Friday, October 21, 2016

Floral splendor at Bodnant Garden in Wales

The Labernum Arch at Bodnant Garden in Wales  (wikipedia)
 WALESIn Wales it is known as “Gardd Bodnant.” For those of us who find Welsh a difficult language, primarily due to the absence of vowels, it is simply called Bodnant Garden.”

No matter how you say it, in any language, Bodnant Garden in the Conwy Valley in Wales is nothing less than breathtaking.

Begun in 1875, the 80 acre garden surrounds Bodnant House, an estate which was first laid out by the successful industrial chemist Henry David Pochin. The house itself was built in 1792, but was later remodeled by Pochin in 1874. Upon his death in 1895, Pochin’s daughter inherited the property.
Blooms everywhere you look

In 1949, the gardens, but not the house or other parts of the estate, were presented, with an endowment, to the National Trust. Since 1911 when Pochin’s daughter became the first Baroness of Aberconway, four generations of the family have actively and lovingly participated in the management of the gardens.

As with any great garden, the varieties of flowers are seasonal, but travelers wishing to maximize their visit usually choose March or April as the prime viewing time. That said, no time is a bad time to take in the myriad of ornamental pools nestled beneath their lordly mansion that overlooks Rhododendrons and Azaleas as well as noted collections of Magnolia, Camellia, Clematis and Hydrangea.

Over its more than one hundred year history, Bodnant Garden has built a worldwide reputation for its breeding program.

Is it a garden or are they gardens? It’s difficult to decide.

The Bodnant Estate began in the 1790s  (wikipedia)

The property is divided into two sections: the upper level around the estate features massive Italianate terraces and formal lawns with paths descending to the lower level known at “The Dell”, a wooded valley, stream and garden complete with an Old Mill, Mill Pond and a spillway waterfall that babbles its waters into the River Hiraethlyn.

Much of the genius of Bodnant Garden is the manner in which the landscape architecture is laid out. Nothing is left to chance. From the moment visitors arrive, there is no doubt about which direction they will look to view the flowering masterpieces blooming before them. It’s all part of the design.

It all began rather innocently in the 1790s when tree planting was begun to enhance the surroundings. Nearly a century later, the Dell garden was created along with the world famous Laburnum Tunnel.

The Lily Pond is a favorite site at Bodnant Garden  (wikipedia)
It was the second Lord Aberconway who started the collection of Rhododendrons and Magnolias. His enthusiasm for growing the proper seeds was passed on to his son and the rest is history.

By 1938 a Pin Mill had been imported from the Cotswolds to serve as a garden pavilion on the Canal Terrace.

One note of caution, do not be fooled by information stating the “Length of Visit” should be 2 hours plus. De-emphasize the number “2” and plan on the “plus” because this is a venue that captivates the imagination and should not be rushed.

Bodnant is said to be “one of the finest gardens in the country.” That is pure understatement. Situated in an idyllic setting above the River Conwy with extensive views of the Snowdonia Mountain Range, it is impossible to imagine  another garden site that can outdo Bodnant.

From mid-May to mid-June is the best time to view the Laburnum Arch with its spectacular mass of yellow blooms.

At other times of the year you will be rewarded with carpets of golden Daffodils and flowering Cherry Trees residing in the formal garden, the Lily Pond, the Japanese Garden or the Dell with its array of forested mosses and ferns that reach upward from clear gurgling streams toward a charming wooden bridge.
The streamside azalea garden is a favorite  (wikipedia)
Of the numerous specimen trees in the woodlands of the Dell you will discover California Redwoods, an Oregon Douglas Fir and a Dawn Redwood, a species from China that was previously believed to be extinct.

Situated above the Dell is the family mausoleum known as “The Poem” from which emanates a network of shrubberies and the Rosemary Garden to the front lawn across to the Round Garden.

Bodnant Garden is a year-round attraction. In winter months the gardens are open from 10 am until 4 pm. Add an extra hour from March through October when closing is at 5 pm. The only days they are closed is December 24 – 26.

Prices can vary and sometimes do change so it is best to visit the website for ticketing and other information.
The Dell includes the family mausoleum  (wikipedia)
Bodnant Garden is one of those great “discoveries” that makes travel

an incurable condition. Here you almost expect to see a naked man 

and woman romping through the forest because Eden must have 

certainly paled by comparison.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The amazing open-air “CabriO” cable cars of Stans, Switzerland

Riding atop the CabriO cable car from Stans, Switzerland  (Taylor)
STANS, SWITZERLAND James Bond spent some time in Switzerland, but it was in Rio de Janeiro where he battled with a character named “Jaws” on top of a cable car. Thanks to modern technology and innovation, if you visit Stans, Switzerland, you, too, can ride into the clouds atop a cable car. Best of all you won’t even have to indulge in fisticuffs to do it.

