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Articles Blog

Filtering by Category: Western Europe

St. Malo, France

Karyn Planett

One might always expect glowing praise, glossy photos, and romantic text from the French Government Tourist Board. Yet their description of Brittany is spot on. It reads, “Brittany is as wild as the gales blowing in from the Atlantic which chew on granite cliffs and bend the backs of fishermen who are tougher than oyster shells."           

You might agree that this paints quite a vivid picture, even for an armchair traveler. And to these descriptive words you might add your own verbal impressions. Or take time to sketch a grassy hill so typical of the Brittany countryside. As a modern day memory maker you could scan the horizon with your camcorders or snap a pic with a panoramic lens. Some visitors simply let the images plant indelible seeds in their mind's eye. But everyone who visits Brittany comes away with powerful impressions, lifelong portraits, and pictures one can call up at the simple mention of a name, like St. Malo. 

Turned Toward The Sea       

Protected by mighty grey granite walls, St. Malo looms with her face toward the rugged waters of the Gulf of St. Malo, looking toward the town of Dinan just across the Rance Estuary. Further out to sea, one hundred or so miles across the English Channel, lies the English coastline. Brittany's inhabitants are Celts and as such are hearty souls who have long lived off these bountiful waters.           

Learned historians tell us that St. Malo's early settlements were built up on a fortified island strategically located along the Rance River. This was done so her citizens could exert their dominance not only over the regional waterways but also the expanse of open water to the north. Bolstered by this superior position the local seamen, who had a slight eye toward piracy, demanded pay-offs from ships sailing through the Channel, particularly the English ships. In time, these payments funded a class of mariners who acquired sizeable fortunes.           

Even so, the English still arrive daily by ferry from their homeland. And today the tide has turned, so to speak, as the English are the welcomed guests of St. Malo's hospitable citizens. 

The Heavy Hand Of War 

In August of 1944, German soldiers were entrenched in the town of St. Malo. The American forces attacked them with their full fury. While the city suffered damage, the remarkable ramparts that dated back to the 13th and 14th centuries, remained standing. Therefore, today's visitors can still walk these walls of the city's famous Citadelle. Porte St. Vince is one of this Citadelle's most important features, along with the Grande Porte. Inside the castle is the town museum, which displays memorabilia from earlier pirating days, as well as items from the Nazi occupation.

Mont St. Michel Looms 

Carved from and perched upon the same grey granite that provided the stones for St. Malo's ramparts, Mont St. Michel is like no other "island." As Venice stands alone in its unique beauty, so does Mont St. Michel. It rises up from the sea like a shrine to Christendom; a monument to the Archangel Michael who brandished a mighty sword to ward off the evils of the world.           

Today, this island is connected to the mainland by a motorway. In years gone by, however, it knew only extreme isolation and endless suffering. Monks passed bone-chilling yet silent years here, as did prisoners sentenced to this exile. The monks were even forced to relinquish their living quarters to the prisoners at the "request" of the government. 

Currently, the French government is pleased that thousands of tourists arrive annually to visit Mont St. Michel and, unlike the French prisoners who languished there for years, visitors may come and go. But, they pay dearly to make this pilgrimage. Some even overnight in one of the island's few inns. Among those famous figures that have walked these streets are Leon Trotsky and Margaret Thatcher. 

The Abbey 

The Benedictine Abbey, which is the island's centerpiece, was founded in 708 by Saint Aubert. This Gothic masterpiece, known as the Merveille, inspired not only all who witnessed it throughout the centuries, but continues to do so to today’s visitor. It so inspired the French author Guy de Maupassant that he wrote, 

"I reached the huge pile of rocks which bears the little city dominated by the great church. Climbing the steep narrow street, I entered the most wonderful Gothic dwelling ever made for God on this earth, a building as vast as a town, full of low rooms under oppressive ceilings and lofty galleries supported by frail pillars. I entered that gigantic granite jewel, which is as delicate as a piece of lacework, thronged with towers and slender belfries which thrust into the blue sky of day and the black sky of night their strange heads bristling with chimeras, devils, fantastic beasts and monstrous flowers, and which are linked together by carved arches of intricate design." 

To scale the rugged climb, one must be fit and sport shoes with grip soles. The view, your reward. Others may remain below and drink in the glory that is Mont St. Michel. For many, this is quite enough. 

For still others, a stay in St. Malo is also its own reward. 

St. Jean De Luz, France

Karyn Planett

Beach Basque and Beyond

Our challenge is to recap all that this gem of a town and its surrounds have on offer. Yours is to select among this menu of temptations. Will your pleasure be a peek at Pamplona where lunatics dodge raging bulls or at Balenciaga’s atelier that showcases designs for waify supermodels slinking along a catwalk? A proper tea at Empress Eugenie’s former palace or the loud munching on traditional tapas called “bar-hops” with the colorful locals? A pilgrimage in the footsteps of the faithful at Lourdes or a beach day watching world-class surfers literally walk on water?

What will your pleasure be?

