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Templar knights
Templar knights

Temple Church is a remarkable building because it has survived largely intact in the centre of a major city for over 800 years, and because it has been the scene of key events in British history. Its role in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and subsequent surge of popularity is merely the most recent chapter in a long and distinguished history.

Temple Church has survived a series of major events, any one of which could easily have resulted in its destruction:

  • The crushing of the Knights Templar by Pope Clement in October 1307
  • The disbanding of the Knights Hospitallier (its subsequent owners) by Henry VIII during the reformation of 1540
  • The Great Fire Of London in 1666
  • Unwarranted “restoration” by Sir Christopher Wren in the aftermath of the Great Fire
  • Victorian remodeling in 1841
  • A 1941 incendiary bomb during World War II

Temple Church was consecrated in 1185 by the Patriarch of Jerusalem in the presence of King Henry II. It is one of the oldest buildings in London: only Westminster Abbey and the White Tower at the Tower Of London are older, and is one of the few remaining examples of Romanesque architecture left intact in the city.

The building’s architecture is the most striking feature when you first approach the church, which is found by navigating a series of narrow alleyways between Fleet Street and the Embankment alongside the river Thames. Suddenly, you find yourself in an open square right next to a round crenelated building of honey-colored sandstone, attached to a larger rectangular structure.

The round section of Temple Church was built first and is based on the church on the temple mount in Jerusalem. In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown attaches significance to the fact that the design doesn’t follow the typical cross-shaped plan of Christian churches, implying that it is a deliberately pagan design. While that suits the conspiratorial nature of the plotline, the design is actually a deliberate echo of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre in what was (at the time) the Christian Holy Land. This is the site where the Templar order was founded. That church is round because it’s a conversion of an older Roman building.

The larger rectangular section that now forms the chancel of Temple Church was added in the 13th century in response to Henry III’s desire to be buried there. Without an extension, there was no way to accommodate the large tomb of a king. The chancel was consecrated on Ascension Day 1240, but Henry III later changed his mind is interred in Westminster Abbey instead.

1 Lodge Photo, London, UK, brown, church, code, column, da, da vinci, england, knights, outside, romanesque, round, templars, temple, verticals
The oldest part of Temple Church in London, modelled after the domed Church of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Visiting the church

The church opening hours are limited, and it does not open every day. Hours are posted outside and on the website, so it pays to plan ahead if you want to go inside. I visited on a Friday lunchtime, when the current master of the temple, Robin Griffith-Jones, offered a free lecture on Temple Church and The Da Vinci Code. Heading inside the church by the West door, you are immediately greeted by the sight that makes the church such a good location for The Da Vinci Code – the effigies of the Knights Templar on the floor of the round church.

There are nine effigies in total, including those of William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke, and his sons dressed in full knightly attire. William began his career earning a living by winning tournaments: he was an accomplished jouster and swordsman, and tutored the young Henry I in chivalry. The plot of the movie A Knight’s Tale is loosely based on William Marshall’s early life. He went to the holy land as a crusader in 1183-1186 at the request of a dying Henry II (rumor has it as a result of getting too close to Henry’s wife), where he first encountered the Knights Templar, though he did not join the order until a few months before his death in 1219.

As The Da Vinci Code is quick to point out, these are effigies and not tombs – although William Marshall and his sons were originally buried in Temple Church, their remains are no longer here. The effigies are made from high quality Purbeck marble, which is quarried in Dorset, hundreds of miles to the South-West of London. The effigies of William and the other knights in the church are damaged, a result of a May 1941 incendiary bomb that hit the roof of the church, only shortly before Nazi Germany halted bombing raids on Britain. The fire consumed the roof, wooden interior and organ, damaged the effigies and badly cracked the marble columns – the roof is held up today by 20th century copies made from the same stone.

The wooden interior destroyed in World-War II was Victorian, dating from 1841. During reconstruction after the war, the wooden interior installed by Sir Christopher Wren sometime after the great fire of London in 1666 was discovered in storage, and that interior forms the core of what you can see today in the chancel. Temple Church wasn’t damaged during the Great Fire, but Wren “restored” it nevertheless; the original interior was lost.

