Friday, February 26, 2016

The enchanting and historic ancient walled city of York, England

Many cities in the United Kingdom have "Ghost Walks" but York, England is the perfect place for a scary stroll  (wikipedia) 
YORK, ENGLAND Situated on the east coast of Great Britain, roughly half way between London and Edinburgh, Scotland, the ancient walled city of York beckons to be explored. As the gateway to the Yorkshire Dales there is arguably no better place in the United Kingdom that, acre for acre, can offer more bang for a traveler’s buck than York, England.

A good way to get oriented is to circumnavigate the perfectly preserved walls surrounding the city. From there, walk into the heart of the village and immerse yourself in its ancient streets.

Located at the confluence of the Ouse and Foss Rivers, York has long been a crossroads as well as a backdrop for major political events throughout its two thousand year history.

The city was founded in 71 AD by the Romans and, at one time or another, during various campaigns, the Emperors Hadrian, Septimius Severus and Constantius I all held court in York.

The Jorvik Viking Centre is filled with history  (wikipedia)
In 866, the region of Northumbria was raided by the Vikings bringing York under their rule. It was during this period that York became a major river port for Viking trade throughout northern Europe. By 954, less than a century later, the last Jorvik (Viking) ruler, Eric Bloodaxe, was driven from the city during King Eadred’s successful efforts to unify England.

Over time, the word Jorkiv underwent numerous iterations before if eventually became known as “York.”

In 1068, two years after the Battle of Hastings and the Norman conquest of England, the citizens of York rebelled against the new leadership. Though successful, the victory was short-lived when William the Conqueror put down the uprising.

Over the next thousand years, York became a thriving center for wool, a hub for the growing railway network in the 19th century and a confectionery manufacturing center. All of which translates to a rich diversity of things for travelers to discover.
York's wall are completely intact which means you can orient yourself by walking the ancient walled path  (wikipedia)
Perhaps it is the surrounding walls that provide the slightly claustrophobic sense of concentration that makes everything in York is easily accessible.
York Minster is famous for its massive stained glass windows  (wikipedia)
Begin with the historic York Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe. Some of the stained glass in the church dates to the 12th century with the Great East Window, completed in 1408, still surviving as one of the largest examples of medieval stained glass in the world. Though the minster dwarfs the sense of proportion of the windows, many are larger than a full sized tennis court.

Next stroll to the ancient street known as the Shambles with its timber-framed buildings. This was the meat market in the 14th and 15th centuries where butchers displayed their wares. Though the butcher shops no longer remain, they were active until as recently as 1872.

The Shambles are a popular site  (wikipedia)
As you amble through the Shambles, stop to visit No. 10, which has become a shrine for the area. Today, the shop sells cufflinks rather than meat.

Though not in the city center, the Jorvik Viking Centre provides an excellent history of the influence of the Vikings on the region of Northumbria and their role in the history of the United Kingdom. Currently the museum is closed due to damage from flooding, but it is scheduled to reopen this year, so be sure to check before making a visit. The local tourist office will have any information you need.

One museum that should not be missed however, is the National Railway Museum outside the city walls of York. If you get nostalgic about the old days when steam engines made their way across steel tracks, this museum is for you.
The National Railway Museum is about transportation of all kinds including those famous double decked buses  (wikipedia)
Though the museum focuses upon the historic connections of the British railway system, it is actually a museum of transportation that features other modes of travel throughout the centuries.
If you miss Betty's Tea Rooms, your visit to York is not complete...Try the mint tea with scones and clotted cream  (wikipedia)

Just when the “thrill of victory” is ready to yield to the “agony of the feet” head for Betty’s Tea Rooms to sample mint tea and scones with clotted cream. Warning, Betty’s is a world famous institution so be prepared to wait…it is well worth it.

And speaking of confectionery delights, thanks to York’s chocolate history, you can even walk the city’s “Chocolate Trail” which is guaranteed to satisfy your sweet tooth cravings regardless of how large.

Clifford's Tower was built in the 11th century by William the Conqueror  (wikipedia)
Finally, no country has more ghosts per capita than the United Kingdom and, arguably, no city has a greater concentration of spooky stories than York. Many cities throughout England and Scotland feature ghost walks, but none are better than the ones in York.

London and Edinburgh may be larger, but York’s compact size combined with the sinister crooked shapes of its silhouetted buildings, add the ideal ambiance to these delightfully haunting and macabre stories.

Enter the medieval archways of York and indulge yourself in a world of history and nostalgic remnants of the past  (wikipedia)
With its narrow streets and medieval setting, York’s pubs are properly inviting and fun when it comes time to enjoy a pint with the locals.

