Poitiers, a Hidden French Gem

I was about to start my final exams in secondary school, had won some money and was tired after a long year of study and stress when my Mom found really cheap flights to the little town of Poitiers in the West of France through Ryanair (If you’re ever looking for cheap flights in Europe this airline is going to be your new best friend and it happens to be Irish, just like me!). After a little searching we managed to come across rooms in the Ibis Hotel for €45 a night. With France in mind I struggled through the exams and we jetted off on Monday the 22nd of June. Landing in the afternoon sun we took a taxi from the airport to our hotel just down the road from the train station and after freshening up we explored the town centre. We ate dinner in the square where the Mairie de Poitiers (town hall in English) is situated. Food is reasonably priced in this area and there is a great selection of fresh, local produce.

DSCF4978Mom in front of Mairie de Poitiers

After our late dinner we called it a night and decided to enquire about train times and prices. The following morning we got the train for Paris. The train station is located a two minute walk from the Ibis hotel so you don’t have to worry about getting there in the morning! The day after our trip to Paris we spent exploring Poitiers and for a small town it really has a lot to offer. Our first stop was Elgise Saint Hilaire, named after Hilary of Poitiers was consecrated in 1049 and listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1998. There is a total of 6 churches altogether in Poitiers, this is not unusual as many towns in France have several churches. My advise is if you see a church go in, some people argue that once you’ve seen a church you’ve seen them all but if you’re reading my blog I’m sure you’ll be the type to have a look anyways! Some of Europe’s best art is hidden in churches throughout the continent.

DSCF5424Eglise Saint Hilaire, nestled amongst the streets pictured from the side

We spent a while meandering through the picturesque streets before stopping into the grocery shop for some provisions. The area from the Siège de la Communauté d’agglomération de Grand Poitiers to Église Notre-Dame-la-Grande is filled with big brand names and unique, artisan shops. Here you can buy clothes, food and crafts that are specific to producers of the area. A browse amongst the restaurant and café menus can be useful in picking a place to have dinner in the evenings or you can call in to some of them during the day and dine in the sun.

DSCF5482Le Rue de Cordeliers on a tranquil Wednesday afternoon

Going past Place Alphonse Lepetit we saw the front of the Palace of Poitiers with it’s Columns and almost Roman façade as we continued along the Rue du Palais and headed back up towards the Église Notre-Dame-la-Grande. With a riverside picnic in mind we took the Grand’Rue downhill, heading away from where the hub of the town sits. Unable to resist the call of another church Mom and I popped one street over and caught our first glimpses of Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Poitiers through the tops of the houses. Work began on the Roman Catholic cathedral in 1162 on top of the ruins of a Roman basilica. It was constructed in the Romanesque and Early Gothic styles and contains a set of choir stalls which were carved between 1235 and 1257 making them amongst the oldest in France. The Organ was completed and handed over in March 1791 and stands as an outstanding example of eighteenth-century organ design. Just around the corner from there lay the Baptistère Saint-Jean which was built in 360, giving it the reputation of being the oldest existing Christian building in the west. A baptismal tank was installed in the 6th Century moving baptisms from the river Clain which Mom and I were headed towards.

DSCF5564The impressive Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Poitiers

Crossing the river via the Rue du Faubourg du Pont Neuf you can follow a little path to your right down by the river in amongst the the trees. Strolling along this path to the next bridge, the Pont Saint-Cyprien, you can take the Rue du Bas des Sables to continue walking along the tranquil river. About a kilometre away, just off the road is a railway bridge decorated with creative graffiti. We walked along the road for a while before heading back towards the town.

