A Marseille Celebration

14 juillet – Bastille Day, 2018
Marseille, France

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“Where can we see some great Bastille Day fireworks near Aix?” we asked our in-the-know French friends…and Marseille was the top reply – now we know why! In addition to festive fun (Kirk’s birthday happens to be the same day as France’s National Holiday, you may remember!) we were looking forward to an air conditioned respite from the oppressive heat, and a swimming pool thrown in for good measure! Right on the historic Vieux Port, the Radisson Blu was a perfect choice – with a fabulous view from our 4th floor windows! Although we were tempted to stay in the marvelously cool room (you don’t know how much you miss air conditioning until you live without it for a while!), we decided to relax poolside instead – cooled with a refreshing dip and breezes as we basked in the sun, the 17th century Fort St. Nicolas looming beyond. Since Marseille is such a big city, I always imagined it as hotter than Aix – but no, it’s seaside location tempers the heat nicely – it’s bearable to stroll around near the water, unlike on those 89 degree afternoons in Aix. Enjoying the beautiful architecture as we seek out a restaurant for an early (for France, that is – around 8) dinner, we find many well-recommended spots right near the Vieux Port, and request an outdoor table at L’Oliveraie, on restaurant-lined Place aux Huiles. Jazz from the restaurant next-door entertains us as we relish a delicious dinner under the olive trees – we do recommend this place!
Police and Emergency Medical Teams are setting up all around the Vieux Port in preparation for the fireworks at 10, and early arrivers are claiming their spots chosen for the best view. After a sunset stroll along the water, we head up to our room, waiting for the show. Just after ten, the streetlights surrounding the port turn off, music booms from the speakers, and here we go! 16 pontoons are lined up down the middle,

and flare in unison with beautiful firework displays, while to our left, above Fort St. Nicolas, more fireworks fill the sky – what a show! Happy Birthday Kirk!
The celebrations  continue on Sunday – France is in the World Cup! But the day starts quietly, with a walk around the port (check out the mermaids!)  after the delicious buffet breakfast at the Radisson Blu.
You’ve heard of Savon de Marseille, I’m sure – now available worldwide, and one of the most popular booths at any south of France market – well why not buy fragrant olive oil soap right here in Marseille, IN the Vieux Port?One more delicious Marseille meal – fresh seafood -with-a-view at Caravelle – thanks, Corey of French La Vie for the recommendation!
Then under the so-cool reflective canopy we walk, snap a photo of ourselves, metro to the station, and bus back to Aix with revelers ready to watch the big game – yes, Les Bleus are World Champions again! Last time was 1998, and we were in Paris for that unforgettable revelry. Aix celebrates more calmly, we’re glad to say 🙂
What fun this second-largest city of France, Marseille, has been – we’ll be back!

The Delights of Medieval Bruges

May, 2017
Bruges, Belgium

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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

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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?!