Friday, September 4, 2015

Traveling on Scotland’s West Highland train

The romance of a steam powered train as it crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct in Scotland  (wikipedia)
GLASGOW, SCOTLAND When it comes to traveling by train in Great Britain, nothing compares with the West Highland Line of Scotland. The magnificent 164-mile scenic railway passes along or beside rushing rivers, deep Scottish lochs, muscled peaks, canopied forests, mysterious moors and a breathtaking curved viaduct that is a living postcard in its own right.

Starting point for the West Highland Train  (wikipedia)
The train originates from Queen Street Station in Glasgow. With frequent service between Glasgow and Edinburgh, travelers staying in Scotland’s capital have easy connection. A change of trains to the West Highland line is necessary in Glasgow, however.

This is not an express. Plan for five-hours or more between Glasgow and Mallaig. Due to irregular stops, many of which are by request only, trains easily get off schedule. Day-trippers can make a round-trip, but an early start is a must.

Many riders travel to Mallaig to catch the ferry to the Isle of Skye. Frequently those travelers return by way of Oban to take the train to Crianlarich where coaches reconnect for the trip back to Glasgow.

The tiny four carriage trains pull out of Glasgow roughly paralleling the River Clyde. It doesn’t take long for the surroundings of Glasgow to give way to rugged mountain terrain that plunges into picturesque lochs through a scrim of morning mist. Soon the double tracks merge into a single serpentine ribbon of steel that promises bold new adventures up ahead.

The cramped interiors are not designed for luxury, but passengers don’t seem to mind as they flit from one side to the next to view each new panoramic vistas.
Wooly Highland sheep add to the picturesque journey on the West Highland Line  (wikipedia)
With a constantly changing carousel of scenery, one side of the train is no better than the other. Simply choose a seat and be prepared to be awed while shuffling back and forth to witness the majestic scenery that stream by the window.

Gare Loch is first. As home to Britain’s nuclear submarines, it seems incongruous amid the tree-lined brownish-green hills covered with bluebells.
The famous Loch Lomond at twilight  (wikipedia)
Gradually the hills become more mountainous. On the right a long, deep, U-shaped valley known as Glen Douglas guides travelers toward the “bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond."

Soon the loch made famous in the song Loch Lomond comes into view with Ben (Gaelic for “mountain”) Lomond towering over the scene. Across the water lies Inversnaid, the rolling landscape once roamed by legendary Scottish folk-hero Rob Roy MacGregor.

The tiny rail station at Crianlarich  (wikipedia)
Just beyond, the train coasts through a tunnel of trees that eventually reveals streams rushing beside fields of wildflowers and steep heather carpeted banks covered with craggy yellow gorse. Here and there shaggy brown Highland cattle graze lazily, oblivious to the curiosity seekers aboard the train. 
The train divides at Crianlarich with two carriages traveling to Oban, and the other pair to Mallaig.

Wheels sing upon the tracks as steel grinds against steel at every sharp bend in the rails.  Just north of Tyndrum the train makes a dramatic horseshoe turn around a curve that wraps around a valley lined by two large conical hills.

Eerie moonscape atmosphere of Rannoch Moor with its Hound of the Baskervilles atmosphere (wikipedia)
From there it’s on to Rannoch Moor with its eerie Hound of the Baskervilles aura. The train is the only way across the boggy pockmarked moonscape with its outcroppings of rock and lonely otherworld atmosphere. Desolate though it may be, the Rannoch Moor is a highlight of the journey.

Ben Nevis Mountain in the Scottish Highlands  (wikipedia)
But there’s no time for despair because just after the moor, the stunningly beautiful Loch Treig comes into view. The squealing wheels hush as the train gently glides beside bluish-gray water that yields to rising banks of deep green on the opposite shore.

As the train pulls into Fort William, passengers catch a view of the ruins of historic 13th century Inverlochy Castle, which was the site of two major battles. Fort William, the largest town in the region, nestles in the shadow of the highest mountain in Great Britain. At 4,400 feet, Ben Nevis is a Mecca for hikers. The base alone has a whopping circumference of 24 miles.

