Tag Archives: EUROPE

In Belgium: the Ever-alluring Town called Bruges

bruges
By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Andrew Hickey, a.k.a The Brooklyn Nomad, is into “Movies That Make You Want To Travel,” and he finds that In Bruges is one such movie. Along with the Matador site, where we found this, Hickey’s travel writing has been published by USA Today and The New York Times, among many others. Here, he unleashes his inner Siskel&Ebert, with an appreciation of a number of movies, based on their alluring backdrops. He names the feature films that made him want to visit Barcelona, Las Vegas, Tuscany, Provence, London, Dublin, Tokyo, and more. So anyway, back to Bruges. Hickey says:

If you can not have a good time in Belgium then something is seriously wrong with you. A place that is known for some of the best chocolate and beer on the planet? Perfect!

Ah yes, the chocolate. It’s said that one of the best places to find it is in the city’s famous Christmas Markets. The staff of Travelbite gives us the locations of Belgium’s four chocolate museums — one in Bruges, of course — along with some fascinating history. Examiner Susan Fogwell delineates the attractions of Belgian confections in what amounts to a lyrical piece of choco-porn. (You must be over 18 to view the page.) The author is a flight attendant and, naturally, a farflung traveler.

In The Third Tower Up From the Road, Kevin Dolgin calls this one of the most beautiful little cities in northern Europe, and recommends taking a carriage ride. We hear that the canal boat rides aren’t bad, either. Legend says a German general who was ordered to destroy Bruges in WWII refused to. Now there’s a war hero. Anyway, it’s one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites and, some say, a little too well supplied with tourists. Well, how would they know, unless they were tourists, too? Hmmmm?

Kevin’s memoir of Bruges is titled “Les frites de la liberté,” which means Freedom Fries, and that’s what it’s mainly about. In this neck of the woods, the claim to fame made by frites is that they are served with more condiments than you’ve ever heard of.

But wait, there’s more, and no, we’re not talking about beer, although the brews of Belgium are well worth talking about. A traveler known as Velo Swiss says, “Bruges is also known for a soothing tonic called Leffe, which did take the edge off a long day.”

Bonus question: On your desert island, if you could have only one Belgian treat, would it be chocolate, beer, or fried potatoes?

photo courtesy of by Wolfgang Staudt, used under this Creative Commons license

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Literary Travel: Venice, Italy, with Peter Ackroyd

veniceBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Peter Ackroyd is a fellow who recently experienced a dramatic change of focus: after writing many books about London, England, he now anticipates the publication of Venice: Pure City, by the venerable British firm Chatto & Windus. The tale of this book is told to us by Peter Popham, by way of The Independent. Popham is no shabby wordsmith himself. One of the things he tells us about Venice is:

A lot of the magic resides in the silence…to wake in the morning knowing you are in a crowded city, and not to hear a single cough or roar or growl of an internal combustion engine. That alone is the worth the price of the air ticket.

Also, much of the appeal of Venice seems to be in its refusal and/or inability to change. It’s one of the few places on earth where a 16th century time-traveler could wind up and still be able to navigate the streets. Paradoxically, another part of the attraction is the city’s ability to get you good and lost, which has been exploited by several novels and feature films. And in a third aspect of that permanence is the impermanence, the instability, the precariousness of the city’s footings when confronted by the sea. One of the reasons to go to Venice has always been the “last chance” factor, the possibility that next time, it won’t be there.

And, to add a fourth layer of ambiguity, Ackroyd explains in his book how Venice was once as much a token of the shining future as any World’s Fair full of monorails and robot houses. Popham, in his review, says that during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Venice was “an avant-garde place which was demonstrating, boldly and with stunning success, entirely new ways of getting rich and flaunting and enjoying the wealth created.” Kind of like the dot.com era.

