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Travel: Czech Republic

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Travel: Czech Republic

A 100-year Celebration

By Kate Robertson

Old Tower Square, Prague

The Czech Republic has experienced its share of upheaval over the past century. Czechoslovakia gained its independence following the collapse of the powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. Then, in late February of 1948 the Czechoslovak coup d’état took place when the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (with Soviet backing) assumed undisputed control over the government, marking the onset of communist rule for the next four decades. In late 1989 the nonviolet Velvet Revolution lasted one month, one week and five days, and signified a restoration to democracy in Czechoslovakia and the collapse of the communist regime. A self-determined split of the federal state of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia took place on January 1, 1993.

Sculpture work at Prague Castle

The 20 years of independence between the two world wars was an amazingly rich period for the nation, and became one the main centres of modern European life. This year, the Czech Republic is celebrating 100 years since it gained that independence in 1918.

HISTORICAL PRAGUE

Prague is Czech’s vibrant, historical capital, and its one of the most visited cities in Europe. Hit, accidentally or not, by American fighters in 1945, there were many civilian casualties and damages to homes and historical sites. An amazing 866 hectares of the old city are UNESCO protected for their gothic, renaissance and baroque mix of architectural wonders.

To best explore the city’s must-see attractions, wear comfortable walking shoes (the cobble-stoned streets are endless), and be prepared for crowds. Start at the enormous, beautifully reconstructed Prague Castle. A guide can fill you in on lesser-known facts, like when President Havel (leader after the Velvet Revolution) climbed through a window onto a balcony of the presidential palace, along with members of the Rolling Stones, to address the public, when nobody could find the key to the door.

Charles Bridge

Take a stroll across the Charles Bridge to the Old Town (13th century) to view the Astronomical Clock, as well as the Jewish Quarter. On the border of Old Town and New Town (don’t be fooled by the name, it was established in the 14th century), you will find the iconic golden-roofed National Theatre, where you can purchase tickets to a play, ballet or opera. Theatre, and the arts, are extremely important to the Czechs, as it has helped them survive the hardships of the different regimes.

COUNTRY CHARM

To learn more of the Czech Republic’s rich history, head to the Skoda car factory, which is located in Mlada Boleslav, about an hour from Prague. Known as one of the best selling Czech brands in the world, their museum will give you insight into how the company started. Apparently, two bicycle manufacturers merged in 1905, along with a heavy equipment manufacturer and, together, they started to produce cars. Take a tour of the factory to see the production line. Amazingly, a car can be completed here in just 24 hours.

Ajeto Glassworks

The country-side is filled with picture-book, half-timbered houses, barns and green pastures. World famous, Bohemian glass-making started in this area back in the 13th century. The special sandstone that was found here was perfect for glass-making. Take a tour of Ajeto Glassworks, and watch the artists melt the glass in 1,200-degree (Celsius) ovens, before expertly blowing it into the final product.

At the Museum of Glass and Jewelry, in nearby Jablonec, you’ll soon see why this area became an imperial centre for costume jewelry and glass products, which were much-desired by people from all over the world.

Spend the night in historical Liberec at the Clarion Grand Hotel Zlaty Lev, with its period furnishings and crystal chandeliers.

Dark beer goulash and dumplings

CAVORTING WITH CARNIVORES

Czechs love meat. Beef tartare is a common appetizer. If you’re adventurous, try some of their different cuts, as well as organ meats. For the less courageous, stick with hearty, traditional dishes, like roast duck served with dumplings and purple cabbage, goulash stew with thick dark beer, schnitzel with potato salad, or svickova – a sweetish, creamy vegetable sauce served over a piece of beef sirloin.

For Prague fine dining, visit the Michelin, award-winning Alcron Restaurant (in the Radisson Blu Alcron Hotel), or for a rowdier atmosphere, try La Republica restaurant and beer bar.

Czech beer poured with lots of head

BREW SPECIALISTS

Czech has a long history of brewing, and beer is plentiful. Czechs fondly refer to it as their ‘water’ or ‘liquid bread’, and don’t really acknowledge it as an alcoholic beverage. To taste a local favourite, order Rezane – a mix of a dark and light beer.

Close to the Prague Castle is the Strahov Monastery craft brewery. Monasteries have a long history of beer brewing. The monks at Strahov do a fine job with brews like the Anti- Depressant Dark Lager – the name says it all.

