Category Archives: Europe

Paris en Hiver

Notre Dame and the Seine

Up in the attic

Flower Market Along the Seine in the 1eme

My Hideaway on Rue Jacob 6eme

La Tour Eiffel

Shakespeare and Co.

6-Star Luxury in the Swiss Alps

The Tschuggen Grand Hotel

The Tschuggen Grand Hotel in Arosa is the perfect blend of Swiss elegance, mountain life, and quirk.  With sweeping views of the Alps, a spa one might consider selling her soul for, along with a highly attentive staff, what’s not to like?  And by virtue of its location, life at the Tschuggen subtly integrates luxury with some good ‘ole country charm – cowbells ringing the distance, crisp alpine air, and sky-high trees.

The Lobby at The Tschuggen Grand Hotel

Recently, my other half and I spent a long weekend here being treated to the ultimate pampering experience.  And did I need it!  After journeying 11-hours from the south of France to get to the Tschuggen and having traveled extensively for the previous two months, this normally frugal traveler wanted nothing more than to be coddled.

Junior Suite

Between being chauffered about in a 500-series Mercedes, feasting upon anything and everything our stomachs craved, having spa treatments, and relaxing in the many serene pools, we wished we had booked for longer.  After all, the palatial 5,000 square meter spa and wellness center, known as the Bergoase, spreads out over four floors and boasts everything state of the art from heated indoor and outdoor relaxation pools, multiple sundecks, an expansive gym, a salon, a dozen treatment rooms for massages and facials as well as  separate male and female spa suites with bio saunas, showers, lounge areas, and steam rooms.

The Tschuggen Bergoase from Outside

We started each day with either room service or the hotel’s healthy yet delectable breakfast buffet, complete with freshly pressed juices, a selections fine teas and coffee, eggs, waffles, some lean meats, fruit salad, cereals, and of course, the requisite assortment of Swiss muesli and yogurts.   But what’s breakfast for if you can’t burn it off, right?  So our mid-days were spent taking the Tschuggen Express to various trails and hiking for hours.  Hiking was always followed by lunch, then a leisurely afternoon in the spa, and dinner out.

Heated Pools

Aside from the spa and the hikes, our stay was made even more restful and seamless by the Tschuggen staff’s attention to detail.  Whether it was tending to our room each time we stepped out, booking our massages or making restaurant recommendations in town, they never dropped the ball.  So much so that I wish we could have stayed well into the next season.  Lounging at one of the world’s leading hotel and spas may not offer the sort of adventure I tend to hanker after, but I enjoyed my slice of Alpine lavishness and look forward to the next time.  And yes, there will be a next time.

Pools at The Bergoase

The Tschuggen Express

The Bio Sauna

Heated Pool and Sun Deck

I could get used to this...

Arosa, Switzerland

*The Tschuggen Grand Hotel is located at Sonnenbergstrasse, CH-7050 Arosa.  For reservations call +41 (0)81 378 99 99.  All Tschuggen photographs are courtesy of the Tschuggen Grand Hotel Marketing Dept.  Last photograph taken by the author.

The Blue Waters of Mykonos

I recently spent an afternoon swimming in the placid, crystal blue water at Waimea Bay (O’ahu, Hawaii), and I realized that it was the first time in nearly 9 months that I had such a long and rejuvenating swim.  The calm, lake-like feel of the Bay reminded me of my countless swims in Greece, particularly Mykonos.  Even though Mykonos is known for its wild nightlife, a more peaceful and slow-paced life is available to those who seek it.  And that is precisely what I remember most about this wonderful Cycladic island.  For all of you loyal readers out there, here’s a slice of heaven.

A Northern Corner of the Island

Lunch at the Port

Divine Light

Pathway to Bliss

A Stunning Melange of Color

Simple Pleasures in the Tramuntana Mountains

Ferrocarril Sóller - Mallorca

The Balearic Islands are beautiful to visit, but the Ferrocarril Sóller (Sóller Train) beats out all of their famed beaches and oceanfront restaurants by a long shot.