A Check of the Facts And Stats

You’re in the Pyrénées Alps, a mere beret’s throw from Spain. This mini-destination with only 14,000 people is known for its colorful history laced with swashbuckling Basque pirates, wealthy shipbuilders, brave fishermen, a flirt with the royals, and a little-known chapter from WWII. Pirates, aka corsairs, took advantage of rough waters, protected coves, and merchants needing to move their wares by sea. Shipbuilders built ships and crewed them for voyages to the far reaches of the globe, then built magnificent manor homes to announce their success. Fishing fleets in Saint-Jean-de-Luz still take to the seas on the Bay of Biscay and beyond the Fargeot district, though their catch has declined over the years. And, speaking of a “catch”, Louis XIV wed his first cousin, Austria’s Maria-Theresa—the Infanta of Spain—in 1660 in the town’s Church of St. John the Baptist. This brokered marriage signaled an end to generations of bloodshed between two of the most powerful European countries. Some claim this was perhaps the “greatest political marriage” in history. The bride-to-be waited for her wedding in what is today called “Maison de l’Infante”, which still beckons visitors. The final chapter of our brief historical brushstroke speaks of bravery and desperation in June 1940 when a flotilla of small vessels evacuated a group of stranded Polish soldiers, French fighters and civilians.

So Many Choices, Not Much Time

A stroll through Saint-Jean-de-Luz is ideal for first time visitors. To examine the history of success stroll down rue Gambetta, rue Mazarin, and the area around Place Louis XIV. Maison Joanoenea hosted Anne of Austria, the Queen Mother, and the aforementioned Infanta of Spain. The Town Hall, known as the Hôtel de Ville, and other real hotels … The Golf and The Grand for example … feature architectural styles each representing a different period of design. Stop by the local morning market or a waterfront eatery for some ttoro, a type of fish stew with the freshest catch, or a plate of steamy stuffed squid called chipirons in a tomato sauce. Or, when taking tea at the Hôtel du Palais sample the local macaroons, reputed to make grown men weep.

Beyond The Beach

Groomed daily, Saint-Jean-de-Luz’s golden sand beach is truly tempting. Napoleon III even built a sea wall as protection from the pounding seas. But, stray away you must if you wish to explore Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway’s old haunt, Pamplona. His touch is everywhere here including room 217 in Hotel La Perla, his room with a view of the madness during the San Ferman Festival of the running of the bulls down Calle Estafeta. Other spots include Café Iruña (the Basque name for Pamplona), even the bullring where a bronze of the celebrated author keeps watch over the pageantry. “Papa” used Pamplona as the backdrop for his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises and put the town on the international map of “must see’s.” Read his account again to hear the echo of Hemingway’s rugged voice.

But it is the voice of the angels that seems to ring through at the Underground Basilica of St. Pius X in Lourdes. Not far from this port city, it was here on February 11, 1858 that a young girl named Bernadette Soubirous received a vision. According to believers, the Blessed Virgin appeared to her in the Grotto of Massabielle (“the rock”), quite near Lourdes. Hear Bernadette’s story that led from the humble beginnings of an illiterate shepherd girl to sainthood, her body filled with illness and her heart overflowing with the unfailing conviction of her faith.

Biarritz is also worthy of a mention. Referred to as the “queen of resorts and the resort of kings”, it is just that and more. Empress Eugénie de Montijo, the former Spanish Countess of Teba, was the one who put it on the map, so to speak. It was she for whom the Hôtel du Palais was built by her husband Napoleon III in 1855. Situated on the Grande Plage and shaped like the letter “E” for “Eugénie”, it was visited by foreign royalty including Queen Victoria over the decades. It is your day, however, to feel like royalty as you parade through the hotel grounds. Perhaps book a suite for a future visit so you’ll have enough time to explore this bit of Basque France and all it offers.

Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Karyn Planett

Galicia’s Gateway

Look at a map of Europe. Now, if you draw a line directly west from the southwestern corner of France and another one directly north from Lisbon, they’d intersect just about in Ferrol, Spain. This busy seaport is in the upper left corner of Spain where the sometimes-brutal Atlantic reminds her 72,000 people that Mother Nature reigns supreme. Perhaps that’s the signature of Galicia, as this region is known. It’s home to a rugged people who live further from their country’s capital than from, say, France or even Great Britain. There’s an independence, the posture of someone isolated, almost hidden, from the powers that be. This leads to a bit more of a rogue lifestyle that seems palpable here.

Perhaps it’s curious that General Francisco Franco drew his first breaths of life here in 1892, and then went on to rule the entire country with such a heavy hand. But that was then and this is now. And now it’s your turn to explore this chiseled chunk of Spain.

You’re Not The First

No, certainly not. Fishermen were evidently the first to set down their roots here. Well, before that there was an Iron Age settlement in the area. Nonetheless, Ferrol is tied to the sea and the name “Ferrol” is believed to stem from the Spanish word for lighthouse. It’s long been noted for shipbuilding and as an important naval base. Visitors, however, tend to spend their precious hours exploring nearby villages as well as one of Europe’s most iconic destinations, Santiago de Compostela.

