Tuesday, December 27, 2011

WiTList: Top 11 Photos of 2011

Here are my favorite 11 photos from 2011, spreading from London to California, Canada to the Southwest. Of course, there's a story behind each, browse through the old blog posts to find a few. Happy New Year!

11. Angry Duck (or is it a Goose?)
This ornery waterfowl was not a fan of me walking through London's St. James Park. Thankfully 2 foot iron fence kept him from attacking.

10. Alcatraz Watchtower
The sun set just as we set foot on the infamous prison island in San Francisco bay. During our night tour the creeks and groans of the aged facility made it come alive. But this photo of the sun over the watchtower almost made it seem peaceful. 

9. My Dog Bond
 Taken along the rocky shores at Two Lights, Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Getting him to sit still was almost as impossible as keeping the seagulls away!

8. Yosemite Park Panoramic
Yosemite Falls in the foreground, Half Dome in the distance. The most amazing nature scenes in America spread out for miles and miles. 

7. St. Paul and the Millennium
Old and new collide as London's iconic dome rises from the end of the city's modern footbridge. My favorite part of this photo, other than the cool curves of the bridge wires and the dome, is that there is a blue sky during March in London!

6. Howling Coyotes
Tucked away down a side alley in Santa Fe's Old Town is a courtyard filled with traditional ceramic statues. The brightly colored souvenirs make fill the color spectrum from entrance to exit and reflect the New Mexican sun into a fractured rainbow. These three coyotes were my favorite, but with the vibrant colors in New Mexico, it was hard to take a bad photo.

5. Frontenac Cannon
The grand Frontenac Hotel in Quebec City, Canada sits like a sentinel atop a bluff overlooking the St. Lawrence River. To this day, canons line the outcropping, rolling in lines over the hills from the city's Citadel fortress, which lies a few hundred yards from this legendary hotel. History and old time glamour abound north of the border. 

4. Got Moose?
A chance encounter alongside a remote stretch of highway in Franconia Notch, New Hampshire led to my first ever moose sighting. Right around the corner from where the Old Man in the Mountain used to watch over the White Mountains, before his craggy face crumbled away. This big guy was larger than my SUV and put on a little show, strolling through the brush and brook before crashing back into the dense pines.

3. A Tasting
What's better than a multi-glass tasting at Mumm wineries in Napa, CA? Refilling those champagne flutes with another round just as the sun sets over the vineyard. A half dozen glasses of sparkling wine from one of the region's premier makers combined with the smell of fattening grapes and a clear summer dusk makes for a great photo, and an even better moment.

2. Golden Gate is Closer than it Appears
There were many great photos of the Golden Gate Bridge from our trip to San Francisco in June, 2011. But my favorite was a quick shot from the rental car window while driving across the iconic landmark. Sausalito behind us, San Fran up ahead.

1. New Mexican Mailboxes
At a random point along the Turquoise Trail, somewhere between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, you forget you're in 2011 as the ghost towns all blend into one ramshackle shanty. But then you hit the art communities and the vibrant colors of New Mexico blow away the beiges and broken wood piles. It's hard to imagine anyone out here gets much mail, so it's easy to see why they've turn them into pieces of art, such as these ones near the Cowgirl Red shop. This is my favorite picture of 2011 travel, just because of the colors, which will always remind me of random spots in the great American Southwest. 

Your Top Travel Photos of the Year:

Kelly Cheeseman - Beautiful photo of storybook village taken on the train ride from Oslo to Bergen, Norway

Sunday, December 18, 2011

WiTLists - Travel Mistletoe

I can't imagine mistletoe holds much lure, other than lore and legend anymore. A friendly peck on the cheek entering a holiday party, perhaps, but the days of getting caught under the infamous foliage has seemingly gone the way of Ebenezer Scrooge's frugality. But that does not mean spontaneous romance is dead, my friends. It exists not in a weed nailed to a doorjam, but rather in warm summer nights and brisk mountain breezes, fireworks and sunsets, dive pubs and tiki bars. Call me a hopeless romantic and I'll point to the secret and not so secret spots around the globe that make it a habit of igniting sparks. After all, during the holidays don't we all just want a little warmth?

My Picks

5. Hillside in Switzerland’s Lauterbrunen Valley
Nobody ever said cowbells are sexy. But echo them across a jade valley while a young couple rests from their hike on a grassy hillside, and you’ve created yourself the stuff of fairy tales. There’s something very Sound of Music about lounging in the grasses of the Alps’ foothills. Whether you’re twirling or not, the scenery immediately removes you from reality and all at once romance and anything else you can dream up is a very real possibility.

After experiencing the Top of Europe (the Jungfrau), not much else can compare to the exhilaration. But hiking back down through the Lauterbrunen Valley, with stops in some of the hillside villages picking up lunch supplies from local vendors, is a close second.

Our honeymoon to that point had been filled with adventure. We sat on a random patch of grass, fumbled through our backpacks for some chocolate and cheese and leaned back to the contour of the land. A train chugged by below, hauling another group of wide-eyed travelers up to the frozen peak. For us, though, the sun settled in next to a warm breeze and all at once the peace of nature ensnared us. For so many moments, the only sound was the cowbells clanging on the opposite side of the valley. My wife held my hand for more minutes than I can remember then kissed my cheek and pulled me to my feet. The hike wasn’t nearly close to being finished. There was a lot of valley left to descend. It is the Alps. And anywhere you stop is going to give you an unforgettable moment.

4. Juliet's Balcony, Verona, Italy

If Shakespeare says it’s romantic, it’s romantic. As someone who spent a lot of money and a lot of time delving into the finer points of Billy’s life works, I can tell you that this particular play ranks dead last on my list of favorites. But there’s something to the locale, a tourist-crowded alley spilling into a tight courtyard, that makes this spot worth a peak and a peck.
The walls leading into the courtyard are carved and covered with love notes, mostly to the eponymous maiden, immediately bringing out the romantic in even the sternest fellow. In the far corner a statue of Juliet stares demurely at the passers by, the majority of them copping a feel of her breast (good luck, they say – I say some perverted statue maker needed a good excuse). The petite thing rests underneath the famous balcony and should you so desire, and although I would urge against it many a sock-in-sandal tourist would not, you can recite a few poorly remembered lines up to the stone outcrop.
But it’s not until you actually climb through the home and get to the balcony that the scene becomes more surreal. We were in Verona off-season (mid-September) and the crowd thinned hastily. We were left alone on the famous balcony, a few stragglers below pacing unhurried over the cobblestones. Some famous lines of the Bard floated on an easy breeze, stealing away the tourist-trap tenor and leaving behind a still moment of not love but rather blind devotion – the ability to see in something, someone what no other sees and to cherish it. It seems like a highly Shakespearean ideal, and one Juliet’s balcony will gladly oblige. 

