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Slovakia – Love for Country and Its Independence

Slovakia has only been an independent country for 24 years. Before that, Slovakia had been thrown around between various kingdoms and empires, most recently, in an independent republic with Czech Republic after World War I to form Czechoslovakia. Prior to that, Slovakia was also a part of the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires and was previously ruled by Hungary various times in its long history.

But despite sharing her history with so many other nations, Slovakia has retained her own identity. Speaking with our guide, Eva, reveals the many eccentricities of the Slovaks. Bom during the Baby Boomers generation, Eva remembers life during communist Czechoslovakia and the dramatic change Slovakia went through during the Velvet Revolution. Her grandparents and even her parents were around during the formation of Czechoslovakia and her own children experienced first hand Slovakia’s independence in 1993.

Eva shared how her parents’ generation went through hardships trying to rebuild life after WWII and didn’t have the opportunity to pursue further education. Eva’s generation had it slightly better but Communist rule made it difficult to study anything deemed “impractical’’. Her children’s generation, the one the media have named “millennials”, are experiencing a sort of freedom that was still just a dream when they were toddlers.

Garden of the Humble Administrator – Suzhou, Jiangsu, China

Landscape Art That Still Casts a Spell

An ancient Chinese proverb remains true today: “In Heaven there is paradise; on earth, Suzhou.” Known as the Venice of the East, and with more than 100 gardens and as many silk factories, Suzhou was one of the oldest and wealthiest cities in the empire during the Ming dynasty, and was mentioned by Marco Polo when he wrote about the fabu­lous cities of the East.

Suzhou’s gardens are the very embodiment of Chinese landscape design, with every rock, plant, path, stone lan­tern, and pond carefully placed so that each step frames another impeccable vista. The Lingering Garden and Garden of the Humble Administrator enjoy special designation and government protection as two of China’s four most important gardens.

The latter is the larg­est, built on 10 acres of marshy lakes and pools connected by graceful arched bridges and stepping-stone pathways. Your impres­sion is that the entire middle section of the garden is floating on water.

The city, with dozens of silk factories still in operation, is fascinating in itself. Detrac­tors of Venice will see the same decrepitude and decadence here, but for others this photo­genic, canal-threaded city still casts its spell effortlessly.

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Rocca Scaligera – Sirmione, Lombardy, Italy

Lakeside Beauties

Wait till the afternoon crowds thin, then cross the drawbridge to this fairy-tale castello almost entirely surrounded by the deep blue water of Lake Garda. All towers and fancy battlements, the 13th-century castle was built by the powerful della Scala (or Scaligeri) princes of nearby Verona, 2 miles out into the lake. Garda is the largest in Italy and considered by many to be the most beautiful in the Lake District.

Just as Bellagio is known as Como’s Pearl of the Lake, fans of Garda call Sirmione the Jewel of the Lake. Beyond the castle are the narrow streets of the boutique- and cafe-lined Old Town, a pedestrian island still redolent of medieval times. In ancient times, the Lake District served as the cool summertime desti­nation of Rome’s VIPs, in particular the hedonist poet Catullus, who was drawn to Sirmione as much for its natural sulfur baths as for the lovely setting. The panoramic Grotte di Catullo is said to be the ruins of his villa.

By comparison the 19th-century Villa Cortine Palace Hotel seems downright modern. Palatial, colonnaded, formidably decorative, and just this side of over-the-top, it is the area’s finest hotel, with impeccable gardens, lapped by the lake’s edge.

Patmos – Dodecanese, Greece

Home to a Rich Religious and Artistic Heritage

St. John the Divine was inspired to write the Book of Revelation during a two-year banishment to Patmos that began in A.D. 95. The small cave where St. John heard the voice of God (now known as the Sacred Grotto) is at the core of the Monastery of the Apocalypse.

But the real draw is the tall, brooding Monastery of St. John the Theologian, an outstanding example of an 11-th-century monastic complex of churches and courtyards, built as a fortress to protect its trove of religious treasures.

From its inception, St. John was ornamented with outstanding paintings, carvings, and sculp­ture. Its rich tradition of learning established it as a renowned monastic center, a prestigious role it still enjoys today as the focal point of the Greek Orthodox faith in the Greek Isles.

St. John’s extensive library and archives are important cultural treasures, second only to the collection of Mount Athos. Its 900th birthday was celebrated in 1988 to much fanfare. Patmos offers worldly satisfactions as well, with a hilly interior and stunning beaches that attract those who are less reli­giously inclined.