Czech beer is served with a lot of head. Locals like the taste of the foam and consider it a sign of a good beer. Cheers!

Jested Tower, Liberec

czechtourism.com

Kate Robertson can be contacted at kateflyingsolo@gmail.com

Photography, Kate Robertson

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Home exchanges 101

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Home exchanges 101

One of the features in our Aug./Sept. 2018 issue, “Loving Frank,” is about a home exchange managing experience editor Allan Britnell recently had in Chicago. (The home was an early Frank Lloyd Wright design.) Here’s a sidebar from that piece on home exchanges.

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One of the ways we’ve been able to travel so much on a magazine editor’s income is by using home exchanges for our accommodations. Last summer, we spent a month travelling through England and France and only had to pay for one night’s hotel accommodations.

Direct exchanges are the most straightforward: You stay in my home for X-number of days, and I’ll stay in yours for the same period of time. The other option is a “non-simultaneous” exchange. The two parties agree to swap homes, but not at the exact same time. This is a great option for people with vacation homes as they can retreat to the cottage while guests are using their primary home.

No money changes hands between homeowners; you simply play the monthly or annual fees (starting as low as $10 a month) that that the various home exchange websites charge. Some sights, such as LoveHomeSwap.com, include a “points” system where members can use accumulated points in lieu of an actual exchange. We stayed in London last year on points while our Chicago hosts used our home, allowing us to “bank” the visit until this spring.

There is a bit of work clearing out personal items and prepping for your guests’ arrival, and if you’re booking multiple exchanges you’ll need to someone come in to change the linens and tidy up between guests, but the cost savings on accommodations far outweigh any minor inconveniences.

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The hardest part is the time spent searching out locations online and trying to coordinate timing (thank you again Mehnaz!), but we’ve found the experience to be far more rewarding than simply saving money on hotels. Owners usually leave a “house guide” outlining how to operate various household items (ranging from the TV remote to where the fire extinguishers are), that also includes recommendations for where to eat, shop, and sights and attractions that most tourists would miss. We’re often in contact with our hosts/guests during our stays sharing updated details, and we’ve keep in contact with many of the families we’ve exchanged with.

We’re lucky enough to live in a nice part of Toronto (nestled between High Park and the Humber River), close to shops and restaurants, and a short walk from the subway. It also helps that our house was designed and decorated by my wife, Mehnaz Malik, of NatariDesign.com.

If, like Frank Lloyd Wright, you’ve built your home to be a showcase for the quality of your work, then you may well draw attention from the owners of Tuscan villas, wild western spaces, Caribbean condos, or anywhere else you might like to spend your down time.

Then again, if you’re like the cobbler whose kids have no shoes and living in a perpetual jobsite, home exchanges might not be for you!

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August/September issue coming soon

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August/September issue coming soon

Our next issue is with the printer and should be landing in mailboxes shortly. We kept our managing editor, Allan Britnell, busy on his summer vacation working on the two main features in the issue. One is about a road trip he took with his family to Chicago early in the summer. But the Britnell family doesn’t stay in hotels when they travel; they’ve avid fans of home exchanges. In this case, they had the chance to stay in a home designed by famed architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Those of you with the travel bug who are looking for an interesting and affordable way to explore the world will want to take note of his sidebar, “Home Exchanges 101,” where he explains the ins and outs of swapping homes.

I know he also went abroad later in the summer, travelling to Denmark and Spain. (The guy likes to travel!) While there he took more notes and photos of some of the unique building practices and designs he spotted that we’ll include in another travelogue in an upcoming issue.

The other feature in this issue, “Building an Envelope,” obviously enough looks at the various components of the building envelope, covering everything from foundations to roofing materials.

Finally, I’m very pleased to welcome aboard our newest columnist, Manny Neves of Hardcore Renos. We profiled Neves back in our February/March issue where readers learned of his unusual route to the business that starts with a filmmaker’s eye and includes a lifelong passion for architecture. Going forward, in each issue of the magazine he’ll explore a topic of concern for contractors in his piece, “What’s on Manny’s Mind?!?”

Of course, we’re always interested to hear what’s on your mind as well. Send your ideas, comments, and suggests to Allan at allan@renocontractor.ca.

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Around The Globe: International Design Influences

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Around The Globe: International Design Influences

The top five destinations inspiring Canadian interiors

From Cuba’s impact on Hemingway’s literary works, to Van Gogh’s oil paint masterpieces depicting Japanese traditions, world travel has been inspiring people for centuries. Travel inspires art, industry, and innovation, but there’s one unexpected way travel also influences the world: decorating the home.

