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The world is Virginia’s oyster

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The world is Virginia’s oyster

Marc Atchison
TraveLife Editor-in-Chief

TOPPING, VA. — Travis Croxton sticks out his meaty, calloused hand and welcomes me with an enthusiastic emoji smile. His ruddy, boyish face makes him look much younger than his 40-something years. His attire — untucked pink and grey plaid shirt, faded blue jeans and worn sneakers — is not the usual uniform of a business tycoon. But then again, Travis Croxton is not your usual titan of business.

In a hearty southern drawl, he welcomes me to his famous oyster restaurant, Merroir, which sits on the banks of the Rappahannock River in this rural area of Virginia called the Northern Neck.

“So glad you could drop by,” says Croxton, who, along with his cousin Ryan are legends in these parts for helping revive the oyster industry in and around Chesapeake Bay.

Like Travis, Merroir’s looks are also deceiving. Its exterior resembles a roadside shack, complete with slamming screen door. Inside, patrons huddle around small tables on a narrow porch or a cramped bar enjoying lots of shellfish that’s washed down with oyster beer (a tasty brand called Pearl Necklace that is poured over oyster shells during the brewing process). The overflow crowd sit at picnic tables on an el fresco terrace made of crushed oyster shells.

The kitchen staff, led by an entertaining chap named Peter Woods — he sports a stylish snow-white pointed goatee — works in a shoebox-sized cookhouse that becomes a steam room during Virginia’s sweltering summer months. Appearances aside, People magazine dubbed Merroir “the most popular restaurant in Virginia” and Zagat named it one of its Top 30 restaurants in America.

“On a busy day we serve between 600 and 800 people (many are tourists who come from as far away as Canada),” says Croxton, who opened Merrior as a tasting room next to where he harvests the buttery oysters that feed his main business, the Rappahannock Oyster Co., of Topping, Va.

Croxton is just one of the passionate people in this area who are dedicating their lives to an industry that was on the verge of extinction in the 1980s thanks to overfishing and pollution.

Their efforts and results have been nothing short of miraculous:

  • The rivers leading into Chesapeake Bay have all been cleaned up;
  • The oyster industry is now one of the Northern Neck’s biggest employers;
  • The catch is so bountiful that Travis is hoping to soon export his oysters to countries around the world like China, Japan and Vietnam;
  • And tourism here is booming thanks to the number of annual oyster festivals — the state even features an “oyster trail” that introduces visitors to fairy tale Northern Neck towns like Irvington, Kilmarnock and Urbanna, all of which have lots of dollhouse homes and inns.

Travis and Ryan, co-owners of the Rappahannock Oyster Co., now have restaurants in Richmond, L.A. and Washington, and are hoping to soon expand to Houston.

“When we first started you could not see the bottom of the Rappahannock because it was so murky with pollution,” Travis tells me as we look into the river’s now crystal- clear waters where oysters sit on the sandy bottom maturing in cages.

“It wasn’t easy,” remembers Travis, who, along with Ryan gave up well-paying jobs in the financial sector to take up the challenge of aquaculture.

“We used all our savings and maxed out our credit cards to make it work,” says Travis, whose family’s roots in the oyster business date back to the late 1800s when his great grandfather started the Rappahannock Oyster Co.

“Oysters are filter feeders that protect the (Chesapeake) bay and clean the water (oysters filter 50 gallons of water a day). Because of that, and some strict government rules, the rivers (where the oysters are raised) are no longer polluted. Our (farmed) oysters are grown in open waters right next to wild oysters.”

One of Travis’ proudest accomplishments is creating employment in this economically challenged part of Virginia.

“People are returning here from Richmond and other big cities to work in the oyster industry and that makes me very happy,” says Travis as he introduces me to several of his 390 employees, whose backbreaking efforts result in the perfectly shaped, sweetest- tasting oysters this shucker has ever enjoyed.

“It takes 18 months of constant monitoring to get the oysters to market size,” Travis reveals. “The Rappahannock is a great place to farm oysters because of its sandy bottom and its four seasons. It gives our oysters a unique taste.”

The cousins also farm oysters in the York River and the black narrows of Chincoteaguez Bay and raise three types, the mildly salty Rochambeau, the heavily salted and aptly named Olde Salts and, my favourite, the Rappahannock, a deep cupped variety that is sweet and buttery with a crisp, clean finish. Yum!

Travis gets orders from around the world and tells me he ships his oysters in special ice packs (at a constant temperature of 7.2C) to help preserve their freshness. “Oysters can last up to two weeks using our method,” says Travis, who adds that online orders are up to “70 to 100 per week.”

Travis’ efforts have also created a cottage eco-tourism industry in the Northern Neck. Travellers who come here to enjoy oysters can also learn about its long history by attending the Virginia Oyster Academy run by a delightful woman named Joni Carter at the elegant Tides Inn resort in Irvington.

Carter, a filmmaker (Journey on the Chesapeake for PBS), historian and oyster aficionado, offers some real insight into the industry during a short lecture, and tourists who participate learn things like:

  • The Indigenous people introduced Virginia’s first settlers to oysters when they arrived in the 16th century (“The protein from oysters helped save the settlers’ lives in the early days,” Carter tells us.);
  • Early settlers consumed at least 10 bushels of oysters annually — pickled, smoked, baked or stewed;
  • Waterman is the name given to those who harvest wild oysters in small boats called a deadrise;
  • Wars broke out in the 1800s over oysters when northerners and pirates invaded Chesapeake Bay after their own oyster beds dried up;
  • Oysters contain zinc, which enhances their reputation as an aphrodisiac;
  • There are only five species of oysters (Pacific, Kumamoto, Atlantic, European Flat and Olympia);
  • You can tell how old an oyster is by counting the rings;
  • Oyster shells have been used to build roads and homes — they were crushed to make mortar and plaster — as well as chicken feed, fertilizer and, at one time currency (early settlers were paid off in oysters);
  • While it takes 18 months for oysters to reach market size using aquaculture techniques, it takes almost three years in the wild;
  • There is a taste difference between wild and farmed oysters — the wild oysters have a stronger, saltier taste while farmed oysters are milder and more buttery and are preferred by restaurants;
  • While oysters can last up to two weeks refrigerated, they are best eaten in three days to ensure freshness.

As part of the academy course, we get to meet an actual waterman, William Saunders, who takes tourists out onto the Rappahannock River to show them how wild oysters are harvested.

The crusty Saunders, who has been a waterman since the age of 8, bears the scars of his trade — his face is as tough as leather thanks to the long stretches (“up to 63 days straight on one occasion”) he’s spent on the water.

After picking us up at the Tides Inn dock in Irvington, Saunders, with his small dog Rusty acting as his first mate, heads out into the widest part of the river and dredges the bottom. His hauls include lots of oysters, blue crabs and other sea life. While searching through his catch for the perfect oysters, he grumbles that “watermen get 16 cents each” for their oysters at market while aquaculture producers get “60 cents to $1.20” for theirs. (Aquaculture techniques are much more expensive.)

“Aw, you’ll like this one,” says Saunders, who takes out a sharp knife and pries open a large oyster covered in mud before handing it to me. My mouth jolts alive with the taste of the sea as I quickly devour the salty liquor and meat in one gulp. Delicious! “Here, have another,” says Saunders, who tosses the open shells back into the river. “It’s important to restock the river with the old shells because the new oysters attach themselves to the shell reefs that form here. In fact, you can get $10 (U.S.) a bag for old shells,” says the man who can harvest up to 4,000 oysters in two hours.

On our way back to the Tides Inn, Saunders tells our small group that Virginia has eight oyster tasting regions and the taste differs in each — “just like wine regions.” When we dock, The Tides Inn’s head Chef T.V. Flynn is waiting with a tray of chilled oysters, which he roasts on a small barbecue in their own nectar and some melted butter infused with herbs.

One of the most popular items in the inn’s elegant main dining room is Angry Oysters — wild oysters are dredged in breadcrumbs and deep fried before being tossed in a spicy hot sauce. “It’s our take on Buffalo Wings,” says Chef.

Flynn also demonstrates the correct way of opening an oyster without causing serious harm to one’s self — he expertly uses a razor-sharp two inch blade. He also tells us the best oyster shucker in the state is a local woman named Deborah Pratt. She has represented the U.S. at several Oyster Shucking World Championships in Ireland and can shuck and present an oyster in less than five seconds.

“Deborah shucks two dozen in less than two minutes,” Chef tells us.

