Category Archives: Art & Architecture

6 Cool Places in Riga, Latvia

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Heading to the Baltics for a cruise or a drive? Riga’s cosmopolitan cool will excite any traveler. Here’s our quick guide to places to explore in the Latvian capital.

1. Check out the Old Town

Eastern Europe capitals are known for their charming old town centers, and Riga’s is certainly a memorable one. But few cities have the towering, gingerbread-esque buildings that dot the Old Town Square. Spend a picturesque afternoon wandering the alleyways of Old Riga (Vecriga) any day of the year. The architecture is particularly pretty in winter, when Christmas markets and huge evergreens light up the warm Dutch colors and art nouveau rooftops.

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2. Try Balsam

No, it’s not a vinegar! Riga black balsam is an herbal liquor made from vodka. Though somewhat morphing into a drink for the locals, it’s still to be found in many homes as an old-fashioned cocktail or a general remedy for the common cold. Traditional recipes are made of 24 different herbs, berries, roots and oils, and is somewhat bitter to the taste. The golden-brown color can be poured over ice or mixed with juices or spices, served hot or cold. Balsam dates back all the way to the 18th century, a pharmacist concocted the beverage to cure Empress Catherine the Great of Russia of an ailment. In the winter, it’s sometimes mixed with black currant and heated, much like mulled wine. Though the drink is not to everyone’s taste, I say, “when in Rome!”

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3. Freedom Monument

In the middle of Bastion Hill Park towers a huge memorial honoring soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence, 1918-1920. The landmark is an important symbol of freedom and the sovereignty of Latvia. At the top of a white monolith stands a woman, her arms outstretched and holding three stars, that represent the three historic districts of Latvia. Locals call her Milda. Built in 1935, the 138-ft monument was designed by notable sculptor Kārlis Zāle, who won an award for his design “Shine like a star!” Guards regularly patrol the area, with a changing of the guard every hour from 9am to 6pm. Guards are required to be at least 6 feet tall and to stand without moving for half an hour!

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4. Gauja National Park and Gutmanis Cave

Though technically outside of Riga, the achingly beautiful Gauja National Park is reachable by a 1-hour drive. As the oldest and largest such park in Latvia, Gauja makes a refreshing day trip into the countryside. Established in 1973, it’s 90,000 hectares of sandstone cliffs, natural springs and thick foliage. Discover one of the more notable attractions, Gutmanis Cave, an old site of pilgrimage. The sandstone cavern walls are smothered in graffiti that dates all the way back to the 16th century, depicting coats-of-arms and the names of various barons. Legend has it that the waters of the nearby spring will heal any ache, injury or hangover. Once upon a time, the Liv chief Rindaugs buried his unfaithful wife alive on the banks of the Gauja river. The woman cried so hard in her grave, and her tears flowed out of the cave, creating the curative stream that flows there today.

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5. Art Nouveau

Though Art Nouveau peppers the streets of Riga, the best specimens can be found along Elizabetes Street, in the so-called “Quiet Center,” a 10-minute walk from Old Town. Some 800 facades in the area flaunt decorative motifs, floral patterns, peacocks, detailed female figurines and masks. At the turn of the 19th century, architectural themes remodeled from abstract romantic to more figurative and imaginative design characteristic of the Art Nouveau style.

For the true art-inclined, the Museum of Riga Art Nouveau (Alberta ielā 12) is the perfect place to start your tour of the city’s architecture, with its stained glass windows, elegant twisting staircase and sharp corner tower.

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6. Bergs Bazaar

The intimate and arched promenades of the Bergs Bazaar is nothing short of charming. The atmosphere is more garden than mall, and along its 130-year-old cobblestones you’ll find around 140 cafes, restaurants and boutiques. It’s a great place to come in the evenings for a languid stroll, and watch the locals chat and go about their daily business!

Willamette Intl Travel loves to talk Baltic cruises! Heading to this quirky region of Europe? Give us a call! 503-224-0180 or email info@wittravel.com. 

 

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Filed under Europe, Art & Architecture, Baltic

Paris on a Dime

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flickr creative commons (c) Vincent Anderlucci

Think the City of Lights is expensive? It doesn’t have to be.

Airfare to Europe has been relatively low this summer, and travelers can continue the trend of saving money once in the city. Saving can be valuable especially on a longer trip, say to three major cities like London, Amsterdam, and Paris.

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flickr creative commons (c) Moyan Brenn

So let’s take a quick look — here are some cost-saving methods to see La Belle Paris:

Walk around. Paris is a big city, but so much can be seen and enjoyed on foot. Don’t forget to head out from the metro and wander around — who knows, maybe an afternoon getting lost will turn into an afternoon munching down succulent delicacies at a secret patisserie. Plus, it’s always good exercise! (Just bring a pair of good walking shoes.)

