Friday, November 28, 2014

Exquisite dining and St. Lucia’s Day are a Nobel Prize for Sweden

Stockholm, Sweden blends the best of the old with the best of the new  (wikipedia)
STOCKHOLMSWEDEN, November 28, 2014 – What do Thanksgiving and the Nobel Prize ceremonies have in common? They are both highlighted by a gala feast that rivals any other meal of the year. With that in mind here’s a little food for thought.

With the growth of international air service, off-season travel is becoming increasingly popular and, believe it or not, Sweden has much to offer during the winter.

Nobel Banquet setting in 2006  (wikipedia)
December 10th is the day when Stockholm is abuzz with activity for the awarding of the Nobel Prizes. All except for the Peace Prize, that is, which is presented annually in Oslo, Norway. Approximately 1,300 winners, families and invited guests attend the Nobel Banquet which has been held in the Blue Hall of Stockholm’s City Hall since 1974.

For the first 29 years of the Nobel ceremonies the banquet took place in the Hall of Mirrors at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. Despite several changes in venue for the banquet over the past century, Hotel Grand still serves as the official headquarters and residence for the prize winners.

Grand Hotel, Home of the Nobel Prize winners (wikimedia)
Each Nobel Banquet has a theme which is represented by the decorations and the entertainment during the evening’s festivities. Some 23,000 flowers consisting of lilies, orchids, gladioli and roses, are grown especially for the occasion and flown in from the Italian Riviera in San Remo where Alfred Nobel spent the last years of his life.

As one might expect, the menus for the festivities are a highlight, but the selection process is almost as revered as the Nobel prizes themselves. Three chefs with international credentials are selected to compete by submitting menus for tasting and testing each September.

There is more to the process than simply designing a culinary feast for the Nobel laureates however. Though distinctly Scandinavian, the menus must be designed to accommodate the various cultural and religious considerations of the select guests at the banquet.

Once chosen, the menu remains a secret until the actual day of the feast.

Stockholm Town Hall, site of the Nobel banquet  (wiklpedia)
But here is the hook for traveler’s visiting Stockholm, which is something that can only be done in that city. While most people will never experience the aura of participating in the actual Nobel Prize festivities, it is still possible to enjoy the exact meal served at any Nobel Banquet between 1901 until 2004.

With a little advance notice, Stockholm’s City Hall Cellar, known as Stadshuskallaren in Swedish, will prepare any Nobel dinner for its guests. As an example here is the Nobel menu from the year 1980:

Saumon fumé aux épinards
Œuf poché

Filet de renne aux chanterelles
Sauce Akvavit, pommes lyonnaise
Salade et gelée

Parfait Glace Nobel
Petits fours
G. H. Mumm Cordon Rouge, Brut
Château Landreau 1976
Eau minérale Ramlösa

Long John Whisky
Bols Silver Top Dry Gin
Visitors who participate in this rare dining experience receive a certificate featuring their names and the designation of the Nobel menu they selected.
Traditional Lucia procession in Sweden  (wikipedia)
Another tradition which has been observed throughout the years in Sweden and Norway is known as St. Lucy’s Day. Today the feast day of Santa Lucia is also popular in several other countries. The Lucia, which roughly approximates the shortest day of the year, is celebrated on December 13th with a procession of girls dressed in white gowns. The lead girl wears a crown of candles (or lights), while the others follow carrying a single candle.
At the same time, everyone sings a familiar traditional melody from Naples, Italy as the young women enter the room. The candles are symbolic of the fire that would not take St. Lucia’s life when she was sentenced to death by burning.
A second metaphorical meaning of the candles is highlighted by Santa Lucia’s victory over darkness.
In the early 19th century it became a Swedish tradition for the oldest daughter to awaken her parents on the morning of the Lucia with coffee and St. Lucia buns while wearing her candle-crown and singing the Neopolitan song. If there were other daughters in the family, they would follow the oldest sister.
Old Town (Gamla Stan), Stockholm, Sweden (wikipedia)
Today many cities throughout Scandinavia elect an official Lucia for the community and then have a public procession to honor the maids. Though not an official holiday, the tradition began in 1927 in Stockholm when a local newspaper chose the Lucia for the city that year.

Over the decades the Lucia has become a favorite occasion. Many universities hold large formal dinner parties for students to celebrate together before returning to their families for Christmas.

St. Lucy's Day or the Lucia as celebrated in Sweden  (wikipedia)
In many ways the Lucia represents a simpler time as a celebration of the re-birth of light. It is not difficult to see why such an event would become so popular during the Christmas season in a land where the short days of winter are filled with darkness.