In a bonanza for the literary travel aficionado, this article lists several writers and artists in other fields who have been inspired by Venice, and exactly what they did about it: Shakespeare, Sir Elton John, Robert Browning, Henry James, John Ruskin, Nicholas Roeg, and of course the notorious Lord Byron. Apparently, Venice recalls its vanquishment by Napoleon in 1797, like the American South remembers the War Between the States. Ackroyd points out that there was a time when a third of its population existed on charity. This was the scene the Romantic poets descended upon, proceeding to romanticize the ruin of a formerly great principality.

The decades rolled on and Venice became a cultural center again, with all its film festivals and Biennales. It’s always been a capital of commercialism, which tourists are quite acclimated to. Reportedly, around 16 million visitors throng to Venice each year. For various reasons. On August 28, counterculture icons and artistic collaborators Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens celebrated their Blue Wedding in Venice. Not their first wedding, but their fifth. There’s a whole high-concept performance art thing going on here, which is worth looking into. Details and great pictures come from Greg Archer (who writes about film, TV, and the arts in general, as well as ecological matters) at HuffPost.

Yes, there’s always the romance of Venice. In The Third Tower Up From the Road, Kevin Dolgin relates the story of his first visit — long before meeting his wife, it should be noted.

We spent our days walking through the tiny streets, pausing on the bridges, chasing the pigeons, and we spent our evenings riding the vaporetti, strolling through the piazze, eating sparingly in sidewalk cafés and making love in the large soft bed.

Irresistible! As long as there are canals, hotels, and cafés, Venice will never go out of business.

photo courtesy of Chiara Marra, used under this Creative Commons license

Provence, France: Literary Tourism and More

RoussillonBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Susan Spano, staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, sees Provence through the lens of a reader. She was attracted by the writings of Peter Mayle, who has published no fewer than four books featuring the district, only to have a fan of show up in his living room. And then there’s a book called Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes, which which brings throngs of devoted readers to the area of the Luberon Mountains.

Spano, however, is not content to stick with trekking off to see the sights described in any of these books. With us peeking over her shoulder, she visits the town of Apt, where the market day is a famous attraction:

The Apt market, stretching along pedestrian-only streets…draws tourists and locals alike for its dazzling array of regional merchandise — handmade lavender soap, lotion and sachets, olives and olive oil, wine, artisanal honey and liqueurs, cheese, herbs, flowers, candied fruit, pottery, baskets and fabrics in all the bright, beautiful patterns of Provence.

Every one of those items is practically mandatory baggage for the home-bound visitor, especially the lavender products, because this is lavender world headquarters. And a serious market-goer has to know the ropes: Show up early, like 8:00, because first of all you want to be able to park.

Spano also explored the a mountain village called Sivergues, which she describes as “sort of Provençal ghost town” situated near the scenic Aiguebrun River. In fact, there appears not to be an inch of Provence that isn’t scenic. Art tourism vies with literary tourism as the big draw, especially since the recent opening of the house of Jane Eakin, a painter who inhabited Ménerbes for about forty years. Know who else used to live in this town? Dora Maar, one of Picasso’s muses.

Travel Examiner Mickey Sewell has also written extensively about Provence, adding an interesting detail about the area called the Luberon. No new buildings are permitted, so if you want to live there, you’d better have a relative who owns a house and who is anxious to remember you in their will. Sewell claims Texas as her other area of geographical expertise, and also is a proficient technical writer who grew up in many different parts of the world.

In La Belle France, she also covers the territory immortalized by painter Vincent Van Gogh, and the village of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, where Gypsies from around the world gather each spring to celebrate Sara the Black, patron saint of the Romany folk. Another town in Provence, Cassis, is where Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and Roger Fry tended to hang out. And that’s only scratching the surface of the treasures Provence has to offer. And now, wouldn’t you know it? Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have invaded Provence and bought a 35-bedroom chateau with a 1000-acre back yard.

