Saint-Tropez and Brigitte

Exteriors of some of the “houses” that comprise the Hotel Byblos in Saint-Tropez.

Exteriors of some of the “houses” that comprise the Hotel Byblos in Saint-Tropez.

The following article appeared in June 2013 at TravelWeekly.com, the electronic edition of Travel Weekly, a national travel trade journal. It was written by Nadine Godwin, who is the author of  Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, published by The Intrepid Traveler. 

SAINT-TROPEZ, France — I came here wondering what’s so special about this village (population: 5,000) that it attracts the uber rich and uber famous. The answer is, not much.

Don’t get me wrong: It is an enchanting place; my point is that a lot of the French Riviera is enchanting.

Saint-Tropez stands out, however, because Brigitte Bardot came to town and stayed, bringing many of the world’s jetsetters in her wake. [Read more...]

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Valparaiso: Shake, Rattle and Rebuild

Perched houses seen from Concepcion hill in Valparaiso.

Perched houses seen from Concepcion hill in Valparaiso.

VALPARAISO, Chile — The last time Valparaiso made a really big splash in North American newspapers was February 2010, when one of the world’s strongest recorded earthquakes (8.8 on the Richter scale) struck the Chilean coast.

Quakes regularly rattle this port city. Another 6.7-rated quake had struck in spring 2012 before my visit, with a small press group, about six months later. [Read more...]

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Dubrovnik: Resilient City of Stone

The walled Old Town of Dubrovnik, seen in 1993. This view looked the same in 2013, but the older sunny photos are better!

The walled Old Town of Dubrovnik, seen in 1993. This view looked the same in 2013, but the older sunny photos are better!

DUBROVNIK, Croatia — By tradition and by law, houses in Dubrovnik’s Old Town are built of stone.

Initially, homeowners were inspired by a law that said wine could be stored only in the basements of stone houses. The goal was to reduce the chances wine would be lost in house fires.

Judging by the look of old Dubrovnik, homeowners very much wanted to store wine in their basements.

I returned to Dubrovnik, on Croatia’s coast, to see a beautiful walled medieval city that, when I last visited in 1993, was in recovery after suffering a siege and intermittently severe bombardment over a period of nine months in 1991-1992.

View of Dubrovnik’s fortifications seen from atop the walls in 1993. Another part of old defenses, the Lovrijenac Tower, is visible at upper right. These features are every bit as dramatic today.

View of Dubrovnik’s fortifications seen from atop the walls in 1993. Another part of old defenses, the Lovrijenac Tower, is visible at upper right. These features are every bit as dramatic today.

This was part of what Croatians call the Homeland War, meaning the fight for independence from the former Yugoslavia.

The walled Old Town, home to only 2,000 of the city’s 50,000 residents, was already a UNESCO World Heritage Site when the Yugoslav Army bombarded the city.

Fires gutted some Old Town buildings but those wonderful stone exteriors generally stood. When I visited in 1993, many architectural features were still protected from shrapnel with wooden frames and sandbags (see accompanying photos).

The Placa, with seating for the Dubrovnik Summer Festival visible in the foreground. In this 1993 photo, Orlando’s Column is protected by a decorated wood frame and sandbags.

The Placa, with seating for the Dubrovnik Summer Festival visible in the foreground. In this 1993 photo, Orlando’s Column is protected by a decorated wood frame and sandbags.

From the tourist’s standpoint, more than 20 years and countless repairs later, the Old Town has recovered its patina of agelessness, and the battered look is gone.

But a guided sightseeing tour takes recent history into account, based on my experience traveling in 2013 with a group of travel agents on an educational tour of Croatia.

On passing through Pile Gate, the first thing our

The front of the 16th century Sponza Palace, seen in 1993 hidden by a decorated wood frame and sandbags.

The front of the 16th century Sponza Palace, seen in 1993 hidden by a decorated wood frame and sandbags.

guide pointed out was a wall map showing where the city had been damaged during the shelling.

Later, we entered Sponza Palace, a former customs house and trading center from the 16th century. We admired the building’s charms, then walked into a room housing a small memorial showing photos of the 430 civilians and defenders who died in the

Rooftops in Dubrovnik’s Old Town seen from the city walls in 1993. Differences between old and new tiles are still apparent.

Rooftops in Dubrovnik’s Old Town seen from the city walls in 1993. Differences between old and new tiles are still apparent.

1991-1992 fighting.

In addition, mismatched tiles revealed where roofs had been repaired; the replacement tiles are still much brighter than older tiles 20 years on.

Inevitably, and necessarily, touring turned to the wonders that bring visitors to Dubrovnik in the first place,

The city’s two defining features are its colossally thick medieval walls and the broad main street that goes by two names, the Placa and the Stradun.

The walls, intact after centuries, extend for a little more than a mile and range in width from about five to 10 feet along the portions that overlook the Adriatic Sea but are as much as 20 feet thick on the landward side. Forts and square towers that still punctuate the walls enhanced the walls’ defenses.

