Thursday, December 29, 2016

Orvieto, Italy: Once a haven for popes, now a traveler’s oasis

The Duomo in Orvieto is a symbol of the city's heritage  (Taylor)

ORVIETO, ITALY Imagine a city situated atop a huge flat summit of volcanic rock, or “tuff,” rising above seemingly vertical cliffs to establish an impregnable fortress to protect its citizens. There is such a place. A place known as Orvieto in southwestern Umbria.

By virtue of its location, Orvieto is one of the most dramatic sites for a city in Europe. And yet, though situated along the main road between Rome and Florence, it is somehow frequently overlooked by travelers.
Orvieto's wisteria lane
Whether you arrive by car, train or funicular, the first thing you notice about Orvieto today is the peaceful, almost sleepy, surroundings of this once mighty fortress that used to be a sanctuary that protected several popes.

Annexed by Rome in the third century BC, Orvieto was last conquered by Julius Caesar. As such, it has had hundreds of years to become complacent about its fortifications, which would certainly be a cause for its contemporary serenity.
Umbrian countryside

 At one time, toward the end of the 13th century, Orvieto counted a population of approximately 30,000 inhabitants. It was considered a major cultural center during its heyday thanks, in large part, to the reputation of Thomas Aquinas who taught at the studium there.

A studium was a university organized during the High Middle Ages for the purposes of advancing higher learning.

The 13th century also brought visits by several popes to Orvieto and, except for Viterbo and later Avignon (France), it was the only city outside of Rome to have a papal palace.
Two level street in Orvieto  (Wikipedia)
Among the most notable landmarks in modern Orvieto is the cathedral which is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin, a celebration that has had considerable importance for the city. Pope Nicholas IV laid the cornerstone of the cathedral on November 15, 1290.
The main square outside the cathedral is always busy  (Taylor)
Striped in white travertine and greenish-black bands of basalt, the Cathedral of Orvieto follows the tradition of several other cathedrals from that era situated in central Italy. The most striking resemblance is that of the nearby Cathedral of Siena.
Quaint streets are a hallmark

With five bells tuned in E flat, the cathedral dates back to the Renaissance and has become a popular venue for weddings in the region.

Various popes made their way to and from Orvieto from the 13th to the 16th centuries. When the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome in  1527, Pope Clement took refuge in Orvieto and commissioned a 200 foot well, known affectionately as the “Well of St. Patrick.” in order to provide sufficient water to the city.
Pathway to Orvieto's mysterious underground  (Taylor)
Among the most interesting aspects of Orvieto is the labyrinth of underground tunnels and caves that lie beneath the surface of the modern village. The underground city can only be visited in a guided tour, but it is well worth it with more than 1,200 tunnels, galleries, wells, stairways, quarries, cellars, passageways, cisterns and, even, small nooks for pigeon roosts.
Underground entrance

The underground city was constructed over the centuries by noble families who had the means to use their subterranean homes as escape routes should a siege ever take place. The tunnels led from the city palace to a number of safe exits that provided freedom a considerable distance from the city.

Two other projects included the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo which was built on the same site as the original palace and the Fortezza dell’Albornoz that was constructed under orders from Pope Innocent VI. 
Shadows of serenity line Orvieto's streets  (Taylor)
The huge Fortress Albornoz began in the mid-14th century near the town cemetery in order to offer a secure location for church as well as to allow the cardinal and his captains a place to consolidate their military victories.
A sleepy village that was once home to popes  (Taylor)
While the remnants of its history remain, Orvieto today is a city filled with cobblestone streets and shaded paths that guide travelers past ancient walls. Orvieto is roughly circular in design, so it is easy to enter from one direction, exit from another and see the entire city in a single visit.

Next time you are in Florence headed toward Rome, or vice-versa, be sure to savor a few delicious moments in Orvieto.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Sweden’s glass district is crystal beauty at its best

Don't let the name Pukeberg fool you, the glass is superb
SMALAND, SWEDEN Be it the United Kingdom or the Magic Kingdom or any realm in between, travelers have long been fascinated with castles and royalty. And one of the  most popular in-between “kingdoms” can be found today in southern Sweden. Best of all, it’s made out of glass.

Well, not entirely, but they do call it the Kingdom of Crystal, or Glasriket in Swedish. In fact, Sweden’s glass district is the most visited destination in the country except for Stockholm and Gothenburg.
Swedish craftsmanship  (wikipedia)
Situated in the lovely forested province of Smaland, the Kingdom of Crystal is home to 15 glassworks in the towns of Emmaboda, Nybro, Uppyidinge, Vaxjo and Lessebo.

