Monthly Archives: May 2017

Dunkirk, France: in the footsteps of its military history

The heart-thumping, beautifully executed film Dunkirk, covers the grim days in May and June 1940 as the invading German army drove the British Expeditionary Force from Belgium and into an area around Dunkirk eventually surrounding the vast army of Allied troops.
Dunkirk war scene

Defences, manned mainly by French troops, allowed the soldiers to assemble in the city to await rescue from the harbour and beaches. And 400,000 of them were rescued in a daring rescue mission called “Operation Dynamo” named after the dynamo room in the Dover cliffs where their operation HQ was based. Some refer to event as the Miracle of Dunkirk.

The operation saw hundreds of little boats owned by ordinary people sail from UK ports on the south coast to ferry  soldiers to larger naval vessels as they could not approach Dunkirk. This is where the phrase “Dunkirk Spirit” comes from.

Around 200,000 men were picked up from the Dunkirk Mole – a long stone and wooden jetty at the mouth of the port.
Dunkirk Harbour – The Mole c. Doug Goodman

Christopher Nolan’s film was shot during summer last year. The set was a reconstructed harbour and waterfront to portray the beaches which extend into Belgium and employed over 1300 local extras. While their uniforms and weapons were recreated, real warships were involved and real Spitfires and Messerschmitts were filmed. In fact the final scene featured a real Spitfire landing on the beach at Dunkirk.

There are still remnants of German occupation. If you visit the Fort des Dunes, a well preserved 19th century military installation you can witness the scars of the battle of 1940 and the German occupation.

There’s also a very well set up museum in the former “Operation Dynamo” French command post, which has relics from 1940 and clear descriptions and images of the evacuation. You can also visit the imposing sail training ship that’s moored by the Maritime Museum, the military cemetery and a display of the film sets.

There are also tours to “the mole” – the long jetty from which big ships loaded the troops – walking tours of the beaches and even a flight over the beaches.
Dunkirk c Doug Goodman

The latter tour is a 15-minute flight in a 4-seater Robin from Dunkirk airfield. It not only offers great views, a wonderful flying experience at a height of 1,000 feet, but at €120 for three passengers must be one of the cheapest trips available.

However Dunkirk is more than its military history. The seaside town has a great range of sporting and leisure activities, a modern art gallery and good hotels and restaurants. A paddle steamer The Princess Elizabeth was one of the rescue ships and has a starring role in the film.

Bombay Palace, Connaught Village, London W2

Indian food comes in various guises. Sweet, even sour and often very hot. Punjabi cuisine is not known for its hot dishes. It’s more about bbq’d food flavoured with generous doses of herbs, tandoori dishes and sometimes creamy marinades. And I was about to find out if Bombay Palace restaurant in a hidden corner of central London, was testament to that.

Bombay Place has quite an interesting heritage being part of an international chain that stretches from New York and Beverley Hills to Kuala Lumpur and Hyderabad.

Yet this branch is tucked away. Yes, it’s in Marble Arch in central London but it is hidden in a triangle of streets called Connaught Village, and further secreted away beneath a block of flats in Connaught Street.

The brand was started by a former fighter pilot Sant Singh Chatwal in 1920. Chatwal hailed from the Indian half of the Punjab region that divides India and Pakistan and the menu reflects that region.

The entrance is pretty unremarkable and I almost missed it. So when I walked in I was quite overwhelmed with its expansive size and plush furnishings in hues of red and gold creamy walls, polished cream tiled floors and pretty contemporary style chandeliers.

There’s lots of daylight too and I got a table by the large windows. This is a spacious restaurant and happily there’s plenty of space between them, so no eavesdropping. The ambience was one of decorum and professionalism with just the right amount of service intervention.

The Chef is Harjeet Singh, a tall man who trained at Bukhara in New Delhi. He then created the dishes at the Bombay Palace in Kuala Lumpur for some eight years. His latest stint at Connaught Street has lasted some 17 years and if his smile is anything to go by, he will remain there for some time yet. This is good tidings, because the food here is very good.
Harjeet Singh, chef at Bombay Palace, London

I started with a variety of three breads: onion nan stuffed with chopped red onions, tandoori nan, a flatbread brushed with butter and Roomali Roti, a paper thin bread which I ate with my forthcoming kebab.

These came with Tarka Dal, a lentil dish tempered with cumin, chopped onion, ginger and garlic and Paak Paner – cottage cheese cooked with creamed spinach, cumin seeds and garlic.

Then came three dishes: Dahi Batata Puri, a plate of gorgeous lentil puffs that had a tangy mix of bean sprouts, coriander with yoghurt, mint and tamarind chutney.

Walking the Alpe-Adria Trail

The Alpe-Adria Trail is Europe’s newest long distance hiking route and runs for 750km from the foot of the Grossglockner (at 3,798m Austria’s highest mountain), into Slovenia and ends in Italy, near Trieste on the Adriatic coast.
Alpe Adria – Signpost at the Pasterze Glacier, Austria (c) Rupert Parker

It’s divided into 37 daily stages, each around 20 km, although it’s possible to do the whole lot in a month it is better to do it in sections – Austria has 22 stages, Slovenia has five and the last ten mix Slovenia and Italy. There’s also a Circular Route which connects Austria, Italy and Slovenia in seven days.

