Monday, February 27, 2006

Off to See the Maya

We're off to Belize and Guatemala. I know, I know, I promised Europe but we won this trip at a dinner dance and my son, the anthropologist/business tycoon-in-waiting has been selling this trip to me for years. And we're flying Business Class!

I'll be back at my PC on March 9th. Until then

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Do Not Write About Corvara

My brother-in-law, David, does not want me to tell you this. There is a delightful place to ski in Italy with short lift lines, massive ski-able terrain and spectacular scenery. David, who is rightfully worried about being able to get a room at his favourite, small, family-run hotel, also does not want me to tell you that this gem of a resort costs a lot less than what you would pay for the Big Names in France, Austria and Switzerland. If you are looking for a fine place for a family ski holiday that is virtually unknown to English speaking tour operators, look no further than Corvara in the Alta Badia region of the Dolomites. Just don’t tell David I told you.

The first thing you should know about Corvara is that it has gobsmacking metrics. As part of the Dolomiti Superski region, the area boasts 1,220 kilometres of prepared pistes, 460 lifts and 30 pretty good mountain restaurants (more on the best ones later). There is an amazing ski circuit around the Sella massif pictured above (the Sellaronda) which you can do in a day that takes you over four mountain passes covering 36 kilometres of trails and lifts.

If this sounds like an overwhelming juggernaut, here’s the best part of all. It isn’t. In fact, all the towns which make up the Alta Badia which include Corvara, Colfosco, La Villa, San Cassiano, Pedraces and La Val, are small, charming and intimate. The look is Austrian alpine, the feel is carefree Italian.

Getting There

A bit tricky, this one. There are tons of airports you can fly into such as Bolzano, Bergamo, Venice, Verona, Treviso or Innsbruck but not tons of options for cost effective transfers to Alta Badia. Basically, you can rent a car or take a taxi. Both options are expensive unless you fly into Bolzano (which is the closest airport). This year, I spotted a transfer service provided by Dolomiti Stars at Venice’s Marco Polo Airport which will bus you directly from the airport to Arraba (the town next to Corvara), for €18 round trip. We may well try this out next year, having just spent €120 per person on taxis to and from Venice, which well exceeded the cost of our flight.

Of all the options, my favourite is to fly into Venice and spend a night either on the way in or out at the wonderful Pensione La Calcina. Danish acquaintance of ours, who have been going to Corvara for 25 years, cleverly take a taxi to Marco Polo Airport following a week of skiing, drop off their ski luggage and then make their way into Venice for Carnival with an overnight bag to return for their flight home the next day.


If you are looking for places to stay in Corvara, I have three recommendations in various price ranges. At the top end, try the Hotel la Perla. Run by the Costa family, this is a seriously smart, beautifully run luxury hotel set directly on the piste a few feet from the Col Alto lift. There is a one star Michelin restaurant, every kind of upscale amenity and even a motorcycle museum which my open road friend, Patrick, says is seriously good. I should tell you now that I do not stay there. Too many children, too little budget, but when I win the lottery, I will. A standard room with half board during high season will run you €226 per person per night.

Also four stars, and near the slopes but less expensive is the Posta Zirm Hotel. The hotel has been run by the Kostner family since 1908 and while I have not stayed there, I was impressed by the beautifully appointed reception areas and the helpful staff. A standard room with half board during high season is €153 per person per night.

Now, here’s the tip that may cost me my relationship with my brother-in-law. We stay at the very small, very charming and very good value Hotel Ladinia. Run by the welcoming Albertini family, this alpine retreat which is informal, cosy and close to the slopes charges €87 per person per night. The meals are hearty and delicious. The relaxed atmosphere is wonderful for families.

Eating Out

For lunch, we ate most of out meals on the mountain and most of the mountain restaurants are pretty good. Out favourite was the one on top of the Col Alto lift. Get there by 12:30 to insure a table.

My hot tip for anyone with small children or anyone, for that matter, is the Trattoria Ladinia – Oies which you can reach on the ski tour to San Croce.

