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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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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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A night to remember

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A night to remember

By Marc Atchison
TraveLife Editor-in-Chief

ZÜRICH — Out of the shadows of a darkened Old Town street walks a man wearing a black cape and tricorne. His face is gaunt, his skin a ghostly white. In one hand he carries a lamp. In the other, a long staff with a spear and axe affixed at the top. For a moment, his menacing appearance freezes me in my tracks. I look for an escape route.

“Hello,” shouts out the bearded man, “I am Martin, the night watchman. Are you the one I will be escorting tonight?”

Martin is one of two remaining night watchmen tour guides who educate visitors to his once time-honoured craft during night time walks of the historic Old Town. “There use to be 12 night watchmen in Zürich, but now there’s only two left,” says Martin, who tells me his lance is patterned after the one used by the Swiss Guards at the Vatican.

Martin is one of Zürich’s best ambassadors and his tours of the fascinating Old Town are sprinkled with lots of historical facts and some light-hearted humour.

As we make our way down a narrow cobblestone street next to the lovely Widder Hotel —made up of nine historic Old Town homes — Martin tells me night watchmen did far more than just light street lamps back before electricity was introduced to the city. “Zürich was a walled city in its earliest days and the gates would be closed and locked nightly at 9:30 sharp by the night watchman. God help you if you were locked out, because danger always lurked outside the gates.

“After the gates closed, the night watchman would patrol the streets looking out for crime and especially fires. Zürich once had seven gates and that’s why they needed so many night watchmen,” Martin smiles.

He tells me there were once 5,600 gas lanterns in Zürich and an army of men (“about 60”) worked alongside the night watchmen to help light the lamps each night.

“Electricity ended their jobs when the lamps were converted in 1890 and I remember it like it was yesterday,” says Martin, who always tries to stay in character.

Martin has become somewhat of a celebrity — Chinese tourists run up to him and take selfies during our walk — and says he enjoys meeting people from other countries. “Zürich has a great story to tell and I’m glad I’m the one telling it,” the night watchman says as we reach a lovely square dominated by St. Peter Church, one of four major churches in the Old Town. Grossmünster, Fraumünster and Predigerkirche are the others.

The impressive church, which was consecrated in 1706, is built on the former site of a Greek temple, which was later used by the Romans to build a castle.

Martin draws my attention to the clock tower and proudly tells me “the face of our clock is the widest in Europe — even bigger than London’s Big Ben.”

Martin says the clock tower is where one of the city’s night watchmen was stationed all the time “because he had a great view of the entire city and could spot a fire very quickly.”

As we make your way to the River Limmat, which cuts through the heart of Zürich, we’re entertained by a symphony of church bells.

“They ring every night at 7 p.m. and it is music to my ears,” says the charming man of a tradition that dates back centuries and is carried out each evening in most Swiss towns and villages.

When we reach the banks of the Limmat, a full moon dances on the calm waters and casts the Old Town in a mystical light. Lights twinkle on the opposite shore and lovers embrace on the benches that line the embankment.

Martin casts a pall on the romantic setting, though, when he tells me “this spot we are standing at is where a lot of lives were lost.

“Zürich, you see, was not always a nice city. In medieval times, people who were believed to be witches were thrown into the river from this spot.”

Oh, the story gets worse.

“When they tried to climb out of the river, men with long poles would push them under the water until they drowned.

“Also during those times, liars would have their tongues nailed to a board and thieves would have their fingers cut off,” a grim-faced Martin relates.

Zürich is far more welcoming now.

As we walk along the river’s edge, I notice a large number of fountains.

“The people of Zürich love their drinking fountains. In fact, there’s 1,227 scattered about the Old Town,” he says.

Along the river is also gathered some attractive medieval homes, which Martin says have become much sought-after addresses with the city’s well-to-do.

“Ironically,” Martin says, “these homes were built in the 14th century to house the poor and today they house some of the richest people in Zürich”

Many other European cities also boast night watchmen and Martin says he’s a proud member of the European Guild of Night Watchmen.

