Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Paros I, Greece

Once we had gotten from Athens to the port city of Piraeus the rest of the journey to the island of Paros was relatively easy – board the ferry and enjoy the ride. There are dozens of daily ferry boat departures leaving from the port. We had pre-booked tickets to ensure a spot, and although this turned out to be unnecessary as it was a very large boat, the advance research was helpful as there are different companies and different speed boats operating. The Greek ferries database website suggested by my friend was a great help in understanding the options, as most ferries also stop at more than one island.


Upon arrival we disembarked in the town of Parikia, on the west coast of the island of Paros, an island of the Cyclades in the Aegean Sea. Known for its flawless white marble, the term “Parian” is now used to describe marble or china of this translucent, high quality. Our first impression of Parikia was of whitewashed walls, blue windows and doors, flowering vines and a sparkling blue bay. The houses are built and decorated in the traditional Cycladic style: flat roofs, the white walls and blue-painted doors and shutters. We followed Evdoxia through alleyways painted white to our apartment, cool and calm with a courtyard that looked straight out of a magazine. Orange trees shading a hammock with white walls creating an oasis within the town, I had a fleeting thought that perhaps I wouldn’t have to leave this very spot the whole time we would be here…
Lauris had his own tour guide, Marina

We dined at the restaurant of the Argonauta hotel, fresh seafood paired with a refreshing white wine. Lauris must have been exhausted, but his excitement of being reunited with his friend Stephan in addition to a plate of a favorite food (fries) kept him awake and smiling; the giggles continued late that evening as we enjoyed the company of good friends in a setting worthy of the cover of a travel magazine.

The Argonauta hotel

Breakfast was had in the courtyard of the apartment after which we received our first tour of the town. In the main square is the largest church, the Panagia Ekatontapiliani, which means "church of the hundred doors". These "doors" include windows, and 99 of them have been discovered/uncovered. It is said to have been founded by the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, Saint Helen, during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land and possibly dates back to 390 AD. Evdoxia’s brother had been married here just two nights previous and I could imagine the hundreds of guests gathering to partake in this family honor.

"The church of the hundred doors"

We also stopped at the archaeological museum housing some of local finds such as the Gorgo statue from 580 BC and the figure of a Nike from around 480 BC. There was a piece present from the Parian Chronicle, a marble-chronology of ancient Greece describing events from 1500 BC to 264 BC, which seems like a short time ago upon learning the earliest traces of habitation in the area (islet of Saliagos) date to the Late Neolithic period (5300-4500 BC).

By the way, this is PH... PRE haircut

As the sun reached its peak and the heat became unbearable we retreated to our oasis to rest. Later, refreshed, we departed for the beach opposite the town across the bay, a thin strip of sand with a wall of rocks providing shade from the still-hot sun. Even with Mikus in my arms I could have spent days lounging in that beach chair, reading a book, or maybe borrowing goggles and a snorkel to explore the rockier shore a little farther down. The afternoon passed in a flash, as Mikus swam in the Mediterranean for the first time and Lauris learned to float with the aid of little floaties encircling his upper arms. The soft white sand and fresh cobalt waters provided us a respite from all the traveling, planning, and chaos of the transition period we’re in that we had not been able to find in Clermont-Ferrand.


And for dinner? Again, fresh seafood. Catch of the day, calamari and shrimp with Greek salads and fried cheese appetizers once more served with a local white wine brought me to the realization that I love Greek cuisine more than any other I’ve had the luck to sample in my time in Europe. The feta and honey, the seafood and olives, many of my favorite ingredients were presented in endless variations on this trip, and the only thing that prevented me from ordering more and more was two little children whose patience for dining extends only as long as iPad battery life.


Our evening ended with a stroll along the main drag next to the bay, teeming with tourists enjoying the food, wines and cool breeze off the sea. It was tempting to put the boys to bed and return to sample the nightlife ourselves, but once the two finally closed their eyes the fatigue from the sea and the sun caught up to us as well. We crawled into bed and dreamed of blue sea and white walls, of which there would be plenty more of in Santorini, our next destination.


Sunday, July 29, 2012

Athens, Greece

And still, I dream of Greece. With 95° + days here in South Carolina and added humidity that brings heat indexes comparable to our days spent in Athens, I dream of the blue waters and dry landscapes. After returning from a trip to the grocery store covered in a film of sweat I dream of returning from the beach with a film of salt covering my swim after a dip in the clear, cool sea. Surrounded by fast food and chain restaurants I dream of the fresh seafood and crisp local wines enjoyed with the sound of the waves as backdrop. And as our weeks fill with the tasks required of us to find a place to live and a car, I can’t help but dream of the hours spent lounging in the shade, doing nothing more than hiding from the heat.

