Category Archives: Travel

The tulips of Keukenhof… the flower of Kings and Sultans

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There is a sense of anticipation as we are near the Keukenhof. In gaps between farmhouses and buildings, glimpses of colour flash through the windows of our bus. Field upon field of tulips are slowly revealed, like living rainbows laid flat and narrow. They are a preview of what is to come – a tantalizing aperitif before the sumptuous feast that will soon be laid out before us.

With some time to spare in our travels, we’ve taken a bus from Schiphol Airport to one of the world’s most expansive and joyous displays of flowers. Even before we pass through the gates of these once 15thcentury hunting grounds, murmurs of anticipation bubble and swirl. As we enter, we are arrested, transfixed by the first of many beautiful vistas that have been planned with such loving attention. It is truly a remarkable sight.

Many years have passed since my last visit and so it felt almost like seeing it with fresh eyes. Despite my Dutch heritage, I don’t think that I fully appreciated just what a treasure the Keukenhof is… and just how intimately it is linked to the identity and history of this small nation. Keukenhof, which essentially means kitchen garden, is a wonder, a pride and joy… a celebration of one of earth’s most coveted gardens.

Also known as the Garden of Europe, between October and Christmas, the Keukenhof’s horticultural team plants a staggering 7 million flower bulbs, covering almost 80 acres. With practiced precision, they are ‘timed’ to bloom for the garden’s springtime opening and we are fortunate to be here at the sweet-spot– the day is warm and sunny, the tulips profuse and the first tender green leaves of the trees provide a pastel-lime backdrop to the displays beauty. There is no colour of the spectrum not represented – buttery yellow, creamy white, saffron yellow, crimson and carmine red, plum and deep purple, single colours or variegated; evocative in their diversity.

Without question, tulips are all hermaphroditic, carrying both male and female characteristics. They have petals, sepals and tepals. I learn that their waxy leaves are ‘cauline’, emanating, unwinding from the stem of the plant and that they thrive in climates with long, cool springs for germination. That climate is certainly not only found in The Netherlands, but also in the steppes, meadows and shrubby chaparral, from Afghanistan to the plains of India. But in their journey from eastern origins, it is clear that in the Netherlands they truly found their full blossoming.

Babur, who founded the Indian Mughal Empire five centuries ago, mentioned tulips in his memoir. They were precious, like melons and grapes, and presented as fond gifts. In Turkey, tulips were considered holy, revered even by Sultans who displayed them artfully on their turbans. In fact, it is held that the word tulip is derived from the word duliband (or dulib) the Persian for turban. While the tulips were abloom, tulip gardens were settings for the sumptuous parties of Sultans, some replete with candle-backed tortoises illuminating the sublime setting.

The scene at Keukenhof is more elemental, but no less marvellous than those extravagant scenes. It is serene, yet also exuberant, in its carefully orchestrated scenes and vistas. Exciting, but also hushed, as crowds marvel at the spectacle. In this spectacular parkland setting, the tulips are the main event with fragrant hyacinths and narcissus playing supporting roles to the star attraction.

The tulips are arranged in swathes of colour – some like streams flowing amongst trees or like a manicured English garden, precise and geometric. Other vignettes are simply riots of colour, exuberant explosions. Plaques throughout the garden speak of the vast number of species and variants. Each cluster is labelled, names inspired by their origins or distinct characteristics – pointed like stars, jagged and rustic, or smooth and delicate like a peachy, fulsome breast.

Surely there’s a perfect tulip for everyone’s taste and I quickly spot my favourite… it’s my typical white flower but with wisps of the softest pink. A simple flower, unlike the variegated and marbled varieties which at one point in the tulip’s history became sought after to the point that a bulb could trade for the same value as a well-appointed house in Amsterdam.

During the mid-1500’s, Sultans commonly gave the coveted tulips as gifts to visiting Western diplomats. Then in 1573, one Carolus Clusius planted tulips at the Vienna Imperial Botanical Gardens. He completed the first major paper on the flower, with specific notes on the variations of colour. When appointed director of Leiden University in the Netherlands, Clusius planted a teaching garden and then a private garden in the late 1593. Thus, 1594 is considered the date of the tulip’s first flowering in the country, yet the tulip expert would lose more than one hundred of his precious bulbs to raiding in his garden… the secret of the precious tulip was spreading.

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Tulips gained in popularity across Europe with more opulent varieties pursued to the point of mania. This was a time when people’s appetite for curiosities and natural oddities was at its height in the Netherlands, France, Germany and England, driven by the spice trade from the East Indies. This created a new wealth and introduced a steady stream of novelty.

The ‘exotic’ tulip acquired an aura of mystique and between 1634 to 1637, this enthusiasm sparked a tulip trading frenzy. Bulbs became a form of currency, a luxury product that spoke of the good taste and esteemed learning of the merchant class. Many of those who bought tulips also collected valuable paintings – the tulips themselves were soon depicted in Dutch still-life paintings of the rich and opulent Golden Age.

With the crash of the tulip market in 1637, this former flower of Kings and Sultans set forth on a more democratic path through history, one in which tulips could be owned and adored by all. Today, the Dutch grow almost 80 % of the world’s tulip bulbs – some 3 billion – yet as we stroll through Keukenhof, it strikes me that is not simply a business. It is a source of pride and identity, one that is exquisitely showcased to the world year after year in a springtime of abundance and unbridled colour.

67A86EBD-65E3-48E4-A4E6-9C81B7008E49And I give the visionaries who have shaped this former ‘kitchen garden’ much credit, it has it all!

Play areas for children, indoor displays, whimsical themed arrangements, even the opportunity to climb the steep steps of a traditional windmill to take in the vistas beyond. And their view? None other than those rainbow fields of tulips… as we say in Dutch, echt prachtig,just beautiful!

 

Old Quebec City… the romance, and the fortitude of the King’s Daughters – of all the founding women

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At this time of year, Quebec City celebrates its cold climate and rich heritage with Winter Carnival. It’s a celebration of winter and all that entails; especially those pastimes beginning with ice – palaces, canoeing, sculptures, skating and fishing. People from around the world descend on this historic walled city, the only in North America, revelling in the unique atmosphere. It’s my first visit in the winter and I admit; it is bone chillingly cold, often windswept and the icy sidewalks can be precarious.

Yet the cold seems to subside, if only just a little, when you stroll the vibrant streets. They’re still resplendent with Christmas greenery and décor, enhancing the already romantic streets.

 

And there is much to romance you here: the French language, the mix of French, British and Canadian architecture, the delicious cuisine and of course the statuesque Chateau Frontenac. It is a treasured beauty, dominating the upper town, evoking the chateaus of the Loire Valley of France and on this visit, I was fortunate to add my humble name to its storied guest list.

Completed in 1893, the Chateau was the first of the iconic tourist hotels of the Canadian Pacific Railway. On my third day I join a tour of the hotel, guided by the charming ‘Ms. Emily Post’. The young lady is in costume and character, portraying Ms. Post, an author and daughter of the hotel’s architect Bruce Price.

The tour begins on the long cliff-top boardwalk where squeals of delight from tobogganeers on the swooping wooden-framed run peal in the chilled air. Above us, the sharp crack of ice, breaking like glass under ice-picks of intrepid déneigeièrs clearing the Chateau’s impossibly steep rooftop. Roped in and rappelling down the treacherous facade, they clear the roof of accumulated ice. It’s an arduous and hazardous task which I see repeated throughout the city. Managing this city in frigid temperatures brings myriad challenges not least of which is avoiding dagger-like shards of falling ice from the charming buildings.

 

As much as I appreciate the hotel’s storied history during the tour– including the somber hosting of the top-secret conference in which Roosevelt and Churchill planned the D-Day invasion – I am drawn to the much more distant past. During my five days in Quebec City, it is the Filles du Roi, the ‘King’s Daughters’, and the founding Jesuit and Augustinian Sisters who capture my attention.

The strength and fortitude that was required of these founding women intrigues me. And I reflect that the country might never have developed as it did without them. First, allow me to set the scene…

 

The First Explorers and Samuel de Champlain

The vastness of the Atlantic Ocean mingles with fresh waters at the mouth of the St. Lawrence river and, in the hinterland beyond, lie the lake-strewn lands of eastern Canada. First Nations who had called this home for over ten thousand years witnessed, in the arrival of European traders and settlers, the advent of modern Canada. As early as the late 15th century, they had mostly welcomed trade with various nations who visited their shores. The dominant commodity was fur from the Castor Canadensis,the humble Canadian beaver. They were as gold; European demand for their luxuriant pelts helping transform small trading outposts into a vast nation.

European and First Nations trappers braved the harsh, unforgiving environment to supply ever increasing merchant fleets. Locals bartered for kettles, knives, cloth, blankets, buttons and beads, trading endless stacks of beaver pelts that would be fashioned into hats once in Europe. The Continental, Navy, Clerical, The Paris Beau and the tall dignified Wellington – these names may no longer be familiar but it was unthinkable for any man of standing in the 17th to 19th centuries not to wear a head covering fashioned from beaver.

Statue de Samuel-De Champlain, Québec

Statue de Samuel-De Champlain, Québec

Archaeology suggests that Viking explorers had been unable to build lasting settlements; explorers Cartier and Roberval had failed too. But after a number of visits, Samuel de Champlain had a vision. He had fallen in love with the wilds of the New World and was determined to build a settlement for France. On July 3rd, 1608, Champlain’s three vessels docked at Kebec – ‘the place where the river narrows’.

It was a place of dense forests, lush with butternut trees; a strategic location on the St. Lawrence River where flora and fauna promised survival. Here, Champlain built the first ‘habitation’ with planted gardens, stocked cellars and a palisaded fortress. And unlike previous colonisers, he befriended the First Nations. Their knowledge and friendship was crucial to the new settlement’s success.

