Category Archives: Travel

Meandering the Croatian Islands…

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Korcula

 

The table was set with lavender and white pressed linens… and for my birthday, a luscious red rose. July 1st found us on the Croatian island of Korcula, a setting of calm and beauty.

Breakfast on the elegant terrace of Hotel Korcula de la Ville was under a canopy of grape vines offering shade from the already warming Mediterranean sun. A feeling of grand, old-world charm infused the scene and I reflected on the famous guests who have shared this space. Visits from King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, Jackie Kennedy following the assassination of her husband, and the prolific English writer Rebecca West.

West in her epic novel, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, A Journey Through Yugoslavia, described the hotel as… ‘Either a converted Venetian palace or built by one accustomed to palaces from birth.’ Her journey through the former Yugoslavian countries, and islands in the early 1940’s, is a somewhat archaic read, yet redolent with descriptions that capture still the essence of the island.

In the weeks prior, we had made our ‘base’ in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where our eldest son lives. Planning to return, we set out on a two week journey through the Croatian islands; regrettably not on the steamships of West’s day, but on the region’s extensive network of modern ferries. We had planned very little and I admit that as the days unfolded in unbridled bliss, I came to love the islands of Croatia.

After breakfast that morning, I opened my journal and with my new ‘boyas’ a uniquely styled crayon (originated in Korcula) I shaded the morning scene. The potted olive trees adorning, the palm trees and soft-pink oleanders anchoring, sprays of lavender perfuming. What I could not sketch were the yachts, ferries and colourful fishing boats moored across the narrow boulevard. Nor could I adequately capture the formidable fortress walls that almost seem to buttress the hotel. As I contemplated the morning, it was with a feeling of much gratitude to be welcoming my ‘new year’ in this utopian setting.

We made a late start to my birthday morning as the evening before, our anniversary, had coincided with Korcula’s famed ‘Half New Year’s’ Party. Apparently one of the only places on earth to do so, the town hosted a carnival-like evening with a parade to show off costumes, a band and a DJ that filled the piazzas with music until the wee hours. As the moon illuminated the sea and the flotilla of yachts that had sailed in for the party, we agreed that it could not have been a more joyous and fun anniversary.

Luxuriating now with one last Americano in the rising heat of the morning, we strike up a conversation with our neighbours at the table opposite, and in particular Tanya who grew up on Korcula before taking up residence in Scotland. Tanya enlightens us on life on the island before tourists and sprinkles in some interesting local knowledge.

“I went there to work; it was supposed to be for just a short time.” she explains. “But then I fell in love with a Scotsman.” I look lovingly across the table at my own Scots beau, having no idea that the conversation would soon focus on yet another Scottish native.

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“I had an idyllic childhood here, really carefree. Our summers were spent swimming in the sea, fishing and picnicking on the islands. When the street lights came on, we knew it was time to go home.”

As we chat, I learn that Tanya’s father had once owned Hotel Korcula and needless to say, images dance in my mind of what life must have been like for her.

“We came often for pancakes and our birthday parties were held here. And yes, there’s been a lot of famous people who have sailed this way.”

Tanya reveals one of the more intriguing characters who came to be considered one of the island’s locals. The dashing Scottish daredevil, Sir Fitzroy Maclean, part inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond character, would fall in love with the island.

“His old villa, Palazzo Boschi is just up the street, close to the Cathedral. President Tito made sure he could buy property here. That was unheard of as a foreigner in the ‘60’s,” Tanya tells us.

It seems Maclean had once called Tito a friend, as well as the author Ian Fleming. Maclean gave up a career as a British diplomat to enlist as a private in the army, eventually serving in the SAS, the British special forces. And  perhaps this quote by Maclean helped inspire the James Bond character. “To some people, my life might seem one long adventure… blowing up forts in the desert, clandestinely parachuting into guerrilla wars, penetrating forbidden cities deep behind closed frontiers.”

Maclean, born in Cairo to a major in the British Army, was raised in Scotland, India and Italy. After attending Eton and jointing the Foreign Office, he was posted to Paris and Moscow where he’d make journeys by train into the Soviet Union and Central Asia to places few foreigners had ever stepped foot in. Rising through the ranks, he was eventually chosen by Churchill to go to Yugoslavia to build a relationship with Tito, Maclean parachuted into Korcula in the summer of 1943 while it was under German occupation.

The scenes are difficult to contemplate today as we relax on the shady terrace. Tanya added that her father formed a friendship with Ian Fleming’s grandson and I picture the two of them sharing stories right where we now sit.