DSCF5610Speckled sunlight through the trees

Passing by Église Sainte-Radegonde on our trek back to the town centre we caught glimpses of the gold statue of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus on the Notre Dame des Dunes.Turning our attentions back to the church we followed the street along the building to it’s impressive front façade. The Abbey of the Holy Cross had been founded by Radegund in Poitiers in 552 as the first monastery for women in the Frankish Empire. this however, meant that the chapel was built outside of the city walls. After her death and burial in 587 the chapel was renamed under her patronage. Her remains were exhumed in 1012 for public veneration. The entire church was rebuilt after a major fire in 1083 which expanded the structure. Work began on the bell tower in 1099 which to this day extends so high into the sky meaning that the only decent picture I could get of it was from the street on the hill above it.

IMG_0169Église Sainte-Radegonde from the front exterior

Later that evening, after having bought a salad at one of the local shops we went for ice-cream by the église notre-dame la grande soaking up the music and the relaxed atmosphere.

IMG_0214église notre-dame la grande, poitiers during sunset

We waited patiently for the famous light display which illuminates the exterior of the church from June 21st to September 16th. We were lucky enough to have come to Poitiers just after the start date. Different light displays appear throughout the summer. It was an unforgettable experience and completely transformed the stonework and façade. It feels as if you’re being transported into a psychedelic dream where you could bump into Alice in Wonderland and a Hookah smoking caterpillar.

IMG_0241projections on église notre-dame la grande, poitiers

The Thursday consisted of a day-trip to La Rochelle where we explored the sea side town. With what little time we had left on Friday we paid a visit to the Parc de Blossac which was created in the late 17th century. The park extends on a vast plateau over the Clain river valley consisting of 9 hectares. It is composed of several gardens such as the French and English. The Blossac Park is directly linked to the banks of the Clain via the path of Cagouillère. The French garden is geometric due to the influence of the gardeners of Louis XIV. To modernise, a bandstand, a fountain pond and two sculptures by Antoine Etex have been included. The English garden has plenty of foliage and water is a strong element of this garden, featuring grottos, fountains and a lazy river. The rock garden, situated at the base of the walls of Blossac is highlighted by the presence of plants that blend with the rock creating a rock garden and a Mediterranean garden. Finally there is a zoo which children and adults alike can enjoy. There are swans, rabbits, guinea pigs, parakeets, ducks and many more friendly animals awaiting you.

IMG_0645The English garden in Parc de Blossac

After a light lunch in the Park we took one last walk through the town before retrieving out bags from the hotel. From the train station we got a taxi to the airport and bode farewell to this beautiful, little town.

 

 

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Just Touched Down In London Town

Well that’s a bit of a lie but I still went to London! I went with a friend, Susannah, the weekend just after St. Patrick’s day and stayed in her home in Sussex. From there we had the opportunity to spend the day in London which was a place I hadn’t visited since the tender age of eight. On a slightly overcast morning we took the train from Turnbridge Wells to London Bridge Station. I would most definitely recommend this site https://tfl.gov.uk/maps/track/tube to plan your travels about London as you can use the internet for free once you connect to London’s Cloud Wifi system!

12674496_10207581385124546_1649685499_nA quick picture by one of the iconic underground signs

Upon arriving at London Bridge station we took the underground to Westminster Station where we emerged from the artificial lights into the sunlight and I got my first glimpse of London’s historic streets. Opposite the entrance to the station loomed the imposing tower of big ben, towering over the House of Commons. Following the bustling crowds towards Westminster Bridge the London Eye quickly came into view. Amongst the hectic hustle and bustle that is central London Susannah caught a few pictures of me with some of London’s most noted monuments.

DSCF7055The river Thames from Westminster Bridge

It is possible to take a tour of London on the Thames however I often feel as though boat journeys through a city can be a bit of a waste (Venice and Bruges being two of the obvious exceptions!) I much rather get up close and personal with all the city has to offer, exploring side streets and getting to grips with the map. Always bring a pair of runners and you’ll have the whole city in your hands.