Yet hardships from the cold, scurvy, hunger and understandably hostilities from some tribes, would continue to threaten Quebec and it grew slowly. In 1620, Champlain brought his new Parisian bride to the settlement on the St Lawrence. Unsurprisingly, she found life in the isolated outpost difficult and remained only a few short years before returning to France. Champlain would live the rest of his life without her. He was fiercely dedicated to his dream and although the surrender of his New France colony to the British, more than a century later in 1760 signalled the end of his vision, many refer to Champlain as ‘The Father of Canada’.

History books devote volumes to this fascinating, volatile period, recording exploits of the mostly men who blazed the trail. Yet a nation cannot be built without women and for me, it is an equally intriguing chapter in the history of Canada.

 

The King’s Daughters – Les Filles du Roi – and The Sisters

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As the colony grew, New France, was largely a man’s world: soldiers, fur traders, voyageurs and, hoping to convert the First Nations to Christianity, Franciscans priests who arrived in 1615. The Jesuits followed in 1625 and ten years later, the year of Champlain’s death, they began offering classical education. Yet education would begin in earnest with the arrival of Sisters. At the Ursuline Convent and School, I encounter a remarkable woman of faith.

Marie of the Incarnation, as she would come to be known, was from Tours, France. From the age of seven, she knew that she would devote her life to God. Resistant to her wishes, her family demanded that she marry a silk merchant. She was widowed not long after bearing a son and, at the age of nineteen, a vision came to her that she could no longer ignore. It was a vision of saving souls in a foreign land. Giving her son over to a foster family, Marie entered an Ursuline Monastery. She remained steadfast – even as her son could be seen crying at the convent gates and as she was accused of parental neglect. An inheritance designated for her son was also revoked. Yet still, she dreamed of winning souls for Christ in that foreign land. Resolute, she began correspondence with the Jesuits in Quebec.

Funding for the journey and a new convent materialised in the form of a pious widow, Madeleine de la Peltrie. By arranging a sham marriage, Madeleine overcame her family’s strong opposition to her traveling to New France. With the official seal of a royal charter, she signed over the bulk of her estate to the Ursuline Order. Marie and Madeleine set sail in May of 1639. To their new life in Quebec, they would take a fellow Sister, a young commoner, three nurses and two Jesuit fathers. It’s believed they were the first Catholic Sisters in North America.

 

In the Ursuline Convent Museum, I gaze at the painting of Marie. She is a vision of steadfastness and devotion to her mission – to convert and educate, ministering initially to the First Nations and later to French settlers. After three years in the lower town of Quebec City, the nuns moved to a new monastery and in a painting of the settlement, I see Madeleine’s wooden home depicted. It is just below the monastery, surrounded by tents; the Catholic Church of that era marvelled at their progress – despite the scarcity of provisions and lack of basic necessities, and the oft hostilities with some First Nations.

Marie quickly learned the languages of the Huron and the Algonquin and even as she became a decorator, an architect and a teacher, the Sister also remained a devoted mother. Her son became a Benedictine monk and in their vast correspondence, until Marie’s death in 1672, the unwavering love between a mother and a son is poignantly evident.

And of being a mother… Marie of the Incarnation would fulfil yet another role in the making of New France. The filles du roi were sailing her way.

As the colony grew, a problem arose. In 1663, the King of France decided to take more control of his far-flung colony and one of his first actions was to address the severe imbalance between men and women. For every woman in the colony, there were at least seven men. Sponsored by the King himself, a program was proposed to increase the population – with shiploads of young women from France.

Initially, it was agreed to sponsor five-hundred women, but it would total some eight-hundred over ten years. In actual fact, many were still young girls, some as young as twelve. Believing that girls ought to marry young, King Louis’s filles du roi were sent to New France for the sole purpose of marrying and populating the land. Often they were orphans or poor, so a dowry was provided. As the the ships arrived at Quebec City, it’s said that some were selected even before they could disembark. Those not chosen would sail further to the next ports-of-call, the fledging city of Montreal being the last stop.

It seems Marie also took a supporting role in this new scheme. Some of the younger girls were first housed and prepared for their new role as wives and mothers. The nuns taught them cooking, embroidery and sewing. They were also chaperones in the selection process. Likened to old-fashioned speed dating, eligible men would enter the room and with the steadying presence of a nun, the young women would ask appropriate questions to the eligible bachelors: How old are you? Do you own property? Do you have any vices?

The letters Marie wrote during the 1660’s reveal much of the hardship that these new settlers faced. In 1668 she wrote, “When they have eaten the barrel of flour and bacon the King has given them, they will suffer greatly until they have cleared the land. It has been decided that only country girls should be sent here. They can work like men and experience shows that those not brought up on the land do not fit in as they don’t know how to cope with poverty and hardship.”

In another letter to her son, dated Oct. 1669, Marie confirms, “As soon as the ship arrives, the men go to meet them in search of a wife… sometimes there are thirty weddings at a time. Wiser people begin by getting a house and place first. The first question the girls ask is if they have a house and property, because those who haven’t suffer greatly.”

In the days I spend in the city, I think often of the these women. I’m empathetic to the hardships and transition most of them would have faced. No doubt some of them did find happiness in marriage and knowing that all were encouraged – through promise of a pension from the King – to have a minimum of ten children, I can only imagine the fortitude and resilience this required on top of the privations and isolation of a settler’s life.

It is commonly held that two-thirds of the province of Quebec are descendants of the filles du roi. Some would also eventually migrate south into what is now the United StatesPeople including Angelina Jolie, Celine Dion, Hilary Clinton and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau trace their ancestry back to these courageous women.

For me, the beauty and romance of old Quebec City is very much alive. The perseverance and fortitude of the Sisters, the king’s daughter’s and all the women who braved the deprivations in those formative years, add to its rich past. Go, if you get the chance. Find their stories… in the monasteries, in the museums, in the lively character of today’s women.

 

 

Slovenia, oh Slovenia… a ‘fairytale’ road trip

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“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to drive up to that furthest church,” I say, pointing with childlike enthusiasm to a steeple piercing the Slovene sky. It’s a cool, but sunny October morning and we’re not far from the outskirts of Ljubljana. The steeple is one of many that announces every small town. They’re invariably nestled in valleys or standing tall on sugar loaf mountains amongst pastoral landscapes. “It’s beautiful, like a fairy-tale,” I enthuse with genuine delight.

Slovenia may not necessarily be on your travel itinerary, but perhaps it should be. Sharing borders with Italy, Croatia, Austria and Hungary, it is easy to travel to; for us, a pleasant three-hour train journey from Trieste in northern Italy. It’s a compact country, which at the crossroads of Europe has seen the ebb and flow of mighty empires and dynastic struggles. Its people are friendly, clearly in love with life, and how could I not admire them when they are so passionate about accordions (says this amateur player), pretty window flower boxes, and meticulous wood piles!

Barely half-an-hour out of Lubijana, where our son and his girlfriend live, it’s clear we’ll be treated to an intimate perspective of this small country. We’ve already fallen in love with ‘Lubi’ and now very unusual for us, we have no set itinerary. Yes, a rough plan of course, but not one hotel booked for our three-day excursion. It turns out to be the best thing we could have done – serendipity can find a way of rewarding you, if you let it.

We don’t make it to that church on that high promontory that I longed to see, indeed we’ll come across many more, and we soon find ourselves having morning coffee against the backdrop of the medieval stone walls of Skofja Loka. The name roughly translates to ‘the bishop’s marsh’ and in 973 the bishopric was granted by Emperor Otto II.

For the next one thousand years the town was tied to that distant ecclesiastical principality, a tower and castle constructed for defence purposes and by 1248, Skofja Loka was granted rights as a market town. Only locals were permitted to trade inside its fortressed walls and now… if only the walls could talk. Yet they do, with faded frescoes still relating its long history and interestingly, I discover that one of the town’s early commodities was frogs. We stroll the streets, locating the ‘frog trail’ winding down to the serene river where one presumes the toads were trapped. Crimson leaves are tangling their way across stone and mortar, weaving in splendid harmony in these deepening days of autumn.

It is a gorgeous setting, seemingly the backdrop of your most beloved fairy tale. Yet despite the tranquil setting, townspeople have known much grief through the centuries: attacks and burnings from marauding Dukes and from the Ottomans, plagues, fires, peasant revolts and earthquakes.

Climbing the hill to the church, we dangle our legs over the aged stone parapet and gaze over rooftops to the castle occupying the wooded hill on the north edge of town. The serrated peaks of the Julian Alps are hazy in distant violet pastels, framing the lush-green hilltops beyond Skofje Loka. The peaks mark the border with Austria and I’m reminded of even more heartache in the story of this enchanted place. I had read its war stories – citizens arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Serbia, mass graves of prisoners of war around the castle and in neighbouring sites. As is often the case when I’m in Europe, the echoes of two world wars seem never far from the surface. Their brutal and bloody secrets seem still to shadow the present. We should never forget the suffering of the past, but in this moment I allow the tranquility of this beautiful place to warm me.

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Back on the road, the scenery is coloured with snowy-white sheep, rosy crab apples and rusty-orange pumpkins – plump and offered for sale at the edge of farmers’ driveways. The narrow highway wends and climbs until we come upon Slovenia’s pride and joy. Lake Bled emerges like a mirage with the much photographed Bled Island and its late 17th century pilgrimage church. Certainly this is part of the storybook I’m creating in my mind, this enchanted setting must be where the heroine lives happily every after?!

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Lake Bled, photo credit Trixie Pacis

It is a vision of ethereal beauty and as we stroll the perimeter of the lake, we notice the pletnas, gondola-style flat bottomed boats. In 1740, twenty-two local families were granted exclusive rights to ferry religious pilgrims to the small church on the island. Still today the role of an oarsmen is exclusive. Most are descended from the original families and whether ferrying pilgrims, visitors for pleasure or wedding parties, the long-standing tradition is part of Lake Bled’s heritage.

