This is not going to be your typical travel story. Oh sure, it started out that way. A story about a tour sponsored by Overseas Adventure Travel they called “The Crossroads of the Adriatic.” It was going to be all about the medieval town of Dubrovnik in Croatia, a series of dozens of waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes, streaming down cliffs, cascading over rocks, weaving through brush over an expanse of 114-square miles, exploring Sarajevo in Bosnia, a city that suffered through the longest, most devastating siege by Serbia’s hands in the history of modern war and a visit to Ljubljana, Slovenia, my newest favorite European city with broad promenades, wide pedestrian-only walkways and multiple town squares. And that’s just the tip of the itinerary that brought a new adventure to our group of 16 day after day. But that’s where the story veered into trouble…

I found myself being equally surprised and delighted by all the little extra things we were seeing and doing — and yes, often eating — that were NOT on the itinerary that I decided makes an interesting story in and of itself. Because, in all my travels with other tour companies, this has not always been the case.

This is not meant as a love letter to OAT but rather my impressions of a travel philosophy of “Learning and Discovery” which OAT takes very seriously and which elevated an already enticing itinerary into a far more expansive travel opportunity.

During our first day, we explored the Old Town of Dubrovnik, still resembling its 15th century heritage, scaling its huge fortress walls to enjoy exhilarating views of the Adriatic coast. At night, ostensibly nothing is planned –- until our ever-creative and ingenious guide, Ivana, notices a small sign on an old church announcing a string quartet concert. So with mostly make-shift chairs set up in the tiny church, we join the locals in a surprisingly professional performance.

2. Dubrovnik

Enroute home from Montenegro, a small country boasting ancient villages, a bay designated by UNESCO as one of the 25 most beautiful, aristocratic mansions and a baroque shrine — in other words a full day of historical exploration included in our itinerary — we stop to visit a local (and yes, you will soon tire of that word…) embroidery artisan in traditional dress who regales us with the intricate process of embroidery, with an initial introduction to the silkworm who makes it all possible — literally. The little buggers are there in all its iterations from birth to thread. Admittedly for me, it was a little late in the evening to be all that interested in the lifecycle of a silkworm taking place before my eyes, but others in the group seemed more enamored.

3. Church on island

At a small farmhouse where we spent the night near Slavonia, Croatia’s breadbasket, several women admired the pottery in the kitchen. Next day? Another unscheduled stop — this time at the potter’s shop — not only to buy, of course, but also to learn about the process of how the different cups and bowls were made. Ivana just set it up — she certainly didn’t have to. And she even convinced the potter to open up to accommodate us even though it was the end of the season.  Very persuasive, our Ivana. And because this was a stop mainly for the women she promised to find something comparable for the men. Of course, she didn’t have to look any further than a local brew pub in the next town.

4. Farmhousepottery

Onto Bosnia-Herzegovina. And I need to pause here for a little history. The four countries we visited, along with Serbia and Macedonia, used to comprise Yugoslavia, where Marshall Tito reigned from 1945-1980 as a much-beloved, both then and surprisingly still, benevolent dictator, although admittedly not to those who disagreed with him. When he died, the economy crumbled, unemployment skyrocketed, and the unity and harmony among the many populations — Roman Catholics Croats, Orthodox Serbs, Bosnian Muslims and assorted Jews, who lived, worked and intermarried together — deteriorated into nationalistic jingoism and animosity. The Bosnian War of 1991-1996 was the result.

In Bosnia, the main L&D surprises revolved around food. First, an unscheduled stop at a roadside stand where Ivana bought enough tangerines, the agricultural specialty of a very verdant river valley enroute to our next town, to last for the rest of the trip. Crossing over from Croatia to Bosnia-Herzegovina meant transitioning from Roman Catholic churches to Islamic mosques. Pocitelj, the first town we stopped in, is a typical old Muslim village frozen in time from the late 15th Century. Streets of rocky cobblestones transporting us back to the Middle Ages were marred only by an avalanche of tourist stands with local souvenirs. I always feel so guilty for ignoring the plaintive entreaties to buy, stand after stand after stand. I was happy to get back to our tangerines.

And then there’s the Tunnel of Life, the very low, narrow, dimly lit secret dirt passageway that led from under an airfield in Sarajevo to the Adriatic Sea. It was the only access to food, water, small arms and medical supplies that brought the only relief to the city of 400,000 who were victims of the longest, most devastating siege in the history of (modern) warfare, as Serbia cut off all food, water, electricity, and medicines to the Muslim population it was trying to destroy. As we watched a video of the city disappearing building by building, street by street, explosion by explosion, Ivana tried to soften the emotional blow by plying us with burek, sweet Bosnian pastries. They helped, but just a little.

And did I mention the visit to a local mountain village priest — he just happened to be a personal friend of Ivana’s — ostensibly, of course, to learn a little more about the village lifestyle but I think the blueberry strudel that he himself cooked and the wine from nearby vineyards were more than sufficient incentive for the extra drive. The beautiful 18th C church was just a bonus.

And while sampling truffles in one of the Istrian hill towns outside of Lovran, Ivana was asked how truffles are found. A quick phone call later and another detour of the bus (we had a very accommodating bus driver who sometimes seemed in cahoots with Ivana as to what surprise to spring next), we were meeting with a truffle hunter and his dog, Riki — who demonstrated the well-protected art of finding the evasive white and black gourmet gold.

5. Trufflehunting

In case our three squares a day weren’t sufficient, even the local guides and bus driver got into the act by providing us with even more to eat in the way of local snacks: “You can’t possibly leave (fill in the town) without sampling (fill in the delicacy…)” was their mantra. Among the many savory offerings were the best of regional chocolates, the yummiest roasted chestnuts, the finest Bosnian coffee, the sweetest rahat lokum (Turkish delight), the grandest Istrian truffles, the best of cream cakes, the most delicious Bosnian burek, the mouth watering strudel from Father Robbie’s oven, and my personal favorite, an almost endless amount of regional brandies at every stop. Blame the superlatives on Ivana.

During out tour of Zagreb, the sprawling European Croatian capital, the recent culinary L&D expanded into the arts. Though ample free time is always factored into the tours — what should be time off for Ivana — she instead saw it as an opportunity to provide more options for her ever-greedy charges. In this case, tickets to either a jazz contest or the ballet, simply because they were in town when we were.

6. Zagreb

And when our Learning and Discovery adventures kept us on the bus traveling from town to town, country to country, they didn’t stop. As impressive as all our unscheduled stops were, even more so was Ivana’s constant tales of history, culture, Tito, controversies, architecture, Tito, education, economics, Tito — yes, they want him back — plus personal experiences and other tantalizing tidbits day after day. The fact that it was still as fascinating by the end of week two is even more of a phenomenal accomplishment.

So yes, my usual travel articles deal with the destination; this one with the journey. And what made that journey so unusual were the many moments of learning and discovery that jumped off the itinerary page and into my heart. Thank you, Ivana.  For more information, visit Crossroads of the Adriatic.

