Friday, May 30, 2014

Monet’s Giverny & gardens of lasting impressions

GIVERNY, FRANCE May 30, 2014 – The Impressionist art movement of the late 19th century required three main elements to evolve: the popularity of photography, the ever-changing light of Normandy and the influence of Claude Monet.

Since 1980, travelers, artists and flower lovers alike have immersed themselves in the vibrant surroundings of Monet’s home and gardens at Giverny.

It matters little which discipline you prefer, Giverny is infectious. It reaches deep into your soul. It is impossible to be unaffected by it in some manner. At Monet’s Giverny, first impressions are lasting impressions, and there are many.

 Oddly enough, technological advances made the pursuit of photography a popular hobby in the late 1800s. Many “experts’ believed that reproducing reality through pictures would minimize an artist’s ability to express himself. As it turned out, the opposite was truth and the seeds of Impressionism were born.

Thanks to photography, the artist was now able to experiment with light and color by taking his palette outdoors. Artists of the day sought to create “perceptions of nature” rather than the precise representations that limited them in the past. For the artist, painting became a means of expressing emotion and color as an extension of his soul. Something cameras of the period were unable to do.
When Monet was five years old, his family moved to Le Havre in Normandy, France. His father wanted him to continue in the family grocery business, but Claude had other visions and a dream of becoming an artist.

Somewhere around 1846, Monet met Eugene Boudin, a fellow artist who was painting scenes in and around the picturesque harbor village of Honfleur. Boudin had been influenced by another artist from the Honfleur region, Johan Barthold Jongkind, and, at the time he met Monet, he was in the process of evolving a technique known as “en plein air” or outdoor painting.
Normandy, with its rural countryside settings nestled along the coast of the English Channel, is a region where the weather is restless: constantly moving clouds, rapidly changing patterns of light and always evolving splays of color.

Without changing your perspective, a scene can alternate its mood in a matter of seconds. Little wonder such natural phenomena would inspire the soul of creativity.
Monet was thirty-two when he created a painting called Impression Sunrise. Wnen it was exhibited in an art show in Paris in 1874, art critic Louis Leroy took the first word of the title and disparagingly call Monet’s work “Impressionism.” Leroy has long since disappeared from the world of art, but Impressionism lives on today as one of the major artistic movements in history.

Today, Impression Sunrise, depicting a landscape in the port of Le Havre, hangs proudly in the Musee Marmottan Monet in Paris 
Four years after the death of his beloved wife, Camille, Monet caught a glimpse of Giverny from the window of a local train while traveling between Vernon and Gasny in 1883. He rented a house in Giverny, about 70 miles north of Paris, and soon after, purchased the home in which he would reside for the remainder of his life.

The house at the time was situated near the main road of town, but it was the barn that intrigued Monet’s creativity most. For the next several yeas, the artist converted the long two-story building into a house and studio overlooking his magnificent gardens. With huge picture windows that opened out to the gardens, Monet was sheltered from the elements so that he could work in any weather.
What frequently is overlooked in Monet’s life is that he was a world class horticulturist. The gardens were his own design and Monet frequently changed them according to the seasons. So prolific was he in such pursuits that he was almost as famous for his botanical skills as he was for his painting.

Also fascinating was the fact that Monet diverted a section of the main river in order to create his lily pond. The famed Japanese bridge and lily pond, which are situated across the road from the studio,  are accessible by a small connecting tunnel.

Initially the lily pond was a quiet refuge for Monet until he had an epiphany and realized it would be an ideal subject for his painting. So infatuated did Monet become with the lilies, that once “discovered”, he hardly painted anything else for the remainder of his life.  

Upon his death, Monet’s only son, Michel, inherited the home, gardens and lily pond. In 1966, Michel bequeathed everything to the French Academy of Fine Arts. By 1980, the Foundation Claude Monet opened the house and gardens to the public.

Giverny is open daily from March 29th to November 1st in 2013. Hours are 9:30 am to 6:00 pm with the last admission at 5:30 pm. Regular admission for adults and seniors is about $12.50, children under seven are free and tickets for disabled visitors are approximately $6.50. There are also rates for groups of 20 or more.

In keeping with Monet’s philosophy, the gardens are regularly changed throughout the months it is open to visitor.

