Céad Mile Fáilte: A Hundred Thousand Welcomes

March 17, 2016 9:40 am
A view of the port city of Cobh with The Cathedral of Saint Colman in the background.

I’m of Irish descent and like millions of other Irish Canadians, the pull towards visiting my ancestral homeland has always been strong. My great great grandparents came to Canada from Waterford in County Cork in the mid-18th century at the height of the potato famine and my Irish heritage has held a strong presence in my life. The opportunity to visit last December with my son did not disappoint. Ireland is glorious in December. Cool days and colder nights, but still green and charming. I noticed a sign upon arrival in Dublin that said Céad Mile Fáilte or A hundred thousand welcomes. Hard to explain it but upon arrival, it felt like home. I rented a car and adjusted to the reality that the Irish, like their British counterparts, all drive on the wrong side of the road. It concentrates the mind and makes you forget your jet lag pretty quickly.

dubbr_phototour54We checked into the historic Shelbourne Dublin, a luxury hotel in Dublin city center, overlooking St. Stephen’s Green, Europe’s grandest garden square. This would serve as our point of departure for the next two days as we began to explore Dublin’s cultural and historic buildings. After a sumptuous breakfast in the hotel’s famous tea room, we began a 6-hour walking tour of the city through its heart, St. Stephen’s Green. Our first stop was The Little Museum of Dublin. This museum tells the story of 20th century Dublin and features over 5,000 artifacts in a collection that was entirely donated by Dubliners. It was a perfect start and served to put Ireland in context for us historically, culturally, socially and economically. A highlight of this museum was the exhibit celebrating the career, music and roots of U2. Irish humour flourishes in the place. Take a quote from Bono for example, in explaining the difference between the Irish and Americans. “In the United States, you look at the guy that lives in the mansion on the hill, and you think, you know, one day, if I work really hard, I could live in that mansion. In Ireland, people look up at the guy in the mansion on the hill and go, one day, I’m going to get that bastard.”  The Irish are cheeky and their humour and joie de vie are evident everywhere. Next up was a short walk to Trinity College, the oldest university in Ireland. Founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth 1, the 40-acre site retains some of its ancient seclusion of cobbled squares, gardens and parks. The College is famed for its great treasures including the Book of Kells, a 9th-century illuminated manuscript, the Books of Durrow and Armagh, and an early Irish harp. These are displayed in the College Treasury and The Long Hall (library) which house over 300,000 books, some dating back to its foundation.  Most of Ireland’s state-funded museums are free and very close to each other. Ireland’s Parliament building, Leinster House, can be toured weekdays. Next door is the National Library,  which features exhibits on W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Jonathan Swift and other famous Irish writers and poets. The National Gallery,  holds the national collection of European and Irish fine art.The Archaeology Museum displays Celtic gold artefacts, including beautiful artistic necklaces called lunulas and torcs. The National Museum of Ireland, is Ireland’s premier cultural institution and home to the greatest collections of Irish material heritage, culture and natural history in the world. After 6 hours of touring we decided it was time for a “Guinness Stop” something that would become a regular occurrence on the trip. In Dublin there are hundreds of bars, pubs and restaurants that serve great beer, whiskey and food. The most renowned is the Temple Bar district. The Temple Bar pub and O’Donoghue’s are among the many great pubs of Dublin that cater to visitors and locals and serve as a musician’s paradise for live performance venues.

Temple_Bar_02We left the Temple Bar district for a stroll on Grafton Street, Dublin’s famous shopping area. Taking in the atmosphere of Christmas lights and the sounds of buskers was truly magical.We had dinner that evening at the Shelbourne Hotel’s Saddle Room Restaurant. This cozy and intimate spot  specializes in steak, oysters and seafood and has an exceptional wine list. As we dined, a light crisp, white, shining snowfall covered the streets. The snow was gone by the time we left the next morning. It was a cool brisk sunny day and we  made our towards Kilmainham Gaol, one of the largest unoccupied prisons in Europe

It has been described as the ‘Irish Bastille’. Between the year it opened in 1796 and its closure in 1924, Kilmainham Gaol witnessed some of the key moments and personalities in Ireland’s emergence as an independent nation. It is Ireland’s leading historic monument exploring the theme of nationalism. Robert Emmet and the leaders of the 1916 civil war uprising were executed here. Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, was imprisoned here in 1881-82. The Gaol museum holds one of the finest collections of nationalist memorabilia in the country, and the exhibition displays some of Irelands most impressive objects, including an original and rare 1916 Proclamation and some items relating to Michael Collins and the circumstances of his death in 1922.For me, Kilmainham Gaol was one of the highlights of our trip to Ireland. Next up was a stop at The Porterhouse, Ireland’s first brew pub located in the Temple Bar, to drink some genuine Irish Stout. Porterhouse beers have won gold medals at the world’s most prestigious international brewing industry award (the brewing Oscars) in 1998/1999 and 2011/2012. They make their  own stouts and ales for their pubs in Dublin, Cork and other locales in Ireland and they ship to the US beer market. They also import  various beers from around the world with a keen eye on Belgium.

Gallagher’s Boxty House was next, in the heart of the Temple Bar. This is a restaurant with a strong connection with the land, culture and history of Ireland. It’s a place where people are invited to embrace the origins of the Boxty Pancake and the history of the potato in Irish cuisine and culture. Owner Padraic Gallagher is one of Ireland’s most renowned and respected experts on the potato and other Irish foods. We sampled the dumplings, corned beef, Irish stew, roasted black pudding and some Irish whiskey.

The next day we left Dublin and headed south through the rolling Irish countryside towards Cork. We stopped for lunch in the small village of Delgany, Co Wicklow to meet with Patrick Ryan at The Firehouse Bakery. Ryan is a former lawyer turned master baker. His 2011 BBC programme The Big Bread Experiment, a three-part series following a unique social experiment with one ambition — to reunite a community through bread — made him a celebrity with foodies in Britain and around the world. The wood fired oven is at the heart of everything Ryan does. Hand-crafted loaves, freshly-baked pizzas, slow-cooked meats define this award-winning artisan bakery. Ryan and his partner Laura Moore also operate a bread school in Heir Island in West Cork.

We enjoyed the next three hours driving through  the  mist and rain of the Irish heartland  arriving in Cork  (the name Corcaigh means a marsh) in the early evening. A historic seaport city, Cork began on an island in the swampy estuary of the River Lee and over several centuries expanded up the steep banks on either side. Today, the river flows through Cork City in two main channels, which explains the many crossing bridges throughout the city. We checked  into the famous 5-star Hayfield Manor Hotel. The Hayfield Manor is very welcoming and friendly property located on a hill-top estate overlooking the city. It features large luxurious and comfortable rooms with all the amenities including free wifi, beautiful grounds, a work-out room, spa and indoor heated pool. The decor is elegant and tasteful and the newly-built additions complement the older parts of the building. The Manor serves sumptuous Irish breakfasts with a variety of fresh fruit and juices. Fine dining is offered at Orchids Restaurant or you can drop into Perrotts Garden Bistro, a casual meal alternative. Head Chef Stephen Sullivan prepares contemporary Irish cuisine using the freshest ingredients from the land and sea in the Cork region.

The best way to see the city of Cork is to walk. St. Patrick’s Street and the heart of the shopping district and attractions of Cork is a twenty minute walk from Hayfield Manor. Cork offers a wealth of shops, bars, restaurants, and attractions. We spent two days exploring this historic port town whose coat of arms bears the motto ‘A Safe Harbour for Ships’. Corkonians are known as the most chatty of all the Irish. In the heart of the city, is the English Market, which is a large, gallery-type building covering an entire city block with a vaulted glass roof. First opened in 1788, the Market has undergone various changes. The market provides vegetables, fresh seafood, dairy, meats, cheeses — everything for the table. After a morning of walking around Cork it was nice to step out of the overcast mist that had engulfed the city and step into The Farmgate Café in the English Market. Committed to food grown in the Munster region, its small menu is dictated by the food stalls in the market so menu options change daily. Their lamb stew with Guinness and apple strudel hit the mark.

448px-Jameson_distillery_in_DublinCork is a foodie’s paradise and there are pubs and restaurants everywhere serving Irish comfort foods, curry, chowders, spiced beef, fish and chips and glorious desserts. Most restaurants stop serving food at 8 p.m. After that beer, wine and spirits reign until closing time. Like Dublin, you can find traditional live Irish music in venues throughout the city. Next up was a quick side trip to The Jameson Distillery in Midleton and then a visit to  Blarney Castle to take part in the ole Irish tradition of Kissing the Blarney Stone (although I still think it is a tourist thing-but it’s fun-sort of like kissing the cod in Newfoundland). Cork is a destination city for  beer and cider and you can get some of Ireland’s best cider at The Roundy’s home-made hot cider house.

After two and half days in Cork, we once again saw sunshine as we made our way south to Cobh for a guided walking tour along The Titanic Trail and  a visit to the Cobh Heritage Centre. Cobh is the port city where the Titanic left on its maiden (and last) voyage. More importantly, this small town was the port from which millions of Irish people left Ireland during the great potato famine to immigrate to North America. The rich history and tragedy of this period is well documented in The Cobh Heritage Centre. Any Canadian of Irish descent visiting Ireland should visit Cobh. I was struck by presence of The Cathedral of Saint Colman in Cobh — built by money sent back from Irish immigrants to honour the town from which they left. A  large and elaborately detailed neo-Gothic building, it prominently overlooks the harbour. The historian Emmet Larkin has called it “The most ambitious building project undertaken by the Church in nineteenth-century Ireland.” It is still imposing today. The next day we drove to the small port town of Kinsale and checked into The Old Bank Townhouse. Located in the heart of Kinsale, it is within walking distance of everything and directly across the street from the town harbour. It is an amazing heritage building (over 200-years old) that has been renovated but retains its charm. It serves hearty breakfasts, with home-made breads (from the bakery downstairs) and jams. We spent an afternoon exploring Kinsale. A popular venue is Fishy Fishy Kinsale, a ‘must do’ stop. This restaurant  has won acclaim with foodies in Ireland for its  wonderful seafood dishes made from  the freshest local catch from lobster to crab, crayfish to cod, monkfish, squid, john dory and haddock. They serve the best traditional fish & chips you will ever taste in their newly-established Fishy Fishy Chippie.  Like many restaurants in Ireland, Fishy Fishy is committed to prioritizing the core indigenous ingredients of Irish cuisine and promoting local and artisan producers.

After a day in Kinsale we headed back to Dublin and checked-in to the modern and stylishly contemporary Fitzwilliam Hotel in St Stephen’s Green, which caters to business and family travelers. After settling in we headed out to learn more about the Gaelic games. In Ireland, Gaelic games, music, dance and language are at the heart of what it is to be Irish. The two main ones are Gaelic Football & Hurling, both of which are organized by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). Other games organized by the GAA include Rounders and Gaelic Handball. During the late 19th century, Gaelic games in Ireland were dying out. This decline was stopped and reversed by the Gaelic Revival group. Today, Gaelic Football and Hurling are the most popular games in Ireland.

Players are boys and girls across all age groups from under 8 to under 18, and men and women of all ages. Every weekend, Club matches are played in every town and village of Ireland. The very biggest matches regularly attract attendances of over 40,000 per game. The All-Ireland Finals attract 82,500 every September to an extraordinary stadium in Dublin: Croke Park based close to city centre Dublin. The Gaelic Games have are as popular to the Irish as hockey is to Canadians. We headed back to the Fitzwilliam Hotel for dinner at the famous Michelin starred Thornton’s Restaurant. Head Chef and Proprietor Kevin Thornton is widely regarded as Ireland’s best chef. Thornton’s offers a wonderful, fine dining experience in a beautiful setting. It was a majestic way to spend our last night in Ireland.

If I was to give Ireland an Michelin rating it would certainly be three stars.

How to get there: Air Lingus

How to get around: Hertz Car rental 

About Ireland: www.discoverireland.ie , www.ireland.com

About Dublin: www.visitdublin.com

Great Britain and Ireland – A Contiki Adventure Part 2

November 6, 2015 1:01 pm
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Above: The Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland

The final part of our three week Contiki adventure was Ireland, where the Craig is Mighty! And where you will find a pub on literally every street corner.

We arrived in Dublin, jittery and excited after a three hour ferry ride across the Irish Sea. At our hotel we met 20 newcomers to our tour. By this time, Chris and I had become friends with large group of Canadians and Australians and we were still excited to meet new people. We went on a short walking tour of Dublin but unfortunately One Direction was in town and the streets were filled with swarms of girls wearing Harry Styles t-shirts.

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Londonderry, Northern Ireland

We traveled across Ireland counter-clockwise, starting with Northern Ireland. Although geographically part of the Republic of Ireland, it has been a part of Great Britain since 1921, therefore is governed by the Queen and uses pounds instead of euros. We visited Belfast, where the Titanic was built from 1909 to 1911. We then arrived in Londonderry (or simply known as Derry). We were given the best tour Chris and I have ever been on, by an Irish Buddhist who captivated 50 Guinness-drunk tourists and talked candidly about Bloody Sunday, the IRA and Derry being under siege.

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Alissa on a cliff, Giants Causeway

By far the best part of Northern Ireland was Giant’s Causeway, a World Heritage Site that is the geographical landscape of a volcanic eruption dating back 50 to 60 million years. The fast cooling lava created pillar-like columns of rock protruding from the cliffs. The name Giant’s Causeway comes from the Irish legend that a giant built the rock columns, thus giving it its name. It was a ME time optional excursion but everyone on the trip attended, climbing up the steep cliffs and rock pillars, trying to get the perfect views of the coast. The giftshop also had a large selection of authentic Irish souvenirs and we stocked up on gifts for family and friends.

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Rock Pillars on the North Ireland coast that make up Giants Causeway

We traveled to Galway, on the western coast of Ireland. Here we got to visit the Aran Islands, where the air is fresh and the residents still believe in leprechauns. Chris and I rented bikes and we explored the island called Inishmaan, watching sea lions from the spectacular cliffs and feeding the many horses on the island. The residents of the islands live in quaint, small homes, with cows in their yard and breathtaking views of the North Atlantic.

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Beach on the island of Inishmaan, Aran Islands

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Chris posing for a picture infront of Blarney Castle

On one of the last days of the trip we visited Blarney Castle, built in 1446 by MacCarthy of Muskerry  and the Kings of Desmond. The massive building is famous for the Blarney Stone. Kissing the stone is said to endow the kisser with “the gift of the gab” or great eloquence or skill at flattery. So of course, Chris and I kissed it. The stone is located at the top of the castle and we had to climb to the top, crawl under the stone, while suspended over the side of the castles wall and kiss the bottom of the stone.

The second event was a visit to the Cliffs of Moher, in the region of County Clare. They rise 120 metres above the Atlantic Ocean at Hag’s Head, and reach 214 metres just north of O’Brien’s Tower. Any nature photographer’s dream, no words can describe the cliffs’ size, geographical beauty and Irish grandeur.

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Cliffs Of Moher. O’Brien’s Tower can be seen in the background.

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Kytelers Inn

Another notable place we visited in Ireland was Cork, a small town in the south famous for being the Titanic’s last port of call in 1912 and the place where, if you are of Irish decent (like myself), your ancestors most likely boarded a boat to North America. We stayed in Kilkenny  at the Kilford Arms Hotel and took a guided tour to visit Kytelers Inn, a witch’s house built in the 1324 and St. Canice’s Cathedral. We also stayed in Killarney where we dressed in as much green as we could and ate a fantastic Irish dinner.

We arrived back in Dublin for our last day. Our Contiki group explored the Guinness Brewery, which was very interesting even if you hate beer as much as I do. We visited the famous Irish pub The Temple Bar and Trinity College and to celebrate a fantastic trip, we went to an Irish dinner at the The Merry Ploughboy Pub, which had Irish dancers and traditional Celtic music. It was a night to remember.

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Old street in County Kerry

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Shop in Llanfairpwllgwyngyll

The trip was officially over the next morning and we drove 12 hours back to London. We passed through Wales, a country on the United Kingdom’s western shore, and visited the entirely real town of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch or Llanfairpwllgwyngyll for short. It is Welsh for ‘St Mary’s Church in the Hollow of the White Hazel Near to the Fierce Whirlpool and the Church of St Tysilio of the Red Cave’. Try putting that into a GPS!