3. Cinque Terre, Italy – from your balcony looking onto the ocean
Italy’s five lands have had a rough go of it these past few months. Floods and mudslides devastated these quaint seaside villages, leaving dirt and debris piled waist high in the typically uncluttered piazzas. But the villages built for pirate refuge will be rebuilt and emerge more vibrant and resilient than ever. Its people have an immense affection for the towns and when visiting, you’re instantly immersed in emotions you’ve very rarely felt. The sun glows out over the sea like one of the freakishly large lemons swaying in a nearby garden. And the stars at night are outnumbered only by the infinite anchovies schooling away from the midnight fishermen. If only they could cast their nets to the sky.

If you’re lucky enough to be in Cinque Terre, you’re lucky enough. Period. So climb to your balcony – your room, which is probably an apartment-style abode up innumerable stairs – will have one. Step out and breath in; hold onto the railing or the clothesline or someone’s hand and peer out across the terraced green hillside and the terraced rainbow of homes that stagger down to the harbor.

2. Frog Pond Ice Skating, Boston Common
Somewhere on this list I had to give some love to the biggest little lover’s town in the Northeast. Boston may be known for its history and rabid sports scene, but those minutemen (revolutionary and sideline at Gillette Stadium) go home to someone. Family and affection abound from Causeway to the Common, which is where you’ll find Frog Pond and little slice of winter heaven. This dreary season aside, when Boston Common is sunk in a sea of white powder, the skating rink at Frog Pond shimmers like a frozen oasis. Underneath glittering lights strung through the trees glide couples old and young, coordinated and not, while children weave in and out of their legs like the yarn in a mitten. If you take the time to absorb the atmosphere, you’ll forget about the New England chill. With someone special in tow, Boston in wintertime will provide plenty of ways to stay warm.

1. Key West Lighthouse, Key West Florida
By default, the Key West Lighthouse had to be number 1 on the list of most romantic spots around the globe. Here's why:

Key West has long been a destination of creativity and romance. The island is peppered with hotspots and hideaways and won our hearts on our first visit. We had climbed the lighthouse for the panoramic view and we loved walking the pier at sunset. To pop the question, I combined them both. 

The Key West Historical Society, proprietor of the Key West Lighthouse, was more than happy to oblige my request to reserve the lighthouse at sunset during trip. Only four marriage proposals had ever been done at the lighthouse – none at sunset. All four had said yes. So I was going to be the first at something - either the first to propose during after hours during one of those legendary crimson Key sunsets, or the first to get shot down. 

The Society helped me set the secret plan in motion: Bob the lighthouse keeper would be sweeping in the driveway fifteen minutes before sunset. We set up a secret code word so he’d know it was me when Danielle and I approached. With everything in place, seemingly fool proof, I got nervous. Danielle and I had never had the best of luck when it came to significant relationship events. On our first date, the power went out. On our first vacation together, the theme park rides broke down. The beautiful disaster that was our relationship became somewhat of an inside joke. For this particular trip, we set up our vacation with my cousin and his girlfriend – Key West for a few days and then a drive up to Disney World. It seemed perfect. Danielle was totally unaware. 

The disaster almost came at the airport. My cousin was carrying the ring for me. He was pulled aside by TSA, who started rifling through his bag. Turns out the dope had packed a too-large bottle of Scope. He never came across the ring - safe. 

I planned to propose the day we arrived. But as we arrived, so too did Tropical Storm Fay. The forecast was for near-hurricane conditions. The weathermen didn’t have a precise time for when the storm would hit the Keys – they just knew it would, and it would be powerful. I was resolved to follow through with my perfect proposal. And Tropical Storm Fay was kind. The day was gorgeous – sunny and warm. That evening we walked past the lighthouse. Bob was waiting, sweeping. He told us the lighthouse was closed but he’d let us take a walk up while he finished cleaning. At the top of the lighthouse, as the whole island sunk into a deep red sunset, I knelt and asked her to marry me. 

At 6am the next morning we fled the Keys, Fay biting at our heels. And I was the first person to propose after hours atop the Lighthouse during one of those legendary crimson Key West sunsets.

Your Picks:

Monday, December 12, 2011

My Favorite Drink

(this post was written after a conversation about Ernest Hemingway, the best drinks around the globe and my grandfather, an avid traveler in his day)

¾ oz sweet vermouth
2 ½ oz bourbon whiskey
1 dash bitters
1 maraschino cherry
1 twist orange peel

The soul of any fine quality spirit lingers in the drinker’s initial reaction. With bourbon, that moment the bottle opens and the vapors meet the world for the first time since being locked away in an aged wood barrel, should take you somewhere. For just an instant, you’re transported to a porch in Tennessee one hundred years ago, rocking to the hum of crickets serenading a setting sun.

Or perhaps your mind conjures something more personal; an image of an old man in a high-back chair, his face stone and stoic, his body lean and strong but aged like those wood barrels. His slender fingers curled precariously around a crystal glass that sweats condensation with the sip he takes to end every sentence – a tangible exclamation point signifying his story’s familial, historical or simply nostalgic importance.

And then the vision is gone and you’re staring at a lowball glass on the bar top in front of you, fogging from the ice cubes wedged together in its shallow center.

You smell the whiskey again, letting the aromas tickle your nose hairs to the brink of burning, and you pour yourself a gentleman’s portion. In a roughly three to one ratio, you slowly add vermouth to the whiskey. The bourbon shouldn’t lose any body or color and once you slip the bitters in, watch the droplets disappear into the deep chestnut concoction. Notice the two or three ice cubes dislodge from the bottom of your whiskey glass and breach the surface, bobbing like frantic buoys in a restless brine. You were sure to use no more than three cubes, or else the drink would be watered down. Anything less than two cubes simply and indefinitely solidifies your manhood and stamps your ticket into the Hemingway-Wayne-Sinatra-Eastwood Steal Balls Hall of Fame. You do have a jar of maraschino cherries unopened in the refrigerator. Tradition calls for the garnish but you aren’t sure.

