Friday, February 27, 2015

Europe’s high speed trains: Romancing the rails

A Cisalpino tilting train races through the European countryside  (wikipedia)
 EUROPE Europe’s modern high speed rail networks have forever changed the way travelers visit the continent.

Thanks to modern rail technology, traveling by train through Europe has recaptured the romance of travel that existed in a bygone era. Once again the simple act of coming from and going to is a pleasure to be enjoyed with contemporary comfort and efficiency.

Japanese Shinkansen, commonly called "The Bullet Train"  (wikipedia)
In 1964, when the hoopla of the Tokyo Olympic Games was over and the world departed, the crowded island nation waved good-bye and went back to work.  But something remained. Something had changed the world of transportation and travel, forever. 

In Japan they are called Shinkansen, but to the world they commonly became known as “bullet trains.”

With concerns about population density combined with rising costs of gasoline, countries like France and Germany quickly began developing high speed rail services of their own. 

Today, France takes national pride as a leader in conventional rail technology, establishing a world record speed of 357.2 miles per hour in April of 2007.

Double decked TGV speeds through the coast of France  (wikipedia)
Commercial high speed trains in many European countries currently reach scheduled speeds of 186-mph while some of France’s TGVs (Train à Grande Vitesse) travel at 200-mph.  In larger European countries, such as France and Germany, it was feasible to design dedicated tracks which allow higher rates of speed.

Countries with less revenue for rail infrastructure or which are not large enough to support the extensive
Tilting trains make high speed possible  (wikipedia)
lengths of dedicated track necessary for high speed rail, ingeniously developed the concept of tilting trains.  While tilt trains do not travel at the super speeds of their faster cousins, they have the advantage of being able to operate on existing rail lines.

Another innovation, which has also been incorporated into modern French TGVs and German ICEs (Inter City Express), is double deck trains which offer added passenger capacity and high speeds as well.

Technological advances in conventional high speed rail travel made the long awaited dream of connecting the United Kingdom with continental Europe through a tunnel beneath the English Channel a reality.
Eurostar train exits the Channel Tunnel at 186-miles per hour  (wikipedia)
The project officially opened in May, 1994 with the 31.4 mile underwater rail tunnel linking Folkstone, Kent in England with Coquelles Pas-de-Calais in northern France.  Today, Eurostar trains make day trips between England and France or Belgium a convenient proposition for holiday travelers or businessmen.  Trains travel between London and Paris in 2 hours 15 minutes, while trips  to/from London and Brussels can be done in just under 2 hours. 

Interior of Thalys, known as "Big Red"  (wikipedia)
Private companies have also gotten into the high speed rail marketplace.  Known as “the Big Red Train,” Thalys unites Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg) with Paris.  Popular stops en route include Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne.

Even a small country like Switzerland, which has no need for a high speed network of its own, has cleverly negotiated alliances with France, Germany and Italy to utilize their rapid train services between the bordering countries.  The result has been a tourism boom for all four destinations by providing easy access for visitors.

Inside the bustling railway terminal in Stockholm, Sweden  (wikipedia)
Several other countries in Europe also have extensive, growing, high speed rail services, particularly Sweden and Spain.  Competition among the countries is keen, and services vary widely depending upon the length of the journey.  Short hauls feature food carts with snack and drink services or bistro cars, while longer trips provide full-service dining cars.  Depending upon the time of day, some trains offer meal services at your seat.
A German InterCity Express (ICE) pulls into Leipzig  (wikipedia)
Ground transportation is frequently the last thing travelers consider when planning a trip.  For Americans, renting a car is often the first consideration and, indeed, at first glance a rail pass may seem expensive by comparison.  But when you calculate the high cost of gasoline in Europe, the convenience of going city-center to city-center by rail, the hassles of reading road signs and finding parking, the accessibility of food and restroom services and the opportunity to relax, read a book or paper, work at the computer, enjoy a nap or simply gaze out the window at the passing panoramas, a European rail pass is a bargain. In addition, rail passes offer many money-saving bonuses for a variety of other travel related services.