Arrived back in London and unwillingly said goodbye to all our new friends and thanked our tour manager and driver. Even though I was more tired than I’ve ever felt in my life, I was so sad it was over. Chris and I spent our last night in the UK emptying our suitcases and repacking them 10 times to fit all our souvenirs. We chatted about Contiki, going over our favourite moments and of course, planning our next trip.

The Group

The Great Britain and Ireland Contiki Group outside of the Guinness Storehouse, Dublin.

Great Britain and Ireland, A Contiki Adventure – Part 1

November 4, 2015 1:58 pm
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Above: Ruins of Hadrians Wall, England

Great Britain and Ireland are popular destinations for travelers from all around the world. These two European islands, settled in the North Atlantic Ocean, have so much to offer both for tourists seeking out popular destinations and off-the-beaten-track travelers.

Great Britain is made up of four countries; England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is a land known for its rich and turbulent history, green rolling hills dotted with sheep and ancient monarchy. Ireland has its own Celtic legends and magnificent geographical beauty. Not to mention Guinness.

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Map of the Trip (some details have changed)

I traveled to Great Britain and Ireland with my boyfriend Chris in May 2014. We booked the trip with the Australian tour company Contiki. They host trips for anyone 18 to 35 years old and have over 100 trips to Europe, North America, Latin America, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Contiki is the perfect touring company if you are looking to travel but don’t want to travel alone. It’s ideal for first time travelers as well, because they take the planning out of travel for you while giving you a trip as structured or easy-going as you want. Depending on your tour, you may also have free days, where you can explore as far and wide as you wish.

The people on these tours are looking for a good time, but they aren’t looking for a booze-filled time. Generally, on each tour (in this case, a European Tour) there was a huge mix of nationalities. We had people in our group who were Australian, Brazilian, American, New Zealander, Malaysian and, of course, Canadian. I now have friends from all over the world because of this trip and the friendships you form are the highlight of the time you spend overseas. There was an issue with getting enough sleep and spending (almost) every night in a different hotel, but the pros definitely out weighed the cons.

Chris and I, being novice travelers, wanted the type of trip Contiki offered. So, after much planning, we decided to do the Great Britain and Ireland tour for 17 days. This tour was made up of 4 separate tours: The England and Scotland tour, a specific Scotland tour, Scotland and Ireland and an Ireland tour. It offered almost every destination that was on our list to see in these countries, not to mention loads of ME time optionals.

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St Pauls Cathedral, London. Place of the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer

 LONDON – Home of the Queen

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Queen Victoria Monument infront of Buckingham Palace in London

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Alissa beside a British telephone Booth in London, England

We packed out bags and flew to London, England where our 21 days of travel began. We arrived jetlagged but extremely excited and took the Tube to our hotel. Chris and I stayed in the heart of London for 3 nights at the Imperial Hotel across from Russell Square, so we could explore the city for ourselves since we knew our group only did a driving tour of London. We visited Buckingham Palace, the Buildings of Parliament, Hyde Park, Kensington Palace, The Princess Diana Memorial, St Paul’s Cathedral and Kings Cross Station. We did also see Westminster Abbey, London Bridge and the Tower of London on our Contiki driving tour. We shopped the high street, going into shops on Oxford Street and tasting the local food in quaint English bakeries. The night before our tour started, we met in the Contiki Basement at the Royal National Hotel, meeting our Tour Manager and a large amount of the people we would be traveling with. Right after, in pure British style, we joined a group of New Zealanders at a local pub for a drink to talk about our upcoming trip.


ENGLAND – The Land of Sheep

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Old Midieval street in York, England.

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Liverpool Harbor, England

At 6am we left London and headed towards our first destination. After passing field upon field filled with sheep, we arrived in Liverpool, home of The Beatles! We went to the Cavern Pub where the Beatles played their first gig in the early 1960’s and went on the Magical Mystery Tour of Liverpool where we saw John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s childhood homes, the real Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane.

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York Cathedral

Our second destination was York. A walled medieval city built in 71 AD, York was perfect for anyone looking for some English/European charm. The York Cathedral, which is bigger than Notre Dame in France, magnificently towers over the city with its beautiful architecture and stunning interior gothic design. We had an optional Ghost Walk, which was very spooky, as the city was a place that hosted cruel medieval practices.

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Chris after ziplining

During the last days in England we drove to the Lake District of England, passing more white dotted fields, where Chris and I did some zip lining, surrounded by the most beautiful English scenery. The next town we stopped in was Bowness on Windermere, where we took a boat tour. Our last night in England was spent in the town of Carlisle. We also visited Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Romans in 122 AD to divide England and Scotland. Our last stop was Gretna Green, a place famous for runaway weddings. So as a group, we reenacted a traditional Gretna wedding ceremony and guess who caught the bouquet? I did!

We crossed the border into Scotland Braveheart style. Our Tour Manager painted his face blue and white and we ran across the border after he yelled out William Wallace’s Monologue from the movie. #noregrets

Cliffords Tower, England

Cliffords Tower, York, England

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The many, many sheep that dot the country side


 

SCOTLAND – Whiskey in the Jar

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Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh Scotland

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Alissa and Chris at Edinburgh Castle

Our first stop was the Scottish city of Edinburgh. Made up of medieval streets, Whiskey shops, thick accents and men in kilts, Edinburgh is a complete Scottish city. Part of our trip was a Scottish dinner, where we bravely tried haggis (pudding containing sheep’s heart, liver and lungs) and listened to a bag piper play and make dirty jokes. This is where we met new travelers joining us for Scotland and Ireland.

The next day (a free day) Chris and I toured the famous Grey Friars Cemetery, noted to be the most haunted place in the world, touristy sites including the Elephant Castle, where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter, historial buildings and of course, Edinburgh Castle. Home of the Ancient Scottish Royal Family, Edinburgh Castle stands at the end of the Royal Mile, perched on top of an extinct volcano named Castle Rock, looking over into New Edinburgh. Made up of 18 different buildings (built over a period of 1100 years), the castle is the fortress of Scotland and remains one the most attacked strongholds in the world. 

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Ruins of St Andrews Cathedral

We made our way to St Andrews; a small town nestled along the Eastern coast of Scotland. It is the home of golf and where Prince William famously met his wife Kate Middleton. We toured the ruins of the ancient abbey built in 1158 and was the largest abbey built in Scotland. We walked along the beautiful beaches, toured the campus of St Andrew’s University (the third oldest English speaking University in the world), smelling the sweet salty air and watching the golfers prepare for a day on the green. Later that day, after driving through the East Highlands, we arrived in Drumnadrochit, Iverness, world famous for the Loch Ness Monster. Although we never saw Nessy on our boat cruise, Chris took a quick dip into the freezing waters of Loch Ness, one swim he’ll never forget. We spent the night in the quaint Loch Ness Lodge Hotel built in the 1740’s, with tartan carpets and a large Whiskey bar surrounded by the most comfortable leather sofas in Britain.

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Lochness Lodge Hotel, Scotland

We drove though the Scottish Highlands over the next couple of days, which were so captivatingly stunning, with their snowy peaks (one Australian said it was his first time ever seeing snow), breathtaking waterfalls and those furry highland cows.  The views were out of a movie, but unlike the Canadian Rockies, the ruins of castles and old settlements were waiting around every turn. We stopped to see the highest mountain in Great Britain, Ben Nevis at 1,344 metres but unfortunately it was too cloudy to see its peak. We arrived in Portree, on the Isle of Skye, a picturesque town in the heart of the Highlands, where we had a delicious meal and took pictures of the stunning harbor. We made small stops to visit Hamish, the oldest Highland Cow and the William Wallace Monument. We spent an interesting night in Oban, a small harbor town, where the breakfast menu featured blood pudding and haggis. Yum. But there was also Scottish dancing in town, where we learnt how to dance like traditional Scottish dancers.

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Scottish Highlands

Scotland ended with Glasgow, as we had to say good-bye to some of our fellow travelers who were only part of the England and Scotland tour. Glasgow is the biggest city in Scotland, and had more of a modern-city feel than Edinburgh did, but still featured the historic roots that Scotland is known for. To read more about Glasgow, read our OLM article here.

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Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland

You can read Part 2 ‘Ireland Adventures’ Here.

All photographs by Alissa Dicaire.

A Walk Through Wales

April 1, 2015 2:01 pm
Visit Britain
Above: Brecon Brecons National Park – photolibrary.com

The combination of rich history, ruggedly beautiful coastlines and rich landscapes dotted with sheep combine to make Wales an unforgettable escape. The Welsh are at the top of their game when it comes to hosting tourists and travellers alike. They are proud of their heritage and understand why after spending a week walking through the Welsh countryside visiting historic castles, monasteries, landmarks, small towns and coastal villages.

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The remains of Tintern Abbey

Wales was first settled between 600-100 BC. by the Celts, a nomadic warrior people whose origins can be traced around the coasts of Italy, Spain and Portugal. The Celts were sophisticated in the use of iron tools and early weaponry which they used to conquer and control lands. They had a strong religious streak led by priests (druids). In 43 AD, the Romans invaded Wales and established a network of forts to control the Celtic tribes. Often, towns grew up outside the forts as the soldiers provided a market for the townspeople’s goods. Many of these forts remain standing today. In the fourth century, when the Roman Empire went into decline, Wales split into separate kingdoms until the Normans established themselves in Britain following the Battle of Hastings, in 1066. At that time, when William the Conqueror became king of England he did not attempt to conquer Wales. Instead, he granted land along the English-Welsh border to powerful Norman lords. Skip ahead to 1283, Edward was now the ruler and English law was imposed. For the next several centuries, there would be a continuum of rebellions and battles between the Welsh and the English.

There are many unique cultural, historical and nature experiences to be found in Wales, especially in the countryside and in the small coastal villages. It is a short three hours to Wales from London, either by car or train. As you cross the river Severn from England and enter the Wye Valley, the landscape changes from being flat to mountainous and the language from unilingual English to bilingual Welsh. Commercial trips down the Wye in boats to local resorts started in 1760. Famous figures such as William Wordsworth, J.M.W. Turner and Admiral Nelson made the tour, which soon became de rigueur for English high society. A must stop is Tintern Abbey, one of the most spectacular ruins in all of England.

Welsh 'cottonballs' dot the landscape.

Welsh ‘cottonballs’ dot the landscape.

Brecon Beacons National is one of Wales’s three National Parks. This place is a hiker’s paradise with big skies, deep, wooded gorges, lakes, ravines and rivers that cut through limestone rocks with ease. There are lots of sheep that
speckle the rich green landscape like cottonballs.

The Bear Hotel in Crickhowell, in the heart of the park, is picture-book perfect and the ideal place to lay your head or have a great meal.

Wales has plenty of great places to eat. Gastronomes will delight at the range of superb Welsh eateries offering locally-sourced meats, seafood and other ingredients, alongside established restaurants offering international and fine cuisine. The Walnut Tree Inn on the outskirts of Abergavenny, located in Brecon Beacons, is a Michelinstar restaurant that was voted best restaurant in Wales at the National Restaurant Awards.

The last thing I ever expected to see in Wales was a winery. However, Welsh winemakers are gaining a reputation after winning several awards. Ancre Hill Estates makes phenomenal wines and garnered a gold medal at the 2013 China Wine & Spirits Awards for its 2009 sparkling rosé and a silver medal for its 2009 sparkling white.

 Afternoon tea at the Angel Hotel in Abergavenny.

Afternoon tea at the Angel Hotel in Abergavenny.

The town of Abergavenny proper is known for its annual food festival and local market. Afternoon tea at the Angel Hotel is a must. It’s a member of the prestigious UK Tea Guild and in 2011, won the Guild’s top national award (the Oscar of the tea world). Their teas are served with freshly prepared sandwiches, savouries, cakes and scones.

Get a taste of “Downton Abbey” at the Gliffaes Country House Hotel in Crickhowell. Retire to a grand private room with all the modern amenities or grab a glass of wine from the lounge and its impressive wine list. The hotel restaurant will not disappoint. The staff were attentive and polite and the very hospitable owner joined us for an after-dinner drink, sharing much of his knowledge and history of the area. Walk off your amazing meal through the wooded gardens and surrounding forest of this breathtaking property along the River Usk.

It’s worth the drive to Hay-on-Wye, a quirky town next to the Brecon Beacons that is famous for its book festival. Nearby you can enjoy a traditional British Sunday at the Felin Fach Griffin dining pub. Its menu includes Welsh beef, lamb and game from local estates and cheeses from world-renowned dairies.

The Penderyn Whisky Distillery.

The Penderyn Whisky Distillery.

The Penderyn Whisky Distillery shows you the ancient art of distilling whisky and demonstrates the differences between the Welsh process and that which produces Scottish, Irish and American whiskies.

A nice lunch (and maybe a shot or two of whisky) certainly help if are going to make the trek up a challenging incline to Carreg Cennen Castle. It’s worth the hike to see the view of the valley below and the town of Llandovery. Overnight was comfortable at the Castle Hotel in Llandovery.

Spend a day in the beautiful coastal town of Cardigan. A highlight is visiting the restored Cardigan Castle, which played a vital role in Welsh history and was the site of the first National Eisteddfod, in 1176. An eisteddfod is a Welsh festival of literature, music and performance.

Cardigan Castle from the river.

Cardigan Castle from the river.

A chair at the Lord’s table was awarded to the best poet and musician, a tradition that prevails to this day. Stop for lunch at the Ferry Inn, a beautiful, historic pub and restaurant in the picturesque village of St. Dogmael. Take an afternoon stroll on Mwnt Beach in Ceredigion, voted one of Europe’s top ten loveliest hidden beaches.

Coastal villages which jut in and out of the cliffs are one of the most spectacular features of Wales. An overnight stay and dinner stay at the Harbourmaster in picturesque Aberaeron harbourside, was definitely a highlight of the trip. A fun touristy thing to do is to take a steam engine journey on the Great Little Train of Wales, which showcases the spectacular countryside as you climb up through Aberyswyth to Devil’s Bridge.

Portmeirion

Portmeirion

Mount Snowdon is Wales and England’s highest mountain at 1085m and it can be found in Snowdonia National Park. Its trails make the summit accessible to hikers of all abilities. The Park also contains rivers, lakes, waterfalls, forests, moorlands, glacial valleys, a stunning coastline and ancient burial chambers. There are Roman forts, world heritage-listed Norman and Welsh castles, steam railways and relics of the country’s mining heritage. Ynyshir Hall in Machynlleth is the park’s world-renowned AA Hotel and was recently awarded its first Michelin star. Snowdonia is also famous for the rather odd but entirely pleasant village of Portmeirion.

Portmeirion was the built over a 50-year period by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, an architect who acquired the property in 1925 and spent the rest of his life building the village. It was known as ‘the Village’ in the 1960’s cult TV series The Prisoner and today serves as a big tourist attraction and site for weddings and conferences.

Portmeirion

Portmeirion

If you are an adventurous sort, you won’t want to miss the Zip World Titan in Blaenau Ffestiniog. The site includes a pair of a mile-long zip lines where riders can exceed 100mph at 500ft high. It’s got to be the nearest thing to flying. Exhilarating is an understatement.

After a week of hiking through the Welsh countryside and meandering through the rugged peaks of Snowdonia National Park, the spectacular terrain of the Brecon Beacons National Park and marveling at the endless beauty of the coastline, we ended up at St. George’s Hotel in the famous resort village of Llandudno. This hotel and town were an exceptional end to a wonderful walk through Wales.

Italian Retreat

January 12, 2015 3:30 pm
pipistrelli

When we think of Italy urban centres like Florence, Rome and Milan probably spring to mind. But leave the hustle and bustle behind, slow down and soak up life and the beauty and tranquility of Italian village life.

villapipistTranquil Tuscany

Located 15 minutes from the medieval city of Siena, there’s a property ideal for travellers looking to experience authentic Italian living.

