Europe

Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in the Europe.

les calanches corsica france

Les Calanches – Ajaccio, Corsica, France

A Hairpin Coastal Drive on Corsica, a Mountain in the Sea

Except for its eastern coast’s 200-mile stretch of white and gold sand beaches, Corsica resembles a mountain in the middle of the sea. The Greeks called it Kalliste, “the most beautiful.” Les Calanches takes its name from the weathered granite pinnacles and phantasmagorical outcroppings whose colors shift from every shade of orange and pink to vermilion according to the day’s light.

With precipitous drops of up to 3,000 feet to the sparkling indigo sea below, their eroded formations were described by Guy de Maupassant as “a night­marish menagerie petrified by the will of an extravagant god.” Except for late July and August, when the island is inundated with European visitors, the roads remain blissfully uncrowded. Whether you take the narrow road that weaves through the Calanches archways or one that meanders deep into the empty, craggy interior, Corsica is a place of astonishing nat­ural beauty.

Its charm is evocative of the old Mediterranean, not French or even European in character. Hotels are small, individualistic, and rustic, except for the luxurious beachside Le Maquis, named for the thick underbrush of thyme, lavender, and sage that clothes the untamed interior like an aromatic mantle— giving Corsica its nickname, “the perfumed isle.”

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Champagne and Boyer Les Crayeres – Reims, Champagne-Ardennes, France

Drinking and Eating Stars

Dom Perignon, the local 17th-century Benedictine monk credited with the discovery of la methode champenoise, is said to have exclaimed, “I am drinking stars!” after sampling the world’s first bubbly. Sparkling wine can come from anywhere, but Champagne comes only from Champagne, a region of vine-laden acres. The only large city in this hilly region is Reims, famous for the Cathedrale Notre Dame, where thirty-seven French kings were crowned and today most vis­ited for its Chagall windows and richly sculpted, perfectly proportioned 13th-century facade.

Wine lovers soon head underground, to the chalky honeycomb of caves, or cellars, where patient remuers give millions of bottles of aging wine the requisite fraction of a turn each day (about 220 million bottles are produced annu­ally). Of the 100-some Champagne houses, the most famous grands marques (Moet et Chandon, the largest producer; Taittinger; Seagrams-owned Mumm; Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin; and Perrier-Jouet) offer guided tours and tastings that are instructive and fun. Pommery may be the most polished and impressive, with 11 miles of subterranean wine cellars. The spectacular galleries, carved out by the ancient Gallo- Romans, were used as hospitals, schools, and bomb shelters during the world wars.

While in Champagne you must save your budget and appetite for a meal at the world-famous Boyer Les Crayeres (named after those centuries-old chalk pits where Champagne is aged). Leader of the restaurant renaissance in the region since his arrival in 1983, the unas­suming Chef Gerard Boyer with his stylish wife, Elyane, oversees one of France’s most special restaurant-hotel operations. (Rumor has it that 2004 will see his departure.)

The beautifully situated and landscaped, turn-of- the-century château is housed on the former estate of the Princess de Polignac (a Pommery ancestor). The acclaimed wine list, including more than 200 selections of bubbly, pays homage to Reims’s heritage. This is the stuff of special occasions, a fling with luxury, where ornate chandeliers suspended from the lofty ceilings magically light a setting grand enough for Boyer’s lavish cooking. The ele­gantly appointed bedrooms—some with views of the spires of Reims’s Gothic cathedral—are Les Crayeres’s ultimate luxury. They also mean “designated drivers” need not abstain.

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Vezelay and L’Esperance – Burgundy, France

A Showcase of Romanesque Architecture and Rural Hospitality

Time takes a leap back to the Middle Ages in Vezelay, whose Basilica of Ste. Madeleine attracted multitudes of pilgrims for centuries. Follow in their footsteps up the picturesque town’s steep main street. At its summit, the great Romanesque church has stood since the 11th century, when it was one of the focal points of Christendom.