I’ve only got eight days, so decide to sample the most interesting bits. I start at the beginning in Carinthia, Austria and catch the post bus from Heiligenblut up to Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Höhe, a short 30 minute journey. There had been thunderstorms overnight and dusted the Grossglockner with a covering of snow.

Pasterze Glacier, Austria

The Pasterze Glacier, the longest in the Eastern Alps, gleams in the morning sunlight and my first steps on the trail are down a steep path to the Sandersee, filled with meltwater. The path is well marked and, after crossing another lake, the Margaritze Stausee, I’m back in the valley approaching Heiligenblut, my starting point. It’s taken me around five hours and has been a pleasant morning’s walk.

I’m now transferred by taxi to Mallnitz from where I tackle Stage 7 next day.

Groppensteinschlucht gorge, Austria

Rabischschlucht Gorge Waterfall, Austria (c) Rupert Parker

The trail follows the Mallnitzbach stream as it plunges through the Rabischschlucht gorge in a series of waterfalls. It’s pleasant underfoot and I have the trail all to myself. That changes as I enter the adjacent Groppensteinschlucht gorge, a popular route for day trippers. There’s an entrance fee, and I’m going in the opposite direction to most people. They’re certainly not friendly and don’t return my greetings. One person even tries to tell me it’s one way only.

The walls of this gorge are much steeper than the previous one and a system of walkways has been grafted onto the rock so you’re suspended in mid-air for most of the journey. You don’t really need a head for heights but two old men tell me at the top that it’s too dangerous to proceed. I think they’re rather over estimating the danger and there are stunning views of the various waterfalls.

Danielsberg Hill, Austria

Herkuleshof, Austria (c) Rupert Parker

The stage ends in the village of Obervellach, but I plough on, climbing up the side of the Möll valley to an almost perfectly conical hill, the Danielsberg. It’s been a sacred site for over 6000 years, first for the Celts, then the Romans and the Catholic Church of St. George dates back to the 12th century. My pilgrimage ends in the Herkuleshof, originally a 19th century hunting lodge but now a charming inn with excellent food.

Valbruna, Italy

Monte Lussari, Italy (c) Rupert Parker

That’s the end of my time in Austria, a shame since there are a total of 22 stages. Instead I’m whisked to Valbruna in Italy where I tackle Stage 4 of the Circular Route. This a major ski centre and, indeed I could just take the cable car up. Instead I climb gradually on a stony 4×4 track, gaining over 1000m, to the village of Monte Lussari. The chapel here is a major pilgrimage destination as a 14th century shepherd discovered a statue of the Madonna when he was searching for his sheep. Most people just come for lunch and enjoy the spectacular views.

Rail adventure in North Wales

The hills are alive in North Wales with the cranky rhythm of chugging wheels and the whistle of coal powered trains as a stream of steam is funnelled out through their chimney.

It’s a mode of transport that hails from the early 19th century that all too soon came to the end of the line.

Rail enthusiasts have set in motion a revival of the Welsh Highland Railways and Ffestiniog Railway bringing the steamy affair of vintage travel by railway through this amazing landscape, right back on track.

I book my carriage.

My base: Llandudno

The seaside town of Llandudno is my base, a pretty town with a mish mash of elegant Victorian and Edwardian architecture and pleasant scenery. It stretches out from the foot of the Great Orme, a huge chunk of limestone that curves around the town. It surges up from the sea and towards the seafront and its wide ribbon of sandy beach and an even wider promenade with a war memorial obelisk as its landmark.

Caernarfon to Beddgeert – Welsh Highland Railway

My first rail adventure starts in Caernarfon where I alight the delightful narrow gauge Welsh Highland Railway train. The line was built in 1923 but economically it was derailed soon after. After 70 years in the sidings, it was pulled back into service by a group of railway enthusiasts.
Engine 87 on Welsh Highland Railways

The locomotive is engine 87 and as I watch the steam funnel out it leaves a dreamy nostalgia in its wake. So it’s surprising that the vintage styled wood-decked carriages are in fact no more than 20 years old, and some just a couple of months old. A modern kitchen serves sandwiches and of course Welsh rarebit (a version of cheese on toast) and a tea trolley does the rounds.

The journey passes through Caernafon Bay and the Lley Peninsuala, the old slate quarries and once at Bryn Gloch the Snowdonia National Park unfolds beyond. The valley narrows dramatically as we pass between mountains Moel Eilio and Mynydd Mawr.

Now it’s all alpine views and tumbling waterfalls towards Rhyd Ddu. Soon we climb to the summit of the line at Pitts Head and soon after the train begins its descent zig-zagging all the way down the hillside to Beddgelert. The top speed is 25mph so there’s time savour and digest what my eyes are devouring.