Friday, July 31, 2015

Coffeehouses in Vienna are a grand tradition

Viennese coffeehouses like Cafe Central have been popular since 1683 (wikipedia)

VIENNAAUSTRIA Starbucks had a clever idea back in 1971 when they popularized the American coffeehouse on a national scale. But did you know that the Viennese perfected the concept nearly 300 years earlier?

Like English pubs and sidewalk cafes in Paris, Vienna coffeehouses are as integral to the social and cultural fabric of the city as Habsburg palaces, a Strauss waltz and the Lipizzan stallions.

Viennese coffeehouses are a way of life in Austria  (wikipedia)
The roots of the Kaffeehaus can be traced to the 17th century when Vienna was liberated in a siege from the Ottoman Turks by a Polish-Habsburg army. (An interesting side story is the battle took place on September 11, 1683. It was the date of that defeat that became the impetus for Osama bin Laden’s terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001.)

In the aftermath of the battle, the victorious army captured a considerable supply of coffee beans that had been abandoned outside the city gates. Initially believed to be food for the Muslim camels, one of the Polish officers recognized the true value of the beans and asked King Jan Sobieski for ownership. The request was granted and, before long, the tradition of the Viennese coffeehouse was established.

The German word for relaxation in an unhurried manner with pleasantness and peace of mind is gemütlichkeit. The Viennese like to think of their coffeehouses as “having a soul.” It is an accurate and appropriate description for each of Vienna’s coffee establishments is unique with their personal share of gemütlichkeit. So rich is the heritage of Vienna’s coffeehouses that they became a part of UNESCO’s cultural heritage sites in 2011.
Coffeehouses are a pageant in Vienna  (wikipedia)

Three traditions are an integral aspect of a typical Viennese coffeehouse: There is always a huge selection of newspapers. Water is served with the coffee. Stay as long as you like.

It is also important to understand the intangible aspects that give the individual coffee cafes a life of their own, however. Some are better suited for morning discussions of global or national events, while others are equipped for pre or post-theater socializing. It is helpful to know the differences in order to have a total coffeehouse experience.

With those thoughts in mind, here is a traveler’s sampler to provide a basic introduction into the world of Viennese coffee. It is not meant to be definitive in any way, but purely to offer a bit of insight into a truly unique travel experience.
Chocolates are huge part of the coffeehouse tradition in Vienna  (wikipedia)
We begin with Café Central because it is one of the best known, and said to be the grandest, of all coffeehouses in Vienna. Because of that it has become a popular attraction for tourists and less so for local fashionistas. It was often frequented by the likes of Freud, Trosky and other notable writers and philosophers since opening in 1876 in the former Vienna Stock Exchange. To savor the echoes of the past and enjoy the spirit of a different world the best time to visit is midday. 

Cafe Demel dates to the 18th century and is one of the most popular coffeehouses in Vienna  (wikipedia)
Café Demel is another favorite. Designed in Baroque style and situated near the Hofburg Palace, Demel is part of Vienna’s famous chocolatier, K&K Hofzuckerbäcker. The café dates to 1786, and features some of the best confections in town in a city famous for its pastries. A great place to go for a mid-afternoon break. 
Buchteln are popular sweet buns at Cafe Hawelka (wikipedia)

Karl Kraus, the famous essayist once wrote, “Old Vienna was once new.” Not true if you visit Café Hawelka. Hawelka is traditional as it can get in Vienna, attracting curiosity seekers from all over the world. It has long been another popular gathering spot for artists and writers. So much so that it is said that entire books have been written in the café. Visit in the morning as soon as it opens or at ten at night when the famous Austrian sweet buns, called Buchteln, are served hot from the oven.  

CaféSacher gets a nod because it is part of the world famous Hotel Sacher which created the even more famous chocolate dessert known as Sacher Torte. The open terrace setting facing the Vienna Opera House creates a delightful ambience during the summer. Open from 8 am to midnight, and any time of day or night is a good time to visit.
The Sacher Torte is a world famous, scrumptious dessert  (wikipedia)
No trip to Vienna would be complete with a mention of Mozart. Café Mozart opened shortly after the death of the great composer in 1794. Located in Albertina Square behind the opera house, this smoke-free setting also features an open air section. While the café is open from 8 am until midnight, the signature “Third Man Breakfast” is only served until three in the afternoon. 

