Budapest Essentials …

It’s been called the “Pearl of the Danube” — and no wonder. For elegance and feel, Budapest easily rivals any other major capital city in Europe. The artery that defines it is the Danube, one of the world’s most celebrated waterways and also one of the most popular for European river cruising. Spend any time at all in this grand city, and it’s easy to understand why the riverbanks of Budapest — that’s right, the riverbanks — have been assigned UNESCO World Heritage status.

The first thing you need to know about Budapest: It, in effect, operates as two cities with distinctly different personalities. Buda, on the west bank of the Duna (as the Danube is called), is hilly and houses the restored Castle District, a cultural and arts center known for its famed Matthias Church, Royal Palace and Fishermen’s Bastion, a rampart that offers the best views in town. The entire district is a real scene-stealer.

Pest, on the east bank, is the hub for dining, shopping, banking and nightlife. There you’ll find the pedestrian shopping zone, Vaci Utca; Heroes’ Square; the old Jewish quarter; the not-to-miss Andrassy, Budapest’s grandest avenue; and the imposing neo-Gothic Parliament, modeled after the British version in London.

Budapest’s history dates back to the third century, when Celtic warriors occupied the area. Study the place a bit, and you’ll find yourself wondering: Who didn’t invade the city? The Romans, Magyars, Mongols, Ottoman Turks, Austrians, Germans and Soviets have all played starring roles in Budapest’s longstanding municipal drama. Hungarians are said to be famously pessimistic and cynical — maybe that history explains why. As one guide told us, “We lost all our battles, but we celebrated all our defeats.”

Budapest is a town that’s been destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries — part of the reason for its eclectic architecture. Its current skyline reflects the building programs and styles of the turn of the 20th century. For my part, I agree with Claudio Magris, who writes in his travel memoir, “Danube,” that “Budapest is the loveliest city on the Danube. It has a crafty way of being its own stage-set.”

What to See

A maze of cobbled streets and medieval courtyards, the Castle District is Budapest’s crowning achievement — literally. It hangs grandly above the city, and the lovely Matthias Church that is its centerpiece is known locally as “the coronation church.” Austria’s Franz Josef was crowned king of Hungary there in 1867 to the strains of Franz Liszt’s coronation mass, composed especially for the occasion. Today, as it has for centuries, the rampart next to the 700-year-old church offers incomparable views of the Danube and Pest. (There’s also a tourism office next to the church.) The scene of battles and wars since the 13th century, the Castle District is home to the former Royal Palace, one of Hungary’s most important national symbols.

There are shops and restaurants in the complex in addition to a number of other attractions, including the Budapest History Museum and the House of Hungarian Wines. The wine shop houses more than 700 wines from the country’s 22 growing regions. For a small fee, samples are available.
Andrassy Ut, the city’s grandest boulevard, is a 2.5-kilometer expanse, considered so special that the street was granted World Heritage status by UNESCO in 2002.

There you’ll find the stunning State Opera House, opened in 1884; chic boutiques and grand villas with gardens; Franz Liszt Square with its open-air cafes; and, at the very end, Heroes’ Square. No visit to Budapest would be complete without a walk around the magnificent square, dominated by the Millenary Monument. The monument is topped by the Archangel Gabriel, credited with converting the pagan Magyars to Christianity. At the base of the column are seven figures on horseback, representing the Magyar tribes.

Across from the square is the Museum of Fine Arts and its showcase of Old Masters from outside Hungary. The Spanish, Italian and Dutch collections are particularly worth a look.

The architecturally eclectic St. Stephen’s Basilica is the largest Roman Catholic church in the country, and took more than five decades to build. The main attraction here is the mummified hand of St. Stephen, the first king of Hungary and founder of the nation; his hand is housed in the reliquary.
In the late 1930’s, the Old Jewish Quarter was a thriving community with about 200,000 Jews. Most perished in the Holocaust.

Today, the Great Synagogue, the world’s second-largest after Temple Emanu-El in New York City, stands tall in the now-shabby neighborhood. Seating 3,000 people and built between 1854 and 1859 by a Viennese architect, the synagogue, with its onion-shaped domes, looks Moorish. The complex also includes a Hall of Heroes, where a Monument of Hungarian-Jewish Martyrs was erected in 1991; a Jewish Museum; and a Holocaust memorial room.

It’s not in the Jewish Quarter, but the Holocaust Shoe Memorial — on the riverbank, just south of Parliament — is especially moving. The simple memorial, erected in 2005, features 60 pairs of cast-iron shoes, representing thousands of Jews who were shot on that spot by soldiers in World War II. Many fell or were pushed into the icy Danube and died.

Said to be one of the most beautiful McDonald’s restaurants on the planet, the fast-food outlet at Nyugati Railway Terminal is the largest in Hungary with its two-story Baroque interior crafted in the style of early 20th-century Budapest. Next door is the WestEnd City Center, the best shopping mall in Budapest.

The crowded Turkish baths are to Budapest what coffeehouses are to Vienna. This is where friends come to meet, gossip and relax in healing waters that are fed by the 120 thermal springs that feed the Danube. Among the most popular is Szechenyi Bath and Spa, located in a sumptuous yellow building at City Park, just above Heroes’ Square. There are indoor and outdoor pools, and it’s not unusual to see bathers playing chess on floating game boards. It’s a neat way to mingle with the locals.

