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Archive for March 2010

Brussels On A Budget

As the host city for many European Union institutions and their well-heeled Eurocrats, Brussels may not sound like the best destination for travelers on the cheap. A plate of mussels, a local specialty, can set you back nearly 20 euros, $28 at the current exchange rate of $1.34. But with a little creativity, you can enjoy Brussels’ pleasures on a budget — from free chocolate samples and cheap waffles to the spectacular Grand Place Square.
Getting there: Skip Europe’s biggest transport scam: 55 euro airport-to-downtown cab ride lasting barely 30 minutes. Take the 20-minute train ride for 3 euros to the central station. From there, subways, buses and streetcars go everywhere.
Getting around: From downtown, you can get to most sights and an infinite number of cafes, restaurants and bars on foot. Public transport is cheap. A one or three-day pass costs 4.5 euros and 9.5 euros respectively.
You can also not pay, like many Bruxellois, but you risk a 50 euro fine
Parks, landmarks and markets: Brussels’ top tourist attraction is free: The Grand Place, a spectacular square in the historic center of the city. It is known for the ornate architecture of its centuries-old buildings, including City Hall and former guild houses for skilled professions like brewers, bakers and butchers. The square is beautifully lit at night, and every other year its center is lined with a carpet of flowers mid-August for three days. The next flower carpet will be laid in 2010.
Beware the expensive, touristy shops around the Grand Place. For a more authentic, less expensive way to sample Belgian goods, there are daily and weekend markets. Rummage around the daily flea market in the Marolles neighborhood. Sundays, there is a big market around the Midi railway station and on Place Flagey.
With more than 2,900 acres of parks, Brussels is a very green city. Don’t miss the park on the Place du Petit Sablon, with its numerous statues, or the Parc de Laeken, with the royal castle.
For a beautiful bird’s eye view of the Belgian capital, go to the top of the Museum of Musical Instruments, at rue Montagne de la Cour 2. Admission is 5 euros.
For concerts and other entertainment, check the free magazine Agenda, available in subway stations and pubs, or see http://www.agenda.be/v2/fr.html.
Museums and churches: It can rain in Brussels. And rain! But more than three dozen museums and historic churches provide for ample indoor activities.
Use the Brussels Card that covers public transport and entrance to museums only if you plan to visit more than four or five museums, or are older than 25. Most museums cost only a few (euros) for visitors under 25, making the 20 to 30 euro card pricey.
One of Belgium’s newest attractions, the Rene Magritte Museum, in the house at Rue Esseghem 135 where the famed surrealist painter worked for 24 years. Entry is 5 euros for visitors age 23 and under. Access to the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History is free year-round. Many other museums are free after 1 p.m. on the first Wednesday of the month.
Entrance to churches is free, but hours are more limited than in museums. Eglise Notre Dame de la Chapelle, the city’s oldest, located on the Place de la Chapelle, was built in the 13th century.
Art in the 225-year-old Eglise St-Jacques sur Coudenberg, on the Place Royale, is also worth a visit.
Cheap eats: Brussels is rightly famous for French fries, waffles and mussels — frites, gauffres and moules in French. If on a budget, stick to the first two. Moules can cost 20 euros a plate.
Frites are sold at grease emporiums known as friteries. Check out Chez Martin on Place St. Josse, near the Madou subway stop, or Maison Antoine on Place Jourdan, near the EU headquarters, which is open into the wee hours.
Waffles are on sale everywhere for 1.5 euros and up. They come smothered with whipped cream, sugar, fruit or — what else? — chocolate sauce.
Bars: There are pubs and cafes all over town vending scores of different kinds of beers — blond or dark and always foamy. The St. Catherine and St. Gery neighborhoods have un-touristy bars, such as Zebra, Walvis, Greenwich and Monk.
The bars on the Grand-Place are touristy and pricey. But just around the corner, Delirium holds the Guinness World Record for the most types of beer in one bar (2,004), and the former brothel, Goupil le Fol, offers unique fruit wines. Beers and wines are usually 2-4 euros per glass, cocktails double that.
Day trips: Brussels is less than an hour by train from Bruges, Antwerp, Ghent and Liege.
Dos and don’ts
Do ask for free samples in the chocolate shops. When you’ve gone to each one, you won’t need to buy any. Do go to chocolate factories for discounted prices. Neuhaus and Leonidas both have factories just outside of Brussels.
Don’t rent a bike. The rental system was recently overhauled, but it still does not work well. You can actually be arrested for riding a bike out of one district into another.
Don’t eat in the Grand Place. It is a spectacular place to see, but very expensive. Try cheaper places nearby.

