Category Archives: Europe

Berlin’s Festival of Lights Kicks Off

Germany’s capital’s landmarks bathed in multi-colored creativity & splendor.

VisitBerlin-logoMove over, Paris. The 10th annual Berlin Festival of Lights transforms it into a city of lights for 10 days, from October 10-19 — if not the City of Lights. Such landmarks as the Brandenburg Gate, the TV Tower, the Berliner Dom Cathedral, the Funkturm Radio tower, the Olympic stadium and many other buildings and squares dazzle with the colorful light projections each night as German and foreign artists use building façades as canvases for light installations and projections. The result is an extraordinary cityscape during the Festival of Lights. Locals and visitors enjoy special tours by bus, bicycle, carriage, limousine, boat or hot air balloon to view as many of the illuminated buildings as possible.

A tapestry of lights blankets the city during the 10th annual Berlin Festival of Lights.
A tapestry of lights blankets the city during the 10th annual Berlin Festival of Lights.

Art functions and events will also take place during the Festival. For example, during the Open Door Night, light is shed on what goes on behind the scenes in the buildings lit up for the Festival. And the Jazz in den Ministergärten music festival will put the state liaison offices for Brandenburg, Hesse, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Lower Saxony, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein in an unfamiliar light. Berlin Cathedral is the venue for Lumissimo,  concert and laser show. An event calendar lays it out day by day. Visit Berlin provides overall visitor information.

Travel Switzerland All Ways on One Pass

Swiss Travel System new version of previous passes.

SwissTravelSystem-jpgWhen I visit a city, I like to have a multi-day transit ticket in my pocket. It’s liberating to get on and off buses, underground trains, streetcars and more without concerning myself with having the right amount of money on me. I like to be able to take a short ride to save time, escape a cloudburst or get off my feet now and again. When a whole country has a comprehensive transportation pass, all the better. When the country is Switzerland, the execution of the concept is impeccable.

The new Swiss Travel System, which goes into effect on January 1, is an upgrade to the long-running Swiss Pass. The new Swiss Travel System pass still includes unrestricted travel by train, bus and boat. It additionally features 50 per cent off most mountain railways, unlimited travel on municipal public transport in 75 towns and cities and admission to 480 museums. It also enables youngsters to age 16 to ride free when traveling with parents who have bought the Swiss Travel System passes, which come in three-, four-, eight-  or and even 15-day “denominations.”  One previous feature now removed are discounts on some city sightseeing tours. The new Swiss Travel System pass will be available through Rail Europe.

South Coast Scenes in Iceland

Travel along Highway 1 (aka, the Ring Road) yields bucolic and natural scenes.

IcelandTravel-tiny logo.-jpgGuðmundur Trlyingsson driver-guide Jakob Narfi Hjaltason piloted our small group along the South Coast of Iceland before the official start of the Society of American Travel Writers convention in Reykjavik. Our four-day itinerary started under overcast skies but pleasant weather. As we drove farther east, clouds settled lower and we experienced periodic sprinkles. Any hopes of seeing the Northern Lights diminished with every mile.

When we reached the small port town of Hofn on the southeast coast, the sprinkles escalated to driving through pounding rain and heavy fog. Planes were grounded so instead of flying back to Reykjavik on the southwest coast, Jakob drove us back. We retraced our route in reverse, reinforcing what we had seen. Here are images from some of the sights we saw and experiences we had — and I’m not going to attempt to include all the difficult-to-pronounce and difficult-to-remember names. You need to visit and see for yourself.

From Reykjavik – Day One

Icelandic horses on their pasture. These small, spirited horses are ridden for pleasure by Icelanders and visitors alike, and they also star in indoor and outdoor horse shows.
Icelandic horses on their pasture. These small, spirited horses are ridden for pleasure by Icelanders and visitors alike, and they also star in indoor and outdoor horse shows.
The Saga Centre in Hvolsvöllur interprets the Njals Saga. I've written a separate post about it.
The Saga Centre in Hvolsvöllur interprets the Njals Saga. I’ve written a separate post about it.
A short trail leads behind this waterfall -- an unusual experience, even in waterfall-rich Iceland.
A short trail leads behind this waterfall — an unusual experience, even in waterfall-rich Iceland.

Day Two

This higher waterfall can conventionally be viewed only from the front.
This higher waterfall can conventionally be viewed only from the front.
We hiked up a trail in Katla Geopark for a mile or more. The park was created in 2010 to protect the area of the Katla Volcano, which is under glacial ice and had been predicted be "the next" volcano to erupt. The prediction was off Bardarbunga to the north has been erupting since August.
We hiked up a trail in Katla Geopark for a mile or more. The park was created in 2010 to protect the area of the Katla Volcano, which is under glacial ice and had been predicted be “the next” volcano to erupt. The prediction was off Bardarbunga to the north has been erupting since August.
We put on crampons but didn't have to rope up as we crossed a lateral moraine for a short circuit on glacial ice.
We put on crampons but didn’t have to rope up as we crossed a lateral moraine for a short circuit on glacial ice. Helmets were also provided, but unlike in the US, we didn’t have to sign any liability waiver.
An easily avoided crevasse, like the rest of the exposed ice, carrying debris and therefore not pure winter-white.
An easily avoided crevasse, like the rest of the exposed ice, carrying debris and therefore not pure winter-white.
With Arnkell "Keli" Aronson, a young guide with Arcanum, a guide service (www.arcanum.is).
With Arnkell “Keli” Aronson, a young guide with Arcanum, a guide service (www.arcanum.is).

