Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

When in Venice, Sip a Bellini (Hemingway Did)

Friday, March 1st, 2013


Next time you are out for brunch, or even better, grabbing a cocktail in Venice, order a Bellini!  Originally concocted in Venice, Italy sometime between 1934 and 1948 by Giuseppe Cipriani (the founder of Harry’s Bar), the Bellini’s popularity won it a permanent place on the menu, after having been originally created as a seasonal drink. It got its name from Giovanni Bellini, the fifteenth century Venetian painter who used a color pink that Cipriani thought was recreated in his cocktail.

Image source: Wikipedia

Image source: Wikipedia

Among the famous customers to frequent Harry’s Bar and sip on a Bellini made by Giuseppe Cipriani, are Charlie Chaplin, Barbara Hutton, Orson Welles, Truman Capote, and of course Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway was writing Over the River and Into the Trees while staying in Venice and mentions Harry’s Bar many times. When told that Hemingway gave Cipriani and his bar free promotion, he responded “It was me and my bar that promoted him.  They gave him the Nobel prize afterwards, not before.”

Image source: Wikipedia

Image source: Wikipedia

When traveling to Venice these days, you can still stop off at Harry’s Bar, order a Bellini, and imagine the days when such visionary minds of the last century frequented the tables around you. A Bellini at Harry’s Bar goes for approximately 18 Euros, but if you are just looking to be able to say you had a Bellini in Venice, you can get a non-alcoholic version in a bottle at the train station for a mere 2 Euros. But beware; it doesn’t have as much history packed into the taste!

If you want to bring a bit of Italy to your brunch table, try the original recipe from Harry’s Bar!


Ready to plan a getaway to Venice?  Travel with us and explore the ins and outs of this beautiful and magical city. Learn more about our Hidden Venice tour here.

From Sarlat to Rocamadour and back to the Dordogne Valley

Monday, December 31st, 2012

John Sweets is Professor Emeritus of History, specializing in the Vichy France era, the French Resistance, and occupied France. He has taught 19th and 20th century European history at the University of Kansas, University College, Dublin (Ireland), The School of International Studies (Fort Bragg, NC), and at the Université de Franche-Comté, Besançon (France).

John led a group of Smithsonian travelers this September on a journey of France Through the Ages.


This morning, after finishing a nice breakfast at our hotel, we walk to the center of the old city at Sarlat, a beehive of activity, enticing aromas, and the bright colors of the Saturday market. Since Sarlat offers a regional market for this part of the Perigord, scores of farmers display fruit, vegetables, wine, and local specialties such as foie gras, sausages, bread, baked goods, and cheese. Artists, flea market vendors and producers of handmade goods also come to the city to sell their products, attracting hundreds of customers from the surrounding area. Our travelers wander amongst the stalls, and many of them purchase the fixings for a nice picnic lunch to have at Rocamadour, the first destination for the day’s bus ride.

Rocamadour Chapel interior

The Rocamadour Chapel settled within the rock face. Photos courtesy of John Sweets

In route to Rocamadour the sky suddenly brightens and the temperature rises to provide perfect conditions for our visit of the spectacular medieval pilgrimage sight hewn out of the side of a cliff high above the Alzou, a small tributary of the Dordogne that through the ages has carved out a steep canyon whose walls rise more than 400 feet above the river. After a quick photo stop to allow the travelers an overview of the sight, the bus driver lets us out at the top of the canyon, from which we begin our descent, along a 19th century trail marking the fourteen stages of the cross for a visit of the Chapel of Notre Dame, built into the cliff at the sight of the discovery of Saint Amadour’s body in the 12th century. Francoise, our guide and tour leader, explains the significance of Rocamadour as an important pilgrimage sight and points out the wall paintings and the handle of the Sword of Roland which sticks out of the cliff above the entry to the Chapel. Then we are left on our own to discover the famous Black Virgin of Rocamadour and the beautiful stained glass windows of the Chapel. Some of the travelers who did not bring a picnic lunch from Sarlat enjoy a delicious omelet filled with morel mushrooms, served with French fries, a large green salad, and slices of bread from possibly the world’s largest loaf of bread (see photo).