Fort William is a popular jumping off spot for travelers not wanting to venture to Mallaig. The shopping is excellent and the village is delightful.
Scottish loch in the primeval Highland countryside  (wikipedia)
Those who journey onward however, are in store for the indescribable beauty of Glenfinnan Viaduct with its 21 arches that curve southward toward Loch Shiel. Along the shore of the loch stands Glenfinnan Monument marking the site where the Jacobite Rising of 1745 erupted when Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard to raise an army and march on Edinburgh.

Summer travelers can enjoy crossing the viaduct aboard a steam-powered train. It’s the ultimate romance of the rails that can only be appreciated by the experience itself.
The stunning Glenfinnan Viaduct is a highlight of the West Highland train in Scotland  (wikipedia)
The end of the line is Mallaig, where frequent ferries are available for visits to Rum, Eigg and other small islands as well as the popular Isle of Skye.

This is rail travel as it once was and as it should be. Scotland’s West Highland Line is a memory in the making.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Bali: Indonesia’s magical island paradise

Temples abound in Bali making it an exotic and enticing place to visit  (wikipedia)
BALI How can a traveler go wrong visiting a place known as the “Island of the Gods” or the “Island of a Thousand Puras (Temples)”? If Bali comes to mind, you nailed it. In fact, Travel and Leisure magazine gave it the Best Island award in 2010.

The reasons were convincing; “because of its attractive surroundings (both mountain and coastal), diverse tourist attractions, excellent international and local restaurants, and the friendliness of the local people.”

Lest you believe it was a fluke, BBC Travel ranked Bali second only to Santorini, Greece among its World’s Best Islands in 2011.
Rice terrace in Ubud where much of Eat, Pray, Love is located (wikipedia)
Having said all that, chances are pretty good that Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love, a best-selling book in 2006 followed by a popular movie in August, 2010, didn’t hurt Bali’s identity since much of the story took place in Ubud and Padang-Padang Beach on the island.

Even so, the island home of much of Indonesia’s Hindu minority in an archipelago that is mostly Muslim, has a personality all its own that can stand the test of even the most discriminating travelers.

Situated just two miles east of Java and 8 degrees south of the equator, Bali is part of the Coral Triangle where more than 500 reef building coral species can be found. That translates to nearly 7 times as many as the entire Caribbean.


Map of Bali (wikipedia)


Despite its proximity to the equator, Bali has a relatively even year-round climate although there are usually heavy rains from December to March during monsoon season.

In its earliest history, Bali was influenced first by the Portuguese and later the Dutch until Japan occupied the island during World War II. In 1949, after the Dutch had regained control, Bali received its independence on December 29th.

In recent years, the island, which is only 95 miles wide and 69 miles long, has become a tourism favorite, especially for Australians, Chinese and, now, a growing number of Americans who are beguiled by the mountainous terrain, the white and black sand beaches, thatched roof houses on stilts and the exotic far-awayness Bali offers.
Get your feet wet at TanahLot Temple in Bali  (wikipedia)
Tourism began to thrive in the 1930s when anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, artists Miguel Covarrubias and Walter Spies and musicologist Colin McPhee “discovered” what they called “an enchanted land of aesthetes at peace with themselves and nature.” Tourism evolved and the rest is history.

Until the early 20th century, Bali was home to at least three large mammals: the wild banteng, leopards and the Bali tiger. Since that time the banteng can be found, but only in domestic form. Leopards now roam in nearby Java, but not in Bali, and the Bali tiger no longer exists.
Mt. Rinjani on Lombok in Indonesia  (wikipedia)
The last record of a Bali tiger is listed in 1937 when one was shot. It is believed, however, that a subspecies survived until the 1940s or 1950s. Perhaps the most interesting fact about the native tigers of Bali was that it was the smallest and rarest of all tiger species. So much so that it was never captured on film or exhibited in a zoo.

