A Day in Le Havre

havre-bistrot-copy

I have my issues with port calls when cruising.

For starters, there’s the sheer size of today’s vessels. Often there are two or more visiting on any given day, each of them disgorging the population of a small town into often-small towns.

Then there are those pricey shore excursions, which in my opinion seldom give value for the dollar. Several hours on a bus, followed by an often hurried tour of some famous sites, followed all too often by a leisurely pause for shopping, followed by another few hours on the return to the ship is not my idea of a well-spent day. [Read more...]

Eugene Boudin at MuMa

Andre Malraux Museum of Modern Art

Andre Malraux Museum of Modern Art

If you’ve never heard of Eugene Boudin (1824-1898), you’re forgiven. Even Boudin, at the end of his life, recognized rather poignantly that he was destined to be a footnote in the history of modern art.

Yet Boudin does not deserve to be forgotten. Not only was he a source of influence and inspiration for the Impressionists, many of whom he knew and encouraged, but he was a delightful artist in his own right.

Boudin was born in Honfleur, France, and grew up in nearby Le Havre. Although he traveled to paint in Paris and Italy during his career, he returned to the area of his birth frequently; the maritime scenes of Normandy were a lifelong inspiration.

Now the Andre Malraux Museum of Modern Art (MuMa) in Le Havre has mounted the first retrospective of Boudin’s works since 1906 and by far the largest, comprising as it does well over 300 works.

The curators have wisely arranged the exhibition chronologically, which allows them to illustrate their notion of Boudin as a “Craftsman of Light.” (The French title is L’Atelier de la Lumiere.)

By Eugene Bodin (Copyright, musee d'art moderne Andre Malraux.)

By Eugene Bodin (Copyright, musee d’art moderne Andre Malraux.)

A well-conceived guide to the exhibition (available in English as well as French) allows the visitor to follow his development. He began as a largely self-taught artist, but attracted the interest of established painters who encouraged him. The town of Le Havre gave him a scholarship to learn his craft by copying Old Masters in the Louvre; as part of his tuition he had to send the city one completed copy a year.

When he married, he spent time with his in-laws in Finnesterre in Brittany where he was fascinated by the austere landscape and sombre Breton interiors. There he produced a series of dark and evocative canvases.

But his first love was the seashore of his native Normandy, whose beaches, harbors, and sailing vessels provided a lifetime of subjects and inspiration. And of course light was a never-ending source of fascination for Boudin. Inspired by the Barbizon School he developed a penchant for painting outdoors, en plein aire in the French phrase, and became one of the pioneers of the method.

Later in his career he created study after study, quick, impressionistic sketches in paint, often used by artists as a sort of rough draft for finished works to be completed later in the studio. But Boudin seldom took the subsequent steps, a tendency for which he expressed some regret as artists were “supposed” to produce finished works.

And yet, by working his way, he anticipated the more informal “impressionistic” style that became Impressionism. His studies of clouds in particular are in essence proto-abstracts and quite lovely.

Boudin exhibit at Andre Malraux Museum of Modern Art

Boudin exhibit at Andre Malraux Museum of Modern Art

It may not be worth taking a detour to catch this exhibition unless you have a special interest in this little corner of the history of modern art, but if your travels take you to Le Havre it would be a shame to miss it. L’Atelier de La Lumiere offers a rare chance to survey an artist’s entire career (and Boudin was nothing if not prolific) and gain a deeper understanding of the wellsprings of one of the major artistic movements of the late nineteenth century.

boudin-poster copyL’Atelier de La Lumiere runs through September 26, 2016.
Andre Malraux Museum of Modern Art
Musee d’Art Moderne André Malraux (MuMa)
Boulevard Clemenceau (on the seafront)
Le Havre

 

 

 

Estonia: A Squishy Stroll Through the Bogs

Estonia bogs

The Viru Bog, taken while strolling the boardwalk.

This is the last in a series of Nadine Godwin’s posts from Estonia; you can read the others here and here.

INSIDE LAHEMAA NATIONAL PARK, Estonia — In early September, I walked on a bog here. I hasten to add, given I was not adept at this, the walk was very short. Within minutes, I had gotten my boot buried past my ankle in the waterlogged moss that I was supposed to stay on top of.

I was wearing bogshoes, which look like the aquatic version of snowshoes, but one boot — a knee-high rubber thing — had come unhinged from the shoe.

