Tag Archives: European travel

Following Whim and Whimsy in Venice

Wandering through Venice’s neighborhoods © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

One of the smartest choices I make in preparation for a week-long self-guided bike tour from Venice to Trieste to Istria (Slovenia to Croatia) is to arrive a day earlier. This gives me the unsurpassed luxury of spending a day wandering around Venice without a plan or an objective, just to follow whim and whimsy and take in the incomparable essence of this enchanting city. I am transfixed by Venice – the colors, the constant motion, the angles, the architecture, how you never know what you will see around any corner, how getting lost leads to new discovery. I have that cherished time to really focus on details.

Eric, my son who will be biking with me, will be arriving the next day, and I have made my way from Marco Polo International Airport to the Hotel Alexander, on the mainland, in Mestre by public bus (following the directions provided by FunActive, the tour company). I drop my bags and have most of the day to explore on my own.

The hotel that has been selected on the FunActiv tour (self-guided means that they have booked the inns and laid out the route, provide the rental bikes and support, a ferry the luggage each day to the next inn) which I booked through Biketours.com, is well located, just a short walk to a tram that comes frequently (they tell me where to buy the ticket, at a convenience store) and whisks me in comfort to the magnificent old city in 15 minutes.

Before I left the hotel, I had spotted a flyer about a new Leonardo Da Vinci Museum and am delighted when, serendipitously, I find myself right in front of it, next door to Chiesa di San Rocco, a church where a concert is underway. I listen for awhile and then go into the Museum.

Trying out one of Leonardo DaVinci’s inventions at the new Leonardo DaVinci Museum in Venice © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

What distinguishes the Leonardo Da Vinci Museum is that it is designed as a laboratory for experimentation and curiosity – actually giving you insights into the mind of Leonardo da Vinci by bringing his manuscripts, schematics and drawings to reality. Engineers have recreated large-scale models of Da Vinci’s inventions from his own plans “created through the skillful craftsmanship typical of the Renaissance workshops” which you can touch and maneuver.  Essentially, you get to play with DaVinci’s inventions – delighting children of all ages. The museum also exhibits DaVinci’s anatomical studies. A special space is dedicated to his main pictorial works including the Mona Lisa and Annunciation, reproduced using high-resolution backlight technology.(Open daily, Scuola Grand di San Rocco, www.davincimuseum.it).

My motto, “Seize the day” (and waste no time) serves me well, because my first day is sunny, bringing out the colors of Venice – along with everyone else. Venice is unbelievably crowded with tourists– like Times Square but on a much, much bigger scale– and quite warm and humid. But I don’t mind and I find myself wandering down streets and alleys in neighborhoods (and they are really neighborhoods, where Venetians live) that are amazingly uncrowded and quiet.

Concert underway in a church provides respite for body and soul © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I periodically take refuge in churches to get out of the heat and take a bit of a rest and often am pleasantly surprised to discover art and music.

One of the delights of Venice is that it is set up like a labyrinth of warrens, alleys, bridges over canals, so you are constantly surprised by the scenes that come into view as you walk about.

Venice (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The most popular is the famous view from the Rialto Bridge at the center of the city where you literally have to wait your turn to get a photo.

The narrow alleys all of a sudden open up into the famous square of San Marco and I come upon the Basilica of San Marco with its ornate decoration. There is so much to see and do here in the piazza, which remarkably has retained the same look as depicted in Renaissance paintings.

Rush hour for gondoliers © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

At San Marco, I stand on a bridge the gondoliers go under to get to the Bridge of Sighs – that famous place in the Doge Palace where prisoners would be taken to their cramped, damp cells, across this bridge with the last view of the open sky and their last breath of fresh air. It’s like rush hour of the gondolas. I admire the skill with which they deftly turn 90-degree corners and avoid hitting each other or smack into the pilings. The choreography of their floating dance is amazing – I notice the oar lock the gondoliers use, shaped in such a way that they get a different angle to control their stroke.

Bridge of Sighs, Doge Palace © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

What really strikes me is that despite the crowds, how clean Venice’s streets are (though there is graffiti, more a reflection of political climate) and how fresh. This wasn’t the case when I last visited, 10 years ago.

I linger in the Piazza San Marco for a time, and am sitting on marble benches under an archway at the Doge Palace when I hear thunder. Last time I was here, the city was flooded – platforms mysteriously would appear on the streets that you had to walk over to avoid wading in six inches of water – a worrisome warning that Venice may at some point become submerged altogether with rising sea level.


