Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Aix en Provence- It's like a Holiday Inside a Painting

Aix en Provence is a fun and lively city. It is a place where you can make time slow down or a place where you can enjoy an air of sophistication. We have had a lot of fun today just exploring this amazing place on foot.

The Cathedrale Saint Sauver was built in the 12th century. Inside it appeared they were doing some restoration. There was evidence of excavations from most likely Roman times, and if you looked closely, there were pieces of frescos painted in some of the chapels. Sadly the plaster breaks away over time, but it's like looking at a puzzle sometimes and is fun to guess what might have been painted there. There might be a head or a hand peeking out.

The cobblestone streets wind through the old town and vary from one to another. Some have no commercial development and look the same as they probably did 200 years ago while others have fancy shops such as Rolex, but none of them present themselves with any form of glitz. Everything blends in well and is tastefully done.

The Belfy was built in 1510 and when it rings we can see the bell swinging. An astronomical clock was added in the 1600s. Everywhere you look in the town there are fountains and people just enjoying sitting beside them. There are fountains with stone dolphins, fountains covered with moss, and others that even have fish. There are no skyscrapers in the old town and many of the houses have ancient wooden shutters, iron rails over the window, and flower boxes bursting with blooms. It's all very pleasant.

Just around the corner from our hotel, Hotel Du Globe, there is a small museum in an old mansion. The nice thing about it is you can just enjoy the gardens for free. A lot of people were there reading, relaxing, having a picnic, ot writing postcards. Inthe fountain there were goldfish and bigger looking carp, but no turtles.

Dinner tonight was in a restaurant with an outside courtyard. We love how in the evenings here the streets suddenly come alive with cafes with candles on each table. The most lively ones are on Cours Miraeau where one cafe boasts that Picasso dined there. It's very appealing if you are willing to pay $12 for the same glacé (ice cream) that is sold on the atmospheric back streets for $4. On the other side of Cour Mireau they were having an evening craft fair with crafts ranging from lavender to jewelry. There was even a potter's wheel to try and beaded jewelry you can make. This is the perfect town in France. Aix en Provemce- it's like taking your holiday inside a painting!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Charming Aix en Provence

Due to a rail strike, our journey from Arles to Aix en Provence that should have been 90 minutes took five hours, but we made it here and are already loving the friendly upbeat vibe.

Since our train from Arles wasn't leaving untill 1:00, we had some time to see more of the town. In the main plaza at the cathedral, a man was entertaining the crowd playing the trumpet while small children danced in front of him. Even a few couples joined in the merriment of the moment.

We spent some time looking closely at the carvings on the front of the church which is a UNESCO World Heritage sight. We tried to imagine what it must have been like for the artists who did this work. The folds in the robes look real and the eyes of the figures look as if they are looking at you.

The figures in the photo below depict what can happen to those who did not follow the teachings of the church. They are in chains on their way to Hell.

Our train for Aix en Provence was supposed to leave at 1:00, but the board said it was delayed by first 10, then 20 minutes. Because of an intermittent rail strike this holiday weekend, 20 minutes turned into 2.5 hours. We were on the platform waiting with a French family. Each time a delay was announced in French only, we knew it was bad news by the looks on their faces, but they spoke no English and the schedule board was not working so we had to trust that as long as they stayed, the train would come eventually. When they finally announced the train would arrive, we knew the good news when a teenage boy in their family brightly smiled, wiped his brow, and said "Phew!"

After another transfer and layover we finally made it. The Hotel Du Globe where we are staying is centrally located and inexpensive. It was recommended by the NY Times who said it would never win a design award, but is clean and tidy. We ate dinner at a pizzeria and just had fun walking around town. I'll describe the town in detail tomorrow. Meanwhile enjoy our first photos of Aix en Provence.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Candlelight Service Remembering WWI

On our second evening in Bath, England, Dave and I had the honor and privilege of attending a candlelight service in Bath Abbey commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI. The service ran simultaneously with a candlelight service at Westminster Abbey and was one we will long remember.

Before the service began, a candle was passed from person to person in each pew so that the whole cathedral was a thousand pinpoints of light. The service included readings, prayers, hymns, and letters written during the war. These readings, particularly the letters, told of the horrors of war, the fear of the men, and the anguish felt by those left behind. Following each reading, the lights faded into darkness lit only by candles for a time of silent prayer and reflection.