12498985_10207581384964542_243334072_nSquinty Eyes in the foreground, London Eye in the background

Backtracking by the House of Commons we turned right onto Whitehall in search of Downing Street to talk a quick peek at one of the most important residences in England. Upon the way we passed the Cenotaph, which was erected in 1919 for the Allied Victory Parade. This monument was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, decorated with a single carved wreath on each ends, the dates of the First World War and the Second World War in Roman Numerals along with the words “The Glorious Dead” chosen by Loyd George. It commemorates the dead in all wars in which British servicemen and women have fought and is a Grade I listed building. This design has been used in the construction of many more war memorials throughout the British Empire.

DSCF7061The Cenotaph

After a brief walk we reached the gates of Downing Street and peered through the bars to get a glimpse at the black door of number 10. Guards with guns patrol the gates, however, there are two stationed at the gates who allow tourists to take photos with them. Following a short wait I hopped in beside them and got jokingly mocked for being Irish. I got a few photos (all of which I was laughing in) and on we went down whitehall.

DSCF7066“Ohhhh she’s from Dublin! Trouble so!” “Mayo actually, how could you even think of calling me a townie?”

Along the way to Trafalgar Square we took a picture with the guards on their horses at the Horse Guards Parade. I must add that  whilst there are crowds, both here and at Downing Street all you need is a little patience and knowing when to jump in beside the guards to get a brilliant photo!

DSCF7074Looking much more amused than the guard, only fools and horses here

Walking down the street lined with white stone buildings we eventually found ourselves in Trafalgar square. From here you can get to a lot of attractions such as Kings College, Covent Gardens, the National Gallery, Piccadilly Circus and more.

DSCF7079Cloudy overhead in Trafalgar Square

However, by talking the first when you come to the roundabout at the end of Whitehall it will take you onto The Mall leading up to Buckingham Palace. It is closed to traffic on Sundays, public holidays and on ceremonial occasions. After a brief google my friend, performing her duties as a Londoner and tour guide informed me that The Mall began as a playing field for pall-mall and was a fashionable promenade during the 17th and 18th Centuries as we walked under the Admiralty March. In the early 20th century a route intended to be used for major national ceremonies was envisioned, matching similar ceremonial routes in Berlin Oslo and Paris. Thus, a new façade was constructed for Buckingham Palace, and the Victoria Memorial was built.

12324943_10207581386684585_521961684_nSerious business visiting the Royals

The length of The Mall is 0.5 nautical miles and the surface is coloured red in order to give the effect of a giant red carpet leading up to Buckingham Palace. The Mall was packed with over one million people to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee in 2002 and again for the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011, as well as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and the Jubilee concert in 2012. On these occasions The Mall street is decorated with Union Flags and the Royal Family make an appearance on the palace balcony. Also as I was once a race walker (fun fact of you there now), I found it very interesting that this also marked the course for the race walks at the 2012 London Olympics, as well as serving as the course for the road race, start and finish of the marathon and the finish line of the cycling races.

DSCF7090Wonder if people will shoot guns in my honour on the Horse Guards Parade?

Almost immediately after you walk under the arch there is a turn off to the left which leads you down to the Horse Guards Parade. Also on the left side of the mall is the impeccably groomed Saint James’s Park. Closer to the palace itself on the right hand side of The Mall is Saint James’s Palace.

DSCF7102Angelic scenes at the residence of the Queen

When we reached the Palace we were greeted by the imposing figure of the Victoria Memorial. Me being the messer I am, scrambled up onto a ledge where I jokingly flirted with one of the many male bronze statues sprawled above the fountain surrounding the monument.

12884458_10207581386524581_1268214067_nCan’t take me anywhere

We spent some time admiring the lavish building that is Buckingham Palace. Although we didn’t manage to catch a glimpse of anybody moving about behind the windows we spotted the famous Palace Guards with their Bearskin Helmets, standing a straight as a poker at each of their respective posts. Another impressive detail was the gold coated metal detailing on the fences and railings. These decorations used to be pure gold but due to an increased amount of theft these were replaced with gold plated replicas. You can take a tour of the palace grounds and garden but as I was on a tight schedule that was left for another day.