There are several reasons to make the effort to visit this establishment. First, it is located on one of the loveliest ski tours in the area. Even beginning skiers can do the Santa Croce tour. The slopes are wide and easy and the scenery is just gorgeous. Second, you reach this place via a horse and carriage driven by a grouchy old mountain man who looks like a dead ringer for Heidi’s grandfather and thirdly, the place is filled, and I mean filled, with Teddy Bears. They’re everywhere. It’s amazing. Our eight year old thought she had died and gone to heaven. Finally, the food is good and the price is right. There is a lovely terrace to eat on if the weather is fine although the bear action is all inside.

You reach the Teddy Bear Restaurant by taking the first chairlift out of Pedraques. On getting off, ski down the left hand side of the piste. About half way down, look for a wooden sign which says “Oies” and the old man with the horse and carriage. Take your skis off and leave them at the sign. Hop in with Grandpa who will escort you to the restaurant.

Another hot tip is to check out the Go Go Girls at the L’Apres Ski behind the La Perla Hotel on Thursday night. Everyone is there. The atmosphere convivial and the girls, who dance on the bar in the neatest pair of white boots I have ever seen, are gorgeous. My daughter, who thought it was the highlight of her trip, has new career aspirations.

So there you have it, the perfect NoCrowds ski region: massive intermediate terrain, few lines, good accommodations and good value. Just don’t tell anyone how you found out about it.

Hotel La Perla
Strada Col Alt 105
39033 Corvara
Tel: 00 39 0471 831 000
Fax 0039 0471 836 568

Posta Zirm Hotel
Strada Col Alt, 95
39033 Corvara
Tel: 00 39 0471 836175

Hotel Ladinia
Strada Pedecorvara, 1039033
Corvara Alta Badia-Dolomiti
Tel. 00 39/0471/836010Fax 00 39/0471/836629

Trattoria Ladinia-Oies
(Teddy Bear Restaurant)
Tel: 0471 839671
Fax:0471 839921

L’MURIN (L’Apres Ski)
Srada Col Alto 105
Tel: 0471 831000
Open daily from 3:30 to 8:00
Go Go girls on Thursdays

Photo courtesy of the Dolomiti Superski website

Monday, February 20, 2006

Dreaming of Venice

I can only imagine that anyone who wants to write about Venice faces the same dilemna. How on earth are you going to say something that has not been said before by better writers? Take, for example, Thomas Mann:

This was Venice, the flattering and suspect beauty – this city, half fairy tale and half tourist trap, in whose insalubrious air the arts once rankly and voluptuously blossomed, where composers have been inspired to lulling tones of somniferous eroticism.”

Or Boris Johnson, Member of Parliament from Henley on Thames:

"If Amsterdam or Leningrad vie for the title of Venice of the North, then Venice - what compliment is high enough? Venice, with all her civilisation and ancient beauty, Venice with her addiction to curious aquatic means of transport, yes, my friends, Venice is the Henley of the South.

Or even a young writer such as Eloise Hedges, age 8, who stated with simple eloquence:

But if I go to Venice, it will ruin my dream of Venice."

To try and compete with this crowd is unwise. What follows, then, is a short list of some ideas which I hope will help you make your dream of Venice, whatever it is, come closer to being true.

1) Go off season. This is obvious but cannot be over-stressed. You could be as surprised by the weather as we were on our arrival in early February in glorious Canaletto sunshine. We explored the city and its monuments to our hearts content and only in San Marco and the Basilica did we even catch a whiff of treadmill tourism. Even going in winter can not mitigate the fact that Venice exists for, and is populated by, tourists but in the winter you can successfully pretend this is not true.

2) Read and bring Venice for Pleasure by J.G. Links. In print for over 30 years, Bernard Levin of The Times described it as “Not only the best guide book to that city ever written, but the best guide book to any city ever written.” I agree.

3) Arrive by water – Easy to do if you fly into Marco Polo airport. You can either take a chic water taxi which costs approximately €90 and should be able to handle up to 8 people and luggage or take the Alilaguna service which has three lines, one running an express directly to San Marco. The cost for Alilaguna is €10 per head.