Nestled in the hills of Tuscany, the Montestigliano Estate is a fully functional agritourisim farm that has three thousand olive trees, fig trees and other seasonal crops. The beautiful 18th-century, renovated farm home Villa Pipistrelli has multiple rooms, each with its own washroom and a separate annex, linking it to other bedrooms, a kitchen and a sitting area. Of course, there is wi-fi. The view of the Sienese countryside is breathtaking. In the morning, you can enjoy an espresso while looking at the mist rising from the hills.

A short 10-minute walk and you can see the rest of the estate and its restored farm houses of different sizes that are also available for rent. Near the main courtyard, there is a kitchen and hall large enough to hold everyone staying in the properties. Proprietors, the Donati family, host dinners here complete with music and dancing.

Take a guided tour of the farm and see the olive orchard from which the family makes the most delicious olive oil. See how the olives are picked and saved before being pressed to make the “Montestigliano” brand of olive oil — which is on the table at every meal. Massimo Donati, the farmer in the family, offers olive oil tastings. Somewhat like a wine tasting, savour the different flavours and complexities that high-quality olive oil possesses.

The property is so beautiful, you could spend the whole time exploring its 2500 acres. However, there are nearby towns to visit and experience.

One such village is Stigliano. Here you can meet with local farmers and producers who are happy to share the history of farming in the area. Farmers markets have been struggling here for a long time but recent regional government support is giving them new hope.

bottegaMake sure to stop at La Bottega di Stigliano which sells only local products. From jams, marmalades to honey, cured meats and different breads, this market/store may be small in size but it has plenty of variety. The restaurant upstairs serves only local products and makes its pasta. In fact, you can watch being made.

Meat lovers will enjoy the variety of cured meats while listening to staff explain the unique process of how each cut is made. One of the local suppliers, Spannocchia, raises the Cinta Senese pig which is native to this region and is famous for its tenderness.

Siena is only a short drive away and is perfect for a day trip. Quaint, with lots of gelato shops, cobblestone roads, vespas and large piazzas, it is also steeped in history much like the rest of Italy.

Siena-based author, Dario Castagno, offers tours that explain the history of the town, which dates back to the year 900 BC and the different “contrada” or neighbourhoods that make up the city.

Siena has 17 of them. Each is named after an animal or symbol and each has its own crest, chapel, trade and history. The contrada are more like large families. Members take part in weekly dinners, pitching in to set up, cook, serve and clean.

The contrada are individually represented in the Palio, a famous horse race which happens once in July and again in August of each year. The 17 contrada take turns competing in the race. The horses and jockies race around the Piazza del Campo three times and the winning contrada takes home a hand-made banner and bragging rights until the next race.

palazzo donatiA Renaissance Experience

To experience the peace and authenticity of Renaissance Italy, plan a stay at Palazzo Donati in the small town of Mercatello sul Metauro, located in neighbouring Le Marche region, the land of white truffles. The home housed nobility in the 1600s. The kitchen in the basement is a highlight. It’s big and beautiful with an open fire pit for cooking and keeping food warm. Remarkably, it’s authentic to the Renaissance time. Proprietor, Luisa Donati is happy to share the history of the small town and her house which is situated on the main square.

The town is small but includes many hidden gems including beautiful chapels and women making tombolo (a kind of lace) as well as the little butcher shop (there is only one). It is a short drive to nearby towns where friends of Luisa are eager to share their businesses and stories with you.

In Carpegna, Emanuel Francioni and his grandfather run Antica Stamperia, an ancient fabric stencil and print-making operation. They carve out stencils and make the print paste themselves before stamping it onto different fabrics for tablecloths, runners, aprons, etc.

Back at Palazzo Donati, Lina, a local expert, can show you how she makes tagliatelle pasta by hand. Every year there is a pasta-making competition in the main square, and every year, Lina wins (even the one year, British chef Jamie Oliver competed).

italy5Luisa Donati offers all-inclusive “Discover Artisan and Foods Traditions of Italy” vacations. You can sign up on your own or organize your own group of 6 to 8. Guest learn to shop for their ingredients in ‘Italian Express’ and then cook it up. Wine tasting and museum visits are also incuded in the program.

Slow down and soak up rural Italian life at the Montestigliano then indulge yourself in a foodies dream vacation by visiting Palazzo Donati. Enjoy superb cuisine, outstanding quality of life — an authentic Italian experience.

www.montestigliano.it | www.lemarcheholidayvilla.com

The Ardennes in Belgium

December 16, 2014 2:33 pm
Malmedy - Wikipedia
Featured Image: Wikipedia

The interest in the exploits and sacrifices of Canadian soldiers and other allied veterans on the battlegrounds of Europe is increasing as the veterans of WW2 continue to shrink with each passing year.

We wanted to take a trip allowing us to spend a week leisurely travelling through the wonderful valleys and forest of the Ardennes in Belgium and visit many of the WW2 historical sites in the region. When planning a trip for a family or small group, it is worth contacting the Time Travel Company in Belgium.

Most tour operators specialized in WW tours offer a maximum number of activities in a minimum amount of time. The Time Travel Company is focused on ensuring visitors discover other things and get in the heart of Belgium. They offer “all in” packages, including hotels, restaurants featuring special regional meals, guides and site and museum visits, while keeping bus travel time to a minimum. The distances between the sites are short and allow you to really enjoy the tour. Their guides are selected to ensure your experience is memorable and pleasant and their tour groups are limited in size so you feel comfortable. Our tour guide was a local resident named Michael Baert, who has studied the Ardennes Offensive in detail since 1994 and has walked the woods and talked to veterans for years. He is recognized as a true local expert on the Ardennes history and the Battle of the Bulge.

While our tour was historical in nature, we also had lots of opportunities to learn about local cultural heritage and languages (Dutch, French German, Flemish, Walloon), enjoy delicious local cuisine, drink famous Belgian beers and spoil ourselves with Belgian chocolate.

atlas hotelOur trip began with a direct flight from Toronto to Brussels. We checked into the very snazzy Atlas Hotel in the heart of Brussels. Brussels has so much to offer with its restaurants, museums, bars and nightlife. We did the tourist thing and strolled around the city, stopping for beers and a nice dinner at a local pub.

The next morning our Time Travel tour guide picked us up and we took a leisurely drive out of Brussels towards the beautiful Ardennes Forest. As we traveled through the Belgian countryside, I was struck by the beauty of the small towns with pretty chapels and storybook stone exterior homes with well-manicured lawns. The Ardennes is a peaceful and serene place surrounded by miles of farmland divided by four to eight foot hedges acting as natural fences for livestock.

We then checked into the Hotel Spa-Balmoral. Located on the hill of Balmoral, surrounded by trees, in perfect harmony with the generous natural landscapes of the Belgian Ardennes, the Hotel Spa-Balmoral offers a panoramic view of the valley and Lake Warfaaz, one of the most beautiful locations in the region. It features a Well-Being and Beauty Centre, including a Finnish sauna, outdoor jacuzzi, steam room, solarium, covered swimming pool, massages, beauty treatments, cardioweight machines and a free shuttle to the Thermes of Spa, and to a golf course (less than three k.m. away). If you want to go to a spa hotel in Belgium, this is the place. The rooms were comfy and BIG, and we had a great view from our terrace of the Spa valley! The exceptional Belgian breakfast served here is a great way to start your day!

Next up was a visit to the cemetery of Henri-Chapelle where 7992 Americans are laid to rest. Most died during the U.S. advance into Germany. The American cemeteries in Europe are honored hallow spots and the grounds and buildings housing them are immaculate. They provide a true honour to the soldiers who lives were lost.

Photo: Joseph Jeanmart

Photo: Joseph Jeanmart

If you are visiting The Ardennes, one of the most unique stops you will encounter is the Remember 45 Museum located four km from Henri Chapelle in Thimister-Clermont. This privately-run museum has a powerful human dimension. Marcel Schmetzes established it in an old barn and the 110 First Infantry Division soldiers left most of the artifacts on the Schmetzes’ farm during the war. The museum is dedicated to showing the gratefulness of the Belgian people “to all G.I.s who came, at the risk of their life, to give us our freedom back.”

The next morning began with a walk through the woods near Hollerath. This is where the German Battle of the Bulge offensive began in the Ardennes. The surprise German attack on the American soldiers almost changed the course of the war. There were some atrocious acts carried out against American soldiers and Belgian civilians by the Gestapo during the Battle of the Bulge. Belgians still revere and hold the American military in the highest regard in this area. This is no more evident than when visiting the site of the massacre of several U.S. prisoners in Baugnez, in December, 1944. Nearby in La Glieze sits a King Tiger tank, serving as a reminder of the horrors of war. One can only imagine the fear the locals felt when dozens of tanks came barreling through their small towns destroying everything in their path.

bellevaux malmedyWe toured the Bellevaux Brewery, set in middle of lush farmlands close to La Glieze. The owners transformed their farm into a small Belgian microbrewery, with aspirations to brew the highest quality ale.

The Melba Hotel in Bastogne is a great place to use as a home base to explore the area. Located a block away from the town square, the Melba offers comfortable rooms with a variety of services, including hearty healthy breakfasts and wifi. The hotel restaurant and bar feature local Belgian beers and exceptional dinner meals highlighting local fare. Another great local restaurant is the Wagon Leo. The front part of the restaurant was in an old train car that was extended into a larger restaurant. The food, service, atmosphere and staff were exceptional. The restaurant is one block from the Bastogne town square.

In March 2014, the new Bastogne Museum opened, providing an important interpretation and context for the causes and significance of WW2. Using up-to-date displays, film and interactive exhibits, the museum tracks the years leading up to WW2, the war itself and how cataclysmic events led to a final and desperate bid by Hitler and the Nazis to push the Allies out of Europe. This was a bold and violent attack in the Ardennes forest between December, 1944 and January, 1945. The Battle of the Bulge was the largest, most murderous and bloody battle of WW2 between the Germans and Americans. The British and Canadians were involved in the fight on the periphery. Over 610,000 American forces were involved in the battle, which included over 19,000 Americans killed, 100,000 German casualties and 30,000 killed. Tourists can also visit the German cemetery near the small village of Recogne where 6807 Germans are buried.

Mardasson Memorial. Photo: JL Flemal

Mardasson Memorial. Photo: JL Flemal

The Bastogne Museum sits next to the Mardasson monument, a new memorial centre dedicated to the WW2 and its soldiers who fought and died at the Battle of the Bulge. When visiting the Battle of the Bulge sites it is best to start at the Bastogne Museum. Spend half a day there and then take a short drive through the beautiful Belgian countryside to visit Schumann’s Corner. This is where many historians say the U.S. troops “went into hell” in beating back the pounding and violent German offensive. There is a memorial at the spot and a trail taking you through the foxholes in the woods where much of the fighting took place.

It is worthwhile to visit the Museum of Bras, which is eight km from Bastogne. It transports you back to 1944 with its destroyed houses, first aid stations and images of shellshocked and war weary citizens.

The final stop was a visit to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers in Europe (SHAPE), where we were given a briefing on NATO by a NATO military expert. The Time Travel Company arranged this unique outing and it was one of the highlights of the tour.

Upcoming Time Travel Company excursions for 2015 include Vimy Ridge, Flanders Fields (The Somme) and excursions for the 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo near Mons, Belgium in 2015.

Medieval Villages of the French Riviera: Saint-Paul de Vence and Èze

July 14, 2014 2:18 pm
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(visited in May 2014)

There is no doubt that French Riviera (la Côte d’Azur) is a hallmark of beauty in many things: architecture, design, views, people, food, and history. During my second visit to the region, I engaged a local tourist guide Boba (www.yourguideboba.com) to personalize my visit. What a difference this has made. Discovering this opulent region was much more rewarding with a guide. It would have taken me days of research to discover certain places off-the-beaten path and mystical stories hidden behind popular tourist attractions.

This time, I discovered Saint-Paul de Vence and Èze―two fortified mediaeval villages established during the so-called “Dark Ages”, which, today, provide for serene tourist spots that inspire imagination and evoke a strong appreciation of beauty and elegance. It was fascinating to hear the myths of the Dark Ages dispelled. These times, often misperceived as abounding in religious dogmatism and lacking in intellectual thought, generated remarkable inventions in geography, agriculture, architecture, art and law.

A hilltop view of the French Riviera.

A hilltop view of the French Riviera.

The two villages are situated close to Nice, the city basking amidst the sunny French Riviera. This is an extremely diverse region, boasting more than 150 different nationalities and numerous foreign residents. Once a destitute, fishing hinterland, the French Riviera transformed itself through centuries into the region with most coveted real estate in the world. Many celebrities, from artists and royalties to business tycoons, have purchased their homes here. Boba shared a story of the legal trial between an owner of the property in the French Riviera and an ultra-rich Russian tycoon who offered, for this property, the highest price ever recorded in the real estate history.

Walking the narrow cobblestone paths of the two medieval villages, each turn around a corner reveals a sight that pulls imagination into the distant past. A mystical opening in the block wall transports you back to the evening with secluded monks who meticulously worked under candlelight to copy the volumes upon volumes of religious manuscripts. Cold iron-barred windows of little inns entice the curious to imagine, behind them, knights and cavalry, devising plans for their future conquests. I learned that it was in this period, that a horseshoe was invented to advance the battling skills of cavalries. Rugged knights were also idealistic and utopian―romantically fighting for another man’s lady they admired only from afar.

In Saint-Paul de Vence, you will encounter a myriad of elegant boutiques, contemporary art galleries, wine shops, cafes, and restaurants, featuring Provençal and Mediterranean cuisine. For a dizzying number of gift choices, visit the store at the very entrance of the village.

Previously the Plateau du Puy, and, presently, the location of the cemetery in Saint-Paul de Vence.

Previously the Plateau du Puy, and, presently, the location of the cemetery in Saint-Paul de Vence.

It is assumed that houses were built around the core of the village, called Plateau du Puy, which now houses the cemetery and the church of Saint Michel. The artist Marc Chagall is one of the famous people buried in the cemetery.

A rare find, an authentic Lilamand Confiserie established in 1866, crafts candied fruit, syrups and jams using traditional recipes originally recommended by no other than Nostradamus. The fruit is simmered for about a month, and allowed to sit for additional two months to slowly complete the candying process. For a glimpse at a secret recipe, you can take a workshop offered by the store.

 

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Mme V-C’s house.

An amazing experience in Saint-Paul de Vence is to see the interior of a house that was originally built in the middle ages, and subsequently renovated in the 16th century. Boba struck a conversation with a charming and sociable Mme V-C who showed us around her four-story home with well-preserved antiques, including a fireplace, the kitchen nook, and a sowing machine (estimated to date back to the early to mid-1800’s).

Mme V-C’s house is located just steps away from the past home of Jacques Prévert, a French poet and screenwriter, who discovered Saint-Paul de Vence in 1941, where he struck a friendship with Pablo Picasso, a well-known Spanish artist who developed an art style called analytic cubism.

The village of Èze sits on a cliff, 427 metres (1,401 ft) above sea level. It is a “museum village” (also known as eagle’s nest) renowned for its panoramic view of the Mediterranean Sea. Chapelle de la Sainte Croix is the oldest building in the village and dates back to 1306.

The village houses the fabulous Jardin botanique d’Èze, popular for its collection of cacti and succulents. In 1949, Mayor

Jardin botanique d'Èze featuring cacti and a couple of clay sculptures of earth goddesses.

Jardin botanique d’Èze featuring cacti and a couple of clay sculptures of earth goddesses.

René Gianton decided to create a garden within the remains of the 12th century commune and he engaged the creator of the Exotic Garden in Monaco, Jean Gastaud, to design it. Besides plant life, the garden displays 14 clay sculptures representing earth goddesses, which were created by the French sculptor Jean-Philippe Richard. Each sculpture has a name (a personality, almost) and a dedicated poem.

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Château Eza hotel was converted from the castle and features rooms with a view of the Mediterranean Sea.

Romantic and luxury stays in five-star hotels Chateau de la Chevre d’Or (prices per night range from €300-2,600) or Chateau Eza offer amazing photographic opportunities, but so do lower-star hotels and bed and breakfast type accommodations that are also available on site.

