Archive for New Discoveries

Chartres, France is a medieval jewel

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

May 2

We stayed at the historic inn 'Le Parvis' right next to the massive cathedral.

We stayed at the historic inn ‘Le Parvis’ right next to the massive cathedral.

We just finished two days of exploring Chartres, a city about a hour to the south and west of Paris but many more miles away in terms of peace and a small-town feeling evoking a time more than 900 years ago.

Chartres is not just amazing for its huge cathedral, although that is worth several photo books on its own. The town also has numerous picturesque alleyways, narrow lanes, steep inclines and half-timbered houses from the 16th and early 17th centuries.
Besides the famous cathedral there is enchanting St. Pierre, a church connected to a Benedictine Abbey which was dissolved during the French Revolution in 1798. Its stained glass windows are every bit as fascinating as the more famous ones in the cathedral at the top of the town. But, we had the ancient church to ourselves, while the cathedral is always busy.

The Eure River and the lower town is just as interesting as what is above.

The Eure River and the lower town is just as interesting as what is above.

The lower town is also the site of the Eure River and the lovely old houses and former mills and wash houses along its banks. Numerous stone bridges invite one to linger and if you are lucky, to kiss a young girl for what seemed like hours. Not that any of us fellows were noticing, of course.

Chartres is a new discovery for us, and one that we are eager to bring guests to in the future.

Lanterns seem to march their way to the lower town.

Lanterns seem to march their way to the lower town.

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Newly arrived guests Gayle and Peter on one of the several narrow lanes, called 'Tertre' which connect upper and lower Chartres

Newly arrived guests Gayle and Peter on one of the several narrow lanes, called ‘Tertre’ which connect upper and lower Chartres

This Couple Lives on Top of Roman History

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

May 2

Roland Geiger holds a tile nearly 2,000 years old found in the parking lot of his home in St. Wendel, Germany.

Roland Geiger holds a tile nearly 2,000 years old found in the parking lot of his home in St. Wendel, Germany.

I was invited to have dinner with Roland and Anne Geiger recently. As we sat in their cozy dining room heated by a wood-burning stove with our nostrils being savagely attacked by the wonderful smells coming out of the kitchen behind the wall, Roland entertained me with stories of what he has found on the property. More than once my mouth fell open, and it was not just from hunger. It was excitement at the thought that we were sitting on top of more than 2,000 years of history.

Roland casually pointed out a broken but still useful pot in the corner. ‘Used for cooking meat,’ he explained. They found animal bones and rocks inside. It now serves as a planter. He brought out a tile with wiggles scratched into its surface. ‘This was used to hold plaster,’ he explained. The Romans made these square tiles and attached them to the walls of houses with a concrete mix. Then they plastered over the wiggles, and the wiggles held the plaster in place. This ingenious system is copied today all over Europe with wallpaper that acts as an adhesive for paint.

Holding a Roman invention for applying plaster to a wall so that it would stick.

Holding a Roman invention for applying plaster to a wall so that it would stick.

But the most valuable thing in Roland’s collection, his ‘precious,’ is a broken tile in two parts with a faint etching on it. It could be a name. Yes, it probably is a name. ‘S, and then a very old e, the kind of letter used in the capital until about the year 1 and then in the provinces until around the year 100 AD,’ Roland pointed out as the wind was sucked out of my lungs by the thought that I was holding a piece of history in my not quite steady hands. ‘Then we have here a v, an i and an r and another i.’ The name ‘Seviri’ etched into the tile by the tile maker who needed to keep track of who had ordered which stack of tiles. Like attaching a sticky note, except one made with materials on hand. For this tile maker, it was a tile.

The name 'Seviri' is easily seen once the tile has been moistened

The name ‘Seviri’ is easily seen once the tile has been moistened

Roland sent images of the tile into the ether and soon had an answer from a professor in Madrid, who confirmed the purpose of the tile and the age.

Later Roland took me up into his barn where there are boxes and boxes of finds, many of them absolute treasures to the history nut. More fragments of the wiggly wall tiles. Pottery fragments from Roman and medieval times. All found in his garden, his parking lot, below his 17th century house which itself is a treasure worthy of another story.