Take a 20-minute detour out of the city to Godollo Royal Palace, the second-largest Baroque palace after Versailles. A favorite resort of Emperor Franz Josef and his Austrian Queen Elisabeth, the palace has a Grand Hall with marble-covered walls and gilded stucco ceilings; a Riding Hall; and the recently restored Baroque Theatre, now the venue for performances of chamber music and opera. If you’re lucky, you might catch a concert.

For a day trip into medieval Hungary, head to Esztergom, which delivers on two fronts: historical tradition and location. Situated on the scenic Danube Bend on the border between Hungary and Slovakia, this was the birthplace of St. Stephen — crowned there on Christmas Day in 1000 AD. Be sure to stop at Basilica, which was completed in the 1860’s, and the Bakocz chapel, built in 1510 by Florentine craftsmen, dismantled in the Turkish occupation and reassembled in 1823. You may also want to continue to Visegrad, whose heritage dates to the New Stone Age.

Where to Eat

Hungary has tasty national cuisine, much of it seasoned with paprika, which appears on restaurant tables beside the salt and pepper. Among the country’s signature dishes: goulash, a thick beef soup cooked with onions and potatoes; fisherman’s soup, a mixture of boiled fish, tomatoes, green peppers and paprika; chicken paprika; grilled fresh-water fish; and fried or grilled goose liver. Credit cards are widely accepted in restaurants. As for tipping, it’s customary to tip your waiter 10 percent, but be sure to check the bill first. Increasingly, the tip is included. It’s okay to tip in U.S. dollars or euros.

Long the centerpiece of Budapest’s cafe society, Gerbeaud is more than a sweet shop — it’s a Hungarian cultural institution. Known for its coffee and torte cakes, the cafe has classic high ceilings with crystal chandeliers, polished wood and marble, and thick curtains. Little has changed since it opened 150 years ago. The patisserie is sweetly situated on Pest’s Vorosmarty Square. The neo-Classical building also houses a pub with beer that’s brewed on-site, as well as a new gourmet restaurant, the Onyx.

For elegant dining, Gundel lives up to its legend. The award-winning restaurant, open under its current name since 1910, is located in a late 19th-century palace at Allatkerti Korut 2 in City Park, just a two-minute walk from Heroes’ Square. Gundel, with its innovative menu, is known — and deservedly so — for creating new spins on traditional classics. It can be a little stiff, though the formality eases up a bit during the Sunday lunch buffet. In the evening, men must wear jackets.

A local favorite for special outings, Karpatia Etterem, with its medieval interiors, will remind guests of Matthias Church. Situated in the courtyard of a former monastery, the restaurant specializes in traditional Hungarian cuisine, accompanied by traditional gypsy music, but also offers Mediterranean, Asian and Latin American fare. In addition to the restaurant, which is only open for dinner, there’s a less formal brasserie where you can grab lunch or snacks.

Budapest has a surprising number of Italian restaurants, and Fausto’s is one of the best established and most beloved. This elegant restaurant is the perfect place for a splurge, featuring dishes like lamb chops with goat cheese-flavored gnocchi and Mediterranean fish soup. For a less formal atmosphere but equally delightful Italian fare, try its sister restaurant, Osteria.

Hearty Jewish and Hungarian dishes — like matzo ball soup and roast goose leg with mashed potatoes and steamed cabbage — are on the menu at cozy Koleves (Stone Soup). The menu, which emphasizes seasonal and fresh ingredients, changes on a regular basis, and the wine list offers a selection of Hungarian options. Due to its popularity with visitors and locals alike, reservations are recommended.

Where to Stay

As Budapest’s popularity grows among visitors to Europe, its hotels have filled and rates have risen accordingly — but it’s still a bargain when compared to other major European capitals. Rates are often discounted during the winter months, when tourist numbers are down. Expect rate hikes over the summer and during holiday periods, especially the Formula One Grand Prix event held each August.

The cheapest places to stay are rooms in private homes, which the local tourist office can often help you find. There are also many inexpensive pensions and budget hotels, though these may be located farther outside the city center and lack amenities such as air-conditioning; ask before booking.

For a lavish and luxurious stay, head to the Corinthia Hotel Budapest, with its elegant historic facade and truly opulent spa (indulgences include a swimming pool, Niagara bathtubs and tropical rain showers, among others).

The property first opened as a luxury hotel back in 1896 (Josephine Baker stayed here in the 1920’s), and has since been fully restored. If your budget permits, opt for an executive room or suite; you’ll get free entrance to the business lounge where you can relax and enjoy complimentary drinks and snacks. All rooms, executive or not, offer marble bathrooms and free wireless Internet access. The hotel is comfortably located with easy access to public transportation.

Tucked away in an elegant 19th-century building is the Kapital Inn. Its four guestrooms are colorfully and stylishly decorated, and offer flat-screen TV’s, DVD players with a library of movies, free wireless Internet access and a complimentary minibar. To guarantee a private bathroom, book one of the “Deluxe” rooms. (A single bathroom is shared by guests staying in the two “Standard” rooms.) Weather permitting, breakfast is served outdoors on the lovely rooftop terrace. Note: This historic property is not wheelchair-accessible, and there is no elevator to the guestrooms.

For location and comfort, it’s hard to beat the Hilton Budapest next to Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion in the Castle District. The hotel has everything you’d expect of a Hilton: spacious rooms with flat-screen TV’s; stylish toiletries; and wireless high-speed Internet access throughout the hotel. There’s a restaurant that’s open all day and a lobby bar with views of Parliament across the Danube. Be sure to ask for a room with a view of the river.