“My dad was the consummate host. This hotel was his ‘living room’. A lot of famous and interesting people… and many drinks…” “He gave it up at the start of the war.” she said, referring to the 1991-95 Croatian War for Independence. Apparently, all hotels ceased to operate during the war, but that was just the beginning.

“I remember the day of the first sniper attack of Dubrovnik. Those idyllic days were suddenly over…”

Tanya’s voice trails off, as if wanting to leave the subject of the war. This happened time and again throughout our travels and conversations in Croatia. It is still painful and we sensed that people want to move forward, trusting that time will heal the scars. The tragic dimensions of that war added an indelible chapter to Croatia’s rich and storied past.

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As big as Malta, this large island just off the southern Dalmatian coast, has been prized by many civilisations. The Illyrians in 1000 BC dwelt here, then in the 6thcentury BC, Greek colonists settled and christened it ‘Black Corfu’ after their homeland to the south. Here, the oldest stone monument in Croatia records that more Greek settlers arrived in the 3rdcentury BC, the two communities living peacefully until the arrival of the Romans. Next in line to conquer the island, they absorbed it into the Roman province of Illyricum. Korcula then spent periods under the Byzantines, Venetians, and sundry others before the Austro-Hungarian Empire enveloped the region. As that empire collapsed, by degrees it fell under the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1918), the socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, then eventually the independent Croatia.

However, a constant in Korcula’s history and the nearby hill-town of Zrnovo, is its excellent culture of quarrying and stonemasonry. We hear that there is a mysterious connection between the people and the stones of their craft – like living things taking the form of ancient walls, robust towers, medieval churches, monasteries, patrician palaces or delicate carvings. Rebecca West enthused… ‘the thousand-year-old architectural wealth oozes like honey from a honeycomb.’

We spend five halcyon days on the island. There are more evenings of music and much swimming in the pristine, pale emerald waters. We marvel daily at heavily laden orange trees and striking purple-mauve bougainvillaea that drape the walls and shade quiet gardens. We taste wine in nearby Lumbarda; we rent a car to see more of the island’s pleasant villages and dramatic vistas. 

 

Our stroll on the final evening takes us past the cathedral – the pride and the ornament of any town along the Dalmatian coast, not only a measure of their prosperity, but also of their artistic enlightenment. I nod at Fitzroy Maclean’s house along the way, wondering if we’ll catch a glimpse of it in the next James Bond movie, to be set in Croatia.

We also pass the reputed home of the great explorer Marco Polo and those lesser revered urban palaces of noblemen and bishops. Then its along the parapets of the town wall, with its belvedere view out to the narrow channel which once bordered two great maritime powers – the Republics of Venice and Dubrovnik. The channel still plays host to the island’s long shipbuilding tradition.

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I peruse the shells and choose two. Admittedly as a kindness to the children, but more as a reminder of this beguiling island.

Back at the Hotel Korcula, I tuck the shells into my bag along with Rebecca West’s weighty novel and daydream of returning. When the tourists leave and the cold bora winds blow this way, this hotel is the only one that remains open during the off season. I easily envision returning then. A little research perhaps… there’s all that Byzantine, Venetian and Austrian history to sink into. A lot of reading… West’s novel will take eons to get through; an ideal diversion while waiting for those warm island evenings to once again grace this golden-hued town. And definitely some writing… what other characters might this island invoke?

Oh, one can daydream of a longer sojourn on Korcula…

 

 

Vrnik

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One afternoon from Korcula, a water taxi ferried us to the tiny island of Vrnik. Claiming even older quarrying history than Korcula, the island proudly boasts once world-class stonemasons. In the search for solid building stone for their palaces, the ancient Romans discovered the milky sable hues of Vrnik stone and set Christian slaves to work in the quarries. That stone, and the craft of those stonemasons was sought far and wide, sourced for the many grand structures along the Dalmatian coast, including the palaces of Dubrovnik. Vrnik stone, from long abandoned quarries, graces buildings from Stockholm to Budapest, Venice to Istanbul.

 

It was late afternoon as we joined the locals, jumping hand in hand into the warm, azure waters. We wandered past charming stone cottages, once homes to retired sea captains, these days summer vacation getaways. Now only three people claim the island as their permanent residence.