For pure nostalgia and visiting England the way it “used to be” York just may be the place. At the very least it will capture your imagination as it whisks you back in time.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The grand railway hotels of Canada

The Banff Springs Hotel on Lake Louise in the Rocky Mountains is world famous for its scenery  (wikipedia)

 CANADA The story of the trans-Canada railway is more than a tale about the monumental task of building a railway across the upper regions of North America. It is also about the visionary enterprise of creating world class hotels for rail travelers. Every one of Canada’s railway hotels is a national landmark that have become symbols of the country’s history and architecture.

Each of these grand hotels is designed with its own personality and character.

Entrance to Chateau Laurier  (wikipedia)
At one time or another, we have all seen pictures of these magnificent “chateau style” structures but probably are unaware of the story behind them. Incorporating towers and turrets along with other elements of French and Scottish architecture, the railway hotels of Canada evolved into a form that is distinctly Canadian. The result is incomparable elegance and sophistication.

Though the properties themselves retain a singular theme, over time, with multiple companies involved and numerous competitive challenges, the complete history is a complex muddle. In the end however, the final result is pure pleasure for visitors.

This artist's rendering of Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City is typical of the grand hotel style  (wikipedia)

The first grand railway hotel opened in 1878 in Montreal. The Windsor Hotel, however, was not owned by a railway company. Instead it was built to host visitors from the nearby Windsor Station.

Construction on the transcontinental railway began in 1881 as part of a promise by Canada to British Columbia to join the Canadian Confederation ten years earlier.

Banff Springs Hotel as it looked in 1929  (wikipedia)
The Canadian Pacific Railway opened the first grand hotel built by a railway company in the spring of 1888 in Vancouver. Just two weeks later, CPR officially inaugurated what is arguably the most recognizable of Canada’s grand hotels in Banff.

William Cornelius Van Horne, then president of Canadian Pacific, personally chose the site of the Banff Springs Hotel in the Rocky Mountains saying, “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.”

The original hotel burned in 1926 and was replaced with the famed hotel we know today.

Soon after came the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City with its elevated site that overlooks the city as well as the Saint Lawrence River.

Interior of the Empress Hotel in Victoria (wikipedia)

In Victoria, British Columbia, the Empress Hotel followed. Today, visitors traveling to Vancouver and/or Victoria frequently treat themselves to high tea at the Empress, even if they do not spend a night at the property. High tea at the Empress is an international institution.

Eventually, the Grand Trunk Railway, the primary competitor of Canadian Pacific, entered the “war of grand hotels” and opened Chateau Laurier in Ottawa along with the Fort Garry Hotel and Macdonald Hotels in Edmonton. Much like Chateau Frontenac, the Macdonald’s elevated location offers magnificent views that further enhance the hotel’s grandeur.
Hotel Macdonald in Edmonton sits on a hill overlooking the river  (wikipedia)

By 1920, the Grand Trunk Railway merged into the Canadian National Railway, but the competition continued until 1958 when the Queen Elizabeth Hotel opened in Montreal over the Central Station. The Queen Elizabeth is regarded as the last true railway hotel in the country. Though both companies continued to open other properties in Canada, they had no ties to the trains.

Many of Canada’s railway hotels were owned and operated by the same company for the first time when Canadian Pacific acquired Canadian National.

The Empress Hotel at night where High Tea is a legendary experience  (wikipedia)
 Slightly more than a decade later, Fairmont Hotels and Resorts took over many of the landmark properties in 1999, though several are still managed by other chains today.

No matter. For travelers, it merely translates into the highest quality of accommodations with standards that are second to none.

Canada’s historic grand railway hotels whisk you back in time to the golden age of travel. It was an era when travelers explored the world for “travel’s sake.” A gentler time with an air of sophistication that is frequently lost in today’s contemporary rush of “checklist” tourism.

The Golden Age of travel still thrives within the grand Canadian Railway hotels.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Three spectacular new attractions open in Switzerland in 2016

Piz Gloria was Blofeld's hideaway in the Swiss Alps before James Bond brought him to justice  (swiss travel system)  

 SWITZERLAND When most people think of Switzerland they imagine chocolate, cheese, cuckoo clocks and yodeling. But when it comes to creativity and ingenuity, the Swiss are masters at accomplishing the impossible.

As a tiny landlocked nation surrounded by mountains, the Swiss are a model for the world at what hard work can achieve. The new year will be a showcase example as Switzerland unveils three major venues.