Globalization is difficult to spot here. Èze has preserved its natural medieval feel and it is easy to see why it has historically inspired artists, writers and philosophers like Frederic Nietzsche, Walt Disney, and Lenny Kravitz. As you climb towards the village, you will notice on your left, le Chemin de Nietzsche, or Nietzsche’s Path. This is where Nietzsche was presumably visited by his muse, getting the inspiration to finish his famous work Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The path is about a two-hour hike down to the sea.

Although historically enjoyed by the famous and rich (you can spot pricy cars parked beside the hotels), Èze offers plenty of unique experiences for all tourists. In addition to restaurants, art galleries and delicious French bakeries, Èze village also boasts perfumeries, jewelry stores, boutiques, and lovely cafes, hidden along the pathways. Shops sell soaps, candles, olive oil and spices, traditionally traded in this region. Activities such as hiking, water sports and horse riding can also be arranged.

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Pathway and stores of Èze

Prepare well for the visit to the French Riviera; this densely-populated region offers so much to learn and discover. Aboveall, experience the life of locals: eat what they eat, do what they do, dress the way they dress… at least for a little while. In this way, you will unearth the authentic European beauty behind each street corner, even those originating in the Dark Ages.

Written by: Helena Gorancic-Lazetic

LutherCountry

June 10, 2014 12:30 pm
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Images: Wikipedia & visit-luther.com

Martin Luther, Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Frideric Handel, writers Goethe and Schiller … all are well-known German cultural icons. However, what is less known, is that they all come from the same general region of Deutschland: the area currently known as LutherCountry. Two states, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia make up LutherCountry and over the next two years, there is no better time to take a tour of history-drenched part of Germany.

2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation that was launched on October 31, 1517. On that day, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg. Martin Luther revolutionized Christianity and regardless of whether or not you are Lutheran, travelling in his footsteps is spectacular — but Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia are magical for many other reasons.

Wartburg_Eisenach_DSCN3512Start at the world-famous 900-year old plus Wartburg Castle that towers over the village of Eisenach (about 2 hours from Frankfurt by train.) It is here that the Luther translated the New Testament into German between 1521 and 1522. He was actually hiding out in the Castle as the Great Reformer was a bit of a troublemaker in the Catholic Church. The practice at the time was that anyone who had money could buy their way out of sin. Luther thought this was reprehensible and said so. Luther preached that  humans need not an intermediary to get to God and that confessions could be made directly to God. That ruffled Catholic feathers. A lot. And he became a pariah in the Church. But the fact of the matter remained that Luther revolutionalized Christian thought.

The Castle also holds appeal for musical types as well as Wagner wrote his romantic opera “Tannhäuser” here. Walk down from the castle into the beautiful, quaint village of Eisenach. Luther attended school here as a child and the house where he lived, Luther House, is now a museum. It’s a quick pit stop. It seems natural that Luther chose to escape persecution and hide out in Eisenach. He had a strong attachment to the place.

Bachhaus_Eisenach_2009Eisenach is also a pilgrimage for Bach fans. He was born in Eisenach in 1685 and you can visit the house where he lived. Each visitor is treated to live demonstrations of Bach’s music, played on era instruments. While you can visit Bach’s original house, there is also a modern addition with high quality stereos where you sit in comfortable chairs and chill listening recordings and learn more about his life and times. Luther was a huge fan of music in worship and the one composer who epitomizes Lutheranism was Johann Sebastian Bach. Much of his music was written for the church.

You can lay your head down for the night with Jesu Joy running through your head at the Gobel’s Sophien Hotel. It is an extremely clean and comfortable and quiet hotel. The staff is nice and typical German buffet breakfast will prepare you well for the day.
About an hour from Eisenach you can get a hit of nature. As Canadians this may not seem to be a huge attraction at first, but what is amazing is that you can climb to the roof of a forest in Hainich National Park and follow the Treetop Trail. It consists of a 44-metre high tree tower and a 310-metre trail above the tree line.

There are information plaques along the way to offer insight into the treetop ecosystems and creatures that inhabit on high. It’s all quite fascinating.

Grab lunch at the Forsthaus Thiemsburg in the park and sample potato dumplings like you have never had before, a regional dish for Thuringia.

If flowers are your thing, head to Bad Langensalza, known as the City of Roses, a small quiet town which was known in ancient times as the spa area of Germany. It has recently become well known for its flower obsession. Residents come together and beautify the town. The city won the gold prize in the yearly flower competition organized by the European Association for Flowers and Landscape.

Do not miss a visit to Erfurt. It was an influential commercial and university town in the Middle Ages and the place is magical. Merchants’ Bridge (completely built with half- timbered houses—much like London Bridge was back in the day) on the River Gera, has survived 500 years as a market and still has stores lining the bridge. It’s quaint and touristy but well worth seeing because of the history. Make sure to pop your head into the puppet-making shop.

bfb9eebbc2815b998e99374633ca5110The heart of the old town is Cathedral Hill and is a truly awe-inducing ensemble of churches that first date back to the 8th century. Inside St. Mary’s Cathedral is the Gloriosa, the world’s largest medieval free- swinging bell. There is beautiful art inside as well. Napoleon had a thing for Erfurt, for good reason. The place is stunning.
Erfurt is also home to the oldest intact synagogue building in Central Europe, dating from around 1100. It had many incarnations, with many layers of construction. You can still see one of its past lives, a dance hall that rests above the synagogue below.

Erfurt is an important place in terms of Luther’s journey. You can visit the Augustinian Monastery that he entered in 1505. He took his monk vows here in 1506 and was ordained in 1507. He studied theology in Erfurt, much to the chagrin of his family who wanted him to be a lawyer. The monastery was an important centre of the Reformation.

Lay your head at the end of the day at the Mercure Hotel. It is centrally- located, is clean with comfortable beds. Again, start the day with an amazing Euro breakfast buffet.
For a traditional regional meal in a fabulous courtyard setting, head to the restaurant Köstritzer Zum Güldenen Rade. You won’t walk away hungry.

If UNESCO World Cultural sites are your thing, head to Weimar. The entire city was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1998.

There are three sites with over 16 UNESCO objects. There are three Bauhaus buildings (Bauhaus architecture/art movement from is of interest). Highlights include the Goethe Residence, Schiller’s home, Belvedere Castle, its park. Weimar is a great place to just sit in a café and enjoy the creative vibe of the place. Take a walk along the River and marvel at the beauty. Stay at the Familienhotel Weimar if you have the kids.

It caters to families. The restaurant,Gretchens, serves up some incredible gourmet meals and while you eat, the kids can play in a wooden play structure located in the restaurant itself.

The city of Halle is two hours away and has a bigger city, more urban feel to it. First stop? The Halloren Chocolate Factory. It’s the oldest one in Germany, dating back to 1804. It has a unique history so take the tour. And of course, you get to sample the goods. The store is a chocoholic’s mecca.

Halle is another classical music lover’s dream. Georg Frideric Handel hails from Halle and you can visit his house. It’s a religious experience for any fan. To crank up the spiritual experience, head to the Market Church of St. Mary in the city’s main market square to see the large organ upon which he played. Turn around and look at the less grand organ that none other than Johann Sebastian Bach’s son played on. Interestingly, while Bach Sr. tried to connect with Handel, it is said that the two musical geniuses never actually met. That church also has Luther’s death mask and a pulpit from which he preached.

The Halle Zoo is a huge hit with the younger set, and their parents too. It boasts over 250 species of animals and close to 1,700 animals on its 9-acre site. The zoo is designed so you can get up close and really see the animals in all of their glory. In some cases, you can even touch them.

There is no better place to stay in Halle than the Dorit Charlottenhof Halle Hotel. The staff, the restaurant is delicious, breakfast buffet plentiful and the rooms are spacious and comfortable.

If architecture is your thing, Dessau is a must. It is home to the Bauhaus. Dessau is also the only place in which the three Bauhaus directors – Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – were active and where almost all the Bauhaus buildings were built. These are now regarded as icons of 20th century architecture. Take a tour, grab lunch in their outstanding cafeteria and soak up the creativity and artistic buzz that exists there.

The City of Magdebourg is best explored on foot. Stroll along the Elbe and visit the St. Maurice and St. Katherine Cathedral. It is enormous and happens to be the oldest in Germany and one of the tallest in Eastern Germany. Originally a Catholic church, the cathedral was ultimately influenced by the Reformation and held its first protestant service in 1567. It was a rebellious city and backed Luther, much to the chagrin of the Catholic Church.

While Magdeburg is steeped in history and you could fill your time visiting churches where Luther preached, it would be a mistake to miss the Jahrtausendturm. At 200 feet, it is the third highest wooden tower in the world. Inside you will find science exhibitions with highly-interactive experiments you can perform. It is quite honestly, one of the best science museums in the world.

After a long day exploring, stay at the MARITIM-Hotel Magdeburg. It is a classy five-star hotel, is enormous and fun for everyone with a great pool.

There are so many other places to visit and see in LutherCountry and you could spend weeks following in the footsteps of Luther and discovering new places as well. This area of Germany is brimming with culture, history and spiritual meaning and is the perfect place to feed your mind, body and soul. With all of the Reformation commemorative activities going on until 2017, now is the time to go.

Glasgow Transformed: Modern and Edgy

January 14, 2014 1:23 pm
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Welcomed with shortbread cookies and a dram of whiskey, it was easy to be charmed by Scotland’s largest city, where every corner reveals a pub with a storied history or ingenious work of contemporary art. From one of the largest seaports in the world with a booming shipbuilding and trade industry to rapid recession and decline, Glasgow has renewed itself as a cultural paradise with stunning architecture, award-winning museums, countless art galleries, musical talent and redeveloped waterfront on the Clyde River. It’s a city where you feel like you can be yourself, where anything is accepted and everything is celebrated with the clink of a glass. You can tell Glaswegians are a proud people who appreciate their strong working-class roots – they’re extremely friendly and just enjoy plain ‘ol fun. IMG_2040

Starting with the more luxe side of Glasgow, I stayed at the Blythswood Square Hotel. Originally the clubhouse of the Royal Scottish Automobile Club, it sits atop a hill and faces a beautiful central garden in the downtown core. The hotel pays homage to its Georgian architects by maintaining a lavish ambiance but its rooms are very modern in décor with Spanish marble bathrooms and the latest technical amenities.

On my first venture around the city, I walked down Buchanan Street, also know as Glasgow’s Style Mile because of its more upmarket boutiques and shopping. It’s a lovely cobblestone street with some of the city’s most beautiful architecture. One such example in the area is The Lighthouse, a building designed by the famous Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and now Scotland’s Centre for Design and Architecture. Originally, it was the home of The Glasgow Herald. The tower structure was designed to hold an 8,000-gallon water tank to protect the newspaper from fire.

IMG_2114My next stop was the home of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. A great part of Glasgow’s reinvention as a thriving arts and culture metropolis with real edge is attributed to Mackintosh, whose architectural brilliance and modern interior designs were never given the rightful attention they deserved until well after his death. Now he is named a cultural icon and seen as the father of Glasgow’s contemporary movement, which laid the foundation for many successful young artists today. Stepping into the Victorian house is actually not like walking into the past – in fact the design is so modern and streamlined, it feels as though it could have been created in the last decade. One need only imagine how innovative the interior was to people of the time who had dark interiors with cluttered rooms of furniture and paintings. Mackintosh instead designed his homes to showcase an immense amount of natural light. The upper level of the home is painted completely in white with white carpeting and furniture. It’s a far departure from the gold accents and baroque-style influence from the period. Most noted for his use for grids, squares and pillar and post elements, he also incorporated nature, painting dainty roses and tulips on the walls and furniture.

Another impressive attraction for art and design lovers is the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, featuring 22 galleries of everything from Egyptian to Scottish art. The building also houses Dali’s controversial ‘Jesus on a Cross’. Outside of the hustle and bustle of the main drag and surrounded by quaint woodlands, The Burrell Collection displays works from Rodin and Degas in addition to Medieval and Chinese art. For those who admire the history of planes, trains and automobiles, there’s The Riverside Museum, voted 2013 the European Museum of the Year. It’s an extensive collection of vehicles that create a huge maze for visitors to wander through and invite one to climb on trolleys, buses and sit in many driver’s seats.IMG_2073

Glasgow also offers an array of culinary delights from traditional pub-style food to the most inventive gourmet creations. My favourite place was Martha’s Fast Natural Food, a welcoming restaurant with an extensive organic menu of sandwiches, salads and smoothies. After eating my couscous salad with an apple, carrot and ginger smoothie, I opted for the salted chocolate caramel dessert that proved so decadent that I could barely finish. On the higher end, I dined at Two Fat Ladies at the Buttery, a real institution in the city for its old-school feel and impressive dishes. Try the oak smoked Scottish salmon or MacSween’s haggis – definitely a place you’ll want to sit down at for a while with a good bottle of wine.

Traveling just outside the city, I visited the spectacular Stirling Castle, the former home of Mary, Queen of Scots. Historians date the building back to as early as the 12th Century but its present structures that are open to tourists were built between 1490 and 1600. With incredible views of the green countryside and stony gargoyles protecting its walls, the castle is a must-see. My charming and wonderfully knowledgeable guide Kenny took me around the castle and answered all of my obscure questions with ease. I really wish I had him as a history teacher in school as I probably would have turned out to be a historian instead of a writer. He explained the symbolism behind the lion, which is seen through the castle’s tapestries and statues. Representing courage and strength, Medieval kings believed the King of the Jungle displayed great wealth and power. Getting them to the country was a feat in itself as they were transported by boat from Africa to Scotland.

IMG_2199Heading towards the River Teith, I stopped at Deanston Distillery for an even greater history lesson – after all, what would a trip to Scotland be without a proper whiskey tasting? Deanston was originally a cotton mill for 180 years and supported an entire town with work. Now housing casks of whiskey, its storage rooms with white vaulted ceilings once held tons and tons of cotton. They also happen to be the perfect temperature to age whiskey. Upon entering a room, one is overcome with the potent smell – you could get drunk off the fumes. The white ceiling is now stained black from what is called the ‘Angel’s Share.’ Since 20% of the alcohol evaporates as it ages, it rises to the ceiling and turns the white paint black, hence the portion meant for the angels in heaven.

Glasgow and the surrounding countryside offered an incredible experience: I felt the comfort of being home but also the adventure of a flourishing city. I never once felt like an oblivious tourist. It’s an urban paradise for art lovers, historians, night owls and even families – it really can be anything you want it to be. I’m fiercely determined to return soon!

Amsterdam and The Hague: The Dutch Golden Age Continues

July 24, 2013 12:15 pm
Aug13_Travel_Boten (94) AMSTERDAM MARKETING
An aerial view of Amsterdam’s canal system PHOTO: CHRIS TOALA OLIVARES

An aerial view of Amsterdam’s canal system PHOTO: CHRIS TOALA OLIVARES

In the 11th century, a tiny community of fishers settled along the Amstel River. By 1275, the residents had gained access to the ocean through a canal – the Zuiderzee, now called the IJsselmeer. Thus began a 200-year period of canal building and the commerce that came with it to allow the city to grow and flourish as a destination for trade and as a centre for business and commerce. While the power centre of Europe remained in Spain during the 13th and 14th centuries, Dutch innovation was slowly building a stealth empire in the north. As Amsterdam flourished, it won control over the sea trade in the North Sea and gained access to the Baltic Sea.

In 1519, King Charles V of Spain ceded control of Amsterdam through a dynastic marriage – putting the city under the governance of the Spanish Empire and the Catholic faith. Sixty years later, Spanish control was forfeited in a bloodless coup and the Dutch Republic was born, made up of seven provinces led by William the Silent. From 1600 to 1800, Amsterdam would have a Golden Age that would make it one of the world’s most important cities. Master builders constructed the inner ring of canals as the city’s population surged to 250,000.

