Tag Archives: travel

plenty new for europhiles

With thanks to Jenna and her blog this is my happiness, I learned that Rick Steves has just published his highlights on ‘what’s new’ in Europe.

I have a real fondness for Rick. I don’t know him, but I feel like I do. “He” was with me when I traveled solo backpacking in my early 20s in Italy. His guidebook clutched in my hand, I marked phone numbers that led me to the perfect top floor apartment, little-known beach  or gelateria (I needed first to find a pay phone -yes, a pay phone). Directions were always easy to follow – even before online mapping tools – and restaurants both authentic and inexpensive. Pictures of him would be framed in the hostels I stayed in, demonstrating the close relationships he fostered with the locals he featured in his books.

I’ve grown up, as it so happens to all travelers, and have traded my backpack in for luggage, roughing it for a bit more comfort, and solo travels for family travel.  His latest article on what’s new in Europe reminds me again why he still is a wealth of good, practical information for those who want to experience real Europe and travel slowly – in whatever format you prefer using, hardback or app.

Paris' Picasso Museum renovation will be completed this June

Paris’ Picasso Museum renovation will be completed this June

 

Highlights for me include the re-opening of one my favorite museums in Europe – the Picasso Museum, Paris; Marseille’s facelift; a new gallery devoted to Michelangelo at the Uffizi in Florence; a new museum dedicated to Dante Alighieri in Ravenna; and Milan preparing to host the 2015 World Fair.

Read it, soak it in – Rick Steves: What’s new in Europe article here via sfgate. Europe still awaits even the most seasoned Europhile.

counting caribbean blues in vieques

Vieques, Puerto Rico – a small island in the northeastern Caribbean an hour by government-run ferry from the main island – is known for its pristine beaches, bioluminescent bays, and lack of commercial development. Strongly influenced by 400 years of Spanish ownership but part of the US commonwealth of Puerto Rico, it  has a colorful past with its own version of a David vs. Goliath story starring its fishermen and the US Navy that led to the Navy withdrawing from Vieques in 2003 (more on this in a following post). But for sixty years the majority of Vieques was closed off by the US Navy, and for this reason the island remained  undeveloped for tourism. The quality of its beaches and the island’s lack of development were key reasons we wanted to spend some time there.

In late January we took the ferry from the main island town of Fajardo to Vieques for a three-day stay.  We visited the pristine, deserted beaches – free of adjacent commercial development – on the Southern Caribbean side of the island, featuring turquoise blue seas and white sands surrounded by green vegetation. The beaches – once the Navy’s former land – are now part of a wildlife refuge, and many retain the names the Navy gave them. We made it to four beaches, one more beautiful than the next.

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Playa Caracas (Red Beach)

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Media Luna’s ‘bathtub’

Media Luna

surfs up at navio

surfs up at navio

Playa Navio

miles of sand

miles of white sand

Bahia de la Chiva (Blue Beach)

For me, spending time on Vieques is summarized well in a piece written by James Lasdum for Conde Nast Traveler (April 2010):

“…the days of finding myself puzzlingly incapable of organizing a visit to the old fort or whaling museum, and wanting instead to lie on those pointless stretches of sand, counting the different blues of the Caribbean… It dawned on me that travel didn’t always have to be like college; that this drifting sweetness of life being enjoyed purely for its own sake was worth any number of dusty madonnas or worm- riddled wooden saints… But for now this is all I want of culture, and all I need of enlightenment. “

doorways of old san juan

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Just back from the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico and it’s all about the doors in Old San Juan.

My upcoming post will explore the spectacular beaches and unique history of Vieques Island, but for now, I’ll share a sample of the many shapes and bright colors of las puertas hermosas I found walking the streets and alley ways in Old San Juan.

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Often behind the doors are gorgeous courtyards.

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The colors of the houses are candy for the eyes.

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best bagels

My favorite bagels in the world, Montreal-style bagels, were on my priority “to-do”  – or rather, “to-eat” –  list during our recent trip to Ontario and Quebec, Canada.

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Ottawa’s original Montreal-style bagels

According to Wikipedia, Montreal bagels, like the New York bagel, were brought to North America by Jewish immigrants from Poland and other Eastern European countries. Differences in texture and taste reflect the style of the particular area in Poland in which the immigrant bakers learned their trade.

When my mother-in-law visits us in California from Eastern Canada, she never fails to bring a large quantity of these bagels with her, since we only find the more common, New York-style here. We have a tradition of slicing, bagging and freezing them together upon her arrival, so we are ensured months of bagel heaven. This time we were on her turf, and my plan was to bring home as many as I could stuff in our carry-on luggage, including a dozen requested by our friends. (For those interested, I managed five dozen –  ten bags of half-dozen bagels – squeezed between socks and toothpaste.)

Busy workers fulfilling orders at the popular Ottawa Bagel Shop

What makes Montreal-style bagels so delicious? In contrast to larger, doughy New York-style bagels, Montreal-style bagels are denser, slightly sweet, and have a crunchy crust. They look a little different, with a darker or uneven color from the wood-burning stove and a larger hole.  Montreal-style bagels are boiled in honey-sweetened water and they are hand-made, while many New-York styled bagels are machine-made.

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Thanks to my mother-in-law, my kids were treated to an up-close tour at the Ottawa Bagel Shop, where they were able to experience the shop’s famous baker cut and roll the egg and honey filled dough, and then boil and bake the bagels. Next the seeds and other toppings are placed on the bagels, before they cool and are packaged. The bagels are made fresh every day.

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The baker cutting and hand rolling Montreal-style bagels at the Ottawa Bagel Shop

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Boiling the bagels

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Next the bagels are baked in a wood-burning oven

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A complimentary bagel is a tasty way to end of the tour!

A complimentary bagel is a tasty way to end the tour! Sesame of course.

48 hours in montreal

The only place I know offering francophone culture so strongly this side of the Atlantic is in Montreal, Quebec – an island city in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. Montreal is a lively, international destination which offers much in history and architecture, arts and culture, festivals and dining.  We recently visited the city for a few days and found enough time to explore some of its best spots.

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Old Montreal

old Montreal

City Hall

 

Horse-drawn carriage in old Montreal

Horse-drawn carriage in old Montreal

A Great Night Sleep

Positive reviews from the NY Times Travel section prompted me to book a medium room at the hip and classy, no-snob boutique hotel, Le Petit Hotel,  in Old Montreal.

Room with a view.

Room with a view.

Comprised of only 24 rooms and a lobby café, the hotel is housed in a beautiful 19th Century building on the quieter, more residential side of Rue Saint-Paul Ouest. Its helpful staff provide you with excellent services, and gave us good suggestions during our stay. Tips: Request the well laid-out top floor/street view room and indulge in the (included) delicious breakfast offerings, especially the pain au chocolat and perfectly-brewed cappuccino. Online promotions are available and business travelers can receive room discounts.

Eats and Drinks

Hands down, our favorite dinner experienced in Montreal was at the fashionable Restaurant Holder on Rue McGill (order the veal or salmon), thanks to a tip by our hotel staff.  I’m told you also can’t go wrong with lunch at the busy but delicious Olive and Gourmando if you can handle the crowds (we couldn’t wait). You can’t leave Old Montreal without experiencing an evening drink on a rooftop terrace.

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The rooftop terrace at Hotel Nelligan on Rue St Paul is a perfect place to enjoy a glass of wine at sunset with views of Notre Dame. Get there by 9 pm if you want to snag a table. Just look out for the characteristic Eastern Canadian summer thunderstorms, as we experienced a downpour minutes after this picture was taken.

Getting Around by Foot, Bike and Metro

If you stay in Old Montreal, there is no better place to walk the streets – or get lost –  and soak in its history and architecture. Make sure you look up. Like in Europe, some of the best architectural details of a building are found in the direction of the sky.

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One of my favorite buildings is the Royal Bank of Canada building, where my mother worked in the early 1960s. In fact, I can proudly thank the influence of Montreal on my mother – and her bank teller friend – for my French name. Banking ceased only about a year ago. The inside of the building and the ceilings are breathtaking.

Inside the Royal Bank of Canada building.

Inside the Royal Bank of Canada building.

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Notre Dame is a centerpiece of the old city.

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Notre Dame

Notre Dame

To get further out to fashionable neighborhoods like the Plateau, grab a metro map and a day pass (9 Canadian dollars).

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Or you can rent a Bixi Bike – the public bike share system – to ride  along the old Port and a grab a view of architectural landmark Habitat 67, a model community and housing complex  designed by Israeli–Canadian architect Moshe Safdie for the World Fair in 1967.

Habitat 67

Habitat 67

If you are ambitious, you can get a closer look at Habitat 67 and other architectural icons like Biosphere by riding your bikes from Old Port to Parc Jean-Drapeau. Don’t repeat our mistake by aborting an attempt to reach the island via the Jacques Cartier Bridge, which looked shorter in distance from Old Port than it was.  Instead ride the opposite direction on the bicycle parkway.  This would be done best with a day bike rental, as opposed to a Bixi Bike, which charges you if you exceed a 30-minute time usage period.

Hike up Mont Royal

A hike up Mont Royal is lovely and a good way to walk off those morning pain au chocolats and rooftop terrace drinks,  and the view at the top is a nice reward. You can grab the #11 city bus back down to deliver you to Avenue Mont Royal, where you can find a metro station back to Old Montreal or wherever else you’d like to go.

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View from Mont Royal

View from the top of Mont Royal.

View from Mont Royal.

The Arts for Free (imagine!)

The permanent collection at Montreal’s Musee des Beaux Arts is always free. Please note special exhibitions are not, but on Wednesday nights tickets are half off. We visited the Museum’s current exhibit, “Utterly Breathtaking”  featuring Dale Chihuly’s large-scale, nature-inspired blown glass.

