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Introduction top

Hi I'm Rudy Maxa—ready for some good times on another of our special theme programs. This time we're visiting spots I think are especially entertaining—some relaxing, some exhilarating, and some pretty darn challenging. Next up, it's Europe Just for Fun on Smart Travels.

Most foreign travelers still come to Europe looking for some kind of contact with it's rich culture—great museums, ancient ruins, soaring cathedrals, unique traditions. But as our world shrinks and the old "once in a lifetime trip" has morphed into several return visits, many people are on the lookout for another dimension to that trip to Europe. So, we've got some travelers now who just want to have fun. They're ready for absolute R&R—you know, a "let's get away from it all" kind of thing. Others are not so desperate. They're just looking for a way to break up the serious sightseeing.

I for one, have found myself in both modes—sometimes looking for total escape, and other times just needing a little change of pace. This time we're putting together a whole program of some of my "Just for Fun" personal picks. Here's what has worked for me and I'm betting you'll find something in here that will fill the bill for you.


For discounts, freebies, and transportation in major European cities, go to www.europeancitycards.com.


Up, Up, and Away top

Loire Valley, France
Up, up and way at the top of my list for a major half-day escape is—yes, the great lift you get from hot-air ballooning. Floating above the earth in an open basket is an unforgettable experience—totally different from sitting in an airplane...These rides can be found all over Europe, but for us France was perfect. This nation was, after all, the birthplace of hot-air ballooning—and thus of aviation. It was in 1783 that the Montgolfier brothers first carried off a series of successful hot air balloon ascents. The first balloon went up empty. The next experiment had on board a duck—a rooster—and a sheep. Finally as Louis XVI and his American guest Benjamin Franklin watched, two men were carried aloft.

Franklin wrote a description of the Montgolfier balloon to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society of London:

Louis had wanted to send up a couple of convicts sentenced to death. He was convinced the atmosphere up there would prove poisonous. But French scientists were outraged that convicts might be the first men to fly. So it was that a French scientist, Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier, and an infantry major, the Marquis Francois d'Arlandes became the first men to fly—and live to tell about it.


If you're interested in the balloon ride featured in our show, go to FranceBalloons.com. Want some advice and links on hot air ballooning in Europe? www.hot-air-ballooning.org is the place for you. And for more pricey combination tours on the ground and in the air, go to www.bombardsociety.com.


With Your Feet On The Ground top

If you're one of those who prefer to keep you feet on the ground, hiking is just the ticket. Virtually every country in Europe offers some kind of opportunity to take a walk.

VOICE OVER: The range of opportunity is broad—broad—broad. We've taken walks in the English countryside, along the Italian Riviera, on windy beaches in Sweden, in city parks—the list goes on. For clearing your head and getting your blood flowing, a walk is easy to slip into almost any itinerary. But for some, the hike is the itinerary. And in Europe, it's all so civilized. In Britain, you can hike from village to village, staying in quaint B&B's. Many places on the continent offer similar possibilities. It's no surprise that serious hikers flock to the high mountains—The Swiss Alps, and my favorite—the Italian Dolomites. These mountains constantly amaze. Limestone uplifting and erosion have created endless visual extravaganzas. Well-marked trails range from super-easy, family saunters to razor thin trails along saw-toothed ridges. Crowded with skiers in the winter, summer hikers find lightly traveled trails and plenty of hotel rooms in places like Cortina d'Ampezza. Lifts whisk you up and down to give you plenty of choices. Imagine topping such a day off with a night in a refugio—a rustic, mountaintop lodge right up in the clouds. You'll find plenty of hiking books to help plan your trip, and every local tourist office is full of details on trails. With so much information you can put together your own hikes, or you can hire a guide or even join an organized group. Hiking in Europe is definitely fun.


For some great hike ideas, check out "100 Hikes in the Alps" by Vicky Spring & Harvey Edward. Want to check out some others? Visit www.slowtrav.com and scroll to the bottom of the page.


Getting From Here to There top

Part of the adventure of traveling in Europe is what we might term "getting from here to there". Driving "on the wrong side of the road" in England is considered high adventure by some of my friends. I'm used to it by now, and I have to say getting behind the wheel is, for me, pure joy.

If driving is part of your fun, by all means try it throughout the European countryside. It's a great way to break away from the big cities and poke into out-of-the-way places...And what about us Americans who often feel "train deprived"? Well, the rails in Europe offer the perfect cure; they can be much more than just a means to an end...Then there's cycling—bikes are fun...And so are the river cruises—down the Rhine...or the Danube. And oh yes, there are the canals—Amsterdam...Brugges...Burgundy...And the queen of them all, of course, is Venice. A gondola ride here is not to be over-rated—particularly if you share it with a loved one. Introducing my daughter, Sara, to Venice has been one of the high-points of my travels...Floating along peaceful back canals, watching Venice's rich history pass by—catching snatches of music—imagining centuries of intrigue and romance—it's all a little dream-like. And with treasured family members, it's an experience to be relived over the course of many future get-togethers.


