Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe...join me!

Friday, August 31, 2018

so francais, so lovely...two days in nancy, france

So this just might happen to be a post about doors...and windows. Sorry, I can’t help it. Nancy, France has surprised me. It has shop windows overflowing with pastries, pain de chocolat, and éclairs. Along with pastel-coloured shutters adorning every house window, wandering the old town streets here is trés wonderful. 

Oh, and there's this amazing fountain.

The French city of Nancy lies just 2.5 hours from Frankfurt, and is a fairly pleasant train ride from Paris. Its town centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and rumour has it that Place Stanislas, which is home to buildings much more palace than city hall, is the most beautiful square in Europe. 

Place Stanislas
I'm not  sure if that's true, or if the French have just claimed that, because well, they're French and it's probably true. Once I've visited all European town squares I'll let y'all know :).

What is interesting is that Stanislas was the King of Poland, but Duke of Upper Lorraine, and he did much to better the lives of the citizens of Nancy at the time. He forged cultural and economic growth, fed the poor, and gave houses to those who had through misfortune lost everything.

This summer, the city put on an incredible light show every evening, creating magnificently vivid scenes detailing episodes from the past centuries. The scenes played out on the 4 major town square buildings, with the prominent focus on city hall. Both nights that we stayed in the city we experienced the Spectacle son et Lumière in Place was just that incredible.

The Spectacle highlighted the industrial revolution, the renaissance, Nancy's surrounding wine and agricultural landscape, its schools, music and cultural heritage...all set to an inspiring and uplifting soundtrack.

Nancy is not a huge city, about a half million people, but it is an old one, dating back to 800 BC. Like most other well-placed European cities, this one has also gone through many soul-altering evolutions, sometimes due to war, often due to natural occurrences. Oh, who are we kidding? Pretty much all destruction and change was due to war, including when Nancy was set on fire in 1218, at the end of the War of Succession of Champagne.

I came to Nancy to experience more French towns, culture and cuisine, and Nancy was the perfect choice. Patisseries on every corner, much top-rated, but not top-priced local cuisine, and fascinating history made the two-day visit well worth the trip.

Since the late 19th century, Nancy has been a centre of art and architecture, giving Paris a run for her money at times. Around that time a group of artists and architects created the 'École de Nancy' and their Art Nouveau influences can still be felt while wandering many sidewalks.

What I just couldn't get enough of were the shuttered windows, neatly painted in soft hues, complimenting the buildings in all their variations of taupe. I'm not really sure if they are only decorative or if they have an actual purpose, but I don't really care. They are super cute.

Nancy also has an wonderful array of gardens, some centuries old. One of the cities oldest botanical gardens, now named Jardin Godron, used to house numerous collections vital to the Royal College of Medicine. Now, it displays vibrant horticultural specimens in long distinguished rows, making it easy and interesting to walk amongst and just enjoy.

Jardin Godron
The Parque de la Pépinière, just around the corner from Place Stanislas, is huge. There's a small concert bowl, outdoor dancing lessons, an assortment of peacocks ambling about, an intimate rose garden, a statue by Rodin, fields and fields of open green space to play or lay...and there's the most beautiful art niveau pergola which I have ever seen. I only took about 25 photos of it.

Parque de la Pépinière
What you should really do in Nancy is eat. I was treated to an incredible birthday dinner at C' Fred, an intimate, simply decorated restaurant just off the main drag. It boasts a seasonally fixed menu for 34€, with 3 choices for starter, entrée and dessert. Dishes such as, Terrine de foie gras au chocolat to start with, then Pot au feu de filets de boeuf à la truffe de Meuse or Cuisse de canard confite aigret doux. There is almost nothing more delicious...

C' Fred...plain excellent!
except for their dessert. I had to have the Fondant chocolat glace café. The warm chocolate insides melted my cold hardened heart and I could ease into the new year of my life a bit more content. Thank you C' Fred!

I would be remiss not to include C' Fred's excellent wine offerings. We indulged in a bottle of the Pezenas Madame du Parc from the south of France. I had never heard of it before, but oh was it delish. Apparently it's something special.

And since I don't have the warm chocolate cake anymore to warm my heart, I will leave you with a nighttime photo of my favourite fountain, which almost does the same for me...and I hope for you.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

an enchanted place...melk abbey, austria

There is a place upon a hill overlooking the Danube, just a stone's throw from Vienna, which as soon as I stepped foot upon its grounds it held my breath.