Bali is a mountainous island surrounded by magnificent beaches. Several peaks reach just under 10,000 feet while “Mother Mountain”, or Mount Agung, which is an active volcano, has the highest elevation at 9,940 feet.

Balinese women hard at work in Bali  (wikipedia)
At approximately 50 miles, the Ayung River is the longest waterway. Bali has no major river routes but the Ho River is navigable by small sampan boats.

Rice is a staple of the Balinese diet, as is fish or meat which is almost always served with sambal or chili paste. Since Baili is primarily non-Muslim, a dish called babi guling (roasted suckling pig) is a specialty along with smoked stuffed duck wrapped in bamboo. The natives call it, bebek betutu.

Most of Bali’s tourism is focused in the south near the capital city of Denpasar. Kuta is known for its beach, while Ubud, in the center of the island, became popular thanks to Elizabeth Gilbert, who was portrayed in the film Eat, Pray, Love by Julia Roberts.

Travelers seeking a bargain, if they can endure the long day’s journey into night getting to Bali, will discover great value for their money thanks to a drop in Indonesia’s currency which occurred in the latter part of 2009. The 30% decline has made Bali a shopper’s paradise ever since.

There are no trains in Bali, but a coastal road circles the island and there are three major two-lane roads crossing the central mountains. Motorists should remember to blow their horn when rounding mountain curves because it is common to drive in the middle of the road.


Mt. Butur is one of many volcanoes on the island of Bali  (wikipedia)
Take note, there are many one-way roads in Bali, so if you miss a turn it may be a long drive before you can turn around.

Then again, enjoy yourself. It’s a small island and it won’t be long before you come to a magnificent beach.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Cool weather refuge: the Sands at Grace Bay in the Turks and Caicos



The 12-mile stretch of talcum powder beach greets you at the Sands at Grace Bay in the Turks & Caicos  (Taylor)
PROVIDENCIALES, TURKS & CAICOS The long, hot summer is nearing an end. Soon there will be a chill in the air, the leaves will change colors and football tailgate parties will be a weekly event. And when Old Man Winter returns with blustery bursts of Arctic weather, that’s when the Caribbean beckons.

The Turks & Caicos are within easy reach from the U.S., especially the East Coast and the Sands at Grace Bay is an ideal getaway to escape the common cold.

One of several pools at the Sands at Grace Bay  (Taylor)
No imagination is required to see how this lovely 114-suite resort in the up-and-coming Turks & Caicos Islands derives its name. From the moment you cast your eyes on the seemingly endless expanse of powdery white beach that seeps gently into clear turquoise and ultra-marine water, you are beguiled by timeless rhythms that wash over you and cast your fate to the winds.

The Turks & Caicos are situated in the British West Indies south of the Bahamas and north of the Dominican Republic. The archipelago of 41 islands and cays is less than 600 miles from Miami and are accessible by air from Florida in about 80 minutes.

Nestled just to the east of the crook of the boomerang shaped island of Providenciales, the Sands peers out to transparent shades of the Atlantic Ocean for more than a mile before changing to a deep navy blue when the sea floor dramatically plunges 2,000 feet.
Checking in at the spacious, airy lobby  (Taylor)


The lobby with its Caribbean Plantation style ambiance is like the top of an hourglass where the portal guides guests through a tunnel of time into a different realm. Six three-story buildings line the perimeter of the resort past serpentine garden walkways and sequestered pools united by tranquil meandering canals. 

Ultimately, all paths lead to the 12-mile stretch of white sand beach known as Grace Bay where guests are treated to a contemporary present that serenely blends with a once-upon-a-time past.
Portal to modern comfort with gracious reflections on the past  (Taylor)

 Travelers benefit from the best of two worlds at the Sands and the TCI. Modern infrastructure including a shopping mall, multiplex cinema, casino, fine restaurants and luxurious accommodations offer upscale comfort amid an ambiance of barefoot relaxation.

A pristine destination -- Local rock iguana (Taylor)
With English being the local language, American dollars the currency and electricity that is the same as the U.S., the biggest adjustment may be driving on the left side of the road.

