Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

Oscar Wilde tomb Pere Lachaise    Père Lachaise cemetery, in the 20th arrondisement in Paris, is like a peaceful, tree-shaded, 110-acre park, only with lots of bones entombed and underground—not at all gloomy, in my opinion. Tourists love it. A map, available at the entrance, shows where some of the famous names are, but frankly, I find it confusing and prefer to just wander the walkways and possibly happen upon one I recognize. Oscar Wilde, maybe, whose tomb is fenced so you can’t leave lipstick kisses as people used to do. Sarah Bernhardt, Gertrude Stein, Edith Piaf, Chopin, Jim Morrison and thousands more are buried here. Some memorials are haunting: a wall dedicated to the Communards killed in 1871, sculptures in honor of WWII Resistance fighters and Holocaust victims.

The hillside cemetery’s name comes from a priest, Père Francois de la Chaise, 17th century confessor to King Louis cemetery1XIV. In 1804, Napoleon declared the site where the priest once lived a graveyard. Parisians didn’t like it. They weren’t going to bury loved ones so far from the city and in unblessed ground. The answer was to bring in celebrities, starting with the remains of the beloved writer and comedic actor Molière and the author La Fontaine. A few years and several bodies later, the place was in demand. Today Père Lachaise holds more than a million of the dead, and there’s a long waiting list.

IMG_0780   Montparnasse Cemetery, on the other side of the city in the 14th arrondisement, is much smaller. Its flat, 47 acres are divided into the petit and the grand, with some 1200 trees making it another quiet park. Montparnasse holds the remains of many artists and intellectuals, plus memorials to Paris police and firefighters who died in the line of duty. Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Alfred Dreyfus, Susan Sontag, and Paul Belmondo are among the more famous names on the graves. I’m intrigued by all of it – the sad little verses, the ceramic flowers, the names known only to long-gone family members. One monument is a huge bed with sculptures of Monsieur and Madame Pigeon reclining on it, and an angel standing guard above. Pigeon helped found La Samaritaine department store and invented a type of gas lamp that wouldn’t explode. This was hugely important in the 19th century and made him wealthy. He designed the tomb to hold his family of 18 people.

After all this reflecting on mortality, I’m in need of an apéritif at a lively (emphasis on live) sidewalk café, so I’m heading for La Rotonde, on Boulevard Montparnasse. Hemingway and Picasso liked it and I do too.


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Madrid at Christmas (By Guest Contributor Alyssa Powell)

In Spain, Christmas and New Year’s Eve are celebrated with gifts and treats, feasts and parties, just as we do back home in the USA, but with a difference. It’s a great time for anyone lucky enough to be in Spain for the holidays  I’ve been living here in Madrid for a while now as a teacher, and keep discovering new twists.  They vary around the county, but here’s my version:

On Christmas Eve, my friend Alberto and his family and friends got together in their home village for a big meal, a marisco (seafood) feast. We had a brothy, delicious soup with clams and fish, and ate lots of shrimp, which we beheaded and peeled and dipped in sauce. All this was prepared by Alberto’s mom. Next came traditional, typical treats: a kind of nougat candy called turrón, chocolate truffles,  little cakes and pastries, and the best red wine they could afford.  Some very good red wine comes from Spanish vineyards.

The Catholic church is a strong influence, and many people go to church several times during the season.  Some who are less religious attend mass because it’s traditional, while others don’t go at all.

The next day, Christmas, people usually hang out with their families and open their boots (not stockings!). I had set out one of my own boots and found candy and chips inside. The family Roconas del Reyopened a few presents from Papa Noel, but most gifts are opened January 6,  Dia de Los Reyes, or Three Kings Day.  That day there was a parade in the streets, with men costumed as the Three Kings (Three Wise Men), and after the parade the kids hurried home to open their best presents.

Then it was time for another festive meal, ending with a traditional dessert:  roscón de reyes, a round cream-filled pastry with a hole in the middle and dried fruits on top. It looks a bit like a crown, and maybe that’s what it represents. Inside are hidden figures and a bean. Whoever gets the piece with the bean pays LiveBelenfor the roscón, and the one who gets the figure can expect to have good luck all year. My piece had a little duck figure. We weren’t through yet. After the festivities we took a walk to see the Belén displays around town. These are nativity scenes, some very elaborate, in shop windows. My favorite included dinosaurs. In one village I visited, there was a living Belén, with villagers playing the roles of Mary, Joseph, and shepherds.