1 Lodge Photo, 1200s, 1219, London, UK, brown, church, code, crusades, da vinci, dan, earl, effigy, england, gilbert, knight, marble, marshal, marshall, pembroke, templar, temple, verticals
William Marshal, first Earl of Pembroke and Templar Knight, who died in 1219. Temple Church, London, UK.

The Knights Templar’s rise and fall

Temple Church stood at the center of a larger Templar compound. As Robin Griffith-Jones explains in his talk, the Templars were rich and influential because they developed the foundations of modern banking. You could give the Templars your money in London, travel to Jerusalem and get the same amount back from the Temple there, less a commission. In a time when traveling with money incurred serious risk, this was a useful and important service, especially during the crusades. Ultimately, the Templars incurred the wrath of Kings and Popes by refusing to forgive the debts of either, or to hand over money they desired to seize from unfortunate nobles. It was this that ultimately led to the Papal order by Pope Clement V dissolving the order and seizing its assets on Friday, 13 October 1307.

Temple Church was taken over by Edward II after the dissolution of the Templar order, and it was eventually given to another knightly order similar to the Templars, the Knights Hospitallier. They rented some parts of the compound to two colleges of lawyers. Three hundred years later, after the break with Rome under Henry VIII and the establishment of the Church of England, the lawyers were granted use of the land and the church in perpetuity. Today, the church is still surrounded by lawyers, now known as the Inns of Court, and specifically Inner Temple and Middle Temple. Standing outside, you’ll see British Barristers clutching briefs hurrying to and from the nearby law court on Fleet Street.

In The Da Vinci Code, Langdon and the other characters realise they’re in the wrong place and immediately dash off to Westminster Abbey in search of the next clue. Unburdened by any requirement to find the Holy Grail before The Bad Guys, I recommend regular visitors to Temple Church spend a little longer enjoying a remarkable building containing some of the most important Knights in British history, especially if the Master Of The Temple is providing an entertaining free lecture.

(c) Copyright 2006-2014 Mathew Lodge / www.lodgephoto.com. Reproduction in any form without written permission is prohibited.

 

The chateau of Clos de Vougeot is nestled in the vineyards of Burgundy, the area of Eastern France close to Dijon that brings us delightful red wine. Lighter than the more famous Bordeaux, I like Burgundies because of their delicacy and the way they complement and flatter food. The photograph you see here is of the original 12th century monastery building, built by Cistercian monks from nearby Citeaux (Da Vinci Code fans note: the abbot of Citeaux is supposedly the person who convinced the Pope to create the Templar order to protect the Priory of Scion, thus beginning a huge conspiracy to bring down the Catholic church).

Clos de Vougeot

It’s an attractive building in its proportion, and also maintains its beautiful Medieval wooden ceiling. As wine critic Jancis Robinson put it in an article recounting an evening spent eating and drinking there, “I feel as though I am on a Hogwarts school trip to France.

But let’s not forget why the place exists: wine! The monks were the first to grow grapes, and split the harvest into three given the different quality of grapes from the upper, middle and lower portions of the land — the best being the well-drained upper corner near the Chateau. Today, this same land is worth hundreds of thousands of Euros an acre (hectare?) and there are more than 80 owners. There is no cheap wine made here, but its saving grace is that none of it is bad in any way, shape or form. Yes indeed, this is fine Burgundian wine and well worth splurging on a bottle with a nice dinner at a nearby restaurant.

Only a little drinking had taken place when this photograph was taken at dusk in November. But we remedied that later. I had no tripod or monopod with me that day, and so the camera was balanced on top of the iron gate at the entry to the courtyard, using the timer function to avoid camera shake: I could push the shutter release to start the timer and then step back to let the camera be still for the exposure. A short 18mm focal length framed the building nicely, and also helps to minimise the effect of any vibration or movement in the camera. I dialed up the ISO to 400 to keep the exposure time reasonably short (0.4 seconds) given the balancing act. I used the camera’s center-weighted metering off the stone of the building in Program mode, and it was absolutely spot on for the sky and the courtyard.

When I first wrote a blog posting about car rental, I wasn’t sure it was useful. However, the amount of email it and follow-up postings generated convinced me otherwise (So formal! You can just add comments to the postings rather than emailing). This article is a consolidation of those different postings to summarize everything in one place.