DSCF7110Yo MTV this my crib

With Camden on our minds we dashed through Green Park which was full of idyllic daffodils in full bloom and hopped on the underground. Taking the Victoria Line we had to change trains at Euston Station to take the Northern Line to Camden Town Underground Station.

DSCF7149Underground architecture

Stepping out of the station I was greeted with the sight that every hipster, student and person who wants a decent picture for social media adores about Camden High Street. Colourful, alternative shops line the street all then way down to Camden’s Canal Lock. If there’s one piece of advice I’d give, I’d say go straight down the street to the Lock, the Canal is particularly beautiful and if I wasn’t a broke student I may have chanced a look at the menu at the inviting Camden Lock Market.

DSCF7151Camden vibes

Camden, however, has a plethora of cheap eats available almost everywhere you turn. My personal recommendation would be Prèt á Manger. They have cafés all over London and have a dynamic range of organic and natural food and drink. It was my first time ever trying sushi and I have to say I didn’t fare too badly with a pair of chopsticks, it was also my first time trying sweet and salty popcorn, possibly one of the best things I tasted whilst in England!

DSCF7157The most amazing t-shirt shop I have been to in my life, the light responds to music!

After visiting the Lock Susannah and I perused the shops and took a stroll through Camden Market. (A little note here on pickpockets: if you have an open handbag hold it close to the front of your body, make sure bag packs are zipped to the side and I would encourage you to hold it rather than carry is on your back, be extra vigilant with all personal belongings as it is notorious for theft.) Once in the market don’t be afraid to haggle as a lot of the items are over priced.

DSCF7164A view down Camden High Street

My best tip is to say you saw the exact same thing at another price in a shop close buy, offer a price lower than you want and then slowly make it seem like you’re walking away. I picked up a beautiful tapestry for £12.50, there are a lot of intricately designed fabrics and unusual clothes. I got a beautiful pair of harem pants that were made in Nepal for £13, however, I did not check the quality of the fabric and only a few weeks later they began to rip along the seams. So make sure to check the quality of the clothes at the market before buying!

DSCF7159Pictured: My pants before they let me down terribly

A stones throw from Camden High Street lies Regent’s Park, the University of London, London Zoo and the ever so adored Kings Cross Station where wizards catch the annual train to Hogwarts. Situated a fifteen minute drive away is one of London’s most famous shopping districts, Oxford Street, so we hailed a hailo and whizzed around some of the shops before they closed. Shops close at 6 pm on  a Sunday and at 9pm on all other days except Thursday  when they stay open until 10 pm. Some of England’s most iconic shops are on Oxford Street including Topshop’s flagstore, the three story store contains the latest in men and women’s fashion, a beauty and piercing studio and a café bar on the lower ground floor (impressive stuff eh?). My friend has genuinely spent the entire day here. Also to be found on the street are Accessorize,  American Apparel, Bershka, Dorothy Perkins, Forever 21, New Look, Primark, River Island, The Disney Store, Urban Outfitters and much more. Another shop I visited was Claire’s, which is actually where I got my ears pierced. A daunting experience made a lot less stressful by the friendly staff.

DSCF7167“I took my feet to Oxford Street, trying to right a wrong “Just walk away,” those windows say, but I can’t believe she’s gone.”

One street over is the iconic Saville Row, I obviously did not go there as I couldn’t even afford to get my ears pierced at Topshop. If you are not a peasant of a student and live in a mansion made of gold with servants for different parts of your estate then I would highly recommend this street and infuse most of the district. If you like buying things here you may not like Camden market. As I said before, the pants rip. Taking the underground Susannah and I returned to London Bridge and took the train back to Tunbridge Wells. The following morning we took the plane from Gatwick, making an obligatory pitstop to both Harrods and Prèt á Manger. Despite a slight delay we still returned to Dublin on time to make our 2 pm lecture.

