Adventure Africa: A day on safari

safari.23Three countries. Lots of animals. Fantastic people. Delicious food. “Ultimate Africa,” our 16-day safari to Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, surpassed our expectations. We shared this fun and enriching adventure with 12 other travelers from the US.safari.24

After the sensational gorilla experience in Rwanda (see previous posts: Gorillas in our Midst and Remarkable Rwanda) we flew to Johannesburg to begin this journey which proved to be much more than African animals. Of course, they were the focus and we were lucky enough to witness some incredible happenings, including a grisly lion kill in action, lions mating, giraffes courting, elephants on the march and more. My next post will be devoted to animals.

Safari "tent"

Safari “tent”

During our travels we stayed in comfortable safari camps, most located in vast national parks. Each couple or single traveler had a tented room with shower safari.9and toilet. Days began with a 5 a.m. wake up call. In Botswana, it was the sounds of a drum beating outside our door.  Animals are best sighted early in the morning or late in the day.   They and we need to escape the blazing afternoon sun and intense temperatures.

After breakfast (usually fruit, toast and/or homemade muffins, porridge and sometimes eggs) we climbed into two safari vehicles, seven passengers, a guide and a driver each. Off we’d go into the bush, bouncing over rutted dirt tracks. Often we’d be deep in the wilderness in the midst of jungle growth. “Branches” called out the driver, so each passenger behind could lean in and escape bodily harm. Lee, a retired diplomat from Colorado, was named trip “Branch Manger.” He had a very distinct and aristocratic manner, like a Brit educated at Oxford, to warn those behind of “branches.”

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“It’s time to read my morning paper,” a guide announced as we rolled out of one camp. He carefully surveyed the ground, his “newspaper,” looking for tracks to determine which beasts may be in the area. Our camps were not in fenced-in enclosures, but in the open where animals, big and small, were free to roam. At night when it was time to go back to our individual tents, we were accompanied by a guide with flash light and usually a gun. At our tent home in the Lufupa Camp in Zambia’s Kafue National Park, monkeys chased one another on the roof, Bushbuck munched on grass in the back yard and hippos splashed and snorted in the river which flowed right outside our front door. Fortunately we never saw lions lurking nearby.

Travel in the bush

Travel over a bush bridge

During the morning game drive, we’d stop for a coffee break at a place deemed safe by the guides. They’d clap and scout out an area for those in need “to mark their territory.”

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Brunch, back at camp at about 11 a.m. served buffet style, was an array of tasty casseroles, salads and fruit – a copious feast. Then rest time. November, when we traveled, was supposedly the beginning of the rainy season. Instead of rain, we encountered scorching heat, often temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Our tents had ceiling fans, but lying down for an afternoon nap was like lying on a heating pad. Several camps had plunge pools for a welcome relief.

The British influence in food and lifestyle was evident in all our camps. Before gaining independence in the 1960s, Botswana and Zambia were British protectorates. Zimbabwe was formerly a British colony known as Southern Rhodesia. Thus, high tea was de rigueur, and almost yet another meal with something sweet, often cake, and something savory, such as mini pizzas or wraps. Learning and Discovery, lectures and discussions by locals, followed tea. The session on polygamy (widely practiced in Africa) was the overall favorite and mind boggling. It deserves its own post, or at least a good part of one. Stay tuned.

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We loved those sundowners.

At about 5 p.m. we headed out for the afternoon game drive. A regular and delightful part of these excursions was the “sundowner”  when we stopped to watch the sunset and enjoy liquid refreshment and snacks.   “I’ve been on many safaris, but I have never had a day like this,” commented Lee, who had served at posts in many different African countries during his career, as we marveled at a parade of elephants coming to drink at the banks of a river with the setting sun in the background. Heads of hippos popped up from the water to complete this National Geographic scene.   That morning we had seen lions mating, a group of hyenas, and a pride of lionesses attacking and eating a live Cape Buffalo

Elephants and hippos at sunset

Elephants and hippos at sunset

This was indeed our lucky day. There are no guarantees of animal sightings on a safari. There were several days when we did not find any exciting wildlife, but the game drives were nonetheless fascinating. Guides shared their wealth of

No need to go thirsty in the bush

No need to go thirsty in the bush

knowledge on the terrain, climate, vegetation and more. We learned about safari survival. Many plants are edible. Certain branches if cut yield a liquid to quench thirst. Others can be fashioned into rope. Tree roots can be used to brush teeth. The leaves of one tree act as mosquito repellent. Those of another act as a laxative for elephants.

The most exciting discovery one afternoon for guide Victor was elephant excrement, obviously from an elephant in desperate need of those leaves. “I’ve never seen elephant poop like this,” he said. He asked the driver to stop at a tall brown mound for a closer look.   “He must have been constipated for a very long time,” he said. It was such a sensation, Victor insisted on returning to measure the “poop.”

TJ helps Victor measure the "most amazing elephant poop."

TJ helps Victor measure the “most amazing elephant poop.”

Between countries and camps, we flew on small aircraft (a max of about eight passengers each). For half of those flights, a woman was the pilot.

We had been issued obligatory duffle bags for the trip.

No big suitcases, but obligatory duffel bags for the trip.

The majority of our travel companions were older and retired – like us. Three exceptions: Darcie, a nurse traveling with her aunt Raedeen, a Red Cross worker who had lived all over the world; Maia, a psychologist traveling with her dad, Charles, a retired veterinarian who celebrated his 79th birthday during the trip,

Bob and Charles celebrating Charles' b'day.

Bob and Charles celebrating Charles’ b’day.

and TJ, an IT specialist also traveling with his father, Ted, a retired professor. Two Southern belles, Tootsie, 84 and Marlene, 82, were an inspiration. Lois, a retired teacher, was on her 9th trip with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), our tour operator.  Retired US Post Office employees Helen and Bob were close behind – their 8th OAT trip. Like us, Lee was on his first trip with this tour operator. The repeat business is no surprise. Every aspect of the trip rated A+.

In the background, Lee and Maia. Foreground, Tootsie and Marlene

In the background, Lee and Maia. Foreground, Tootsie and Marlene

Abiot, our leader from Zimbabwe who accompanied us throughout the journey, deserves A+++. He was thoughtful, caring, knowledgeable, and many times went beyond the call of duty. Abiot comes from a large family in the hinterlands of his country. Between assignments, he drives 20 hours to reach his village which has no electricity. Yet, all have cell phones, he said. While at home he works the land, farming corn. Education in Zimbabwe is no longer free – about $20 per semester. He pays for four of his young cousins to attend school — and feeds 15 family members.

Abiot, our hero, who definitely deserves "tour leader of the year" award.

Abiot, our hero, who definitely deserves “tour leader of the year” award.

Prior to working for OAT, Abiot told us he worked for a luxury safari company which charged about $1,000 per day per person. He quit. “That was not Africa,” he said. “It was too much like America.” He much prefers OAT which he feels offers a genuine African experience.

Safari lounge

Safari lodge lounge

We, and all in our group, felt we had indeed experienced — and leaned so much — about “ultimate Africa.”

Refreshing moist washcloths awaited as we returned from hot game drives.

Refreshing moist towelettes awaited as we returned from hot game drives.

For more on Overseas Adventure Travel: www.oattravel.com We paid $4,495 each for our all-inclusive 16-day safari (lodging, all meals, most tips, land and air transport within Africa)

Much More Adventure Africa to come in future posts: Animals, People, Learning and Discovery… If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right) so you will not miss future posts. Your address is kept private and never shared.safari.6

Recipes — no new recipe this time but check out the column at right for many tasty concoctions.  I recently had an African dinner party and served Spicy Peanut Dip with raw veggies for an “apero” snack.  It was a hit.  Christine asked for the recipe.  It’s up there, under Appetizers.

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In the stiffeling heat, the plunge pool was perfect for cooling off.

The plunge pool was perfect for cooling off.

