Journey back to World War II

As well as its famous Tube railway system, London has another ‘underground’ that is well worth a visit.

The Churchill War Rooms – a converted storage basement – is set deep beneath London’s parliamentary precinct and provides a fascinating look at the bunkers from where Britain’s World War II planning was carried out.  V

isitors move around the various sections of the war rooms through tunnels.

IMG_0430

Left nearly intact at the end of the war, these bunkers allow you to see where and how Britain’s war effort was guided.

There’s the wartime Cabinet Room; radio and code areas; accommodation; a maze of offices; and and a ‘map room’ where plans for defending Britain in the face of an invasion, were drawn up.

The bunker was capped by a huge concrete slab, but was still considered vulnerable to a direct hit by a German bomb. There were also fears of flooding, poison gas attack and infiltration of enemy spies or parachutists.

IMG_0345 (1)

Secrecy was the site’s best defence.

The rooms became fully operational one week before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.

What’s that smell?

Developed as a short-term measure, accommodation was basic and lacking in many everyday services.

For example, when the site was adapted in 1938, it lacked any system for the removal of sewage.

This meant that chemical toilets, known as Elsans, were used in the rooms – making the sub-basement somewhat smelly.

IMG_0361

Washing facilities generally consisted of bowls and buckets.

Being underground for long periods of daylight created the risk of Vitamin D deficiency and arrangements were made for the typists and others to be given sunlamp treatment to lessen the risk

However, despite the drawbacks, the rooms still became home to a host of civil servants and military personnel – and the frequent shelter of government ministers, including the Prime Minister

P1010163

Winston Churchill is said to have disliked the underground shelter and – despite measures taken to protect him – apparently liked to take himself and occasional visitors, onto the roof of the building above to watch air raids in progress.

The actual War Cabinet room still looks exactly as it did when the complex was closed at the end of the war in 1945.

P1010141

The furnishings, for example, are the same as during the 115 meetings of the War Cabinet and Defence Committee held in the room during the war years.

And attached to the bunker is an interactive museum that outlines Churchill’s life and often controversial political and military careers.

Getting there

Run by the Imperial War Museum, The Churchill War Rooms are located at Clive Steps, King Charles Street, in central London.

They are open every day from 9.30am to 6pm and are a short walk from Westminster Tube Station, which is reached by taking the Jubilee, District and Circle underground lines.

Ticket prices are about £16.35 for adults and £8.15 for children.

London, UK

A wonderland in the Italian Alps

Lake Maggiore, northern ItelyOh how I would love to return to Lake Maggiore – surely one of the most beautiful and beguiling of destinations.

Deep in Northern Italy, where the Alps rise snow-capped and shrouded in mist to Switzerland, the lake and its communities are breath-taking.

Put simply, this place should be on every bucket list.

Alpine magic

Beyond the fertile plains of Lombardy and the wine country of Piedmont, the Italian Alps dominate the landscape.IMG_0349

Thickly wooded areas hug impossibly steep slopes above alpine lakeland of unbelievable beauty.

For centuries, much has been said and written about this wonderland, but it’s still hard to be prepared for the majesty that awaits.

As we journeyed to our hotel near the town of Stresa, we quickly realised that the whole area is a traveller’s dream – a feast of sightseeing where traditional Italian lifestyles have long existed alongside villas of the rich and famous.

Isola Bella

IMG_0320Unfortunately, on this occasion, we had come in search of one particular attraction: the remarkable Isola Bella, or “beautiful island”.

One of Italy’s leading attractions, Isola Bella is one of three Borromean Islands in Lake Maggiore, which is Italy’s second biggest lake at 66 kilometres long and 10 kilometres wide.

The striking, somewhat flamboyant and unreal appearance of its red-roofed palazzo, or palace and tiered gardens, is known world-wide.IMG_0321

Less well known is Isola Bella’s  role in a futile attempt to prevent World War II.

But, all of this combined draws huge numbers of visitors  and was the main reason we found our way to this charming area.

It didn’t take long, however, to realise that Stresa and Lake Maggiore is one of the most memorable of destinations  – regardless of Isola Bella.

However, the island visit is still something I recommend.IMG_0324

Floating wedding cake

Approaching Isola Bella by ferry, the overwhelming impression is layers of gardens piled on top of one another, like a huge wedding cake, topped by a red-roofed palazzo.

Local Governor, Carlo Borromeo the Third apparently obtained land on what was then known as the island of Isola Inferiore in 1630.  He soon began planning a residence there – and renamed  the island after his wife Isabella.IMG_0322

Carlo’s sons later created not just a simple villa, but a palace worthy of entertaining the greatest nobility of Europe. Soil was brought in from the mainland and the gardens were not completed until 1671.

Today, the palazzo  rises above the small medieval fishing village on one end of Isola Bella.

The sumptuous rooms are filled with family heirlooms and treasures, including historical tapestries that date to about 1565.

Secret war talks

IMG_0326The Sala di Musica is the most famous room, where in April of 1935,  Italian dictator Mussolini, met  representatives of the French and English governments in a last-ditch and unsuccessful attempt to stave off the Second World War by forming an alliance against Nazi Germany.

But it is outside where visitors can be seen shaking their heads in amazement.

Formal gardens are large and grand, but an abundance of massive statues, obelisks, spheres, tropical plants, coral grottos and wandering white peacocks give an impressive of unreality.

IMG_0336The gardens seem almost deliberately ‘over the top’ and overwhelming, yet the whole package is distinctly unique.

Quite simply, it would be hard to find another Isola Bella.  It’s undeniably unforgettable – especially in its stunning setting.

How to get there

About 20 trains a day run to Stresa  from the main railway stations at Milan.  The journey will take about one-and-a-half hours.IMG_0319

From the city’s Porta Garibaldi station, take one of the 10 regional trains heading for Domodossola.

Alternatively, from Milan’s Centrale station, take one of the six regional trains heading for Domodossola or one of the five international trains heading for Geneva.

You can also make the journey from Milan by bus. From the Lampugnano underground station, 2 buses a day go to Stresa.

There are shuttles to the trains and buses from Milan’s main airports – and it’s relatively easy to reach Stresa  from Switzerland.

Once there, you don’t necessarily need a car in the Lake Maggiore area, as it is easy to  see most of the natural beauty and attractions on foot or by ferry.

Where to stay at Stresa

See this list of hotels

 

Italian Lakes