Friday, December 26, 2014

Ten great island adventures for the New Year

Santorini, Greece at sunset is an Adriatic masterpiece  (wikipedia)
CHARLOTTEDecember 26, 2014 – With a new year on the horizon, it is time to dream of summer weather, and nothing conjures those images better than an island.

Tom Hanks was a Castaway. We have all heard the story of Robinson Crusoe. We see cartoons about the joy of being marooned on a desert island. Nothing captures the desire for isolation, solitude and sunshine better than an island.

Though every island, no matter how large, possesses inherent limitations, the adventurous idea of an environment surrounded by water somehow captures the imagination.

With that in mind, here is a list of ten great island destinations to discover in 2015.
Spectacular ruins of the Greek theater in Taormina, Sicily  (Taylor)
1 – Sicily – The largest island in the Mediterranean has a little bit of everything; Greek and Roman ruins, Europe’s largest active volcano Mt. Etna and plenty of World War II history. Those elements alone are more than enough. Add in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and Sicily is a ready-made classic to explore.
Breathtaking Sydney Opera House at night in Sydney Harbor, Australia  (wikipedia)
 2 – Australia – Just look at the size of a can of Foster’s beer and you understand the appeal of Australia. Australians are hardy, rugged, fun-loving people who enjoy life to the fullest. After all they live in a place filled koala bears, kangaroos, kinkajous and wombats not to mention the platypus. If those creatures alone do not capture your wanderlust spirit then nothing will. There is also the intrigue of Ayers Rock in the center of the country and when it comes to sports, nothing can top the pure mayhem of rugby.
Three faces of Iceland, a primeval world unto itself  (Taylor)
 3 – Iceland – Let’s face it, Iceland is as exotic as it gets. Situated at the point where the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans converge, where majestic fjords punctuate thousands of miles of coastline, Iceland conjures images of rugged Norse and Gaelic settlers. Perhaps most unique is the plethora of thermal activity that gives Iceland an other-wordly, eerie atmosphere for travelers to sink his teeth into.
Majestic and eerie, the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland  (Taylor)
 4 – Ireland – The magic of Ireland can be found in its lush landscape combined with the powerful, dramatic coastline and abundance of castles that permeate the island. The Irish are also horse lovers, but another sometimes thing that adds to its charm is golf. Scotland, too, features geography and medieval architecture and, while it is also the birthplace of golf, Scotland shares its island with England and Wales. For that reason the land of leprechauns and the Blarney Stone was chosen with apologies to the Scots.
Blue Footed Boobies are always a favorite in the Galapagos Islands  (wikipedia) 
 5 – Galapagos – First of all the Galapagos really are off the beaten path. They are part of Ecuador but they are famous for their exotic protected wildlife, among which are the blue-footed boobies. That name alone immediately grabs attention, especially among most male travelers. It is all very innocent, of course, since the boobies are actually birds. The idea of spending as much time as Charles Darwin did observing thousands of interesting creatures in the Galapagos is definitely appealing.
Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco is an optical illusion where escape looked easy  (wikipedia)
 6 – Alcatraz – No one would have wanted to be a prisoner at The Rock, but it does capture the imagination. And for some reason when you visit, it is almost impossible to consider the challenge of designing the foolproof means of escape.
St. Barts is the quintessential Caribbean island paradise  (wikipedia)
 7 – St Barts – This tiny spot in the Caribbean is a favorite destination for jet setters. There is virtually no night life and the one main town, Gustavia, which is delightful. St. Barts may not have the best of anything in the Caribbean, but it probably has the second best of everything. It is elegant and tiny with topless beaches and incredible French food. Why say more?
Nantuket Island near Cape Cod may be quaint but you can have a "whale" of a time  (wikimedia)
  8 – Nantucket – The cobblestone streets are charming and the quaint houses are delightful. The whaling industry that made Nantucket famous and that whaling history is what rounds out the appeal. There is a whaling museum, plenty of whaling artifacts, picturesque harbors and great seafood. Can you say, “Aaaargh!”
Lush tropical beauty of Rainbow Falls in Hawaii   (wikipedia)
 9 – Hawaii – The islands are beautiful, exotic and a favorite destination for travelers of all ages. Giant waves for surfing, erupting volcanoes and historical landmarks from the World War II sneak attack by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor make Hawaii unique. A luau and a little hula here and there doesn’t hurt either.
Tahiti is famous for its black sand beaches  (wikipedia)
10 – Tahiti – The Bounty (pre-mutiny), Marlon Brando and artist Paul Gauguin fell in love with French Polynesia. In fact, Gauguin was actually a “suit” who kept venturing further and further into the wilderness of this tropical paradise. He sailed to Tahiti in 1891 to escape civilization and “everything that is artificial and conventional.” In doing so Gauguin found his own personal answer to a mid-life crisis.
The Turks & Caicos are rapidly becoming the "in" place to be in the Caribbean   (Taylor)
And just for good measure, here are five more islands that deserve honorable mentions:

New Zealand
Sanibel, Florida
Santorini, Greece
Turks & Caicos

Friday, December 19, 2014

Blessing in Bucharest: Christmas behind the former Iron Curtain

Flicker of candlelight representing a ray of hope  (wikipedia)
BUCHAREST, ROMANIA, December 19, 2014 – In the dark days of the Cold War, there was a sense of mystery and intrigue whenever you ventured into Eastern Europe.  It was a sinister feeling where everything seemed became black and white; devoid of color.     

During that time, I traveled to Romania three days after Christmas with a group of students from Wingate College, and those shadowy, ominous feelings were very much a reality in the most intensely surveilled region in Eastern Europe.

The purpose of the visit was to understand the struggles of organized religion to exist under the influence of Communism. 

The sky was overcast with a slate gray ceiling. Christmas wasn’t acknowledged by the government, but the New Year’s trees were brightly decorated, providing rare bursts of color in the otherwise bleak surroundings.
We were welcomed by Reverend Ilie Ionescu, the pastor at a small Baptist church in the eastern part of the city.   

"You must know that my members will appreciate your visit very much.  For them you represent hope.  Freedom.  They know very little about your country, but they know enough,” said the minister.

"We have more than 400 members.  For most it is quite difficult to get here so we have three services each Sunday. We have no young people in our congregation. Everyone is elderly.  We must register with the government, and they do not like it when we go to church.  They make it very hard for young people to get decent jobs if they worship.  For older people it does not matter so much. They come, and they pass along the messages to their families.  Only in the choir will you see young people.  Singing is considered a cultural program, so some young people sing because this is not counted against them.

"This is a place of hope.  Sometimes there is no heat in the church or we have no light.  There are brownouts, you see.  But we do our best.  We try very hard."

There was sadness in Reverend Ionescu's voice, but he was as open as he could be under the circumstances. 
Interior of a Romanian Orthodox Church  (wikipedia)
Then he led us into the sanctuary. Once inside, we turned to the right and walked up the stairs to the balcony to have a better view.
The sanctuary was filled with seniors. Only the choir showed any signs of youth. By American standards the service was lengthy.  Since the people had to endure extreme hardships to attend, the church made every effort to ensure the congregation was ministered to thoroughly.

The women sat on the left side of the aisle, the men to the right.  No one removed their coats despite the length of the program.  Aside from a small stained glass window at the front of the sanctuary, the only visible color was in the babushkas the ladies wore on their heads. 

Throughout the service members of the congregation kept turning toward the balcony. It was unusual for them to have visitors of any sort, especially so many and so young.  Americans too.  Rarely did they see Americans.
For the next couple of hours, the Romanians continuously turned and gazed toward the balcony, communicating only with their eyes as they reached out to touch the Wingate students with their hearts. 

Old church interior similar to the Bucharest church in Bucharest, Romania  (wikipedia)
When the service finished, the Wingate students walked down to the vestibule to greet the Romanians as they left the church.
Spontaneously, the students formed a semicircle from the door through the narthex, shaking hands with people and smiling as they departed. The Romanians looked tired, yet they were deeply appreciative. Somehow the mixture of languages was comprehended, though neither group spoke the other's tongue. 