Only rent a car if you need it

In many European cities, it is better not to have a car: parking is difficult and expensive, “one way systems” are confusing to navigate, and a car can be slower than public transport at busy times. Unlike the US, many Italian hotels do not have their own parking. Don’t rent a car if you intend to just sightsee in the city itself, and if you need to get out to visit another town or city, consider a train or bus. Services in Europe can be fast, frequent and reasonably priced. But they can also be slow and inconvenient, so when does it make sense to rent?

When to rent a car

For a larger geographical area like Tuscany or the Dordogne, you are going to need transport and a car is the most efficient way to do so. In these times of eco responsibility, when it seems the only thing stopping eco miltants from burning car drivers at the stake is concern over the CO2 that would generate, I feel obliged to defend this statement. It is possible to get around by bus and train within areas like Tuscany, but boy is it a logistical challenge. Fundamentally you will get to spend far less time enjoying the area. When you have limited time to vacation, spending it twiddling thumbs on a bus is truly a waste of opportunity. Buy carbon offset to cover the CO2 emissions of the car (and your plane ride, while you are at it).

Rent a small car (no, really)

Resist the urge to rent a larger car, even if it is appealing because you have a large family or group on the trip. Get a couple of smaller cars instead. Larger cars are rarer in Europe because running them is more expensive, and also many European towns and cities were not designed for cars at all. As well as being expensive to fuel, large cars are hard to maneuver in narrow streets designed for nothing wider than a few pigs and maybe a horse or two.

On one trip, we stayed a few nights in Florence and then headed out to Villa Vignamaggio. We were to stay at Hotel Brunelleschi, squeezed into the centre of the ancient city of Florence. The hotel is built around a Byzantine tower with Roman remains in the basement – it even has its own museum. The roads leading to it are really, really narrow: even the taxi driver had a hard time getting his small Fiat around the final bend. Some kindly locals stopped to guide him back-and-forth as he edged the car around the corner. With even a small SUV or Minivan you’d be wedged between two buildings several turns back.

Florence cathedral from the Brunelleschi roof terrace

Incidentally, we’ll probably never stay at the Brunelleschi again. Not because it was bad – quite the reverse: it is a truly historic hotel with charm, good rooms, friendly staff and a fantastic location. No, I blame Dan Brown: it’s where his characters Langdon and Sophie plan to stay at the end of The Da Vinci Code for a night of passion. I could be wrong about the last bit, but it doesn’t seem like they’re going to sip tea and discuss semiotics. At any rate, ever since then prices have gone up, up, up and you practically have to be Dan Brown to get in.

Use your credit card rental car insurance to save money

Many credit cards offer extensions to basic rental car insurance to cover accidental damage and/or theft – far more cheaply than the rental car company. You are already paying for this in your annual card fee and/or interest, so make use of it. Check the website of your card supplier to find out what they offer, and read all the small print so you know exactly which insurance to accept, and which to decline.

I like American Express’ coverage in this area, and so use that card for car rental charges. Our rental car was vandalized in Toulouse, France (not badly, but we got a hefty charge from the rental company) and we claimed through Amex. After sending in the paper work they did their investigation and then paid up a few weeks later. Insurance is getting simpler in places like Italy, where there are a lot of claims – all rental car companies now mandate you buy comprehensive cover.

The insurance cover you probably don’t need is for personal possessions — resist the suggestion from the rental car company to buy it. Your belongings are typically covered by your household insurance policy, but there are exceptions for expensive stuff like cameras, lenses and jewelry. Read your policy to see what is covered and don’t buy coverage twice. In general, the best policy is to take anything remotely valuable out of the car as any kind of car trouble tends to ruin your day.