The Sóller Train takes you from the hustle and bustle of Palma, past a few flat suburbs before it journeys over bridges and through tunnels in the Tramuntana Mountain Range to the breathtaking town of Sóller.  And even though the train has been shuttling people between the two places for nearly 100 years, it’s in great condition: impeccably clean with polished wooden seats.

I took in the fresh mountain air and the handsome, rugged landscape  as we chugged along 27 kilometers of winding tracks to Sóller.  Between the views and the train’s charm, I longed for the days when train travel was a coveted mode of transport.  And arriving at the station in Sóller only deepened my nostalgia.  With freshly sand-blasted stone walls, shiny wood benched, and oodles of art, I wondered how I hadn’t found this place sooner.

Restored Sóller Train Station

To my surprise, I learned that this tiny station is home to a splendid art museum, which features work by Pablo Picasso and his friend, the famous Catalan artist Joan Miró.  While the others from the train caught the tram down to the Port of Sóller, I stuck around.  In any case, how often do we get the chance to see an exhibit of this caliber in such a peaceful environment?  And it was peaceful.   I lingered in the gallery rooms looking at etchings, ceramics and paintings for close to an hour, only coming across eight or nine people.  What a treat!

So the next time you’re in Palma, I recommend heading over to Plaza de España to purchase your tickets for the Ferrocarril Sóller.  Get there early because they sell out quickly.  The Sóller Train and Tram schedules are available at the main information source for Tramuntana.

Joan Miró

*Since all of my photos from Mallorca except for six or seven were somehow corrupted on my old laptop, I had to borrow these images from other websites.  For the source of the first image click here and for the second, click here.

Belgian Chocolate

Pierre Marcolini - Brussels

Belgium has long been home to some of the world’s greatest chocolate artisans, and one of my trips to Brussels proved such reputation  true.  Most foreign visitors flock to Godiva or one of the other maisons de chocolat on the Grand Place, but the locals buy their chocolate from the master chocolatier Pierre Marcolini.

One grey afternoon I stumbled upon it during my search through the Upper Town for somewhere to have lunch – and what a magnificent discovery it was!  This lovely shop lives in building shaped much like a pie slice and lures you in by lining the window displays with innumerable cakes and chocolates.  It even offers a few pastries and preserves.

My afternoon treat

The sheer number of choices available was enough to leave me wrought with indecision.  But eventually, I opted for a box of pink champagne chocolate truffles for my mother, a box of various chocolates for friends, and one of these lovely red cakes for myself.  It was rich, but perfect in size and tided me over until I found my way to the Orangerie for lunch.

It wasn’t until I was back in London and brought the box of chocolates with me to a Belgian friend’s dinner party that I realized how legendary Pierre Marcolini actually is.  Their faces lit up as though I handed them something far more grand, like an original Gustav Klimt.  The box was – as you might have guessed – empty by the end of the night, and I was praised incessantly for my taste fantastique.  Money, I guess, is rarely ever wasted on good chocolate.

Window display at Pierre Marcolini

*Pierre Marcolini is located at 1 Rue de Minimes (Minimenstraat), Place du Grand Sablon, Brussels 1000.

**The photos of the displays are by the author.  However, the photo of the Pierre Marcolini logo can be found on: http://popsop.ru/wp-content/uploads/nestle_pierre_marcolini.jpg

Mornings on Portobello Road

Unike most European cities, London is not a coffee city.  But when you manage to find a great cappuccino or cup of joe, I guarantee you’ll make your way back often.  Having lived and worked in the Notting Hill area for a while before moving to Kensington, I spent my mornings at the Coffee Plant on Portobello Road.

The Coffee Plant has a very industrial feel to it – metal  bar stools and tables and a wooden L-shaped bar that lines two front walls.  It used to be a bit dingy, but after a face-lift in ’08 one could say it now has a clean minimalist or utilitarian look.  But despite the sparse furnishings, they serve the best of the best.  All of their tea and coffee is Fairtrade and the majority, organic.  And unlike most coffee shops, Coffee Plant’s beans are freshly roasted as needed in their West London roasting house and do not sit in bags for months (or years) on end waiting to be used.