The world’s first stock exchange – the Dutch East India Company – opened in 1602, trading its own shares, making Amsterdam the birthplace of capitalism and a magnet and meeting place for traders and their goods from around the world. In keeping with its reputation as a progressive city, the world’s first weekly newspaper, the Courante uyt Italien, Duytslandt, &c. (The Courante) was published in 1618. That same year, Catholicism – seen as a final remnant of Spanish rule – was outlawed as the official religion, although it was still allowed to be practiced privately. Over the next century, the Dutch, using Amsterdam as their base, would invade England, sail the seven seas, colonize Indonesia and  Surinam, and establish a colony in North America called New Amsterdam (which became New York City). In 1795, French troops occupied the Netherlands and installed the Batavian Republic. These fragmented United Provinces become a centralized state, with Amsterdam as its capital. By 1813, with the collapse of Napoleon Bonaparte, William VI of the House of Orange was crowned as Dutch King William and the Dutch reclaimed their country. A second and significant flurry of canal building occurred between 1865 and 1876. The North Sea Canal is dug. The Dutch railway system is expanded. In 1889, Amsterdam’s impressive train station (Centraal Station) opens, instantly connecting Amsterdam by rail to the rest of Europe.

Amsterdam today is arguably still one of the key intellectual and artistic centres of Europe and is still considered one of the most progressive cities in the world. Its intertwining canals and waterways are recognized as an official UN World Heritage site.

When visiting the city, a great starting point is the Museum Het Grachtenhuis. Set in an actual canal house, this interactive, multimedia museum cleverly uses miniature-scaled doll house reproductions of Amsterdam’s famous canal houses to illustrate the 400-year history of the city. The sheer genius of the Dutch becomes apparent when you realize the scale of the effort and planning it took for these 17th-century canals and homes to be built on land reclaimed from the sea. A highlight was looking at the three-dimensional holograms inside the miniature canal houses. The museum will give you an understanding of the geography of Amsterdam and it will help you navigate your way around the city.

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The Golden Age exhibition at the Amsterdam Museum showcases the city in the 17th century — considered the birth of modern Amsterdam. PHOTO: AMSTERDAM MARKETING

There are so many museums, galleries and restaurants that you can easily feel overwhelmed by options. Be sure to get an I amsterdam City Card: it offers amazing discounts on the city’s world-class museums. Having been to the Amsterdam Hermitage and Van Gogh exhibits on previous visits, this time I went to the  Amsterdam Museum’s Dutch Golden Age exhibit which uses the latest multimedia techniques to showcase a treasure trove of world-class works by artists such as Rembrandt, Pieter de Hooch, Marten de Vos, Dirck Hals and Melchior d’Hondecoeter, alongside historic pieces that explore those halcyon days of world trade, economic growth, cultural and religious diversity, flourishing science and the construction of the Amsterdam canals. It also has some compelling displays that examine Dutch involvement in slavery and war during the 1600s. Afterwards, I relaxed on a one-hour canal cruise (www.smidtje.nl). It was bitter cold but the boat was warm as we enjoyed a bird’s eye view of canal merchants’ houses, baroque churches and bridges. If you are visiting Amsterdam in 2013, be sure to take in the new Rembrandt exhibition at Magna Plaza which brings all 325 of Rembrandt’s paintings together in one place for the first time, as high-quality reproductions.

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Celebrating 125 years, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is considered one of the very best orchestras in the world.
PHOTO: AMSTERDAM MARKETING

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. In addition to some 80 concerts performed at the Concertgebouw, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) performs 40 concerts at leading concert halls throughout the world each year. In fact, in the first half of this season, RCO Amsterdam completed its world tour of six continents in a single year – the only orchestra ever to do so. Reaching some 250,000 concertgoers a year, the orchestra has long been praised for its performances of the music of Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner. It also collaborates with world-renowned guest conductors. When in Amsterdam, do not miss the RCO. The tickets are not expensive and they are in constant demand.

A Traveler’s Delight: History, Art and Atmosphere in The Hague  

Located near the beautiful North Sea coastline, Den Haag (The Hague) is the third largest city in the Netherlands and is also known as the Residence, the Royal Residence and the City of Peace and Justice. The Hague earns its nicknames to housing the seat of the Dutch government, the Royal Family and many international organiza-tions, mostly of a judicial nature, including the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Due to the presence of embassies, international organizations, govern-ment bodies and the Royal Family, The Hague is a popular destination for international travelers. This historic city has a large charm factor with stunning monuments and chic livable neighbourhoods.

Dutch parliament buildings and Mauritshuis along the Hofvijver. PHOTO: JURJEN DRENTH

Dutch parliament buildings and Mauritshuis along the Hofvijver. PHOTO: JURJEN DRENTH

Everyone seems to have a bicycle. I spent a day walking through The Hague and stopped to take in the pleasures of the Plein and Grote Markt squares with their numerous cozy restaurants, eateries and coffee bars. The city has seen an architectural building renaissance in the past 30 years and today its modern skyline seamlessly complements the more traditional buildings. The Hague is also known for having more courtyards than any city in Holland and these courtyards are visible everywhere as you walk about.
Among the most beautiful courtyards in The Hague are the Hof Van Wouw, Hof van Nieuwkoop and the Rusthofje. Among the lesser known courtyards in and around the centre of The Hague are the Schuddegeest, Schelpstraat, Badhuisstraat and Paramaribostraat courtyards.

Since it is the political capital, I wanted to visit the Dutch Parliament (Het Binnenhof). All political matters and affairs of state are discussed here. You can  take a guided tour through the Ridderzaal (Hall of Knights) and either the First and/or the Second Chamber of Parliament. The tour starts with an introductory video that explains the history of the Dutch parliament and parliamentary buildings. Tours are available all year round; however, on the day I visited, we could not visit all the rooms of Het Binnenhof due to political meetings. Even so, Het Binnenhof and its impressive architecture and rich history make a visit well worth your time.

The Hague is home to the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis and the Gemeentemuseum, which are two must-see museums with magnificent art collections. Het Mauritshuis has a marvellous collection of art from the old masters of the 17th and 18th centuries. The Dutch Mona Lisa or The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer can be seen here. (And yes, she does look just like Scarlett Johansson in the movie of the same name!) A worthwhile stop is a small museum called Panorama Mesdag which features one of the world’s finest and largest surviving panorama paintings. It is 46 feet high with a circumference of 395 feet and shows the sea, beach, dunes and fishing in the nearby village of Scheveningen. The panorama was painted by Hendrik Willem Mesdag, his wife and a few friends. It shows what The Hague looked like in 1880. The beach is full of activity: fishing boats are pulled, military practice is taking place, and people are enjoying the sun and the water. Mesdag’s  painting or spectacular illusion is an experience in space and time that seems to become reality. The museum isn’t expensive and a visit only takes half an hour.

The seaside resort of Scheveningen with the famous Steigenberger Kurhaus Hotel PHOTO: PIERRE CROM

The seaside resort of Scheveningen with the famous Steigenberger Kurhaus Hotel.
PHOTO: PIERRE CROM

Inspired by the painting, I decided to take the 20-minute trip to visit the coastal town of Scheveningen on the edge of The Hague. It proved to be a highlight of the day. It’s easy to see why it’s the best known seaside resort on the Dutch coast. Even in the middle of January, the shops and hotels off the beach were booming with activity as people were out and about. It is worth dropping by one of the great grand hotels of Europe, the Steigenberger Kurhaus Hotel which is located right on the beach. Take a walk or use local  transit to visit the Scheveningen Harbor Restaurant de Dagvisser (www.dedagvisser.nl). It is one of the best seafood restaurants in the region, featuring a variety of fresh-catch North Sea dishes – herring, cod sole, oysters, mussels – all done with exceptional Dutch gastronomique flair.

While I have been to the Netherlands many times, it is always an incredible treat to go back and experience the marvels of the past while bearing witness to the renaissance of this cultural powerhouse.

 

Aug13_Travel_ImageGen.ashxSEE MORE & SAVE MORE WITH THE I AMSTERDAM CITY CARD

The I Amsterdam City Card is the most convenient and affordable way to experience Amsterdam. Valid for 24, 48 or 72 hours, the 2013 City Card includes a detailed city map; unlimited use of GVB public transport (bus, tram & metro); free entrance to 38 of Amsterdam’s top museums & attractions; one free canal cruise; discounts on attractions, concerts, theatre, rentals, restaurants and more; free giveaways, fun surprises & special monthly offers; free entrance to eight attractions & five discounts at the Zaanse Schans Museum; free entrance to three museums & four discounts in Haarlem. www.iamsterdam.com

Aug13_Radisson Blu_1295406785336There are some really nice, affordable boutique-style hotels in Amsterdam. You can’t go wrong with the Radisson Blu Hotel. Located in the Canal House district, the hotel’s historic exterior neatly complements its über-modern interior and exceptional services.

www.radissonblu.com/hotel-amsterdam

Den Haag has lots of hotels and great restaurants. You can take a direct 40-minute train from Amsterdam for $12 return.

For a great lunch in Den Haag, go to Brasseries T-Ogenblik www.t-ogenblik.nl for a traditional Dutch lunch of herring and chowder.

The best travel web site for The Netherlands is www.holland.com and for Amsterdam, visit www.iamsterdam.com. For Den Haag, visit www.denhaag.nl.

KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines) – www.klm.com/ – offers regular return flights from Canada. When you arrive in Amsterdam, take a train or an electric car taxi (Taxi-E) to the city centre.

The Most Beautiful Beaches to Discover on Ibiza

June 3, 2013 11:42 am
Cala Gracioneta

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whether you’re heading to the White Isle to experience the world-famous clubs, or enjoy a relaxing escape on the quieter areas of the island, you’ll need to know which Ibiza beaches are the very best. The Balearic Island is bordered by kilometre after kilometre of soft sand lapped by the shimmering Mediterranean ocean, and individual beaches range from the large and lively to secluded and secretive – so here’s our guide to the most beautiful beaches to work on your tan during your Ibiza holiday.

 

Cala Saladita

Cala Saladita

Most of the beaches around San Antonio can become extremely busy during the summer months, so to give yourself the best chance of finding a sunny spot to yourself, head to Cala Saladita. To reach this clandestine beach you’ll need to traverse the rocky divide between Cala Saladita and its neighbouring beach, Cala Salada, but you’ll be rewarded with a tranquil stretch of sand enclosed by a rocky headland that doesn’t block the Ibiza sunshine. Just get there before midday to avoid the intense heat on your journey, and make sure you bring water and snacks as there are no amenities.

 

Cala d’en Serra

 Photo Credit: SAGT http://www.flickr.com/photos/sagt/4383460648/

Although most Ibiza beaches are impressive, few make an impact quite like Cala d’en Serra, a northern beach bounded by sheer cliffs and leading into deep azure waters. This beach is where you’re most likely to find the locals, which is a testament to its tranquil nature, and few boats enter the water here too meaning that you can swim, snorkel and sunbathe in total harmony.

 

Portinatx

Photo Credit: Chloe Blanchfield http://www.flickr.com/photos/clugg14/6014829668/

The name of this location actually refers to the three smaller beaches that make up this area, but each of them is equally picturesque and peaceful, even during the high season. Portinatx, on the north-west coast is known for being a family-friendly resort, with welcoming hotels like the Club Vista Bahia located just a short stroll from the beaches, where the water is clear and shallow and ideal for paddling with young children. Rocky areas create an attractive backdrop for lazy days in the Ibiza sun, but there’s more than enough sand for everyone, and what’s more there won’t be a decibel of dance music to be heard!

 

Playa d’en Bossa

Photo Credit:  Alex Harries http://www.flickr.com/photos/alexharries/2616170566/

 If stretching out on a sun-lounger, sipping cocktails and people-watching whilst Balearic beats are carried by on the breeze sounds like your idea of perfection, make Playa den Bossa, the longest beach on Ibiza, your first stop. This famously gorgeous beach puts you right at the heart of the fun on the south coast of Ibiza, close to cosmopolitan Ibiza town, and the beach bars that stretch along the sand are always filled with chic people from all corners of Europe.

 

Cala Gracioneta

Cala Gracioneta

A compact and charming cove on the west coast of the island, Cala Gracioneta is a great option for families as the waters are very shallow and calm, plus there are plenty of trees offering a shady place to rest or take a midday nap. The narrow entrance to the water also makes it easy for parents to keep a watchful eye over their children, plus there are plenty of great restaurants and beach bars nearby for when it’s time for an ice cream break.

 

 

 

Travel: Discover Belgium

April 10, 2013 1:30 pm
A view of the canal in Ghent. (Credit: City of Ghent Tourist Office)

By Emma Truswell

Belgium is all about indulgence, whether it is in food, history, beer or architecture, France’s northern neighbour is worthy of exploring.

Ypres, now know as Ieper, in Flanders Fields Country, or Westhoek, is the perfect destination for history buffs, due to the town’s powerful associations with World War I. Over 150 military cemeteries are scattered throughout the Ypres Salient, serving as solemn reminders of the terrible sacrifice of war. Canadians are sure to want to stop by Essex Farm Cemetery, where John McCrae penned the famous poem “In Flanders Fields.” Still standing are the concrete shelters of the Advanced Dressing Station where McCrae worked as a Canadian Army Doctor in May of 1915, which are open for tourists to explore.

The town of Ieper itself is an impressive replica of the medieval city that was almost entirely destroyed during the war. Restored Gothic style buildings line the streets, the Belfry of the magnificent Cloth Hall towering over the town square. It is this expansive site that houses the In Flanders Fields Museum. The newly renovated museum has state- of- the- art technology, including visitors’ bracelets that contain their personal information such as age, name, gender, and hometown. Bracelets are read at four booths that cater information to suit each tourist’s interests, pulling from over 750 different stories to personalize the war for each individual.

John McCrae Memorial, Essex Farm Cemetery. (Credit: Emma Truswell)

Come nightfall, stop at the Menin Gate for the Last Post Ceremony. Since the 11th of November, 1929, the Last Post has been sounded at the gate every night at 8 p.m., with the exception of the four years of German occupation from 1940 to 1944. Crowds line the street on either side, bowing their heads in respectful silence as buglers from the local volunteer Fire Brigade play Last Post and Reveille under the memorial arch. The walls are inscribed with nearly 55,000 names of those who died or went missing in the Ypres Salient between the outbreak of war and August 1917.

The romantic city of Bruges was next, with winding canals, intimate cafés and cobblestone streets. This picturesque town and UNESCO world heritage site is the ideal getaway for couples. Whether you explore the city on foot, by bike, or seated in a horse-drawn carriage, no Bruges adventure is complete without a tour through the city’s scenic canals. Enjoy waterside gardens and architecture from as far back as the thirteenth century.

Next stop was Ghent, which is often overlooked by tourists in favour of the more traditional Belgian destinations. It may be a medieval town, but this city has a fresh, youthful energy. Picking up on the city’s funky vibe is the recently opened Sandton Grand Hotel Reylof. With a convenient location only minutes away from the city’s prime tourist destinations, this luxurious four-star hotel has made its home in a splendid eighteenth century mansion.

Ghent is home to over 620 monuments and historical sites, which are brandished nightly with gorgeous illuminations that beg for a late-night stroll through the city streets. Scenery can also be enjoyed while drifting through Ghent’s winding canals on a boat ride complete with champagne and appetizers.

JL Flemal (Credit: Visit Belgium)

Hit the shop Van Hoorebeke for some of the best chocolate or grab some mustard from Tierenteyn-Verlent, a charming little shop that has been making mustard since 1790.

No trip to Belgium is complete without a visit to Brussels. Awe-inducing beauty is around every corner. Take a stroll through Brussels Park after admiring the magnificent Royal Palace, or trek up Mont des Arts toward the city’s cluster of museums and attractions. For a completely low-stress option, purchase the Brussels city card for as little as 24 Euro, which provides discount vouchers for local shops and restaurants, unlimited travel on public transportation, and admission into most attractions.

Visitors to Brussels can stock up on traditional Belgian cookies at Dandoy, one of the oldest cookie shops in the city. Check out Laurent Gerbaud’s shop and factory, Gerbaud, and enjoy delectable chocolate creations. He works with only the highest quality chocolate and avoids sugar in favour of natural sweets, such as figs.

Bernard Boccara (Credit: Visit Belgium)

No Belgian adventure is complete without paying tribute to its beer.  Delirium Tremens Café, just off the famous dining strip Rue des Bouchers, has a selection of over 2000 different beers and its very own beer bible. This establishment made it to the Guinness Book of World Records in 2004 for the most commercially-available beers, with a total count of 2004. Rightfully so, Belgians are very proud of their beer. A must-try is Kriek, cherry beer – a uniquely Belgian product. This fruity beer uses open-air fermentation with natural bacteria only found in the fields surrounding Brussels.