Between Christmas and Dia de Los Reyes we celebrated New Year’s Eve, complete with fireworks, immense GrapesAtMidnightcrowds in the plazas, food and drinks. We watched the clock in Puerta del Sol, Madrid, but instead of counting down and cheering, Spaniards wait until midnight, and as the clock strikes twelve they eat one grape for each chime. You have to chew fast because if you do it correctly, you’ll have good luck all year.  Then everybody drinks champagne and heads for the bars.

Whew. All the world should enjoy the winter holidays as much as the Spanish do.  Feliz Navidad and Feliz Año!New Year's Eve

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The rock formations of Cappadocia, in central Turkey, are unlike any others on Earth.  They’re not only strange natural sculptures, they have a human history that spans centuries. Millions of years ago, ash from erupting volcanoes slowly hardened to tufa, and that stone, eroded over time by wind and rain, became the erry, convoluted shapes I’m seeing today. The harder granite didn’t erode as easily, and the result was “fairy chimneys”–huge cones topped by granite boulders. But that’s only part of what has pulled me to Cappadocia. I’m marveling at the hundreds of dwellings and churches carved into cliffs, some still in use and even turned into cave hotels that tourists adore.

Turkey’s Goreme Open-Air Museum, about a mile from the village of Goreme, is a collection of cave churches carved out by Christian monks more than a thousand years ago. At this UNESCO World Heritage Site, I can see remnants of the Byzantine frescoes they painted on the stone, and the living and burial sites along hillside paths. There’s a fee to enter, and the best time to visit is early in the day (afternoon heat can be intense, and tour groups fill the place).

Then there are the underground cities, built and used from ancient times as protection from enemies. Early Christian churches began here, but even before that people were carving tunnels and spaces for living and storage. There are at least 36 of them in Cappadocia; the widest is Kaymakli and the deepest, nearly 280 feet underground, is Derinkuyu. Kaymakli goes down eight levels, four of them open to the public, with sloping passages and carved-out rooms and chapels around ventilation shafts. Thousands of people lived here with their animals, food from the crops they harvested, and wine. It is all quite amazing. The stony countryside seems dry and arid, but  water streams in  from surrounding mountains and creates fertile, life-supporting valleys.

Relaxing by the pool at our hotel, Lykia Lodge Kapakokya, is a sharp and, I admit, pleasant contrast to crouching in underground tunnels, following the guide’s flashlight. Lykia Lodge, in a park setting outside the town of Nevsehir, is modern and comfortable, and I recommend it. There are tree-shaded lawns, a tennis court and playground, a full bar in the lounge, and a restaurant serving traditional regional dishes. The excellent morning buffet has every breakfast dish imaginable: yogurt, cereals, fresh and dried fruits, egg and meat dishes, pastries. The place is favored by groups, but don’t let that deter you. There’s plenty of room for all.

One thing I’m going to skip is the famous hot-air balloon ride over Cappadocia. I am told the views are spectacular, but I have trouble with adventures that involve rising before dawn. Maybe next time I’ll admire the fairy chimneys and  twisted rocks from far above. 

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The expert who’s teaching me to make pides, the pita-like Turkish bread, is too polite to laugh at my  effort to wrap dough around a long wooden roller and flatten it into a big circle. How hard can it be? Harder than it looks. The thin dough tears, and she clucks and repairs the rips. Clumsy tourist, can’t even make a pide. She slides the circle onto a long-handled wooden paddle and the woman next to her, Ganja,  pushes it into the stone oven. It puffs and crisps as it bakes, and everyone watching gets a taste. Then we go to lunch.

This is part of our little group’s experience of life in rural Turkey. Overseas Adventure Travel makes it a point to give travelers a close glimpse of the reality of Turkey, not just the monuments, ruins and tourist spots.  So here we are in Ilicek, a village of blocky houses scattered along dirt roads. All have gardens. Our hosts’ garden is bounded by stone walls, and they have a fig tree, chickens and a turkey (the first one I’ve seen in Turkey). Upstairs, in the small living room, a table spread with a yellow cloth is set for eight. It’s a squeeze, but nobody cares. Ganja, our hostess, serves lentil soup with yogurt, barley and rice. Then a second course, a ravioli-type dish with meat, tomato sauce and yogurt. Fresh pide, of course, and sweet pastries.  These people – Ganja, her beautiful niece Ebru, and the grandmother Babaneh – are incredibly hospitable. They smile a lot and tell us (via our interpreter) that they’re honored  to have us. And we are honored to be here.  We offer gifts of food we’ve purchased in an outdoor market and say tessekur (thank you) and hashtakal (goodbye).

