Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Torino, Italy

Torino, site of the 2006 Winter Olympics, is located on the left bank of the Po River. Aside from being a city of porticos, Torino is also well known as the home of the Shroud of Turin.

The Shroud of Turin is a centuries old linen cloth that bears the image of a crucified man; a man that millions believe to be Jesus of Nazareth. It is the single most studied artifact in human history. Normally, the Shroud is kept sealed away in a climate controlled case in the Cappella della Santa Sindome in the Cattedrale di San Giovanni, but it went on public display for the first time in ten years on April 10, 2010. Millions of people, including the Pope, journeyed to Torino from all over the world to see the Shroud.

Many believe the Shroud is the cloth placed on the body of Jesus Christ at the time of his burial. A fire threatened the shroud in April 1997, but a fireman saved it from significant damage. In 2002, the Holy See had the shroud restored. The cloth backing and thirty patches were removed, making it possible to photograph and scan the reverse side of the cloth, which had been hidden from view. A ghostly part-image of the body was found on the back of the shroud in 2004.

On this visit to Torino, we also visited the Museo Egizio, which houses the second-largest Egyptian collection of any museum outside of Cairo. Some of the interesting holdings include several copies of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the intact sarcophagus of Vizier Ghemenef-Har-Bak, and the tomb of the 14th century BC architect Kha and his wife, complete with furnishing and food. This is one of few Egyptian tombs spared by grave robbers.

To see all of our pictures of Torino, visit:

Valle d'Aosta, Italy

Upon crossing under Mont Blanc through the Mont Blanc Tunnel from France into Italy, you enter the region known as Valle d'Aosta. In 1031-1032 Humbert I of Savoy, the founder of the House of Savoy, received the title Count of Aosta from the Emperor Conrad II of the Franconian line and built himself a commanding fortification at Bard. The region was then divided among strongly fortified castles. Today, 70 castles survived in some form and you will see the panoramas of medieval military architecture on the drive from the Mont Blanc Tunnel into Italy. We stopped at several of the castles along our way.

Castello di Aymavilles was built in the 12th century and is characterized by the four cylindrical towers crowned by "murder holes" that enclose a central body with a square base. At the beginning of 18th century, the external fortifications were demolished and the land was arranged in terraces and gardens.

Continuing on the "wine road," you come to Saint-Pierre, which boasts two castles. Perched on a rocky spur, the Castello di Saint-Pierre predates its first mention in records of 1191, but owes its "fairy tale" appearance to 19th century additions, especially the turrets and machicolations on the main tower. Today, the building houses the Regional Museum of Natural Science. Built in 1420 around a pre-existing donjon, the Sarriod de la Tour Castle was inhabited by the Sarriod family until 1921

The Castello di Verres is unique and noteworthy as it consists of a large tower, which served as both accommodation and defense. This tower is a cube with all its sides measuring 30m. It stands majestic on a cliff above the river Evançon.

Forte di Bard is located in a narrow gorge next above the Dora Baltea river and was built by the House of Savoy around 1838. It once stopped a 40,000-strong French Army. 400 Austro-Piedmont soldiers held the pass for two weeks completely ruining Napoleon Bonaparte's plan of making a surprise attack on the Po Valley and Torino. The fort is now open to tourists as the Museum of the Alps and has additional art exhibitions and galleries.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, France

Chamonix is the home of the Mont Blanc summit and was the site of the 1924 Winter Olympics, the very first Winter Olympics. The valley of Chamonix was formed by glaciers during the Quaternary Era some ten thousand years ago when the town was buried under about 1000 meters of ice. Chamonix has been described as the "death-sport capital of the world" with its extensive winter sports such as ice climbing, extreme skiing, paragliding, and mountain climbing. Chamonix is also famous for its spectacular cable car up to the Aiguille du Midi at 3842 meters, constructed in 1955. It was then the highest cable car in the world. Today, the temperature was around 60° F in Chamonix. With snow on the mountains year round, you can enjoy a wonderful spring day like this and be skiing with just a short ride up the mountain. Wander around the town, taking in the striking views while enjoying a French crepe and a cappuccino.

