Stockholm’s Archipelago

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Archipelago – ar·chi·pel·a·go. noun \ˌär-kə-ˈpe-lə-ˌgō,

  1. An expanse of water with many scattered islands
  2. group of islands

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There aren’t that many true archipelagos; Stockholm’s archipelago is the real deal.  It has more than 30,000 islands!  I guess it’s not all the surprising.  Stockholm itself is made up of 14 islands that are connected by 50 bridges on Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea.  It’s definitely a maritime city.  When we visited in March, I took a boat tour of the area, but it was too cold to really enjoy the outer islands in the Baltic.

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For Stockholm’s residents, the archipelago is a easy escape and their holiday retreat.  There’s an island for everyone.  Partiers, those looking for peace and quiet, sunbathers, woodsy hikers, campers, B&Bers, luxury hotel lovers…there’s an island for everyone. The archipelago is easily accessible via ferry.  There are two main ferry companies.  One with larger, faster boats (Cinderella Båtarna), the other (Waxholmsbolaget) with charming smaller boats that make it feel less like a commute and more like a pleasure cruise.

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We took the Waxholmsbolaget boat to Vaxholm.  The journey was half the fun.  The boats are adorable with wood interiors and brass details.  It’s the perfect place for a picnic.  We sat outside and watched the hustle and bustle recede.  I was worried about not hearing our stop.  The boat docks, people disembark and it pulls away with remarkable speed.  I shouldn’t have been, locals (who all speak great English) volunteered to let us know when we got close.

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The Cinderella boat back was larger and a bit faster, but didn’t have quite the charm.  My advice, take either one.  You can’t go wrong.

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Stockholm’s archipelago is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It consists of 20,000-50,000 islands off the coast of Sweden that offer a buffer to the Baltic Sea.  “Skärgården,” as the area is known to the Swedes, was formed by glaciers that carved out and deposited granite that protrudes from the water.  As a result, it is full of reefs and shallows The islands get progressively less rocky, sandier and smaller with fewer trees the further you get from Stockholm.

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Vaxholm  is an idyllic archipelago town with well-preserved wooden villas from the turn of the 19th century.  Everything about it says cottage cute. It has nice restaurants (especially if you like fresh fish), a wonderful bakery, charming cafés, and way cooler shopping than your average resort town.  I wanted to decorate with and wear things from just about every shop.

DSC_0234DSC_0247DSC_0232Although you can rent bikes, we spent an afternoon doing a big walking tour of the area.  There are plenty of trails, sidewalks and quiet streets.  We tried to get away from the business district to get a look at how people live there.  Even without the cute shops, restaurants and hotels, it was very picturesque.  I loved the brightly colored houses and cute gardens.  We saw backyard meals, people walking their dogs, mowing their lawns and cleaning out their garages.

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The have a decent sized marina and with the essential nearby farm stand and ice-cream stand.  Across the narrow strait is the historic Vaxholm Fortress.  From the shore, you can see several small islands with adorable but solitary houses and a dock.  Vauxholm is the last easily accessible place in the archipelago by car from Stockholm and is even accessible by bus.  In fact, it is the most populated archipelago town and people live there year-round.  Tiger Wood’s ex-wife Elin Nordegren grew up there.  Don’t worry through, there’s no hustle and bustle, it’s perfectly tranquil.

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St. Emilion, Where They Make The Nectar Of The Gods

 

I don’t want to bore you with stories of another medieval hill town or tales of wine, but on our ladies road trip, we fell in love with Saint-Emilion and I can’t help but wax rhapsodic about it.  It is a gorgeous medieval hill town made of limestone quarried locally.

Around 5,400 hectares of vineyards and many small châteaux surround it.   Saint-Emilion has all the accoutrements you expect in a cute french hill town, inviting squares, cute shops, cobblestones, music wafting through the air, flowers, fountains, light blue shutters that look great against the limestone…you get the idea.  If I haven’t already convinced you to endure one more hill town post, that it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site probably won’t sway you either.

