10 Ways To Search For A Hero
Where are the destinations that inspired the great artists, entertainers and explorers? Harriet O'Brien picks the best and tells you why to visit this year
Sunday 09 July 2006
1. The Brownings in Florence
Why go now? This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. On 6 March, the date of her birth, the Commune of Florence paid tribute to the English poet by laying wreaths on her tomb in the city's English Cemetery at Piazzale Donatello. It was in Florence that she wrote what are considered to be among her finest poems, "Casa Guidi Windows" (1851), and "Aurora Leigh" (1856).
What's special? Elizabeth and Robert Browning were based in Florence between 1847 and 1861 when Elizabeth died there. They rented a first-floor apartment in the Palazzo Guidi on Piazza San Felice opposite the Pitti Palace, naming it Casa Guidi. This is now owned by Eton College which uses the property as a study centre for a few weeks of the year. It is otherwise run by the Landmark Trust and is open to the public from April to November (3-6pm on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, admission free but donations welcome).
How do I get there? Casa Guidi, sleeping six, can also be rented as a holiday apartment (01628 825925; landmarktrust.org), from £235 per night, with a minimum stay of three nights. Return flights to Florence start from around £100 return with Meridiana (00 39 0789 52682; meridiana.it). Or fly to Pisa with Ryanair (0871-246 0000; ryanair.com) or British Airways (0870-850 9 850; ba.com) and take the scenic 40-minute train ride to Florence.
2. Aix en Provence, Cézanne's muse
Why go now? The artist Paul Cézanne was born in Aix en Provence in January 1839 and died there 100 years ago - on 15 October 1906. Celebrations for the centenary of the town's favourite son include the major exhibition Cézanne en Provence at the Musée Granet (until 17 September, Place Saint-Jean-de-Malte; open daily 9am-7pm, and until 11pm Thursday; admission €10/ £7.10; cezanne-2006.com). A Cézanne trail has also been laid out around the tangle of medieval streets and the neat grid of the 17th-century Quartier Mazarin.
What's special? As well as seeing works by Cézanne exhibited in Aix this year, you can see how much the area informed his paintings. Its main street, Cours Mirabeau, is one of Europe's loveliest, its cathedral baptistery dates from the 4th century, and its outdoor market, Place des Prêcheurs, is a kaleidoscope of colour and action.
How do I get there? French Travel Service (0870-241 4243, frenchtravel service.co.uk) arranges short breaks by train. A three-night trip travelling on Eurostar to Lille and from there by TGV to Aix, costs from £369 per person (based on two sharing) including b&b.
3. Conquerors of the Arctic
Why go now? The Northwest Passage through the Arctic was conquered 100 years ago - the fabled route had confounded explorers for centuries. The Norwegian Roald Amundsen was the first to successfully navigate this shortcut between Europe and Asia, via the icy extremes of Canada. Setting off from Oslo in the summer of 1903, he arrived in Nome, Alaska, in August 1906.
What's special? Quite apart from its historic significance, the voyage offers stirring sights, from vast expanses of sea ice to huge icebergs and remote beaches. There is also a good possibility of seeing polar bears and beluga whales among the wildlife.
How do I get there? Wildlife Worldwide (0845-130 6982; wildlifeworld.com) has a 16-night Northwest Passage trip departing on 16 July. If you've missed the boat you could join next year's expedition. The price from £7,995 per person, based on two sharing, includes flights from London to Alaska, transfers to the Finnish-built expedition vessel Kapitan Khlebnikov, accommodation and meals on board, excursions, and return flights from London to Resolute via Ottawa.
4. The Galapagos Darwin knew
Why go now? One of the most important voyages of scientific history was completed 170 years ago. On 2 October 1836, Charles Darwin docked at Falmouth, ending his five-year survey aboard HMS Beagle. His most significant port of call had been the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, where his observations and discoveries of new species became the bedrock for the theory of evolution through natural selection.
What's special? The 13 islands and numerous islets are famously home to giant tortoises, land iguanas, lava lizards and amazing bird colonies of flightless cormorants and blue-footed boobys. Meanwhile sealions, dolphins and turtles live in the surrounding waters. The best (in fact, probably the only) way to get a good view of these creatures is to visit in a small group.
How do I get there? Last Frontiers (01296 653000; lastfrontiers.com) offers a seven-night cruise around the Galapagos Islands on a luxury yacht - all 12 cabins have air-conditioning and ensuite bathrooms. The cost, from £2,175 per person, based on two sharing, includes flights from London to Quito, one night in a hotel before flying on to the Galapagos Islands, full-board accommodation on the cruise, all excursions and the services of a bilingual guide.
5. Constantine's powerhouse
Why go now? The Byzantine emperor Constantine X was born 1,000 years ago. In 1057 he became the ruler of a vast territory that took in Asia Minor, the Balkans and much of Italy. At its political centre was Constantinople which had been the Byzantine capital since 330. The city's wealth and splendour were famed throughout 11th- century Europe.