Panoramic trains glides through Switzerland  (wikipedia)
Even with supplements for some high speed rail services, the convenience of traveling between many European destinations of relatively short distances, or the ability to do day trips that were once regarded as impractical, has changed the face of travel forever. 

It is now practical, in many cases, to base yourself in a city without changing hotels every day.  Not only does it save time from packing and unpacking, it allows more opportunities for sightseeing or shopping and fewer hassles of constantly being on the move.

High speed trains combine with majestic European scenery for the best of two worlds  (wikipedia)
High speed trains reinvented travel in Europe. Using their fabulous modern “bullet trains” is a traveler’s delight. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Lisbon, Portugal: Discovering a city of discoverers

Triumph Arch is the gateway to Rua Augusta, the commercial hub of Lisbon, Portugal  (wikipedia)
LISBON, PORTUGAL -- Rome has its seven hills.  Paris features wide boulevards and a tower built by Gustave Eiffel.  And San Francisco showcases the Golden Gate Bridge and its famous trolleys.  But if you want to see them all, or at least reasonable facsimiles, try Lisbon, Portugal.

Nestled upon the shores of the Tagus River, which can accommodate major cruise ships because it flows into the Atlantic Ocean, Lisbon traces its roots to the ancient Phoenicians as well as a seafaring heritage where famous navigators sailed forth to explore a new world.

St. George's Castle overlooks the streets of Lisbon  (wikipedia)
Much of Lisbon is immediately captivating from the majestic Moorish stronghold of St. George’s Castle to the elegant tree-lined 300-foot wide boulevard known as Avenida da Liberdade which was built between 1879 and 1882.  No matter where you turn in Lisbon, there is something of interest including spacious squares and countless monuments such as the Padrao dos Descobrimentos honoring Portugal’s Age of Discovery.

While Lisbon is a great walking city, it does require local transportation to reach many of the places where a leisurely stroll can offer a treasure chest of rewarding surprises. Lisbon’s  seven hills are higher and more dramatic than its Roman counterpart.  In fact, the Portuguese capital features three funiculars to manipulate the ups and downs of certain districts.
April 25 Bridge looks much like the Golden Gate (wikipedia)

Begin at St. George’s Castle (Castelo de São Jorge) which overlooks the historic city center and the Tagus River from a dominating position at the crest of the highest hill of Lisbon.  Behind the walls of the once fortified citadel, the interior is largely filled with spacious promenades, gardens, houses, a church and countless panoramic views of the lively metropolis below.  There is also a multimedia history of Lisbon, the Castle Gallery and the Tower of Ulysses which was once the royal treasury.

One of Lisbon's famed yellow trolleys makes its way through Alfama  (wikipedia)
Outside the walls of the castle, amble through the Alfama, the oldest part of the city.  This exotic area thrived under the Moors. It is a tangle of narrow, winding streets that twist and turn past charming cafes and colorful shops.  (Tip -- Don’t be afraid to get lost.)

To reach the top take tram #28.  It’s the most interesting way to get there.  The inexpensive little yellow “Toonerville Trolleys” that bump and grind through town are usually crowded, and frequently uncomfortable, but you’ll get more than your share of local culture during the ride.  It’s all part of the adventure.

Rossio Square in  Lisbon  (wikipedia)
Lisbon is a city with many faces, each with its own personality. Baixa is perhaps the best known district. The commercial hub of Lisbon is famous for its colorful street-life on Rua AugustaThe neighborhood of this main pedestrian street with its gridded configuration was rebuilt after an earthquake leveled the city in 1755.  Now, more than 250 years later, Baixa is a rich blend of history and culture.

Another popular shopping area is Chiado which represents the primary intellectual and cultural section of Lisbon.  Like Florian in Venice and Café Greco in Rome, the A Brasilera Café was once a haven for writers and artists during the late 19th century and early part of the 20th.  Little wonder then, that Chiado would be known for its galleries, bookshops and eclectic cafes.