If you must enter the city via car or train, you will travel over a bridge that was built by the Austrians, and, according to J. G. Links, disgusted the Venetians who never wanted a permanent link to the mainland. Even Mussolini wanted to see it pulled down. As we used the Alilaguna to arrive and the road to leave, I can say, with authority, that water is better.

4) Stay at Pensione La Calcina - on the Zattere overlooking the Giudecca Canal. This is a lovely, protected and quieter part of the city which is blessed by having the best climate in Venice. We managed to eat a delightful lunch outside on the canal in February. Although out of the tourist treadmill, the hotel is only a few minutes walk from the Accademia and the other major monuments. La Calcina, which prides itself on its connection to Ruskin, represents great value with rooms ranging from as low as €65 for singles in low season to €186 for a double on the canal in high season.

To be accurate, Ruskin wrote the first and second volumes of the Stones of Venice at the infinitely grander Danieli and the Gritti Palace Hotels. By the time he reached La Calcina he was already suffering from intermittent madness, probably due to the bills he ran up at the Danieli and Gritti. Anyway, the staff at La Calcina is charming and efficient. The restaurant is good. The rooms are comfortable and clean. This is a wonderful hotel.

5) Eat at Alle Testiere –This small, informal fish restaurant will neither bankrupt nor disappoint. The freshest fish is sourced daily from the Rialto market and everything we ordered was superb. We ate and drank like kings for €50 a head. There are two seatings at 7 and 9 and given the small size ( 24 covers) and popularity of the place both reservations and punctuality are important. It’s not the easiest restaurant to find so leave some time to get lost.

6) Get a Chorus Pass for the Churches of Venice – One of the best amateur art historians I know once taught me a valuable lesson. If you want to see art without crowds, visit churches and Venice is the perfect place to follow this advice. The city has made it easy by offering a single pass good for visiting 15 churches for €8 which is valid for one year. Yes, of course you can go to museums and palaces, but in the churches you see Bellini, Tintorreto, Tiepolo and Titian in the settings for which the art was made and virtually alone. Not to mention the fabulous architecture. If you only have one day in Venice, go for the churches.

At the end of our visit, I asked Eloise how the reality of Venice compared to her dream of Venice. Again, she responded with an answer wise beyond her years, “Well Mom, to really answer that question, we should have stayed much longer.”

I agree.

Photo of the Grand Canal from the Accademia Bridge courtesy of Eloise Hedges

Pensione La Calcina
Dorsoduro, 780
30123 Venezia
Tel: 041/5206466
Fax: 041/5227045

Alle Testiere
Castello, 5801
Calle del Mondo Novo
50122 Venezia
Tel & Fax 041 52 27 220
Closed Sunday and Monday

Thursday, February 09, 2006

NoCrowds Goes Skiing Italian Style

We're off to Venice tomorrow morning. Our 6:30 AM flight necessitates a 4:30 departure. It seemed like a good idea when we booked the flights.

From there, we're off to Corvara in the Alta Badia for a week of skiing. I'll be back at my PC on Feb 19 with lots of new information about how to tackle Venice without crowds and how to hit the slopes without the lines. Until then.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Atelier des Chefs

One of my self-imposed rules is to never write about what I have not test driven. Lots of things can look good in theory but end up being dogs in practice and I have enough problems without ticking off my highly select readership by recommending a dog. Still, I was so charmed by the offering of the “Atelier des Chefs” and as I will not be back in Paris until Easter, I just had to pass this along right now.

If you are at loose ends for what to do for lunch in the City of Lights, you can take a 30 minute cooking class and consume the outcome with your chef and fellow students for the amazing price of €15, including cheese, desert and wine. To give you an idea, today’s menu at the main location is Beef sautéed in mustard with Chinese cabbage, tomorrows is Risotto with Uncured Ham and Zucchini.