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Remarkable Rwanda

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Rwandan dancers

A happy — and most important – healthy New Year to Tales and Travel readers. The following is another post resulting from Adventure Africa.  Before visiting Rwanda, two words sum up what I knew about the country: gorillas and genocide. My previous post, Gorillas in our Midst, details our unforgettable gorilla trek. The following provides a look at Rwanda 22 years after savage butchery took the lives of almost a million of its citizens.

Rwanda’s mountain gorillas are a national treasure, one that has reaped significant financial rewards for this tiny country in central Africa. Revenue from tourism was $303 million in 2014, up from $62 million in 2000 – mainly due to the gorillas.kigali.23

These gentle giants that hang out in the bamboo forests of the Virunga mountains are a source of wonder. Small groups of tourists follow a guide and a tracker into the dense jungle to find and observe a gorilla family. The tracker wields a machete, a common tool in Rwanda, to blaze a trail. But in Rwanda, the machete also has a sinister significance.

“The world withdrew and watched…and a million people were slaughtered.”

Names of the dead at mass grave

Names of the dead at mass grave

The machete was the weapon of choice during the horrific genocide that ravaged Rwanda in 1994. Hutu-Tutsi rivalry culminated in this bloodbath with Hutu rebels on the warpath, hacking Tutsi and moderate Hutu to death.

Driving through bustling Kigali, the country capital, it’s difficult to imagine that these boulevards now lined with neatly trimmed shrubs and flowers were littered with thousands of bodies 22 years ago. The Kigali Genocide Memorial in the country’s capital pays tribute to the victims. Its exhibits are an all-too vivid reminder of the carnage: photos and letters of the dead, accounts of survivors, details on child victims, such as favorite toys and food. It is shocking, heartbreaking, disturbing, chilling.

Garden at Genocide Memorial

Garden at Genocide Memorial

Some 250,000 victims are buried in mass graves at the memorial site on a lush hillside overlooking the town. Exhibits also trace the history of the ethnic rivalry, the failure of the world community to step in, and reminders that Rwanda is not the only country tarnished by genocide.   Germany, Cambodia, Namibia, Serbia, Turkey – all have dark chapters in their past.

David taught us a lot about Rwanda

David taught us a lot about Rwanda

Three million people fled to refugee camps in neighboring countries to escape death. David Habarugira, our guide in Rwanda, fled to nearby Uganda. Rwandans are now at peace, he explained. No one is identified by ethnic background. Many, like David, have returned to their homeland, the Land of a Thousand Hills where steep mountains and deep valleys create a breathtaking landscape.kigali.24

“Rwanda is a country with a vision…better education, health care, infrastructure. .. We are well on our way,” Francis, another guide commented. The economy suffered greatly during and after the genocide, but has made strides in recent years. Gorilla revenue plays a role, with 80 percent earmarked for the government.

Subsistence agriculture, however, is the mainstay of the economy in Rwanda which is slightly smaller than Maryland. Some 90 percent of the population of almost 12 million farm. David, from a farm family, told us he did not have a pair of shoes until he was 20 years old.kigali.9

Anything and everything grows, with coffee and tea the main export crops. Markets are full of vibrant color with mounds of produce for sale, including five different kinds of bananas. The national dish is green bananas, ibitoke, steamed and mashed.kigali.17

Paul Kagame, who has been president since 2000, is credited with stabilizing the country and reviving the economy after the mass killings. On Dec. 31, 2015, he announced that he will run for a third term in 2017 after his second seven-year term expires. In a constitutional referendum last month, 98 percent of Rwandans voted to amend the constitution to allow Kagame to run again.   Despite his accomplishments, many see him as an authoritarian ruler.   His government has been accused of human rights abuses, including restrictions on freedom of speech and suppression of opposition groups. The US and the EU oppose a third term for Kagame.

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On the positive side, Rwanda has low corruption compared to other African countries.   According to Wikipedia, it is one of only two countries with a female majority in the national parliament. Protection of the environment is de rigueur. Plastic bags are banned throughout the country. It is now illegal to cut papyrus, often used for building, since it filters swamp water, David explained. And Rwanda is tourist friendly – safe and delightful to visit, although some of the tourist sites are harrowing.

Mass grave at Nyamata

Mass grave at Nyamata

The memorials at Nyamata and Ntarama, about 30 kilometers south of Kigali, are among these. During the genocide, citizens took refuge in churches, assuming they would be safe. However, members of the clergy are said to have provided information to the rebels. Some of the most brutal massacres took place inside the holy shrines, including the one at Nyamata where skulls and bones of the dead are displayed.   At Natarma, blood-stained clothing still litters the floor.kigali.4

Despite the betrayal by some of the religious, faith is very strong in Rwanda with most citizens practicing Catholicism or another Christian faith. En route to the departure point for our gorilla trek, on muddy roads full of ruts, we witnessed a steady procession of the faithful in their finery, most with Bibles or prayer books in their hands, on the way to Sunday services.

Rwanda has three official languages. Kinyarwanda is spoken by most, followed by English and French. Rwanda was under Belgian rule until gaining independence in 1962. In 2009, the country joined the British Commonwealth although it has no colonial ties to Great Britain. “Pre genocide, we were Francophile, now we are Anglophile,” said David, who speaks English.kigali.6

On our drives through the countryside past poor villages where goats and cows roam freely, I asked David why there were no dogs or cats. “We prefer children,” he said. Everywhere, happy, exuberant children waved at us.kigali.7

As Francis said, Rwanda is “well on the way. ” It still has far to go. Sanitation is poor. In both rural and urban areas most use shared pit latrines. The majority of the population has no access to electricity. Yet, many have cell phones.Kigali.22

As my previous post pointed out, a trek to see Rwanda’s gorillas is very expensive. It is gratifying to know that the revenues are contributing to improve living conditions for its citizens. Gorillas also mean jobs: guides, trackers, porters, drivers, and hotel staff. We were overwhelmed by their friendliness, kindness and joie de vivre.kigali.13

“A new found air of optimism pervades the country,” states Lonely Planet. It’s an optimism that is a joy to experience.

Scroll down for more Rwanda photos. More Adventure Africa to come in future posts: On Safari, Animals, People… If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right) so you will not miss future posts. Your address is kept private and never shared.kigali.8

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Riding a bicycle in hilly Rwanda is not for sissies. These guys cheated -- hanging on the back of a truck for an easy way up.

Riding a bicycle in hilly Rwanda is not for sissies. These guys cheated — hanging on the back of a truck for an easy way up.

Tobacco also grows in Rwanda.

Tobacco also grows in Rwanda.

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Rwanda has 728 different birds -- a passion with David who seemed to know all of them.

Rwanda has 728 different birds — a passion with David who seemed to know all of them.

We asked David to take us to a local , non-tourist restaurant This was awesome. And, heaven for vegetarians -- all kinds of tasty veggie concoctions

We asked David to take us to a local, non-tourist restaurant. This was awesome. And, heaven for vegetarians — all kinds of tasty veggie concoctions.  Rwandans eat little meat.

Gorillas in our midst

In my next life, I want to be Dian Fossey. Well, not quite. I’d rather not be mysteriously murdered as she was in the jungles of Rwanda where she studied and lived with mountain gorillas.gorilla.2b

After observing, photographing and admiring these magnificent beasts in the dense bamboo forests high in the mountains of Rwanda, I was smitten. It is easy to understand Fossey’s fascination with the human-like gorillas which share 98 percent of our DNA.

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Children romp and play, chasing one another through the thick brush. Toddlers cling to mothers, often piggy-back. Mothers nurse babies. And Big Daddy, the awesome silverback, keeps a vigilant eye over all.

“Watch out! One coming on your left….Look up, one in the tree… Be careful. The silverback is just ahead.”

