Saturday, January 31, 2009

BELGIUM: Beer, Chocolate and the Battle of the Bulge

by Barbara Barton Sloane

“This may be death by chocolate, but what a way to go!” Jenna, my travel companion, said with a deep and lingering sigh. We were dining at Wittamer, the renowned chocolate establishment in Brussels, Belgium.
Our “lunch” consisted of countless samples of chocolate in every flavor and shape, light, dark and dangerously indulgent – a delicious way to start our tour of Belgium.

On our visit to this country, we explored the vibrant city of Brussels and then we were on to Bastogne, where we visited the Ardennes and the site of the Battle of the Bulge. But before leaving Brussels we dined at some tantalizing cafes and restaurants, visited way too many chocolate shops and sampled some of its 500 (you read it right - 500) different types of beer! Yes, we knew we’d end our trip facing our own, personal battle of the bulge but hey, we were in the land of beer and chocolate and it was all too tempting to resist!

Brussels is conveniently located less than an hour and a half from Paris and just two hours from Amsterdam. Home of the European Union and NATO, Brussels had its beginnings in the 10th century, evolving from a fortress town into a metropolis of more than one million inhabitants today. The city derives its character by the coexistence of French and Flemish culture, and is now home to nationalities around the world which add to its cosmopolitan flavor. It’s further enhanced by picturesque medieval streets, lively squares, cozy cafes and a vibrant cultural life.

After checking into my hotel, the brand-new, sophisticated Dominican, I made a bee-line for everyone’s favorite place known as the Heart of Brussels: La Grand Place. With its sense of 17th century power, this is one of 35 Belgian UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is a centuries-old square surrounded by the famed Guild Houses with their magnificent gables, pilasters, balustrades and ornately covered stonework. Here, also, adding to the happy atmosphere: flower markets, cafes, shops and people. Feeling somewhat jet-lagged from my journey, I spied a sidewalk vendor selling Belgian waffles. Something told me that this sumptuous concoction topped with whipped cream, chocolate and fresh strawberries would make me feel a whole lot better. (It did).

Feeling sufficiently revived from my sugar jolt, I visited the Galeries St. Hubert which is on La Grand Place. In this fabulous glass arcade which opened in 1847, there are luxurious shops and beautiful cafes. I spent a leisurely half hour sipping coffee at Taverne du Passage and indulging in one of my favorite pastimes, people-watching. Before returning to my hotel, I treated myself to Belgian frites, twice fried potatoes that are served in a paper cone. I took mine with a side of mayonnaise. Highly recommended.

You’ve Gotta Have Art
Painting is one of the glories of Belgium and in Brussels you’ll find more than 80 museums to house its splendid works of art. Not to be missed: The Royal Museum containing both ancient and modern art and the Belgian Center for Comic Strip Art, famous for its exhibits of Belgium’s beloved comic strip character, Tintin, and those roguish blue guys, the Smurfs.

I had a chance to tour the not-yet opened Rene Magritte Museum. Stepping gingerly over wires, making sure I didn’t lean on walls not yet attached to ceilings, I was nonetheless impressed with this building which will house art of the most important 20th century Belgian painter. It will boast the largest collection in the world of items related to Magritte. The museum officially opens its doors on 2 June, 2009.

John Coltrane (and I) Thank You
Did you know that this is the land where the saxophone was invented? No wonder jazz is an integral part of daily life here. There is the Brussels Jazz Marathon held in May, the Brussels Summer Festival in August, and outside of Brussels in Namur, the Verdur Rock Festival in June. Audi puts on a jazz festival from September to December in various Belgian cities, and for classical music lovers, there’s the Festival of Wallonia from June to October held in castles, abbeys and churches in the southern region of the country.

An Invitation to Temptation
Food of champions, a lure for lovers, a drink for the gods and an indulgence for the masses. Chocolate. At last count, there were some 2,000 chocolate shops in Belgium and 172,000 tons of this dark, de-lightful and de-lovely stuff are produced each year. All of the great chocolatiers are here – Marcolini, Leonidas, Neuhaus and the aforementioned Wittamer’s and if you want some sweet, in-depth browsing, check out the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate.