We dined at the now redundant but recently refurbished school house, the lower floor transformed into the Arts Club, an excellent restaurant close to the water’s edge. As the lazy afternoon unfolded, vacationing locals gathered around simple wooden tables for a glass of local liqueur. A man sauntered over to the small chapel, opening the doors wide to air it out.

“Only open twice a year now,” we’re told, a testament to the dwindling number of parishioners. Where a century before, some six-hundred people worked in the quarries and along the quaysides, there is now only tranquility, some fishing and gentle repose. The once bald rock-faces are now dressed in lush canopies of trees and shrubs; out of sight perhaps, but still a point of pride.

 

 

Hvar

 

Butterflies on the island of Hvar are dreamy shades; tawny and brown, speckled with tints of lemony yellows. They flit and flutter over the island’s ethereal lavender like heavenly beings. Lavender is profuse on Hvar and if there’s a reason to visit this small island… go for the lavender and stay in Old Town Hvar.

Admittedly, the reputation of Hvar’s old town is more about its glamourous-party side and the catwalk-like promenade where each sun-dress is more gorgeous than the next, where each yacht is more opulent than the last. But that’s not the only story.

We stay just beyond the square, cocooned in the streets that flow naturally up the hillside. The streets are a crisscross of aged chiseled stone – where now restaurants and shops inhabit once stately palaces or simple homes of fishermen and sailors. From our outdoor ‘living room’, we peer out over the town’s rooftops and beyond to the castle. We gaze down at the postage stamp of a church square around which this particular neighbourhood gathers. The small piazza can be a meeting point, a place to pause for the melodic bells, or even to tilt a ladder against the aged wall and take advantage of a caper plant bursting through crevices of stone. The capparis spinose is native to the Mediterranean and as we return to our guest house late one afternoon, the proprietor is plucking from the family caper plant – a simple image, yet evocative of this area.

Like all of Croatia, good food and wine is essential to life. The rich soil, tilled for thousands of years, yields excellent capers, olive and pumpkin oils, oranges and figs… and the wines? Also recommended. And then there’s the lavender!

We decide to cruise the island in a blue convertible VW Beatle that drives like a tractor, but breezes us along the island with a seventies insouciance. We admire vineyards, pastures and small family chapels. We stroll through Stari Grad, one of the oldest continuously-inhabited towns in Europe. Its vibe is more understated and sedate, a much different option to Hvar Old Town.

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We drive on, eastwards to the more modest town of Jelsa. Sampling a glass of local wine, I toast my friend back in Zagreb who entreated me to visit the town of his youth. Our walk around the harbour is swiftly abandoned as the siren call of the town’s rocky strand lures us to the water’s edge…in Croatia it’s natural to simply slip into the embrace of the sea, joining locals who swim with ritual passion. The chatter of half a dozen languages ripples over the water as people splash and glide in the arc of the little bay. We join them for a while, blissful and contented, cooling ourselves in the height of the noon sun.

Yet the true purpose for our cruise is to visit the island’s prolific lavender fields. For sale throughout the island, lavander is bottled or pouched in soaps and sachets. I’m pleased to buy a delicate hand stitched pouch from a local, Anna, who informs me that by mid-July, it’s harvest time and ‘have I seen the fields’ she asks.

In fact we’re on our way and soon, we’re wending our way along a narrow road, clinging to a ridge, dramatic vistas of the sea and the lush forest beyond. Soon it gives way to fields and fields of lavender, the intoxicating scent greeting us as we park the blue beetle. Creeping almost respectfully to the bursts of lavender nestled between rows of Illriyan-period stone walls, the royal-mauve hues are simply spectacular.

Back in old town Hvar cultural life continues to thrive. We enjoy a late glass of Grk on the terrace of one of the oldest surviving theaters in Europe, opened in 1612. It is the ideal spot to watch the sun slowly sink into the placid Adriatic. Now – after the day’s boating, snorkeling and swimming trips – the town square is a swirling mix of locals. Children play football against the town’s pretty church walls, parents chat with neighbours and we travellers find a perch and breathe it all in.

Then an evening stroll along the promenade, ambling past the stately yachts with their lights twinkling against the darkening sky. Hvar is a popular port-of-call in the Adriatic and by this time, we’ve spotted some of the same vessels seemingly on the same route that we are… Split, Korcula, Hvar, Dubrovnik. I keep an eye out for Jon Bon Jovi, and Beyonce who, we hear, are also island hopping.

A few days later, we rent our own small vessel for the day off Cavtat, an ancient summer retreat close to Dubrovnik. Bruce, Ayla and I are exhilarated with our day on the sea. We jump in and swim often, we glide our hands through the water as we put-put along, gazing contentedly out toward the marvellous Croatian coastline. Now this is living… no yacht necessary.

How did Rebecca West put it?

‘In that, and a further bay, we made the boat linger. The green water glittered clean as ice, but gentle. Could we buy some land? Could we build a villa?’

 Oh yes, I understand completely…

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Notes on a train boarding pass… Zagreb, a welcome to Croatia

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It was almost noon as the train rolled into Zagreb. We had left Ljubljana early morning, wending our way along the banks of the Sava river, through Slovenia’s pastoral countryside of summer greens, tidy chalet-style farm houses and tall church steeples.

At a nondescript station, the train stopped abruptly. We were at the Croatian border, a sister country also once part of Yugoslavia – the former federation of the southern slavic peoples.

Guards stamped our passports with curt efficiency (and a charming small train icon). Croatia, until recently absent from my travel wish list, now laid before us.

As I write this now, on day six, how fortunate I feel to be meeting Croatians in their own country. They are disarmingly gregarious, welcoming, and prone to robust outbreaks of humour.

As to the sites and the history? Beautiful and richly layered.

The drawbacks? It is scorching hot, summer-tourist busy, and that’s before we’ve even reached the epicentre of tourism that is Dubrovnik. Yet already, I have developed a fondness for Croatia, for its people and place.

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We’ve journeyed through the Slovenian hinterland before, the views are familiar, yet on the Croatian side of the border, the countryside was not quite as picture-perfect. Absent was the pristine orderliness of farms and villages, those neatly stacked woodpiles and signature window boxes in blossoming reds.

We passed through towns like Zadine Most, Sevinca, Blanca Rozno and Libna. At each station I noticed a station master standing at attention as the train passed. In Slovenia they were dressed in blue shirts, navy trousers and berry-red berets. In Croatia, their shirts shifted to white and each man, or woman, stood as if a sentinel as the train passed.

I began to watch for them, with just a hint of anticipation. I imagined the station masters’ presence as assurance that the trains are running as they should, that all is in order – my mind drifted to the heartaches of this once war-riven region .

Today, the trains are efficient, safe, economic and as always, I relish the unhurried pleasure of train travel. For does not a train journey ease one more gently into a new country, allowing it, mile by mile, to introduce its signature and beauty?

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Zagreb…

We alight at Zagreb, the once-ornate station now showing signs of neglect. Across the street, a park greets us, modern bright blue trams glide past grand buildings. I immediately love that hydrangea is prolific in green spaces and in planters; splashes of colour against the terracotta roofs and cobbled streets.

I try not to compare Zagreb to the more-polished Ljubljana, our ‘home base’ for this past month, but Zagreb at once feels different.

The city is wrapped in much the same layers of history, yet perhaps it reveals its treasures more slowly. But then how better to delight than rounding a bend to come across the chapel within the Kamenita Vrata, the stone gate that guards the old upper town, or encountering the impressively coloured tiled roof of St. Marks. And within half an hour of arriving, I’m welcomed in traditional Croatian style with a glass of chilled local wine. It is the perfect introduction to this beautiful country.

 

The market just off Dolac Square is winding down as we stop for a late morning coffee at Cafe Opatovina. The café has front row seats to the busy market, its chairs mostly occupied by older men, gently rotund, straw hats shading tanned faces, some reading the morning paper, others chatting animatedly. All are already enjoying a beer or glass of wine. As in neighbouring Slovenia, anytime of the day is wine and beer time.

Outsized umbrellas shade both produce and vendors and after coffee, I take note of the cast-iron scales weighing the fruit and veg. I have observed these intriguing contraptions in markets far and wide and notice that these possess a unique ‘holder’, almost like a bucket. And as in India, the vendors rent the scales on a daily basis. I offer a ‘Dober dan,” as greeting to the young man operating the scale-rental stall. I learn that he charges only 13 kuna (about 2 US dollars) for a rental and his face tells me that he’s mystified at my interest.

Meanwhile, my travel companion has ventured off to St. Mark’s to survey the intriguing tiled roof that bears this country’s coat of arms. I’m happy to be alone for an hour or so as it often opens different doors. So it is here that I enjoy a pleasant and unexpected welcome to Croatia.

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I meander through the nearby market stalls; amply stocked with lace and aprons, wicker and honey. A small tavern in hues of Greek blue is tucked alongside and ever curious, I take a peek inside.

