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Touring Europe Within U.S. Borders

May 1, 2004
In the high-Dow Nineties Americans were taking pictures at the Parthenon, tasting haggis in Scotland, watching windmills in the Netherlands.
Domestic Travel with International Flavor
In the high-Dow Nineties Americans were taking pictures at the Parthenon, tasting haggis in Scotland, watching windmills in the Netherlands. That's changed now. The value of the Euro makes travel to Europe expensive and the world situation makes it uncomfortable. Many people are opting to toss the passport and still explore the continent without leaving the United States.

Massachusetts' "Little Portugal"

Pedro Almida runs a small bakery in New Bedford, Massachusetts, home to the largest Portuguese community in the United States. There's no sign out front, but everyone in the neighborhood knows which shop makes the best

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In this mid-sized town on the South Coast of New England—as well as in the neighboring city of Fall River—the yeasty aroma of bread mingles with the sea-smell of fresh fish. Street fairs feature lively Portuguese dancing, and restaurants serve dishes like bacalhau assado [salted codfish] and escalopes a angolana [Angolan scallops].

The Portuguese first came to America in the early 1800s, sea-savvy workers on Yankee whaling ships. Time-travel back to those days at the New Bedford Whaling Museum where you can view the skeleton of a giant blue whale and climb into the fo'c'sle [living quarters] of a whaling ship.

Then, for a glimpse of today's Europe meander through the neighborhood roughly bounded by Dartmouth, Rivet, County and Cove streets. In the narrow spaces between homes you'll see Portuguese-style urban gardens, small plots of land filled with Mediterranean fig trees and grape vines atop arbors and car ports.

Columbia Street, the historic area of Fall River, has a Lisbon-feel with cobblestoned sidewalks and globe-shaped street lights. Best of all, it has Sagres Restaurant, where you can listen to fado [Portuguese songs of love and loss] while having a white-tablecloth meal.

A "Wee Bit O' Scotland" in New Jersey

Scots began settling in New Jersey in 1875 when several Scottish companies—including Coats & Clarks Thread and Singer Sewing Machine—began U.S.-based operations. Today immigration from Britain is strictly limited, and Scots are only a small percentage of Kearny's 60,000 residents. Yet the customs and traditions remain strong.

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Walking up Kearny Avenue, you'll find restaurants serving meat pies and clootie dumpling [fruit cake with custard sauce] and markets pumping their own sausage and making their own haggis [liver and oatmeal pate cooked in a sheep's stomach bag].

A few miles outside of town at Wallace Glen three monuments, including a Scottish cairn [beehive of rocks], honor the town's heritage.

Finally, don't be deterred by the "Members Only" sign on the door of the Scots American Club, a working-man's pub on the corner of Highland and Patterson. Guests are welcome to down a glass—or two or three—of strong British ale, enjoy a game of darts and watch the Pipers Band at practice.

Visiting Greece in Tennessee and Florida

Right in the midst of mid-America stands one of the most instantly recognizable buildings in the world—the Greek Parthenon. What, in the name of Zeus, is it doing in Nashville, Tennessee?

Nashville built this full-sized replica for the Centennial Exposition of 1897. Back then the city was known as "The American Athens," a place where higher education was valued and public buildings had Grecian colonnades and porticos.

Nashville's Parthenon is as architecturally and artistically accurate as possible. Unlike the original temple, which was built in the fifth century and is showing the results of war and weather, it sits in unpillaged splendor, looking much as it must have in the time of Socrates.

But despite its ties to ancient Greece, Nashville has a fairly small Greek community. For a hearty dose of Greek culture, go to Tarpon Springs, Florida, where nearly 40 percent of the population is of Greek descent. There you'll find the easy charm of Zorba's islands, right down to the music, gyros and sun-splashed beach.

The area began attracting Greeks in the early 1900s when Greek divers, boat builders and deck hands were needed for the flourishing sponge industry. Go to Dodecanese Boulevard to find half-hour cruises complete with a sponge-diving exhibition. Watching a man clad in 150-plus pounds of gear, including a brass helmet, is, as they say, a real trip.

Then stroll down the boulevard which is lined with more than 100 shops, many of which feature a truly astounding variety of sponges, and restaurants that serve Greek favorites such as gyros, spanakopita and baklava. Just off the main street, you can meander through a neighborhood of small, neat homes where old-timers converse in Greek and markets are filled with kalamata olives and sesame candy. On Hope Street near Grand Avenue is St. Michael's Shrine, neatly tucked away in the courtyard of two homes. Two women with white prayer scarves sit inside to greet the faithful or, says one, "welcome those who need a miracle."

Tulip Land in Michigan

The twelve-story windmill in western Michigan makes Gerard Van der Donk feel right at home. "There's one exactly the same just one mile from my house in the Netherlands," he says. This isn't surprising since folks in Holland, Michigan, which is roughly midway between Detroit and Chicago, pride themselves on authenticity.

