Travel

The real deal

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Some hotels’ claims to a colourful historical past may prove tenuous, but David Knight can’t help but be impressed by a country house which dates back, in part, to the 13th century and the Knights Templar.

Men in white tunics and women in white dresses are threads which are interwoven in the past and present of Maryculter House Hotel, near Aberdeen.

Many country hotels like to trade on their historic past, with varying degrees of authenticity, but Maryculter House has something right from the top drawer.

As soon as you see the 1225 date engraved above its entrance you realise it has something different from the rest.

It sits in a charming, secluded spot alongside the River Dee which also happens to be the ancestral home of a Scottish contingent of the famed Knights Templar.

These were fearsome fighting Christian knights with various strongholds around Europe spanning two centuries, who fought in the Crusades and protected pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land.

A mere 80 knights once challenged an army of 26,000 Saracens to a scrap on the road to Jerusalem – and eventually won, according to my research.

Apart from their fighting prowess, they were also distinguishable by their white robes and vivid scarlet crosses. You feel their presence everywhere here, and it is not every hotel which can list in its range of activities the chance to stand in a field at midnight in the hope of seeing a knight’s ghost charging past on horseback.

With a surname like mine, I wondered if I, too, might have had ancestors who were Knights Templar. Very fanciful, I know, and on checking the meaning of names, I discovered that the name, Knight, was also granted to domestic servants or soldiers in the pay of real knights. My lot probably had the contract for cleaning the gents for the Knights Templar.

They are now outnumbered here by an equally formidable and unstoppable force also dressed impeccably in white – an army of brides.

With more than 100 weddings a year, Maryculter House is up there with the best around Aberdeen for staging nuptials.

It is easy to see why: it is beautifully picturesque and the River Dee ripples just feet away from the actual place where couples tie the knot under an arch outside, weather permitting.

The views in both directions down and upriver take some beating. You can see the attraction for wedding pictures with such an idyllic background.

It is not compulsory to get married before you stay here, of course. It has plenty to offer everyone else as well.

Apart from being pretty to look at, the Dee also offers up its bounty of fish and the hotel boasts its own beat with various packages tailored to the fishing fraternity.

Golf abounds everywhere in these parts, of course, and from some of the rooms, you can gaze across the river and see golfers ambling up and down Peterculter golf course.

From the South Deeside Road, it is possible to drive past and not actually see the hotel as it is tucked away from view. New sections have been added over the years, but at its centre, the architecture remains distinctly mediaeval.

Its showpiece is the residents’ lounge, set in an ancient hall dating back to 1225 which would not look out of place in any castle, with huge exposed stone walls and a beamed ceiling so high it almost disappears from sight.

It is a perfect room in which to relax with a drink in its luxurious leather sofas and soak up the historical atmosphere. The knights’ stables were supposedly beneath this very room.

The rooms were nicely appointed and, for my wife and I, there was a view across the Dee which ran just past our window. A 32in flat-screen TV and a walk-in stone-floor shower were other pleasurable extras.

We sampled room service and ordered ham and cheese croissants. These proved to be quite a sumptuous affair with deep, delicious fillings, tomatoes and cucumber dressed in a tasty balsamic sauce and accompanied by crisps.

Outside, and opposite the reception, there are the remains of a large Knights Templar chapel and cemetery, which is well worth a visit. From its gates, we could spot deer in the distance.

It’s an ideal base to strike out for other activities and visits in the area, but this is also a great place just to get away from it all, relax and do nothing in particular, or perhaps some walking, eating and drinking in very pleasant surroundings. That would be perfect.

Maryculter House also offers one luxury city dwellers crave – peace and quiet. There is no traffic and no noisy drunks outside, as often happens around city hotels. We were there for only 24 hours, but felt our batteries had been recharged by the time we left.

The Priory restaurant offers an excellent a la carte menu choice, with special theme nights now and again such as murder-mystery dinners, wine-tasting and mediaeval banquets.

Gourmet menus are offered on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, at £32.50 a head when we visited, and that was a superb special treat. Various discounted room offers also accompany a number of the meal options. A good selection of meals and snacks is also served in the Poachers Pocket bar.

A full traditional breakfast awaits guests in the morning in a dining-room just off the bar.

The staff were friendly, helpful and very approachable throughout our stay, but we gave one special attraction a miss. There is a field nearby where, legend has it, a knight rides out at midnight and a ghostly Saracen woman can be seen floating about the woods.

I decided to stay safe close by the bar.