Believe it or not, you probably know of the tiny village of Stans without even knowing you know it.

In fact, 007 and Stans have a lot more in common than you might think.
The funicular is one of
Switzerland's oldest  (Taylor)
Tucked away about 20 minutes by train from the popular resort village of Lucerne, Stans, with its population of just over 8,000, is the capital and largest town in the canton (state) of Nidwalden.

Locals have long made their way to nearby Stanserhorn mountain for hiking. Stanserhorn rises 1.2 miles above sea level as it peers down at the Lake of Lucerne.

Public transportation to the peak opened in 1893 when Franz Josef Bucher-Durrer and Josef Durrer-Gasser opened a three sectioned funicular railway. As such, the Stanserhorn Railway is one of the oldest mountain trains in Switzerland.
Pristine pastures and rural lifestyles near Stans  (Taylor)
For nearly eighty years the rack and pinion trains operated their 45-minute journeys from Stans to Kalti to Bluematt before reaching the summit station and its hotel. The third section also featured a 520 foot tunnel en route to the top.

Lightning struck the third section of the funicular cable in 1970 destroying the driving engine and burning the summit hotel to the ground. Within four years the second section ceased operations in 1974, leaving only the original wooden coaches running to an altitude of 2,343 feet in 9 minutes.
High above the Lake of
Lucerne (Taylor)

Within a year, a cable car was built to replace the upper funiculars while the first railway section underwent renovations to restore the wooden cars back to their classic
style. In typical Swiss fashion, visitors receive a thick cardboard ticket as a souvenir of the funicular’s historic past.
The observation tower offers stunning views  (Taylor)
By 2001, a revolving restaurant was added at the summit station, complete with a revolving restaurant that slowy completes one revolution  in 45-minutes, giving diners a 360-degree panoramic experience.

Two years later, a state-of-the-art contemporary observation deck opened to offer breathtaking views of the Alsace and Black Forest in Germany as well as ten lakes in the region.
Snow capped Alpine peaks beckon from the summit  (Taylor)
So how does this little known burg of Stans, Switzerland find its way into the annals of pop culture through the enduring brand of James Bond who has captivated movie-goers for more than a half-century?

In the third Bond film, “Goldfinger”, arguably the most popular title of the 007 saga, Bond tails his archenemy Auric Goldfinger into Switzerland in an effort to discover what the mega-villain is planning.
A bold experience on the CabriO  (Taylor)
In the process, Bond tracks Goldfinger to his headquarters where he is eventually captured by the master criminal. In reality, the plant where the British agent is taken prisoner is the home of Pilatus Aircraft which is located in, of all places, Stans, Switzerland.
The funicular features renovated original coaches (Taylor)
Established in 1939 to perform maintenance for the Swiss Air Force, it was decided that Pilatus Aircraft should be located far from the Swiss borders. Initial plans even went so far as to consider building it inside a mountain. Even in 1939, it is difficult to deny that that idea has a James Bond ring to it.

But there is more, and this is where the story gets fun.

In June, 2012, a new double deck open top cable car debuted with a stunning innovation that allows passengers to actually ride on top of the car, thereby providing magnificent scenic views of alpine pastures and mountain peaks during the six minute journey to the top.
A spiral staircase leads to the top of the CabriO  (Taylor)
The "CabriO" cablecar features a spiral staircase leading to the upper deck. Capacity is 60 passengers in the lower cabin with room for 30 more on top.

Unlike earlier cable car incarnations, the "CabriO" is not suspended by a single cable from the top. Instead it glides along two cables at the side of the cabs making the ride considerably smoother and far less jarring when it crosses transfer points.
The restaurant rotates for a 360-degree panorama  (Taylor)
Surprisingly, there is little sensation of height other than the breathtaking scenes that surround the passenger’s unimpeded views.

Though James Bond never fought on top of a Swiss cable car, he did meet up with a character named “Jaws” in Rio de Janeiro in “Moonraker.” Who knows, perhaps that was the inspiration for the “CabriO.”
As winter comes, the marmuts get ready to hibernate  (Taylor)
For the Swiss, the tiny village of Stans and its Stanserhorn Railway is one of the best kept secrets in the country. But they will happily share their treasure, as will the playful marmuts that entertain visitors with their daily performances up on the summit.