Relics of St. Mary Magdalene, Christianity’s most beloved par­doned sinner, were credited with many miracles and drew an onslaught of devoted Christians, who stopped here on the way to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. After the relics were eventually declared false, Vezelay fell out of favor and the cathedral fell into ruins. It escaped demolition in 1840, was painstakingly restored, and is once again a showcase of Romanesque architecture, a mas­terpiece of light and space.

Located in the fertile heartland of one of the world’s most prestigious wine-producing regions, Vezelay can be the perfect town from which to soak up Burgundy’s magic if you have booked at the nearby 15th-century Château de Vault-de-Lugny. With just twelve sumptuous guest chambers and the personal attention of the warm owners, this is like staying at an old friend’s dream château, replete with a 13th-century dungeon. Dinner is served by candlelight in the atmospheric old kitchen, or when weather permits, out­doors near the ancient moat and a family of preening peacocks.

For a special off-site dinner, travel to St. Pere at the foot of Vezelay, birthplace of the world-lauded Marc Meneau, who modestly refers to himself as a “country chef.” At L’Esperance, an old stone farmhouse with a glass-enclosed dining room, Meneau and his wife, Francoise, have combined an ambience of rural ease with world-class sophistication and a subtle menu of local game and produce.

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Doucement by Barge and by Balloon – Burgundy, France

By Water or Air

Barging and ballooning in Burgundy give new meaning to the expression “living well is the best revenge.” Both serene and leisurely modes of transportation guarantee the appropriate pace—doucement—to savor one of Frances most beautiful regions through the back door. Drift quietly along a centuries-old network of rivers and canals or let a lofty breeze waft your balloon over dozens of pri­vately owned, forest-ringed castles that once housed the powerful dukes of Burgundy in the late Middle Ages.

Glide over the world-class vineyards of Montrachet, Meursault, and Pommard in the heart of Burgundy’s Cote d’Or, or “Golden Slope,” which gives the world some of its finest red and dry white wines. This is the heart of viticultural Burgundy that stretches from Dijon to Santenay, whose celebrated vineyards provide idyllic days of wine tasting and châteaux touring. Colorful village markets offer fresh produce and delicious cheeses to accompany the humble vin local—which can assume the magic of a premier cru when enjoyed during earthbound piqueniques or special candle­light dinners in the vaulted chambers of a medieval château. Store up memories and insights into provincial life, with children who gleefully wave you on or a pasture full of blasé Charolais cattle that barely acknowl­edge your passing.

Though its famous namesake chef died prematurely in 2003, Hotel Bernard Loiseau (a.k.a. La Cote d’Or) still serves his daring cuisine legere, a healthy “light touch” cooking style that uses the very best of local produce and little or no cream or butter, and avoids the addition of extra flavors to basic combina­tions. The result—enhanced by any of the 20,000 bottles of wine in the restaurant’s cellar—is sublime.

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Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg – Strasbourg, Alsace, France

A Triumph of Gothic Architecture Is a City’s Crowning Glory

This ancient capital of Alsace is the modern-day headquarters of the Council of Europe and home of the European Parliament. There are those who associate Strasbourg with choucroute (an earthy, peasant-style dish made of sauerkraut, various sausages, bacon, pork, and potatoes), the hearty regional spe­cialty, and those who think at once of its magnificent Gothic cathedral.

The russet- colored sandstone structure, begun in the 12th century, is one of the largest buildings in the Christian world and one of the most architecturally harmonious Gothic structures to survive the Middle Ages. When completed in 1439, its 466-foot lacy openwork spire made it the tallest building in Christendom (it still ranks as the tallest dating from medieval times).

Other showstoppers are the stained-glass windows, some dating back to the 12th century, and the 16th-century astro­nomical clock. Every day at precisely 12:31 P.M. it whirs into action as a parade of macabre allegorical figures enact Christ’s Passion. Afterward, tourists make a beeline for the squares second-most-visited site in time for lunch: the richly carved Maison Kammerzell, a 16th-century merchant’s house, is now a famous restaurant. Though it looks like a tourist trap, locals insist that its choucroute a I’alsacienne is formidable. Try any of the ten versions and cast your vote.