"Ora et Labora et Lege" - Pray, Work, Learn.

Melk Abbey stands guard at the entrance of Austria's enchanting Wachau region, an area dotted with cathedrals and steep vineyards, glistening with elegance and fascinating history. This Benedictine Abbey, which surely is one of the most beautiful in the world, is home to two of my now-favourite buildings...a library like no other, and a garden pavillion out of a fairytale. Take a look...

But first, as you enter the Abbey's imposing inner square, a series of modern murals representing the four virtues (wisdom, justice, temperance, and fortitude) will catch your eye almost immediately, juxtaposed against the Abbey's  Baroque facade.

The Abbey itself dates back to 1089 when a group of Benedictine monks were gifted a castle by Leopold II of Austria. This explains in part the opulence of the home of such a simple people. What the monks did with their generous gift was to immediately put it to good work, creating a monastic school and library, both of which are still in existence today and continue to be renowned institutions.

Many of the Baroque additions and renovations were undertaken between 1702 and 1736, but because of the Abbey's international reputation for education and its well-known extensive collection of manuscripts, the buildings were spared from countless wars, confiscations and conflicts in the centuries which have since followed.

I highly recommend taking a guided tour when you visit because of the volume of interesting stories and historical information that you will hear. It costs 13€/adult and includes the Abbey church, library and gorgeous marble hall...all worth the price.

The staircase leading up to the 196 m long Kaisersall (Imperial Hall)

I love libraries...always have. Some of my earliest happy memories are sitting at the feet of my elementary school librarian and listening to her read to us. So, whenever I visit a new place, I try to pop into a library. I especially love the smell of old books...the well-worn covers, the musty pages filled with tales and wisdom, and the millions of fingerprints from long-gone souls. For some reason, this all inspires me to no end.

"Pray, work, learn" - the highly regarded Abbey library

The Abbey library does not disappoint. I snuck a couple of unflashed photos because I absolutely wanted to be able to remember these rooms. Over the centuries, the library has amassed a collection of 100,000 books and manuscripts, including 750 printed before 1500 AD!

The Abbey, especially the library, was the centre of the 'Melk Reform Movement' in the 15th century, a sort of counter reformation building on Jesuit teachings. The monks held the library in such high regard, second only to the church, that they commissioned Paul Troger to paint the incredible ceiling fresco. The centrepiece of the painting is a female representation of faith, surrounded by four groups of angels again depicting the virtues of wisdom, temperance, fortitude and justice.

I have to confess, one of the details which enchants me most about castles and historical rooms, such as libraries, is the almost certain occurance of stumbling upon a tiny door. Okay, 'tiny' might not be the right word, and I'm jumping the gun if I make an 'Alice in Wonderland' comparison, but the small, often hidden or unnoticeable doors secretively blending into a wall of books or nestled into the floorboards fill me with a whimsical, fairytale-y feeling.

This particular door seen above had, as I found out during the tour, an interesting but unfortunately, fairly boring purpose. On the other side of it is a very large ceramic stove for heating the inner room. These little doors, which almost every room in the Abbey has, allowed the house staff to fill the stove with wood from the outside hallway without bothering (and dirtying) the room's inhabitants. Nonetheless...I still find them enchanting.

The Marble Hall from the outside

The Abbey church, and believe me, to call it a 'church' seems to do it an injustice, is impressive. It seems, for lack of a better word, strange to walk into such an opulent cathedral-like place of worship while visiting the home of Benedictine monks. I mean, St Benedictine charged his followers to live simply, dedicating their prayer (obviously), their work and their life-long journey of education to the glory of God.

And therein lies most likely the reason behind the incredible ceiling frescoes and altar paintings (7 famed masters of their time were commissioned to decorate the church in 1722) glorify God.

But, what also struck me during my visit through the Abbey is that the monks were, and continue to be, just plain smart. They have, over the centuries, with hard work and incredible dedication, built a compound for everyone to fall in love with; a school offering high quality education, scholarly achievements to research and study, and an incredibly beautiful tourist destination that everyone wants to visit!

The Abbey Park and Garden Pavillion are part of this gorgeous visiting experience. I fell in love with the pavillion, designed as part of the Baroque park in 1750 as a place of relaxation for the monks.

Only since the year 2000 has this area been open to the public, and it is now a highlight. The park includes a 'Garden of Paradise', a 'Jardin Méditerranéen', a meditational path with an incredible view over the Danube and 250 year-old Linden trees.

Inside the pavillion, the beauty continues, with fantastical exotic frescoes climbing across the walls. Johann Bergl's creations in the two window-filled rooms are rife with plants, animals, jungle themes, and native people, instilling a longing to learn about and to explore far-off lands.

But look up and you will again be transported to the Baroque scenes of the heavens. Really, it is such a dreamy building.

When your time at Melk Abbey comes to an end, you will be sent off with the parting words, "Höre und du wirst ankommen" - a blessing reminding us to stop and listen, to come to peace in order to know you have arrived.

St. Benedictine encouraged his faithful to never stop beginning - in prayer, in work, in learning. To always dedicate oneself anew to living a life in peace with God and with others. He taught that living compatibly within community, to ask forgiveness and to come clean whenever needed, glorifies God and allows us to focus on that what is important. Melk inspiring place indeed.

Listen and you will arrive

If you go, you should know:

For opening times, prices and interesting information about all of the rooms in Abbey in case you forget some of the details after your visit (like I did):

How-to-get-there information, including hiking trails and boat tours in the area:


Saturday, June 30, 2018

the berlin airlift...good vs evil using committment and candy bombers

Years before the Wall divided, and years after Hitler died, there was an event which united...not just the city of Berlin, but many cities, countries and people, with one goal. To fly. To help. To feed. 

Two million women, men and children were stranded., shut off from the rest of the world, for 10 whole months in West Berlin. 1948.

A portion of the still-standing wall at the East Side Gallery
June marked 70 years since the beginning of the Berlin Airlift, when Russian military forces blocked all land and rail transports into West Berlin. A very complicated and highly exhaustive coordinated response swiftly followed, with pilots from the British, French, American, Australian, and South African Air Forces flying up to 1400 flights a day.

Templehof Airport

Food, medical supplies, mail, and most importantly, coal were flown daily in a round-the-clock series of flights from the Rhein-Main and Hamburg/Hannover regions of West Germany, landing every 90 seconds at 3 airports in the western sector of Berlin.

Photo: Boris Roessler/DPA
One incredibly poignant part of this story is the one of Captain Gail Halverson who, as a personal statement against Stalin and the Russian regime, began throwing out parachutes of chocolate bars and candy as he flew over the neighbourhoods of West Berlin. As children and families began to notice this pattern, Captain Halverson would wiggle his plane's wings whenever he returned, as a signal of the sweet treats fallling from the sky. Soon his colleagues joined in and children would swarm in anticipation when seeing 'Uncle Wiggly Wings' flying low overhead. These planes were given the name of 'raisin bombers' (Rosinen Bomber)...honoring a mission which brought hope and light into a cold and dark community.

Photo: Picture-Alliance/DPA

As the airlift began in June 25th 1948, the western Allied forces thought that it would at most last 4-6 weeks. But it soon became clear that Stalin was going to hold out, in the belief that the Berliners would never put up with being cold and hungry, and would agree with forcing the Allieds out of West Berlin. The mayor of West Berlin, Ernst Reuter, gave a passionate plea to more than 350,000 West Berliners gathered in a public standing against Russia, to be resilient and for the world not to forget them. Reuter assured the Allieds that the Berliners would put up with only 1800 calories a day, would walk everywhere (as there was very limited fuel), would put up with candlelight (as electricity had been cut off) as long as the Allieds would not abandon them.

As winter loomed, West Berliners put their heads down and continued to work and live, with limited food and light and heat. They held out, support by the air, and it worked.

Airlift Memorial - Berlin

Over a million tons of coal, 730 000 tons of food, and 100 000 flights had been flown by Christmas, with a record-breaking 13 000 tons being dropped in a single day. Regardless of cost, the Allieds were committed to keeping up this incredible feat, which actually supplied West Berlin better than it had previously done by land and rail. Stalin realized that his plan wasn't working at all, and Russia finally gave in and took down the blockades in May of 1949. Stalin had underestimated the determination of the outside world, combined with the resilience of the Berliners. He couldn't break the spirit of the people, either economically or politically, as long as a host of western countries, German cities (Hamburg, Hannover, Wiesbaden, Frankfurt) and thousands of courageous individuals were supporting them.

