2013

Christmas Markets, Cologne

Weekend in Cologne (2.5 hours by car) from Lux to enjoy the best Christmas markets Germany has to offer. We hit the four large Christmas Markets - the main one at the Cathedral, the Angel Market, the Market of Fairy Tales, and the Gnome Market plus a 5th one called the Harbor Market. (There are 7 Christmas markets in total.) There are special themed gluhwein mugs for each market. I collected many of them. Hopefully you get a sense of how festive and well done these markets are.

 

3 Days in Chianti, ITALY

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In last weekend’s NY Times Travel section, there was an article about Chianti, Italy.   It was one of those 36 hour travel stories.   If you are contemplating a trip to Chianti (the Tuscan region between Florence and Sienna) without children, this is the article you should read.  If you are contemplating a trip to Chianti with children, you should expect to do roughly half of this list in double the amount of time.

Our family travel brand is becoming one where we like to mix city and rural travel in the same trip.   That combination isn’t possible without the luxury of a car or time, but when we get both – we find ourselves gravitating towards a balance of urban sightseeing and the active boy version of quiet retreat.  With that in mind, we decided to stay in a redone old farmhouse in Strada in Chianti (the circle closest to Florence.)  Too far to be a suburb, more like an exburb of Florence, the farmhouse was in the middle of vineyards and olive trees with enough grass to play football (Mama joined in too) and a nearby forested area teeming with wild boar hunters.

There is not much to suggest in Strada itself, save for the one recommended restaurant, the Padellina.  Known for its Bistecaa alla Fiorentina, we choose it among the four restaurants in town for our inaugural Tuscan dinner.  Arriving just before the dinner rush at 8pm on a Saturday night, we were turned away (rudely I might add) because we did not have reservations and they were “full” although there wasn’t yet a single patron in the restaurant.  If felt spurious in the moment, but upon reflection – it was consistent with other experiences we’ve had in Europe.  With value placed on unhurried dining instead of turning tables, the results are often only one to two seatings a night.  I just wish he could have been less patronizing about it so as not to cause even a hairline fracture in my certainty that Italians are the continent’s most warm and friendly people.

The irritation of that miss dissipated exactly 20 minutes later when we took a seat here.  Located up a steep zigzagging road from the town of Greve (also circled) is a hamlet called Montefioralle, population 100, with this small family trattoria called La Castellana.  With only ten tables, a prudently placed call from the car got us a Saturday night seat for what was not only a memorable first Tuscan meal – but one of the best meals we’ve had so far in Europe.   There was most definitely wild boar on the menu, and complimentary house-made grappa and limoncello to encourage us to linger long enough for our youngest to fall asleep.  By night, I was dreaming of spending a month in the kitchen of La Castellana working alongside the chef matriarch and her daughter learning how to make traditional braised beef, gnocchi with wild boar ragu, taglierini with fresh truffle, and squash blossom ravoli.  By morning, I was calling to make a reservation for the following night.  Eating at the same place twice in a row is not our family travel brand, but there are exceptions to every rule and this was one.

Day 1:  Florence

After some pointless discussion about driving or busing into Florence, we made the decision to drive the 30 minutes from Strada and park.  Totally the right call.  If you have a car and there are plenty of parking garages, best not to roll the die with Italian public transportation.  With only one day in Florence, we decided to “plaza hop”, tour The Duomo, walk across the Ponte Vecchio and past the Uffizi, and find the best pizza in the city.  I don’t know if was, but Gusta Pizza had us and crowds of other people eating out of the palms of their well-floured hands.   The boys unanimously rated Rome higher than Florence, but that could have been because we were packing everything into one day or we spent a smidgen too long in the colorful but gritty outdoor market near the Church of San Lorenzo.  Even children can sniff out cheap leather, clothing, and souvenirs.  With a second day, we would have gone into the Uffizi … but instead we moved to the countryside.

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Day 2:  Spin the Bottle and pick a Winery

So there’s a lot of Chianti in Chianti.  Chianti has apparently evolved a lot since the 70s where it used to have a reputation of being low quality, but nowadays with the modification of the DOP grape mix (80% sangiovese grape + rest as you like) you can find a huge range of it.  There are eight Chianti regions for starters.   Without any predestined organization, it turned out that we were in the classified region of Chianti Classico – the most highly regarded of the eight regions.  Designated by the Black Rooster trademark, there are more farm houses/tasting rooms making/serving Chianti Classico per capita than Dunkin Donuts in Boston.  Given this abundance of opportunity, you need a guiding principle.  Ours was to listen to our Italian host Lucca who recommended a guided tour and tasting at Carpinento in Dudda (circled on map).  Learning from the previous day’s failure, we called ahead to make a reservation and confirmed that yes, of course, children would be welcome – it’s Italy!  Given the time of year, we were the only ones there and so were able to get a well-informed and generous private tour in English.   The boys especially liked seeing the bottling production in process and absorbing all the stats and figures (export to 70 countries, 2.5 million bottles per year, etc.)  The highlight for Brett and I was leaving with two cases of tasty wine (12 bottles) for just over 100 euros.  

Dudda is tiny, but also home to a small trattoria, with the unexceptional name Casa Al Chianti.  Lucca, our host who has several rental properties throughout Italy, told us that it’s the one place he eats every time he comes to Chianti because of the quality and price.  Having just dropped the 100 euros on vino and seeing that Lucca had been right about everything so far, that sounded good to us.   Fittingly we were served by a couple of Italian grandmothers where there were no printed menus, only a portable chalkboard (in background of photo below.) 