Beauty Lies in the Hands of the Beer Holder
Three cheers for Belgian beers, some 500 of them appreciated by ale enthusiasts in much the same way as fine wines. The variety of beer flavors is endless. Anyone in the mood for raspberry, chocolate, cherry, white or brown beer? You can find it here. The Belgian Beer Weekend held on La Grand Place takes place in early September and there is the Beer Festival of Bouillion in April.

If you want to forgo beer and try a cool, crisp Chardonnay, you’re in luck. Brussels is a city of pubs, the oldest being L’Imaige Nostre-Dame which beckons your way by gaslight. Its tiny interior is all warm, golden glow, stained glass windows, the dark wood of its tables and chairs polished smooth by centuries of use. At Au Bon Vieux Temps, it is, just like the name says, the good old days. Their motto is: “Curiosity from the 17th century,” and here you can try one of their several curious and very drinkable aperitifs.

We left Brussels to spend some time in Namur, an hour drive from Brussels and the capital of Wallonia. The city is quaint, cradled by the Meuse and Sambre Rivers, its architectural heritage dominated by a 1,000 year old citadel. My colleagues and I shared a memorable lunch at Les Tanneurs de Namur which is both a hotel and restaurant. As we walked to the restaurant down a narrow alleyway, passing superb 17th century restored buildings, anticipation built until we were standing right in front of the hotel’s old stone walls, brick ceilings and stone archways. This building is a favorite among residents and tourists alike. While we were lunching, we saw two separate wedding parties that had come to be photographed amid its ancient splendor.

A Solemn Visit
After lunch, we were off to Bastogne, a few hours drive and close to the Luxembourg border. This is the site where thousands of soldiers died during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-45. By the time fighting stopped, the city was completely destroyed and more than 25,000 people had been killed. The town is filled with stark reminders of WWII, including the American Memorial, the Ardennes American Cemetery and the Bastogne Historical Center.

We toured the Historical Center, one of the world’s finest war museums, with our guide, Henri Mignon, a man well versed in this area’s past, living here and following its history since he was a child. We were shown a 30- minute movie which told the story of the Battle of the Bulge with some remarkable footage. There are 120 mannequins of American, English, and German soldiers with their equipment and armaments, as well as uniforms donated by veterans of this most famous battle. There is also an important collection of light and heavy arms, photographic documents, personal objects and equipment found on the battlefield. Looking at the worn and sometimes bullet-holed clothing and other intimate artifacts of the soldiers was incredibly moving, and we filed out of the museum silent and alone in our thoughts. Before leaving Bastogne, we spent some time at the American Memorial, an ultra-modern, star-shaped building set atop a hill and affording a sweeping view of Bastogne, the Ardennes forests and the battlefield, now quiet and meadow-like.

Back in Brussels, the next morning dawned balmy and soft. I parked myself on a bench under a grand, sprawling chestnut tree in a small park near my hotel, the elegant Royal Windsor, and for a moment enjoyed the quiet peacefulness of this sometimes chaotic, multi-cultural city. But, soon enough, the pulse and tempo of swinging Brussels beckoned and I was off to another adventure in this metropolis that I found irresistible.

Belgians invite visitors to come and experience their country through the eyes of natives. They promise that your experience will not be that of a tourist. So don’t waffle about visiting - - Belgium is ready and waiting to make you its guest.

If You Go:
The Dominican, rue Leopoldstraat 9
Tel: +32 (0)2 203 08 08,

Royal Windsor Hotel, rue Duquesnoy 5
Tel: +32 (0)2 505 55 55,
L’Estaminet du Kelderke, Grand Place 15 Jaloa, Place Sainte-Catherine 5
Tel: +32 2 513 7344, Tel: 02 513 19 92,

L’Ecailler du Palais Royal, rue Bodenbroek 18
Tel: 02 512 87 51,

Namur Bastogne
Hotel Hotel
Chateau de Namur Hotel Collin, Place MacAuliffe 8-9
Tel: +32 16 40 30 40 Tel: 061 21 43 58,

Restaurants Restaurant
Les Tanneurs de Namur Wagon Leo, 4-6 rue du Vivier
13B rue des Tanneries Tel: +32 61 21 14 41
Tel: +32 (0) 81 24 00 25,