 

There is an oft-repeated joke in Norway; a visitor asks a boy if it always rains in Bergen. The boy replies; “I don’t know, I’m only eleven!” Well we can assure you it doesn’t. We awoke in Bergen, the last port on our Norwegian cruise, to warm sunshine, the best weather we experienced during a week that included a force eight gale and thirty foot waves. Yet it was all handled so easily by our cruise ship Emerald Princess that not one cup of coffee was spilled and many guests were unaware of the conditions outside. Our cruise started in Southampton, England. There was a mix of nationalities on board including Americans for whom this was a key element in their European tour. For Londoners like us, however, in less than two hours from leaving home we had located our cabin and were enjoying lunch in the buffet.Photo 1. Cabin Later that day we headed to Vines wine bar in the ship’s central atrium for pre-dinner drinks. No ordinary wine bar, Vines offers guests the choice of Tapas or Sushi to accompany their drinks. We were tempted to stay the evening but we resisted and joined our fellow guests for a substantial dinner.  After a night-cap in Crooners bar it was hardly surprising that we slept soundly. A sea day followed and a chance to relax before getting dressed up for the traditional captain’s welcome party. The next morning, day three, found us moored in Stavanger, a small town (Norway doesn’t do ‘big’) popular with cruise ships. There were three in port that day, moored next to the old town with its quaint pedestrian cobbled streets and white wooden buildings. The new town is only a few minutes away, so there was plenty to do and see, all within walking distance. Photo 7. On the bridge We were unable to leave port that afternoon at our allotted time due to a combination of close proximity of the other ships and strong winds. When we finally left, two hours late, the ship’s master, Captain Martin Stenzel, warned us of heavy weather to come. He was right. Several hours later, sitting in our restaurant on deck five, someone commented that they had ordered fish but didn’t expect to see it swimming past the window! However, Emerald Princess took it calmly and diners even asked the waiters not to close the curtains so that they could enjoy the show nature had put on for us. The next day we arrived in Skjolden, Sognefjord, one of Norway’s longest Fjords that runs deep into the spectacular landscape of towering mountains and high waterfalls. Photo 4. Lom Church Our tour took us inland through the Sognefjell National Park, passed  huge glaciers, despite it being the middle of summer, and over northern Europe’s highest mountain pass to the town of Lom, home to Norway’s second oldest church. Completed in 1158, this wooden structure is in use today and is popular throughout Norway as a wedding venue. Lom also claims to have Norway’s best bakery and many guests felt they just had to sample the produce. Photo 5. Alesund We awoke next day in Alesund. Consisting of seven islands linked by numerous bridges it is often described as the Venice of the North. This busy port and home to the thriving North Sea Oil industry and is also well known for its fishing, primarily cod, and furniture making. In 1904 an unattended candle let to a major fire which destroyed most of the homes. They were rebuilt in the then fashionable Art Deco style, giving the city a unique architectural heritage. Remains of the old buildings were re-assembled so it is also possible to see local homes as they were before the fire. Our last port of call was Bergen. Again small enough to manage on foot, it is noted for its UNESCO Heritage site, the old Hanseatic Wharf of Bryggen with colourful buildings, narrow passageways and historic structures. The famous fish market is also worth a visit. Photo 6 Bryggen Our final day was spent at sea and included a tour of the ship, one of Princess Cruises more popular events. Our group was taken “back stage” to see how things worked. First stop was the bridge where one of the officers on duty explained the controls and navigation to us. Captain Martin Stenzel appeared, relaxed with morning mug of coffee in hand, and was happy to join in the question and answer session. We visited the kitchens to see just how the ship manages to feed meals to over three thousand guests and how food is brought on board, stored and prepared, with every meal cooked to order. We also visited the print shop where two thousand copies of the daily programme are produced, and the photo labs where the hundreds of pictures taken by the ships photographers are processed and printed. Last stop was the engine management room where the chief engineer, supported by a large screen linked to the ship’s control computers, gave us a detailed description of not just the operation of the engines but also the air conditioning, heating, fire control and water management. He told us we were safely drinking tap water that was processed from what had earlier been flushed down the toilet. In fact it was so pure that minerals had to be added to make it taste like the water we were used to. He certainly wasn’t a good salesman for bottled water! Our journey ended with a memorable meal in one of the two speciality restaurants, and after the now traditional night-cap we retired for the final time to our comfortable bed, having made new friends, enjoyed the hospitality that is Emerald Princess together with the unique and spectacular country that is Norway. For more information on Princess Cruises go to www.princess.com

The year is 1645. The most virulent strain of the Bubonic Plague has immobilized Edinburgh, Scotland, claiming the lives of more than half the city’s population. The area hardest hit: Mary King’s Close on High Street, a busy thoroughfare and lively 17th century street of pubs, shops and residences. Cries of suffering have replaced the friendly chatter, and the stench of death, the pungent aroma of tea and scones.

The place, the time, the horror have been resurrected as one of Edinburgh’s most unusual attractions. Archaeologically and historically accurate, the alleys you walk upon, the rooms you visit, the stories you hear are real. This is not a recreation; it is a resurrection of what already existed so many centuries ago.

Beneath the City Chambers on Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile, lies Mary King’s Close, a series of narrow, winding side streets with multi-level apartment houses looming on either side, which has been hidden for many years. In 1753, the houses at the top of the buildings were knocked down to make way for the then-new building. Parts of the lower sections were used as the foundation, leaving below a number of dark and mysterious underground alleyways steeped in mystery — and misery.
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The exhibit breathes new life into this underground world dominated by death. Reconstructed as it was then –- though without any contagious aspects –- the Real Mary King’s Close provides amazing insight into a period of history with which many are totally unfamiliar –- and it’s been preserved in an authentic environment and historically accurate depiction that defies most “commercial” historical reproductions.
It is eerie meandering up and down along dark, circuitous unpaved passageways, beaten down earth floors (good walking shoes are a must; wheelchair accessible it is not) –- past room after room, each with its own story to tell –- a projection of people who lived in the Close in the mid-16th-19th centuries. I almost feel an intruder, the subtle lighting enhancing the effects of a shadowy past.
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The inhabitants — ranging from those gracing a grand 16th century townhouse to plague victims of the 17th century to the third-generation saw makers who departed in 1902, when the last section was finally interred — are not composites of might-have-beens; the lives recounted are based on real people gleaned from primary documentation (written at the time) and preserved in the Scottish Office of Records and its archives.
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Lighting conveys the supernatural nature of the attraction as much as does the narrative. Only “practicals” –- original methods of lighting the dwellings –- are used, re-creating the actual lighting conditions of the 17th-18th centuries. Candle light illuminates one room, while the glow of firelight casts its spell in another. A single low-watt light bulb brings others into hazy focus.

The dark hallways are lit by lantern-like “bowats,” providing only as much light as was necessary to light the streets at night. The lighting levels in each room are just enough to highlight its architectural features, furniture or inhabitants –- no more or less than was available to the tenants at the time. The concept of atmospheric lighting takes on a whole new dimension.

Rounding one curve reveals a large window, lit by a gloomy, greenish, unhealthy light. A doctor emerges, tending to bed-ridden figures, covered with sores, boils and diseased skin. It’s the home of John Craig, a grave-digger who has already succumbed to the “visitation of the pestilence,” his body awaiting “collection.”

His wife, Janet, and three sons suffer from varying stages of the deadly malady. The Doctor is lancing a boil on the eldest son, Johnnie, with a hot iron to seal and disinfect the wound. Repellant odors arising from the family chamber pot of vomit provide a little more “reality” than even today’s cable TV has prepared me for. By the door there is bread, ale and coal delivered to the quarantined family. The townspeople want to ensure the afflicted stay in their homes, so the healthy have good reason to give generously.

And therein lies the tragedy of Mary King’s Close -– much of its history parallels that of the plague. The epidemic struck its residents fiercely; as the deaths rose, the bodies accumulated outside to be carried away by those designated to perform the loathsome task. Mary King’s Close was a pariah in the neighborhood –- and ultimately fell victim to its own diseased fate. It disappeared, as well.