It is said that the Knights Templar were not allowed to retreat in battle, even against ridiculous odds, which probably explains why their life expectancy was so short.

Maryculter House Hotel is a special retreat of another kind which even the knights would have had trouble resisting.

Maryculter House Hotel, South Deeside Road, Maryculter, Aberdeen. Phone 01224 732124, or visit http://www.maryculter househotel.com

Miravet y los templarios

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A orillas del caudaloso Ebro, se levanta este pueblecito de la provincia de Tarragona, cuyas casas se asoman al cauce y proporcionan al viajero una imagen difícil de olvidar. ¿Te apetece conocerlo?

Pegado a la pared rocosa de la montaña, de la que sobresale su majestuoso castillo, se encuentra Miravet. Desde el Molí Salat, antiguo embarcadero, las casas del casco antiguo se colocan desafiando al Ebro. Pasado el Portal, principal puerta que daba acceso a la población, las casas se alinean entre el río y las rocas hasta encontrar la iglesia Vieja, con su plaza mirador. En el llano, saliendo del Arenal, donde yace la playa, el pueblo se estira hasta llegar al barrio del Raval o de los altareros.

Pero si hay algo por lo que destaque Miravet es por su fortaleza. No en vano protegió desde muy antiguo la entrada al desfiladero del mismo nombre. El castillo, que en su día fue atalaya musulmana, se muestra imponente en lo alto con una impresionante vista del río Ebro, conocido como el Riu, que por aquí forma un meandro de una hectárea y media de una increíble riqueza ornitológica.

Mirador sobre el río

El castillo, que es un excelente mirador sobre el río y la comarca, pertenece al románico cisterciense y está considerado como uno de los mejores ejemplos de arquitectura militar templaria de Occidente.
Su relación con los templarios se remonta al 1153, cuando Ramón Berenguer, Rey de Aragón, les donó el castillo, así como numerosas posesiones de la ribera del Ebro.

Era la forma de agradecer a la orden su ayuda en la expulsión de los sarracenos de Miravet. El poder de los templarios llegó a ser tan grande, que Jaime II, Rey de Aragón, ordenó hacerlos prisioneros ciento cincuenta años después. Los monjes-caballeros resistieron durante un año el sitio del castillo por las tropas reales. Aquellos días se recuerdan cada año, a mediados de agosto, durante la Semana del Temple y Setge de Miravet, con la escenificación de los últimos días del asedio.

El Ebro, además de río fue camino, y por él bajaban las barcas rumbo al mar llevando frutos, aceite, vino o carbón y cruzando a la localidad de Rasquera. De las varias barcazas que hasta hace unos años se dedicaban al transpone de vehículos y personas por el Ebro sólo queda la de Miravet, construida con dos enormes barcas que llevan los nombres de «Isaac Peral» y «Monturiol».

A diez kilómetros de Rasquera queda Benifallet, famoso por sus cuevas con estalactitas (la mejores, Les Meravelles y Marigot) y su ermita románica de La Mare de Déu, con sarcófagos del siglo XIII. Imprescindible resulta también la visita a la localidad de El Pinell de Brai para contemplar su bodega cooperativa, llamada la «Catedral del vino», obra de César Marünell y Brunet, discípulo de Gaudí.
Otro lugar de la comarca que no se puede dejar de visitar es Tivissa. Una larga calle en cuesta conduce hasta la iglesia parroquial de Sant Jaume, y junto a ella, el mirador de la plaza de Baranova, desde donde se contempla una excelente panorámica. En las afueras de la población quedan las ruinas romanas de Aumedina, y a seis kilómetros, el poblado ibérico de Castellet de Banyoles, donde se encontró en 1928 el famoso tesoro de Tivissa.

in Hola

The Traveller’s guide to themed walks

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History, ecology, spirituality – whatever your interest, there’s bound to be a walk to suit you. Mick Webb charts the pilgrims’ progress through this varied region

What kind of themes?

Social history, military history, architecture, ecology: the themes of the footpaths in the Midi-Pyrénées are as varied as the countryside they cross. France’s largest region offers the hiker three pilgrimage routes, a path across the Pyrénées in the footsteps of the persecuted Cathars, a trek through the deep gorges cut by the river Aveyron or a circuit on a plateau to explore the legacy of the Knights Templar. For gentle, hilly countryside there’s the Heart of Gascony Tour, while the National Park of the Pyrénées provides more demanding mountain hikes.