Claude Monet was 86 when he died of cancer in 1926. He is buried in Giverny in the church cemetery.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Honfleur: France’s picturesque port that inspired Impressionist art

HONFLEURFRANCE May 23, 2014 Honfleur is one of those places that immediately captivates visitors, even though it has a limited number of things to see and do. In fact, Honfleur itself is the attraction.

Not that the picturesque harbor on the northern coast of Normandy lacks history -- it is a fascinating little seaport village. It really has more to do with the charming colorful buildings that line the perimeter of the rectangular port amid a perpetual pageant of changing light. Little wonder the Impressionist artists of the 19th century were drawn to the region.
Today, more than a century and a half later, artists still favor a spot at the northeast corner of town beside the Old Dock of the harbor. Here they paint the same scene that has captured the imagination for nearly two hundred years. And yet, somehow each new interpretation seems to maintain a certain individuality despite myriad renditions that have been transferred from palette to canvas over the decades.

When native son Eugene Boudin was advised by Dutch painter Johan Jongkind to practice his craft outdoors, or en plein air, it marked the early beginnings of Impressionism. Later Boudin befriended Claude Monet, who was only 18 at the time, and convinced the young prodigy to give up doing caricatures and concentrate on landscapes. The rest is history.
Monet’s 1872 painting Impression, Sunrise, which depicts the harbor in nearby Le Havre, gave the Impressionist movement its name, though it was initially intended as a derogatory description.

Honfleur’s glorious light is typical of the region where white cotton ball clouds can become sinister rolling gray thunderheads in mere minutes. The ever-evolving shades of shadow and light represent the character of Honfleur and provide a kaleidoscope backdrop that rivets the imagination.
Situated on the estuary of the River Seine that flows through Paris, Honfleur thrived at the beginning of the Hundred Years War when Charles V bolstered the town’s defenses for strategic purposes. It was first mentioned in the early 11th century, but it was not until the middle of the 12th century that Honfleur became a major shipping lane for goods moving from Rouen to England.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Honfleur was an important departure point for several major explorations. Binot Paulmierde Gonneville sailed to the coast of Brazil in 1503. Three years later, Jean Denis, who lived in Honfleur, traveled to Newfoundland and through the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River. In 1608, Samuel de Champlain founded the city of Quebec and Cavalier de La Salle, and discovered the mouth of the Mississippi in 1681 during an expedition that began from Honfleur.

That maritime flavor remains an important facet of the appeal of Honfleur today. The tiny seaport thrives with sidewalk cafes, charming galleries, narrow streets and architectural allure.

A walk around the harbor is all the orientation one needs. Just behind the harbor is the Church of Saint-Catherine of Alexandria -- the main landmark of the village. The distinct wooden structure with its engaging bell tower was constructed shortly after the Hundred Years War using naval building techniques. A second nave was added later in the 16th century. 
Honfleur has four museums of note. Museum Eugene Boudin pays homage to the master who brought notoriety to the city with his art. Naturally, the town would be incomplete without a Naval Museum. Vieux Honfleur Museum focuses on the village’s history, while the Erik Satie House gets mixed reviews from travelers desiring to know more about the life of the eccentric early 20th century musician

Saturday is market day until 1 p.m. Regional farmers bring fresh meat, fish and produce to the center of town, which adds another distinct layer of personality to Honfleur’s already seductive charms.
Occasionally a festival will pop up, but for the most part Honfleur is content to exist within its bewitching magnetism.
Access to Honfleur must be done by motor transportation, or by boat, but there is rail service to nearby Deauville and Le Havre.

You see, Honfleur is one of those in-between places … a place that evokes optimism, a place where the whole world just seems to be right.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Chateau de Canisy: A Thousand Years of History in France

NORMANDYFRANCE May 16, 2014 – Walk through the doors of the Chateau de Canisy and you travel through a tableau of time that spans a thousand years.  Though the castle is immense, it immediately embraces you in a way that makes you feel as though you have always been a participant in the panorama of history that unfolds before you.  Chateau de Canisy is a powerful, yet comfortable, journey from the Middle Ages to the present and beyond.