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They were in our midst, the 22 member Kwitonaa gorilla family. One youngster raced by and grabbed the hand of a member of our trekking group. Another trekker was punched – lightly — by a teenager whose path he accidentally blocked. I was captivated by a nursing mother, no more than a foot in front of me. I could have easily touched her, but I dare not. We had been warned not to get closer than 10 feet to the beasts. Impossible. They were all around us, up close, and obviously accustomed to this parade of curious creatures who snapped away with all manner of cameras.

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Mountain gorillas are “about as dangerous as pet lambs,” Fossey once told Alfred Hitchcock, apparently to his disappointment.

Mama occasionally cast me a stern glance as if to say, “Oh no, you guys again.” Not far behind her, higher up on an incline, sat the silverback, a picture of majestic power, like a king with his subjects at his feet. He seemed disinterested, but weighing in at close to 400 pounds; I did not want to upset him.

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The Virunga Massif, volcanic peaks usually shrouded in mist along the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are home to 10 gorilla families visited regularly by tourists.gorilla.23b

Treks to observe the gorillas are strictly controlled and organized by officials in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Eager tourists arrive at park headquarters at 7 a.m. where they are divided into groups of eight, supposedly according to the difficulty of the hike ahead. Each group (a maximum of 10 groups or 80 tourists gorilla.27bgorilla.20bper day) is accompanied by a guide, trackers carrying machetes to blaze a trail, a gun-toting guard (in case of attack by Cape buffalo) and porters. Guides are in radio contact with other trackers stationed in the mountains who monitor the gorillas and advise them of the various gorilla family locations.

No longer young and fit, we asked to be in an “easy” trekking group since we had heard the hikes to locate the gorillas can take up to four hours, one way, over difficult terrain. I had been very nervous, not certain we were up to the challenge. My fears were assuaged when I met the others in our party: Fran (66) and John (76), seasoned hikers from Scotland; Selma (72) and Barry (a bit older) from D.C., and a mother- son couple from Germany. Annette, who appeared to be in her 70s, was on her fifth gorilla trek. “I’m addicted,” she said.

Selma announced to the guide that she had had two knee replacements and could only hike if the terrain was flat. She explained that a woman in her hotel had seen the gorillas the previous day after an easy, 37-minute hike. She expected the same.gorilla.25b

Poor Selma…close to three hours later, soaked to the bone, we finally found our gorillas. The hike started out as a pleasant walk in sunshine through farm fields. The sun soon disappeared and we started to climb, over rugged, rocky, slippery terrain. Up and up. Steeper and steeper. We were at an elevation of 8,500 feet. I was frequently out of breath, but there were rest stops.

Porters help with the ascent.

Porters help with the ascent.

Fortunately I had hired a porter, Peragie, a tiny woman half my size but my savior. I had little to carry, just a small backpack with a water bottle and my gorilla.17bcamera. But, for only $10 (the standard charge for a porter), I figured it might be useful. She could hold my camera if I wanted to take photos with the phone and vice versa.

This mini power house did far more. On the steep sections, she took my hand and literally pulled me up. When the rains came, soon into the trek, she wiped my face and glasses. She tucked my pants into my boots – to keep the red ants away. She spoke no English, but I learned that she was 30 years old, a widow and mother of two young children. Her calm, gentle, caring demeanor was an inspiration and kept me going.

“My knees are wobbly. I can’ go any farther. I won’t make it,”   announced Selma, not far into the hike. Our guide assured her she could – would – make it. When we came to a high rock wall separating the fields from the forest, several porters lifted her over the obstacle.gorilla.29.bjpg We charged on, but the going in the tangle of jungle vines, roots and branches was a challenge. Rain did not help. “How much farther?” Selma asked time and time again.   However, we all were beginning to wonder if we would ever find the gorillas.

Over and over, guide Ignacie assured us they were not far ahead. “They’ve been here,” he explained as he surveyed the terrain. Of course, they were not waiting for us, but continually on the move, higher and higher, searching for more tasty bamboo.

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Playful baby

At last – a big patch of black lumbering through the jungle green ahead. We stopped. We could hear bamboo branches breaking. Suddenly more masses of matted black fur, on the right, left, ahead –all in motion. We were awestruck. After the grueling trek, it seemed miraculous.

Ignacie told us the youngest member of the family was a seven-day old baby. We came up behind the mother, cradling the infant in her arms. Unfortunately the 22-year-old silverback was ahead and she moved on to dutifully follow him before I could get a photo. The kids – all ages – were frolicking all around. Two teenagers got into a spat. “They are drunk,” Ignacie said. Apparently overdosing on bamboo has the same effect as too much booze.

The rain stopped. We moved about, each of us zeroing in on different family members for close up photos. It was thrilling, amazing, and beyond our expectations to be so close to these intriguing creatures.

Trekkers are supposed to spend no more than one hour observing the gorillas. Perhaps because our journey had been so long and arduous, Ignacie was generous. We were with them a bit longer, but not long enough. You cannot get bored watching gorillas.

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The trek down was worse than the ascent. It started to pour. This was the rainy season, and these rains were like no others I have known. The trackers decided to find a shorter route back through even denser jungle growth. The lead man thrashed a path with his machete. If it hadn’t been for my guardian angel, I surely would have slipped or tripped.

Selma survived. “I am glad it’s over,” she said as we reached the end. Had Ignacie not insisted, she obviously would have quit. We later learned that rather than sending a participant back, the guides call for a stretcher.   Trekkers are carried to the gorillas at an extra cost of $200. And, it is not uncommon for handicapped tourists to hire porters with a stretcher to take them to marvel at this wonder of nature.

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Group photo while we waited for Selma and Barry who were far behind.

The gorilla experience is costly, $750 per person for the required permit. This includes the guide, trackers, guard, but not the porters. There is no shortage of visitors, however. Since 2004, the number of gorilla customers has almost tripled: 20,000 in 2014. Much of the revenue helps fight poachers, as well as contributes to the country’s efforts to develop a high end tourist industry and continue its recovery from the horrific genocide of 1994.

Back in the early ‘80s when Fossey came to Rwanda, there were only about 240 mountain gorillas in the wild. They cannot survive in captivity. Today the number is estimated at about 900, with some 300 in the Volcanoes National Park.

Annette, our intrepid trekker from Germany, was planning to set off again the next day for another gorilla trek – her 6th.   She said she had never been so close to the gorillas as she had on our trek, nor had she ever been on such a difficult trek.gorilla.30b

Finding the Kwitonaa family did take far longer than anticipated, but only Selma complained. It is very rare that guides do not find the gorillas. If that happens, trekkers are offered the chance to try again the next day. Prosper Uwengeli, the park’s chief warden, told a New York Times reporter that in more than 30 years, guides have never had to shoot a gorilla and no visitor has ever been harmed by one.

In a research report, Fossey wrote that mountain gorillas are “dignified, highly social, gentle giants with individual personalities and strong family relationships.” Like Fossey and countless others who have watched them in the wild, I am enamored of these gentle giants and, if it weren’t so costly, would gladly endure another trek for another visit.gorilla.b1

Gorilla visitors can show up at the park at 7 a.m. with hopes of buying a permit for a trek that day, but that is risky as permits may be sold out. Most tourists book a package tour which includes the gorilla trek. We booked a 3-day package with Africa Adventure Safaris, an African company which also organizes tours in Uganda. Total for both of us was $3,250 which included a full-time driver/guide, three nights lodging and most meals, the gorilla permits, a permit and trek to visit endangered golden monkeys the day after the gorillas, city tour of Kigali and airport transfers. We were more than satisfied. www.rwandagorillassafari.comgorilla.10b

Bad - very bad -- hair day

Bad – very bad — hair day

From Rwanda, BB and I traveled south for more Adventure Africa: Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Future posts will highlight our amazing experiences. But first, a bit more on Rwanda. Coming soon, “Rwanda — More than Gorillas.”

If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right) so you will not miss these exciting future posts. Your address is kept private and never shared.gorilla.6b

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CARS: The marvels of Mulhouse

Following is a shorter version of an article I wrote for the magazine German Life. I am not as enamored of cars as BB/VR, but I was enamored of this museum.car.8

On both the French autoroute and the German autobahn drivers whiz by the exit to Mulhouse, an Alsatian city in northeastern France.

