Le splendide voyage

Reflections on exploration & travel


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Winter Holidays: Lake Annecy & skiing at Chamonix, Mont Blanc

A few weekends ago, there was a marvelous cool air beckoning me to follow the North Wind to the slopes. From Dijon (about 3 hours), going east toward Geneva and then south (about 35 km south of Geneva) there is a rather enjoyable scenic route toward the French Alps.

First, there is a required stop at Annecy (pronounced Ansi).  This lovely town by Lake Annecy is considered to be the “Venice of the Alps” due to its canals and hospitable surroundings.  There is much to discover here: great shopping, restaurants and music.  I am told that throughout the year there are a series of festivals and special markets to be relished.  Last time I visited the area was during autumn.  Certainly, this locale was an incredible place to hike while discovering hidden trails into the hills and a chance to row smoothly throughout the placid waters of Lake Annecy. For the more daring athletes, paragliding and competitive rock climbing are also popular sports in the region.  Historically, this area used to belong to the Geneva plus a series of other masters until it was sold to France around 1860 and it became part of the Haute-Savoie department in the Rhône-Alpes region.  The regional cuisine is robust, savory and especially appetizing during long winter months.  A few restaurants are strategically located at high points around the lake where the full grandeur of this deep turquoise encircled sea is revealed. Typical Savoyarde menus may include tartiflettes: Reblochon cheese the most famous cheese of the region mixed with potatoes, crème fraîche, onions and diced bacon; but also farm-fresh charcuterie and fondues usually accompanied by the flavorful full-bodied Savoyarde wines.

After Lake Annecy, I continued to follow my itinerary towards the Alps for about one hour and 30 minutes finally arriving at Chamonix-Mont Blanc.  Last autumn, this place was golden for long hikes, bicycle trails rushing into the sunset as well as rock climbing and paragliding, rafting, canoeing etc.  A guide(s) can be easily hired to help you achieve your outdoor activities goals.  Still, during winter this area becomes a snow-powder wonderland for skiing and winter sports.  They have a marvelous cable car that reaches great heights including its awesome and imposing “Mont Blanc” whose summit is part of the village of Chamonix.  The terrain and slopes are well organized to accommodate all levels of skiing proficiency: from young children to daredevils and of course, all of us in between. Vacation homes and condos are available for purchase with attractive proposals to assist real estate investors make the right decision according to their interests.

Lake Annecy and Chamonix – Mont Blanc are first-class winter travel destinations. In this grand environment you can expect first-rate gourmet dining and bespoke leisure undertakings while partaking in a variety of winter sports pursuits for enjoyment and recreation.

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Ma belle Dijon

My new city was a delight from the beginning.  When choosing a place to live, I decided that the center of town was full of charm and history. Thus, it was only natural that my final choice for a Dijonnais domicile was a 1636 AD house on a quiet ”petite rue” in the heart of the city. The gated entrance hid a fastidious story to be written while passing through the courtyard and a 15th century solemn staircase leading to the third floor with a good view of the toits bourguignons (Burgundy’s traditional polychrome roofs) and their geometrical patterns.  Yes, very quickly Dijon had my heart. 

The city center is lively with a brand new TRAM system, excellent shopping and restaurants spread throughout its radius.  Yet in Dijon, there is always something new to be discover.  There are days dedicated to music and so you can hear great sounds in the streets or view an opera performance at the superb Auditorium of Dijon. You can take different “discovery” walks by following the owl triangles around the city and maps can be found in the tourist centers.  The owl is the bird symbolizing Dijon. 

The traditional story of the ‘little owl” in Dijon dates back to 14 century.   It was the time when the Notre Dame cathedral was being built.  One of the traditional tales conveys the story of the architect of the cathedral who found a sickly owl nearby.  He cared for the tiny creature and became quite attached to the little bird. Hence, since it brought him much joy, he carved the owl on the stone pillar in north side of the cathedral. Historically, it seems that the little owl appeared in the end of the XV or beginning of the XVI centuries.  Whatever the case may be, visitors continue throughout the ages to touch the little carved owl, “la petite chouette,” with the left hand while making a wish and it should come true!  At Notre Dame, you will also hear the “Jacquemart” ring and announce the hours with precision. The “Jacquemart & Clock” was a war prize that Phillip the Bold brought from Belgium.  Soon the inhabitants of Dijon became devoted to the protector of the hours.  Accordingly, from 1651 to 1884 the people in Dijon did not wanted him to feel lonely and they added a wife Jacqueline who helps him ring the hours, a son and Jacquelinet responsible for sounding the half hours and lastly a daughter Jacquelinette responsible for ringing every quarter hour.  Also, behind Notre Dame are some of the oldest streets in town known for their fine antique stores. The main cathedral in Dijon is Saint-Bénigne. It is perhaps the oldest in Dijon considering that it has a remarkable crypt which was completed in 535 AD.  The grand cathedral part however, was dedicated in 1393 AD.  This is one of the sites that should be visited since marvelous pipe organ concerts are frequently offered and the acoustics always make the experience sublime.