It goes without saying that this incomparable section of France is a favorite of a certain travel writer whose name is at the top of this page. Kevin Dolgin sings the praises of Provence like nobody else, in The Third Tower Up From the Road. We won’t give away too much, but he does say:

All of these things are wonderful and you should go to Provence and stay a long time and read about them, then check them out and then decide to stay even longer…

So, there you have it: Provence, France – be there or be square!

photo courtesy of jacdesalpes , used under this Creative Commons license

To Calcata, Italy, in Search of a Holy Relic

calcata
By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

When does a trip become a quest? When the traveler is in search of a specific object or goal. In the case of David Farley, the goal has caused some raised eyebrows. Mike Barish, a New York freelancer who is fond of sports and whiskey, and also a TravelTalk blogger at Gadling, looks into the peculiar mission of this travel writer who has just published a book called An Irreverent Curiosity. Barish says Farley has written:

a truly enjoyable, educational and funny chronicle of his time in Calcata, Italy searching for Jesus’ foreskin…Along the way, he met a wide array of locals, each quirkier than the last. He deceived priests at the Vatican, befriended a woman who talks to birds and managed to put a tiny village back on the map.

Farley had visited the little Italian village of Calcata before, when he and his wife lived in Rome, and found a rather weird place populated by even weirder people — in the best possible way, of course — artists, mystics, actors, and other kinds of bohemians. What brought him back? Farley has written travel articles for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and quite a few other publications, and his essays have appeared in several anthologies published by Travelers’ Tales, so it’s not unusual that he should go to Italy. But what motivated this unusual mission?

We checked out David Farley’s own site, the better to, so to speak, flesh out the story. The holy relic was once in the keeping of the legendary emperor Charlemagne, but at some point in history was stolen by a soldier and somehow ended up in Calcata. Apparently, like any holy relic worthy of the name, it was responsible for a certain number of miracles, and people began making pilgrimages to the mountain town. Then, in 1983, the object was stolen. And to find out what happened after that… we would have to read the book, wouldn’t we?

Speaking of Rome, it will surprise no one to learn that Kevin Dolgin has been there, and written about it in The Third Tower Up From the Road. He has some rather unusual theories which are aired in “The Nesting Habits of Roman Cars.” The question is, has Kevin discovered a whole new field ripe for scientific inquiry? Or is all this speculation the result of too much vino? It’s up to the reader to decide.

photo courtesy of kdrack , used under this Creative Commons license

Brussels Celebrities: Boxer Shorts and Peeing Boy

mannekin pisBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Brussels, says Rick Steves in the pages of The Seattle Times, is one of the great travel secrets of Europe. He goes on to illustrate why, with such examples as:

Belgian fries (“frites”) taste so good because they’re deep-fried twice – once to cook, and once to brown. The locals dunk them in mayonnaise, especially delicious if the mayo is flavored with garlic. My favorite budget meal in Brussels is having simple pub grub in an atmospheric old pub with a gaggle of “beer pilgrims,” who’ve flocked here from around the world…

Which is all very nice, but what made our ears prick up was a mention of the stone mascot of Brussels, the Mannekin Pis statue, located near the Town Hall. Steves informs us that its extensive wardrobe comes from all over the world, as various cities send costumes as gifts, which are displayed in the City Museum. How do they get the right measurements? But that’s neither here nor there.

The astute reader has noticed that certain themes run through the work of Kevin Dolgin and thus, through this column. Statues are one of those themes, and he has written about this archetypal piece of functional sculpture. In The Third Tower Up From the Road, he advises:

Plan on spending a good 12 minutes at the statue of Manneken Pis, a minuscule bronze of a small boy peeing into a fountain … if you’re lucky he’ll be dressed up as anything from a medieval pikeman to Elvis Presley. The residents of Brussels get their kicks as best they can.

