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Travel Bests In Europe

Euro Bests

This month, motoring across Europe with our kids, we’re tourists. No sense pretending otherwise. We’re sight-seers…holiday-makers. Like Chevy Chase and his kin, we’re an American family on a European Vacation.

Biggest, oldest, tallest, grandest…you don’t travel far in this part of the world without encountering a superlative version of something. Here are some superlatives we’ve encountered and other favorite sights so far:

  • The oldest continually operating restaurant in Central Europe is St. Peter’s, serving patrons since the year 803. It’s in Salzburg and today hosts dinner concerts where a small troupe performs Mozart while white-gloved waiters serve a three-course meal in an ornately decorated dining room lit entirely by candlelight. Not at all kitschy (as we feared it might be). More here
  • The biggest church clock face in Europe is in the tower of St. Peter’s in Zurich’s old town. It’s 8.7 meters across and dates to 1534…
  • The most fanciful gardens in Europe, outside Salzburg, are at the Hellbrun Palace. Markus Sittikus von Hohenems, Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, who designed these elaborate and playful water gardens purely as an indulgence (because he had the money…and he could), would invite small groups of friends to come and spend a day with him at his “pleasure palace,” as he called it. The prince-archbishop and company would drink wine from early morning ’til late afternoon, chase each other around the grottoes, terraces, and hedgerows from which water would suddenly shoot out from hidden spigots, and then gather for supper around the large outdoor table. When the prince-archbishop had had enough and was ready for his company to go, he’d flip a switch and water would gush up from the center of each guest’s seat. The man’s friends would be soaked, from the bums up, and rush away in a flurry…
  • The best place for a five-star lunch in Porec, in Istria, is the Restaurant Zigante, run by the family recognized as having found the biggest white truffle in recorded history. This region is known worldwide for its annual truffle festival…
  • The Jama Grotta caves, outside Porec, are the only place in the world to see a white salamander…
  • The most interactive (that is, kid-friendly) museum in Venice, Italy, is the Da Vinci Museum, which houses two floors of recreations of Leonardo’s inventions, many of which can be tested and played with…
  • Perhaps the most interesting back story for the art of the Sistine Chapel in Rome has to do with underwear. Cardinal Carafa criticized Michelangelo for depicting so many of the people in his paintings without clothes. Michelangelo wielded considerable sway in Rome at the time and, so, simply ignored his critic. (He also included him in the bottom right-hand corner of his painting “The Last Judgment,” naked and encircled by a snake biting a particular exposed organ.) However, after Michelangelo died, the Council of Trent condemned nudity in religious art, even Michelangelo’s, and Daniele da Volterra was engaged to go behind the master and paint underwear over the delicate areas of many of his figures. For this reason, da Volterra is remembered as “Il Braghettone” (“the breeches-painter”)…
  • The Pont Vecchio is the only bridge in Florence not destroyed in World War II. Today it’s lined on both sides by gold and jewelry sellers, this thanks to the Medici. When they bought the Pitti Palace on the corner, the bridge was occupied by butchers. The Medici family didn’t appreciate having to endure the smells and the mess associated with the slaughter of animals as they passed back and forth across the bridge to and from their palace home, so they evicted the butchers and replaced them with gold merchants, whose descendants today, I can report, are doing a thriving business…
  • The biggest church in the world is St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. It’s watched over by Swiss guards standing ever at attention in their colorful uniforms…
  • The engineers of Pisa figured a way, in 1964, to put their tower right, but the city fathers instructed them instead simply to find a way to keep the structure from falling farther. Pisa wasn’t on any tourist’s map until its tower decided to make a name for itself by leaning over at an angle that seems to defy gravity. Set the tower straight, and the town might slide into obscurity…
  • Each of Florence’s dozens of medieval and renaissance towers was originally a private structure, built by various of the monied (and always-warring) families of this city. Each was a show of wealth, and each new tower was built a bit higher than the tallest that had preceded it. When one family gained control, it would go around town chopping off the tops of the other families’ towers…

Kathleen Peddicord

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