With more than two dozen stops along the tour path — each accompanied by an intriguing bit of personal history –- I became intimately acquainted with the residents who lived there.
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Mary King herself, of course, who moved here with her four children in 1629 after her husband died. You’ll get to meet her personally and boy, does she have some good stories to tell!

While listening to the story of another early dweller, the narration is interrupted by a scream from across the way. We quickly run to see what happened. The widow Allison Rough, murder weapon in hand, is standing over her son-in-law Alexander Cant, a prominent Burgess of Edinburgh, whose body lay on the floor –- the dowry agreement over which they have been fighting still in his hand. Events leading up to the murder, as well as its aftermath, are wound into a true-to-life rendition of Allison’s memorable life.

Similar stories, some enthralling, others bizarre –- all authenticated by original documentation –- abound as we wend our way around the windy, up-and-down corridors. Shifts in lighting reflect the various circumstances. Not to mention the assorted ghosts (the only residents not authenticated by original documentation) who are said to inhabit the property.

Edinburgh native Jennifer West is awed by this backyard discovery. “This really brings to life all the stories I’ve heard over the years about this part of the city’s history. It’s hard to grasp that these underground chambers were once bustling street-side shops.”

One of the most important — and saddest — among a multitude of rooms that witnessed much sadness is one in which eight-year-old Annie died of the plague in 1645. A Japanese psychic, visiting in 1992, could barely enter the room because of all the misery she felt there. As she turned away, she claimed to feel a tug at her leg. Annie, in rags with long dirty hair, was standing by the window, crying because she had lost her family, her dog and her doll. The psychic brought Annie a doll to comfort her –- and people from around the world have been leaving trinkets and toys ever since.

Key chains, jewelry, dolls, stuffed animals line the walls as a shrine to the sad little child who has long since passed away. ”What a sad story,” laments 10-year-old Harriet Peterson, visiting from London. She slowly adds the small stuffed teddy bear she is hugging to the other offerings.
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There was a lot of life lived within these buildings –- and a lot of lives lost. As one of the most fascinating and unique walks –- literally — through history I’ve yet to tread, the unsettling stories, the ethereal lighting, the serpentine alleyways remained with me, even as I explored the many other, more traditional sites of Historic Edinburgh.

The Real Mary King’s Close is open daily, with tours at 15-minute intervals. Price is adults, $23; children 5-15, $13; seniors and students, $20. For more information, please contact: VisitBritain at 1-877/899-8391 or visit www.realmarykingsclose.com.

Photography by Yuri Krasov

I’ve always known that vacationing in the mountains was for the athletic, physically well-adjusted, and fearless people who don’t mind long hikes, sharp air temperature changes, and heavy backpacks…

Just like the absolute majority of vacationers, I’ve always preferred seaside and leisure to snowy peaks and incessant hiking. However, my recent personal discovery of Tirol region in Austria made me rethink my vacation persuasion.

Our lucky adventure started with the Lufthansa non-stop flight San Francisco- Munich. From there, it was an easy ride with a car-and-driver transportation service, Four Seasons Travel – their office located right at the airport. Soon my husband and I were in Austria; warmly greeted at a charming Hotel Alte Post in a beautiful little town of St. Anton am Arlberg – one of the 12 “Best of the Alps” most traditional Alpine resorts in Europe.

Besides excellent service, based on decades of hospitality culture, Hotel Alte Post boasts a large wellness facility with sauna, steam room, swimming pool, and hot tubs, and a high-class restaurant that serves full breakfast and dinner.
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Through the windows of our spacious, clad in warm pinewood hotel room, I observed an idyllic picture of hilly green pastures with flocks of sheep whose faint bleating and tinkling bells could be heard in the clean mountainous air.

Our first order of business was to get to the top of Valluga (2811m) where from a 360-degree sightseeing platform one could enjoy the view of the Alps in four different countries – Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy.

State-of-the-art Galzigbahn, constructed in 2006, took us on a fast and breathtaking trip above the clouds. Back in 1937, the Galzig cable car was one of the first gondolas in the region, serving 210 persons an hour. The new contemporary lift is based on the technology of a Ferris wheel, making it possible for the passengers to embark and exit at ground level. The unique glass construction of the gondola station looks like a giant crystal, lit up at night.
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A local museum, dedicated to the history of St. Anton and located in a 1912 “Villa Trier” tells a story of Hannes Schneider – the Arlberg ski pioneer. The father of downhill skiing as we know it began his career as a ski instructor in 1907 and founded the world’s first ski school in winter of 1920-21, teaching the guests of the Hotel Alte Post how to shift their weight, and adjust speed and balance on uneven terrain. In his St. Anton ski school, which still exists today, Schneider trained groups of students according to their individual abilities. He introduced the “Arlberg technique” to the international audiences, and then traveled to Japan with a series of lectures and seminars affirming his motherland’s leading role in the development of winter sports.

He also performed as an actor in a number of highly popular ski movies, like Der Weisse Rausch (The White Thrill) directed by Arnold Fanck and shot in St. Anton in the winter of 1930-31.

In 1938 Schneider was imprisoned by the Nazis for repeatedly speaking up against the Nazi regime and supporting Jewish friends. Thanks to international pressure, he was soon released, and in 1939 immigrated to the USA, where he established a famous ski school in New Hampshire, and died in 1955.
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We boarded a train of the Arlberg railway, inaugurated by the Emperor Franz Joseph in 1884 – a masterpiece of alpine engineering still in an excellent working condition today – and headed to Innsbruck, the capital of Tirol.

In Innsbruck, the mountains come up closer to the city – cold, severe, with snow-covered tops. Here, we ascended to the wind-swept heights of Seegrube (1905 м) and Hafelekar (2300 м) in a funicular and two cable cars, just to get a quick look at the endless mountainous country, and the lush emerald greenery of the city below, traversed by the jade-colored river Inn.

Chilled to the bone from a close encounter with the North Chain mountain range, I indulged in a warm delicious Kasspatzl’n mit Roestzwiebln (cheese spaetzle with roasted onions) at the oldest city restaurant, Weisses Roessl, founded in 1590. This slow-food restaurant serves all the farm-to-table traditional specialties stemming from Austrian, Hungarian, and Bohemian culinary roots.
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After lunch we explored the Old Town and its historical landmarks – Goldener Dachl, a golden roof built for Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519) over a balcony from which he liked to observe the knights’ tournaments; St. Anne’s column, commemorating a 1703 Tyrolean victory over Bavarian troops; and a contemporary outdoor artwork of orange banners listing the names of Austria’s courageous citizens who raised their voices against the Nazi regime during WWII.

For a relatively small city of about 125 000 population, Innsbruck has an impressive wealth of museums and other cultural institutions. Kaiserliche Hofburg – the imperial court palace, built as residence of the Tyrolean provincial rulers under Archduke Sigmund the Rich, was then extended by Emperor Maximilian I, and later rebuilt in the Viennese baroque style by Maria Theresa (1717-1780). At the Hofkirche (the court church) there is Emperor Maximilian I’s enormous tomb adorned with marble reliefs and surrounded by 28 larger-than-life bronze statues of the Emperor’s ancestors and heroes of antiquity, with three figures designed by Albrecht Durer.
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An outstanding collection of arms, arts, and wonders of nature was composed at Schloss Ambras by Archduke Ferdinand II (1529-1595). An extensive Habsburg Portrait Gallery displays masterful depictions of the royal family members from Albrecht III to Franz Joseph I.