So, let’s start with that famous destination. For those who don’t know, Santiago de Compostela is one of the most important sites in Christendom. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and traditional travelers make their way there annually. The centerpiece is the soaring cathedral, one of the world’s most spectacular, that dates back to 1060. Its stature, with its “Torre de la Carraca” and “Torre de la Campanas” paired towers, serves as a guide both physically and metaphorically for thousands of Christian pilgrims who wend their way through surrounding hills along well-worn paths, along the “Way of St. James” or the “Camino de Santiago.” They often carry with them shell-adorned long walking staffs. Many are Catholic, many not but all are drawn from around the world along hundreds of miles including those who trek some 650 miles from France. The truly devoted spend a full month doing so, even more. Communities en route often offer complimentary housing in support of these pilgrimages.   

At the end of their journey, there stands the famous cathedral.  Facing Obradoiro Square, this shrine to the apostle St. James looms powerfully. It was he who played such an important role here. For that, his ashes are buried in a silver urn within and his tomb is on view.

On A Smaller Scale

Galicia boasts an offering of dramatic beaches as well as a string of small villages that reveal a glimpse into this unique life. Betanzos is considered one of the finest, with an Old Quarter rich with typical architecture and lifestyle. Noted for its galleria balconies, it’s a photographer’s delight. A walk along the town walls and a visit to the Church of San Francisco, considered classic Mendicant style, are a must.  

Then there’s Coruña, also known as la Coruña and a Coruña. Here, there are more gallerias so typical in northern Spain. It’s also famous for its Tower of Hercules. Many historians believe it’s the oldest Roman lighthouse in the world, dating back to the 2nd century AD (some experts think even back to the 1st century AD). The structure is considered Antiquity’s sole lighthouse that remains operational to this day.  

Food and Wine

Face to the sea (Atlantic and Bay of Biscay)… there must be fabulous seafood in Galicia. Locals love goose barnacles called percebes and scallops known as vieiras. Craggy terrain… there should also be spectacular wines. The whites, including DO Rias Baixas, DO Ribeiro, DO Monterrei and others, are award-winners.  Dairy herds… you know the cheese is phenomenal. Favorites include Tetilla, San Simón and Ulloa. Meat eaters enjoy a typical beef stew known as carne ó caldeiro. A true specialty is a traditional hot drink famous in Galicia called queimada. It’s a mixture of flaming orujo gallego (a hot hot hot spirit) combined with lemon and sugar.   

So, it’s time now to savor all this perhaps while nestling down with something written by the winner of the 1989 Nobel Prize for Literature, Camilo José Cela. He was born in this area in 1916 and featured his impressions of his surroundings in his works. Fans consider The Family of Pascual Duarte his most famous novel. For his work, King Juan Carlos of Spain granted him the respected title of Marqués de Iria Flavia. Your days of exploring Galicia will draw to a close and maybe it’ll be time for you to pen your own first great novel.

La Coruña, Spain

Karyn Planett

The Reconquista 

In 711, an army of mostly Berbers fought their way ashore on the Iberian Peninsula at Gibraltar. Over the next seven years they conquered the Visigoth Kingdom and occupied today’s Spain and Portugal except for Galicia (wherein lie both La Coruna and the capital, Santiago de Compostela), Asturia, as well as the Basque communities in the Pyrenees. 

The reconquista began officially in 722 at the Battle of Covadonga. In that event, a Muslim force attempted to reestablish control of Asturias but was defeated by an Asturian “army” led by Pelayo. In those days armies sometimes numbered fewer than one hundred fighters. The victorious general declared Asturias a kingdom and crowned himself… king. From there, the Christian reclaiming of Iberia began, ending a mere seven hundred seventy years later at the Battle of Granada. 

The Seven Hundred Years War 

The reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the followers of Islam was hardly the sweeping military engagement the name suggests. In fact it was as much a resettlement as it was a military defeat. The Christian kingdoms of those times were small, sparsely populated territories. Their armies were lightly equipped, mostly mounted units built for raiding and plundering, not occupation. But the constant pressure of these raids gradually pushed the Muslim communities further south and the Christian kingdoms expanded to fill the void. 

During this time, much of the fighting also occurred between rival Christian leaders (which could explain why the whole enterprise lasted for over seven centuries). They formed various alliances with each other and even employed Muslim mercenaries when circumstances demanded. 

By 1492, Granada was the last Moorish stronghold in Iberia but after a brief siege it capitulated to the combined forces of Aragon and Castile led by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The problem then became what to do with all the reconquistadors. Luckily the New World soon provided fledgling communities of heathens for the renamed conquistadors to convert to Christianity. 