As Chef’s oysters bubble in their juices on top of the BBQ, William and Rusty head back out to sea. “Don’t forget to give them some of our local wine,” barks Saunders as his tiny boat disappears on the horizon.

Some of the Inn’s wines come from the award-winning Dog and Oyster vineyard just outside Irvington. The boutique, six-acre property grows four varieties of grapes — Chardonel and Vidal Blanc are used for their white wines and Chambourcin and Merlot for the reds.

The vineyard also holds Sip and Slurp events where we get to sample the wine — unexpectedly good — and local oysters under a blue sky canopy amongst the vines. The owners of the Dog and Oyster also run the charming Hope and Glory Inn in Irvington. The pretty boutique hotel, which looks like it jumped off a Norman Rockwell canvas, has been named one of the Top 10 in America and its fine dining restaurant, the Dining Hall, features some incredibly fresh farm-to-table and boat-to-table cuisine. An old schoolhouse, the inn’s tiny bar is called Detention and it’s the perfect place to end a day after learning so much about Virginia’s incredible oyster industry and the amazing people involved in it.

https://www.virginia.org/

Marc Atchison — the senior writer and editor-in-chief for TraveLife magazine — is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller with more than 20 years of travel writing experience. http://www.travelife.ca/

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Live like a king at an Italian wine castle

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Live like a king at an Italian wine castle

By Marc Atchison

GUARENE, ITALY — I swing open the large shuttered windows of my palatial Castello di Guarene suite and there, under a cobalt blue sky, Italy’s legendary Piedmont wine region spreads out in all directions.

The handsome sandstone castle’s elevated position allows me a bird’s eye view of the lush valley below and the patchwork quilt of vineyards that make this one of the world’s great wine producers.

The surrounding UNESCO-protected hills where the famed Piedmont wines are produced — Barolo and Barbaresco being the best known globally — are covered with a fine dusting of freshly fallen snow. The vines that only a few months ago were flush with fruit have been stripped bare by the winter winds that constantly whip through the fertile valley. Off in the distance, the snow-covered Alps — France and Switzerland lie just north of charming Guarene — billow up on the horizon like large mounds of meringue.

What a magical sight.
The valley is also dotted with lots of small red-roofed villages, each with its own ancient watchtower and castle. None, though, is quite as beautiful or prominent as the Castello di Guarene.

Built in 1726 by an aristocratic family from nearby Turin — the industrial hub of northern Italy and host of the 2006 Winter Olympics — Castello di Guarene flourishes today as an exquisite 5-star Relais & Châteaux hotel where guests come to enjoy the scenery, fine dining experiences — there are many Michelin star restaurants in the area — and sip the vintages produced from the Nebbiolo grape, which thrives in Piedmont’s rich soil.

The 30-room property — a miniature version of Highclere Castle of Downton Abbey fame — was bought by two local industrialists five years ago and then closed for three years during a massive renovation where it was brought up to 21st-century standards. The results are nothing short of miraculous, especially when you consider none of the castle’s original stately charm was compromised in the modernization. In fact, 80 per cent of the original 18th-century furnishings remain in the rooms and public areas. However, each of the 15 guest rooms now features modern bathrooms that are wrapped in white Italian marble. Satellite TV and free WiFi keep guests connected to the modern world while enjoying ancient pleasures like canopied beds and walls draped in delicate fabric. The 18th-century silk wall coverings used throughout the castle were imported from China at the time and during renovation were removed, cleaned and replaced. The results have to be seen to be appreciated.

For generations, the Reoro family occupied the 30-room manner house. It was the life-long dream of Count Giacinto Reoro of Guaene, an industrialist and amateur architect, who sadly died before the castle was completed. His sons, Traiano and Teodoro, finished what their father started and the Italian gardens they laid out around the castle in the first half of the 18th century have bloomed into one of Europe’s most impressive. The house was later sold to another prominent Piedmont family before becoming one of Italy’s most sought-after accommodation.

I’m instantly impressed upon arrival at Castello di Guaene. A long sweeping driveway leads me to the main entrance, where high-end cars bearing licence plates from privileged places like Monaco are parked.

Once I push open the massive wooden door guarding the three-storey castle I’m awed by a stunning double staircase filled with a giant Bohemian crystal chandelier. It leads to the Salon of Honour on the first floor, where important guests were received. The salon is dominated by an enchanting chandelier made of fine coloured Murano glass. Off the Salon of Honour, hotel guests can explore the museum, a remarkable library filled with 300-year-old books and transcripts and a picture gallery featuring lots of original art — many are portraits of the kings, princes, ladies and knights who visited the family in ancient times.

There are over 200 crystal chandeliers hanging throughout the spacious castle hotel, along with countless paintings and frescoes.

The main floor has a small reception area that flows into a large, cozy lobby filled with a giant fireplace, a unique red brick arched ceiling and lots of overstuffed furniture where guests gather for drinks and to socialize.

The Castello di Guarene’s gourmet restaurant, Vele, also resides on the main floor and features an escape route — it’s not for guests trying to duck out on the check, though. Fearing invaders, the count included a long escape tunnel in the original design. While it apparently was never used by the Reoros, it gets plenty of use today because it connects the hotel’s amazing grotto swimming pool that’s bathed in colourful recessed lighting with the property’s compact but impressive spa, staffed by highly-trained therapists.

The main floor also features a small billiards room, a lovely little bar and a cute bistro restaurant — the castle’s original kitchen —that’s used when the main dining room is closed.

While each of the 15 guest rooms is unique in its own right, there are several that stand out from the rest in grandeur and are always in high demand. A perfect example of that is the sublime Castle Luxury Room named after the count’s father, Andrea Traiano. Located on the third floor, the Traiano Room’s main feature is a white arch that runs from one side of the spacious suite to the other. Fine Chinese fabrics dating back to the 1700s and silk velvet draperies adorn the room’s impressive four-poster bed.

Another highly sought-after room is the one named after Vittoria di Revello, whose family bought the castle from the Reoros. The room is wrapped in warm red fabric and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding hills, named after the Roero family, and the far-off Alps.

The Bishop’s Room, which was intended to be Count Reoro’s bedroom, features a priceless Bandera fabric bed and the room’s furniture is covered in multi-coloured wool embroidery, which was inherited by the count from his cousin, the Bishop of Alba, the nearest city to Guarene.

One of the main activities of guests staying at Castello di Guarene is to visit the area’s many wineries for tastings, or to pull up a chair at one of the area’s famed restaurants which have earned Michelin stars.

There’s even a wine route through the Langhe and Roero hills — separated by the Tanaro River — that takes you through the small villages, rolling vineyards and thick woods that make up this idyllic area of Italy. Oh, and the Alps are never out of sight.

Because this wine region gets less traffic than Tuscany, the winding roads are less travelled and accommodation is plentiful. Three wineries experts say you must visit to truly appreciate the products produced here which are the Manzone vineyard, maker of the best Barolo in Italy; the Ca’ del Baio estate, where Barbaresco, considered the poor cousin of Barolo is produced — it’s actually velvety in taste and really quite good; and the large traditional wineries run by Adriana Marzi and Roberto Bruno, where the art of wine making has changed little over the centuries.

While exploring the area’s wine region, you’ll come across plenty of small restaurants and trattorias where nona (grandma) still rules the kitchen, but there are 39 — at last count — Michelin star restaurants within driving distance of Guaene and, unlike their big city cousins, these gourmet rooms are affordable.

One of the highlights of my trip was a table the Castillo di Guarene staff reserved for me at the one-star Michelin Massimocamia Restorante in nearby La Morra, on Alba Road.

Chef Massimo Camia, a delightful man with a moonbeam face and an infectious smile, serves up classical dishes that are among the best this traveller has ever enjoyed. The taste of his veal cheek smothered in a Barolo reduction and the green ravioli pasta he infuses with pesto still linger on my tongue weeks after my visit.

Castillo di Guarene will treat you like royalty when you visit Piedmont.

