We went to Tuscany!

Tuscany really does look like this. This is the view from the terrace at Borgo Argenina.

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!

This is part of the remaining fortifications in Orvieto. Although it is actually in Umbria rather than Tuscany, Orvieto was on the road between Rome and Florence making it geographically and historicqlly important.

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).

 

This was originally a stable on the first floor with living space above.

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.

Looking back down to the gravel driveway.

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!

This is looking outside the walls of Assisi.

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 honoring St. Francis.

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.

Pasta making is messy but fun (kind of like Play Doh for adults) and like so much of cooking, I think it’s a technique that really requires practice.

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.

The finished meal, before we sat down to enjoy it.
Sitting rooms at the Borgo Argenina show off the original arched brick ceilings. Elena spent seven years renovating the property.

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.

Montepulciano’s Palazzo Communale is strikingly similar to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

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.)

 

This well in the Piazza Grande (home to the Palazzo Cumunale and Duomo) was fed by by rainwater from nearby palazzos. It’s topped by the Medici coat of arms flanked by lions (representing Florence) and smaller griffins (Montepulciano). And that is very much the history of Montepulciano. In the background is the former court house.
The Sanctuary of San Biaggio outside Montepulciano’s walls was a model for St. Peter’s in Vatican City.
The interior courtyard of a palazzo that is now a B&B. Those lovely arches and pillars are duplicated on a second story, above.

 

The vaults and barrels in the De Ricci cellers are legendary.

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.

Tornesi vineyards.

 

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

Tanks for stopping by! See you next time.

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More from my miscellaneous file

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?

Thanks for stopping to read. See you next time!

 

 

 

 

A hit, a miss, and a tradition rolls on

This was my morning walk to the beach on Kiawah Island.

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.

A hit.

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.

The boat to Fort Sumter offers a good look at the U.S.S. Yorktown, a decommissioned aircraft carrier. It’s another great side trip when you need a beach break.

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 actually the site of two Civil War battles. As a result there is very little left of the original fort.

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…

A miss.

Look at the detail in this brickwork! From our walk around Charleston.

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!)

 

These tiny front gardens, often bordered by boxwood, are so pretty and make the most of small spaces.
Another garden bordered by beautiful wrought iron fencing. This fence is very elaborate, but it still allows the homeowner to show off her garden.

 

A view of the Calhoun Mansion’s piazzas, or side porches.

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.

Calhoun House gardens featured beautifully tended boxwoods, brick paths and a number of water features.

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.

 

A lot of Charleston houses are stucco . I especially like the black iron and trim. I know, here I go with fences again, but look at how the vines have woven themselves into this wrought iron. Finally, I love this window box. Nothing fancy, but so lush!

Whether you are traveling or staying close to home this season, I hope your summer features far more hits than misses!

Thanks for stopping by and see you next time!

PS: You can follow me on Instagram here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Losing ourselves in France

St. Remy, Provence, where every doorway is decked out with flowers and/or greenery and/or cafe tables.

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.

Somewhere on the road from Burgundy to Provence, stopping yet again to re-calibrate Google maps, but just look at these vines!

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!)

The day we arrived in Reims was the annual celebration of Joan of Arc’s arrival there with the young Charles II for his coronation. (This cathedral was the sight of French coronations for hundreds of years.) It made visiting the cathedral a little challenging, however you could not help but be charmed by the locals dressed in medieval garb and recreating processions through the town.

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.

Abbey Fontenay lived up to the Cistercian principles of simplicity, but did so elegantly.

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.

Pommard includes two chateaux, the first built in 1726 by a member of Louis IV’s court. The French Revolution forced the Marey-Mogne to sell the chateau, though they retained the vineyards (known as clos because they are enclosed by stone walls) during their exile from France. After the revolution, the family built a second chateau. Eventually both chateaux and the Clos were united under single ownership.

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.

 

The vineyards, top, and the cellars, above, have changed little in over two hundred years.

 

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!

 

When we left Castle Sercy, M. de Contenson suggested we stop at nearly Cormatin, a largely restored chateau, an unscheduled but memorable stop and a testament to the challenges of restoration.
It took a while to realize that the small bursts of red along the roadside were wild poppies. Beautiful!

Now we know why everyone loves Provence…

It’s easy to forget that this part of France was once part of the Roman Empire and the Romans were amazing engineers. The Pont du Gard was part of a sophisticated aqueduct delivering water to a number of Roman towns.