Le Darville,, rue D’arville 94 Guide: Henri Mignon
Tel: +32 81 46 23 65, E:

Bastogne Historical Center

Misc. Brussels
Musee Magritte, rue du Musee 9 The Royal Museum, 62 rue Vautier
Tel: 02 508 34 09 Tel: +32 2 648 17 18

Comic Strip Museum, rue des Sables 20
Tel: +32 (0)2 219 19 80

A L’Image Nostre-Dame Au Bon Vieux Temps
Rue Marche-aux-Herbes 8 Impasse Saint Nicolas 4
Tel: 02 219 42 49 Tel: 02 217 226 26

Belgian Tourist Office

Great Travel Guide to Discover Belgium
Jackie Grandchamps, Tour Director
French Escapade, Tel: In USA: 510 483 5713,

Thursday, January 22, 2009


By Barbara Barton Sloane

Welcome to one of the world’s most creative and exciting urban scenes. You are within walking distance to eight centuries of unique cultural experience and you are surrounded by 24,000 islands and islets. Where in the world are you? You’re in Stockholm, Sweden of course, one of today’s most popular tourist destinations.

The kingdom of Sweden is in Northern Europe, located on the Scandinavian peninsula between Finland and Norway, and the Oresund Fixed Links connect Sweden with Denmark. My recent visit to Stockholm, Sweden’s capital, built on 14 islands, treated me to a unique blend of old charm, modernity, creativity and vitality. From Gamla Stan - Old Town - northern Europe’s largest and best-preserved medieval city dating to the 13th century - to it’s throbbing modern metropolis, with its famed design centers, vibrant shopping districts and modern architecture, Stockholm offers the visitor the best of both worlds.

King or Queen for a Day
Old Town has held onto its medieval-city character with narrow lanes, cobbled streets and old market squares. I sat in one of the quaint cafes and was captivated by its ancient charm. Deciding it would be fun to start my visit here in a most regal fashion, I made my way to the Royal Palace. With 608 rooms, this is one of Europe’s largest palaces and is used today as offices for the King and Queen.

Walking through the Royal Palace’s majestic halls, I distinctly felt the presence of royalty, a sensation both grand and solemn. This regal presence led me into a room where I saw the very costume that Gustav III wore the night he was murdered, and the horse (now stuffed, of course) that Gustav II rode into the Battle at Lutzen. Leaving that rather melancholy room, I entered the Treasury which displayed some of the past monarchy’s most important symbols still worn at Royal weddings, baptisms and funerals.

The Changing of the Guard
I was told this was an event not to be missed, and I’m glad I didn’t. This ceremony takes place every day at noon and is replete with pomp and circumstance, color and grandeur. I was lucky to find a guide who escorted me through the Hovstallet, not far from the Palace, where I got an up close and personal look at the King’s horses, magnificent coaches and handsome uniforms.

Swede Dreams
To carry a Royal visit to its logical conclusion, be aware that a number of palaces near Stockholm offer overnight accommodations. You can spend a night at both Sodertuna Slott and Sundbyholms Slott, each beautifully situated near the water. Sodertuna Slott was constructed in the 18th Century, and is located 43 miles south of Stockholm while Sundbyholms Slott is west of Stockholm and can be reached by car in about an hour and a half. Both palaces retain much of their former glory but have been brought into the 21st century with the addition of modern conveniences.

Next, I visited City Hall, widely considered to be one of the most beautiful city halls in the world. Here I found a living symbol of this city, a building buzzing with activities, people and life. The famous Blue Hall and Golden Hall, where the Nobel Prize Gala and Banquet are held each December, was a highlight of my tour. Knowing that I’d never experience this banquet first-hand, I went for the next best thing: dinner at Stadshuskallaren, a restaurant in the basement of City Hall, where I had the chance to sample food enjoyed by Nobel Prize winners. The chefs here are the very ones that prepare the banquet and I couldn’t resist asking for “whatever the prize winners have.” Out came a mountain grouse breast baked in black trumpet mushrooms with caramelized apples served with Calvados sauce and potato cake and for dessert, a fig and cherry compote. Dining on a sumptuous meal in such elegant surroundings, I felt that the prize winners had nothing on me – well, at least not in the food department!