Stans is an easy and delightful outing for hikers and non-hikers alike. And one thing is certain, if you ride to the top on the “CabriO” your senses may be “stirred, but they won't be shaken.”

Friday, October 7, 2016

Switzerland’s annual procession of the cows

The procession of the cows in Charmey, Switzerland  (Taylor)

CHARMEY, SWITZERLAND The technical term for the annual ritual of moving animals from high ground to the valleys of mountainous regions of Europe is "Alpine transhumance." In Switzerland they simply call it the “procession of the cows.”

Though the seasonal migration has remained virtually unchanged since the Middle Ages in the Alpine regions of Europe, Alpine transhumance plays a significant role in the life and economy of rural mountain regions.
Sunday best  (Taylor)
The major difference today however, is that the Swiss, with their typical ingenuity, have turned it into a festival.

In the tiny village of Charmey (population approximately 8,000) in the Fribourg region of Switzerland, the party that began 37-years ago, has grown into a day long celebration of chocolate and cheese on the hoof.
Villagers arrive early in eager anticipation  (Taylor)
Village streets begin to fill with people about ten in the morning as onlookers eagerly await the first of a dozen families to parade their livestock through the main street of town.

Unlike their masters, Swiss cows do not maintain the same high level of punctuality, which therefore means a scheduled 10:30 arrival will likely take place sometime within the next half hour.
Alphorns are a big part of the tradition  (Taylor)
No matter. There are food stalls along side streets, markets and even a short parade consisting of traditional alphorns carried by local men garbed in traditional dress, followed by the Society of Bearded Gentlemen proudly displaying their most recent growth.
Society of bearded
gentlemen  (Taylor)

In another square there is yodeling and folk dancing to pass the time until far down the street behind a curve in the road, the first clanking of the cowbells can be heard, signaling that the main attraction is on its way.

Each cowbell has a different sound so that farmers can identify a particular animal even when he cannot see it.

After four decades of celebrating, the cows often wear their finest Sunday clothes as they parade through the streets just to put everyone in a good “mooed.” This is their day and they know it.
Each cowbell has its own sound  (Taylor)
Travelers wishing to experience the colorful pageant of the procession of the cows should make plans in advance due to the limited frequency of the festivals. Different villages decide upon different weeks for their descent from higher elevations, and there are also weeks when goats come down from the hills as well.
Picturesque hills of Fribourg  (Taylor)
That said, there are plenty of other things in Fribourg to keep a visitor occupied at any time of year. The town, which is bilingual with German and French being the two languages, nestles atop a small hill above the valley of the River Sarine. Protected on three sides by high cliffs, Fribourg features some majestic views that can be easily accessed by the local Petite Train which operates regularly from in front of the Tourist Office.
The Petite Train of Fribourg  (Taylor)
Fribourg’s name is derived from the German words frei (free) and burg (fort) dating to the year 1157 during a time when Switzerland was beginning to form into the cantons, or states, that exist today.

Charmey, which was a municipality in the Gruyeres district until 1914, was for many years the primary production center for Gruyere AOP cheese. At that time the cheese was produced largely in the mountains.

The quaint streets of Gruyeres  (Taylor)
One question often asked about Gruyeres is whether to spell it with or without the letter “S” at the end. The answer is simple; the town gets the “S” and the cheese doesn’t.

When the cows are not marching, the Gruyere baths in Charmey are a popular attraction for travelers wishing to “take the waters.” There are two large swimming pools, one indoors, the other outside, plus whirlpools, massage nozzles and Oriental steam baths.
The long road home for winter  (Taylor)

Keep in mind that a visit to Charmey for the procession of the cows may be far less daring than attempting to “run with the bulls” in Pamplona, Spain but it is just as colorful and a thousand times safer.

It’s a traditional ritual that makes for good dinner conversation when your journey to Switzerland has come to an end.

You see, one thing you quickly learn by attending the procession of cows in Charmey is that when it comes to festivals, the Swiss will party until “the cows come home.”

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam is an emotional experience

The secret hideaway where Anne Frank lived a lifetime in a few years  (wikipedia)
Amsterdam, Netherlands Anyone who ever visits the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam has the same response. It’s a natural phenomenon. Quiet footsteps. Whispered voices. Reverent solemnity. They are in the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, Holland.

Silence just naturally seems to be the appropriate thing to do.