Praco do Municipio, the City Hall of Lisbon  (wikipedia)
Everywhere you turn in Lisbon visitors encounter huge plazas, parks and historic monuments honoring its rich and diverse history.  Even the 8,000 seat bull ring with its Moorish-style architecture is impressive.  Bullfighting was once used as a means of training Portuguese soldiers and, unlike Spain, the bull is not killed in the ring in Portugal. 

Heading north from Restauradores to Marques de Pombal Square is the lovely and elegant 19th century Avenida da Liberdade.  It is said to be patterned after the Champs Elysees in Paris, but the fountains, sidewalk cafes and historic mansions give the boulevard an ambiance that feels more like Rome’s Via VenetoHere you will find most of the upscale hotels and designer shops of the city.
Avenue of Liberty in Lisbon  (wikipedia)
Of particular interest is the pavement on the mile-long stretch with its abstract decorations made of black and white stones.  Eventually the avenue spills into the Marques de Pombal, a huge square and monument honoring the prime minister who rebuilt Lisbon after the earthquake of 1755.  Appropriately, the monument is also the gateway to one of the most breathtaking panoramic views in the city. 

No visit to Lisbon is complete without a visit to the waterfront along the Tagus River.  Here, too, is an area filled with museums and monuments, not the least of which is a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Inaugurated in 1966, the Bridge of 25th of April (Ponte 25 de Abril) links Lisbon with the municipality of Almada.  It was originally named the Salazar Bridge after Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, the prime minister at the time of construction.

Though Salazar was no longer in power in 1974 when a coup known as the “Carnation Revolution” ousted the authoritarian regime of the New State (Estado Novo), the citizens of Lisbon quickly changed the name to Ponte 25 de Abril in honor of the date of the victory in the coup.  The Carnation Revolution refers to the fact that no shots were fired during the uprising.
Discoverer's Monument  (wikipedia)

Another impressive memorial along the shores of the Tagus is the Monument to the Discoveries (Padrao dos Descobrimentos).  Celebrating explorers who sailed from the site of the sculpture in search of new worlds and trade with India and the Orient, this poignant work of art honors 33 adventurers who brought Portugal to prominence in the 15th and 16th centuries.

For the traveler, Portugal’s capital is one of the least expensive major cities on the continent of Europe.  The sights mentioned above are but a taste of the treasures that can be found in a city that built much of its history on exploration.  Now, five hundred years later, you, too, can enjoy your own personal “Age of Discovery” in Lisbon.  

Friday, February 13, 2015

When baseball season nears, Spring is on the way

Baseball reminds us every year that Spring is just around the corner  (wikipedia)
CHARLOTTE  Forget about the robins. Disregard Punxatawney Phil and the buds on the trees. You know spring is just around the corner when the Red Sox equipment truck leaves Boston and heads to Florida.

Perhaps this year, more than any other in recent memory, residents of the northeast and Midwest have their radar set on those delicious days of sunshine.

No other sport has anything that comes close to baseball’s Spring Training. Football begins during the dog days of summer and even the most avid fans don’t get excited until after Labor Day. Basketball is practically a year-round sport, but the entire season is played indoors.

Baseball, on the other hand, is an annual rite of spring. For six weeks, from mid-February until early April, Arizona and Florida come alive with the sounds of horsehide balls being smacked into the sky by bats made of northern white ash.

It is a time for optimism. Every team is undefeated. Games mean nothing, but competition is keen. Aging veterans may struggle to hang on to their careers for another season while youngsters in their late teens and early twenties try to unseat guys they once collected on bubble gum cards.

From the moment they lace up their cleats and hear the clackety-clack of their metal spikes upon the clubhouse floor, players feel a sense of renewal. But even that isn’t as special as that first magic step onto the field when the lush grass and the soft earth crunches beneath their feet. This is where they belong. They are home. Diamonds are a guy’s best friend.

For a truly unique holiday, there is nothing quite like Spring Training. Travelers can visit the Cactus League in Arizona or explore the Grapefruit League in Florida. Opt for tumbleweed or palm trees. Either way it’s a chance to get up close and personal with the stars and superstars of the game in a way that no other sport can offer.

Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona  (wikipedia)
There are several ways for vacationers to experience Spring Training. In Arizona visitors can do day trips to the Grand Canyon or Sedona or get in some rounds of golf before taking in a game.

Florida offers deep sea fishing, the Everglades, swimming, golf and even an opportunity to visit the mouse that ate Orlando at Walt Disney World.

Games are played in the afternoon or at night and distances between parks are relatively short. With a schedule in hand and a little planning, fans can take in two games in a day and see four different teams play. It’s the ultimate doubleheader. Do that just twice and you could see 40% of the major league teams compete in just two days of baseball.

Whether you travel to Arizona or Florida, each state is home to 15 ball clubs and both leagues, American and National, have teams that train in each location. Logistically, Arizona is more compact, but Florida has the advantage of having most of its camps along both coasts.

Spring is that time of year when players are most accessible. Autographs are much easier to get than during the regular season. Most veterans only play four to six innings a game and, since Spring Training parks are small, it is convenient for fans to approach their favorite players.

In general, without the pressure of a regular season pennant races, most players tend to be more relaxed and available during Spring Training, especially if fans are polite and respectful in the knowledge that players, after all, are also working.

Baseball players are typically fun-loving people. The sport is designed that way. It suits the personalities of the men who play the game. Conscientious fans who understand the value of their role and the player’s need for personal space will be far more successful at gaining the attention of their favorite athletes than those who make obnoxious spectacles of themselves.

For a ball player Spring Training is, in many ways, a return to his roots. Games are played in parks rather than stadiums, just as they are in the minor leagues. Capacity is just a few thousand seats. Fans are frequently closer to the action than during the regular season.

Spring Training means going to the beach in March  (wikipedia)
For some, Spring Training is a perennial traveling adventure representing a new beginning. It is a time for short sleeves, Bermuda shorts, sunglasses and hot dogs.

For others it can be a nostalgic link to the past. Baseball thrives on folklore and tradition like no other sport. In many ways, regardless of the generation, baseball is a time machine back to a simpler, less complicated, day when life seemed more carefree. A time when little boys dreamed of being the next big league star and dads remember their own little boy dreams.

Still, others simply savor an early escape from winter’s final blustery breaths. They follow the sun to bask in the green of the grass, the brown of the dirt, the blue of the sky and to hear the crack of the bat.

When April comes, the boys of summer head north with sun tanned faces that remind everyone else of what lies ahead.

Forget about the robins. When you see Blue Jays and Cardinals and Orioles, that’s when you know it’s spring.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Ten great travel surprises

Excavated ruins of Pompeii with Mount Vesuvius in the background  (wikipedia)
CHARLOTTE Among the many joys of travel are the moments of spontaneous surprise or when an attraction or destination exceeds expectations.

For me, travel surprises are not necessarily “unknown” places. Rather they are sites that capture your imagination in a way that leaves a lasting impression. Here is a personal alphabetical list of ten unexpected treasures that should impress even the most veteran traveler.

Stunning beauty of the Amalfi Coast near Naples, Italy  (San Pietro)
 1 – The Amalfi Coast (Italy) – Few places offer more breathtaking scenery per mile than the 25 mile serpentine ribbon of road called the Strada Statele along the Amalfi Coast. The most spectacular way to access the region is by car or bus from the Mount Vesuvius side of the mountainous spine that divides the coast from the congestion of Naples. After a 20 to 25 minute meandering ride through several small villages, you crest the mountaintop where an unbelievable vista spreads before you leading to Amalfi. If it doesn’t take your breath away, nothing will ever impress you.

Desert fortress of Masada in Israel overlooking the Dead Sea  (Taylor) 
 2 – Masada (Israel) Herod the Great began fortifying Masada nearly four decades before Christ as a personal refuge in case of a revolt. Though Herod never occupied the stronghold, a small group of approximately 500 Jewish rebels held off the Roman army from its strategic location overlooking the Dead Sea for several months in the first century CE. Today, the Israeli army pays tribute to Masada by honoring new recruits at the site.

