Travel With Marilyn

Valparaíso: Chile‚Äôs Oceanside Gem

Marilyn Jones 

The city is a kaleidoscope of color; brightly painted houses clinging to the hillsides like the sides of a trowel with the city’s busy port at its tip. Valparaíso is Chile’s second largest metropolitan area after Santiago and one of the South Pacific’s most important seaports.

Upscape tour guide Manuel Garcia wants me to have this view before we start to explore neighborhoods and the historic quarter designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. As I take in the breathtaking view, Manuel explains that during the second half of the 19th century, the city served as a major stopover for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by crossing the Straits of Magellan. European immigrants arrived with the hope of work on the docks. The city became known as “Little San Francisco” and “The Jewel of the Pacific” by international sailors.

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“The second half of the 20th century wasn’t as kind to the city,” he explains. “Wealthy families abandoned the city when the Panama Canal opened and ship traffic and port-based businesses suffered.”

Fortunately, the new century has been kinder to the port city. Today, in addition to the port and the artists and cultural entrepreneurs who set up businesses in the city, tourists have discovered the city’s many charms. The city’s labyrinth of cobbled streets, colorful buildings, and the UNESCO designation have all worked as a successful formula for attracting guests to the city. Because it’s catering more to tourism, cruise ships are adding Valparaíso to their South American itineraries as well.

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The port continues to be a major distribution center for container traffic, copper, and fruit exports. Home to Chile's naval headquarters and the National Congress, Valparaíso also transformed itself into a major educational center with four large universities and several large vocational colleges.

After his excellent description of the city, we head for the historic heart of the city.

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We walk through Plaza Sotomayor, past grand public buildings, Iglesia La Matriz del Salvador church (originally built in 1559), Latin America’s oldest stock exchange, and monuments to the city and Chilean heroes.  

From the center of the city we take one of the funiculars — known as "ascensores" throughout Valparaíso — for a closer overview of the port and beautiful neighborhoods with Victorian houses and narrow, winding alleyways lined with restaurants and shops. Some of the ascensores where built as early as 1883.

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It's also possible to visit one of Pabla Neruda’s three houses (his other two houses are in Santiago and Isla Negra). Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1971.

After several hours of touring this interesting and colorful city, we enjoy a late lunch with views of the city.

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When our tour ends, I thank Manuel for his excellent knowledge of the city. After only a few hours of exploring, I have a new appreciation for Valparaíso with its noteworthy history and extraordinary beauty.

Melk Abbey is an Austrian Masterpiece

Marilyn Jones 

It is a rainy windswept day when I visit Melk Abbey, an AmaWaterways river cruise excursion in Austria. We meet our very young guide (who looks more like a teenager than the scholar tour guide she is) in a grand inner courtyard before entering the abbey proper.

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It was Abbot Berthold Dietmayr and his architects Jakob Prandtauer and Joseph Munggenast who were the driving force behind building Melk Abbey in the early 18th century on the foundations of a medieval monastery. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the biggest and most beautiful Baroque enclaves in Europe. Built on a cliff overlooking the Danube, it is Austria’s most visited art-historical site.

Our guide explains as we enter a museum-like area that the motto of the Benedictine order is “pray, work, learn.” This motto is illustrated in room after room in an effective modern-art way. She tells us this is still an active abbey with 31 monks and that its primary income is from tourist visitation.  

Since 1089, Benedictine monks have continually lived and worked in Melk Abbey. Today, the abbey also houses a secondary school.

About halfway through the tour we exit out onto a large terrace where we have a grand view of the city of Melk and the Danube River before entering the abbey’s famous library.

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The main library houses 16,000 volumes and is graced with a ceiling fresco by Paul Troger. A spiral staircase leads to another set of 12 library rooms containing more than 100,000 volumes, some of which are very valuable. Italian writer Umberto Eco drew inspiration from this site for his novel “The Name of the Rose” in which a monastic library plays a key role.

The most important space in the abbey is next on the tour — the church. When constructed, Baroque masters were commissioned including Antonio Beduzzi for interior design, Johann Michael Rottmayr and Paul Troger for the frescos and altarpieces, Guiseppe Galli-Bibiena for the pulpit and high altar, and Lorenzo Mattielli and Peter Widerin for sculptures.