The experiences of a sumptuous banquet and the moving local tradition of the Lucia are truly a Nobel Prize for travelers to Sweden in winter.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Farmacia Santa Maria Novella: The essence of Florence, Italy

The Duomo of Florence, Italy at night  (wikipedia)
FLORENCE, ITALYNovember 21, 2014 – On a quiet street, far from the madding crowds in the center of Florence, Italy, a tiny piece of heaven nestles hidden among the multitude of buildings that line the avenue.

Its name, Officina Profumo, offers little description for non-Italian speaking travelers, and even when translated, the words “Office of Perfume” don’t even begin to do it justice. It is the same feeling you get when you learn that Ponte Vecchio simply means “Old Bridge.”

The Pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella is both art museum and apothecary  (wikipedia)
Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, the complete name for Officina Profumo, is one of the world’s oldest pharmacies dating to the year 1221. Founded by Dominican friars who began making herbal remedies and perfumes for their monastery nearly, it would take 400 years for the pharmacy to gain international public recognition.

Thanks to the sponsorship of the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1612, the world quickly learned about Santa Maria Novella’s vast range of products. Even today the pot-pourri is popular around the globe and continues to be produced in huge terra cotta vats using traditional essences and plants that are the same as those in the 13th century.

Entrance to Farmacia Santa Maria Novella (wikipedia)
Like its name, and its reputation, Officina Profumo must be sought after to be enjoyed. Even when you know the address at Via della Scala 16, it is easy to walk past it if you are not observant. In truth, you may even be standing at the front door and not realize you are there.

Peer through the windows to view a long, dark corridor that gives the illusion of emptiness or closure even when the pharmacy is open for business. Be bold. Enter and make your way down the dimly lit hallway that suddenly reveals itself into the Sistine Chapel of Perfume. You have arrived at the essence of discovery.

Take time to linger. Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is not to be rushed. You are surrounded by soaps, balms, medications, perfumes and aromas all magnificently displayed beneath Renaissance arches and frescoed ceilings. You have entered a pharmacy of the soul.

Each Officina Profumo product has a story, and there are many. The precious Acqua della Regina perfume, for example, was originally created for Catherine de 'Medici, the Queen of France in the 1500s. Known as “Water of the Queen” Catherine made it popular throughout France

Elixers of the gods  (wikipedia)
It would be nearly 300 years, however, before it would become the first “Eau de Cologne” in history. That is when Giovanni Feminis took it, and the recipe, with him to Cologne, Germany and renamed it “Acqua di Cologne” in tribute to the city where it was produced.

No matter. The original formula from the days of Catherine de Medici was preserved, and if you simply purchase a product called “Santa Maria Novella” you will be buying the pharmacy’s signature fragrance.

The myriad of soaps are made from whole milk and each with its own fragrance ranging from Honeysuckle, Rose and Iris to Patchouli, Marescialla and Calycanthus. Of course, there are the traditional romantic essences of Jasmine, Violet and Lily of the Valley as well.

Interior of the Pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy  (wikipedia)
Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella a place to bath yourself in the luxury of an ambience where the  showrooms are enticing enough, even without the delicious fragrances wafting through the surroundings.

Unlike most emporiums of a similar nature, Santa Maria Novella is not just for the ladies. The history, the art and architecture offer more than enough atmosphere to keep male visitors equally entranced. In fact, the allure of the surroundings is as much of an enticement to buy as the aromas themselves.

In keeping with the times, new offerings have been created by Eugenio Alfandery, the current proprietor, mixing old world formulas with modern technology and local ingredients whenever possible. Each batch is hand made and closely supervised according to age-old recipes and methods using the strictest guidelines to ensure consistency and quality.

Florence is a city of art and artisans and Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella comfortably satisfies both. In the home of Michelangelo and The David, the Ponte Vecchio and the Uffizi Gallery, many travelers overlook this delightful museum of perfume in the world’s most elegant pharmacy.

Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is proof positive that sometimes traveling just makes good scents.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The fabulous magnificent chateaux of the Loire Valley

Sunset at Chateau Chambord in the Loire Valley of France  (wikipedia)
LOIRE VALLEY, FRANCE, November 14, 2014 – Everybody loves castles.

With more than 300 chateaux (castles), the Loire Valley may have the highest concentration of architectural splendor in the world. For the traveler, it translates to an unlimited array of historic sites just waiting to be discovered.

In the 10th century castles were necessary for defense, but over the next five hundred years, which incorporated the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, French kings went on an architectural binge in the lush Loire Valley.