For travelers, the Sands offers the best value for the traveling dollar in Providenciales. Accommodations come in four categories; studios and one, two and three bedroom suites. All rooms, except Studio Courtyards, have a washer and dryer.

Other amenities include air conditioning, cable television, ceiling fans, irons and ironing boards, hair dryers and free wi-fi. Suites are equipped with kitchen facilities including a microwave. In addition, there is a small convenience store on the property.

Rooms are spacious, with “spacious” being the operative word. Oversized balconies complement the ample living accommodations.
Rooms are spacious and elegant complete with luxurious amenities  (Taylor)
Hemingway’s, the resort restaurant, is open from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. daily serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Morning fare includes traditional bacon, sausage and eggs, toast, bagels, French toast, hash browns and coffee. Huevos rancheros is also on the menu.

Rum punch and conch are island staples  (Taylor)
Lunches serve up lighter selections such as burgers, sandwiches and salads.

For dinner, it is impossible to ignore the choice of conch dishes which are an island staple. Hemingway’s prepares everything from conch salad to conch chowder to conch strips and conch fritters. Unaccustomed palates need not fear however, there are other choices including local spiny lobster and Caribbean jerk chicken.

Named after Ernest Hemingway, because of his affinity for the freedoms of the Caribbean lifestyle and his lusty enjoyment of life, Hemingway’s offers elegant, beachfront, open air dining suited to any time of day or evening.
Swim with the dolphins in crystal clear turquoise water  (Taylor)
The small, but exquisitely equipped Spa Topique provides a full range of therapeutic services. Three unique amenities are a chilled, damp pre-massage towel for the hands and face, scented flowers in an aromatic bowl beneath the face cup and a heated towel for the feet at the close of the session.

"She sells sea shells by the seashore" -- Array of shells from the popular Conch Shack Restaurant  (Taylor)
The Sands has three seasons with high season following New Year’s until just after Easter. Low season from Easter until a few days before Christmas and a short Festive Season which begins just before Christmas through New Year’s.
Caribbean beauty at its finest at the Sands  (Taylor)


Low season Studio Courtyard rooms are $195 per room, per night. One bedroom suites begin at $375 per night, per room ranging to deluxe oceanfront three bedroom suites at $885 a night.

Peak season rates start at $290 for a Studio Courtyard room, $480 for a one bedroom suite going to a top price of $1,310 for deluxe three bedroom suites.

Prices during the holiday season fall between the low and high season rates.

All Suites (except Studios and 1 Bedroom Suites) can comfortably accommodate a maximum of two additional persons above the standard suite occupancy with no additional charge for the extra person(s).
Hemingway's Restaurant is a great place for a drink and watching the sun set  (Teylor)
Complimentary amenities include a welcome cocktail, weekly manager's rum punch party, beach towels, use of bicycles and non-motorized water-sports - sailing, kayaking, windsurfing, snorkeling and paddle boarding.

Optional tours such as snorkeling and scuba trips, whale watching, glow-worm tours, spelunking, beach horseback riding and paragliding are easily arranged.
Days end in at the Sands at Grace Bay in the Turks & Caicos  (Taylor)
Best of all, the Sands at Grace Bay offers something for everyone for it is a place where Mother Nature and Father Time are blissfully entwined.


The Sands in the Turks & Caicos showcases island life as it used to be.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Sintra: Portugal’s delightful undiscovered hillside village

Quinta da Regaleira is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the "Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire" (wikipedia)

SINTRA, PORTUGAL As the prominent science fiction writer Ray Bradbury once wrote, “Half the fun of travel is the aesthetic of lostness.” Though Sintra, Portugal is less than an hour by train from Lisbon, it seems light years away. “Lostness” is Sintra’s legacy. It is Alice’s rabbit hole of travel, for once you venture into its beguiling charms, an array of discovery opens just beyond every turn.

This hillside village may have more castles, gardens, museums and scenery than any town its size in the world. 