Information

  • Guarne is in the Piedmont wine region and is a 90 minute drive from Turin.
  • The best way to get to Turin from Toronto, Vancouver or Calgary is with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines via Amsterdam.
  • There are over 30 Michelin star restaurants in the Piedmont area and each tries to outdo the other with fabulous dishes using local farm-to-table ingredients. Staff at the Castello di Guarene will be more than happy to recommend one that suits your palette.
  • There are many wine tours available of the fabulous Piedmont vineyards. The best time to visit is in late fall at harvest time but winter, when rates are low, is a great value.
  • Rates at the Castello di Guarene start around $500 a night but the experience is priceless. For more information on Castello di Guarene and to see rates, go to https://www.castellodiguarene.com/

Marc Atchison — a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller — is Editor-in-Chief and Senior Writer for TraveLife magazine (Canada) and http://www.travelife.ca/

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7 reasons to visit Holland in 2018

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7 reasons to visit Holland in 2018

Leeuwarden
Leeuwarden, that charming 10th-century town located in Friesland state, has been selected the European Capital of Culture for 2018 and the former royal residence has lots planned to celebrate its selection. The biggest attraction will be performances by the Royal de Luxe, the world-renowned French mechanical marionette street theatre company that uses giant figures to wow the crowds. Leeuwarden also has 50 major projects and hundreds of community initiatives planned throughout 2018.

Keukenhof Garden Show
The annual Keukenhof Spring Garden Show — an enormous floral spectacle — is held between March 22 and May 13 and people from all over the world come to admire the breathtaking display of over seven million tulips, daffodils and hyacinths. If you’ve never been, book a ticket with KLM or Air Canada because this is the most beautiful garden show in the world.

Alkmaar Cheese Market
The Alkmaar Cheese Market reopened on March 31 and will stay open until Sept. 29. The market, located in northern Holland about 30 minutes from Amsterdam, is where you’ll get to see 2,200 giant cheese wheels on display. These cheese markets date back to 1365 in Waagplein, the only town with a scale big enough to weigh the giant chess wheels at the time.

Gouda Cheese Valley
If you’re visiting Alkmaar’s cheese market, you might want to extend your stay and tour the Gouda Cheese Valley, where most of the cheese consumed by the Dutch — they pack away 15 kilos each a year — is produced. The cheese valley is made up of Gouda, Bodegraven, Reeuwijk, Woerden and Krimpenerwaard, and each town has a long history with the creamy product. Cheese first arrived in Holland in the Middle Ages.

National Mill Day
Don’t miss National Mill Day (May 12-13). On that day, 950 windmills and watermills open their doors to visitors and the lineups are usually long. The iconic windmills have played a major role throughout Dutch history in reclaiming land and processing raw materials. Some are quite beautifully decorated inside and out.

Cycling Kinderdijk’s Windmills
Speaking of windmills, you can see the greatest collection of Dutch windmills in Kinderdijk while cycling along a route that passes right in front of them. There are 19 windmills in Kinderdijk and the cycle path also cuts through some charming Dutch towns. Cycling in The Netherlands is easy and all areas have well-marked bike trails.

Heritage Days
On September 8-9, you can get free admission to about 4,000 historical buildings during Heritage Days. Just about every city in The Netherlands participates and you’ll get to see some real treasures in places like The Hague, Utrecht, Amsterdam and Maastricht.

For more information, visit https://www.holland.com/global/tourism.htm

Marc Atchison is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller with more than 20 years of travel writing experience. http://www.travelife.ca/

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Tiptoe through the tulips

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Tiptoe through the tulips

Holland is at it’s most beautiful in the spring when the tulips bloom in a rainbow of colours.

By Marc Atchison
TraveLife Editor-in-Chief

LISSE, THE NETHERLANDS — Holland looks good any time of the year but it’s especially beautiful in the spring when the national flower, the tulip, blooms in a rainbow of colours and blankets farmers’ fields and gardens throughout this incredible land. The Dutch celebrate the annual event with festivals and parades but to truly see the tulip in all its glory, a trip to this flower capital, located about an hour outside Amsterdam, is what’s really required. That’s because this is the home of the Keukenhof gardens, one of the most beautiful of its kind on the planet.

On the final leg of my Eurail train trip through France, Spain and Italy, which ended in Amsterdam, I joined tourists from around the world and went to see millions of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and other bulb flowers that have poked their heads up through Keukenhof’s fertile landscape — the breathtaking Kodak moments this place provides amazes everyone.

“I come see the tulips right from the (Schiphol) airport,” a young Chinese tourist, still clutching her suitcase, tells me even before she’s checked into her Amsterdam hotel. “My mother tells me to get lots of pictures and send her pictures of the tulips,” she continues before disappearing into a throng of tourists. The annual tulip event draws over a million visitors to the lavish gardens that are spread over 32 lush hectares. Over 7 million tulips were planted around Keukenhof for this year’s festival and when the 800 varieties bloom, they create a magical carpet of colours that looks like a painter’s palette.

Keukenhof is blessed with lots of fountains, lakes, a working windmill and the unique artwork featured by local artists makes this a great place to spend an entire day. Amsterdam’s annual Tulip Festival will also be in full bloom throughout April and the beginning of May and many private gardens will be accessible during this time so visitors can marvel at their wonderful collection of bulbs.

One of the best tulip displays will be in the garden of Amsterdam’s hottest hotel, the 5-Star Waldorf Astoria, which is located in six UNESCO World Heritage-protected canal homes on the Gentlemen’s Canal.

The incredibly chic Waldorf Astoria has planted thousands tulip bulbs in its lovely gardens, which can be seen from its elevated lobby area or its chic restaurants. A visit to the Keukenhof Gardens and a stay at the Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam is the perfect way to celebrate spring and you can be sure your room will be decorated with lots of tulips.

The Keukenhof spring garden show runs annually. For more information, go to www.keukenhof.nl

The Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam can arrange a private visit to Keukenhof. To check out availability and rates at this incredible property, go to www.hilton.com/amsterdam/ For information on Amsterdam’s Tulip Festival go to www.tulpfestival.com/about/ Getting to Keukenhof from downtown Amsterdam is easy – just take a train from the city’s historic Central Station to Schiphol Airport where you can catch a bus to the gardens for about $15.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines offers daily flights to Amsterdam from Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton. Go to klm.com to find out fares and schedules. For tourist information on Holland, go to www.holland.com/

There’s no better way to get around Europe than by train and Eurail Group and its many partners make the experience seamless and fun for tourists, depositing them in the centre of all major cities and close to the major attractions. Eurail has many affordable options available so check them out at www.eurailgroup.org/railplanner

Marc Atchison is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller with more than 20 years of travel writing experience. As the former Travel Editor of the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper, and now Editor-in-Chief and Senior Writer for TraveLife magazine and travelife.ca, Marc has been to over 100 countries in the world.

http://www.travelife.ca/

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Unlocking the secrets of Catalonia

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Unlocking the secrets of Catalonia

By Marc Atchison
TraveLife Editor-in-Chief

SANT CUGAT, CATALONIA — The narrow, corkscrew highway I’m nervously navigating is known as the Via Romanesque (Road) and it zigzags through the Pyrenees, dipping dramatically into the bosom of the great mountain range before rising again as high as the pointed peaks.

My pulse quickens every time my little rental dives into one of the many hairpin turns — this must be the road where Spain’s two-time Formula 1 world auto racing champion Fernando Alonso perfected his driving skills.

Every so often, a yawning mountain tunnel swallows my little car and spits me out into Medieval Catalonia where the parched landscape has changed little over time and remains punctuated by the ancient Romanesque architecture I’ve come to admire — churches, castles and villages dating back to the 10th century.

Stone towers — they pop up like pins on a map — are my guide on this five day, 854-kilometre journey back in time. I follow them to the entrances of Catalonia’s treasured Romanic relics, some of which are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The thrilling back roads don’t just connect the dots, though. They also introduce me to Catalonia’s small rural towns that look frozen in time, the region’s unique culture, its pre-historic treasures — dinosaur footprints everywhere — its remarkable food (the tapas, croquettes, Iberian ham and cheeses from here are so good) and it’s fiercely proud, independently-minded people who make strangers feel so welcome.

My journey starts in Barcelona, Catalonia’s breathtaking capital, where I visit my first Romanesque treasure — an ancient burial slab dedicated to a former count of Barcelona, Guifré II, who died in 911AD. The burial slab rests inside the Sant Pau del Camp monastery, the city’s oldest church which is located in Barcelona’s vibrant Gothic Quarter, off the famous tourist walking street La Rambla.

My visit to Sant Pau del Camp only whets my appetite for more Romanesque architecture, which emerged around the 10th century throughout Europe and eventually evolved into the Gothic style in the 12th century. The best examples of original Romanesque architecture can be found in rural Catalonia, which was a collection of counties in Medieval times. The counts back then wanted to show Rome their commitment to Catholicism, so they erected some impressive churches and monasteries in the more artistic Lombard Romanesque design — smooth walls subdivided by pilasters and decorated with blind arches and doors with mouldings.

