Monthly Archives: May 2012

2012
05/30

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A Grand Tour of Montreal, on Two Wheels

By Bill Scheller

Photos courtesy of Velo Quebec

 

The Tour de l'Ile gets under way

The stretch along the Lachine Canal was a welcome relief.

I wasn’t in a boat, although the old canal, the pre-St. Lawrence-Seaway route around the roiling Lachine Rapids, is a lovely place to paddle a canoe while conjuring images of fur-trading voyageurs.  I was on a bicycle, part of a throng of 35,000 cyclists following a 31-mile (50 km) route through Montréal’s downtown streets and western suburbs.

A few months before my ride, my favorite radio raconteur Stuart McLean commented on his CBC program that Montréal had become “one of the world’s great bicycle cities.”  I live in northern Vermont and visit Montréal frequently, but I had never really noticed the phenomenon Stuart was talking about.  I’ve driven in the Quebec metropolis (usually, it seems, while trying to find a parking space near Schwartz’s, the smoked meat temple on St. Laurent), and walked many miles along the city streets.  But I’d only biked there once, at the rain-soaked end of a 90-mile (145 km) ride from home, and had never paid much attention to how many cyclists were wheeling their way through the traffic.

On this trip, though, the cyclists were the traffic, and I was in the thick of it.  Every year, during the first year of June, the bicycle advocacy group Velo Quebec sponsors the Féria du vélo de Montréal– the Montréal Bike Fest, a celebration of all things two-wheeled.  The highlights are “Un Tour de Nuit,” a 12.4 mile (20 km) night ride, and the 50km “Tour de l’Ile,” the circuitous Sunday morning event that included that water-level run along the canal as a respite before the final push through a downtown I had never remembered as being quite so damned hilly.  Of course, I had never tackled those streets on a bike after nearly three hours of pedaling – but Montréal does rise to the summit of eponymous Mount Royal, and even small mountains like this one have their foothills.

The author, ready for the Tour

The Tour de l’Ile is aptly named: during my 2011 run, although the route didn’t wander too far to the east, my 35,000 fellow cyclists and I did pedal through much of the western portion of the Island of Montréal.  The 2012 edition, to be held on Sunday, June 3, will take in much of the northern part of the island.  Wave after wave of bikes will depart from Montréal’s Parc Jeanne Mance, and then cruise into the leafy residential quarters of Notre-Dame-de-Grace and Outremont before looping through Saint-Laurent and Montréal-Nord on the way back down into the Plateau neighborhood and the finish back at the park.  From what I recall of the city’s topography, this will mean getting the steeper climbing done early – an advantage for those who can take off like a shot, but a dicier proposition for those of us who like to build up to hill challenges by getting limber on the flats.  There will be no Lachine Canal straightaway for this year’s participants, but there will be the usual three rest areas, where cyclists can take a breather, tank up on liquids, and take in a calorie or two.

More than 35,000 cyclists rode in the 2011 Tour

The Tour is by no means a race, but a certain element of competitiveness is hard to avoid – this writer, at least, skipped all but one of the rest stops in order to try to hit the finish line before any of the eager group of colleagues who started out together.  Let’s just say I wheeled in before some and way behind others — and that by those last couple of miles, I was competing mainly with myself.

Cyclists of all ages ride in the Tour

Weariness aside, the atmosphere throughout the tour – and on the preceding Friday night Tour la Nuit – is jolly and exhilarating.  The streets along the route are cleared of automobile traffic, and nearly 1,000 blue-shirted volunteers are stationed along the way.  They’re there not only to shout “bonne journée,” but to point the right way at intersections where the path might be in doubt – an especially welcome service on those few occasions when you aren’t part of a gaggle of cyclists who know where they are going.

The Tour route is cleared of auto traffic

My 2011 circuit took me into neighborhoods about which I had no clue; I still don’t know exactly where I was half the time, although I do recall that the locals on their stoops and sidewalks were everywhere enthusiastic about watching us pass by.