Check out ideas at http://www.bluedanubeholidays.com/bdh/c-brussels_city_package_flemish_dream.htm

Beautiful, Relaxing and Unique European River Cruises

River cruises—leisurely, elegant, and easy—are quickly gaining in popularity. Some cruise lines have seen bookings grow by 60 percent over the past five years. Europe is especially fashionable right now: A recent online study found that requests for European river cruises have increased more than 22 percent since August 2009.
Why all the interest? River cruises sail on major waterways like the Danube and the Rhine, docking at charming towns along the way. You’ll be much closer to the heart of a city than you would be when cruising by sea—for example, river cruises along the Seine dock at Port de Grenelle in Paris, within walking distance of the Eiffel Tower. And with perks like gourmet food, wine pairings from local vineyards, a room with a view, and guided tours and excursions often included in the price, it’s hard to resist the urge to pack up and leave tomorrow.
Europe’s cruising season extends from March to September. Cruises in May, June, and July (the region’s high season) are more expensive. Planning ahead is a must: The ships are much smaller and more intimate than their seafaring counterparts, and trip dates tend to book up fast.
Rhine
The mighty, 820-mile Rhine begins in Switzerland and streams northwest along the border between France and Germany and into the Netherlands, passing by Basel, Switzerland; Strasbourg, France; and Cologne, Germany.
Seine
The second-longest river in France (the Loire is the longest) flows through Paris before emptying into the English Channel.
Danube
The 1,771-mile Danube begins in southwestern Germany’s Black Forest region and stretches across Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria before joining the Black Sea.
Rhône
The 505-mile Rhône rises in Switzerland and runs south into the Mediterranean Sea, drifting through Lyon and the wine-growing Côtes du Rhône region of southern France.
Volga
A classic Russian cruise includes the longest river in Europe, which runs for almost 2,300 miles. Most Volga itineraries involve journeys between St. Petersburg and Moscow and traverse other waterways in addition to the “Great Mother Volga” itself.

Check out some great European River Cruise Ideas at http://www.bluedanubeholidays.com/bdh/river_cruises.htm

Krakow, Poland – One of Europe’s Hidden Treasures

On my first visit to Krakow 12 years ago, I was struck by the magnificent riot of its churches. Every religious order, so it seemed, had set up shop here, and few had found reason to leave. Towers and spires pierced the skyline. Benedictine, Franciscan and Dominican priests emerged from portals Romanesque, Gothic and baroque, to stroll down the narrow cobbled streets of the old town, greeting members of their congregation by name.