Free Museums. The Paris Museum Pass is a wonderful way to see some of the best art collections and attractions in France. Let your Wittravel agent advise you whether or not you would benefit from a pass. However, did you also know some Paris museums are free? Maison Victor Hugo, where the writer lived while composing Les Miserables, the pretty gardens at Musee Carnavalet, and the remains of a Roman Theater at Arenes de Lutece are all open to the public at no charge.

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flickr creative commons (c) Moyan Brenn

Hop on a Boat. At Wittravel you can pre-book a boat tour, at a low per person price, and cruise the Seine river. These 1- or 2-hour trips are best enjoyed at dusk, when the lights bloom all over the city, and the Eiffel Tower begins to glow. Some boat trips even offer you champagne tasting or historical lectures on board.

Take a Day Trip. You can reach a lot of interesting sites on the outskirts of the city by just taking the local commuter RER. Visit Auvers-sur-Oise for Van Gogh, the charming town of Crécy-la-Chapelle, the royal chateau at Fontainebleau, or the medieval villages of Moret-sur-Loing and Provins.

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flickr creative commons (c) Cristian Bortes

Window Shop. True, it’s not technically shopping, but who doesn’t love it? Check out the Galeries Lafayette and Printemps to see luxury clothes, chocolates, jewelry, what have you, in all of their glory. And you don’t have to spend a dime — but you always can if you want to.

which brings me to…

Splurge! It’s Paris — don’t forget to spoil yourself a little. Take your special someone out to a fancy dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Buy that necklace as a token of your trip. Live a little — you’re on vacation after all!

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Chauvet Cave Paintings

Our man in France Jacques V headed down to the Ardeche region to check out the Chauvet cave and its replica that opened recently to the public. The cave contains the earliest known cave paintings in the world, which are estimated to date back about 36,000 years old!

Discovered in 1994, the cave is located in the Gorges de l’Ardeche in south-east France (near Provence) and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Unfortunately visitors cannot enter the cave proper (due to threat of damage and deterioration) but there is an exact full-size replica just a few kilometers away, which opened on April 25 of this year–and still see an exact reproduction of this ancient art.

The paintings depict cave lions, panthers, cave hyenas, bears, rhinos, as well as “Venus” figures and hand prints. In addition to art, the cave contains a child’s footprints, charred remains of a heart, smoke stains, paw prints of cave bears, and fossilized bones of bears and of an ibex. Check out Jacques’ spectacular photos below!

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http://en.cavernedupontdarc.fr/

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Mountain Hiking Holidays on PBS – Tune in Dec 16!

Our friends Amy and John Osaki over at Mountain Hiking Holidays will be featured on television next week!

On Tuesday, December 16, 2014, at 9:00 PM, Oregon Public Broadcasting will be airing the second episode of the six-part PBS television series “Sacred Journeys.” This episode focuses on the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage and features, among others, the group from the Mountain Hiking Holidays Shikoku Temple Trek in April 2013.

PBS Sacred Journeys: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/sacredjourneys/

OPB program: http://www.opb.org/television/programs/sacred-journeys-with-bruce-feiler/episodes/102/

Call Willamette Intl Travel at 503-224-0180 to book any tour offered by the Osakis.

They arrange guided Mountain Hiking Holidays and Art Tours around the globe.

Mountain Hiking Holidays runs frequent trips to the mountains of Patagonia, the Dolomites, the Pyrenees, the Julian Alps, the volcanoes of Japan’s Hokkaido island—and many more destinations. Sleep comfortably in your private room with private bath, and carry only a day pack with your water and jacket on the trail. Their skilled international team holds certificates and licenses in mountain guiding, have received rigorous training, and take great pleasure in leading you on the trail.

If a walking tour into culture is your thing, take a look at Art Tours by Amy. They offer occasional tours that immerse you in local history, art and architecture. As an art historian and former museum professional, Amy Osaki leads the Art Tours through a variety of culturally rich destinations, including Boston, Paris, Japan, Russia, Italy and more. Her tours encourage you to explore art “in situ” for a deeper understanding of the local history.

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Filed under Art & Architecture, Asia, Europe, Japan, Travel by Backpack, Vendors

Reading List: Russia!

Read before you go! Russia has always been a mysterious draw for Americans, enjoying a steady popularity among travelers, artists and journalists alike. Check out some of our favorite literature from the area:

Peter Waldron. Russia of the Tsars. Waldron recounts the exploits of Peter the Great, the Tsars and the splendor of their capital city, St. Petersburg, in this lively, well-illustrated and compact overview of the largest and most diverse empire of its day.