Our first day in Greece brought none of lounging and dining, as it was mostly spent traveling. Finding acceptable airline rates to Athens only from Lyon, we packed up the car and headed the two hours east to LYS airport. Car, the first of many forms of transportation we would take in the next days, followed shortly by bus, the shuttle that took us from long-term parking to the terminal. Then a plane, to Zurich, where despite our delayed arrival we still arrived in time to board our connecting flight. And finally, a taxi taking us from ATH to downtown Athens. We should have joined the locals enjoying the coolness sunset brings grabbing a bite to eat at one of the outdoor cafes; instead we opted to try getting some rest in exchange for an early start the following morning.



Roberts and Lauris in front of the Temple of Hephaestus


With temperatures in excess of 100° at 10am, we discarded plans to visit the Acropolis and instead headed to the Athenian Agora, where we hoped there still might be some shade from the midday sun. The best-known example of an ancient Greek agora, it is northwest of the Acropolis and accessible by foot from our hotel on the east side of the central downtown Plaka neighborhood.
Temple of Hephaestus


The central Athenian government in the 6th century BC, there were temples to Hephaestus, Zeus and Apollo as well as law courts, the stoas housing the markets, and many other public buildings. Framed by hills to the south and west, the Temple of Hephaistos is at the top of the hill of Kolonos Agoraios at the very west edge of the Agora, and  was our first stop. While Roberts hid with the boys in the shade of a tree to cool down from our walk, I ran around taking some quick photos before rejoining them to empty another water bottle and make the call that we would have to return to the hotel as it was just too hot.
Temple of Hephaestus


We did walk through the rest of the Agora, passing the Middle Stoa to reach the Stoa of Attalos from 159-138 BC, constructed from Pentelic marble with an impressive Doric columnade. It houses the Museum of the Ancient Agora that just wasn’t in our cards with the two mini-travelers, and so we continued through the Plaka until we found a quiet restaurant perfectly suited for lunch and a cool-down before naptime at the hotel. The Melina Café – friendly people, delicious food, refreshing cold drinks and a great atmosphere make this a great choice. Skip the tourist traps for this quiet corner of the Plaka and enjoy the décor honoring the late Melina Mercouri, according to the café owners “the last Greek Goddess,” famous Greek actress, singer and politician.  
Melina Cafe in the Plaka


As it was still quite hot in late afternoon when we ventured out again, we opted to try the Athens Happy Train, a little tourist train that took us on a loop around downtown. Lauris is absolutely mad about trains; he was content to cruise around waving at anyone who looked our way. Roberts and I were happy to have an informative commentary describing the sights we saw, but the best part was being able to see the city without walking in the heat. We passed Parliament and the National Gardens, where next to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier a traditional honor guard stands dressed in traditional costume. Then past the Presidential Palace and the Panathenaic Stadium, everywhere a police presence obvious. After passing the Temple of Zeus and the Hadrian Arch we looped through the Plaka to reach the Ancient Roman Market in Monastiraki and the Agora we had already visited in the morning. Finally we cruised past the entry to the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum.
The train made a stop in the Plaka for a chance to shop


By this point we were a bit hungry, so we found the restaurant our cabbie from the previous evening had declared as having the best moussaka in town. Funny thing – they didn’t have moussaka. But our meal was delicious, my grilled feta was heavenly. With sesame seeds and honey, the result was a refreshing combination on a hot Athens night. Tzitzikaskai Mermigkas, I believe it was on Mitropoleos street…
We could have walked to the next destination now that things had cooled down, but with the two kids we decided to save our feet the climb up Lycabettus Hill and take a taxi instead. He dropped us off at the base of a long set of stairs that weren’t compatible with the stroller we had with. Once at the top however our persistence paid off, the nighttime view over all of Athens was unbeatable!


We enjoyed a glass of wine with dessert at the hilltop restaurant while gazing out over the Acropolis and enjoyed a peaceful, comfortable moment . But soon it was time to return to the hotel, as we hoped to get an earlier start the following morning. There is a funicular running up and down the side of the hill, and we paid for one-way tickets assuming we could walk from there. I would suggest either taking a taxi or walking the whole way, as the tickets were expensive, the hours erratic and the distance short. Maybe worth it on the trip up the hill, certainly not on the way down. At the bottom we also had our learning experience with the taxis. Once we discovered we were not any closer to the hotel and realized we would have to take a taxi, they knew they had us. Charging us the night rate even it was an hour before the deadline, the resulting fare was more than double what it should have been. Lesson learned – stick to your guns, agree on a fare beforehand and if something seems wrong, it probably is. The driver dropped us off around the corner from the hotel, probably to avoid being seen by our concierge, as well as to force us to pay up quicker as we were being dumped on a busy intersection with a stroller and two kids. It was hard not to let the experience ruin our evening, but soon showered and snug in a comfy bed it was easier to remember the fresh breeze on my skin overlooking the lights of Athens.
And then, it was time. Early morning, and already hot, we got the earliest start to the Acropolis that we could but by the time we reached the entry the crowds had as well. It was extremely hard to enjoy the Parthenon and other magnificent ruins when we were fretting about the kids overheating, whether their sunscreen had melted off and why we were the only people with children under 12 in the 105°+ temperatures. So after fighting our way through the crowds past the Theatre of Dionysos and Odion Herodes Atticus to the top of the Acropolis, we found a rare spot of shade to regroup and change gameplans. While Roberts stayed with Lauris and Mikus I raced around to see all that I could see before replacing Roberts while he took a quick loop. Perhaps not the best way to enjoy an UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to the 6th century BC?
The Parthenon