Even if photos were allowed of the abbey’s interior, they couldn’t illustrate properly the wealth of history and art housed in the library and church.

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After touring the abbey, I take the time to meander through the gardens before returning to the bus that would take me back to the AmaStella. AmaWaterways’ excursions focus on culture, tradition, history, and beauty; just what a journey to Europe should be about.

Sansepolcro, Italy: Home to Renaissance Art Treasure

Marilyn Jones 

On my way to Palazzo Donati in Mercatello sul Metauro, I stop at Sansepolcro. Located in southeastern Tuscany, I am immediately pleased with its Renaissance feel and welcoming locals.

Starting at the visitors’ center, I collect a few pamphlets and talk to the friendly staff before walking the short distance to the Civic Museum of Sansepolcro. It is housed in Palazzo della Residenza, which was constructed in the 13th and 14th centuries.  

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Although it’s a small museum, I find what some claim to be the best paintings in the world. Displayed through 10 halls, it is exceptional.

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"The Resurrection," a fresco by Piero della Francesca, that writer Aldous Huxley named the world's greatest painting in 1925, is here and currently being restored. I watch as an expert conducts the painstaking work.

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“Madonna Della Misericordia” is another of Piero della Francesca’s beautiful paintings featured in the museum along with masterpieces by Matteo di Giovanni, Raffaellino del Colle, Santi di Tito, and other notable artists.

After exploring the museum, I head for the palazzo where Piero della Francesca lived as a boy and later in life. Recognized as one of the most important painters of the Renaissance, he came from a prosperous merchant family.

Trained in mathematics, Piero's interest in the abstract study of perspective and his contemplative approach to his paintings are apparent in all his work. This perspective had little influence on his contemporaries but came to be recognized in the 20th century as a major contribution to the Italian Renaissance. 

My next stop is the Cathedral of Sansepolcro.

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Today, the cathedral looks much like it did in the 14th century, with three naves supported by Romanesque columns showing Gothic influence. The cathedral retains many beautiful works of art including “Il Volto Santo,” an unusual carved wooden crucifix made from a single walnut log between the 8th and 9th centuries.

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I end my short stay by having lunch at a café in the town square before continuing on into Le Marche and new adventures. I can certainly recommend Sansepolcro as a lovely place to spend the morning or for a much longer stay. There are several other historic attractions to explore there and a whole community to enjoy.

Rural Minnesota Community Offers a Wealth of Cultural and Recreational Opportunities

Marilyn Jones 

In a 1916 foursquare prairie house and two outbuildings, Stephen, Minnesota, showcases its past.

“The collection doesn’t reflect a certain time, but rather the town’s history,” says Jane Smidt, president of Old Home Town Museum’s Board of Directors.

The farming community, located 40 miles south of Canada and 10 miles east of North Dakota, was established in 1883. I am impressed with the museum complex. I am also impressed that this community of just 650 would have a museum — and an airport, 9-hole golf course, curling club, public swimming pool, campground, and arts center — but it does.

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Showing me around the house we first pass through the kitchen where beautiful depression glass, antique kitchen tools, and a vintage flour and sugar canister are displayed. Our tour continues in the dining room with its elaborately set table and up the staircase to the second floor.

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Smidt shows me the bedrooms, now filled with linens, quilts, and clothing. “This collection is the culmination of years of donations,” she explains as I admire a beautiful dress displayed on a mannequin. “Many were made by residents and their ancestors.”

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“I’m new to Stephen and to the museum but my husband grew up here,” the Ohio native says as we leave the house and head to the first outbuilding filled with varying collections of archives, photographs and antiques.

Smidt’s newly retired husband bought his parents’ home after they passed away. “I am really enjoying this community and its welcoming citizens,” Smidt says.

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In the second outbuilding, early 20th century working steam and gas farm equipment and a stage coach are housed. “I have a lot of ideas,” she says as I ready to leave. “It’s exciting to me.”

Just up the street I meet former mayor Betty Pikop, who shows me around the Community Arts Center located in the former First Presbyterian Church that was built in 1916.

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“It’s amazing really,” says Pikop as she unlocks the front door of the beautifully restored church. “We have so much to offer our citizens as well as the visitors we get from Canada who stay each summer at the campground.”