It’s an enthusiasm that has become endemic in this bike-crazy metropolis, where Stuart McLean’s comment about Montréal’s being “one of the world’s great bicycle cities” is backed up by statistics: more than 80 percent of Montréalers own bikes, one in three of them buy cycling equipment every year, and there are bike rental shops in every neighborhood.  Over 300 miles (500 km) of bicycle paths crisscross the city, and 22 miles (35 km) of streets have bike-only lanes that are plowed in the winter.  (Diehard Montréal cyclists go in for winter tires and Velcro gloves that grab compatibly equipped handlebars.)  Perhaps most striking of all are the 500 BIXI bicycle rental stations, where some 5,000 bikes are available at the swipe of a credit card.

The BIXI setup, of course, gives Montréalers and visitors alike a sure way to beat those Mount Royal foothills: you can pick up your ride at an uphill location, and drop it off on the flats before tackling the next hill by Metro.  But for the real flavor of two-wheeling through this great bicycle city, haul up your 21-speed road bike and sign up for the Tour de Nuit, the Tour de l’Ile, or – best of all – both.  And think of the meal you’re going to have after that shower.  There are a couple of restaurants in Montréal …

 

IF YOU GO:

The 2012 Tour de l’Ile takes place of Sunday, June 3, with a 9:15 a.m. start at Parc Jeanne Mance; the Tour de Nuit is on Friday, June 1, with an 8:15 start at  8:15 on Boulevard Saint-Joseph.  For details, including registration costs (participants can enroll right up to the last minute, visit http://www.veloquebec.info/en/feria.

2012
05/30

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Suffer the Sulphur Soak at The Greenbrier, and You’ll Feel Fit Enough to Enjoy This Iconic Resort

By Steve Bergsman

Photos by Ed Moss

 

The Greenbrier

I was reclining in a large bathtub filled almost to the tippy-top with natural sulfur-spring water. The temperature was 100 degrees. The water was denser than regular H2O, so my body was more buoyant. This particular pleasure was called a Sulphur Soak, and it was the first part of a full spa journey called The Greenbrier Treatment, a specialty of The Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

This was a long soak and I spent much of it drifting in and out of consciousness, completely regaling in my solitary tub time, which turned out to be a good thing, because after this The Greenbrier Treatment turned much more bizarre.

From the tub I was led into the Swiss Shower, where I was blasted by hot water from, I don’t know, something like 18 different showerheads. Just when I was beginning to feel a bit lightheaded from all the tumult the water stopped flowing and my spa handler came back into the room. It was time for my Scotch Spray. I knew I was in for something weird when he directed me to hold my hands in front of my private parts.

Sure enough, I was doubled blasted by water cannons. It was as if the handler was using me for target practice at a water park. I can’t say I was having a good time, but it was all for a good cause – my body. According to the literature, the Swiss Shower and Scotch Spray break up the toxins and cellular blockage in the body, just as the Sulphur Soak was a kind of bodily exfoliant.

Traditional poster advertising White Sulphur Springs

When all this water bombardment dripped to a conclusion, I was led to a treatment room where I received a full body massage. My goodness, when it was all over, I was ready to conquer the world. Or, at least the immense and iconic Greenbrier, the picturesque and tweedy granddaddy of American resorts spread over 6,500 hilly and wooded acres in southeastern West Virginia. It’s not just a resort, it’s also a National Historic Landmark, and deservedly so.

I’d been looking at photographs of The Greenbrier for decades, with its huge, starch-white façade adorned with apexes, columns and arches – looking grander than even the White House – and I’ve always wanted to go there just as others might wish to visit Maui or Monaco. I’ve been to Maui and Monaco, and truthfully I found The Greenbrier a lot more fascinating, if not more fun.

The carriage trade at the Greenbrier

OK, there’s no beach, but there are the beautiful, deeply-forested Allegheny Mountains, three gorgeous golf courses, and enough activities including falconry, trap and skeet shooting, fishing, biking, bowling, croquet, horseback riding, and carriage rides to make your head spin and muscles ache – which is why there is The Greenbrier Spa.