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We find a lake-side restaurant for an early dinner and I happen to meet a charming modern-day rower. Jani Klemenčič is a retired Slovenian Olympic rower, now at the helm of the restaurant Špica, a local institution with a stunning backdrop of the lake, the castle and the beguiling island.

As I admire the racing scull boat fashioned into a long bar table, Jani takes the time to chat. He grew up here. “I did a lot of rowing on this lake, always rowing,” he explains. Jani mentions that Lake Bled hosted the World Rowing Championships in 1966, 79, 89 and then 2011. “I medalled in the World’s in 01 in Lucerne,” he says rather humbly. I can’t help but imagine how special it would have been had he won on these home waters.

A display nearby pays homage to many of Jani’s fellow Slovene Olympians. Surely representing your country in four consecutive summer Olympics, as he did, conveys a certain heroic status upon him. “1992 was the year I medalled,” he clarifies, but it less his victories than his fondness for Lake Bled that shines through. “It’s an amazing, safe place.”

We find a simple hotel for that evening and bid farewell to the serene setting the next morning. Driving north west, we aim our sights for the winter resort town of Kranjska Gora in the Julian Alps. I’m immediately smitten by its quaint townscape that harkens back to the 11th century. The town’s Gothic church dominates its ‘skyline’, competing with the mountains and the Alps.

We’re recommended to have lunch, ‘for the famous Kranjska Gora mushroom soup’ at Gostilna Pri Martinu. The traditional restaurant is near the end of what seems to be main street and it is quintessentially Slovene; profuse window boxes, a traditional fireplace with old skis propped nearby and artfully stacked wood piles. Yes, I do have a slight obsession about wood piles and the Sloevenes have mastered the art of stacking. Throughout the town, the wood piles are so perfect, so uniform, even creative, that I send a few pics to our son who happens to be at our home in Canada chopping wood for the coming winter months. “Can you try this one? Or this?” I’m sure he thought I was slightly mad!

But I digress. The soup? The mushroom soup lives up to its reputation and after lunch I happen to chat with the owner, Daria. As well as hotelier, she is also a busy ski-mom. “My daughter has been on the podium for Slovenia,” she tells me proudly. As with Jani, living in an area that hosts sporting events, fosters champions. In this area, its the Alpine Ski World Cup and events at Planica, the ski-jumping hill.

When I comment on the beauty of her country, Daria confesses that years ago, she and her husband had almost immigrated to Canada. “I couldn’t do it,” she admits. “We have it all here. Close to so many countries. We like a simple life and there’s beauty. We’re a country of only two million. We’re a little good at things.”

She and her family’s three businesses, along with notable sports acumen attest to just that. I mention that we’re ‘on the road,’ yet suddenly have a visceral notion to spend some time here. I’ve noticed in Slovenia that restaurants often have small inns above their establishment and Daria takes me upstairs to entice me to where we might stay for the evening. The chalet-style windows are flung open to old wooden farmhouses and I feel that I can almost reach out and touch the Julian Alps beyond. Although it’s only early afternoon, I decide we’re calling it a day!

“We’ve found our place for tonight,” I tell the others back downstairs who are slightly bemused with my decision to not drive any further today. Daria hands me the keys. “No worries, you can register and pay later.”

There are times when travelling that you know when you need to… stay, spend some time in a place that you didn’t expect to, get to the essence of it…

And so we did and while the others jaunted off for a hike in the direction of the Alps, here I was in Slovenia! Having seen much of Europe, I was still pinching myself that I was exploring a new country. First stop… the museum.

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Sylvester Mirtic greets me warmly in the old farm house. Kransjka Gora still has many of these large farm/barn settlements where animals, hay and equipment share the space below the living quarters. Upstairs is expansive. A wooden bench wraps around the main room’s handcrafted table, the all-important ceramic stove warms the room and I’m shown lovingly and creatively painted beds and dowry chests.

“Notice the carnations that have such special meaning to us,” Sylvester points out. I deduce that this is one of the reasons for the prolific flower boxes in Slovene windows.  He also ensures that I see the Black Kitchen where cooking, baking and meat smoking occurred. It’s a separate room not of wood, but of tiny cobble stones to prevent fire. Generation after generation lived together in these rambling buildings and Sylvester adds interestingly that the language can change from valley to valley, often a reflection of people’s roots.

“I have Bavarian, Austrian and Italian roots,” he mentions and when I tell Sylvester that I was able to use a little Italian over at Daria’s establishment, he’s not surprised. “We feel like a nation, but we’re diverse.”

In fact, what you must know in a nutshell about Slovenia is this. It was once part of the Roman, Byzantine and Carolingian Empire. Then came the Habsburg Monarchy, the Republic of Venice, the provinces under Napoleon, the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary. A lot of empires, before exercising self-determination by co-founding the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs. In 1918, they merged with the Kingdom of Serbia, later named Yugoslavia in 1929.

Then came occupation in WW II, annex by Germany, Italy and Hungary and eventually independence in 1991 when Slovenia split from the disintegrating Yugoslavia. With such a turbulent past, it isn’t surprising that as with Jani, Dari and Sylvester, I sense an acute sense of pride that people have for their country’s eclectic story.

After thanking Sylvester for the tour, I wander the quiet, picturesque streets. Yet more blooming carnations, interesting wood piles and the heavenly scent of wood fires now drift in the chilled air. The chiseled alps take on an alpenglow. And then I happily meet Ivanka.

She is just about to close up her small shop. It’s stuffed with wooden ‘this and that’, curios, wicker and brooms. Her effervescent personality bubbles through despite the language barrier and when I mention ‘Canada’ she breaks out in smile. I hear ‘bambino’ often and know she’s speaking of her grandchildren. Ivanka cradles my chin in her hand and says something with affection. Then she is entirely delighted when I ask to take her photograph. When I show her the result, she is pleased.

“Bella, bella, beautiful, beautiful,” she affirms with a laugh and again grabs my chin and cradles it gently. Like Slovenia itself, I’m immediately drawn to this warm, lovely woman. My gut reaction to spend time in this small town has given me an intimate insight into the Slovene culture and its people. It’s been a day of perfection.

Yet there’s one more stop this road trip is pointing us to – the Slovenian wine region. The next morning we drive through the majestic mountain pass and we’re rewarded with more stunning scenery and pretty small towns. When we reach our destination, the sprawling vineyards strike me as perhaps just as lovely as those of Tuscany.

In Brda, the westernmost wine region, we taste at the grand Vipolze Villa. We stroll amongst roadside vines just before sunset. We make our way to Smartno and finish the day in its walled medieval village. More excellent Slovene wine, the chatter of locals and yes, surely this is how this most excellent, fairytale road trip should finish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Italy, with love… a few unsent postcards

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As with previous years, January finds me dreamily perusing last year’s photos and notebooks. There isn’t always time to write while I’m travelling, so in the chill of midwinter, I gladly relive a few of those interesting vignettes. All three of the settings were first-time visits. Oh the joy of unanticipated discoveries! So today, let’s wander back to Italy…

 

Bologna… of porticoes, tall towers and gastronomy

I can’t think why Bologna hadn’t been on my list of Italian cities to visit. It is now perhaps in the top five of my treasured collection.

Why Bologna? It’s quite simple… the towers, the porticoes, and the food.

Let’s begin with the setting – an architectural feast of light and shadows created by kilometre after kilometre of arched walkways. In fact the over thirty-eight kilometres of porticoes (harking back to the porticus of Roman times) which through their varied construction tell stories spanning the ages – from medieval wooden to frescoed renaissance to the austere functionality of post world war II.

They are simply beautiful. Deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I found them entrancing, and useful as the rain dampened the streets late one afternoon. Through their evocative and protecting arch ways, we ‘mazed’ our way to another of the cities’ well-known landmarks, the tallest leaning medieval tower in the world. At over 97 meters tall, the Asinelli Tower tops that of Pisa – I know, it gets all the attention – but with its little sis, Garisenda nestled beside it, these two are excellent examples of tower homes.

Becoming prominent from the pre-Renaissance period, wealthy, feuding families in the 12th and 13th centuries attempted to outbuild each other, for the purpose of defensive and sheer rivalry. Often taking as long as ten years to construct, as many as 180 of these laboriously built ‘homes’ once dotted Bologna’s skyline. By the end of the 1200’s many had collapsed or been dismantled, making these two ‘sister’s that much more valuable. I admit that despite their enduring presence, they don’t quite have the same allure as the leaning tower in Pisa. Yet, their imposing silhouettes surely transport us to a vision of Bologna’s once-soaring skyline.

Bologna understands both old… and modern vibrancy. The city boasts the world’s oldest university, rendered new by the young and edgy vibe of student life. Students gather and commune in the squares, under and near the porticoes, and most definitely in the Quadrilatero. This compact area is teeming day and night with market stalls, lavish gourmet deli shops and packed cafes.

After all, Bologna is known as La Grassa, the fat one. To say that it is renowned for its food would be an understatement to the Bolognesi. This is where ragu or bolognese originated. Where delicate pouches of ravioli melt in your mouth. Where the Palazzo della Mercanzia keeps the recipes of Bologna’s world famous dishes under ‘lock and key’. Yes, they are that precious.

So Bologna? An amazing display of porticoes and lively streets – a blend of many centuries. And a veritable feast for both the gastronome and the architectural connoisseur!

 

A Lunch Date in Cinque Terre...

There we were, eight of us on a day trip from our writer’s retreat in Tuscany – let loose in the Cinque Terre (five lands). For many visitors these once isolated villages, strung along the Mediterranean Sea, are a destination for hiking from village to village. We do no such thing.

We jump on the 9:30 train from Aulla, to La Spezia. Then onto the ‘Cinque Terre train’ where we cram toe to toe with day-trippers in sun hats, safari hats, hiking boots and backpacks. Yes, many are doing ‘the hike’ a pilgrimage of sorts, but we were definitely the ‘merry writers on excursion’. As the crowded train whisks through the countryside, we catch brief glimpses of tall cypresses against country villas, castles clinging to hilltops, and then finally, of the dazzling Mediterranean. It was official – we had arrived at the Italian Riviera.