Continue reading South Coast Scenes in Iceland

In Praise of Prague’s Public Transport

Streetcars and buses and subways and ferries, oh my!

PragueCoatOfArmsEvery European city has public transportation that puts American cities to shame. Prague’s system comprises three Metro lines that reach all corners of the city. Of course, there are streetcars and buses on the surface. A few ferries across the Vlatava River, which in German and English is known as the Moldau, thanks to Czech composer is Bedřich Smetana’s Romantic symphony. Also, an open-air funicular shuttles up and down Petřín Hill, where a replica of the Eiffel Tower perches and the views are grand.

Prague's impressive public transportation map Service begins at 4:30 a.m. Most lines operate until midnight, but crucial ones run 24/7.
Prague’s impressive public transportation map Service begins at 4:30 a.m. Most lines operate until midnight, but crucial ones run 24/7.

At the airport on arrival, I bought a 5-day card for about $22 that included all that public transportation plus free or reduced admission to numerous fee-charging sites all over the city — including the famous Prague Castle. I always buy such unlimited-use cards, which is not only economical but flexible. In Prague, you validate the card at first use, stick it in your purse or pocket and never take it out unless some official comes around to check.

I love walking around cities, poking into small streets and quiet neighborhoods, but I often just hop on and off a streetcar or bus at will. Sometimes I get tired or hungry and want to ride just a short distance, or sometimes the weather turns — or sometimes I like to ride to the end of the line just to see what’s along the way.

 

AirBnB: First Time But Not the Last

Prague apartment more than meets expectations.

AirBnB-logoThe AirBnB listing promised an awesome view and a great location in central Prague. The photo looked good. The price was right (under $250 for four nights). There’s WiFi in the apartment. So after checking with friends who have not only stayed but also hosted via AirBnB, I was in. I corresponded a bit with Katerina, my hostess. When I arrived, her friend Martina let me in, showed me around and gave me the keys. Katerina, it turns out, is in Barcelona. That means that I have the whole apartment to myself — except, of course, Katerina’s own room.

The baronial door between two skateboard shops pretty much symbolizes Prague today --- a co-existence between the traditional and new.
The baronial door to Katerina’s apartment building is between two skateboard shops, which pretty much symbolizes Prague today — a co-existence between the timeless and the hip. The concrete rectangle with the steel railing is the entrance to the Metro.

The apartment is on the third floor. Since Europeans label the ground floor as 0, it is on what we would call the fourth floor. Taking into account that the ceilings are 10 or 12 feet high, it is like being on an American fifth or sixth floor. There is no elevator. I travel light, especially in summer, and had just one small roll-aboard, a small purse and a daypack for my netbook, assorted battery chargers, electrical cables and adapters. Still, I was grateful that Martina, who is probably half my age, offered to take my little suitcase. The ascent is worthwhile for the apartment’s artsy ambiance and great river view.

My room features high ceilings, a comfortable bed, a small desk and a bathroom that I might have had to share with my hostess if she were here.
My room features high ceilings, a comfortable bed, a small desk, fresh flowers and a bathroom that I might have had to share with Katerina if she were here.

Continue reading AirBnB: First Time But Not the Last

Vicarious Visit to France Via the Tour de France

TV coverage is about cycling — and scenery.

TourDeFrance-logoThe 2014 Tour de France is beginning in a few days with three opening stages in England followed by the remainder in France. This will be an unusual route — no Alpe d’Huez, no Mont Ventoux, just nip into the Pyrenees but lots of Yorkshire. Longtime commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen know the roads and landmarks of France very well, but both are born Brits, which should make for interesting words. I really admire the French TV feed of the landscape, villages and cities on the Tour route. Every time I watch, I want to go to Europe. Right away!

TDF2014-map

 

Revisiting a Quick Trip to Greece, Part I

Eight days + one city + three islands + ferries = happy me in Greece.

My husband and I recently made a quick trip to Greece, a country I long wanted to visit. Our itinerary was the predictable “big three” (Athens, Mykonos and Santorini, with a day trip to Delos). I posted reports almost daily on my Facebook page, but so many people have asked me about the trip that I am putting it all into one post here.

I found the trip on GroupOn Travel for a very affordable package for roundtrip New York-Athens air fare, two nights at each of the three destinations including breakfast and fast ferry transport. I ended up talking directly with Go-Today, which had assembled the package. By the time I got off the phone, we had a reservation for the dates we really wanted (including one day/night more than we expected) and for a great price ($2,400 each) including air from Denver. Eureka!