In the not so distant past Tripadvisor published a list of “10 breathtaking towns in Europe you probably never heard of.” So it was, as a longtime advocate of the joys of discovery in travel, that it was especially delicious to discover that Sintra was noted among the ten.

Sintra is a distinctive must-see destination, yet it remains relatively unheard of for many travelers.  Thanks to its stunning 19th architecture, Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage site with no less than six major attractions.

Trains depart Rossio Station in Lisbon to Sintra  (wikipedia)
Regular train service departs from Rossio Station in Lisbon to the hillside town where 33,000 residents live among the parks and gardens that compliment magnificent palaces and castles to the delight of any visitor.  Two highlights are the 19th century Pena Palace and the National Palace of Portugal, the summer residence of the Portuguese kings. 

Pena Palace is arguably the showcase.  Though regarded as one of the “Seven Wonders of Portugal,” it hasn’t always been the luxurious structure it is today.  For hundreds of years it was little more than a modest meditation site for a maximum of 18 monks.
With its colorful facades and unique architecture, Pena Palace is a showcase in Sintra  (wikipedia)
Natural disasters, including an earthquake and lightning, left the former monastery in ruins during the 18th century.  Only the chapel with its marble and alabaster works of art survived.  It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century when reconstruction began to give Pena Palace the appearance it has today.

Among the elements requested by King Ferdinand and Queen Maria II, who began the rebuilding process, were medieval and Islamic aspects of architecture along with vaulted arches and an ornate window over the main façade.  Vibrant red and yellow colors added flair to the palace that distinguishes it even today.  The elaborate decorations combined with the intentional mixture of architectural designs have made Pena Palace one of Portugal’s most popular destinations for visitors.

Aerial view of Qunta da Regaliera and its park  (wikipedia)
Interiors are surprisingly small considering the massive exterior because corridors and doorways were cleverly designed to slow the pace of surging invaders.  Each room has been lovingly appointed to the extent that the furnishings convey an ambience of habitation even though the palace has not been occupied for decades.  In fact, the elaborate extent of the décor may rival any historical monument of similar distinction in the world.

Pena Palace is only the beginning, however.  Sintra also features the Castle of the Moors, Monserrate Palace, Pena National Palace, Seteais Palace, Quinta da Regaleira and the Sintra National Palace as well as countless gardens and parks that make it a horticultural haven.
The National Palace is another of the many cultural wonders in the hillside village of Sintra  (wikipedia)
Access to Sintra from Lisbon couldn’t be easier. It is also inexpensive.  A train ticket from Rossio Station costs about 4 euros.  Ride the train to the end of the line.  Once in Sintra, bus #434 provides regular service from the front of the railway station to most of the sights in town.  Buses are approximately 2 euros.  

Hardier travelers can make the delightful walk along the hillside into the main village, but once there, it is advisable to catch a bus up to the palaces and castles.

Sintra is not a place to be rushed.  Plan to spend the day, enjoy a relaxing lunch and relish all that it has to offer.


 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Lavenham, England: East Anglia’s crooked little village

"There was a crooked man...." Lavenham, England is a quaint former wool merchant's village in East Anglia  (Taylor)
LAVENHAM, ENGLAND Discovery is one of the greatest joys of travel. An anonymous writer once made the observation that, “Every place is undiscovered until you discover it yourself.”  And one of the most delicious of those “discoveries” is found in the tiny leaning village of Lavenham in the East Anglia region of England.

Charming half-timbered houses of Lavenham  (Taylor)
Legend has it that the children’s poem about a “crooked man who walked a crooked mile” originated in the once prosperous wool merchant’s village of Lavenham.  From the moment you arrive in this delightful little burg, located about 70 miles northeast of London, you will know why. 

Throughout town the multicolored half-timbered houses lean at irregular angles and patterns as if they are supporting each other. With its charming narrow, curving streets, Lavenham has become a popular day-trip for Brits and Americans alike, though it rarely appears on maps and still remains largely unknown to most travelers.