Fueled again, we then explored the bigger town of Greve – enjoying the beautiful triangle square that was written about in the NY Times article.  We also stopped in Le Cantine (also written about in the article) – perhaps the biggest wine store in Chianti.  The boys were able to taste test olive oils for free as Brett and I went to look for specific Chianti we had had for dinner the night before.  Had we not just come from the Carpinento tasting with boys winding down in endurance and understanding (“Didn’t you just buy wine?”), we might have stayed for the sheer enjoyment of using their automated system where you insert a card you purchase the register and press the button for the wine you want to taste.  It was a lovely, if not Americanized, version of a modern tasting room.  By the end of the afternoon, the boys were piled in the car while Brett and I did our best to choose a sausage from the overwhelming huge butcher shop also mentioned, Antica Macelleria Falorni.  The plan was to leave the boys at home with the sausage and other antipasti while Brett and I returned to one of the many enticing looking restaurants in Greve for dinner … but that was before we got the fireplace fire going back at the barn … 

Day 3:  Countryside Villages

By Day 3, it was time to check out and continue our trip further south into Umbria.   We had a late check in in Umbria, and so we wanted to take our time experiencing the village life of Chianti by driving along the Chiantigiana Road (SS222).  I should qualify that the “we” is this scenario was Brett and I.  The older boys made sure we knew exactly how much time we would save by taking the motorway.  Our first village stop was Panzano (circled).  This is what the 36 hours writer had to say about Panzano:

“A hilltop village may be an unlikely location for stylish fashion, but at the leather-specialty shop Verso x Verso, in the small town of Panzano in Chianti, that’s exactly what you’ll find. Even more surprising is that all the beautiful clothing and accessories on display can be made to order. So would you prefer a rounded or square toe on that handmade pair of caramel-hued oxfords? Or would you like to be fitted for a bespoke jacket — the double-zippered style in orange goat suede is gorgeous — by the Florentine-trained designer herself? After placing your order, stroll down the cobblestone alleys of this medieval village and indulge in the sunset views.  Remain in Panzano to partake in the evening’s carnivorous feast at Officina della Bistecca, a restaurant owned by the eighth-generation butcher Dario Cecchini…”

There was no strolling down the cobblestone alleys of this medieval village.  In fact, we didn’t end up getting out of the car in Panzano.  Someone (I don’t even remember who now) was in a mood and at 10 am it wasn’t exactly prime time to see a butcher.  As a substitute, we took this moment to clarify with everyone that a) yes, we would be getting out the car at the next village, b) we would all have good attitudes about it and c) no one would mention the motorway again.

By the time we got to Volpaia, everyone was on board with the reiterated plan allowing us to relish this unspoilt village -- now used exclusively as a wine estate.   Evidence of the wine production is in all the ancient houses, deconsecrated churches and all the village inhabitants are directly involved in the winery, osteria or lovely café where we stopped for an espresso and piece of coffee cake.  It felt like something out of a movie.  We learned that they have guest houses nearby, host weddings and offer cooking schools (which I bet are fabulous given the surroundings.)  We wandered in and out of the cobblestone streets, making up for missed time in Panzano, spotting vines of the berries we had just enjoyed in our pastry treats and forgetting that we had any place to be.  Brett declared it his favorite Italian hillside village thus far in our travels ...

Next stop was only 7 kilometers away in Radda in Chianti, another hub of Chianti tourism.  We bypassed Castellina in Chianti ( a stop in the 36 hour writer’s visit) in favor of Radda, a smaller but more charming (and probably more touristed in high season) version of Greve.  While we only had another yummy lunch (it’s hard to miss with fresh pastas) and a quick walk through in Radda, we decided that if we were to come back to Chianti we would lean towards staying in this area.   Without the need to do Florence, Chianti gets more and more appealing the further south you go and Radda is a good hub from which to visit Volpaia again, Siena (a place we didn’t get to on this trip) and would also be more convenient to Montalciono and Montepulciano  for a full Italian wine experience. By midafternoon, it was finally time to high tail to the motorway for Part 2 of our fall trip to Italy ... but that is for another post.  Now I need a lie down and perhaps ... a small glass of Chianti Classico.

If you go to Antwerp (this seems unlikely, huh?)

 

I’m going to assume that should you be afforded the opportunity to travel in Europe and you’re not in the market for diamonds, there is about a 1.5% chance that Antwerp, Belgium will be on your must see list.   It would be like someone traveling to the US with a burning desire for a Midwest stop in Indianapolis instead of Chicago.  On the website versus, when comparing Indianapolis to Chicago two of the ten reasons for Indianapolis were possibility of drinking in public places and substantially more Facebook users.  Antwerp is to Amsterdam what Indianapolis is to Chicago in terms of proximity and size, except I’m pretty confident that unlike Indianapolis, the opportunity to humiliate oneself on social media is far greater in Amsterdam.  Two pluses for Antwerp versus Amsterdam:  appreciably less rainy days and has mountains somewhere nearby.