At 10:50 pm, all of the UK were asked to turn off their lights to honor the men. One by one we blew out our candles until only one boy at the altar was left. All eyes gazed in his direction. He paused for a moment and extinguished the final flame casting the cathedral into total darkness.

Singing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" symbolizing the men leaving for war, the choir filed down through the nave and out into the courtyard where their faint voices echoed back in the distance.

In total darkness and in stunned silence not a sound could be heard, not one. Slowly 1,000 people filed out and disappeared into the night. As for me, I never knew my grandparents or their stories, or if they served in WWI, but our lives will be forever touched by what we experienced that night.

(Photo taken at a special WWI exhibit in Bath)

Following in the Footsteps of Van Gogh

One thing that has really surprised us this summer is we have had no brutally hot days. We've been on trips where the only relief from the heat is to find a cafe with misters as we did in Croatia or even buy a bottle of frozen water as we have done in Rome. Today we are lucky again. There's a pleasant breeze making it a perfect day to tour Arles.

The 12th century cathedral is Romanesque meaning there is more stone than wood. It is quite plain compared to the gold we saw in Spanish cathedrals. In the cloisters, we learned about the restoration taking place and how 19th century restoration techniques may have been more harmful than helpful. Still we were able to see some intricately carved stone work. The stonework above the doorway is a UNESCO World Heritage sight and is a textbook example of how the church taught illiterate people about the bible.

Outside the town was getting busy with sightseers, We saw a group of about 20 retired people from a big river boat cruise listening to an orientation of the town. When they were set free in this safe, friendly, easy to navigate on foot town, much to the shock of their English guide, they all turned and headed back to the safety of the ship. We see this a lot with tour groups in Europe. I don't understand why they don't want to actually see the places they have come so far to see.

To launch a new Foundation for Vincent Van Gogh, Arles, we saw an exhibit of many of his original paintings including The Yellow House painted here in town. The exhibit explained that Van Gogh came to Arles in 1888 looking for bright colors and the warm light he found in the Japanese prints he collected. The photos below are photos of the actual paintings we photogrphed in the museum.

In Arles there's a Roman amphitheater. You can go inside, but we learned you can look through the gates for free because there's not a lot left of it.

Van Gogh lived in Arles for a short time and painted many of his famous paintings here. The town has a treasure map you can follow to find the actual sights of the paintings. The one below is the garden Van Gogh painted. Using our Rick Steves' guidebook we retraced Van Goghs steps to many of the other places which he painted.

Tonight was a picnic dinner on the second floor of our accommodation with the help of one of Arles's supermarkets. This is a cost effective way to save money and it wasn't a compromise at all. We are in the courtyard of the small hotel where we are staying and it's as pretty as any restaurant, On the way back to ou r hotel from the store I saw a window almost touching the street with iron bars, It was lit up and to our amazement it turned out we were looking about 40 feet down into an excavation site for Roman ruins.

After dinner we strolled around town and ended up at an outdoor cafe where there was a live jazz band and they were great. Most of the families there were French holidaymakers. It's moments like this where we really enjoy slowing down time and really enjoying life in the moment. As we headed back to our hotel, we could still hear the jazz echoing through the streets!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Long Train Ride to Provence

Today was a transition day and due to a holiday in Spain, it wasn't as seamless as we had hoped. Our train to Arles in Provence was not running today as we expected and our train journey ended up being a long one.

However, alls well that ends well. We took a local train to a town just over the French border on the coast and entertained ourselves by following the journey on a map. The trip from the border station in France to Arles lasted several hours, but it's always interesting to see each small village we pass. I often wonder what it would be like to stop for a moment and explore one. Some look very prosperous while others, particularly in the northeastern corner of Spain, are surrounded with dry scrubland and cactus. The coast of France was striking. Heading toward Nimes, the train wound its way along the coast passing several beaches where 15-20 surfers glided through the waves pulled by kites that danced in the breeze.

When we arrived in Arles, We met several train travelers to Avignon stranded by a train strike. The taxi driver who promised to take us to our hotel ditched us in favor of taking three people to Avignon for 90 euros. He said he would call another cab for us, but he didn't. No worries though. We walked along the river to our accommodation which was only 10 minutes away.

Our small hotel is very pretty. Our room is quite small, but overlooks a courtyard with small tables and plants.