During the 15th and first half of the 16th centuries, Lavenham was famous for the blue broadcloth made from its abundance of high quality wool.  Her wealth of the era is clearly visible at the uncommonly large parish church of St. Peter and St. Paul which sits proudly on the hill at the end of High Street.  At 141 feet, the church tower is said to be the highest village church tower in Britain.


The Swan Hotel captures your imagination  (Taylor)
The real appeal of Lavenham however, culminates at the Swan Hotel where, though elegantly renovated, the floors still creak, doorways are low, accentuated by punctuation marks over the beams which remind you to duck, and fireplaces are always crackling.  The Swan is rustic sophistication at its best filled with the character of exposed timbers and comforting subtle lighting that makes guests feel they have stepped back into another century.

The inn consists of four wool merchant’s buildings that have been merged into a stylish, yet cozy, gem of Tudor architecture that thrives in the Suffolk countryside.

The dining room features exquisite cuisine to the delight of the most discriminating palates, but for historic ambience, it is the bar that captures the greatest fascination.  If ever there was a place where the ghosts of the past enjoy their rightful place in history, it is in the pub at the Swan Hotel. 

Not only can you sense the raucous voices of RAF and American flyboys who were frequent visitors during World War II, a glass boot remains in a corner of the room still challenging beer guzzlers to be the fastest to drink it dry. For guidance, the records established decades ago remain etched on the walls for everyone to see.
Lavenham is like traveling to the home of the Pied Piper only better  (Taylor)
Though no longer displayed, handbells from the hillside parish church up the street once stretched across the front of the bar. The bells were replicas of the originals at Peter and Paul’s.  At certain times in history the church choir would rehearse at the pub, and the bells were initially placed there as a reminder of that bygone era.

Whether or not the Mother Goose nursery rhyme written by James Orchard Halliwell in the 1840s about the “crooked man who walked a crooked mile” is real or only a legend is open for speculation. However, Lavenham is a place that puts the Leaning Tower of Pisa to shame, and if it is not the site where the poem originated, there can be  no doubt that it should be.
The Swan is the home of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star  (theswanlavenham.co.uk)
Lavenham does, however, lay claim to another verse that has been verified as the place it was written. It was there that a young woman named Jane Taylor wrote a poem that later became a lullaby known throughout the world. First published in 1806, Ms. Taylor simply called it “The Star.” Though the original poem had six verses, only the first has retained its global reputation which most notably goes by the title we know as “ Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”.

Over the years, Jane’s sister Ann was more prolific at the art of poetry than she, but most interesting is the fact that the Taylor family was living in the house that later became the charming crooked little inn known as The Swan mentioned above.

So you see, in a sense, you might even say that “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” eventually became Jane Taylor’s “Swan song.” And it all happened in the quaint unknown leaning village of Lavenham.




Friday, July 31, 2015

Coffeehouses in Vienna are a grand tradition

Viennese coffeehouses like Cafe Central have been popular since 1683 (wikipedia)


VIENNAAUSTRIA Starbucks had a clever idea back in 1971 when they popularized the American coffeehouse on a national scale. But did you know that the Viennese perfected the concept nearly 300 years earlier?

Like English pubs and sidewalk cafes in Paris, Vienna coffeehouses are as integral to the social and cultural fabric of the city as Habsburg palaces, a Strauss waltz and the Lipizzan stallions.

Viennese coffeehouses are a way of life in Austria  (wikipedia)
The roots of the Kaffeehaus can be traced to the 17th century when Vienna was liberated in a siege from the Ottoman Turks by a Polish-Habsburg army. (An interesting side story is the battle took place on September 11, 1683. It was the date of that defeat that became the impetus for Osama bin Laden’s terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001.)

In the aftermath of the battle, the victorious army captured a considerable supply of coffee beans that had been abandoned outside the city gates. Initially believed to be food for the Muslim camels, one of the Polish officers recognized the true value of the beans and asked King Jan Sobieski for ownership. The request was granted and, before long, the tradition of the Viennese coffeehouse was established.