A favorite of cruise lines, Best Western Hotel Hungaria is located near the Elizabeth Bridge in downtown Pest, so it’s close to many of the highlights. Best yet, it’s right next to Karpatia, the popular Hungarian restaurant. On-site, the hotel has two restaurants, a cocktail lounge and a fitness center. Computers are available, and there’s high-speed Internet access. The hotel also has excellent public transportation options with the Metro nearby.

The prime attractions at the Carlton Hotel are its affordable rates and its ultra-convenient location for sightseeing — it’s on the Buda side of the city at the foot of Castle Hill, just a short walk away from the Chain Bridge to Pest. Most of the city’s top attractions are within walking distance; for those that aren’t, you can easily catch the bus or Metro nearby. Rooms at the Carlton are basic but clean and comfortable enough, and the nightly rates include buffet breakfast and free Internet access.

Where to Shop

There’s terrific shopping in Budapest — at all manner of venues. Among the most popular souvenirs: hot or sweet paprika, the national spice; dried salami; Tokaji wine; Herend porcelain; cut glass; Helia, a facial cream made from the extract of sunflower seeds; embroidery; and Unicum, an herbal digestive sold in a distinctive round, black bottle with a red cross on it. As they say in Hungary, “It is good before, after and the day after.”

Vaci Utca is a wonderful pedestrian shopping street filled with gift shops, galleries, jewelers and boutiques. Also not to miss: a covered farmer’s market at the foot of Liberty Bridge on Vamhaz Korut at Vaci Utca’s southern terminus. It’s in an unmistakable building that looks like a railroad station with a yellow, green and red roof. Locals go there to buy groceries, but it’s also loaded with inexpensive souvenirs. Many of the market vendors accept U.S. dollars and euros (the local currency is the Hungarian forint), but ask first to be sure.

During the holiday season, you’ll find an outdoor Christmas market in Vorosmarty Square, just off of Vaci Utca.

Typically, shops open around 10 a.m. and close at 6 p.m. Many businesses close at 1 p.m. on Saturdays.

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–written by Ellen Uzelac
for the Independent Traveler.comLink to Article:

48 Hours In: Barcelona

Whether you seek beaches, shops, cuisine or culture, follow in the footsteps of Columbus and explore Spain’s glorious second city, writes Simon Calder


Travel essentials
Why go now?
Culture, cuisine and conviviality: the Catalan capital is superlative in every dimension. Fares are falling in line with the temperature, though the warm autumn has lingered in Barcelona this week. And the latest addition to the city’s spectacular skyline, the W Hotel, opened 10 days ago.

Touch down
Barcelona airport is on the coast 12km south-west of the city. Most “full-service” airlines, including BA and Iberia from Heathrow, use the brand-new Terminal 1. The easiest way in to the city is on the A1 Aerobus, which leaves about every 10 minutes and costs €5 for the half-hour journey to Plaça Catalunya (1).

Budget airlines, including easyJet from Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, Bristol and Liverpool, Jet2 from Leeds/Bradford, and Monarch and Bmibaby, use the older Terminal 2. The Aerobus A2 from here costs only €4.25. Alternatively, walk to the airport railway station for the half-hourly service to Passeig de Gràcia station (2); while the one-way fare is €2.80, if you invest €7.70 on a 10-trip pass, you can get into town for just 77c, and connect there for any other train, tram, bus or Metro service within 75 minutes. You can also have nine more journeys on public transport when you get there. Ryanair serves Barcelona via both Girona and Reus airports, with connections by bus to the terminal at Estació Nord (3).

The most civilised way to arrive in Barcelona is by the overnight train from Paris (with connections from London St Pancras), terminating at the Estació de França (4).

Get your bearings
Plaça Catalunya (1) is at the heart of Barcelona, a vast square where the Barri Gòtic (Old Town) meets the Eixample (Extension) and Metro, bus and suburban train services converge. The main tourist office is underground on the Corte Inglés side of the square (open 9am-8pm daily, 00 34 93 285 3834;; other kiosks are dotted around the city.
South from here, the Ramblas weaves towards the Mediterranean, punctuated by the statue of Columbus (5) – where the explorer reputedly landed after his first voyage to the New World.
Other key locations in the centre include the ornate, palm-filled Plaça Reial (6), and the bulky and disjointed Cathedral (7), which squats on the northern edge of the old Roman city of Barcino.

Check in
I paid €30 without breakfast at the cheap and central Hostal Galerías Maldà (8), a rambling old mansion tucked inside a shopping arcade at Carrer del Pi. The most stylish property in the centre is the Grand Hotel Central (9) at Vía Laietana 30 (00 34 93 295 7900; grandhotelcentral. com), created in a 1926 building and offering facilities from bike rental to an amazing infinity pool on the roof. Double rooms start at €140, excluding breakfast. The boutique and luxury hotel specialist Mr & Mrs Smith is offering Independent readers 25 per cent off suites; see mrandmrssmith.
The latest addition to the accommodation register is the spectacular W Barcelona (10), (Plaça de la Rosa dels Vents 1; 00 34 93 295 2800;, perched at the end of one arm of the port, jutting into the Mediterranean. A double room costs €270 excluding breakfast.