Besides, your grandfather said the cherries are unnecessary and he’s waiting for his drink.

The Manhattan, he once told you is the drinking man’s drink; the king of cocktails, some say.

You’ve learned from your Papa, and the Rat Pack, that the drink is straightforward and strong, yet refined with an air of old school bravado, reminiscent of a time when bravado was real and respected among men.

Those same men are the drink’s patrons and have been so since the days when their now crackled whiskey faces were baby-soft and devoid of the wrinkles and the scars etched into place by war, children and change. Before they sat brooding on a dank sailor’s barstool in Key West or peacocked in a smoky London pool hall.

Like the men who enjoy it, the Manhattan hides an intellectual complexity and a quiet honor among its simple ingredients.

You’ve mixed the ingredients so you give the glass a little shake and notice the liquid remain a steady color and muffle the clink of the cubes.

The shake releases more vapors and you think of your Papa who is at that moment sitting upstairs in a high-back chair, waiting patiently for the one thing he has ever asked of you. You know he won’t complain if it’s made incorrectly, he never has before.

He’d get up to make it himself if his knee wasn’t acting up again. Or if he felt he could leave his wife’s side. Other than you from whom he ordered his drink, she is the one person among the dozens of frolicking holiday partygoers that has his full attention. You know he’d probably rather be sitting on the couch watching the football game with his grandchildren or in the basement playfully knocking down their egos with every billiard ball he knocked in. But he would never let his wife sit alone in a room full of people, not without him there to point out the children she can’t see very well anymore or to retrieve her the hors d’oeuvres she has a hard time getting up for. No he wouldn’t leave her side, he never has before.

And so you check to make sure you’ve made his drink as perfectly as you could. He deserves the perfect drink. You used the best whiskey. You think you put in just the right amount of vermouth. You made sure to include a manly number of ice cubes.

You wonder if you should taste it but then you realize it would do no good. You’ve never been able to finish a glass of the stuff.

You tried once, with your cousins. One night you all went to a nice restaurant, just the grandchildren. On a whim your oldest cousin decided to try Papa’s drink. Why not? It must be good; he drinks them all the time. Amidst pleas to the contrary from your significant others, you, your two oldest cousins and one younger ordered up four Manhattans – an homage to the man who over the years silently taught you the meaning of honor and family.

You all raised your glasses, toasted to the old man. With an urbane sense of accomplishment, you drank. It was like a scene from a liquid lunch in the boardroom of a 1950s advertising firm. Except for the reaction.

The squints. The puckers. The burning. The whiskey face deflowering. That was unexpected.

You all put your glasses down. Not a word, just a few twitches. A simultaneous thought strung from one cousin to the next: how does Papa drink this?

You summoned your inner Captain Tony and coupled with every ounce of machismo and a desire to avoid family ridicule, you dove back in.

The drink wasn’t as cruel the second time around. The whiskey was overpowering, with a sweet molasses backdrop and an almost smoky alcohol finish. The vermouth and bitters were foreign to you, adding a bite that you just couldn’t place on the flavor spectrum.

By the third sip your mouth had numbed to it or perhaps the ice had melted just enough to somewhat nullify the harsh impact. You thought the cherry garnish would be a welcome respite but then it popped in your mouth and released a shot of pure, soaked-in bourbon.

Your wife at the table found your face comical. You had maybe one more sip until you noticed your cousins slide their own unfinished glasses away. You conceded as well. The Manhattan won round one and in one night you learn that it takes a strong man to indulge a strong drink. Only after years of drinks, years of experience, years of happiness and pain, success and failure, love and death, will you be ready you for an unflinching moment of peace with lady bourbon.

Papa has been enjoying those moments for a long time. The ancient bottles of booze behind his basement bar can back that up. He explained them all to you once when you were younger: the bourbon, the anisette, the Frangelico, the imported limoncello, the unlabeled bottle he took back from Europe; the heavy glass tumblers and crystal scotch bottles up on the high shelf you couldn’t reach.

Many of them are very old, maybe dating back to his time in the war that he’s never been able to talk about. You’ve only heard bits and pieces from his days as a medic in the European theater, the horrors of D-Day and what he saw too gruesome for a modern day twenty-something to hear. Undoubtedly some bottles are from Florida, gifts perhaps from long passed friends or neighbors from their winter home in Hallandale. He hasn’t been down there in recent memory, the trip too cumbersome and the doctors too far away.
A few might be leftover from the exotic trips he took with his wife to South America and across the Atlantic. Is that where you get your sense of adventure?

They are all souvenirs turned heirlooms, each mostly empty but filled with memories, friends and places known to you only through his stories.

You are back to the task at hand, still questioning whether or not you made the drink correctly. You refrain from tasting the Manhattan before bringing it upstairs to Papa. You decide it’s ready. You’re gambling on your abilities and the expert’s benevolence.

You weave your way through the crowd, focusing on keeping every drop in the glass. Papa sees you and nods. You approach the patriarch’s high-backed chair offering him the king of cocktails.

He wraps his fingers around the glass. Before he looks at you, he stares momentarily down into the chestnut liquid. There are years of emotion in an instant. You imagine the silent picture moving behind his eyes: serving his country, the birth of his children, that beach in Mexico, those mountains in Italy, the love for his wife.

“Thank you,” he says before tasting it. You hesitate, questioning your decision to not include the cherries.

Then he takes a sip and looks back at you. In his eyes there is no regret, no anger, no scorn – there never has been. There is power. There is pride. There is love.

“Good job,” he says, and takes a sip to punctuate the sentence.

He and the drink are one in the same: stoic, strong and timeless. They are remnants of another time; a time founded in honor and undisputed duty. A time universally revered and yet, in many ways, wholly unattainable ever again. He takes another sip and you hope that one day, like Papa, you can savor the taste without flinching.

As he swirls it in his hand, you realize the Manhattan is your favorite drink; and that you’ve never even finished a glass.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

WiTList - If You Could Stay Anywhere, Where Would You Stay?

There are hotels and then there are hotels. Maybe you stay at one on your honeymoon or you walk through one on vacation (but you're staying at the Best Western). Maybe you just stumbled upon it online while setting up your next trip but almost choked on your mouse when you saw the cost per night. However you know about it, there is a resort/hotel out there that you'd visit if money were no object. Here are some of my dream spots. Let me know some of yours.