Venice’s famous Piazza San Marco © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

No one seems particularly bothered by the thunder, not even the street vendors. I take the tram back to the hotel, and just before I get there, the thunderstorm starts.

The next morning is raining, but no matter. I hop the tram again, a five-minute walk from the Hotel Alexander through the neighborhood for the ride into Venice, and this time, after crossing over the bridge that provides entrance to the Old City (and apparently closes at night to those who aren’t living or staying here) go left at the fork instead of right. I walk over a bridge and see a sign pointing to the Jewish Ghetto and follow it. I come upon a group of Israeli tourists huddled under a passageway leading into the Jewish quarter as their guide gives her talk. I walk ahead and find the synagogue, where Sabbath services are just finishing, guarded by city soldiers who don’t let me in.

The last time I was in Venice, I happened upon Chabad gathering for Shabbat dinner and was invited in. The Chabad are actively repopulating European cities that emptied their Jewish communities during the Holocaust.

Gondolier, Venice © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I have a few hours before Eric arrives and we have our orientation with a FunActive guide for our bike tour. I make my way to San Marco again, before walking back to the depot to get the tram back to the hotel, in time for Eric and the guide to arrive.

We spend about an hour with Anthony, the FunActive guide, actually hurrying him along because we are so anxious to get back to Venice so Eric can have some time there. Anthony persists: going over the day-by-day maps, pointing out sights we might look out for, and alternative routes we can take, and then fits us to the bikes we will be taking.

Entrance to the synagogue. Venice’s Jewish Ghetto is being repopulated © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By the time we get to Venice in the afternoon, the rain has cleared. We return together to the Jewish Ghetto and wander from there. I let Eric take the lead so he can have that same delight in discovering Venice for himself.

It is important to realize that Venice is a place where people live (signs ask visitors to respect the residents), and coming in this way, through the Jewish Ghetto, we find many streets – very quiet streets – that are simply neighborhoods off the beaten tourist track. Laundry stretched across the canal.

Dining at Al Portego © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Eric uses his tech prowess (and the AFAR app) to find a restaurant, which gives a purpose and focus to our wandering through the streets. We arrive at Al Portego just in time before all the tables would be reserved for dinner.

After dinner, we walk to San Marco, which is especially magical at night. I have saved visiting the Doge Palace for the evening (the Doge Palace and three other museums stay open on Fridays and Saturdays until 11 pm, last entrance at 10 pm) so that Eric could see it as well. But Eric is too exhausted after having traveled all day and heads back to the hotel.

Doge Palace at night © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I waltz in at 7:30 pm without waiting at all – such a contrast to the daytime when the lines are long and hundreds of people, including massive tour groups, funnel in at once. The ticket, I learn, is valid at all four museums and good for three months. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to take advantage, but the ticket is well worth it.

Priceless, in fact.

I find myself in these rooms – grand doesn’t begin to describe it – by myself or with at most five other people. All of us are breathless. No one speaks. The silence is thrilling.

The art work – monumental pieces by titans of the Renaissance – fill the massive walls and the entire ceiling. One room is grander and bigger and more gilded than the next, and at this hour, at this moment, it feels like all of this is for me and me alone.

Next: A Night Visit to the Doge Palace

(We booked our 8-day self-guided “Venice-Trieste-Istria” self-guided bike tour through BikeTours.com, a broker which has an excellent catalog of well-priced guided and self-guided bike and bike/boat trips, mostly in Europe, and has very attentive counselors. Biketours.com, 1222 Tremont Street , Chattanooga, TN 37405,  423 756-8907, 877 462-2423, www.biketours.com, info@biketours.com ).

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© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Barging through Burgundy, Day 5-6: Walking Tour of Dijon’s Old City

The Caprice finishes its cruise of canals and rivers of Burgundy in Dijon © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Thursday: Arrival in Dijon

We are only a few miles to the last lock before Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, and the French landscape, though still predominantly countryside, becomes more and more populated and commercial as we come closer.

After breakfast on board the Caprice, our charming barge hotel, we take bikes and explore a village.

Back on board the Caprice, Chef Herve treats us to a cooking demonstration – he is preparing salt-encrusted salmon, which is the lunch entree, along with a variety of salads.

The Caprice, one of France Cruises’ luxury hotel barges, floats up a canal in Burgundy © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The wine is a 2010 Musadet Sevre et Maine sur Lie, from the Loire Valley, with a fresh, sharp, neutral flavor to compliment fish; and a 2010 Burgundy red, Saint Armour, named for the village which was named for a martyred Roman soldier, with a fruity flavor of currants.