Just a bunch of Roman stuff. Really? The heart starts to beat when one sees boxes of fragments of history in the attic of the Geiger home.

Just a bunch of Roman stuff. Really? The heart starts to beat when one sees boxes of fragments of history in the attic of the Geiger home.

Fittingly, Roland Geiger is an accomplished genealogist and excellent researcher who has helped many of our clients dig deeper into their family histories in the Saarland as well as in Rheinland Pfalz and surrounding areas of Germany.
Roland can be reached at [email protected] or through his web site at

Prague’s Secret Garden

Friday, October 18th, 2013

October 18

We made a new discovery today together with a visit to Prague’s wonderful Secret Garden, located below Prague Castle. It truly is a secret, only a small door leading off a busy street with no English signage. One has to be a bit adventurous to find it. We spent a happy hour wandering through the three terraces, enjoying the manicured plants and the fall colors and the views over Prague.

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We Love A Scenic Lunch Spot

Friday, June 8th, 2012

Whenever possible we like to make lunch an event while traveling in France or anywhere else in Europe. Our little group is at the right at this pleasant restaurant on the main street of a postcard-perfect village.

When in France, eat as the French do. That means slllloooooowwwww down. Enjoy it. Have some wine. Savor the flavors. And, have more wine. (Not the driver, of course) Recently we came across one of those villages in France which has been officially recognized as one of the prettiest in the land. How do we know that? Well, besides the handy map we carry marking those villages, whenever you drive into a village, town or city which has been recognized as being better than just the average charming French village, the sign reflects this by having one, two, three or even four red flowers under the name of the town. The village of Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei has three flowers but we vote to give it the fourth as soon as possible.

The village has a couple of restaurants. We chose the one where smoked salmon is the house specialty. A nearby ancient church features gorgeous murals from 900 years ago. A view from the church over the valley and the second half of the village is breathtaking. And, to cap it all off for the photographer, a pilgrim comes through leading his donkey. Ahhh. Another day in France.

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Abbey San Salvatore in Tuscany, Italy

Saturday, May 12th, 2012

May 12

Exploring the Abbey of San Salvatore

On our way from Orvieto to Montepulciano we took a diversion and drove high up into the mountains to the ancient Abbey San Salvatore in the town of the same name high in the mountains of the Val di Orcia, Tuscany.

Stone columns holding up the ceiling of the crypt

Work which has held for 1,200 years

The abbey is small and not particularly impressive from the exterior unless you keep in mind that it is dating from the eighth century. Once you enter the interior, your first impression is of incense. A mass for two people has just finished. To the right and the left are stairs descending down into the oldest part of the church, the crypt, with rows of columns, all different at the top. You remind yourself that the stones forming the arches of this crypt have done their job for more than 1,200 years.

The 12th century crucifix

Above, a wooden crucifix looks as it it were carved yesterday. It wasn’t. It was carved in the 12th century.

In Italy, it is easy to become complacent about age. Fifteenth century this, twelfth century that. Something from the 19th or 20th century hardly registers. But eighth century. That’s memorable.

George Then looks at the expansive view over the Tuscan countryside from the Abbey San Salvatore

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Jewish History in Pittigliano, Tuscany

Friday, May 11th, 2012

Pittigliano, Tuscany seen from the west

May 10

There was once a flourishing Jewish community in this fortified Tuscan village. Kicked out of the Papal States (those areas immediately surrounding Rome) by Popes in the 16th century, a large settlement developed in Pittigliano where they were given protection by the local ruling family. In ‘Little Jerusalem’ there can be seen many traces of their existence, including a ritual bath, a kosher butchery, bakery, dye house where textiles were prepared and perhaps most importantly, the rebuilt synagogue.