Further south is Akburun, a village on the shore of Lake Beysehir, the largest fresh-water lake in Turkey. Reeds from its marshy edges are stacked  by sheds and barns, waiting to be dried and, with poplar tree logs and thick layers of earth, used to make snug, well-insulated ceilings. Cows graze on grassy fields by the lake, and storks nest in high poles.  Akburun has one main road, a small mosque, a store, and a garden beside almost every home. We’re warmly welcomed by our hosts, a 4-generation family sharing two connected houses, each with simple, comfortable sleeping rooms with mattresses on the floor. And lots of blankets, because it gets cold at night. Dinner is a series of Turkish specialties: fabulous yogurt, chopped tomatoes, fresh bread, meat kebabs, glasses of tea. The yogurt and cheese come from the cows on the other side of the fence.

Huseyin, the family elder, is 76 years old and wears the cap that indicates he is a Hajji—one who has been on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Some members of this family are strongly religious, others less so, like most of Turkey, which is 98% Muslim, but not entirely devout. One of the pleasures of this aspect of the trip is the chance to talk frankly with ordinary people and ask and answer questions. Their English is limited and our Turkish non-existent, but Rana Erol, our guide, interprets and we get along beautifully. We present our gifts from home, they graciously accept and tell us how honored they are, and we all smile a lot.

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Mark Antony gave Cleopatra the entire Turquoise Coast of Turkey as a wedding gift, or so the story goes. As I loll in the ruins, I choose to believe it was the royal bath. Around it are the partially submerged remains of stone walls built by the Romans to enclose fresh water from a spring. Sailors, and maybe Cleo herself bathed here, a nice change from the sea’s salt water. The ruins are tucked into one of dozens of coves along this stunningly beautiful Mediterranean coastline.

The cove, where we jump in the Med for an exhilarating swim, is a stop on this 4-day cruise. Our group sails in a  9-cabin gulet, a type of boat once used by Turkish sponge-divers. Now gulets carry tourists, a more profitable and less dangerous occupation.  The Sadri Usta, made from mulberry, pine, and  teak, has plenty of space and cozy cabins, each with its own little bathroom. You couldn’t ask for a more skilled crew than our three sweet guys, Ali, Fatih, and Bayram (they’re good-looking, too, and what’s more, they can belly-dance). Our cook prepares fabulous meals: delicate sea bass, yogurt with watercress, bananas in honey, fresh tomato salads, custardy halvah).  This is true vacation. Also, we have a top-quality guide for our 17-day Overseas Adventure Travel tour of Turkey. Rana Erol loves her country and shares her extensive knowledge generously. And she’s great fun.   I’d travel with her again any time.

The cruise part starts in Fethiye Harbor and motors along the rugged, craggy coast to the Bay of Gemiler. Most of the group leaves the boat for a hillside hike up through carob and bay trees to the deserted village of Kayakoy. In the 1920s, its residents were relocated to Greece, a haunting reminder of the aftermath of Turkey’s War of Independence. There are more walks, in and to other coves, but I mostly stick with the boat, resting an injured knee. I just bask in the sun on my private yacht and listen to the splash of water against the bow while we sail to the next small bay.

One morning we cruise to Ekincik Cove and move to a tarp-shaded riverboat for a side trip up the Dalyan River.  The twisting green river is rich with fish, waterbirds, and turtles. An enterprising family tosses lines baited with blue crab so the big Loggerheads will rise for them and tourists can snap photos (and tip the kid with the baited line). Nearby is Istuzu Beach, the endangered turtles’ breeding ground, an environmentally protected area that was narrowly saved from resort development.  We dock at a cove, possibly close to where part of The African Queen was filmed, and walk up to the Lycian ruins of Caunos. The ancient theater is still impressive .Poppies grow around the tumbled stone and the only sounds are bird calls, buzzing bees, and the murmurs of a few tourists.

Upriver, boats line the walkway at the busy town of Dalyan. We stroll the streets and stop for a snack of salad and crisp pizza at the White Lotus, a place I highly recommend for its service and food. Ali Geneer, the friendly owner, chats with us on a terrace where pink oleander blooms under the palm trees. Across the river, high in the cliffs, are 2200-year-old Lycian tombs, with columns and arched roofs, carved into the face of the rock.

Back on the Sudra Usta, we glide north over the blue water to Marmaris, where the Mediterranean and Aegean seas meet. We feast on a final great meal, learn to play backgammon and the potato game (tie one end of a long string around your waist, the other around a potato; swing the hanging potato at a can and race your opponent to the finish line, no hands allowed—beer helps with this one), and dance to Turkish music. And we say fond goodbyes (“gule-gule”) to the gulet and the crew.  More adventures lie ahead.  (To contact guide Rana Erol: ranaerol@hotmail.com)

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Renato Agnello has been a truffalato for 67 years, hunting the elusive white truffle as his father and grandfathers did for generations before him. He was trained by his papa, starting at the age of six, here in the oak and hazelnut woods of northwestern Italy. Today Renato is demonstrating how he and his dog, Gigi, go searching for the underground fungus that looks like a knobby rock. It can sell for thousands of dollars a pound and adds a distinctive, subtle, earthy flavor to foods.