“The guild has 180 members from countries like England, Germany, France and Switzerland. We meet every year for a three-day conference and I especially like the guild meetings held in Scandinavian countries because they involve a lot of beer,” he laughs.

As we return to the Widder Hotel at the end of the tour, Martin leaves me with one last night watchman story:

“Night watchmen did not get paid much money for their work and were usually very poor,” he starts. “There’s a famous story of the kind people of ancient Zürich taking pity on one old toothless watchman. They contributed money so he could have dentures made.

“However, one night after the watchman was fitted for his new teeth, a lady noticed he was still walking around toothless. When he was asked why he was not wearing his new dentures, the night watchman replied, “Because the dentist told me to take them out and soak them in water overnight.’

“Guess you could say that story has no teeth,” Martin laughs as he disappears again into the darkness of night.

Information

The best way to get around Switzerland is by train. The Swiss Travel System offers many different train packages and has recently launched a new website — www.mystsnet.com/en/news/lancierung-mystsnetcom/ — where you can see all options.

Air Canada offers direct flights to Zürich from Toronto and Swiss International Air Lines — www.swiss.com — runs daily service to Zürich from Montreal.

Swiss Deluxe Hotels is a group representing 41 of Switzerland’s best hotels, including Zürich’s Widder Hotel, and offers unique experiences in some of the most visited places in Switzerland.

For information, go to www.swissdeluxehotels.com/en

For information on Switzerland and its many wonders, go to www.MySwitzerland.com.

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Taking A Gamble In Las Vegas

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Taking A Gamble In Las Vegas

By Marc Atchison
Travelife Editor In Chief

Skeptics think the National Hockey League rolled the dice and took a big gamble by putting a franchise — the Golden Knights — in this town where betting was the only contact sport in the past. Locals, however, disagree. In fact, many say the NHL’s success in Las Vegas is a sure bet.

“I can’t wait for the NHL games to begin,” says Darren, a security guard at the T-Mobile Arena where the Golden Knights will play their home games.

“We’re all so excited about the NHL coming. Even people from other cities are excited. I had four couples from Canada come up to me today and tell me they’ll plan their next visit to Vegas when their NHL teams come to town to play the Knights.”

Another security guard I meet stationed at an open-air ice-skating rink in front of T-Mobile Arena agrees with Darren. “I’m originally from Chicago and can’t wait until the Black Hawks come to town,” says the man, adding that “over 14,000 people have committed to buying season tickets. That shows you how serious the people of Vegas are about the NHL.”

Even though the Golden Knights are expected to field a competitive team thanks to a more equal expansion draft — that’s what you get when you pay $500 million U.S. in franchise fees — the Knights still won’t do very well in their first few years of operation. Get ready for lots of “Last Vegas” headlines!

Suffice it to say, the only star of this franchise for the moment is the T-Mobile Arena. In fact, the glitzy state-of-the-art facility, located just a few steps off Las Vegas’ iconic Strip, is already the “Most Valuable Arena” in the NHL.

Built by MGM Resorts International, which owns and operates 45 per cent of the hotels and casinos along the Vegas Strip, the 650,000-square-foot, $500 million T-Mobile Arena is the most technically advanced in the world and, since opening in April 2016, has become one of the most lucrative.

In the first few months of operation, for instance, the fabulous T-Mobile, which can seat 17,500 for hockey and 20,000 for concerts, turned over the highest revenue for a venue of its type in the world.

While MGM has no financial stake in the hockey team, the company has invested heavily in developing an area surrounding the arena known as The Park. A spillover casino parking lot was used to create the lovely six-acre Park, which separates T-Mobile Arena from a 5,000-seat limited-engagement theatre — The Park Theatre — and a plaza featuring five upscale restaurants.

Known as “The Neighbourhood” by some locals, The Park has become a great place for people living in Vegas to chill out.