According to new research from Booking.com, Canadians are taking decor ideas home with them from their vacations. Almost half of all travellers are inspired by the chance to stay somewhere new, and eager to take on interior design work in their own homes upon their return.

“Most Canadians start by taking a piece of art home with them from their travels, or a soft furnishing like pillow covers or curtains,” says Nuno Guerreiro, regional manager of Canada for Booking.com. “The majority are inspired by local designs and new cultures, but over half of all travellers are actually motivated by the interior design of their holiday accommodations—this way, they’re able to recreate the experience of being on vacation in their own homes.”

From Mediterranean colours to northern comforts, Canadians are looking beyond Pinterest for their next home decor project. Here’s a look at the top five destinations inspiring Canadian travellers to redecorate, and how you can bring the other side of the world into your own home:

1 – Santorini MEDITERRANEAN BLUES The sun, sand and seaside views in Santorini make it the perfect inspiration for a relaxing home oasis. Adding bold royal blues to a Canadian home will call to mind a breezy, beach vacation in the sun, while white walls and furniture will remind travellers of Santorini’s unique seaside architecture. Plus, accents like mosaic tiles and beach-wood patterns truly brighten a room, transforming living areas into a Greek haven.

For an authentic taste of Santorini style, travellers can get inspired by the Kima Villas Suites. The resort’s infinity pool, combined with stunning coastal views, will have you craving the style in your own home.

2 – South Africa COUNTRY FARMHOUSE A country farmhouse, like those common in South Africa, is the ideal inspiration for city-dwelling travellers looking to transform their homes into a quiet retreat. Using warm earth tones and textural accents, plus elements like wood panels, ceramic and patchwork fabric, Canadians can revamp even the busiest home into a tranquil, pastoral oasis.

The Orange Grove Farm in beautiful South Africa is an ideal destination for an in-depth look at this design style, with accents and a private terrace  overlooking a working wine and olive farm.

3 – Copenhagen SCANDINAVIAN SIMPLICITY Scandinavian design is already a popular trend in Canadian homes and is gaining more and more momentum with a recent surge in popularity (thanks, Ikea!). A natural inclination for hygge, the “newlydiscovered” Danish trend of living a cosy, charming and content way of life; natural light, simple design and minimalist decor are at the foundation of this utilitarian design—no clutter allowed. Travellers looking to embrace this lifestyle need only add a few simple decorations to complete the look.

A great place to discover the modern, simplistic designs in Scandinavia is the Woodah Hostel in Copenhagen, where there’s a place for everything and  everything is in its place.

4 – Kyoto JAPANESE ZEN Japanese author and organizing consultant, Marie Kondo was onto something—Japan’s impeccable organization, Buddhist faith and minimalist decor are the perfect way to bring Zen into your home. The peaceful decor trend focuses on form and function, using neutral tones to improve tranquility. Plants and manicured trees are a must, adding to a toned-down atmosphere.

Find your inner (home) Zen with inspiration from the hotel Nazuna Kyoto Aneyakoji Tei, where a welcoming energy flows through glass floors, gardens and strong wooden accents.

5 – Canada COSY SKI LODGE Canadians know how to make the most of a cold winter, so it’s no surprise that a cosy ski lodge is one of our top inspirations for home decor. Warm colours, real wood elements and a fireplace stacked with crackling logs will bring a feeling of warmth and comfort to any home.

Not just any ski lodge will do here—the beautiful Westin Resort and Spa in Whistler offers the ultimate inspiration for Canadian home relaxation.

SOURCES
kimavilla.com, orangegrovefarm.co.za, woodah-hostel.com, nijo-nazuna.jp, westin-whistler.com

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Travel: Behind The Scenes

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Travel: Behind The Scenes

Check out the softer side of Vegas

By C.A. O’BRIEN

While the flashy side of Las Vegas still shines glaringly bright, try taking a counter intuitive approach to fully appreciate its wild west history and wild desert landscape. Vegas is definitely a city of contrasts.

If it’s been a few decades since you last visited, you’ll notice some big changes. Since the 1960s, Las Vegas has experienced incredible growth. Between 1990 and 2000 (alone), the population almost doubled – an increase of 82.5 per cent.