Try a "little night music" at the popular Mozart Cafe (wikipedia)
By the way, if you shy away from tradition, there’s always Starbucks. There are nine of them in Vienna.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Avignon: France’s medieval Vatican City is the gateway to Provence

The Palace of the Popes was once the seat of the Papacy in Avignon, France during the 14th century  (wikipedia)
AVIGNON, FRANCE Like St. Louis, which is the gateway to the west in the United States, historic Avignon begins the route to Provence and the south of France. Each is represented by dominant symbols which signify their prominence; St. Louis with its arch and Avignon with its historic Palace of the Popes.

Avignon opened a state of the art TGV station in 2001 (wikipedia)
Today, thanks to the wonder of high speed rail technology, Avignon is more accessible than ever before, not only from France but other Europeans cities as well.

From Paris, a TGV covers the distance of roughly 450 miles in less than three hours, making a Paris/Provence holiday a delightfully diverse combination of destinations for travelers.
Situated on the Rhone River, just above its confluence with the Durance, Avignon was founded by the Greeks on an untamed promontory along the river route used by Greek, Marseille and Italian sailors seeking trade with Northern Europe.

Thanks to the Rhone and its geographic location on the primary route between Spain and Italy, Avignon flourished in the Middle Ages. So much so, that its majestic ramparts were doubled around the city in the 14th century to ensure its safety and protect its wealth.
The Papal Palace, home of the Catholic Church for 70 years, has walls that are 18 feet thick  (wikipedia)
It was another event however, that brought prestige to Avignon which has lasted into modern times and made it a thriving UNESCO World Heritage site as well as a popular base for exploring Provence. The turning point came in 1309 when Pope Clement V moved the seat of the Papacy from Rome to Avignon.

High speed TGVs make Avignon readily accessible  (wikipedia)
The move altered Avignon’s place in history and changed its architectural physiognomy forever. A decision which, even today, is a major contributor to the city’s economic welfare.

Known as Altera Roma, the “City of the Popes,” Avignon became a thriving multicultural metropolis overnight. For seventy years, it was the center of Catholicism under the leadership of seven popes and two anti-popes.

In 1377, Gregory XI decided to take the seat of the Papacy back to Rome resulting in an ecumenical division in the church that became known as the Great Schism. Thus with the Catholic Church in disarray, the two popes who followed Gregory XI in Avignon, Clement VII and Benedict XIII, became known as “anti-popes.”

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the pope’s tenure in central France were the immediate construction projects that resulted because of their presence. The ramparts of the city, though impressive, were not strong enough to provide the necessary protection. As a result, the “Palais de Papes”, or Papal Palace, was built upon a natural outcropping of rock between 1335 and 1364 featuring impregnable thick 17-18 foot walls.

After the French Revolution, the palace became a barracks and later, a prison before being renovated into its present configuration as a museum.

Following Clement V, each successive pope added his own personal imprint to the building making it one of the largest medieval buildings in Europe. Today, the palace is among the most visited attractions in France thanks to the twists of history and the vision of Jean Vilar who created the Avignon Theatre Festival in 1947.

The international festival for the performing arts takes place annually in July incorporating the courtyard of the palace as an immense open-air stage. Two other major events happen in conjunction with the theater festival, one before and a jazz fest afterward, making Avignon a lively destination throughout the summer.

The city is served by two railway stations; the historic Gare d’Avignon-Centre, built in 1860, is situated just beyond the city walls, and the modern high speed Gare d’Avignon TGV that is part of the Mediterranean line connecting northern and southern France. Spain, Italy, Switzerland and, thanks to the Channel Tunnel, even England are convenient destinations for visiting Avignon.
The Bridge of Avignon, Pont Saint-Benezet, was rebuilt many times but today only spans half of the River Rhone  (wikipedia) 
Another popular sites in Avignon is the Pont Saint-Benezet, also known as the Bridge of Avignon. Today the bridge only partly exists, making it a popular landmark for visitors.