Interior of a subway station in Moscow  (wikipedia)
 3 -- Moscow Metro (Russia)Like any mass transit system, Moscow’s subway system is frequently crowded and congested. Unlike other metros however, each station in the Russian capital is practically a museum within itself. These eclectic “peoples palaces” feature all manner of artistic styles and architecture including sculptures, friezes, chandeliers, stained glass windows, mosaics and historical reliefs from all aspects of life such as sports, war, industry, agriculture and history. The system began in the 1930s but the cultural magic remains today. 

Interior of the Duomo in Orvieto, Italy  (wikipedia)
 4 – Orvieto (Italy) – The city of Orvieto sits upon a relatively flat volcanic outcropping of rock with vertical cliffs that not only make it dramatic, but naturally impregnable as well. Combined with its spectacular setting, Oriveto lays claim to a vast labyrinth of tunnels beneath its surface. The Duomo, or cathedral, which began in 1290 by Pope Nicholas IV, is an architectural masterpiece. If that isn’t enough, Umbrian wines are superb.
The facade of the magnificent Treasury in Petra, Jordan  (wikipedia) 
 5 – Petra (Jordan) Discovered by Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt who disguised himself as a Bedouin to gain access, the “rose-red city half as old as time” has been listed by Smithsonian Magazine as one of “28 Places to See Before You Die.” This ancient Nabataean city located in modern-day Jordan is accessed through a narrow mile long canyon that eventually opens to the sculpted façade of the Treasury. Indiana Jones fans will recognize it immediately, but seeing it in person is infinitely more impressive.

Cascading water at Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia  (wikipedia)
 6 -- Plitvice Lakes (Croatia) – If you like cascading water, then you will love the Plitvice Lakes in Croatia. No less than 16 lakes merge in a myriad of natural dams and layered rock formations to create an incredible series of canyons and vegetation. Thanks to mineral content in the water, the lakes become a kaleidoscope of alternating colors which changes according to the sunlight. Plitivice gives new meaning to the word “waterfall.”

Ancient street in Pompeii with lanes for chariot traffic  (wikipedia) 
  7 – Pompeii (Italy) – The biggest surprise you will get at Pompeii is how big it is. The onetime Roman city that was covered in ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD is a fascinating look into the life and times of the Roman Empire at its peak. Visit with a guide for a wealth of information as you savor the excavated ruins of daily Roman life.

Interior of Temppeliaukio Church, constructed within a giant rock in Helsinki, Finland  (wikipedia)
  8 – Rock Church (Finland) – What do you do when you have a giant rock in the center of town? You turn it into a church. That is what architects Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen did when they designed Temppeliaukio Church in Helsinki. The church features a glazed dome that allows natural light to pour through the interior. Because of the rock surfaces that comprise the walls, the Rock Church has superb acoustics that make it a popular site for concerts.
The incredible frescoes of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo in Rome  (wikipedia)
  9 -- Sistine Chapel (Vatican City) – Michaelangelo’s frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel have been a masterpiece since they were completed in 1512. For nearly 500 years the stunning beauty of the ceiling enthralled visitors from all over the world. In 1984, a controversial restoration, which lasted two and half times longer to complete than it took the Florentine artist to paint the original, gave bold new meaning to the work. When the chapel re-opened in 1994, the magnificent colors that had been muted for almost five centuries completely altered previous interpretations of Michelangelo’s work and his techniques.
Ancient sculptures and temples as Sukhothai, Thailand  (wikipedia) 
10Sukhothai (Thailand) The ruins of the ancient capital of modern-day Thailand are both mysterious and exotic. The Kingdom lasted two hundred years from 1238 until 1438. The ancient civilization filled with temples and Buddhas surrounded by lush vegetation transports visitors back in time to the realities of the past in a manner normally found only in the imagination.

Tunnel to paradise at Plitvice National Park in Croatia
This list is by no means definitive. Be brave. Challenge yourself to boldly journey through new gates of discovery.