The clever Bergerault brothers who are the entrepreneurs (and yes, President Bush, that is a French word) behind the Atelier des Chefs have three central Paris locations: near the Champs-Elysees in the 8th arrondisement and two smaller ateliers inside the Galeries Lafayette and Printemps Nation department store. They have a nifty website where you can reserve a class and based on what I saw today, this formula is extremely popular with lots of classes already filled. Needless to say, booking ahead is important but on the site it looks easy. I have emailed the company to ask how useful the classes would be for someone who speaks little to no French but am still waiting for a response.

If you try this out, I would love to hear what you thought of it. Was it fun? Would you recommend it to a friend? What did you cook?

Atelier des Chefs
10 rue de Penthievre
Paris, 75008
Tel: 01 53 30 05 82
Metro: Miromesnil

Photo courtesy of the Atelier des Chefs website

Monday, February 06, 2006

NO ONE Eats in Montmartre

Thirty-two years ago, my father was on business in Paris staying in an extremely smart hotel. I was a student in a less salubrious part of town. Very kindly, Dad suggested that I choose a part of Paris I wanted to eat in, and he would find a slap-up spot for a fine dinner. I chose Montmartre. After all, I was there to study Art History and so it made perfect sense to me.

“But Monsieur, NO ONE eats in Montmartre” was the response of the rattled Concierge. Not fazed one bit, my father insisted (what a great Dad) that a table be booked. Thirty-two years later, I returned to Montmartre.

Yes, I realise that Montmartre is one of the main acts in Paris’s tacky tourism show, but I have also read that one need only wander two streets back from the Sacre Coeur or Place de Tertre to find a delightful village well worth the detour. Plus, I’m a sucker for the movie Amelie. Of course I am too worldly to think that Montmartre could be anything like the film and the fact that I spent a year living near Salzburg, had nothing to do with the Sound of Music.

So off I went to see if any of Montmartre’s anti-bourgeois past could still be found. I arrived by Metro at the Abbessese Station, a fine example of the classic Belle Epoque style of Paris stations. Inside, be sure to use the stairs and not the lift to see an astonishing display of graffiti which the numerous Japanese tourists found quite exciting. Outside, I should have seen the Bateau-Lavoir, the atelier of Picasso, Juan Gris, Modigliani and other artistic giants, but I missed it somehow. Never mind, the real thing burned down several years ago. What stands today is a reconstruction.

From the Metro, I walked up the hill to the Sacre Coeur , dodging the joggers who use the steps as their personal gym. They’re not as sadistic as the serious guys who run you over in the Luxembourg, but it pays to stay out of their way. There is a funny funicular for the less fit, and I’m sure that any child would relish the chance to ride a ski lift in the middle of Paris. I had a quick peek in Sacre Coeur and it’s really not too exciting. I did read an interesting fact about the place. For the past 110 years, men and women have been holding a 24/7 prayer “relay” to purge the sin of humanity. I’d give them an “A” for effort but a “D-“ for impact.

Going from one tourist trap to another, I wandered over to the Place du Tertre ( the place where my father convinced the concierge to book us a table). My God, it is awful, rather like Marrakesh after a bus load of unsuspecting tourists has been dumped into the Souk. The “artists” are giving a super hard sell to the tourists and the tourists wander around searching for something that hasn’t been there for the last 100 years.

From this tourist horror, I flew over to the small and very charming Musee de Montmartre which can be found at 12 rue Cortot, in a pretty 17th century house. Some of the famous residents who lived and worked in the house include Renoir, Dufy and Utrillo. I liked this small museum tremendously. The staff where remarkably solicitous, the collection exuded the village/bohemian atmosphere that made Montmartre famous and the view of Paris ( and its last remaining vineyard) out the top windows is particularly lovely.

My next stop on my search for bohemian Montmartre was the Montmartre Cemetery and here I found the most vivid example of the romantic, anti-establishment quartier of my imagination. The cemetery is a peaceful green haven, below street level frequented by lots of feral looking cats, schoolgirls smoking cigarettes, families tending grave and a smattering of tourist on the prowl for the many resting luminaries. If the permanent residents of this place were to rise up, what a party it would be. Here is who I found: Edgar Degas, Gustave Moreau, Berlioz, Alexandre Dumas, Stendhal, Offenbach, Nijinsky, Francois Truffaut ( the French New Wave filmmaker), and my favourite, Louise Weber, the creator of the French cancan.