While wandering around the alleys of Old Town, I stumbled upon Stockholm’s central cathedral, I Trangsund. My lucky day. A classical music concert was just beginning. Dusk filtered in through leaded glass
windows and shimmered off the golden angels on the high brick ceiling. Perfect. Before returning to my cozy room at the Hotel Stureplan, I was attracted to a patio bar, the Babylon, where I was surrounded by chattering clusters of fashion plates and artist types. Wrapping myself in one of the restaurant’s green fleece blankets to ward off the evening’s chill, I gobbled down a late bite of potatoes and roding, a local fish. From my barstool, I watched skateborders dip and sail around in an adjacent park, and I reveled in a priceless travel high: the giddy feeling of having discovered the coolest place in town!

Animal Island
The next day I visited Royal Djurgarden, known as Animal Island because it was once the Royal hunting ground. On this island is Skansen, an open-air museum and one of the most visited places in the city, containing more than 150 historic buildings that have been dismantled and reassembled here. The area houses more than 70 varieties of animals, and I enjoyed watching 3 bear cubs, (cute!), a Scandinavian moose (big!), and reindeer (way smaller than Rudolf!)

Nearby is the famed Vasa Museum featuring the warship Vasa which sank in Stockholm fifteen minutes after it was launched on her maiden voyage in 1628. After 333 years under water, she was raised in 1961 and is now, after meticulous reconstruction, housed in its own museum.

A great way to view this beautiful city is by boat. There’s an “Under the Bridges of Stockholm” tour, a “Royal Canal” tour, an “Historical Canal” tour, and many, many more. I took the Royal Canal tour and must tell you that, as I gently glided through the water, I felt slightly regal and royal myself. A classic – and classy – way to see Stockholm.

No visit to Stockholm is complete without shopping! I checked out the Sturegallerian, an elegant mall with fabulous Swedish and international stores and the city’s most exclusive gym and spa, Sturebadet. I didn’t take advantage of the gym but made sure I got in some reviving retail therapy and left with a fabulous pair of Acne Jeans!

Before catching my direct flight home on SAS – Scandinavia’s own airline - I headed over to the Pontus! Restaurant for a special last dinner in Stockholm. Named for its renowned chef, Pontus Frithiof, the place is colorfully decorated with murals over different levels of the restaurant. My table directly faced the Library Mural, a gorgeous faux rendering of books
stacked on shelves up to the ceiling, making this vast restaurant seem cozy and warm.

The beauty of this city, built on many islands, with bridges, squares and glorious Beaux Arts buildings all perfectly integrated, has no rival. It’s a very welcoming, walkable city where surprising and delightful experiences await you at every turn. Stockholm – a truly capital city!

Swede Things
Hotel Stureplan Babylon
Berjer Jarlsgatan 24, 4 Bjorns Tradgardsgrand,
Tel: 46 8 440 6600 Tel: 46 8 1640 8083

Sturegallerian Vasa Museum
Grevtureg 13A, Galervarvsvagen 14
Tel: 46 8 453 50 00 Tel: 46 8 442 80 00

“Let Stockholm Flow” Boat Tour Pontus! Restaurant Brunnsgatan 1
Tel: 08 1200 40 00 Tel: 46 8 545 27300

SAS Airlines Royal Court

Royal Djurgarden Royal Palace
Djurgardsslatten 49-51 Slottsbacken 1
Tel: 46 8 442 80 00 Tel: 46 8 402 6130

City Hall Visit Sweden
Hantverkargatan 1
Tel: 46 8 508 290 00


by Barbara Barton Sloane

With New York City’s countless offerings, it would take more time than most visitors have to see all this city has to offer. From attractions such as the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, New York is brimming with sights to see. The question is, where to start?