None of that even suggests a history that rivals almost anywhere else in the United States.

North Entrance, The Greenbrier

The story of White Sulphur Springs and The Greenbrier begins in the 1700s when some travelers in the area saw Native Americans wallowing in the natural springs and mud. When they asked what was going on, they were told the waters were healthful. Local historians say tourists started coming to the springs in 1783, staying first in tents. The location of the springs is to this day on the grounds of The Greenbrier, and I can testify by my Sulphur Soak that they are still gurgling health-giving waters.

By the early- to mid-1800s, the tourist industry began to crystallize in a formal way, with a warren of cottages around the springs and a gazebo built over their outlet – and to this day a gazebo still indicates the source although the sulfuric waters look a bit obscured and not at all inviting. In fact, it’s hard to believe people used to drink these waters before the government, in the late twentieth century, finally put a stop to anyone sipping the unfiltered waters.

Gazebo designating the original sulphur spring outlet

The first major hotel was constructed in late 1850s, only to be vacated with the advent of the Civil War. West Virginia split from Virginia and joined the Union cause, but so many locals flaunted their southern sympathies that the hotel was used as a Confederate hospital.

About seven miles to the west sits the small town of Lewisburg, the site of the biggest local Civil War battle. The short, bloody conflict came about on the morning of May 23, 1862 when a Confederate army under General Henry Heth tried to surprise an outnumbered Union brigade under Colonel George Crook. The Confederates caught no one by surprise but themselves, because they ran up against one of the best, though unheralded, Union military leaders, George Crook. Within an hour, the Southerners were bested and on the run, leaving behind 80 dead, 100 wounded and 157 taken prisoner. Crook lost 13 men, and would later gain greater fame as the general who pacified the Indian tribes of the West and captured the Apache Chief Geronimo.

(My masseuse at the spa was a native of Lewisburg and a bundle of misinformation, except for one thing.

A Lewisburg standout, Stardust Café

When I asked her where there was a good place to eat in town as I was headed there to tour about, do some antiquing and have lunch, she recommended the Stardust Café, and this casual eatery was absolutely exceptional. If you visit, try one of their unique cream sodas.)

Downtown Lewisburg

After the war, all was forgiven and for a period of time General Robert E. Lee lived in a cottage at The Greenbrier. The cottage still stands and is open for business.

Robert E. Lee lived here after the Civil War

One interesting thing about The Greenbrier is that its initial success as a resort was due to its popularity with the Southern gentry, especially those who lived in the lower, miasmic lands of the Southern states.

Back in 1937, the artist William Grauer painted a mural history of The Greenbrier, which still exists in The Virginia Room. There is only one president in the mural, Millard Fillmore, who is depicted enjoying a picnic at the resort. You think to yourself, why would anyone depict Millard Fillmore of all presidents? That is the question I asked Dr. Robert Conte, the historian of the resort. And the answer was, back in the day, if you wanted to influence the key political and mercantile figures of the South, the best place was The Greenbrier. I guess ol’ Millard was pressing the flesh, southern style.

William Grauer murals in the Virginia Room depicting the history of the Greenbrier

According to Conte, 26 presidents have visited The Greenbrier and the one to have the most effect on the place was the 34th, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who, under the “contingency of government” program (essentially how to keep the American government running in the event of a nuclear attack) designated The Greenbrier as the place to hide the legislative branch. Under the guise of building a new wing onto the resort, the U.S. government constructed a top secret bunker under the project. The 112,544-square-foot bunker, capable of housing the entire Congress, remained top secret for almost 35 years before being exposed by the Washington Post in 1992.

Today, tours of the bunker are given, and it is well worthwhile to take the time to fit one in. Even if you are too young to remember the Cold War, the size, complexities and nuclear war preparation make this one of the most interesting — if not one of the scariest — you’ll ever undertake.

With three golf courses, two swimming pools, numerous tennis courts and, as I mentioned, activities so numerous it gave me a headache, I suppose you’re wondering how I spent my time at The Greenbrier. And the answer is, I did a lot of not much. I got pampered at the spa, strolled the grounds in a leisurely, non-power walk manner, toured the Civil War sites and ate terrific meals.