Sintra – Lisbon, Portugal

Summer Resort of Portuguese Royalty

Lord Byron had already seen his fair share of the Continent when he wrote to his mother from Sintra, calling it “perhaps the most delightful [village] in Europe.”

Today the same cool, gentle climate and garden setting that made this a favorite summer residence for the Portuguese kings for more than 500 years pro­vides city dwellers and tourists an idyllic respite from the heat and hustle of Lisbon.

Commanding the highest peak are the dra­matic 8th-century ruins of a Moorish citadel, the Castelo dos Mouros, with a heavenly view to the sea.

Stay in a castle of your own at the Palacio de Seteais, a dreamy 18th-century palace built by the Dutch consul to Portugal that looks down across vineyards and orange groves to the sea mist.

Common areas and some of the older guest rooms are graced with antiques; gold leaf and crystal chandeliers anchor ballroom-high ceilings. The name Seteais refers to the seven sighs said to have been the reaction to a peace treaty signed here during the Napoleonic wars—a reaction shared by many guests today, enthralled by the palace’s spell.

Quedlinburg and Hotel Theophano – Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany

A Half-Timbered Fairy Tale

On the edge of the Harz, Germany’s northernmost mountain range, lies the finest timber-framed townscape in the country, and perhaps in all Europe. Besides holding this distinction, Quedlinburg also boasts a treasure trove of medieval religious art, which is displayed in the town’s hilltop Saxon- Romanesque cathedral.

UNESCO has declared the entire town, which recently celebrated its 1,000th anniversary, a World Heritage Site. Quedlinburg was the cradle of the Ottoman dynasty, the first line of Saxon kings in what later became the Holy Roman Empire. (Heinrich I, the first German king, is buried in the cathedral.)

As a preferred residence of the emperors, this small but flourishing town also grew as a cultural, spiritual, and religious center, and much atten­tion and funds were lavished on the cathedral. The town’s historic wealth is still visible every­where, in the priceless gold and bejeweled sacred objects it exhibits and in the 1,300 hand- carved, half-timbered houses—the earliest, dat­ing back to 1310, is the oldest in Germany.

Architectural styles range from Gothic to Baroque to Quedlinburg’s own idiom: facades accented with bright blues, reds, yellows, and greens. The town miraculously escaped both Allied bombing in WWII and the redevelopment plans of the former East German government.

On the town’s main market square sits the lovely Hotel Theophano, a half-timbered land­mark created from five historical buildings from the 17th century and dedicated to the memory of Theophano, a Byzantine princess who mar­ried Otto II, the Saxon pretender to the throne, in 972.

The small hotel has been beautifully restored and decorated and it is run with warmth and ease by a young staff that aims to please. The hotel’s Weinkeller (Wine Cellar) offers memorable meals in a handsome space of vaulted ceilings warmed by soft candlelight.

Heidelberg’s Schloss – Heidelberg, Rhineland, Germany

In Germany’s Oldest University City, a Romantic Icon

In a magnificent hilltop setting of woodland and terraced gardens sits Heidelberg’s magnificent, crumbling Schloss, probably the country’s most famous castle. Sacked by French troops under Louis XIV in 1689, it has remained a dignified ruin ever since, only enhancing its romantic allure.

Painters and poets from around the world have immortalized it in picture and verse. Mark Twain described it as “the Lear of inanimate nature—deserted, discrowned, beaten by the storms, but royal still, and beautiful.” The Prince Electors had the red sandstone castle built over the course of three centuries (1400 to 1620), but it was already in ruins when “discovered” by the 18th-century Romantics who fell under its spell.

For a vision of the castle to cherish, stroll along the Philosopher’s Walk (Philosophenweg), a hill­side wooded path above the Neckar River on the opposite (north) bank, where Goethe and Hegel wandered, or hop a sunset cruise on the Neckar and take in the famous scenery.

Nestled on a historic side street off the Philosopher’s Walk is the only place you want to stay—Die Hirschgasse. The hotel dates back to 1472, and started as a tavern for the students of the local university (a tipsy Otto von Bismarck carved his name into one of the tables).

The University of Heidelberg is Germany’s oldest, founded in 1386. Mark Twain was smitten with picturesque Heidel­berg, his first stop in Europe and the first he wrote about in his famous travelogue A Tramp Abroad. Guests will know how he felt after their first night at Die Hirschgasse, in the shadow of Germany’s most romantic schloss.