The last bridge before we enter Dijon’s port is one where we all have to duck – it seems the barge uses every inch of space above.

We come into the port of Dijon, where we will stay overnight.

Caprice’s Chef Herve serves the salt-encrusted salmon for lunch; earlier in the morning, he provided a cooking demonstration © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Guy, who has been our guide and bus driver throughout our journey, takes us for a guided tour into the Dijon’s old city, the climax to an incredible week-long journey into Burgundy’s countryside. Dijon is the crowning jewel.

The historic district is just a 15-20 minute from where the Caprice is docked, so we can return on our own and have a couple of extra hours to explore.

As always, Guy, who is a former journalist, is fascinating, illuminating with stories and anecdotes what we can appreciate visually.

He reminds us of the popular Burgundy drink, Kir, which was named for a mayor who served from 1946-1960, was a priest, a canon, and a member of Parliament- the famous drink is named for him. “He did nothing in Dijon – that was reason it is well preserved.” The current mayor, on the other hand, wants to modernize, and is constructing a street car (light rail).

The magnificent architecture of Dijon’s Old City © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Dijon is a household name because of the mustard, which is still produced here, but these days, they import seeds from Canada. It is also a center for artificial flavors and fragrances.

Dijon is the capital of Burgundy – hospitals, university, administrative services (government), and the main stop between Paris and Lyon.

Burgundy was an independent state, and allied with Britain against France. The last Duke was killed 1463 – his enemy was King Louis XI of France, known here as “the Sneaky One” because though France had a treaty with Burgundy but the King still invaded Dijon.

One of the highlights is the main indoor market – a marvel of steel architecture that goes back to Eiffel, though his colleague finished the project.

The Caprice squeaks under the bridge as we float into the port of Dijon © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

It is just across from the church of Notre Dame with a marvelous bell clock. “The King of France tried to bribe a town in Burgundy to rebel, and when it did, the Duke besieged it and as punishment, in 1673, took the clock. At the time, it only had a man with the pipe; then in 17C, the people of Dijon (who have a good sense of humor), added a woman so the man wouldn’t be lonely, and in 18C, added two children.” The man strikes the bell on the hour; the woman on the half, and the children on the quarter hour.

Notre Dame has stunning gargoyles, but Guy tells us that a usurer was killed when a gargoyle broke off and fell on him. As a result, the “corporation” of loan sharks demanded they all be taken down; but finally, they were cleaned and replaced in 18C. Notre Dame was defaced during the 1793 Terror, and the anti-religious furor that swept through.

The Church of Notre Dame provides a dramatic backdrop at the end of the Rue Musette © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The owl is symbol of Dijon, and there is an owl on Notre Dame that legend says, you touch with your left hand to have a wish come true (it’s been rubbed smooth over time).

Here we come to the Maison Millière, the charming shop we had first encountered on our first afternoon in Dijon, which specializes in hand-crafted owls.

There are fabulous buildings – stately majestic public buildings, grand mansions that served the noble members of Parliament – through Dijon.

Many of the grand buildings have been “re-purposed” after the Revolution.

Guy, our guide from the Caprice, explains the legend of rubbing the owl that is on the side of the Church of Notre Dame, with your left hand: wishes come true © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Plaza Royale was renamed Place de la Revolution, and the avenue renamed Avenue de la Liberte.

What is astonishing is how many famous people are associated with Dijon: the architect of Versailles, Jules Mansart, also designed the Plaza Royale; Francois Ronde, who designed the Arc d’Triomphe in Paris, is from here.

I wander on my own, and am fascinated with the street names, many with biographical information

In the square of Dijon’s Old City, buildings from the Renaissance flank a carousel from 1865 © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Rue Danton was named for “conventionnel organisateur de la defense nationale, ne en 1759, mort sur l’echafaud en 1794.” I am fascinated and subsequently learn that Georges Danton was a French Revolutionary leader and orator, often credited as the chief force in the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the First French Republic (September 21, 1792). He later became the first president of the Committee of Public Safety, but his increasing moderation and eventual opposition to the Reign of Terror led to his own death at the guillotine.

The clock above the church of Notre Dame, with the man who strikes the hour, his wife who strikes the half hour, and their two children who strike the quarter hour. © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

I come upon Eglese Saint Philibert, originally built in 12th century, and destroyed in the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution. It is now undergoing a restoration.

I am so happy that I will have two extra days in Dijon (see story).

Gala Farewell

I walk back to the Caprice in time for our gala farewell dinner.

The last night of our cruise is a gala dinner (we “dress” in our finest, that is what we have with us) – the table, in a U-shaped banquet formation, is set magnificently, with fresh lilies and zinnias.

