm. So, I ask, will this city be truly Bahraini when it’s finally finished? Does it matter, especially if its clientele and residents will also be international?" In many ways these questions unlie much of the development in the Gulf today.

Bahrain, far smaller than Qatar, has far more to offer: forts, archaeological sites, an excellent museum, many shopping venues including the Gold Souk, much entertainment and excellent restaurants. For wildlife enthusiasts, there are migrating shorebirds on the eastern shores and a wildlife park.

Bahrain was known in ancient times as Dilmun and has long been associated with the garden of Eden and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Unlike Qatar, Bahrain has oasis-like areas in the north and west, relying on subterranean aquifers that draw fresh water from the even larger underground aquifers of Saudia Arabia. It is of course its connection with Dilmun (flourishing from 3200-1600 b.c.) and sites and thousands of graves and burial mounds that extend over 18miles that is fascinating to me. There are estimates of 170,000 graves that, despite being stripped by looters over time, have still yielded arms and jewels and bronze and copper objects whose content is the same as that used in Magan in the Ultanate of Oman in the 3rd millennium b.c. Seals bearing inscriptions tell of everyday life of the merchants over 4000 years ago. All the finds confirm that trade as early as the end of the 4th millennium b.c. existed between Mesopotamia, Dilmun, Magan, and the capital cities of the Indus Valley. Even today, vessels that leave the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates stop here to get fresh supplies of sweet water and vegetables. Cuneiform texts indicate that Dilmun was two-sailing days from Mesopotamia. The Dilmun empire may well have extended as far as Arabia and Iran, as archaeologists and geographers who have cross-checked all findings suggest. One ancient table ca 3100 b.c. describes Dilmun as Elysium where inhabitants were eternally young and “where the raven did not croak and wolves and lions did not devour their prey.”

Much of this passage has been drawn from two web sites, one on wildlife and the second from The Washington Times. For a recent archaeological report see The Early Dilmun Settlement at Saar, by Robert Killick & Jane Moon, 2005 and reviewed in the journal Antiquity.

I visited Bahrain over Eid ul-Fitr, a holiday celebrating the end of the fasting of Ramadan. Although many sites were closed, I had a fine few days traveling the country, shopping and visiting Saar, two photos of which are shown here.

I also drove the causeway to Saudia Arabia, stopping of course mid-point, where I took some photos and then returned to Bahrain. The 26 km causeway allows many people the opportunity, with appropriate visas, to drive from Bahrain to Qatar and vice versa by passing through Saudia Arabia. Although a colleague of mine does this with her husband, of course, I could not since women aren’t allowed to drive in KSA. They plan a bridge from Qatar to Bahrain but that is still at least a decade away.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

France September 2008

The charms of rural France in early September are many – rainy mornings giving way to sunny afternoons. Up and down gentle rolling hills appear field upon field of the three primary crops. Each farm seems to produce all three - corn for cattle fodder, sunflowers for oil and vineyards for wine – which define the essence of good French food. At this time of year many of the cornfields are harvested although an equal number remain drying in the warm sun. Sunflowers too have begun to be harvested, although most fields are at the dry-flower-still-on-stalk stage; a very few still sport sunny yellow flowers waving in the wind, suggesting possibilities of multiple growing seasons within the summer. And the vines are still pregnant with lush grapes, awaiting harvest within a month. Occasionally nestled among the acres of the primary crops are small patches of family tomato plants, the tomatoes bright red and standing out like beacons.

For seven days with long-time British friends I roamed stretches of western France, beginning in Giverny, moving to Mont S-Michele and thence to country north of Bordeaux where we visited forts (Chinon) and castles and gardens (Chenonceau), and lovely small towns and villages each offering their own charms and revealing their individual histories (Dinan, Mortagne, Brouges, Talmont, Pons, Cognac). Europe’s largest estuary, the Gironde, had a number of small towns and harbors offering restaurants for companionable meals, featuring the area's specialty of moulins, vistas for viewing and boats whose rigging chimed gently in the wind. One fascinating aspect was to read about the close relationship between England and the towns and sites we visited. As Americans we are so accustomed to our long-standing connections with England that to see the much longer inter-relationships beginning long before the Norman conquest of England in 1066 is humbling.