While I don’t regard bog walking — I want to call this bogging — as my next favorite pastime, I was pleased to learn something about it because it is one of many windows onto life in Estonia, a tiny happenin’ northern European country on the Baltic. About half the size of Indiana, it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Its history is rich and engaging, as evidenced by, for example, the medieval city center of Tallinn, the capital.

It has a place on the tech front, too: It is the birthplace of Skype, and 98% of the country is wired for free Wi-Fi access.

And, it is a natural wonderland, which is where the bogs come in. Fifty-five percent of Estonia is forested; 20% of the country is covered in bogs. It’s not a mountainous land, but there are 1,521 islands and islets along its coast.

Estonia bogs

View of the Viru Bog in Estonia’s Lahemaa National Park. Much of the area is covered with waterlogged moss, but bogs can leave spaces for pools of water, too.

Bogs are wetlands characterized, in the case of colder lands like Estonia, by bog mosses that capture and hold rainwater. The water in such bogs is typically highly acidic and generally has few minerals, which means not much else — except highly adapted plants — lives here with the mosses.

The thing is the mosses absorb lots of water (yielding an unsettling sponge-y sensation for the bog walker), take the minerals from the water and replace the minerals with acid. An unequal trade, one would say.

Estonia bogs

The Viru Bog seen from the lookout tower. The bog’s boardwalk is visible in the lower left-hand corner of the photo.

Some distance below the surface, not even a foot, the oxygen is effectively shut out, meaning decay is slowed or stopped. Peat is the partially decomposed dead moss found below the living plants.

It is because of these conditions that archaeologists who dig in old bogs can find and study preserved bodies of people who died hundreds or thousands of years ago.

But, back to the bog walking.

I was with a press group when in Estonia. For our bog experience, we headed to the Lahemaa National Park, which has a 3.5-km/2.2-mile boardwalk that visitors can use to walk — without touching water — at a level slightly above the Viru Bog. It also offers a lookout tower for viewing the landscape for some distance.

Estonia bogs

ViruBogLookoutTower

Outfitters provide equipment for those wishing to walk directly on the bogs. VisitEstonia.com lists a few.

This article and its photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.

Tallinn: Recalling Guildhalls and Peppersacks

Tallinn’s historic city center seen from a helium balloon, nearly 400 feet in the air. The tallest spire belongs to St. Olaf’s Church. The Lower Town is in the foreground, with Toompea Hill in the back.

Tallinn’s historic city center seen from a helium balloon, nearly 400 feet in the air. The tallest spire belongs to St. Olaf’s Church. The Lower Town is in the foreground, with Toompea Hill in the back.

This is the second of a series of articles on Estonia. Read Nadine Godwin’s previous article here.

TALLINN, Estonia — In 2014, a vendor introduced balloon trips that give visitors a bird’s-eye view of the historic center of Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. The tethered balloons, using helium, rise to almost 400 feet above the ground.

Passengers get a sweeping view of the Old Town’s tallest churches, narrow streets lined with centuries-old buildings as well as defensive walls that have stood since the Middle Ages.

The vendor is Balloon Tallinn, and its 15-minute airborne excursion costs 25 euros for adults, with concessions for the young and for families.

The Old Town, home to 3,000 of Tallinn’s 400,000 people, is so well preserved the whole thing is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The elevated viewing is great for getting the picture — lots of them, in fact — but it’s no substitute for exploring such a valuable piece of real estate on foot.

Tallinn’s Town Hall Square, where old houses are often now restaurants with outdoor seating in good weather.

Tallinn’s Town Hall Square, where old houses are often now restaurants with outdoor seating in good weather.

I recently visited Tallinn as part of a press trip sponsored by the Estonian Tourist Board. The balloon excursion enriched a visit that also featured plenty of nosing around at ground level.

Tallinn first appears in the chronicles in 1154 and by 1284 was a member of the Hanseatic League, a German-led exclusive trading cartel. Much of what we see on the tourist circuit today has its basis in league-generated wealth.

Our guided walking tour started in Town Hall Square. The gothic city hall there, now a museum and concert hall, was built in 1404. Raeapteek, described as Europe’s oldest continuously operating public pharmacy (1422), is on the same square. Besides, the tourist board says, the first-ever Christmas tree stood in this square in 1441.

Raeapteek, on Town Hall Square, described as Europe’s oldest continuously operating public pharmacy.

Raeapteek, on Town Hall Square, described as Europe’s oldest continuously operating public pharmacy.

Also from the 15th century (1410), the Great Guild Hall, once home to the most powerful of the merchant guilds during Hanseatic League days, is a block away on Pikk Street and now houses the Estonian History Museum.

Great Guild Hall, home to the most powerful of Tallinn’s merchant guilds during Hanseatic League days.

Great Guild Hall, home to the most powerful of Tallinn’s merchant guilds during Hanseatic League days.

Its near neighbor is the white Holy Spirit Church (14th century) well known for a painted wall clock that has kept time since the 17th century. Other former guildhalls are on Pikk Street, as well.

The painted wall clock on the exterior of Holy Spirit Church.

The painted wall clock on the exterior of Holy Spirit Church.

While tenderly caring for these old places, Estonians also make use of them.

The Olde Hansa restaurant, in a medieval building, features period menus and staffers in period clothing.

The Olde Hansa restaurant, in a medieval building, features period menus and staffers in period clothing.

Many medieval merchant houses are now restaurants, some with staff in period costume, such as at the Olde Hansa eatery. Its menus keep to the theme, too.

A staffer at Olde Hansa restaurant, in period costume, urging passersby to try the eatery.

A staffer at Olde Hansa restaurant, in period costume, urging passersby to try the eatery.

Medieval merchants were called peppersacks reflecting pepper’s value. Hence, another period restaurant is called Peppersack. And the nearby Hopner Beer House, does beer pairings.

These three establishments sit at a convergence of streets a few steps behind the old Town Hall.

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Estonia: Islands in the Baltic

Kuressaare, Estonia

The Ekesparre B&B, the building at right, reflected in the moat that surrounds the medieval castle in Kuressaare on the island of Saaremaa. A castle tower, at left, also is reflected in the moat.

KURESSAARE, Estonia — This small Baltic nation counts 1,521 islands. I visited two, Saaremaa, the largest, and neighboring Muhu. A bridge links the pair, and each is connected to the mainland with regular ferry services.

I was a guest, with other press, of the Estonian Tourist Board.

Part of the gear on the ferry to Muhu, appearing here simply because it made a good photo.

Part of the gear on the ferry to Muhu, appearing here simply because it made a good photo.

This excursion began with the Virtsu-to-Muhu ferry, a 23-minute ride across the clear blue Baltic, in brisk (read, windy and chilly) air but under a bright September sun.

Our trip encompassed the following:

• Shopping in Liiva, a center for Muhu handicrafts, especially goods made with juniper wood. The big item is the butter knife. I have several now, some for gifts. Many souvenirs here are juniper because juniper is richly available on these islands, although protected elsewhere in Europe.

Kuressaare, Estonia

Samples of various juniper butter knives, with a wooden spoon and comb, both also of juniper, thrown in.

Another souvenir was colorful knitted socks in huge sizes for men. We wondered, do Estonian men really have such big feet? We were told yes.

Kuressaare, Estonia

Goods seen in a Liiva souvenir shop, on Estonia’s island of Muhu.

• Lunch at Nautse Mihkli guesthouse, which is a repurposed set of farm buildings. The main structure originated as a house/barn combo more than 100 years ago.

Kuressaare, Estonia

The former house/barn combination that is now the main house of the Nautse Mihkli guesthouse on Estonia’s island of Muhu.

Our hostess, Ingrem Raidjoe, and her husband own the business. The guesthouse accommodates 30 people in summer (many in a detached building with multiple singe beds, in a setting resembling summer camp) and 12 in winter, but only in the main house.

Kuressaare, Estonia

Ingrem Raidjoe, who teaches cooking classes at the Nautse Mihkli guesthouse that she and her husband operate on Muhu island.

Tourists can book rooms, meals and/or cooking classes on line. Ingrem teaches the classes, specializing in ostrich (raised on Muhu) and wild game, meaning red buck (she and her husband hunt).

Lunch was mushroom quiche (way better than I expected), red buck, beet cake and beet ice cream.

Our visit included a folk dance program. Muhu is renowned for the dancing, which resembled square dancing/circle dances/polka. The accompanying accordion music included pieces called polkas.

Kuressaare, Estonia

Muhu women folk dancers showing off both the dances and traditional costumes for which Muhu is noted.

All dancers were women, and they wore costumes that are specifically identified with Muhu. Skirts were bright yellow with vertical stripes of varying colors. Our hosts said that, traditionally, there were more women’s dances because men were so often out to sea.

• Making soap at GoodKaarma, an eco-farm on Saaremaa that makes organic soaps.

Kuressaare, Estonia

The house that accommodates the GoodKaarma soap factory, on the island of Saaremaa.

Co-owners Ea Velsvebel Greenwood and her husband remade an old house to accommodate their factory and themselves with children. She leads the soap-making sessions.

Kuressaare, Estonia

Ea Velsvebel Greenwood leading a soap-making workshop on the island of Saaremaa.

For our group, this involved rebatching, meaning the shaping of new soap bars from the shavings left from making the soaps that GoodKaarma sells. We could add flowers and spices for scents of our choice.

At GoodKaarma, soaps are based on olive, linseed and other oils, but no animal fat, which means the process does not involve stovetop cooking.

Two workshop options are available in the summer, one at six and one at seven euros per adult, bookable through the GoodKaarma Web site.

Our project was easy, and the factory certainly smelled nice!!

• Touring Kuressaare, capital of Saaremaa County, which includes Saaremaa and Muhu islands.

Kuressaare, Estonia

The central square in the town of Kuressaare on the island of Saaremaa. The town’s 17th century weighhouse is the white building at right.

Kuressaare’s architectural centerpiece is a 14th century castle (with 13th century origins) and its water-filled moat.

We also paused in front of a tavern called Veski located inside a windmill — where I had eaten a lunch 21 years earlier! The Saaremaa countryside is noted for windmills.

Saaremaa was a well-established tourist destination by 1900, with a focus on spas — producing the nickname Spa-remaa. Further, our guide said, Saaremaa, a “human-sized place,” is good for hiking, biking and cross-country skiing, but “not for the party animal.”

Kuressaare

An early morning view of Saaremaa’s medieval castle.

Our guide said Saaremaa has one traffic light, installed as a joke.

However, while thinly populated, these islands are very connected. One can access free Wi-Fi almost anywhere in Estonia, including the islands.

• And eating a lot of things made with sea-buckthorn berries. At breakfast, at a Kuressaare B&B called Ekesparre, my smoothie combined carrots, bananas and the berries.

At lunch, after a spa treatment at Kuressaare’s Georg Ots hotel spa, lunch in the hotel’s restaurant ended with a sea-buckthorn sorbet.

Kuressaare, Estonia

Sorbet, made with sea-buckthorn berries, served at the Georg Ots hotel restaurant in Kuressaare on Saaremaa. The yellow orange berries have a knack for thriving where other plants don’t such as in salty coastal areas, including Estonia’s islands.

And, during a grand multicourse dinner at the luxurious Padaste Manor on Muhu island, we had a fish dish topped with a sea-buckthorn sauce and, later, another sea-buckthorn sorbet.

A course of needlefish and carrots, topped with sea-buckthorn sauce, served at the Alexander restaurant in the luxury Padaste Manor on Muhu island.

A course of needlefish and carrots, topped with sea-buckthorn sauce, served at the Alexander restaurant in the luxury Padaste Manor on Muhu island.

The Padaste dinner was served in the former manor house, now the hotel’s main building. The restaurant, called Alexander, emphasizes Nordic cuisine; it has been voted Estonia’s best eatery for three years running.

Kuressaare, Estonia

Robot lawnmower making its way, over and over again, across the lawns at the Padaste Manor on Muhu island.

Aside from the expected luxury features, Padaste Manor amused us with something unique — a robot lawnmower. My room, in the carriage house, overlooked the lawns, where a robot busily mowed the grass endlessly, hence ensuring lawns were always in fine trim. This vision suggested (to me) a very large bug crawling across the ground, and I laughed a lot.

 

 

This article and its photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.

St. Petersburg: Going to Church

St. Petersburg Churches

St. Petersburg’s Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, seen from Nevsky Prospekt, a few blocks away, and with the city’s plethora of overhead wires on display, as well.

This is the final installment of Nadine Godwin’s series on St. Petersburg. Read her other articles here and here.

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — The Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood is a unique name, but this one also has been called the Church on the Potato because, for a time, the Soviets used it as a warehouse for food.

I visited the mosaic-covered interior of this ornate building during visits to Russian Orthodox churches while on a press trip sponsored by the St. Petersburg Tourism Committee.

We visited three churches, on a Sunday morning as it happened.

Spilled Blood

Spilled Blood, a handy shorthand name for this one, sits on the site, beside Griboyedov Canal, where Tsar Alexander II was mortally wounded by assassins (1881). It was built on that spot and in the style of the 14th to 16th centuries on orders of the dead tsar’s son, Tsar Alexander III. This was a private memorial to Alexander II and not open to the general public.

The church boasts many colorful domes and looks a lot like St. Basil’s in Moscow. We see the domes’ resemblance to onions, but they are meant to imitate candlelight, “symbolizing the light of Christ,” our guide Tanya said.

St. Petersburg Churches

St. Petersburg’s Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, seen at night, when it looks a bit like frosting on a cake.

The mosaics that line interior walls, depicting the life and deeds of Christ, comprise Russia’s largest collection of mosaics (covering more than 75,000 square feet).

St. Petersburg Churches

Samples of the mosaics that cover the walls inside St. Petersburg’s Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood.

Further, the floor is marble as is the central iconostasis at the front of the church.

St. Petersburg churches

Decorative marble floor inside St. Petersburg’s Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, roped off for protection from countless visitors.

After using the church as a warehouse, then as a morgue during the Nazis’ siege of Leningrad, the Soviets saw the church’s touristic value and undertook a full restoration, starting in 1970. That took 27 years, longer than the 24 required to build from scratch.

Early on, restorers extracted a live shell, which had hit the church in 1944. The biggest part of the project was cleaning the mosaics, Tanya said, adding that 90% are originals.

The church was consecrated on Aug. 19, 1907, and reopened on Aug. 19, 1997.

This is a very impressive place to visit. What a shame we tourists do so much in a hurry.

Kazan Cathedral

St. Petersburg Churches

Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg, which was a museum in Soviet times.

The exterior of Kazan Cathedral, on St. Petersburg’s broad Nevsky Prospekt, is distinguished by its sweeping arc-shaped colonnade.

St. Petersburg Churches

One wing of the arc-shaped colonnade that fronts Kazan Cathedral on St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt.

Now an active church, it was the Museum of Religion and Atheism for part of the Soviet period.

Given our press group visited on a Sunday, we were strolling in the background during a service.

Tanya said the official rule is that photos are not allowed in any active church, whether a service is under way or not, but the reality depends on how strict the local priest is. I blindly took photos while my camera hung from my neck, then straightened the shots with iPhoto.

This cathedral, built between 1801 and 1811, is a big, heavy-looking building — the opposite of delicate — but with attractive decorative features, just the same.

St. Petersburg churches

Interior of the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg, during a Sunday service.

Inside, the centerpiece for the faithful is an icon of Our Lady of Kazan. We could see worshippers kissing the icon, or “venerating” it, as Tanya said. I figure it was a great way to spread disease. This service was memorable for the chanting.

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St. Petersburg: A Palatial Place

St. Petersburg palaces

A sample of decorative goods made by the Faberge jewelers, in addition to the eggs for which Faberge is best known. These items are on display in the Faberge Museum, which is on St. Petersburg’s Fontanka River Embankment.

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — It wasn’t intentional, but Russia’s tsars and the aristocracy bequeathed to the public a large assortment of royal residences in and around St. Petersburg.

Some are shoo-ins for the tourist circuit, including summer palaces such as Peterhof and Catherine Palace, discussed in a separate article, and the Winter Palace (part of the Hermitage Museum).

Others are less known, but one emerged from obscurity in 2013 and is sure to be a hit with visitors, not because of the palace (which is gorgeous, BTW), but because it houses the Faberge Museum.

I visited the museum less than a year after its debut while on a press trip sponsored by the St. Petersburg Tourism Committee. Our itinerary took in other former palaces, too.

We even stayed in one, now the Four Seasons Lion Palace St. Petersburg, which debuted as a very upscale apartment house in 1820. (The Four Seasons Website tells us that most city center palaces were apartment houses for the rich.)

As to our sightseeing, the following will appeal to widely varied interests.

Shuvalov Palace

It took seven years to restore the 19th century Shuvalov so it could house the Faberge Museum.

St. Petersburg palaces

Interior of the Shuvalov Palace, which houses the Faberge Museum in St. Petersburg. The famed eggs are in this room, notable for walls covered in blue silk with a silver design and the very ornate gold gilt molding that tops off the room, literally.

The museum, a private operation, was the brainchild of Russian entrepreneur Viktor Vekselberg, whose collection the museum’s displays are based on. His idea is to restore to Russia treasures that were lost to the country during the Soviet period.

Vekselberg began the process by purchasing the late Malcolm Forbes’ collection of Faberge eggs and other items. After Forbes died, his sons had put the package up for auction. That was 2004, and the price tag was $120 million.

More treasures have been added and now there are 4,000 items on display, made by Faberge and other specialists.

St. Petersburg palaces

Examples of the very expensive trinkets commissioned by the upper classes in tsarist Russia. Expert artisans other than Faberge made these items, seen in the Faberge Museum.

The museum has 13 Faberge eggs, nine of which belonged to the tsars, including the first (1885) and the last (1916) egg made for the royal family. Faberge made 50 eggs for the family.

In addition, display goods include icons, jewelry, silver, paintings and a range of other personal and household items indicative of the lifestyle of the rich and connected in tsarist days. The palace itself, with gilt molding, richly colored silk wall coverings and a truly grand entry staircase, is a good indicator, too.

Visitors can rent a book with information about display items to use if touring the museum without a guide. The 150-ruble “rent” (between $4 and $5) is really a deposit and refundable.

Yusupov Palace

Now the property of St. Petersburg’s teachers’ union, this palace won its place in history because the “holy man” Rasputin was murdered here in 1916. The killers were the young Oxford-educated Prince Felix Yusupov and a number of coconspirators who believed Rasputin’s influence over Tsar Nicholas II and his family was dangerous. Yusupov’s wife was the tsar’s niece.

St. Petersburg palaces

The Red Reception Room in the Yusupov Palace, which is located on the Moika River in St. Petersburg.

On our tour, our guide led us into a Yusupov living room to view a diorama of Felix’s conspirators. We then visited a basement diorama with Rasputin at the table and the young Felix standing nearby.

St. Petersburg palaces

Diorama in Yusupov Palace illustrating the Rasputin figure in the basement at the time when he had been eating poison — to no effect.

Rasputin had been lured to the palace believing he would meet Felix’s wife. During the wait for this supposed encounter, Felix fed him poison-laced food, to no avail. Felix later shot him.

We also had a short tour of some rooms used by Felix’s parents. Builders of this 1910 home used interesting building materials. The paneling in the tapestry room is plaster, but it certainly doesn’t look like it.

And, in the palace’s big ballroom, the large chandelier is 32 kilos (70 pounds) of papier-mache while smaller light fixtures are 10 kilos (22 pounds) of papier-mache.

St. Petersburg palaces

The 70-pound papier-mache chandelier in the ballroom at Yusupov Palace.

The palace has a menu of visitor fees covering a variety of experiences, such as a fee for seeing the Rasputin diorama in the basement, another for seeing the younger Yusupovs’ private apartment, etc.

There was a rather stiff photo fee (more than $4), and this was the one place in St. Petersburg where the fee was barely worth it.

 Constantine Palace

I had never heard of this one. Essentially, Constantine Palace — except for its outer walls — is a reconstruction. It is an official state residence and a business center.

St. Petersburg palaces

The entry point for the restored Constantine Palace, located in Strelna, a St. Petersburg suburb on the Gulf of Finland.

It dates from 1720, but has been abandoned for more than half its existence. During World War II, it was reduced to a stone frame. Restoration took 18 months in 2000 and 2001.

Located in a suburb called Strelna, the palace offers a variety of regular tours, except when it is in use for state business.

This is a stately and pristine reconstruction of an 18th century palace, especially on the exterior, with a broad plaza at the front centered with an equestrian statue of Peter the Great.

St. Petersburg palaces

Statue of Peter the Great standing in front of the Constantine Palace. The palace was conceived and construction started while Peter was tsar, but he gave more attention to Peterhof.

Another broad plaza at the back overlooking formal gardens and a system of canals.

St. Petersburg palaces

Grounds of Constantine Palace, with some of its broad exterior staircases in view.

A central canal leads from the palace to a modern meeting pavilion, designed to harmonize with the 18th century style of the main building. The Gulf of Finland is just beyond the pavilion. The canals can be used for boating.

St. Petersburg palaces

The canal at the back of Constantine Palace that stretches to a modern meeting pavilion seen in the distance, with the Gulf of Finland behind it. Formal gardens are at right.

As to the interior, the west side is the president’s side, and the east side is for VIP guests, but there are no bedrooms. There are meeting spaces and event spaces. President Vladimir Putin and all guests stay in 20 new cottages on the grounds, and these are very big cottages!

St. Petersburg palaces

Private space for the Russian president, seen in the Constantine Palace.

Putin always stays in a specific cottage, which is never available to anyone else. The other 19 can be rented when the government isn’t using the property.

There are approximately 17,000 bottles of Hungarian wine in the cellar, a gift from Hungary, but Putin’s drink is beer.

St. Petersburg palaces

A young couple using the Constantine Palace and its grounds as a backdrop for wedding photos.

This article and its photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.

 

St. Petersburg: The Summer Palace Circuit

St. Petersburg Palaces

The Bird Cage, an aviary pavilion, on the grounds at Peterhof.

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA — The tsars made St. Petersburg their capital for 200 years. As a result, this northern Russian city and its outskirts are, even today, rich with imperial palaces, now repurposed as museums, hotels, government facilities or headquarters for other organizations.

On a recent press trip, the first St. Petersburg has ever hosted for American journalists, I visited several. Our group made the de rigueur visit to the Winter Palace, which is part of the larger Hermitage Museum, but we visited more. [Read more...]

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Love in Far Off Lands: 4 Romantic Get Aways

JumeirahDhevanafushi

The Jumeirah Dhevanafushi is one of the fine resorts in the Maldives being offered in Greaves’ romance catalogue. (Courtesy of Greaves)

The experience of an exotic destination adds another level of bonding to weddings and honeymoons. Destinations around the world want to present themselves as idyllic settings for the main event. While these locales may be a little too late for this year’s June brides, they make it worth a couple’s while to marry outside the June zone. While Ireland may be within the temperate zone, Thailand and India can at least promise warmth the year round.

Destination weddings can be especially effective when the friends and family are already scattered in different locations around the U.S. and the world. In that case, the wedding serves as a neutral destination. It’s always smart to choose resorts that have wedding planners available. For the modern honeymooner look to make a combination of active traveling and laid back time in a resort setting.

(Editor’s note: For even more romantic inspiration, check out the The 2014 Official Destination Weddings & Honeymoons Directory in the September issues of Vacation Agent and Agent@Home. Click the link for details on getting yours.)

South Asian Romantic Experience

Ancient Himalayan monasteries in Bhutan, the rain forests of Sri Lanka, top end resorts in the Maldives, the national parks of India and more. South Asia has become much more accessible to luxury travel with the emergence of Dubai as an aviation hub.

Dubai has become a great place for high-end stopovers as well. South Asia, with its legendary commitment to spirituality would make an ideal honeymoon setting for the right couples. Greaves Tours LLC, a specialist in South Asia, created a new 28-page honeymoon destination guide to India as well as other regional destinations like the Maldives, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Dubai. Greaves can handle even the most opulent honeymooners. One program includes the operator’s private plane.

“We’ve designed this destination guide to help couples think beyond the traditional for their honeymoon by showcasing options such as dining at an elephant camp, climbing to the top of an ancient monastery and sipping tea with local monks, or diving into the Indian Ocean straight from their over-the-water villa,” said Ian Cambata, Greaves’ director of business development. Any trepidation about sending a young couple to such exotic far off locales should be assuaged by Greaves’ 30 years of customizing journeys in the region.

Buddhist Beach Nuptials

Romantic Buddhist bliss awaits at Zeavola. (Courtesy of Zeavola)

Romantic Buddhist bliss awaits at Zeavola. (Courtesy of Zeavola)

On the idyllic Thai island of Phi Phi, out in the Andaman Sea, couples can take their vows in a traditional barefoot Buddhist ceremony on a white sand beach at Zeavola. Couples can plant a “love tree” as part of the ceremony. The Thai Wedding Ceremony Package involves monks and is conducted in the morning, with the reception, cocktail and dinner in the evening. It includes a Buddhist prayer ceremony, holy water pouring and bonding ceremony, a floral arch, champagne and cake cutting ceremony.