For more than two years, Anne Frank, her family and four other people sequestered themselves in a hidden 500-square foot room hoping to survive the Nazi invasion of Europe. In the end, in August, 1944, they were captured as a result of an anonymous tip and sent to concentration camps.

During the two long years of confinement, a young girl named Anne Frank kept her sanity by occupying her time writing a novel. Writing was Anne’s dream. In another world, at another time, in another life she might have become a prolific journalist. And yet, little did she know the profound impact her efforts from her secret hiding place would have on the world.

Anne Frank portrait  (wikipedia)

Anne Frank was born in Frankfurt, Germany. Like so many other Jews in the 1940s, as World War II raged across Europe, Otto Frank and his family fled their homes seeking a safe haven free of persecution.
Otto settled in Amsterdam and started a small business. Moving into a house on the Prinsengracht there was hope that the war would not reach the Netherlands. That hope vanished on May 10th, 1940 as German troops stormed the city. Five days later, the Netherlands surrendered and the Nazi occupation began.
A city of bicycles  (wikipedia)
Otto Frank had attempted unsuccessfully to emigrate to England and the United States on several occasions, but eventually his family was forced to “hide out” in a secret room in their canal house in Amsterdam.
In Amsterdam people live on the canals  (wikipedia)
Due to the tax system, houses in Amsterdam are long and narrow.
Many people live on the canals in barges and houseboats, but the Frank home was on a typical bicycle infested street overlooking a canal.
Amsterdam skyline  (wikipedia)

Located at the rear extension of the building and concealed from view by houses on all four sides of a quadrangle, the “secret annex” seemed to be the perfect place to hide. Even today, questions arise about how it was discovered.

Dutch Resistance during the height of the war  (wikipedia)
Though living with seven other people in a 500-square foot room for two years, the always optimistic Anne wrote that her family’s plight was “luxurious” when compared others she had heard about.
Thanks to several of Otto Frank’s office workers, the family had food, clothing and books as well as information about the outside world.
Barges are a way of life in Amsterdam  (wikipedia)
For Anne, her favorite pastime was writing, and she soon began working on a novel she titled “The Secret Annex.”

Shortly before going into hiding, Anne had received a diary for her birthday, and following up on a radio request by the Minister of Education she began making regular entries into her book.

When the pages were filled with her notations, Anne decided to take her writings and begin re-writing them into “The Secret Annex.”

Immediately after the arrest of the Frank family, Miep Gies and Bep Voskuijl were able to rescue Anne’s diary and other papers that had been left behind during their hasty departure.

Of the eight people who lived in the Frank household, only Otto, the father survived the war. Anne, her sister Margot and her mother Edith were sent to Auschwitz where they all died from illnesses.
Following the war, Otto’s friends convinced him to publish his daughter’s diary and on June 25, 1947 the world became aware of Anne Frank’s writings. Though her life ended prematurely, Anne Frank succeeded in becoming one of the world’s foremost chroniclers of the struggles and desperation of Jews during the horrors of World War II.

Today, Amsterdam is a beautiful city nestled on canals and filled with bicycles and small bridges. It is famous for the works of Dutch painters Rembrandt and Van Gogh. And it is also the place where a teenage girl named Anne Frank lived much of her all-too-short live in secrecy.

Anne Frank's last home before going to a concentration camp  (wikipedia)

There are no signs at the Anne Frank House Museum telling visitors to respect the venue and the legacy of its story. It just happens naturally. Somehow people just know that this is a quiet place. A place of solitude and remembrance.

Anne Frank’s diary turns 70 next year. Somehow this poignant history seems older because it has been such a powerful reminder of the futility of war.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Riding the narrow gauge Great Little Trains of Wales

Riding at the summit of Mount Snowdon  (wikipedia)

WALES Travelers with a passion for trains will find a treasure trove of scenic miniature railroads in and around Snowdonia National Park in Wales. There are so many, in fact, that the GreatLittle Trains of Wales are a national monument that a Garden of Eden for rail enthusiasts.
Each railway is special in its own unique way, but they also share one characteristic; they are all narrow gauge stream trains with over a century of history.

Today the Great Little Trains of Wales are a major tourist attraction, but back in a simpler day, most of them were used to carry slate from the mountains to the sea. Even so, no two are the same and each offers its own personal story as they chug leisurely through the best scenery the country has to offer.