12380417_10207581386724586_1385630948_nMe with the pants that ripped, they were nice while they lasted


 

Who is Laura the explorer?

My name is Laura Beston, I live in the West of Ireland, a stones throw from Connemara and the West coast where I spent many days throughout my childhood climbing mountains, walking along rivers, exploring rock pools and swimming in the freezing sea off many of the beaches dotted along the coastline. At almost 20-years-old I now spend the vast majority of my time in Dublin where I am studying English Literature and Film Studies. As cringe-worthy as it sounds, I want to be an explorer. I want to travel the world and see everything there is to see, camera in hand, and be able to share these experiences with people. I often thought that being an “explorer” was something I could never do, you needed money, you’d never make a job out of it and this blog is essentially hoping to prove that wrong.

As a child I loved adventure. Walk past a tree and you’d see me struggling to pull myself up onto it’s lower branches. If there was anything resembling a rock face I’d be eying it up or trying to climb up it. I was very lucky to have been given so many opportunities to explore the outdoors with my mother. I’ve been hiking since I was about three and summited Croagh Patrick in Westport, County Mayo when I was four years old. Croagh Patrick became a regular climb for me, with me completing the Mayo Autism Action Croagh Patrick Seven Day in a Row challenge where people would climb the reek everyday for seven days to raise fund for Autism supports in the county. I did this for four years and through it became a regular fixture on the Reek. For several years we would climb the reek on New Years Day. On one year in particular we were all rewarded with snow and possibly the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen from the summit. I eventually had the insane idea of climbing it for the 100th time on my 18th birthday which meant a summer of driving out to the holy mountain and reaching its peak three times a day.

IMG_0492On the summit of Croagh Patrick, New Years Day 2010

The extent of my climbing wasn’t just limited to the peak of Croagh Patrick in Clew Bay. Although, I was lucky enough to complete the Tóchar Padraig a 26 mile walk starting in Ballintuber Abbey and finishing in Murisk. My first time when I was 8 resulted in me getting turned away at the foot of Croagh Patrick due to severe weather conditions. Undeterred I returned at both ages 10 and 11 to complete the walk and both times took part in the Western Way Marathon two weeks later. I continued to push myself further, aided by my wonderful mother who drove me everywhere and anywhere to fulfil my dreams and satisfy my craving for adventure.

In 2004, at age 8 we were in America and decided to climb Eagle mountain in Minnesota as well as taking a road trip up to Canada where we camped close to Lake Superior. Then, in 2007 when I was 10 my Mom and I visited Scotland with one of her climbing friends, where we climbed Ben Nevis twice from two different sides in two days. Later that year in August, then 11, I climbed both Snowden and Scarfell Pike over three days meaning I had climbed the highest mountain in each of the countries of the British Isles aged 11. Earlier that summer in June I summited Mount Teide on a trip to Tenerife also adding the highest mountain in Spain to my list of achievements.

IMG_0129On the Summit of Carrauntoohill when my sister Aoife climbed it for the first time, August 24 2010

Closer to home as of the 26th of August 2007 (it was a busy year for me!) I completed my challenge of climbing the highest peak in every county in Ireland alongside my mother. A year later on a trip to Crete, refusing to let another spectacular walking opportunity surpass us my Mom and I took on the Samaria Gorge, descending 1200 metres through the breathtaking Crete landscape trekking 11 miles to reach the sea.

IMG_1776Samaria Gorge, Crete, July 17 2008

As a result of all these challenges I had begun to make a name for myself in climbing circles and was invited to take part in a trek in France raising money for a local charity which offered support to people who suffered from cancer. On the 16th of August 2009 at 13 years old I reached the top of Mount Buet, standing at 3096 metres high in the French Alps.