Beautiful stained glass at Chapel Rocamadour. Photo courtesy of John Sweets


An impressively large loaf of bread found around lunch time in the Rocamadour village. Photo courtesy of John Sweets

Driving back toward the Dordogne valley, we seek out the Dordogne River whose meanderings we follow to one of France’s most beautiful villages, La Rocque Gageac. This village was once home to cliff dwellers who built their homes high above the Dordogne, remains of which can still be seen. We have a wonderful view of the village that follows the curve of the Dordogne from the shallow-draft gabarre, the traditional boat of the region, which takes us on a lovely and restful river cruise, round-trip from La Rocque Gageac to the Chateau de Castelnaud. Returning to Sarlat by bus, we have time for another photo stop below the Chateau de Beynac, once ruled over by Eleanor of Aquitaine and her beloved son, Richard the Lionhearted.


Former cliff dwellings of troglodytes embedded in the cliffs in Dordogne. Photo courtesy of John Sweets


A beautiful view of the Dordogne River Valley.  Photo courtesy of John Sweets

Chateau_de_ Beynac

Chateau de Beynac was owned by Eleanor of Aquitaine and her favorite son, Richard the Lionhearted.  Photo courtesy of John Sweets

It has been a full day already, and we return to Sarlat just in time for dinner at Le Regent, an excellent restaurant situated on the central square in front of the Hotel de Ville, where we sample foie gras and confit de canard, served with pommes a la sarladaise, the local potato specialty. Entering the restaurant, the travelers had been astonished by the large crowd gathering in the central square. However, they soon discover that this is one of the dates designated for celebration of the French patrimony- a day when many towns open historical landmarks, otherwise not open to the public. The town was beautifully decorated for the evening with candles everywhere, colorful light shows illuminating the walls, story-tellers and actors performed on stage in front of the Hotel de Ville and along narrow streets, women dressed in Renaissance clothing, leaned out their windows to shout insults to one another. The evening was concluded with a harp concert at the local Church.  With this wonderful, and completely unanticipated surprise, the travelers made their way back to the Hotel for sleep before an early morning start to their next day’s destination in the Loire Valley.


The celebration of French Patrimony forms in a busy market place. Photo courtesy of John Sweets


The Cathedral of St. Sacerdos in Sarlat from behind.  Photo courtesy of John Sweets


Read more about upcoming departures of our France Through the Ages tour here.

Exploring Scotland’s Treasures

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

Charles MacQuarrie holds an M.Litt in Celtic Studies from the University of Edinburgh, and a PhD in Medieval English and Celtic Language and Literature from the University of Washington.

This summer, Charles led a group of Smithsonian Journeys travelers on a tour of Scotland’s Treasures.


During our boat trip on Loch Lomand, amid the beautiful views and smooth sailing, we approached an inlet with a famous cave. The cave of Rob Roy MacGregor, where after having been made an outlaw and forbidden from wearing his clan tartan or speaking Gaelic or even using the name MacGregor, Rob Roy held up for some 10 years. As the guide on the boat noted, next to the cave mouth someone had painted in white paint “cave.” The guide quipped that it was a wonder that the English didn’t find Rob Roy with the label right next to his hiding place. Dorinda, who had studied Latin, turned to me and the four or five of us who were outside on the top deck of the boat and said, “Maybe it is from Latin “cave” beware. That would make more sense.” She had a point; I told the guide about Dorinda’s joke, and he told me he was going to add it to his repetoire.

Loch Lomand

Loch Lomand in Scotland. (Photo courtesy of flickr user k4dordy.)

A few days later we were at the battlefield of Culloden, and it began to rain as we approached the gravestones that marked the place where so many MacGregors had died in the battle. Killed by vollies from English rifles as they charged over the marshy plain under orders from Bonnie Prince Charlie, who stayed safely behind the lines. The guide took us to the point where the English line had been, and told us about the artillary that the Highlanders would have been facing that day, and the rain started to pour down as if on cue. We hustled back into the exhibit building for tea, and explored the museum, listening to first person accounts of the Highland rising of 1745 read by actors from letters that have survived from the time.