As one old woman passed the interpreter she caught the eye of a student approached her. Softly she uttered the word, "Pace."
Bewildered, the girl looked to the interpreter.  He smiled and said, “’Pace.’  In Romanian it means ‘Peace.’”
The girl turned back to the Romanian woman and repeated the word, “Pace.”

A classmate standing to the left overheard the exchange and immediately spoke to another woman in front of him.  “Pace,” he said.

An broad smile spread across the woman's face as she returned the wish saying, “Pace.”
Dreary streets of Burcharest in Romania  (wikipedia)
Soon the vestibule was filled with the gentle sounds of Romanian and American voices, all echoing the same simple word, “Pace.”  No other word was necessary. 

They repeated it over and over again, “Pace.  Pace.  Pace.”

Then in the dim light of the room, the Wingate student reached into her purse and removed a small bible she had brought from home.  She placed it in the palm of the old woman’s hand, covering it with her own.  The woman gazed intently at the girl for a long moment before looking down at the treasure she gripped within her gnarled fingers.  And then she began to cry.

As the tears made silent trails down her cheeks, the Romanian woman looked at the interpreter and said something in her native language.  He listened carefully to be sure he understood precisely what the woman was saying.  When she finished, he translated her words. 

She says, “All of my life I have dreamed of having a bible written in English.  For me it is a symbol.  Today, you have answered my prayers.”

A hush fell over the room.  Everyone stopped, spellbound by the words of a woman who had but one simple wish; to possess a book written in a language she could neither read nor understand.  Yet that book symbolized all the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a life she would never know.  A book that was her bridge to a world she would never see.

But the old Romanian woman wasn't finished. The interpreter cast his eyes toward the young girl while the old woman slowly uttered her message. 

“She says, ‘I only know three words in English.’” 

Then the Romanian woman moved forward and hugged the student. When she pulled away, she smiled gently and whispered into the young girl’s ear the words, “I love you.”

Her voice was not loud, but it was enough to be heard by those close to her.  When the Romanian woman spoke, everyone nearby was overcome with emotion.
Three words.  Simple words.  The only English words the old Romanian woman knew.  “I love you.”  The message was universal.  Even in that bleak corner of the world there was indeed hope, there was faith, and yes, there was love.
A small flame of hope in a desperate place  (wikipedia)

In the span of a few spontaneous moments, we came to realize that those Romanian people had warmth enough for everyone nestled deep within their hearts.  We knew that there would always be candles to brighten the darkness, flickering with their silent flames of hope, because those elderly Romanians still believed in miracles.

Now the Wingate students understood how the Romanian people had persevered for so long under such impossible conditions.  Through it all their faith had kept them going because better than anyone else, they knew the true meaning of the word, "Pace."

Friday, December 12, 2014

Big Sky, Montana: Where winter and nature come alive

Snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park  (wikipedia)
BIG SKY, MONTANADecember 12, 2014 – In Big Sky, Montana all eyes peer heavenward searching for the first ambitious snowflakes of the season

Yes, Big Sky really is a place and not just a slogan. The resort was founded in 1973 by noted NBC newscaster Chet Huntley and it hasn’t been the same since. Four decades later skiers in the know are leaving the powdery slopes of their native Colorado for the “cold smoke” of Montana.

Big Sky's landmark, Lone Peak  (wikipedia)
With 25 daily flights into Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN) from various U.S. gateways, Big Sky is easily accessible. Upon arrival, simply drive 38 miles north on U.S. Highway 191 through scenic Gallatin Canyon until you reach Big Sky.

Part of the canyon is Ted Turner country, meandering past grazing herds of bison, elk and other assorted gifts of Mother Nature. There is a primeval quality to it all, as if you are at the midpoint of creation amid surroundings that appear much as they did when Lewis and Clark trudged through the region more than 200 years ago.

Big Sky residents like to point out, “The only rule here is that there aren’t many rules.”

Mother Nature's playground  (wikipedia)
Big Sky takes a bit of an adjustment, but once indoctrinated, it is a world unto itself. It is a place where roads are few and only take you where you need to go. A place when residents call in prescriptions 48 hours in advance so they will be ready when the pharmacy opens. A place where the post office is the most popular gathering spot in town because there is no home mail delivery.