Saint-Emilion  has been located on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela since the 11th century.  As a result, many churches, monasteries and hospices were built there.  We’d heard that the bell tower of the St. Emilion Monolithic Church had the best view of the city and it was worth making the climb up the ancient winding stairs to the top of the tower.  We paid a Euro or two each and grabbed the key from the Office of  Tourism across the way.

The bell tower was built between the 12th and 15th centuries.  Not long after that, people started carving their names and dates into it.  I’m a sucker for ancient graffiti.  I loved searching for it and reading it. The best part though was the view. Heaven.

Unfortunately our, ahem, transportation challenges (broken clutch) prevented us from having more time to tour Saint-Emilion.  I’d hoped to see the vast limestone catacombs located under the city that contain Europe’s largest underground church.  They are supposed to be amazing.

Fortunately, we still had time to check out the romanesque church and cloister, shop for antiques (you know I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to poke around this cute store), have a nice meal, listen to some street musicians, stroll the streets and catch one heck of a sunset.  Not too shabby.

 

Frankly My Dear Sarlat…

I went with Hokie and Wildcat on a road trip to Bordeaux.  I’d always dreamed of going to the Dordogne region of France so we made a couple of stops there too.  We heard that Sarlat-la-Canéda (commonly referred to as Sarlat) is considered one of the five prettiest towns in France.  While we have, perhaps, overdosed on cute French towns (Saint-Rémy de Provence, EguisheimSt. Paul-de-Vence, Vence, Les Baux-de-ProvenceEze, Avignon, Kayersburg, Colmar, how could we not give this one a go?

It has a traffic-free old town with cobblestone lanes and renaissance buildings with elaborate stonework.  Sarlat lives in its streets.  Cafes abounded. With wonderful weather and backdrops why wouldn’t you want to sit outside?  Walking Sarlat’s streets we saw mimes “warming up,”  artists working “en plein air,” and countless street vendors.  This mime’s warmup looked surprisingly like the warmups we did in my belly dancing class.   I wish I’d gotten it on video for you.

Foodies will be happy to learn that Sarlat is located in the Perigord area of Dordogne, an area almost 50% of the French believe has the best food in France.  Sarlat is known for its foie gras, while not my thing, they clearly do a big business it.  There are shops everywhere, a statute of geese next to the church and souvenir shops that sell goose themed paraphernalia.  Foie Gras (goose liver pate) is controversial.  We saw a flock of geese while in Dordogne on a farm.   In this area it is an age-old tradition called la garage.  The only thing we ate there was gelato.

Sarlat has such nice buildings because it was loyal.  Huh?   What does loyalty have to do with pretty stone buildings?

During the Hundred Years’ War, Sarlat remained loyal to the French.  The French king rewarded its loyalty with money to rebuild the damaged town in luxurious stone.  Beautiful, long-lasting and fire-resistant…  Oh la la.  

We enjoyed strolling its streets and people watching.  It might be a bit touristy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a really interesting place to spend an afternoon.   I’m sure it’s even more beautiful in the evening when tourists like me have left for the day.

Van Gogh In Saint-Rémy De Provence

 

After cutting off part of his left ear in Arles, Vincent van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, a psychiatric asylum in Saint-Rémy de Provence.  The year was extremely difficult for Van Gogh.  Although he was incapacitated at times,  it was also one of his most creative periods and he produced over 150 paintings during his year at Saint-Rémy.  When he was able to paint, he produced many of his best works.  His landscapes from this period are particularly groundbreaking.

As long as he remained stable, the doctors allowed Vincent to paint and he converted an adjacent cell into a studio. Initially, he was not allowed to leave the asylum grounds.  He painted what he saw from the room (minus the bars on the window).  We saw the asylum’s walled garden replete with irises, lilacs, and ivy-covered trees. Having seen Van Gogh’s paintings, it was hauntingly familiar.

Although it’s not fancy or high-tech, the exhibits teach you about Van Gogh’s life, his mental illness, how he came to Arles, his treatment there, how mental illnesses were treated at the time and his painting.  On our way out to walk the grounds, he said that Van Gogh is now his favorite painter (I’m not sure that he had one before).