Germany is next door to the east and Basel, Switzerland, just 30 auto minutes to the south. Why stop in Mulhouse which is an industrial hub?

Museums — that’s why. After Paris museums, the museums in Mulhouse are the most frequented in France. Here visitors come to admire cars and trains, not masterpieces from the art world. The car museum is to cars what the Louvre is to art, states the museum literature.

The Cite de l ‘Automobile or National Museum Schlumpf Collection is the largest automobile museum in the world with more than 400 shiny, spectacular vehicles on display, 125 of which are Bugattis.car.7

The prestigious automobile was an obsession of two brothers, Hans and Fritz Schlumpf, born in 1904 and 1906 respectively to a Swiss father and a mother who was from Mulhouse where they lived. Their story is as intriguing as the museum which houses their collection.

Mulhouse was a center of textile firms. Fritz initially worked as a wool broker while Hans worked for a bank.

They began buying shares in spinning mills, and then acquired various companies, including a textile factory in 1957. Fritz, who had a Bugatti, began buying vintage cars. Hans joined in and together over a 20 year period they amassed a secret collection of classy cars, including two of only six Bugatti Royales, the masterpieces of Ettore Bugatti.

Bugatti Royale

Bugatti Royale

Rumors circulated in the auto world about the mysterious collection. Some said the brothers were out to buy every Bugatti in the world with intentions of destroying them all to prevent them from ending up in the hands of the “wrong people.” A newspaper article in 1965 revealed the size of the hidden collection. The Schlumpfs were silent. They maintained the cars were for their personal purposes and of no business to others. However, they did take steps to prepare part of the collection for display.

In 1976 their world crashed. The textile industry in Mulhouse was dying. The Schlumpfs were broke. All their money had been spent on cars. Workers at the textile mill went on strike. They were infuriated at learning where much of the factory profits had been spent.

“I was earning 1400 francs a month, and now see where the rest of it went,” wrote an angry worker on the grill of a racing car.car.6

The brothers tried to sell the factory, but there were no buyers. It was closed in 1976.   Fritz and Hans fled to Switzerland and never returned to France, leaving behind the priceless car collection — 427 cars in mint condition including 122 Bugattis, and another 150 cars in workshops awaiting restoration.

Fritz Schlumpf had part of a factory warehouse refurbished where the cars were stored and which he had planned to open for exhibition. In 1977 trade unions occupied the warehouse, called it the “Workers Museum,” and opened it to the public.

The

The “whale,” Arzens 1938 convertible

The French government listed the collection as an historic monument in 1978. It was purchased by the National Motor Museum Owner’s Association in 1981, and opened as the National Motor Museum in 1982. Culturespaces, a private organization managing French monuments and museums, took over management of the collection in 1999.

The museum is vast, an area of four hectares. Audio guides are provided with plenty of detail on many of the 437 cars representing 97 different car manufacturers that are on display.

There are three main sections to visit: Motor Car Experience, Motor Racing and Motorcar Masterpieces. For a quick overview, hop on the museum “train,” which makes stops at some of the most noteworthy cars while the driver provides informative commentary. Then, wander at leisure.car.3

The piece de resistance is no doubt the Bugatti Royale which Ettore Bugatti designed for his mother in 1933. She loved luxury, hence velvet seats. She wanted to be able to see the stars at night, hence a glass roof and the first car to have a panoramic roof, according to the guide. The car is valued at 40 million euros.

Check out some bizarre cars, such as the Arzens convertible, a car from 1938 nicknamed the “whale,” due to its size, seven meters in length, and shape. The “tank,” a Bugatti race car from 1923, indeed looks as if it belongs on a battlefield, not a race track. Yet, it was clocked at 189 km per hour in the 1923 tours Grand Prix.

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The oldest car in the museum is a Jacquot from 1878 with a steam engine. It needed two hours to heat 40 liters of water so it could travel seven kilometers. The audio guide provides a surprising fact on the 1913 Peugeot Torpedo BB, 3,000 of which were produced, including one for a customer in China.

A long avenue lined with race cars, from a 1908 Panhard-Levassor two seater, to numerous Mercedes, Maseratis, Porsches, and Bugattis, gives a fascinating view of the changes in these speed machines over the years. Wind up the visit with the latest from Bugatti, the mind boggling 16.4 Veyron, displayed on a moving pedestal which slowly turns as spotlights highlight the beauty.

car.5 A large screen behind shows details and the car in action. It is the fastest car in the world with a top speed of 407 km per hour. Experts in the fields of aeronautics and astronautics have produced an incredible braking system. From a speed of 400 km per hour, the Veyron will come to a complete stop in just 10 seconds when the brakes are applied. It takes three weeks and eight technicians to make a Veyron, only one or two are made per week, and there are just 300 in existence.

You could spend an entire day admiring — and learning — about all these fascinating vehicles with a break at one of the museum’s lovely restaurants, including the gourmet, L’Atalante, for fine French cuisine.

But, don’t neglect trains. After a morning of cars and a tasty French lunch, we went on to the Cite du Train (French Railway Museum), another marvel of a museum in Mulhouse. Here you can see some 100 trains all displayed on 1,350 meters of track. And, here too, an audio guide provides background information and facts.

Museum entrance

Museum entrance

For more on the car museum, see www.citedelautomoible.com; for the train museum, www.citedutrain.com

A delightful and convenient place to stay in the city: Guest house Mondrian, www.maison-mondrian.fr

Alsatian cuisine and ambiance: Auberge au Vieux Mulhouse, Place de la Reunion, Tel. (00) (33) 3 89 45 84 18

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Les Rosiers: Summer 2015

blog.lesrosiers

In a word, it was HOT. Week after week of temperatures in the upper 90s (Fahrenheit), even reaching 100 and above a few times. My roses, geraniums and petunias had to be watered continually. The grass (what little we have) turned brown. The pool water has never been so warm – too warm for me, but finally warm enough for delicate BB/VR* who was brave enough to jump in. This was only the fifth time he has been in the pool in the 10 years we have lived here. (Thanks to my dear mother who insisted my brothers and I all learn to swim at an early age, I am  a swimmer and love the water.  BB was not so lucky.)blog.pool2

Fall arrived too soon and too abruptly – for me… One will never be content.

Despite the heat, we enjoyed some fun activities and the wonderful folks who rented our guest apartment at Les Rosiers.

Klaus and Eva

Klaus and Eva

The season kicked off with the arrival of Klaus from Austria, his car loaded with Austrian delicacies and beer. He always brings us a generous gift of goodies, too. This was the fifth season that Klaus and his wife Eva have spent a month in our rental studio. She is still working as a legal secretary in Graz, arrives a week later by plane and only spends two weeks here. Klaus likes to cook and grill – lamb is his favorite. They know the area well, take long walks, swim, and visit friends and flea markets.  They have become friends, and it’s always a delight to have them here.

Patrick, Chantal and their bikes

Patrick, Chantal and their bikes

Then came the Belgians, Patrick and Chantal, with two motorcycles and two bicycles towed behind their car. We were amazed. Due to the heat, they spent most of their time on the motorcycles. One of the bicycles was electric, but since the terrain here is anything but flat, they preferred their motorcycles. They took long excursions, almost every day during their two-week sojourn.

Chantal said they have been vacationing in southern France every summer, but always camping. They especially enjoyed the tranquility at Les Rosiers. Camp sites can be very noisy, she said. And, they loved our town, Reillanne.

Sunday market in Reillanne

Sunday market in Reillanne

“It’s an authentic village, not a Disney village like so many in the Luberon,” said Patrick. “There are not that many tourists, not that much traffic.” They like to visit the village cafes and talk to the locals. And, they especially liked the Bar restaurant de la Place where they dined many times.