At a height of 4,810 meters (15,781 feet), Mont Blanc is the highest European mountain west of Russia . The Les Bossons Glacier is distinctly visible from Chamonix. It originates in the highest summits of the massif and descends a total of 3600 meters, making it the largest icefall in Europe. It moves at 1 meter per day, also making it the fastest moving. The first mountaineers to successfully reach the summit of Mont Blanc were Paccard and Balmat on August 6, 1786 and this event traditionally marks the start of modern mountaineering. Some 20,000 mountain climbers now make the ascent each year and Tim plans to conquer Mont Blanc next summer.

To view all of our pictures of Chamonix, visit:

Cascade d' Arpenaz (Sallanches, France)

The Cascade d' Arpenaz is a huge waterfall at a total height of 1199 feet that literally shoots out of the cliff face Below, the waters gather into smaller waterfalls that notch and slide into the stream below. You can hike up a trail alongside the waterfall and picnic in the field just in front of it, all while hearing the power of the rushing water.

Check out a short video of the waterfall here.

Geneva, Switzerland

Geneva is known as the "Peace Capital" of the world and rightly so as it is the headquarters of the United Nations as well as where the Geneva Conventions were signed. Located where the Rhone River exits Lake Geneva, it is a compact metropolis.

The Jet d'Eau, or water jet, is one of the city's most famous landmarks. It is one of the largest fountains in the world and shoots water 450 feet into the air. The first Jet d'Eau was installed in 1886 at the Usine de la Coulouvrenière, a little bit further downstream from its present location and was moved to its present location in 1881 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation. The jets were upgraded in 1951.

The famous flower clock has been a symbol of Geneva's watch industry since 1955 and is located at the edge of the Jardin Anglais. The seconds hand of the flower clock is the largest in the world at over 2.5 meters long. It is composed of eight concentric circles, the colors of which vary with the seasons and the plants which make up the display. A new design of over 6500 flowers is painstakingly created every season.

The Jardin Anglais is located below the Vieille Ville (Geneva's Old Town) and was created in 1854 on the ancient harbor. The park not only contains the famous flower clock, but also a carved Sequoia stump, a large bronze fountain from 1862, and a Giant Sequoia tree. Giant Sequoias are found naturally only in California and grow to an height of 165 - 280 feet. The first Giant Sequoia to be brought into cultivation in Europe was in 1853. Several can be found throughout England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, and Switzerland. 

Rue St-Léger curls up into the split-level Place du Bourg-de-Four, a marketplace since Medieval times that was probably built over the Roman forum. We enjoyed a delicious dinner of fine French cuisine at the Au Pied de Cochon, which overlooked the the 18th century facade of the Palais de Justice. (I highly recommend the candied lamb shank with saffron and truffle mashed potatoes!) The site of St. Pierre Cathedral has been occupied at least since the 4th century. Excavations have revealed the remains of two 4th-century Christian sanctuaries, mosaic floors from the late Roman Empire, portions of three early churches, and an 11th-century crypt beneath the present cathedral. The exterior of Geneva's cathedral exhibits a confusion of styles — it's a squat Romanesque church with a columned Neoclassical facade, the two square towers on the east end don't match, and there is a bright green spire (from the late 1800s) rising above everything else.

A series of globes is on display lakeside from April until August. Cool Globes: Hot Ideas for a Cooler Planet, is a public art exhibition designed to raise awareness of solutions to climate change.  Cool Globes grew out of a commitment at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2005, and was incorporated as a non-profit organization in 2006. Cool Globes premiered in Chicago and went on tour across the US from Washington DC to San Francisco, San Diego, Sundance, Los Angeles, and Houston.  In the fall of 2009, Cool Globes opened the first international exhibit in Copenhagen.

The Broken Chair, located across the street from the Palace of Nation, symbolizes opposition to land mines and cluster bombs, and acts as a reminder to politicians and others visiting Geneva. It is constructed of 5.5 tons of wood and stands 39 feet high.

The Botanical Gardens consist of a collection of 16,000 plant species from all over the world. This truly living museum is divided into several sections: an arboretum, the rock garden and banks of protected plants, medicinal and useful plants, greenhouses, horticultural plants including a "garden of scent and touch", an animal park devoted to conservation is located between the United Nations and the lake.