Zeavola’s wedding planners can assist couples with special requests and in navigating the sometimes complete legal requirements of marrying in Thailand. The wedding specialist can organize a Thai marriage certificate.

The weddings are enhanced by the resort’s teak wood villas. Zeavola’s Pool Villa Suites include private gardens, outdoor rain showers and more. For the Western Wedding Ceremony Package, a celebrant conducts a blessing ceremony with an exchange of vows. If a couple wants the ceremony to be traditionally Christian, a priest can be arranged at extra cost. Divers love the resort because it’s set within a national marine park. The resort can also offer weddings underwater.

The Thai Wedding Ceremony and Western Wedding Ceremony are priced at 71,000 baht ($2,192) and 65,000 baht ($2,007) respectively. Beverages are extra and so are a host of other options including make-up and hair, manicure and pedicure, Thai costumes for the bride and groom, photography, VDO and scuba diving. An array of live entertainment options is also available.

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Dining One’s Way Through Madrid

One of numerous food displays inside the San Miguel Market near the Plaza Mayor in central Madrid.

One of numerous food displays inside the San Miguel Market near the Plaza Mayor in central Madrid.

MADRID — In Spain, the land of tapas, it’s awfully easy to make food a theme for a holiday.

The Royal Palace in the historic center of Madrid, a must-see regardless of special interests.

The Royal Palace in the historic center of Madrid, a must-see regardless of special interests.

During my recent visit to Madrid with a small press group, the sightseeing included traditional elements, like the Prado, the Royal Palace, the Plaza Mayor and other monumental and historic attractions.

However, our itinerary was laced with lesser-known choices that may hold special appeal for foodies, including the following:

• Casa Mira, Carrera de San Jeronimo 30, is a top spot for turrones, a Christmas sweet made with almonds, honey and egg white. It resembles marzipan.

A plaque on the sidewalk in front of Casa Mira tells passersby it has been in business more than 100 years in the same place, using an unchanged decor, making and selling the same products.

 

 

Madrid presents these plaques to all local businesses that satisfy these criteria. Casa Mira originated on its current site in 1855.

Wares offered for sale at La Violeta, a tiny Madrid shop where violets, the flowers, and violet, the color, provide the overriding theme for candies and other merchandise.

Wares offered for sale at La Violeta, a tiny Madrid shop where violets, the flowers, and violet, the color, provide the overriding theme for candies and other merchandise.

• La Violeta, a candy shop on Canalejas Square since 1915, won’t wait long to get its plaque. This tiny shop, where many things are the color of violets, has made candies, including one using violet petals, since its founding.

We admired and photographed the goods, then bought a sample.

• A visit to Lhardy Restaurant, Carrera de San Jeronimo 8, is a trip to

The Lhardy Restaurant, which still shows off the froufrou-y look of its 1839 origins.

The Lhardy Restaurant, which still shows off the froufrou-y look of its 1839 origins.

1839 — or a movie set — a little overdone by modern standards, with wood-paneled walls, red velvet upholstery, gaslights (now wired) and silver sets on sideboards.

That describes the upstairs dining room, said to have hosted a 19th century queen and her lovers.

The ground floor was a tiny space where customers helped themselves to sweets from circular display boxes, as well as coffee, then paid on the way out.

• Our group gleefully sampled churros dipped in thick chocolate, which the Chocolateria San Gines, on a sliver of a street next to the Church of San Gines, has served here since 1894. As it should, the decor provided a sense of its Gilded Age origins.

Madrid’s City Hall, and formerly the headquarters for Spain’s postal service, at Plaza de la Cibeles.

Madrid’s City Hall, and formerly the headquarters for Spain’s postal service, at Plaza de la Cibeles.

There were others in the 100-plus club, including a cape maker (where we were told then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shopped for herself after daughter Chelsea had spotted the business on a tour), a shoemaker and a tavern.

We lingered at Boton near the Plaza Mayor because Guinness crowned it the world’s oldest restaurant. It has had the same decor, same kitchen, same menu since its founding here in 1725, and its specialty is suckling pig.

However, by Old World standards, Boton isn’t terribly old, and the Guinness listing has many challengers.

Also just outside the Plaza Mayor, we visited San Miguel Market, a beautifully refurbished old covered market site. It is a glass-sided Beaux-Art ironworks structure dating from 1916. The food displays were gorgeous and, it seemed, endless. Visitors and locals take meals here, too.

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