Clock Tower, which rises above Dubrovnik’s city walls at one end of the Placa.

Clock Tower, which rises above Dubrovnik’s city walls at one end of the Placa.

Tourists can walk on top of the walls. The travel agent group did not have time for that, but in 1993, I walked on the walls for absolutely stunning views of the rooftops (and at the time, missing roofs), as well as church domes and steeples, the city’s Clock Tower, the walls and the Adriatic.

As for the Placa, it marks the path of a narrow waterway that until the 11th century separated two

Street in Dubrovnik’s Old Town that is essentially a stairway.

Street in Dubrovnik’s Old Town that is essentially a stairway.

settlements, the larger one on a tiny island and the other climbing up the hillside on the mainland.

In fact, some streets on the original mainland side are essentially modified stairways. The landscape inclines somewhat on the island side, too.

The channel dried up and locals filled it in. By the 15th century, limestone paving — now polished to a fare-thee-well by pedestrians — created the Placa. (Need I mention there are no cars here?)

The Placa in Dubrovnik’s Old Town. The Sponza Palace is at far right, and the back of Orlando’s Column is below the flagpole.

The Placa in Dubrovnik’s Old Town. The Sponza Palace is at far right, and the back of Orlando’s Column is below the flagpole.

About a thousand feet long, the Placa cuts straight across the Old Town and is rimmed on both sides by a string of almost identical stone houses, built to specifications laid out by Dubrovnik’s governors after

a 1667 earthquake devastated the city. These are

Orlando’s Column, which is a statue of a legendary knight carved into a column at one end of the Placa in Dubrovnik’s Old Town.

Orlando’s Column, which is a statue of a legendary knight carved into a column at one end of the Placa in Dubrovnik’s Old Town.

handsome, dignified structures but with little ornamentation.

Our guide noted that limestone, an important component in Dubrovnik’s construction, is porous and hence also valuable for its ability to clean water. This is one reason, she said, the city can still use a sewage system and an aqueduct dating from the 15th century.

Nighttime view of the Placa in Dubrovnik’s Old Town.

Nighttime view of the Placa in Dubrovnik’s Old Town.

The Great Onofrio Fountain, also built in the 15th century with its huge dome and 16 water taps, is the end point for the aqueduct. It is at one end of the Placa.

The Sponza Palace, as well as the city’s Clock Tower and St. Blaise Church (named for Dubrovnik’s patron saint) are at the other end of the Placa.

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Zagreb: A Review Visit

Roof of St. Mark’s Church in Zagreb’s Upper Town, showing off the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia, on the left, and of Zagreb, on the right. It is seen in the author’s 1993 photo because the tiles aren’t so vivid under snow.

Roof of St. Mark’s Church in Zagreb’s Upper Town, showing off the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia, on the left, and of Zagreb, on the right. It is seen in the author’s 1993 photo because the tiles aren’t so vivid under snow.

ZAGREB, Croatia — It was snowing when I arrived in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, in late winter 2013. The city parks and rooftops were beautiful with the new dusting of white.

I was traveling with a group of travel agents on an educational tour of Croatia. Although the snow isn’t a great facilitator for sightseeing, it’s a missed opportunity to retreat indoors when there is a fine city to see.

With our bags parked at the hotel, we were off to the historic center of Zagreb on a guided tour that encompassed the highlights typical of a first-timer’s visit. [Read more...]

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Craving For Travel Off Broadway: A Review

CravingTravel1

Michele Ragusa plays Joanne, a travel agent among other characters, in “Craving For Travel.” (Photo by Joan Marcus)

There are plenty of laughs for everyone in Craving For Travel, the delightful comedy at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater on New York’s Theater Row, but travel agents will take special delight in the savvy inside jokes that lay bare the hidden aspects of the profession.

Co-writers Greg Edwards and Andy Sandberg (Sandberg also directed) have no apparent background in the travel industry, but they’ve done their homework well. They present us with Joanne and Gary, two high-powered luxury travel agents, formerly married, who are engaged in a bitter struggle to be named Travel Agent of the Year. Both are blessed (or perhaps cursed) with rosters of vastly wealthy clients who are insanely demanding as only the one percent can be.

[Read more...]

Atacama: A Desert With Many Faces

Hot springs at the site of the Tatio Geysers.

Hot springs at the site of the Tatio Geysers.

SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA, Chile — Northern Chile’s top tourist destination is this desert town. Visitors come to see salt flats and their flamingos, volcanoes and a salt mountain range, petroglyphs, saltwater pools (handy for a good float), hot springs, geysers and some incredible scenery.

Atacama is good for stargazing, as well. Tourists use hotel telescopes, but the desert also hosts the world’s largest astronomical project, funded by many countries including the U.S. and Canada.

San Pedro is worth some time, too, for its adobe architecture, museum, restaurants and shopping. Visitors generally stay at small in-town hotels or in one of several resort-like facilities on the outskirts.