The gaps between the churches spiritual had been plugged by palaces temporal, scarcely less commanding when studied individually, yet collectively blending into the 1,000 year-old architectural potpourri that was, to its inhabitants, simply Krakow.
As Warsaw prepares to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of her most famous son, Frédéric Chopin, this year, Poland’s former capital and most beautiful city, some two-and-a-half hours away by train, looks on serenely, secure in her superiority.
I was relieved to find that little had changed. No international hotel chains have arrived to colonise the former homes of nuns or Polish nobles; restaurants, bar a few notable exceptions, still serve the kind of hearty food whose fatty insulation might have fuelled Napoleon’s army on its march through Russia.
Satirical cabaret venues lurk in underground spaces, throwbacks to the days of resistance to foreign domination. Frumpy shops outnumber the occasional boutique stocked with fashionable European and Polish designers – the latter secreted in a mini-mall lest they disturb the aura of a bygone age.
Lacking the sophistication of Vienna or the mushroom-growth tourism of Prague, yet with elements of both cities, Krakow is one of central Europe’s least-known treasures.
As a base of Nazi command in the Second World War, it was spared the wholesale destruction that befell Warsaw, and remains the cultural and intellectual heart of Poland. The Collegium Maius, where Copernicus studied astronomy, still stands, housing, among its treasures, Chopin’s piano. The Pod Roza hotel, where Franz Liszt, Balzac and Tsar Alexander II reputedly lodged, continues to welcome guests.
One can wander dreamily through the traffic-free, medieval streets to see the house where Bishop Karol Wojtyla (the late Pope John Paul II) lived on Kanonicza Street; or view the swirling art nouveau decorations of Stanislaw Wyspianski, which survive to astonish still, within the Gothic confines of the Franciscan church.
Krakow’s glory radiates from Market Square like rays from a misshapen sun. But the cobbles of Rynek Glowny, as it is otherwise known, were glazed with ice, transforming Europe’s largest square into a skating rink. I skidded into the wooded warmth of Wedel for a cup of near-solid hot chocolate laced with rum, negotiating with difficulty the agglomeration of consonants on the menu.
Impossible fricatives exploded around me in steaming conversation. I read (in English) about the Renaissance magician, Master Tordowski, who lived beneath the statue of St Giovanni Capistrano and who, in a Faustian echo, hocked his soul to the devil.
Pre-dating a numbering system, the palaces fringing the square – now shops, restaurants and galleries – are still romantically identified by the elaborate carvings above their portals: the House beneath the Eagle, beneath the Rams, beneath the Evangelist. I looked out at people huddling around stalls selling pierogi (stuffed dumplings) and mead, buying fur hats, woolly socks and Baltic amber, as fat snowflakes fell around the turreted arcades of the Cloth Hall, to the sound of an interrupted bugle call issuing from the cardinal points of St Mary’s Gothic spire. As late winter scenes go, it was perfect.
Yet there is a melancholy to Krakow’s beauty, which seems to mourn her glory days. From the 13th century to the fall of Communism in 1989, successive invasions, partitions and occupations have weighed on the national consciousness. Tableaux of the 19th-century Jan Matejko, one of Poland’s best-known artists and local resident, speak of heroic battles or the treachery of Poland’s last king, Stanislaw Poniatowski, who forfeited Poland’s independence.
Every statue and sepulchral effigy proclaims saints and martyrs. Patriotic fervour can be overwhelming. Within hours of arriving I learnt, in some detail, how Jan Sobiecki had defeated the Ottomans at the gates of Vienna, and of Jozef Pilsudski’s triumph over the Red Army in the Miracle at the Vistula “saving all of Europe from Turks and Bolsheviks,” added my guide
Both heroes now rest atop Wawel Hill, in the cathedral built by Wladislaw the Elbow-high to house the bones of St Stanislaw – an outspoken bishop murdered in church, like Thomas à Becket a century later, by an enraged king. Together with the neighbouring castle, until 1609 the residence of kings, the cathedral’s stylistic medley of chapels and breathtaking monuments offers the most pleasurable crash-course in Poland’s rich history.
In stark contrast to this resplendently Catholic Krakow is the modest Jewish district of Kazimierz, in a nook of the Vistula River. Once a thriving community, the wartime fate of Krakow’s Jews is well-known, familiar to many through Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film, Schindler’s List. As the residents of Kazimierz were forced across the Vistula into the ghetto of Podgorze, and thence to the horrors of Auschwitz, an hour’s journey thence through an innocent Breughel landscape, Kazimierz became a ghost town. Its small houses fell into ruin, its synagogues pillaged.
You don’t hear much about this episode in Krakow today. Instead, strolling the narrow streets, I discovered a delightful quarter of colourful buildings centred on Serozka Street, filled with kitsch kosher restaurants of questionable authenticity, the original ritual baths transformed into the characterful Klezmer-Hois, cosy bars such as Alchemia recreating the original through-the-cupboard hiding places of less happy times.
Restored largely in response to interest ignited by Spielberg’s film, Kazimierz has become a trendy haunt of the young, buzzing with nightlife. But of the 60,000 pre-war Jews, a mere 250, according to official records, remain. Only the silent synagogues bear witness to the past.
Krakow’s countryside provided the perfect antidote to an excess of pathos and hot chocolate. Ojcow National Park lies some 15 miles from Krakow, an upland of Jurassic limestone caves and crags teetering in extraordinary formations above Pradnik Valley. Walks through the padded beech forests, exploring the ruins of 14th-century castle-eyries at the southern end of the so-called Eagles’ Nests Trail of fortifications, banished any residual cobwebs.
“Be it for nothing other than the true beauty of Ojcow,” rhapsodised Chopin on his visit here in 1829, “it was worth getting soaked”. I would have to agree. Frozen to the bone in the still-falling snow, I retired to the beautifully restored wing of nearby Korzkiew Castle, for a night spent thawing in baronial splendour, before a roaring fire.

Check out some great travel ideas/packages to Poland at http://www.europetraveltours.net/poland_escorted_tour.htm

Tuscan Farm House

A holiday at a Farm house, in the Tuscan countryside, is a reassuring way to have a reconciliation with the world. It doesn’t exist, in any other place, a nature like this one. A walk up to that old village with its artworks, a horse ride, some moments of astonishment inside a little church, a lunch full of laughs and healthy food. You can do everything, or even do nothing. It’s the Farm House in Tuscany: wherever you are, you are at Home.

Check out some great trips at http://www.italytraveltours.biz/index.htm

Special Deal to Sicily for Easter

The Crossroad of cultures and ancient peoples enfolded in myth and history. More Greek than Roman, more Norman than Italian, the island always surpasses visitors’ expectations with an incredible array of historical remains. The land that attracted the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians is surrounded by sea once sailed by Ulysses’ ship. It enticed the Arabs, the Normans, the Spaniards and Swabians all leaving their footprints on the island surviving in the genes and traditions of modern-day Sicilians

Sicily Easter Special:

One time only departure
3rd of April 2010 – $998 USD per person.

http://www.italytraveltours.biz/Sicily-tour-classic.htm

Additional 5% off for MEMBERS for this one departure only.

Spend Easter in Mythical Sicily during the Spring Blossom Season!!!

http://www.italytraveltours.biz/Sicily-tour-classic.htm