Tiroler Landesmuseen contains a series of permanent art exhibitions, and also includes a solid square kilometer of Das Tirol Panorama – a massive and magnificently realistic painting. It’s dedicated to the formation of Tyrolean identity at the battle of Bergisel Hill under a peasant leader Andreas Hofer against the Bavarian and French occupiers during the Tyrolean Was of Independence in 1809.

Late in the evening we settled in our cozy room in a recently renovated Grand Hotel Europa in the city center. A hearty multi-course dinner at the hotel restaurant, Europa Stueberl consisted of regional and seasonal specialties, like beef broth with liver dumpling, boiled beef with spinach and potatoes, and Tyrolean dessert of knoedle (dumplings filled with plum jam).
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Restored and rejuvenated after a good night sleep, we headed for the Swarovski Kristallwelten – a lavish display of all things shiny from the world’s leading manufacturer of cut crystal. Coming from Bohemia in the 1880s, the Swarovski brothers found an ideal place for their sparkling product at the foothills of the Austrian Alps. With a major breakthrough – the invention of the machine to substitute hand-cutting – Daniel Swarovski started a trend that continues to dazzle our stage, screen, and party life for over a century.

The company produces zirconia – an artificial diamond with different colors of crystals coming from different metal oxides used in the process, and clear stones with diamond cut. Artists from Salvador Dali to Andy Warhol used Swarovski crystals in their art, and their remarkable artwork is on display today, as well as a number of site-specific exhibitions that change every several months.
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We were in a hurry trying to get to Kufstein – by the Kaiser mountain range, surrounded by meadows, woods, and lakes – in time for the annual cattle drive. Tyrolean cows, which spend all summer in the green mountainous pastures, hardly have any natural enemies, but they might parish in a thunderstorm, or fall down from a steep hillside. When all the cows are safe and sound at the end of the summer season, their homecoming turns into a grandiose celebration in the Tyrolean villages.

We arrived just in time for the festivities. Along the main drag of Kufstein the bands were playing, the shepherds in lederhosen and Tyrolean hats were performing a rhythmical dance with whips, and krapfen pastries were prepared right there, in multiple street stalls.

Soon a herd of well-fed brown-and-white cows appeared at the end of the street. Adorned with headdresses made of flowers and ribbons, like Las Vegas showgirls, the cows proceeded down the street past the cheering and applauding crowd. Long after the last of them returned home to their owners, the people continued to celebrate with song and dance, schnapps and sausages from the local makers.
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We checked in at the new, well-appointed and exceedingly comfortable Hotel Stadt Kufstein, with wonderfully fluffy snow-white beds in spacious nicely decorated rooms; state-of-the-art wellness facility; beautiful restaurant serving buffet breakfast, a chic bar, and above all – excellent service.
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From the large windows of our room we could see the round white tower of Festung Kufstein (Kufstein fortress) – a landmark dating from 1205 – that soars over the neat and clean little town. It contains a museum of the fortress that used to be a military base, an arena of many battles, especially during the war between Bavaria and Tirol, and a prison in the dark times of religious persecutions and “witch” trials. There is also a history museum, and the largest open-air organ in the world, “Heldenorgel,” which can still be heard all over town every day at noon. A lift “Kaiser Maximilian” with a panoramic view takes visitors to the fortress.

Rows of beautiful and well-kempt historical buildings along the main street Roemerhofgasse in the old town center surround a pedestrian zone, studded with souvenir shops and quaint little restaurants.

We had enough time only for two of the Kufstein restaurants, but both were truly remarkable.

A restaurant at the Hotel Andreas Hofer serves seasonal fare, including wild mountain goat (chamoia) and venison during the hunting season. The game is nicely complimented by the traditional vegetables – red cabbage, carrots, and mashed potatoes.

I was blown away by the dessert. Blueberry pancakes Tyrolean style looked dark blue, since they contained more berries than dough, and were simply addictive. After I finished my plate of pancakes, my lips and tongue appeared blue from the abundance of blueberries, but I was in a good company – the majority of the diners at the restaurant were beaming with similar blue-colored smiles.

The oldest restaurant in town, Auracher Loechl, with the “olden days” décor, and very popular with the tourists and locals alike, serves all the Tyrolean specialties, and a remarkable desert, Kaiserschmarrn. The legend has it that once upon a time an imperial chef accidentally cut up a pancake which he was supposed to serve to the Emperor Franz Joseph. He masked his mistake with rum, raisins, and powdered sugar, and since then the dish has acquired notoriety and popularity.
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Our last stop before heading home was at the world-famous Riedel Glass factory in Kufstein. From a second-floor gallery, the visitors can observe a team of skilled glass-blowers in white shirts and sunglasses noiselessly moving in front of the red-hot ovens, transporting bubbles of flaming liquid from one work station to another. They create delicate pieces of glass art – wine glasses that presumably enhance the taste of wines, whimsical decanters, and flower vases – with an ancient mouth-blowing method, and apply time-honored complicated techniques to produce one of a kind handcrafted Riedel glass, cherished throughout the world for its incomparable beauty.

More information at: www.tirol.at, www.stantonamarlberg.com, www.innsbruck.info, www.kufstein.com.

Just 51 miles long and 35 miles wide, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is one of the smallest countries in the world, yet it has all the ingredients of a large country, from modern euro-city to wooded countryside.

Confusingly Luxembourg is the name of the capital city as well as the country, but more of that later.

Our base for the trip was the picture-perfect village of Vianden, thirty miles from the capital and just six miles from the border with Germany. Its main attraction is a gloriously theatrical medieval castle perched on an outcrop overlooking the town. The castle has been the subject of considerable renovation and is well worth the walk up the steep streets or, in summer, a ride on the chairlift.

A great centre for touring on foot, bicycle, car or coach, it is famous for the nut market, usually held on the second Sunday in October. This celebrates the area’s history of walnut production. At one time, a fifth of all Luxembourg’s walnut trees grew in Vianden`s orchards. Now all kinds of walnut based products are on sale at the market including, walnut milk, walnut confectionary, walnut cheese, walnut bread, walnut sausages and (the very potent) walnut liquors and brandy. Indeed, these are so potent that all leave is cancelled at the nearest hospital and a fleet of ambulances stands at the ready on the edge of the village, which is closed to traffic during the event.

French author Victor Hugo stayed in Vianden on several occasions between 1862 and 1871 and during those times was inspired to record its beauty and setting in poetry and prose. In modern day PR terms, Hugo did a good job of promoting Vianden’s attractions to the outside world.
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Less than an hour’s drive brought us to the capital, Luxembourg City, which evolved from a 10th century fortress on a rocky promontory with steep drops to the river below. We had a guided tour of the sights including the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall). Originally a monastery for Franciscan Monks, it was re-modelled in 1838 for its current purpose.
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Another building worth seeing is the Grand Ducal Palace, a modest chateau and official residence of Grand Duke Henri, the reigning monarch. It is guarded by a single soldier, a reflection perhaps that this city is renowned for its safety. It is also a great place for some retail therapy but ladies would do well to forget the heels and wear flat shoes, the cobblestones can be hard to negotiate otherwise.

Luxembourg is well known as a world banking centre and home to the European Court of Justice. This part of the city is built across a bridge on another plateau and full of modern glass and concrete edifices. It was interesting to take a look but there is so much more this country has to offer.

The Moselle river forms a natural 25 mile natural boundary between Luxembourg and Germany and we hopped over to the ancient town of Trier, arguably Germany’s oldest city and dating back to the first century BC. It contains many fascinating buildings from its Roman past, perhaps none more spectacular than the ‘Porta Nigra’ or black gate, which was built around 200 AD.
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The banks of the Moselle contain many vineyards, the main product of which is Riesling, for which Luxembourg is famous. Some of this wine is turned into a smooth sparkling wine called Cremant, using the ‘methode champenoise’. We visited a vineyard, saw the wines being produced and were offered generous samples. The locals are very hospitable. It was a good job we were on a coach trip!