To add to the delight, they train every barista they hire well – so much so that they steam milk perfectly and are often skilled at latte art – flowers, leaves, hearts, you name it.  If you prefer tea, they have a wide selection, including everything from English Breakfast to Ginzing (ginseng).  The last time I was there (8 months ago), a latte was £1.60 and tea was a mere £0.90.  An absolute bargain compared to the £3 lattes most Central London coffee shops are hocking.

As if good coffee wasn’t enough, this little place is full of life.  I would even go as far as to deem it the heart of the community.  Some of the best conversations of my life happened within a few feet of their espresso machine over a soya latte or ceylon tea.  Their reasonable prices coupled with the outstanding quality tends to make it an appealing haunt for many in the neighborhood.  Its clientele runs the gamut from bohemian types who barely scrape by to scions of English literary fortunes.  It’s rare to see such an eclectic blend of people hangout and enjoy each others’ company as much as they do at the Coffee Plant.

The photo I’ve included in this post is a testament to that.  I found it on Google – strangely didn’t take many photos during the years I lived in London – and the photographer captured a moment in the lives of two of my friends.  The gentleman just inside the door moved to London from Eastern Europe to work so he could send money home to his wife and family.  To do that, he opened a lovely boutique on Kensington Church Street called D-Lala (check it out!).  And the gentleman sitting out front with a white t-shirt and jeans is a fantastic poet.  If I wasn’t writing, a handful of us – including these two gentleman and a wonderful woman who shares my passion for Greece, film and travel – would spend our mornings talking story and discussing everything under the sun: travel, life, art, books, family, work.  Many years on, the lattes, the conversations, the friends and the people watching still warm my heart.

I guess this is proof that the gift of travel comes in many forms.   Because even though I wasn’t just visitor passing through London, I still had to make the decision to  pack my bags, cross the globe, and hang my hat somewhere new.  And as a resident, I experienced that beautifully simple pleasure of being somewhere foreign and getting to know people I would’ve never otherwise met – people who added an extra bit of color to my life.  And for that, I am forever grateful.

*The Coffee Plant is located at 180 Portobello Road (Notting Hill, London, UK).  You can get there by taking the Circle, Central or District Line of the Tube to Notting Hill Gate or the Hammersmith and City Line to Ladbroke Grove.  The Coffee Plant is open 7 days a week from 8am to 6 or 7pm (depends on business).

The Coffee Plant photo courtesy of: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_P4Uad_Fsc2w/Rzngr_EIlSI/AAAAAAAAAM8/134h1KPlp98/s400/IMG_0992.JPG

Anarchy in Copenhagen

The entrance to Christiania

Approaching the area, I can’t help but notice the how over-grown the grass is (waist high), how decrepit the buildings.  Finding the entrance to Christiania is like trying to find a penny on the ocean floor –it’s damned near impossible.  Despite the lack of street signs or notable points of reference, I somehow find my way into this maze of a neighborhood, but not through – surprise, surprise – the main entrance, and when I do, there isn’t a soul in sight.

Having been in the area for over 30-minutes, I started wondering what all the hype is about.  This surely can’t be the anarchist community that’s had so much buzz around it for the last few decades… Within moments, though, I hear chatter and head towards it, the hub of the only surviving anarchist community in the world, Fristaden (meaning Freetown) Christiania.

Tucked away in the Copenhagen’s outer borough of Christianshavn, Christiania thrives very much as a hippy commune would.  Its roots trace back to the 1970s when homeless families began squatting in the abandoned red brick WWII military barracks, and they still do today.  And to their credit, they’ve done a bang-up job.  In front of me, there are buildings covered in vibrant murals, car-free streets, a clothes swap stand (a leave one, take one system), a neighborhood café and bar, and just behind me, a school and playground for the neighborhood children.