My Picks:

5. Ashford Castle, Co. Mayo, Ireland
A castle by the water in the majestic Irish countryside. Historic and archaeological spots scattered nearby. Guestrooms in this 5-star resort are individually designed, as unique as snowflakes, dripping with the luxury and comforts required for no one less than royalty. And they have falconry. Yup, falconry. In the shadows of the ancient castle, you can learn how to launch a bird of prey, an entertaining predator, from your arm. Falconry at a castle. What else do you need?

4. Over-water huts at Intercontinental Bora Bora Resort, Bora Bora French Polynesia
Imagine waking up to the soft sound of water lapping against the side of a paddle as your breakfast is delivered to your over-water hut by outrigger canoe. As you sit to eat your breakfast, you look around at the crystal blue surrounding you on all sides; the sky melting into the azure waters of a quiet lagoon. The rooms, luxurious and opulent, wade offshore in a horseshoe, proudly beckoning to travelers seeking the ultimate in relaxation and indulgence. You want a privately catered dinner on the sand of a secluded reef? Just follow the ukulele player. Any resort only accessible by boat fits into the “relaxing” category.

3. Castello Banfi, Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
The 7,000 acre Banfi vineyard estate has won countless awards, earned millions and revolutionized the Italian wine industry. At its center at one end of a ridge opposite the proprietor’s Tuscan villa, soars Castello Poggio alle Mura, or Castello Banfi. The castle’s 8th century charm and whimsy remain after intelligent renovation transformed it into a 14-room hotel of the most luxurious sort.

The Tuscan countryside heaves like a giant sleeping under a massive green patchwork quilt – and there are views of it from everywhere. The vineyards sprawl in every direction down from the castle hill and small ponds and forests dot the landscape.

But the castle itself is the temporary home to so few guests that it is impossible not to feel at least some of the communal camaraderie that the 8th century inhabitants must have felt – minus the plague, of course. Read more about Banfi here: http://whereverittakestravel.blogspot.com/2010/09/real-life-isnt-supposed-to-be-this-good.html

2. Explora, Rapa Nui, Easter Island
Five hours off the coast of Chile hide a tribe of shadowy figures; strong, mysterious and stone-face. Literally. Undoubtedly you’ve seen them, on the big screen, the small screen, a magazine or in a dream. But they’ve never been standing outside your window. At Explora, they are.

The famous Easter Island statues may be the impetus for most travelers’ trek to the secluded Pacific rock, but staying at Explora is itself worth the stay. The luxurious facility is built with rounded architecture, mimicking the curves of the island and emphasizing the already mystifying aura of Rapa Nui. It is a journey to reach Easter Island but the reward is a cultural and natural experience unlike anything else on earth.

1. Ice Hotel, Jukkasjarvi, Sweden

You know the place is swanky when the website asks, “Are you arriving by private plane?”

But cut it some slack; the transportation options are actually quite limited. Only one airline flies directly there and even then, only from London/Heathrow.

The only other realistic option is to arrive by dogsled.

Such is life – a seasonal, temporary one – atop the world at Sweden’s Ice Hotel.

This structure’s eponymous building material transports its lucky patrons to a world far beyond anything we encounter in our daily hullabaloo. It is the stuff of fantasy, myth and Nordic legend. Every icicle, every frozen chip, every huff of frigid air a reminder of why Man invented fire: for warmth of body but more importantly, for a place to gather around to tell stories about mystical places like the Ice Hotel.

The building is completely made of ice, including your room, the furniture, the art – you name it, it’ll freeze your tongue if you lick it. There are warm accommodations in wooden huts but what’s the point in that?  If I’m traveling 200 km above the Arctic Circle, I damn well better be sleeping on a sleigh bed made of ice underneath piles of real reindeer pelts and animal furs.

The Art Rooms, as they’re called, are each designed differently with a different them: Ice Fishing, Viking Days of Yore, Bedtime Story, even a 50s Car theme. The Ice Hotel is an enormous frozen sculpture, with each room, light sconce and barstool a work of art in itself.

But the masterpiece, if you hit it right, extends from the roof far up into the cold, clear Arctic sky. The shimmering green and purple waves of Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights) haunt the outline of the snow palace. Some ancient winter deity crafted the whole scene to freeze your breath right before taking it away.

Ice Hotel is the ultimate in dream hotels because it’s only real to those who visit. You can’t take a part of it home and the Northern Lights don’t keep too well in a suitcase. So if you do ever make it to the tip top of the world, do me a favor when you’re flying home on your private jet, write a good story about it.

Your Picks:
Maureen GillespieI would LOVE to stay here: http://www.gornergrat-kulm.ch/en/kulmhotel-gornergrat/
I missed my flight to Switzerland in the summer of 2010 and I missed getting a chance to have dinner here and I'm still upset abou tit. Haha.
Mike, your blog is great!

Mark Lawhorne: @Maldenmark I prefer the remote and desolate island of Vieques. Just eight miles off the mainland of Puerto Rico, the "small Island" boasts miles of the best and most remote beaches to be found. It quiet, and unpretentious. There is not a lot to do, but that is something that is so welcome now a days. There is a new "W" resort which is beautiful and typical of gorgeous Caribbean resorts, if thats what your in to. I love the private guest houses that offer so much more of the island personality. Try Casa de Claire, http://www.casadeclaire.net/
By far my favorite retreat on the island.

(from Facebook)
~ Jaclyn Pare says: Hands down - Anastasis Apartments in Santorini Greece. Small boutique place but it was heaven on earth! http://tiny.cc/xmfli

~ BJ Killoy agrees with Pick #5: Ashford Castle is awesome. My dad and brother went falconing, falconed, falconeering?  

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Bike Shorts on a Denver Barstool

There is something inherently wrong about a man sitting at a bar in bike shorts.

The attire itself highlights anatomy most pub patrons would find unappetizing, at best. And unless I missed a tweet, lager is not the new Gatorade and bar food hasn't trended the latest carbo-loading craze.

Yet I watched with confusion and awe as a toned, athletic specimen strutted into Denver's Wynkoop Brewery, doffed his bike helmet, slid his be-spandexed self onto a barstool and inhaled a cheeseburger, fries and two beers.

I don't know where it all went. He obviously wasn't hiding it on his person - bike shorts don't have pockets. The only explanation was that he had just finished a long ride, hadn't eaten all day and needed to refuel and relax.