Just when you think this little country has run out of surprises, up pops another. On our way back from the vineyards we drove through an area called Little Switzerland. No, it doesn’t have any mountains, just some rocky outcrops, woodland and a much photographed waterfall.
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It’s a great place to enjoy the fresh air while crunching along the woodland trails, or for the more adventurous, hiking or mountain biking. The Perekop rock is almost 130 ft high, overhangs the road and daredevils can take the staircase carved out of a narrow crevice in the rock to its summit. Watch out if you are driving!
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For such a small country, Luxembourg really does pack in a wide variety of attractions and scenery and, despite being bordered by the much larger France, Germany and Belgium, it is proud of its individuality. The country’s motto is, ‘Mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sin’ (‘We want to remain what we are’). A strong motto for a small land, but then the Grand Duchy is very much its own country.

For more information, visit www.luxembourg.com

What do William Wordsworth, William Yeats and Jemima Puddle-Duck have in common? Well, they all lived in and around the fairy-tale villages of England’s Lake District, but only one of them actually is a fairy tale. And possibly the most famous of the three — at least among the under-10 set. Ms. Puddle-Duck, along with her good friends and neighbors, Peter Rabbit, Samuel Whiskers and Pickles among many others, were brought to life by Beatrix Potter, another famous resident of the Lake District — and the one most responsible for maintaining the environmental integrity of the area since her death in 1943 when she donated 14 properties to the National Trust thereby preserving much of the land that now comprises the Lake District National Park.

Okay, is there anyone who actually made it through childhood without at least a cursory introduction to Peter rabbit, Flopsy and Mopsy and that mean old farmer McGregor? Well, this is where they lived until Beatrix caught them and immortalized them forever in little 5” by 4”-sized books.

Her books sold more than any other children’s stories ever although I suspect Pat the Bunny, Peter’s more tactile cousin, has since given him a run for his money…

So first, something about that Lake District which Beatrix Potter so loved. The countryside is so tantalizingly green the color needs a new more enchanting name.

Quintessentially English replete with requisite sheep, rolling hedgerows, low slung stone walls criss-crossing the landscape into checkerboard squares, slate-roofed stone houses, and hot pink, orange-gold and deep purple explosions of color so vibrant as to rival the most brightly lit of neon Nikes so popular today. And by contrast, in the middle of the district, craggy mountainous regions lend an even more dramatic flair. And, oh yes, then there are the lakes — 16 of them; ergo, the District’s name.
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A world so clichely picturesque, with OMG moments at every turn, which serves to explain the many artists who flocked here to replicate its beauty on canvas. An entire expanse of visual wonderment extending for miles in every direction that makes scenic overlook signs ridiculously redundant. All of which is a walker’s wonderland with public footpaths as plentiful on every country road as Starbucks are on every street corner in the U.S. No wonder Beatrix Potter fell in love.

I saw so many rabbits scampering about as we hiked the countryside, I felt this was an open invitation — as it must have been for Beatrix — to follow them further into their world, even if that turned out to be a very commercial but wonderfully inventive, creative, interactive enterprise appropriately nicknamed The World of Peter Rabbit. But more on that later.

And splattered throughout the countryside are hilly historic towns with cobblestone streets and hidden alleyways that now sport shops, pubs and curbside cafes, with such lyrical names as Branthwaite Brow, All Hollows and Beast Bank Lane. And a lot more stone, this time on buildings, many from the 16th-18th centuries, evoking memories of Renaissance–era maidens and merchants plying their trade, oblivious to the KFC establishment right across the street.

But there is nothing modern about a visit to Hill Top, Beatrix Potter’s home for 38 years and the site of many of her creations’ adventures. Many homes reflect the personalities of their owners — and sometimes even their pets. But rarely is a home so filled with the immediacy of its owner’s creations as is Hill Top, first purchased in 1905, that they appear so alive as to permeate not only the house but the surrounding village and countryside, all of which became additional characters in what were soon to become a series of beloved children’s books. And once you enter the grounds and garden of Hill Top, with all its original furnishings, you are transported back to the world as it was until the day she died. Except for the occasional young visitor who has been known to ask the guides, “So is she Harry Potter’s granny?”
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Pick up “A Tale of Samuel Whiskers” lying about as you walk in and follow the book’s tale as you see the holes where the mice lived that threatened Tom Kitten! You can accompany Pigland Bland as he wanders thru the village and seek to protect Jemima Puddle-Duck’s egg as it lays hidden in the rhubarb patch. You can almost hear the Two Bad Mice discussing the ham and cheese that don’t seem quite edible because they are, of course, from Beatrix’s doll house which is right in front of you in the parlor.
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And not only her stories — but her life. Her desks contain letters she wrote, often illustrated with little cartoons and drawings; the first edition of Peter Rabbit, which started simply as a story written in letter form in September 1893 to cheer up a sick son of her former governess, is available for viewing.

The whole house becomes alive through the illustrations in her stories – or is it that the illustrations become alive because they re-create the reality of her home? The parlor contains a table with some partially eaten biscuits and some correspondence Beatrix was evidently in the process of completing — clearly she is expected to return at any moment…

So much of the house, the grounds and the village reflected in the books remain unchanged, you can relive the delightful tales of your youth in a way no perfunctory read in your own living room can provide.

And indeed every area shop seemingly sells some version of Peter Rabbit. memorabilia. Emblematic of how much he invades the neighborhood, when my husband and I stopped at a local pub for some requisite fish and chips, he asked about the soup of the day. When told by the bartender that it was carrot, he quipped: How appropriate. No doubt Peter Rabbit’s favorite…”
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And remember the rabbits cavorting in the countryside? Well, here’s where their namesake really comes alive. In the downtown section of Bowness-on-Windermere there stands a very different testimonial to the creations of Beatrix Potter. More commercial perhaps but no less intriguing. The World of Beatrix Potter Attractions, unconnected with the National Trust preservation of Hill Top, offers an animated version of all 23 of Potter’s tales brought to life in an indoor re-creation of the Lake District countryside she loved and her lovable characters inhabited complete with sights, sounds and smells.

I mean how thrilling is it to find that Jemima Puddle-Duck was a real duck that lived at Hill Top whose efforts to hatch her own eggs, thwarted by a conniving fox nearby, were protected by Kep the collie, Beatrix’s favorite sheepdog. You can’t get more real life than that — and we’re talking cartoon characters!

Throughout the attraction are life-size dioramas of scenes from her books, sometimes comprising an entire forest, that it’s hard to imagine that they were once only illustrations in a book the size of 4X5 inches. The whole exhibit replicates a stroll through Beatrix Potter’s home and garden.
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Each exhibit entreats the viewer to press a “Find out more” button which provides an explanation of what inspired Beatrix to write that particular story and how she developed those particular characters. Each larger-than-life display lifts the characters from the page to inhabit your consciousness in a way few fairy-tales — or for that matter, adult literary protagonists — ever will. There is so much background information about each character — and there are dozens — that it is almost impossible to absorb it all unless you are a very devoted Beatrix Potter aficionado. It’s a journey through a lifetime of literature.

Adele Wilson from Scotland, with nary a kid in tow was so obviously enthralled by the exhibits that I couldn’t resist asking why. “My granny used to read these books to me at night, and seeing these presentations brings it all back to life. I had forgotten how much I had loved all those stories.” She isn’t alone.

