If you follow me on Instagram, you know my husband and I are just back from a month in France. (I know, a long trip with the luxury of time, something one doesn’t often do. We are very lucky to have had this opportunity.)
Briefly, we flew into Paris, picked up a car, and headed to Giverney (Monet’s home and garden), the Normandy beaches (D-Day landings), Mont Sainte Michele (more history), Bordeaux (to taste wine), the Loire (for chateaus), Antibes (the Riviera, the Mediterranean and the art trail), Beaune (we love it) and finally Paris (always a good idea). In the weeks to come, I’m sure I’ll bore you with too many tales tales and too many pictures, but for now I want to share two “travel shorts” to give you a taste of our trip.
If I had a bucket list, the D-Day beaches would be on it. This is a piece of the American experience that I wish everyone could share. We took a highly-recommended D-Day tour, which I’ll write more about later, but now I want to share just one stop. Angoville-au-Plain is one of the tiny towns beyond Utah beach where paratroopers landed during the night before the invasion. The military assignment was to control the nearby Cherbourg to Paris route important to German defenses. The terrible weather the night of the drop, however, meant hundreds of soldiers were dropped off course, totally missing their targets.
Two of these paratroopers were young medics, 19 and 20 years old. Robert E. Wright and Kenneth J. Moore had been given two weeks of medical training. They jumped carrying packs of first aid supplies which they lost when they landed off course in swampy fields the Germans had flooded. Undeterred, they made their way to the 11th Century church at Angoville-au-Plain. Using medical supplies they had recovered along the way, they hung a Red Cross flag on the door and worked for 72 hours straight on 82 patients, Allied and German, and lost only two men. They had only one rule: weapons must be left outside the church.
We heard many amazing stories during that tour, but for whatever reason this one really touched me. I used to think of D-Day as a single, heroic, necessary event, but when you look closer (as so many professional and amateur historians do), it’s also thousands of acts of bravery, heroism, determination and ingenuity.
(Both Wright and Moore continued to serve throughout the war and have returned often to D-Day observances at Angoville-au-Plain, where the immediate community, and the wider D-Day community, has been generous in preserving and restoring the church.)
Behind the scenes at Versailles.
Versailles is the over-the-top palace used by a string of French kings who tired of life in Paris. It’s a 30-minute train ride from Paris, or you can take one of a variety of bus/van/private tours there. I visited 20-odd years before on my first trip to France with my teen-age son. We took a bus tour (which we both hated). It was a cold day, and Versailles was crowded. Frankly, it was nothing I wanted to repeat, so on subsequent trips, Steve and I always talked ourselves out of Versailles. However, we thought early October might be a better time and Steve found a “skip the line” tour of private rooms offered by the chateau for a mere 10 euros each.
This was the best investment we made on the trip!
What we thought would be a 45-minute tour of private rooms in the chateau was actually 2-1/2 hours with a Versailles curator. There were only about 15 of us in the group, making it easy to see the rooms and ask questions. The curator was a charming, knowledgeable historian committed to educating us about the fine points of 17th and 18th century court life. And we learned a lot!
One of the private rooms we visited was the King’s library. It was, of course, grand and gold, but our guide brought it to life by pointing out this commode, made for the palace but sold off with all the other palace furnishings after the revolution (the new government was desperate for money). It was acquired by one of the Rothschilds. But then, during WWII when the Germans began confiscating the best of European art and antiques, it was acquired by Hermann Goring. It has only recently been returned to Versailles (“Thanks be to God,” as the curator said.)
Some of the King’s book collection is behind those glass doors next to the commode. Our guide pointed out that the volumes include Captain Cook’s diaries from his explorations of the new world. (I considered pressing my face closer to the glass to see better, but was afraid I would set off an alarm! On the other hand, Captain Cook!!!)
Can I just say that these are the travel moments I treasure, little vignettes that make history or culture come alive. Along with memories like the starchy French waiter who cracked a bawdy joke, the Brits we shared an al fresco lunch with in Ste. Emilion, and hands-on lessons in French cooking, they are the best souvenirs.
Despite our best intentions, including excessive hand washing and flu shots, I picked up this year’s nasty bug and graciously passed it on to my husband. Fortunately we were both able to take the anti-viral medicine and that, along with our flu shots, seemed to lessen the worst of our symptoms. But the lethargy that follows is daunting. I hope you’ll hang in here with me!
Before the influenza assault, I was planning on sharing a side trip we made to Lucca during last fall’s trip to Italy. One of the benefits of traveling independently is the freedom to tinker a bit with the itinerary along the way. And the more we have traveled, the more comfortable we are tinkering.
We had planned to take a train from Florence to Lucca, spend a day, attend that evening’s Puccini concert, and then take three more trains the next morning to spend a day at the Cinque Terra (and then three more trains back to Lucca) to spend another night before moving on to Rome. Was this overly ambitious? Absolutely.
(In fact, seeing this plan in black and white, I have to ask what we were thinking.)