Entrance to the restored synagogue

Built at the end of the 1500s, the synagogue once stood on an outcrop of the tufa stone hanging over the southwest wall of the town. The Jewish population of Italy had been granted legal emancipation after Italy was united in 1871. By the 1930s, many had left this little town for better opportunities in the cities. With facism, their rights were suppressed and many who could left for other countries. A few were deported. After the war, there were only a handful left. The synagogue, abandoned after the tumult of World War II, had been destroyed by landslides in the 1960s. It stood as a ruin for many years. Finally, in 1995, it was rebuilt by the town government using recollections from surviving members of the community, drawings and photographs.

A small entry fee allows one to wander through the subterranean chambers where animals were butchered by having their throats slit with a knife. Blood ran down a steep decline and through a hole in the wall to the valley below. Textiles were soaked in tubs cut out of the rock. Wine was produced in a kosher cellar. Bread was baked in an oven which looks as it it is ready to use today.

The baking oven

Pittigliano, ‘Little Jerusalem,’ a new discovery for European Focus but one which we shall return to again and again.

Nearly deserted Via Roma in the afternoon of a fine spring day

Touring around Prague in the Praha Lady

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

Dick and Darlene Muth, James Derheim in the Praha Lady, built in 1938. Photo by our driver and guide, Jerry.

May 2

We took a guided tour the other day in Prague with our driver Jerry and his very special lady. The “Praha Lady” is truly one of a kind, built in 1938 and in pristine condition thanks to a very particular owner who usually keeps this treasure safely in his garage. However, due to a temporary shortage of cars for the tourist trade, the Praha Lady was let out of her stable and allowed to roam around the city once more, as she has been doing for 80 years. Many probably don’t realize this, but before WWII the Czech Republic was one of the leading manufacturers of automobiles in Europe. The war decimated this thriving industry.

The Praha Lady was for its time one of the most expensive machines ever built. Only the very wealthy could afford her. She cost the equivalent of three years worth of wages for an average worker. A car similar to the one we rode in was owned by the wife of Reinhard Heidrich, one of the high-ranking Nazi officers who was an architect of the Holocaust and was in charge of the liquidation of the Jews from Prague and surrounding areas. (Assassinated in 1942 in Prague by a squad of 40 special forces soldiers sent from Slovakia and England).

Riding around Prague in this surprisingly comfortable car with the entertaining 29-year old “Jerry” behind the wheel was a highlight of our stay in this beautiful and historic city. The only bad part was when the tour ended at Prague Castle and we had to wave goodbye as Jerry motored off, downhill, thankfully, as the Praha Lady was riding on fumes.

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Categories : New Discoveries

Spacious living room area with leather couches

April 18

In the heart of Berlin in the vibrant neighborhood of Kreuzberg my friends Georg and Martina Siegmann have opened “The Five Lofts” apartments in a former store house that Georg bought in 1986. Moving from Rothenburg ob der Tauber where they owned and operated the successful “Passage 12″ gift store, the Siegmanns have invested in restoring and rebuilding this formerly shabby complex into a fantastic, spacious apartment complex with all of the modern amenities. I can’t think of a better place to unwind and relax after a busy day of sightseeing than The Five Lofts.

You can cook a full meal in the well-equipped kitchenette

My treat was two nights in the “Presidential Suite” which is at the top of the former storehouse which held spices in the old days. The 90 square meter apartment features room for six to sleep plus a well-stocked kitchenette, huge bathroom with massive shower, cozy leather couches and chairs and a big flat-screen TV plus stereo, original art and very handy for the late sleeper, shades to black out the morning sun and allow for slumber parties.

The former spice warehouse and now four apartments reached by modern lift

The Five Lofts are in a neighborhood known for its wide variety of dining and entertainment. Close by are Vietnamese, Persian, Turkish, Italian and German restaurants. Best of all, Kreuzberg is known for having exceptionally low prices for food. Four people can eat and drink to their contentment here for less than 20 Euro per person, which is pretty remarkable in a European capital city. Also nearby is a jazz club and numerous small bars which keep the neighborhood hopping well into the morning hours. Best of all, the Five Lofts is securely located behind heavy doors and in a courtyard where no noise can penetrate.

When visiting Berlin, stay at the Five Lofts. Or, pay a lot more and stay in a hotel.

Guiding tours in European for over 20 years