From romantic retreats to out-of-this-world food options to an experience of some of the most powerful reminders of war, Belgium has something for everyone. So when you plan your next European vacation, be sure to Think Belgium.

A view of the canal in Ghent. (Credit: City of Ghent Tourist Office)

 

Travel: Discover Slovenia

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Nestled between Italy to the west, Austria to the north, Croatia to the south and southeast and Hungary to the northeast is one of the most beautiful and yet relatively unknown European gems, Slovenia. Whether it’s food, geography, landscape, architecture, activities or even climate, diversity permeates everything. It may sound cliché, but there really is something for everyone in this small but activity-packed country.

Slovenia is steeped in history and culture for those looking for the traditional Euro experience. If you are into wine, you are in for a treat as there is some incredible wine-making going on here, and if you’re into the outdoors, adventure-type sports (kayaking, white water rafting, extreme rafting) or more calm outdoor sports like hiking, cycling, running (there are some 10,000 km of marked hiking trails to be explored) or canoeing, you need to head to this incredible country. Slovenia will far exceed your expectations.

Back in 2007, the European Union (EU) established a new award, the European Destinations of Excellence (EDEN) to promote sustainable tourism for lesser-known EU members. Countries submit locations based on the theme of that year. With the exception of 2007, Slovenia has won an EDEN every year. And rightfully so. The country is stunning. In fact, Slovenians take great pride in the natural beauty and the richness of their natural resources. Over fifty per cent of the country is covered by trees and over a third of the territory is protected. And for a country of its size, there is an amazing number of microclimates. On the same day, if you’re willing to do a few hours of driving, you can be kayaking in a tank top along the border between Croatia and Slovenia in the morning and then be up in the Alps near the Austrian border needing a thick sweater in time for supper.

But wherever you are, you can enjoy a good bottle of Slovenian wine. In fact, wine making is big in Slovenia. One per cent of Slovenia’s territory is covered by vineyards and it is part of their culture. You see shacks and huts everywhere on vineyards that are there for families making wine together. One of the country’s most celebrated winemakers is Jozef Prus, whose estate is located in the area of Metlika, Bela krajina. Metlika, in the heart of wine-making country, is a quaint village and dates back to the 14th century. A visit to the Prus estate, which is literally a stone’s throw from Croatia, is a must. He has won wine world championships and has been the country’s top winemaker for the last three years.

Not only can you sample Prus’ award-winning wine (which is also inexpensive), you can enjoy some “Belokranjska pogaca” flat cake which is similar to bread. The dish was awarded the status of a protected designation of origin by the European Community and Prus Estates is one of the 20 places in the country where you can get the authentic bread.  Hopefully you can actually meet Prus himself as he is larger than life (and there is even a Canadian connection. His grandfather earned the money to buy the land for the vineyard working in a mine in Canada).

Slovenia is outdoor sports-junkie mecca. Skiing in the winter is phenomenal. You are in the Alps after all. But summer enables you to take advantage of the country’s abundance of outdoor activities. Kayaking, hiking, canoeing, cycling are particularly enjoyable. Canoeing on the Kolpa River is all about soaking up the nature around you and rich biological diversity (the Kolpa river is home to about 30 different species of fish and you can encounter about 100 different species of birds) all the while drinking beer while you paddle. It’s also pretty amazing that on one side of the river is Croatia and the other side is Slovenia. You can jump out and swim at any point. The whole thing is relaxing.

The Triglav National Park (named after the highest mountain in Slovenia) is located in the northwest of Slovenia, more precisely in the Julian Alps (named after Julius Caesar). It is the country’s only national park. If you are travelling there from Ljubljana, you will drive through mountain passes to get there (Vrsic Mountain Pass in particular). This may raise the hair on the back of your neck but it is worth every second. Slovenia should actually include driving as an adventure sport. Winding through the twisty roads may be slow but it also provides some stunning views. Slovenia truly is among the most beautiful countries in Europe.

Thrill seekers will absolutely adore white water rafting in the Soca Valley, which is very close to Triglav. The Soca River itself is stunning, runs close to 100 km and the colour is a stunning turquoise. Rafting aficionados flock here in droves to experience the Soca but even a dorky Canadian novice can be accommodated. The Soca Gorge is definitely worth catching. Grab a meal at the Pristava Lepena (which is also a resort). The food is outstanding and be sure to try their Marble Trout (a fish of the area). It will make a fish lover out of anyone.

The town of Bovec, close to the Soca, is a great place to hang your hat. It has a real sporty feel to it as a lot of the adventure sports companies are there. It is reminiscent of surfing culture and it oozes hipness. For a fab dinner, check out Martinov Hram for authentic foods of the region and enjoy the view of the mountains. It’s an amazing town.

While sports, mountains and nature are considered by some to be the main attractions to the area, it turns out there is a lot of WWI history. The Walk of Peace is an outdoor museum with the most important remains and memorials of the Isonzo front in the Upper Soca region from WW1. The path runs 100 km so you can check in at the Walk of Peace Information Centre at Kobarid and they will set you up on where you should go. One piece of neat trivia, Slovenia was the setting for Ernest Hemingway’s book A Farewell to Arms. He served in Slovenia as part of the Italian Army in WWI.

In fact, given it is European, the country bubbles over with history. Ljubljana, the capital city, is jammed with medieval streets and old buildings and churches. The Ljubljana Castle, which reigns over the city atop a hill, is worthy of the funicular ride up. There are great views of the city and a great café and restaurant to get your caffeine, food or beer fix. Below, the city bustles and has that Euro feel to it. Café and bar culture abounds and Slovenians, as a general rule, like to have fun and enjoy a glass or two. In fact, the Slovenian anthem is actually a toast. They enjoy life.

The capital city is divided in two by the river Ljubljanica. Take time to explore this city on foot and check out the bridges as they have beautiful sculptures and are stand-alone works of art. There is a great flea market in the heart of the city also worthy of exploration.

About an hour from the capital is the village of Idrija. It is the oldest Slovenian mining town situated in the western part of the country in Goriška Region. Famous for its mercury mine and lace making, Idrija is a fascinating destination with spectacular scenery. A visit the 500-year-old mine is de rigueur. Heading underground in Anthony’s Shaft will blow your mind. The entrance is one of oldest preserved entrances into any mine in the world.

Be sure to check out Idrija lace as well. It is everywhere and has a great story for women. The reality of mining meant the loss of husbands. To cope with financial stresses and the loss of income, women began making lace to make money. Their work took off, empowering them in the process.

Be sure to try “idrijski zlikrofi”, which are little dumplings and well worth the carbs. When it comes to cuisine, Slovenian fare is on the hearty side. You will never leave the table hungry.  Those with a sweet tooth will adore the strudel-type dessert. There are over 100 types to try.

Another trip to the Alps is definitely called for. The regal, haunting Alps in the Solcavsko region with their stunning Alpine peaks are literally breathtaking. There are three glacial valleys, a nature park to roam around in hiking, cycling or running (but the altitude can wreak a little havoc on your breathing). Be sure to stay at the Hotel Plesnik in the Logarska Dolina glacial valley. Surrounded by mountains, it is the perfect place to take in the majesty of the area.

There is a panoramic road that runs about 25 km, up to the Austrian border. It is remarkably untouched by development or tourism. It is practically a religious experience to be up there, alone among the grandness of the mountains and nature.

That road is actually quite symbolic of the country. Slovenia is beautiful. It has history, it has culture, it has delicious food and amazing wine and yet surprisingly, it remains untouched by mass tourism. It has that Euro feel without having been destroyed by mass marketing or multinationals.

And the people are amazing. They are extremely hospitable, proud of their heritage and enthusiastic about sharing their country, opening their homes and hearts to visitors. It is unavoidable to love the place. Get there.

 

Vive la France!

July 13, 2012 2:09 pm
La Pointe du Hoc

The best surprise of the Normandy trip was the pleasant drive through the rolling hills and dotted farm houses that encapsulate the entire region. In six days of driving though Normandy we had only one day of overcast skies and rain. Otherwise, it was sunny with not a cloud in the sky. The lush green valleys and pleasant towns have a calming effect that is hard to describe. We stopped several times at cafés and the locals could not have been more pleasant or welcoming. I was excited about getting to the coast, I can sense it from miles away — it must be my Cape Breton roots. As soon as we did, I pulled over and took a big breath of the fresh sea air. It’s an exalting sensation – the closest thing I can compare it to is the “big sky” feeling you get when you visit Alberta for the first time. The natural high is immense.

Boulogne is a busy coastal town with people out on the beach, in the water and in the restaurants and pubs. Its cobbled streets and lively market is anchored in the city centre (Place Dalton) by the 13th century St Nicola Church, protector of Boulogne’s sailors.

Boulogne is on a downward slope to the sea. At the top of Rue de Lille is “old town”, the historic and religious centre. We took a guided tour through its narrow alleys and visited the 13th century Castle-Museum, the Belfry and Notre-Dame Basilica. We stayed at the Hôtel Les Terrasses de L’Enclos, a hundred-year-old building beautifully refurnished with modern amenities and with scenic views of the silhouette of old Boulogne. The hotel offers a pleasant French breakfast of home-baked bread, croissants, homemade jams and strong coffee. First up was a visit to the beach next to the Nausicaä (the National Sea Centre) were we tried land yachting. Imagine sitting on a go-cart with a sail that whips you down a sandy beach. We took a quick lesson and within minutes were pros. A key factor is wind. We had brief moments where we picked up speed followed by complete stops when the wind passed. It was fun and something I’d like to do again. The Nausicaä has to be one of the most impressive and relevant sea museums in the world. Our two-hour tour was like a journey through the world’s oceans and reminded us of our dependence on the sea. The museum curators have cleverly interspersed the history of the local seafaring people within a larger narrative about the fragility of the world’s oceans and the need for sustainable conservation of all ecosystems. Boulogne provided one of our great gastronomic experiences of the trip at the Brasserie de la Mer Boulogne-sur-Mer. A stylish and friendly place with seafood dishes to die for including the mixed grill of fish, cod, salmon, julienne St. Jacques, prawns and bacon, herring and potato terrine, scallops (a portion is five) and the fish of the day (a whitefish type of haddock). My son tried the crème brûlée and announced it was as good as mom’s which is very high praise indeed. It was delicious. Now it was off to Dieppe and the Normandy D-Day Beaches.

A dramatic chapter of Normandy’s history is its role as the epicentre of the World War II D-Day landings. This epic tale is one of tragedy and victory. The most appropriate place to start our D-Day tour of the region was in Dieppe.

Largely undamaged by fighting during WWII, the medieval city of Bayeux is perfectly located as a base for visiting history buffs wanting to visit the D-Day Beaches.

Largely undamaged by fighting during WWII, the medieval city of Bayeux is perfectly located as a base for visiting history buffs wanting to visit the D-Day Beaches.

For most Canadians the word Dieppe evokes a strong response. Five thousand troops of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division landed at the French port of Dieppe on the English Channel Coast in August 1942. The purpose was to make a successful raid on German-occupied Europe over water, and then to hold Dieppe briefly. The results were disastrous. In a nine-hour raid involving nearly 5,000 Canadian soldiers, more than 900 were killed and 1,874 taken prisoner — more prisoners than the army lost in the 11 months of the 1944-45 NW Europe campaign.

As we drove into Dieppe we were struck by the quaint beauty of this seaside gem. Cafés along the waterfront were bristling with activity and the stores in the market square were just closing down for the day. The coastal road in front of the town abruptly ends and then veers in a u-turn back toward the centre. There is a rock face right at that turn and painted on that rock face is a huge Canadian flag that says “thank you, Canada”. It was an unexpected sight but speaks volumes about the feeling of the people of Dieppe towards Canada. I immediately felt comfortable and at home – almost like Dieppe was somehow a part of Canada. We visited the only Dieppe Museum that pays tribute to our soldiers’ sacrifices. It is a small museum next to the beach run by local French veterans. It has artefacts and uniforms and an impressive collection from many of the Canadian soldiers who fought in the battle. Despite numerous attempts by these French vets to engage the Canadian government and officials from Canada’s War Museum, no Canadian government officials had ever visited this place. The French veterans opened the museum to keep the memory of the Dieppe Raid alive. (OLM has since met the officials at the Canadian War Museum to advise them of the collection and French Veterans’ requests but 10 months later they have yet to engage these French veterans to try and secure this important collection which is a critical piece of our national history).

We stayed at the Au Grand-Duquesne Hotel in the city centre next to the market. This boutique hotel is a unique and stylish place, just a stone’s throw from the Dieppe harbour. The best reason to stay here is its gourmet restaurant and exceptional wine cellar. Any trip to Normandy cannot pass without experiencing a classic Normandy recipe perfectly executed. We tried the escargots and a lamb dish, with an elegant Côtes du Rhône. The Friday night atmosphere (it’s a favourite haunt of the locals) and service were a perfect way to celebrate Dieppe and toast our Canadian vets.

The next morning we departed for the Château de Taillis August 1944 Museum in Duclaire, a pretty town near Rouen. We strolled around for over an hour absorbing ourselves in their authentic collection of D-Day artefacts from Allied and German soldiers. The goal of the museum is to be an educational resource for area students who have never been touched by war.

Afterwards we were off to Normandy’s historic capital city – Rouen. Described by Victor Hugo as “The city of 100 steeples”, Rouen is also known as the place where Joan of Arc was convicted and burned at the stake in 1431 at the Place du Vieux Marché or as the city that was the inspiration for Monet’s Cathedral Series. Rouen was heavily damaged and lay in ruins at the end of World War II after a particularly brutal occupation by the Nazis. Liberated by the Canadian First Army on August 30, 1944, the residents used ingenuity and determination to rebuild Rouen to its former glory. Today, it is a spectacular city of young families and busy professionals. We walked along the Seine and stopped for a wonderful lunch at the Brasserie Paul next to the Cathedral. Then we were off to see the Gros Horloge, a beautiful golden clock in the centre of Rouen. You can climb the belfry (steep spiral staircase) to see how the clock mechanism works and view the town bells. At the top of the belfry is a magnificent view of the city of Rouen with its charming half-timbered houses, historic Place du Vieux Marché (Old Market Place), home to the modern Church of Jeanne d’Arc and the daily market which is the heart of Rouen. The Place also features numerous restaurants including Les-Maraichers, a favourite of the locals.

The Inter-hôtel Notre Dame is a safe bet in Rouen. It is centrally located, clean, comfortable, and quiet and offers easy access parking and a nice breakfast! The next morning we departed for Honfleur, the picturesque and colorful harbor city located on an estuary of the Seine River. Honfleur’s timber-framed houses and the narrow backstreets inspired the painters Claude Monet, Eugène Boudin, Johan Jongkind, and Gustave Courbet and it is regarded as the birthplace of Impressionism. Saint Catherine Church, built in the 16th century in the port of Honfleur, is the largest wooden church in France and offers mass and religious services daily. The “Vieux Bassin” in Honfleur is packed with tourists and sightseers. For Canadians, Honfleur is historic. In 1506, Jean Denis departed Honfleur for Newfoundland and the mouth of the Saint Lawrence. In 1608, Samuel de Champlain departed from Honfleur and arrived in Quebec, becoming the “The Father of New France” and founder of Canada. It was a wonderful moment to be in the town where it all began. We felt a kinship with the place that maybe only Canadians can feel. The irony was not lost on us that it would be Canadians, the proud descendents of Champlain, who would come back to the Honfleur region hundreds of years later to free the French from their Nazi captors.

Our final Normandy trek was to the D-Day beaches. During the nights of June 5 and 6, 1944, more than 16,000 paratroopers landed in Normandy. British, American and Canadian troops landed on various beaches on the Normandy coast and engaged in heavy fighting which eventually led to the end of the European theatre of WWII. A key objective in the days after the invasion was to take the city of Caen from the Germans. We decided to go to the Caen Memorial first before heading to the beaches. Established in 1988 and dedicated to peace, the Caen Memorial (Le Mémorial de Caen) is regarded as the best World War II museum in France.