Recommended agencies

Tourists in a miniature car slip into a space between cars to enjoy a view of the Golden Gate Bridge

Not all rentals are equal — San Francisco CA

Here are the companies I have used:

1) https://www.autoeurope.com/

Auto Europe is an agent for Europcar (a pan-European car rental firm) and Avis. You may never have heard of Europcar, because they have no presence outside of Europe, but rest assured they are highly reputable. Auto Europe specializes in online and phone car bookings and typically has good prices as they do a lot of volume. I’ve rented from them several times in the past, and they can be very good value. You typically pay a deposit for the rental and receive a voucher in return. It is vital that you print outthe voucher and take it with you — it’s a cash pre-payment and the car firm needs to credit it to your rental. If you don’t have a print out (yes, I learned this the hard way…) then you’ll be spending a lot more time at the rental counter while they try to find it. You pay the balance of the amount at the end of the rental.

2) https://www.avis.com/

Avis may be the second largest car rental firm world wide, but they are stronger in some countries than Hertz — especially France. You will almost always find an Avis location in or right next to French railway (SNCF) stations, for example. This is a major boon as you won’t have to haul your luggage far from the platform to the car. Avis has a frequent renter program (Preferred) for customers in the US, which means you won’t have to wait at the counter to collect your car.

3) https://www.hertz.com/

Hertz is the world’s largest car rental firm. They can be especially good value for pre-paid car rentals in Europe, where you pay the entire amount up front in return for a bigger discount. They also have “green fleet” of low emission (AKA low fuel consumption) vehicles which are thus cheaper to fuel up than regular rentals and go longer between refueling stops. It really pays to sign up for Hertz’s Gold Club frequent renter program, as it means you can collect your car without stopping at the counter.

What about the price of gas in Europe?

Gas is somewhere between $7 and $8 a gallon in Italy or France, depending on the exchange rate. This isolated statistic, by itself, causes some to freak out. After all, your small SUV does 18 miles to the gallon (I’m talking actual miles, not the sticker MPG) on a good day, so that kind of pricing is bad news for the vacation budget, right?

Well, hold on. Car manufacturers in Europe have had over 50 years of higher gas prices, and this means the majority of cars there are designed very differently to those in the US. Those of you who have been to Europe know that cars there are smaller. That’s one effect of high gas prices — cars that are smaller weigh less, and therefore require less energy to move around. In general, cars are smaller, lighter and have smaller engines. However, to compensate for the smaller engine size, they also have very advanced engine management systems to squeeze maximum performance from the fuel. European cars sip gas like it was an expensive wine rather than gulping it down like cheap beer, but can still perform well.

Get a diesel rental car

Diesel fuel is widely available in Europe, and not reserved for trucks at gas stations. This is because diesel cars are even more economical than gas cars — the engine design means they use less fuel, which also means lower CO2 emissions. Diesel engines used to be slow, noisy, dirty things with poor acceleration. But the same engine management technology that has improved efficiency of gas engines means that turbocharged diesel engines are quiet, clean and deliver amazing acceleration — while using even less fuel. Thus you can achieve 50 miles to the gallon or better in a European diesel car (actual MPG, not sticker). To top it all off, Diesel fuel is actually cheaper than gas in Italy and many other European countries.

So don’t freak out at $8 a gallon for gas, because diesel is cheaper and you can easily get a diesel rental car (if you don’t get one by default, ask to change to one), and it will do far more miles to the gallon. Just remember that diesel is called Gasolio in Italy, which sounds confusingly like gas. But now you know differently, so fill up your diesel car with gasolio with confidence.

Keep right: not just a good idea, it’s the law

Unlike the US, it is often illegal to overtake on the inside. Thus the law about keeping right on a multi-lane road in Europe is usually obeyed. Failure to move over to the right on a two or three lane road to allow someone past will typically result in flashing lights and beeping on the horn. Before it turns into a full-blown road rage incident, get over and let them get caught by the next electronic speed camera. Did I mention those? They’re all over the place — far more so than in the US — and you will get a fine in the mail passed on by the rental car company.

Practice parallel parking

Yes, you will need to be reasonably good at parallel parking. It’s a learnable skill that you can achieve with a little practice.