The Way Of St. James 

It is generally accepted within the Catholic faith that St. James the Great, one of Jesus’ apostles, visited Iberia to convert the Celts. According to legend, his remains were returned to Galicia following his death but his tomb was lost for eight centuries before being rediscovered by a hermit seeing strange lights in the sky. This was duly recorded as a miracle and the first church built to house the remains of St. James became a place of pilgrimage for Christians from all of Europe. The route of the pilgrimage became known as the Way Of St. James. In 1075, construction of the present Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela began. The last stone was laid in 1122 and it has remained one of the most renowned pilgrimage destinations ever since. 

One of the cathedral’s most unusual features is the Botafumiero, an 80-kilo gold thurible. Reserved for special masses and festivals, it is then filled with 40kg of charcoal and incense, attached to centuries-old pulleys and swung over the assembled congregation. Emitting clouds of incense-laced smoke and reaching speeds of 60 kilometers per hour, it’s said to have a decidedly dampening effect on the “fragrance” from hundreds of unwashed pilgrims.

The Spanish Armada

La Coruña’s local tourism committees would have us believe that the Spanish Armada set sail from here on the way to its unfortunate campaign in Britain in 1588. The players included the catholic King Phillip II of Spain who had been married to Queen Mary I of England and who took exception to her daughter’s, Queen Elizabeth I, political and religious leanings. He was also annoyed about England’s constant raids on his treasure ships returning from the New World. 
We do know that Phillip’s armada of more than 150 vessels left from Lisbon. Some ships may have put into or left from La Coruña. What is less known is that the Brits, feeling their oats after the defeat of the Armada, sent their own armada to raid the ports on Spain’s north coast in an attempt to destroy the remains of the Spanish fleet. Under the leadership of Sir Francis Drake, the English Armada landed in La Coruña, took the lower town and destroyed several ships in the harbor. They failed to take the upper town due to spirited resistance led by Maria Pita, and decided to sail on to Lisbon to try their luck there. La Coruña’s main square carries Maria Pita’s name and legacy and is a perfect place to begin your exploration of this centuries-old port city.

Arrecife, Canary Islands, Spain

Karyn Planett

Island Of The Moon 

It was early autumn 1730 when the once fertile island of Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands, was rocked by a violent volcanic eruption near the town of Yaiza. The stunned local people couldn’t have possibly known it would be the first in a series of eruptions that would last until April 16, 1736—more than five and a half years! Don Andres Lorenzo Curbelo, the priest of Yaiza, wrote this terrifying eyewitness account. 

"On September 1st, 1730, between 9 and 10PM, at 11 Kms. from Yaiza, the ground close to Timanfaya suddenly opened up. In the first night a huge mountain grew out of the ground and, from its peak, enormous flames that kept burning for 19 days could be seen. On the 18th of October, three new cracks appeared on the top of Santa Catalina; from them thick clouds of smoke emerged and spread over the whole island, accompanied by great amounts of cinder, sand and ashes that fell to the ground covering a large area."

Over the next five years more than 100 volcanic peaks, ranging from small hornitos to major volcanic cones, emerged from the land. Seen from the air today, they appear as a string of lunar pearls creating the spine of this island that measures only 35 miles by 15 miles. It was the longest-lasting volcanic event in recorded history. And it left behind not a wasted and uninhabitable land, but rather an island of striking natural beauty, utterly unlike its neighbors. From this rattling destruction emerged a thriving, carefully preserved infrastructure.

Timanfaya 

The entire country of Spain has only fourteen national parks. Four are in the Canary Islands. Montanas del Fuego (Mountains of Fire) form the central core of Timanfaya National Park, one of the must-see stops when exploring the island. The park can be enjoyed on foot, by vehicle or, most uniquely, by lurching camel. The presence of camels on the island is variously ascribed to the original inhabitants who may have been related to the Berbers of Morocco, and to the first conquering army of Juan de Betancourt who claimed the island for Spain in 1402.

In the 18th century, camels were used like tanks in defense of the island against pirates. Driven forward in ranks abreast, they simply pushed the invaders back into the sea. As recently as fifty years ago there were over 6,000 camels on the island, but the decline in agriculture and the arrival of other conveyances has reduced their number to a mere 300. 

However they arrived, camels are a most appropriate means of conveyance in this volcanic desert. And those who choose to travel by camel will be further pleased by the adoption of the “English Chair”, a rather friendly wooden saddle with a seat on each side of the camel’s hump that accommodates two passengers at once.

Malmsy 

Of the more unusual visual aspects of Lanzarote, the vineyards would rank first, surely. You see, the volcanic eruptions buried forever the soils that once supported a robust grain growing industry. The availability of grain had made Lanzarote a necessary provisioning stop for ships heading from Europe to the New World. Following the eruptions, resilient islanders discovered their new volcanic soil was ideal for wine grapes. 

It has long been known among vintners that grape vines benefit from a good struggle and the granular volcanic rock provided plenty of that. Ingenious farmers soon realized it also acted as a porous mulch, capturing the sparse moisture in their arid land and feeding it to their vines before it could evaporate. They further protected their vines from wind and dust by planting not in the rows typical of vineyards the world over but in shallow round pans dug out of the black soil. These pans were then surrounded by low, rock walls and the effect is one of thousands of little craters polka-dotting the hillsides, each with a lonely vine at its center. 