Five men, of a certain age, are nestled inside the postage-stamp of a bar, though I soon learn its actually a private club. It’s a cool refuge from the scorching heat and I’m immediately invited to join them.

I’ve read enough about Croatian culture to know that it’s impolite to refuse and after all, the church bells have just chimed noon! I accept a glass of  dry white and join the locals on the long banquette. It seats maybe six people, the exact width of the club at the back.

“Zivjeli”, Cheers! Their toast is wholehearted and genuine.

I ask Branco, Miro, Nikola and Seavo if they come here often. They’re deadpan serious when they retort, ‘every day, and all day’.

When they that learn that I’m Canadian, they’re surprised to hear that our capital isn’t Vancouver or Toronto. Ottawa is indeed a revelation. We discuss the recent Raptors win – big news in basketball-crazy Croatia. Another glass of wine is placed in front of me before I can refuse.

When the ‘men’s club’ discover that I’ve spent time in Slovenia, Branco nudges his heavy glasses up on his nose and settles a little deeper into the sofa to qualify the situation in Croatia.

“Here’s not as rich. Many young people leave Croatia,” he laments. “The retirement pension isn’t enough and we can’t work even if we wanted to. It was better when we were part of Yugolsavia.”

Yet Luca, positioned by chance under a poster of his home town on the island of Hvar, listens to the conversation. He interjects only cautiously. He’s debonair in a movie-set kind of way with a white fedora and a thick moustache complimenting his handsome face. He becomes a little more mysterious still when he mentions that he’s spent time I San Francisco, but doesn’t elaborate. The discussion trails off to handball, local wine and our upcoming itinerary.

“Go to Jelsa for sure,” Luca suggests just as an older gentlemen, with the face of a cherished grandfather, rises from the bar to shake my hand. He proffers me a piece of notepaper. On it is a name of a distant relative.

“In case, you’re in Toronto, go visit. Tell him you met Nikola in Zagreb,” he says with the genuine warmth and another handshake.

It’s time to take my leave and my attempt to pay for my wine is emphatically rebuffed and I accept gratefully. “Hvala lepa,” I say, thanking them for my ‘official’ welcome on Croatian soil. They ease themselves off the banquette.

“Time for lunch,” says Miro. He gives me a final wave from the doorway.

I disappear into the streets of Zagreb’s old town to find Bruce and over a late lunch, we brush up on Croatia’s history. As a country at the crossroads of Central and Southeast Europe, it borders Slovenia, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. Its people are a legacy of their maritime past and history of a former territory of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Venetian Empires… and that’s just the recent past. Even the Greeks and the Romans built on what came before. As Miro had mentioned at the club, “We are a proud mix of everything.”

As we glide out of Zagreb on the 3:20 to Split, I’m appreciative for this snapshot of a city that despite being the capital, is often overshadowed by Split, Dubrovnik, and the much vaunted Adriatic coast.

By 9 pm, Croatian flags fluttering on lamp posts welcome us into Split. The station master, tips his berry-red beret and we enter a city for the ages…

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On Penang Island… a writer in residence, a canvas of storied heritage

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I write this from the island of Penang as a writer in residence. To use that cliche, if I may,  over the moon begins to describe it. I’m ensconced in a studio apartment on Lebuh China, the street of George Town’s earliest traders. In fact, the Chinese have called it Tua Kay, Main Street, since it was laid out in 1786 by Captain Francis Light. That same year, Light with the audacity of those colonial times, ‘claimed’ this island for the British East India Company.

The narrow street that I call home for the month of May, reminds me of so many places; of our travels through China and Thailand, of our two-year stay in Japan, and most recently of our home in Bangalore, India. Lebuh China fringes Little India, and for me, George Town encompasses all of those treasured places… melded into one storied milieu.

Not long after arriving, I set my workspace, found my friendly flower wallah, sourced my go-to corner shops and just a few steps away, found my favourite local cafe. The setting of Ren i Tang – an old Chinese medical hall now a Heritage Inn and Bistro – is simple yet evocative. Its tall ceilings, aged ceramic tiles and reminders of its days as the neighbourhood dispensary, are characteristic of George Town’s iconic shop houses. Many have a unique story to tell and at Ren i Tang, my favourite low table often seems to be waiting just for me at the bistro’s edge. With its open view to the street beyond, I can watch life pass by in a contented and unhurried flow. I might savour a bowl of spicy Laksa, then fresh watermelon juice to help combat the heat and humidity. I admit, I revel in this climate!