Giverny, most famous as inspiration for Claude Monet, could not fail. We reached the park in the late afternoon under cloudy skies that held their rain until we left. The garden, a few images here, displayed strikingly beautiful plants, walkways past the streams and poplars and wonderful vistas of the lily ponds. The house we wandered through offered his home as well as the views Monet had of the garden in front of him.

The next morning the approach to Mont S-Michel reminded me of my initial thoughts when I turned a corner in Cairo some 20 years ago and saw a pyramid, “this is supposed to be in books!” The sign as we parked the car reminded us that our vehicle would be underwater by 6:30 pm. Clearly the sign is changed twice a day.

Physically, Mont Saint-Michele is a sheer-sided rock rising 250 feet out of the water surrounded by one of the strongest tides in the world. The land around the rock is extremely flat and the tides come in over a dozen miles in a space of a few hours. Originally the Mont was a place for devout Christians to live as hermits in solitude. The early monks were rebuked for their immoral and impious behavior by Duke Richard and thrown out and replaced in 966 with submissive and humble monks from Flanders. They adopted the principles of Saint Benedict and the abbey became a Benedictine abbey. The end of the hundred years’ war left Normandy in the hands of the English who subsequently laid siege to the Mont. The siege was to fail and the citadel did not fall, bolstering the confidence of the French. The French Revolution caused the monks to scatter leaving the abbey to be used as a prison. The abbey was rediscovered in the 19th century by writers and visitors and established as an historic monument in 1874. It has been renovated and restored to its use as a religious center and after the celebration in 1966, celebrating it 1000-year history, again came under control of the Benedictines.

We roamed Mont Saint-Michel entering through the Forward Gate, the Boulevard gate and the King’s Gate into the small Norman village at the foot of the abbey. The main street of the town leads to the abbey at the top of the rock via a great outer staircase. We walked to the entrance of the abbey pausing to take pictures from various parts of the ramparts and admire the strand laid out before us.

Strikingly beautiful to me were the ever-changing views of the sea around us with moving and changing cloud patterns and birds wheeling from the mud flats to the sky.

We entered the abbey walking up to the gardens at the top.
If there hadn’t been signs clearly showing us which way to go, I fear we would still be there as room after room resembled each other and the path through the abbey quite unclear. From the outside we could see what looked like an enormous ladder into a window high up.
From inside we could see that the apparatus was connected to an enormous wooden wheel inside, used as leverage to bring all manner of supplies to the abbey from the entrance to the town.

From our hotel some few kilometers away, we saw the Mont from a distance and roamed the ‘beach’ between our hotel and the Mont. The singular reason I could see to stay in one of the hotels within Mont S-Michel would be to experience the Mont completely surrounded by water, reason enough if you don’t mind lugging baggage by hand up some steep streets.

Our next stop was the town of Dinan, whose prosperity began in the 11th century, on the river Rance connecting the town to the sea. Traders and craftsman formed the heart of their prosperity. Dinan was under siege by the English in the 14th century. Religious orders, Dominican monks and Ursuline nuns, were attracted to Dinan and by the 18th century it was a wealthy town whose cloth and leather manufacturers, fairs and markets ensured it prosperity. A railway in 1879 opened the town to its first tourists. We were simply continuing this trend as we visited on market day. The town had many charms, from the Clock tower to the boats moored along the river, the church that traces its history back to the crusades, and the winding streets in the area around the clock tower.