To see all of our pictures of Geneva, go to

Monday, April 26, 2010

Morges, Switzerland

Morges is a small town situated on Lake Geneva in Switzerland and is called the "flower of Lake Geneva." It's no wonder since Morges hosts the yearly Tulip Festival, which has become a tradition. More than a hundred thousand tulips in over 300 varities, some of them over 100 years old, are on display from mid-April until mid-May in the Parc de l'Indépendance. The park also offers fantastic views of the lake and Savoy Alps, with Mont Blanc in the distance.

Morges was once an important commercial center and so a part was built in the 17th century. Nowadays, the port serves as a temporary home for yachts sailing Lake Geneva. Morges Castle, which was built in 1286, stands watch over the port and houses an artillery and arms museum.

The Old Town is the car-free Grand-Rue of Morges is perfect for shopping and a leisurely stroll around the medieval village founded in 1286.
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Lake Como, Italy

Lake Como is Italy's third largest lake and is made up of about 24 towns and villages. In 1818 Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote to Thomas Love Peacock: "This lake exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty, with the exception of the arbutus islands of Killarney. It is long and narrow, and has the appearance of a mighty river winding among the mountains and the forests".

A short ferry ride across the lake from Bellagio will bring you to the steep hillside village of Varenna. Some consider Varenna to be the most heavenly of all the towns on Lake Como. Only a population of 882, the residents have an odd tradition keep water bottles just of outside their houses to keep stray cats from peeing on their door!

After enjoying a lunch of the lake fish and seafood, a climb up the hillside overlooking Varenna to the Castello di Vezio is well worth the effort. As you approach the castle, a panorama of the lake opens up. From here, you can see the peninsula where Bellagio is situated and divides the lake into two parts: on the left is the Lecco side and to the right is the Como side.

There are ghosts in the castle grounds which are made from white chalk. Willing tourists who offer to pose in the spring and summer will be covered with gauze and the white chalk to make the ghost sculptures. The sculptures remain in the castle grounds until the snow comes and destroys them.

You can climb the castle turret for more stunning views of the lake. The turret also has a permanent collection of Lairosauro, a water reptile with a long neck and head. Most of the species of the Lairosauro have been found in the area of the lake, but recently some have also been found in China.

The Castello di Vezio also has a falconry in which it trains and cares for birds of prey. The birds (two hawks, a buzzard, and a barn owl) are outside in the olive grove during the day until showtime so that visitors can observe the different birds of prey close up.. The great horned owl is called Artu and he is one of the few left in the world.

Bellagio is called the "pearl of Lake Como" and is strategically situated at the intersection of the three branches of the Y-shaped lake. It was already famous in Roman times, long before Americans began visiting, wanting to see the village the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas is infamously named after. Even Pliny the Younger spent a short period in Bellagio and left us some of his works where he described his studies about the place, hunting and fishing.

The lakeside promenade offers stunning views of the Alps across the lake. The Basilica di San Giacomo can be reached by a short walk up the cobbled steps of Bellagio. The church was built between 1075 and 1125 and is famous for its Romanesque exterior and gold-accented interior. When your legs tire of all the up and down hills, there are ample benches to enjoy gelato while taking in the views of the lake.

Lecco is famous as the centerpiece of Alessandro Manzoni's masterpiece "The Bethrothed," which weaves its story into the landscape of the local mountains and lakeside. The steeple of Basilica di San Nicolo dates back to 1864 over the base of an ancient tower under which underground passages were used as shelter during WWII aerial attacks. A WWI and WWII monument to the fallen stands in one of the main piazzas.

Lake Como truly is one of those places you must visit, which is why several celebrities have homes here, it has made appearances in movies such as Ocean's Twelve, Casino Royale, and Star Wars, and was even the backdrop for Gwen Stefani's music video "Cool."

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Brussels, Belgium

Brussels is the capital of Belgium and often referred to as the capital of Europe because it is the administrative center of the European Union.

The Atomium, with its nine steel spheres that form the shape of a unit cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times, was built for Expo '58, the 1958 World's Fair. Five of the nine spheres, including the very top sphere are open to the public. The spheres house an exhibit of dedicated to Expo '58, a restaurant, and a snack bar. You can even zip line from the top of the uppermost sphere down to Heyzel Hall, called the Death Ride.