The German word for relaxation in an unhurried manner with pleasantness and peace of mind is gemütlichkeit. The Viennese like to think of their coffeehouses as “having a soul.” It is an accurate and appropriate description for each of Vienna’s coffee establishments is unique with their personal share of gemütlichkeit. So rich is the heritage of Vienna’s coffeehouses that they became a part of UNESCO’s cultural heritage sites in 2011.
Coffeehouses are a pageant in Vienna  (wikipedia)



Three traditions are an integral aspect of a typical Viennese coffeehouse: There is always a huge selection of newspapers. Water is served with the coffee. Stay as long as you like.

It is also important to understand the intangible aspects that give the individual coffee cafes a life of their own, however. Some are better suited for morning discussions of global or national events, while others are equipped for pre or post-theater socializing. It is helpful to know the differences in order to have a total coffeehouse experience.

With those thoughts in mind, here is a traveler’s sampler to provide a basic introduction into the world of Viennese coffee. It is not meant to be definitive in any way, but purely to offer a bit of insight into a truly unique travel experience.
Chocolates are huge part of the coffeehouse tradition in Vienna  (wikipedia)
We begin with Café Central because it is one of the best known, and said to be the grandest, of all coffeehouses in Vienna. Because of that it has become a popular attraction for tourists and less so for local fashionistas. It was often frequented by the likes of Freud, Trosky and other notable writers and philosophers since opening in 1876 in the former Vienna Stock Exchange. To savor the echoes of the past and enjoy the spirit of a different world the best time to visit is midday. 

Cafe Demel dates to the 18th century and is one of the most popular coffeehouses in Vienna  (wikipedia)
Café Demel is another favorite. Designed in Baroque style and situated near the Hofburg Palace, Demel is part of Vienna’s famous chocolatier, K&K Hofzuckerbäcker. The café dates to 1786, and features some of the best confections in town in a city famous for its pastries. A great place to go for a mid-afternoon break. 
Buchteln are popular sweet buns at Cafe Hawelka (wikipedia)


Karl Kraus, the famous essayist once wrote, “Old Vienna was once new.” Not true if you visit Café Hawelka. Hawelka is traditional as it can get in Vienna, attracting curiosity seekers from all over the world. It has long been another popular gathering spot for artists and writers. So much so that it is said that entire books have been written in the café. Visit in the morning as soon as it opens or at ten at night when the famous Austrian sweet buns, called Buchteln, are served hot from the oven.  

CaféSacher gets a nod because it is part of the world famous Hotel Sacher which created the even more famous chocolate dessert known as Sacher Torte. The open terrace setting facing the Vienna Opera House creates a delightful ambience during the summer. Open from 8 am to midnight, and any time of day or night is a good time to visit.
The Sacher Torte is a world famous, scrumptious dessert  (wikipedia)
No trip to Vienna would be complete with a mention of Mozart. Café Mozart opened shortly after the death of the great composer in 1794. Located in Albertina Square behind the opera house, this smoke-free setting also features an open air section. While the café is open from 8 am until midnight, the signature “Third Man Breakfast” is only served until three in the afternoon. 

Try a "little night music" at the popular Mozart Cafe (wikipedia)
By the way, if you shy away from tradition, there’s always Starbucks. There are nine of them in Vienna.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Avignon: France’s medieval Vatican City is the gateway to Provence



The Palace of the Popes was once the seat of the Papacy in Avignon, France during the 14th century  (wikipedia)
AVIGNON, FRANCE Like St. Louis, which is the gateway to the west in the United States, historic Avignon begins the route to Provence and the south of France. Each is represented by dominant symbols which signify their prominence; St. Louis with its arch and Avignon with its historic Palace of the Popes.

Avignon opened a state of the art TGV station in 2001 (wikipedia)
Today, thanks to the wonder of high speed rail technology, Avignon is more accessible than ever before, not only from France but other Europeans cities as well.