So, the next day I set out in the direction of Vic, a handsome city first settled by the Romans around 300AD that’s sandwiched between Barcelona and Girona, where a museum dedicated to Catalonia’s Romanesque architecture and art is located.

The landscape outside Barcelona features lots of cacti and palms and the well-marked divided highway I’m driving is canopied by plane trees. The Pyrenees are silhouetted on the horizon in my windscreen and I’m being lulled into a false sense that the entire five day drive will be this easy — wrong!

The Episcopal Museum located in Vic’s Old Town dates back to 1891 but moved to its present modern location in 2002. The Old Town is also where I find the city’s perfectly- preserved Roman temple.

The museum houses over 6,000 pieces of rare Romanesque art — a wooden depiction of the Crucifixion featuring five individual figures is its most eye-catching exhibition. Alter pieces, paintings and statues, all dating back to the 10th to12th centuries, which once decorated Romanesque churches throughout Catalonia, now have been moved here or to Barcelona’s magnificent National Museum of Art for safekeeping.

Vic’s Romanesque cathedral sits right next to the museum so I’m invited to make the dizzying climb up a narrow spiral staircase to reach the top of its bell tower. I’m glad I do because the view I get from the lofty height — the tower is the highest of its kind in Catalonia — is truly breathtaking. The city and countryside spread out below the tower and from it I see Vic’s dynamic main square that’s surrounded by candy-coloured buildings. Three of the tower’s original 11th century bells remain in working order and as much as I’d like to spend more time in this inviting city, another Romanesque treasure — the Monastery of St. Peter de Casserres — awaits 30 minutes down the road in Carretera. The highway outside Vic suddenly turns challenging — more twists and turns as I drive into the foothills of the Pyrenees. And the scenery here is much more imposing — lots of rocky outcrops and deep gorges.

After parking the car, I trek along a narrow ledge overlooking a reservoir — it feeds Barcelona — to reach the entrance of the former Benedictine monastery that was once home to 12 monks back in 1053 when it opened. While most Romanic churches are long and narrow, St. Peter, because of its confined space atop the rocky cliff, is wider than it is long. It took 100 years to complete but was left to decay after being abandoned in the 15th century. A restoration project between 1994 and 1995 has restored its glory — the cloister, priory chamber, dormitory, kitchen, storage vault and scriptorium where the monks illustrated precious books look as good as new.

While Catalonia’s Romanesque churches and cathedrals look much the same, each, I discover, has its own identity and some interesting stories and characters connected to them. Take St. Peter de Casserres, for example.

“The church was built on the orders of a count, whose son, just three days after being born, apparently spoke and told his father he would live only 30 days,” Silvia, my guide, tells me.

“The son instructed that after his death his body should be placed on a mule and wherever the beast stopped, then a monastery dedicated to St. Peter should be built. The mule stopped here and the father obviously complied with the boy’s wishes. The boy’s remains were actually kept in the alter by the monks for decades,” says Silvia. I didn’t have the heart to tell Silvia that had the mule not stopped, it would have plunged into the deep gorge.

Afterwards, I enjoy a delightful lunch at the Parador Vic-Sau, a charming boutique hotel that sits at the base of the mountain where the monastery is located. The view of the surrounding milky-white cliffs and reservoir from the elevated main dining room is truly spectacular.

The rest of my stops along my Romanesque journey are just as interesting:

• In Ripoll, a handsome town on the banks of the River Ter, I visit the tomb of Count Wilfred the Hairy — he apparently had a lot of hair — in the beautiful Monastery of Santa Maria, which he founded in 888. The count is revered because he gave Catalonia its flag; as Wilfred the Hairy lie dying after a battle, he dabbed four fingers in his own blood and ran them down a mustard coloured cloth, which Catalonia’s flag is based on today. More than 100 monks lived in the monastery during its glory days and produced important manuscripts from the 10th to 12th century — many were stolen during the Napoleonic Wars and have never been seen again. The monastery’s ornately decorated portal is its most stunning feature — delicate carvings tell the story of the Bible. The cloister showcases three original columns and one of its original bell towers is still functioning.

• In La Seu d’Urgell, a lovely town in the heart of the Pyrenees, I’m impressed by the Cathedral Santa Maria d’Urgell, which dominates the Old Town square. The stately structure stands on the same land where the Romans erected a temple. The present day version has a lot of Gothic design incorporated into its walls and showcases lots of 12th-century paintings. While just a hint of the amazing frescos remain, a guide tells me that at one time the entire interior and exterior of these Romanesque churches would have been painted. The town is also famous for producing three saints — St. Ot (the patron saint of rain), St. Ernengol (the patriot saint of droughts) and St. Emigdi (the enginering saint who produced bridges and canals). This outdoor paradise also hosted the white water canoeing and kayaking events at the 1982 Barcelona Summer Olympics and remains a training centre for many national teams, including Canada’s. The massive cathedral stays true to the Holy Trinity — it features three entrances, three naves and its bell tower stands 23 metres high. Next to Santa Maria stands the palace of the Bishop of Aragon, an autonomous state that resides inside Catalonia.

• In Sort, I stop for lunch at a charming restaurant called Pessets and enjoy a meal highlighted by the area’s delicious traditional sausages. A group of elderly Catalonian tourists entertain me with patriotic folk songs and I salute them with a glass of Catalonia’s excellent wine. There are many examples of Romanesque architecture in this forested area known as Pallars Sobirá, and the best is the Church of Santa Maria de Ribera de Cardós — its bell tower, rose window and main apse were all built in the Romanesque style.

• In Son, I leave the main highway and climb to the top of another winding road to reach the Romanic site of Son del Pi. From here I get jaw-dropping views of the Pyrenees and its lush valleys. The small temple was built between the 11th and 12th centuries and consists of a single nave. Its apse also features arches decorated in the Lombard style. Its most striking feature, though, is a slender square belfry with an interior staircase. Inside, there’s a 15th-century Gothic altarpiece depicting 23 different biblical scenes.

• In Arties, I discover I’m no longer in Catalonia but in Aran, the tiny but affluent principality — much like Monaco — tucked away in the Pyrenees bordering France to the north and Aragon to the west. Known as the Vall d’Aran, this is where some of Europe’s best ski resorts are located. It’s also where I find some great examples of Romanesque architecture in the form of Santa Maria d’Aries and Sant Andreu de Saladú i Santa Eulàlla d’Unha (St. Andrew for short). What makes these two churches so important is they still feature lots of original wall art. “There are many others hidden under the plaster but retrieving them takes time and lots of money,” Lola, my guide, tells me. Some of the paintings remain vibrant. “They ground rare minerals that are only found in the Pyrenees and mixed them with water to produce paint,” says Lola. At one time there were many of these Romanesque churches scattered throughout the Vall d’Aran and “their towers were used to warn of invasions,” says the guide.

• In the beautiful Vall de Boi, I discover the motherlode of Romanesque architecture — nine churches that sit in a picturesque Pyrenees valley outside the small town of Barruero. I spend the day exploring four of the most famous with a Romanic expert named Anna Monsó.

First stop: Santa Eulàlia d’drill la Vall church, which sits beside an information centre. Using interactive exhibits, it tells visitors why so many Romanesque churches were built here and how the counts stole land from their subjects to increase their own wealth and power. Inside Santa Eulàlia, I find the original stone alter and baptismal font and a replica of the wooden crucifixion scene that impressed me in Vic. The church’s bell tower stands 24 metres high and was used mainly for communication and defensive purposes.

Next, Sant Joan de Boi, where Anna points out the irregular shapes of animals in the faded frescos. “The artists only knew of these animals from the stories they were told, so that’s why the elephant has horns on top of its heads,” she smiles. This, like the other 10th-century temples I visit, was also used as a community meeting hall and “they even stored grain here in the winter,” Anna tells me. A lovely village has grown up around San Joan de Boi and it’s a nice place to wander before walking to Sant Climent, which was consecrated in 1123, features its original alter and a 13th-century bench reserved for the church’s hierarchy. An audio-visual system shows how the church once looked when its walls were completely decorated with frescos. Awesome!

A short walk away from Sant Climent, Anna introduces me to Santa Maria de Taüll, a unique church in that it sits in the middle of a stone village. “Most villages were built before the churches but this town was built around Santa Maria,” says Anna. The columns inside the church are bent like an old man’s legs — “they had to wrap the entire church with special supports to ensure it does not fall.”