The Greenbrier boasts three golf courses

The resort’s executive chef, Richard Rosendale, won the Bocuse D’Or US, and was slated to compete in France for the international title. Ironically, he had commandeered the old galley in the bunker and transformed it into his test kitchen to get in shape for the big contest. The main dining room (jacket and tie for men!) served a version of his winning dish, but it didn’t translate well into a mass-market dinner item.

No slight to Mr. Rosendale, but the best meals I had at The Greenbrier and the best chef I was introduced to was, in a sense, off campus.

On the grounds of The Greenbrier are a series of private developments in a section of the resort called The Sporting Club. These private residences have their own golf course and clubhouse, the latter of which serves a fine dinner in a room looking west over the 18th hole of the course.

It’s a beautiful setting, especially if you can sit outside when the sun drifts lower beyond the western mountains. And here’s the surprise: Not only was The Sporting Club dinner the culinary apex of my visit, but the desserts created by executive pastry chef Amy Mills were some of the best I’ve ever encountered – anywhere in the world. I doubled up on Chef Mill’s creations, feasting on her desserts after lunch at the Summit, high in the mountains overlooking the resort, and again after dinner at the clubhouse.

I know I should have exercised off those delicious calories, but afterward I pulled up a lounge chair outside my Sporting Club residence, lit a cigar and watched the waters of the nearby stream roll merrily along. It was most enjoyable doing nothing.

If You Go:

Getting there: I took the long way, flying from the West Coast to Baltimore/Washington Airport and then taking the tourist route through central Virginia, about a 5-hour drive if done straight through. I didn’t, instead stopping at Charlottesville and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. My photographer flew into Roanoke Airport, which was about an hour ride from The Greenbrier. Interstate 64 goes right past the resort. And, for train travelers, Amtrak arrives right at the Greenbrier’s gates three times a week.

The Greenbrier: One of the world’s most iconic hotels, The Greenbrier boasts 682 rooms in the main resort plus 96 guest and estate houses. One of the resort’s Old School quirks is the requirement that men wear a jacket and tie for dinner in the main dining hall, but if you want to be more casual there are a number of other fine restaurants on the grounds. www.greenbrier.com

One of the creeks that meander through the Greenbrier property

 

2012
05/30

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Small Country, Big Outlook: Discover Slovakia, the New Heart of Europe

By Bruce Northam

Photos by the author

Slovakia inherited some of the best aspects of its five neighbors, enjoying Czech-style brewing, Polish diligence, Austrian architecture, Ukrainian good looks, and Hungarian stews. The one thing Slovakia can claim outright is the fact that it’s an undiscovered travel jewel. Culturally and geographical diverse, it’s simply a beautiful bargain.

Spis Castle security guard

Want to experience classic Europe for a third of the price? Here’s your chance to discover what it was like in the ‘70s. Being the new heart of Europe is more than a motto. Politically, this was once Eastern Europe, but with the massive Ukraine to the east now also being recognized as Eurozone, its true geographic center has shifted into the midst of Slovakia’s mountains.

The people here are rapidly waking up from the Communist hangover. Their creative juices are once again flowing, and they relate to the Western approach to enjoying life. Slovakia blends the best of romantic Europe—picturesque countryside, a charming capital city, ghostly castles, Renaissance churches, divine food and period-perfect museums—with the eastward-expanding European Union.

Bratislava

Slovakia, often confused with the former Yugoslavian country Slovenia, is a little nation with a big spirit. My journey started in the often overlooked capital city, Bratislava, a Danube River-hugging spectacle with all the modern creature comforts but without a fat price tag or annoying crowds. The Danube touches four capitals: Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, and Belgrade. I found Bratislava to be the most chilled out, as I didn’t hear one car horn or a person sounding like one. Conveniently located downriver from Budapest and upriver from Vienna, Bratislava is where a woman’s Slovak-to-English musings urged me to exercise my feet and my imagination: “You have to use your fantasia.” Her Slavic accent recalls Russia, but the evolving Europe salutes her free will. Unfortunately, many Danube River boat tourists often fail to appreciate the magic to be found along these cobblestoned streets.