What's special? Renamed Istanbul in 1930, this city at the junction of East and West continues to dazzle. With its ancient mosques, Ottoman architecture, bazaars and café society, modern Istanbul is easily Europe's most exotic urban centre.
How do I get there? Hidden Turkey (020-8605 3500; hiddenturkey.com) offers a variety of short-break packages to Istanbul. For example, a three-night trip staying at the magnificently located Armada hotel, with itsviews of the Blue Mosque and Haghia Sophia, costs from £605 per person, based on two sharing, including flights from Heathrow or Manchester, transfers, b&b and a private half-day tour.
6. Epic tales from the Caribbean
Why go now? The rugged Caribbean island of Dominica is brilliantly evoked in Jean Rhys's seminal novel Wide Sargasso Sea, published 40 years ago. The author was born and grew up on the Windward Island of Dominica, its beauty and violent past reflected in her 1966 story of the first Mrs Rochester, written as a "prequel" to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.
What's special? Dominica is not your typical Caribbean island and while it's short on beaches, it's big on lush, spectacular nature. The island supports 166 species of birds, six forest zones, a bubbling volcanic lake called Boiling Lake, dramatic mountains and crystal-clear waterfalls.
How do I get there? Headwater Holidays (08700 662650; headwater.com) arranges walking trips to the island - the best way of appreciating its natural beauty is on foot. These cost from £1,337 per person, based on two sharing, and includes flights from Heathrow, transfers, eight nights' half-board accommodation, six picnics and an English-speaking guide.
7. taste of France in Buenos Aires
Why go now? Argentina's capital was founded 470 years ago. On 2 February 1536, Spanish conquistador Pedro de Mendoza formally gave a strategic area on the southern shore of the Rio de la Plata the name Santa Maria del Buen Ayre. The site was abandoned in the 1540s, resettled in the 1580s and became a successful trading centre during the 17th and 18th centuries.
What's special? In style and flavour more European than South American, today's city clearly relishes its distinct districts: cobbled and increasingly trendy Palermo Viejo, bohemian San Telmo renowned for its tango halls and the up-and-coming docklands area, Puerto Madero. But perhaps best of all is genteel Recoleta, which looks as if it has been transported from 1920s Paris, its long avenues studded with Belle Epoque buildings or the streets surrounding the Plaza de Mayo, which were remodelled in the style of Haussmann in the late 19th century.
How do I get there? Audley Travel (01869 276210; audleytravel.com) arranges tailormade trips to Buenos Aires. A five-night holiday, for example, costs from £1,200 per person, based on two sharing, which includes flights from Heathrow, b&b accommodation in the brand new boutique hotel Krista in Palermo, a tango show with dinner and a guided architectural tour.
8. An American in Paris
Why go now? This year is the centenary of one of the city's most vibrant entertainers, Josephine Baker. She was born on 3 June 1906 in Missouri and arrived in Paris in the 1920s, where she became a sensation, her exotic beauty earning her the nickname "Black Venus". One of her most famous acts was at the Folies Bergère where she appeared in a skirt of bananas, accompanied by her pet leopard. Her colourful life included undercover work for the French Resistance during the Second World War and civil rights campaigns in the United States.
What's special? The venues where Josephine Baker made her name are still very much in business. Folies Bergère at 32 rue Richer (00 33 1 44 79 98 98; foliesbergere.com) was radically revamped in 1993 and has become a conventional theatre staging blockbuster hits from Broadway and elsewhere. The Téâtre Champs Elysées at 15 Avenue Montaigne (00 33 1 49 52 50 50; theatre champselysees.fr) is a glittering example of art nouveau architecture, with a magnificent dome and paintings by the post-impressionist artist Edouard Vuillard.
How do I get there? VFB Holidays (01242 240310; vfbholidays.co.uk) offers three-night breaks in Paris from £262 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes return Eurostar travel and b&b at the stunning Art Deco Hotel Ambassador, a setting that evokes the glory days of Josephine Baker.
9. The best thinker's town: Founding father
Philadelphia is marking the 300th birthday of the statesman, inventor, philosopher and economist Benjamin Franklin with exhibitions of his life. Visit sites from 1790-1800 when this city was the US capital - the Betsy Ross House commemorates the woman who stitched the first Stars and Strips flag. Contact North America Travel Service (020-7499 7299; northamericatravelservice.co.uk) offers a 12-day fly-drive trip costing from £1,290 per person.
10. The best off-beat village: Don't be a number
The multi-coloured fantasy village of Portmeirion in Wales was designed 80 years ago by Clough Williams-Ellis to show how to build an attractive development without spoiling the landscape. The village has faux Mediterranean houses, villas, follies and colonnaded gardens and gained cult status after Patrick McGoohan filmed The Prisoner here in the 1960s. It opens 9.30am-5.30pm, admission £6.50. Call 01766 770228 or visit portmeirion-village.com.
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