Scholars claim that Windsor Castle, just outside London, is the oldest continuously occupied royal residence in the world.  Though this story is not about a royal family, it is about a chateau in Normandy, France that pre-dates Windsor and welcomes visitors to enjoy living the lifestyle of an aristocrat.
When the Sire de Carbonnel left his fortress in the verdant Normandy countryside in Canisy in the 11th century to join the Duke of Normandy in battle, it began a story that has continued for nearly a 1,000 years.  Carbonnel went to war with William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066; a defining event that altered the course of history.  Three decades later, Carbonnel participated in the first crusade in 1096.

Nearly 900 years after the Norman Conquest, in June of 1944, Normandy became the focal point of another pivotal moment in history, D-Day.  But the fortress at Canisy survived, and during those nine centuries, Carbonnel’s stronghold underwent countless renovations, changing from a defensive fortification to an elegant residence.  Over that millennium, the chateau has been a window on the past linking the likes of figures such as Alexis de Tocqueville, Charlotte Corday and General Omar Bradley among others.

With its setting on 740 acres of lush green farmland, the Chateau de Canisy is a prodigious structure with a significant historical presence.  That legacy is made even more meaningful today by the fact that the chateau claims an unbroken bloodline for 10 centuries and remains a family residence. 

Count Denis de Kergorlay is the latest in the ancestral procession, but he has taken his ownership to another level of development.  To make his chateau vibrant in the 21st century, the count has opened Canisy to the public, allowing visitors the opportunity to experience chateau life for themselves.  He is quick to emphasize, however, that his home is not a hotel.  Don’t expect a front desk, bellmen, room service or elevators.  Rather Chateau de Canisy is a rare travel discovery that allows guests to enjoy the ambiance of French aristocracy combined with the history of Normandy.

When in residence at Canisy, Kergorlay, who spends most of his time in Paris, loves to treat visitors to the intriguing history of his castle.  Everyone is welcomed with gracious hospitality, and all are treated as if they are lifelong friends.  It is not uncommon for first-timers to feel completely at home within moments of their arrival

Though the Chateau de Canisy traces its origins to the Middle Ages, it underwent major changes in the 16th, 18th and 19th centuries.  The transformations and renovations have continued in the 21st century with the addition of a second pond, a newly landscaped park and a small petting zoo.

Located at the heart of the bocage of Normandy at the southern edge of the Cotentin Peninsula, Canisy is rarely, if ever, found on maps of the region, deferring to its larger neighbor St. Lo which is about three miles away.  Less than a five-minute walk from the castle is the tiny village of Canisy consisting of a parish church, a couple of boulangeries, several shops and a bank that line four streets radiating like spokes from a small roundabout.

Denis inherited Canisy in the 1970s while serving as the French cultural attaché in Thailand.  At the time, he had no great allegiance to the property and, unbelievable as it may sound, he was ready to turn it over to his younger brother.  However, when the Count’s brother informed him that he planned to turn it into a monastery, Kergorlay reconsidered and kept his castle.

For a while the chateau became an elaborate party house as Denis and his Parisian “friends of Canisy” frequently enjoyed spirited weekends and holidays at the massive residence.  As time went on however, the Count’s Aunt Brigitte, who had lived much of her life at the chateau, and who was watching from a third story window in 1940 when Germans crossed the courtyard and confiscated the property, began teaching her nephew about the historic significance of Canisy.

Kergorlay took the lessons to heart.  The “friends of Canisy” gave way to extensive renovations which eventually restored the property to its present state of grandeur.  As Brigitte continued her tutoring project, Denis’ wife, Marie-Christine, began redecorating each of the 18 rooms and suites featuring individual themes from different periods of French history.

While the Chateau de Canisy remains a private residence for the Kergorlay family, the count has developed a personal philosophy of opening his castle to the public as a way of creating a link the past while offering an opportunity for cultural exchange.

Count de Kergorlay has come a long way from those early days with the “friends of Canisy” and his youthful indifference to the chateau.  Today, he is President of the French Heritage Society, a prestigious American non-profit association dedicated to the preservation of French architecture and historical sites not only in France, but in the United States as well.

It is the count’s passion for restoration that drives him to continue making his chateau at Canisy a unique “living” museum.  With ancestral links that bring the pages of history alive through the likes of figures such as Marie Antoinette, Charlotte Corday, Alexis de Tocqueville and General Omar Bradley, the stories of Chateau de Canisy immerse you in a vibrant tapestry of the last millennium in France.   It’s time travel with all the comforts of home.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Swiss Travel System: The world’s best transportation network

SWITZERLAND, May 9, 2014 -- Imagine a place where mountains pierce the heavens and clouds caress the rocks with a temporary shroud.  A place where meadows roll like green carpets into infinite valleys surrounding bottomless lakes.  A place where palm trees bask in the sun below glaciers that rise like rivers of eternal ice notching the sky.