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Czech cyclists: Lara, Katarina, Luka and Jakub

More bicycles next – a Czech family of four with five bikes. Jakub and Katarina and children Lara, 9, and Luka, 5, were back for the second time. We were overwhelmed with their bicycle prowess two years ago when they set out day after day, all day on bikes, albeit Katarina towing Luka in a carriage and Lara’s bike sometimes attached to her father’s bike. Lara now rides on her own, and Luka rides the bike that can be attached to Jakub’s . We rode with them one day – lots of fun.

Jakub and Luka

 Luka behind Daddy Jakub

They arrived a day late after participating in an orientation competition in the Jura where Jakub took first place in one category. Here he conquered Mont Ventoux for the fifth time. That was the reason for five bikes – a super bike for the challenging climb.

“We always like to come back to Provence, the terrain, the living historic villages that are not just for tourists,” said Jakub.   We were happy to have them back.

The hardy cyclists enjoyed the pool after those rides in the blazing Provence sun.

The hardy cyclists enjoyed the pool after those rides in the blazing Provence sun.

Wine was the focus for Patricia and Serge, visitors who come from Brittany. They traveled far and wide to buy Provence wine, driving 1,700 kilometers in the region, visiting six wineries and ending up with 14 cases of wine to take home.

Serge and Patricia

Serge and Patricia

Each evening when they returned from a buying trek they shared their adventures and raved about places they visited – some we had not known about.   Serge says they always buy the wine of the regions they visit. They live in an area of vineyards near the Loire where he helps harvest the grapes.

Serge's bounty

Serge’s Provence souvenirs

They presented us with a bottle of Grand Reserve Muscadet Sevre et Maine sur Lie which we tasted when they invited us to a super fish dinner Patricia prepared. She served the fish with beurre blanc, a well known sauce for fish in Brittany. She shared her recipe which I have tried to master. Mine could not hold a candle to hers, but I will keep trying. When I am successful, we will open the precious bottle of Muscadet.

Niki from Athens

Niki came to visit from Athens.  We met on a student ship 50 years ago!.

We visited the US this summer (see previous post, “USA: Summer 2015,” July14) and the Mediterranean coast (previous post: “Cannes: Far from the Madding crowd,” Aug. 20).

We recently went back to the coast for a gala evening at the Hotel Belles Rives in Juan les Pins/Antibes. Our Finnish friends, Terttu and Mikko, have a rental apartment which they generously offered us. In addition to dining and dancing, I swam in the Med which sure beats a pool, and we took a short but scenic hike around Cap d’Antibes.

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La Dolce vita.

The Med at Juan les Pins

The Med at Juan les Pins

We are not sorry the heat has subsided, but sorry that summer is over.  The days are getting too short.  Some restaurants will soon close for the season.  No more concerts and village festivals.  Winter can be bleak here, and it’s  a long wait for spring.

Photos of other summer activities follow.

BB/VR and Filippo chill out poolside.

BB/VR* and Filippo chill out poolside.

*Bicycle Bob/Vino Roberto

Lake Vannades near Manosque where I enjoyed a real swim

Lake Vanades near Manosque where I enjoyed a real swim

 A Bastille Day Mechoui-- lamb grilled on an open fire.


A Bastille Day Mechoui– lamb grilled on an open fire.

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The Med at Cap d'Antibes

The Med at Cap d’Antibes

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The lavender must like the heat. The color was especially vibrant this summer.

The lavender must like the heat. The color was especially vibrant this summer.

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Champion swimmers, Koa and Nai'a, friend Lynne's Irish water spaniels. We swim together at Lake Ste. Croix

Champion swimmers, Koa and Nai’a, friend Lynne’s Irish water spaniels. We swim together at Lake Ste. Croix

Wunderschön Times in Germany

The previous post, Humanity is Lost, was my attempt to reblog a post of a bloger I follow.  If you click on the title, you should be able to open and read the post. 

Along the Moselle

Along the Moselle

201 kilometers of pedaling in four days. Certainly nothing to brag about. But, we are no longer young and it’s been a few years since we have done any serious cycling. We were also biking with our panniers – worth a few extra Brownie points. The cycling was mainly on flat terrain following bike routes along the Saar and Moselle rivers in Germany: pleasant, easy, scenic.

We made it -- back to the car in Merzig where it all began.

We made it — back to the car in Merzig where it all began.

The bike excursion was a highlight of our spring trip back to Germany where we lived for many, many years before moving to France. We love going back, seeing friends, drinking the world’s best beer, enjoying our favorite German foods — and discovering more of Germany. Wines in Baden, hikes in the Black Forest, sights in Saarbrücken– add all that to bicycling and it makes for a wunderschön  (wonderful) trip.

It wouldn't be Germany without a bit of rain.

It wouldn’t be Germany without a bit of rain.

Google led me to a blog post,”A Bicycle Ride along the Saar and Moselle Rivers.” Perfect for us, I decided. We cut short the part on the Saar, pedaling only from the town of Merzig to Konz where we picked up the Moselle Bike Route and followed it to Bullay.

A break from the bikes to enjoy the scenery.

A break from the bikes to enjoy the scenery.

The Saar section was serene, sublime. Few people. Few major towns. Trees, the river and vineyards. We stopped to chat with a couple from northern Germany who were taking a break from the bikes and lounging in the grass. “We’ve never be to Saarland. It’s beautiful and not so touristic,” she said.

Trier: Porta Nigra

Trier: Porta Nigra

Along the Moselle we pedaled past lots more vineyards, through more towns, and encountered more cyclists. We felt we needed to see the major sight in Trier, the Porta Nigra, but biking through the congested city was not pleasant. However, tasting wine in the town of Graach where Mythos Mosel, a Riesling wine tasting event was underway, was very pleasant.

BB/VR gets a taste of Moselle wine.

BB/VR gets a taste of Moselle wine.

Be it in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France—wherever, biking along marked cycle routes is usually a joy. For the most part you encounter few cars. Unfortunately this was not entirely the case for us this ride. As navigator, I am to blame.

Instead of carefully consulting the bikeline guidebook when leaving one town, I chose the wrong side of the river for our ride. We were on a bike path, but not the right one. The trail deteriorated, leading us onto a muddy track bordered by thick vegetation. No way to ride this, so we pushed the bikes through the swamp. The worst was not over. We followed the path out of the mud and up a hill, only to be faced with a busy major and narrow highway. Cars sped by much too close for comfort. Add to that: rain.

Postcard villages surrounded by vineyards abound on the Mosaelle.

Postcard villages surrounded by vineyards abound on the Moselle.

I don’t frighten easily, but this was very scary. I feared we may have missed the one bridge that would lead us to the other side and the correct bike route. I used all my energy to pedal as fast as I could, hoping we would find the bridge before being crushed by a car.

We survived and were relieved to arrive in Trittenheim and find the welcoming home of Marlene Bollig, a guest house where we had booked a room. I told her about our adventure. “No one rides on that side of the river,” she said. “Well now you have an adventure to write about. “ One adventure I could have done without.

Hikers learn about wild herbs

Hikers learn about wild herbs.

Our adventure in the Black Forest was problem free, fun and interesting. We joined a guided group hike, Wild herbs: Multitalent. “My passion is to delve into nature and gather herbs. I learned from my grandmother,” guide Heidi announced. The trek was easy with numerous stops where she plucked a plant or flower, then explained its use in the kitchen and its nutritional, as well as medicinal, value.

Butter mixed with wild herbs-- delicious on bread.

Butter mixed with wild herbs– delicious on bread.

The forests and fields are indeed rich in edible treasure, but don’t try to eat all.   “No, you can’t eat that,” she announced as one of the group pointed to some lovely yellow flowers. “Not even cows will eat that. The stomach won’t tolerate it.” She treated us to a wild herb snack which our stomachs tolerated with pleasure, bread smeared with tasty herb butter made from plants of the forest.

We followed guide Rolf Wein on another hike, uphill to the Genuss Platz (Pleasure Place), a scenic spot with benches he and friends had made long ago. His treat, wild plum schnapps which he had made.