The memorial cairn at the center of the battlefield of Culloden. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

When we arrived in Edinburgh, the weather was fine, and we were all delighted to move into our rooms at the George Hotel. Down the street was the tent for the Edinburgh Book Festival, and Michael Palin was reading from his new book the day after we arrived. The Fringe festival had taken over most of the rest of the city, and plays, musicians, and comics abounded. The biggest treat for most of the Smithsonian group, however, was the central event of the official Edinburgh Festival — the Edinburgh Tattoo, where drum groups from all over the world delighted us all. I heard the song:

O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and Ah’ll tak’ the low (road)
And Ah’ll be in Scotlan’ afore ye
Fir me an’ my true love will ne-er meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomon’

as I walked down the Playfair steps on my way back to George Street, and I couldn’t help but think of the beauty of Loch Lomond, Dorinda’s witty comment about “cave,” and the somber dreich day on the battlefield of Culloden.

The streets of Edinburgh. (Photo courtesy of flickr user Moyan_Brenn.)

Our trip had taken us, rather like the itinerary of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Kidnapped,” into the sublime natural beauty and Gaelic culture of the Highlands, up from Oban to Skye and Inverness, and then back to the lowlands and to the national capital. We had seen so much, and we had covered so much ground, but being back in Edinburgh, at the close of our journey, there was a sense that the strands were coming together, and we had made a kind of sense out of some of the most prevalent dualities that characterize this very civilized and wild country that is English and Gaelic, Lowland and Highland, Modern and Medieval, and at least until the referendum vote in 2014, British and Scottish.


Read more about Smithsonian Journey’s “Scotlands Treasures” tour.

Fire and Ice in Iceland

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

Jim ZimbelmanDr. Jim Zimbelman is a planetary geologist at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum where he has served as the chairman of the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies. 

This summer, Jim led a group of Smithsonian Journeys travelers on an Adventure in Iceland.


Iceland has been called “the land of fire and ice,” a rather accurate short description of this unique country.  Iceland is only slightly smaller in surface area than the US state of Kentucky, yet it is one of the youngest (geologically speaking) nations in the world (the oldest exposed rocks are only about 16 million years old), and portions of the island are growing even as you read this. The historically significant Althing (the oldest and longest running parliament in the world) was first held at Thingvellir, within a linear depression that is the still-growing boundary between the North American (to the west) and Eurasian (to the east) plates. The two plates are separating at the stately pace of 2 to 3 centimeters (about an inch) per year, roughly the same rate as the growth of human fingernails; while not observable to the watching eye, evidence of the accumulated separation is apparent on a human timescale, where appropriately fixed markers were established on the two sides of a spreading rift.  It is this motion of the planetary plates, coupled with Iceland’s location above a deep-seated hot spot, that generates the “fire” component of the country.

The Snaefellsjökull volcano from Hellnar. (Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons.)

We visited several locations throughout Iceland that typify the “born of fire” aspect of its natural history. One day we circumnavigated the huge Snaefellsjokull volcano, site of the beginning for Jules Verne’s classic “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” while learning what the rocks can teach us from world-renowned Icelandic volcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson. No day passed without seeing countless moss-covered lava flows and massive cliff faces composed entirely of volcanic rocks. Near the Krafla volcano, we walked on a trail through the boiling pools and still-steaming rocks at the vent for the 1984 eruption, the last of a decade-long series of eruptions. Throughout the country, hot rocks at depth heat groundwater that boils up out of the ground, as in the sudden bursts of the geyser Strokkur (adjacent to “Geysir,” the namesake of all geysers); geothermally heated water supplies the hot water needs of virtually the entire nation. In southern Iceland we stopped at a farm next to the base of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, which suddenly reawakened in 2010 (to the great consternation of air travelers throughout Europe); the farmer feared that a prolonged eruption would destroy his farm and livelihood, so with typical Icelandic foresight, he hired a videographer to document what was happening to the farm, resulting in one of the most personal and poignant  films I have seen (he is doing a reasonable business showing the film to tourists in a remodeled blacksmith shop next to the Ring Road highway). Icelanders have learned to live with nature’s uncertainties, roll with the punches, and turn what could have been a disaster into a useful (and even profitable) enterprise.