I finally had the opportunity to discover some of Atacama’s attractions during a visit last fall, traveling with a small group of journalists.

To get there, we flew from Santiago north to Calama then drove for about 90 minutes to reach our hotel, the Alto Atacama. This upscale property, two miles outside of San Pedro, was built in the style of a traditional adobe settlement and blends in with the red mountains around it.

This imitative adobe settlement also includes llamas and an alpaca, mostly for guest viewing, and a garden of beans, quinoa and other foods the chef may use. Guests can offer treats to the llamas — and may

A llama on the grounds of the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa.

A llama on the grounds of the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa.

be sprayed with stinky spit in return. We were.

A dance program, reflecting Atacameno traditions, seen at a Saturday barbeque at the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa.

A dance program, reflecting Atacameno traditions, seen at a Saturday barbeque at the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa.

The Alto Atacama includes six small outdoor pools (one a Jacuzzi) and a spa. The resort also functions as a tour operator, offering guests a pricing option that includes all sightseeing excursions. The hotel was our tour operator, too.

As for the Atacama itself, it is the world’s highest-altitude desert, averaging 13,000 feet, and it includes the world’s highest volcanoes.

Atacama is the world’s driest desert. As I reported in my book, Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, some parts have never experienced a recorded rainfall. A key source of moisture is fog, which locals capture in special fog-catcher nets.

Finally, given the altitude, this desert is the world’s coldest, averaging between 32F and 77F.

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Split: City With a Funny Name

Radic Brothers Square, known locally as Vocni Square, or Fruit Square, because of a fruit market that once operated there.

Radic Brothers Square, known locally as Vocni Square, or Fruit Square, because of a fruit market that once operated there.

SPLIT, Croatia — The second-largest city in Croatia, Split boasts a beautiful site on the Adriatic Sea because a long-ago Roman emperor knew how to choose a spot for living out his retirement years.

A rendering giving an idea of how Diocletian’s Palace probably looked with first built in the late third/early fourth centuries. The south side rose straight from the water.

A rendering giving an idea of how Diocletian’s Palace probably looked with first built in the late third/early fourth centuries. The south side rose straight from the water.

Diocletian, who was born in the area, was unique among Roman emperors: He lived long enough to have a retirement, and he exercised the option.

While still on the job, he built his retirement “home,” a walled palace that covers about seven and a half acres. For about 300 years after his death in 316, the Romans used the property as a luxury hotel of sorts.

In the seventh century, with the Romans gone and marauding tribes on the scene, area residents made a new home inside the palace walls for better protection.

The entire town lived in the palace until people began settling on the outside in the 13th century. Today, 99 percent of Split’s roughly 200,000 people live outside the walls. [Read more...]

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Marseille Planning: Fix It or Leave It

 

Chateau d’If, made famous by Alexandre Dumas’ 19th century novel, “The Count of Monte Cristo.” The book’s story was fictional but the fortress has been used as a prison.

Chateau d’If, made famous by Alexandre Dumas’ 19th century novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. The book’s story was fictional but the fortress has been used as a prison.

MARSEILLE, France — Our tour guide arrived 40 minutes late for morning sightseeing here in France’s oldest (2,600 years) and second-largest city.

He quickly explained himself: He was badly hung over after having spent the previous evening drinking toasts to the world’s largest cargo ship, which had pulled out of Marseille the previous afternoon.

I am not making this up. [Read more...]

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Alhambra Touring Tips

A panoramic view of Alhambra

Here’s another of a series of articles from Kelly Monaghan about his travels in Spain. 

If you’re going to Granada, you’re going to the Alhambra, a UNESCO World Heritage site and a monument to the glory that was Nasrid Spain before Christian forces wrested control of the Iberian peninsula back from the invading Moors. (It only took them about 700 years!)

If you’re going to Granada and you’re not going to the Alhambra, have your head examined.

Rather than attempt to reprise the guidebooks, I thought it might be more helpful to provide some tips that most guidebooks gloss over or leave out altogether. [Read more...]

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Kutaisi: The Fabled Medea’s Hometown

Decorative elements on a new fountain seen on Agmashenebeli Square in Kutaisi, Georgia. Designers created oversized replicas of golden figures found in sites associated with the ancient Colchis kingdom.

KUTAISI, Georgia — Until last fall, I had never heard of Kutaisi, a city of about a quarter of a million people more than 100 miles west of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia (the country).

Street scene in Kutaisi, Georgia.

It turned out to be a pleasant place with some surprisingly charming center city attractions, and it is home to a church and monastery that are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

I visited Kutaisi in September 2012 as part of a weeklong tour for

Houses overlooking the Rioni River in Kutaisi, Georgia.

travel agents and travel journalists. We arrived after dark, which dictated the kind of sightseeing we could do before eating a fairly quick dinner.

However, nighttime was a good time to see a new fountain in the middle of town — on Agmashenebeli Square in front of the city’s theater — because it puts on quite a light show. [Read more...]

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