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For example, the 240-year-old windmill that serves as the town's symbol came from the Netherlands and still uses windpower to grind grain. The costumes that the 1500 local dancers wear during spring Tulip Festival are correct down to the last stitch.

A quick look at the phone book gives proof of the area's Dutch heritage. Although the town's population is only 35,000, it takes five pages to go from DeBoer to DeZwaan, eight to go from Van Aanahold to Van Zoeren. The ancestors of these people began coming to the United States in 1847, fleeing religious persecution at home and attracted by the nearby water and abundance of timber.

Start your visit at Windmill Island where the giant windmill, De Zwaan Windmill, is a reminder of the friendship between the European country and its Michigan offshoot. The drawbridge that crosses a small canal is an exact replica of one that spanned Amstel River in Ouderkek. The row of small shops reflect Dutch architectural style, some in brightly painted wood, others in brick with step-up gables. Windows are constructed so the panes form a traditional Christian cross.

DeKlomp Delftware is the only place in the United States where the distinctive Dutch pottery is produced. The same building houses The Wooden Shoe Factory, where craftsmen use machines to shape, bore and smooth wood into the traditional shoes that are still worn by farmers in the Netherlands. Next door Veldheer's Tulip Farm provides a grand floral display during spring and summer.

Dutch Village bills itself as an Old-World town of 150 years ago. A costumed woodcarver demonstrates how itinerant craftsmen used to hand-carve shoes, folk dancers perform at regularly-scheduled intervals, and the Friesland house and barn depict daily life in the past.

Little France in Texas

Strolling the streets of Castroville it's easy to feel you've been whisked from the United States and awakened in a small European village. An impressive Catholic Church dominates the town square, and quaint houses with pitched roofs line the street

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The 2,000 residents of this south Texas town aren't trying to make their home into a touristy "Little France". French culture—more specifically the Alsatian culture of eastern France—is simply part of their lives and if visitors want to share it, c'est trés bien.

Many Castrovillians are direct descendants of colonists who came to Texas in the mid-1840s. They did their best to recreate their homeland, starting small farms and using local limestone to build Alsatian-style homes.

If you arrive, as most people do, on U.S. Hwy 90 from San Antonio, 25 miles to the east, your first glimpse of Europe will be the two-story Alsatian house on the left side of the road. The 350-year-old structure, identifiable by the fachwerk (a lattice of dark beams infilled with rubble-rock and covered with plaster) was a gift of Alsatian students who disassembled it in France and rebuilt it in Texas.

Stop at the nearby Visitor Center to pick up the free guide which features historical and cultural information as well as directions for an 18-block walking tour.

The tour includes the gracefully Gothic St. Louis Catholic Church, a schoolhouse, store, saloon and hotel, but mostly it consists of homes that are delightfully reminiscent of the Old Country. Settlers built steep snow-shedding roofs like those in Alsace, not realizing they would be unnecessary in southern Texas. More useful: the twin entry doors that encouraged the eldest son and his family to live alongside his parents.

No visit to France, whether in Europe or Texas, would be complete without great food. Castroville boasts several meat markets that grind their own Alsatian sausage (mild but tasty) and two French restaurants extraordinaire—La Normandie, which specializes in traditional French cuisine, and The Alsatian, which features "German food with a French flair."

A Tour of Europe in Virginia

David Letterman's mother stood in front of London's Big Ben as she spoke to her son's television viewers via live satellite. Why, she said, the London landmark looked just like the clock at Busch Gardens.

The woman exaggerates to be sure. The Big Ben in Virginia's beloved amusement park is considerably smaller and surrounded by roller coasters rather than the Houses of Parliament.

Yet she makes a point. Although Busch Gardens has heart-stopping rides and sticky-finger treats, it also offers a mini-tour of Europe via remarkably authentic Old World architecture, music, food, shops and shows.

Italian artists use techniques learned in their homeland to create delicate porcelain flowers. Irish troubadours play Celtic tunes outside Grogan's Pub, an Irish-to-the-hilt gathering place with dark wood beams and a photo of JFK. Sean Counihan, Mayor of the "real" Killarney in Europe, says Busch Gardens' Little Ireland is "just like home."

Another area replicates a quiet village in rural France, replete with white-washed buildings and delicately faded signs. You can eat rich desserts at an outdoor cafe with bright umbrellas and have your portrait painted by a "Left Bank artist."

The beat picks up in "Germany" as an Oktoberfest celebration features lively polkas, an oompah band and plenty of German food. Outside the "beerhall" there's a three-story Glockenspiel with marching figurines, circa 17th century Germany. Busch Gardens is the only place outside of Germany that is authorized to produce Hummel figurines; as such it attracts collectors who would never think of riding a roller coaster.

photos by Irv Green, DDS; story by Andrea Gross