Swedish artisans have been turning red-hot molten handblown glass into crystalline beauty in the region since 1742, and the process has become a major aspect of Swedish culture.
Precision is found in every piece  (wikipedia) 
Two of the larger and most famous glass businesses are Orrefors and Kosta Boda, but each glassworks, no matter how large or small, has developed its own individual styles and interpretations to such a high degree that every company produces world class crystal and glass. In fact, in a few of the glassworks, you can even try your luck at making your own glass creation.
Kalmar Castle was once a major fortification protecting Sweden's
coast  (wikipedia)
Part of what makes the Kingdom of Crystal so appealing to visitors is the rural scenic landscapes that spread out through the region from Kalmar to Vaxjo. It doesn’t take long to understand why Swedes are nature lovers of the first order. Their deeply seeded reverence for their woodlands, lakes and pristine nature is universal.
Wrapping red hot glass (wikipedia)

Kalmar is a coastal city that was once extremely important for the Swedes. The Castle of Kalmar was a major stronghold for the seafaring ancestors of modern-day Swedes. So much so that it was often said that whoever controlled Kalmar controlled the Baltic region.

Among the unique features of southern Sweden is something known as the “Emigrants Path” which follows the route taken by nearly one and a half million Swedes who left their homeland in the late 19th century to settle in the upper  Midwest of the United States.
Swedish emigrant  (wikipedia)

The migration was so prolific that for a brief period of time, Chicago had the second largest Swedish population in the world behind Stockholm.

Travelers with Swedish heritage can re-trace the footsteps of their ancestors along the route which ends at the gateway to the Kingdom of Crystal.
Wilhelm Moeberg  (wikipedia)
There is also a Swedish Emigrant Institute near Vaxjo which was supported by Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg who donated the entire source material from his epic story of Karl and Kristina Oskar’s emigration from Smaland to Minnesota.

The institute is one of the best of its kind where people of Swedish heritage can seek out their ancestral history.
Glass fish created from red hot sand  (wikipedia) 
After a glass blowing demonstration at one of the factories, visitors can browse the outlets in each business to find crystal and glass products for gifts or souvenirs. The outlets offer considerable discounts on “seconds” ranging between 30 and 40 percent. Deferring to the Swedish philosophy of perfection, the seconds contain minute flaws that, in many cases, are not even visible to the naked eye or the untrained observer.

There is a broad range of accommodations in the region from hotels to B&Bs to campgrounds and youth hostels.

The Kingdom of Crystal is easily accessible from Stockholm, Gothenburg and even Copenhagen, Denmark.
Swedish glass is not only perfection but colorful as well
Visitors planning to make a full tour of the region might want to consider a GLASRIKET Pass for 95 Swedish kroners which offers free admission to many museums as well as discounts on purchases and many other bonuses and/or special events.
What will it become?  (wikipedia)

For something a little unique, the Kingdom of Crystal and the Path of the Emigrants might just be the answer. The pastoral rural countryside filled with traditional red houses and white trim will capture your imagination with thoughts of a gentler day and time. It’s just a matter of a few magic moments for everything to become “crystal” clear.

How “Swede” it is.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Great Britain’s Heritage Railways

Steam train crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct in Scotland  (wikipedia)
UNITED KINGDOM An often overlooked aspect of British heritage that played a major role in its history from the middle of the 19th century was its railroads.

For decades Britain’s railways were second to none connecting major cities through rural countryside, majestic highlands and unspoiled scenery filled with muscled mountain peaks and deep glacial lakes.
Pulling into Minnfordd in Wales  (wikipedia)
Great Britain’s rail transportation system connected virtually every corner of the nation. By 1923, the Railways Act of 1921 left four primary rail companies to dominate a particular geographic region: the Great Western Railway (GWR), the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS), the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) and the Southern Railway (SR).

From these four companies, British Rail (BR) was formed to nationalize the train systems between 1948 and 1997. From 1994 until 1997, the rail systems of the UK were privatized into the system that operates throughout the country today. Many of the branch lines that had been so prominent in the past simply disappeared and, though the rails remain a major source of mass transit, some of the early heritage and tradition was lost.
Sleek modern British train

Thanks to the insights of rail historians, Heritage Railways have re-opened several of the previously closed lines in an effort to preserve the history and tales told by the rails.

For train enthusiasts wishing to experience the bygone era of steam locomotives and smoke belching engines, here are three of the best.
The Nunlow steam train on the KWVR Railway  (wikipedia)
The Keighley Worth Valley Railway: The KWVR Company opened in 1867 when wealthy mill owners funded the project in order to get their products to market.