Masha Gessen. The Man Without a Face, The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. A Russian-American journalist living in Moscow, Masha wp2Gessen demolishes the many myths and legends surrounding Vladimir Putin and his transformation from unexceptional KGB bureaucrat to the most powerful man in Russia. No fan of the man, who she calls a “hoodlum turned iron-handed ruler,” Gessen is brave — and optimistic that his time will soon come.

Robert Chandler. Russian Short Stories. This fine collection of tales captures the sweep and soul of Russian literature, including works by Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Tolstoy along with lesser-known greats.

 

wp5David Remnick. Lenin’s Tomb. A gripping eyewitness tale of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Remnick, the Washington Post reporter on the scene, combines fine historical scholarship with great storytelling.

Clifford Gaddy. Mr. Putin, Operative in the Kremlin. Drawing on a range of sources, including their own personal encounters, two fellows at the Brookings Institution describe six of Putin’s most essential idetities: the Statist, the History Man, the Survivalist, the Outsider, the Free Marketeer, and the Case Officer.

Orlando Figes. Natasha’s Dance, A Cultural History of Russia. In this lively cultural history, Figes looks at both the great works by Russian masters and longstanding folk traditions. The title is drawn from a scene of Tolstoy’s War and Peace in which a European-educated countess performs a peasant dance.

Michael Farquhar. Secret Lives of the Tsars, Three Centuries of Autocracy, Debauchery, Betrayal, Murder, and Madness from Romanov Russia. A scandalous tell-all about Russia’s ruling class. Farquhar skips over the dryer parts of history to deliver the jaw-dropping morsels about Catherine the Great’s affinity for young lovers and Peter the Great’s proclivity for beheading his subjects.

W. Bruce Lincoln. Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia. A wonderfully written, informative portrait of St. Petersburg, focusing on the city’s development in the 18th and 19th centuries as Russia’s “window on the West.” Highly recommended for travelers with an interest in the character and significance of the city and its monuments.

Patricia Herlihy. Vodka, A Global History. A professor of history at Brown, Herlihy tracks wp3our fascination with this most versatile of spirits from its mysterious 14th-century Slavic origins to today’s global dominance in this brief yet thoroughly entertaining, erudite and illustrated history. A volume in the lively Edible History Series.

George Hamilton/Judith Gordon. The Art and Architecture of Russia. An elegantly written introduction to the art and architecture of Russia. Published in 1954, it’s a good handbook for the traveler that goes beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg. Includes 314 black-and-white illustrations.

Olegs Yakovlevichs Neverov. The Hermitage Collections. This sumptous visual survey celebrates the museum, its history and collections.

Robert Massie. Peter the Great, His Life and World. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Massie portrays the giant of history who transformed Russia from backwater tsardom into a major empire.

Robert Massie. Catherine the Great. Eager readers of Massie’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Peter the Great will not be disappointed by this latest, an old-fashioned tale of politics, power and 18th-century Europe, drawing effectively from the ambitious Catherine’s own memoirs.

wp1Vladimir Nabokov. Speak, Memory. Nabokov’s richly imagined memoir wonderfully evokes cultural life among the well-to-do in turn-of-the-century St. Petersburg. Nabokov called his childhood home, now a museum off St Isaac’s Square, “the only house in the world.”

Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin. The Captain’s Daughter and Other Stories. This collection of short stories from the Russian poet and master storyteller opens with his famous novella, The Captain’s Daughter, set against the events of the Pugachov uprising during the reign of Catherine the Great, and contains eight additional tales, all rendered in Pushkin’s simple, elegant prose and beautifully evocative of the caprices of Tsarist Russia.

Debra Dean. The Madonnas of Leningrad. Dean effortlessly interweaves two epochs of a woman’s life — Marina’s wartime experiences as a young guide at the Hermitage during the Siege of Leningrad and her life as an 82-year-old Seattle resident struggling with Alzheimer’s. A remarkable debut novel.

Boris Akunin/Andrew Bromfield. The Winter Queen. Akunin sets a suspected murder among the glitterati of late 19th-century Moscow in this first book in the series of clever detective novels starring the rascal Erast Fandorin, wildly popular in Russia.

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All Aboard Italy!

Everyone loves Italy. And with its rich abundance of food, art, scenic drives and romantic waterways, what’s not to love? As a diverse country with so much to offer, Italy is a great destination for the train-hopper. Here’s some of the best destinations on rail in the country:

Ask Yourself: Should I get an Italy Rail Pass? Italy Rail Passes are generally not good value for most people, as regional trains tend to be very low cost, and major trains almost always require seat reservations. You will probably spend your rail time on the main circuit of Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome, and first class fares for these are generally low enough that they don’t warrant a rail pass. It’s less expensive to buy point to point train tickets. When in doubt, ask our travel agents if a rail pass is right for you.