And then imagine a synchronized travel system where trains glide over gorges spanned by towering bridges, and burrow through mountains as if tunneling into a world where past and present become one, and the future doesn't seem to matter.

Where boats and lake steamers drift past honey-colored villages, or a brilliant profusion of flowers, or the watchful serenity of medieval bell towers.  Where cable cars float gracefully suspended on wires that disappear into another realm.  And where funiculars climb vertical pathways to settings that peer into a miniature world below.
 There is such a place.  A place where transportation is an art form, where travelers can make the scene while mother nature creates the scenery.  A place we know as Switzerland.

The Swiss Travel System is unique.  It is an exercise in precision.  Perhaps Paul Theroux said it best when he wrote that, “Travel is flight and pursuit in equal parts.” There is no better place to experiment with that theory than in Switzerland.
In Switzerland, you can travel for travel’s sake, free to experience the exhilaration of discovery along serpentine ribbons of steel, through an ever-changing array of scenery.

Not only is Swiss transportation a masterpiece of access, it is also a marvel of engineering.  It is a system that combines comfort and convenience with clockwork coordination to make the process of travel a delight.

 The Swiss Travel System is a concept that traces its roots to more than a century of development.  Perfected over time into a superb method of moving travelers throughout the country, it managed to conquer overwhelming geographical barriers while maintaining the delicate balance between man and his environment.

There are times when traveling by rail through Switzerland can make you feel temporarily transported into the pages of Alice in Wonderland or Gulliver’s Travels.  In one moment you may feel larger than life, in control of the landscape.  Then, in the next, you are miniaturized by the awesome magnitude of the Alps.

Trains are the heart of the travel system, linking the Swiss Federal Railways with more than 400 privately operated lines to form a synchronized method of travel.  Swiss railways can take you to the highest train station in Europe, or glide past glaciers that rise to the crest of the world, or simply coast past rivers and lakes filled with constantly changing panoramas that are a feast for the senses.

But the secret of the system lies in its ability to link other forms of transportation with the rail lines into a cohesive unit that ultimately becomes a traveler’s dream.  To be sure, the trains are its heart, but they are connected throughout the country by buses and trams that continuously unite central access points with outlying areas.  Swiss Postal Buses are scheduled to arrive and depart within minutes of regular train services, taking passengers, as well as mail, to remote areas not serviced by trains.
In Switzerland, every major city is situated on a lake or a river, or both.  Therefore, many towns have lake steamer services that offer another form of travel that also joins the rail lines.  Other places have funiculars that go directly from the railway station to the center of the city.  There are even some destinations where funiciulars and lake steamers  coordinate so that travel is fast, convenient and virtually seamless.

Rack railroads are also part of the system, and there are cable cars as well.  At points where cars can no longer drive over mountains, just look around, there’s probably a spot where you can drive onto a train and tunnel your way to the other side of the Alps by rail.

It has been written that “some of life’s most exhilarating pleasures are the simplest. ”  The Swiss Travel System is positive proof of that statement. 
Travelers today yearn for independence and the ability to explore at their own pace according to their own whims and fancies.  That’s because the nature of travel is completely personal.  No two people ever share quite the same experience regardless of the time, the place, the companions or how often they go.

There was a time when flexibility was an expensive travel proposition, but no more.  The far-reaching range of Switzerland’s transportation system makes independent travel a reality that is not only delightful, but affordable.

If your gateway is Zurich or Geneva, both airports have railway stations which make the connection from planes to trains fast and convenient.  Also, distances are short in Switzerland, and that compact size combined with the versatility of the travel system makes it easy to use one or two cities as a base and take day-trips throughout the country.
Switzerland has many one-of-a-kind train trips that glide over, around and through the country.  There are five classic rail journeys in the country.  This series will explore the joy of traveling on each of them and explain why each is unique. 