Does the idea of being serenaded down the Grand Canal interest you? Check out the report on the Venice Gondola Serenade Tour.


One For The Road top

On Smart Travels, you've seen me enjoying the local libations. Checking out variations of liquid refreshments from country to country is definitely part of the fun. Here in the UK itís time for tea.

VOICE OVER: An English tea can be leisurely and elegant...or just a quick "cupa". Either way, it's hard to get a bad cup of tea in the British Isles...Over on the continent, coffee (with roots from Turkey) dominates. Each country prefers a slightly different roast, but every city abounds with multiple choices—Cafe mit schlag (or whipped cream) in Vienna, cappacino in an elegant cafť in Padua, a quick espresso at a stand-up bar in—Rome.


For some great advice on ordering at any Italian Cafe, visit www.slowtrav.com.

And then of course there's the wine tasting—now there's a quest! How to discover a favorite? Is it a Burgundy...a Brunello...a Riesling...Decisions, decisions. What's a poor guy to do? Wine is the big tradition in southern Europe, but the Scandinavians prefer their schnapps. Maybe the most unique place I've ever sampled the fare was in the Ice Bar at the Nordic Sea Hotel in Stockholm. Now, here's something you don't run into every day of the week. Open all year, the Ice Barís temperature always hovers around freezing. Everything's made out of ice, from the glasses you drink out of, to the counters you lean on, to the walls all around you. This is the place where breaking the ice takes on a whole new meaning.


Get more details about the bar at www.bootsnall.com.


Pulling Strings top

As a journalist, I'm always on the look-out for new meanings—new stories to share with readers or viewers—that's my job. But, luckily, a lot of my own travel fun comes from discovering those new things. And I'm guessing that "discovery" is pretty much a general pleasure for most travelers. I suspect one of the main reasons we all travel is to get that charge from something new—to be surprised.

I have to say I was surprised at my new-found fascination with puppets. I had assumed puppet shows were just for kids, but in the course of shooting this series, I've discovered they're a kind of entertainment that is just plain fun.

(Sound Bite) You never know when you might stumble onto a little show—remnants of by-gone days when traveling troupes provided the primary theatrical experience in small towns all over Europe.

But cities turned out loyal audiences as well. The Toone Puppet Theatre in Brussel continues that tradition today.

(Puppeteer) You must remember that in the 19th century, people here in little small, blind alleys like here lived to 160 people, and sometimes five or six or more in one room. They were very happy to go to a show to spend the evening out of their situation, you see.

A fun look at puppet history is in the Museum of Marionette in Palermo. Elaborate marionettes dating from the 16th-century recall a rich past when puppet theatres ruled in Sicily. They dramatized tales of unrequited love and of battles between Christian knights and Arab armies--stories that particularly resonated in Sicily where Christian and Islamic forces had once wrestled for control. The serialized dramas held their small-town audiences enthralled night after night much as modern soap operas entertain today's television audiences. The three-foot high richly adorned characters speak to a very rich past. Puppet affectionados point to a long history—stretching back 4000 years to the orient.

The International Museum of the Marionette (+03 24 33 72 50) in Charleville, France honors that past. Puppet theatre was common in ancient Greece and Rome and survived the middle ages with wandering troupes of entertainers. Todayís puppeteers follow in these traditions, but are also dedicated innovators.

And if you think this is all child's play, think again. Students and apprentices take years to perfect their craft.


For more on puppetry, visit www.princetonol.com.


Catch Me If You Can top

I have found a great anecdote for sight-seeing overload at several of the big tourist draws in England. If you've ever felt lost in the surrealistic maze of modern life, you're in the market for one of the real-life, historical mazes in the British Isles.

Hampton Court has the most famous one—thousands of visitors have a blast getting lost here every year.

Maybe even more fun is the one at Blenheim Palace. Mazes were prominent features in the elaborate 17th & 18th century English formal gardens. It's fun to imagine assignations and aristocratic games of hide-and-seek among the twists and turns of the high hedges. Fabricated on the Greek myth of Daedalus' labyrinth to house the Minotaur, I'm wondering if the lords and ladies tried to pass these games off as part of their classical education. The Blenheim gardens are especially fun, with opportunities beyond the maze for fun and games like the over-sized chessboard. And for a simple reminder of the magic of nature, there's always the marvelously peaceful butterfly garden.


For a resource of mazes in Europe, visit www.labyrinthos.net.

Also in the "catch me if you can" category would be the numerous Luge rides found throughout the Alps. The thrill of a downhill plunge definitely brings out the kid in you. Built for winter thrills, the luges are adapted for the summer as well, and have become year-round favorites. The driver controls the rate of descent through a brake, so cowards can go at a snails pace while demons go for speed records—lots of room here for expressions of individual quirkiness. This is a terrific way to break up a road trip through the mountains.


