Historic Chateau Tongariro – sleeping on a volcano

On our recent trip to Tongariro National Park, we treated ourselves to a night at an historic New Zealand hotel, as a celebration of a successful final year at school and making it through 2020.

The Chateau Tongariro is New Zealand’s only 4-star hotel located in a World Heritage area, tucked at the base of one active volcano and within ash-spitting distance of two others. The following history of the hotel is mainly based on a booklet available at the hotel: Legends & Stories of Bayview Chateau Tongariro (www.chateau.co.nz). All historic images were sourced from the endlessly-fascinating collections at our National Library (https://natlib.govt.nz).

Tongariro National Park is the fourth oldest national park in the world, established in 1894. The Chateau dates back to the 1920s, which shows in some of the décor elements, though the overall Georgian-style channels ‘European alpine resort’ more than art-deco. It must have been a challenge to build, sitting in the middle of the wilderness on a high plateau with winter snow and poor roads.

Credits: (1) New Zealand Railways. Publicity Branch. New Zealand Railways. Publicity Branch: Chateau Tongariro National Park; best reached by rail. Issued by the Publicity Branch, N.Z. Railways. N.Z. Railways Studios. [Printed by] C.S.W. Ltd, N.Z. [ca 1932]. Ref: Eph-E-TOURISM-ca-1932-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23083829. (2) Chateau Tongariro, and Mount Ruapehu erupting behind. Davis, Bruce Valentine, 1913-2003 :Photographs and negatives. Ref: 35mm-00702-a-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22757948

The first skiing on the mountain was recorded in 1913. Presumably most of the early guests travelled on the main trunk railway, which passes near the park. After two decades of hard grind and engineering feats, the ‘last spike’, of polished silver, was driven nearby by the Prime Minister in 1908. The rail journey can still be done today, in much greater comfort, and is well worth the time. We took the train to National Park in winter a few years ago; a relaxing way to get to the ski-field. www.greatjourneysofnz.co.nz

The war years were an interesting period in the Chateau’s history. With travel for pleasure no longer possible, the hotel was requisitioned for the patients of the psychiatric hospital at Porirua, which had been damaged in the 1942 earthquake. The fresh air and splendid surroundings must have done wonders for the mental health of the patients. Unfortunately, the 1945 eruption of Mt Ruapehu put an end to what must surely have been the most luxurious hospital in New Zealand.

The hotel is fixed in my own memory as a place of fairy-tale splendour, after staying there as a child. All my other childhood holidays involved sharing an ancient canvas tent with family at various beach and lakeside campgrounds, so the elegant décor, grand lounges, chandeliers and high ceilings of the Chateau really made an impression. I don’t think I’d ever eaten in a restaurant before, let alone stayed in an hotel.

Going back after so long risked disappointment, but it was just as magnificent as I remembered. The room even had a ‘pillow menu’, so one could select the optimum comfort for a good night’s rest after an active day.

With overseas tourists shut out of New Zealand, the rooms were reasonably priced and the number of visitors sparse enough that we scored the prime dining table by the ‘Ngauruhoe Window”, a huge 3m by 3m picture window framing the volcano of ‘Mt Doom’ (Lord of the Rings movie) fame. What a view it would be during one of Ngauruhoe’s occasional eruptions!

Credit: People in a lounge at Chateau Tongariro with Mount Ngauruhoe visible through the window – Photograph taken by Leslie Hinge. New Zealand Railways: Photographs. Ref: 1/1-003889-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23154729

All-in-all a special trip and a great way to end the year.

Whatever you are up to this holiday season, I wish you all the best for the New Year. My thoughts go out particularly to those who cannot be with loved ones or enjoy the delights of travel. Fingers crossed for a successful vaccine rollout. And finally, thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read this blog in 2020.

Happy reading, Rose

Tongariro National Park – walking on a volcano

Tongariro National Park is a mecca for geologists, tourists, hikers, skiers and Lord of the Rings movie enthusiasts. A picturesque cluster of three large volcanoes and a scattering of smaller cones, geothermal vents, bright green lakes, stunted mountain beech forest and miles of golden and red tussock on a plateau of volcanic debris. About halfway between Auckland and Wellington in New Zealand’s North Island, near the tourist hot-spot of Lake Taupo.