With this type of development in an arid, southern Nevada location, one can’t help but wonder how water is supplied to the thousands of hotel rooms, homes and businesses in the area. Operated by the Las Vegas Valley Water District, you can gain a better understanding of the journey that water takes at the Las Vegas Springs Reserve. Here, 180 acres are also dedicated to nature walks, displays, events and activities.

CORDIAL RECEPTION

Hospitality is at the core of any Las Vegas experience, and they do it up right. Not into gambling? Not to worry. Most hotels offer incredible spa experiences that are richly luxurious, with skilled practitioners who will ensure that you receive the highest level of care and attention. The Sahra Spa & Hammam at The Cosmopolitan Hotel, and the ESPA Spa at the Vdara Hotel & Spa, are sure bets – and you’ll love every glorious minute.

Sahra Spa & Hammam – image courtesy of the Cosmopolitan Hotel

STAR-STUDDED DINING

A glass is seldom half empty in Vegas, and here dining out is a heightened gastronomic experience. The best performers go to Vegas to strut their talents, as do the best chefs. Touted as one of the finest restaurants in the United States, chef Charlie Palmer and his team serve up a unique menu format at the Aureole restaurant in Mandalay Bay, along with the option of trying multiple wines throughout dinner. From a selection of more than 3,000 bottles, the wine team pours, and tags, each glass to denote the producer, variety and vintage before they are presented to your table.

Located in the Aria Resort & Casino, the Bardot Brasserie recently opened for lunch. Chef Michael Mina has put a modern spin on a Parisian influenced menu.

The Cromwell is now being billed as one of Vegas’s prime boutique hotels. Emmy award-winning celebrity chef, Giada De Laurentiis, shares her spectacular Italian cuisine at the restaurant bearing her name. When being seated at GIADA, ask for a table by the window for a panoramic view of the Bellagio fountains and Caesars Palace.

The Primrose Restaurant at the newly launched Park MGM (formerly the Monte Carlo) is a casual interpretation of time-honoured elegance. Feature walls of framed works of art are different in each guest room.

Hoover Dam – image courtesy of Sundance Helicopters

NATURAL WONDERS

For one of the most spectacular experiences, book a helicopter ride over the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon. Sundance Helicopters offers a tour option that includes a champagne breakfast in the canyon – there’s nothing quite like it.

The breathtaking desert landscape shows its true colours with hues of red, rust, pink and mauve. Explore the city’s unexpected side at the Red Rock Canyon, and then stop for dinner in a more-suburban setting at the Andiron Steak & Sea.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

BYGONE DAYS

You may have an ingrained image of the Vegas that was. At the Neon Museum, you can walk through a retired graveyard of old signs in various states of disrepair (some have been restored), that depict long-forgotten joints – from classy to tawdry.

Located on Fremont Street, the downtown Container Park is an open air shopping centre and entertainment venue constructed of repurposed shipping containers. Boutiques, food vendors, a performance stage and a children’s playground, cater to the whole family.

The Neon Museum – image courtesy of Neon Museum

THE BEST OF THE BEST

When it comes to entertainment, Las Vegas is the recreation hub. Canada’s own Cirque du Soleil evokes powerful images, along with exceptional ability and talent at tailored performances. You can choose from a handful of themed Cirque shows performed at various venues. MJ ONE is an electrifying tribute to the king of pop, and The Beatles LOVE celebrates a musical legacy.

From Elton John to Celine Dion, from comedy to magic, and from night clubs to jazz bars, there are few places in the world that offer so much – all in one place. Las Vegas is the epicentre of all things outstanding – talent, food, hospitality and luxury.

Las Vegas Springs Preserve – image courtesy Las Vegas Springs Preserve

 

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Decor Expert: Suitcase Splurges

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Decor Expert: Suitcase Splurges

Souvenir shopping & packing tips during your summer travels

By: Kimberley Seldon

For many of us, marvelling at and sampling local crafts, furnishings, and foods is a major part of the whole travel experience. If you’re like me, you’ll agree that nothing compares with the satisfaction of buying at the source. Here are some of my favourite suitcase splurges—those little gems that pack easily and forever remind you of a favourite destination.