Rolf Wein led us to his favorite spot in the Black Forest.

Rolf Wein led us to his favorite spot in the Black Forest.

“This is my home,” Rolf said as he looked below to the town Baiersbronn surrounded by forests. “I enjoy outings with guests, to show it off. It is wunderschön here in the black Forest. I would never move away.”

Baiersbronn is a wunderschön town, especially for foodies. Its restaurants have a total of eight Michelin stars, quite amazing for a town of 14,500. I had the privilege of interviewing three-star chef Claus-Peter Lumpp at the Hotel Bareiss, one of the town’s five-star hotels.

3* Chef Claus-Peter Lumpp in his kitchen

3* Chef Claus-Peter Lumpp in his kitchen.

“It’s hard work,” he said of his profession, but “good.”   “There is nothing better than to see happy people when they are satisfied. Guests are the most important for me.”

Zwiebel Rostbraten with Spaetzle -- also wunderschoen.

Zwiebel Rostbraten with Spaetzle — very wunderschoen.

Dining at the three star restaurant was beyond our budget, but we enjoyed the tastes of Germany at the hotel’s gemütlich Dorfstuben where I indulged in my all-time German favorite: Zwiebel Rostbraten (Onion Beef). During our travels we savored other German favorites, such as Sauerbraten, Bratwurst, Sauerkraut and red cabbage.

Sauerbraten, Rotkohl and Bratkartoffeln (Sauerbraten with red cabbage and fried potatoes). Makes me hungry.

Sauerbraten, Rotkohl and Bratkartoffeln (Sauerbraten with red cabbage and fried potatoes). Makes me hungry.

And, German wines. Although the Moselle is a noted German wine region, except for our one tasting along the bike route, we had no time for serious wine discovery there. We made up for it in Baden, part of the state of Baden-Wurttemberg in southwestern Germany. The Black Forest is part of this state. The Baden section borders both France and Switzerland and is Germany’s warmest and sunniest region. Baden produces more red than white wine, which is rare for Germany, a country known best for its white wines, especially Riesling.

Vineyards in Baden.

Vineyards in Baden.

Bicycle Bob (BB) is known more as VR (Vino Roberto) these days since his passion for wine now exceeds his love of his bicycle. We not only tasted our way through many Baden wineries, VR bought a supply, too.

With Heti and Heinz.

With Heti and Heinz.

Our friend Heinz gave us a delicious souvenir to take home – six bottles of his favorite Baden white, Oberrotweiler Grauer Burgunder.  Heinz and Heti live in Sindelfinen adjacent to Stuttgart, not far from where we used to live. We stayed at their beautiful home and had the chance to reunite with many of our friends from those days at a fun evening, a pot luck dinner they arranged.  Danke Heti and Heinz.  Alles wunderschön.

We'd never been to Saarbruecken. It's worth a visit. Ludwig's, Church is a Baroque masterpiece.

We’d never been to Saarbruecken. It’s worth a visit. Ludwig’s Church is a Baroque masterpiece.

TRAVEL TIPS

Bicycling in Saarland: www.radfahren.saarland.de

The Moselle: www.mosellandtouristik.de

Baiersbronn: www.baiersbronn.de

Hotel Bareiss: www.bareiss.com

Viller0y & Boch, http://www.villeroy-boch.com

Wine fests abound in Baden, for more on Baden wine and a list of wines fests dates and places: www.badischerwein.de

Don’t miss Today’s Taste in column at right: ASIAN CHICKEN SALAD, tangy and terrific

Villeroy & Boch makes its home in Mettlach in the Saarland. A visit to its ceramics museum -- and outlet store -- is enticing.

Villeroy & Boch makes its home in Mettlach in the Saarland. A visit to its ceramics museum — and outlet store — is enticing.

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Visit to my angel cat savior Sigrid Ruckaberle and house where

Visit to my angel cat savior Sigrid Ruckaberle and house where “the maternal great grandfather of the fifth generation of Barack Obama” was born in 1729. Her hometown. Besigheim, is proud.

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Saarschleife, a bend in the Saar River near Mettlach.

Saarschleife, a bend in the Saar River near Mettlach.

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Cannes: Far from the Madding crowd

The crowds are fierce in this Riviera hot spot in August. And, of course during its famous film festival when the world focuses on all the stars who pose on the red carpet at the Palais des Festivals.

View from the ferry

Cannes viewed  from the ferry

But, you can escape the masses and find tranquility amidst Mediterranean splendor just a short boat ride (20 minutes) away. We visited Cannes again this year to watch outstanding fireworks which are part of an international competition held every summer in Cannes. Fireworks are shot from numerous boats in the harbor and synchronized to music. Worth a trip!

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So too is a visit to the off shore islands (Îsles de Lérins): Île Sainte Marquerite and Île Saint Honorat. Last summer we hiked around Ste. Marquerite, the larger island, and savored an excellent lunch on the shore. This time, Saint Honorat, the monks’ island.cannes,14

Splendid. The tiny island has no cars, no hotels, just one restaurant, two shops –and monks. In 410 AD, Honoratus, a Roman noble who became saintly and sought isolation, is said to have chosen the island, then full of snakes and scorpions and thought to be haunted, as an ideal retreat. Visitors followed. A monastic order was established.

11th century fortress was connected to the original abbey by a tunnel.

11th century fortress was connected to the original abbey by a tunnel.

The monastery grew to become one of the most powerful in Christendom. Alas, peace and quiet did not last. Raids by Saracens and pirates in the 8th century took their toll, then later attacks by Spaniards. The monastery was closed in 1788, but reborn in 1859 when Cistercians took it over.

Today 20 monks live on Saint Honorat. In addition to praying, they cultivate grapes, eight hectares of vineyards, five for red wine, and three for white.

The monks' grapes were looking good.,

Monastery grapes are looking good.

We followed the mostly shaded trail along the island’s craggy coastline, past rocky coves, ancient chapel ruins, an 11th century fortress and cannonball ovens. These curious structures were used in the 18th century to heat cannonballs so they would wreck further destruction on the ships they hit.

VR inspects a cannonball oven.

VR inspects a cannonball oven.

Signs along the way remind you to keep quiet and to respect the religious ambience – no bare chests. Mediterranean vegetation – pines, herbs, eucalyptus – borders the trail and makes for interesting photos. Other paths lead through the island interior, past the vineyards.

Monks have been living here for 16th centuries. REspect

Respect the monks and their silence.  Be decently attired.  T-shirts and shorts obligatory.

It is truly another world: beautiful, peaceful and quiet. It was hard to fathom that those noisy masses on La Croisette, Cannes renowned boulevard, were not far away.cannes.5

We stopped to visit the current abbey church and the shop which sold mainly wine. According to a brochure on the island wine, it is “full of spirituality.” All the vintages are named after saints, but you will pay dearly for spiritual wine.   The cheapest we found was 26 euro, but most were far more expensive.

No wine bargains here.

No wine bargains here.

At La Tonnelle , the island restaurant, we each ordered a glass of the monk’s brew to accompany our lunch. A glass of Sainte Cesaire (Chardonnay) for me at 8 euro; a glass of Saint Honorat (Syrah) for VR at 11.80 euro. I found my wine too oaky and too Chardonnay. Vino Roberto’s was good, very robust. To take a bottle home: 33 euro. VR reasoned he could buy several good bottles back in the Luberon for that amount.canes.15

The lunch (we each ordered fish) was delicious.   People watching at this seaside eatery also gets high marks. Pleasure boats cast anchor off shore. A tender ferries passengers to the restaurant, a constant parade of the yachting crowd.cannes.8

Travel Tips:

Trip Advisor led me to the Hotel l’Olivier in Cannes, a small, family-run (22 rooms) hotel on a hillside overlooking the Med.   Our room was tiny, but our terrace with a superb view was perfect. The hotel personnel were all very warm, welcoming and helpful. It was a bit of a walk to the town center, but good exercise. The hotel has a small pool, flowered terrace for al fresco breakfast, and it’s quiet – a great escape from the chaos of La Croisette. A beach is also nearby. http://www.hotelolivier.com

Beach near the hotel

Beach near the hotel

Another Trip Advisor find, the Bistrot Saint-Sauveur in Le Cannet, a town above Cannes, where we had an excellent lunch. www.bistrotsaintsauveur.fr

La Tonnelle, restaurant on the island, www.tonnelle-abbayedelerins.com

A leisurely saunter around the island takes about 1 ½ hours. Boats to both islands run about every hour during summer months. Round-trip ticket to Saint Honorat, 14 euro (price for seniors). More information www.cannes-ilesdelerins.com

Island olive tree

Island olive tree

Don’t miss Today’s Taste in column at right: DILLY POTATO SALAD, my favorite potato salad.