The largest of the volcanoes, Ruapehu, is home to two ski-fields and many wonderful walking tracks. We stayed in Whakapapa Village and did three two-hour walks: Silica Rapids, Taranaki Falls and Skyline. The first two of these are easy walks through a mix of mountain beech forest and open landscapes, including alpine bogs (with board-walks) and fields of volcanic debris and lava intrusions.

The first walk loops past Silica Rapids, a white slick formed by mineral deposits brought up from underground fissures by super-heated water.

The second loops past a waterfall and features an artistic loo-with-a-view.

The Skyline walk takes you near the top of the mountain, with stunning views north to Lake Taupo and west as far as Mt Taranaki, on a good day. The good news is that you can ride up the mountain in a gondola, the Sky Waka (www.mtruapehu.com). The bad news is that it’s still an uphill slog through ash and rock to get to the ridge, about two hours return. Wear boots, take water, and be prepared for changeable alpine conditions.

Try not to dwell on the fact that it is also an active volcano, erupting every twenty years or so (the latest in 2007), with minor volcanic activity between-times. Currently sitting at Level 1 (minor unrest) according to NZ’s natural hazard website www.geonet.org.nz, which also shows the many earthquake events that add spice to our lives here on the Pacific Plate boundary. {Update: a couple of days later, the volcanic activity alert was upgraded to Level 2, due to a rising temperature in the crater lake and tremors!}

For experienced hikers, the Tongariro Crossing is one of the best day-walks in New Zealand, traversing Mt Tongariro and passing close to the perfect cone of ash that is Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings movie). One of my favourite multi-day hikes is the circuit around the mountains. The details are on the NZ Department of Conservation website www.doc.govt.nz.

Tongariro was the first national park established in New Zealand, thanks to the foresight and generosity of the local iwi, who wished to protect their sacred mountains. It is also one of only a few places in the world with Dual World Heritage status for its combination of natural and cultural values.

Definitely one for the bucket list!

Kate Mosse, Carcassonne & Arles at Christmas

Who else is jumping with excitement at the prospect of reading the next book by Kate Mosse? The City of Tears is the sequel to The Burning Chambers (2018) and hits the shelves 14 January 2021 (https://www.katemosse.co.uk/).

The City of Tears is set in 1572 at the height of the Wars of Religion between the ruling Catholics and the minority Hugenots. It features Catherine de Medici (see my Chenonceau blogpost) and the Feast Day of St Bartholomew’s, so is certainly won’t be lacking in historical drama!

Kate Mosse is one of my favourite authors and very hard to beat if you’re into French history and eloquent storytelling. I was hooked as soon as I read Labyrinth (2015), set in 1209 in the medieval fortress town of Carcassonne in southern France, at the time of the religious persecution and massacres of the Cathars. Labyrinth is a gripping dual-time tale of a mysterious book and the young woman who must keep its secrets safe.

I enjoyed the book so much that Carcassonne went to the top of my travel bucket-list. Here are a few photos, which only hint at the splendour of the place.

We were there just before Christmas, which is wonderful time to travel in France if you don’t mind a spot of cold weather, far fewer tourists and divine Christmas markets. By one of those incredible pieces of luck that befall travellers with flexible plans, we arrived in Arles during their Christmas Festival, on the very night the old town square was transformed into a stunning piece of acrobatic-operatic-visual artistry. Even if you don’t make the Christmas extravaganza, Arles is well worth a visit for its Roman amphitheatre and theatre (still in use) and its Vincent van Gogh links, amongst many other attractions.

The surrounding area of Provence remains firmly on my post-vaccine bucket-list, as we didn’t have time for Camargue Nature Park Nature Park (flamingos and wild horses) and Avignon.

Loire Valley must-see: Château de Chenonceau

Writing about the Loire Valley brought to mind another favourite: the Château de Chenonceau (https://chenonceau.com). Surely one of the world’s most beautiful buildings, built over the Cher River, with its iconic arches reflecting in the water. The land entry is also lovely: hop off the local train or bus and walk through a postcard-perfect village, down a long avenue lined with trees, and past the formal gardens. 