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.

Unlike a few other towns, the day we happened upon Seguret, the town was very quiet, encouraging us to walk its cobbled streets.

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!

 

Stacks of china!

 

Something for everyone here.
Tables of Majolica. Where to begin?

As much fun as the markets and specific sites were, driving almost daily through the French country side was just as much fun.

Rousillon is postcard-pretty and immediately recognizable for its ochre-colored clay, which nets the ochre pigment so popular with artists.

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!)

A St. Remy doorway: flowers, shutters, stone.

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.

 

No French market is complete without fresh herbs and a few vegetable plants.
Sausages are a regular component of the French menu. Here is a market day sampling.

 

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!

So many pictures, so little time. I could not resist adding this shot of a road leading out of St. Remy, perfectly lined with clipped plane trees, a familiar sight in Provence.

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!

PS: I love Instagram and post there often. Follow me here. 

 

 

 

 

 

We almost had a castle in France

The hoarding tower.

If you follow me on Instagram, you know we recently traveled to France and you also probably saw my post about the French castle that is, sadly, not in our family. But, in sixteen days of wonderful sights, sounds, tastes and people, the morning we spent at Sercy Castle has to be among the best of the best.

A bit of the back story.

Last year I gave my husband an international membership to Ancestry.com so he could pursue his mother’s family roots in Europe. The genealogical research was full of surprises, not the least of which was this castle in Sercy, France. In truth, the Castle Sercy part of the story required a few “leaps of faith” to get to the 12th century, but it was fun to pursue. In reality, our visit here was absolutely wonderful (and, no, these are not the right Sercy’s!).

I’m not sure what I expected. We had seen a few Google pictures on the web, but when we came around the bend in the road on this particular morning and saw the castle in person, I was totally blown away. A stone castle, with turrets and a diminutive lake out front! As one friend noted, it’s just like Cinderella! But of course, it’s very real with a very interesting history.

This is the castle kitchen.

Castle Sercy is a 12th-century structure, in Southern Burgundy near Tournus. Although it is not normally open to the public, except for certain special occasions, Steve had corresponded with the current owner and his welcome was genuinely gracious. The castle’s current owner, a retired naval officer and descendant of several centuries of owners, greeted us warmly and invited us into the small home he & his wife share on the property. (The castle has no running water or electricity, making residence there somewhat inconvnient.) Over coffee he shared some castle and family history.

Start in the 12th century

Construction on the Château de Sercy started in the 12th-century and continued for the next few hundred years. By 1470 the Château had become a fort with ramparts and a moat. The Sercy family owned the Château de Sercy (hence the name) from its initial construction until the 16th century when Philibert Sercy died in Lyon. The Château was subsequently uninhabited for over two hundred years and fell into ruin. It was sold in 1771 to a French army officer and then sold again in 1785 to an ancestor of the present owner.

The Romanesque Chapel is also the burial site for generations of the castle owners.

Those owners were royalists who were beheaded during French Revolution (Really!). Their very young daughter was spared, but the castle was sacked, its furniture taken, its sculptures and fireplaces broken and archives burned. Later, after the daughter had grown and married, a major reconstruction took place from 1811 to 1815 and the Château de Sercy was inhabited once again. Much later, in 1929, a major fire destroyed much of the structure, although some of the best parts of the Château were saved. In 1954 the family began to rebuild, again.

Castle living today

The French government can classify a building or part(s) of a building as historically significant. Castle Sercy’s round, northwest tower with the raised roof supported by a substantial network of wood pillars and trusses, called a hoarding, was built sometime in the 15th century to defend the castle. It’s one of the oldest hoardings in France, making that part of the castle historically very significant.

We had access to a limited part of the interior, but the owner did share the original castle kitchen with us, along with the courtyard area which dates to the 12th and 15th centuries. Despite the lack of conveniences like electricity or running water, the owners do use the main salon in the summer, as well as an adjacent room. Interestingly, the fireplace in the main salon is also classified for historical preservation, and has been restored but fires are not permitted per the architect.

We walked the grounds to see where the castle walls had once been and the moat beyond the walls. We also visited the castle’s Romanesque chapel where generations of forebears are buried. The chapel walls and ceiling are beautifully decorated in great detail.

Part of the courtyard dating to the 12th century shows more of the timber framing.
Detail of the restored fireplace in the main salon features remarkably delicate stonework and the owner’s family crest.
Another space awaiting restoration.
The chapel’s interior.

 

Rather than being disappointed that our family is not related to the castle’s original owners (which really was long shot!), Steve and I were both totally charmed by our time at Sercy and honored to have the opportunity to visit. It was a remarkable look at castle life “then and now” as well as a very personal lesson in one family’s French history.

Thanks for coming along.

See you next time!

 

One very good friend and two museums

We have not seen the sun here in Chicago for 10 or 12 days. It’s getting old. Really old.

It hasn’t been “Chicago cold” (sub-zero or at most in the teens) and there is no snow. And while I certainly don’t bemoan the absence of cold and snow, they at least provide a little drama. This is just bleak, damp, often rainy, and gray. Very, very gray.

What have I been up to, besides complaining?

placewhite3Last week one of my oldest friends, one I never get to see enough of, suggested we meet in Elmhurst (another Chicago suburb) to check out exhibits at the local art museum and historical society. What a great day she planned for us!

The art museum is connected to the Mies van der Rohe McCormick House (one of only three houses that he built in the United States) which it acquired some time ago. The pairing of the house with the museum reflects the museum’s philosophy that “people from all walks of life and professions can learn how to see and to think differently through the study of art, architecture and design.”

The exhibit we saw is called “Sense of Place,” and it’s designed to consider the various ways we “map the places of our lives.” It also celebrates the museum’s 20th anniversary by recognizing its founding artists. I have to say, Laura and I were both (a) impressed by the museum and (b) taken aback by the opening gallery in this exhibit, a residential room, completely washed in white paint — chairs, sofa, tables, lamps, books. And it invited visitors to leave their mark, so to speak, using available crayons or colored pencils, to doodle, scribble, whatever. (Mine is at the start of this post.)

Since the exhibition opened in December, it was already heavily doodled. In fact, finding a blank space for our own doodles was tricky. And I honestly don’t know which I found more unnerving, the totally white background or the scribbles everywhere. What do you think? (This was called Welcome Home Coloring Book, by Donna Castellanos, mixed media, colored pencils, salvaged furnishings.) I think initially at least Laura and I both started channeling our mother/grandmother selves, “you wrote on what?”

placewhite4 placewhite1

The exhibit as a whole (it included 39 artists, some with more than one work) offered a genuinely diverse view of “Sense of Place,” everything from video to collage to oil on canvas. (And this is where I wish I’d taken more photos, but I just got caught up in looking! And I have to apologize for what I do have here, it’s pretty paltry.)

bestmedicineWe both loved this oil on canvas, Best Medicine, by Cassandra Swierenga. Did we like it because it was a familiar medium, great color, a happy, loving moment between a mother and three daughters? Probably all of the above. It seems reminiscent of a time and place you have experienced and hope to again.

marionmahonygriffinAfter the art museum, we stopped for lunch at a wonderful restaurant, then walked over to the Elmhurst History Museum to acquaint ourselves with Marion Mahony Griffin (1871-1961), one of the country’s first female architects and a central figure in the Prairie School of Architecture. It’s impossible to overlook the impact of architecture on Chicago, particularly the Prairie School and Frank Lloyd Wright, but Marion Mahony Griffon was a revelation to us.

Marion Mahony was Wright’s first employee and a key member of his Oak Park Studio for 15 years, but her work, as well as that of others in the studio was downplayed by Wright. Interestingly, her senior project at MIT was the design for this home and studio. If you visit the Wright home and studio in Oak Park, built somewhat later, it’s impossible to ignore the similarities.

mmgrendering

Architectural historians believe that Mahony’s distinctively-styled renderings, which share many similarities with Japanese woodblock prints, contributed significantly to the Prairie School style of architecture, landscape and design.

According to Wikipedia, when Wright left his first wife and fled to Europe with his second in 1909, he offered the Studio’s commissions to Mahony. Although she declined, she was subsequently hired by Hermann V. von Holst, who had accepted the work. In this capacity, she retained design control and was the architect for a number of commissions Wright had abandoned. She eventually partnered with Walter Burley Griffin on a number of projects. Mahony and Griffin married in 191l, eventually taking their prairie style to projects in India and Australia. After Griffin’s death in 1937, she completed their unfinished commissions but did little more to further her own career.

In so many ways, it seems, Marion Mahony Griffin’s talent was co-opted by the men around her. And that’s a familiar story.  I’m so glad we “discovered” her!

See you next time!