While primarily built for hockey and basketball, T-Mobile will also be used for large concerts and big shows like Cirque du Soleil.

One thing for sure, there will be no gambling in T-Mobile, according to officials. However, there will be many other attractions to keep fans entertained.

For instance, do you know of any other arena in the world that has it’s own mixologist? Well, T-Mobile does. And not just any mixologist. T-Mobile adult beverages will be designed by Tony Abou-Ganim, Mandalay Bay’s top mixologist who’s gained global fame for his creative cocktails.

Tony designed one special cocktail for T-Mobile Arena that he’s called Atomic Fizz. The colour? Magenta, just like T-Mobile’s corporate logo. You can bet this drink will be served over ice.

Locals seemed most thrilled that T-Mobile will also be the first arena in North America with a Shake Shack, the New York City burger bar that is one of the most talked about chains in the fast-food world.

While T-Mobile features 44 luxury and party suites and eight ice-level party suites, the most coveted seats will be the ones located high above ice level in an area known as Hyde Park, which will be open before and after games. However, if you want to sit there, you’ll have to purchase a ticket, pending the event. The upper bowl club-style lounge can hold up to 800 people — mostly high rollers and celebrities.

There will never be a dull moment during Knights’ game — that’s because fans will be treated to lots of Vegas-style bling thanks to the arena’s state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems. There are giant LED screens inside and outside T-Mobile and there’s lots of light shows being planned, as well.

With so many showgirls in Las Vegas, you can bet the Knights will have the best cheerleaders in the NHL. The Knights better hope they keep visiting teams distracted. Because T-Mobile is sandwiched between New York, New York and Aria, two of the biggest casino hotels on the Strip, one might think that the hockey team is counting heavily on visitors to buy tickets. Think again.

“The arena will be a place for locals to get away from their casino jobs and escape to the normal world of sports,” says Rupert King, a Vermont transplant and manager of the Beerhaus, one of the five restaurants in The Park.

“And besides, things have really changed in Las Vegas over the past five years,” says King.

The manager is right. According to data released by the casinos, gambling now accounts for just 30 per cent of Vegas’ revenues — down from 70 per cent five years ago.

“Trends have completely flipped and now 70 per cent of visitors to Vegas come for experiences like fine dining, shows or shopping while just 30 per cent come to gamble. Now they can add hockey to their Vegas experience,” he says.

Toshiba Plaza, just outside T-Mobile, is where hockey fans will gather for tailgate-type parties before and after games. There will be food trucks to feed them and lots of entertainment on the big (LED) screen to keep them happy.

The centrepiece of The Park is a massive 15-metre-high sculpture known as Bliss Dance, which celebrates the strength of women. Over 200 natural trees were also planted in The Park, making it a true desert oasis.

“As soon as the Knights were named, I featured their logo on all the TVs in our restaurant,” says King, who, despite being from the Northeast, admits he’s not a big hockey fan. “But I’m really anxious for the Golden Knights to start playing because Las Vegas is overdue for a professional sports franchise.”

Maybe, despite all the skeptics, the NHL really has hit the jackpot by coming to Las Vegas.

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Rocky Mountaineer is a rolling palace

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Rocky Mountaineer is a rolling palace

VANCOUVER—Coach No. 5 is abuzz with excitement. The occupants have spotted a bald eagle soaring majestically above the bi-level car’s glass dome ceiling and cameras are clicking at a rapid pace. The graceful creature with the piercing eyes and trademark white head and tail seems to be enjoying all the attention and follows our Rocky Mountaineer train until suddenly, and without warning, it drops from the sky like a missile and plucks a large fish out of an emerald green lake with its lethal talons.

Applause fills Coach No. 5 as the Rocky Mountaineer guests salute the bald eagle’s hunting skills. “Merveilleux,” acclaims the man from France.

“Fabelhaft,” adds the excited German.

“Maravilloso,” an Argentinian grandma chimes in.

“Good onya,” shouts the Australian.

