L’Appart by David Lebovitz: A Book Review

L'Appart by David LebovitzHave you ever dreamed of living in Paris? Of having your own little pied a terre in the City of Light? Perhaps even moving there and settling down?

If that’s you, I have some good news and bad news about L’Appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making Paris My Home, the latest book from expat pastry chef and food blogger David Lebovitz. The subtitle says it all.

Let’s deal with the bad news first. Unless you have limitless patience to go along with your limitless bank account, you probably don’t want to follow in Lebovitz’s plaster-begrimed footsteps. As he tells it, renovating an apartment in Paris is a never-ending nightmare. Just buying the place to begin with is no picnic either.

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Four Christmas Carols

 

christmas carol

The drop curtain for “A Christmas Carol: The Family Musical with a Scrooge Loose”

How do two Americans keep themselves occupied when visiting Canada during the deepening cold of early December? Why take in four very different versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol of course. The initial plan was to see just one, but…well, you know how these things go.

First up was our original choice, a decorous and heartfelt reading of Dickens’ text at the Stratford Festival, presented as a benefit for the nascent Stratford-Perth Rotary Hospice. Using a version of the novella abridged by Dickens himself for just such recitals, six readers took turns telling the timeless tale of misery and redemption on the Festival Theater’s poinsettia-bedecked stage. The “staves” of Dickens’ story were punctuated with musical interludes ranging from madrigals to pop-folk.

[Read more…]

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…]

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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Gyeongju: Where History Runs Deep

Gyeongju, South Korea

Artwork functioning as guardians for Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju, South Korea. Artist-created guardians are sometimes paintings, sometimes very colorful statues.

This is the final installment of Nadine Godwin’s series on South Korea. Check out her other articles: Korea: A Temple Sleepover, Seoul: Traditional Architecture, Seoul: With Designs on the Future, and Seoul: Palace Hopping.

GYEONGJU, South Korea — In the eighth century, Gyeongju had a population of one million; today that number hovers around 250,000, or only one quarter as many.

But the city does have a rich collection of UNESCO World Heritage Sites because it was Korea’s capital during the thousand-year rein of the Silla Dynasty. Gyeongju’s importance ended with the dynasty in the 10th century.

My recent press trip, sponsored by the Korea Tourism Organization, included a very short visit to this former capital. I had been here previously, in the 1980s, when the name was spelled Kyong-Ju. Our guide said Korea has been standardizing spellings of place names, hence, the new iteration for the old capital.

During our fly-by sojourn, we squeezed in an unplanned visit to the royal tombs, which I had seen in the 1980s. The specific destination is called the Daereungwon Tomb Complex, part of a UNESCO site. It encompasses 23 royal tomb mounds, out of 155 such tumuli in the city’s downtown.

Gyeongju, South Korea

Grass-covered burial mounds seen in the Daereungwon Tomb Complex in Gyeongju, a former capital of Korea. There are 155 such mounds in the city’s downtown.

The enclosed complex is essentially a pleasant park with paths that take visitors past many of the manmade grass-covered bumps. These tombs are estimated to date from the early fourth century through the sixth century, during Silla days.

We found our way to the best known of them, Cheonmachong Tomb, which displays some of the artifacts found there including an outstanding gold royal crown. Also, one display shows how the tomb was constructed, i.e., with stones and dirt surrounding a wooden room in which the royal body was buried with various treasures.

A sign said no photos were allowed, so I did not take a shot of that golden crown. Our guide said later that we could have taken pictures anyway.

I was glad to revisit the tombs but was not so enchanted by our next UNESCO site — the hillside Seokguram Grotto, site of an eighth century Buddha. It is a manmade granite cave on Mount Tohamsan.

This location meant we had a dramatic mountain drive getting to the destination — and quite a few steep steps to climb upon arrival.

Maybe Seokguram would have made me happier if the site had not been tied up in restoration and protective maintenance work. I do understand such work is necessary.

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Kenya: Taking to the Sky

Sunrise on the Maasai Mara, seen from a hot-air balloon.

Sunrise on the Maasai Mara, seen from a hot-air balloon.