We arrived in Lucca by train, walked from the station and over Lucca’s legendary ramparts to our hotel and promptly fell in love with yet another Tuscan town. Lucca was blessedly quiet after the tourist bustle of Florence, and despite a light rain, the city is made for walking and wandering. We knew right away that this was the ideal place to catch our breath before going on to Rome. The Cinque Terra would have to wait for another trip.
A bit of background. Lucca was founded by the Etruscans and became a Roman colony in 180 BC. One of its claims to historical fame is as the host to a secret conference in 56 BC, at which Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus reaffirmed their political alliance. Although it was conquered by Napoleon in 1805, it had been the second largest independent city state (after Venice) for centuries.
Today it offers stunning churches, cafes and piazzas perfect for people watching, and one winding street after another to explore.
Unlike many of its Tuscan counterparts, Lucca’s defensive ramparts have survived intact and today are a 2½-mile walking/running/cycling ribbon than encircles the city. We walked a significant portion of it the second morning we were there.
Locals clearly savor this space, including this group playing cards at one of the picnic areas along the former rampart. Several women were walking or running the path with strollers. Can you imagine how wonderful living here would be?
San Giovanni Church hosts nightly concerts featuring the music of hometown opera composer Giacomo Puccini. Steve and I know absolutely nothing about opera, but thoroughly enjoyed a concert. Two opera singers, a man and a woman, alternately sang short selections from Puccini as well as a few other works. Their pianist also played two wonderful solos. They also performed together, including a beautiful finale and encore. San Giovanni is a wonderfully intimate venue (below) and they were clearly having as much fun as the audience. I’m sure their energy and joy in the music, as well as our seats in the second row (!) added to our enjoyment. As it ended my husband said, “This is one of the highlights of our trip!”
We had lunch at one of the many cafes that circle the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro. In the second century, this was a Roman amphitheater. While we were there, a bride and groom arrived to take wedding photos. They were enthusiastically greeted and cheered by everyone and then serenaded by one group. How happy, I thought. This is Italy!
San Michele in Foro, dedicated to the Archangel Michael, is built over the ancient Roman Forum. This photo doesn’t begin to capture the beautiful detail on this church.
The Cathedral of Saint Martin, below, is the seat of Lucca’s Archbishop. Construction was begun here in 1063 and the apse with its columnar arcades and the companile are original.
The interior of this church is stunning, including a small octagonal temple or chapel shrine that contains the city’s most precious relic, cedar-wood crucifix and image of Christ or Sacred Countenance, reportedly carved by Nicodemis and remarkably transported to Lucca in 782. The chapel in which it rests was built in 1484 by Luccan sculptor Matteo Civitali. (Can you tell I love relic stories?)
Most of all, Lucca is a series of charming, everyday scenes.
And a few more:
We learned a valuable travel lesson in Lucca: sometimes it’s more important to stop sightseeing and just enjoy the moment.
How about you? Have you come across a travel destination where you just had to sit back and savor the moment?
Last fall as I was telling the multi-part story of our trip to Italy, life and “the holidays” got in the way, so here is my post about returning to Rome. I hope you enjoy it! (You can read about our earlier stops in Tuscany here and Florence here.)
Rome was our last stop in Italy. As with Florence, it was not our first visit. Last year we toured the Vatican Museums, the Borghese Gallery, and the Forum. It was fun going back with some of the tourist pressure off.
We took the highspeed train from Florence to Rome and checked into the Residenza di Ripetta, where we stayed last year. We love this hotel; it’s elegant yet comfortable and ideally situated between Rome’s Piazza di Popolo and the Spanish Steps. It’s just a few short blocks from the Via Corso, perfect for enjoying the daily passeggiata before stopping for dinner in one of the small, local restaurants in the neighborhood.
Checking off another Papal Basilica
There are four Papal major basilicas in Rome: St. Peter’s in the Vatican; St. John Lateran, which predates St. Peter’s and which we visited last year; St. Paul Outside the Walls; and the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. We had seen St. Peter’s and St. John Lateran, so we decided to visit at least one more and Santa Maria Maggiore looked like it was within walking distance of our hotel.
In reality, the church was really only kind of in “walking distance.”
Rome is built on seven hills. What I have been trying to figure out, for two visits now, is why no matter where we are in Rome, we are always walking uphill. AND, if you are going downhill, you are probably navigating ancient, steep, stone stairs. It’s a puzzle.
Santa Maria Maggiore was built in the fifth century and served as the temporary Palace of the Popes after the the Avignon Papacy. Knowing this history I expected it to occupy a distinguished setting, but actually it just appears in an old Roman neighborhood, surrounded by cobblestones that set it apart from the surrounding street. Because Santa Maria Maggiore is a papal basilica, it is used by the Pope, especially on certain holy days.
From here we walked (mostly uphill and then up a remarkable set of stairs) to Saint Peter in Chains (San Pietro in Vincoli), built in the fifth century to house the relic of chains believed to have bound Saint Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem. This minor basilica is home to Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, a massive work.
Taking a museum break
Rome is a lot more than churches.
Capitoline Museums on Capitoline Hill (another hill!) house an amazing assortment of secular art and artifacts that reflect Rome’s history. Once two palaces facing a piazza, the site was redesigned by Michelangelo in 1536. We loved seeing this side of Rome, especially after our previous “day of churches.” But for me, the real star of the day was the view of the Forum and other ruins from Capitoline Hill as we walked out of the buildings.
The Vatican’s Mosaic Workshop
On our last day in Rome we went to the Vatican for a tour of St. Peter’s and the mosaic studios. (And you thought we were done with churches!) We had toured the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel, ending with St. Peter’s, last year. But that tour happened to fall on a national holiday and coincided with a special Papal audience. We were shoulder-to-shoulder with other visitors the entire time.
This year we were hoping for a better experience and, boy, did we get it.
Steve found a tour that included the Vatican Mosaic Studio online with Viator. We joined just one other couple and our very knowlegeable guide early that morning. Contrary to the tour’s description, the guide started our tour in the Mosaic Studio so we would better appreciate the art we would see in the basilica. He knew what he was doing; the studio director took over and led the four of us into what I can only describe as a true atelier or studio, this one devoted to the preservation of the precious (and priceless) Vatican mosaics as well as the creation of newly commissioned pieces.
The studio is discretely located in one of the buildings in the Vatican complex. We began in a room that for all practical purposes was part conference room with a center table for display and part gallery, with a variety of mosaic pieces arrayed around the periphery. Sadly, photos were not allowed. The pieces are ancient and modern, sacred and secular. I assumed that the studio’s purpose was to maintain and/or repair the hundreds of square meters of mosaics in the Vatican. While this is true, the studio also produces new works that the Pope often presents as gifts to distinguished visitors and accepts private commissions from around the world. For example, once we stepped beyond this small gallery into the actual workspace, we saw one artist working on mosaic reproduction of a Monet painting.
In order to perfectly repair the Vatican mosaics the space also accommodates a mosaic library of the stones and colors used in all its artworks. These archives are stunning in both their simplicity and their extent. We were also allowed into another work space housing a small kiln where artists can fire the exact color necessary to complete a new work. There is no part of the mosaic process that is not painstakingly created and/or cared for. And of course, care is evident in every piece the studio creates. I’m not an artist, but I do like to understand the process behind art and this was a remarkable lesson.
The guide was, of course, so right to show us the studio first, because when he took us into St. Peter’s the stunning mosaic art there came alive. St. Peter’s Basilica is Christendom’s largest church; its size and decoration are breath-taking and, as our guide pointed out to us, purposely so. It would be impossible for even a “casual believer” to not be moved by St. Peter’s.
One of the options on this tour was a climb to the top of St. Peter’s Dome. I’m sure the view is stunning, but that’s not my kind of climb (or Steve’s either). So, the other couple left with another guide for that tour and we had a private tour of St. Peter’s. One of life’s better travel surprises.
Sure there were hundreds of others in the the basilica (in fact a group of seminarians was being ordained at the very front), but it felt like it was just us and our guide. Our guide walked us through several pieces, explaining the meaning and symbolism in each mosaic. We also visited the crypt to see where previous popes are buried. I must admit that although we are not catholic, it was amazing to see names recent and historic on tomb after tomb. (Many of the earliest tombs were destroyed long ago.)
We both think our guide made all of this come alive for us. He was more than just knowledgeable, perhaps trained for a religious vocation in an earlier career? As we were leaving St. Peter’s he pointed out one final mosaic in the portico which purports to tell visitors there is more work to do for God as they leave the physical confines of St. Peter’s.
We took this tour on our last day in Rome (our last day in Italy in fact), and we were overwhelmed with all we had seen. We stopped for a coffee then walked through some markets and found our way to Piazza Navona where we had a late lunch, before winding our way to the Spanish Steps and eventually back to our hotel. Here are some photos from that day.
After three weeks in Italy, we were ready to head for home. But now, three months later, I could easily go back. It seems as if there are always new layers of Italy to peel back and examine, new museums, churches, vineyards and towns. I’m not tired of it yet!
Last month we took a terrific, three-week trip to Italy. And, yes, this was somewhat self-indulgent since we had been here just fifteen months before, but the stars lined up and the opportunity was there, so we went.
Our first trip was pretty straightforward: Rome, Florence and Pisa. (You can read my posts about it here and here.) This time our itinerary included Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, Tuscany, a four-night respite in Florence, a train to Lucca for a few days and, finally, another train to Rome before flying home. Our plan was to see a number of new sites and revisit Florence and Rome since they have so much to offer. Was this a lot to cover in three weeks? Probably.
It’s also too much for a single blog post.
I have been trying all week to write about it, but it just sounds like one of those long, boring slide shows your neighbor used to present about their 1964 trip to the Grand Canyon. I cannot do that to you. But I do want to share some fun bits and pieces, in separate posts. Consider this the first installment!
The heart of our trip was a stay in a rural B&B in Tuscany to explore the nearby hilltowns by car. Most Tuscan destinations are built on steep hilltops, the better to protect them from invading forces centuries ago. Part of the charm today is that they remain secluded, off the Autostrada, reachable by winding two-lane roads and/or a funicular. Tourist traffic is not allowed (and frankly, driving their tiny, twisting roads would be more than a little hazardous).
In Tuscany, we stayed at Borgo Argenina, a tiny hamlet of stone farm buildings dating to 998 and restored twenty years ago by owner/host Elena Nappa as a B&B. This was really an amazing destination itself, a little quirky, decidedly friendly, and a remarkable change from tourist-clogged sites.
Directions to Borgo Argenina instruct travelers to turn off the paved road onto the gravel one. Calling this gravel stretch a road requires a leap of faith. It’s a single lane, rutted and rocky, that passes first through some trees and brush and then vineyards. Eventually, the road dips down, then climbs up to the cluster of stone buildings that is Borgo Argenina.
The vistas are stunning (Elena knew what she was doing when she found it) and her hospitality is all you could ask for. Her welcome includes a history of the property, an introduction to the area, and an invitation to join a cooking class tomorrow night. Since we are checking in at the same time as a mother and adult son (from Pennsylvania and California, respectively) and just after a couple from Connecticut, Elena has made reservations for the six of us to eat that night in town at Locanda Del Tartufaio, known locally as Giorgio’s. Elena assures us it is easy to find since it will be the only place in town with lights on at that hour.
And so our adventure begins.
Steve and I settled into a two-room suite on the second floor of the original stable. The rooms feature massive ceiling beams, stone walls and 15th Century hardware on the doors. The plumbing is modern and the bed is comfortable.
Giorgio’s is everything Elena promised. Giorgio is owner and chef. He is also a truffle hunter and his menu will feature those delicacies (a bit of a challenge for a few members of the group who are not truffle enthusiasts). We are the first to arrive and, briefly, the only restaurant guests. It’s a little weird since Giorgio speaks no English, though he does have a server who, though far from fluent, is able to communicate with us. Soon, our fellow travelers arrive, as well as other diners. (All the tables will be full before the evening is over.)
Georgio only serves one menu per night, so there was no need to ponder choices. We just applauded them as they arrived: a selection of bruschetta and cheeses, many of them topped with delicately chopped truffles, a primo course of white lasagna made with homemade pasta and topped with truffles, a secondi of roast beef and roast pork topped by chopped truffles and herbs and served with fresh, roasted vegetables. We finished with a delicate cake topped by whipped cream and fresh fruit. (No truffles!) All of this was accompanied by a seemingly endless supply of wine and conversation. Three-plus hours passed in a flash!
The next day Steve & I drove to Assisi, one of the destinations on our Tuscany list. It was farther away than we realized, but a fairly direct route on the Autostrada.
First, Assisi struck me as pristine. Other Tuscan towns had similar hilltop locations and were essentially all stone, but none of them were as bright and white in Frances Mayes’ famous Tuscan sun. Assisi is not only the birthplace of St. Francis; it is also the birthplace of St. Clare, founder of the Poor Sisters, later the Order of Poor Clares. Despite the crush of tourists we experienced elsewhere, Assisi was surprisingly quiet. I don’t know if we should attribute that to visiting on Sunday or if it is simply the temper of the town.
The cathedral is stunningly simple, inside and out, honoring the beliefs of St. Francis. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside. Although I would have been happy to wander the lanes of Assisi for a few more hours, we really had to head back to the B&B for our cooking lesson with Elena and the rest of her guests.
Elena began her class by walking all eleven of her “students” out to her garden to harvest some herbs, taste some grapes and talk a little more about creating the garden out of the rubble that was there when she acquired the property. Once we were back in her kitchen, she set us to work, washing and trimming basil for pesto, stringing beans, and browning chicken. The real treat of course was learning to make fresh pasta, mixing flour and eggs by hand on her wooden pasta board, then kneading the dough before letting it rest under a damp towel.
As we cooked we shared our travels, drank wine, and took turns with the actual pasta-making. Here’s the finished meal, below, just before serving it around the massive farm table in Elena’s kitchen. It was as fun and festive as Giorgio’s, perhaps more so since there were more of us.
During our 2016 trip to Florence we took a day-trip that included a drive through the Clay Hills, a tour of the Abbazia de Monte Oliveto Maggiore and lunch and wine-tasting in Tuscany. It was a perfect blend of history and culture. So we contacted Roberto Becchi of Tours by Roberto again. (Roberto is a guide recommended by Rick Steves; you may have seen him on one of Rick’s shows on Italy.) Roberto is passionate about history, Italian winemaking, and Siena’s superiority over Florence. (We also found Borgo Argenina via Roberto’s website.) He is fun, knows the best winemakers and the tiniest towns. His tours are limited to eight travelers. A day with Roberto is a personal tutorial rather than a tour.
We started out in Montepulciano, with a short walk thru some of the town’s oldest streets. Although the earliest settlement here dates to Etruscan times, the town was essentially Medieval, then given a Renaissance facelift as evidenced by the more elegant facades added to the medieval structures. (Renovation is hardly a new concept!) Montepulciano was both an ally and a possession of Florence. (Before we checked into Borgo Argenina, we spent one night just outside Montepulciano. We had a delicious dinner at Restaurante Al Quattro Venti on the same square, right.)
Montepulciano is home to the famous Nobile wines, made by individual vintners according to the parameters established by a consortium. While we were in town we visited the centuries-old caves (and tasted the wines) of the De’Ricci winery. The six-story building, whose oldest caves date to the Etruscans, is supported by a huge network of vaults and arches. This construction and the size of the barrels were all astonishing. Roberto pointed out this is Renaissance construction on top of Medieval buildngs.
Next we traveled to the Tornesi winery in Montalcino. Tornesi has been in the same family since 1865. In 1967 Gino Tornesi registered his vines as Brunello, becoming one of the first members of that consortium as a producer. His son Maurizio started the production and business side in 1993 with his first Rosso di Montalcino and his first Brunello di Montalcino. Maurizio showed us around, his daughter led the tasting and we met his mother! This is truly a family business, and I was struck once again by the hard work and commitment to a quality product that the best wineries embody. Wineries are so much fun for us to visit, but some much work and commitment for the growers and winemakers.
Tuscany takes time. It’s easy to start with a list of hilltowns, plot them on a map, and start driving. But if you rush thru the towns too fast, you run the risk of missing the essence of the Tuscan way of life and the people. We had several other towns on our “list” — San Gimignano, Volterra, and Pienza to name just a few, but along the way, we tossed them aside in favor of enjoying where we were at the time. For example, we skipped San Gimignano last year and wanted to get there this time, but then we turned the wrong way and ended up in Rada. It’s tiny and scenic and there were just a handful of other tourists there. We loved exploring its cobbled streets, window shopping, and had a wonderful lunch. In addition to the usual leather and cashmere shops, Rada is home to a handful of artisans whose galleries show and sell one-of-a-kind ceramics, sculptures and even clothing.
We left Tuscany assuming we will return to see more another time, which is pretty much our travel philosophy. After Tuscany, we made stops in Florence and Rome. (Look for future blog posts on those destinations.) We had visited both before, but really thought there was much more to see and we were so right! There’s a lot to be said for returning to a destination when you are even just a little familiar with it.
So, I have been thinking about the pictures of our life lately.
If you follow me on Instagram, this photo of the Chicago River is not new. I took it last week, walking down Madison Street from the train station to the Art Institute. This is workday Chicago, part of what the commuters see (or maybe don’t even see any more) on their daily travels to work or school. It’s not as glamorous as Michigan Avenue or the lake front, but it’s very much the city.
As I was flipping through a week’s worth of photos, I was thinking about how they capture life. We all get cameras (or phones!) out for the big moments: birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, etc. And then there are the vacation photos: the beach, the mountains or even the backyard. But lately I’m thinking about daily life, like this photo of construction at Madison St. and Wabash Ave. My challenge is to capture that.
Last week started on a tough note with the pictures from Charlottesville, Virginia, animated by a sound track my mother would describe as “ugly talk.” Yesterday the country was captivated by the power of Mother Nature and a total eclipse that stretched from coast to coast.
Resilience may be one of life’s most valuable assets.
When I took the shot of the Chicago River, my husband and I were headed to the Art Institute in Chicago to see a current show, “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist.” (If you’re a regular reader, you know this is my idea of a great day and it seemed like a good antidote to the noise of Charlottesville.)
Most of us think of Paul Gauguin as the painter of vibrant and exotic scenes like “Tahitian Women on the Beach.” But this exhibition took a much closer look at his creative process, especially his ceramics and wood carvings. (I know, who knew he even worked in these mediums?)
Gauguin actually began his artistic expression as a wood carver, something he was easily able to do as a youthful sailor. Before he was a painter, before he was a businessman, before he was a husband and father, he was a commercial sailor and traveled the world more than once. The experience had a significant impact on his artistic expression. This single figure, right, is something a sailor would carve.
A number of the wood carvings in the exhibition were flat, including some that were applied to pieces of furniture. We were impressed with the way Gauguin married the finished carving with the rough texture of the original wood.
I also think it’s interesting that this piece and the one below both feature figures similar to many of his south seas paintings, but in the carving, below, he has added color.
In addition to working with wood, Gauguin also created several pieces of pottery, though not all remain due to the fragile nature of the material. Doesn’t the design on this bowl reflect the colors and designs in his paintings?
This smaller vessel with added decoration and figures and all done in a free-form manner is representative of a number of ceramic pieces in the exhibition. The amount of color and detail he added is also reminiscent of many of his paintings.
Regrettably, I did not capture images of his printmaking. I really got caught up in the processes he used. Typically woodblock or woodcut prints are made to create identical copies of a single design. However, in Gauguin’s hands process was different. He purposely tweaked each print, with a wash of color, with different papers and inks. In many cases the prints were displayed as progressions of a design, but not duplicates. Still searching for a better expression.
Steve and I were both struck by how much more Gauguin did than his paintings and about how much more there is to his artistic vision. He tested, experimented, and tried new mediums, always searching for a better way to express himself.
When you think about it, challenging ourselves to progress — in our work, our art, our life — is pretty essential. In this “back to class” season, what are you challenging yourself to do?
My husband and I, along with our children and grandchildren, spent last week on Kiawah Island, South Carolina. It’s safe to call this a family tradition since we have taken this same vacation for almost all of the last 25-plus years. (Some people might call that a rut, but I like to think of it as a home away from home.)
We look forward each year to familiar days at the beach, bike rides on the island, and favorite restaurants, but each trip also seems to have its own adventures. (On the first morning of the first year my daughter-in-law joined us a baby shark was discovered swimming along the beach. We really worried that she’d never come back!) It’s the kind of place where a waiter in your favorite restaurant turns out to be the boy who lived across the street 20 years ago and an old friend from those mommy-and-me days walks by on the beach where you’ve settled in with a book.
Part of the charm of Kiawah (apart from 10 miles of pristine beachfront, protected dunes and a lush, protected landscape devoid of chain stores or restaurants) is that it’s just 20 miles from Charleston, recently named (again) one of the top destinations in the US. We knew this early on. Charleston is ground zero for American history, foodies, and charm.
I am totally charmed by Charleston’s many gardens, some of them public, some more private, and some completely hidden. At this time of year they are very lush and green.
This year my husband and I were in Charleston a day ahead of the rest of the family and stopped for lunch at one of his favorite restaurants. We’d barely settled into our booth when another diner stopped by our table and asked if we were visitors.
Why, yes, we are.
Well, said the diner, I was just given two free passes for Fort Sumter but we’re leaving now. Can you use them? (A bit of history: Charleston’s harbor, where the Cooper and Ashley Rivers merge with the Atlantic Ocean, is also home to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.)
This is one of the tricks of Charleston. The sense of polite, genteel hospitality Charlestonians are known for just starts rubbing off on everyone. And for history geeks like us, the passes were like finding money in the street.
We had been to Fort Sumter years ago, on one of our first trips. Our kids were in grade school then, and it was a very hot day. The best part was the boat ride out there and back; there was very little left of the fort. This time, our daughter, my husband and I made the trip one afternoon. It was not as hot and the boat ride was still fun, but we also appreciated the fort far more. We could not remember if there was a Park Ranger talk the first time around, but there is now and although it was short, we learned a lot.
Fort Sumter was built on a manmade island positioned to guard the all-important Charleston Harbor. After the War of 1812 the U.S. Army realized existing fortifications on either side of the harbor could not stop an attack on the city. Despite the fact that there is very little left of the fort, it was originally pretty large — three stories high and designed to accommodate a substantial number of men and even officers’ families. (It was not yet staffed except for Union troops who had secretly moved there from Fort Moultrie after Lincoln’s election.) After those legendary shots were fired April 12, 1861, and subsequent shelling, the Union Army was ultimately forced to surrender. However, this was still a “Gentleman’s War,” so, until he surrendered, U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson was allowed to receive supplies from the city and use telegraph lines there to communicate with his commanders. (This is, after all, Charleston.) After the surrender Anderson and the remaining soldiers were allowed to leave on a supply ship. They went to New York where they received a hero’s welcome.
And that’s how history unfolds…
For the last few years, my daughter and I have made a point of going into Charleston early one morning so we can walk and photograph the streets. Last year we did this on a very hot, humid Charleston morning and, after an hour or so, we were desperate for cool air. We turned a corner and there was the Nathaniel Russell House, one of the “house museums” operated by the Historic Charleston Foundation, so we went in and took the tour — again. We are “repeat offenders” because although houses like this are historic, they are not static. Continuing research, based on excavations, paint analyses, or even newly discovered documents or furniture often lead to changes in the house as well as its interpretation. (We really are history geeks!)
Last year we had passed the Calhoun Mansion and decided we should visit it next, so this year, after a walk that was far more comfortable (and at least 10-degrees cooler), we headed down Meeting Street in time for the first tour. We knew the house, built a few decades after the Civil War, was different than others we have toured (all pre-Civil War, often by many years). What we did not realize was just how different it would be.
A bit more history: the 23,000 square-foot house was built in the 1870s by George W. Williams, who had made a fortune as a merchant-turned-Civil War blockade runner. The docent who showed us around said the house was constructed in the early years of the Gilded Age (think Vanderbilt and Carnegie), when building mansions to hold vast collections of art, furniture and collectibles was common among men of certain stature. It became known as the Calhoun Mansion when Williams died, leaving the house to a daughter married to Patrick Calhoun, grandson of John C. Calhoun.
I wondered, out loud to the docent, how Charlestonians accepted this mansion in their midst. The city’s residents, once successful landowners and professionals living privileged lives, had suffered terribly during the Civil War and the city had struggled to survive. Post-war society was so polite that those who did have the means to repair or repaint their homes, did so sparingly, not wanting to embarrass friends and neighbors who could not afford to do the same. The docent pointed out that the construction employed hundreds of unemployed citizens for years.
The mansion is packed with furniture and collectibles, but almost none of it is original to the house. Those belongings were auctioned off after Calhoun suffered financial setbacks. The current owner, however, is an avid collector and has filled the house with the same vast quantities of “stuff.” The floors, the woodwork, the Tiffany chandeliers and the glass ceiling in the music room are all beautiful. But I found it hard to focus on most of it, along with the lovely collectibles, just because there was so much stuff. The collection ranges from Tiffany glassware and a Wedgewood-decked chandelier to Kibuki armor and English footstools made from the feet of real elephants. It’s dizzying.
People love it, but I was confused by the clutter and frankly a little “turned off” that a family really lives here part of the time and charges admission to allow tour groups. Am I weird? Probably. Perhaps I just want a “purist approach” to 19th-Century houses.
The gardens were beautiful, but on the whole I’d call this a miss. Interesting, but maybe not for the right reasons.
On the other hand, here are a few more shots from that morning in Charleston.
Whether you are traveling or staying close to home this season, I hope your summer features far more hits than misses!
I could not wait to plunge into our recent travels in France to tell you about Castle Sercy, here, and my day at The Cook’s Atelier, here. But then I thought I should backtrack and give you a look at our trip overall. It was more than castles and cooking.
A few years ago we took a river cruise in France that traveled north from Arles in Provence to Salon sur Saone in Burgundy. We had a wonderful time, we just didn’t have enough time in many of the places we stopped. There were other sights like the Pont du Gard, and towns, like Aix en Provence, along the way, that we never got a chance to see.
We knew we would go back — soon. Then my son introduced me to Ina Caro’s book, Paris to the Past, in which Caro and her husband retraced French history by daytripping via train from Paris to various cathedrals and castles. They did this in chronological order starting with the oldest sight. Since we had already visited Notre Dame, Saint Chapelle and Chartres, I wanted to visit a few more sights on the list.
Burgundy is home to countless small wineries that we could only sample by visiting ourselves, and Steve was eager to do that. I had discovered The Cook’s Atelier in Beaune (a town we loved on our first visit) and was determined to attend one of their daylong cooking classes. If we started in Reims, we could visit the cathedral where centuries of French kings were crowned.
After a few days in Burgundy, we planned to drive south to Provence, exploring more hilltop towns, visiting markets, and, yes, getting lost on more back roads, before dropping the car off in Avignon and taking the train to Paris.
Our travel misadventure adventure begins
We flew into Paris and, on a chilly, drizzly morning with virtually no sleep on the overnight flight, proceeded to drive to Reims in our rented Renault Clio. We paid extra for a GPS system, but never really figured out how to use it, which explains how we ended up heading towards Paris instead of Reims. Fortunately, even my seriously limited French revealed we were going in the wrong direction. Pull over, pull up Google maps, and recalibrate. (This is a little jingle we would oft repeat!)
Here’s what we learned about driving in France: In addition to being in French, the road signs did not indicate direction. Alas, we midwesterners are used to I80 West, I65 North and so on. Not so in France. Keep your eye on the Google map. And here’s what we learned about roundabouts: keep going around until you are sure of the exit you want to take. If you make the wrong assumption and take the wrong roundabout turn off, you can go many kilometers before getting a chance to turn around on these narrow country roads. Tollroads are nice, but not typically very close to the towns you really want to see. (And the country roads are indescribably scenic and fun to travel!)
After our stop in Reims and catching up on our sleep at a hotel in Troyes, we visited the Abbey of Fontenay on our way to Beaune. Founded in 1118 by Saint Bernard as a Cistercian abbey, Fontenay is one of the oldest in Europe. Cistercians vow to live a simple life in poverty. Their monasteries were self-sufficient. By 1200 the monastery was complete and able to serve as many as 300 monks. Despite its initial success, the abbey was attacked and pillaged in the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of Religion. The monks left during the revolution and the property was turned into a paper mill by the Montgolfier family (of balloon fame). Today it is privately owned. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.
True to the abbey’s orders, the buildings are remarkably simple, sometimes even stark, but they feature beautifully vaulted ceilings and generous doses of graceful symmetry.
On to Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy in eastern France. It is also home to the Hotel Dieu, a 15th-century former hospital that is now a Museum. We had toured the Hotel Dieu on our first visit (an intriguing sight), but we were anxious to explore the town, sample the legendary wines, and I would spend a day cooking.
As we explored Beaune on foot on the day before my cooking class, we stopped by The Cook’s Atelier to introduce ourselves. My husband asked about nearby wineries and Marjorie’s son-in-law graciously arranged for us to visit Chateau Pommard, one of the oldest in Burgundy and just a handful of miles away. (And, yet we got ridiculously lost in this tiny town, so much so that we had to call the Chateau and say “this is where we think we are, how do we find you?”)
Although the estate changed hands a few more times and is now owned by an American, it has remained complete and has benefited from significant improvements to the estate management and the winemaking. Pommard wines are known worldwide for their quality, and the tour and tasting was simply wonderful.
By now we were becoming more comfortable with driving in France. We still got lost (often!), but we took it in stride and felt free to stop, take pictures and make impromptu changes to our so-called itinerary. This is what we were hoping for!
Now we know why everyone loves Provence…
Before we knew it the road from Burgundy led to Provence where we finally saw the Pont du Gard, visited Aix, and fell in love with French markets. Provence is absolutely charming and prettier in person that any picture. Really. We just let it unfold in front of us as we traveled.
One of the charms of driving on our own was the freedom to stop and explore, as we did here at Seguret, stopping for a leisurely lunch in an outdoor cafe overlooking the French countryside.
Our plan was to stay in L’Isle sur la Sorgue for a few days (so we could attend their big Sunday market which includes antiques) and then move on to St. Remy. Both towns provided a great base from which to visit other hill towns. (And we did a lot.)
L’Isle sur la Sorgue is larger and has a working class vibe. The town owes its early prosperity to the Sorgue River, which served it well defensively centuries ago, and for the industry and trade the river offered. A number of working waterwheels remain in the heart of town
Today it’s home to many antique stores, typically only open on the weekend for the market (though I’m sure they do considerable private business the rest of the time). In the few days we were there, the people and pace seemed to pick up in anticipation of the Sunday market. We stayed a few miles from town and the hotel advised us to arrive in town on Sunday well before the market opened to assure parking. We did, though parking proved not to be a problem (or maybe we were just really early). So, we grabbed cafes and croissants from a boulangerie and enjoyed the activity as the vendors set up their wares.
I was especially eager to see what the antique dealers would offer and was not at all disappointed. There were linens, dishes, knickknacks, books, paintings and prints, and furniture, some of it just barely vintage but much of it centuries old. Centuries! I think the prices were fair and dealers were willing to bargain, I just had no idea how to get a lot of it home in a suitcase!
As much fun as the markets and specific sites were, driving almost daily through the French country side was just as much fun.
When we moved on to St. Remy I was reminded of the visit we paid a few years ago to the nearby Asylum of Saint Paul Mausole where Vincent Van Gogh went to recover his health; he improved here, and enjoyed an especially productive period, completing almost 150 paintings and a number of drawings from May 1889 until May 1890. (You may can read my post on that here.) One of the disappointments in the last visit was not spending time in St. Remy. This time we stayed in a charming, old hotel on the square. (In France, old means no elevator. We counted 69 steps to our room!)
We loved the weekly market in St. Remy. Like the others it was a colorful mix of fruit, vegetables, sausage, cheese, spices, baskets, t-shirts, linen towels, handmade soap, and local artists. And I’ve probably left out a few categories. Despite the obvious merchandise aimed at tourists, it’s important to remember that most French residents shop these markets weekly for food and to catch up with neighbors. It’s very much a part of the culture.
One of the side-trips we took from St. Remy was to Aix en Provence, a scenic drive on a warm day. I expected Aix to be pretty (and it was) and knew it played a role in the art community (you’ll see that), but we were totally unprepared for how big and bustling it was, especially on its market day (unplanned on our part). The traffic was like rush-hour gridlock. We worked our way towards Paul Cezanne’s studio, found parking in a nearby hospital lot, and walked the rest of the way.
The studio was so worth it. Cezanne had many studios over the course of his career, but this was his last and he had it built to his own specifications, a small, two-story structure on a hill in what was then the outskirts of town. The painting studio, above, was on the second floor, and though he worked every day, he often left the studio and worked outdoors. In October 1906 Cezanne was working outside the studio when the weather turned stormy. He worked for awhile anyway, then decided to go home. Unfortunately, the artist collapsed along the way. A passing driver took him home. He died of pneumonia a few days later. After his death, the Cezanne family simply locked up his studio. After a time the building was sold to a writer, who only used the first floor, leaving all of Cezanne’s art materials undisturbed upstairs. Eventually, Aix grew, and the structure was scheduled for demolition and redevelopment. A group of Americans banded together and saved Cezanne’s studio, donating it as a museum to a local university. The easels, paints, palettes, props, coffee cups – everything in the studio – are as Cezanne left them. Amazing!
After our stay in St. Remy, we dropped our car off in Avignon and took the train to Paris for our last few nights in France. I’ll post about that later. We have been to Paris a number of times, so this was more relaxed than earlier visits, seeing a few sights, shopping a little and enjoying French cafes.
Thanks for stopping by and reading and — hopefully enjoying — this loooong post. See you next time!
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