The result was Malvasia or Malmsy, a sweet, fortified wine that traveled well in ships and was most popular in Elizabethan England. Three hundred years later, these same wineries produce dry wines that are more in keeping with today’s wine drinkers’ tastes. 

Cesar Manrique 

If there is a “father” of modern Lanzarote, Cesar Manrique must be it. Their George Washington. As the rest of the Canary Islands (along with much of Spain’s Mediterranean coastline) were succumbing to the rapid build up of high rise tourist hotels and budget attractions that began in the 1960s, Manrique, through his own and his family’s interests and connections, was able to successfully lobby for local regulations that prevented tall buildings, outdoor advertising, and other man-made “offenses” to the natural attractiveness of his native island. 

As an architect, interior designer, painter and sculptor, Manrique’s imprint can be seen everywhere. He was a one-man architectural committee who persuaded homeowners to paint their homes with harmonious colors. The artist’s house and studio were created out of five volcanic “bubbles” in solid rock and is another of Lanzarote’s must-sees. Manrique’s efforts helped Lanzarote become the only island ever named as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

The Camargue, France

Karyn Planett

            “Oh, give me land lots of land

            Under starry skies above.           

            Don’t fence me in.” 

Cole Porter probably wasn’t thinking about the crusty saltpans or waterlogged bogs of France’s famous Camargue region when he scribbled these famous lyrics. But this is exactly the rough-and-tumble backwater, dubbed “French Texas”, where wild ponies and wilder cattle do run free, not fenced in. Porter, like so many others, was probably unaware of this vast, sparse wetlands of Southern France covering 250,000 acres of the Rhone River’s delta, Western Europe’s largest. The Camargue is truly off the beaten path of most world travelers yet definitely worth a detour big or small. 

The swampy marshland of the Camargue is home to true salt-of-the-earth folks who toil long days under a brutal sun cultivating rice paddies and tending to those saltpans called salins. Centuries ago, the Romans coveted this valuable land, as salt was essential for curing food before the invention of refrigeration. It was, however, the French who introduced “la gabelle”, a salt tax levied in 1341 that remained in effect until the French Revolution in 1791. Those most affected were the landed aristocracy ensconced in vast manades, or ranches, usually home to more than 200 bulls. Following World War II, the labyrinth of irrigation and drainage ditches as well as inland saltwater lakes, called etangs, was expanded and rice farming flourished, creating Europe’s first rice-growing region. These shallow bodies of water also attracted flamingoes, counting 20,000 pairs in sky-tinting flocks. 

The Camargue is most famous for her colorful gypsies, called gitans, whose arrival date is as elusive as a wisp of smoke. In nearby Arles, written accounts of these wandering entertainers do date back to 1438. Today’s descendants, gardian cowboys, make their homes in thatched houses called cabanes kept safe from evil spirits by bull’s horns mounted above the doorways. Their garb includes typical wide-brimmed black felt hats, leather pants, and an iron trident used on their cattle. The trident’s symbol is also incorporated in the distinctive Camargue Cross. 

These swarthy, stout men ride sturdy Camargue horses, ponies actually, born dark then turning “white” at approximately age five. Considered among the world’s oldest breeds, they resemble prehistoric horses in early cave paintings. Though branded, these ponies run free alongside the famous black bulls known as bouvines that often end up in the bullring. It was Spanish Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III, who introduced bullfighting to nobility and widespread popularity. The courses a la cocarde is the traditional Camargue bullfight where razeteurs, young men whose bravado trumps sanity, pluck ribbons neatly tied between the bull’s horns. 

Each year, the people of the Camargue celebrate their vibrant heritage in a series of festivals in villages scattered about. Easter signals the parade of local women in Arlesian costumes and cowboys on horseback by the hundreds. Late spring and throughout summer, other gatherings and fairs reward curious outsiders who unexpectedly stumble upon this forgotten landscape. Often, an evening around a glowing campfire allows time to fill in the untold chapters of these exotic people who long ago put down their roots in these windswept marshes and carved out their colorful way of life. 


Bordeaux, France

Karyn Planett

Le Miroir d’Eau 

This “mirror, mirror” is not on the wall, but spread across the flat waterfront of the Garonne River in Bordeaux. One could say, as these water features go, it is “the fairest of them all” with 900 syncopated jets that spray and mist and froth and bubble and fizzle and fog and haze in the hot French summer sun. All this, mind you, is to the delight of little jeune filles and garçons who sprint and chase each past splashes and rainbows.           

But who is behind this magical, whimsical design? 

Jean-Max LLorca 

It’s been said that this water spectacle was the brainchild of Jean-Max Llorca. He’s described as a French designer of urban fountains with installations the world over. He is the go-to guy who knows exactly how to put punch in his water. 