We alight at Monterosso and soon cozy-up at an outdoor cafe. Soaking in the shimmering sea, we order our first espressos of the day. We watch loungers and bathers claim their spots under paint-box-orange and Italian-green umbrellas. We, on the other hand, wander. A hat for all is in order and carefully chosen. Then we embark upon a slow, picturesque stroll along an ancient via. It meanders, and along with prickly pears and milky-green olive trees, it clings precariously to the hillside. The emerald-green-turquoise-saphire-blue water fans out below us like a rich, shimmering fabric. Being writers, we ponder… surely there must be a word for such a brilliant colour. None is conjured!

We hop onto a short ferry ride to Vernazza, which despite swarms of tourists and cruise ship passengers, still feels authentic and genuine. It’s an old sea-faring town with car-free, narrow lanes snaking upwards, fringed with mountainside vineyards just beyond the small settlement.

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We join the fray in the busy piazza. It is seemingly laundry day, townfolk’s washing hanging from tall, peeling and faded pastel homes. As in Venice, the port’s water once lapped against the houses themselves, but now this main square folds down to the water; a beach, an impromptu soccer field, a place for passiagetta, the evening ritual of strolling.

It’s time for a late lunch and Roberto, our favourite Italian guy and in our group, manages to secure us a table at a restaurant with a view, Ristorante Gambio Rosso. It is ideally located on the square… allowing us to gaze out to the small inlet, to the crowds and up to the floating laundry. Now Roberto, our ‘gentleman on tour’, becomes our unofficial translator as we navigate the menu. We then dine in sheer pleasure. It is the scrumptious food, refreshing local wine and glorious company over a luxurious long lunch. Allore, it was surely a mix of the right place and the excellent company of ‘merry writers’.

The Cinque Terre –  and especially Vernazza – claimed a little of our hearts that day.

 

Trieste… of the grand, of light on pastel 

Trieste? Yet another unexpected delight hints that there will be yet more to find. Head north, past Venice, 150km onwards, to the very eastern top of Italy’s ‘boot’. Nestled at the foot of the mountains, on the Gulf of Trieste, this once prosperous seaport was one of the oldest cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, it feels a little like Vienna, or Salzburg with stately opulent buildings, many that harken back to the days of mighty shipping companies.

We explore endlessly, we eat often, and sometimes we hide in neighbourhood bars from that wind – the north-easterly bora – racing briskly up the Adriatic. In one, I taste the sweetest, thickest, most delicious hot chocolate I already know I’ll ever savour. It’s barely noon, but the bar is busy. A place where wine and beer already flows and where the daily paper is ritually digested.

When the sun comes out, Trieste is full of light dancing on pastel-hued buildings. Its grand square is simply resplendent. I’m taken aback at how ‘unItalian’ it feels. But then this storied city has always been at the crossroads of Latin, Slavic and Germanic cultures.

We also explore the coast in a little Fiat, grand castles and hillside villages dotted along this narrow ribbon of land between mountain ridge and the azure sea.

Our stay is brief; in fact, we’re on our way to Slovenia to visit our son and his girlfriend. So Trieste… what can I say. Simply splendid that we happened to be passing through!

 

 

 

 

 

Poster-perfect Banff… a century of allure in the Canadian Rockies

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Still vibrant, these classic posters leap out, drawing you into their spectacular mountain scenes and alluring pastimes; skating, skiing, hiking, or just feeling glorious as a pampered world traveller… and all in the splendour of the great Canadian outdoors. These advertisements weren’t created by happenstance. They spoke of the promise of luxury travel to the Canadian West and no place better epitomised this than Banff in the Canadian Rockies.

I admit that a few years ago, I found it impossible to resist acquiring a limited reproduction of one of these treasured posters. They evoke a distinctive time and place, and also represent one of the best advertising campaigns of the late 19th and 20th centuries – Canadian Pacific Railway decided who their market was, and captured it well. The exacting quality and style that they sought, often called for prominent artists, creating posters by the thousands in different languages, to be distributed globally. They portrayed a dream, a lifestyle and on a recent trip to Banff, I wanted to get a little more ‘into the ink of it all’. How did it come about? How did this once obscure settlement, once known as ‘Siding 29’ with little more than a house and a small log store, become world renowned Banff?

It’s quite simple. Without the Canadian Pacific Railway, there would have been no unified Canada and, without the railway, Banff would never have achieved renown, nor would that splendid ‘castle in the mountains’, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, exist. The railroad helped catapult Banff from obscurity and it all began with one man’s vision.

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His name was Cornelius Van Horne and he had a flair for railway ventures. Under his leadership, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was completed in 1885 and Canada had achieved its dream of becoming a united country; connected from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Government of Canada was a mere eighteen years old. How would the CPR recover the enormous costs of building this ribbon of steel across thousands of acres of wilderness? They now had a railway and 25 million acres of land, an area larger than Ireland, granted to them by the government. Beyond the myriad small settlements that sprouted up close to the newly laid rails and the few burgeoning settlements such as Vancouver and Calgary, the vast tract of land was largely unsettled. But Van Horne soon realised there was an opportunity to attract tourists to Canada’s western frontier. In a moment of inspiration, he was reported to have exclaimed:

“Since we can’t export the scenery, we’ll have to import the tourists.”

Van Horne realised the potential of tourism and he executed the next phase. The CPR began building luxury lodgings such as the Banff Springs Hotel, the Empress Hotel in Victoria, the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City. They would cater to wealthy visitors from Europe and the United States and the posters would become Canada’s ‘calling cards,’… but mostly for the privileged few.

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Banff had it all from the outset. Health-giving natural hot springs, spectacular scenery, legendary mountains, all rooted along and backdropped by the Bow River. Older than the mountains themselves, the Bow is a place where as long as 11,000 years ago, the First Nations people gathered wood for their bows along the banks… hence the name. They camped and fished the rivers, replete in trout: brook, cutthroat, and Dolly Varden. They lived in what could be a harsh, but spiritual environment which they deeply revered. It was a place of seven-hundred year Douglas Firs, a landscape shared with grizzly and black bears, bison, moose, lynx, cougars and wolves.

Few Europeans had yet passed through the region: Simpson from the Hudson’s Bay Company, a few military detachments, one Reverend T. Rundle in 1847 and explorer J. Hector in 1858. But in the autumn of 1883, the first tracks made steady progress up the Bow Valley passing and in 1886, through what would become Banff. This pristine wilderness was now part of the important link in the nation’s transportation and commercial corridor. Railway workers had noticed a natural hot springs and eventually Van Horne would convince the Government to reserve 26 square kilometres of land around the springs – the beginning of Canada’s national park system.

 

We spend our few days in Banff feeling as if we’re tourists. I’ve been coming here since ‘forever’, but this time we’re hosting family from The Netherlands and we savour the experience as a small holiday. We stay in a woodsy lodge where a roaring fireplace and a  colossal stuffed bison head presides over the grand room watching tourists from around the world come and go. We stroll the streets of the small town, the prominent Cascade Mountain aligned perfectly on the axis of the bustling Banff Avenue. We admire a cluster of small cabins, some of the first homes of the original settlers, now part of the excellent Whyte Museum. People like David MacIntosh White, who in 1886 followed the adage to ‘Go West, Young Man’ first working for the CPR before becoming one of Banff’s founding businessmen. More brothers followed David from Eastern Canada and the White (later Whyte) family would become naturalists, poets, painters, park wardens, mountain guides, ski adventurers; they and the mountain community thrived.

Enthusiasm abounded and by the end of 1887, settlers had applied for almost 180 lots, both for home ownership and for businesses. There were six hotels, nine stores, two churches, a school and a post office. Along came a log railway station, roads were built. An impressive new hotel was under construction and, anticipating what would follow, access to the Cave and Basin and the Upper Hot Springs was improved.

We luxuriate in those same Upper Hot Springs one evening. It’s -5 degrees below outside and under a waxing gibbous moon, steeped in curative minerals, vapours steaming around us through the frigid mountain air, it is nothing short of breathtaking. In that idyllic setting, we all understand the long-attraction of these health giving waters. We return to our lodge room and gather around a crackling fire – it’s a winter getaway to perfection!

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The next day, I’m determined to explore a little more of Van Horne’s iconic creation. Van Horne himself, occupies a commanding position near the entrance to his Banff Springs Hotel, his statue presiding over the arrivals and departures of guests. Testament that  without his vision of bringing the people to the mountains, none of this might be here. When the hotel opened in 1888, its architect Bruce Price of New York, described it as a ‘bastion of luxury’. And bastion it was – with 250 rooms that opened seasonally from mid May 15 to early October. CPR’s advertising strategies soon paid off and they continued building their chateau inspired masterpieces. Even as round-the-world tours began in  association with P&O, CPR also acquired their own steamships, bringing the international set from afar to the Canadian Rockies.

The increasing popularity of the hotel as an international mountain destination (assisted by a fire) cried out for the need to replace the original wooden structure. Soon an eleven storey tower was added, then more wings, and in 1928 new styling was unveiled ‘in the spirt of a Scottish baronial castle’. Little expense appears to have been spared as stone-cutters from Italy and masons from Scotland were brought in to render this masterpiece!

As I wander through the sprawling hotel, it is rich with carvings, tartan carpets, soaring fireplaces, ballrooms that seem to beg for bagpipes, and million-dollar views. I easily imagine global travellers arriving at the station and being whisked to the ‘castle’ in a ‘tally-ho’s, the original Brewster carriages. Many arrived for their four-month stay, with stacks of luggage and a $50,000 letter of credit in hand to see them through the season. Their’s was a life of luxury… just as the evocative posters had promised.