  1. ORIGINAL ARTWORK should be at the top of every traveller’s shopping list. Unframed works of art such as oil paintings and photographs are nearly indestructible, fit easily into suitcases, and carry fond memories for years to come. You may want to sign and date the back of the artwork; noting the trip’s purpose (a honeymoon, retirement, big birthday) and details about the purchase. This way you’ll maintain an accurate record of your experience that future generations will enjoy.
  2. POTTERY AND PORCELAIN are worthy (though fragile) take-home choices. French Barbotine, Spanish Majolica, and Japanese Aritaware (or Imari) can be called into practical service once home, or simply enjoyed on display. Wrap the more delicate pieces as carry-on items for travelling home.
  3. ANTIQUE BOXES made of wood with inlaid marquetry or fashioned from exotic materials, such as tortoiseshell or shagreen (shark’s skin), are widely available and easy to transport. Larger antique boxes were a precursor to the laptop; allowing travellers to keep stationery, ink, and quills close at hand when far from home. Today’s collectors look for boxes that once held toiletries, stationery or tea.
  4. SERVING TRAYS lay flat amid folded clothing and are always welcome gifts back home. Regional examples might be made of tole (painted metal), acrylic, wood, pewter, or silver, depending on locale. Consider a trip to the local grocery store where you may find good-looking trays at a fraction of the price of gift shops.
  5. VINTAGE TEXTILES and local fabrics are easily found at antique shops, markets and local shops. Once home, remnants may be framed or used to create decorative pillows.
  6. DISHTOWELS AND BEDDING fashioned of linen, cotton, or hemp are also readily available and easy to transport. Vintage examples often feature embroidered details or monograms and work beautifully as guest towels. When purchasing bedding, consider that European beds are typically smaller than North American equivalents. Consider adding a hem or cuff to the perimeter of vintage bedding, in order to increase its overall size.
  7. LOCAL DELICACIES such as jam, pâté, cookies, and tapenade can be savoured for weeks following a trip. I search for beautiful sugars wrapped in unusual packaging, infused with lavender, or decorated with fanciful details to give away as hostess gifts once I’m home.
  8. CHANDELIERS, SCONCES, AND LANTERNS from Europe, Africa and Asia can easily be re-wired to meet North American safety standards or converted to candle use. A large 10-light chandelier may set you back about $300 to re-wire; a pair of sconces, somewhere around $40 to $50.

Happy travels.

Photography By: Simon Burn

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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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The best countries for stretching the Canadian dollar

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The best countries for stretching the Canadian dollar

Going on vacation doesn’t have to be expensive; here are four countries where your Canadian dollar will go the distance.

There’s a misconception that travelling is expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. With the right amount of planning and preparation, you can easily visit new destinations every year. The key to success is finding a spot that fits your budget.

There are many countries and exotic locations where the Canadian dollar won’t go as far as you would like so doing your research before booking a flight is important. Looking for ideas? We’ve rounded up some amazing countries that will stretch your dollar as far as possible.

Indonesia

Between the unbelievable beaches, the luxurious resorts and friendly people, Indonesia is a great spot for your next vacation. The flights will be on the pricier side but once you get there the cost of living is much lower than many other countries, which means your money will go farther. Ubud, Seminyak, Canguu and Kuta are the most popular cities for tourists.

An inexpensive meal in Indonesia is roughly $3 a person. You could even get away with spending $20 a day if you budget properly.

Hungary

Looking to travel to Europe but don’t want the price tag? Eastern European countries are very affordable for Canadian travellers. Known as the Paris of the East, Budapest is home to some of Europe’s most spectacular architecture. This popular city is best known for its thermal baths and nightlife but the skylines and culinary wonders are definitely underrated.

An inexpensive meal averages about $8 per person. When planning your budget, look to put aside between $20 to $45 per day.

Belize

This small country is quickly gaining popularity with Canadians, especially after WestJet introduced direct flights. Belize is a popular spot for divers and snorkelers because of the many different species of marine life. You may also be familiar with the well-known wonder, the Great Blue Hole. Whether you are looking for a relaxing vacation or one filled with adventure, you will find it in Belize.

An inexpensive meal in Belize will set you back roughly $4.75 per person. It can be easy enough to get away with spending $60 to $70 per day during your stay.

Portugal

If you’re looking to combine beautiful beaches with stunning architecture, than Portugal is a must on your travel list. There are direct flights to Lisbon from Toronto almost year-round, making it an easy destination to get to. Spend a couple of days exploring the history of Lisbon before heading down the coast to the Algarve to enjoy the beaches.

An inexpensive meal in Portugal is roughly $13 in a restaurant. If you are willing to rough it a bit, tourists can get away with an $80 to $100 per day budget in Portugal.