Continue reading Revisiting a Quick Trip to Greece, Part I

Whole Journeys Cites International Food Festivals

Travel offshoot of natural food market lists five faves.

globeWhole Journeys, a travel branch of Whole Foods, just sent out a list of five compelling international food festivals. There’s not one that doesn’t make me want to whip out my credit card, make a reservation and go. I actually have been to the Food and Wine Class at Aspen several times, but alas, not recently. At any rate here’s the Whole Journeys list, several of which are over for this year, but there’s always 015:

  • Alacati,  Turkey. Festival of Wild Greens along the Izmir Coast. A contest involves who can gather the largest variety of  wild greens and who prepare the best recipe with them. Sounds like an event from the fertile mine of a Turkish Rene Rezapi.    It also includes concerts, races, a large farmers market and outdoor stalls selling food and crafts from Izmir.
  • Motovun, Croatia. Teran & Truffle Festival (TETA). Local winemakers who produce traditional Istrian Teran wines gather with top chefs and truffle hunters during the harvest season to feature truffle dishes.
  • Carnivale in Italy. Whole Journeys directed readers to a blog post written by Carol Sicbaldi, a Whole Foods operations manager who resides in Italy. She notes that during February towns all over Italy celebrate Carnival, “a few weeks traditionally devoted to enjoyment, pleasure and naughtiness in the period preceding the austerity of Lent. ” In the US, this period culminates with Mardi Gras.
  • Logroño, Spain’s Basque Country. Riojan Harvest Festival during which people pay homage to San Mateo, patron saint of Logroño. Young people wearing traditional dress stomp the grapes and offer the first grape juice of the season to the Virgen de la      Valvanera. Village ceremonies include Herri Kirolak, Basque rural sports that I’d never heard of, includ stone carrying and wood chopping competitions
  • Cusco, Peru. Corpus Christi Festival,  Villagers carry statues of 15 saints  for  many days to the Cathedral in Cusco.  On the eve of the main day of Corpus Christ,i twelve typical dishes including cuy, chiriuchu, huatia and chichi or prepared to represent the 12 Apostles. They do not contain meat in honor of Christ’s passion, though I don’t understand how cuy, which is guinea pig, can be meatless.
  • Aspen, Colorado. Aspen Food and Wine Classic attracts people in the food industry such as top chefs, international and domestic wine makers, cheese mongers and others, plus well-heeled foodies who are all passionate about food and wine.

Cross-posted to www.culinary-colorado.com.

French Resort Debuts Europe’s Longest Zipline

High-elevation Val Thorens’ super-zipline crosses a glacier.

ValThorens-logoAs I’ve written before, I love ziplines. And as I haven’t mentioned recently, I love the Alps, that magnificent range that stretches from France to Slovenia. Some of my best ski days and my very best long hiking trip have been in the Alpine countries. Now Val Thorens, the highest of the resorts comprising the Trois Vallées (the Three Valleys) has just debuted another attraction: the highest zipline in Europe.

Unlike any North American zipline I've seen or ridden, this rider has skis on his back.
Unlike any North American zipline I’ve seen or ridden, this rider has skis on his back.

Opened on Monday, February 17, the zip line soars some 800 feet above Val Thorens glacier, enabling riders to  reach speeds of more than 60 miles per hour. The ride doesn’t come cheap. It’s €50 (about $68). The line runs from the top of the Bouchet chairlift at Orelle to the top of the Funitel de Thorens, and adds ziplining to the resort’s other non-ski, non-snowboarding  winter options that already include France’s longest toboggan run, ice driving and something that translates to “karting,” whatever that might be.

Air France’s New Business Class Cocoon

New seat tucked into its own compartment folds out flat.

AirFranceTailAir France is luring upmarket passengers with a new business class seat design that promises “a completely renewed travel experience.” The carrier likes it to a cocoon with “particularly refined finishing touches (leather upholstery, topstitching) provides an ideal level of comfort and offers the prospect of a perfect sleep. Developed around a concept  dubbed 3 « F », it offers a fully flat bed position, full direct access to an aisle and full privacy thanks to the seat’s enveloping curves, providing a true bubble of privacy in the sky.

 

Air France's new business class "cocoon" seat folds into a flat bed that is made with a down duvet and down pillow.
Air France’s new business class “cocoon” seat folds into a flat bed that is made with a down duvet and down pillow.

More 2,000 seats will be installed between June 2014 and Summer 2016 on the 44 Boeing 777s that comprise the core of Air France’s long-haul fleet. I am not sure how well this privacy bubble works for two people traveling together who might want to chat, toast each other with Air France’s lovely champagne and wine offerings or hold hands while watching a movie from the incredible new entertainment package viewable on a 16-inch-wide touch screen and in 12 languages.

How much does this luxury and comfort cost? A New York-Paris-New York roundtrip booked now and made in late June/early July, when the new seats might have been installed on that route, is $3,000+/-. And guess what? Air France’s ultra-luxe first class is even more expensive. For the rest of us, there’s always economy and premium economy for a whole lot less. But whatever class of service, the wines are French and the food is still among the best in air.