While we stroll the leafy woodland, Gigi sniffs here and there, gets excited at one spot, then turns away. Whatever her sensitive nose picked up, it wasn’t a truffle. I ask Renato why hunters don’t use pigs; aren’t they known for finding truffles? Yes, but it seems that pigs find them both delicious and sexually appealing and can go into frenzies when they root them up (who knew?) So here is Gigi, a dog  with presumably no erotic hopes, bounding through the woods.

Piedmont is the region best known for white truffles, and the town of Alba is where they’re most celebrated. Every October and November, the Truffle Fair draws visitors from around the world to taste, buy, and join in hunting expeditions. Virtually every restaurant serves white truffles, sliced or in sauces. The more common black truffle is usually cooked, but white truffles are often eaten raw, thinly shaved over pasta, risotto or a cream or meat sauce.

Searching for truffles is the secret work of autumn nights, with hunters jealously guarding treasured spots.  Renato says that truffles are becoming harder to find, as vineyards replace woodlands in this top-quality wine region. He remembers the cabbage-sized truffles his grandfather found; those big ones are very rare these days. But now Gigi is digging frantically at the base of a tree, so we hustle over and Renato reaches a hand in the hole. He pulls out a truffle no bigger than a pea, the only one he gets this afternoon.  Gigi’s happy–she did her job and expects a treat. We do too, in a local restaurant that serves truffle bits on a tasty veal dish.

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Two of my favorite things: the city of Paris, and saving money. This trip, I’m enjoying both. With a 2-day Paris Pass, I can stroll past the long waiting lines at museums, use my ticket on the Metro and buses, and jump on a sightseeing bus any time. My Paris Pass provides entry to 60-plus attractions in and around Paris, unlimited travel on the Metro, bus rides in the central city, rides on the hop-on, hop-off “Les Cars Rouges,” and other items such as a one-hour boat trip on the River Seine, entrance to Versailles, and discounts at a few restaurants.

The Pass, which you can order online, is actually a package of two plastic cards, two vouchers (to be traded for tickets), and a handy guidebook. It isn’t cheap: 99 euros for an adult for 2 days (less for teens 12-17 and children 4-11). Passes for 4 or 6 days cost more. Is it worth the cost? Well, mine was provided for review purposes, but I’d get one if only as a time-saver, because I can avoid standing in long lines. I also appreciate admiring the views from the bus instead of endless walking, easy entrance to museums and monuments, and the guided tour at Opera Garnier. (Tip on this one:  Reserve your English-language tour in advance, as limited numbers are allowed.) Still, everybody’s sightseeing is different; best to decide what you’re most eager to visit, check the fees, and compare. If you buy a Paris Pass online and have it mailed to you, the shipping fee to the U.S. ranges from 7.95 euros (12 working days) to 45 euros (FedEx, 3 days).  It’s much less expensive to wait and pick it up in the Paris office at 33 rue le Peletier, in the 9th arrondisement, for a fee of 2 euros. Then read the instructions carefully–it’s easy to confuse “museums” with “attractions”–sign the vouchers, and you’re good to go.

One more tip: the Paris Pass is activated the first time you use it, and that’s counted as your first day, even if it’s in the evening. To get your full day’s worth, start in the morning. Bon voyage!

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In a 13th century castle in Italy, I’m savoring hazelnut-crusted veal garnished with truffle shavings while being served by smiling waiters who praise my attempts to speak Italian and keep pouring red wine in my glass. Could anything be more sublime? No. At least, not until dessert arrives.

The imposing stone castle is Grinzane Cavour, set on a hill above acres of vineyards in the Piedmont wine country of northern Italy, and the restaurant is Ristorane al Castello. Its owner/chef Alessandro Boglione, who’s been here since 2009, has earned a Michelin star for his creative ways with cookery, but his prices are lower than you see at many starred restaurants. (That doesn’t mean it’s in the low budget category, however.) Local farms provide most of the ingredients. Appetizers of the day might be Jerusalem artichoke tart with Raschera cheese and black truffle cream or smoked duck with grapes and Grand Marnier-flavored tomatoes. Pastas range from veal tail-filled agnolotto on savoy cabbage and candied ginger to wild fennel lasagnetta with mountain snails and pecorino cheese.  Definitely creative.  A main dish could be suckling pig with apple puree, salt cod in cream, or, my choice, the veal with hazelnuts and truffles.  Featured wines are from the region’s great wineries. Then there are the desserts: warm hazelnut cake, coconut foam with chocolate and curry cream, and mine, bunet con pesche sciroppate. That roughly translates as chocolate pudding with peach syrup, which doesn’t begin to describe how luscious it is, rich melt-in-the-mouth chocolate under a drizzle of light peach sauce.