My sister and brother-in-law came for a visit last month.   My brother-in-law stayed for ten days while my sister Beth stayed a few extra days.  With those extra days, we wanted to have some sister time away from Luxembourg just the two of us which was close and accessible by train (of which Amsterdam doesn’t qualify) with mountains of shopping (of which Germany does not qualify unless you are looking for a car, household item, or solid parka.)  Paris, of course, was the natural first choice – except Beth and Matt smartly decided to take the romantic route by building in a few days of their trip together in Paris.   They also did the evening Paris Fat Tire Bike Tour, which you should add to your travel wish list.

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  This is Beth and Matt in all their Parisian meets Hitchcock
glory.

This is Beth and Matt in all their Parisian meets Hitchcock glory.

 

Antwerp was the second best choice.  Not Brussels because nobody likes Brussels.  And not Bruges, because with all due respect to medieval architecture and UNESCO World Heritage status, this was a Jimmy Choo Choo Choo kind of trip.

Boarding the local train on a Sunday afternoon, our first order of sisterly business was to photograph our being together.   The great thing about sisters is that you can insist on as many retakes of this photo as you want without any fear of being called high maintenance.   We have the same nose.  No, actually hers is bigger.  I can say that because I have more wrinkles.

    
  
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  This is the one we decided on.  There are only two people in the world that
know how many photos preceded this one, and where to find the really good ones
from yesteryear.

 

This is the one we decided on.  There are only two people in the world that know how many photos preceded this one, and where to find the really good ones from yesteryear.

Four hours and one train change in Brussels later, what might have felt like finally but felt instead like already? in the presence of someone you adore, the train rolled into Antwerp Central Station.  It’s a super cool train station – some say the most beautiful in Europe – and it has a Starbucks with lots of seating and local college students.  The youth vibe is present wherever you go, making the small town of Antwerp feel more cosmopolitan.  Naturally we both had to go to the bathroom in the train station were the toilets cost one euro in contrast to the free toilets on the train, but here too there was no fear of someone not understanding your bladder.

It was raining.  Appreciably.  This condition continued for the duration of our stay, spasmodically with high winds, and never did I see anything aping like a mountain.

In a city of youth, it felt wrong to hail a cab – so with map in hand, we soldiered on in the rain from Central Station to our hotel in the heart of downtown Antwerp. I use the word "soldiered" intentionally as my feminine sister Beth was previously a US Army soldier and knows her way around a map.  (As an aside, it tickled me proud with understanding to see her husband write this on her Facebook wall yesterday for Veteran's Day: "Happy veterans day to the most beautiful women to ever wear army boots and shoot an M16." )

As it was a Sunday, most of the stores were closed along the main shopping street of Meir.  The Chocolate Line, a famous Belgian chocolate shop we had read about, was however open.  We stopped in for a taste, as you would if you were to see an old palace that had been converted into a scrumptious looking chocolate shop.   We also bought a chocolate bar for later.  Fifteen minutes after that, we found ourselves at the Fritkot Max, an also famous Belgian frite place, overlooking the Cathedral on the Groenplaats.  Trying to kill two birds with one calorically overloaded day, we devoured our first (but not last of the trip) Belgian frites.  Max, if it was the real Max, was the only unfriendly person we encountered during our Antwerp stay.  No mind though – we had curry ketchup to bring a smile to our face.

 

At the Matelote Hotel, a charming ten room hotel that felt more B&B than hotel, the person who showed up us to our room said: “Please help yourself to anything in the mini frig at no charge.  For legal reasons, we can’t have any alcohol in your frig – but we are Belgian, so when you come downstairs to the lobby – the first drink is on us.” After putting our bags down and umbrellas up to dry, we got that free drink and peppered our new friend with questions on where we should go to dinner.  Reading us like the tea leaves we are, he picked a great bistro for us called Le Zoute Zoen. Our friend later gave us a free breakfast just because.

The free drink. 

The free drink. 

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In a beautiful library style dining room, Beth and I enjoyed a delicious Belgian three course meal at Le Zoute Zoen for 35 euros a piece. Yes, there were mussels.  I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but I’m fairly sure that over half of it was about our food.  Then there was the banter with the next table – a drunk but entertaining-to-everyone-but-the-staff Romanian hair dresser with his friends and a tiny dog.  We passed on a chance to go somewhere with them after.  We had THE chocolate bar waiting.

Watching my sister eat her first soft boiled egg by trying to peel it was the highlight of the next day’s breakfast.  (You are supposed to tap the shell while in a cup and lift the top off. I may have been an evil sister and known something of this, but watching Beth manage the yoke in her hands was too good to pass up.)  Day two was all about shopping – mostly in small, non-chain stores.  I was all kind of a blur.  Had someone GPS’ed our movements, it could have easily been a 10k.  Many of those steps were around the Groenplaats – the central hub of the downtown corridor that we always seemed to get slightly turned around in. 

Some favorite spots were Paleis – where Jess from New Girl would totally shop with all their bright clothes, an Eileen Fischer like store called Sandwich, Sweet Soda – an Antwerp designer who I may have fallaciously believed to not lean toward the matronly, and Let’s Go Bananas where Beth did go bananas with some interesting jackets and tunics in the middle of dense forest of oddball and super inexpensive merchandise. We got the exact same brown jacket for 10 euros each.  Mine is a little snug, but for 10 euros and a chance to tell everyone “My sister has this exact same jacket.  We got it together in Antwerp.”  -- you understand.  We never intended to go to Jimmy C$oo, but on the morning on Day three we did hit the sales at some of the big chain stores.   

The second night there was Belgium beer and an interesting conversation with the bartender about the abundance of cheap faith in America and the lack of any faith in Europe.  There was also a dinner that we didn’t bother much to research – we were knee deep in laughter and topics of substance.  Aging parents, parenting boys, parenting the one girl between us -- Beth's fierce four year old daughter Rae Rae who famously told Matt when he asked her to take her hands out of her pants: "Daddy, it's my 'gina and I can do whatever I want."  The food was fine, but the vigor of a conversation with someone who knows all your nooks and crannies left us both fully satiated but also sad to be so geographically far apart. 

I had a Corsendonk.  Beth had a ?? This is where a man could have been helpful.

I had a Corsendonk.  Beth had a ?? This is where a man could have been helpful.

We all need people to share our stories with.  We also need nonpartisan fact checkers; people were there for some of most formative stories to make sure we don’t spin them into mountains or let us twist them into unnecessary corkscrews.   It’s also nice to have that person to tell us when something doesn’t fit right, or when we have three versions of that same shirt sitting in our closet.  My sister is that person for me, in Antwerp or an outlet mall somewhere in the middle of America.

 And, I’m glad she didn’t tell me the brown jacket was snug.

 

 

London

Long weekend in London, Sept 2013.  Piggybacking on Brett's work week in London, we joined him on a Thursday night and spent the weekend exploring London with unseasonably lovely weather.

Some trips are better told with pictures.   We did a lot.  Breakfast spots in South Kensington; two shows - "Stomp" and "Matilda";  Transport Museum; Imperial War Museum; St Paul's; Sunday Roast; Indian dinners twice; Hummingbird Bakery cupcakes too numerous to count; walk across Tower Bridge and South Bank; walk around Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, St James Park, Big Ben, etc; double decker bus rides, underground rides, and lots more walking. 

Ramblings from Paris

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Trains on time.   Miraculously always on time.   Tall Americano from the green Mermaid.   Name is Kate.

Buy Metro ticket from a hustler.   Why not if it helps him, and saves me time at the kiosk.  A 30 cent/30 second act of mutual kindness.   Commuting time.  Government not shut down here.  Squeeze on.  Not everyone is pretty, but pretty put together.  No one smiles in the belly of the city.  You can’t be pretty without a smile.  Don’t stare at the dandruff on your neighbor’s coat, or wonder when oh when we will need to take our shoes off on our way to the underground.  Read over her shoulder, except you can’t read these words.  Listen to the muted beat of his music.   Alright, OK.   Your ear buds can’t hold it from spreading.  Not in here.  Count the stops.  Seven stops until your next perfume less breathe.  Mark your friendliest exit route.  “Excuse-moi” yourself to the door, but only faintly to not disturb the silence.   Mind the gap.  Mind your coffee.  Make way for the map.

Ile de la Cite.  Island on the Seine.   If your life was a movie, these bridges would be in it.  Pont Notre Dame.  Pont Au Change.  Pont Neuf.  Photograph the sun making its way up.  Your movie still.  Be still.  People crisscrossing these bridges to get from here to there.  Accept the invitation to stay on for lookout duty. Put away the map.   Savor the last drop.

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On the edge of the Ile de la Cite.  Sainte-Chapelle.  Pay your 6 euros and get in the queue like the rest. Disregard the misplaced commerce in the lower chapel.   Climb the spiral staircase to the upper chapel, the place that used to be reserved for only the company of the King.   Look up to the 15 stained glass windows.  The story of the Holy Book in over 1000 scenes of blue, green, yellow, blue and purple.   Pay no mind to the scaffolding that covers half of the windows.  The restoration work.   Harder though to create a feeling of entry into Heavenly Jerusalem.  With all that pounding noise of modern machinery.

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Now it is time to get from here to there.  Cross Pont St Michel to the Right Bank.  The Latin Quarter.  The 5th Arronidssement.  The home to universities and student uprisings and gyros.  Follow the crooked streets leading out from Boulevard Saint-Michel.   The day is still young.  You are awake, but these shop owners do like their customers and hit snooze.  Only the tiny bookstores on these capillaries are open for business.  Greek men sweep the streets of their restaurants.  Shout hello to their neighbor. Come back when it’s Souvlaki time.  Come back when you can read French.

Pop back to the island.  To the other end of the island.  Notre Dame.  Here’s where all the early risers go.  In this queue to see the Crown of Thorns.   A day too lovely for a second queue.  Skip around to the   Square Jean XXIII to take in the rear view of this majestic “cradle of the city.”  A rump never looked so good.  If you sit, prepare to be haggled.  To sign this petition or that one.  It’s all a scam though.  That’s what happens when you’re in the cradle of the city.   The good with the bad.  The beautiful with the desperate.

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Exit the cradle by crossing the Pont St-Louis to a second island, Ile St Louis.  Also known as Ile de la Cite’s quiet but strikingly beautiful younger sister.  Eat your gelato heart out along Rue St Louis.  Try to think of anything you can’t get on this street.  Everything you’d need to live is on this island.  And a thousand other things you wouldn’t mind having too.  Come back for a stroll when you need a cocoon from the riff raff.  Come back to live in the arse’s view of Notre Dame when you win the lottery. 

Move across the river to the Left Bank.  To the 24/7 party of the Marais.  Sure you’ve been before, but a place with soul pulls you back.  Flamboyant style, orthodox Jews, gorgeous vintage stores, a charming village feel.  Put away the pocket book.  For today only: your self-imposed day of shopping abstinence.  Throw your jacket over your shoulder.  Roll up your pant legs, if you dare, and stroll.  Dine al fresco whenever the tummy rumbles.  It’s all good, definitely fresh and vegan if requested.   Ambivalently walk in the direction of a museum – Musee Picasso or Musee Carnavalet.  But the sun said “HELLO!” while you were on morning lookout duty.  Permission to carry on rambling?  In fact, here we are.  At the Musee Picasso which is indeed still closed for construction.  Ramble we ought.  Not we.  I.

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Back to the day’s spine.  The River Seine.   But first, down a Café Glacis of the immodest La Caféothèque. You’ve been before, so pull up to the coffee bar and order with confidence.  Why you still looking at your map?  You’re a regular.  Follow the river until you hit the Louvre.  You can’t miss it.  Street artists line the street along the river.  Garden stores and pet shops spill out the other side.

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People posing for pictures with petit Louvres in their hand.  Below a sunken garden with perfectly straight white gravel paths.  Cutting through manicured gardens and putting green grass.   Green chairs ring oval fountains.  Grown up circle time.  Put away the cameras.  Prop your feet up.  Relax into a book.  This is easier when no one around you in hurrying.  It’s 4pm.  No one is running to a last minute meeting.  No one yet hungry for food.  All hungry for the warmth of the sun.  A conversation.  A cat nap.

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Later.  Much later.  Back to the River Seine.   A long walk back to the Marias.  This time on the other side of the street.  To peer into those curious pet shops.  To land in that off the beaten track wine bar you spotted earlier in the day.   To soak up the lively chatter of a neighborhood hangout.  With a better than house glass of wine.  Plot your closest Metro stop back to the train.  No second closest.  There’s more time to stroll.  Dodge people along the lively Rue De Rivoli to the Bastille. Take a breath and go underground.   Pop up with a comfortable 30 minutes to spare.  Grab a sandwich.  Tuna sounds nice.  Top it off with a praline chocolate and hop the train.  Full heart.  Empty hands.  Tired legs.

Pretty Paris

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A wander through the 2nd and 9th Arrondissements of Paris.

One writer calls these neighborhoods the “Rising Stars” with “the grand, gilt interior of the Opera de Paris, the magnificent domed ceiling of Galeries Lafayette department store, the winding streets and covered arcades and passageways, the lovely architecture of the Galerie Colbert and the surprising gentrification of the once seedy but still lively streets near Pigalle.” – Janelle McCulloch

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I call it the neighborhood above the Tuileries anchored by the majestic Opera House (now Ballet House) and La Madeline (the massive church dedicated to Mary Magdalene) with Grand Boulevards going in every which direction.  I can confirm that Rue St Denis is still seedy, but the 19th century covered passageways are surprisingly delightful in their “hiddenness” and charm.

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As is now my new habit, I start my Paris day trips in a church --- this day at La Madeline along with a large bus of equally devout tourists at the church opening time of 9:30.   The cameras clicked for a good 7 minutes, and then the band of travelers was off allowing me to quietly take in the sculpture of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.   By late morning, after an unscheduled stop for coffee, a pastry pick me up in Fauchon  (the millionarie’s supermarket ), I visited the inside of the gorgeous Le Palais Garnier (the National Opera House) with a grand staircase that IS unbelievable.

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The weather forecast had been for 67 degrees F and 0% chance of rain, but the actual weather was heavy rain.   With that development, I skipped my planned stop at the Printemps department store (102 Rue de Provence) for top floor lookout and 360 degree viewpoint of city and the longish walk out through a residential area to the Musée de la Vie Romantique (16 Rue Chaptal).  I also bought an umbrella on the street since in a moment of optimism I had been convinced to leave mine in the car on the way to the train.

I made another coffee stop (this time at Starbucks – the loyalty runs deep), and headed for a few stores on my list.   At the Zara Home Store (2 Boulevard de la Madeleine), I picked up some lovely champagne glasses and then at Repetto, the famous store for ballet shoes (22 Rue de la Paix), I committed to some patent leather flammy red Ballerinas.  It’s a commitment I hope I can live up to.

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I attempted to hit Le Petit Vendome (8 Rue des Capucines) for lunch at the recommendation of my favorite Paris blog, but it was le crowded.  By then I was hungry, so I went off agenda and settled for an uninspired sandwich somewhere nearby.    I attempted two bookstores – one a travel bookstore Voyageurs du Monde (55 Rue Sainte-Anne) which was more like a travel agency (bust) and the second a bookstore for cooks - Librairie Gourmande  (92-96 Rue Montmartre) which had enough of an English section to make it worth the stop.

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The highlight of the day however was the afternoons spent in the arcades/covered passageways.   These beautiful passages popped up in the 19th century to give shoppers a better way to shop rain or shine.  They were typically dug through existing buildings and were covered by glass roofs.  The 150 shopping  arcades have since dwindled down to 25 when most were destroyed when the large avenues were built.  Those that remain each have their own architecture, style, and retail focus.  Galerie Vivienne, with its lovely mosaic floor, has a tea salon, bookstore, florist, wine store, bistro, and shops specializing in textiles, furnishings and other yummy things.  

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Passage du Grand Cerf, another one of the arcades with a gorgeous glass roof, has twenty plus affordable boutiques.  It has a bit of a jewelry theme but there is also a Marseilles soap store and even an African art boutique.  With the rain coming down steadily, I lingered long in both arcades.  I stopped for a glass of Rose in one of the bistros, I fingered a lot of interesting jewelry that was beautifully displayed, and I relished the glimpse into the past when shopping was leisurely  - before the “Half Off” signs and special promotions.

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By the end of the day, the sun broke through and I meandered down the Rue Montorguiel, a family friendly pedestrian street for gourmands that reminded me at little of Seattle’s Pike’s Place Market.  It was there that I parked myself at an outside table along the busiest section of the street to nibble on a cheese plate and listen to the hum of families returning home from a busy day.

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Oh, Paris, you are fun to dance with and now I have some red Ballerinas for next time.

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Charlie – an Italian pizzeria of course!

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Seven hours is a long day in a smallish car with five people.  Even longer when you don’t get on the road until after noon.  But when you wake up to the sounds of a waterfall in the Swiss Alps – hike you must.  A quick disclosure:  Brett does all road trip driving.  There are many reasons for this, but the simplest of which is:  It’s better for everyone.  It’s possible that I got my driving skills from my Italian side.

After 450 mind-numbing kilometers going South on the A-1 through Italy, we finally exited the toll road in Orvieto.  Orvieto is a spectacular Umbrian hilltown set up on a volcanic turf which is perfectly placed between Rome and Florence, making it a popular tourist destination.   It was also the closest big town to where we were staying 35 minutes away in Morruzze (a town of 30 people.) 

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The owner (an American living in London) of the place we were staying in Morruzze recommended a pizzeria in Orvieto for dinner.   The recommendation came with the warning that despite its bad name and website, the pizza was really good.  Thank goodness for that disclosure because after hours dreaming of our first bite of authentic Italian pizza, a place called “Charlie” would not have hit our radar.  “Betty” (our GPS) freaked out when we punched in Charlie’s address, taking us up narrow cobblestone streets/alleys that didn’t appear meant for cars or cars with concerned passenger wives.

As Orvieto is an old hill town, cars are more or less prohibited.  The guidebooks told us so.  Our American host told us so.  And even if you were to try, finding a (legal) parking space is a gamble you’d only take when desperately hungry and tired.   Also, there were bikes on top of our car and a driver with dogged belief in his ability to find a parking space.  Betty (though she was doubted) proved reliable once again bringing us to the summit.  After a brief search, we found an (illegal resident only) parking space.  Conflicted about whether to stay or go, a jovial gentleman resident greeted us and sanctioned our short term parking stay.  We Italians may not be able to drive, but we sure do know how to make someone feel welcome.

(Note: We went back to Orvieto a couple of times during our visit.  The second time we went back, we parked at the train station and took a funicular up to the top.  That was easy, until we tried to come down and discovered that the funicular closes at 7:30pm and taxi drivers aren’t interested in the fare to bring you back down.  There is a shuttle bus that apparently goes down hourly, but they must have been off schedule (or off duty) that night.  When all else fails (and it did), stick out your thumb and when that fails, have your son stand next to you and stick out his.   The third time we went back, we parked below the city on the other side of town and took a series of escalators up to the top.  The escalators were also closed when we tried to come down, but we found the elevator!  We tried not to think about how far our elevator was going and how likely it was to get stuck.   Transit mishaps aside, we found Orvieto to be a town with just the right balance between urban center and tourist center.  Unlike Todi which we thought much more touristy, Orvieto is a must do if you are in Umbria and if you are traveling to Rome or Florence probably even worth the 1+ hour and 1.5 hour train rides, respectively.   If you go, take the escalators!)

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Back to our first night in Orvieto...  Unlike the previous night in Switzerland, we found Charlie within ten minutes of parking.   And it WAS perfect.   Well-cooked wood oven pizza with fresh toppings on a slightly doughy crust with a crisp glass of Orvieto Classico white wine eaten outside in a large outdoor dining courtyard … we would have loved this place had it been called Godfathers.   It was so good, we came back another night (or two.)

As we were inhaling our pizzas over candlelight in the courtyard, Lawton leaned it to say: “I decided something.  I want …” Another pizza, I thought? “I want to make a commitment to Jesus.”  There had been no talk about God leading up to that moment, no dinner time prayer, no Crucifix within sight.  It seemed to come out of the blue, and yet his words and eyes were earnest.   “What made you decide that now?” Brett asked.   “Because I want to stop making mistakes,” he said.   Now there are days that Lawton has his fair share of getting in trouble.  This was not one of them, which made the decision and confession that much more sincere.

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If only we could make our mistakes go away.  But a life without mistakes is a life without grace.  I made my commitment to Jesus as a youth, back when I had a shallow understanding of my sin and barely a hint of God’s unconditional love for me.  After all these years walking with Him, I’m more aware of my sin and shortcomings but also more convinced of his unconditional love.  He does make all things new every morning, and so with that explained in our best six year old vocabulary, we all put our pizza down and Lawton prayed to commit his life to Jesus.   Over candlelight at a place called Charlie. 

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After dinner, we found gelato and Brett pulled up the car in this plaza to pick us up.  The surrealness of this photo – an illegal car on a cliff-edged remnant of where four volcanoes erupted years ago – a hint that though we should be banned, God invites up out of the mess to the hilltop to see what we couldn’t see before.  Some of us take the speedy funicular up, some of us take the slower escalator up, and some of us follow a person like Betty we aren’t sure is going to get us to the top.  But however we get here, the view from the summit is worth the journey.

Oberalppass

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“If I can be an example of getting ober, than I can be an example of starting over.”      Lawton's version of Macklemore’s lyrics for “Starting Over.”

Ober, sober.  I’m afraid you’ll need full capacity of your s’s if you want to get sober.   We, on the other hand, needed five hours to get from Luxembourg to Oberalppass in the Swiss Alps – the almost but definitely not half-way point on our twelve hour road trip to Umbria, Italy. (Day two was seven hours of going "straight on" the A-1 motorway through Lake Como, Milan, Tuscany and Umbria with drivers who do not abide their lanes.)

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Day one of the drive however was beautiful.  Switzerland hit the jackpot with ubiquitous beauty.   Combine that beauty with good roads, safe drivers, clean and plentiful rest stops, and mountain tunnels and you’ve got yourself an awesome start to a road trip. 

Before getting lost in Lucerne. 

Before getting lost in Lucerne. 

Food is crazy expensive in Switzerland, and frankly not that great, so we decided to stop in Lucerne – an hour shy of our overnight stop at Oberalppass -- for dinner.  We zeroed in on a won’t-break-the-bank Wurst house on Trip Advisor.  After finding/vetting a non-underground parking space (re: husband and bikes on top of car) and locating some Swiss Francs (come on Switzerland, join the Eurozone!) to feed the meter, we headed toward the restaurant hungry and dry mouthed from too many road trip pretzels.  When the blue dot failed us (Google Maps is great when it works, but the wurst when it doesn’t), Brett successfully used his German to ask for directions.  Turns out we were circling the restaurant but didn’t notice because it was under construction and closed for the week.  Snag.

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Some families can audible and head to the nearest place to take their chances.  We cannot.  The younger members of the family understand this about their parents.  The teen does not.  He instead decided to clock the time from parking to first bite, with running commentary.  Harsh words were said about Trip Advisor and dependence.  Not wanting to drop 35 euros per person to eat ordinary Swiss food by the river, we finally (55 minutes later) opted for a small take out Mexican restaurant (Trip Advisor recommended.)   Any decision pleased the teen, but not the middle foodie child who spiraled into a crisis of faith about his parents and their commitment to good food.   Lawton, on the other hand, found the bright spot amidst the ordinary burrito served by the super nice Guatemalan co-owner of the restaurant:

“Mom, that always happens to us!  We meet people everywhere we go, we talk to them, get to know them and then they become our friends.” 

Post dinner. 

Post dinner. 

What brought our new Guatemalan friend to Lucerne, Switzerland you ask?  Love actually.  We know because we asked.  And later as we walked towards our safely parked car in search of ice cream, Lawton witnessed/stared at a young couple in a spirited Swiss German conversation to which he observed out loud:

“I think they’re breaking up.” 

How did he know we asked?  “Because they were talking loud, and looked angry and then the guy walked away." 

If what remains of our stopover in Lucerne is our children a) observing that our family brand is to engage with people and b) learning how to listen with their eyes as well as their ears, then that's something to be ober joyed about.

The guest house

The guest house

In Oberalppass (11 kilometers up a mountain from Andermatt driven in the dark), we overnighted in a guest house reminiscent of my Youth Hostel days staying in a family bunk room with a shared bathroom.  It was the wrong day of the month for a shared bathroom.  But with the light of morning, an included breakfast, and a morning hike through furry green hills filled with wildflowers and rushing streams – any slight inconvenience of the toilet situation was soon forgotten.   And when the two big boys got the chance to ride their bikes the 11 kilometers back down the mountain to Andermatt (cycling in the Swiss Alps!), we knew we’d rebook our room for the return road trip home.

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Lawton powered up the mountain on the early morning hike, with the rest of us trailing.  He was unstoppable (literally).  When he returned down, he suggested: 

Mom.  You should do a blog about Switzerland and have a photo of me with this sign, and call it BEST HIKER.”  

So here’s to my Best (and oh so quotable) Hiker!

BEST HIKER!

BEST HIKER!

More Salt, Please

More Popsicle, please.    

More Popsicle, please.

 

If you ever find yourself in a Spanish grocery store, you should know “bicarbonato de sodio” is not salt.   Don’t be misled by the salt shaped vessel it’s in or that it’s on the same shelf as the pepper.   That superfine salt that you think you are buying and then dumping into a darling Moroccan salt container is actually baking soda.   Baking soda in a never-seen-in-the-US- type consistency.  (It looked like salt, really.  You must believe me.)

We discovered this on Day 6 of our six day trip to Spain.  Six dinners spiked with bicardonato de sodio.  As you might expect, this substitution not only doesn’t season your food – it makes everything taste slightly off.  Everyone noticed but the teenager.  He appreciated whatever I did in the kitchen, as long as there was sufficient quantity and dessert to follow.  When we outed our mistake (finally tasting the chemical substance in the lovely Moroccan container), Lawton tried to soothe the week of unsavory food disappointment by offering: “At least the pepper was good.”

Hrumph.  All that good food wasted (or at a minimum not enjoyed in the way it was intended) because of one lousy ingredient.  A lousy ingredient we kept pouring on in increasing amounts, desperate for a flavor pop.  You can have all the makings of a perfect meal – the finest ingredients (our investments), the best cookbook (our education), a well equipped kitchen (our friends and family), cookery skills (10,000 hours) – but without a bit of salt (daily gratitude) – it’s all a bit flat, eh?  Pepper (adventure) is indeed good, but we need a little splash of salt to bring out the flavor of what’s already there. 

Beyond using Google Translate (which I do regularly when I grocery shop at home) or thinking back harder on my high school Spanish, I should have known about the bicardonato de sodio in another way.  The baking soda was expensive, and sold in a much smaller container.   Salt is cheap, and is sold in the big bags.  Daily gratitude too doesn’t cost much, but it useful in so many ways than you’ll want to super-size it. 

I almost lost my salt when we arrived in Spain.  This was my first trip traveling with the boys in Europe by myself.  To compensate for the solo parent travel jitters, I decided to go back to a place we’d been before – the small white village of Guaro in the mountains of Andalucia, Spain.  We found some ridiculously cheap plane tickets on Ryan Air which happened to match up with the only available summer dates in my happy-place-away-from-home.   Since Quinn had missed our trip in May, and we had all missed the sun that week, I resolved to follow Chris Stewart’s example of optimism and come back to Andalucia to “Drive Over Lemons” – this time in the heat.

Easy to be an Optimist here. 

Easy to be an Optimist here. 

Morning world!

Morning world!

The flight was smooth, the deplaning was not.  Think cat and bull dog fighting in a sweltering 100% full airplane, with four carry-ons, and a preoccupied Master wondering how strict the Spanish are about renting a car to someone who forgot their driver’s license.  Turns out they are very strict.   There are details/excuses on how this oversight happened, none of which has yet to be received with a nod of “Oh yeah, totally happened to me too.”  But before the Master completely lost it, she had the benefit of muzzled judgment by her loved ones, an available and helpful US DMV employee(!), and a soft-hearted, US friendly Hertz agent.  Not sure if they Hertz guy took pity on my situation or was weakened by the 10 year old stare down, but I eventually got the car.  Even better?  I got the experience of having my 15 year old be the voice of calm.   He is such his father’s son, and I am glad for it.

My intention for this trip was to relax, not go go.  We had seen a lot of Andalucia on our May trip, and for this trip I wanted the boys to see the bottom of the pool.   I was also a little timid about driving around too much - the whole not having a license thing combined with my natural navigation challenges.   Marvelously, with the exception of one day trip to the thoroughly-researched Aqualand Torremolinos water park and another day trip to the beach town of Marbella, the boys were on my same page.  It helped that the Tour de France was in full swing (and available in English on Sky TV!) and that the place just up the road from us was a B&B run by a Dutch Spaniard who happened to have a fleet of five rental bikes.  Two of the five bikes fit the boys perfectly.   The sun and hills zapped their energy pretty quickly, but it was a boon for them to be able to ride by themselves on the country mountain roads and for me to not have to figure out how to transport bikes on the rental car that surely had been flagged by authorities.  (Not really, but so goes my imagination which also flares around noises in the night and snakes in my bed.)

Watching the Tour.  Notice games Mommy brought on table.    

Watching the Tour.  Notice games Mommy brought on table.   

Rented bikes, for them hills. 

Rented bikes, for them hills. 

The water park was an unexpected wave of fun for even me.  My intention was to read in the shade, but instead I locked up my Kindle and bounded down (most) of the slides with my kiddos.   Only one of my children did ALL the rides.  It was not the oldest one; it was the middle one who had done the exhaustive water park research and also the ATV research in Greece.  The beach was a bit of a letdown (in some cases two), but only because we were so spoiled by the beaches of Greece.   The rest of the days – sidelined by a blister that prevented my hypochondriac Lawton from walking normally and kept him shrieking regularly – we stayed close to home.  No one protested the pace. 

The boys jumped in the pool about 25 times a day.  We worked out on the terrace.  We wore clothes sparingly.  We read, we listened to audiobooks to keep the car quiet as I drove.  We played games.  No, that’s not right, I brought games.  They played games on the iPad and their phones.   They glued themselves to the Tour on the TV, while I glued myself to the couch on the terrace.  They didn’t sleep enough, but who does in summer.  We laughed and we all got along really well.   We ate M&M’s and I drank Diet Coke because my husband wasn’t there.  It was a little bit of Seattle summer by the pool, plus the view.  In a different mind space, it could have seemed like a “boring” vacation but it wasn’t because we all CHOOSE to shake our salt shakers together. 

When you don't feel like finishing dinner, make an M&M mustache. 

When you don't feel like finishing dinner, make an M&M mustache. 

We also ate every meal outside, and though they were tasteless, this view – and the relaxation of this happy place for all four of us – was better than a box of chocolates.  And I really like chocolate.

Maybe
 opening one's heart has something to do with studying the landscape of 
your life.   With all its peaks and valleys; with things in the 
foreground, the distance and over the mountain; with areas of pattern, 
stretches of free form, and  pockets of unruly messes; with the 
thousands of unique experiences that have taken root; celebrating the 
beautiful mosaic that is only your life and realizing that your neighbor
 is over the hill looking at a different but equally divine vista.

Maybe opening one's heart has something to do with studying the landscape of your life.  With all its peaks and valleys; with things in the foreground, the distance and over the mountain; with areas of pattern, stretches of free form, and  pockets of unruly messes; with the thousands of unique experiences that have taken root; celebrating the beautiful mosaic that is only your life and realizing that your neighbor is over the hill looking at a different but equally divine vista.