The Miroir d’Eau (or Water Mirror) is found sprawling between the Quai Louis XVIII and Quai de la Douane, adjacent to the Place de la Bourse. Translated to mean, “Stock Exchange Square,” it was originally built as a royal square dedicated to Louis XV. How could this French ruler have imagined in his wildest dreams that this setting would become the backdrop for this Miroir des Quais, as it is also known. 

This water mirror is touted to be the world’s largest, measuring over 37,000 square feet. And, it was indeed constructed by Monsieur Llorca in 2006, for he is recognized as one of the world’s finest fountain specialist. He and Michel Corajoud were awarded the Bordeaux Mayor’s Prize, as well as the coveted French National Prize for Urban development in 2008. 

For just the basic statistics, know that the water plays across a massive black granite slab at a depth of less than one inch yet the mist can waft into the air 6.5 feet. This fog swirls into the afternoon heat every 15 minutes. And, despite all the best planning and timing, squealing little ones and others as well get caught up in this splashy surprise and must choose between a right proper soaking or a dash to drier ground. 

The mechanics, in addition to the magic, are riveting. There’s a massive underground tank that stores all the water needed for this display. A web of tiny canals feed small tubes that flood the surface in unison. It is ultimately drained back into the tank so the water can emerge again from 900 injectors that create the thick diaphanous mist.

Claire and Michel Corajoud 

“Le paysage c’est l’endroit où le ciel et la terre se touchent.” 

Don’t touch Spellcheck. Those words … “The landscape is the place where heaven and earth meet” … were spoken by Michel Corajoud. He, along with his wife Claire are celebrated French landscape architects and they, too, played a significant role in this marvel. Their genius helped design the perfect setting, the esplanade along the Garonne River, with floral gardens and cleverly laid-out lighting like those in Le Jardin des Lumières. This brings joy to an endless stream of strollers, dogs, skaters, pensioners at their own pace, lovers lost in space, and photography buffs wanting that perfect backlit shot.           

Well, it’s time to join the throngs dashing about in the fine mist or stand on the sidelines enjoying the merriment of those who do.                                                                       

Brest, France

Karyn Planett

So You Think You’re in France?

Welcome to Brittany. Some may think of this as the northwestern most administrative region of France. Bretons, however, are not so sure. And with a name like Brittany, others could be excused for being a bit confused as well.

The problem is not a new one. Once upon a time, Brittany was referred to as Lesser Britain to distinguish it from Great Britain. In fact, many of the place references in the mythical history of Britain starring King Arthur, are actually in this part of France. The forest of Brocéliande in Arthur’s legend is nowadays believed to be Paimpont forest near the Breton city of Rennes. Conveniently there are some castle ruins there surrounded by a lake, which just might be associated with the Lady of the Lake, and a nearby dolmen that bears a striking resemblance to Merlin’s tomb.

The Romans considered this region part of Britannia, the Latin word meaning “Britons’ land”. And to top things off, Brittany is considered one of the six Celtic nations along with Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and the Isle of Man. These are territories where Celtic languages and cultural identities survive today. The Breton anthem is even taken from those of Wales and Cornwall.

Bagpipes and Buckwheat

Formal cooperation between the Celtic nations (“nations” in this context refers to people sharing a common heritage) is active in politics, languages, culture, sports and music. The Festival Interceltique of Lorient (in southern Brittany) is just one such event where the unmistakable sound of skirling bagpipes can be heard along with Celtic harps accompanying vocals and dances. In the past several years, Brittany has experienced a significant revival of its folk music. Bands composed of bagpipes, bombards (a reed instrument similar to an oboe) and drums are a modern creation inspired by the Scottish pipe bands.

Also of Celtic origin are crêpes and galettes, two iconic Breton dishes. Galettes are most often made of buckwheat and are usually served with cheese, sausage, bacon, mushrooms and eggs as a basic meal. Not so basic, but just as rewarding, is to finish off that meal by enjoying a buttery crêpe dusted with sugar and a squeeze of lemon.

Liberté, Égalité, and a Good Smoke

A distinct cultural identity isn’t the only thing coursing through the veins of many Bretons. Politics is another contentious area that sets them apart from the rest of their French brethren. In fact, surveys have shown that half the population considers themselves as much Breton as French. They aspire, as do their Scottish “cousins”, to self-rule either as an independent country or within the political structure of France. They seek equality between Breton and French as the two official languages of the region. And they lobby consistently for more influence within the European Union, the United Nations and other international organizations.

Bretons are not without sympathizers in the rest of the country. Those who describe themselves as “Gallic” and identify with the ancient Gauls are aware that their forebears spoke Celtic languages. The term Gaulois means Gaulish people and refers to the original French people, to differentiate them from the descendents of “foreigners”. Gauloises is also a cigarette brand introduced in 1910 that features strong, knock-your-socks-off tobacco flavor. During World War II, smoking Gauloises came to symbolize patriotism and “heartland” values.

Making the Best of Brest

Besides being quintessentially Breton, Brest represents a proud French naval heritage and, as one of the finest ports on Europe’s Atlantic coast, was a center of conflict during many of Europe’s continental wars.