Batterie Longues sur Mer

Over the next two days we stopped at all the D-Day landing beaches, including Utah Beach, Omaha Beach, Sword Beach, Juno and Gold beaches. Highlights included visiting the Canadian military cemetery of Bény-sur-Mer and the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer where many of the soldiers featured in the famous series Band of Brothers are laid to rest. We spent half a day at the The Juno Beach Centre at Courseulles-sur-Mer, which opened on June 6, 2003. The Centre presents the war effort made by all Canadians, civilian and military alike, both at home and on the various fronts during the Second World War. The Minister of Canadian Heritage has designated the Juno Beach landing site to be a site of national historic significance to Canada.

After the beach visits, we went to Bayeux and checked in at the Hôtel le Brunville. Located in the heart of Bayeux, this hotel proved to be a great staging point for day trips in the area.

The beaches of Bessin near Bayeux are still known for the Allied landings in June 1944. Historically the beaches of Bessin have always been popular seaside resorts. Back in 1858, with the opening of the Paris-Caen-Cherbourg railway, people started to flock to the beaches at Asnelles, Arromanches, Courseulles-sur-Mer, Vierville-sur-Mer and Grandcamp-Maisy. The joy of seaside recreation attracted wealthy Parisian families which led to the development of the Hôtel Belle-Plage, Grand Hôtel des Bains in Asnelles, Hôtel des Touristes in Vierville and many opulent villas like the Villa Les Tourelles in Arromanches and the Villa les Hirondelles in Grandcamp-Maisy by the sea. My favourite place for the entire trip was the beach town of Ouistreham. We stayed at the hotel La Mare Ô Poissons and had a gourmet dinner in their restaurant. We walked through the picturesque town and strolled along its beaches. Today these spots are as popular as ever for the French and for foreign tourists alike who enjoy a tranquil respite of sandy beaches, mild temperatures, natural beauty and the exceptional and welcoming hospitality provided by the locals. France’s Normandy region is thriving; the soldiers who liberated it would be pleased to see that all is back as it should be.

Travel: Arras, Lille & Normandy, France

July 12, 2012 5:22 pm
Pg52_Arras_Shutterstock

Vive La France!

(PART 1 OF 2)

We arrived at Charles de Gaulle/Roissy International Airport in Paris and transferred to the Train à grande vitesse (high-speed train) for Arras, Nord Pas de Calais. Arriving in Arras, opposite the railway station, is the War Memorial, which depicts a French WWI soldier leaning against the monument, watching over an angel with outspread wings, representing peace. And that set the tone for the trip.

We checked in for two nights at the Holiday Inn Express in the city centre. This hotel has all the amenities. The next morning, we took a two-hour guided tour of Arras. Then we rented a car for the remainder of the trip. The Pas de Calais area is simple to navigate if you have a GPS (recommended). We really loved modern-day Arras, which has been meticulously restored to its pre-World War I grandeur. This town has two large squares: the Grande Place and the Place des Héros, also called the Petite Place. Most notable are the Gothic town hall (rebuilt in a slightly less grandiose style after the war) and the 19th-century cathedral. The original cathedral of Arras, built between 1030 and 1396, was one of the most beautiful Gothic structures in northern France but was destroyed in the French Revolution. The abbey’s church was demolished and rebuilt in fashionable classical style in 1833 and now serves as the town’s cathedral.

The Wellington Quarry – la Carrière Wellington

During WWI, Arras was literally the front line. Battles were fought around the city and at nearby Vimy Ridge. The Wellington Quarry – la Carrière Wellington is an underground museum built in a section of the many kilometres of tunnels dug by Allied Forces in the 1914-1918 war. Following the arrival of the British in the Arras sector in March 1916, a network of tunnels was dug beneath the Ronville and Saint-Sauveur districts of Arras. These new tunnels and rooms were linked to the existing ancient tunnels and quarries or pits already under the city. The new tunnels were fitted with running water and electricity supplies. Accommodation in the underground city was available for the soldiers to live and sleep in, and there was a large hospital for treating the wounded in a labyrinth of rooms with enough space to fit 700 beds and operating theatres. Signposted names and numbers were given to the tunnels and rooms underground. The New Zealanders based in this particular system named the place “Wellington“, after the capital city of New Zealand. For eight days, 24,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers lived in secret in these tunnels specially adapted by New Zealand sappers from medieval chalk quarries. The Wellington Quarry tour follows a duck board trail through 17 stops which – using films, pictures and audio accounts – recreates different aspects of the soldiers’ lives during those tense days. A film graphically recounts the battle that ensued and its effects on the outcome of the Great War.

We made our way to the Vimy Memorial just north of town. The Battle of Vimy Ridge marked the first time Canada fielded an entire army of her own (four Canadian divisions). It was fought there on Easter Weekend 1917 as part of the broader Allied offensive known as the Battle of Arras. The Vimy Memorial is a spectacular and stunning tribute to Canada’s war dead. Visiting this monument was a powerful experience and I daresay I shed a private tear. My great uncle died in France in WW1 at age 21. All of the cemeteries and landscapes in this region are peaceful and beautiful. We left Vimy and visited the German War Cemetery located in Neuville-Saint-Vaast, a village near Arras. Established by the French in 1919 as a cemetery for German war casualties from the regions north and east of Arras, it is now administered by the German War Graves Commission and is the largest German cemetery in France, containing 44,833 burials. Next we went to the Canadian Artillery Memorial, near the village of Thélus. The memorial commemorates the exemplary action of the Canadian artillery during the taking of Vimy Ridge.

Vimy Memorial

We left the Arras region and took a leisurely  afternoon drive to the beautiful French town of Lille. Prior to WW2, Lille was an industrial centre for northern France. It has evolved over the past 60 years into a stylish metropolis; its modern architecture  compliments the  city’s historic buildings.

We checked into the Novotel Lille Centre Grand Place, a classy four-star hotel close to the Grand Place and the old town. Lille’s narrow streets and old world charm are distinguished by an array of exceptional restaurants and classy shops. We arrived at 5pm and everyone seemed to be out in the cafes. I’ve never seen so many cobblestone streets! One of the highlights of our trip was dinner at Le Fossile Restaurant in Lille.

Situated on a leafy corner a block from our  hotel, Le Fossile has been serving patrons in Lille for over 35 years. The brick  restaurant has exposed dark wooden beams, Tiffany-style lamps, and a wine cellar that stores cognacs and armagnacs from 1882 until the present day. A perfect onglet steak is served. We started with escargots ‘Fossile’ followed by the onglet with shallots which is carved tableside. We finished with dessert and a café  ‘Fossile’ with armagnac. This is one of the meals on my …“most memorable  meals ever list”.

The next morning, we spent hours just walking around and taking in the historic sites of Lille. Be sure to visit Lille’s citadel. We arrived the day before the Lille Flea Market, Europe’s biggest event of early fall. Two million stallholders, onlookers, bargain hunters of all kinds – young, old, children, families – all descend on the city for two days and nights, selling their wares  along kilometres of pavements and squares, and on the banks of the Deûle in the shadow of Lille’s colourful old Flemish buildings. The excitement was palpable as people set up for the giant flea market.

Lille Flea Market

We departed Lille for Boulogne-sur-Mer. The drive through the hills and valleys of northern France is very relaxing. We stopped at La Coupole in the village of Helfaut in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region.

In July 1943, the Germans began the construction of a base (La Coupole) from which to build and launch V-2 rockets. Today, La Coupole and the area is preserved as a museum featuring a riveting history of WW2 and a particularly touching tribute to the French Resistance and to Jewish victims of the war. Our next stop at Boulogne-sur-Mer and the Normandy Beaches would prove to be as exciting as the rest of our visit to Normandy. But that’s a story for another time.

Helpful web sites

www.arras-france.com, www.hiexpress.com, www.franceguide.com

www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/memorials/ww1mem/vimy

www.novotel.com/gb/hotel-0918-novotel-lille-centre-grand-place/index.shtm

www.carriere-wellington.com, www.lacoupole-france.com, www.lefossile.com

Normandy, France

Part 2 of 2

The Normandy Coast, Dieppe, Rouen, Honfleur, Bessin near Bayeux

Arras and Lille were wonderful and we were now headed to the Normandy coast which covers 360 miles and features the famous cities of Caen, Rouen and Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Our first overnight stop will be Boulogne-sur-Mer www.tourisme-boulognesurmer.com, which is the largest fishing port in France.

The best surprise of the Normandy trip was the pleasant drive through the rolling hills and dotted farm houses that encapsulate the entire region. We lucked in because in six days of driving though Normandy we had one day of overcast skies and rain. Otherwise it was sunny with not a cloud in the sky. The lush green valleys and pleasant towns have a calming effect that is hard to describe. We stopped several times at local cafes and the locals could not have been more pleasant or welcoming. I was excited about getting to the coast. I can sense the coast from miles away – it must be my Cape Breton roots. As soon as we got to the coast I pulled over and just took a big breath of the fresh sea air that gives you such a natural high. It’s an exalting sensation – the closest thing I can compare it to is the “big sky” feeling you get when you visit Alberta for the first time. The natural high is immense.

Boulogne is a busy coastal town with people out on the beach, in the water and in the restaurants and pubs. Its cobbled streets and lively market is anchored in the city centre (Place Dalton) by the 13th century St Nicola Church, protector of Boulogne’s sailors.

Boulogne is on a downward slope to the sea. At the top of Rue de Lille is “old town”, the historic and religious centre. We took a guided tour through its narrow alleys and visited the 13th century Castle-Museum, the Belfry and Notre-Dame Basilica.  We stayed at the Hôtel Les Terrasses de L’Enclos, a century old-building beautifully refurnished with modern amenities and  scenic room views of the silhouette of old Boulogne.  They offer a pleasant French breakfast of home-baked bread, croissants, homemade jams and strong coffee. First up was a visit to the beach next to the Nausicaä (the National Sea Centre) to go land yachting. Imagine sitting on go-cart with a sail that whips you down a sandy beach (yes, the sand must be hard packed). We took a quick lesson and within minutes were pros. A key factor is wind – we had brief moments where we picked up speed followed by complete stops when the wind passed. It was fun and something I’d like to do again. The Nausicaä has to be one of the most impressive and relevant sea museums in the world. Our two-hour tour was like a journey through the world’s oceans and reminded us of our dependence on the sea. The museum curators have cleverly interspersed the history of the local seafaring people within a larger narrative about the fragility of the world’s oceans and the need for sustainable conservation of all ecosystems.  Boulogne provided one of our great gastronomic experiences of the trip at the Brasserie de la Mer Boulogne-sur-Mer  (http://www.auxpecheursdetaples.fr/boulogne.htm). A stylish and friendly place with seafood dishes to die for: the mixed grill of fish, cod, salmon, julienne St. Jacques, prawns and bacon, herring and potato terrine, scallops (a portion is five) and the fish of the day (a whitefish type of haddock type). My son tried the Crème brûlée and announced it was as good as mom’s which is very high praise indeed. It was delicious. Now it was off to Dieppe and the Normandy D-Day Beaches.

A dramatic chapter of Normandy’s history is its role as the epicenter of the World War II D-Day landings. This epic tale is one of tragedy and victory. The most appropriate place to start our D-Day tour of the region was in Dieppe (www.dieppetourisme.com).

As we drove into Dieppe we were struck by the quaint beauty of this seaside gem.

For most Canadians the word Dieppe evokes a strong response. Five thousand troops of the 2nd Canadian Infantry. An army formation made up of two or more brigades, usually fifteen thousand or more men. The Canadian Army had both infantry and armoured (ie, tank) divisions. Division landed at the French port of Dieppe on the English Channel Coast in August 1942. The purpose was to make a successful raid on German-occupied Europe over water, and then to hold Dieppe briefly. The results were disastrous. In a nine-hour raid involving nearly 5,000 Canadian soldiers, more than 900 were killed and 1,874 taken prisoner – more prisoners than the army lost in the 11 months of the 1944-45 NW Europe campaign.

As we drove into Dieppe we were struck by the quaint beauty of this seaside gem. Cafés along the waterfront were bristling with activity and the stores in the market square were just closing down for the day. The coastal road in front of the town abruptly ends and the road veers in a u-turn back toward the centre. There is a rock face right at that turn and painted on that rock face is a huge Canadian flag that says “thank you, Canada”. It was an unexpected sight but speaks volumes about the feeling of the people of Dieppe towards Canada. I immediately felt comfortable and at home – almost like Dieppe was somehow a part of Canada. We visited the only Dieppe Museum that pays tribute to our soldiers’ sacrifices.  It is a small museum next to the beach run by local French veterans. It has artefacts and uniforms and an impressive collection from many of the Canadian soldiers who fought in the battle. Despite numerous attempts by these French vets to engage the Canadian government and officials from Canada’s War Museum, no Canadian government officials had ever visited this place. The French veterans opened the museum to keep the memory of the Dieppe Raid alive. (OLM has since met the officials at the Canadian War Museum to advise them of the collection and French Veterans’ requests but 10 months later they have yet to engage these French veterans to try and secure this important collection which is a critical piece of our national history).

We stayed at the Au Grand-Duquesne Hotel  in the city centre next to the market. This boutique hotel is a unique and stylish place, just a stone’s throw from the Dieppe harbour. The best reason to stay here is    its gourmet restaurant and exceptional wine cellar. Any trip to Normandy cannot pass without experiencing a classic Normandy recipe perfectly executed. We tried their escargots and a lamb dish, with an elegant Côtes du Rhône. The Friday night atmosphere (it’s a favourite haunt of the locals) and service were a perfect way to celebrate Dieppe… and toast our Canadian vets.

The next morning we departed for the Château de Taillis August 1944 Museum in Duclaire, a pretty town near Rouen. We strolled around for over an hour absorbing ourselves in their authentic collection of D-Day artefacts from Allied and German soldiers. The goal of the museum is to be an educational resource for area students who have never been touched by war (www.chateau‐du‐taillis.com).

The author's travels

Afterwards we were off to Normandy’s historic capital city – Rouen (www.rouentourisme.com).  Described by Victor Hugo as “The city of 100 steeples”, Rouen is also known as the place where Joan of Arc was convicted and burned at the stake in 1431 at the Place du Vieux Marché or as the city that was the inspiration for Monet’s Cathedral Series. Rouen was heavily damaged and lay in ruins at the end of World War II after a particularly brutal occupation by the Nazis. Liberated by the Canadian First Army on August 30, 1944, the residents used ingenuity and determination to rebuild Rouen to its former glory. Today it is a spectacular city of young families and busy professionals.  We walked along the Seine and stopped for a wonderful lunch at the Brasserie Paul next to the Cathedral. Then we were off to see the Gros Horloge, a beautiful golden clock in the centre of Rouen. You can climb the belfry (steep spiral staircase) to see how the clock mechanism works and view the town bells. At the top of the belfry is a magnificent overview of the city of Rouen with its charming half-timbered houses, historic Place du Vieux Marché (Old Market Place), home to the modern Church of Jeanne d’Arc and the daily market which is the heart of Rouen. The Place also features numerous restaurants including Les-Maraichers, a favourite of the locals.  

The Inter-hôtel Notre‐Dame (www.hotelnotredame.com) is a safe bet in Rouen. It is centrally located, clean, comfortable, and quiet and offers easy access parking and a nice breakfast! The next morning we departed for Honfleur, the picturesque and colorful harbor city located on an estuary of the Seine River. Honfleur’s timber-framed houses and the narrow backstreets inspired the painters Claude Monet, Eugène Boudin, Johan Jongkind, and Gustave Courbet and it is regarded as the birthplace of Impressionism. Saint Catherine Church, built in the 16th century in the port of Honfleur, is the largest wooden church in France and offers mass and religious services daily. The “Vieux Bassin” in Honfleur is packed with tourists and sightseers. For Canadians, Honfleur is historic. In 1506, Jean Denis departed Honfleur for Newfoundland and the mouth of the Saint Lawrence. In 1608, Samuel de Champlain departed from Honfleur and arrived in Quebec, becoming the “The Father of New France” and founder of Canada. For my son and me, it was a wonderful moment to be in the town where it all began. We felt a kinship with the place that maybe only Canadians can feel. The irony was not lost on us that it would be Canadians, the proud descendents of Champlain, who would come back to the Honfleur region hundreds of years later to free the French from their Nazi captors.