Irises exemplifies Van Gogh’s trademark vivid colors and daring brush strokes.  It was one of his early paintings there.  Influenced by Japanese wood blocks, it lacks the higher tension in his later works.  He called it “the lightning conductor for my illness” because he believed that he could avoid further breakdowns by continuing to paint.  Unfortunately this was not so and after painting this, he suffered his first major “attack” at the asylum.

Irises, 1889, Getty Center, Los Angeles

Irises, 1889, Getty Center, Los Angeles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When he was permitted to leave the grounds, he painted the nearby wheatfields, olive groves, and cypress trees of the surrounding countryside.  The Olive Trees, by Vincent Van Gogh, depicts an olive grove just outside the grounds of the asylum in Saint-Rémy.

The museum has plaques at spots where Van Gogh painted, explaining the painting and the view.  They make well-known spots easy to find.  Some spots are so iconic you immediately recognize them even without the plaques.  Seeing the olive groves or the beds of irises, we were filled with awe at Van Gogh’s ability to capture the feeling and essence of them.

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Olive-trees (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We went to St. Rémy not knowing what to expect.  Although it was raining to hard to see much of the town, it was a wonderful surprise and a powerful, moving experience (kind of like Van Gogh’s paintings).  It was something we will remember forever and we even learned a little something.

 

Euguisheim, The Cutest Town In The World?

He declared Euguisheim, France the cutest town in the world.  We’ve seen a lot of cute towns recently (we even have two cute towns categories on the blog).  He made a bold statement and declared Euguisheim the cutest.  While I wasn’t ready to declare it the winner, I couldn’t name anything cuter.

France has 32,000 villages that dot its countryside.  The association “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France” (The Most Beautiful Villages of France), they are dedicated to sharing French history and culture.  Its 156 member towns try to make their towns as beautiful, charming and flower-filled as possible.  If you want to see stereotypical and picture perfect French towns on your vacation, check them out (you can search by name, region or on the map).

Euguisheim is one of “The Most Beautiful Villages of France.”  The words “picturesque” and “pleasant don’t begin to do it justice.  The cheery flowers decorate the colorful timber framed houses.  The cobblestoned streets add authenticity and its pedestrian center is peaceful.  Captivating storks nest on the church spires and soar overhead.

Euguisheim is easy to navigate.  Its streets form concentric circles around its central chateau.  It’s not that large.  You might want to get lost here, but you won’t.

If the enchanting atmosphere isn’t enough, you can always enjoy the wine.  Euguisheim is proud of its moniker “the cradle of Alsatian wine.”  People have grown grapes for wine around Euguisheim since Roman times.  Surrounded by vineyards, there are several tasting rooms in town.

Although Euguisheim is cute, I think this little guy might be cuter.   I spent almost as much time petting this four-month old Bernese Mountain Dog/Border Collie mix as I did taking pictures.  I fell in love.

His owner sold me one of these pretzels.  Le Yum!  What a great day!

Not Venice, Vence

Three kilometers up the road from St. Paul-de-Vence, through the hills northwest of Nice, past cypress and olive trees there is another beautiful, town perched on a summit.  Vence is a bit larger (and a bit more relaxed).  Although we didn’t do any shopping, its shops and art galleries are more affordable.  Locals (not only busloads of tourists) actually eat at its cafés.

Vence looks like an old medieval walled town, but underneath its ramparts it is really a Roman one. A section of the old Roman road cuts through the center of town.  The road, the Rue des Portiques ran right next to our hotel.  I couldn’t believe that nearby stones dated from the 2nd century.  Its cathedral, the Eglise de la Conversion de Saint Paul, is built on the site of a Roman temple dedicated to the god Mars.

We checked into our hotel and were astounded to learn our hotel room had a rooftop terrace.  This was our view!  I went crazy snapping pictures up there.  We explored the medieval streets, patinaed squares and admired the Provençal architecture.