Looking down from Solheimajokull glacier. (Photo courtesy of flickr user ian mcbride.)

On top of the volcanic bedrock of Iceland are several large ice caps (including the largest ice cap in Europe), plus numerous smaller ice accumulations on individual mountains. These thick ice deposits feed dozens of glaciers that have carved the bedrock into U-shaped valleys. Our group walked up onto the very snout of the Solheimajokull glacier, where the ablating ice leaves a coating of dark rocks brought down the valley by the moving ice. The place where we reached the glacier terminus is easily a kilometer (more than half a mile) further up the valley than when I visited this same glacier in 2000; Icelanders have a ‘ring-side seat’ to the drastic reduction in glaciers currently underway across the planet. How many years will it be before Iceland no longer has a surface accumulation of ice, which is part of its very name? The remarkable sights and sounds of this beautiful but complex country tend to make one become reflective, and perhaps this may be a partial explanation for why the exploits of Vikings were recorded in the Icelandic sagas, among the oldest examples of European literature.  Come and find out for yourself what this country will teach you.


Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Adventure in Iceland trip here.

The Rainbow Island of Burano, Italy

Monday, September 24th, 2012

Italy is known for holding some of the world’s greatest masterpieces of art, culinary traditions, and the ancient world. But, amongst these mighty giants are wondrous treasures that remind us that the little charms are just as magical. The island of Burano on the Venetian lagoon is just that. Just a 40 minute boat ride from Venice, Burano is a must see.


The colorful houses of Burano. (Photo courtesy of flickr user o palsson.)

Burano is an old fishing village, and the fishing traditions of Burano date back to Roman times. For most of its history, fishing was the main source of income for the island, but the number of fishermen has greatly declined over the years. However, today, you can still go to Burano and be assured that the fish you eat on the island was caught that day by local fishermen. You can also find the fish being sold daily at the historical Rialto Market in Venice. But, do not leave the island of Burano without trying the fish at one of the local restaurants. If you like fish, this may be the best fish you will ever try.

Calamari Fritti at Ai Pescatori restaurant in Burano. (Photo courtesy of flickr user HarshLight).

Fishing is, or I should say was, not the only source of income for Burano. The art of lace making has played a large role in Burano’s history. Legend has it that a betrothed fisherman out at sea was given a wedding veil by a siren, and when he gave it to his betrothed; everyone tried to replicate it with needlework. The replications became Burano lace. Burano lace making was greatly admired by the Venetian patrons and even the Royals of the world. King Louis XIV was said to be wearing a Burano lace collar for his coronation and Leonardo Da Vinci purchased a piece for the main altar of the Duomo di Milano. Lace making on the island has declined significantly since its golden age, but you can still see women sitting outside or inside the lace shops creating these beautiful textiles. Burano lace making is truly unique in that it is all 100% handmade, with extravagant designs and detail, and more than likely made by the person you see working before your eyes.

sewing lace

A 92 year old lace maker in Burano. (Photo courtesy of flickr user Pat Ferro.)

Besides lace making and fishing, what makes Burano different from the rest of the surrounding islands is its rainbow of houses. Though these houses are beautifully painted and look like artwork, the reason for their vivid colors is quite practical. Years ago, the fishermen painted their houses bright colors so when they were coming home in the fog, they knew whose house was whose. That said, the colors of these houses have been in families for centuries. And, if you want to change the color of your house, you have to send in a request to the government. And, if you want to buy a house on the island, good luck with that.

Colorful Burano Houses

A row of colorful Burano houses. (Photo courtesy of flickr user kevinpoh.)

The Island of Burano is full of hidden charm, history and culture. It is truly a treasure and no surprise that it is one of the many beautiful stops on Smithsonian Journeys’ Hidden Venice trip. If you want to visit, sign up today.