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Musee d’Unterlinden and the Wine Road of Alsace – Colmar, Alsace, France

Art and Wine in a Glorious Setting

The serpentine ribbon of road that comprises Alsace’s celebrated Route du Vin is studded with picturesque towns featuring glorious food and sites, many worth overnight stops. The attractive town of Colmar is home to the popular Musee d’Unterlinden (Under the Linden Trees), housed in a 13th-century con­vent.

The jewel in its remarkable collection is an immense altar screen with folding wing pieces. Considered one of the most exciting works in the history of German art, the Issenheim Altarpiece was created in 1512-16 by Wurzburg-born Matthias Griinewald, “the most furious of realists.” Grtinewald’s carved altarpiece was believed to have had miraculous powers to cure ergotism, a widespread disease of the Middle Ages

Entire books have been written about this masterwork, majestically dis­played in the convent’s Gothic chapel, and the museums assemblage of religious art. Colmar itself is rich in medieval and Renaissance architecture and is the birthplace of Auge Bartholdi, designer of the Statue of Liberty.

The Route du Vin begins (or ends) south of Colmar and runs along the lush vineyard covered slopes of the Vosges foothills. The road zigzags and moseys along a string of post­card-perfect walled medieval towns of half- timbered houses with quirky roofs and balconies, overflowing with geraniums. Convivial winstubs (the Alsatian equivalent of pubs) serve wine from hundreds of local vine­yards.

Alsace’s fine, fresh wines include Riesling, Sylvaner, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, and Tokay-Pinot Gris. Rich farmland and orchards attest to Alsace’s reputation as “the pantry and larder of Europe,” and the ambrosial pâte de foie gras—one of man’s nobler creations and reason enough for the trip from Paris—is said to have originated here. Of the Wine Road’s 100 or so gabled wine villages, Riquewihr and Kaysersberg share the prize for sheer quaintness, and forti­fied Turckheim is said to be the best-preserved town in France.

To single out just one great inn is impossible, though a longtime favorite with Wine Road gastronomes and locals is the Auberge de l’Ill, in an idyllic riverside setting. Another star is the Château d’Isenbourg, where the hotel’s stellar Alsatian wine collection, stored in a vaulted 12th-century cave, comple­ments a regional cuisine just as exceptional.

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St. Emilion – Aquitaine, France

Basking in the Wine Culture of Bordeaux

Bordeaux is an almost religious pilgrimage for oenophiles and gastronomes. At its heart is the refined city of Bordeaux, a wonderfully restored center of 18th-century architecture that serves as an elegant base for forays into vine-crossed districts with such revered names as Medoc, Graves, and Sauternes.

There are more than 10,000 vineyards, but the lovely little medieval village of St. Emilion lures one to linger. Sloping vineyards roll down to its 13th-century ramparts on all sides, enclosing cobbled medieval streets lined with wine stores and bakeries selling light-as-air macaroons. Châteaux Margaux and Mouton-Rothschild, and the digustation des vins they offer, are day trips away in Medoc. But the small-parcel vineyards that fan out from St. Emilion’s town walls provide an intimate opportunity to sample some of Bordeaux’s most refined and complex red wines. The aristocratic

19th-century Château Grand Barrail estate has recently opened as a country hotel. Many of the spacious guest rooms overlook the endless vineyards, and the Belle Epoque restaurant’s menu of regional specialties offers an impressive carte des virus, more than half from the cellars of St. Emilion vintners.

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Eugenie-les-Bains – Aquitaine, France

The Pastoral Birthplace of Spa Cuisine

This tiny backwater village, whose thermal springs and pastoral setting enchanted the Empress Eugenie, after whom it was renamed, was ignored by time and tourism until the arrival of master chef Michel Guerard and his wife, Christine. Guerard was the creator of every gourmand’s pipe dream, cuisine minceur (“spa” cuisine, which helped spawn the nouvelle cuisine revolution of the 1970s, allowing diners to eat royally while staying trim).

