We spent three quiet, pleasant days outside of Zurich visiting friends Daniel (Swiss) and Kristy (American) Keller and their three young children. We stayed close to home – both to enjoy the friends who inspired the stop and because Switzerland is incredibly expensive. Beware of spending your dollars there!
One afternoon’s activity was a trip to the swimming pool, attractive to kids and adults alike. Hannah and I enjoyed the novelty of the swimming area including access to Lake Constance/Konstanz (same as the Boden See, for any German-speakers). Good to dip in the lake before trying out the slides. It was fun to take an eager three or four year-old down the slide on our laps!
The next day the two of us ventured just over the nearby border into Germany to the town of Konstanz. Despite a bit of rain, the afternoon was very happily spent in the picturesque town — a popular café offered not only a tasty lunch, but also a good place to read and people-watch. Back at the Kellers’ home in the evening, we were treated to a traditional Swiss dinner of raclette.
The following day, after a wander around Zurich, we caught a train France to visit my Parisian friend Pauline (one of the violinists mentioned in the last blog post) whose family spends part of the summer at their home in Provence.
Oh, Provence! How to describe a place that combines the rustic with the elegant, dry air and rocky earth with the abundance of vineyards and olive groves, quiet with the dawn-to-dusk (and dusk-to-dawn) chorus of cicadas and crickets? Hannah said it felt like we’d stepped into a book, peopled with a varied cast united by their very French-ness – Hubert (dad, economist), Anne (mom, French teacher), Pauline (youngest daughter, violinist), Anne (friend, violinist), Stefan (Hubert’s colleague), Françoise (family friend, voice teacher), and two Catholic priests (one Hubert’s cousin and the other a family friend).
We’ll have lots of wonderful memories…
…Laying in a hammock, sunlight flickering through tree leaves. Lifting a lazy gaze to a view of an olive grove, then young truffle oaks beyond, and a vineyard still further on.
…Hanging onto our seats as we flew along circuitous country roads, Hubert driving as perhaps only a self-assured Frenchman could.
…Bouncing along in the 30-year-old Citroën convertible on the way to Sunday morning mass in a Romanesque basilica in a neighboring town, home to bishops during the popes’ exile in nearby Avignon in the 14th century.
…Visiting a lavender farm, the scent infiltrating the air conditioning of the car as we drove and filling the farm’s tiny shop that boasted an array of lavender products. Most of the fields had already been cut, but some still stretched in long rounded rows of purple haze.
…A late-afternoon hike in the hills of the Rhone Valley. The six of us (plus a dog) managed to incorporate some unintended bushwhacking, despite a map. (The retiring Stefan, with his tentative English, remarked to me in an undertone: “If we get completely lost for two days, we could always eat the dog,” and added with a finger to his lips and a mischievous look, “Don’t tell!”)
…Coming home from our hike at 11:00 p.m. and seeing the Milky Way twinkling above us. The last evening Hannah and I lay out on the patio looking for shooting stars.
…Markets. Anne and Françoise went to buy groceries, and we younger women to meander amidst the colorful array of breads, meats, seafood, huge (as in 3-ft.-diameter) pans of paella, cheeses, vegetables, clothes, soaps, etc.
…Music floating from the house…violin from Pauline and Anne or an occasional bit of flute from Hubert wafting from upstairs, piano from the baby grand downstairs, Flamenco guitar from one of the visiting priests. (Pauline’s mom declared: “The only thing I have in common with the French kings is that I am constantly surrounded by musicians.”)
…Meals together outdoors, sheltered from the baking sun by a sturdy porch and made interesting with a strong breeze. Hearty white bread and homemade apricot jam for breakfast, endless cantaloupes, savory meats that beckoned from the kitchen long before dinner, cool salads with vegetables fresh from the market, a cheese course offered after nearly every meal.
…Lots and lots of French at mealtimes, interspersed with sparse translations and a healthy dose of laughter and jokes and imitation of accents.
Well, time doesn’t stand still anywhere, and the last day of July saw us en route to Barcelona. Besides the trek including 5 different trains, we managed to get quite stressed out with ticket issues. Wanting to print our boarding passes for trains 3 and 4, we were told we should have done that in Spain. Uh, we were going to Spain, and the tickets were purchased from the U.S.! Finally, with a stamp that at least looked official from the info desk at the train station in Narbonne and some urgent prayers, we were allowed with no difficulty, as it turned out, onto the train.
For months we had been anticipating being in Spain, carving out nearly two weeks to visit long-time family friends who live in the foothills of the Pyrenees outside Barcelona. Sadly, our visit coincided precisely with an unanticipated trip back to the States for them for a family emergency. Suddenly, nearly two weeks in Spain seemed like a very long time.
However, the Haleys left us not only their house to call home for the fortnight but also a list of things to see in the area and the keys to their car. Hannah ended up stuck with all the stick-shift driving, although I tested her patience with lots of backseat driving advice and one brief stick-shift attempt.
Needless to say, we had a lot of adventures! Without question, La Sagrada Familia, the cathedral designed by Gaudi and nearing completion decades after his death, is the most worth-your-time-and-money sight in Barcelona. Although I’d toured the cathedral five years ago when I visited the Haleys then, it was remarkable to see what progress had been made – from workmen sawing stone inside and a gaping gap in the ceiling to a nearly-finished interior. We spent four hours craning our necks at detail, admiring the columns rising like tree trunks and branching into decorative supports for the ceiling, soaking in the light streaming through the vibrant stained glass, descending the 400 stairs of one of the towers, admiring the grand entry doors featuring the Lord’s Prayer in different languages, and contemplating the two completed façades – the warmth and joy of the Nativity Façade and the angular, poignant Passion Façade.
Besides the Gaudi cathedral, we visited another beautiful church, a huge market (La Boqueria), an extensive park designed by Gaudi (nice place, but oh-so-hot in August),the Picasso Museum (with many of his early works, which are stunning and not at all like his later works), a very cool set of fountains sporting a music/light/water show, and a beautiful musical hall. One day we hung out with cellist friend Ernesto and two of his friends, also visiting Barcelona for a few days — swimming (the three Italians) or reading on the beach (Hannah and I), market, a Spanish restaurant (4 of the 5 of us sharing a large skillet of paella), an attempt to find a jazz concert in the park.
Despite the many interesting things to see in the city, the commute (1 1/2 hours by car/train each way) was exhausting! If Barcelona was at times extremely hot, smelly, and touristy, a couple quiet days at home and a few exploring the surroundings compensated wonderfully. Two days we drove up the coast about an hour and a half to a series of pebbly beaches and rocky coves. With borrowed snorkeling gear, we enjoyed the underwater scape. Perched on the rocks, we got tanner than most summers (if Holder girls can tan) and breezed through books (Emma for me – great beach reading).
Our other day outing was to Montserrat (Serrated Mountain), a jagged landform rising to the east of Barcelona. It’s famous for its 1000-year-old monastery and is a stop along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, as well as being popular for rock-climbing and hiking. Aside from choosing the hottest possible time of day for hiking, it was a successful trip. Particularly interesting were the cliff dwellings of hermits of long ago.
…Back in Vienna (after a 5-hour plane delay in Barcelona – at least I wrote most of this a blog post!), a few funny you-know-you-are-in-Europe if…
…when in Spain, you think that the friendly woman at the post office said that she thinks you can buy postcard stamps at the Tabac (tabacco) shop. (You aren’t quite sure, since the remnants of your high school Spanish have been all but obliterated by German vocabulary.)
…you see people everywhere wearing clothing or accessories decorated with the American flag (wait, huh?).
…you wonder if people at the beach are staring because you are wearing too much clothing.
…you forget which country you are in and say “Entshuldigung” when you bump into someone in France; “Merci” when you are grateful in Spain; and, especially to your embarrassment, “Gracias” to the waiter at the restaurant back in Vienna.