Crotch-hugging shorts aside, I could understand that. From a few hours of observation I noticed a similar athletic build among most Denver folk. The men were tall and muscular. The women were lean (and maybe it was the mountain air but the majority of women had certain female parts that seemed a bit, how do I put this delicately? Inflated). This guy fit in with that outdoorsy crowd and looked as though he'd just completed a triathlon.

I looked down at my plate piled with a tender, juicy buffalo meat burger and crispy fries and concluded that he deserved it. I'd flown from Boston and now I was enjoying the local tastes. He finished his own journey, albeit on two wheels and self-propelled, so he deserved to sit back and enjoy it even more.

But he didn't. In under thirty minutes his plate was empty, pint glass drained (twice), tab paid and spokes spinning as he pedaled away from Denver's oldest brew pub.

"He's a local," the bartender said. He must have caught me staring out the Wynkoop window.

No shit, I wanted to say. The last time I saw a Bostonian bike up a mountain, slam back a 40oz and a Whopper extra value meal and then finish the trek up the mountain was never.

I laughed. "Don't think I'd fit in with that crowd."

"Where ya from?"




"Try this."

He poured me a pint of something I'd been eyeing when the mad biker walked in. Chile pepper beer. Patty's Chile Beer, to be exact, a Wynkoop house specialty. The award-winning brew comes infused with Anaheim chiles and smoked Ancho peppers.

In a region where micro-brews are giant, I took the first sip timidly. I figured my first unique local beer would be like riding a bike for the first time - a little shaky at first but thrilling once those training wheels come off. It wasn't long before I was rolling through my first chile pepper beer. It was light, with a golden color and a slightly reddish hue. The pepper aroma hits you before the smoky flavor on first sip. The chile bite is there but not overpowering and it goes down surprisingly smooth. There's a savory heat that builds up the palette from a traditional German-type beer to something totally unique and flavorful.

As I drained the glass I heard, "You want another beer?" The bartender had asked, breaking away from his own conversation with a colleague about their weekend kayaking plans.

I wasn't planning to bike into the foothills or hike across a ridge that evening. But I figured I'd take my own journey as a temporary local in the best way I knew how.

"Right now, another one of those," I said. "And what else you got on tap?"

It's definitely better than whatever that guy in the bike shorts has in his water bottle. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

WiTList: Drinks With A View, Europe


My picks:

5. Des Alpes terrace, Interlaken, Switzerland

From your sidewalk chair the range of heaven rushes at you. You’re sitting in an emerald valley, quaint Swiss chalets all around, and yet the soaring, craggy sentinels are all you can look at. If the Alps don’t take your breath away, the schnapps will. Perfect for warming your bones after a day hiking down from the Jungfrau http://tinyurl.com/6n8vq7r Stay til nightfall and the jazz band under the bar’s trellis will provide ample soundtrack to the show put on by the infinite bright stars in the sky. 


4. Poolside at Castello Banfi, Montalcino, Italy

Relaxation is reality in Tuscany. And you’ll never lose touch with it at Castello Banfi, home to the world-renown Banfi vineyards and winery. The entire estate is lined with rosemary shrubs, pomegranate and plum trees. Not to mention a few hundred thousand rows of grape vines that spill down from the hilltop where the castle (hotel) reigns, into the Tuscan forests and countryside. It is by the pool, however, that Banfi wins you over for good. Surrounded on three sides by citrus and fruit trees, all it takes is a slight reach to grab a snack: a few fresh figs would go nicely with the complimentary bottles of house vino that sit underneath the stone archway. Right next to the slippers and robes. A glass of brunello, a slice of fig and the Tuscan countryside stretching as far as you care to look and your reality is relaxation. 

3. BYOW(wine) under the Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Eiffel Tower is always far away. I don’t care where you are in Paris, when you walk to it, you’re always almost there. Once you get to it, but remember you’re always far away from it, but once you do get to it, the famous landmark doesn’t disappoint. It may be touristy and cliché but impress you, she will. Especially because it took so long to get there in the first place.

Which makes it all the more important to make a few stops along the way. There’s the cheese shop, let’s pick up a stinky wheel. Oh look, patisserie, how about some delicious treats. Some meat here, a jar of fruit preserves there and that smell – oh that smell of fresh baked bread can only mean a warm baguette in your near future. Of course, don’t forget the vino.

When you do reach the Tower, walk to it, near it, under it and pop out the other side, away from the crowds onto the greenway. Pull up a square of grass and mimic the other lovers basking in the shadow of arguably the world’s most famous landmark. The view is of the tower, yes, and as awe-inspiring as that may be, the more interesting scenery is created by your fellow gawkers, cuddlers, readers, photographers, painters, Parisians and hustlers scattered around. Look up in wonder. Look around and wonder. Look at your empty wine glass and wonder if it gets any better.

2. Hotel Boscollo Bellini, Venice, Italy

This spot was one procured out of luck and utilized out of necessity. Because sometimes the view doesn't have to be of wide, sweeping vistas. 

Hotel Boscolo Bellini is a classy, smallish establishment near the Venice train station. Any visitor would do well to stay there. But any visitor would do even better to get the room we got (and as soon as I remember the room number I’ll let you know. It’ll probably be right around the time I remember the exact day I learned how to read, or when I remember anything about Trigonometery or when I remember my wedding anniversary – we all know the odds aren’t good).

Two large floor to cathedral ceiling curtains covered what I assumed were windows. Upon further investigation, however, I discovered large doors that opened onto the roof of the first level of the hotel. Whether or not this private roof deck was meant for human relaxation, I know not. But the rickety wrought iron bistro table and chairs suggested it was. The hotel itself is worth staying, regardless of the room and we weren’t the only ones with a balcony, just the biggest.

Skip ahead to that night, strolling home from dinner in Murano. A liquor store about halfway down the Rio Terra Lista de Spagna was hawking local hooch in the road. I couldn’t resist and walked away with the most delicious aperitif – a creamy, potent pistachio liqueur. Two bottles, in fact. http://whereverittakestravel.blogspot.com/2010/09/forget-venice-go-to-murano-95.html

Venice can be done in one day. The canals, the pigeons, the people. When you’re lucky enough to be handed a private roof deck, it’s necessary to turn your back on the Grande Canal to sit and sip in peace. The outdoor area faced the opposite direction from the water, but rather looked out onto a much more real part of Venice. The rooftops faded into the sunset and a quite neighborhood crowded around a small courtyard. There were no sounds of water taxis or yelling tourists. Rather, clanking dinner plates and idle Italian chatter. Clotheslines strung between homes swayed effortlessly. It was a view of Venice not on the pages of a guidebook. No map names the neighborhood we watched power down for the night. And a bottle of pistachio booze helped bring hectic Venice to a peaceful close. 