Following a siege of the city, the bridge was rebuilt with 22 stone arches that often collapsed during regular flooding of the Rhone. Ultimately, further reconstruction was abandoned in the 17th century, leaving the original bridge, built in 1345 by Pope Clement VI, extending only partly across the river with only just arches remaining.

One note of caution for visitors to Avignon, superb as the rail service to Avignon may be, taxis leave much to be desired. Cabs must be called for by phone and may take longer to arrive than reasonable expectations in a relatively compact community. Prepare for such eventualities by allowing ample time for transfers.
Avignon is the threshold to the stunning beauty of the Provence region of central France  (wikipedia)
Today, the ancient ramparts remain, giving Avignon a medieval flair as the entrance to one of the most beautiful regions in France. It’s an ideal site for a base to visit Provence and, with excellent TGV rail services, a Paris/Provence vacation is an ideal way to journey through France.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Helsinki: Finland’s Daughter of the Baltic

Helsinki's Luthern Cathedral dominates the skyline from anywhere in the city, especially the sea  (wikipedia)
HELSINKIFINLAND Finland’s capital, Helsinki, is called “The Daughter of the Baltic.” She is a city of the sea.

If it is true that water enhances a city, then Helsinki is a peninsula of perfection dotted with islands that float just out of reach of her meandering shoreline. Helsinki emerges from the forests of Finland to face her archipelago and the ever-present sea.

Helsinki is a compact metropolis where the sea dominates  (wikipedia)
Situated at the extreme southern tip of the country, Helsinki seeps to her harbors on the Bay of Finland whose waters comprise nearly half of the city.

She is equidistant from Stockholm, Sweden and St. Petersburg, Russia, a fact that has played a significant role in her history, as it will in her future, as a crossroads between east and west.

Helsinki has the virtue of compactness; a large city, yet not a metropolis. The greater metropolitan area has a population of about 1.1 million people, yet Helsinki retains a small-town identity all its own that is built from a deep sense of pride and individualism.

At first, Helsinki is an enigma; difficult to comprehend. It is a quiet city; a living metaphor for the inner strength that typifies the Finnish people. Don’t be misled by that reserve however, for hidden beneath the surface lies a loyalty, dependability and creativity like few other places on earth.
Suomenlinna Fortress is powerful, majestic and serene in an island setting  (wikipedia) 
That creativity is reflected in its architecture and design. Helsinki thrives as a modern, high-tech destination with an eye toward the future. Buildings are spacious and open, from the magnificent train station to numerous museums and theaters to Finlandia Hall, the congress center which hosts international meetings and conventions throughout the year.

The white marble facade of Alvar Aalto's Finlandia Hall is stunning in the Helsinki sunshine  (wikipedia)
Yet, the same mind that designed Finlandia Hall, also created one of the most popular glass items in the country known as the Aalto vase. Alvar Aalto lays claim to them both, which is typical of Finnish architecture and design.

For all of its contemporary personality, there is a traditional side to Helsinki as well. Overlooking Senate Square, the majestic cathedral dominates the skyline, especially from the sea where it seems to beckon you to draw closer and explore. Its size and prominence are symbolic of the fact that the country is 90% Lutheran.

Entrance to the Esplanade, a hug park in the city center  (wikipedia)
A few blocks away, on a hillside on the Katajanokka peninsula, rise the onion domes of Uspenski Cathedral, the most important orthodox cathedral in the country. The cathedral is a reminder that Finland was a self-governing Russian grand duchy before independence was gained in 1917.

To walk a city is to understand; to absorb it; to discover its charms and interact with its people. Because of its size, Helsinki is ideal for such exploration.

Local trams will take you everywhere in Helsinki  (wikipedia)
Begin at Market Square which faces the South Harbor. More than just a market, this is the unofficial gathering spot in Helsinki. It is a place for socializing that flourishes daily with vendors selling their wares. Everything from flowers, to vegetables and fruits and, of course, every variety of fish.