Our final Normandy trek was to the D-Day beaches. During the nights of June 5 and 6, 1944, more than 16,000 paratroopers landed in Normandy.  British, American and Canadian troops landed on various beaches on the Normandy coast and engaged in heavy fighting which eventually led to the end of the European theatre of WWII. A key objective in the days after the invasion was to take the city of Caen from the Germans. We decided to go to the Caen Memorial first before heading to the beaches. Established in 1988 and dedicated to peace, the Caen Memorial (Le Mémorial de Caen – www.memorial‐caen.fr/portailgb) is regarded as the best World War II museum in France.

Situated between Utah and Omah beaches la Pointe du Hoc features fortifications built by the Germans to prevent Allied landings from the sea.

Over the next two days we stopped at all the the D-Day landing beaches, including Utah Beach, Omaha Beach,  Sword Beach, Juno and Gold beaches. Highlights included visiting the Canadian military cemetery of Bény-sur-Mer and the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer where many of the soldiers featured in the famous series Band of Brothers are laid to rest.  We spent half a day at the The Juno Beach Centre at Courseulles-sur-Mer, which opened on June 6, 2003. The Centre presents the war effort made by all Canadians, civilian and military alike, both at home and on the various fronts during the Second World War. The Minister of Canadian Heritage has designated the Juno Beach landing site to be a site of national historic significance to Canada.

After the beach visits we went to Bayeux and checked in at the Hôtel le Brunville. Located in the heart of Bayeux this hotel proved to be a great staging point for day trips in the area.

The beaches of Bessin near Bayeux are still known for the Allied landings in June 1944.   Historically the beaches of Bessin have always been popular seaside resorts. Back in 1858 with the opening of the Paris-Caen-Cherbourg railway, people started to flock to the beaches at Asnelles, Arromanches, Courseulles-sur-Mer, Vierville-sur-Mer and Grandcamp-Maisy. The  joy  of sea-bathing and seaside recreation attracted wealthy Parisian families which led to the development of  the Hôtel Belle-Plage, Grand Hôtel des Bains  in Asnelles, Hôtel des Touristes in Vierville and many opulent villas like the Villa Les Tourelles in Arromanches and the Villa les Hirondelles in Grandcamp-Maisy by the sea.  My favourite place for the entire trip was the beach town of Ouistreham. We stayed at the hotel La Mare Ô Poissons (www.lamareopoissons.fr) and had a gourmet dinner in the restaurant. We walked through the picturesque town and strolled along its beaches.  Today these spots are as popular as ever for the French and for foreign tourists who visit to enjoy a tranquil respite of sandy beaches, mild temperatures, natural beauty and the exceptional and welcoming hospitality provided by the locals. Seaside recreation is thriving in France’s Normandy region; the soldiers who liberated it would be pleased to see that all is back as it should be.

We dedicate this story to Garth Webb (1918-2012), Meritorious Service Cross, D-Day Veteran   Founder and past President, the Juno Beach Centre and a True Canadian Hero.

www.normandie-tourisme.fr  

Musée du Débarquement ‐ place du 6 juin – 14117 Arromanches www.musee‐arromanches.fr – T 00 33 2 31 22 34 31 contact : Madame Isabelle MARIE, directrice des publics 

Overnight in Bayeux

A twin room has been booked (half pension including 2 dinners, the room, breakfasts and city taxes) at Hôtel le Brunville

9 rue Genas Duhomme à Bayeux ‐ Tel.: 00 33 (0)2 31 21 18 00 – www.hotels‐bayeux‐14.com

 

Austria the Winter Away

March 1, 2012 4:14 pm
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For anyone who has had a glimpse of life in Vienna, seen the joie de vivre of the Viennese and experienced the ethos of their amazing city, it will come as no surprise that the City topped the 2010 Mercer consulting group’s annual Quality of Living survey of world cities. Vienna, it seems, is the best place to live. (Vancouver placed 10 and Ottawa ranked 14). And there is no denying the indescribable feeling you get when in Vienna. Like many other European cities, you are surrounded in architectural beauty, but somehow in Vienna, there is an additional feeling of being immersed, enveloped and cradled in culture that differs from other Euro cities. Maybe it is because Vienna has achieved incredible international cultural status despite its size. It’s roughly the size of our National Capital Region. (However, interestingly, its population has actually decreased compared with a century ago when it was the Imperial centre of the Habsburg Empire and its 60 million subjects across Europe.)

Vienna Philharmonica Ball

Whether it is music, opera, art, dance or coffee house culture (both traditional and avant garde), Vienna oozes it. You can practically hear the echo of Mozart’s horsedrawn carriage in the streets and yet, paradoxically, this is a cosmopolitan 21st century city where you can dance the night away to techno music, whisk around a ballroom floor into the wee hours or surf the net on Wi-Fi as you sip on a Viennese cup of java in an 18th century café.

While it may not jump to mind as a Mardi Gras or winter destination (for winter weary Canadians, beach holidays have a particular allure this time of year), Vienna offers the holiday seeker every opportunity to have an unbelievably good time.

First the basics. Connections to Vienna are remarkably easy. Air Canada will get you to Frankfurt where you can hop onboard an über efficient Austrian Airlines (AA) flight. AA’s level of service is astounding. A fast train link up gets you quickly to the centre of Vienna. English is widely spoken which is particularly helpful.

One fab hotel is the Falkensteiner Hotel Am Schottenfeld, (www.falkensteiner.com/de/hotel/schottenfeld). It is incredibly clean, the staff unbelievably helpful and the hotel itself perfectly located for discovering Vienna on foot. And that is the best way to get to know Vienna. The crazy thing is that while Vienna is a city of close to two million people, it feels much smaller, almost cozy.

Vienna has been home to much international intellectual, cultural, political and social influence. From the genius of Freud to the brilliant modernist artistic hand of Gustav Klimt (Vienna will be celebrating his 150th birthday this summer), Vienna has always been at the cultural forefront. You can learn all about it in any number of museums and art galleries scattered across the core. The MuseumsQuartier is a must see (www.mqw.at) with different galleries and art for every taste. The complex, which takes up a couple of blocks, marries the architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries with and ultra modern buildings with restaurants and cafés where the artsy set hangs out. It is close to many of the other tourist attractions including the Hofburg Palace. Regardless of all this history and the countless places to visit, somehow Vienna does not feel touristy.

Vienna in the Winter. Photo: Hugh Durant

If you head to Vienna in winter, catching the ball season is de rigueur and that alone can be the focus of the trip. Experiencing a Viennese ball will exceed every expectation. It is pure magic. Ball season is etched into the collective soul of the Viennese (kind of like Tim Hortons and hockey for us in winter). It starts New Year’s Eve and runs right up until Mardi Gras.

There is a real sense of pomp and ceremony at these events. The balls open with debutantes and their male escorts. It is a sea of white dresses in majestic rooms and it is quite the sight. Children learn how to dance practically before they can walk. It is such a part of the Viennese identity and dancing schools are everywhere. The Tanzschule (dance school) Elmayer will offer classes to everyone, including dancers with two left feet in an attempt to teach them a move or two. Thankfully, you don’t really need to know how to dance to enjoy the balls.

Many balls are organized by professional guilds, such as lawyers, pharmacists, confectioners, medics, gardeners, the press, the police, technicians, chimney sweepers, or locksmiths. There are balls from several universities and high schools as well as dancing schools and public institutions. You usually don’t sit down at a ball and this is what makes the events so lively. Everyone is in motion all the time. People walk from one room to another, soaking up the energy and music from each hall.

I had the opportunity to attend three balls and each one was different. The Bonbonball, takes place in the grand Wiener Konzerthaus. Sponsored by the confectionary industry, it is a candy girl’s dream come true. It was festive with a young crowd all the while retaining a regal feel.

Sacher Torte a decadent Viennese dessert. Photo: Hugh Durant

The Nacht der Wiener Wirtschaft (night of the Viennese economy) had a much more reserved but majestic feel to it and took place in the gothic Rathaus (City Hall). (Its architecture is very similar to the Hall of Honour and Rotunda of Centre Block on the Hill.) Last but not least, there was the Elmayerkränzchen, (a ball hosted by a dance school). I didn’t even bother trying to dance at that one. It was a marvel just to watch the dancers. That ball marked the end of the Vienna Ball season on Mardi Gras and took place in the Imperial Palace (Hofburg) (which you can visit during the day and learn about the Hofburg Empire.)

Cafés are everywhere in Vienna and one of the most amazing is the Café Sperl. Its claim to fame is that it has been used in many movie sets including that 1990s’ Gen X classic flick Before Sunrise. But it also offers an extensive coffee menu and is just an interesting place to people watch. Café Mozart has amazing schnitzel (a must try when in Vienna) and every café has a wide array of sweets and pastries to suit every taste. The Viennese take their coffee and pastries seriously and the coffee menu in each of these cafés would make Starbucks blush.

Food in Vienna was, as expected, hearty and heavy. To sample tra-ditional Viennese cuisine head to the restaurant Plachutta (www.plachutta.at). Other fab restaurants that mix Viennese cuisine with international flare include Kulinarium (www.kulinarium7.at). Steirereck (www.steirereck.at ) dishes out contemporary Austrian cuisine and is located in heart of the central city park.

Austrian Alps. Photo: Hugh Durant

A short train ride away and you are in Salzburg. Salzburg has a very different feel to it than Vienna. Being so close to Munich, the Bavarian influence is palpable. While Salzburg does not have the urbane, cosmo feel of Vienna, it does have a rocking night life, even in February and March. And unlike Vienna, Salzburg thrives on its tourism. Even though it has a deep and rich cultural history, it is most known for The Sound of Music. (You can take a bus tour of filming locations. While it may sound like the schmaltziest thing you could do, it is actually a great way to see the surrounding area and learn about its history (some of it is sordid given Nazi connections to the region).

More importantly, Salzburg is the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and for any classical musician or fan, a visit to the very room in which he was born may seem like a religious experience. To experience a bit more of life in Mozart’s time, (www.mozartdinnerconcert.com)you can enjoy a candlelit dinner and concert performed by opera singers dressed in era clothing as you eat tra-ditional recipes from Mozart’s time.

Any beer and bratwurst lover will revel in time spent at the Augustiner Bräustübl Tavern (www.augustinerbier.at) a beer hall with long wooden tables and huge kegs of beer offered in beer steins the size of a bottle of wine. It is the ultimate Oktoberfest experience that you can get year round and the beer is incredible. The place is even run by monks.

For a small town, lots of other great stuff has come out of Salzburg. Next time you pop open a Stigl beer or indulge in a Red Bull energy drink, you can tip your hat to Salzburg, as both originate from the area.

If nature is more your thing, Salzburg is a stunning place. Cradled by the Alps, there are numerous walking paths where you can experience the breathtaking beauty of the mountains.

When the time to leave arrives, it is sadly all too easy to get a commuter flight to Frankfurt to catch a flight home. There is no doubt you will leave wanting more of Vienna, Salzburg and a desire to see more of Austria. I guarantee it.

Skiing the Unbelievably Beautiful Italian Dolomite Mountains

December 19, 2011 12:05 pm
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Ski touring in Italy is highly civilized and geared to a broad cross-section of skiers. Our stomachs did somersaults as the van winded its way up and down the many passes on our way from Venice to San Cassiano, the starting point for a ski touring excursion with Dolomite Mountain s.r.l. Part of the Italian Alps in north eastern Italy, the Dolomites are unique for a number of reasons, including their sheer walls of rock that jut up, their narrow deep valley and their almighty snow, a skier’s best friend. A UNESCO natural heritage site, this region is truly a geological wonder and it boasts being the number one ski resort in the world with over 1,200 kms of groomed terrain. It does so with good reason. This skiing experience, in fact, is truly unparalleled.

It’s not uncommon in Europe to have a gondola in the centre of a village but never before have I skied from one tiny village down into another small village, taken my skis off, walked across a narrow road, put the skis back on and taken a lift up to the top of the next peak. With 18 peaks in the region, one could spend days travelling from village to village. (At one time the locals did just that as the ski trails were the only means of connecting villages.) Thanks to the Dolomiti Superskipass, you can ski the whole region using all 450 lifts with one ski pass. The pass has a magnetic strip that triggers the turn-style and later, you can log onto their web site and track the total kilometres skied by keying in your pass number.

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No burgers and fries, instead Burgundy’s and gourmet cooking with a side of the best view ever. Lunch slopeside is serious business.

But skiing is only part of the Dolomite experience. Our tour operator, Agustina Largos Marmol from Dolomite Mountains s.r.l., expertly paired our adventure with stops at incredible restaurants and overnight accommodations. On the first night, we dined at the 2 star Michelin accredited St. Huburtus restaurant located in the Hotel Rosa Alpina in San Cassiano. Third generation owner, operator, Hugo Pizzinini gave us a tour of St. Hubertus’s kitchen. Chef Norbert Niederkofler explained the different types of ovens including the wood oven which is used solely for cooking risotto. The food and white-gloved service was exceptional. Fois gras crème brulée, venison and apple tart were nothing short of divine.

The next morning we headed down the road with our overnight packs on our back. We met a helicopter that swooshed us up to the jaw-dropping 3,342 metre peak of the Marmolada glacier. The view from the top is fantastic. The glacier offers a 12 km run with breathtaking scenery.  Believe it or not, this is intermediate skiing. The locals all seem to ski in large swoops like ex-world cup downhillers skiing invisible wickets. If off-piste is more your thing, you won’t be disappointed. Our guide Alberto provided us with avalanche beacons and we headed off to try some of the steeper ungroomed faces.

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The Serrai Di /Sottoguda gorge is famous with ice climbers around the world.

Instead of lunching slope-side, Alberto skied us through the 2 km long, magnificent Serrai Di Sottoguda gorge with its sky-high walls of ice.  Popping out the other side at the small village of  Sottoguda. We shouldered our skis and walked down the street to a local café for lunch. At the end of our ski day a “snow-taxi” picked us up slope side and motored us to a remote isolated valley and the beautiful remote Rifugio Façade (it is not accessible by roads.) I can’t recall the last time I experienced true silence. It was magnificent, only to be outdone by the excellent meal that evening. The dining room was busy for a mid-week, end of season evening.

We skied our next day between the peaks of the Pelmo and Civetta stopping to view the historic openings in the rock face where the Austrians tried in vain to fight off the Italians during WWI. Taking in the scenery never gets old. It just gets better and better. That evening we spent the night at Rifugio Lagazuoi at 2700 metres. This Rifugio literally sits on the peak of a mountain. The restaurant area opens to an oversized deck where if you dare, you can look over the edge to the valley way, way below. Accommodations are a little tighter but seeing the sunset on top of the world was magnificent. As is the custom with Italians, the food was great even at almost 3 kms above sea level.

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The view from the terrace of Rifugio Lagazuoi.

On our last day — now swooshing down the slopes like the locals — we skied around Cortina-d’Ampezzo, the site of the 1956 winter Olympics and by far the largest of any of the villages visited. (Amazingly, there was still not a printed tourist t-shirt in sight). After skiing the World Cup and Olympic runs, there was no hopping across the road with skis in hand. Instead, we caught a city bus to the gondola that services the peaks on the opposite side of the valley. After a day of hitting the books, the school children here hit the slopes in droves. It was great fun to see them all out having fun skiing.

After another fabulous meal at Tivoli, a Michelin guide accredited restaurant we spent the night at the stunning Cristallo Hotel, Spa & Golf. The hotel has old world charm.

Augustina and her staff at Dolomite Mountains went out of their way to give us a memorable week of skiing, food and friendship. The trip was perfectly tailored to our ski level and surpassed our expectations.

Take a break from the beaches and endless buffets of our southern cousins and head to Italy’s Dolomites for an all-inclusive, ski-touring trip of a lifetime. Whole families can be comfortable swooshing down the wide pistes together, stopping here or there for a coffee or for a spectacular lunch on one of the many patios perfectly positioned to enjoy the stunning scenery. How many times can a person say amazing in one day? We simply stopped counting.

www.dolomitemountains.com

Written by: Karen Temple

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