1. A Pie de Mar - Lovers walk bar, Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre

There are no poor views in the Cinque Terre. There are simply personal favorites. Anchoring one end of the famed hiking path that strings these five seaside towns together like grapes on a vine is A Pie de Mar. As you ascend from Riomaggiore to begin the “Lovers Walk” portion of the trail, a stone stairway peaks out seemingly leading down off the cliffside into the rocky waters below. But take the plunge and you dive into a patio bar with nothing but blue sky blocking the oceanic panorama. Grab a table at the edge and lean against the short rock wall buffeting the patio perimeter. Order a carafe. It doesn’t matter what it’s filled with; could be wine made from the tiered hillside vineyards, limoncello from the local lemon trees dotting the slopes or Cinque Terre’s infamous Schiachettra. Like the views, there are no poor drinks in Cinque Terre. Just personal favorites. Here, it’s all made within shouting distance so there’s a good chance you can express your fondness for a specific pour its maker, or at least someone who knows him.

As you watch the residents set out across the sea in their multi-colored fishing boats that match their multi-colored houses, you’ll start to question whether or not you actually want to get up and continue the hike. You should, it’s a good opportunity to discover your personal favorites, perhaps in the midst of an olive grove or atop a rocky outcrop. But there’s no harm in coming back to A Pie de Mar when you’re done. Just to see if it’s your personal favorite.

Your picks:

- Sarah Shemkus: "The Caffe Poliziano in Montepulciano in Tuscany. Beautiful inside, has a couple of tiny balconies with amazing views. Fellini used to hang out there. Like many cafes and bars in Italy, they do coffee and food and drinks." Check Sarah out on Twitter @Shemkus

- Liz Paciello Rappa: "Old city Antwerp....I once stayed in a castle that was converted into a hotel. The restaurant overlooked the castle grounds. Amazing."

- Monica Golik Manhoney: "The vineyard right outside the old Prague castle! Tim and I got a carafe and stared out onto our lands ... I mean admired the landscape."

- Bren Sullivan: "There was a bar near the Globe Theater in London, right on the banks of the Thames. It was actually a beautiful summer's day when I was there, and we ate and drank outside."

- Dianne Morad: "Bateaux Parisiens, Paris...it's not an especially fancy place, but it sits on the Seine. We took a river cruise on Christmas night and had dinner and drinks afterward at the restaurant. The view was beautiful."Check out Dianne on Twitter @DiMorad 

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Wherever it Takes (WiT) Lists aren't top tens, top fives or top anythings. They're simply lists of places, people, experiences, things, bars, drinks, food, festivals - stuff, stuff that inspire the stories we all love to tell when we come home from a great trip.

Each list will grow from Monday through Friday, a new item on the list posted each day to the blog. Twitter will let you know the WiTList's topic for that week and the latest item put on it each day. But the blog will have a more detailed, albeit succinct description of why it made the list. On Friday check back to www.whereverittakes.com for the whole list.

We're asking for your suggestions too! Just send your favorites for that week's topic to @WhereverItTakes on Twitter and/or #WiTLists

I'll be adding reader suggestions to the blog as they come in. So send them along and tell us your story!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Got Moose? 11-13-2011

My mother and father never brought us up to globetrot. Travel, we did. One summer we hit up Toronto for the Hockey Hall of Fame; the Blackhawks won when we saw them play at Chicago’s United Center (my brother and I were rink rats, if you haven’t figured that out yet).

But international was simply a word in front of “House of Pancakes.” Fine, Canada is another country and I played my share of hockey tournaments in Montreal. But in the early 90s you didn’t need a passport to get across the border and you didn’t have to speak French to know the Canadian kids were going to kick our ass. So they don’t count. 

What all this did mean, however, was an ingrained love for our places: those worn down used up but too damn comfortable to throw away spots we all grew up with. A cabin, a lake, a beach, a dock, a park, a hotel, a game or for some of us, the pursuit of the elusive.

Right outside of North Conway, New Hampshire, hidden down a dirt road (it’s been paved since Bush, Sr. but I like to remember it rustic) surrounded by the White Mountains, my mother and father gave us nature. It was a small condo with a wide-open yard, perfect for campfires and sledding, depending on the season or how dumb my cousins and I decided to be at any given moment. There were blackberry bushes, raccoons, even black bears. Fresh air and family time were great, but now, in hindsight, I realize there was something bigger at play. There was another, more mysterious reason for why they drove us three hours away to this mountain village.

Moose. Not the hair product. Not the dessert. One moose. Many moose. Brake for moose. Just moose. Got moose?

It was the one elusive creature native to the White Mountains that my mother and father had never laid eyes on.

I can hear Dad now saying, after we sold the condo, “I always wanted to see a moose.”

I see vividly the line of cars along Route 16 just outside of Jackson, all pulled over onto the grass. I can hear Mom ask one of the bystanders what they were looking at and the woman, with a look of pity in her eyes, reply, “You just missed them. A mother and two babies. Moose. They’re gone, down into the trees. They were breathtaking.”

Breathtaking might have been a bit superfluous of a description (I used to think). But nevertheless, we were a minute late to see something many folks never come close to in nature.

In the years since the condo has come and gone, our trips to the White Mountains dwindled and altered into lake vacations and jaunts to Maine. Rebuilding the “our places” motif, nothing changed there, but always knowing some big, antlered hole would always remain.

But Canada changed all that (see, I had a reason for including them a few paragraphs ago – and you were scratching your head wondering why I’ve been mentioned the maple leafs so much).

Fast-forward a dozen years, hundreds of passed “Brake for Moose” signs and zero moose sightings.

The signs along the highway from Quebec City to the U.S. border don’t command you to stop for the massive creatures. They simply say “Moose.” Basic enough, and yet loaded enough to spark a conversation about moose between my wife and I on our way home from a long weekend in the great white north. 

We skipped across the Canadian plains that edge the countryside, hopped the border and began winding up and wending down Vermont’s high-altitude hills. At the state line New Hampshire welcomed us with Bienvenue (how appropriate) and the “Moose” signs continued.