Leaving Dinan, we drove to our next reserved hotel, the Manoir de la Giraudiere where we had intended to stay two nights, visiting the sites in the neighborhood. A disappointing dinner and no hot water in the morning urged us on to stay an extra night in my friends’ place in Champagnolles. Before we arrived late in the afternoon, we went from rain (at Chinon) to lovely sunshine at Chenonceau.
The Royal Fortress of Chinon, situated at the crossroads of three provinces (Anjou, Poitou and Touraine) is currently heavily under reconstruction but we could enter the Fortress through an underground passage used by Charles VII as a concealed exit when he visited his mistress Agnes Sorel. The Counts of Blois who first built Chinon, ceded it to the Counts of Anjou in 1044 whose most famous count, Henry Plantagenet, became King of England in 1154. The main place we visited, after touring the grounds in a gentle rain, was the Clock Tower, built on 12th century foundations with upper part rebuild in the 14th c. Today it houses a museum dedicated to Joan of Arc. It was at Chinon that the Maid met the Dauphine and quick search from Google for Joan d’Arc and Chinon brings up a wealth of information. From the ramparts and views from the rooms in the Clock Tower, we can see the lovely river to one side and vineyards to the other. With the river at our back and the vineyards ahead, to our right are the remains of the Saint-Georges Fort, an area currently under excavation/renovation on which was probably constructed a palace by Plantagenet King Henry II. It was fortified at the end of the 12th century during the conflicts between Richard he Lionheart and then John Lackland, and Philip Augustus. Today it is under some reconstruction and the new reception area will be built in front of the fort.

From the Fortress of Chinon we drove through gradually lightening skies to Chenonceau, a chateau on the Cher River built in the 16th c. when the castle-keep and the fortified mill of the Marques family were razed. The tower alone was kept and rebuilt in Renaissance style. Most of the rooms of the Chateau have been reconstructed and furnished with period pieces. Many rooms follow their original use, others have been used to portray the living space and materials of one of the former inhabitants. Stories of the those occupying this chateau during its hundreds of years history abound. Most interesting to me was the story and room of Diane de Potiers (1499-1566), mistress of the French King Henry II, to whom he gave Chenonceau. She was the wife of the grand seneschal of France, Louis de Breze, duchess of Valentinois, and a lady-in-waiting to the Queen. She is said to have combined great beauty with intelligence and a flair for business, exceptional for the time. The Chateau was given to her in 1547 by Henry II as a gift in recognition of the services rendered by her husband to the Crown, apparently a common strategy. She set about running the Chateau in a model that stands today. First she drew up a list of all properties involved, developed a team of advisers and set about making it a profitable business. Besides carrying out interior and exterior renovations, she laid out gardens that were among the most modern and spectacular of the times; carefuly constructed replacements are there today.

In 1599, Henry II was killed in single combat during a tournament. His widow, Catherine de Medicis, ordered Diane to give Chenonceau back to her and in return she gave her the chateau of Chaumont-sur-Loire. The ceiling of the green study, beside the bedroom of Diane, carries today the pattern of intertwined ‘C’s. It was from this study that Catherine, who became Regent of the kingdom when Henry II died, ruled France.

The following day, after settling into the small town of Champagnolles for a few nights, we drove to the near-by Gironde Estuary, the largest in Europe. Since estuaries are semi-enclosed coastal bodies of water with one or more rivers or streams flowing into them, and flowing on to the open sea, there is little if any wave action and they provide excellent breeding grounds for a wide variety plants and animals. Although they are often associated with high levels of biological diversity, they are also endangered today by pollution and other man-made woes. We lunched in a lovely restaurant just a few steps from the inland slip at Mortagne, home to dozens of sailing vessels at the end of one of the rivers flowing into the Gironde.