Don’t be misled, however. Big Sky is destination of rustic elegance featuring spas, galleries, entertainment and all the contemporary facilities modern day sports enthusiasts require. The community may be small, and growing, but the mountains and amenities are larger than life.

Big Sky's majestic slopes with 5,800 acres for skiing  (Taylor)
Skiing, of course, is the anchor activity. Thanks to three interconnected mountains in Big Sky, there are more than 5,800 skiable acres make it the biggest skiing region in America (Vail comes in second at 5,200). Lone Peak has the highest elevation at 11,166 feet. 

Big Sky features a  wide range of accommodations to suit any budget and lifestyle with a favorite for skiers being the “ski in, ski out” facilities.

Rustic charm of 320 Ranch  (Taylor)
For a wilderness-style experience, 320 Guest Ranch, just a few miles down the road from Big Sky, conjures images of the Old West with log home accommodations nestled within the serenity of flowing streams and mountainous vistas. The ranch, which features the best breakfast buffet in Montana, derives its name from two 160-acre properties that merged into a single nature lover’s getaway.

Visitors to Big Sky will find cuisine to suit any taste, but remember, this is Montana where the bacon is crunchy, the steaks are charred and the burgers are bison.

The magic of Big Sky is the extensive range of activities available for non-skiers. Among the favorites are snowmobiling, snowshoeing, Nordic skiing, dog sledding. snowcoach tours through Yellowstone Park, backcountry skiing, fishing and, even, big game hunting.

Dog sledding is a favorite activity in Big Sky  (Taylor)
Outfitters abound in Big Sky offering any activity imaginable. Spirit of the North dog sled adventures is a unique experience that allows guests to work with the huskies and participate in rigging the sleds before heading into a picturesque winter wonderland. Half day tours glide through pristine wilderness with only the sounds of the runners on the snow and the enthusiastic barking of the dog teams.

Don’t expect elaborate facilities. Prepare to meet your guides at a crossroads in the snow and take off from there. After all, that’s the way a snow adventure should be, pristine, unadorned and natural.

Snowmobiling into pristine wilderness  (Taylor)
Another popular outing is a trip into Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone in winter is paradise without people. It is a natural wonderland filled with streams, waterfalls, wildlife and geysers where thermal steam blends with cold smoke to create an ethereal beginning-of-the-world atmosphere.

Bombardier ready for action  (Taylor)
Snowmobiles are probably the favorite way to visit Yellowstone, but the big, red “Bombardier” vehicles of Yellowstone Alpen Guides offer accessibility to Mother Nature plus protection from the elements. With capacity for only eight passengers, a Bombardier excursion also gives visitors access to a driver/guide naturalist with encyclopedic knowledge of the park and environs.

Big Sky Montana is paradise found. It is a year-round destination where the golf course will open the 2015 summer season with a full 18-hole track.

An all American symbol  (wikipedia)
Outdoor lovers seeking something new and unique will be captivated by Chet Huntley’s dream where the Big Sky is the limit.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Discovering Angel Falls on “Devil Mountain”

Spectacular Angel Falls, world's longest waterfall, Canaima, Venezuela  (wikipedia)
CANAIMA, VENEZUELADecember 5, 2014 – If ever there was an ideal made-for-Hollywood adventure it would be the discovery of Angel Falls in Venezuela. The blur between reality and myth in the life of Jimmie Angel is a screenwriter’s nirvana that would do Indiana Jones proud.

Born in Missouri in 1899, Jimmie Angel was an adventure lover with a passion for flying. Following World War I, he contemplated the idea of becoming a commercial airline pilot but decided the job would be too confining to suit his personality.

Canaima, Venezuela  (wikipedia)
For a while, he worked as a barnstormer, test pilot, stunt pilot and flight instructor before heading south to Mexico, Central America and South America in the 1920s. Intrigued by the idea of exploring remote, unexplored territories, Angel became especially fond of Venezuela.