When they’re not dressing the thing up in goofy costumes, they’re stealing it. Over the centuries, seven Mannekin Pis thefts have stained the city’s honor. Like any urban hero worthy of the name, the peeing boy is the subject of much folklore. It seems there once was an aristocratic toddler, protected from battle by soldiers who stashed him in a tree, from which he peed on the enemy troops. Or, not from a tree, peed on the fuse of the dynamite planted by the enemy at the city wall. Or merely got lost, and everybody in town helped look for the kid, and he was found doing you-know-what, and his rich dad commissioned the statue in honor of the boy’s safe return. Please, feel free to make up your own Mannekin Pis legend and send it to us.

The locals really get into the spirit of things, with ceremonies where beer is pumped through you-know-where and handed out to passers-by (there’s a joke in there somewhere) to the accompaniment of live brass band music. This is definitely worth the trip. You might think that one Mannekin Pis would be enough, but no, the darn things are all over the place. Several other Belgian towns have their own, and in one of them he’s known as Il Gamin Quipiche. In France, they call him Le Petit Julien. The town of Tokushima, Japan, has a peeing boy statue that was presented to it by the thoughtful folks at the Belgian embassy. Even Rio de Janeiro has one. And that’s not even counting the millions of Mannekin Pis lawn ornaments all over the globe, perhaps even more numerous than garden trolls.

While Kevin implies that the peeing boy is one of only three tourist attractions in Brussels, this is clearly an underestimation. The city boasts many fine cultural destinations, including the Celebrity Underwear Museum, as we learn from SpiegelOnline, in an article that must be read to be believed. The museum was founded by a manic and rather infamous artist named Jan Bucquoy. Apparently the collection’s piece de resistance is… a pair of boxer shorts once worn by a finance minister. Like Kevin says, “The residents of Brussels get their kicks as best they can.”

photo courtesy of fiona bradley, used under this Creative Commons license

Venice Earns Dubious Distinction

pigeons 2By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Today we consider some of the cootie capitals of the world with Stephanie Chen, a writer/producer at CNN who specializes in writing about business, crime, and travel — not surprising, since she formerly worked for The Wall Street Journal and The Miami Herald. More recently, Chen took on the task of following up on a press release which announced the results of their poll concerning the most un-hygienic tourist spots around the globe. Chen concludes:

Though it is unlikely to get sick from visiting one of these places, health experts say germs are always a gamble. The more people who touch and visit a spot, the more germs there are in the mix, they say. Their traveling advice? Travelers should load up on hand sanitizers and wash their hands often on their trips.

Also, they should wash their mouths out with soap, if they’ve kissed the famous Blarney Stone of Ireland. Legend or no legend, smooching this rock seems like a risky venture, but 400,000 people a year do it anyway, Chen reports. While hanging upside down, incidentally. Less strenuous for the participating visitor is the Wall of Gum in Seattle, site of an accumulation of used chewing gum that has reached science-fictional proportions. The layer of pre-masticated gum is, we are told, several inches thick. Chen’s online article includes a link to some video footage which includes close-ups of various sections of this wall, which look like abstract art if you don’t think about it too hard.

Another germy lip-magnet is the tomb of infamous writer Oscar Wilde, who currently resides in the Père Lachaise Cemetery of Paris. The stone edifice is kissed by many, many people who should know better. A friend from New Jersey told me once of a custom observed in the neighborhood where he grew up. If you dropped a cookie or an apple or any other foodstuff on the ground, the correct procedure was to pick it up and “kiss it to God,” after which it would be safe to eat. Apparently some kind of related superstition operates in the minds of these pilgrims.

The immediate environment of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, CA is also under indictment for harboring a multitude of germs, since tourists are fond of pressing their hands into the handprints of famous stars. Which are on the ground. But hey, the forecourt of the theater is mopped every day by the staff.

pigeons3Then there’s the Piazza San Marco, in Venice, Italy, where you can get up close and personal with more pigeons than you ever imagined possible. The “living room of Europe” is visited by 2 million people in the average year, and by thousands of pigeons who don’t wear diapers, if you take my meaning. The Piazza also contains lots of outdoor cafes, where the conjunction of food and salmonella bacteria makes some travelers more than a little nervous. A single pigeon produces approximately 26 pounds of you-know-what every year, which is not only bad for people, but corrosive to the historical monuments that also populate the enormous square. The city has taken measures, like banning the vendors who sell pigeon-feed grain to tourists, and forbidding the locals to throw rice at the bride and groom after weddings.