• On the way to Tremp, where the Romanesque Castell d’en Mur sits, I drive through a semi-arid region of Catalonia that looks like the Arizona desert — large red rocks shaped into animal forms by the elements dominate the landscape.

The ruins of the 11th-century Castell d’en Mur and the Benedictine church that sits beside it, stand atop a remote mountain overlooking a vast valley. Both the castle and church were built from the same massive slab of rock that separates the two Romanesque ruins. While the roofless castle fell in on itself after being abandoned in the 15th-century, the church remains pretty much intact. Only 20 people ever lived in the castle and just a few monks manned the church, whose priceless frescos were sold off in 1919 for the equivalent of 42 euros (less the $100 Cdn.) in today’s money, and eventually found their way to a Boston museum, where they still reside today.

• My last stop before returning to Barcelona is the massive Sant Cugat monastery in the town of the same name — just 17 kilometres from Catalonia’s capital. The beautiful monastery, which sits in the city’s historic area, was started in the 11th-century and completed in the 13th. The Benedictine monks who built it actually arrived here in 985AD but records show the Romans occupied this area as early as the 3rd-century. The structure was partially destroyed in the Spanish Civil War but its beautiful cloister still features 144 original capitals. Some carvings tell the story of the bible, some warn monks of the evil waiting outside the monastery walls, others refer to mythological figures and one honours the man who created them — he worked on them for 20 years.

Finally back in Barcelona, I visit the castle-like Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, a treasure chest of Romanesque relics that was built as a pavilion for the city’s 1929 World’s Fair. It occupies a spectacular vantage point atop a hill overlooking one of Europe’s most fascinating cities. The frescos and wall art removed from the churches are now displayed in the National Museum’s 16-gallery Romanesque section.

Lia, a museum guide, says Italian experts were hired to painstakingly remove the frescos and wall art from their original places and reassembled here. “The movement to research, reclaim and preserve Catalonia’s art, poetry, literature and especially our architecture was started in 1833 by Barcelona’s elite and wealthy,” says Lia.

Walls in the exhibition areas are painted a muted grey to resemble the interiors of the ancient churches and monasteries.

Looking at the remarkable works, one can see how art in Medieval times evolved — crude animal and human features depicted in art from the 10th and 11th centuries become more life-like and softer in paintings from the 13th century.

The museum showcases more than 4,000 Catalonian treasures, but the Romanesque exhibits are by far the most popular.

A lover of Romanesque architecture could easily visit the National Museum and be thoroughly fulfilled. However, by doing that, they’d miss the thrill of driving back in time along Catalonia’s thrilling Via Romanesque.

I can assure you, it’s a trip of a lifetime.

Marc Atchison is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller with more than 20 years of travel writing experience. As the former Travel Editor of the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper, and now Editor-in-Chief and Senior Writer for TraveLife magazine (Canada) and travelife.ca, Marc has been to over 100 countries in the world. Japan is one of his favorite destinations and he’s been there on numerous occasions.

http://www.travelife.ca/

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Docking at Bermuda’s historic Dockyards

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Docking at Bermuda’s historic Dockyards

By Marc Atchison
TraveLife Editor-in-Chief

SOMERSET, BERMUDA — A “mosquito” is annoying our cab driver as we make our way along the picturesque coastal South Road leading to the historic Royal Navy Dockyards.

“I just want to swat them,” grumbles Jerry the cabbie as he tries to manoeuvre around the slow-moving motor scooter (a.k.a. mosquito) ahead.

“Just listen to them – the buzzing sound they make is just like a mosquito; and you know what we do to mosquitos.”

Jerry steps on the gas and quickly passes the nervous tourist driving the tiny scooter. There are many ways to get to the Royal Navy Dockyards — the former British military garrison that juts out into the Atlantic at the northern tip of this fish hook-shaped island —from our Fairmont Southampton Hotel base. We could have taken the local pink bus or a national ferry to reach a place that has become one of Bermuda’s most popular tourist attractions, primarily because the Dockyards is where the mega-cruise ships anchor.

But a taxi’s the quickest way and the chatty cabbies, as we’ve discovered on previous visits, are a fountain of information, providing passengers with lots of local tales and tips.

Jerry, a slender man with a chiselled face who speaks with a lovely Bermudian accent, is excited to find out we hail from Canada and tells us that Nova Scotia fishermen helped develop St. David’s Island where he’s from. St. David’s is in the northeast part of Bermuda near St. George, the country’s treasured World Heritage Site and oldest city.

“The Nova Scotians, whose descendants still dominate St. David’s, were the ones who invented the shark oil barometer, which we still rely on today to help predict the weather,” says Jerry about the device mariners have relied on for centuries to detect storms at sea and local weather patterns. “No Bermudian house would be without one.”

The South Road takes us past pink-sand beaches, tranquil bays filled with stones carved into animal shapes by the pounding surf, lovely resorts like the Reefs — it clings to a jagged cliff looking out on a breathtaking seascape — pretty cottages painted pastel shades and national landmarks like Gibbs’ Hill Lighthouse, a cast iron structure built in 1846 which can be seen from almost everywhere on the island. At Barnes Corner, where South Road ends, the cabbie navigates onto Middle Road and apologizes for turning up the volume on his car radio but “there’s a big motor boat race going on today (early August) and a friend of mine has entered. I just want to see how he’s doing.”

Jerry suggests when we reach the Dockyards we find the Commissioner’s House and go to the second floor. “From there you’ll have a great vantage point from which to view the race.”

When we pass the entrance of prestigious Port Royal Golf Course, Jerry tells us he’s a member of the club where an important PGA Tour event is held each October. Cabbies in Bermuda obviously make a lot of money because entry into the exclusive golf club does not come cheap.

As we slowly make our way along winding Middle Road, we tell the driver we ate lunch the day before in Hamilton at a historic pub called Hog Penny – the fish chowder and onion rings there are the best in Bermuda.

“Ah, I know the Hog Penny well,” says Jerry, who goes on to say the pub’s name is taken from one of the country’s earliest coins.

“The coin was named the Hog Penny because when Bermuda was first discovered by shipwrecked settlers, they found the place was overrun with wild pigs (who were left behind by the Spanish decades earlier when they dropped by for a short visit). “In fact, Bermuda was once known as Devil Island because when the pigs squealed in the bush, settlers thought it was the devil hollering at them.”

We can hear the roar of the high-powered racing boats when we cross the fabled Somerset Bridge – the smallest drawbridge in the world – and then Jerry points out Scaur Hill Fort, which dates back to 1860 and from which you get jaw-dropping views of the Great Sound and the Royal Naval Dockyards in the distance.

Just before entering charming Somerset Village, where we see locals huddled at outdoor bars listening to radio play-by-play of the boat race, Jerry points out Heydon Trust Chapel and says it was built in 1616, making it one of the earliest structures in the New World.

As we pass the Royal Naval Cemetery, which dates back to the 1700s, he tells us the historic Dockyards is not far off.

“I’ll leave you off in front of the National Museum and from there you can walk around and see everything,” says the cabbie.

The narrow streets of the Dockyards, which remained in British hands until the 1990s, are filled with passengers and crew off the two cruise ships tied up at the deep-water port and every pub and restaurant is filled to capacity.

The National Museum and its exhibitions give us a good insight into what life was like when this island was in British hands and the old structures that once held arms and supplies for the troops stationed here have been converted into chic art galleries, restaurants and gift shops.

The Dockyards Glassworks, which also houses the Bermuda Rum Cake Company, is filled to capacity with tourists buying souvenirs to take back to the ships. And over at Dolphin Quest (always a controversial facility), an attendant tells us the performing dolphins have access to the open sea and aren’t being penned up as they are at some other places.

We finally make our way to the top of the Commissioner’s House, from where Jerry suggested we would see the speed boats best. From there we watch the high-powered vessels make their run back to Hamilton and the finish line and then decide it’s time to hail a cab.

Information

Both Air Canada and WestJet offer direct daily flights to Bermuda from Toronto. Hog Penny Pub is located in downtown Hamilton.

For information on the Fairmont Southampton and its sister property the Hamilton Princess, go to www.fairmont.com

Marc Atchison is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveler with more than 20 years of travel writing experience. As the former travel editor of the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper, and now editor-in-chief and senior writer for TraveLife magazine (Canada) and travelife.ca, Marc has been to over 100 countries in the world. Japan is one of his favourite destinations and he’s been there on numerous occasions. http://www.travelife.ca/

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Glacier Express a frozen Swiss treat

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Glacier Express a frozen Swiss treat

By Marc Atchison
TraveLife Editor-in-Chief

ANDERMATT, SWITZERLAND — From my seat aboard the Glacier Express, I feel like I’m looking at an endless series of Giovanni Segantini paintings. The breathtaking Alpine pastoral landscapes that the legendary 19th-century Italian artist was so famous for painting are framed in my window as the scenic train slowly moves through the heart of the Swiss Alps.