Here are some of the most popular Great Little Trains of Wales.
Bala Lake Railway is one of the newest  (wikipedia)
Bala Lake Railway: This railway is one of the youngest, opening only as a narrow gauge train in 1972. Though it is a rookie as far as narrow gauge trains are concerned, all the steam locomotives are more than 100 years old.

The steam engines are all ex-quarry machines with all but one coming from the slate quarry at Llanberis. The “Lone Ranger” was built in 1911 and was used by Rugby Portland Cement.

Today, Bala Lake Railway uses the original tracks of the former standard gauge Ruabon Barmouth line which comprised the Great Western Railway between Llanuwchllyn and what used to be Pen-y-bon Halt on the opposite side of Bala Lake to the market village of  Bala

The original standard gauge station and signal box are still in use.
Chugging through Snowdonia National Park  (wikipedia0
The Fairbourne Miniature Railway: What makes this narrow gauge train so unique is that it has had four different track gauges during its 100 year history.

Originally built as a horse-drawn tramway, it was converted to a miniature steam railway in 1916. Except for a halt in service during World War II, the Fairbourne Railway has carried passengers continuously since 1895.

Children especially enjoy the Fairbourne line because the steam engines are half the size of traditional narrow gauge locomotives. The route runs from Fairbourne through the breathtaking scenery of the Mawddach Estuary and the Cadair Idris mountains before arriving at Barmouth Ferry Station.

To make a full day of it, travelers can take a short boat ride into Barmouth.

Ffestiniog is great for history lovers   (wikipedia)
Ffestiniog Railway: For travelers with a penchant for history, the Ffestiniog Railway is the ideal “Great Little Railway.” It was established in 1832 by an act of parliament which makes it the oldest independent railway company in the world at 184-years.

Built to serve the slate industry of Blaenau Ffestiniog, this train was gravity powered, using brakemen who maintained control of the train by leaping from wagon to wagon to either tighten or loosen the brakes as it rumbled down the hillside. Up ahead another operator would blow the train whistle as a warning of its arrival.
Stunning Scenery  (wikipedia)

Eventually steam locomotives were added in 1860 and today the Ffestiniog Railway transports visitors through the stunning scenery of Snowdonia National Park.

Most trains start and finish at Porthmadog’s Harbour Station which is the headquarters of the railway.

Llanberis Lake Railway: This train begins in the town of Llanberis and takes you past the 13th century Dolbadarn Castle. It crosses Afon y Bala, which is said to be Britain’s shortest river, before entering Padarn Country Park where it joins the original slate railway beside Lake Padarn.

En route on the outbound journey are breathtaking views of Snowdon and surrounding peaks. During the return, there is a brief stop at Cei Llydan where passengers can get off and have a picnic. There is also a children’s play area.
Catch me if you can  (wikipedia)
Snowdon Mountain Railway: Arguably the most popular of the Great Little Trains of Wales, visitors from around the world have been using this line since 1896 to travel to the Summit of Snowdon. At 3,560 ft, Snowdon Mountain is the highest mountain in England and Wales.

It also boasts some of the most dramatic landscapes and scenery in the British Isles. Thanks to Victorian engineering at the turn of the 20th century, Snowdon Mountain Railway is the only public rack and pinion railway in the United Kingdom.

Talyllyn Railway begins in Tywyn  (wikipedia)
Talyllyn Railway: Beginning in Tywyn on the Mid-Wales coast, this railway opened in 1865.

Though the slate quarries closed just after World War II in 1946, passenger service continued. Today the terminus is Nant Gwernol, is situated seven miles from Tywyn with no road access. The line is operated by a full time workforce comprised of volunteers dedicated to the preservation of the railway line.

Tywyn now features the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum which opened in 2005 with two floors of exhibits that tell the history of narrow gauge railroading.

Of particular interest is the stop at Dolgoch where passengers can visit majestic waterfalls and take a variety of country walks.
Full head of steam on the Welsh Highland Railway  (wikipedia)

 Welsh Highland Railway: The attraction with this line is that it is said to be “rail travel as it used to be.” Next to the Snowdon Mountain Railway, the Welsh Highland Railway runs a close second to the awe-inspiring scenery of Snowdonia National Park.

Incorporating the world’s most powerful narrow gauge locomotives, which are stronger than standard gauge engines, and combined with first class Pullman carriages, the Welsh Highland Railway is regarded as one of the top experiences in North Wales.

The line begins beneath castle walls in Caemarfon before climbing to the foot of Snowdon and then descending to the sea at the harbor in Porthmadog.

There’s whale watching and there is “Wales watching”, and all you have to do is “train yourself.”