I had studied the Parthenon and the Erechtheum back in my freshman year when I thought I would be an architect – the study of these magnificent cultural monuments left a lasting impression on me, and seeing them in person was a tremendous privilege. To see and photograph the southern "Porch of the Maidens", was a highlight for me of our entire time in Europe. Although not the original sculptures (5 of which are on display in the Acropolis Museum while they are being restored), the engineering that enables the caryatids to support the heavy weight of the porch roof while retaining feminine proportions is just unbelievable. I wish I could see them in first light of morning,  sunset and night, to see the light play across the porch in every season…
The Porch of Maidens


As the Acropolis Museum is closed on Mondays we headed back to the hotel, to cool down and take our naps before taking a taxi to the port of Pireas on the Saronic Gulf. The port is located on the west coast, southwest of Athens, while the airport is located between Athens and the east coast. We would not be passing through Athens again as we would be completing our return trip through the port of Rafina on the east coast. It was with sadness that I watched the Acropolis disappear from view out the back window as the taxi sped through heavy afternoon traffic  to take us to our next mode of transportation, the ferry we would take to Paros.

Friday, July 27, 2012

A torch relay of our own

The excitement level due to the Olympics is growing in this household! Possibly because we have been in London and can imagine the setting, partly because this is the first Olympics in the lives of the boys, but I can't wait for the opening ceremony! I don't know how I'll manage to cheer for France, the United States and Latvia, although I'm particularly excited about the basketball and Lithuania's team after the Beijing games.

Passing the torch

As the torch relay brings the Olympic flame to light the cauldron in London today, I'm writing to you from South Carolina, where I feel that we have finished our own relay. I mentioned in a previous post that an Air France strike kept us in Clermont-Ferrand three days longer than intended; I hadn't yet mentioned that when we finally got a flight out, we missed our connecting flight in Paris and therefore spent an extra day there. Two adults, a toddler, an infant, two cats and hotels for a week - comedy ensues!

I consider it pretty impressive that we checked a total of 9 pieces of luggage. Suitcases, duffels, carseats, and then our carry on stroller, suitcase, diaper bag, and two cats. Yet during our sojourn in Paris we still had to purchase toothpaste! But then yesterday after a very long week and two days of travel we arrived, and probably due a large part to jetlag it feels almost as if we never left. France seems like a distant dream, but then suddenly I will clearly feel the difference; in no particular order the top five things that remind me I'm not in France anymore.
1. I washed and dried three loads of laundry in under 3 hours.
2. Target (the store) : bagels, dark chocolate Reeses, colby jack cheese, Goldfish crackers crossed off the grocery list, and total bill half the cost of a similar trip to Geant Casino.
3. TV in English! For that matter, everyone speaks English!
4. We were in Atlanta for four hours on layover, and during this time three different people shared with me, a complete stranger, their life stories.
5. Lauris is asking for his friends Ba-Ba, Maël and Stephanos hourly – how do I explain to a two-year old?

Our time in Greece, Rocamadour, at the Tour de France: I still have so much more to share about our time in France. It will take me some time as we attempt to get settled in here, and I have yet to decide in what direction to take Femme au Foyer, but I value each and every visit and comment. Wishing you a fantastic Olympic experience, whether it be watching an event in London or in France or in the United States, good luck to the athletes and let the Games begin!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Tour de France - Stage 18

France is conspiring to keep us here… Originally set to depart on Saturday, Air France has gone on strike and so it seems that we will be here until Tuesday, at least. These bonus days are a gift – one more chance to enjoy the local food and the sights of Clermont-Ferrand and surrounding area.


What would have been our last full day in France we had planned to cross something off of our must-do list. Although the Tour de France did not pass as close to Clermont-Ferrand as it did last year, there were several options open to us as we were willing to drive a few hours. As many of the mountain stages that were within our radius occurred while we were on holiday, the choice was made for us, and so we headed southwest on Friday to catch 222.5 km-long stage 18, Blagnac to Brive-la-Gaillarde.