Elisabeth Rosenthal reports in The New York Times that pigeons are not the only problem in Italy’s ancient municipality. The Italians are the world’s leading drinkers of bottled water, and most of them leave their empty containers in the trash cans of the Piazza San Marco. Rosenthal explains that, because of the roadless nature of the Venetian urban area, trash is collected by men in wheelbarrows, at a cost of “$335 per ton compared with $84 per ton on the mainland.” Local officialdom has recently undertaken a public relations crusade to convince people to drink tap water, which originates from the same wells as one of the most popular brands of bottled water, and the city offers plenty of public water spouts where the traveler can refill an emptied bottle of designer water, and make it last all day.

Now, if only the pigeons could be trained to carry empty plastic bottles to the landfill…

feeding pigeons photo courtesy of j.reed , used under this Creative Commons license; sign photo courtesy of Mike_fleming , used under this Creative Commons license

Literary Tourism: Moscow and Beyond

reading
By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Vit Wagner engages in the purest kind of literary tourism. He travels to another place and, while there, reads a novel set in that place. His essay in The Star, “Journalist’s novel way of exploring the literary landscape,” goes into more detail:

If memory serves, reading The Sun Also Rises in Spain was pretty much the entire purpose of the trip – never mind that I had already devoured the Hemingway masterpiece at least three previous times. As luck would have it, the same adventure later took me to Paris where – since an important part of the novel is also set there – I read it again. Bonus!

In Havana, Cuba, Wagner stayed at the Hotel Sevilla, a place where both Graham Green and his fictional Our Man in Havana character used to hang out. He interviews a fellow named Ben Walsh, of Nicholas Hoare Books, which is in Toronto, Canada. Here’s the thing: the store hosts a book club of a very special type. For six months, the people read books about, for instance, India. Then, they go together on a trip to India.

The theory, and we’re quoting Ben Walsh here, is that literary preparation equips a person with “tools and skills” for a richer travel experience. The mental background “enhances acclimation.” He gives the example of Moscow, where literary tourists will look for a certain narrow alley that hides the entrance to a brothel. This is because they have read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, described here as a “devilishly sly satire” of Stalinist Russia. One of Walsh’s friends told him the novel is “a key that opens doors to so many conversations in Russia. People are excited that you’ve read books that they value so highly.” Kind of like how, in the Sixties, counterculture people bonded over their shared appreciation of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, or Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

The Master and Margarita, incidentally, is a work taken very seriously by a lot of very serious people. Aside from being funny, that is. It just might leap to the top of your must-read list, if it hasn’t already. We don’t have space here to explain why, but check out Jan Vanhellemont’s captivating multimedia website about it.

Naturally, we consulted the pages of The Third Tower Up From the Road, by our favorite travel oracle, Kevin Dolgin. He’s been to Moscow, too, and describes such spots as Manezh Square, where young folks like to congregate. “Between the trees are expanses of grass, upon which sit or lie couples in various stages of relationship-building, ranging from stilted conversation to sucking on each other’s tongues.” This is the in-depth, quality reportage for which we have come to count on him. He also takes us to New Arbat Street, which continues to be the same kind of “in crowd” part of town as it was in the Soviet days.

Which brings up another novel… Children of the Arbat, by Anatoli Rybakov. That would be a terrific one to read before going to Russia, or while there, or any time at all, actually.

But why should we have all the fun, matching up novels with destinations? This conjunction of fiction and actual travel interests us so much, we’d like to hear of some more examples. So please share your literary tourism memories…or fantasies.

photo courtesy of Photocapy , used under this Creative Commons license