Ventimiglia (c) Mark Fischer, Creative Commons

Ventimiglia. Usually the first stop on a route from Nice, France, Ventimiglia is a great introduction to Italian culture. Make a detour on your route to Milan or Genoa to explore the town’s gorgeous medieval city center and famous Friday Outdoor Market. Nice to Ventimiglia: 45min. Ventimiglia to Genoa: 2h.

Verona. Most lauded as the setting for three Shakespearean plays, Verona is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That means cobblestone streets, medieval buildings, Roman churches, and the Juliet balcony. You can stop in Verona for a few days on your way to Venice or to the northern town of Bressanone-Brixen. Verona to Venice: 1h-1.30h.

Verona (c) David Schiersner, Creative Commons

La Spezia. This town is the first stop for many travelers heading on to Cinqueterre. With a scenic waterfront and modern port, its inspirational center has charmed poets from Byron to Shelley to DH Lawrence, earning its nickname: the Gulf of Poets. Florence to La Spezia: 2h, with a change in Pisa.

Turin. Turin is a major city often overshadowed by its grand neighbors. But don’t overlook its beautiful baroque architecture or the excellent truffles and wine available at its restaurants. Turin is also home to the famous Shroud of Turin, displayed only once every 10 years. Turin to Milan: 45min.

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Turin and the Arcades (c) Frederique Voisin-Demery, Creative Commons

Milan. The unofficial capital of the north, Milan is the center of commerce, fashion and design. Don’t miss the spectacular Duomo, and “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci. Much of its old architecture was demolished during the WWII bomb raids, however since then Milan has rebuilt itself into a thriving new cosmopolitan city, a major hub for soccer and shopping! Milan to Florence: 2h.

Naples. The birthplace of pizza has one of the largest historic center in the world, covering over 4,000 acres and 27 centuries. It has the largest collections of antique churches (448) in the world. Naples is a great base for exploring nearby Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii—and the city is often the first stop for travelers heading to the Isle of Capri or Sorrento. Rome to Naples: 1h.

Venice. With its romantic gondolas, ancient canals and gorgeous glass traditions, Venice has long been known as the jewel of Italy. Part of its charm is its incredibly preserved lagoon, virtually the same as it was six hundred years ago. Florence to Venice: 2h.

Florence. Florence is the center of aficionados of art and architecture. As the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, Florence’s artistic gems still stand tall—the Uffizi, the Accademia, the Pitti Palace. Visit the library of San Lorenzo for its magnificent Michelangelo exhibition. Venice to Florence: 2h, Florence to Rome: 1h30m.

Sunset over Florence (c) Steve, Creative Commons

Rome. All roads lead to Rome, and all the trains do too! Easily accessible from Florence in the north, and Naples in the south, Rome is often the first or last stop on any Italian itinerary. You could spend at least a week here exploring the museums, Roman ruins, Vatican City, and that elusive dolce vita (the sweet life)—and it still wouldn’t be enough time in Roma! Continuing internationally? Hop on an overnight train from Rome to Vienna, Innsbruck, Munich, or even Paris (connecting in Milan)!

Thinking of a trip to Italy? Our agents have extensive travel experience all through Italy and can advise you on air tickets, rail, villa rentals, hotels, and the best time to go! Give us a call at 503.224.0180 or email info@wittravel.com.

Read our related post about Vatican fun facts!

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Filed under Art & Architecture, Europe, Italy, Travel by Rail

Vincent Van Gogh Foundation in Arles

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Bonjour!

Attention Van Gogh lovers! Earlier this month the Vincent van Gogh Foundation in Arles reopened its doors after a three-year renovation. Visitors to the South of France this summer won’t want to miss the dramatic exhibition­—Van Gogh Live!—which celebrates the life and work of Van Gogh during his years here between 1880-1890.
 
Fondation Vincent van Gogh, Arles
Van Gogh Live! Exhibit: Through August 31, 2014
Open daily 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Until 9 p.m. on Thursdays
Website: http://www.fondation-vincentvangogh-arles.org/

Information provided by our friends over at CHOCOLATINE. Chocolatine is one of our Preferred Tour Operators providing services throughout France. They have worked with Willamette Intl Travel for several years, arranging specialty day tours and transfers for a discerning clientele. Call Willamette Intl Travel to discuss options for one of a kind explorations within France at 800-821-0401 or email us at info@wittravel.com.

Looking for another kind of Art Tour? Amy Osaki over at Art Tours by Amy runs amazing trips worldwide. Look for space in her upcoming trip to New York in October 2014! More information here: http://arttoursbyamy.com/new-york-art-tour/

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