Eurovea restaurant row

An hour train ride from Vienna, Bratislava faces the foot of the fabled Carpathian Mountains, which range all the way down into Romania. In the sprawling Old Town, winding pedestrian walkways pass through city gates and ancient city-wall ruins. Looming regally on a hilltop, the 15th-century Bratislava Castle was once the capital of the Hungarian Kingdom. While many Americans deem a 1950s Los Angeles diner a landmark, the residents of this colorful metropolis won’t soon forget the 1500s.

It’s not difficult to see every corner of this fertile land. Seventy percent of Slovakia is mountains, and I explored its high peaks region called the High Tatras. En route, it seems as if every tenth pinnacle has a 14th-century medieval castle upon it, or at least the crumbling ruins of one. The eerie ruins kept me on the lookout for a reincarnated knight passing on horseback (while making a beer commercial). The big daddy of them all, Spis (pronounced “spish”) Castle is Central Europe’s largest medieval fortress compound.

Spis Castle

First built in 1209, it was wrecked by 13th-century Tatars, and rebuilt in the 15th century. Partially in ruins, it dominates the landscape from miles away and made me ponder phantoms, and life before remote controls. The sprawling Spis region, including the old-world village of Levoca, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site playground. St. Jacob’s Church showcases the world’s tallest Gothic alter and a private collection of museum-caliber paintings and sculptures. Gothic churches abound, making memorable photography a cinch.

View from Spis Castle

For people more enchanted with the now, the nearby Slovakian Paradise National Park is a wilderness area that’s home to the Hornad Canyon-side hike, which involves a tricky traverse along horizontal ladders, bridges, snaking steps, chain handholds, and footbridges—mostly over a river. Along the numerous trail options, a few restaurants wait ready with sausage and a brew.

The more you see, the more that newly encountered people and places remind you of others met on your life’s journey. The tallest Tatras weave a North Carolina Smoky Mountain feel, as they often attract a cloudy halo.

High Tatras

In winter, this range takes on another vibe more reminiscent of the Alps. Strbske Pleso—“pleso” means mountain lake—is the highest mountain topping out at 8,710 feet (3175 m). It’s accessible via train from Bratislava, and you can literally walk from the station to the Grand Hotel Kempinski, Slovakia’s version of Yellowstone Lodge.  Not a shabby commute.

Grand Hotel Kempinski

Nearby, the summit of Lomnicky Peak (8,635 feet; 3148 m), the country’s second highest, can be reached by foot or cable car, and offers views reaching into southern Poland.  The stone building atop Lomnicky features the country’s highest café, and for gutsy romantics, a cozy apartment where the overnight rate includes a private dinner service—a way better proposal spot than on a horse-drawn carriage ride. Your chance of meeting an American here is similar to an Americans’ chance of meeting a Slovakian today—a lucky strike either way. (Speaking of luck, the last man to visit the Moon, Eugene Cernan, had Slovak heritage.)

Because what goes up must also come down, I made my way to the flatlands, which are salted with 500-year-old manor houses now doubling as swank hotels.

Hotel Amade Chateau

During the 50-year communist regime, most of Slovakia’s historic manor houses or chateaus were converted into orphanages, schools, hospitals, and retirement homes, or left to fall into ruin. The transition from noble family mansions to Communist facilities took its toll. Because it was a Soviet satellite, many otherwise quaint, rural, medieval-flavored valley towns were overshadowed by huge, hastily constructed factories adjoined to ugly communist block-style apartment buildings that don’t exactly blend in.