In Place du Peyra, the urn-shaped Vieille Fontaine is often photographed.  I liked how the mineral content and source of the water was mounted in the ancient city wall.  It tasted pretty good too.

After spending the last two days avoiding the crowds in Cannes, Antibes, Villefranche, Nice, Eze and St. Paul-de-Vence, it was a treat to sit a cafe and eat at a restaurant with locals.  The “local” below became really friendly once our snacks were delivered.  Believe or not, the puffs were actually peanut butter flavored!  In France!  We couldn’t believe it.  It was so nice having a dog around that we got permission to give him a bit of cheese.  He even did a couple of tricks for us.

Vence’s only disappointment was that the Matisse Chapel (Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence) was closed.  If you want to visit, be sure to check the opening hours.  The nuns who run it have better things to do than cater to sweaty tourists like us.

Everyone Loves St.-Paul-de-Vence

St.-Paul-de-Vence has been discovered.  Around 2.5 million people visit the tiny, 16th century medieval hilltop village each year.  It is filled with art galleries, boutiques and cafes.  The picturesque walk along the Rue Grande (aka Main Street) from Vence Gate to the Nice Gate, is way more beautiful and much more enjoyable than any shopping mall. Tourists love to photograph magnificent old medieval and baroque facades for good reason.  It is beautiful.   Scenic and charming, it is hard to take a bad picture here (unless other tourists photo-bomb you).

We found ourselves ducking into side streets and back alleys to avoid the hoards of tour bus passengers and students on field trips gushing down the streets like a lava stream.  St.-Paul-de-Vence is quaint and its backstreets are enchanting.  These who only shop the main drag are missing out.

I loved the potted plants outside doors, vine-covered stone walls, weathered squares, trickling fountains, narrow alleys, statues tucked into nooks, wrought iron gates, intricate door knockers and delicately worked wrought-iron shop signs .  It seemed as though there were adorable details everywhere I looked.  For example, the sidewalk stones are laid in patterns.  I’m just lucky to keep my floor relatively clean, forget about tiling flowers into it.

St.-Paul-de-Vence is built on a natural defensible spot, a rock outcropping in the Alps Maritimes on the Cote d’Azur.  French king Francis 1st made it a stronghold and ordered the construction of massive defensive walls.  Good call Frankie.  I wouldn’t want to lose this town to the enemy either.  Paul’s medieval fortress walls surround the town and are some of the most intact in the region.  We walked the perimeter taking in the breathtaking views of mountains and sea.

Yep. That’s the Mediterranean in the distance

The cemetery is just outside the city walls on the Mediterranean side.  The painter, Mark Chagall, is buried in the Saint Paul-de-Vence cemetery. His simple white tomb has small stones on top.  They are added by visitors as tributes pursuant to both Russian and Jewish tradition.

In case you were wondering, St.-Paul-de-Vence is also known as St. Paul.  Since there are a lot of other towns named St. Paul in France, it is typically referred to as the one by Vence.

Take It Eze-y, The Cote D’Azur Town Of Eze

Eze is a dramatic village perched 427 Meters (1,400 feet) above the Mediterranean sea.  Like many ancient hill towns, it is car-free.  We love car-free towns because they are more pedestrian and very peaceful.

Eze’s star attraction is the Jardin Exotique, a cactus and succulent filled garden planted around the ruins of a 14th century castle and filled with sculptures.   They had nice plaques explaining the sights and history of the area.  Very educational.  I loved the idea of filling castle ruins in with plants to make a unique garden.  It was really cool, but the real start of the show were the views.  Amazing.

Eze is so beautiful that it has become a tourist town…literally.  There are almost no full-time residents.  Virtually all the buildings are shops, art galleries, hotels or restaurants.  It has become a popular honeymoon destination.

The private terrace of one of the hotels

The Romans inhabited Eze.  Around 900, the Moors conquered the village, attacking from the door below.  They held it William of Provence took it from them in 973.  Like nearby Villefranche, its strategic position and proximity to nearby Nice meant that rulers built heavy fortifications.  Eze functions as sort of “eagle’s nest” overlooking the sea and surrounding mountains.   The Phoenicians, Turks and the Principality of Monaco also occupied the city at different points in time.