Shop houses like Ren i Tang, help give George Town its rich and eclectic character. Many have been refurbished, some are in need of saving, but they all very much contributed to the city being accorded a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008… as did the heritage buildings, narrow roads, colonial-era mansions, Chinese clan houses, ornate temples and Little India. And of course, we must mention the iconic street art, the fantastic street food and the traditional artisans – rattan weavers, garland makers, wooden sign-board carvers, lantern and joss stick makers. Even generations of tart makers are deemed part of George Town’s cultural heritage.

As I pass through the streets whether to research, to an event at Hikayat ‘my’ excellent local book shop, or to meet friends for dinner, all of my senses are invited to engage. The strains of Hindi love songs drift through the balmy, sandalwood-infused air. The tok-tok-tok of an enthusiastically wielded spatula against a wok, large as an upturned umbrella, pre-empts the aromas of Penang’s beloved street food. And as always, commerce abounds – gold jewellers and saree shops, refined displays of colourful Malay batiks,  profusions of collectable Chinese and Nonya porcelain.

Yet, the intrinsic backdrop of George Town is the layer upon layer of founding cultures – Malay, Indian, Chinese, Siamese, Armenian, British, German, and more – all of which appear to exist in respectful harmony. Languages, religions and cultures brush Penang’s canvas with rich and intricate tones, creating a hopeful picture of balance and acceptance.

How did the young Malay taxi driver put it on my arrival?

“Welcome, welcome. First time to Penang, Miss?”

I smiled just a little that, in Malaysia and Thailand, they still endearingly call me ‘miss.’

“No, I’ve been here quite a few times I admitted,” explaining that I have visited often since first working on a book project a number of years ago.

“So you know then. Here, we all live in harmony, many religions, many cultures. How the world should be.”

He could not have said it more poignantly and in truth, I believe this is one of the reasons why I so embrace this small island in the Malay Archipelago. As I discovered through researching its history for the book previously to this one, there are many facets to uncover, yet the building-blocks of this unique and multi-cultural island are steadfast and represented just a short walk from my apartment … the cornerstones of four religions on one harmonious street.

A few evenings ago, I strolled to Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling just before dusk. I wanted to embrace the uniqueness of this treasured street. Initially named Pitt Street after the once British Prime Minster, still today, it is proof that religions can live side by side.

At the Goddess of Mercy Temple, over-sized joss sticks burned in quiet reverence at the edge of the temple. A few last visitors cupped their much smaller pieces of sandalwood, circling them in devoted hands… a quiet Taoist prayer.

A few doors away, the gleaming white spires of St. George’s Church reached skyward, mirrored by the tips of tall palms and framed by the sprawling branches of a grand mahogany tree. It is the oldest Anglican Church in South east Asia. “Two hundred years old today,” a proud parishioner told me. “Please, you are very welcome.”

As sunset swept the sky with wisps of golds and luminous pinks, the melodic call to prayer drifted languidly from a little way down the street. As it has done since 1801, the Mosque seemed to entice rather than summon its believers for evening prayer. As Muslim Malays and Indians made their way, many took the time to nod a hello or bid a ‘good evening.’ In an instant, I drifted back to our seven years in Qatar and Oman where I recall going to Christmas church services. Perhaps, where I first experienced this diverse blend of coexistence. And here? It has been crafted from the outset, as Francis Light encouraged a multi-cultural settlement.

In my glow of bonhomie, a rainbow of pastel colours soon caught my eye from the opposite side of the street. It was the Indian gopuram of Sri Mahamariamman, the oldest Hindu temple in George Town. Since 1833 it has welcomed followers. Many were the original stevedores who loaded and unloaded ships dockside. The temple must have been a refuge and a comfort to some of these first hard working migrants.Then, as now, one enters into a cool, incense-clouded interior. Intricate garlands of roses, jasmine and marigolds also permeate the air. Once a year the devotees place their statue, the goddess Mariamman, on a wooden chariot and an evening procession parades her through the streets of Little India.

That evening however, things were much more serene. Tourists paused to marvel at the dance of colours in the sky and trishaw peddlers waited sanguinely for one last fare. As I continued my evening stroll, I pondered if there was any city in the world where four prominent religions occupy the same street in harmony?

I meditated a ‘gratitude’ for the friends and many acquaintances I have here… all of them representing one of these religions, others, or perhaps none at all. As the young Malay driver commented, “This harmony, is how the world should be…”

 

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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