Day one
Take a view
You need not even climb the Monument to Columbus (5) to be bowled over by the dramatic architecture of Barcelona. The column at the southern end of the Ramblas is flanked with elaborate statuary and surrounded by handsome buildings. If you wish to take the lift to the top, it opens 10am-6pm daily and costs €3.

Take a hike
Start at the Columbus Monument (5) and strike inland along the Ramblas, the main tourist avenue, which has a mesmerising range of human statues, flower stalls and pavement cafés. Halfway up, divert through the Galería Bacardi to the palm-filled Plaça Reial (6), about as architecturally uniform as the older parts of Barcelona get. Dive back on to the Ramblas, and call in at Mercat de Sant Josep (11), also known as La Boquería (8am-8.30pm daily except Sunday). It resembles a Victorian railway terminus filled with a colourful feast of fruit, vegetables and cheeses.
Watch out for some spectacular façades, and just before the Plaça Catalunya, refresh yourself from the Font de Canaletes – a ritual supposed to guarantee a return to the city.
Catch your breath at the Plaça, then head east to plunge into the Roman city. Head south on Avinguda Portal de l’Angel, which quickly narrows to funnel you into the ancient heart of the city along its continuation, Carrer dels Arcs. Just before you pass the cathedral (7) to your left, you can see fragments of the Roman walls and a reconstructed section of aqueduct. The cloisters of the cathedral are worth visiting: a haven filled with orange trees and palms, the pool in the centre has its own flock of geese. The cathedral’s magnificent nave is also worth seeing (open 10am-2pm on Sundays; 9am-1pm and 5pm-8pm on other days).

Continue south to the Plaça Sant Jaume (12), where the palaces of the municipal and regional authorities stare at each other, and turn left into the Born quarter – best sampled on Vía Argentería, which stretches down to the beautiful 14th-century church of Santa María del Mar (13). If it is open (hours are erratic) you can walk the length of it, and emerge at the far end on the broad Passeig del Born. Turn right down Carrer Rec, whose colonnades provide shade for a range of arty shops and a flavour of Cuba. The hike concludes at the breathtaking Estació de França (4).

Lunch on the run
If you have picked up a picnic, head a few metres along to the Parc Ciutadella (14). If not, wander a few blocks south to Carrer de Ginebra (15) in Barceloneta, and choose between the adjacent temptations of El Lobito at no 9 and Bar Jai-ca Tapas at no 13.

Window shopping
El Corte Inglés dominates the retail offering, with a huge department store on Plaça Catalunya (1) and another a block south of it on Avinguda Portal de l’Angel – where you will also find plenty of familiar upmarket brands. But for fascinating individual stores offering trinkets, chocolate and art, wander the length of Carrer de Petritxol (16), whose southern entrance is dominated by the retro ironmongers, Josep Roca.

An aperitif
At Taller de Tapas (17) at Argentería 51, a sharp, modern façade conceals old vaults that are ideal for conspiratorial sipping (cava is €11.85 a bottle), and nibbling of tapas: these snacks start at less than €3 a dish. If you are not inclined to fit in with the local habit of dining from around 10pm, you can easily feast here. And on fine evenings, you can sit out on the small square opposite, though you will pay a 10 per cent premium for the privilege.

Dining with the locals
At La Fonda (18) at Passatge Escudellers 1 (00 34 93 301 7515), you can dine splendidly on Catalan dishes (seafood an inevitable speciality) in faux-tropical surroundings for reasonable prices: a filling main course is typically under €20, with cheap but good house wine.

Day two
Sunday morning: go to church
Today is partly devoted to the great Catalan Modernist architect Antoni Gaudí. Start at the Sagrada Família (19) (00 34 93 207 3031;, an “expiatory temple” that has been under construction for over a century. Even as a work in progress, Gaudí’s startling nest of soaring steeples is Barcelona’s most recognisable symbol. Open 9am-6pm daily; admission €11.

Out to brunch
Close to the city’s cathedral, the Basque dishes at the Orio “Euskal Taberna” (20) at the corner of Carrer de Ferran and Passatge del Credit are on offer from 10am to midnight daily; you can choose from cockles, clams and cheeses, or simply €5 pastries (00 34 90 252 0522). If you prefer to lock in to a fixed-price repast, then the White Bar (21) on the corner of Carrer Princesa and Carrer Comerç (00 34 93 295 4652) offers a good solution 7.30-11am daily: an €8.50 buffet breakfast.

Take a ride
The dominant feature of the Barceloneta district is the gaunt skeleton of the Sant Sebastià tower (22), at the eastern end of the Teleférico – an astonishing early 20th-century piece of transport infrastructure that swoops across the harbour, providing the 18 or 19 passengers with superb views as it sweeps via the presently inactive Torre Jaume I (23) to the hillside at Montjuïc (24). The €9 one-way trip (€12.50 return) is very popular, and waiting times can be long.

A walk in the park
Montjuïc (24), the lungs of Barcelona, is worth exploring. Then take the funicular from the upper station down to Paral.lel on Line 3 of the Metro, and hop on the train to Lesseps, about 10 minutes’ walk from Parc Güell (25). Entering the park feels like walking into a fairy tale. The park also contains a house once inhabited by Gaudí, which is now a museum that can be visited for €5 (Casa Museu Gaudi, 00 34 93 219 3811), open 10am-8pm daily.