I press my nose up against the window, awed by the natural beauty that so inspired Segantini. The only interruption is when the train enters one of the 91 tunnels located along the 291-kilometre route — day suddenly becomes night when the Glacier Express, billed as the “slowest express train in the world,” is swallowed up by the remarkable man-made mountain cavities.

Since boarding the train in St. Moritz, Switzerland’s winter wonderland for the wealthy, I’ve been overwhelmed by the breathtaking Alpine scenes and the service supplied by Glacier Express staff. They pour me beer made from the glacial waters I see streaming off the mountains in spectacular waterfalls, feed me regional cuisine using farm-to-table ingredients grown in the idyllic pastures that sit below the train tracks and educate me on the fascinating customs and traditions of the Alpine people.

I dart from one side of the panorama coach to the other so as not to miss any of the natural splendour passing by — the train travels at an average speed of 35 kilometres an hour so guests can feel the full impact of the Alps.

The most spectacular section of the trip is between Preda and Bergun, where the Glacier Express navigates six towering viaducts, three spiral tunnels and two helical tunnels that make it possible for the little red and white train to scale a height difference of 400 metres (1,300 feet). It’s no wonder this section has been recognized by UNESCO as one of its World Heritage Sites.

While the scenery leaves me breathless, the engineering feats needed the create this, one of the world’s truly great train routes, overwhelms me. There’s no better example of that than the 65-metre-high Landwasser Viaduct, one of the most photographed landmarks in Switzerland. The 142-metre-long (465 feet) stone bridge, which was completed in 1902, is supported by five arched walled pillars that rise from one of the route’s deepest gorges to allow the train to reach a tunnel of the same name. In all, there are 291 bridges along this fascinating route, which stretches from St. Moritz to Zermatt, where the mighty Matterhorn is located.

While the train proceeds, passengers listen to commentary on earphones supplied at each seat and learn that it took five years and over 5,000 men to build the line, which, at the time of its completion, was the most expensive railway project ever undertaken. The engineering achievements accomplished here were later used to build other great railways, like the Canadian Pacific, which united Canada from coast to coast.

During my four-hour journey, I’m entertained by eagles flying over the domed coach and I marvel at the serene Alpine villages and their neatly-kept shuttered homes that appear every so often. Equally impressive are the many jade-coloured lakes that are fed by glacial streams.

At times, the passages are so narrow I think my car will scrap up against the rock walls or fall off the narrow-gauge tracks into the abyss of the deep gorges. The train is most popular during the summer months but winter weekends can be hectic as well, according to the conductor.

Before we reach Andermatt, we pass some important towns and cities, like Chur (pronounced Coor), which is the oldest town in Switzerland with 5,000 years of history. Its Old Town is a great place to wander and the fact the Rhine River turns towards the north from here is another source of pride for the population.

This is also the area where the fictional character Heidi is from. Swiss author Johanna Spyri made Heidi famous in her late 18th-century books and the cute Alpine girl stills remains an iconic figure worldwide.

Shortly after we leave Chur, we enter the Rhine Gorge, which is often referred to as Switzerland’s Grand Canyon. Formed after the last Ice Age, the gorge offers some dramatic rock formations but until this part of the railway was finished in 1903, it remained inaccessible to tourists. The gorge is also home to 350 species of butterflies and rare wild orchids.

The Glacier Express slowly climbs out of the gorge and we start moving towards Disentis, the historic town that boasts the largest Romansh-speaking community in Switzerland. Romansh originates from the spoken Latin and was brought to Switzerland by Roman soldiers. Since 1938, it’s been recognized as one of the national languages of Switzerland.

The conductor tells me that most Swiss can speak German, French, Italian, English or Romansh. He also informs me that every Swiss citizen uses the country’s remarkable rail system — on average, each of the 8.4 million Swiss travel 2,300 kilometres by train each year. “That makes ours the densest rail system in the world,” he proudly boasts. “You’ll know we are getting close to Disentis when you see the double spires of the church,” he says.

The church, which is attached to the Disentis’s Benedictine monastery, dates back to 1683 and the abbey still remains one of the most prestigious schools in all of Switzerland. Being the first town on the Rhine River is also another thing the locals like to boast about.

Before heading into the spectacular Oberalppass, the engine is replaced with a much stronger one, but even with more horsepower, the Glacier Express still needs the assistance of a giant cog wheel — another engineering triumph of Swiss railway engineers — to reach the 2,033 metres (6,700 feet) above sea level that we’ll eventually climb before descending into Andermatt.

The Alpine scenery, which just a short time ago featured green meadows when we left Chur, is now snow white and as we climb higher, the drifts are as high as the coach window.

“We need very special snow trains to clear the tracks so the Glacier Express can keep moving through here,” says the conductor.

Soon after that, the Glacier Express pulls into lovely Andermatt, a 12th-century town that is being turned into Switzerland’s most modern ski resort, and the conductor bids me uf widerluege (goodbye).

My remarkable journey aboard the Glacier Express (it proceeds to Zermatt) is over but the memories of this trip though the majestic Swiss Alps will live on forever.

Information

The best way to get around Switzerland is by train. Swiss Travel System — http://www.myswitzerland.com/ — offers many options, including the Glacier

Marc Atchison is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller with more than 20 years of travel writing experience. As the former Travel Editor of the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper, and now editor-in-chief and senior writer for TraveLife magazine (Canada) and travelife.ca, Marc has been to over 100 countries in the world. Japan is one of his favourite destinations and he’s been there on numerous occasions. http://www.travelife.ca/

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Travel_Oct_fi

Aruba is an island of smiles

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Aruba is an island of smiles

by Marc Atchison

TraveLife Editor-in-Chief

ARUBA – Ricardo, the man taking me on a driving tour of this lovely Caribbean nation whose motto is “One Happy Island,” is not happy.

“My wife forgot to put my sunglasses back in the car and now I will be squinting all day,” he moans after picking me up at the exclusive Tierra del Sol Resort, home to the island’s only 18-hole golf course, a Robert Trent Jones Sr. beauty that hugs the coastline of the Caribbean Sea.

Maybe the sun won’t come out today, I suggest. Ricardo frowns.

“My friend, the sun always shines on our island — we get less than 20 inches (50 centimetres) of rain annually, so that means lots of sunny days.” Ricardo says our tour will be short. “Our island is very small (less than 33 kilometres long and about 10 kilometres wide at its widest point). We’ll have plenty of time to see all the highlights and I’ll still get you to the dock for that catamaran sail I promised you later today.”

With that, Ricardo turns his car onto the main highway, which completely encircles this coral island of snow-white beaches, tall cactus and honeycomb rock formations.

The road is lined with candy-coloured homes and Ricardo points to handsome Santa Anna Church where workmen are hurriedly repairing part of its roof, which was torn off when a small tornado touched down the night before.

Because Aruba sits about 25 kilometres off the Venezuelan coast, there’s a distinct Spanish influence in the island’s architecture.

We are heading in the direction of an iconic lighthouse at the northernmost tip of the island, which has become Aruba’s most famous landmark. The 30-metre-high California Lighthouse (named for the steamship California which wrecked on the jagged rocks just offshore in 1891) overlooks the island’s treasured sand dunes and secluded Arashi Beach, which boasts the whitest sand on the island.

The parking lot is filled with buses carrying Latin American tourists, all of who want their photographs taken in front of the lighthouse.

“Most of our tourists come from the United States and Canada, but in recent years, thanks to the economic boom in places like Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and especially Brazil, we are seeing a lot more of our Latin American neighbours,” says Ricardo, who adds, “Aruba boasts an impressive 30 per cent repeat visitor ratio — the highest in the Caribbean.”

Back on the highway, Ricardo points the car in the direction of Oranjestad, the charming capital whose Dutch name reminds us of the influence Holland had on this small nation when it was part of the Dutch West Indies.

Aruba got its independence in 1986 but the Dutch influence remains — while the island has its own parliament, Aruba’s foreign affairs interests are still handled by the Dutch government and King Willem-Alexander remains the island’s head of state.