The following day we drove to Brouage, a medieval town whose origins go back at least as far as the Gallo-Roman era when it was a gulf, 15 km long by 10 km wide. The dropping of the sea level and alluvial deposits made with each tide gradually filled in the gulf. From the beach there developed a zone of salt marshes which became salt-pans and a major medieval industry was born. Abbey documents reveal a very active commerce in salt, supporting people who worked the salt pans, to middle men and revenues, via taxes, to the clergy, nobility and the king. Brouage salt (including all salt from the Marennes-Oleron basin) had an international reputation. The importance of salt in preserving foods, tanning hides and medicinal purposes was vital from prehistoric times until far later when industrial developments provided alternatives for salt. We saw its importance on the small island of Ustica off Sicily whose middle bronze age village we excavated in the 1990s. There the evidence came from singular pans whose thin flat bottoms and sturdy low walls were placed in the sun and besides fires to evaporate the water from the sea water. Returning to Brouage, it is well recorded that boats were filled with Brouage salt in the early 17th century and sailed to Newfoundland for cod fishing. Records indicate that it was a common sight to see 200 ships clustered together for security and in 1649 over 1700ships left Brouage with salt bound for the countries in Europe and surrounding the Baltic Sea.
With this level of commerce it is easy to see that a major town was developed, perhaps one of the first prototypical planned villages, whose first inhabitants chose the best sites, nearest the port. The planned town was built in 1555 to follow the geometric plan it retains to this day. The fortifications were not part of the original plan but necessitated by a variety of wars, including the wars of religion. It is possible to walk easily along many parts of the ramparts and observe the oyster farms (replacing the salt industry), the wonderful fields rich with wildlife, and to eat in any number of fine bistros.

After Brouage we visited more of the Marennes Basin west of Brouage and drove the viaduct to Oléron Island, passing Fort Boyard, a splendid "stone ship" built in the ocean, which, like Mont S-Michele is completely surrounded by tidal water some parts of the day. One of the leading characteristics of the Marennes Basin and Oléron Island is the unspoiled landscape that covers over 12% of the island with large forests and marshes. Nature conservation areas are open year round and migratory birds find a natural haven here. Oléron Island has an area of 175 sq km, making it the largest French island of the Atlantic coast. Visit their web site ( see much more.

Our final stop of the day was Talmont, a very small village, with low attractive whitewashed houses, 15 km south-east of Royan, in Poitou Charentes. The village is on a promontory in the Gironde Estuary, at whose head is a lovely 11th century church, built in the Roman style, and surrounded by a small cemetery. The views along the coast from the cemetery are spectacular, of high white cliffs in both directions.

On our final day we visited Pons, which became an English possession in 1152 when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II (you may recall his mistress Diane from Chenonceau). Possession of Pons reverted to the French and then in 1259 back to an English possession once again. In the 14th c the Lords of Pons were at their strongest and in 1621 Louis XIII conquered Pons and his troops destroyed all the military equipment of the fortress except the tower. As the guide page states, “From this date, the Lords of Pons saw all their powers disappear and the historical importance of the town became negligible.”

One cannot leave Pons without however reflecting on their role and the pilgrims’ hospital in the pilgrimage of Compostela. From the backcover of the guide we read that “At the dawn of the 9th century a star appeared in the skies above Galicia. It led to the discovery of the tomb of James the Great, the apostle of Christ. In the 12th century, the Field of the Star became Campostela, one of the three great centres for pilgrimages in Christendom together with Rome and Jerusalem. Pilgrims came from all over Europe, following four main routes which cross France and join to become one at Puente la Reina: Camino frances. On these routes, churches, hospitals, abbeys, bridges, medieval village and towns tell the story of these walkers of god which was written and is still being written, on the roads to Campostela.” We visited the hospital at which travelers to Campostela from Tours would stop. A chart from 1330 refers to it as ‘the most peaceful and honest place on the hedge of the town of Pons which is also honest, good and peaceful.’ Geoffrey III, Lord of Pons, ordered its construction ‘to salve his soul, those of his parents and to help the poor.’ Today the 12th c ribbed vault, the last remaining in France, incorporates a large display of photographs and discussion of the pilgrimage and the hospital. A recent addition of a medieval herb garden offers a lovely respite to wander and sit.

Cognac was the last town to visit and we wandered through the streets, to the river and briefly watched a film crew beginning to address the church for its needs. Situated on the river Charente between the towns of Angoulême and Saintes, the majority of the town has been built on the river's left bank, with the smaller right bank area known as the Saint Jacques district. Unknown prior to the 9th century, the town was subsequently fortified. Francis I granted the town the right to trade salt along the river, guaranteeing strong commercial success, which in turn led to the town's development as a centre of wine and later brandy. Cognac, like Pons, is on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella.

The next day I flew from Bordeaux to Paris and thence to Doha.