Following the little owls triangles, visitors can easily make their way to the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy.  The ducal palace houses the mayor and some of the city’s offices, a tourist information center, the soaring Philip le Bon tower in the middle and the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon. After climbing the 315 steps or so in the Philip Le Bon tower, your reward will be an amazing 360° view of the city.  Then, after this marvelous work-out the Musée des Beaux-Arts should be the next-door charm.  In the past 2 years, this museum underwent a detailed renovation and now it is even more appealing.  Worth viewing are the intricate tombs of Philip le Bon, John the Fearless and Margaret of Bavaria and the “pleurants” or mourners.  Not far from this museum is one of my favorite museums in Dijon, the Museum Magnin with collections from the North, French and Italian Schools. Proximate to Magnin, the extraordinary sculptures of F. Rude can be seen at Saint-Étienne’s Church.

An international recognition for the city of Dijon is its: MUSTARD.  This delicious creation dates back to 1856 AD when Jean Naigeon added acidic juice of grapes that were not ripped to the mustard recipe.  This flavorful mustard is used in salads, sandwiches and on any dish that calls for mustard.  Nowadays, they add white wine to the recipe with a sharp taste that revives any bland fare.  Dijon also offers delightful places and parks for strolling such as the Jardin Botanique de l’Arquebuse and the Parc de la Columbière. Above all, children love Columbière Park because it has a petting zoo.


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Lights, Camera & Action!

Throughout the ages, the city of Prague has been a versatile beacon of the arts. In the course of its history, Italian artists came to the Czech capital to sharpen their ingenuity while upholding the Renaissance as a blueprint. Other celebrated guests such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also visited the city for an inspiring season of creativity.

Mozart, fell in love with Prague after his opera “The marriage of Figaro (ger. Die Hochzeit des Figaros),” was performed here in 1786.  Afterwards, the people began to whistle and sing Figaro’s arias in the streets. Thus, the composer was deeply moved and the phrase: “Meine Praguer verstehen mich (usually translated into English as: My Praguers understand me)!” was attributed to Mozart as he felt that his talents were welcomed, understood and loved by Prague’s citizens. Moreover, he felt so honored by the city’s enthusiasm for his music that he decided to premier and conduct his complex opera Don Giovanni on the 29th of October, 1787 at the Estates Theater in the city’s Old Town.

On my third day in Prague, I got lost.  Suddenly, I saw a beautiful stately building and I remember thinking: “I have seen this building before, but where? After all, this is my first time in Prague.” As I approached the structure, its name was displayed on the marquee:  The Estates Theater.  The theater is the oldest in Prague and its royal interior is conducive to performances that exude an atmosphere excitement and beauty.  In the orchestra section, a small plaque designates the spot where Mozart stood while conducting Don Giovanni for the first time. Moreover, the theater’s kinship to Mozart remains till this day as the opera Don Giovanni is still performed as part of its repertoire. However, I have not answered the question: “Why did I recognize this building?”

My keen interest in travel and film usually propels me to read a film’s final credits in search of the filming location. Accordingly, that particular day in the streets of Prague, the movie Amadeus registered in my mind and right after, Immortal Beloved. Deep in my thoughts, I visualized one of the last scenes in the movie as Beethoven’s sister-in-law disclosed a climatic narrative: “…then they announced the premier of the 9th symphony…” That scene was supposed to be in Vienna, Austria. Instead, the streets surrounding the façade of the Estates Theater and later its exquisite interior appeared in their entire splendor!

Prague has been for years a thriving film production center.  The acclaimed Barrandov Studios is one of the largest studios in Europe producing high quality films that have achieved Oscar’s nominations and awards. In addition, the city’s architecture is conducive to period films as well as contemporary European flavored scripts. It is worth pointing out some of movies that were filmed in Prague and in other Czech cities: Amadeus (1984), Immortal Beloved (1994), Mission Impossible (1996), Casino Royale (2007), Bourne Identity (2002), Spy Game (2001), The Illusionist (2006), The Brothers Grimm (2005), Oliver Twist (2005), Les Miserables (1998), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe (2005), The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008), Mission Impossible IV: Ghost Protocol (2011).

Next time you watch a movie staged in Europe or perhaps within a magical kingdom, please, wait for the final credits to roll. Who knows?  Perhaps, you will find that the film was indeed filmed in the enchanting streets and edifices of the golden city of Prague (Czech: Zlatá Praha).