 

 

I peer out to the Bow River beyond. It’s always been a multi-use kind of river – perhaps a curling sheet, a hockey rink, a backdrop for one of Marilyn Monroe’s movies, or a royal visit by King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Theodore Roosevelt and William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Yet as I gaze a little longer, I’m also reminded of those who laboured to bring the tracks to this setting. Those like the legendary Swedes, who they say handled the railway ties as though they were mere toothpicks. And the mixes of other ethnicities who contributed to unifying this country; Italians, Norwegians, Irish, Germans, Japanese, Chinese, British, Americans and Canadians. Most suffered hardship, many lost their lives, some stayed to settle this vast land. Their perseverance enabled more than two million settlers from Europe and the United States to pour into the west between 1886 and 1914 – the first and greatest wave of immigration in Canadian history. By 1901, this new country would have a population of five million, some 700,000 born overseas. Many would acquire plots from the CPR, choosing to homestead, our first farmers and ranchers. All of them welcomed, and needed in the new cultural mosaic of Canada.

For me, Banff is much more than the opulence of a beautiful hotel, the lure of stupendous scenery or world-class ski hills. It is about the stories that still echo around these grand peaks.

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If you go, allow me my suggestions:

Stay at the Buffalo Mountain Lodge, besides the lobby, fireplaces are also in individual rooms.

Stop, or stay, at the Fairmont Banff Springs. Take the stairs to the second level and wander!

Be sure to luxuriate at the Upper Hot Springs. Eat at the casual and fun Magpie and Stump. Don’t miss the iconic Hudson’s Bay store on Banff Avenue. Visit the Whyte Museum. Stop on your way, or afterwards in nearby Canmore, stroll the shops and the the beautiful scenery along the river.

 

 

 

An olive harvest in Italy… sharing in a family ritual

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“Let’s be silent,” I implore my fellow olive pickers. “Just five minutes. Let’s take in the sounds of the valley.”

We’ve talked endlessly, wonderfully, hour after hour as tree after olive-laden tree, steadily yield their bounty.

I want to savour the sounds of this Italian scene. The vista from Carolyn and Paolo’s slice of paradise is spectacular and speaks for itself. Vineyards run straight and tidy, rows of Soave-valley grapes, nestled in low hills. Colourful small towns, and hamlets, also inhabit the scene; their terracotta tiled roofs dotted between the greens of cypress, olive and vine. Church steeples pierce the sky and I am drawn to their melodic tunes, a familiar signature of the small-town Italy that I love.

It is late on a Sunday morning and as we suspend our conversation for a quiet interlude, church bells peal lyrically across the valley, drifting up to our perch on the hillside. Weaving with birdsong, they are the soundtrack to this weekend’s olive harvest.

Carolyn, a Washingtonian, long-happily settled in her husband’s homeland, had kept me updated on which weekend the olive harvest would take place.

“It’s now the 13th and 14th,” she had written while we were in Italy last month. “The olives will be ready then.” And indeed, that was the date set for all of the surrounding community… the olive harvesting weekend had been declared!

Carolyn, Paolo, their son Leo, and Fly the basset hound, had arrived the day before from their main residence in the South Tyrol, close to the Austrian border. This country home offers a gracious, pastoral counterpoint to their home in the Italian Alps.

“The first time we looked at the centuries-old farm house we knew it was special,” Paolo told me the evening before as we chatted over a drink at our hotel, just a picturesque meander along a small windy road from their casa.

“You’ll see tomorrow,” he had said, “our house is on the end of a row, so we have a view. But it needed work, everyone told us to walk away. And we did, for a year.”

The fondness Carolyn also feels for her country place was clear to see. “A year later, we revisited it and the owner was clever. He implored us to stay overnight and that was it. I fell in love with the bedroom!”

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This morning, before we start our day of harvesting, Carolyn tours me through their home and I understand it all perfectly. The old stone, wood and bright colours, blend to a cozy mix of rustic and modern. And yes, the bedroom is a haven. The shutters are flung open… to the sky and to the gorgeous vista, and to a pomegranate tree. All… just there, a live mural, as beautiful as my favourite Boticelli or Michelangelo. Oh yes, I could easily imagine waking up to this living canvas.

But allore, it is time to start picking and with bags tied with rope around our waists, we happily join the family harvest. We pluck and gently glide the olives off their branches. We reach high and low, between and around, sometimes kneeling and then on our tip-toes, low on the ground and high above. Eight year-old Leo is still light and nimble enough to perch himself on the more stable branches… perfect for those elusive olea europaeas.

Time after time as our waist-cinched bags become laden with the colourful drupes (pitted fruit), Leo ferries each trove to the crates. They are laid out along the aged stones at the back entry of the home and slowly fill up, hour by hour. Neighbours, Roberta and Diana, are also busy on their plot of land just above us. Their home is also a country retreat and has been in the family for generations. Like our hosts, their passion for harvesting is evident, as is their fondness for Carolyn and Paolo.

“We’re so happy this family is our neighbours,” they reveal gladly. I notice Roberta is wearing a t-shirt that reads… If you can’t get where you’re going – you may be there. The adage mirrors the inspiring signs that Carolyn has dotted around the property. They too play their part in the charming setting; as do the hammocks, Leo’s tree house, the roses and the profuse persimmon tree.

The scenes, the sounds, the scents suffuse into one; affirming my love of travelling, the wonder and joy of it, each experience a fond gem that I tuck away in my treasure chest of travel. So too, is this opportunity to spend quality time with a friend in a unique setting – sharing and discussing our future plans as we move from tree to tree. It is also the chance to be an actor in Italian life, to be part of an annual ritual rather than the habitual spectator as a traveller. When I notice Paolo and Bruce laying on their backs, cocooned under the silvery branches ensuring not one precious olive is left lonely on the trees, I know this too is bringing sheer satisfaction to my travel companion – and also the chance to work off some pasta-fed calories, a result of our indulgent pleasures over the weeks-long meandering trip.

But Paolo ensures that this day won’t be any different and has hung up his picker’s ‘basket’ to don his chef’s apron. His weekend culinary hobby is far removed from the demands of his doctor’s responsibilities, and we’re soon called into the house for a delicious late lunch. I contribute a bottle of excellent Slovenian wine that I had squirrelled away just for this occasion and with the door wide open to the occasional tolling of bells, we sit down to:

Feast a la Paolo~ Primo: Spagehetti alle vongole. Secondo: Polenta, funghi, e formaggio Asiago. And a side dish (Contorno) of a Melanzane alla pizzaiola… all of it simply delizioso!

Over this perfect Italian style lunch, I ask the family why the olive harvest is so special.

“It’s the expectation, the hope, that you helped something thrive. With no chemicals, its personal and kind of soothing,” Paolo explains.

“It’s so satisfying to put something on your table that you grew, something so healthy,” Carolyn adds. “It’s like honesty in a bottle.”

“I love that, very fitting. It’s so wonderful to be part of this day,” I say dreamily, savouring the food, the wine, the setting, the conversation… divine, all of it!

Yet, so busy is this olive harvesting time that we can’t luxuriate too long as the ‘sacred’ appointment for pressing the olives is near. ‘Don’t be late, but don’t be early,’ seemed to be the key and we realized it was almost the optimal time for departure. But with ten minutes still, before we leave for the pressing, Paolo and Bruce once again set upon an olive tree that had not quite been picked clean. They go about their task with renewed vigour, eager to boost the yield by a few precious kilos, knowing that what remained on the trees would wither on the branch.

My mind wanders just for a second… Yes, I can imagine our very own Italian getaway, with olives, maybe a small vineyard, even a dog, and…

“You’re going to love this next phase,” Carolyn is telling me. I’m pulled away from my daydream. It is time for the main event!

From the hilltop of Castelcerino, every road leads downward and with our precious loads of olives safely stowed, our small procession of cars wend along the narrow hillside roads, down through olive groves and vineyards to the little town of Cazzano di Tramigna.

The Frantoio per Olive, the olive pressing factory, was unimposing and familial, a pastel-shaded building set just off the main street alongside a stream and small lagoon. Bruce and I, novices to this process, allow ourselves to be guided by the others who despite having done this many times before, seem to have a sense of excitement and occasion.

The weighing arrangements for their respective loads is discussed with Roberta and Diana, then we all watch with anticipation as Paolo and Carolyn’s pallet container is forklifted onto the scale. Paolo looks pleased – it’s tanto, much! Twice the yield of past years and we’re secretly delighted that we had a hand in this record haul.

Roberta and Diana have even greater cause for celebration – arm-scratched, weary yet elated from four arduous days of harvesting, they’ve reaped over half a tonne of olives, testament to their pruning and nurturing over the past year.

The pressing equipment is neat and economical, clean and freshly painted in an appropriate shade of hunter’s green. We watch in fascination as the olives are tipped into the hopper, first the wash and separation of stray leaves and grit, green olives and black, all sizes and varieties mingling in the process before disappearing into the mulcher. Olives and pits are macerated, resulting in a brown mush that ultimately joins the growing mound outside of the building.

We follow the grapes from beginning to end, savouring the already olivine odours infusing the small, but bustling factory. There is anticipation in the air as we watch the Fattoio operatives expertly moving around the equipment, sure in the knowledge of whose olives were where in the process, small cards with the family name of the olives perch on one of the machines as reminders. No drama or fuss, they work with a well-practiced rhythm amongst the noise, and with the olive patrons literally waiting for the ‘fruit of their labour’… in liquid form, of course.

In fact, the factory rather resembles a waiting room, complete with that particular shade of green and a row of metal chairs. But the collection of family containers awaiting this year’s harvest sets it apart. Bulbous glass demijohns, tall stainless-steel jugs and common plastic vessels all await their turn – the family name clearly indicated.

We’re nearing the two-hour mark. We’ve had a delightful peek around the town. We’ve stopped to admire the old, traditional olive press. We’ve enjoyed a glass of celebratory vino overlooking the gentle lagoon, a hilltop castle peering down on us all.