Gotthard Base Tunnel – In June, the long awaited Gotthard Base Tunnel will officially become the longest and deepest train tunnel in the world at 35 miles. At a depth of more than a mile, 6560 feet to be precise, travelers will comfortably burrow through the St. Gotthard Pass at 155 mph without ever again encountering the snows that often made the major connecting point between northern and southern Switzerland and Europe impossible to traverse.
When the Gotthard Base Tunnel opens in 2016 it will be the longest and deepest railway tunnel in the world  (wikipedia)
 Construction began in 1996. Now twenty years later, the tunnel will debut in June and, by December, it will open to the public, reducing north/south travel time by more than an hour.

Fear not, the other serpentine routes for motor vehicles and scenic trains will continue to be viable, picturesque alternatives, but when the inevitable snows of winter arrive, the Gotthard Base Tunnel will make access greater than ever before.

For the Swiss, it’s just another phase in improving and modifying the clockwork precision of their country.

State of the Art in Basel – No city its size has more, or better, museums than Basel, Switzerland. It has been an evolutionary process, but it did not happen in a vacuum.
Beyeler's collection in Basel is one of the best (wikipedia)

Perhaps the Louvre or the Prado or the Ufizzi Gallery are better known to travelers, but Basel’s Kuntsmuseum (Museum of Fine Arts) is one of the best of its kind in the world, and quite possibly, and comparatively one of the art world’s best kept secrets.

In April, Basel will open a new addition to their Fine Arts Museum featuring exhibitions intended to bridge the gap between the 15th century to Modern Times. Museum fur Gegenwartskunst, or for Americans just call it the New Building,will focus on collections from the late 20th and, of course, the 21st centuries.

Basel has a long and rich tradition in the world of art. Ask any Baseler and they will proudly let you know that, for its size, Basel has more quality museums per capita than any other city in the world.
Basel's Fine Arts Museum is one of the best of its kind in the world  (wikipedia
Switzerland has been a democracy for more than 7 centuries and, as such, art has always been a public proposition. Without a royal family, the Swiss have cultivated the concept that art should be “shared” and they are passionate in that belief.

Pablo Picasso personally donated several of his major works to Basel’s Kunstmuseum in appreciation for the city’s recognition of art.

Among its exhibitions Basel was home to Jean Tinguely and honors his contributions with a museum. There is also a Contemporary Art Museum, a Doll Museum, a working Paper Mill Museum and a superb collection of modern art at the Beyeler Foundation, a private collection that was valued at $1.85 billion at the time of his death in 2010.

Just outside Basel there are Roman ruins at Augusta Raurica and there is even an art hotel name Der Teufelhauf, or Devil’s House.

Thrill Walk on the Schilthorn – Travelers love to visit the Schilthorn and its revolving restaurant which was built as the set for the James Bond spy thriller On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Schilthorn cable car takes visitors to the revolving restaurant atop the Schilthorn  (
In July, there will be a new attraction for “thrill seekers” when the Thrill Walk on Mount Schilthorn will provide an adrenaline-boosting highlight in the Jungfrau Region not far from Interlaken.

The new walkway will begin at the sun terrace and head directly into the perpendicular rock facing of the Birg massif. Featuring steel grating and reinforced glass, the passage will hug the cliff beneath the observation deck and cable car line before re-emerging just below the cable car station.
Be sure to view the breathtaking waterfall on the way from the Schilthorn down to Lauterbrunnen  (wikipedia)
Weather can be tricky when visiting the Schilthorn or the Jungfraujoch but when the clouds disappear the scenery is beyond belief. As the old Broadway show once said, “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.”
Bring your best James Bond impersonation and see Switzerland as only 007 did.

Switzerland has mountains of ideas and more ways to enjoy them than you can imagine.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Seven delightful little unknown places for travelers

Aerial of Sintra, Portugal   (wikipedia)
CHARLOTTE, NC First there were the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, then the Seven Wonders of the Modern World followed by Seven Natural Wonders of the World, so why not Seven Little Wonders of the World.

Once travelers have visited all the must-see sights, the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the pyramids of Giza, the Colosseum, they begin to reach beyond their boundaries. Like artist Paul Gauguin, people afflicted with incurable wanderlust venture ever deeper into new realms of discovery.

Historian Daniel Boorstin once wrote, “A traveler goes in search of people, of adventure, of experience. A tourist goes for sightseeing. Just like the question is more interesting than a statement, and a road more intriguing than a map, I aspired to be a traveler. Be brave. Go through open gates.” This story is dedicated to curiosity seekers who dare to “Go through open gates.”