Those of the calories-to-the-wind school can opt for Guerard s full-till cuisine gourmande menu. Either choice leaves visitors with unforgettable dining memories. The accommodations in this hamlet near Biarritz have a rustic but refined charm that’s almost too good to be true, Eugenie-les-Bains consists almost entirely of the meticulously run Guerard fiefdom: two spas (the original operation plus the newer La Ferine Thermale), three hotels (one housed in the former imperial residence), and two restaurants (the complex as a whole is known as Les Pres d’Eugenie).

Many travelers come intending to use this drowsy hamlet as a base for exploring the beautiful Pyrenees and Basque region to die south or the Bordeaux area to the north, but they find it hard to leave the small town that once enchanted an empress and her coterie.

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The Dordogne and the Cave of Lascaux – Aquitaine, France

An Ancient Corner of France Is Glorious Above and Below Ground

Henry Miller called the lush green department of Dordogne a “country of enchantment.” The walled market towns here—Domme, Brantome, Sarlat, and Rocamadour—are some of France’s most picturesque.

Hilly but not mountainous, the Dordogne is also perfect walking and biking country. Deservedly associated with good food, such as duck and glorious foie gras, deep red Cahors wine, truffles, and wild cepes mushrooms, this scenic comer of France is also rich with flower-strewn valleys.

Romanesque churches, and medieval hamlets. Of the more than 1,500 châteaux, many are now hotels, often dramat­ically positioned along one of the tributaries (lowing into the majestic Dordogne River.

This was some of the most fought-over land in Europe, but Dordogne’s most significant history is truly ancient, as revealed underground in its painted caves. Discovered by four teenagers in 1940. the famous Cave of Lascaux (near Montignac) contains the world’s most extraordinary repository of prehistoric wall paintings, executed by Stone Age artists some 17,000 years ago. Permanently closed to the general public in 1963 to prevent deterio­ration, it was re-created 200 yards away, in the form of Lascaux II.

A dazzlingly accurate replica made in the 1980s by masters of the Beaux Arts in Paris, Lascaux II uses the same pigments that were available to Cro-Magnon man, and its limestone walls and 20-foot ceil­ings are covered with replicas of the original caves’ stunning renderings of bison, horses, boars, and bulls. Arrive early—Lascaux II sells out.

This area of the Dordogne, a fertile river valley, is riddled with grottes ornees, some dating back nearly 25,000 years. The town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac in the Vezere Valley is the perfect base for forays into the Valley of Man, one of the richest in the world in ancient sites and deposits. Don’t miss the caves of Font-de-Gaume, whose Paleolithic artwork approaches that of Lascaux in importance.

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Biarritz – Aquitaine, France

Queen of Resorts and the Resort of Kings

Enamored of the town’s wild beauty, Victor Hugo prayed in 1830 that Biarritz would “never become fashionable.” His hopes were dashed when the newly married Napoleon III and his empress, Eugenie, arrived in 1855 and built the aristocratic pink-colored Villa Eugenie as a summer residence.

Biarritz became a favored destination, and royal and noble travelers came to “take the waters” long after the imperial couple stopped visiting in 1870. They were later replaced by a more diverse group of artists, writers, and other glit­terati. Still tinged with past glamour, Napoleon’s villa now is the beautifully refur­bished Hotel du Palais, the focal and social point of this Atlantic-coast resort.

Luckily for hotel guests today, Napoleon picked the choic­est stretch of beachfront, La Grande Plage. Ask any of the young international surfing set, who first discovered the best waves in Europe along these same lovely beaches in the late 1950s and made Biarritz the unofficial surfing and windsurfing capital of the continent.

The hotel’s opulent, spacious guest rooms overlook the rugged coastline in this wild edge of the Basque country, where the mighty Pyrenees step into the Bay of Biscay. At the Palais, the delightful spirit of old Biarritz is much in evi­dence. Try your luck at the classic casino and enjoy the luxurious saltwater spa facility.