Now, finally, it’s our turn. We take our front-row seats opposite the crusher in time for ‘our’ olive oil to pour forth into the containers; it’s luminous green, forming an artful gush from the stainless-steel spout, about 120 litres of cold pressed, organic extra-virgin olive oil from the hills of Castelcerino. Looks of satisfaction are worn by all; they’ve waited all year for this.

Bruce and I marvel that such a seemingly simple process of picking and packing and pressing can feel so rewarding and fulfilling; and we’ve only helped. We understand the sheer satisfaction of how it must feel to our friends, but then again, it isn’t that surprising – it’s all about communing with each other, with the land, with a treasured Italian ritual.

Yes, Carolyn had mentioned this too while we lunched. “Watching Leo grow into this, to give him this ritual is wonderful. He’s taking ownership. It’s his land too.”

As we load the hefty loads of olive oil into the cars, Leo has the final word.

“I just like the picking,” he says with a ring of innocence and delightful exuberance.

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Thirteen hours in Pisa… my passion for Italy

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Pisa Airport, named for Galileo Galilei, greets me like a fond friend. Just as it did six years ago, that very first time I arrived to attend a writer’s retreat, the long narrow concourse has a happy vibe to it. It makes perfect sense considering that it is one of the main gateways to Tuscany – to sunshine and stunning vistas, to that laid-back Tuscan way of living. I notice the abundance of sandals, summer dresses and sun-kissed smiles, both satisfied and expectant.

The Machiavelli leather shop is bustling and I remember how immediately enticing it was on my first visit; soft muted colours of the supplest leather beckoning the newly arrived. Leather is my particular weakness here – every imaginable shade and design, but this time I know to leave the browsing to the many leather shops in Pisa itself.

So, I do the Italian thing and head straight to the espresso cafe with its long, curved marble bar. For most it’s a fleeting visit – we ‘locals’ know it costs more to sit, so one stands, for maybe three minutes at most, tipping back steaming double-thimbles of espresso. Then a swift farewell and a few coins for the server – Ciao, arrividerci!

I linger a little, taking in the chatter amid the clatter of cups and saucers, breathing in the sharp wafts of rich espresso, taking in the comings and goings of locals and tourists. Exiting the airport to hail a taxi, the balmy Tuscan air and terracotta pots of soft pink oleanders greet me. I’m ebullient, I’m ‘home.’

Many people have that one cherished place they return to, that special place of relaxation, refuge and rejuvenation – for me, it’s Italy. This may be my eighth visit, but I’m no longer counting and even before I leave, I’m already plotting my return. What do I love about it? Actually, just about everything.

I love how the Tuscan sun plays on ochre stone walls and on the fortress-like Renaissance tower houses… look up, high up, and you’ll see frescoes telling their stories still, evoking a rich historical past. I’m awed by the weight of history along and under Rome’s ancient streets, the romantic waterways of Venice, the grandeur of Vienna-like Trieste in the north and its dazzling position on the Italian Riviera, the evocative Cinque Terre…

And I adore the trattorias, rustic neighbourhood restaurants with their checkered table cloths, delicious pasta and wines from local vineyards that never make it into a corked bottle; perhaps just a well-worn, wicker encased carafe. Perfect for long lunches with friends.

I’m captivated by the constant parade of shutters in every possible shade of green. I wait for the bells that peal throughout the day, giving even the smallest of towns their lyrical backdrop for everyday life. The tolling of bells has traditionally not only been for their rhythmic serenade, but also to call locals to church, to beckon town folk from slumber, to remind to return to work in the fields, even to warn of intruders or impending disasters.

In Italy, I love unhurried train journeys wending through glorious countryside, the sensuous lyrical language, terracotta pots arrayed on aged flagstone, and the gentle rhythm of Italy’s rural life.

On this visit, my month-long trip begins with the writer’s retreat where I’ll be ensconced for six days with old and new friends. But first, I have thirteen glorious hours in Pisa… a rendezvous, an opportunity to reconnect.

I stay just a long stone’s throw from that tower that leans. It is late afternoon and after a journey that was much longer than it should have been (including three static hours on the Montreal tarmac in a faulty plane), I now throw open the tall window sashes of my inn, once an old tower home, and, as if on cue, I’m greeted with ringing bells. I know they’re from the nearby campanile and as always they are music to my ears. Surely, they’re calling out a welcome for my return!

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After a quick shower to wash away the jet lag, I walk barely two blocks through the tall, ivy sprawled stone gate of Pisa’s imposing old city walls. The familiar scene I know and love unfolds before me. The Piazza dei Miracoli, Square of Miracles, is considered one of the finest architectural complexes in the world; the Pisa Cathedral and Baptistry, and of course that tower that has ever such a tilt. The Leaning Tower is the campanile, the bell tower and naturally, it was never meant to lean.

In fact, due to inadequate foundation, the tower began subsiding during its IMG_9066construction in the 1100’s. Building of the flawed design was halted for a century while the Republic of Pisa engaged in battles with Genoa, Florence and Lucca. The lean increased over its decades-long construction and despite many attempts to right it, the Romanesque-style tower with its seven hefty bells, still leans at an angle of almost 4 degrees.

I admire the tower along with a multitude of tourists, but it’s really the side streets of Pisa that draw me. Strolling from the Piazza along the ‘main street’ of Santa Maria, I instinctively look up. I’m less interested in the scenes on the street level where people are dining, enjoying a glass of wine or yes shopping in those fabulous stores brimming with leather. No, it’s the view above eye level that reveal their vivid tales. I wander street after street, veering away from the tourist haunts, delighting in navigating this labyrinth of history.

The tall tower houses, artistic and architectural jewels, were the homes of noble families, mostly built during the middle ages. The torre case were built inside the city walls for defensive purposes, those soaring higher marking the more affluent and influential families. It was not only Pisa where these towers inscribed the Tuscan skies, but also Florence, Sienna, Lucca, and my personal favourite, San Gimignano.

Along with the towers, grand palazzos and trattorias, I pass small long-standing businesses so essential to the Tuscan way of life. And do their names not roll off the tongue like a wonderful symphony – spaghetteria, yogurteria, pasticceria, paineria, gelateria, Liberia, and the essential vineria.

The evening sun is glinting beautifully on the Piazza Dei Cavalieri, or Knight’s Square, as I amble to this quiet landmark. I know that this was once the political center of medieval Pisa, and later the headquarters of the Knights of St. Stephen. In 1558, the square was rebuilt in Renaissance style by Vasari, the talented architect of the Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo I de’ Medici. Medici’s statue looks over the square, framed by two magnificent Palazzos and the charming church of Saint Sebastian.

I’m distracted by strains of music that draw me to the steps of the church. I meet two university students, Oswaldo and Alexandra, as they serenade the evening strollers. This evening ritual of passeggiata is quintessentially Italian – a gentle, languid stroll through the piazzas, the vias, in the countryside, or along the sea-front. A pastime enjoyed by all ages – some fresh air, the chance to see and be seen, perhaps a stop at the gelateria or vineria.

I perch myself on the church steps beside the two musicians  savouring their Spanish love song, delighting in the fading sun dancing on fine Italian marble. I take in the strollers, the buildings and all that I love.

Allore, it was the perfect beginning to this month in Italy, and prelude to a planned visit to Slovenia. But that’s a story for a time soon…

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From the ‘notes’ archives… Bangkok, my early beginnings

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The shimmering palaces were showing off, bidding me a fond farewell, perhaps sensing that I might not soon return to this ‘city of angels.’ As the river boat cruised along Bangkok’s murky Chao Phrya River, magnificent wats dazzled in the humid evening air. It was the last day of my visit and surely this was an architectural parade – a parade of  ornate, timeless treasures. It transported me back to the beginning of it all.

A world away from the small Canadian town of my childhood, I marvelled silently that Bangkok is entwined with some of my life’s defining moments.

My first visit here as a wide-eyed twenty-one year old was my first to the Far East. Here, I fell in love with everything Asian; exotic palm trees, sensual orchids, pungent aromas of street side kitchens pervading the sultry air that corkscrewed my wayward hair. Yet, nothing hinted that a few short years later, I would embark on a lifelong adventure of travelling and living overseas.

I couldn’t have known that one day I’d live just a short flight away in India, but I’m sure the thought would have thrilled me. This rich and varied world had long staked a claim on my wanderlust soul.

As a teenager in our small home, the living room’s burnt-orange, shag carpet was a comfortable place to lounge — to leaf through National Geographic magazines and hefty encyclopaedias that fuelled my imagination. Often I would have waited, not-so-patiently, for the next volume to arrive. Long before the internet, we received these treasured books on a monthly instalment plan… a long wait for ‘T’ to read about Tibet or Thailand!

When I was seventeen, a high school trip to Italy introduced me to that world and conspired to change the course of my life. More precisely, it was Michelangelo’s statue of David that was the true culprit. When I stood in awe, in front of his imposing marbled presence in Florence, it ignited something deep inside. I wanted that beauty, that history and the rich cultures of the world to be part of my future. I was captivated.

After college, my first step was a move to the ‘big city’. With my ’77 Camaro stuffed to capacity, I drove out of town late one Sunday morning, through a landscape of honey-hued wheat and yellow canola fields, the Rockies framing the vista. Three hours north, shimmering in the August haze, the skyscrapers of downtown Calgary came into view. I had arrived to… well, the rest of my life.

IMG_4059With a job already secured, my mom had arranged for me to live with the daughter of a friend of hers. They had curled together for some 25 years and surely we would also get along? That first image of Carol’s apartment is etched in memory. Cushions from faraway Asian on the sofa, Lonely Planet travel guides on a pretty wicker shelf, backpack stowed away in a corner. Carol was my good fortune – not only was she a traveller, she was also a jewellery and clothes importer. And her buying trips were to none other than Bangkok. Naturally, it wasn’t long before I eagerly accompanied her on one of these excursions.

Now, thirty years on, Carol and I were here again. Still an importer, she visits yearly for buying trips and earlier this year before the launch of Monday Morning Emails, I decided to meet her in Bangkok. It was a quick jaunt from Bangalore and knowing she was there was too much to resist. We were excited to peek into our past and rekindle a little of our youthful wonder of old Siam.

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From the Archives

In the ’80’s, Thailand and Nepal were a must on the backpacking route… today it’s more often Vietnam and Cambodia. Carol and I both knew that much of Bangkok had been transformed, propelled forward and wrapped in modernity. An efficient metro now traverses the city, skimming past gleaming high-rise buildings and gorgeous shopping malls. We wandered through them in animated conversation but, by the third day, I pleaded that I needed to see ‘real’ Bangkok. The Bangkok of royal palaces and temples, of back-packers’ alleys and cheap elephant-print harem pants, of roadside phad thai stalls, of long-tail river taxis and three-wheeled tuk-tuks. And yes, even of our old ‘haunt’ the Royal Hotel.

So we made our way to a river taxi halt along a klong. The klang, klang of a metal spatula on a family-sized wok rang out from a humble diner on the water-side station. The waft of sizzling noodles mingled with the diesel fumes of the river boats. Yes, this was the Bangkok of old.

’Board, board,” a conductor rushed us onto the longboat as it skimmed the gangplank in a momentary whistle-stop. At once we were gliding through narrow canals. Humble homes perched on stilts. Rickety walkways joined close-knit communities. Sarongs hung to dry. Songbirds chirped from dainty bamboo cages. Potted orchids and frangipanis splashed colour against aged wooden framed homes. Modern-day Bangkok was gone in a flash, happily left behind in the wash of our boat’s propellor.

As the waves splashed over the edge of the long wooden boat, Carol and I smiled knowingly. Weaving through canals and along the river is how Thais traditionally travelled. From the King to the common person, these waterways are the true heart, the essence of the city.

We hopped off and ventured to a wat, into temple grounds, tiled and cooling, to architecture calming and spectacular; hues of green and red, and glittering gold. The temple was quiet, save for a saffron-robed Buddhist monk offering a homily against a murmuring backdrop of dreamlike incantations.  My senses are awakened and charmed, I embraced the temple’s ambiance as a cherished friend.

We played with a young toddler, on loan from his nanny. We laughed as we channeled our inner child. We reminisced.

And we were transported to simpler times – when there was little steel and glass beyond those walls, only the bustle and exuberance of 1980’s street scenes.

More poignant memories awaited at the iconic Royal Hotel. Carol and I walked the last few blocks along the wide boulevard that is Ratchadamnoen Avenue. Translating to ‘royal procession’, it was commissioned by King Chulalongkorn in 1897. It has the feel of a Champs-Elysees, grand and wide, designed for the pomp of royal parades.

When the Royal Hotel came into sight I was taken aback. Where it once looked so imposing and luxurious, its art-deco facade, although charming was surely diminished? I remembered it being so distinctive, so exotic. This hotel had been the first to welcome me to Asia, but now the scene that had played in my memory through the years was altered in an instant. I wondered if perhaps some things are best left to the treasured memory?

One of the last ‘old-style’ lodgings situated close to the Democracy monument, The Royal had been notorious as a shelter for political demonstrators and a first aid station during conflicts. But most of all, it was a haven for more discerning travellers and now as Carol and I perched across the avenue to take it all in, the change seems complete. It’s now on the mass tourist circuit.

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We watched busloads of tourists stream in and out. In those halcyon days it was for travellers with a little money, perhaps a respite before the next low-budget sojourn. A few nights break from the backpackers alleys, the grubby sheets and the too-thin walls.

Once inside, the lobby looked forlorn. Where were those rapturous bouquets of orchids in their delicate Thai pottery. Where was the buzz of travellers sharing stories and jotting down notes? The imposing carved wooden desk was still there, where it had always been.

“I can still picture the young lady who worked there. It was the travel desk,” Carol said wistfully. I too remembered that our overnight bus trip to Surat Thani was booked here – and our stay at a beach hut in Koh Samui. In the days before internet, one used the travel desk and after a day out, your tickets would be waiting for you when you returned.

“Miss Carol, Miss Terry Anneee. Tickets ready. S a w a d e e  k a,” I can almost hear her welcoming, lyrical voice.

The same wooden key drop is still at the front desk as is the post box from where we posted our letters home. In fact, it’s here that my love affair with stationary began. The hotel’s pretty purple letterhead enticed me to start collecting and I’ve done so ever since.

We peeked through the property noting the charming retro architectural features, a little Thai, a little European – all conspiring to its erstwhile grandness.

 

 

We ventured up the spiral staircase and outside to the swimming pool. This is where we would have luxuriated after a day of traipsing, sightseeing, and plying the city markets.

“Ah it was fun. It was amazing,” we both conceded with faraway gazes. Maybe it didn’t ‘sparkle’ quite as my memory had conjured, but the pool at the Royal is also where I spent the day, five years later, before I went to the airport to pick up my mother. I had not seen her for almost a year and I was thrilled to welcome her to Bangkok. At that point, a six month backpacking trip had elapsed and I was living in Japan. I was excited to confide to her that I was about to become engaged. Yes, for this is also where a certain young Scotsman had joined me to travel before that backpacking trip.

“Carol, this is where I was when he arrived,” I said, pointing to a lounger. “Just here I think.” Allowing a backward daydream of Bruce arriving, leather backpack thrown over his strong swimmer’s shoulders, I remembered that moment when he had indeed shown up to travel despite our relationship still rather ‘undefined’. A period of dating had ensued nine months previous. He had arrived in Calgary after having worked in Africa, his plan to travel through North America slightly derailed. Working and meeting that person that just might be the one of your dreams can do that – our young romance blossomed, yet my goal was still to travel.

I had been saving for years for this backpacking adventure. Then with the money finally in place,  I had given up my job, my apartment and bought a one-way ticket to Asia. With my hopes and dreams stuffed into a 55 litre backpack, Bruce persisted.

“Can I meet you in Bangkok, travel with you for a few months?” he had asked a few months prior to me leaving.

I had said yes. It was meant to be for just two months – we’re still travelling today.

Carol and I bid farewell to the Royal, convinced it would be the last time we saw it. We wandered through back streets where simple, daily life was in full swing. Dogs lazed and recycling was collected. Foot massages were offered along the canal-side, animated conversations spiced the outdoor cafes. In these streets, the Thai smile was still given with warmth and ease, genuine and welcoming.

 

 

 

 

We tuk-tuked it to nearby Khao San Road. The backpacker’s haven has been spruced but still alive with the vibrant coming and going of travellers; seeking an adventure, an experience, maybe an escape from the ordinary… just as I had eagerly done.

Carol and I ordered a tall Singha. “Cheers! To the past, to the future, to friendship.” We clinked our glasses. We talked. We people watched. Wonderfully, some things never change.

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The breathtaking Bugaboos… a welcome home to a ‘cathedral in the sky’

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I’m now in Canada, dear readers, and I apologise for my absence from these pages. Through my last blogs, you’ll know we left our Indian home of two years. We travelled through Greece, Scotland and England, then a two-month stay in The Netherlands, before finally, beautiful British Columbia greeted us. It was as if our dear mountain home sighed with relief, “Ah, you’ve finally returned.’ It had been nine months.

So, we’re home, perhaps to live (to be decided) but nonetheless, the transition of almost thirty years overseas and now having one address is ongoing. You can read more at Monday Morning Musings.

IMG_8897Call it a welcome home or an initiation back to Canada, recently I was enticed into an overnight hike. Really, it was into a wonderland of chiselled granite at 2230 meters, into a rapture of beauty. It was a profound privilege, yet, it had to be earned.

The world acclaimed Bugaboos are at our doorstep, a range within the great Purcell Mountains – the Rockies are just across the valley. We joined many others who journey from around the world to hike and take on some serious climbing. My hiking partners promised that I would manage the ascent, but as is often the case, I’m the weakest link… the little engine that ‘hopefully can’.

The hike’s end point was to a hut that has seemingly been dropped from the heavens onto a granite outcrop. Flanked by a glacier and granite spires piercing the clouds, the Conrad Kain hut will take us about four hours to reach. A little nervous, I comfort myself with my badge of honour; that eleven-day hike back in the day to the base camp of Annapurna in the Himalayas. There have been many hikes since, but gazing up to this ‘hut in the sky,’ it seems a little formidable.

It begins easily enough, a gentle meander through aged forest and feathery ferns, past dainty wildflowers and lush meadows. That pleasant amble gives no indication of what will soon be asked of us. To tread carefully along steep granite steps and narrow edges. To grip chains for safety and ladder up a boulder. To climb higher and higher, the small green dot of the Kain hut ever-looming in the distance to encourage our progress.

We break in much needed shade for lunch, a carpet of pine needles and knobbly tree roots our bench. We chat with other hikers and guides who encourage their charges up the mountain.

Our unofficial guide is friend and neighbour, John Parker. John exudes calm encouragement, yet there is a task at hand and there isn’t time for idle dallying. But then, this was John’s work and his passion, the commitment to his lifelong career shows as he leads a steady way. “You’re doing great,” “Take small steps on the steep ascents”, he encourages me. By the fourth hour of the hike, I need all the inspiration I can muster.

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My legs are seizing up. My back is aching. Thankfully, my breathing isn’t as bad as I feared, but I am now w i l l i n g each step, hoping for the end. And then, as if nature senses that it’s time, one of the most glorious views reveals itself. A meadow of wild flowers opens up, a crystal-clear melt-water torrent rushes from the glacier, and we cross a simple metal bridge to the final climb to the Conrad Kain hut. Without a doubt, it is one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. Anywhere.

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Perched on a granite prominence, the hut with its green arched roof contrasts with its backdrop of glaciers, vast fields of ice, rugged and cracked, harbouring crevasses of the deepest cobalt blue. The hut and the enveloping landscape beckons me as I trudge up the final metres. It seems to say, “You’ve made it, welcome!”

The four of us unburden ourselves of our packs, add our climbing poles to the collection already outside the hut, and hug each other. “Well done, Terry Anne. You’ve achieved this,” John congratulates me. Sonya and Bruce do as well, and I admit to feeling like a school girl who has gained some respect from her teacher. Later that evening, I’ll hear more about John’s students and his career, but first we take in the buzz of the hut.

We’ll join about thirty other people who will spend the night on mattresses lined edge to edge over two upper floors. Sleeping bags claim their spots. But it won’t be a quiet night, what with the snores of exhausted climbers or 2 am alarms set for pre-sunrise departures for distant climbs. Head lamps light the way, for many early trekkers, the hut a staging point for serious climbers. Ropes are wound, helmets wait at the ready, crampons packed, quick-draws checked and counted, ice picks hang nearby.

The communal dining room, with its million-dollar view, is a place for sharing climbing stories and discussing routes, for reading and games, and replenishing weary bodies with freeze dried food. Though wonderfully, Bruce and Sonya on cooking duty would out do themselves – our dinner and breakfast warmed in the hut’s vast kitchen was just what my weary body needed.

Happily, it’s happy-hour, Sonya and I retreat to the side of the hut, exhausted but gleeful. A tin of glacier-chilled wine is our reward… and of course, that view. Surely, Conrad Kain would approve of his eponymous mountain abode. They say that Kain brought glamour and imagination into the sport of mountaineering as few guides had before him.

For nearly thirty years, the Austrian born guide, saw peaks as the personification of  beauty, as living entities to climb – firstly in Europe, then New Zealand and Canada. With his short, stocky stature, the climber achieved more than sixty first ascents, including the Bugaboo Spire in 1916 which now presides over us and the lesser spires like a grand citadel.

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We exhilarate in this cathedral of nature, and while Bruce and John hike upwards to the Applebee camp for a closer view of the ‘citadel’, Sonya and I stay put, entranced by the view. I recall what I had read of Conrad Kain. He eventually settled nearby, largely earning his living as a trapper, a hunting guide and an outfitter. His passion for communing with nature was steadfast. Kain once wrote, “Life is so short, and I think one should make a good time of it if one can. The only thing I enjoy now is Nature, especially spring in the mountains, and letters from friends. Sometimes I think I have seen too much for a poor man.”

Apparently Kain’s principles kept him poorer than he might have been and despite his achievements he sought no fame. With a grateful look across a beautiful alpine scene, he was known to have remarked, “It occurred to me that after all I was a rich man, even if I had no money.”

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I feel that now. The sheer beauty of this view is truly priceless. And somehow, it’s all that much more special because of the effort invested in reaching it. As I watch climbers trek off to the campground, a rainbow of tents pitched on a natural rock plateau, and as others ready their gear, I understand this world a little more. I now appreciate why one of our sons and his girlfriend are passionate about hiking and climbing. I more easily see why, when my husband and another son came back from trekking in Nepal a number of months ago, Bruce remarked, “It’s the sheer uplift of the soul… being part of primal wilderness.”

A few hours later we linger over our well-earned dinner that we had packed up the mountain. I ask John more about his career, surely a celebration of the great outdoors, as he helped design the curriculum for Outdoor Education Ontario, in his particular school. It offered high school students the opportunity to grow, to learn self-reliance, to move out of their comfort zone through outdoor pursuits.

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“It might have been rock climbing, hiking, wayfinding, canoeing, winter camping or Nordic skiing. They learned confidence and independence. But I had hoops they had to jump through to earn their place on these trips; they were real achievements.”

John relates the life-changing impact the program had on students, the passion he still feels as a retiree is clear. “Years later, I’ve had calls from former students wanting me to know that I inspired them to become teachers themselves. They’ve told me how the program turned their life around. You really bond when you’re in the wilderness, barriers drop and kids confide in you. And I made them journal their experiences for self-reflection.”

As we listen to John reflect, I can’t imagine there isn’t one of us that doesn’t wish our children had been part of an outdoor education program. Our sons were avid sportsmen and yes, we were often outdoors, but studies show there is something intrinsic and vital about the connection, the challenges, and the healing of nature.

It’s still light outside at 2200 meters and as much I’d love to stay awake to watch the moon rise over the whites of the glacier and the grand citadel, it’s difficult to keep my eyes open. It’s only 9 pm.

The door opens and in bursts a climber, “Ah you’re back,” someone at the table exclaims in a German accent.

“It was awesome, been out for 25 hours straight,” the climber says. He’s draped with ropes and his tired but satisfied smile speaks volumes.

I say goodnight to my own climbing buddies, but realize I have just one more question for John.

“Did your students call you Mr. Parker on these trips, in those outdoor classrooms?”

John answered me in his usual charming, warm tone. “No, I was usually J.P.”

“Ok, J.P, thanks for the day and leading the way… just amazing!”

I don’t yet know, that descending tomorrow will be even worse than the climb. That I’ll take a tumble and that once I’m down the mountain I’ll gaze back up at it in awe. Already missing its serene and hallowed place.

But for now, my aching legs climb the ladder to the loft and slip into the cocoon of my sleeping bag, joining the long rows of sated guests. But still no sight of the moon – only a glacier and a glorious granite spire to lull me to sleep. It takes about two minutes.

Like those students of J.P’s, I feel a sense of achievement and fulfilment. Even though I had stepped out of my comfort zone, through this hike I have re-discovered what it means to be… home.

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*Where The Clouds Can Go, by Conrad Kain, first published in 1935, is meant to be a very good read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An ancient Greek meander… Ode to Hydra, part two

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Dearest Hydra,

You enticed me first with your short ferry cruise from Athens… and curiously, the mention of mules on your small island. No cars, only mules, and of course the promise of an island haven on which to repose, to relax.

What I couldn’t have known until I was ensconced in your soulful presence, is that your beauty is partly due to the quiet – the absence of engines, of horns, even of the tinkle of bicycle bells.

Except for sharp hoof strikes on polished cobbles, goods carried along narrow tidy lanes, the dissonant soundtrack of daily life is soon a distant memory. A feeling of tranquility and joy seems to pervade me, to pervade everything.

Straining against a heavy load, a porter breaks the silence, taut muscles in practiced manoeuvres, smiling new arrivals walking expectantly beside the laden cart. His gentle exertions fill the ancient lanes with purpose, echoes of your long continuous existence. I marvel that even the colours of these indespensible ‘vehicles’ blend prettily with your hues, Hydra.

Indeed your island is a perfect paint-by-number of myriad soft colours against a backdrop of dazzling whitewash. My favourite palette of blues and greens, gracing doors and shutters, even those wagons which often mirror the establishment they’re parked alongside. Brilliant splashes of bouganvilea complete the picture… as do ‘pops’ of plump lemons, milky greens of olive trees, and soft pinks of oleanders.

“Torrents of colour,” is how I believe Nikos Ghika, the Greek painter, referred to your charming, colourful canvas.

 

Ghika is one of many artists who spent inspired years in your embrace, as did some of his creative friends: Craxton, Leigh Fermor and Henry Miller. From the 1930’s, those years of visiting and living in your embrace were undeniably their muse, “…the courtyards, the gardens, one above the other… the long and narrow walls which followed and embraced rocky land beyond, the prickly pears, and the wild greens and the thorns. The fig trees like chandeliers. The almond trees like thin scarecrows,” Ghika wrote fondly.

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Most certainly, your tranquil beauty beckoned from far and wide, including Canadian songwriter and singer Leonard Cohen, who penned his beloved ‘Bird on a Wire’ from the window of his island villa. Like many artists in the ’60’s and 70’s, he claimed your bohemian paradise as home. Didn’t he once endearingly quip, “There is nowhere in the world where you can live like you can in Hydra… and that includes Hydra.”

Like Ghika’s home, Cohen’s abode became a retreat for creatives and still today people arrive to your island – to write, to paint, or like us, to seek a tranquil interlude.

A repose found often in the shade of the majestically old tree in our preferred spot at the Xeri Elia. The storied restaurant and taverna welcomed Cohen often and we’re told his melodies filled the restaurant’s charming square. Photographs inside recall those happy times.

Even Sophia Loren smiles from the taverna’s lively photo gallery. Her ’50’s portrayal of a brash, beautiful Hydriot sponge-diver, propelled your island onto the international stage. I know that sponge farming put bread on the tables for your islanders in those post war years, your sea-given harvest reaching the far corners of the earth. Your merchant fleet had answered the call and turned its expertise from trade to war – it was sponges that then kept your maritime economy afloat.

Yet now dear Hydra as we lunch in the languid afternoon stillness, despite the import of tourism, we sense the intimacy of the island. Children pass through the square, a  confluence of narrow lanes – a dutiful kiss for a grandfather lunching with a friend. Tethering his mule, a porter breaks for refreshment, delivering the day’s happenings from the harbour. Children clutch precious art work, mothers converge, chatting briefly before streaming off to their familiar lanes.

Pushing my open journal across the table, I revelled and relaxed in the dreamlike silence as my partner’s pen captured the scene.

” We lazed in the heat of the day, cat-contented in the dappled vine-shaded square, half-heard music washing over the flagstone courtyard, gently lapping against white-washed walls, doors and windows picked out in cobalt blues and hunting green. The noise itself seemed hushed and chastened by the midday sun radiating from your cloudless Hydra sky. We sit dream-like in this noon idyll, words half-heard, music and muffled chatter, weaving  the fabric of our day.”  

You captivated us both dearest Hydra. And oh, how I’d love my fedora to hang here for a tranquil season of writing, a celebration of your treasured stillness and your inspiration… until we meet again!

Fondly, Terry Anne

 

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