One of the major problems in operating the line was the steep gradient from Keighley which has always been a challenge for steam locomotives. The sound of the engine sent echoes throughout the steep sides of the valley while gigantic clouds of steam rose from the rails.
Romancing the rails  (wikipedia) 
Many of the wool mills that lined the tracks no longer exist, but those that do remain are permanent reminders of the glory days of textiles in that part of the country.

Coal was as important for the mills as it was for the railroad, so hundreds of tons of it was transported into the valley to keep looms running and the trains operating. Though the journey was only five miles long, it was romanticized by the Bronte sisters, Emily, Charlotte and Anne.

Two-thirds of the passengers today are visitors seeking to relive the golden age of steam that hearkens to a simpler day.

British Rail shut the line down in 1962 but locals and railway enthusiasts to united to save it. After six long years, the Preservation Society had rail service operating again by purchasing the line outright.

Today, the KWVR is one of the premier heritage railways in the UK operating more than 200 days each year through the stunning British countryside.
The Great Central Railway is the only double track heritage railroad in the UK  (wikipedia)
The Great Central Railway: The unique feature of the Great Central Railway is that it is Great Britain’s only double track, main line heritage railway. For a truly spectacular sight,  the GCR is the only place in the world today where two full-size steam engines can be seen passing each other.

The Great Central Railway operates every weekend of the year, bank holidays and selected weekdays through the summer as it travels between Loughborough and Leicester.

Among the special services is the First Class Restaurant Car Services which offer five course meals during the journey.

The GCR traces its origins to the earliest days of railroading in Britain in 1847. The company was the combination of four railways for the purpose of moving coal and other goods across the rugged Pennine moorland and through the Woodhead Tunnel.

When Edward Watkin took over as general manager in 1854, the Great Central Railway began undergoing major changes. Not only was Watkin ambitious, he was also visionary. Developing a grand plan to link the industrial heartland of Britain to the continent of Europe through a tunnel under the English Channel. The Channel Tunnel did not become a reality until the latter part of the 20th century, but the idea existed for almost a century.
A head of steam on the GCR

Watkins resigned due to ill health in the early 1890s, but the GCR continued to expand under the leadership Alexander Henderson. The line was constructed from Annesley through Nottingham, Leicester, Rugby and on to Quainton Road. One short spur even went beneath Lords Cricket ground and is now known as the London Extension.

It is on this line that the Great Central Railway operates today. Thanks to the tireless efforts of volunteers stations have been restored as have signal boxes, signals, carriages, wagons and steam and diesel engines.

It has taken 40 years to restore the Great Central Railway to its proper place in history.
The Severn Valley Limited hearkens to a bygone era  (wikipedia)
Severn Valley Railway: For 16 miles the SevernValley Railway is a full-size passenger rail line between Kidderminster in Worcestershire and Bridgnorth in Shropshire.

The SVR is operated primarily by unpaid volunteers who perform repairs, painting, reconstruction of infrastructure and rebuilding of locomotives.

The line began in 1858 and was completed in 1862. Just a century later the line was closed to passengers as part of a national rail rationing program.

By 1965, a group of approximately 50 local rail enthusiasts met in Kidderminster to form the Severn Valley Railway Society.

Sir Gerald Nabarro spearheaded the project to purchase nine miles of rail line from Alveley Colliery to Foley Park near Kidderminster. Nabarro was flambuoyant to say the least, but he got things done. By 1973, Sir Gerald had made made everyone unhappy to the point of threatening to strike. The strike never came about, but Nabarro had lost interest in the project and died later that year.
The legacy of British trains lingers as a source of pride and tradition  (wikipedia)
By 1984 a new station at Kidderminster opened with important function of maintaining a link with the national railway network.

In the end, the Severn Valley Railway along with its Heritage Railways sisters provides a link to the past when giant steam locomotives connected Great Britain and kept the Kingdom United.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Fribourg, Switzerland: A gem in a scenic wonderland

Images of a medieval past come alive in Fribourg, Switzerland
FRIBOURG, SWITZERLANDIn the world of travel, the Canton of Fribourg in Switzerland is a tiny jewel in a country filled with scenic gems. Much like its sister, Berne, which lies about 17-miles northeast of Fribourg, the city has preserved most of its medieval center which is now one of the largest in Europe.
Picturesque and serene

Situated on a breathtaking peninsula surrounded on three sides by the  River Saane/La Sarine (two spellings are common in Fribourg because the city is both German and French), Fribourg’s Old City architecture dates primarily before the 16th century when most of the houses were built of the local stone known as “molasse.”