After visiting Rocamadour (which I have yet to write my journal entry for but I’ll share some pictures eventually) we backtracked in a hurry to Cressensac at 193km. Really having no clue as to how easy it would be to access/park/find a spot, we chose the intersection that we did based on proximity to the highway and ease of access, but mostly just chance. Thinking it might be better to avoid the stage 18 finish in Brive-la-Gaillarde as there would be more people there, our route from Rocamadour led us straight to an intersection with the race. The road was blocked off and cars parked up and down the sides of the road, so we just fell in step with others headed the same way.


Cressensac is home to a 14th century castle, the Chausseneige. Located in the Midi-Pyrénées region which is the largest region of France, the Pyrenees are to the south and the massif Central to the north-east. However, the stage was a flat one with a few minor climbs, so when we settled in with our blanket and snacks, we chose a spot on the inside of a curve where we had a view of a small hill they would be coming down as well as a straight stretch that would take them into the village.




And then we waited. Soon the sponsor trucks came, music blaring and throwing little trinkets to spectators as they passed at 40km an hour. Somewhere I read President Holland had chosen stage 18 for the customary drive, but I’m honestly not sure if he passed us. Caught up in the excitement we waved and danced and chatted with other people, some from the next village over and some from farther away, like the man from the UK to our left. He had arrived with a RV (probably very early that morning or the previous night), a large banner hanging down the side and chairs out front, and was kind enough to give us some of the free keychains when he saw us relatively empty-handed due to the quick little professional scavengers to our right, four local kids who seemed to catch the freebies in mid-air.




We later found out there had been an incident with a dog at 120km, which caused a crash and exchange of words, but at our location it was quieter. Their imminent arrival was announced by helicopters, and soon we saw the riders cresting the hill amidst all the cars and video cameras. A quick woosh, and they were past, in an exhilarating run that left us in awe of how quick it happened. And then the rest of the group was by; my impressions of that moment are of cheers, whizzing tires and colorful jerseys. It was over in a few seconds.


On Sunday this 99th Tour wrapped up, with Bradley Wiggins emerging as the first ever Briton to win. His Sky teammate Mark Cavendish won stage 18, but I’ll remember the 99th Tour de France more for the anticipation, the excitement and the bittersweet knowledge that this might be one of our last truly French experiences, than for the winners. Just after the peloton passed us Lauris turned to me, waved his hand in the up and down motion he uses for when he wants more and simply asked, vēl?




(I'll post a few more pictures once Air France allows the end of our in-transit status!)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Dreams of Greece

I’ve got a bit too much on my plate right now for a proper post, but I wish to share a few photos of our most recent trip. My friend Evdoxia is originally from Greece and it was our luck to be able to visit her while she was there for the summer holidays with her children. Stephanos is two days older than Lauris and both of our families moved to France around the same time, so we have grown quite close.

Oia, Santorini

We were able to fit a lot of visiting, sightseeing, good food and great memories into a very short week, and I hope to soon document our time there. Having just returned after a long travel day to temperatures almost half of what they were in Greece, the long days in the sun seem as if they might have only been a dream.

Paros

Happy (belated) Bastille day, and may you have a wonderful week.

Paros

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Freiburg im Bresgau II

Last week I wrote about our trip to Freiburg im Bresgau and the Latvian Daugavas Vanagi property there, Bērzaine. I wrote “Located in the hills of the Black Forest and home to a 500 year old university, the city has managed to keep its old town intact despite the wars.” Turns out that’s not exactly the case.

The Münster cathedral in Freiburg im Bresgau 

My grandmother e-mailed me with some of her memoirs from what she remembers of Freiburg during World War II. She was fleeing from Latvia with her family and eventually ended up in the United States, but she wrote that Freiburg im Bresgau was her family’s first stop after leaving Latvia and passing through the many checkpoints en route. She arrived on October 27th, 1944.

Bija skaists rudens, staigājām pa Melnajiem mežiem. Atmiņā skaista universitātes pilsēta līdz 1944. gada 27. novembrim, kad amerikāņi nakts uzlidojumā, galvenokārt ar degbumbām, to noslaucīja no kartes... Ļoti labi atceros to nakti. Tad arī manam brālim Jurim kāda šķemba ievainoja roku, noraujot divus pirkstus... Gribējās Tev to pasacīt.

“It was a beautiful autumn, we hiked in the Black Forest. I remember a beautiful university town until November 27th, 1944, when the Americans wiped it off the map in a night raid with firebombs… I remember that night very well. Then also my brother Juris had his arm wounded, losing  two fingers to shrapnel…”

Over the years my siblings and I have devoted many hours to researching our family tree and the history of our country, our family and Latvians in Latvia and abroad. I have interviewed my grandmother (as well as several other family members) but I am ashamed to say that I had forgotten or never asked about this time in her life.