For more information, visit http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hill-top and http://www.peterrabbit.com/en/beatrix_potter/lake_district/the_world_of_beatrix_potter_attraction.

Photography by Emma Krasov

Genève, Switzerland, a rather small city of 186 000 inhabitants is the world center for diplomacy, the birthplace of Red Cross and Geneva Conventions, and home to the United Nations and numerous international humanitarian organizations. Located on the bank of Lac Léman – the largest lake in Europe – surrounded by the Alps and Jura Mountains, Geneva is green, architecturally beautiful, and pedestrian-friendly. Geneva residents are well-educated and open-minded, speak three or four languages, hold important jobs with the 171 diplomatic missions, 35 international organizations linked to the UN, or 250 non-governmental organization. Their quality of life is higher than in some of the richest European capitals.

I flew to Geneva from Zurich in the first class of SWISS. At the airport, I picked up a free train ticket to the city, available to all visitors. Soon I was observing a snowy peak of Mont-Blanc and Jet d’Eau – a 140-meter high water jet in the middle of the lake – from my luxurious room in Hôtel Le Richemond in the 1875 building, previously enjoyed by Marc Chagall, Charlie Chaplin, Louis Armstrong, Rita Hayworth, Sophie Loren, and Andy Warhol. A Geneva Transport Card, handed to me (and all other visitors to the city) at check-in, allowed for free use of public transportation, including boats, and I made a plan to ride closer to the Lake Geneva’s water jet, and explore other attractions.
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A strangely archaic construction in a little park under my window attracted my attention. It was decorated with Gothic columns and sculptures, and “guarded” by mythical griffons. As I’ve learned the next day during my city tour, this copy of the 15th century mausoleum in Verona, Italy, was built in the 1870s, and contained the mummified remains of the infamous Duke of Brunswick Karl II, whose rule was severely criticized not only in his native Germany, but also in Paris and London. A corrupt and inept ruler, the Duke had poor physique, questionable mental health, and suffered from a phobia of being buried under ground. Spending the last years of his life in Geneva’s Hôtel Beau-Rivage, he left his enormous fortune to the city in exchange for being buried above the surface. The Duke’s burial funds were also used to erect several cultural landmarks, like the Opera House and a music conservatory, where composer Franz Liszt used to teach.

As fate would have it, the same opulent hotel became a place of death for another royal person – a sensible, good looking, and popular with the people Empress Elizabeth (Sissi) of Austria. In 1898, an Italian anarchist fatally stabbed her in front of the hotel. Inside, there is a small memorial with her fan, gloves, and other belongings in a glass case.
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The author of “Crime and Punishment,” Fyodor Dostoyevsky, had a sad stay in Geneva, where his newborn daughter Sophia, christened in 1866 Russian orthodox church with gold onion domes, died in 1868. Even before this tragic event Dostoyevsky wasn’t especially fond of Geneva, and called it in his letters “a cold, gray, and silly Protestant city.” It’s a well-known fact that the great Russian writer wasn’t famous for his tolerance. Luckily, Geneva is.
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Humanism and appreciation for life have always been expressed in the views of Geneva’s prominent citizens. As many other places in the center of Europe, Geneva has a long and complex history, ridden with conflicts and conquests. The major difference lies in the fact that history lessons aren’t taught in vain here. In 1815, after the Napoleonic Wars, a diplomat and a state official Charles Pictet de Rochemont came up with an idea of Switzerland’s permanent neutrality, and in 1863, after the Second Italian Independence War, Jean Henri Dunant founded the Red Cross. In 1907, after a series of historical religious conflicts and political turmoil tied to the city’s transitions from French to Italian to German rule, and from Calvinism to Catholicism and back, Geneva adopted a law separating church and state, followed by the most progressive nations of the world.
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As a result of its continuous policy of tolerance and neutrality, Geneva became the largest home for international organizations, and a prospering business and financial center. It’s “green” not only because there are 50 parks and wild life preserves in Geneva, but also because it rejected the use of nuclear power, and directed its efforts to the development of solar and hydraulic energy sources and the use of natural gas instead of coal.

All these and other amazing facts I’ve learned during the walking city tour which took me to the Old Town around the St. Peter’s Cathedral with its 157 steps to the top of the tower; the Reformation Wall – tribute to Europe’s reformers in a magnificent park with old chestnut trees; the largest in Switzerland modern art museum MAMCO, and Quartier des Bains – a contemporary art district with 12 galleries and five larger cultural institutions, and to the Flower Clock that shows the exact time of day in live blooms.

In the city with the centuries-old tradition of watchmaking, I took a tour of the Patek Philippe Museum filled with the wrist watches, pocket watches, pendant watches, brooch-, ring-, and fan watches, enamel miniatures, and musical automata created by the most prestigious brand, founded in 1839.

Overwhelmed with the impressions of the day, I had a very traditional dinner at the 18th century Brasserie de l’Hôtel de Ville in the Old Town. My three-sausage dish, Trilogie genevoise was nicely paired with Calvinus beer…
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Next day I visited the 18th century Italianate village Carouge. My tour guide took me to an award-winning artist-watchmaker; antique furniture repairman; a bookseller of women authors; a fragrant bath products shop; a tea shop, and a hand-woven textiles shop. At the market, I marveled at the brightness of summer fruit and bouquets of roses, peonies, and lilac.
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Then we boarded Savoie – a cruise vessel of SwissBoat on Lake Geneva, and rode to France! Thanks to no-visa passage between the countries, we had lunch in Yvoire – a medieval village with an old castle and cobblestone streets overflown with ivies, climbing roses and begonias.
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And yet, the best lunch I had in my hotel, Le Richemond, where the chefs were trained by the world-famous celebrity Alain Ducasse. On an open terrace of Le Jardin restaurant, I enjoyed market-fresh salad with edible flowers; burrata ravioli in asparagus sauce with tomato confit, and a decadent chocolate macaroon. As if that wasn’t enough to make me feel happy and totally in love with Geneva, a plate of petit fours arrived, containing more chocolate and raspberry treats, and meringue cookies, a.k.a. “kisses” (la bise in French). More information at: www.geneva-tourism.ch.

Photography by Emma Krasov

The majority of tourists come to Frankfurt – Europe’s premier transportation hub – just for a layover at its massive International Airport. Plus, a good amount of businessmen from all over the world flock to the financial capital of Germany to conduct their various businesses.

Meanwhile, Frankfurt am Main, State of Hessen, the fifth largest city in Germany, is located in the heart of Europe and bears its own cultural and historical significance, offering an array of unforgettable experiences for a discerning traveler.

The grand hotel Steigenberger Frankfurter Hof greeted me with impeccable service, artful ambiance, and a spring fragrance of my favorite hyacinths in planters placed on every antique surface under sparkling crystal chandeliers. Founded in 1930 by Albert Steigenberger, and ran for decades by the descendants of the original owner, with dozens of trademark properties all over the world, the massive Frankfurt hotel is lavishly decorated with period furniture, paintings, tapestries, and porcelain from the family art collection.
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I took my sweet time exploring the many facilities of the hotel designed for business and leisure – from tasteful meeting rooms to a grand ballroom that sits 300; from VIP lounge (some guests return here for 40 years!) to a decadent cigar room; and from cozy library to Autorenbar (the authors’ bar) – a place for book signings, high teas, and literary discussions.

There were no authors at the bar (besides myself) but there was a dashing young man with a dazzling smile who offered me a glass of house-made lemonade of black and green teas steeped for three hours, lemon and orange slices, and fresh mint leaves – delish!