An old Slovakian saying states, “When soldiers come, grass never grows again,” but this patriotic land is proud anew, and a bargain unheard of in the rest of the European Union. It enjoys some of Europe’s best tap water, which also infuses the country’s delightful hand-crafted beers and wines. Slovakia does have a few sharp differences with its neighbors. Czechs are primarily atheists, while Slovaks remain deeply Roman Catholic. And, they’re in an ongoing dispute with Hungary about Danube River hydro dam diversions. But that’s nothing a traveler has to worry about. For visitors, it’s all dobre (doe-bray), a frequently spoken Slovakian term meaning good or ok. In truth, now that Prague is a busy crossroads of colliding tourists, Slovakia is where you can still feel the splendor of once-reigning Austria and Hungary—but more vitally, the atmosphere of reinvention.

With the Iron Curtain fallen and Moscow deemed irrelevant, the resurrected geographic center of Europe shares a time-tested Slovak maxim: “He who digs a hole for someone else will fall into it themselves.” Something else fell into that hole, and it surely wasn’t the unbroken Slovakian spirit. Cheers. The old chapel bells toll yet again.

 

IF YOU GO:

Visit www.slovakia.travel

Old Town Bratislava’s thirteenth century Hotel Arcadia, near equally-seasoned St. Martin’s Cathedral and arguably the country’s best hotel, is everything a five-star hotel should be, without gratuitous effort. www.arcadia-hotel.sk

Hotel Arcadia

 

I’m not typically a fan of glitzy malls, but Bratislava’s Eurovea mega mall’s outdoor riverside area is a pedestrian paradise with overgrown beanbag couches scattered upon manicured lawns lining 15 welcoming high-value restaurant bargains. www.eurovea.com

Bratislava’s Flowers Restaurant is home to Slovakia’s top chef. The dazzling five-star open kitchen space has a towering glass ceiling and walls bejeweled with classic Andy Warhol paintings—his parents, Byzantine Catholics, emigrated to the U.S. from Slovakia. www.flowersrestaurant.sk

The Danubiana Art Museum is Slovakia’s MOMA on an island in the Danube River near Slovakia’s visible intersections with Austria and Hungary. Light plays with masterpieces inside and on the outdoor art sculpture park promenade. www.danubiana.sk. Nearby is a human-made whitewater kayakers’ paradise/theme park, Cunovo, fed by diverted river water.

Danubiana Art Museum

Hotel Amade Chateau, only 30 minutes outside Bratislava, is a romantic castle-hotel/spa and gourmet restaurant evoking the Versailles era of Louis XVI. The adjoined plush spa complex features a Turkish hammam sharing that ancient style of wellness. This classic, manicured manor house has 20 double rooms and 10 apartments. It’s one of the rare places in Slovakia serving afternoon tea—inside one its many noble rooms or beside one of their deluxe pools. www.hotelamade.sk

Kremnica is home to a castle (another dazzler) and a famous mint (Mincovna) that’s been pounding out coins and medals since 1329 when it struck the first Old Hungarian groschen coins. www.mint.sk

Alpine-lakeside Grand Hotel Kempinski luxuriates in the High Tatras, with grand being the key declaration. It reminded me of a down-to-earth Swiss resort movie set. www.kempinski.com.  It’s not far from the epic Spis Castle, www.spisskyhrad.sk

Red Stone Castle, one hour from Bratislava, is a mountaintop, moated fort built in the 16th century. The four cannon-loaded bastions, some with bat soundtracks, were later used as wine presses and wine cellars. Today, the slate and red limestone masterpiece’s great halls host special events. The original structure at this location, built in the 1230s, was demolished for new construction. www.hradcervenykamen.sk.

Private guide extraordinaire, Eva Cubrikova, knows and loves every inch of this country. Email her at cubrik@chello.sk

* * *

In 1925 a Slovakian invented the resonating Dobro guitar, which now sounds good in every language.

The gypsy (who prefer to be called Roma) presence in Slovakia polarizes opinions like any racially tense situation in America. The Roma landed in Europe after leaving India in the tenth century. They’re a small fraction of Slovakia’s 5.5 million people, but the fastest growing population sector. The Roma contribute liberally to the arts, with a knack for music and poetry.

Bruce Northam’s THE DIRECTIONS TO HAPPINESS is a 125-country quest for unlikely sages. www.AmericanDetour.com