ON THE MAASAI MARA, Kenya — During a recent Kenya trip, I had a few opportunities to do game viewing from the air, in some cases from small aircraft when traveling to and between tent camps and once on a helicopter tour of the Rift Valley just outside of Nairobi.

But the best choice for overflying the animals — for great views of the animals as well as their home turf — was the hot-air balloon ride operated by Kenya-based Balloon Safaris, Ltd.

I was in Kenya with other travel journalists, hosted by the Kenya Tourism Board. This particular excursion started at the Mara Plains tented camp, owned by Great Plains Conservation and located on the Olare Motorogi Conversancy, adjacent to the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

You don’t have to be a daredevil to take a hot-air balloon ride over the Maasai Mara in southwestern Kenya, but this is not for sissies. It’s not for the lazy either.

We were up early enough to depart by around 5 a.m. We needed to be at the launch site, about half an hour away, in time for lift-off before sunrise.

It was chilly being out and about at such an hour, even in June. During the ride to the launch site, we discovered that our four-wheel-drive transport came stocked with nicely lined ponchos. They were a lifesaver for this and other brisk early morning activities.

I can clock the journey by looking at my photographs. I took my first shot at 5:30 a.m. of the balloon on the ground, just being filled with air. The first shot in the sky was at 5:45.

In the intervening 15 minutes, we passed through a short security check then were lifted into the air.

As for takeoff, initially we were sitting down, but in a horizontal position, until the basket could be moved and came upright.

Our pilot revved up a fire to heat the air inside the balloon, which in turn kept the balloon blown up to its full size. This was enough to allow us to rise because the air was much thinner and warmer inside the balloon than the colder air outside.

One of several balloons that shared the skies with our own. The view also highlights the majesty of the Maasai Mara landscape.

One of several balloons that shared the skies with our own. The view also highlights the majesty of the Maasai Mara landscape.

Our pilot/guide was an Australian, Capt. Ellie Kirkman, whose husband, Capt. Milton Kirkman, was piloting another balloon traveling in tandem with us. In fact, there were several balloons in the sky and we could photograph them in all directions.

We had a beautiful sky and could enjoy views of sloping hills, winding tree-lined rivers and some wildlife below.

View of the Maasai Mara landscape as well as giraffes moving away from a floating balloon. A second balloon is visible in the distance.

View of the Maasai Mara landscape as well as giraffes moving away from a floating balloon. A second balloon is visible in the distance.

The biggest grouping was a really large herd of buffalo. We also looked down on lone or small groups of giraffes and zebras. Sometimes, aware of the balloon or balloons in the sky, they skittered away from us, but not in a great frantic rush.

Zebras, sensing a balloon nearby, skitter away.

Zebras, sensing a balloon nearby, skitter away.

The journey lasted 60 minutes — my last airborne photo was at 6:45 — but went very quickly.

We floated relatively close to the ground, it seemed, but, of course, there are no electrical wires or other such impediments on nature preserves to bother us at low levels.

The shadow of our balloon seen against the richly colored Maasai Mara landscape.

The shadow of our balloon seen against the richly colored Maasai Mara landscape.

At its Website, Balloon Safaris, Ltd., lists the cost of the balloon experience at $450 (I took essentially the same trip 10 years ago when, as I recall, that price tag was $300).

Balloon Safaris designates a specific tree where each flight will end and where breakfast will be served to passengers. As we neared our destination, we were amused to watch the balloon in front of us, piloted by our captain’s husband, head in a direction that would take it straight into the designated tree.

Watching a second balloon clear the tree that marks our breakfast site.

Watching a second balloon clear the tree that marks our breakfast site.

He brought the balloon up to clear the tree, leaving enough time then for our captain — his wife — to be first to land. On the ground, he claimed he had really been first in that “race.”

The flight was followed by breakfast in the bush, with seating at a table under the tree that nearly lost its top. The menu included pastries and croissants, yogurt, quiche, sausages, cereal plus hot drinks.

With this, we were primed for a busy day on the ground. After all, the day had barely begun. My timed photos show we were already game viewing by around 8 a.m.