A fountain provides respite during a walking tour of Dijon’s historic district, spanning 97 hectares © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The menu consists of foie gras with leek salad with a sweet fig jam; filet de boeuf with red wine sauce, potatoes from Noirmoutier and mushrooms.

The 2007 Sainte Croix du Mont, a Sauvignon Blanc, Tina tells us, is produced at a vineyard on right bank of Bordeaux in southeast France, where there are early morning mists (usually not good for wine) is difficult to produce. “You need a lot of luck. The grapes have to develop a ‘local rot’ – a fungus – which actually produces a bursting sweetness. The yield is small – you have to pick the grapes by hand when ripest – a lot of work. It’s lighter than a dessert wine but full bodied.”

The red is a Grand Barrail Larose St Emilion 2009, a Bordeaux.

Three houses dating from the 1400s in Dijon’s Old City: the middle one is propped up by the two on either side © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The cheese tonight is a Roquefort – the quintessential sheep’s milk blue cheese from Avignon in the south of France, owes its distinctive character to a mold found in the soil of local caves

The second cheese is a Brie de Meaux, from the Ile de France, a creamy cow’s milk similar to Camembert. “King Louis XIV had 3 passions: poetry, wine and cheese,” Tina, the general manager, says. “He would send a damsel a cheese with a poem”

The dessert is a Chef’s surprise (actually a birthday cake for one of the guests).

Lunch onboard the Caprice always features red and white wines as well as cheeses © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Friday morning, after breakfast, we depart the Caprice. The whole crew, wearing their Barging Through France shirts, line up to greet us and bid us farewell. It is that most amazing and gratifying feeling that only travel provides when you get to realize how everyone has bonded and formed friendships in just a week’s time.

Incomparable Value in France Canal Cruising

In reflection, I think this is as perfect a trip as it could have been, vastly exceeding my expectations – in terms of the sights we have seen, the interesting attractions and excursions, the quality of the wining and dining, the cruise experience – France Cruises, the American agent for Barging through Burgundy which owns and operates the Caprice, really offers superb value for money.

The gala farewell banquet onboard the Caprice features a beef filet with red wine sauce © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The passengers onboard have really bonded – gives you plenty of opportunity – we are not on top of one another, but the meals, where you basically sit where you want or where there is room, so the table groupings always change, and you get to know one another, or when walking or biking along the canal, or on the bus or walking through the villages during our excursions, or in the evening sitting around in the lounge or on deck… people came from all over and many different backgrounds, but shared an interest and eagerness to learn and experience things, and we each shared from our own experience and knowledge base.

The immersion into French food and wine – especially with the selection of wines and cheeses at lunch and dinner – has been very satisfying and also interesting, since food and wine are so inextricably linked to culture and heritage of a place.

The size of the boat and the service makes it ideal for families, family reunions and groups of friends traveling together. There are barge boats that a single family can hire and guide themselves , though it seemed to me to be tricky process to go through the canals – some were automatic, operated by sensors, some had attendants, but some involved hand-cranking the bridge or pulling a chain to activate the doors.

Many people have the concern that you can get bored on a barge cruise or feel confined, but we are never bored or stir crazy – because of the opportunity to go off the boat and explore, especially by bike, and also the excursions. Those who want a more sedentary experience can have it, as well.

This size boat and the itinerary are perfect for us – not too small that you are forced to be on top of people or lacking in level and quality of service, and not too big.

The crew of the Caprice at the farewell gala banquet © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The daily excursions are marvelous and interesting and take you to places you might not have known to visit, and into the essence of what the region is -particularly the visit to the Chateau Rully with the Count – just seeing the portraits on wall of his ancestors, the very mug his 14th century ancestor had drunk from (that he still uses), the personal artifacts of the family were amazing.

Considering all that is provided, and the high level of service, the experience fulfills France Cruses’ boast that this cruise affords some of the best value in canal cruising in France (particularly with the special offers and packages that are available from time to time). I am a believer.

For information, contact France Cruises, Inc.,9901 IH 10 West, Suite 800 | San Antonio, TX 78230, 866-498-3920 or 210- 775-2184; Email:Marketing@FranceCruises.com, visit www.FranceCruises.com orwww.FranceCountryTours.com. Visit the blog The France Insider.

The cruise aboard the Caprice is now completely updated for next season:http://www.francecruises.com/barge-354-Caprice-742.html

Dijon is such a fascinating city, our exploration continues (see A Walk Through the Centuries in Dijon, France).

(Originally published in 2011)

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures