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Top 5 List, Spring in Europe 2015



Paris rooftops

On the high road to Mellor, Lancashire

L'Aller Retour before dinner
by Melissa Cicci

Whether off-the-beaten-path or iconic tourist spot, I find a little magic in every stop I make while traveling. But some places are more memorable to me than others, and often I suspect it's because they've been shared with my husband and good friends.

Here then my top 5, highly personal and subjective, experiences in Europe this spring, in no particular order.

1. Remembrance Day in the Netherlands, particularly in the small city of Vianen, is a reminder as to how deep Europe's bonds remain with the World Wars. On May 4, each year, all of Holland's cities and villages remember their fallen. In this small city, the evening begins with a silent procession of villagers and visitors through the town center, accompanied only by a single drummer leading the procession. The clack of shoe heels on the cobbled streets, the single, repetitive stroke of the drum, and the people of Vianen of all ages, most of whom wouldn't remember the World Wars or their aftermath. As I joined the procession this spring, I was struck by the number of young people, teenagers, who were as solemn and respectful as older generations. The procession concluded alongside a small canal heavy with willows. A string quartet gathered and played on the opposite bank. The mayor spoke (in Dutch) as wreaths were laid at a memorial. A flyover of four period military aircraft. A long moment of silence.

2. L'Aller Retour is an intimate, meat-centric restaurant in Paris' Marais neighborhood, recommended by a Parisian-American colleague. As our group of four friends walked the 15 minutes or so from our holiday apartment, the neighborhood became livelier and the crowds younger. So that by the time we arrived on L'Aller Retour's diminutive block, beautiful, French, 20- and 30- somethings were spilling out of all the nearby cafes. We aren't 20 or 30 somethings - not even close - but with such youthful chic around us, we could believe for the evening that 50+ is the new 30.

I can't say enough about the owner, Olivier, who sat at one end of our table to share his passion for beef (all sourced from Argentina) and to describe the various options. With Olivier's guidance, we started with a straciatella of burrata over fresh tomatoes. [ I've spent alot of time in Italy, but had never tasted a creamier or more flavorful version. ] The tomatoes were sweet and tender, and we paired this dish with a bottle of Billecart-Salmon, one of my favorite champagnes and not marked up exorbitantly as in the U.S. We all had filet, of course, and a delicious red wine I don't recall after earlier indulgence. The menu does list la salade du moment for the non carnivores.

3. Keukenhof (meaning 'kitchen garden' in Dutch), not far from Amsterdam, opens each year for just 8 weeks. Clearly not off-the-beaten path, this showcase for Holland's flower growers draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Tour buses arrive in droves and in mid-April, the crowds are thick. Nearly 100 royal suppliers send their best range of spring flowering bulbs for display in the 80-acre park. Undulating beds of tulips, hyacinths and other varietals share space with ponds and swans. Indoor pavilions boast imaginative displays - all flower themed. A few years ago, one of the pavilions featured mannequins wearing haute couture fashioned out of flowers. This year, another pavilion had a wedding theme. It's stunning, overwhelming. Despite the climate or the vagaries of each season (nearby fields may be brown depending upon the season), Keukenhof's gardens are a riot of color and perfection, if only for a fleeting moment each spring.

4. A walk across the hills in Lancashire in northern England on a windy, cool late spring afternoon. Among the sheep - white and brown - I felt like an intruder on this landscape, or that I'd been set down in an Austen or Brontë novel. Fortunately, my more focused friends brought me back to reality - a pint at a nearby pub broadcasting a French Open match. That evening, languorous cocktails and dinner at Northcote, a redbrick manor in the Ribble Valley, part of the Relais & Châteaux collection of restaurants and small hotels.

5. A rooftop deck in an apartment deep in the Marais, with 360 views of Paris, Sacre Coeur at twilight atop Montmarte, and the Tour Eiffel (lights ablaze and blinking on the hour each evening after dark); good, very modestly-priced wine; and best friends.

If You Go:

L'Aller Retour, 5 rue Charles Francois Dupuis, Tel. 01 42 78 01 21,, On Facebook

Keukenhof, Stationsweg 166A, Lisse (about 45 minutes by car from Amsterdam). Admission €16 for adults. In 2016, the park is open from March 24 to May 16. Everyday, 8:00am - 7:30pm. Keukenhof

Vianen is a small city in central Netherlands, in the province of Utrecht.

Northcote, Northcote Road, Langho, Blackburn, Lancashire. Tel. 01 254 240 555. Northcote

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