Var jau būt, ka dažas vēsturiskas celtnes netika pilnīgi nopostītas un vācieši jau daudz savas vēsturiskās vietas ir restaurējuši. Atceros tikai, ka otrā dienā skats bija neticami baigs, vel šur, tur dega, bija daudz cilvēku, kas klīda meklējot piederīgos. Visiem vīriešiem bija jāiet glābšanas darbos. Manu mammu, Uldi un mani aizveda uz kādu mūķenu klosteri, tālāk kalnos. Juris jau naktī bija kopā ar citiem ievainotiem aizvests uz kādu slimnīcu. Freiburgā pēc tam nekad neesmu bijusi. Ja Tu gribi, vari jau par to uzrakstīt, bet tādi stāsti manai paaudzei ir daudz...

“It may be that a few historic buildings weren’t completely destroyed, and the Germans have restored many historical sites. I just remember that the scene the next day was unbelievably horrific, here and there a building was still burning and many people were searching for family members. All the men were recruited for rescue operations. My mother, Uldis (another brother) and I were taken to a convent in the mountains. Juris had already been brought to some hospital during the night along with the other wounded. Since then I have never returned to Freiburg. If you want, you can write about it, but my generation has many such stories…”

A little belatedly I did some additional research on the history of Freiburg during WWII. In May of 1940 the Luftwaffe (mistakenly) dropped approximately 60 bombs on Freiburg near the train station. Then in October of 1940, 350 Jewish citizens of Freiburg were deported to the southern French internment camp of Camp Gurs where they remained until the majority of survivors were sent to their deaths to Auschwitz on July 18th, 1942. Later on, the raid my grandmother wrote of, on November 27th 1944; more than 300 bombers destroyed the city center, with the notable exception of the Münster cathedral, which was only lightly damaged. Freiburg was then occupied by the French Army in 1945, and fell within the French Zone of Occupation. The French Army maintained a presence there until the last division left in 1991. Freiburg’s old city was not kept intact as I had quickly written, rather it was rebuilt around the Münster cathedral following the medieval city plan.

The Münster cathedral as we saw it in June, 2012

There are reminders of the violent history of Europe all around us here in France: monuments, cemeteries and plaques. When traveling to Normandy a main goal was to see the beaches the Americans came ashore on, and on our visit to Amsterdam we walked past Anne Frank’s house. However with my grandmother’s email I was once again reminded how easy it is to forget, even “over here” where it all happened.

Paldies vecmamma, ka dalijies ar šīm atmiņām. To my grandmother: thank you for correcting my mistake, and thank you for allowing me to share a part of your story.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Besançon

The capital of the French-Comté is Besançon, a city that has been an important military and cultural center since the Roman times. Then known as Vesontio, it is almost completely encircled by the Doubs river and is overlooked by cliffs and the imposing Citadelle. Our visit was largely influenced by the convenient location halfway between Freiburg im Breisgau and home. Upon arrival we stopped at the hotel before heading to the old town. First stop - the tourism center.

The citadel as seen from the Doubs to the east

Luckily open on Saturday, we were informed by a polite guide that the train touristique touted by the Michelin guide no longer runs, as of le gros accident three years ago. That should have been our first hint that our time in Besançon wouldn’t be ordinary... However the tourism officials suggested a boat tour instead, and with fifteen minutes before departure we hurried northeast towards Pont de la République. We needn’t have hurried; over 20 minutes later we finally descended the steep stairs and paid our €11 per adult to board the tourist boat. Seating wasn’t the most comfortable, the commentary was all in French (not that I expected any different), and the tour seemed to drag on as it was a there-and-back not a loop as I had expected. We headed south, passing through locks and towards the Citadel. Passing through a long tunnel and another set of locks under the cliff that is the base of the fortress we emerged back onto the Doubs. Having circled almost the whole way around we turned around, heading back through the locks, tunnel, and locks to return to port. Possibly due to a bridge under construction? Both boys decidedly did not like the return trip as much as they liked the first half.

Yep - the tunnel. Complete with psychedelic lights and sound effects

Once back on solid land we headed towards the Grande-Rue which is an old Roman highway and is still the main road through the city. The street has it all: the Hôtel de Ville, the Palais de Justice, Roman ruins (a 2nd century arch still stands), and 12th century Cathédral St-Jean with an amazing astrological clock.

A church on rue de l'Orme de Chamars

We didn’t make it to the Citadel, partly because of the steep approach, partly due to rumbling stomachs, but I can imagine the fortified ramparts, museums and fortress would be excellent to explore. Let’s just leave it on the “to-see” list, shall we?