Of specifically ecological interest are eight new nature trails through protected areas of the Lot département. These waymarked hikes vary in length down from a week or more to short strolls such as the 4km circuit of the Saut watermill, one of the nature trails outside the village of Rocamadour; visitors’ guides are available from the Lot’s Departmental Tourist Committee (00 33 5 65 35 07 09).

At the other end of the scale, for total immersion in medieval history and Pyrenean landscapes, you might consider the whole of the Chemin des Bonshommes in Ariège. This challenging hike through Cathar territory starts in the town of Foix, takes you briefly across the border into Spain and takes about 12 days to complete.

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Tell me about the Cathars

Catharism was a heretical religious doctrine which became popular in southern France in the 12th century, attracting the wrath of the French crown and the Catholic Church. The bonshommes or “good men”, after whom the path is named were the Cathars’ spiritual leaders and were relentlessly pursued by the Inquisition. Their escape route through mountainous Ariège to the safety of Spain can now be followed at lesser risk by today’s hikers. The first three stages on the French side provide the most vivid introduction to Catharism and the easiest walking.

Starting at the town of Foix, the GR107 takes you across hills wooded with beech to the village of Montségur, whose ruined castle was the scene of a heroic but ultimately tragic attempt by the Cathars to withstand a siege. Beyond Montségur, the path enters the narrow and forbidding Gorges du Frau, before the countryside opens out into Alpine meadows against a backdrop of Pyrenean peaks. For a description of the whole journey to Berguedà see the website chemindesbons hommes.com.

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A route for a reason?

Take a pilgrimage. Or three. So popular did the medieval pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela prove that it crossed the Midi-Pyrénées on three separate “chemins”, en route for Spain. The Chemin du Puy, the Chemin d’Arles and the Chemin du Piémont Pyrénéen can all be walked today and all show ample evidence of the golden age of the pilgrimage, with their chapels, hospitals or simple roadside crosses, although the most recognisable symbol of the pilgrimage is the ubiquitous scallop shell.

The path from Le Puy (GR65) enters the Midi-Pyrénées across the windswept plateau of the Aubrac before making its way in stages between Conques, Figeac and Moissac, some of France’s most attractive towns and villages.

The oldest of the pilgrimage routes, the Chemin d’Arles (GR653), runs across the Mediterranean landscapes in the southern part of the region, calling at Castres, Toulouse and Auch. It’s joined at Oloron-Sainte-Marie by a variant, the Piémont Pyrenéen path, which leads the walker through the Pyrenean foothills of Ariège, Haute Garonne and Hautes-Pyrénées. (The first section of the route is described, in English, on the website, ariege.com/cheminstjacques.) The GR65 is covered by topo-guides 698, 652 and 653, available from French Ramblers’ Association: ffrandonnee.fr; another useful website is chemins-compostelle.com).

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Gentle rambling?

Try Larzac plateau, south of Millau. During the 12th century the Orders of the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers took over vast swathes of the plateau, where sheep farming on the grasslands provided income for their military and religious activities in the Holy Land. Their farms, villages, churches and fortifications are the focal points of two circular hikes, one of six days over 110km on the GR71D, another of four days (82km) on the GR71C. They start from Millau and La Couvertoirade respectively, the latter fully deserving its place among France’s most beautiful villages. Also not to be missed is the Commandery at Sainte-Eulalie, which was the Orders’ centre of operations. For shorter walks (5km to 10 km), rando-fiches (walking cards), are available for €1.50 at tourist offices along the route. (For a website in English, see conservatoire-larzac.fr)

About 200km from the Causses, as the buzzard flies, the Heart of Gascony walk explores a very different kind of countryside: waves of gentle hills, woods and fields of sunflowers. Not that deeds of knightly derring-do are absent as this is Musketeers’ country. The city of Auch, which hosts a fine statue of D’Artagnan is also the start and end point for a circular ramble. At 165km long, it has been designed to be walked in six days, with stops at Castéra-Verduzan, Condom, La Romieu, Lectoure and Montestruc. The most striking buildings are the cathedral at La Romieu and the spectacular Château de Lavardens. This, like the previous circuit is suitable for mountain-biking and horse-riding (website: gers-rando.com; topo-guide D032, le Gers à Pied). To avoid having to book each night’s accommodation separately, it’s worth looking at the package created by the local tourist authorities. Beginning and ending at Castéra-Verduzan, it comprises six days’ walking and five nights’ half-board in two-star hotels and chambres d’hôte at prices from €350 per person.More details at gers-tourisme.com.