Memorials now stand in honour of the dedicated pilots, and to the 43 airmen who lost their lives during the airlift. The flights had been continuous, night and day, through the harsh winter, and during all kinds of difficult and dangerous weather, for ten long months.

The city of Berlin would remain divided for another 40 years. There would come more, less successful acts of courage and determination from within Berlin, such as the uprising in June 1953 when East Berliners tried to drive out communism, receiving popular support from across the west.

In the end, the wall would come down. Germany was reunified due to this same determination, courage and perseverance for change, for good, and for freedom. Again, it took many individuals working and communicating together, taking to the streets and to the meeting rooms, to bring about positive change. We need to learn from history so that the steps which lead to division and suppression are not retread.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

germany's riesling horse, boat, and cable car

I've had the good fortune to spend two very seperate spring days, with two very different groups of people, on two very beautiful tours of Germany's Rheingau region...both just happened to be bachelorette parties. But, instead of strippers there were cyclists, instead of veils and tiaras there were sunglasses and sunscreen, and in both cases there was a lot of flowing bubbly and so much fun.

The Covered-wagon Tour: through castles and convents

As anyone who rides can tell you, the view from horseback is a special delight. Now, granted I wasn't actually riding these wagon-pulling quadrapeds but it often felt like I was. Meandering the windy and hilly vineyards along the Rhine valley gave me renewed respect for what these workers were doing for us.

The Rheingau is not Germany's largest wine region (that lies on directly on the other side of the river) but it is definitely its largest Riesling producer and one might say, it features Germany's most internationally successful wine producers. Needless to say, there is very good wine here.

Castle Vollrads
And, like everywhere along the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, there are a ubiquitous amount of castles. Schloss Vollrads is a hidden gem, small and delightful, nestled amongst glorious hills of hanging grapes. Unfortunately, like every good castle story, this one has plenty of drama. I won't spoil it by telling you'll need to come and visit.

Our tour took us through the dainty wine villages along the Rhine, such as Eltville and Ostrich-Winkel. Dotted with half-timbered houses and painted wine taverns, the clip-clop of the horses hooves and the gorgeous scenery made me just so happy. Well, maybe it was also the sekt! (German sparkling wine...of course)

Which just added to the already very merry time us girls were having.

Kloster Eberbach

The Ring Tour: ferry, chairlift, hike, gondola, ferry...a circle of loveliness and wine

Starting from Rüdesheim or Bingen, you hop on the ferry towards Assmannshausen, passing a few castles perched on the hillside as you float by.

This is the beginning of the Upper Middle Rhein Valley, with steep cliffsides and treacherous hanging vineyards and castles every kilometre. A tour that on its own is worth its weight in gold.

Castle Rheinstein

But on the ring tour, you get out in Assmannshausen, a small town reknowned for its red wine unique event in this area of white wine. The Hotel Krone, built in 1541, is one seriously romantic and very traditional hotel....the hanging wisteria just adds to the sweeping elegance of it all.

Assmannshausen...unfortunate name for a very cute wine town
Up the ancient chairlift, between hills of vineyards and overlooking the town, towards the forest above Rüdesheim.

Chairlift fear and fun
On this particular tour, but quite usual if I think about it, wanderers and/or bachelorettes usually stop and picnic...with sekt or just plain ol' normal wine. When in Rome...

It is approximately thirty minutes of walking through the forest to get to the lookout above Rüdesheim...depending on how many other lookout points you take advantage of.

Coming out of the magic cave...ooh la la
And you have to add in the picnic stops...Germans really do picnic-ing like no others (in my opinion). Sausages, stuffed peppers, cheese and dips, fresh olive bread, grapes, large plump olives, and chocolate. Add to that, sitting on a castle wall for a bite to eat and well, you can't get that in Canada!

Picnic at the castle...of course

Niederwald Memorial

Above Rüdesheim and you have a view of the widest part of the Rhine, right before it gets to be its narrowest. Across the river is Bingen am Rhein, another traditonal wine town, but with a more laissez-faire flair, possibly due to its years of French rule ergo the huge monument facing France after the Napoleon was defeated and driven away.

Rüdesheim am Rhein
And then after gondola-ing down towards town, we meandered towards the ferry, but not before taking in another glass of wine or two.

Evening ferry over the get to the other side (duh)

What's a bachelorette party post without a parting shot after an entire day of bubbly.

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