From the Montmartre Cemetery, I walked over to have a quick look at Pigalle and the Moulin Rouge. It all looked very sad and tired. If I were you, I’d give it a pass. At that point, I hopped on the Metro and headed home, the same Metro station that I introduced to my father thirty-two years ago when we were unable to secure a taxi back to his hotel after our fine dinner. Seeing as it was his first ride on a Paris subway, he took great interest in how the whole thing worked. Being an engineer by training, he appreciated the scale and efficiency. Well Dad, the Metro is still efficient, I’m still searching for my anti-establishment past and the Concierge is still right – NO ONE eats in Montmartre.

Montmartre Museum
12 rue Cortot
75018 Paris
Tel: 0146066111
Open everyday from 11 – 6 except Monday
Fee: Eur 5.50
Metro: Abesses or Anvers
Bus line 64, 80

Montmartre Cemetery
37 Avenue Samson
Tel: 0153423630
Open Monday through Friday 8 – 6
Saturday 8:30 – 6, Sunday 9 – 6 ( 5:30 in winter)
Metro: Blanche or Place Clichy

Friday, February 03, 2006

Daily Copy Cats

Every day, I receive emails from Urban Junkies and Daily Candy alerting me to what’s going on in London. Both claim to provide “insider information” of what is hot, new and undiscovered. They’re good sources of information and they don’t claim to be writing reviews, just letting you know what’s going on. But for the last two days, they have covered the same restaurant openings.

“Shadenfreude” was my first emotion. Here are two internet publishing initiatives with significant resources (well at least by my sole proprietor standards) with lots of paid advertising and even some aristocratic connections ( the Editor of Daily Candy is related to the Duke of Norfolk) and they can only manage to turn out copy cat restaurant openings. There’s hope for us little guys yet. Watch this space.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

No Romantic Life with Gustave Moreau

Hoisted on my own petard … again. After hearing from my friend, Fanny, that one of the best NoCrowds museum in all of Paris had to be the Museum of Romantic Life in the 9th arrondissement, off I went to see it. But alas, there was to be no romantic life for me that day. Like the Museum of the Hunt, the Museum of Romantic Life is closed for renovations until February 28th. And try finding that little tidbit on the website.

This life as a travel blogger can be difficult. Here I am, far away from my own quartier. Oh, where to next? On the locked gates of my original destination, there was a thoughtful note from the under-occupied staff of Romantic Life suggesting that I visit the Musee Gustave Moreau which was a short walk away. Such is the richness of Paris’s cultural landscape that having been disappointed twice in as many days by closures; I was able to find fabulous alternatives for both just around the corner.

And, as advertised, The Gustave Moreau museum proved to be highly worthwhile, thanks in large part to the excellent public relations skills of the French symbolist, Gustave Moreau. Obviously concerned about his position in the history of art, Moreau designed and paid for the museum to be built so that his works could be collected and displayed as he desired and the setting is fabulous. I’m not a big fan of symbolism, but the more I looked at the paintings, drawing, water colours and sculptures, the better I liked the work. You see, Moreau knew what he was doing.

From the perspective of experiencing how a successful artist lived and worked in Paris towards the turn-of-the-2oth century, the Museum is first class. After touring the dramatic studio, visitors are directed to the intimate apartments of the artist which have been perfectly preserved and offer rich insight into the sources of inspiration for his work. According to the museum, nothing has changed in a century and the “windows still open onto the garden Moreau could see every day.”

This is a small museum and can easily be viewed in under an hour. Of course, fans of Moreau could spend much longer. As a national museum, it is included on the Museum Pass. Please be aware that it closes on Tuesday and for lunch.

Gustave Moreau Museum
14, rue de La Rochefoucauld
Paris 75009

Phone 01 48 74 38 50
Metro: Trinite
Open every day from 10:00 to 12:45 pm and from 2:00 PM to 5:15
Closed on Tuesday