In 1631, Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XVIII’s chief minster, constructed the first military facilities around a castle that had stood watch over the harbor since the early Middle Ages. The French Naval Academy was established in Brest in 1752. During the Napoleonic Wars, World War I and World War II, Brest was a key military strongpoint, and target. The Battle for Brest in 1944 destroyed much of the city center.

As it turns out, the Battle for Brest was almost completely unnecessary, though military planners in the war’s early stages could not have known that. Knowing that the invasion of Europe was inevitable and that major port facilities would be needed to supply the armies attempting to defeat Germany, Allied brass saw Brest as a target that could be isolated and overcome in relatively short order. But what seemed easy in 1942 became nearly impossible after the Germans reinforced and refortified the port by 1944. Long before Allied bombers and German sappers destroyed the city and the port facilities, the rapid advance of the Allied armies had bypassed Brittany entirely.

The good news? The city was subsequently rebuilt and “deindustrialized” to the point that Brest today is a thriving, service oriented university town that you can now enjoy as you discover the delightful charms of this very un-French locale.

Hamburg, Germany

Karyn Planett

History All Around

This notable region is so rich with tidbits and factoids, this’s and that’s, that we’d best roll up our dirndl sleeves and get right to work.  Let’s just begin by realizing that this trio of northern German cities has much more to offer than your time allows, so plan wisely to sample its magic.

The City of Kiel and its Famous Canal

With a population approaching 70,000, Kiel is the capital of one of Germany’s 16 states, Schleswig-Holstein, and is found on the Jutland Peninsula.  This finger of land between the Baltic and the North Sea is a patchwork of rural farms punctuated by drifting sand dunes that serve as a summer destination.  The town of Kiel features Germany’s largest passenger port and is the kick-off point for the Kiel Canal, a 61-mile-long, man-made waterway opened by Kaiser Wilhelm II on June 21, 1948.  Should you visit London’s Science Museum, you’ll be able to see some grainy footage shot by Britain’s director Birt Acres of this event, the result of 9,000 workers who labored on the project for eight rough years.

Considered by local authorities to be the world’s busiest man-made waterway, the canal cuts off 280 nautical miles for vessels traveling between the two seas.  More than 40,000 ships pass through yearly.  It also affords yachties some challenging sailing.  Non-sailors can simply take in Kiel’s Holstenstrasse, a colorful walking street, or one of the many parks including Schrevenpark or Schliksee Lake.  Use the Rathaus’ (Town Hall’s) 67-metre-high tower as your landmark guide.

Lubeck’s Place In History

Covered in a medieval veneer, this former capital of the Hanseatic League speaks to its rich past.  The towering brick buildings create bold facades where powerful men and women once wove the web of trading partners across Northern Europe into the powerful Hanseatic League.

Founded in 1143, Lubeck is considered to be the first western city along the Baltic coast.  Important remnants from centuries past include its famous main gate and signature structure, the Holstentor, with its cone-peaked towers that once appeared on the 50 Deutsche Mark note.  Men toiled between 1464 and 1478 to erect these city walls and towers, in places 10 feet thick.

Though in the direct crosshairs of Allied bombers, approximately 1000 structures from the 12th and 13th centuries survived wartime destruction.  Lubeck’s Old Town, or Altstadt, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.   Passing through the Holstentor, your exploration should begin at the 13th-century Rathaus, or Town Hall, a display of black glazed bricks, peaked windows, and gilded touches.  The Marktplatz itself dates back to 1230.  And the Marienkirsche, St. Mary’s, is the country’s third largest church featuring the world’s biggest mechanized organ.  It seems only fitting that this setting inspired two Nobel Prize winners for literature – Thomas Mann and Gunter Grass.

Need a “sugar hit” after all this wandering.  Lubeck is touted to be the town where marzipan was invented.  The story goes that during a 1407 famine, bakers used the only ingredients they had – almonds, sugar, egg whites and rosewater – to bake.  JG Niederegger is considered the most famous marzipan maker and his salon of the same name has been serving up this sweet treat for two centuries.  For the record, some historians dispute this claim and theorize, instead, that sea captains brought this delicacy to Lubeck from the Middle Eastern harems they diddled about in while overseas.

And Speaking of Hamburg..ers

Ray Kroc, step aside!  The “Father” of the hamburger was none other than, you guessed it, Genghis Khan.  His army, traveling and tromping about on horseback, often stayed in the saddle for days on end.  And much like today’s mobile population, they ate on the go—often only a mere patty of “scraped” meat that spent a bit of “curing” time under the saddle to make it more palatable.

The great warrior’s son, Kublai Khan, took this delicacy to Moscow when he invaded Russia.  There it became known as “Steak Tartare” after the Russian name for Mongols.  In the 1600s, ships from Hamburg began trading with Russian ports and brought the concoction back to Germany where it eventually became known as “Hamburg Steak”.