They weren’t the only ones who came to Eze.  The philosopher Nietzsche spent time here.  The trail you can hike down to the water (in the town of Eze-Sur-Mer) is called the Nietzsche Path in his honor.  We had on hiking clothes, but it was raining so hard that a hike down a steep (and possibly muddy) path didn’t sound like a ton of fun.  Walt Disney also spent time here.  He doesn’t have a path.

Neuchâtel, As Cute As Any French Town…But Swiss

Last weekend, we stopped for a peak at Neuchâtel.  I’d heard it was cute, so we had to check it out.  From the French influenced architecture to the cafes that spill out onto squares, it looks and feels more French than the rest of Switzerland.

People have lived there since about 13,000 B.C., but a castle was built on the site in 1011.  From the name Neuchâtel, it’s assumed that it replaced an older one on the site (In French, Neuf = New and Chateau = Castle).  A town soon followed.  Needless to say, it’s been around long enough to develop some cool, quirky features.

The Seyon River  used to flow through the town (where Rue Seyon is now located).  It’s flooding was devastating and a tunnel was built diverting the river a few blocs.   To mark where the river once flowed, there is a little water feature running through the street.

Footbridge across castle moat.  Pretty sweet.  The best part is that it connects to a park.  How much would you like to play capture the fort here?

Empress Josephine slept here.

The Swiss officials drained millions of cubic feet from Lake Neuchâtel, in 1870, lowering the lake level by 10 feet.  As a result, formerly lakeside chateaus  and their stone banks now sit inland.  A good amount of Neuchatel’s lakeside is now lined with elegant promenades.  The Promenade Noir was urban infill on the new lakefront property.  The buildings on one side of the street date from the 1600’s and the other side date from the 1800’s.  The building above is across the street from the building below!

Nice looking post office on new lakefront property.

Many of Neuchâtel’s older buildings are made from the local, yellow sandstone.  It’s an amazing, rich, color.

It’s even got its own cheese.  I prefer Neuchâtel to Philadelphia Cream Cheese on a bagel.  It healthier too.  Heck, it may even be healthier than Philly light.  You can blow the calories you saved on some Swiss chocolate.

Although the lakeside had a pretty view of the Alps and Jura, we like the views from our lake (Lac Leman/Lake Geneva) better.  The views get better as you get higher.  Some of the surrounding areas have stunning views.  Sorry I couldn’t get any decent ones from the car window.

Neuchâtel watchmakers made delightful little mechanical figurines that are displayed in the Musée d’Art.  We visited on a holiday morning so it was closed.  We hear it’s worth a peek if you get the chance to visit though.

 

Courmayeur

Courmayeur is an adorable town nestled in the mountains.  We have visited Swiss ski towns (Zermatt, Grindelwald), French ski towns (La Clusaz and Contamines) and now an Italian ski town.  Each country’s towns seem to have their own flavor despite being geographically close.

Even non skiers could happily spend a day enjoying Courmayeur‘s charming, car free streets.  Shops, bars and restaurants fill its stone buildings.  Whether you want to buy upscale apparel, outdoor gear, art, antiques, modern design items, wine or any special Italian food, you can find it in Courmayeur.  In the evenings, people stroll the narrow, but chic streets.  People were shopping, window shopping, people watching and on their way to the bars for a drink (a football game was about to start).  The activity gave the town a cheery, festive but relaxed ambiance.

No Italian town would be complete without a church and religious statues.  They look even more beautiful when surrounded by stunning mountains and the shadows they create.

As the evening progressed, people settled into its cozy cafes and restaurants.  The vivacity continues on into the evening as Courmayeur has a lively nightlife.  On our stroll home we saw bars were still packed.  We also saw a man walking his miniscule pooch; they were wearing matching shiny puffy jackets.  Sorry it was too cold to get out my camera (I would have had to take off my gloves).

Courtesy of Courmayeur.com

Courtesy of wheretoskiandsnowboard.com