Ristorante al Castello is only part of the immense castle. Floors above it hold displays of traditional tools, handicrafts, and furnishings, and below is an enoteca (bar/tasting room/sales room). Every November, chefs worldwide come to the castle for the White Truffle Auction. That’s when the best of white truffles sell for sky-high prices.

I’m already looking forward to my next fine meal at Grinzane Cavour, along with  a taste of superb wine, a glimpse of history, and the pleasure of being in the vine-covered hills of the Italian countryside. The restaurant is closed Tuesdays and the month of January.

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I’m staring at Christianity’s holiest relic–a superb replica, actually–and I have to admit that all I see is a piece of very old cloth, 14 feet long. The real Shroud of Turin,  said to have been wrapped around Jesus’ body after his crucifixion, is stored in the city’s cathedral and rarely taken out for display.  The replica is in the Museum of the Shroud, on Via San Domenica, a short distance from the cathedral.

Believers have revered the Shroud (La Sindone) for centuries because it holds the faint imprint of what might be a crucified man, as well as blood stains, traces of wounds, and marks that could have been made by thorns. Whether you believe this is the real thing or not, the exhibition is one of Turin’s most intriguing places to visit. The Shroud replica lies in a clear case, and other displays explain the  travels, history and mystery of La Sindone. The cloth, Egyptian linen of a type used long ago, was apparently taken to Constantinople (today’s Istanbul, Turkey), disappeared during the Crusades, and showed up in 1353 in France.  Eventually it was owned by the Savoy rulers who brought it to Italy in the 16th century and finally gave it to the church on condition that it remain in Turin. And so it rests now in the cathedral, Duomo di San Giovanni, in a custom-built, airtight, bullet-proof, bacteria-proof case.

Over the years various scientific tests have been performed on the fabric. Every finding, on either side, is challenged. Nothing guarantees its authenticity–and nothing explains the imprint of the image.  It remains shrouded in mystery. My eyes still see only an ancient, stained cloth, but the enlargements and displays in the museum point it out clearly. If it’s a fake, it’s impressive. Even more impressive is its effect on the millions who hold it sacred.

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Al BicerinI came to Piazza la Consolata in Turin, Italy, because I had to taste a famous drink. Il bicerin is served at what may be the smallest cafe in Italy, a cozy place with 8 tables (double that in summer, when more are set outside on the old stone piazza). Caffe Al Bicerin opened in 1763, and not much has changed since then. Same counter and wrought iron, same kinds of pastries and chocolates. The shop windows and shleves are filled with jars of sweets, as they were more than 2 centuries ago, when aristocratic women swept in on Sundays after mass to refresh themselves. Like them, like Dumas, Nietzsche, Puccini, and Count Cavour (Council president of the first united Italian il biceringovernment) before me, I’m sitting at a marble-topped table and sipping something sublime. The mixture of espresso, chocolate, and cream is divinely rich, thick, and delicious. The cold layer of cream rests on the hot chocolate and coffee and I’m told you never stir it in, but drink the chocolate through the cream, mixing hot and cold, dwelling on each flavor as it slides over the tongue. You can get other drinks here, including teas, frappes, spumante, and Barolo, but I’ll come back for the bicerin.

If you need more consoling after that experience, cross the piazza to what I consider the most beautiful church interior in a city full of gorgeous churches and monuments. Santuario Basilica La Consolata is jaw-dropping splendid. Designed by architects Guarini and Juvarri in the 17th century, it combines Baroque and Italian Rococo styles. The Romanesque tower that was part of a previous church still stands on the right side of the Basilica. There’s a gorgeous marble floor and a high altar, dating from 1714, that is lavish with silver, marble, carvings and gilt. On one side stands a lovely silver Madonna and Child; this figure is paraded through Turin every June in recognition of the Virgin’s protection of the city. Most moving to me is a wall on a lower level that holds a huge ex-voto collection. These are drawings made by people asking for help or giving thanks for a miracle, whether it’s a motorcycle accident, an overturned tractor, a hospital scene, a battlefield, or other misery. It’s enough to make you light a candle and go have another bicerin.

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