Despite this refreshing drink, the moment I arrived in my room with high ceiling, wood wall panels, heavy plush curtains, and snow-white down comforter, I was tempted to curl up on the bed and hit some zzzs for the next 10 to 12 hours, but got a hold of myself upon drinking a couple of espressos from the in-room coffeemaker.
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When I dressed up for the evening and arrived in the lobby to ask for a taxi, the hotel’s head concierge, who’s been with the company since 1966, offered instead a glorious limo service with a uniformed chauffer. I immediately felt very special, and enveloped in the warmest Gastfreundschaft.

Villa Merton, a two Michelin-star restaurant, led by the celebrity chef Matthias Schmidt, born in Frankfurt, takes the notion of local and seasonal to its highest imaginable degree.

In his pursuit to deliver the freshest tastes of the region – inspired by old traditions, driven by new creativity, and comprised of the best ingredients – Chef Schmidt works with local farmers, forest rangers and fishermen from the surrounding mountain ranges and river valleys.

He puts on his guests’ tables the most surprising culinary creations made with dandelion buds, cauliflower stalks, spruce sprouts, and radish fruit – no, not the round red and white root that we all know and use in spring salads, but the tiny green fruits, looking like little pepper pods and found between the radish leaves, usually discarded by the less ambitious chefs.

There are no peppers in the chef’s kitchen – they are not local! As well as no olive oil, citrus, coffee, chocolate, and other things from faraway lands we seem to be addicted to.

There are plenty of German vegetables and herbs, local fish and game, regional cheeses, aromatic bread and butter from the organic Dottenfelderhof farm, and Luisenhaller salt from the Baltic Sea.

“I work on regional dishes that you can’t eat anywhere else,” said Chef Schmidt. “It’s good for our bodies, and it’s good for the planet. It takes time to develop a new dish with unusual ingredients, and sometimes hard to get it right, but I continue to try, or I put the idea away, and try something different.”

Of all the dishes of my memorable multi-course tasting dinner there wasn’t a single one short of amazing! With so much creativity and dedication invested in every morsel, sometimes arranged with tweezers, each plate looked like an art piece and contained wonderful surprises.

A pouched quail egg was served in a nest of row potato shavings.
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A tiny smoked piece of wild goat meat was garnished with a bead of goat cheese dusted with elderberry flowers and a tart rowan berry. The dish was served on a construction of the animal’s horns.

A sour cream cookie with green juniper and pickled lemony spruce sprouts was brought to the table in a cookie tin.

Jerusalem artichoke with sunflower oil colored with charcoal, chickweed, and frozen horseradish adding a hot/cold kick to the mash, was paired with 2007 St Anton Riesling of clean minerality, hints of petrol and sweetness.

Roasted duck breast was accompanied by a slice of duck heart and a crispy pointed cabbage leaf. Fresh chives popped against a tad of sour cream in duck gravy. With that, I had one of the best reds in Germany – 2011 Schneider Steinsatz – 71% cab Franc, 21% merlot, and 8% cab sauv.

Between the courses, before cheese and dessert I received a refresher of frozen parsley root juice with wild apple puree.

A very traditional Frankfurt dish, “marinated hand cheese with music” was creatively reinvented and contained crunchy cubes of roasted bread, spring onion whites, pimpernel mousse, and caraway seeds jelly. With that I had the most delightful local staple – apple wine redolent of juicy brined apples.
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My final course was a mother’s dream come true – vegetables for dessert! First, I was presented with a glass jar of warm roasted carrot seeds to inhale and appreciate the sweet smell. Then bright orange carrot coins arrived garnished with frozen diced purple carrot, crushed rowan berries, chamomile flowers, and carrot seeds. That was my kind of dessert – sugarless, yet dreamy.

Early next morning, after an excellent breakfast at the hotel’s Hofgarten restaurant I was ready to explore the vibrant and elegant city.
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On our stroll through the compact and walkable city center, my tour guide started with the introduction of “Mainhattan” – a banking district known for its spectacular skyscrapers.

“People come from all over the county just to look at them,” she said. “Even in Berlin and Cologne there is nothing like these.” Then she looked at me and said, “Well, you are from America, you might not appreciate them.” But I did appreciate them! Especially after she explained to me the asymmetrical forms of the buildings dictated by the German law that requires all workplaces in offices to have access to daylight. I was further impressed by their other features, like natural air conditioning and solar panels.

We were standing at the edge of Rossmarkt looking at the Gutenberg monument constructed in 1858 by Eduard Schmidt von der Launitz. The inventor of the printing press, Johannes Gutenberg, who lived in Frankfurt in mid-15th century, shares the monument space with his collaborators Peter Schöffer and Hans Fust, surrounded by the four allegorical figures of theology, poetry, natural science and industry that sit by their feet representing the main reasons for printing.
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The most impressive contemporary building nearby with a dazzling glass funnel in the middle of its window-wall is one of Germany’s most popular shopping centers, MyZeil. Its multiple floors are flooded with natural light, enveloped in no-hard-corners hallway-escalator system, and provide shopping therapy with regional and international labels to 13 000 shoppers a day.

From here, a short walk away is Goethehaus – the birthplace of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – the genius poet and playwright, notorious womanizer and anti-cleric scientist. Born in this house “On the 28th of August 1749, as the midday bell struck twelve…” and “The stars were favorable,” he spent many years here, writing his masterpieces – “The Sorrows of Young Werther” and the beginning of “Faust”.
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Die Kleinmarkthalle (“a small market hall”) in downtown area is an obvious misnomer. The international covered market is huge, overflowing with earthly delights of all imaginable origins, and featuring artisanal breads, meats, and ripe, freshly picked delicacies like mangoes from Peru and aubergines from Sicily. Here I discovered a traditional green Frankfurt specialty Grüne Sosse made of seven herbs into a delectable accompaniment to hard-boiled eggs, potatoes, or just about anything!
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We walked by the dark and imposing Frankfurt Cathedral with its 95-meter spire. Properly called Dom St. Bartholomäus and built in the 15th century, it became a site of elections of 25 and coronations of 10 emperors of the Holy Roman Empire and kings of Germany, since Frankfurt was a major city of the Empire.

On our tour I’ve learned about more than 100 city museums, and even enjoyed a well-curated show, “Esprit Montmartre” dedicated to bohemian life in Pars circa 1900 at Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt – one of the most recognized art-exhibition institutions in Europe. Early paintings, hardly known to the general public, by Van Gogh, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, and other modernist iconoclasts were presented here in historical and cultural context of the era.

We had a nice lunch at Zu Tisch bei Michael Frank serving simple farm-fresh daily specials before heading to the Römerberg square with the world-famous statue of goddess Justitia at the top of the 1543 fountain Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen. At times of historic coronations, the fountain was filled with wine, which caused the misbehaving city dwellers to damage the poor goddess of justice more than once.
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After many repairs and replacements, the current bronze statue was installed by a Frankfurt wine merchant in the 19th century. The goddess is lacking her traditional blindfold – a voucher of her objectivity. “She need to keep an eye on the city hall across the square,” joked my tour guide.