Cultural afternoon
When Gaudí wasn’t designing temples and gardens, he was busy creating wonderful apartment blocks on Passeig de Gràcia. Most spectacular is Casa Milà, better known as La Pedrera (26), “the stone quarry”, on the corner of Provença (00 34 93 484 5995, 10am-8pm daily, €10). Just south, another melting Gaudí masterpiece that mocks the area’s geometric neatness is Casa Batlló (26), at number 43 (00 93 216 0306;; 9am-8pm daily, €16.50).

The icing on the cake
Alternatively, look down at Casa Batlló while you sip a cocktail at the 10th-floor open-air bar of the Hotel Majestic (28) at Passeig de Gràcia 68 (00 34 93 487 3939; majestichotelgroup. com). The skyline is serrated by the spectacular structures of a city where the pace of life is matched by the pace of change.

Link to “The Independent” article:

Five Perfect Days in Tuscany, Italy

by Hanya Yanagihara

There are some places you can’t help but fall in love with at first sight and return to year after year. We’ve chosen some of the world’s most beloved (and touristed) destinations and, with the help of the best travel specialists in the business, have ferreted out their secrets, their treasures, their unmissable experiences. The result is a series of step-by-step trips that will surprise and delight those who’ve never been to the destination before … or who have been a dozen times. Each of our highly detailed itineraries has been vetted and perfected by a Conde Nast Traveler editor, and each can be bought as is with just one phone call. Let the romance begin.

The Challenge
Trying to describe all the pleasures and prides of Tuscany—that fecund, almost ridiculously picturesque region of central Italy—would take more pages than a single issue of this magazine, and even then, we’d just scratch the surface. So visiting the area, whose capital is Florence and which contains a dazzling number of the world’s iconic masterworks, as well as some of its most luscious wines and scrumptious foods, presents two unconquerable problems. The first is a surfeit of affection. Everyone loves Tuscany, so you will never be alone. But take heart: Do you think Goethe, Twain, and Stendhal (enthusiasts all) had those narrow streets to themselves? Going to Italy means joining a centuries-long roster of tourists. The second difficulty is one of time and endurance there is no way to see all of the region s sights, no way to linger over every masterpiece, no way to stroll every beautifully preserved hilltop town. Attempting to do so would take several lifetimes, and most of us have only a week or so.

The Solution
There are many ways to discover Tuscany, of course, but the most efficient, intimate, and unexpected is to use a travel specialist such as Maria Teresa Berdondini of Tuscany by Tuscans. She was skilled at negotiating the realities of visiting Italy and at arranging special experiences that are the stuff of every tourist s fantasy. Together, we worked out an itinerary that shows off an essential Tuscany, one that reveals the best of the region’s tastes, smells, and sights and will appeal to both the first- and fifteenth-time visitor. And while the latter may cry foul over what’s not in the trip (no extended tour of the Duomo? No visit to the area’s Etruscan ruins?), they’ll also make discoveries about an area that, even after a thousand years and countless visitors, still has its secrets.

Sadly, Maria Teresa Berdondini died shortly after I finished writing this piece. She was a wonderful resource and generous travel guide, and I know that the many people she helped to see the best of her beloved Italy felt the same sorrow I did upon learning of her death. I hope that Berdondini would feel some comfort in knowing that another of our top travel specialists, Maria Gabriella Landers of Concierge in Umbria, is carrying on her legacy and will handle all bookings that result from this trip—one Maria’s gift to the world, fulfilled by another Maria. For the Italians, who find poetry in the everyday, it seems an appropriate tribute.

Rest of the Story:

Kayaking around Crete

Paddlers arrive at their final kayak destination, the small harbor of Loutro. (Nature Maniacs)

Paddling around Greece’s largest island rewards aching arms and torso with bath-water warm seas, pristine beaches and a lesson in the region’s ancient roots.

By Heidi Fuller-Love Special to the Los Angeles Times

July 4, 2010

Reporting from Palaiochora, Crete ——

I’m standing on a slice of paradise in Crete. The sun is burning down out of a blue sky, the sandy beach beneath my feet is stretching to crystal-clear sea, but terror is numbing my senses. Kayak instructor Russ is explaining that we’re going to capsize our lightweight Rainbow Lasers, then unsnap the spray skirt holding us in, and eject from the submerged cockpit in a forward rolling somersault.

“I didn’t join this trip to become James Bond,” says Jim, who’s busy squeezing what he calls his “good-living gut” into a canary yellow lifejacket.

“Doing this is the major fear of most novices,” Russ says. “Get it over with and you can settle down and enjoy the trip.”

He’s right. Popping out of the bath-warm sea beside my turned-turtle kayak a few minutes later, I wonder what all the fuss was about. The sky is blue again, the sea looks gorgeous, and I’m raring to spend the next seven days kayaking along the rocky southwest coastline of the Mediterranean’s’ fifth-largest island.

Dominated by its Venetian fortress starkly outlined above a glitter of tomato-producing greenhouses, our starting point, the popular resort of Palaiochora, recedes in an early mist the following morning as we paddle out in single file behind Russ. All four of us are neophyte kayakers, but as the slowest paddler I’m soon promoted to leader of the pack.

“That way, no one gets left behind, and since no one can get ahead, it gets rid of any competitive behavior,” Russ says.

Although I hit the gym twice a week, I’m no Jean-Claude van Damme. Luckily, sea kayaking is a sport where a lithe torso counts more than muscles-from-Brussels. Even so, strokes are awkward at first, and I’m soaked to the skin, baked in the burning spring sun, then soaked again. By the time we beach that evening at Kedrodasos, a deserted cove, I ache all over and I’m wondering whether I’ll make it to the end of the week.