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I prefer dramatic landscapes

Vast horizons and dramatic valleys characterize this seven day hike on two long distance footpaths: GR36 and GR46. The main focus is on the deep and sinuous Gorges of the Aveyron but impressive in a very different way are the stretches of the walk that cross the unique grassy causses. Along the way are ancient fortified towns (bastides), with tales to tell of the Hundred Years War. The best views of the gorges can be enjoyed on the stretch of the path between Najac and Monteils. The topo-guide to use is the GR 36-46 (Tour des Gorges de L’Aveyron; tourisme82.com).

How about some serious mountain walking?

Head for the National Park of the Pyrénées, where the car-park at Pont d’Espagne beyond the spa town of Cauterets is the starting point for a number of fine walks. The easiest one leads to turquoise Lac de Gaube and unrivalled views of the Vignemale Massif. More demanding and a lot less busy in summer is the two-and-a-half-hour trail up the lovely valley of Marcadau to the Refuge Wallon with the chance of spotting elegant izards, cousins of the chamois. For a walk which takes in several high lakes and great views of the (sadly, shrinking) Glacier d’Ossoue, take the road to the restaurant de la Fruitière rather than the Pont d’Espagne and follow the Vallée du Lutour up to the Col de Gentianes.

At the eastern end of the National Park is the Néouvielle Reserve. Among its rugged walks there is an easy two-hour ramble which links the gorgeous lakes of Aubert, Aumar and Oredon, set in high meadows. Start at the car park of the Refuge d’Oredon, beyond Saint-Lary-Soulan (website: tourisme-hautes-pyrenees.com).

What will I eat?

In the Gascony corner of the Midi-Pyrénées, a good meal will probably include pâté and a dish of preserved goose or duck, the best known of which is magret de canard. On the high plateau of Aubrac, a speciality to look out for is aligot (puréed potatoes, Laguiole tome cheese, garlic and cream), and you must try Roquefort in its local setting.

Toulouse’s favourite is that most substantial of substantial dishes, cassoulet, while in the mountains, there is a soup of vegetables and often ham, whose unappetising name, garbure, belies its flavour. Among the wines worth sampling are Madiran, Fronton, Gaillac, Cahors and Saint-Mont while the fiery brandy from the Gers – Armagnac will help your dinner go down.

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SOMETHING FOR THE KIDS

So how do you enjoy a good walk with young children in tow? One way is to let the donkey take the strain, as well as provide entertaining distraction. There’s a week-long circuit starting at the beautiful village of Bruniquel, near Montauban, and continuing through the forest of Grésigne and then down the valley of the river Vère. Overnights are at chambres d’hôte which will look after you and your donkey (contact Loisirs Accueil Tarn-et-Garonne on 00 33 5 63 21 79 61).

Alternatively, you can meander through the valleys of the rivers Lot and Célé in the regional Park of the Causses du Quercy. The nearest city is Cahors. More details from Loisirs Accueil Lot (00 33 5 65 53 20 90; reservation-lot.com). They can also advise you on the option of hiring a horse-drawn caravan for a trip across the Causse of Gramat.

A rather different challenge is to provide children with the right degree of energy-absorbing activity. The sport of Accrobranches involves platforms and ladders and zipwires that take the youngsters (and parents) whizzing through the branches on harnesses. (‘Go Ape’ offers the same experience in the UK.) Try this at Montech, near Montauban (00 33 5 63 64 08 08; agrip-aventure.com); at Pavie, just south of Auch (le Vert en l’Air; 00 33 5 62 05 26 78) and just outside Cahors (Loisirs Accueil Lot: 00 33 5 65 53 20 90).

Fun for all the family is a 21st-century variation on the old theme of the treasure hunt, called Géocache. You roam the countryside, moving from one clue to the next, using a GPS. Géocache can be sampled in the village of Aguessac, about 10km north of Millau. It’s run by the Maison des Accompagnateurs (00 33 5 65 61 24 33; maison-des-accompagnateurs.fr)

in The Independent

Hôstellerie et SPA : Le Château de la Commanderie***

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Le Château de la Commanderie, hôtel 3 étoiles à Grenoble, ouvre le premier SPA sur l’agglomération et cela après de nombreux travaux de réfection et d’extension.

Ancienne hospitalerie des Templiers puis haut lieu des chevaliers de Malte, le Château de la Commanderie est la propriété de la même famille dauphinoise depuis 1891.