Slipping through Franconia Notch, we rounded a turn near the Old Man of the Mountain site. The highway here narrows into one lane on either side, tightly packed between rocky faces and scenic turnoffs. I took my foot off the gas, thinking maybe it’d be nice to stop and admire the national park service’s identified tourist stops. The Notch is beautiful, even on an overcast day and we had been driving for way too long. We needed a pit stop.

But something made me skip over the Old Man of the Mountain stop. He’s crumbled and gone and frankly, he always sort of creeped me out.

Just as we rounded the next bend, I immediately regretted my decision because of the line of traffic and red brake lights that stretched out ahead of me.

It had been such smooth sailing, I thought, it’s Sunday afternoon, what the hell is going on. Accident? I bet it’s an accident. I should’ve stopped, then at least we could’ve taken some pictures instead of waited behind all these cars.

Then I noticed here was no accident. There were people standing outside their cars, staring down a short slope at the forest’s edge. People with cameras.

My wife said, “Why are all those people out there. Is that an accident?”

I immediately regretted regretting my decision to stop. I immediately knew.

“Moose,” I said to her. “It’s gotta be a moose. People wouldn’t stop like this for anything else.”

So we did too.

Down the slope, less than twenty yards from the road, a bull moose larger than my Ford Explorer with antlers you could sit in like a Lazy-Boy stood proudly, inquisitively searching over the dozens of human adults gawking like school children.

He shifted slowly, then took a few long, slow strides, his legs leaning like timbers hinged together. My heart was in my eyeballs when I crouch to take a photo, zoomed in and in that snap, he looked directly at me. Around those huge brown nostrils, the edges of his mouth curled up into what could only have been a smile. He was milkin’ it for the camera.

He had a brown coat that shifted like a gradient into white at his rear. The antlers rose from his crown like golden tree limbs, almost shiny from our vantage point. At the risk of sounding hackneyed, the damn thing was majestic. Breathtaking, even. Animals in zoos are one thing; but to stare at a solitary creature in the wild (as wild as the side of a main thoroughfare can get), one with the power to trample everyone in sight at the snap of a twig, really does stop your breathing a bit.

After ten minutes, none of the people were leaving. The curious thing was, 90% were adults. Just a few scattered children. And two locals in camo hunting gear that walked through the crowd salivating and saying, “that there’s the biggest damn moose I ever saw.”

People only moved along once the main attraction had his fill. He turned his antlers into the high brush and lumbered through the undergrowth until all you knew of his existence was the creaking sound of saplings being trampled under his girth.

I think I smiled all the way until we got cell phone service. When we finally did, I called my father.

“Hey day,” I said, giddy as a child, “what’s the one thing you’ve always, always, always wanted to see up in New Hampshire?”

“No you didn’t,” he said. “Did you take a picture?”

Monday, November 14, 2011

gastrO'Canada: Rabbit, Red Deer and Really Strange Ice Cream 11/12/11

Try not to feel guilty in Le Lapin Sauté, a quaint French country style bistro, tucked away in the equally as quaint artist neighborhood that hides in the shadows below the walls of Old Quebec.

The shame comes not from indulging in fragrant desserts or deep red wine, or even the chef’s decadent dishes, which arrive tableside still sizzling in their sauced drippings.

I challenge anyone not to feel a tinge of guilt when your dinner’s former likeness is glaring at you en masse from every corner of the room. Black, beady eyes, some painted, some sewn, wait judging while you wait for your wine. 

At least until the waitress places the lapin cassoulet on your placemat, the cast-iron pot still hissing from the oven as juices stream from the rabbit leg into a bath of white beans and bacon. Your first bite and the wooden rabbit statues, the smiling rabbit paintings and the silhouetted rabbit curtains immediately disappear into the background. To hell with them. Better yet, to the oven to make me seconds. 

Le Lapin Sauté specializes in its namesake (lapin = rabbit) and they infuse the furry little foragers with the best of French-Canadian cuisine. That is, French-style cooking with the Canadians’ industrious use of seasonal foodstuffs.

They cook with what’s around. They include maple syrup in some way in almost everything. And they skin, sear and serve just about anything that was once cute and cuddly. It endears the food to the homeland and vice versa. And despite the obvious French foundation, the cuisine contained swirls of a unique Quebec identity.

Take the grilled rabbit with mustard sauce. The meat was tender with an appropriate light game flavor, while the mustard provided a gentle zing. Yet underneath a maple sweetness rolled around the tongue. A little bit of Canada in the little bits of bunny.

We tried four variations of rabbit at Le Lapin Saute. The mustard and its plate pairing, olive sauce smothered medallions. All around were fresh root vegetables, mostly carrots for obvious reasons, chunked and simply charred, perfect for swathing up what sauce stayed on the plate.

The aforementioned cassoulet, a white bean and bacon casserole served piping hot in its cast-iron bed; the vehicle for a thick confit rabbit leg. The meaty thigh submerged in the oil and flavor and bacon beans and the bone pierced through looking like a stirring spoon. The meat shredded off with the lightest touch, tender and juicy with an almost poultry taste, albeit more earthy. Soaking in the stew was a rabbit sausage, filled with fennel and the mineral bite that comes from small game.

From such small animals came such big flavor. Flavor for a price, in Quebec. It is an expensive city, even during an off-season in mid-November. Every restaurant tacks on two taxes, prior to gratuity, on top of mid to high range prices. The problem, however, was that there was no low to mid range options. There are very few, if any, quick-stop spots. Our American perspective sees fast food or a step up to a sandwich shop as perfect lunch options. Even on the streets of Paris or Rome, where food is a snobbish lifestyle, there exist sandwich shops with ham and cheese baguettes or a quick street vendor. In Quebec there are none, save for the random Subway tucked between a furrier and souvenir shop.

When in search of a quick bite for lunch, I ended up sitting down. Why? Because every place was a sit-down restaurant.

If Le Lapin Saute is any example, the food prices should simply be a guidepost, not a deterrent. The food itself is hearty and filling, regardless of eatery, so two large meals a day still resulted in full bellies. Traveling in the off-season meant cheap hotels and virtually no lines or waits. Driving meant no airline or airline baggage fees.

Above all, it means embracing a slower pace, spawned from the lack of fast-food and the boon of cafes and bistros.