Over time, the celebrated folklore surrounding Jimmie Angel made it difficult to separate myth from reality. Unverified stories that he taught himself fly when he was 14, that he was a Royal British Flying Corps Ace in World War I, that he created an air force for a Chinese warlord in the Gobi Desert or that he worked as an aviation scout for Lawrence of Arabia all became part of the legend.

Among the accounts, which intensifies the mystery, involves an American geologist known only as McCracken who met Angel in a smoke-filled bar in Panama in the early 1920s. For a fee of $5,000,  a hefty sum at that time, Angel agreed to fly McCracken to a river of gold flowing through an unknown tepui (plateau) in the Gran Sabana of southeastern Venezuela

Orinoco Delta in Venezeula  (wikipedia)
Some say that part of McCracken’s deal did not allow Angel to use instruments so the pilot could not return by himself later. Using only hand signals, the mysterious stranger directed Angel to the river where they removed as much gold as possible and still be able to take-off.

McCracken never returned to Venezuela. He died in the United States and Angel spent the remainder of his life searching for the lost river of gold. It is uncertain whether the story is true, but Angel told it often and his obsessive search for the river may have been an indication of its validity.

In November 1933, while flying a solo flight in the canyons of Venezuela’s Gran Sabana, Angel claimed to have sighted a “mile high waterfall.” Understandably, with other “tales” from Jimmie’s past, there were serious doubts about its authenticity.

Panoramic view of Angel Falls  (wikipedia)
One reason for the skepticism was the seasonal nature of many waterfalls, and the Auyántepui rising from the neighboring Kamarata Valley was uncharted at the time. It was believed that the indigenous Kamarakotos Pemón tribe knew of it, but regarded the tepui as an evil spirit so they feared talking about it.
Finally, in the spring of 1935, Angel convinced three other explorers to fly an expedition into the canyon to verify his claim and take pictures.

L.P. Dennison published the adventure in 1942 in a book titled Devil Mountain.

 Wrote Dennison, “’Now I will show you my waterfall!’ shouted Jimmie with glee!”

When he spotted the falls himself, Dennison was in awe. “I could only stare in amazement. It looked like an immense rope hanging over the canyon wall, and it fell for all of 3,000 feet, possibly more, without interruption until it spread out into a billowy cloud of fine, fluffy mist.

El Rio Caroni, the historic plane of Jimmie Angel in Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela  (wikipedia)
Now vindicated, Angel and his wife, Marie, flew his beloved Flamingo airplane, named El Rio Caroni, returned to the falls on several occasions between 1935 and 1937. The Caroni River was the primary visual navigational tool Angel used to find his way back to the waterfall.

Still seeking his “golden river” in 1937, Angel intended to land on Auyántepui for some exploration on foot. Though the landing went smoothly at first, El Rio Caroni hit soft ground and nose dived into a layer of mud causing a broken fuel line.

Fortunately, in anticipation of problems, Angel had parachuted supplies to the area before attempting the landing. Despite being well equipped, the trip back to civilization required an arduous 11-day trek by the four-person expedition.

Canaima Lagoon, Venezuela  (wikipedia)
Jimmie Angel died in 1956 at the age of 57 from a cerebral hemorrhage resulting from the complications of a head injury when loose cargo struck him while landing earlier in the year.

Seven years earlier, in 1949, World War II correspondent and photojournalist, Ruth Robertson led the first successful land expedition to Angel Falls. The falls were then declared the tallest in the world at 3,212 feet and Robertson’s story is documented in the November 1949 edition of National Geographic titled “Jungle Journey to the World’s Highest Waterfall.”

Travelers interested in retracing the steps of Ruth Robertson can do just that on a special tour from June 27 to July 4, 2014. The program is being handled by Angel Ecotours.  

Front view of El Rio Caroni  (wikipedia)
In 1964, the Venezuelan government declared El Rio Caroni a national monument. It was dismantled by the Venezuelan Air Force in 1970 and partially restored and reassembled by the Aviation Museum in Maracay.

Though the airport in Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela is small, it is the gateway for excursions to view Jimmie Angel’s magnificent waterfall. Meanwhile, tiny El Rio Caroni sits proudly on the lawn in front of the terminal paying homage to the Devil Mountain discovered by an Angel.

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.