On the corner, the beloved nude statue of Havis Amanda that watches over the market and the harbor. The sculpture was created in Paris to symbolize the rebirth of Helsinki
Market Square is a gathering spot at the harbor every morning  (wikipedia) 
Just beyond, across the street, is the Esplanade. Though not the geographical center of the city, the Esplanade is a focal point. The beautiful tree-lined promenade is alive with activity, especially in summer when Helsinki is blessed with 20-hours of daylight.

Despite Helsinki’s cosmopolitan charm and high standard of living, Finns basically remain a rural society. Their devotion to nature and the environment is immediately obvious. The Finnish character is closely related to a reverence for their woodlands, lakes and, especially, the sea.
Ainola is the quaint country home of Jean Sibelius  (wikipedia)

Lovers of porcelain, fashion and crafts will find excellent shopping at the Esplanade showrooms of Arabia, Alexsandra and Aarikka. Shoppers will also discover a treasure chest of merchandise at Stockmann. Established in 1862, Stockmann is one of the largest department stores in Scandinavia.

Believe it or not, Helsinki has a wide array of beaches. Kayaking in the archipelago is also a popular pastime. For golfers, in summer it is possible to play 18-holes after dinner.

Regardless of one’s interests however, a visit to Helsinki eventually leads to the water. The city’s islands are diverse and unique. The zoo, for example, sits on an island, but it gives a sense of being in the heart of the city and far out in the country at the same time.

The fortress island of Suomenlinna is easily reached by a short ferry ride. “The Gibralter of the North” is the first attraction you see when you sail into the city. Today, it is a vast park and museum rather than a fortification.
Longboats make up the Midsummer bonfire in Seurasaari, Helsinki's outdoor museum  (wikipedia)
Another island, Seurasaari, is linked to the mainland by a lovely bridge. This open-air museum features houses transported from all over to Finland, and when the Helsinki summer makes that long days journey into night, this is the place to idle away the cares of the world.
Viking Line and Silja Line have ferrys to Sweden every night  (wikipedia)

Helsinki lies at the tip of one of the fingers of Scandinavia; fingers that extend, as Finnish writer Paavo Haavikko so aptly expresses, “like and open hand.” An open hand that points toward the future and to the eternal embrace of the sea.    

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Gota Canal: Sweden’s environmental “Blue Ribbon” masterpiece

Breathtaking and serene, the Gota Canal is a world a peace with itself  (
SWEDEN Build a canal across Sweden? Preposterous! True, the purpose was simple. It would be a shortcut, designed to expedite iron exports between Stockholm in the east with Gothenburg in the west.  It was also intended to avoid exorbitant Danish customs fees for passage through the Oresund Sound 

As far back as 1450 B.C. a canal had been built between the Nile and the Red Sea for irrigation purposes.  The Gota Canalproject had been proposed to connect the Baltic with the North Sea as early as 1526, but it was tabled for financial reasons.  The concept did not arise again until 1806 when a Swedish naval officer and government minister, Count Baltazar von Platen, renewed the proposal.  Four years later, construction on the Gota Canal began in May of 1810. 
A magical journey begins with well-wishers joining the celebration at every stop  (
For 22 years, 58,000 billeted soldiers, including a company of Russian deserters, toiled 12 hours a day, six days a week with little more than simple hand tools to remove eight million square meters of earth creating the equivalent of a bank that measured 16 feet high and 3 feet wide across Sweden.

Connecting two major inland bodies of water, Lake Vattern and Lake Vanern, the canal now stretches 87 man-made kilometers from Mem to Gothenburg.  Sadly, von Platen died three years before completion and the realization of his dream.

Diana eases through a lock (wikipedia)
Commercial traffic on the Gota Canal thrived for nearly a century before railways and motorized vehicles diminished its important. However, the death of commerce brought about the birth of tourism and pleasure boating.    When the government took over operations in 1978, the canal became and environmental masterpiece overnight, and it has been attracting visitors from all over the world ever since. Today, only tourist boats are allowed and a complete trip takes about four days to go from one coast to the other.           