One of those was Pain Beni (don’t ask me to translate, I did the yeoman’s work with The Sautéed Rabbit). Twenty yards from our Hotel Clarendon, down the short cobblestone walk that connects it to the sprawl of the Frontenac grounds, you’ll know you’re there by the red light above the stone steps.

I chose it because the menu served Quebec Red Deer with berry and juniper sauce, and frankly I couldn’t walk away from that. I tackled rabbit, locally grown pork, the farmers market down along the riverfront (local iced cider and plum wine doled out in samples) – so red deer from down the road seemed an appropriate nightcap.

The modern décor of Pain Beni reflected their menu. And yet, like the rest of Quebec, it was rooted in the root veggies and local products procured around the province. Oysters three-ways (fried, sautéed in lemon and garlic and raw with oyster foam) bridged to the venison I was promised. The loin was exquisitely seared, but rare as was the house custom (I was told by our jovial waitress). Dollops of raspberry sauce and juniper sauce spotted the edges of the plate. One tangy, one a sweet woodsy flavor that when combined, tasted like a holiday medley spread over the meat. Which itself was strong and wild, but reigned in by mild peppery spices. The truffle potatoes came in the form of a white brick, which were actually layered, paper-thin potato slices held together by black truffles and truffle oil. Decadent, for sure but the deer held up next to the overpowering truffle.

If dinner wasn’t modern Quebec, dessert sure was. An apple and butternut squash pie, deconstructed in similar fashion to the truffle potato brick. Only around it were maple crumbles, butternut squash puree and sage-infused whipped cream. The autumn spices danced through each piece, fusing together when combined. The squash and apple complimented each other, one tart and the other slightly savory, but both sweet around the edges. 

Atop the entire dish, however, reigned a cool abomination – cheddar cheese ice cream. It was cheese. It was ice cream. And alone, a spoonful hit the tongue sour, remained that way until the distinct cheddar flavor melted away. It was unnatural, even though ice cream and cheese are naturally related. But when added to the apple pie, the ice cream took on an entirely new character. It lost all sourness, the cheese flavor died to mild and the fruits jazzed up into the forefront. It became a perfect bite: all familiar things but totally unique. 

As we sat in the Hotel Clarendon lounge listening to jazz and sipping port, I looked around for rabbit statues or perhaps a deer painting. None. No furry creatures looking down at me with accusing stares. 

Indulge in Quebec, nothing to feel guilty about here. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Walled City - Quebec, Canada

The guttural accented border guard pricks up your ears even before the ink on your passport has time to dry. In that instant, though, America and the English language evaporate into fleurs de lys. You’re in French-Canada and you better start translating, fast.

Quebec wastes no time telling you who she is, an obvious identity from the get-go. She's guarded, all defenses raised upon first contact. Its eponymous city along the St. Lawrence is even surrounded by a centuries-old rampart. 

Being dropped into a location whose people speak a language different than my own is not new, nor is it frightening, intimidating or frustrating. In most cases it is refreshing and exciting, with that hint of discovery and adventure always associated with international travel.

With Canada (French-speaking Quebec Province, to be fair to the rest of our neighbors to the north), the shock comes from the immediacy of it all.

Even in Switzerland, where we boarded a train speaking French and disembarked into a station labeled solely in German, my ever-fluctuating vernacular adjusted quicker. And that nation tosses three languages around (Italian, French and German) like a juggler on a high wire, if you drop one your life depends on how well you handle the other two.

At least there were options in the Alps.

The first sign over the border into Quebec, and every road sign, kilometer marker and billboard to follow, was entirely in French. No warning. No English translation underneath.

When you enter New Hampshire from Massachusetts, the sign says “Welcome” and “Bienvenue.” Not in Quebec.

Yet after an hour humming along the highway, north then sharply northeast, I found myself enjoying the challenge; racking my brain over root words and the similarities to more familiar Romance languages. I was back in that Swiss train station, slack-jawed staring at an unfamiliar departure board. The novelty of Quebec hit me like the 4pm Eurorail to Zurich. I was international in my own car. I was abroad without a customs check. I was overseas simply by crossing the St. Lawrence River.

We approached Quebec City and its uniqueness glinted on the horizon; or was that the chateau copper roof of the Hotel Frontenac, looming over the mighty river as sentinel to Old Town? 

Under the stone archway, behind the walls and the city reminds you she’s different. The walls are there, literal and verbal, but you can simply glide right past them. The city is not what she seems. She’s unlike you – it doesn’t matter who you are. 

She’s made up in the European style, yet with a beauty that rises from the working shipyards along the riverbank, through the cobblestone alleys, Parisian row houses and up, up, up the Cap Diamant cliffside, where cannons and horse-drawn carriages alike await all comers. Protected by the illustrious Hotel Frontenac, with spires and multi-tiered chateau roofs concealing a bygone glamour and rich history steeped in winter revelry and French-Canadian lore.

Walking from our Hotel Clarendon, around the corner to the Frontenac and cliffs edge boardwalk, the November gray broke to allow blue sky a few hours indulgence.

At the railing I looked down and scanned the shops and houses rolling to the riverside. The rooftops were multi-colored, with wooden ladders attached from gutter to peak. Snow removal or chimney cleaning? Probably both, I guessed. When I turned my sights back toward the city, the Frontenac absorbed most of the scene. But around the perimeter waited a military garrison, an old stone Catholic church, a cobblestone street lined with artist stalls and a massive building yanked straight from banks of the Seine.

There was no Eiffel Tower, no Big Ben, no Coliseum. And in that sense, the touristy Europe feel dissipated with the afternoon clouds.

Crowds were slim, due to the off-season. Soon winter would take full hold and the second high-tourist season would begin. But the streets now allowed for strolling.

Even though the store signs, street signs and menu boards were in French, every “Bonjour” was followed by a “hello.” Not once was the city not bilingual in every respect, despite the province’s desire to make everyone else think otherwise.

No time-consuming tourist traps. No space-consuming crowds. No brain-consuming translations. This was Europe without the “Europa.”

Quebec City is definitively not American. Nor would I even label her Canadian. She is her own brand of “European.” Accessible, unimposing and can be toppled in a long weekend; and yet, hearty and fulfilling (for the stomach and the soul), vibrant and relaxing, historic without stuffiness.

I found it odd I was only six hours from home. I said so to my wife, as we walked hand in hand along a cobblestone road through the shadow of a stunning chapel belltower.

“You know, Paris is only six hours from home,” she said. “But we can drive here.”