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Tiny Aix – a French Island Paradise

This was my favorite of the recent visit to France’s mid-Atlantic coast. See previous post, “Discovering more of France,” June 2015. aix.blog7

Islands are intriguing. These chunks of land surrounded by water are a curiosity, and much more. They inspire and captivate our imagination, offering a unique way of life, a different state of mind.aix.blog11

The miniscule French island of Aix off the country’s mid-Atlantic coast is indeed an island pearl. Step off the ferry from the mainland and enter an enchanted world – no cars, little commerce, just one hotel. Aix has not been gussied up for tourists. It’s authentic with many buildings in need of a coat of paint. Its few shops seem to have changed little in decades. There are no fancy restaurants, no classy cafes – just a small number of simple eateries.aix.blog8

About 240 residents live on the island which is 1.8 miles long and .4 miles wide.   Of the permanent inhabitants, only 100 remain on the island in winter. In summer, between 4,000 and 5,000 tourists arrive each day to bike, walk, swim, fish and soak in the beguiling island ambience. Most leave in the evening. The nights are silent, magic.

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“I come here every chance I get. It’s a little paradise,” said Christine Lacaud who lives in Rochefort, a city in the Poitou-Charentes region adjacent to the ferry departure point in Fouras.

Island resident and historian Pierre Antoine Berniard sums it up: “When you take the boat and arrive here, there’s something different… Kids can play everywhere. There are no cars to hurt them. It’s really a privilege.”aix.blog4

I spent a night at Aix’s Hotel Napoleon, a charming abode with just 18 rooms and an excellent restaurant, Chez Josephine. Our group had come to admire the replica of the frigate Hermione anchored off shore before its April departure for an amazing journey to the U.S., duplicating a voyage of 235 years ago. During that epic voyage, the ship ferried Marquis de Lafayette across the Atlantic to help General George Washington and the rebels in the fight for American independence. (See previous post, “Hail Hermione,” May 2015)

Aix harbor decorated for the departure of the frigate Hermione to the US.

Aix harbor decorated for the departure of the frigate Hermione to the US.

The magnificent ship was just one attraction. We also biked. You can walk around the island in two to three hours, or take a leisurely horse-drawn carriage ride, but discovering Aix by bike seems to be the most popular. There are several bike rental depots. Ride through lush forests, marshlands, along a rocky coast, past pristine beaches and hidden coves. It’s tranquil, peaceful — and flat. Pedaling is fun and easy.

Plenty of bikes for rent on Aix

Plenty of bikes for rent on Aix

Stop for an oyster break. Aix’s one weather-beaten oyster shack should be on a movie set – the perfect oyster shack stereotype. Oysters are shucked on the spot. Order a bottle of white wine; sit outside surrounded by stacks of oyster-growing paraphernalia, bikes and the sea. Oysters have never tasted better.

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Aix’s deputy mayor, Jean Claude Poisson, told me the island doctor, who lives there year round, does big business in summer thanks to oysters. Tourists comb the shore looking for the mollusks and cut their feet on the razor sharp rocks. The doctor is kept busy stitching wounded feet.

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A wealthy American, Eva Gebhard Gourgaud, gets credit for Aix’s revival in the 1920s. The island, initially settled by monks in the Middle Ages, played an important role in France’s military history throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. During the Napoleonic period, several thousand troops were lodged in forts and barracks on the island. Napoleon even requested reinforcements of Aix’s fortifications after an island visit in 1808.

Carriage rides are popular

Carriage rides are popular

But by the beginning of the 20th century, the military presence was on the decline. The island was dying. A French journalist wrote a report on the island’s imminent demise. Eva, wife of Baron Napoleon Gourgaud who was a descendant of Napoleon’s aide, read the article, visited, and fell in love with Aix. ”She decided to buy everything.” Berniard said. She opened the island to culture and aix.blog6tourism.

A tourist favorite is the house where Napoleon surrendered to the English in 1815, and where he spent his last three days on French soil before being exiled to St. Helena in the South Atlantic. This year marks 200 years since Napoleon returned to France after nine months of exile on the island of Elba.

The house, which has displays on the Napoleonic era, is open to visitors, as is Aix’s Mother of Pearl House where proprietor Herve Gallet will tell you the fascinating story about the island and mother of pearl.aix.blog9

His parents moved to Aix in 1948, hoping to grow grape vines and sell wine. That failed, so they started making objects of shells collected on the beach to sell to tourists. That enterprise took off, and they expanded to make products of mother of pearl. “There are 148,000 varieties of sea shells,” Gallet said, “but only 16 can be used for mother of pearl.” Mother of pearl was imported from India, Mexico, Polynesia and other countries, since shells from Aix are not suitable.

Mother of pearl in the making

Mother of pearl in the making

Between 1720 and 1980, mother of pearl was a major industry in France, Gallet explained, with some 30,000 workers in the country producing buttons. On Aix, however, mother of pearl was used to make souvenirs and decorative items, not buttons. These are still made by Gallet. In his workshop he demonstrates the process of extracting and polishing mother of pearl from shells. His Mother of Pearl house is a type of museum where an audio guide and videos explain the biology and chemistry of sea shells. His shop offers an extensive range of mother of pearl products, from reasonably priced jewelry items to a mirror with a price tag of 1,750 euros.   I bought two pairs of earrings — a pearl souvenir from a pearl of an island.

Hotel Napoleon, http://www.hotel-ile-aix.com

Les Paillotes, island restaurant, http://www.restaurantlespaillotes.fr

In addition to the Hotel Napoleon, Aix offers numerous bed and breakfast accommodations. www.Iledaix.fr

More on Aix: www.iledaix.fr/?lang=en

The Ile de Ré and Ile d’Oléron are two other, much larger French islands off the country’s west coast. Both also offer beaches, biking, hiking, boating, fishing – plus more hotels. http://www.holidays-iledere.co.uk/and oleron-island.com

Try my aioli — the recipe featured in Today’s Taste in column at right.

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U.S.A. – Summer 2015

blog.32Chicago is definitely my kind of town. My visit to this dynamic city where I studied and worked for several years long ago was, for me, a highlight of our recent U.S. voyage. Husband Bob (Bicycle Bob/Vino Roberto) and I also enjoyed visits with friends and family in Virginia and New York City, attended a reunion in Maryland, shopped, ate good food — and had a grand time.

Bev in her garden.

Bev in her garden.

A former college roommate, Beverly, was my guide extraordinaire in the Windy City. Bev and I, both French majors, roomed together in the French corridor of a dorm in our senior year at Northwestern University in Evanston just north of the city. We were supposed to speak only French. (I think we broke that rule.) Bev went on to get a PhD in French, taught at Yale, but eventually moved back to Chicago. She lives in Lincoln Park, not far from where I lived when I worked in the city, and now works part time as a Chicago guide, giving tours in French. She knows – and loves – the city, and gave me an outstanding tour – in English.