We’re just a few hours into our two-day, 957-kilometre rail journey from Vancouver to Banff aboard the luxurious Rocky Mountaineer and already the 475 passengers appear to be pleased with their investment in this outstanding Canadian product — think luxury cruise line like Silversea or Crystal on rails. “Oh, and the best is yet to come,” Chan, one of the attentive hosts assigned to Coach No. 5 whispers in my ear.

For the next two days I sit back in the plush surroundings of Coach No. 5, indulge in the 5-Star service offered by Rocky Mountaineer and its exceptional staff and overdose on the eye candy passing outside my window.

As the sleek blue train slowly cuts through the awe-inspiring B.C. bush, I get uninterrupted views of glacial rivers and turquoise lakes, jagged mountains that punch through clouds and seem to touch the sky, pristine pastures where deer and elk run free, rain forests populated with pencil-straight trees, and some surprising desert landscape near Kamloops that looks out of place in these northern climes.

When the train rumbles through small communities, residents drop what they’re doing, rush to the tracks and wave at the strangers passing by on the rolling palace. This prompts a chorus of “Canadians are so nice” comments from the foreigners onboard.

“The people of these small towns are great ambassadors for our country and our train,” says Chan as he offers me an adult beverage and some snacks — expect to exit the train a few pounds heavier thanks to the endless complimentary treats and gourmet meals prepared onboard.

Rocky Mountaineer offers a number of trips that introduces passengers to the natural wonders of B.C. and Alberta. We select the all-inclusive “First Passage to the West” excursion, which starts when we arrive in Vancouver and book into the Hotel Vancouver, Fairmont’s legendary property that Rocky Mountaineer uses to house guests the night before the train departs. The best part of the Rocky Mountaineer experience is that guests are housed overnight in hotels along the route so they don’t miss any of the breathtaking daytime scenery.

Naturally, there’s also different service levels offered — the GoldLeaf Service we sign up for is the most expensive but the most rewarding. GoldLeaf passengers travel in the bi-level cars and get uninterrupted views of their glorious surroundings thanks to the glass ceiling on the upper level. The GoldLeaf cars are also much quieter thanks to the upper deck viewing area. Complimentary meals are served in the lower level by qualified chefs like Coach No. 5’s Jody and Ron, who create dishes worthy of a high-end Parisian restaurant.

The GoldLeaf cars also come equipped with small elevators so physically challenged passengers can move from level to level with ease. After experiencing other high-end trains like the Belmond Orient Express, I can tell you Rocky Mountaineer is a much better overall product.

Shortly after pulling out of Rocky Mountaineer’s new station in downtown Vancouver — a man in a kilt pipes us aboard — we are served a glass of bubbly and asked to introduce ourselves to the people sitting across from us.

“Part of the Rocky Mountaineer experience is getting to know people from other countries,” David Aboud, the train manager, tells me. Unfortunately, Aboud says, “we don’t get enough Canadians and we’d like to change that.”

Chan then introduces his fellow hosts — Valerie, Michelle, Kate and Robyn, who are exclusive to passengers in Coach No. 5 — and as the skyline of Vancouver fades and the breathtaking Canadian wilderness comes into view, we are summoned to breakfast in the lower level.

Over fluffy blueberry pancakes and cinnamon French toast, we get to know Kate from England and Maggie from Ireland, our tablemates who appear fascinated by what’s passing by our window.

“This is my trip of a lifetime and so far it’s lived up to all my expectations,” says Maggie with a lovely lyrical Irish accent. “We certainly don’t get this glorious scenery in Ireland.”

For much of the first day the train cuts through the amazing Fraser Valley and all its natural splendours. When we reach a place called Hell’s Gate, the narrowest part of the Fraser River, Chan informs us 200 million gallons of water rushes through the canyon each minute. The occupants of Coach No. 5 rush to the right side of the car and press their noses up against the glass to get a better view of some kayakers challenging the foamy rapids.