Just before entering the charming capital, we pass bustling beach areas lined with highrise hotels, casinos and clubs. Palm Beach and Eagle Beach are where most of the tourists gather and where cruise ship passengers come to party while in port. Aruba is one of the most popular cruise destinations in the Caribbean and each year welcomes 320 ships and over 600,000 passengers.

Over an early lunch of freshly caught fish at a quaint local restaurant in Oranjestad, I hear people talking a lilting, melodic language.

“That’s our local tongue — Papiamento,” says Ricardo. “It’s a combination of many languages, including Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and English.” While we eat, he talks about the 96 different nationalities that live on this tiny bit of land in the Caribbean Sea and about how Aruba has the best drinking water in the world.

“That’s scientific fact, not me boasting,” smiles Ricardo.

The drinking water here is fresh from the tap — no need for bottled water — and its purity comes from the fact that it’s filtered by the island’s sand and coral rock.

Aruba is a diver’s paradise. Coral reefs and wrecks give masked visitors plenty to explore and Ricardo reminds me that our catamaran outing is at 3 p.m., “so eat up because there’s still some things I want to show you before we go snorkelling.”

Ricardo cuts through the centre of the island on some dusty back roads where Aruba’s harsh desert landscape is fully exposed. Here, giant cacti and bulging rock formations dominate the horizon.

At Paradera, my driver stops at the entrance of the Casibari Rock Formations — giant boulders exposed when the sea pulled back millions of years ago.

Visitors climb the rocks where large iguanas lie sun tanning on blistering hot boulders. If you climb all the way to the top, Ricardo tells me, your IQ will increase by 20 per cent “because the rock surface makes people smarter.”

Another scientific fact, I wonder? “No, just a good local legend,” smiles Ricardo.

We see other giant rocks — the Ayo Rock Formation — just before we reach the coastal highway again and the driver turns north, where we come upon a colourful little church known as Alto Vista Chapel, built by settlers in 1750. The iconic little church has become a tourist stop but hymns being sung inside remind us that locals still come here every day to pray.

A short drive south from the church, we visit the Bushiribana Ruins, an old fort-like complex where the early Dutch settlers would bring the gold they extracted from the interior and melt it down before loading it on ships bound for Amsterdam.

In front of the ruins is a beach area known as the Wish Garden where hundreds of tiny inuksuks line the shore — an indication that Canadians have left their mark on this stretch of sand.

The site of the natural bridge Ricardo has been so anxious to show us comes into view as we hit the top of a hill. But where’s the bridge?

“It collapsed — a victim of nature a few years ago,” sighs Ricardo. However, the number of buses in the parking lot indicates that the site, which offers a smaller natural bridge known as Baby Bridge, and a coastal view that’s simply breathtaking, remains a popular tourist stop.

On the drive back to Oranjestad to catch our catamaran, I can’t help noticing some wind-shaped trees that line the roadway.

Ricardo identifies them as diva-diva trees, which owe their shape to the constant trade winds that blow ashore here.

Catamaran tours are one of the most popular activities on Aruba. Visitors pile onto the sleek two-hull sailing vessels and venture just offshore where they snorkel and dive in waters teeming with reefs and wrecks.

Our catamaran captain goes over all the safety instructions before we push off to explore the Antilla, a World War II wreck which her German captain scuttled rather than hand it over to the Allies.

The water surrounding the wreck is teeming with tropical fish and the show is well worth the $40 sailing fee — a three-hour tour that includes snacks and an open bar. While enjoying an Aruban cocktail (lots of spicy rum and a splash of fruit juice) on deck after our dive, a smile breaks across Ricardo’s face as he rummages through his knapsack and pulls out his sunglasses.

“The glasses were here all the time,” he laughs. “I’m happy now.”

It’s not hard to smile when you’re on this One Happy Island called Aruba.

INFORMATION

  • Air Canada Vacations, Sunwing and Air Transat offer seasonal service to Aruba.
  • Best times of year to visit Aruba are January to March and especially during Carnival time just before Lent.
  • One of the best places to visit in Aruba is Arikok National Park, home to great hiking and biking trails, natural rock formations and many caves.
  • Aruba has become a preferred honeymoon destination in recent years.
  • Food on Aruba is a blend of Caribbean and South American recipes.
  • One of our favourite restaurants on Aruba is Papiamento, housed in the old Ellis Family home which is still run by the family.
  • For more information on Aruba, go to http://www.aruba.com.

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You’ll leave your heart in Lisbon

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You’ll leave your heart in Lisbon

By Marc Atchison
TraveLife Editor-in-Chief

LISBON — Johanna, the pencil-thin server, delivered pillows of pasta floating in a delicate rosé sauce to our alfresco and ordered us to “enjoy.”

When she returned a few minutes later from inside Lisbon’s most recommended Italian restaurant — Stravaganza on Rua do Crémio Lusitano — she asked if we were Americans.

“I have been to San Francisco,” Johanna reported just as garbage collectors dumped a load of empty wine bottles into their truck, setting off a cacophony that echoed off the stone walls of the old neighborhood.

As the lovely young Johanna headed back toward the restaurant entrance, she turned and told us, “You will find Lisboa (the Portuguese name for Lisbon) is much like San Francisco.”

The two cities do have a lot in common we would discover:

Both share similar hilly landscapes: Lisbon, in fact, is known as the City of the Seven Hills.

Each has endured their share of earthquake woes: San Francisco was levelled by the great quake of 1906 while Lisbon was almost totally destroyed by one in 1755.

The two cities even have similar transportation systems: Lisbon’s trams and funiculars are not as historic as San Francisco’s legendary cable cars but their cheerful colors do brighten the handsome streets of its old quarter.

Lisbon even has its own, smaller version of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge: The 25 Abril Bridge was built by the same company who constructed the American icon and it’s even painted “international orange” just like its San Francisco cousin. And just like San Francisco, Lisbon has its share of great neighborhood restaurants, with, as far as we’re concerned, Stravaganza topping that list.

The funicular was not in service the night a young woman at the Hard Rock Café gift shop pointed us in the direction of Stravaganza, which sits atop a steep hill in an area of the city that had to be totally rebuilt after the 1755 quake, which also involved a tsunami and many fires. In all, over 15,000 people perished back then – the fires and tsunami killing most of them.

So we huffed and puffed our way to the top of the cobblestone street where the restaurant was located and quickly got an introduction to the neighborhood life that makes Lisbon one of the most enchanting places in Europe to visit.

Here, on narrow streets where car mirrors and walls are separated by razor-thin spaces, people gather after a hard day’s work and enjoy a glass of port wine and reasonably- priced meals at one of the many café-style outdoor eateries – the ones where people have to move their chairs to allow the odd local car to enter a street.

And while Lisbon does indeed have a lot in common with America’s most beautiful city, it retains the regal good looks of Europe’s other great capitals while at the same time offering its own unique features.

There’s the regular collection of wide European boulevards, great squares and mammoth statues honouring Portugal’s heroes, the most massive and important of which is the one dedicated to the Marqués de Pombal, the country’s first prime minister whose responsibility it was to rebuild the city after the earthquake.

The handsome boulevards, like Avenida da Liberdade, that branch off the roundabout where the revered prime minister’s statue now stands have that Paris look about them. Flower-laden jacaranda trees form a canopy to protect strollers and diners from the blistering sun and outdoor cafés are manned by servers wearing long black aprons.

Avenida da Liberdade, the longest avenue in the city, was built as a place for the nobles of the 18th century to stroll. Now it’s lined with high-end shops and prestigious addresses where the descendants of those nobles call home.

Another feature that makes Lisbon Paris-like is its version of the Eiffel Tower. The wrought-iron Elevodor de Santa Justa was built in 1902 by a student of Gustave Eiffel to connect Lisbon’s upper and lower towns. It’s not as dramatic a structure as Paris’ landmark but it’s still pretty impressive. It costs $7 to go up and come back down. The elevator is wedged between narrow buildings on Rua de Santa Justa in the city’s old shopping area.

Most of the buildings that make up the city’s upper area look much the same as the next. That’s because in an attempt to rebuild quickly after the 1755 earthquake, architectural design was sacrificed for haste — it took only two and a half years to rebuild Lisbon.

One structure that makes Lisbon unique is the massive Roman-style aqueduct that runs through the city. Built by Portugal’s King John in 1747 to carry fresh water to the city, the impressive structure has 109 arches and dominates the skyline.

Lisbon is a joy to walk and many of its buildings are covered with hand painted tiles that date back centuries. The tiles were the building material of choice over history here because they kept houses cool in the painfully hot summer months and were easy to clean. Unfortunately, some of the beautiful buildings in Lisbon have been scarred graffiti artists.