Waves of German immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries packed a burger or two as they made the treacherous crossing to America, to the back alleyways of New York.  Low-grade cuts of beef were shredded, mixed with spices and cooked as a dietary staple for the poorer immigrant classes. The graduation of the “hamburger” to fast food madness is a good deal cloudier and frankly, less interesting.

Hamburg, for the record, is Germany’s second largest city after Berlin.  Draped on the banks of the Rivers Elbe, Alster and Bille, it’s laced with 2300 bridges, even more than Venice as the town fathers proclaim.  A boat ride around the Docklands will introduce you to this aquatic city.

Important “land”marks include the Renaissance-style Rathaus (City Hall), a trio of churches including St. Michael’s, St. Peter’s, and St. Nicholas’s, which was the world’s tallest building in the 19th Century.  Do grab a burger and stroll about this glorious city.

Gijon, Spain

Karyn Planett

Asturian Enclave

Some say Asturias is the birthplace of today’s Spain.  Why?  Well, because it was from this rugged Atlantic landscape that the mighty Moors were dealt their first defeat as they battled fiercely for their conquest of Spain.  This perhaps David and Goliathesque tale took place in the opening days of the 8th Century.  The wiry, strapping Asturians fought off the powerful Moorish soldiers and wrote the first pages of the chapter on the Reconquest of Spain, making it the stronghold of the Christian kingdom.  Ultimately all Spain threw off the yokes of foreign domination in 1492 – a time when other important events were unfolding for the Spanish in a far distant land.

Flanked by the Mountains and the Sea

Asturias is a one province Autonomous Community, a principality wedged between Cantabria and Galicia.  Known as the Costa Verde (Green Coast), Asturias stretches for 90 miles and is dotted with tiny fishing villages and hamlets.  With her face to the sea, she is guarded behind by the 8,500-foot-high Picos de Europa, only 25 miles from the coast.  This craggy spine of mountains continues the line from the Pyrenees to the Atlantic.  Providing a breathtaking backdrop of sheer cliffs, verdant valleys, snaking rivers, and apple orchards, the Picos are a hiker’s paradise.  They also serve as a refuge for wild boar, deer, wolves, Iberian brown bears and herds of wild, shaggy Asturian horses.  Prized by the Romans, these small horses were recognized for their power in difficult terrain.

The Port City of Gijon

Pronounced “hee-hohn”, Gijon is a 270,000-person-strong port city with the enormous beach of San Lorenzo in addition to the well-preserved old fishermen’s quarters.  Important sites include Santa Catalina Hill featuring Eduardo Chillida’s 1990 concrete sculpture “Praise of the Horizon” and the cobblestoned Cimadevilla Quarter, situated on a peninsula that separates the port into two distinct segments.  The Collegiate Church of San Juan and the Revillagigedo Palace date back to the 18th century.  Other worthwhile stops include the 17th-century Palace of the Valdes Family and the Church of San Juan Bautista with its statue of King Pelayo.  Don Pelayo, as he is known, was the tribal leader responsible for mustering the resistance to the Moors.  The Universidad Laboral and the Escorial Monastery with its 400-foot-high tower are also most impressive.

Nearby Attractions

Oviedo was once not only the capital of Asturias but of all Christian Spain, at least what was left of it in the 800s.  For 200 years, Oviedo held this exalted position until the royal court pulled up scepters and relocated to Leon in the south.  Her architects left behind an Asturian Pre-Romanesque jewel on the slopes of Mt. Naranco.  Santa Maria del Naranco dates back to the 9th century and was the inspiration of King Ramiro I as a component of his summer palace.  Not to be outdone, Alfonso the Chaste summoned craftsmen to erect the Gothic Cathedral between the 14th and 16th centuries to house the Holy Chamber, Camara Santa.  Hidden within were the gems and jewels and crosses, their worth incalculable.  Among these treasures were items spirited out of Toledo as the Moorish footsteps grew louder.  Thieves stole the priceless gilded and jeweled Cross of the Angels as well as the Victory Cross in 1977 though they were later recovered.

Covadonga holds its place in Spanish history as well.  Labeled the “cradle of Spanish independence, it was here that Don Pelayo took his stand.  Ultimately Pelayo was crowned king and established his court in nearby Cangas de Onis.  The Victory Cross in Oviedo’s Camara Santa is supposedly the one carried by Pelayo.  His body was entombed in Covadonga’s Santa Cueva (Holy Cave) in 737 AD.

All this History Makes Me Hungry

Perfect.  Visitors to Asturias can sample such delights from the Bay of Biscay as grilled sardines, lobster, golden sea bream and hake stew.  Mountain streams offer up trout and salmon.  Local cheeses include Gamonedo, Penamellera and Cabrales.  A typical Asturian favorite is la fabada, a tasty stew rich with large beans.  If you’re lucky enough to stumble upon a traditional merendero complete with small garden, you’ll dine with locals.  From there you might continue on to a llagar to sample their cider and tapas or find your way to an espicha for traditional Asturian partying.  It is all in good fun.  Seems certain the locals will regale you with their proud history.