Why not start at the top – that is to say, at three heavenly-inspired sites:
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine and Temple Emanu-El. Each of these iconic houses of worship is architecturally grand, awe-inspiring, and steeped in history. So, come all ye faithful – or anyone seeking a deep and moving experience. Here are The Big Three religious places of worship in New York City. On your next visit to The Big Apple, you may just want to check them out for yourself.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral (Fifth Avenue @ 50th St.) is the seat of the Catholic Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Egan. It was begun in l858 by Archbishop John Hughes and, after a suspension of work during the years of the Civil War, John Cardinal McCloskey, the first American Cardinal, resumed work in 1865, opening the doors in May of 1879. Throughout the years, extensive additions, installations and renovations have been made, and the present Cardinal Egan has continued to enhance the beauty of the cathedral, repairing the interior and exterior of the church.

This famed Cathedral has been host to the visits of many popes, including John Paul II. Royalty, heads of state and other prominent figures, as well, have made a visit to St. Patrick’s.

The Cathedral’s statistics are amazing to ponder. Its spires rise 330 feet from street level and its beautiful bronze doors on the West Front weigh 20,000 pounds. Seating 2,400 people, there are 18 alters and 19 bells made in Savoy, France, installed in 1897. In the crypt, the archbishops of New York are buried under the high alter, and the hats of the first four cardinals hang from the ceiling over their tombs. Visiting this site, one is moved by the Stations of the Cross, works of art that won first prize at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and if one is lucky enough to be there at just the right time, the great organ with over 7,000 pipes will pierce the solitude and will enthrall one and all.

The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, (1047 Amsterdam Ave. @ 112th St.), the mother church of the Episcopal Diocese of New York and the Seat of its Bishop, is chartered as a house of prayer for all people and a unifying center of intellectual light and leadership. This cathedral is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. It is larger than Chartres and Notre Dame combined, and the Statue of Liberty could fit beneath its central crossing. This magnificent house of worship is a monument to the diversity and energy of New York City. Its Gothic nave and Romanesque choir are among the finest examples of the style in America. Eight gigantic granite columns, each weighing 130 tons, are the crowning glory of the sanctuary. More than 150 stained glass windows depict not only religious scenes but also the inauguration of George Washington, St. George and the Dragon, and Michelangelo’s carving of the David. The Rose Window in the West Fa├žade contains more than 10,000 pieces of glass.

The Cathedral, like its medieval predecessors, serves as a center of inspiration, education and outreach for the people of New York City. On the same day, politicians and public figures will preach from the pulpit, expert tour guides lead visitors up winding stairs and through vaults, textile conservators restore historical tapestries, and major artists rehearse their evening performances. With its 11 acres of gardens and grounds, the Cathedral is a green oasis with peacocks, cherry trees and a recently restored Biblical Garden. St. John the Divine is a living cathedral, bringing harmony out of the incredible diversity of New York City.

Temple Emanu-El (1 E. 65th St.), stands along New York’s storied Fifth Avenue as an architectural, cultural and religious landmark. The building’s expansive dimensions and superb craftsmanship combine to create an imposing edifice that reinterprets the great historical synagogues of earlier eras. Eclectic architectural features of Romanesque, Byzantine, Moorish, Gothic, Nouveau and Deco styles are blended artistically through the use of vibrant colors. Captivating mosaics, warm stone and tiles, and dazzling stained glass are all designed to create the inspirational ambience of this sacred space.

Begun in 1927 and completed two years later, the new Temple building was the crowning achievement of the descendants of German-Jewish immigrants. During the ensuing decades, this small community of worshipers transformed itself into a great Reform Jewish congregation, confident of itself and in the promise of this city and nation.

The Temple’s multihued ceiling, originally constructed over a layer of plaster applied over structured steel, has since been painted and gilded. The Sanctuary ceiling is now, after restoration, truly breathtaking. The distinctive glass and marble mosaic arch that frames the Sanctuary, using a mixture of gold and vibrant colors, was inspired by the palette of Gustav Klimt. Temple Emanu-El’s organ, with its thousands of pipes ranging from more than three stories in length to the size of a pencil, fills the vast chambers behind the Sanctuary. The Temple and Chapel contain 62 stained- glass windows, and their design is rooted in ancient Jewish artistic traditions, tribal symbols and biblical images.

Today, more than seventy-five years after its doors first opened to welcome worshipers, Temple Emanu-El continues to occupy a very special place physically in the heart of New York City and emotionally and spiritually in the hearts of its members.