The Alhambra and Parador de San Francisco – Granada, Andalusia, Spain

What Wonders Lie Within

Nothing in life could be crueler than to be blind in Granada,” reads an inscription within the walls of the Alhambra, the greatest expression of Spanish Muslim art and architecture. With sections that date back to the 9th century (begun by the Caliphate), the wonder you see today was cre­ated mainly under the reigns of Yussuf I (1333-1353) and Mohammed V (1353-1391).

Although austere and unassuming on the out­side, nearly every surface inside is covered with fantastically ornate geometric and flowing arabesque patterns.

For almost 250 years the “Red Fortress” served the Moorish rulers of Granada as palace, harem, residence for court officials, and, once, as a garrison for 40,000 soldiers. With the Christians’ ultimate victory in 1492, the last Moorish ruler, Boabdil, and his entourage left Spain forever, and the Catholic monarchs moved into the Alhambra.

It is in the great Hall of Ambassadors that Ferdinand and Isabella supposedly met with Columbus in 1492 before his first voyage. Here, as everywhere, is the soothing murmur of water, coming from the tiled pools, fountains, and channels that are an integral part of the archi­tecture. The dramatic use of exquisite webs and lacy filigree is showcased in the Hall of the Two Sisters, whose intricately honey­combed ceiling somehow escapes gaudiness, managing to be simply beautiful.

The most famous and perhaps the most beautiful of Spain’s eighty-some government- run inns, the Parador de San Francisco enables guests to sleep within the enchanted walls of the Alhambra. Itself a former Moorish palace converted into a Franciscan convent by the newly arrived Catholic monarchs in 1492, the parador offers privileged views of the Alham­bra gardens and Nasrid palaces, the ancient Moorish Albaicin quarter and the countryside beyond.

A better location can hardly be imag­ined, and a long waiting list attests to its popularity. The rooms in the richly appointed original building are filled with antiques and character, plus the opportunity to meander about the Alhambra patios and magnificent gardens after closing hours. More ordinary and less-expensive rooms are available in the new wing, For those who didn’t book far enough in advance, an outdoor lunch might suffice: the parador’s terrace offers romantic views of the Alhambra’s rose gardens while you dine on regional Andalusian specialties.

If you visit in early summer, you can enjoy Granada’s annual seventeen-day International Music and Dance Festival, which begins in late June and features everything from clas­sical music to bewitching flamenco.

Marvao – Alentejo, Portugal

A Medieval Castle and Cozy Inn That Looks Down on Eagles

Three thousand feet below the hilltop town of Marvao spreads the Alentejo heartland of Portugal. Huddled within fortified 13th-century ramparts, Marvao is one of the country’s most charming castle towns, with a population of just 300. It is intimate enough for you to quickly absorb its strong medieval character and small-town quaintness.

Check into the cozy Pousada de Santa Maria. It doesn’t pretend to have the landmark grandeur or imposing facade of other pousadas, and that is much of its charm. It has been converted from adjoining 18th-century village houses, with red-tile floors, beamed ceilings, and stone fireplaces decorated with azulejo tiles.

Spectacular views from the restaurant over the distant mountains to Spain, nearly 4 miles away, explain why Marvao was such a vital piece in the military chess game played out over the centuries between Spain and Portugal. This enchanting castle-inn is a good place to be alone with your thoughts and “look down on the eagles,” as one Portuguese poet put it.

Urbino – The Marches, Italy

A Perfect Expression of the Early Renaissance

If Urbino’s National Gallery of the Marches (Galleria Nazionale delle Marche) were located in a city like Florence, there would be lines across the piazza waiting to get in. But this small, proud town of 15,000 people is an underrated tourist destination, with a prodigious art collection that includes works by Raphael (a native son), Piero della Francesca (including The Flagellation of Christ, which Piero considered his finest work), Paolo Uccello, and Luca Signorelli.

All the better for the few who do drop in to explore this country town, which could easily share the spotlight for its history, art, architec­ture, and gastronomy with Italy’s better- known places.

Sitting   atop a steep hill, Urbino is the strongest magnet of Le Marche region. The 500-year-old uni­versity is one of Europe’s oldest, and Urbino is home to one of Italy’s greatest treasures, the Palazzo Ducale, which houses the National Gallery.

During the second half of the 15th century, Urbino was one of the most prestigious courts, almost without peer in all Europe, under the visionary direction of Federico da Montefeltro. He commissioned the finest artists and architects to build and embellish his immense home.

The result, the Palazzo Ducale, is con­sidered the perfect expression of the early Renaissance. The courtier Baldassare Castiglione called this imperious fortress “a city in the shape of a palace.”

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