Visitors sail the meandering little channel aboard three refurbished historic ships that ply its waters throughout the summer.  Depending upon the ship, capacity ranges from 25 cabins to 29, each with enough space to accommodate 60 passengers.  The flagship of the mini-fleet is the Juno, which went into service in 1874.  She also has the distinction of being the world’s oldest registered ship with overnight accommodations.
Life along the Gota Canal aboard the Wilhelm Tham  (wikipedia0
Nearly four decades later the Wilhelm Tham joined Juno in 1912, followed by the Diana, which was built in 1931.  Traditional four-day excursions on Juno cruise between Stockholm and Gothenburg, while six-day outings include overnight dockings during the journey.

For passengers seeking only to sample the canal experience, the Diana does sailings from Motala on the shores of Lake Vanern to the spa village of Soderkoping.  Occasionally there are also special three day weekend cruises which travel between Toreboda and Soderkoping.

Ships are lined with padded tubular cushions along both sides of their hulls as protection from bumps and dings while entering the multitude of locks that often resemble aquatic escalators.

Ships feature a different cabin class on each of their three decks.  Due to the narrowness of the canal, shipboard accommodations are necessarily small.  The miniature cabins are only slightly larger than a compartment on a train.  They include bunk beds and washbasins with hot and cold water, with shared bathrooms and showers on each deck.  There are no private facilities in the rooms.

Everywhere you look is a postcard  (
Still, the polished brass, varnished doors and cozy surroundings create an intimate, romantic ambience throughout, and the postage-stamp facilities quickly yield to a picturesque travel experience that will never be forgotten. 

All meals are included and served in the beautifully appointed dining room.  For socializing, passengers gather in the salon.  There is also a small library aboard each ship.

Some may find the slow pace of an excursion on the Gota Canal boring.  Others might have difficulty adapting to the Lilliputian size of the cabins.  But for a world-weary traveler, the calm and serenity of gracefully sailing through seemingly untouched scenery with no perceptible deadline along a panoramic ribbon of water is alluring.  As one passenger said, “This is one very impressive ditch.” 

He didn’t know how right he was for the Gota Canal is an opportunity to cruise through time and space, floating through the past while savoring the joys of a simpler era.  Not only does it pass through ever-changing scenery with 65 bridges and 58 locks, the canal also offers fascinating insights into Swedish history.  The Gota Canal can be counted among an ever-dwindling list of discoveries that travelers frequently seek, but rarely encounter.
The canal is a friendly place where its narrow width allows walkers who stroll along the towpath to engage in conversation with passengers as if they are lifelong friends.  Or, if passengers choose, they can disembark during stops at locks and reboard the ship when it reaches the next water level.
Tight squeeze as the canal leads its ships back home  (wikipedia)
Vapor steams from a mirror-smooth surface, enhancing shoreline reflections with dual images.  Columns of sheep stroll along the water’s edge while birds glide silently upon unseen currents of air and deer graze in the distance.  Passengers become intent on catching a glimpse of a finch or a wren or a nightingale while others identify each wildflower that comes into view; daisies, buttercups, and peonies.  Mother Nature is in charge, and she will not be hurried for she is solace for all things. 

The Gota Canal is the ideal way to explore the soul of a country by surrounding yourself in the wonder of nature known as the "Blue Ribbon of Sweden.”  

Friday, July 3, 2015

Berlin, Germany: A capital idea (Part II)

Vast stairway to the grandiose Sans Souci Palace in Potsdam just outside of Berlin (wikipedia)
BERLIN, GERMANY More than a quarter of a century after the reunification of Germany, the assimilation process between east and west continues. Nowhere is that more evident than Berlin.

The once divided capital with its tale of two cities has been a site of transition since the infamous wall came down over 25-years ago. The thriving German metropolis used to have two of everything; subway systems, opera houses, subdivided museums and other major facilities and venues.

Though the integration process is ongoing, Berlin has undergone a renaissance since November of 1989. It is a place rich in history and a vibrant cultural hub as well as a city of mystery and intrigue, the combination of which makes Berlin a traveler’s Mecca.