The light from a fiery grid of stars helps us pitch our tents on a shell-strewn beach and cook our first castaways’ dinner: canned tuna mixed with pasta boiled in water from one of the kayak’s 10-liter emergency bladders. Tongues loosened by raki, the local firewater made with grape skins left over from winemaking, we learn that Laure has split with her partner and seeks a new challenge, Jim wants an antidote to city life and Chris is an adrenalin junkie getting his fix. Russ, our fiftysomething instructor from Colorado, confides that he started teaching kayak to escape the ski slopes.

“After years of teaching skiing my feet were a mess — I don’t have that problem with kayaking,” he says in jest.

That night I drowse uneasily, fazed by the lack of orange street lights and rattled by strips of eucalyptus bark dragging ghostly toenails along the beach. The next morning I’m awakened by someone throwing sand at the tent. Staggering out to pick a fight, I come face to face with my adversary: the wind.

Casting an expert glance at the waves capped with white, Russ tells us to pull on our waterproof anoraks.

“Sounds ominous,” Laure says nervously.

A few strokes out from the island’s lee, we’re battling huge swells and wind gusts, called microbursts, that stop us dead in our tracks or threaten to capsize us.

“Keep together; don’t use your paddle like a coffee spoon; keep your body centered and bend from the waist; think of your kayak like a mermaid’s tail. Let it become an extension of your body,” Russ cajoles over the whack of the water.

Barely more than 3 feet high, these waves seem huge from the cockpit of my fragile craft. I find myself empathizing with the Minoans, whose civilization, which flourished along this coastline from 2800 BC onward, was all but wiped out in 1450 BC by a giant wave produced by the eruption of Santorini’s volcanic archipelago to the north.

My father, a keen sailor, says the Med is one of the world’s most changeable seas. As if to prove it, a couple of hours later the wind has changed, and we’re racing along in a pleasant rocking-horse swell. We’re on our own now, cut off from the world by the snow-capped Lefka Ori mountains. No roads descend to this strip of coastline, where rebels have taken refuge during successive Cretan uprisings and the glittering coves and sandy beaches are deserted. “Very few strangers visit this area; this is still one of the quietest and most remote areas of Crete,” Russ tells us.

Cowed by these commanding crags, we paddle in silence, serenaded by the slap of water and the wild cry of gulls, to Lissos.

At its peak this ancient Dorian city had 30,000 inhabitants and minted its own coins stamped with the image of Artemis, Apollo’s twin sister. Sacked by savage Saracen Arabs sometime in the 9th century, this isolated site, which can be reached only by foot or sea, was abandoned until 1957 when it was discovered by a shepherd seeking water for his flock.

As a cool spring wind herds cloud-sheep over the brooding mountains, we wander among sundered arches and drunken columns, admiring delicate mosaics and gathering fragrant fistfuls of wild thyme for the evening’s barbecue.

By Day 4, my palms are covered with tiny, weeping blisters, but I’m getting used to metering my day with paddle strokes. Despite bruised arms, aching thighs and sore buttocks, I’ve become attuned to the metronomic rhythm of early launch, scenic paddle, midmorning pause for a pick-me-up of bitter black coffee, culminating with stops to visit booming sea caves and atmospheric ancient sites.

To give our wounds a chance to heal, on Day 5 we squeeze into a minivan and climb 4,100 feet to Omalos, a hamlet guarding the Samaria gorge.

Russ tells us that in summer the crowds are so dense in this canyon, said to be one of Europe’s longest, that hikers are forced to follow in one another’s footsteps. Now, on a chilly morning in early May, tourists are thin on the ground, and we have time to gawk at the Griffon vultures blotting out the sun with their huge wings as they circle over our heads, or admire the wild spring flowers coloring the rugged landscape beneath our feet.

About halfway through the walk, we come to the village of Samaria, abandoned in 1962 when the gorge was classified as a national park. After picnicking in the shade of this ghost town’s Byzantine church, we skitter down, through rock falls and swollen streams, to the black-sand beach of Agia Roumeli, where we laze till evening, bathing our bruised and aching bodies in the balmy sea.

Loutro is the final destination of our weeklong trip. Paddling toward this fishing hamlet, a net’s throw from Hora Sfakion, where celebrated Cretan revolutionary Daskalogiannis (Giannis the teacher) was born, we procrastinate. Spinning out the moment before our kayak odyssey will come to an end, we stop at Marmara beach, a popular nudist spot at the end of the Aradena Gorge, and linger over thimbles of raki and plates loaded with dakos rusks soaked in olive oil and sprinkled with crushed tomato, in the resort’s only tavern.

An hour later we make our final sprint, racing one another to be first to enter Loutro’s pristine port, framed by brilliant white houses buried in braids of scarlet bougainvillea.

Handing back my paddle, I feel as though I’m losing a vital body part. Changing gears in my rental car seems bizarre compared to the fluid movements required to propel a kayak. Sweet as an epiphany, a Hans Christian Andersen tale pops into my head. I think I’m beginning to understand what the Little Mermaid felt when she shed her tail.

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

Visit Bordeaux to see where the wines come from

Associated Press Writer Eric Risberg, Associated Press WriterTue Jun 22, 12:54 pm ET

BARSAC, France – There’s something noble about Bordeaux wines, and it’s not just the proud heritage of their 100-year-old vines, their prominent place in viticulture history, or their world-renowned quality.