Chateau Azay-le-Rideau (wikipedia)
Not wanting to be far from court, the nobility soon followed and, before long, the verdant, fertile region, known for its vineyards and gardens, was attracting the finest architects and landscape designers in the world.

In 2000, the central portion of the Loire River Valley became a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, a designation which automatically signifies a worthwhile destination for a pilgrimage.

Chateau Azay-le-Rideau sits on the Indre River in the Loire Valley  (wikipedia)

Among the most popular of the Loire Valley chateaux is Azay-le-Rideau, located in the village of the same name. Nestled on an island in the center of the Indre River and built on the site of a former 12th century fortress, Azay-le-Rideau is regarded as a superb example of French Renaissance design and architecture.
Interior of Chateau Azay-le-Rideau  (wikipedia)

When Gilles Berthelot, the Mayor of Tours, acquired the property in 1518, his reconstruction concept was to marry contemporary residential status with aspects of the medieval past. Built in Italian Renaissance style, Azay-le-Rieau was competed in 1827 after nine years of restoration.

Reflections of the Chateau of Women, Chateau de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France  (wikipedia)
Chateau de Chenonceau:

With its stunning series of arches spanning the River Cher, Chateau de Chenonceau is a visual feast.

Chenonceau is often referred to as “Le Chateau des Dames” (the Chateau of Women) because of the five aristocratic women who left their personal imprints on its design. For that reason, the castle features distinctively feminine elements, and it is smaller than many chateaux in the region.

Staircase at Chenonceau  (wikipedia)
Chenonceau was the favorite residence of Queen Catherine de Medici who was known for her grandiose parties, including the first fireworks display in French history in 1560.

Among the famous features of Chenonceau is the elaborate staircase decorated with human figurines, fruits and flowers. It was one of the first straight staircases in France and is covered with a pitch vault with interconnecting ribs.

Chenonceau is also noted for its fabulous collections of 16th and 17th century tapestries and paintings by Rubens, Rigaud, Nattier and Van Loo and remains one of the top tourist attractions in France.

Chinon was the site where Joan of Arc claimed she heard voices from heaven  (wikipedia)

Chateau de Chinon:
Though many people have heard of Chateau de Chinon, they may not know why. During the 15th century Charles VII encountered Joan of Arc who claimed to hear voices from heaven. As a test, Joan was challenged to identify Charles though she had never met him.
In an attempt to trick Joan, another man was chosen to represent Charles, but she was not deceived. Impressed by her clairvoyance, the regent granted Joan the supplies she needed and sent her into battle at Orleans.
Since 1840, Chinon has been recognized by the French Ministry of Culture as a national historical monument.

Villandry is most famous for its spectacular gardens  (wikipedia) 
Chateau de Villandry:

Chateau de Villandry is famous more for its fabulous gardens than its architecture. Like so many of the Loire Valley chateaux, it, too, began as an ancient fortress.

Luxurious gardens of Villandry  (wikipedia)

Today, the gardens are laid out in formal themed patterns with low box hedges. Among the most popular are the water garden, the ornamental flower gardens and the vegetable gardens.

In the early 19th century, Emperor Napoleon acquired Villandry for his brother Joseph. Now owned by the Carvallo family, it is one of the more popular chateaux in France.

Aerial view of the exquisite Chateau de Chambord in the Loire Valley  (wikipedia)
Chateau de Chambord:

No Loire Valley visit is complete without seeing Chateau de Chambord, the largest and one of the most recognizable chateaux in the world. Originally built as a hunting lodge for Francois I, some sources claim it was designed by Leonardo da Vinci.

Chambord's famed double helix staircase  (wikipedia)
Other than the massive size, the thing that immediately impresses travelers about Chambord is the façade with more than 800 sculpted columns.

The multitude of towers is also striking. Lacking turrets and spires, they are not typically French. Rather, they resemble the 15th century minarets of Milan, giving rise to the belief that da Vinci played a role in the design.

Chambord is unique in many ways. Surrounded by a 13,000 acre park and game reserve, there are no nearby villages. Food was either imported for Chambord’s guests or hunted within the forest.

To showcase his vast wealth and power, Francois had the rooftop designed to accommodate large parties and shooting events. Eleven styles of towers and three versions of chimneys emerge from the roof, which has no symmetry.

Unlike many of the castles in the region, Chambord was not constructed with defense purposes in mind, so its walls, towers and partial moat were merely a decorative consideration.

Chambord is not only impressive but it is also dramatic  (wikipedia)
Many major works of art from the Louvre in Paris were stored at Chambord during World War II and Disney depicted the castle in its 1991 animated film Beauty and the Beast as the residence of the Beast.