Roberts has more than once told me he needs a vacation from the vacation; maybe sometimes I can be a bit ambitious with my planning… And so it came about that the next morning we lazed at the hotel, enjoying a nice long breakfast and some time in the pool in lieu of exploring the area further. I can’t say that I’m disappointed in the decision, it was nice arriving home at a reasonable hour.

Even though the boat tour was a little tedious, the scenery was beautiful

On the trip back to Clermont-Ferrand we stopped to stretch our legs and were pleasantly surprised by another beautiful rest area. The meadow was filled with wildflowers, grasses and blooms in every color stretching along the parking lot. I picked a bouquet while Lauris ran circles to his heart’s content. As this trip actually took place before Jāņi, in this vivid field we found some indication of what our time in Chatenet would hold; also, the reminder that the most wonderful moments on any journey are sometimes simple, unplanned and take-your-breath-away beautiful.



Friday, July 6, 2012

Interlaken, Switzerland

Instead of returning the way we had entered the Chamonix valley, we continued northeast on a much smaller road. Winding our way through the mountains across the Swiss-French border, we finally left the scenic route for quicker highway driving in Martigny. The trip would have been three hours had we not made frequent stops for pictures at various scenic vistas, but also could have been much longer had we opted to take the more direct route. The choice to stick to the highway took us north to Berne, then south again, driving along the shore of Lake Thun before finally entering Interlaken.


Named for the location between Lakes Thun and Brienz, the city is at the foot of the Eiger (Ogre), Mönch (Monk) and Jungfrau (virgin) mountains. With the white water rafting, parasailing, hang gliding, mountain climbing, etc. available in the area, Interlaken is a terrific base for adventure traveling, but we were in town more for the mountain vistas. After checking into the hotel we hopped back into the car and drove south, winding our way higher and higher into the Jungfrau region on a small mountain road. The Lauterbrunnen valley is world-famous for the skiing, rock-climbing, hiking, snowboarding and mountain-climbing, but I believe the postcard-perfect views alone would be worthy of the fame.


We stopped in Lauterbrunnen, full of Swiss chalets and home to Staubbach Falls. With sheer cliffs rising on both sides of the valley and mountains behind mountains visible in the distance, I can see why Goethe dedicated Gesang der Geister über den Wassern (Song of the Spirits above the Waters) to the ethereal, 1,000ft waterfall.



Gesang der Geister über den Wassern
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Des Menschen Seele gleicht dem Wasser:
Vom Himmel kommt es, zum Himmel steigt es,
und wieder nieder zur Erde muß es, ewig wechselnd.

Strömt von der hohen, steilen Felswand der reine Strahl,
dann stäubt er lieblich in Wolkenwellen zum glatten Fels,
und leicht empfangen, wallt er verschleiernd,
leisrauschend zur Tiefe nieder.

Ragen Klippen dem Sturz entgegen,
schäumt er unmutig stufenweise zum Abgrund.

Im flachen Bette schleicht er das Wiesental hin,
und in dem glatten See weiden ihr Antlitz alle Gestirne.

Wind ist der Welle lieblicher Buhler;
Wind mischt vom Grund aus schäumende Wogen.

Seele des Menschen, wie gleichst du dem Wasser!
Schicksal des Menschen, wie gleichst du dem Wind!


Song of the Spirits above the Waters
(loose translation using translate.google with some fiddling - to give you a general idea)

The human soul is like water:
It comes from heaven, it rises to heaven,
and again to the earth it must return, ever changing.

It flowed from the heights, a pure jet on the steep rock face,
Then it dusted lovely waves of clouds to the smooth rock,
and when hit by the light, it flowed like a veil,
with the slightest rustling to the depths.

Cliffs loom up against the falls,
It angrily froths in stages to the abyss.

In its flat bed it creeps through the meadow,
and in the glassy lake its face grazes all the stars.

 Wind is the sweet wave;
 Wind mixes from the ground in foamy waves.

 Soul of man, how do you like the water!
 Fate of the people, you are like the wind!


After a short stroll we found a comfy restaurant to dine in. The whole experience had the feel of a movie set, complete with quaint chalets with porches facing the valley (don’t forget the blooming red geraniums hanging in baskets from the railings and window baskets), and cowbells clinking in the distance (although we saw only sheep, so sheepbells?).


One more addition to my growing list of places I wish to return to someday. Maybe with a good pair of hiking shoes and a backpack instead of an infant and a toddler. We’ll see.