Tonight we ate outside at a cafe called La Piazza de Themes. We laughed when we searched the menu for none existent pizza and realized the restaurant's name was piazza not pizza! After eating we walked around and we're surprised at the number of outdoor cafes full of people even though it's after 11:00pm. Transitions are hard, but after a long day we are here in Provence at last.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Seaside Villages on the Costa Brava

When I was in college I studied for two summer semesters in Madrid and we spent almost every weekend touring the countryside to some of Spain's most famous places: Segovia, Toledo, Seville, and Salamanca. While I loved visiting these historic places with their royal tapestries or Roman aqueducts, my favorite memories often included seeing small villages with whitewashed houses and terra cotta tiled roofs. It's been many years since I've been in Spain and today I got to see some of the same types of villages again, only this time many were in a seaside setting here in the Costa Brava.

Following a list of suggested small villages to visit from the New York Times book 36 Hours: Weekend Getaways in Europe, we set our GPS to Begur, a small village outside Aiguablava. It's a village with cobblestone streets with wrought iron balconies. According to some informational plaques, former residents made their wealth in Cuba in the 1800's and when they returned they built beautiful houses. One house had 19th century scenes from the Americas painted on the outside and the current owners left them intact,

Pals was a village of contrasts. Along the waterfront, cars were lined up bumper to bumper as people spilled out of them with straw bags bursting with towels and beach mats. Stores sold everything from inflatable seaside friends to typical kitschy souvenirs such as dolphin key chains and t-shirts with fish. We were a little surprised the New York Times suggested this until we discovered the old town on the hill. Peaceful cobblestone streets weave in and out between buildings up to a stone castle. Most of it was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, but the tower remained. it is known as the Tower of Horas and the ancient bells ring every quarter hour. When we opened the old wooden doors of the cathedral the whole church was cast in darkness except the stained glass windows behind the altar, but lit up in the corner I spotted a curiosity. At first glance I thought it might be a water vending machine for parishioners which seemed odd, but upon close inspection, it was a vending machine selling votive candles. Walking back down to our car, it almost felt as if we were in Provence.

Continuing on our journey, our GPS guided us up a winding road through the mountains with no signs of anyone living there now, but there is evidence of terrace farming, each section divided with walls made of stones, We stopped on top for a magnificent sweeping view of the sea. In Ireland, there are similar places in the mountains, but all around you can hear the bleating of sheep. Here there was total silence.

At the bottom of the hill perched along the sea was the white washed village I had been seeking: Cadaques. It is a picturesque town with a sea wall that winds along the waterfront. We chose a restaurant based on popularity and this one was full of Spanish speaking holidaymakers. Dave tried his first paella and it was delicious. It was served in a pan hot out of the oven with fresh mussels, shrimps, and clams, After lunch we explored the village and decided that this is a village we would like to stay in someday in the future.

On the way back to Aiguablava we passed more hill towns with whitewashed houses on streets rising up into the hills crowned with a church at its highest point. It's a different Spain than the one I knew back in college with now a new modern vibe, but it's one I will long remember.

Spain's Costa Brava: A Seaside paradise

Rick Steves always suggests taking a vacation from your vacation and today we found the perfect spot: The Paradore De Aiguablava on the Costa Brava in Spain just south of the border of France.

Leaving Barcelona was hard. It's such a fun vibrant city with so much to see. Not only that, our hotel was an amazing value and truly felt like a four star.

We headed north out of Barcelona on a late morning train and were thrilled to actually get seats with some room to spread out. In no time at all we arrived in Girona where the subcompact we rented turned out to be a big tomato red Mercedes. With a GPS we wound our way through the countryside dotted with olive trees to Aiguablava. Our parador is amazing. Perched high in a cliff above the Mediterranean, our view is of the harbor, mountains, and a small seaside village. We couldn't be happier and not only that, there's a cool breeze too.

When I was in college I spent two summer semesters in Madrid. The sessions always ended with a trip to the Costa Del Sol on the south coast of Spain with high rise hotels, discos, and airplanes that flew over the beaches dropping beach balls. I thought it was wonderful, but now that we're older I prefer a more tranquil Setting. Waves roll gently on the sandy beach, boats bob in the waves, and up in the hill are houses, olive groves, and small hotels with stunning panoramic views.

Tonight we had dinner at the Parador's restaurant on the beach. It had outside tables and terra cotta pots with candles lining the steps to the sand. Darkness falls here earlier than in Scotland, but that's okay. Our day ended with all the lights glittering up on the mountains with the sounds of the waves drifting up from below.