I spent yesterday in New York City at VEMEX (Visit Europe Media Exchange), where a throng of travel writers met with dozens of representatives of European travel destinations, tour agencies, railways, river cruises and rental cars.
Representatives were allotted 15 minutes to update each writer on what was new, compelling and noteworthy about their destinations or companies, with writers busily scribbling unreadable notes and — more helpfully — pocketing cleverly packaged thumb drives that they could later plug into their computers with all the salient information.
And there was information aplenty, providing a good indication of what types of visitors and customers they’re seeking and how they hope to attract them.
I can guarantee you that baby boomer travelers — who tend to favor the better hotels and restaurants and spend more money in general than travelers of older or younger generations — are high on most lists.
In coming days I’ll go into more detail — once I can decipher my notes and make use of those thumb drives — but today I want to share a few tidbits that I found particularly interesting and/or amusing to baby boomers and no doubt others as well. Here, in no particular order, are ten things about European travel that I didn’t know before yesterday:
* Zagreb, Croatia, is proud of its three-year-old Museum of Broken Relationships, containing artifacts from various failed love relationships, each with its own back story. One exhibit, an axe, was used to destroy the furniture of an unfaithful girlfriend. Another is a collection of air sickness bags gathered on plane flights during a two-year long-distance relationship. A third is a letter removed from a computer keyboard symbolizing that a relationship that flourished online died when the couple actually met in person. The museum has won an award for the most innovative in Europe.
* The southern Poland town of Wieliczka, near Krakow, houses a subterranean salt mine that contains a huge cathedral — complete with statues, chapels and chandeliers made entirely of salt — fashioned by generations of devout miners. Now that salt is no longer mined there, visitors can descend deep into the caverns to view this incredible — and well-seasoned — work of art.
* Amsterdam, The Netherlands, is cleaning up its infamous red-light district. In an ongoing project, one-third of the provocatively clad prostitutes who used to sit in red-lit windows beckoning male passersby have been removed, with the windows now displaying the creations of trendy young designers. The district is now home to some fashionable boutiques and a Michelin-star restaurant as well, and is considered perfectly safe to walk around.
* Every two years, the historic Grand-Place in the center of Brussels, Belgium, is covered with a carpet of flowers — some 750,000 to one million flowers in all, mostly begonias (of which Belgium is the world’s largest producer). The tradition started in the early 1970s. More than 100 volunteers work feverishly to install the flowers in four hours, though the design and planning begin a year ahead of time. The next carpet will be laid on August 14-17, 2014.
* There are 4,000 types of beer in Bavaria (give or take a few). You will not be able to try them all, though you might wish to.
* Traditionally, in Germany’s Black Forest region, single women wore hats topped with red woolen balls. When they married, they changed the color of the balls to black. You can ponder the significance of this while hiking the region’s beautiful trails or shopping for cuckoo clocks.
* The first decorated Christmas tree in the world appeared in Riga, Latvia, in 1510, a little over 500 years ago. It was covered with paper flowers and dried fruit. Another little-known fact: blue jeans were invented by a Latvian (not named Levi). So if you’re decorating a tree this Christmas, it seems only right to wear blue jeans while hanging your ornaments.
* The Baltic country of Estonia has opened a hiking and biking trail that runs the length of the country, about 234 miles (377 kilometers). But how flat is Estonia? The answer, thankfully, is “quite.”
* Italians often travel to the adjoining peninsula of Istria, in Croatia, to eat seafood, because the waters there are less polluted than in Italy. Istria used to be part of Italy — it was under Venetian control for 600 years — and still remains largely influenced by Italian history, cuisine and culture. (Public television’s Italian cooking star Lidia Bastianich actually comes from Pula, in Istria, rather than current-day Italy.)
* Copenhagen, Denmark, is on the cutting edge of world cuisine, spurred by Noma, center of the New Nordic Cuisine, named best restaurant in the world from 2010-12 by Restaurant magazine, a British publication. Now chefs who trained at Noma are going out on their own and experimenting with new dishes and food sources. “New Nordic Cuisine 2.0” trends include foods harvested from the forest, such as leaves and berries, and fermented foods. But the traditional Danish open-faced sandwich, smørrebrød, is also making a comeback, rejuvenated by new chefs.
So, boomers, there’s plenty to see, explore, eat, drink and ponder while traveling in Europe, much of it off the beaten track. And it’s only a pond away.
Readers, have you seen any of these attractions or heard these stories in your own travels? I’d like to hear about it.
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