The Delights of Medieval Bruges

May, 2017
Bruges, Belgium

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!
How about celebrating Mozart in the matchless city of Bath, England in November?

My vote for Europe’s most romantic town? It’s gotta be Bruges, a lost-in-time canal-laced charmer an hour from Brussels. It’s one of the day trips on our Amsterdam and Flemish Treasures tour each August, and we took a couple of days before our May tours in Provence to enjoy it again. The first time we visited was on a Valentine’s Day weekend in the ’90s, and we stayed right in the middle of Bruges’ most photographed spot, above, at a delightfully shabby hotel,  Bourgondisch Cruyce, that has since been renovated into a gorgeous 4 star luxe property.
This time we’ve checked into yet another lovely lodging to recommend, the Karel de Stoute, former home of a prince of the same name. One of his medieval towers is now our bathroom! Located in a part of town that we’ve never before explored, with a canal, of course, flowing nearby, it’s a delightful boutique hotel with the most fabulous breakfast buffet…tables laden with fresh fruit, homemade pastries and cakes, and anything else you’d want for a filling delicious breakfast.
So what caused this town to hibernate for over three-hundred years, thus retaining its medieval elegance? Having become wealthy through trading, with an essential outlet to the sea, the River Zwin, Bruge’s fortunes drastically changed when the river silted up in the 16th century. It was not until it was rediscovered by English and French Romantics in the 19th century that Bruges’ charms were uncovered…and today it’s the most popular tourist destination in Belgium!
It’s a short walk from our hotel to the main squares, the Markt and the Burg. This trip we just look at the neck-craning Belfry on the Markt Square – last time we climbed the 366 steps to the top for a great view. The green stall selling frites at the base has been there forever – and their not-french-fries (yes, french fries really came from Belgium, not France!) are worthy of the always-long line of customers. Step-gabled buildings line up along the square – especially pretty when the lights twinkle on at dusk. A short walk takes us to the Burg, with a lavish Stadhuis (town hall) and tucked into a corner, the Basilica of the holy Blood, its entrance guarded by gilded statues. Climb the stairs inside to the Upper Chapel, built and lavishly frescoed in the 12th century. With a unique bowling-ball shaped pulpit and vivid stained glass windows, it’s well worth a pause. 
Ready for a pause of another kind, we follow our noses to a fragrant waffle shop and enjoy one of Belgium’s signature dishes – yum! 2018 is a year for the Contemporary Art and Architecture Triennale, from May 5 to June 18, with a theme of Liquid City, and what fun it is to spot the art along the canals! Several installations are actual playgrounds – we’re careful not to fall in as we saw one man do as he stepped back for a photo of these billowing orange shapes! The contrast of super-modern with intricate medieval architecture is exhilarating – and the perfect weather adds to the pleasure!
Wandering along canals, down narrow lanes with homes garlanded with wisteria, through churchyards hemmed with espaliered fruit trees, til we find a favorite corner from years ago, we make our way to Minnewater Park, not far from the train station. The adjacent Begihnhof, founded in 1245, is one of Bruges’ most charming locations (especially earlier in the spring when the lawn is covered with daffodils!). Rows of small white houses originally built for lay sisters circle the lawn, and a spirit of peace enfolds the area.
We complete our day with another stroll as dusk falls – at all hours Bruges is a delight!

 

 

Ancient Marvels in Sicily

January, 2018
Sicily

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We’re looking ahead to summer –  why not join us on the fabulous Amalfi Coast , in Provence, or Amsterdam?

Golden temples of old, scattered across the landscape of Sicily, were the focus of our week in western Sicily.
Castellamare del Golfo, recommended by our friend Laura of See Italy Travel, was a perfect headquarters for this winter stay. Our priority was views – and oh did we get them from our hillside Airbnb, La Casa del Normanno!Those golden temples we’re seeking out pop up inland – such as at Segesta, the closest to us at Castellamare, and in abundance at Agrigento – the valley of the temples (that’s Concordia at the top of this post), and majestically overlooking the sea at Selinunte.We spent the most time at Agrigento, in the fascinating Valley of the Temples, settled by Greeks around 580 B.C. With the best-preserved Doric temples outside Greece, it’s justifiably popular – but such a huge area (a 1300 hectare park!) that you don’t feel surrounded by crowds at all. Beginning in the Eastern Zone, we walked up to the Temple of Concordia which has survived almost entirely intact since its construction in 430 BC. Stopping for a light lunch, we reveled in the winter warmth, sitting beside fields of blooming flowers as we ate outside the little café. The area has been affected by earthquakes through the millenia, and the other temples, such as Hera and Hercules, have only sections standing – surrounded by tumbled pillars and capitals. Walking amidst this fascinating jumble emphasizes how massive the pillars and structures were! A pedestrian bridge brings us to the Western Zone where the main feature is the crumbled ruin of the Temple of Zeus. This would have been the largest Doric temple EVER built, but construction was interrupted when the Carthiginians attacked the city…then later what had been built was destroyed by an earthquake.
Although the original is in the Archeological Museum, the 8 meter tall telamon (a figure of a man with arms raised) which would have supported the temple, is still an awesome sight. Kirk stands by it to show the massive size.
As we drove off to another Sicilian beauty, we circled around to see the temple above us, a field of winter yellow blooming below.
About 20 minutes west of Agrigento the white cliffs of the Scala dei Turchi plunge to the sea, worth a walk along the beach to take a look! On the western shore of Sicily the ruins of Selinunte spread out over a vast area – so large we took advantage of the golf-cart shuttle to get to the seaside temple after wandering around a 5th century BC marvel. Standing between the massive pillars, we looked to the sea beyond, once again appreciating the winter warmth and the peaceful ambiance of this archeological park.
Then on to the sea, where once again we can walk amongst the ruins, marveling at the size and the workmanship still visible after millennia. Waiting for our shuttle back to the entrance, we’re in no hurry – it’ll be a long time before we can enjoy blooming daffodils back home in Virginia! We can’t recommend a winter jaunt to Sicily enough – where better to escape a cold bleak winter than surrounded by sunshine, blooms, and uncrowded majestic ancient marvels?!

 

Jazzy Days in Orvieto

December 2017
Orvieto, Italy

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!
We’re looking ahead to Spring – Aix en Provence for the Easter Festival.

 Umbria Jazz Winter is now in its 25th year, filling the hilltop town of Orvieto with jazz all hours of the day and night. This marvelous town, halfway between Rome and Florence, is a joy any time of year, but especially delightful during this winter festival – jazz drifts through the doorways of bars and cafes, bundled up fans and families linger in the piazzas, sample a chewy nut from the chestnut vendor while sipping mulled wine, stroll the lanes during the evening passeggiata, pausing to greet friends, showing off holiday gifts of new cozy coats, follow the Tuscan troubadors Funk Off as they march through the streets twice a day – it’s all so much fun! It’s been 15 years since the first time we came, and my most vivid memory of that first year, 2002, is the New Orleans Jazz band strutting through the streets. The current marching jazzmen have been leading the parade for 14 years now – at noon and at 6.
The town goes to sleep for the winter, from what we’ve been told, after Umbria Jazz Winter, but it’s lively as ever right now – the florist under the arcades doing a brisk business, shop windows and entries showing off their best New Year’s Eve attire  the most beautiful boutique in town is esconced in a gorgeous old palazzo. Ready for a bite to eat, we grab a stump-table at Cantina Foresi, beside the majestic Duomo, and order the soup of the day and a platter of Umbrian tastes – superb as always! 
Hotel Palazzo Piccolomini is the perfect historic-center location to really feel a part of Umbria Jazz Winter  – each year some of the musicians stay there, making our breakfast and aperitif conversations quite memorable for both us and our tour guests. This year a legendary bass player, Henry Grimes from New York, and his wife, were a pleasure to talk to – and passed on a CD recorded with Henry’s trio in the renowned Village Vanguard where some tour clients took us last year!
On our way to check out the sunset from our hilltop perch, we pass through quiet lanes, and there it is – a beauty! The pink hue spreads from west to east, where the cliff edge reminds us how high we are.
Another strut through town with Funk Off, another delicious Umbrian meal, just one more stroll through beautiful Orvieto, and we say goodbye til next years’ Umbria Jazz Winter.