No matter where you go in Switzerland, the travel system can get you there, and back, with minimal hassle.  The Swiss Travel System runs like clockwork.  It’s simply a matter of Swiss timing, and all it takes is a little basic training.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Agatha Christie and Instanbul’s Pera Palace Hotel

ISTANBULMay 2, 2014 – In a city that is, by its very nature, filled with mystery and intrigue, the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul is a nostalgic journey into a bygone era.

Built in 1892, the Palace was created to host passengers traveling on the famed Orient Express, and it was here that Agatha Christie got the inspiration for her acclaimed mystery, Murder on the Orient Express.

Situated in the Tepebasi neighborhood of the Pera district of Istanbul, the property is the oldest “European hotel” in Turkey. Until some much-anticipated renovations began in 2006, the once grand establishment was fading from a century of elegance playing host to celebrity guests such as Alfred Hitchcock, Ernest Hemingway, Sarah Bernhardt, Greta Garbo, King Edward VIII and, of course, Agatha Christie herself.

Mata Hari, who also traveled aboard the Orient Express, even stayed at the Pera Palace a time or two, which only adds another layer of allure to the fascinating atmosphere of the hotel.

In 1981, the Palace was awarded the status as a “museum-hotel” when it converted Room #101 into the Ataturk Museum. When Mustapha Kemel Ataturk, the founder of modern-day Turkey, stayed at the hotel for the first time in 1917, he was accommodated in that room. As a tribute, Ataturk’s chamber is now filled with his possessions and painted in his favorite color of “sunset pink.” 

After countless delays, Pera Palace re-opened in September of 2010, fully restored to the classical style that made it famous. As you enter the colonnaded marble hall and view the sedan chair that was once used to transport guests from the Sirkeci Railway Station to the hotel, you have an overwhelming sensation that Agatha Christie really had no imagination at all because of the mysterious aura that pervades the interior surroundsngs.

So overpowering are the ghosts of the past that you are captivated by an eerie perception that Murder on the Orient Express literally wrote itself.

Today, guests are transferred to and from the airport in a maroon 1949 Plymouth which is usually parked at the entrance of the hotel when not in use.

One feature stands out amid the antique furniture, the famous kubbeli (domes), the wrought-iron balconies and the wood paneling, and that is the historic cast-iron elevator. Now returned to working condition, the oldest elevator in Turkey represents an innovation that, in its day, must have surely represented the ultimate luxury.

 Decorated with a red velvet bench and mirrors, as you ascend to the floors above, the elevator conjures omnipotent feelings of peering downward into the past.

Next to the elevator, white marble steps lead from the main lobby to the Kubbeli Salon located in the heart of the hotel. Carrara marble columns, Michelangelo’s preferred material for his sculptures, rise from parquet floors to six domed discs made of turquoise glass.

Add the music of a grand piano, and you have the perfect setting for English-style high tea, which would most certainly have met with Ms. Christie’s approval.

Ernest Hemingway, on the other hand, preferred the Orient Bar in another corner of the Palace where he could indulge in more manly drinking activities.

Christie stayed in Room #411 at Pera Palace while en route to Baghdad in 1928 to visit her husband who was on an archaeological dig in Iraq.

At that time, travelers would cross the Golden Horn of the Bosphorus Strait by the Galata Bridge, which has undergone numerous incarnations during its history.  Galata Bridge remains a popular site because of the fish market on one side where local vendors continuously hawk their fresh catches of the day and sell fish sandwiches to eager customers.

Christie fans should take the opportunity to dine next door to the hotel at the Orient Express Restaurant where photographs and other memorabilia can be viewed at different stages of her life.

Room rates are seasonal and vary according to currency fluctuations. One night in a twin or double room is approximately $400 per night during the spring shoulder season. Hair dryers, breakfast and other amenities are included.

Travelers interested in visiting Turkey may contact the Turkey Tourist Office.

For customized itineraries, CraneTravel Tours has been endorsed by Namuk Tan, former U.S. Ambassador of the Republic of Turkey who said, “I recommend Crane Travel Tours to anyone who wishes the cultural and historical riches of my country.”

Istanbul is a crossroads of civilizations filled with the cultural treasures of the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires plus magnificent mosques, palaces and bazaars that blend harmoniously with the sensual mysteries of an ancient world that pervades the city even today.

The Pera Palace is the ideal spot to immerse yourself into the essence of the city. Provided, of course, you are not murdered on the Orient Express before you arrive.