It’s also the “noble rot” responsible for creating some of the region’s sweeter wines, which are being paired more frequently with main courses alongside their better-known Bordeaux counterparts.

Some people use the term Bordeaux generically, the way others might ask for a Cabernet, but Bordeaux wines actually come in several distinct varieties, such as sweet white wines and dry white wines, in addition to several different types of red wine. The Bordeaux region has multiple microclimates, fueled by rivers that wrap around the area in the southwest of France. And from these microclimates and variations in terroir (the vineyard soil and other growing conditions), winemakers are coaxing wines that are smooth and lush, rich and complex, with one eye on past traditions and one on the future.

The diversity of Bordeaux wines can be explored in person, in places like Saint-Emilion, about an hour’s drive from the city of Bordeaux. One of the main red wine areas of Bordeaux, Saint-Emilion’s wineries employ similar growing, harvesting and winemaking techniques, though its silky red wines are a stark contrast to those of its nearby neighbors.

Getting to Bordeaux is an easy one-hour flight from Paris, or a little over three hours on a high-speed (TGV) train. Arriving at the Bordeaux airport, travelers immediately will recognize the importance of wine to the region: Giant faux wine bottles sit atop the baggage claim carousels, and a vineyard grows right outside the terminal doors.

Unlike visits to wine regions in the U.S., though, most visits to vineyards and wineries should be arranged in advance, and appointments generally are required, as most wineries do not have public visiting hours for “drop-ins” or tasting. To get to the heart of the wine-growing region, it’s best to rent a car, but since many wineries are hard to find on the rural, windy roads, be sure to have a set of good directions (a GPS in the car also is advised).

It’s possible to make the city of Bordeaux a base for a visit, as it has several larger hotels. From there, many of the top wine destinations will be an hour or 90 minutes by car. Most of the smaller, picturesque towns have a handful of small hotels and B&Bs. Book lodging ahead of time, especially during the peak summer months. Late spring, summer and fall are the best months to visit; winters can be cold. Long summer days also offer more daylight during which to take in the picturesque vineyards and towns.

The town of Saint-Emilion, named for an eighth-century Benedictine monk, is nestled high on a hill, with nearly 200 acres of catacombs beneath the surface. They are still accessible in some parts of town, including at the winery Chateau Canon, where centuries-old candlemarks from workers excavating the limestone are still visible on the walls and low ceilings.

In spite of their cellar-like appearance, however, the catacombs are not generally used for storing wine because of high humidity. At Chateau Canon, some “old-school” winemaking practices are employed, such as the use of wood fermentation tanks, but they are coupled with modern technology and methods.

The Chateau Coutet vineyard
, one of the oldest Sauternes producers in the Sauternes-Barsac region, is best known for its eponymous Premier Cru (first growth wine), as well as its prestigious Cuvee Madame. The winery’s location between the Garonne and Ciron rivers provides the perfect blend of moist and dry climate conditions that produce a grape fungus called botrytis, which causes the “noble rot” necessary to produce the sweet wines.

Lately, Chateau Coutet (which Thomas Jefferson proclaimed the best of Barsac Sauternes back in the late 1700s) and other lush, amber wines are re-emerging not just for an aperitif or after-dinner drink, but also as wine that can be paired with main courses such as spicy curries, lobster and duck. However, this newfound popularity doesn’t mean that the old-school way of doing things has been abandoned in southern Bordeaux: Many wineries painstakingly harvest grapes by hand, hectare by hectare, keeping each plot separate not only through the picking, but through maceration, fermentation and barreling. In fact, when wines are blended, it usually is the first “meeting” of the various plots within a vineyard.

In the Margaux region of Bordeaux, the Chateau du Tertre vineyard has taken a decidedly modern turn. Its minimalist decor inside gives it a clean, 21st-century feel, and its fermentation area is punctuated by an intriguing, egg-shaped concrete vat. Its 35-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc vines, along with some Petit Verdot, produce wines are deep yet sharp.

The average age of the vines at Chateau Haut-Bailly in the Pessac-Leognan region is also 35 years, but its vineyard includes four hectares of vines that are more than 100 years old. Old meets new outside of the vineyards, too, where fossilized rock marks the outside of the winery and modern sculptures grace the winery entrance.

Similar modern sculptures also can be seen at nearby Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, where a giant hare watches over Cabernet Franc vines. But whether one is seeking art or nature, modern or traditional, sweet wine or deep reds, the region of Bordeaux offers diverse and widespread appeal.

“Bordeaux is … a beautiful region, and city with a full and rich history. Everywhere you look, you have a reminder that wine is deeply ingrained in the local culture,” said Aline Baly, third generation owner of Chateau Coutet. “In the city, one discovers numerous cavistes, wine bars and restaurants with fabulous Bordeaux wine lists. But adventuring down the cobblestones streets, through the architecture, museums and its beautiful parks, reminds us that wine is only one thread in Bordeaux’s rich tapestry.”

If You Go…
BORDEAUX: offers information on accommodations, tours and restaurants. From Paris, Bordeaux is a one-hour flight from Paris, or three hours on the high-speed train (TGV). Visits to vineyards and wineries should be arranged in advance. For information on Bordeaux’s World Heritage sites and historic monuments, visit

Link to Article:

Granada, Spain: Going underground beneath the Alhambra – Telegraph

Annie Bennett explores a secret world of tunnels and dungeons beneath the Spanish city’s Alhambra palace.