So much has changed, and it’s all overwhelming, fabulous. Chicago, the third largest city in the U.S., has always been known for its bold architecture. The first skyscraper was erected in the city in 1885. Today its sky is the background for a blog.22myriad of innovative and beautiful tall buildings, including the Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower and the second tallest building in the U.S. With 105 buildings at least 500 feet (152 m) tall, Chicago is said to have the tallest skyline in the country and the third-tallest in the world. A great way to see these buildings, and learn more about the city’s architectural history, is the architecture tour by boat on the Chicago River.   As our boat wended its way past one magnificent building after another, Bev’s friend and exuberant guide Judith provided fascinating commentary.

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Bev drove me through Hyde Park and parts of south Chicago, regions of the city I had never explored. I wanted to take a photo of Obama’s house, but there is not much to see. It is hidden behind lots of trees and bushes, and there are security barricades all around, as well as guards. We stopped at Frank Lloyd blog.robieWright’s Robie House, built in his Prairie style between 1908 and 1910 and now a National Historic Landmark. We stopped at another National Historic Landmark, a Henry Moore sculpture on the University of Chicago campus marking the site of the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction on Dec. 2, 1942.blog.moore

That’s what brought Bev’s late father, Ralph Livingston, a post-doc in physical chemistry, to Chicago. I asked Bev for the details.  “The code name for the research effort of what would become the Manhattan Project was the Metallurgical Laboratory (“MetLab”) and that’s where my dad worked doing experiments on radium, uranium, etc. He was in the “loop” in that he knew that they were working on an atomic bomb; many working on the Manhattan Project did not know the true nature of this “war effort.”

“In July 1945 when the first atomic test blast took place in Nevada, a number of scientists signed a petition addressed to President Truman, NOT to use it on a civilian population.  I have a copy of this petition which has my dad’s signature. Hiroshima was bombed on Aug. 6, 1945; Nagasaki on Aug. 9.”

This explains Bev’s ties to Hyde Park, where she was born, and the University of Chicago, where she did her graduate studies.

Northwestern campus with more construction underway.

Northwestern campus with more construction underway.

She led me on another excursion to the site of our undergraduate studies — Evanston and the Northwestern campus. Progress there is also monumental, with many new buildings, many built on land that was once Lake Michigan. The campus can only expand in the direction of the lake, so more of the lake has been filled to provide needed terrain. We walked by many old buildings which brought back many memories. We found the dorm where we originally met long, long ago.

Millennium Park, a park in the city center like no other city park, is my Chicago favorite, a showcase for state of the art architecture, lush landscaping and outdoor art. It’s fun with some surprising and amazing sights. Cloud Gate,

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commonly known as “The Bean,” is an elliptical sculpture which reflects the skyline and intrigues visitors who walk underneath and all around to take photos, often reflections of themselves.blog.31 Crown Fountain is another winner. Spanish artist Jaume Plensa is the genius behind two 50-foot glass block towers at opposite ends of a reflecting pool. Gigantic faces of Chicago citizens are projected on LED screens on the towers, changing continually, with water flowing from open mouths. You can be mesmerized for hours.

BB bridge leading to the Jay Pritzer Pavilion, right corner.

BB bridge leading to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, right corner.

We walked up the BB Bridge in the park to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a venue for outdoor concerts, both cutting edge architecture designed by Frank Gehry. We had hoped to take in a free concert, but rain drove us away after the first selection. Another day we walked a section of The 606, an elevated trail for hikers and bikers similar to New York’s High Line. It was built on a section of the Bloomingdale rail line no longer in use.blog.21

When I lived in Chicago, I loved the Art Institute, the second-largest art museum in the United States after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It has expanded, with a new wing designed by Renzo Piano. I did not have time to visit, a reason for a return to Chicago.

Time to join BB/VR in Winchester, Virginia, where he was visiting his son Rob and grandsons Samuel and Lang. I left Bev’s townhouse at 11 a.m. and did not arrive at Dulles Airport outside of Washington, D.C., until 11:30 p.m. that night. I was traveling by air – not car – although a car may have been faster. I spent most of the day in airports or in a plane that never took off. Delays due to bad weather and mechanical problems, I was told. Give me the TGV (France’s fast train) any day!

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Sam, BB and Lang

In Virginia we took the boys on a delightful but short hike in the Virginia State Arboretum, following a trail bordered by grandiose trees. We encountered few others in this peaceful wonderland of nature. It’s another place that merits a return visit.

Campfire at the reunion featuring a guitar player and Somemores

Campfire at the reunion featuring a guitar player and S’mores (roasted gooey marshmallows sandwiched with chocolate between graham crackers– an old Girl Scout favorite.)

Next stop Adamstown, Maryland, where my Peace Corps training group, Brazil 1966-68, was holding a reunion at a camp and retreat center.   Rob and the boys joined us and, when the rain stopped, had fun in the pool. I met old friends, attended some interesting lectures and presentations, including one on the Peace Corps today which, like Brazil, is not the way we knew it 49 years ago.

Mark and moi.

Mark and moi.

En route to the reunion, we made a detour to La Vale, Maryland, the home of German Life, a magazine I write for.   At long last I was able to meet the editor, Mark, in flesh.   Ours has been an email and occasional phone call relationship for at least 12 years. Mark went overboard and treated us all to lunch for making the trip. Thank you, Mark.

Marian on right.

Marian on right.

I left the reunion site for a lunch break to reunite with a high school friend, Marian, who divides her time between residences in Bethesda and Annapolis, Maryland. She filled me in on news of other classmates.

Visits to New York City

Kellie

Kellie

are always superb. There we have the good fortune to stay in step-daughter Kellie’s beautiful apartment in Soho. Kellie had a dinner party one evening so we could meet some of her friends, and see BB’s nephew Joe and his wife Hsinn,

The 9/11 Memorial was a must on our New York agenda. Names of the 2,977 victims of this horrific tragedy are emblazoned on bronze plates attached to parapets of the walls that surround two rectangular pools, one for each tower destroyed in the attack. It is a beautiful, but chilling monument. Looming above the memorial is the new One World Trade Center (Freedom Tower), the tallest building in the U.S. We passed on a visit to the Memorial Museum as the entrance waiting lines were very long.

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No lines at the new Whitney Museum of American Art, an interesting structure with intriguing outdoor spaces, and amazing art. I conquered the subways and went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So much to see, and all terrific. Must go back there, too.

Rooftop terrace at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Rooftop terrace at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

We joined Kellie and a friend for Shakespeare in the Park (Central Park) and a performance of The Tempest. I met Michaela from  Switzerland Tourism for lunch. Thanks to Michaela, I have been on many wonderful press trips to Switzerland.

A closing word on food in the U.S. We have often complained about the high costs of almost everything in France. No more. The dollar’s recent surge has, of course, made things cheaper for us here. We were shocked at some U.S. prices: $14 and up for a glass of wine in NYC; $10 for 2 cups of coffee. Restaurant prices vary, of course, but eating definitely seems cheaper on this side of the Atlantic. In the U.S., a restaurant bill is just the beginning. You need to figure another 20 percent for tip, then a percentage for tax. On the positive side, we found some clothing bargains, and BB came home with a new toy, a MACbook.

A wonderful trip, great to see family and old friends, but it’s good to be home. We just wish this heat wave would end.

For more photos of my U.S. trip, keep scrolling down.

For a super architecture tour of Chicago by boat: Chicago Cruise Line.

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Gardens in Millennium Park.

Gardens in Millennium Park.

No comment.

No comment.

BB, Lang, Sam and Rob enjoy pool at reunion site.

BB, Sam, Lang and Rob enjoy pool at reunion site.

“Through the Looking Glass” at Metropolitan Museum of Art

Kellie's dinner party

Kellie’s dinner party

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Under The Bean.

Under The Bean.

Along the Chicago River

Along the Chicago River

More Chicago

More Chicago

Climb a wall in Millennium Park.

Climb a wall in  Maggie Daley park next to Millennium Park.

Boat harbor on Lake Michigan

Boat harbor on Lake Michigan

Whitney Museum of American Art

Whitney Museum of American Art