From Paris, a TGV covers the distance of roughly 450 miles in less than three hours, making a Paris/Provence holiday a delightfully diverse combination of destinations for travelers.
Situated on the Rhone River, just above its confluence with the Durance, Avignon was founded by the Greeks on an untamed promontory along the river route used by Greek, Marseille and Italian sailors seeking trade with Northern Europe.

Thanks to the Rhone and its geographic location on the primary route between Spain and Italy, Avignon flourished in the Middle Ages. So much so, that its majestic ramparts were doubled around the city in the 14th century to ensure its safety and protect its wealth.
The Papal Palace, home of the Catholic Church for 70 years, has walls that are 18 feet thick  (wikipedia)
It was another event however, that brought prestige to Avignon which has lasted into modern times and made it a thriving UNESCO World Heritage site as well as a popular base for exploring Provence. The turning point came in 1309 when Pope Clement V moved the seat of the Papacy from Rome to Avignon.



High speed TGVs make Avignon readily accessible  (wikipedia)
The move altered Avignon’s place in history and changed its architectural physiognomy forever. A decision which, even today, is a major contributor to the city’s economic welfare.

Known as Altera Roma, the “City of the Popes,” Avignon became a thriving multicultural metropolis overnight. For seventy years, it was the center of Catholicism under the leadership of seven popes and two anti-popes.

In 1377, Gregory XI decided to take the seat of the Papacy back to Rome resulting in an ecumenical division in the church that became known as the Great Schism. Thus with the Catholic Church in disarray, the two popes who followed Gregory XI in Avignon, Clement VII and Benedict XIII, became known as “anti-popes.”

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the pope’s tenure in central France were the immediate construction projects that resulted because of their presence. The ramparts of the city, though impressive, were not strong enough to provide the necessary protection. As a result, the “Palais de Papes”, or Papal Palace, was built upon a natural outcropping of rock between 1335 and 1364 featuring impregnable thick 17-18 foot walls.

After the French Revolution, the palace became a barracks and later, a prison before being renovated into its present configuration as a museum.

Following Clement V, each successive pope added his own personal imprint to the building making it one of the largest medieval buildings in Europe. Today, the palace is among the most visited attractions in France thanks to the twists of history and the vision of Jean Vilar who created the Avignon Theatre Festival in 1947.

The international festival for the performing arts takes place annually in July incorporating the courtyard of the palace as an immense open-air stage. Two other major events happen in conjunction with the theater festival, one before and a jazz fest afterward, making Avignon a lively destination throughout the summer.

The city is served by two railway stations; the historic Gare d’Avignon-Centre, built in 1860, is situated just beyond the city walls, and the modern high speed Gare d’Avignon TGV that is part of the Mediterranean line connecting northern and southern France. Spain, Italy, Switzerland and, thanks to the Channel Tunnel, even England are convenient destinations for visiting Avignon.
The Bridge of Avignon, Pont Saint-Benezet, was rebuilt many times but today only spans half of the River Rhone  (wikipedia) 
Another popular sites in Avignon is the Pont Saint-Benezet, also known as the Bridge of Avignon. Today the bridge only partly exists, making it a popular landmark for visitors.

Following a siege of the city, the bridge was rebuilt with 22 stone arches that often collapsed during regular flooding of the Rhone. Ultimately, further reconstruction was abandoned in the 17th century, leaving the original bridge, built in 1345 by Pope Clement VI, extending only partly across the river with only just arches remaining.

One note of caution for visitors to Avignon, superb as the rail service to Avignon may be, taxis leave much to be desired. Cabs must be called for by phone and may take longer to arrive than reasonable expectations in a relatively compact community. Prepare for such eventualities by allowing ample time for transfers.
Avignon is the threshold to the stunning beauty of the Provence region of central France  (wikipedia)
Today, the ancient ramparts remain, giving Avignon a medieval flair as the entrance to one of the most beautiful regions in France. It’s an ideal site for a base to visit Provence and, with excellent TGV rail services, a Paris/Provence vacation is an ideal way to journey through France.