St Nicholas Cathedral dominates the skyline  (Taylor)
Founded in 1157, Fribourg derives its name from the German word frei (free) and burg (fort), a location that was no accident because it offered the protection of steep cliffs on three sides. Make no mistake, Switzerland, which is one of the oldest democracies in the world, values its freedom intensely, and, in that sense, Fribourg is a symbol for the entire country.
A step back in time (Taylor)

In fact, with the aid of Berne as an ally in the Burgundian Wars in 1477, Fribourg gained the status of Free Imperial City in the following year after being released from the influence of Savoy. Soon after, the city and its canton joined the Swiss Confederation and since that time has been influential in Swiss and European Catholicism.
Winter beauty along the Sarine River  (wikipedia)
The Cathedral of St. Nicholas sits on an outcropping of rock above the River Sarine in the medieval center of the city. The Gothic architecture began in 1283 and was completed in 1430 with the dominating tower being completed in 1490. Noted for its stained-glass windows created between 1896 and 1936 by Jozef Mehoffer of Poland, the St. Nicholas windows are said to be among the most important religious Art Nouveau collections in the world.

In 1945, St. Nicholas officially became the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg.
Jean Tinguely's "gizmos" are whimsical to watch  (Taylor)
Fribourg’s monasteries have long been a center of religious culture which includes architecture, sculpture and painting, the most influential of which was that of the Jesuits. Their influence led heavily to the city’s prosperity as well as the establishment of Fribourg University.

Tinguely fountain (wikipedia)
Though Switzerland’s touristic image is usually centered on other things, the country offers incredible unknown and undiscovered art collections. Fribourg is a perfect example with its Museum of Marionettes, Swiss Sewing Machine Museum, Gutenberg Museum and even a Beer Museum.

Everyone enjoys a visit to the small but eclectic display of the whimsical contraptions created by Swiss native son Jean Tinguely. Tinguely’s machines are filled with vibrant humor, irony and even a touch of sadness as visitors interact with his pieces.
See Fribourg aboard the Petite Train  (wikipedia)
The best way to see Fribourg is to ride through the city and its outskirts on the Petite Train which arrives and departs regularly from the front of the Fribourg Tourist Office.
Archway that leads to Gruyeres Castle  (Taylor)
Among the most popular destinations in the Canton of Fribourg is the medieval town of Gruyeres which is famous for its Gruyere cheese. (The village gets an “S”, the cheese doesn’t.)
A window on the past (Taylor)

The castle, built between 1270 and 1282 is the primary attraction. Situated atop an isolated hill north of the Alps, the castle represents the Baroque period rather than the Gothic style of Fribourg.

Not to be missed is the spiral staircase in the courtyard and the adjustment of the esplanade with its chapel. As with most destinations in Switzerland, art is once again prominent. Well-known mid-19th century artists like Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Barthelemy Menn and others contributed to the superb landscapes that permeate the castle.
The spiral staircase is impressive  (Taylor)
When Swiss surrealist painter and sculptor, HR Giger purchased the Chateau St. Germain in Gruyeres, he turned it into a permanent space to display his work. An acquired taste, to say the least, Giger’s museum resides next to another exhibition featuring antiquities from Tibet.
The castle art and the Giger Museum are eclectic and stunning
Gruyere cheese has been a major economic factor in the region for centuries, and there is also a cheese factory in Pringy which is open to visitors who wish to observe the cheese making process.
Where the best of the old meets the best of the new  (Taylor)

With its location roughly halfway between Berne and Lausanne, the Canton of Fribourg is a great place for a day trip in Switzerland or, better yet, for a brief stop for further exploration.

Sometimes when you think small, you get big surprises.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The open-air museums of Europe

Ancient farmhouse at Seurasaari in Helsinki  (wikipedia)
Europe -- Before the Industrial Revolution changed the world, Artur Hazelius had the idea to bring rural culture to a single area filled with traditional houses and farmsteads of a country along with gardens and animals so that people would never forget their heritage.

In so-doing, Hazelius created the first outdoor museum on the island of Djurgården in Stockholm, Sweden. Within two short decades, there were nearly 20 more open-air museums scattered throughout northern Europe.
Ballenberg horse-drawn carriage
The experiment to preserve rural life among rapidly growing industrialized societies was a resounding success as traditional customs and occupations that might have disappeared into the annals of history were saved for future generations to enjoy.