As the train approaches historical landmarks or places of interest, Chan or Valerie explain their significance or importance. When the hosts warn of a possible bear or eagle sighting — they get a warning from the Rocky Mountaineer’s engineer of what’s up ahead — people grab their cameras and rush down the spiral staircase to the open-air viewing platform at the back of Coach No. 5.

“I’ve seen people spend most of the trip on that platform hoping to see some bears and taking pictures of the scenery,” says Valerie, who, like most of the attendants spend about seven months aboard the Rocky Mountaineer each year.

“Thanks to the people I’ve met from all over on this train, I intend to travel the world in this offseason because they’ve encouraged me to visit them,” says Valerie.

The train crosses rusty old iron bridges that have been standing since the early days of Confederation, past mountains with ski runs carved into them, through lands where First Nations people have lived for centuries and past places with some Wild West names — Skuzzy Creek, Jackass Mountain, Cisco Crossing, Rainbow Canyon, Avalanche Alley, Jaws of Death Gorge and Black Canyon Tunnel. Each has a story or a legend attached to them, which Chan and Valerie share with their attentive audience.

Every so often, the train slows to a stop and waits for a freight train to crawl by — the Rocky Mountaineer shares rail space with both CP and CN trains and must give way to the massive freight trains. Sometimes the wait can be quite long.

“Most freight trains on this line are very long; some three kilometres long, as a matter of fact,” says a wide-eyed Chan.

As the Rocky Mountaineer inches closer to Kamloops, where we overnight in some local hotels, the wilderness landscape suddenly changes — bleached mountains and a semi-arid desert environment replace the lush green we’ve been seeing for most of this journey.

“Welcome to the Canadian desert,” Valerie announces to the bewildered foreigners. “Bet none of you knew we had a desert that resembles Arizona, huh?”

“This country truly is fascinating,” says an American woman named Ruth sitting across from me.

The desert eco-zone that surrounds Kamloops makes this one of Canada’s most unique cities.

“Kamloops is a First Nation word meaning ‘meeting of two waters’ ” says Valerie, who adds, “this is where the North and South Thompson rivers become one.”

Chan and Valerie are up early to welcome us back the next morning to Coach No. 5 and soon the Rocky Mountaineer starts its steep, steady climb through the mighty Rockies in the direction of Banff, the Alberta wonderland that will be our final destination.

Shortly after breakfast, Valerie informs us that we’re about to pass Craigellachie, where, on Nov. 7, 1885, the Last Spike was driven into the ground, marking the completion of the trans-Canada railway (now CP Rail) and linking together all 10 provinces under Confederation. A burst of pride rushes through my veins as the train passes a small monument and museum, which stand as a reminder of this monumental task.

The scenery becomes more dramatic as we climb higher into the Rockies and Chan tells us to prepare for one of the most fascinating parts of our journey. “We’ll soon be entering the fantastic Spiral Tunnels,” he announces.

The Spiral Tunnels were constructed in 1909 to shorten the journey and eliminate a section of the rail line called Big Hill. The tunnels are nothing short of an engineering miracle and as the Rocky Mountaineer snakes its way through this section, we look back and are amazed to see the train’s last car entering the tunnel far below.

When we reach the Continental Divide and Lake Louise, Valerie tells us our journey is quickly coming to an end. “But we have one more surprise for you,” says the charming young woman.

Chefs, Jody and Ron suddenly appear holding trays of freshly baked cookies. “We want to thank you for coming and we hope you enjoyed your trip with us?” says Jody as the whole coach bursts into appreciative applause.

The Rocky Mountaineer journey exceeds all my expectations and certainly lives up to the company’s promise of providing me with a “life changing experience.” In fact, life doesn’t get much better than Rocky Mountaineer.

Information Trips offered by Rocky Mountaineer include: First Passage to the West; Journey Through the Clouds; Rainforest to Gold Rush; Coastal Passage.

For schedules and information, go to: www.rockymountaineer.com/en_CA_ON/

Marc Atchison

TraveLife Editor-in-Chief

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