The next morning we headed back up the valley, this time turning east towards Grindelwald, in the shade of Eiger mountain. Quite an urban little village complete with touristy centre, we opted to keep climbing and eventually found a hotel with ice cream shop and outdoor seating area. The meadows and pastures were in bloom, and the one across from our ice cream stop proved too tempting a photo opportunity.



I believe we spent more than a few hours lazing away in the grass and eating ice cream, in complete awe that some lucky people can call the majestic surroundings “home.”

On the drive down to Interlaken I kept craning my head back to try to find the one perfect spot to take a picture; on our drives in one particular place had caught my attention as having the valley with layer after layer of mountains fading off into the distance. Now I know that the whole drive was picturesque, only it is hard to find spots to pull over for pictures. Note: hike entire valley!


Interlaken served us well as a base for explorations, as well as providing a store full of kitsch to pick out our own cowbells, cuckoo clocks and souvenir magnets. Swiss knives and yodeling horns abound! Souvenirs in hand, we continued on to Freiburg that day. Soon would be the moment I had been anticipating ever since the Kalamazoo grandmother had arrived in France; we would see Kalamazoo grandpa and would be able to introduce him to his newest grandson!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Chamonix-Mont-Blanc

On our way to Freiburg im Breisgau with the two boys, Roberts, my mother-in-law and myself in the car, we took a slight detour. We wanted to drive through Switzerland on the way there as our route home would take us on a straighter course through France, and so a logical stopping point was Chamonix (about 4 ½ hours from Clermont-Ferrand).

As the last hour or so of driving took place after sunset, we awoke to a surprise. Knife-edge peaks surrounded our little hotel, the valley rising away on both sides changing from green to white in a dizzying ascent. Chamonix-Mont-Blanc is in the Rhône-Alpes region in south-eastern France, separated from Courmayeur, Italy by the jagged peaks of the Aiguilles Rouges. The site of the 1924 Winter Olympics (the first Winter Olympics), it is well known within the world of skiing, snowboarding and mountain climbing. It wasn’t these extreme sports that had us stopping in Chamonix, it was the world-famous cable car that goes up the Aiguille du Midi (3,842m or 12,605 ft). Constructed in 1955, it was then the highest cable car in the world.


Something we hadn’t thought of in our planning was altitude and its effect on the boys. The car ride up to Chamonix was gradual and the altitude quite reasonable (1,037m), but the cable car would ascend a couple thousand meters in about 30 minutes: not good for little ears, and infants are not allowed. And toddlers, well we weren’t going to try it. So we were faced with a dilemma; were we still going to ascend Aiguille du Midi, and in what combination?

Roberts had taken the cable car up to the summit more than five years ago, while living in Geneva, Switzerland with his friend Fredrik. Having paid the fee and arrived at the top – nothing. They were fogged in! He would have liked to try again, but opted to stay with his mother who didn’t wish to make the trip. So off I went, alone, to the highest point I will have ever been in my life.


Although the tower wasn’t open, there were three separate viewing areas that were, and I spent almost an hour admiring the fantastic views over the valley and of the peaks. Only 8km from the summit of Mont Blanc, the cable car was full of adventure seekers with skis and climbing gear. I watched quite a few do last-minute checks on their gear before heading off the platforms, to a base camp down below with miles of seemingly in-traversable terrain separating us.

The picture on the right is a zoomed in shot of where the arrow is pointing on the left

I also was witness to an interesting ritual. A group of men from Mongolia took turns with an ornate teacup, saying a prayer and then tossing a cup of milk to the wind. Perhaps a prayer, maybe an offering, but beautiful in the simplicity atop this soaring mountaintop.


According to the locals, that day was the first in quite a while that the view was as clear without clouds, fog or snow. The experience was worth every penny of the 45,60 € ticket and I suggest it to anyone visiting on a clear day. It is possible in the summer to cross the Mont Blanc massif by cable car into Italy by passing through Pointe Helbronner (3,462m or 11,358 ft) to Entréves in the Aosta Valley. The first car goes up early, and my advice to avoid the queues (and to get the best views since the mornings tend to have better visibility) would be to get there early.

I did wish it was me setting out on this grand adventure...

Meanwhile, the rest of the family was looking into the option of visiting the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice), the second largest glacier in the Alps. At 14km long, 1800m wide and 400m deep, it is possible to visit an ice cave that has been carved every spring since 1946. However our luck with the weather for my ascent up the Aiguille didn’t extend to the glacier; the mountain train that takes tourists to the cable car was running, but the cable car was not.

After meeting back up with the rest of the family, we drove northeast on small roads, winding up the valley. With breathtaking vistas around every bend it was hard to resist the urge to park and photograph each and every scene. Interlaken was our destination, and we knew that there would be endless photo-opportunities the whole way there, and so it was with tremendous restraint that we kept driving despite the numerous panoramas. Simply unbelievably gorgeous.