One place spared the artist’s brush was the beautiful Sao Domingos, located in the old quarter, which served as headquarters during the Inquisition. The handsome structure is just off the main square.

The only part of the city not damaged in the great quake – by the way, the last major earthquake to hit Lisbon was back in the 1960s and the next major one is not expected for another 200 years – was stunning Rossio Square in the city centre or Baixa area. Dramatic fountains and more statues dominate the square that sits in the shadow of the city’s ancient fort. Most of the great squares in Lisbon are made of black and white tiles and designed in such a way that it gives visitors the impression they’re walking on waves. It takes a few seconds for you to adjust to the sensation.

The city’s main attractions are connected by a small subway system, the Metro, which, at about $2 a ride, is one of the best bargains in town.

The pungent smell of salted cod piled high outside Lisbon’s small fish shops is a constant reminder of this country’s sea history. Cod, while in short supply these days, still makes up a large portion of the Portuguese diet and we spotted one cookbook with “365 recipes” for cod alone.

The Chiado area is where you’ll find some of the city’s more traditional shops, ones displaying hand painted ceramics. There’s also lots of eating and dining spots in this area, including a famous café called Brasileira on Rua Garrett, where Portugal’s famed poets and writers once lingered over espresso.

You can hop on a tram known here as an eléctrico and head over to the amazing Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, a great church started in 1502 by order of King Manuel I. The massive church is a mixture of Gothic and Manuel architectures and its stained glass and sculpted columns are some of the most beautiful in all of Europe.

This is the place where kings and queens where married back in the days of Portugal’s monarchy, which ended in 1910. The church was named in honour of St. Jerome, the patron saint of writers and poets, many of who came from Lisbon.

The most impressive of all Lisbon’s great monuments is one called Padrao dos Descobrimentos (Monument of Discovery), which dominates the city’s revitalized waterfront along the Taugus River. The massive stone structure was erected in honour of Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator in 1960, 500 years after his death. It also commemorates Portugal’s many other famous explorers and adventurers. You can ride an elevator in the belly of the statue and get a great panoramic view of the city and its handsome skyline.

Another feature that sets Lisbon apart from other European capitals is its mixture of new and old architecture.

“The people who live in Lisbon don’t have to travel to America to see new designs because we have so many futuristic buildings here,” a local woman named Helena Ribeiro told us.

Most of those “new” buildings are grouped together on the site of the Lisbon’s successful Expo 98, known as Parque das Nacoes. An overhead rail system connects all the buildings left over from the world’s fair. They now house the city’s aquarium, modern arts museum and its brand new casino.

The casino is one of the biggest in Europe and has been an overwhelming success since opening in 2006. The glass and chrome interior of the casino, which features floors that change colour every few minutes, is truly spectacular and its 800 slot machines and gaming tables are usually standing room only most nights. The casino’s restaurants have quickly caught the eye of city diners with their imaginative menus and creative cuisine.

Lisbon offers visitors a varied nightlife, with lots of chic bars and restaurants but in recent years has become known for its erotic clubs, where performers from Brazil are the headliners.

Just another thing it shares in common with San Francisco.

Information

Rua Augusta is one of the best streets in Lisbon for shopping and dining. Lisbon’s museums are free. They are closed Mondays.

The city’s transportation authority offers visitors 24- and 72-hour pass options that cost just a few dollars but allows access to the subway, buses and even inner city trains.

There are seven women for every man in Lisbon.

Stravaganza Restaurant is located at 18 Rua do Cremio Lusitano. Two highly recommended places to stay in Lisbon are Hotel Dom Pedro at Av. Eng. Duarte Pacheco in the city’s business district, not far from most historic sites.

Go to www.dompedro.com for information.

The other hotel the chic Bairro Alto Hotel, a boutique style property with just 55 bedrooms in the city’s old quarter.

Go to www.bairroaltohotel.com for information.

For more information on travel in Portugal, go to https://www.visitportugal.com/en

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Who discovered Canada? ‘We did,’ say the Basque

Latest News


Who discovered Canada? ‘We did,’ say the Basque

By Marc Atchison

TraveLife Editor-in-Chief

PASAIA, BASQUE COUNTRY, SPAIN — In this tiny backwater fishing port that opens up to the Atlantic’s Bay of Biscay, Canadian and Basque history intersect at a small maritime museum that is hoping to recreate the past.

“Pardon the noise but the men are working very hard today,” says Mikel Leoz as he leads me through a large workshop connected to the Sea Factory of the Basques Albaola Museum where workmen are using primitive tools to shape a giant wooden beam balancing on a workbench horse.

“As you can see, the new San Juan is really starting to take shape,” says Leoz, the man overseeing an ambitious project to build a replica of an ancient whaling ship known as the San Juan, which sailed from here in the 16th century for Newfoundland but never returned.

“The San Juan sank off Newfoundland (actually the southern coast of Labrador’s Saddle Island) in 1565,” says Leoz. “Then in 1978, thanks to the research efforts of renowned Canadian historian and geographer Selma Huxley Barkham, Parks Canada divers found the (skeleton) remains of the San Juan in the waters near the town of Red Bay.

“The ship’s keel was well preserved (it’s believed it was protected for centuries under a massive iceberg), and because of that we were able to get exact specifications of the original ship, from which we are building the replica,” says the enthusiastic man.

Red Bay has a long history with Basque fishermen — between 1530 and the 17th century the small town served as an important Basque whaling station. And because several whaling galleons and four small chalupas boats used to spear the whales during that time have been recovered in Red Bay, UNESCO saw fit to designate the isolated Canadian community a World Heritage Site in 2013.

Pictures of Red Bay residents adorn a wall of the Basque museum. “These people are our friends, our brothers because they share our history,” Leoz tells me.

No one died in the sinking of the San Juan, which had a crew of about 60 men at the time. “It was caught in a storm and sank when its anchor chain broke. Some of its cargo was actually recovered later. The partial remains of the ship that the Parks Canada divers found are now on display in a Newfoundland museum,” says Leoz, who adds that while there is little documentation on the San Juan, it is believed it was on its third voyage to Red Bay before slipping below the waves.

Leoz is as much an historian as he is a ship builder and has researched the Basque people’s connection with whaling thoroughly.

“It’s truly a fascinating part of our (Basque) history,” says the man whose greying beard makes him look like a sea captain of yesteryear. “The whale oil was used for lamps and in the making of soap.”

After whale stocks depleted off the Spanish and French coasts in the early part of the 16th century, the Basque began hearing about fertile waters off “Terra Nova.”

“So they set sail (a journey of 6,300 kilometres that took between two and three months to complete) and couldn’t believe what they found when they arrived — Red Bay was teaming with whales,” says an excited Leoz.

“The Basque were able to survive because they befriended the native people of Red Bay and taught them many Basque words. In fact, when French explorers like Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain landed in Newfoundland, the indigenous people greeted them using Basque words like ania (brother) because they thought all Europeans spoke Basque.”

Leoz proudly shows me around the compact museum which features displays showing the techniques the Basque used to harpoon the whales. Large wooden barrels used to store the precious whale oil are also displayed throughout the museum —each barrel could hold more than 180 kilograms of whale oil.

The entire Basque country is backing the project and towns and cities in this loveliest part of the autonomous region are helping in the construction of the replica — the oak and beach wood used in the building of the original whaling ships is being harvested in nearby forests so the new San Juan can look just like the original. Tar used to bind the planks was brought to the shipyard museum on carts pulled by oxen — “just like they did in the 1600s,” says a smiling Leoz, who says that ceremony brought out the whole town.

The whole project is expected to cost 3.5 million euros ($5 million Cdn.), and it has the financial backing of UNESCO, the EU and the Basque government.

Leoz reports the new San Juan will be ready to set sail by 2020.

“We are hoping to sail it to Newfoundland but I think we’ll need a more modern vessel alongside just in case,” smiles Leoz as we reach the top of the giant scaffolding where the yet to be completed replica is cradled.

Even in this early state, the San Juan replica looks majestic.

As we leave the museum complex, I see a group of young sailors crowded in a small powerboat heading in the direction of Pasaia’s harbour that opens to the sea. The tradition of Basque fishermen is being kept alive in this small town on many different levels.

To stay updated on the progress of the San Juan replica, or to find out more about the maritime museum in Passia, go to www.albaola.com/en

For more on the Basque country, go to www.basquecountrytourism.eus

http://www.travelife.ca/

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