For more info on the luge ride featured in this show, go to
www.schwangau.de. If you're searching the web for other luge rides, use the term "summer luge."

In Europe's cities, you get a version of the same kind of thrill at the amusement parks. Copenhagen's Tivoli is one the grand-daddies of the parks—dating back to 1843. Originally built outside of the city, it now lies smack in the middle of it. So much more than an amusement park, it's not really fair to call it one. Gardens, fountains, dance bands, and a host of cultural events attract around five million visitors a year to its twenty-one acres.

The other grand-daddy is Vienna's Prater which first opened in 1766 on property formerly owned by Emperor Maximilian. The centerpiece of this playground is its famous Ferris wheel. The name comes from the designer, George Ferris, who constructed the world's first "Ferris" wheel for the Chicago International Exhibition in 1892. The Viennese followed four years later with this, believe-it-or-not, slightly smaller vesion of that first wheel. It's like an oversized erector set asking, "Can you top this?" What's not to love.


To find the right park for your vacation, check out these web sites:


Food For Thought top

OK. I make it no secret. I like to eat. And I'm convinced that a lot of the fun of any trip anywhere for anyone is in sampling the local cuisine. And European travel is especially satisfying because Europeans have been so successful in holding onto their regional food traditions. I can't tell you how many travelers have told me they remember specific meals they've had twenty or thirty years ago on a trip to Europeóthe perfect meal in the perfect setting. For some, it's the first slice of real, Italian Pizza from its birthplace in Naples--fresh ingredients, perfect dough, and not oozing with an overload of cheese. For others it's just-caught lobster with white truffle sauce on the Riviera. The list goes on. I've found heaven in a crisp salad under sunny Greek skies, in wienersnitzel and sauerkraut to die for in Vienna, and lovingly made gravlox in Stockholm. You can see the endless sacrifices a travel writer is forced to make in his research.

(Sound Bite)

Seriously, I'm just hard-pressed to choose among my favorites. But I'd have to say our meal at the renowned restaurant, Les Creyeres in Reims has got to be near the top of my list. Elegant, yet understated, a different type of fine champagne enhanced the already perfect flavors of each course. Oh yes, itís an evening to remember.

(Sound Bite)


Fun In The Sun top

Nowóif youíre looking for complete R&R--a break-away--light on the culture and heavy on play, there's nothing like a beach. The Mediterranean is known for some great ones. The Greek Islands have some standoutsólike tiny Naxos which canít be beat for pure peace. Or thereís highly touristed Santoriniís exotic black sand beach. Back on the continent, Spainís Costa Brava can be a welcome escape from the nearby city bustle of Barcelona. But for me the hands-down most fun beaches are on the French Riviera. This is not your "escape to peace and quiet" getaway, itís more like "fun at every turn". Sure, the beaches are crowded, but the people watching is tops. It's hard to find a bad meal or a bad glass of wine. . . . Water-sports and boating opportunities abound. And each community along the Sea charms with a slightly different personality. When the beach loses its appeal, there's always shopping--and of course art, with a plethora of galleries up and down the coast. Near Nice you'll find the world-famous Picasso Museum. And, oh yes, let's not forget the glamour of maybe the world's most famous casino in Monte Carlo. Daytime or nighttime, the Riviera lives up to its reputation as Europe's playground.


For a list of some great beaches along the Mediterranean Sea, visit www.bugbog.com.


Games For The Kid In All Of Us top

And limbering up with a favorite sport—or even a new one—can be a welcome change of pace.

Opportunities abound for improving your gameóbe it golf or horses. Iíve taken clay-shooting lessons and been introduced to falconry. You can paddle away an afternoon, fly like a bird, or race across the water. . . . Itís fun to let that kid in us out, and all it takes is paying some attention to what a locale has to offer. Check with the local tourist office or the concierge at your hotel for suggestionsóor do some research before you leave for Europe.


If you're planning a trip to Europe, the Google Directory offers a quick way to find the sports in which you're interested.

In this crazy, work-a-day world of today, it's easy to forget the importance of having fun. A trip to Europe offers plenty of opportunities to remedy this. Taking off on flights of fancy—testing physical stamina—discovering something new—polishing a skill—or just lolling in the sun. These are things that rejuvenate and restore. What a playground is Europe. Here's where the kid in us can have a field day.

You know, some of us just never grow up completely. But I'm betting most of us think that's an OK thing. So, to nurture the kid in all of us, sometimes it's appropriate to take a swing at Europe—Just for Fun. I'm Rudy Maxa just trying to have fun.


Interested in planning your vacation to Europe?
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Does the idea of being serenaded down the Grand Canal interest you? Check out the report on the Venice Gondola Serenade Tour.

For some great advice on ordering at any Italian Cafe, visit www.slowtrav.com.

For a resource of mazes in Europe, visit www.labyrinthos.net.