Next to the Atomium is Mini Europe, a park dedicated to reproductions of the most attractive monuments in the European Union, at a scale of 1:25. Roughly 80 cities and 350 buildings are represented including the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Blue Church in Bratislava, Big Ben, and the
Széchenyi Bath House in Budapest, Hungary. It was quite fun to see buildings in miniature we have seen on our travels!

The Grand Place is one of the most beautiful squares in Brussels and is surrounded by guild houses, the Town Hall, King's House, and the Breadhouse. A short walk from the Grand Place will take you to some Roman ruins.

Notre Dame du Sablon is a late Gothic church from the 15th - 16th centuries and is noted for its 11 stained glass windows measuring 15 meters in height. Le Petit Sablon is the park across the street from the church. The park is surrounded by 48 little statues representing the medieval guilds of Brussels. In the center is the statue of the counts of Egmont and Hoorne, who were executed by order of Philip II of Spain in 1568.

The Parc du Cinquantenaire has one of Brussels most striking monuments, the triumphal  Cinquantenaire Arch. It was commissioned by King Leopold II for the 1880 National Exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of Belgium independence but was not completed until 1905, just in time for the 75th anniversary of Belgium independence. It is crowned with a quadriga, representing the province of Brabant. The eight other provinces are represented by allegoric statues at the foot of the columns.

The Chateau de Laeken lies in the suburbs just outside the city and is the royal residence where the royal family lives. King Leopold II was quite entranced with the East and had several exotic monuments built on the royal grounds: a Japanese Tower and Chinese Pavilion. One of the gardens open to the public is lined with flowering magnolias and has a stunning monument of King Leopold I.

To see all of our pictures from Brussels, go to

Monday, April 12, 2010

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges is known as the Venice of the North with its picturesque canals. Once directly connected with the sea, gradual silting since around 1050 has caused the city to lose its direct access to the sea.The historic city center was added to Unesco’s World Heritage List in 2000. The current city boundaries still coincide exactly with those of the medieval city center, and the spaces and structures remain largely unchanged since the 16th century.

Entering the city gates, you first come to the Lake of Love with its many swans swimming about. The legend about the swans of Bruges is that in 1488 the people of Bruges had executed one of the town administrators belonging to the court of Maximilian of Austria. The town administrator's, called Pieter Lanchals with the name meaning "long neck", family coat of arms featured a white swan. Legend has it that Maximilian punished Bruges by obliging the population to keep swans on their lakes and canals till eternity.

The Princely Beguinage Ten Wijngaarde with its whitewashed house fronts, tranquil convent garden, and beguinage museum was founded in 1245 by Joanna Countess of Constantanople. Today the nuns of the Order of Saint Benedict inhabit the site.

In front of the Church of Our Lady stands the large complex of the medieval St. John's hospital, one of the oldest still existing hospitals in Europe. It was a functioning hospital until 1978 and now serves as a museum.

The Church of Our Lady, whose brick spire reaches 122.3 meters, houses the Madonna and Child (1504). The Madonna and Child is one of few of Michelangelo's works to leave Italy within his lifetime. The sculpture was originally meant for the Sienna Cathedral in Italy but was purchased in Italy by two Brugean merchants, the brothers Jan and Alexander Mouscron, and in 1514 donated to its present home.

The Arendts Garden has modern sculptures representing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The Basilica of the Holy Blood  was originally built in the 12th century as the chapel of the residence of the Count of Flanders. The basilica is comprised of an upper and lower chapel. The upper chapel houses a venerated relic of the Holy Blood allegedly collected by Joseph of Arimathea and brought from the Holy Land by Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders after the Second Crusade of 1147–1149. The lower chapel, The Chapel of St. Basil, remains virtually unchanged with a 12th-century representation of the baptism of Saint Basil.

One of the most beautiful buildings of Bruges can be seen in Burg Square : the Gothic town hall from 1376. In the front facade are six Gothic windows. On the front side are also displayed the town weapons of the cities and villages that were under administrative rule from Bruges.

Bruges' most famous landmark is its 13th-century belfry. It is 83 meters high and leans about a meter to the east. The city still employs a full-time carillonneur, who gives free concerts playing the 47 bells on a regular basis.

Bruges' canals were once navigated by ships, originally probably by the Vikings. Nowadays the canals are now exclusively used for tourist boats. There are five families that are allowed to organize tourist excursions by open boats on the canals; each family has four boats. 

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