Madisyn is a freelance writer and social media obsessed traveller based out of Toronto. Always looking for her next adventure but glued to her phone, you can contact her at madi@therestlessworker.com or visit her at www.therestlessworker.com

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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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Destination Ontario: The Natural Wonders of Collingwood

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Destination Ontario: The Natural Wonders of Collingwood

By Cece M. Scott www.cecescott.com

Incorporated as a town in 1858, Collingwood became a shipping hub for products that were destined for the upper Great Lakes ports of Chicago and Thunder Bay. For more than a century, shipbuilding was the town’s main industry. In 1986 the shipyards were closed, and the waterfront is now a revered leisure destination.

BRING IT ON

Located on the southern end of Georgian Bay, Collingwood is the gateway to the Blue Mountains, where skiing, snowboarding, shopping and fine dining off er the best that winter has to offer.

Blue Mountain is Ontario’s largest village resort, just 90 minutes north of Toronto and 11 kilometres west of Collingwood. There are 43 ski and snowboard trails, 365 skiable acres and a vertical drop of 720 feet. At the base of the mountain, The Village features more than 45 distinctive restaurants, bars and retail shops. Along with the popular Scandinave Spa, visitors can also enjoy the village’s two onsite spas.

Off -hill winter activities include tennis, the aquatic centre, snowshoeing, and new for 2018 – the Woodview Mountaintop Skating Trail at the top of Blue.

With the growing popularity of Winter Fat Biking, mountain bikers can now spin their wheels all year long. Fat bikes use tires that are inflated with less air pressure, which make navigating through snowy terrain a fun way to improve balance and strengthen winter legs.

WHET YOUR WHISTLE

The nine-day Whiskylicious festival, running from February 1st to the 10th, is a whiskey-infused celebration of local food. The outdoor ice bars and culinary pairings are inspired by Collingwood Whiskey – a toasted, Maplewood-finished Canadian blend. Located in the downtown core, the festival is a showcase of signature chef dishes, music, arts and brewers.

This year, the Apple Pie Trail FEEST is on Friday, February 9th, and is sponsored by Red Prince Apple to benefit the Blue Mountain Village Foundation. This magical evening features local food, cider, wine and music, along with moonlit trails with stops at fire-lit cabins. The five-kilometre guided trek takes participants across southern Ontario’s longest suspension footbridge, and through the trails of Scenic Caves Nordic Centre.

SUMMER THRILLS

The distinctive shoreline and blue waters of Georgian Bay, mixed with the area’s rich marine history, are natural highlights for all types of boaters.

The Ridge Runner Mountain Coaster (Ontario’s first) is a one kilometre ride through the Niagara Escarpment’s diverse terrain. Drivers can reach an exhilarating 42 kilometres per hour.

Popular golf courses in the area include the 18-hole, par 71 Duntroon Highlands Golf Club, which offers spectacular vistas of Collingwood, Stayner and Blue, as well as the Blue Mountain Golf & Country Club, The Georgian Bay Club and Batteaux Creek Golf Club.

STROLLIN’ ALONG

With 60 kilometres of four-season, well-marked, multi-use trails, touring around Collingwood is perpetually pleasurable. The downtown core is jam-packed with trendy clothing stores, spas, galleries, fine dining, artisan cafes, live music venues, pubs and bars, in addition to dozens of art galleries and studios. Colourful panels and murals are creative reminders of Collingwood’s historical past, spanning more than two centuries.

Visitors and residents are passionate about the The Good Food Stroll – a walking or biking tour that showcases Collingwood’s love affair with food. Much is sourced from local farmers, and includes restaurant pit stops, cafes, specialty food outlets, food markets, cafes and sweet shops.

THE SPIRITS OF COLLINGWOOD

The soil and unique climate associated with this region are key elements in the making of the distinctive wine at Georgian Hills Vineyards. During the winter, visitors can snowshoe through the vineyards and enjoy artisanal cheeses and a glass of wine after their trek.

Collingwood’s craft breweries, include Northwinds Brewhouse & Kitchen, The Collingwood Brewery and Side Launch Brewing Company Inc. (named for the town’s shipbuilding industry).

Meaford is the heart of Ontario’s apple country. Stayner and Thornbury, a short drive from Collingwood, offer eclectic variations of the small town experience, and numerous pick-your own farms en-route.

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