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Pikop shows me around the center that the arts council purchased in 2003. “We kept as much of the architecture intact,” she says pointing to the ornate stained glass windows. “We added state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems and air conditioning, cushions to the pews, and reinforced the stage.”

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I follow her down to the basement, where Sunday school rooms are now used as costume rooms and a dressing area. “The center is used for concerts, plays and musicals, art exhibits, and various classes and workshops,” she says. “Other community events and receptions are also held here.”

Just up the street is the beautifully manicured golf course, the curling club, and campground. After taking in these sites, I drive along residential streets admiring the well-kept houses with manicured lawns; flowers seem to be in bloom everywhere.

If you ever find yourself in northeastern North Dakota speeding along Interstate-29, take a little detour into Minnesota, and maybe have a cup of coffee and a piece of homemade pie at Pennie’s Café. Stephen is worth the trip.

For more information: http://www.stephenmn.com.

The benefits of a Eurail Pass

Marilyn Jones 

I appreciate the convenience of traveling by train throughout Europe on many levels. Generally speaking, it is a very reliable. Almost down to the second, the train you’re waiting for arrives. If it’s going to be delayed, this is communicated on a platform sign, most of the time in English (along with the local language).

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I also don’t have to worry about renting a car. Understanding local laws and navigating traffic and roads in an area I have never been to before are stressful. I would much rather sit back and watch the scenery go by.

It’s a great way to see the sites. You always arrive in the city center where shops, restaurants, and hotels are close by.

What is a Eurail Pass?

Anyone in the world can buy a Eurail Pass (if they don’t live in Europe) before they leave on their trip. The pass was introduced in 1959 and has provided millions of travelers this convenient service.

On a recent trip to Italy, for example, I ordered a Eurail Italy Pass. I was able to travel from Florence to Chiusi-Chianciano Terme close to Adler THERMAE Spa & Resort. After three days at the resort, I traveled to Venice and two days later back to Florence.

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By using the pass I knew up front the exact cost and, with the exception of getting the pass activated before using it the first time, I didn’t have to stand in line unless I had a question about train arrival times.

Logistics

Before the conductor comes around, write the date and where you are traveling to on the ticket and its accompanying folder. If you don’t, you are subject to a 50 euro fine.

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Tickets are sold in increments of how many days and how much time. For example, you could get a “three days within one month” Italy Eurail Pass for 159 euros. You can hop on and off wherever you like during each of these three days. Other Italy Eurail Passes available are “four days within one month,” “five days within one month,” and “eight days within one month.”

Expanding your travels? Passes are also sold for the number of countries you are visiting along with number of days and time span. With a Eurail Pass you have access to the rail networks and some ferries in 28 European countries, depending on pass specifications.

Before you leave home, check on train times so all you have to do is show up and get on the train. Conductors are used to Eurail passes and other than documenting the date and journey, there’s nothing to do except enjoy the journey.

The fine print

  • You need to activate your Eurail Pass within 11 months of the issue date. You can do this at a European train station, or online using a free activation service at checkout.
  • Most high-speed and night trains require a reservation at an additional cost.
  • A first-class Adult Pass is valid in both first and second-class coaches.
  • All standard Eurail Passes are refundable or exchangeable if they are returned unused.
  • Promotional Eurail Passes are nonrefundable and nonexchangeable.
  • Adult, youth (up to 27-years-old), and children passes are available, and discounts are offered for groups of two to five travelers and families with children ages 4 to 11. Children under 4 years old travel free.

 Get on the email list so that you’ll know when specials are being offered. Eurail is a convenient, easy way to travel through Europe and makes for one less thing to worry about.

Disclosure: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided a Eurail Pass. but the excellent experience and recommendations are all her own.

Burano Island is a Venetian Treasure

Marilyn Jones 

Burano, with its brightly colored houses and businesses, is part of Venice but much removed from the crowds of St. Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal. It only takes a short water taxi ride across the Venetian Lagoon to get to this magical island with its gift shops, restaurants, and narrow canals.

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Historians believe the island was probably settled by the Romans in the sixth century. Most agree the houses were painted brilliant colors so fishermen could see their homes when they were far out to sea or to find them when they’d had a little too much to drink.