Grenada, Spain: Going underground beneath the Alhambra

The Alhambra at dusk Photo: CORBIS
Grenada, Spain: Going underground beneath the Alhambra

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There is a long tunnel under the Alhambra, which comes out at the bottom of the hill, and a secret door in the Ambassador’s Hall

By Annie Bennett
10:52AM BST 29 Mar 2010
Granada at dusk, when the Alhambra is bathed in hues of pink and gold, is one of the most breathtaking sights in the world. With a small group of other visitors, I walked up the steep hill towards the great Moorish palace. We were on a walking tour, but not one that points out the usual sights. Leading our group was Lia Guerrero, who was no ordinary guide either. An artist and writer, she is part of Pura Vida, an association of creative types who teach and take classes at the Casa de Porras cultural centre in Granada’s Albaicín, the old Moorish quarter on the hill opposite the Alhambra.
Pura Vida was founded by the journalist and writer, César Requesens, who is passionate about the hidden history of his city. “Granada is a city of secrets,” he says. “The Granadiños like to keep things close to their chests, but everyone knows that there are secret passages linking some of the most famous buildings.”
Lia suddenly stopped and pointed at the trees covering the hillside below the Alhambra. “There is a big private house in there. It is a carmen, the typical Granada style, with an inner garden, which belongs to an elderly aristocratic lady from Seville. And there’s a long tunnel under the Alhambra, which comes out at the bottom of the hill. There’s a secret door in the Ambassador’s Hall. Remember that the Alhambra was a fortress as well as a palace. The tunnels meant they could get food in when it was under siege, and people could get in and out without being seen by their enemies.”
We asked Lia if she had ever been down there. “No, very few people have, though there are rumours that it might be opened up to the public soon.”

I remembered a story I had read in a magazine years ago, about how Walter Chrysler had wanted to build a secret replica of the Chrysler Building, back in the Twenties, before embarking on the real thing. The article said he had a lover from Granada, who was very well connected and had arranged for the structure to be built in a huge cave under the Alhambra. Sounds preposterous? Maybe, but Granada casts a hypnotic spell, and sometimes even the most outlandish ideas seem perfectly reasonable as you wander around the city.

We veered away from the Alhambra and onto the neighbouring hill, the Colina del Mauror, where the cellars of some of the highest houses apparently conceal a few surprises. Lia showed us a large house, mostly hidden behind a high wall. Although now dilapidated, it was clearly once very grand. “That is the Carmen de los Catalanes, which is now part of the Alhambra estate and is being restored. There are tunnels underneath it, and pits in the gardens that were used to store grain, and may also have been used to keep prisoners in,” Lia says.

“There are tunnels and dungeons everywhere underfoot here,” César says. “They were dug out by the Moors or by Christian prisoners, no one is really sure. After the Moors left in 1492, they were used by the new Christian residents, and that went on for centuries, maybe until relatively recently, as the passages linked the various residences and enabled the great and the good to lead secret lives.”

We were heading for the Fundación Rodríguez-Acosta, a stylish white carmen built into the side of the hill by the artist José Maria Rodríguez-Acosta at the beginning of the 20th century. Now it is a cultural centre and exhibition venue, but we were not there to admire the paintings; the building contains a remarkable secret, and we were about to discover it.
We walked through an inner patio with a tinkling marble fountain, then out into the gardens, arranged on different levels on the hillside. The city sprawled below us in the fading light, while swallows flew in undulating formations. We went down to an elegant courtyard with a rectangular pool presided over by a figure of Venus. A smiling man appeared with a large key, opened an iron gate, and beckoned us into the shadowy space beyond. We entered a passage framed by columns and horseshoe arches. By torchlight, we gingerly made our way down a rough flight of steps into an eerie underground world.

We must have descended 60 or 70 feet before coming to a circular, grotto-like room, incongruously decorated with urns and sculptures. “The artist found the tunnels when the house was being built and set about restoring them to make them more accessible,” Lia says. “He built the steps, and arches and columns to support the walls and ceilings, and put in friezes and all these other decorative bits and pieces.”

Narrow passageways led off the tunnel, some blocked up, some with a narrow slit at the end, giving a tantalising glimpse of the gardens or the Granada sky. The temperature was perfect, neither hot nor cold.

“It is likely that originally there were ramps, as given the height of the tunnels, people probably went down on horses, mules or donkeys. If they had been walking, the ceilings would be lower,” Lia says. “The tunnels link with the houses nearby and lead down into the Realejo neighbourhood on the hill below. This was the Jewish area, and we think they used the tunnels for rituals and meetings,” César added. It all sounded very mysterious. “The thing is, there is hardly any documentation about all these underground passages; they don’t even figure on most official records, and aren’t mentioned in most history books,” he says.
Some time later, we climbed back up the uneven steps and emerged in the garden, where the cypresses had turned from dark green to velvety black and the magical city of Granada glittered below us in the light of a full moon.

Staying there
Room Mate Leo (0034 958 535579;, a restored town house in the centre of Granada with contemporary design; doubles from £63 (€70).

Further information
The Granada Underground Passages and Dungeons route is one of several tours run by the Pura Vida Association (201939; and costs £27 (€30). Information also available at the Pura Vida booth in Plaza Trinidad in Granada, or from the Granada Tourist Board (536973;