We proceeded past Frankfurt Museum Embankment along River Main with museums of art, architecture, film, communication, world cultures, applied art, Jewish history, children’s museum, etc., and boarded a Primus Linie cruise boat for a seasonal overview of the city’s gorgeous skyline and its many remarkable bridges.
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That night, true to my principle to eat local in any location in the world I happen to be at the moment, I met my new Frankfurt friend Vanessa at the overcrowded boisterous Apfelwein Wagner. We sat at one of the many communal tables next to other healthy eaters devouring lamb shanks, pork knuckles, and Grüne Sosse with eggs and potatoes. By now I’ve realized that sweet and tangy apple wine – Frankfurt’s most popular beverage, served here in a traditional blue-grey jug called Bembel became my new favorite – just like the city itself. More information at: www.frankfurt-tourismus.de

Photography by Yuri Krasov

At Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, Italy, a pleasant-mannered manager will let you know that some guests come back to vacation here for decades, and that some suites are booked for years ahead. What life! Even a short break by the serene Lake Como framed by palm trees and wisteria shrubs with snowy Alpine peaks on the background have a miraculous power to sooth and restore your sole. I’ve found myself in a constant state of quiet exaltation while basking in the calm and beauty of this magical part of the world at the beginning of this year’s spring-summer season. Bellagio – the real thing, not a Vegas casino resort – is a picturesque little town in Lombardy, with “beauty” (bella) imbedded in its very name. However, the historical sources attribute it to the Latin Bilacus (two lakes) since the “pearl of Lake Como” is located between the two long “legs” that comprise the lake’s shape of a “running man.” Ancient Romans, who gave this place its Latin name, came to appreciate this uniquely magnificent area, poetically described by the consul and writer Pliny the Younger who owned real estate here in the first century CE. In a letter to his friend, he described two of his villas – one “high up on the rocks” and another “at its feet… on the lake shore” as metaphors for Tragedy and Comedy. “Each has its attractions… This one embraces a single bay with a gentle curve, that one stands on a prominent outcrop dividing two bays. That one does not feel the waves, this one breaks them. From that one you can watch the fishermen, from this one you can fish yourself…” Since then, very little has changed in the charming appearance of the crystal-blue glacial lake. 6342341_orig Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni by the water edge was built as a summer home for the wife of Count Frizzoni, and inaugurated on her birthday in 1854. For some reason Contessa hated “the wide arches, the portico, the cornice with garlands and cherubs, all combined to give an air both sober and enchanting… the most classical of Italian gardens, laid out on different levels with a spectacular stairway linking the levels of the villa with those outside…” and many other breathtaking features admired by her contemporaries. The villa was immediately sold, changed hands a couple of times, and eventually accepted its new successful destiny as a grand hotel. At the end of the WWI in 1918 it was acquired by a Swiss hotelier Arturo Bucher. Thanks to his many innovations and improvements (like in-room bathrooms), extreme attention to the quality of service, and his diligent preservation of the original décor and furnishings, the hotel became highly popular with British lords, Spanish royals, Russian nobles, American presidents, and Hollywood movie stars. Today, the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni is owned and operated by the grandson of Arturo Bucher – Gianfranco Bucher and his wife, Dusia – a Polish woman who came to Switzerland in the 1990s to study hospitality and met her future husband there. The hotel director Giuseppe Spinelli and manager Antonio Calzolaro have been working here for several decades, overseeing the many levels of supreme hospitality and excellent customer service felt on every step in the luxurious rooms and lavishly decorated halls of Villa Serbelloni. On the night of our arrival I couldn’t tear myself off the wide open window of our room overlooking the lake. A full moon high above the outlines of palm trees was reflected in the pool in front of the hotel and filled it with its silvery calm. The night was quiet and profoundly blue. The gradually cooling night air was fragrant with spring blossoms. 3681717_orig In the morning, our delectable European breakfast was served at the opulent Salone Reale with frescoed ceiling, mirrored walls, and Murano glass chandeliers. Micheline-starred Executive Chef Ettore Bocchia reins at the hotel kitchen, supplemented daily with fresh produce from the neighboring villages and other regions of Italy. One of the hotel restaurants, La Goletta, serves fish from the lake, house-made pasta, and endless varieties of pizza. At the other – an upscale Ristorante Mistral, Chef Bocchia demonstrates his talent and skill in molecular cooking, being the first chef in Italy to appropriate it in his Mediterranean dishes. His method is based on scientific approach to the processes of heating and cooling with a goal of preserving the nutrients of fresh row ingredients. On the night we dined, chef’s tasting menu included Sicilian red prawns with guacamole ice cream, coconut cream, and cuttlefish ink waffles; tortellini with peacock breast meat and chanterelles; turbot fried in sugar; low-temp cooked veal with inuline sabayon, and baked pineapple with nitrogen-frozen ice cream. At the Villa Serbelloni Spa several types of heavenly massage await a weary traveler, as well as an indoor pool – a nice alternative to the beautiful outdoor one in inclement weather. At the hotel lobby, live music plays every night, way into the starry hours, and there is no reason to leave the premises of the enchanted villa ever… ever… but it would be unwise to miss all the other attractions of Lake Como that are so close to the central location of the grand hotel. 5188245_orig Next day, after a short shopping excursion to the Bellagio boutiques selling everything from marinated porcinis to Como silk shawls and Italian leather footwear, we sat for lunch at Ristorante Bilacus before taking a walking tour of Villa Melzi. Known for its gardens with century-old camellias, azaleas, and rhododendrons, the villa built by Francesco Melzi d’Eril (1742-1816) the former vice-president of the Italian Republic, contains his collection of ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman sculptures placed everywhere among the plants. 1868839_orig The stunningly majestic Villa del Balbianello in a town of Lenno on the opposite shore of the lake was built as a residence for Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini at the end of the 18th century. Lately it belonged to a world traveler, North Pole explorer, and the conqueror of Mt. Everest Guido Monzino, who left it in his will to Fondo Ambiente Italiano – a non-profit safeguarding Italy’s artistic and natural heritage. Due to its inimitable beauty and romantic atmosphere the Villa “starred” in Hollywood movies Casino Royale and Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones. In the middle of the lake there is one and only small island of Comacina, formerly a sacred site of Roman temples and consecutive churches. Back in 1169, the island fell victim to its siding with Milan against Como, and was burnt to the ground and cursed for centuries. Today, a very popular restaurant Locanda dell’Isola Comacina stands strong in defiance of the ancient curse, serving the same elaborate menu to crowds of tourists since 1949. 7141660_orig In the town of Varenna, which incidentally became a new home to Comacina’s exiled population, Villa Monastero presents another shining example of a wonderfully preserved historic dwelling. First, it was home to a monastery, and then was transformed into a temple of science by its 20th century owner, Marco de Marchi. A site of many international scientific conferences, the villa hosted Enrico Fermi in 1954 – an event, commemorated by a bronze plaque in a former chapel turned into a lecture hall. Every room at the villa is decorated in a different style and meticulously furnished with period antiques, like the gothic Sala Nera with exquisitely carved walnut, or rococo Sala Rosa with red silk upholstery and gilded wood. From the terrace of Villa Monastero you can see all three branches of the “running man” lake, and a 500-year-old magnolia tree still blossoming with heavy white flowers. There is a small botanic garden in front of the villa with Gian Battista Comolli’s sculptural group La clemenza di Tito “The Clemency of Titus” in white marble in a striking neoclassical style. It depicts the Roman Emperor Titus, his wife Vitellia and his friend Sextus, her accomplice in Titus’s failed assassination attempt. With Sextus and Vitellia repenting, the kind emperor pardons the conspirators with dramatic hand gestures. After a highly educational tour of the villa it feels good to relax at lunch time in a modernly designed dining room of Varenna Mon Amour restaurant with a glass of local white and a plate of frutti di mare supplemented with Lake Como fresh catch. More information and room reservations at: www.villaserbelloni.com 7637467_orig