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While below the city surface, Francophone/Anglophone tensions are nothing to laugh at (unless you are Sugar Sammy, see my past post here), visiting Montreal offers travelers a uniquely bilingual, culture-rich experience in a place well-deserving of its lively reputation. Its residents seem to have a less- North American, more-European sense of enjoyment of life and leisure and we’re glad  we caught some of it there too.

(Please note Bringing Travel Home is not sponsored by any person or organization.  Both my travel and writing are independent.)

100th tour de france kicks off in corsica

In honor of today’s start of the 100th Tour de France on the Mediterranean island of Corsica – I am reposting my last feature on this beautiful and favorite island of mine.  Enjoy! – BTH

A trip most memorable was when our daughter was three months old, we were living in Italy and we took our first family vacation to the beautiful and natural island of Corsica.

We (and our car) hopped a traghetto from Savona, Italy to Bastia on the island of Corsica, France. (Today’s Tour de France stage begins in Bastia.)

Heart pajamas were a good choice that day, as they smoothed an unfortunate and unnecessary encounter with police at a routine traffic stop on our drive down, due to a mix up with our car maintenance papers. (Even armed Italian policemen won’t resist a cute baby.)

We loved Bastia, with its surprisingly urban city feeling on an otherwise natural island. There we got a great feel for the unique Corsican character which is sprinkled with a little Italian and a little French, due to a history involving both countries. Corsica was under Genovese rule until  1729 when the Corsicans revolted and enjoyed independence for a short 40-year period, later ceding to France in  1769 . They still have an uneasy relationship with mainland France and Bastia has been the target of bomb explosions by Corsican militants.

Ferries arrive to Bastia’s port – the 100th Tour de France kicks off in Bastia today.

We drove down the Eastern coast of the island to Santa Giulia. There, at the recommendation of friends, we rented a villa at Les Toits de Santa Giulia  and every morning went for a swim in the nearby bay.  The beaches there and nearby were beautiful in  September, and the sparkling water and red rock formations were breathtaking.

the bay of Santa Giulia

La plage de Palombaggia was the most unforgettable beach (and likely the coolest place I’ve nursed a baby.)

the beach and beautiful red rock formations at Palombaggia

The nearest town, Porto Vecchio, offered a delicious bakery and creperie, just in time to remind us we were in France, as it’s easy to forget with so many reminders of Italy. Porto Vecchio has always been a “remember when?” moment, when we purchased a much too expensive International Herald Tribune to satiate my english language news craving, and driving off, watched each of its pages fly off the top of the car, where I had left it. (I blamed it on new mom mushy brain).

A highlight was the drive down to Bonifacio, at the southern most point of the island.

Citadel and cliffs of Bonifacio

The reconstructed and renovated citadel was originally built in the 9th century along with the foundation of the city. Bonifacio is known for its chalk-white limestone, sculpted in unusual shapes by the ocean. Not a stroller-friendly town, baby was put in the carrier and we explored this town on foot. Standing on the cliffs, we could see Sardegna.

white limestone cliffs of bonifacio with sardegna in the distance

This year we won’t make it back to Corsica, but we are researching islands not far from it, closer to the Italian coast and in the Tuscan archipelago. Whatever the weather when we arrive, my first order of business will be to jump in and take a swim in my most favorite sea of all.

tennis & travel

Nothing is sweeter for me than the intersection of clay court tennis and Rome, Italy.

Today Rafa Nadal won the 7th Internazionali BNL d’Italia (Rome Masters) title defeating Roger Federer 6/1 6/3 in 1 hour and 9 minutes.

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The Rome Masters (officially called the Internazionali BNL D’Italia) is held at Foro Italico, the most prestigious red clay tennis tournament in the world after the French Open. Tennis lovers pack the stadium. The spectators are given white Panama-style hats and paddle hand fans to beat the heat  –  a chic touch for a mostly Italian and fashion-loving audience.

Foro Italico, Rome

Foro Italico, Rome

Clay courts are found mainly in Europe. When I lived in Italy, I took lessons and played at the clay courts of Rimbalzello near Gardone Riviera on Lago di Garda. Italians are crazy for tennis although the sport is a bit “snob” with limited public access to free courts like in the States.

Europhiles have huge opportunities to combine both travel and tennis. The European tour features matches in Spain, Germany, Italy and France.

You can also go there virtually. I recently subscribed to tennistv.com for a little over 16 euros a month to watch matches live on my computer. This morning I got a special treat listening to Nadal speak quite good Italian during award presentations (Bravo Nadal!), as well as to the Italian judges and award presenters. Language lovers will appreciate this aspect of Tennis TV, which also offers some nice video clips on European life.

What’s next? Brussels, Nice, Strasbourg. Then clay will turn to grass with June’s Wimbledon. Non vedo l’ora!