Just outside the gates of Christiania

But what grabs my attention most is the gathering of people – a hundred strong – in an open space up ahead of me.   As I get closer, the chatter gets louder and someone tests a microphone. 1-2, 1-2. Check. 1-2. As I round the corner, I notice that almost everyone has a granola feel to them: dreadlocks, Birkenstocks, paisley tops for the ladies, cuords, hemp necklaces.  Putting Bob Dylan on stage is about the only thing that could’ve made it more like the late 60s.  There’s even a café/bar housed in a building that looks like it were an old general store from the Wild West.  Curious about the upcoming performance, I linger and observe.  The sun is shining and there’s a light breeze that sends a faint smell of cigarettes and cloves in my direction as  happy children run around dirty-faced giggling together.

But as much as this seems like a mini hippy utopia, it hasn’t always been the case.  Christiania has long battled drug problems, so much so the residents chose to ban all hard-core drugs (i.e. heroin, cocaine, meth).  Its residents are, for the most part, peaceful, but they still struggle to keep out the drug dealers who flock to “Pusher Street,” and for whom violence and unrest tag along on their coattails.

The sound of someone tapping the microphone distracts me from my thoughts.  A man well over six-feet tall dressed in neatly worn jeans and a green flannel shirt sits down on a stool behind the mic and launches into a long speech in Danish, most of which I can’t understand.  Even though I would like to stick around and see what’s to come, my stomach starts to protest.

Morgenstedet - Photo by: Mette Walsted

With that I head off to find Morgenstedet – one of the few strictly vegetarian restaurants in all of Copenhagen – and leave behind the bluegrass music that’s just beginning.  Morgenstedet, meaning “The Morning Place” is a cozy, little restaurant that sings of homecooking the moment you walk through the door.  A hodge-podge of wooden tables and chairs fill the small room, curries simmer on the stove, and the quiet of diners happily filling their bellies pervades.  Famished, I order the daily special, which includes a choice of vegan salads, brown rice and a curry.  It’s not cheap (approx. US$12), but one of the servers explains to me – in perfect English, might I add – that all of their ingredients are organic and everything is made from scratch each morning.

In no time, I polish my plate.  The food was every bit as good as the guide book notes, though a local who shared a table with me mentioned that they rotate cooks so the quality can fluctuate.   I linger for a few moments just to take in the atmosphere before ordering a cup of their hot chai to take with me on a very long walk back to my hotel.   And it’s wonderful – the perfect amount of spice and sugar.  As I close Morgenstedet’s gate behind me, I see a group of tourists and hoping they’ll lead me to an exit, I start to follow, but they end up staying to listen to the tall, lanky bluegrass performer I left behind earlier.

Somewhere along the way, though, I make a wrong turn and find myself in the middle of Pusher Street.  Christiania seemed fairly pleasant until I came face to face with Pusher Street.  It is a long dirt street flanked by run-down buildings and filled with the roughest of people.  For a female traveling alone, it is beyond intimidating: stormy looking men line boths sides of the street, loud heavy metal and punk music screams,  and pitbulls run around freely.  Today, Pusher Street feels just as menacing as some of the chancy areas I’ve been through in New York and London.

It’s enough to make my skin crawl.  And although no one seems bothered by me, I pick up the pace a bit and say my prayers.  With each step my heart beats faster, and it feels like it’s going to burst through my chest.  I make it a point not to look anyone in the eye.  But before I know it, the sight of harmless hippies and the wild flowers that grow all over Christiania reappears, leaving the grit of Pusher Street behind me.  And as I round the corner, the elusive entrance gate I tried so tirelessly to find sits waiting.

*Morgenstedet is located at Fabriksområdet 134, Christianshavn, and is open Tue – Sun from noon to 9pm.

Note to Travelers:  If you go to Christiania, do not take too many photographs.  I read that it angers the residents, which is I why I have so few pictures of it.

Photo Credit:  The Morgenstedet photo was taken by Mette Walsted.  http://www.spottedbylocals.com/copenhagen/morgenstedet-christiana