International drivers license recommended

To rent a car in Italy you only need your US state license. Show it at the rental car counter, sign the paperwork and you’re off. But the law in Italy says that you must have an International driver’s license if you are not a European Union license holder. This means you, my American friends. You can get these for about $15 at AAA. The fine for not having one if the police stop you is 70 Euros (about $100 or so). You may be thinking “OK, so what’s the chance of being stopped?” One major difference between the US and Italy is that the police do not always need “probable cause” to stop cars. They can set up roadblocks and do random stops to check on vehicle condition, drink-driving, and paperwork violations. It seems like a reasonable trade-off: $15 and the inconvenience of a trip to the AAA office, versus a 70 Euro fine. If you develop an attitude when stopped in this way, the Italian police can also impound your car… but you’d really have to annoy them to get that far. So be nice and enjoy your vacation.

Millions of people rent cars every year, but if you’re not familiar with renting in Europe there are a few things that will smooth the path of your vacation.

Tip One: Car rental might not be necessary

In many European capitals and major cities, it is often advantageous not to have a car – parking is difficult to find and expensive, and moving around by car can be slower than public transport at busy times. Unlike the US, many hotels do not have their own parking. So when in Rome, Paris, London, Florence etc. don’t rent a car if you intend to just sightsee in the city itself. If you need to get out to visit another town or city, consider taking the train or even a bus. Services in Europe can be fast, frequent and reasonably priced.

When it comes to a larger geographical area like Tuscany or the Dordogne, then you are going to need transport to get about, and a car is the most efficient way to do so. I say this as someone who really likes to take good public transport, and often takes not-so-good public transport. It is possible to get around by bus in areas like Tuscany, but boy is it a logistical challenge and fundamentally you will get to spend far less time enjoying the area. When you have limited time to vacation, spending it on a bus is false economy. Buy carbon offset to cover the CO2 emissions of the car (and your plane ride, while you are at it) if you feel bad about that aspect.

Tip Two: Two smaller cars may be better than one giant car

Resist the urge to rent a large car or van, even if it is appealing because you have a large family or group on the trip. Get a couple of smaller cars instead. Larger cars are rarer in Europe because running them is more expensive, and also European towns and cities were not designed for cars at all. As well as being expensive to fuel, large cars are hard to maneuver in narrow streets designed for nothing wider than a horse and cart.

On one trip, we were staying a few nights in Florence and then heading out to Villa Vignamaggio. We were to stay at Hotel Brunelleschi, squeezed into the centre of the ancient city of Florence. The area is so old, the hotel is built around a Byzantine tower with Roman remains in the basement – it even has its own museum. The streets leading to it are really, really narrow: even the taxi driver had a hard time getting his small Fiat around the final bend. Some kindly Italians stopped to guide him back-and-forth as he edged the car around the corner. With even a small SUV or Minivan you’d be wedged between two buildings several turns back.

Florence cathedral from the Brunelleschi roof terrace

Incidentally, we’ll probably never stay at the Brunelleschi again. Not because it was bad – quite the reverse: it is a truly historic hotel with charm, good rooms, friendly staff and a fantastic location. Dan Brown is to blame: it’s where his characters Langdon and Sophie agree to rendezvous at the end of The Da Vinci Code for a night of passion. I could be wrong about the last bit, but it doesn’t seem like they’re planning to discuss iconography. At any rate, ever since then prices have gone up, up, up and you practically have to be Dan Brown to get in.

Tip three: Use your credit card rental car insurance to save money

Many credit cards offer extensions to basic rental car insurance to cover accidental damage and/or theft – far more cheaply than the rental car company. You are already paying for this in your annual card fee and/or interest, so make use of it. Check the website of your card supplier to find out what they offer, and read all the small print so you know what is covered, and what isn’t. We recently discovered that Amex no longer insures larger cars and SUVs, for example.

We’ve been unfortunate enough to claim on American Express insurance a couple of times. Our rental car was vandalized in Toulouse, France — not badly, but bad enough for a hefty charge from the rental company. After sending in the paper work Amex did their investigation and paid up some months later. Insurance is getting simpler in places like Italy where there are a lot of claims – all rental car companies now mandate you buy comprehensive cover.

The insurance cover you probably don’t need is for personal possessions. Most people’s belongings are covered by their household insurance policy, but there are exceptions for expensive stuff like cameras and lenses and jewelry. Read your policy to see what is covered and don’t buy coverage twice. In general, the best policy is to take anything remotely valuable out of the car as any kind of car trouble tends to ruin your day.