Monday, July 2, 2012

Freiburg im Breisgau

It might seem that the past few months have been spent traveling, when in fact we’ve spent quite a bit of time at home. Somehow the recap of our Amsterdam trip spread out over the last two months, and most of the every-day was condensed into a few, long posts with the Jāņu celebration stuck in the middle. Looking back at spring, our time here was hectic, it just wasn’t spent traveling as much as it might appear from this blog.

If it wasn't for the baby bjorn carrier we would have to buy a double stroller...

That being said there is one last trip that we took on a long weekend while the Kalamazoo grandmother was visiting, and I do want to include some pictures from it, as it was a pretty spectacular trip for such a short period of time.

With the in-laws, Freiburg, Germany

The boys were happy to have grandmother come visit (as was I), but we were sad that grandpa couldn’t come with. He was scheduled to attend the annual delegates meeting of the Latvian organization Daugavas Vanagi, the Latvian Welfare Association in Freiburg, Germany. The not-for-profit, charitable membership organization assists Latvians in need, supports and promotes Latvian culture, education, and youth development and honors all the soldiers who fought on behalf of Latvia’s freedom and independence among other goals. You can read more about the US branch of the organization here and about the branch in Germany here.



So since he couldn’t come to us, we decided to go to him! Freiburg im Breisgau is about 6 hours northeast of Clermont-Ferrand close to the French and Swiss borders (the point where the three countries meet is called Dreiländereck). We didn’t drive straight there, in fact our detour added on quite a few miles and hours, but more on that in a later post. Located in the hills of the Black Forest and home to a 500 year old university, the city has managed to keep its old town intact despite the wars.

Bērzaine

The Latvian Daugavas Vanagu (DV) property there is called Bērzaine (named after the birches of Latvia), and originally was meant to be a home for war veterans. As the years progress and less veterans utilize the facilities it has morphed into a guest house offering long-term housing for Latvian families and students in Freiburg, as well as rooms for board for travelers. Located at the base of Zähringer Castle hill, the ruins are but a short hike from the center and we couldn’t resist a look.

The Zähringer castle ruins and tower

The location was home to a hilltop settlement called Alemanni, named after a young king, sometime at the end of the 5th century. First mention of the name Zähringen dates from shortly after the year 1000, and the first definite mention of the castle was in 1128. Between 1275 and 1281 it was destroyed and rebuilt several times and in the Peasants' War in 1525 the completely destroyed castle became the property of the House of Baden. The remaining ruins with a large round tower (13th century) have viewing platform that luckily was open while we were there, giving us an opportunity to see a grand view of the city and surrounding Black Forest. (The key can be borrowed from a neighboring café and restaurant, if I correctly understood the German of the nice couple that waited for us to take a look before locking up.)

The Black Forest

We participated in a few of the lectures and meetings, but mostly enjoyed spending some time with Kalamazoo grandpa and in a Latvian atmosphere. Lauris made some new friends as Bērzaine is host to a little Latvian school, but our stay ended on a sour note after he took a nasty tumble down a flight of stairs, bumping his head and skinning his cheek. Mikus had to trump his brother, running a fever and prompting a late night pharmacy run, so the next day our tour of the city was short and sweet.

Possibly the most famous building in the city is the Münster Cathedral, and this was our first stop upon arrival downtown. Construction of the Romanesque cathedral was begun in 1200, but only the transept and two flanking towers remain of the original. The West Tower has beautiful stone masonry, and small detail like the 14th century tympanum (illustrating the theme of Original Sin), and statues of the Apostles and Old Testament kings contribute to form an amazingly ornate façade.

Münster Cathedral

Although we didn’t climb the tower that morning, we did enjoy ice cream on Münsterplatz, the square on the south side of the cathedral. With a view of the Archbishop’s Palace (1756), the Historical House of Trade and Wentzingerhaus (1761), the time was spent pleasantly.

The Historical House of Trade

Next we stopped in the town hall square, with the fountain featuring Berthold Schwarz, said to have invented gunpowder in Freiburg in 1350. As Freiburg was founded in the 12th century, I can imagine there might be some truth to the claim.

Boys with boats playing in the canalization

We had a beautiful stroll through the city culminating in yummy sandwiches to-go for our trip back to France. Despite the skinned cheek Lauris enjoyed the day, with the trams and the canalization competing for his attention. The gutters that have for hundreds of years channeled water through old town still function today, and after seeing a few young boys playing with boats on strings in the mini-canals we searched for a toy store as a little sailboat would have been a perfect souvenir. Sadly no stores were open on a Sunday and so although we left empty-handed save for the sandwiches and a few knick-knacks from a tourist shop, the memories of this quaint little German town will stay with me during the rest of our time in France.


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