Alexanderplatz is a main gathering spot in Berlin  (wikipedia)
While many European cities boast of monumental gathering spaces such as Piazza San Marco in Venice, Red Square in Moscow and Trafalgar Square in London, Berlin has three, not counting the Brandenburg Gate.

No place in Berlin represents reunification better than Potsdamer Platz. Once Europe’s busiest traffic intersection, Potsdamer Platz was completely destroyed during World War II. 

Since 1995 the former site where trading paths once crossed has again become a commercial centerpiece, though not without controversy. Today the area is divided into four districts filled with gleaming glass skyscrapers and contemporary architecture as debate continues about its prospects for success in the future.
Potsdamer Platz has been completely rebuilt since the wall came down in 1989  (wikipedia)
Even so, the symbolic impact of the project is exemplified by the route of the Berlin Marathon which meanders through both Cold War sectors of the city and passes through Potsdamer Platz approximately ten minutes from the finish line.

Berlin's Gendarmenmarkt is almost symmetrical  (wikipedia)
A second majestic square is the Gendarmenmarkt which dates to the late 17th century. The immense square is flanked by almost identical two cathedrals, the Deutscher Dom at one end and the Franzosischer Dom, which features an observation platform, at the other. In between is the concert hall which is home to the Berlin Symphony.

The third member of the trio, Alexanderplatz, was the center of Berlin in the Middle Ages and one of its most bustling squares. The recognizable TV tower, the Fernsehturn, with its revolving restaurant at the top is one of the tallest structures in Europe.

The Weltzeituhr (World Time Clock) is a popular attraction showing the time in other cities throughout the world. In the center of the square seductive aquatic sounds emanated form the Fountain of International Friendship, a circular fountain with a series of shallow bowls that create multiple mini-waterfalls. Both were added in 1969.
Museum lovers can spend an entire day browsing five great exhibition sites on Museum Island  (wikipedia)
There is much to see beyond Berlin’s squares, however. Museum Island, which sits in the center of the River Spree, features five world class museums built in the hundred year span of 1830 to 1930. The best known gallery, the Pergamon Museum, is also the newest exhibiting reconstructions of historically important buildings such at the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon.
The Pergamon Museum takes visitors centuries back in time (wikipedia)
In addition to the museums is Berlin Cathedral. This UNESCO World Heritage site can be visited with a Berlin Pass which includes many other attractions throughout the city as well as local transportation services. A two day adult pass costs about $100.

Berlin's Egyptian Museum is the best outside of Cairo (wikipedia)
In another part of Berlin, the Egyptian Museum is said to be the best collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities outside of the country. The museum was divided between East and West Berlin until the wall came down. Under reunification, it, too, returned to singular status.

Berlin’s Versailles, the 17th century Charlottenburg Palace, or Schloss Charlottenburg, is not only the largest palace in the city, but the only surviving royal residence dating back to the Hohenzollern dynasty.

Entrance to Charlottenburg Palace at night  (wikipedia)
Historians should not miss an opportunity to visit the Jewish Quarter of Berlin which is highlighted by the remnants of the city’s first Jewish cemetery dating to the year 1672. Nearby, a memorial pays tribute to the 55,000 Berlin Jews murdered during the Nazi regime.

Another popular symbol of the war is the ruined spire of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church which offers a dramatic view for rail passengers arriving at the main train station.  A contemporary church has been constructed next door, leaving the ruin as a solemn reminder of war and a “memorial to peace and reconciliation.”
KaDeWe Department store in Berlin is second only to London's Harrods in size  (wikipedia)
Shoppers can revel in the second-largest department store in Europe known as KaDeWe. Only Harrods in London is bigger. Kaufhaus des Westens, or Department Store of the West, has nearly 200,000 square feet of shopping space spread over eight floors.
The State Opera House at twilight in Berlin  (wikipedia)
Berlin is getting its act together. It is an alluring multi-faceted jewel to suit any traveler. For those who remain unfulfilled or just want more, San Souci Palace outside the city is always a favorite attraction. But that’s a story all its own.