The flight completed, a hot-air balloon deflates on the ground.

The flight completed, a hot-air balloon deflates on the ground.

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.

Kenya: Wildebeests and Their Cousins

Zebras on the Maasai Mara in southwestern Kenya.

Zebras on the Maasai Mara in southwestern Kenya.

ON THE MAASAI MARA, Kenya — I had known about the Great Migration — the annual movement of herbivores across the grasslands of East Africa — but I did not know that wildebeests imitate their migratory behavior on a regular, less-grand scale.

During a recent morning’s game viewing on the Maasai Mara, another journalist and I saw one example of this, as the animals moved en masse from one grassy plateau to another.

To effect that move, the animals had to cross a gully and the Ntiakitiak River, which — for good reason — they did at a run: There was a crocodile in the river near the wildebeests’ legs, looking for lunch.

Wildebeests run across the Maasai Mara’s Ntiakitiak River to get to the grasses on the next plateau.

Wildebeests run across the Maasai Mara’s Ntiakitiak River to get to the grasses on the next plateau.

The Maasai Mara area (encompassing the Maasai Mara National Reserve and neighboring private conservancies in southwestern Kenya) is famed for its place in the Great Migration.

Broadly speaking, the animals move in a circle, departing from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and flooding onto the Maasai Mara plain in mid- and late summer. The return trip to Tanzania, at the end of the year, is more gradual.

In my book, Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, I reported that an estimated 3 million to 3.5 million animals make the move, about half of them wildebeests. The line of wildebeests, zebras, gazelles, the predators that live on them and others can stretch across the landscape for 25 miles at the height of the relocation.

At the time of my recent sightings, I was part of a press group hosted by the Kenya Tourism Board. Our group spent a significant portion of our time on the Maasai Mara National Reserve and in the adjacent conservancies.

ITMaraZebraDuo14a

Zebras on the Maasai Mara in southwestern Kenya.

Thomson’s gazelles breakfasting under bright early morning light, on the Maasai Mara.

Thomson’s gazelles breakfasting under bright early morning light, on the Maasai Mara.

When we visited the Maasai Mara, most of these animals had just returned to Kenya.

We were thrilled to see what I call a mini-migration, during which thousands of wildebeests moved a fairly short distance, but en masse. They were seeking grass, which is the motivator for the Great Migration, too.
Duncan, our driver/guide, said wildebeests regularly move together in large numbers because they have a tendency to behave like lemmings.

He said, “Once one decides to do it, others follow.” We saw the animals lined up beyond our horizon. Some of them ran just to join the line — or maybe jump the line.

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Kenya: Big Cats in the Wild

Undeterred by a tourist vehicle, the cheetah strides very close to her visitors.

Undeterred by a tourist vehicle, the cheetah strides very close to her visitors.

ON THE MAASAI MARA, Kenya — I have two cats at home, which probably makes me just that much more likely to enjoy game viewing that includes some of the big cats. I was lucky enough to do that recently, when I joined a press trip, sponsored by the Kenya Tourism Board.

Jeeps and driver/guides for our group’s game viewing were provided by the Sanctuary Olonana tented camp, where we were hosted one night, and Great Plains Conservation, which owns two camps where we were guests, Mara Plains and Mara Toto.

Our group watched the big cats several times on the Maasai Mara National Reserve or, at times, while in nearby privately held conservancies.

Lions

Isn’t he the true Lion King?

Isn’t he the true Lion King?

We saw the lions first. With one exception, though, that was not where the action was. Generally, the cats were doing what cats do very well — sleep, stretch and yawn.

Lions know how to enjoy a good yawn.

Lions know how to enjoy a good yawn.

In the one exception, a lion pair was doing what comes naturally to make those cute little cubs. And, we were probably indecently amused.

The family that naps together stays together. These young lions are seen on the Maasai Mara.

The family that naps together stays together. These young lions are seen on the Maasai Mara.

As it turned out, out observations of leopards and cheetahs were more gripping — although, in no case, did we see a kill. Fine by me.

One of our guides could not resist referring to gazelles as cheetah chips. He also called the wildebeest lion sausage.

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