From the Burano dock I wander past several open-air booths selling traditional souvenirs. Along a narrow alleyway I come to a shop specializing in lacework. Burano is famous for its needle lace and a woman sits in the center of the shop surrounded by elegant lace tablecloths, lace-trimmed linens, and other finery. She meticulously creates another piece of lace artwork. Handmade lace is labor intensive and very expensive. La Perla Gallery is a good place to purchase Burano lace.

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It was in the 16th century that women began making lace. The lace was exported across Europe. Although the trade began to decline in the 18th century, in 1872 a school of lace making was opened. Lace making on the island boomed once again.

After watching the lacemaker for several minutes and admiring her talent, I head out along the canals and into neighborhoods to photograph the pink, red, blue, plum, yellow, peach, and golden houses; many trimmed in contrasting colors with flower boxes filled to overflowing.

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I wander along other boardwalks next to canals and stop for gelato before heading back to the dock to take the water taxi back to Venice and my hotel.

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Many Venice visitors make their way to Murano to see the famous glass being made, but try to also make time for Burano, a treasure of color and lace.

If you go:

Plan to spend at least half a day on Burano.

If you are traveling from throughout Italy or Europe, check out the Eurail passes. They provide a convenient and economical way to travel from city to city, including Venice.

 

Relax, Renew, and Have Fun at an Italian Wellness Resort

Marilyn Jones
“We want you to relax,” says the desk clerk as I check into ADLER Thermae Wellness & Spa Resort. Located at Bagno Vignoni in the heart of Tuscany, the resort is known as a place of luxury combined with slowing down, pampering, and leisure.

Like everyone else in this fast-paced world, I am looking for all three and I believe at this this 5-star hotel, one of Italy’s leading wellness destinations, I’ll find everything I need for a fantastic stay.

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My room is understated and spacious with a fantastic view of the Tuscan landscape. A white terry bathrobe and flip flops are provided and become my official clothing for most of my visit, along with every other guest.

The Grounds

The 122 degree Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius) thermal springs pool and a second pool heated slightly by the thermal waters takes center stage in front of the palazzo-style hotel. Surrounding the pools are gardens of maze-like flowering shrubs and flower beds blooming in a rainbow of colors this spring day.

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On the opposite side of the resort and beyond the spa are a relaxation zone and several saunas, including a modern wood-clad Finnish sauna and a biosauna that helps open up the respiratory tract, promote relaxation, release muscle tension, and cleanse the body.

Cave of the Philosopher is a beautiful and magical place where a high level of humidity and jets of brine based on an ionized salt solution detoxify the body and cleanse the skin.

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I quickly learn the hotel is about traditional and modern health science wrapped in a natural and relaxed atmosphere.

Fitness

A multipurpose sports ground offers a place for basketball, volleyball, and football. Yoga, stretching, palates, and several water activities such as hydro-biking and Aqua Gym are offered

The fitness center with its staff trainers help guests gets the most from their workouts. Participation in group activities is free and includes the guidance of professional supervision.

The resort also offers hiking, biking, e-bike, and e-car outings as well as van excursions to other locations in Tuscany.

Bagno Vignoni

Near the resort is Bagno Vignoni, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The tiny village dates to ancient times. The central area of the community, with less than 50 inhabitants, is a large 16th century thermal bath. Because the village is located on the Via Francigena (once serving as the main route followed by pilgrims who went to Rome), the thermal waters were discovered and have been in use since Roman times.

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The waters, from the same source as the thermal waters at the resort, originate from a subterranean aquifer of volcanic origins. The Etruscans and later the aristocratic Romans recognized the curative effects of the waters.

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Archaeological finds prove the village was a destination visited by important individuals of the time including Pope Pius II, Saint Catherine of Siena, and Lorenzo the Magnificent. Most of the village remains essentially unchanged since the Renaissance.

If you go:

I relaxed, enjoyed the excellent meals offered at the resort, took advantage of the excursions, and am very impressed with services and amenities the resort offers as well as the setting.

The resort also welcomes children aged 4 and above. The AKI Kids' Club offers a full daily program of games, sports, wellness and action, making ADLER Thermae a great family destination as well.

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To get to the resort I took the train using my Eurail Pass from Florence to Chiusi-Chianciano Terme train station. The resort is about 40 minutes from the train station. ADLER Thermae arranged for my transportation from the train station to the resort.