IMG_2850The summit of Mount Buet (3096m), August 16 2011

Upon this trek I had one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Sitting outside the cabin which we were staying for the night, sipping on a can of coke I looked across the mountains as Mount Blanc was sporadically illuminated by lightning as shooting stars dashed across the sky over head. This trip was when I fell in love with travelling and truly became aware of the wonders there are out there. The Alps were something entirely new and I’d gotten a feel of what it would be like to be an explorer. Our trek ended in Chamonix after 52 kilometres and countless memories.

IMG_2591Dusk in paradise, the morning after a spectacular scene in the Alps, Le Grenairon, August 16 2009

The group returned to France to tackle another challenge two years later. At age 15 I was much stronger and was ready for the challenges that the mountains would throw at me. We took on a mountain by the name of Haute Cime which would mean crossing the Border into Switzerland. our first two days were filled with low visibility and rain. On the third day we were rewarded with beautiful views of the mountain we were about to summit as we left our lodgings at Caban de Susanfe. On the 15th of July 2011 we reached the top of the mountain at 3257 metres.

317Exploring the summit, Haute Cime (3257m), July 15 2011

The landscape and weather were always changing as we learned throughout the first two days as we trudged through the rain. However, I must say that the final two days were worth the wait as the sun beamed down rewarding us for our hard work. We even encountered a trampoline at our accommodation and snow when the sun was shinning!

501Snowballs in the sun, Trek back from Haute Cime, July 16 2011

After this trek my climbing adventures gave way to part-time jobs and study for my secondary school exams but it didn’t end entirely. I was delighted to travel about the country with my sister Aoife who is 25 and has an intellectual disability when she too attempted to climb the highest mountain in every county in Ireland. We were so proud of her when she achieved her goal. Aoife continues to enjoy mountain climbing and has represented Ireland in the 3000m 5000m running events and 4x100m relay in the Athletics at the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles in 2015.

At age 18 I took on a new challenge in the form of a cycle. This was an adventure for me as I’d never cycled a racer bike before. On the morning of Christmas 2013 Santa had left me a racer bike and a very limited amount of training began. With the arrival of the summer holidays Mom started to bring me out on long cycles in an attempt to prepare me for the challenge I had laid out for myself, cycling from Mizen to Malin, from the most southern point of Ireland to the most Northern point. Terrified of the prospect, I set out to county Cork in July 2014. Setting aside an optimistic five days for the challenge, which I suspected would take seven we set off on the morning of the 29th. I was amazed when only 72hours and 653 kilometres later we were cycling up the hill to Malin Head. I was realising that I only had to set my mind to something no matter how physically challenging and that no matter how much it hurt I could do it. My Mom and I met some incredible and kind people along our challenge and I was so thankful for all of her support.

10419055_350740868412359_1278807121906143096_nAbout to hit the road, Mizen Head, July 29, 2014

Throughout the years I’ve also been to many places each time trying to see more of the country and experience the culture in a different way to how the typical “tourist” would. In 2012, my whole family (Mom, Aoife, Lorraine and I) went to Lake Garda with the Travel Department. We saw all the sights from Verona to Venice to Lake Garda itself. From this we gained confidence and in 2013 Mom, Aoife and I went on a trip to Tuscany by ourselves and saw Rome, Florence, Luca, Pisa and much more. The following year we ventured to Berlin and visited places of historical importance, beautiful lakes and Potsdam. After my Leaving Cert (final exams in secondary school) I decided to make the summer count and went to France with Mom, Austria and Germany with a youth organisation and Los Angeles with a few days in Los Vegas taking in the Grand Canyon when we went to support Aoife in the Special Olympics. I am just back from a week in Iceland which was preceded by a weekend in London with my friend Susannah. My mother has taught us a lot and travelling has become an integral part of our lives. You can do it cheap and the world is your Oyster so hopefully I’ll be able to share more of my past experiences with you and many more as they unfold.

Laura the Explorer

IMG_0302Head in the clouds, Samoëns, France, August 2009