Most American visitors miss these outdoor treasures in their never-ending pursuit of guidebook attractions, but a traveler should experience at least one or two in order to bring the picture of our own heritage into focus.

Here are some of the best open-air museums in Europe in alphabetical order.
Swiss farmhouse at Ballenberg near Interlaken  (wikipedia)
Ballenberg (Switzerland): The Swiss took longer than usual to open their outdoor museum known as Ballenberg near Interlaken. Featuring more than 100 rural houses and farm buildings from all over the country, the structures could not be maintained in their natural environment so each was carefully dismantled and then re-built at Ballenberg on 165 acres of land.

Dwellings contain farmhouses, workers quarters, alpine huts and stalls, barns, store-houses, wash-houses and drying ovens along gardens, fields, pastures and meadows that have been arranged according to traditional historical models.

Ballenberg is a living museum where master craftsmen work with traditional tools to create exhibits and provide insights into the early history of the country. In addition a few hundred domestic animals on the property give it an animated ambiance as life was hundreds of years ago.

Though the Swiss had discussed the concept much earlier, it did not come up for serious consideration until 1963 when the Swiss Federal Council set up a commission to explore the idea. Fifteen years later, Ballenberg became a reality as one of the newest outdoor museums in Europe.
Half-timbered house at the Freilichtmuseum in Germany
Black Forest Open Air Museum (Germany): In German the word for Open Air Museum is Freilichtmuseum or “Free Light Museum.” The Black Forest Open Air Museum focuses upon six fully furnished farmhouses with the centerpiece being the Vogtsbauerhof which was actually constructed on the site in 1612. Travelling craftsmen perform exhibitions inside the house on a regular basis.

Hotzenwaldhaus dates from 1756 in Hotzenwald and is used for demonstrations of Black Forest textiles.

Dairy and livestock farming are on exhbition at Falkenhof which came from Dreisamtal and was built in 1737.
Old German storage house

Woodworking demonstrations are conducted in the 1730 building of  Schauinslandhus  from Schauinsland.

The oldest building in the park, built in 1599, is Hippenseppenhof from Furtwangen-Katzensteig features costumes and clocks from the region.

Finally Lorenzenhof  (1608) was brought in from Oberwolfach in the Kinzig valley for forestry management, glassblowing and a collection of regional stone and minerals.

The museum is open daily from the end of March until early November. It is said to be the most visited open-air museum in Germany welcoming some 13.5 million visitors since it opened in 1964.
Unusual farmhouse from early Sweden (wikipedia)
Norsk Folkemuseum (Norway): King Oscar II’s open-air museum near Oslo, Norway opened in 1881, making it the first of its kind. Initially the plan was to display 8 to 10 building styles from Norway dating to the Middle Ages, but the king eventually lost interest because of the cost of the project.

King Oscar’s influence however, was instrumental in making Scandinavia a haven for similar projects and the Oslo Open Air Museum is a thriving enterprise today.
Early Swedish village at Skansen in Stockholm  (wikipedia)
Skansen (Sweden): If you only visit one open-air museum in your life, Skansen in Stockholm is the one to see. When King Oscar gave up in Norway, Artur Hazelius carried the idea to fulfillment in Sweden opening the world’s first open-air museum in 1891.

Skansen is more than a park. Rather it is a miniature historical rendition of the country represented in buildings ranging from farmsteads in Skåne in the south to the indigenous Sami (Lapps) of the north.

Venues range from the early 16th century to the first half of the 20th century and the park features domestic and wild animals, folk music, dancing and costumed performers who demonstrate the social conditions of each period.
A day at Skansen

Only three of the roughly 150 building are not original, but those were painstakingly copied from examples that were found.

Oddly enough, the oldest building in Skansen comes from Telemark in Norway.

A fun way to reach Skansen is by the funicular that has been operating since 1897 on the northwest side of the property. It’s approximately 650 feet in length with a rise of about 115 feet.
Stable at Seurasaari in Helsinki, Finland  (wikipedia)
Seurasaari (Finland): The Finnish contribution is an island in Helsinki consisting mainly of old wooden buildings from other parts of the country. What makes Seurasaari different is that it is situated in a heavily forested landscape inhabited by an abundance of wildlife.

The island is most popular on Midsummer’s Day when people gather throughout the park to celebrate the longest day of the year.

A bride is chosen to be married at the chapel in the park, and then she and her new husband are rowed in longboats to a small outcropping of rock at ten o’clock where they light a bonfire of longboats standing on end.

Europe is filled with open-air treasures that are frequently missed by
American travelers. For something new and different, take a deep breath and savor the open-air of the Continent.