M et Mme de Beaumont, les actuels propriétaires, comptent en effet parmi leurs ascendants Claude Perrier, seigneur de Vizille, qui organisa l’Assemblée des 3 Ordres dans la salle du Jeu de Paume et initia la Révolution Française, un co-fondateur de la Banque de France, plusieurs députés de l’Isère, un Premier Ministre de Louis-Philippe (Casimir Perrier) et même un président de la IIIème République (Jean-Casimir Perrier) ! Sans oublier Chaper, grand bibliophile français, ami de Stendhal et propriétaire du manuscrit de La Chartreuse de Parme !

Fort de ce passé, le Château a su miser sur l’avenir afin d’offrir à ses hôtes le meilleur du XXIème siècle : 15 nouvelles chambres très «déco» ; un espace détente avec hammam en émaux de Briare, sauna, bassin de nage, Jacuzzi, salle de fitness ; un espace « Affaire » pouvant accueillir plus de 100 personnes dans les meilleures conditions. Ce qui lui vaut le label recherché, « qualité Pro » décernée par la Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie de Grenoble.

Selon l’adage, «pas de grand hôtel sans Grand Chef», le Château de la Commanderie met en vedette Rui Rouxinol. Sa cuisine qui fait la part belle aux richesses naturelles de la région est inventive et reste accessible.

M et Mme de Beaumont s’attachent aussi à préserver une qualité environnementale enviable et enviée : un château de charme, au coeur d’un parc arboré et magnifiquement préservé des attaques du bruit et du temps.

Château et SPA de la Commanderie – 17, avenue d’Echirolles – 38320 Eybens-Grenoble – Tél : 04 76 25 34 58 – à 5 minutes du coeur de la cité.

Soria primaveral

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Visitar las Edades del Hombre es un buen motivo para acercarse hasta Soria y dejarse envolver por ella. Su encanto ha convertido a la ciudad en musa de inspiración para poetas como Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer o Gerardo Diego. Pero si hay que destacar un literario enamorado de sus calles, de su gente, de sus paisajes… ese fue Antonio Machado. Afincado en Soria por motivos de trabajo, una breve estancia en el comienzo le bastó para caer rendido a los encantos de la ciudad.

«¡Primavera soriana, primavera humilde, como el sueño de un bendito, de un pobre caminante que durmiera de cansancio en un páramo infinito! ¡Campillo amarillento, como tosco sayal de campesina, pradera de velludo polvoriento donde pace la escuálida merina!».

En esta ciudad silenciosa y reposada, dos grandes zonas verdes invitan a dar plácidos paseos. En pleno centro urbano, La Dehesa aúna una heterogénea flora en la que se pueden observar sauces, acacias, olmos y pinos, además de una rosaleda que resplandece con el verano. A lo lejos, la loma de El Castillo, nombre adquirido por la fortaleza que dominaba la cresta y de la que hoy sólo podemos apreciar ruinas.

Soria conserva un importante legado románico en su entramado de calles medievales. La iglesia de San Juan de Rabaneda es una de las paradas obligadas si visita la ciudad. Esta iglesia románica de finales del siglo XII exhibe planta de cruz latina de una sola nave.

Otro de los lugares de interés es la iglesia de Santo Domingo, declarada Monumento Histórico Artístico. Se trata de un templo católico que data del siglo XII, aunque con reformas de épocas posteriores. Esta iglesia comprende tres partes bien diferenciadas que se corresponden con otras tantas épocas y hechuras.

San Juan de Duero, conocido como Arcos de San Juan de Duero, forma un conjunto de arquitectura románica castellana situado a las afueras de la ciudad. Lo que hoy se ve, la iglesia y el claustro, no son sino los restos de un monasterio de la Orden militar de los Hospitalarios de San Juan de Jerusalén o caballeros sanjuanistas levantado en la primera mitad del siglo XII a orillas del río Duero y que se mantuvo habitado hasta el siglo XVIII.

En una orilla del Duero, entre huertas, aparece el antiguo monasterio de San Polo cuya construcción tradicionalmente se atribuye a la Orden del Temple, muy presente en tierras sorianas y datado a comienzo del siglo XIII. Constituye junto con los hospitalarios de San Juan de Duero las dos órdenes militares que defendían el acceso principal a la ciudad, a la que hay que añadir la antigua iglesia de San Salvador de la misma ciudad que perteneció a la Orden de Calatrava.

Las ruinas de la iglesia de San Nicolás, que durante varios siglos fue una de las iglesias románicas más emblemáticas de Soria y la ermita de San Saturio, considerada popularmente uno de los parajes más bellos que posee la ciudad, son otros de los lugares que no puede perderse.

in Nortecastilla.es