We were fortunate enough to visit in December, when it was decked out for Christmas in one of the most beautiful displays I have ever seen, including a stunning feasting table in the gallery. It was also delightfully quiet, given that Chenonceau is said to be the second-most visited château in France, after Versailles. The whole interior is grand, but for me, the recreated kitchens were a real highlight, with vaulted ceilings, rows of gleaming copper pans, and a pulley-system down to the river to hoist up supplies.

And, of course, it has a fascinating history as the ‘Ladies’ Château’, home to several influential women. The château passed into royal hands in 1535, as part of a debt settlement, and is perhaps best known for its links to an infamous royal love triangle. King Henry II gave it to his favourite, Diane de Poitiers, who wielded more power over both the king and his children than did his queen, Catherine de Medici. After the death of the king while jousting, the queen ousted the mistress and took back Chenonceau for herself and her children. Three of her sons were kings and two daughters were queens, giving the château an impressive royal flavour, reflected in the many masterpieces, tapestries and furnishings.

Catherine de Medici held lavish parties at the château, including the first fireworks display in France, while wielding enormous power as regent for her young sons. Her role in the bloody religious massacres of the era and alleged murders of several important figures have left her with a terrible reputation, perhaps more so than she deserved according to some historians. For a fictionalised take on her life, I enjoyed the novel by C.W. Gortner (The Confessions of Catherine de Medici), which conveys both the challenges she faced in clinging to power as well as the dire consequences of her decisions.  

The château was later home to other women of note, including Louise Dupin, who was famous for her literary salons, welcoming scholars such as Voltaire. She is known for her book on the history and rights of women, written with the assistance of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was tutor to her son before he became famous as a philosopher (https://blue-stocking.org.uk/tag/louise-dupin/).

More recently, the Menier (chocolate) family transformed Chenonceau into a military hospital in World War I, with Simone Menier as matron. The beautiful gallery across the river housed rows of wounded men, who reputedly fished out of the windows. Simone and the Mernier family also played a role for the resistance in World War II, using the château as an escape route between the Nazi occupied zone and the free zone on the other side of the river.  

So many fascinating stories just begging to be made into novels!

Loire Valley must-see: Leonardo da Vinci’s final home

If you’ve looked at my webpage for The Daughter’s Promise, you’ll know that I love the Loire Valley in France. I’m also a big fan of Leonardo da Vinci, the ultimate Renaissance Man and perhaps the most brilliant, multi-talented person ever born. (Incidentally, he was the illegitimate son of a peasant woman – a useful fact to throw at anyone who stands in the way of equal educational opportunities for all.)

Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life in Amboise in the Loire Valley, so you can imagine how thrilled we were to visit his home, the Château du Clos Lucé (https://vinci-closluce.com/en), on our last trip to France. The house and grounds are lovely in their own right, but it is the Leonardo connection that makes this an exceptional experience.

He is best known as the creator of the Mona Lisa and other great paintings and sculptures. But he was also a brilliant naturalist, scientist, engineer and inventor. Many drawings, inventions, workshop equipment and personal items are displayed inside the château, while larger reconstructions of his inventions dot the grounds. Some of the highlights include his famous flying machines, from the bird-inspired glider to the helicopter-like aerial screw; his clever engineering ideas, such as the transportable, revolving bridge and water-powered devices; and his advanced weaponry, including a multi-barrelled canon and armoured tank.

Leonardo da Vinci is buried in the stunning Château d’Amboise, just down the road (https://chateau-amboise.com/en/). If you are visiting the Loire Valley, Amboise makes a great base, as the town is beautiful and conveniently situated on the Loire River, with a train station nearby. The châteaux are walking distance from the centre, with other châteaux nearby (don’t miss the stunning Château de Chenonceau). Drop in to Bigot for a delicious omelette or pastries (https://maison-bigot-amboise.com/) – they saved us by serving us after the kitchen had closed, when we arrived cold and bedraggled!

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