Here are 7 little known places to add to your traveling bucket list.
Souvenir shops in Alberobello, Italy where 400 "beehive" houses beckon visitors to explore  (wikipedia)
1 – Alberobello, Italy – Perhaps Lonely Planet describes this UNESCO World Heritage Site best when it says “Alberobello resembles an urban sprawl – for gnomes.”

Alberolbello is known for it “trulli” which are small circular limestone buildings dating to the 14th century. The dwellings featuring conical roofs incorporated a prehistoric construction technique which is still used in the southern region of Puglia in Italy.

Alberobello is a village of approximately 1500 whitewashed “beehives” that were built without mortar. It derives its name from the oak forest of Arboris Belli, or beautiful trees, that once thrived in the area.

2 – The Crooked Forest, Poland – Nobody really knows why the 400 pine trees in a small corner of western Poland grew with an arced bend at the base of their trunks.
Poland's Crooked Forest is still a mystery   (wikipedia)

Though still a mystery, it is believed the trees were planted around 1930 and the bending is the result of some type of human adaptation.

Located outside Nowe Czarnown, West Pomerania, Poland, the question is how it was accomplished and why. One theory is that the curves in the timber would be more useful in the production of furniture.

3 – Hanging Temple, China – This architectural wonder is built on a cliff near Mount Heng in the province of Shanxi in China. The monastery has more than 40 halls, cabinets and pavilions that are connected by evenly distributed and balanced corridors, bridges and boardwalks.
The Hanging Temple of China built more than 17 centuries ago clings to its cliffside home  (wikipedia)
Built in 491, the monks who inhabited the temple had three primary reasons for choosing the unusual site; first was to create a house of worship that showcased their determination, second was protection from weather, especially floods, and third was to promote unity among the Chinese people through a combination of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.

The halls contain about 80 vividly carved sculptures cast from bronze, iron, clay, copper and terracotta.

4 – Jain Temple, Ranakpur, India – Said to be the most spectacular Jain temple in the world. Situated between Jodhpur and Udaipur, India, Ranakpur is most famous for this marble architectural masterpiece.
Spectacular facade of the Jain Temple in Ranakpur, India  (wikipedia)
According to local legend, Dharma Shah, a businessman in the region, began construction in the 15th century after having a divine vision. It was built to honor Adinath, the founder of the Jain religion.

As with many temples in India, the Ranakpur is also noted for its huge population of monkeys which live in and around the grounds.
Las Lajas Basilica in Colombia resting along the Guaitara River is now a pilgrimage site  (wikipedia) 
5 – Las Lajas Sanctuary, Colombia – Inspiration for the basilica came in 1754 when a mother and her deaf-mute daughter were caught in a major storm in the canyon of the Guaitara River in Colombia. According to some legends, the young girl witnessed a silhouetted apparition of the Virgin Mary during periods of illumination by lightning and was miraculously cured.

The image on the stone can still be seen today and the area has been a popular pilgrimage site since the 18th century.

The Shrine of Our Lady of Las Lajas as it exists today was built between 1916 and 1949. Rising 330-feet from the bottom of the canyon, it is connected to the opposite side of the canyon by a 160-foot tall bridge.

The original shrine was constructed of straw and wood in the middle of the 18th century.

6 – The Capuchin Crypt, Rome, Italy – Commissioned in 1626 by Pope Urban VIII, this destination is more accessible than some of the others, but it is also the most macabre. Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins is a church in Rome located on Via Veneto near Piazza Barberini.
Artwork made from the bones of Capuchin monks  (wikipedia)

In 1631 Cardinal Antonio Barberini ordered the remains of thousands of Capuchin friars to be exhumed and transferred to a crypt which lies under the church.

In the process, the crypt, which is divided into five chapels, was elaborately decorated with the bones of the departed monks to create ornamental works of art.

One plaque in one of the chapels reads, "What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be."

7 – Sintra, Portugal – Nestled on a breathtaking hillside outside Lisbon, Portugal, Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site comprised of two cities. It is known for its 19th century architectural monuments which can be found in a forested setting.

Majestic and colorful Pena Palace overlooks the landscape in Sintra, Portugal  (wikipedia)
Among the medieval buildings are Castelo do Mouros, Pena National Palace and the Sintra National Palace.

While the buildings themselves are spectacular, it is the setting and the historical importance for the Portuguese people that have provided Sintra with its unique significance for its countrymen.

And there, you have it. Seven delightful little known destinations just waiting to be discovered.