The seemingly limitless array of chateaux in the Loire Valley is some of the best in the world.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Lindisfarne: England’s Holy Island and its Viking history

Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island  (wikipedia)
YORKSHIRE, ENGLAND  When the Vikings landed on Lindisfarne in 793 A.D., they changed the course of English history forever.

Also known as Holy Island, Lindisfarne, which measures slightly more than a mile in length and just over two miles in width, nestles just off the Northumberland coast of England near the border of Scotland

Driving the causeway to Lindisfarne  (wikipedia)
By day strong tides from the mainland separate Lindisfarne and turn it into the sort of romantic destination curious travelers seek to satisfy their wanderlust spirit. It’s a place that must be pursued rather than arrive in as a result of a happy accident.

Because of its tiny size and limited number of attractions, most visitors are day-trippers here. Unless you intentionally plan to spend the night at the Holy Island a visit becomes an adventurous challenge of beginning and ending this journey before the tide rolls in to make you a “prisoner” for roughly six hours
Majestic Lindisfarne Castle  (wikipedia)
Whether you choose to walk or to drive, the key to a successful excursion is checking tide schedules and weather reports. In general, the causeway, which is really nothing more than a narrow strip of tarmac across the sea floor, is open three hours after high tide until two hours before the next high tide.

Once there, however, Lindisfarne is a medieval delight with its pastoral sheep-laden settings, ancient ruins, hilltop castle and quaint village shops and cafes. Among the most popular delicacies are the crab sandwiches, for which local diners also slog their way to the island to enjoy.

Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory  (wikipedia)

The priory, now a ruin after much of it was pillaged to create the castle, was founded by the Irish monk St. Aiden in 635. For nearly 150 years it was a Christian base in northern England and a refuge of sublime isolation until the Vikings arrived with their fierce warring bands of marauders.

Before the Vikings, the patron saint of Northumberland, Saint Cuthbert, became Bishop of Lindisfarne. His life and miracles were significant enough to be recorded by the Venerable Bede, a scholarly monk at a Northumbrian monastery who was the first English church historian.

Viking raids changed history at Lindisfarne  (wikimedia)
Viking raids brought havoc to the region and by 875 the monks fled the island along with St. Cuthbert’s bones, which are now interred at Durham Cathedral.

As one scholar in Charlemagne’s court wrote about the Viking raids, “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race…The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled bodies of saints in the temple of God.”

Lindisfarne was mostly a fishing and farming community for centuries. But it also had an important lime burning industry with kilns considered to be among the most advanced in the region. Though abandoned after the Industrial Revolution, the wagon roads and pathways between the quarries and kilns still exist and are now an enjoyable walking tour for visitors.

Priory ruins on Holy Island  (wikipedia)
When the monastery was at its peak, Holy Island was, and remains today, known for its mead. Lindisfarne’s ancient grog was said to fortify the body for doing God’s work. The secret recipe is closely guarded by family at St. Aidan’s Winery, which still produces the drink and distributes it throughout the UK.

Carving at Holy Island, Yorkshire, England  (wikimedia)
The other significant landmark on the island is Lindisfarne Castle built atop a volcanic mound known as Beblowe Craig. Constructed in the 1550s from the stones of the priory when Henry VIII was ridding the country of its monasteries, the castle is reminiscent of Mont St. Michel in France. Though considerably smaller, and not nearly as majestic as its French cousin, the setting for Lindisfarne Castle makes it one of the most distinct and picturesque features of the island that otherwise sweeps to the sea with green meadows and grazing sheep.

Thanks to the Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve, bird watching is among the most popular pursuits on the island. With nearly 9,000 acres of land, visitors can observe more than 300 species of birds together with a brilliant display of marine life.

Part of what makes Lindisfarne relatively obscure is its isolation, which is also much of its charm.

Lindisfarne: Getting There

The best way to arrive is by train to the mainline station at Berwick-upon-Tweed. From London take the Edinburgh GNER line from King’s Cross Station.

Berwick-upon-Tweed, by the way, is the last English town before Scotland.

There is public bus service from the railway station to the island, but the frequency varies so it is probably better to take a taxi.

If you are driving, take the A1 to Beal and then turn east toward Holy Island. Beal is about 8 miles south of Berwick-upon-Tweed and roughly 5 miles to the causeway for Lindisfarne.

Holy Island and Lindisfarne at high tide  (wikipedia)
While it is a bit tricky to reach, and not to everyone’s liking, for those who enjoy exploration and discovery, Lindisfarne Island is a marvelous place for an outing. It is small in size, but long in history, literature and music.