Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Catching Up

Looking to the Rose Room from inside the Blue Room at Maison Conti

We've been home in France for a month, but my blog posts have still been dwelling on our fabulous vacation in Slovenia and Austria. It's time to play catch up. This week I post a whole month's worth of photos so that I can get my life and blog synchronized again! I have so much to share. September has been glorious, social and adventurous. I'll try to keep the writing to a minimum since I'm posting such a profusion of images.


A couple we knew from California came to stay with us for two nights early in the month. Ray and Mary are quite brave and daring. They rented a camper to travel around France. They don't know the language, and this was their first visit. Rick and I were impressed! Luckily they have that "can-do" attitude and all along their route we got reports of their adventures via email.

The night after their departure we were happy to welcome Wolfgang and his family, our friends from Germany, who stop by Maison Conti on their way home from their yearly vacation in Brittany. They came loaded with the freshest fish possible (some of them were still alive when we unwrapped them) of various varieties, oysters, prawns, dorade and sole. We had a feast together on the terrace.


Our good friends Cass and Billy also came to stay for several days. We had a very lovely time with them. Back home we saw them socially every week. Rick worked with Billy and I worked with Cass. They are one of the reasons we miss California sometimes. The last time they visited was three years ago, so we had lots of catching up.

We took the opportunity to go on a few adventures with them. The weather was perfect. We took them to Lavardin, a beautiful little town on the Loir, south of us but north the the more popular Loire Valley. Lavardin is classified as one of the most beautiful villages of France. It's castle, now in ruins, was built in the 11th century.

The town itself is nestled at the side of a forested hill with the lazy Loir River flowing through the middle of it.

We had never before gone into the church of Saint-Genest. It is an extraordinary building! It was built in the 1000s and was on the Pilgrimage route. The paintings that decorate the walls and ceilings are from the very early part of the Middle Ages. So charming!

We went across the river to visit the troglodyte city of Trôo. This is a city built on a steep hillside. Almost all the residences and shops are built into the cliff faces or in caves.

Rick and Cass scaled to the highest point to take a panorama shot. On the way up Rick snapped this photo of Billy and me talking. I have to say, I really do enjoy a good conversation with Billy!

Atop the hill, there was a breathtaking view of the valley below, with the river running between the treelines.

We took our friends to the château of Chaumont-sur-Loire to visit the yearly garden expositions. A year ago, I reported on this interesting garden competition that invites 25 world-renowned landscape architects to respond to a theme and create a garden space. The results are open to the public between June and October. This year's theme was Garden's of the Future, Happy Biodiversity. Unfortunately the theme seemed to have been a bit too cerebral and some of the designs were heavy on concept but light on actual design or beauty.

Still, it's always a treat to spend a few hours at this site, with its expansive views over the Loire River.


Quinn began school this year. He is attending a wonderful bilingual private school located next to Les Buttes Chaumont, one of the most beautiful parks in Paris. It's about a half hour walk from Emily's house to the school. Quinn arrives at 8:45 in the morning and stays until 4:30. He has lunch and a nap there. The classroom is just beautiful and it is all organized wonderfully. I went to pick him up one afternoon and he was so proud to show me his place at the table and some of the things he plays with during the day.

Outside the classroom is a huge pedestrian-only terrace. Rick and I spent a few days in Paris with Quinn while his parents were both working out of town.

We enjoyed our stroll to and from school every day, walking through the park, which was built by order of Napoleon III in 1864. It was a mammoth undertaking, as it is built on the site of an old stone quarry. It took seven years and 200,000 cubic meters of earth to create this large recreational space, made for this historically working class neighborhood.

 What a perfect time of the year, with the trees just beginning to turn.

Wednesday Quinn does not go to school so we had a whole day of adventures with him. We started by going to the Grand Palais to see a show of antique games and toys.

I can't resist posting several photos of this exposition. Quinn and I were both utterly enchanted by the displays.

After a nice restaurant lunch, where Quinn was a pleasure to be with, we decided to take a cruise down the canals of Paris. What a great idea!

We started out in a huge underground tunnel that was impossible to photograph. I could picture Jean Valjean here.  We passed through several double locks. The boat was lifted 8 feet in a matter of minutes, as the water flowed into the lock.

All along the river are beautiful steel bridges over looking the canal. People watched as we floated under. The ride took a little more than 2 hours from central Paris to the Parc de la Villette, very close to Emily's house.


Our friend David, who has a home in Brittany was in residence this month. We carved out a few days to go visit with him. He took us on a tour of his part of the coast. The day was exceptional. We visited the Vannes market in the morning, with lots of people passing through the old gates of the town with their baskets and shopping bags in hand.

Our aim was more to enjoy the old city and its charming architecture. David is an architect in California. I particularly enjoy the old wooden carved and painted figures

There are plenty of half-timbered houses. This one seemed slightly inebriated. Where are those 90º angles?

It's pleasant to walk around town with David, he knows how these old houses are constructed and we always seem to see more of things when we are with him.

In the afternoon he took us to Port Blanc and we caught a ferry to Ile aux Moines, one of several charming islands in the Golfe du Morbihan.

The island is long and thin, surrounded by the bay and protected from ocean surf. This day the sky and water were pure blue.

There are several thatched roof homes on the island. David, being British, was able to explain the entire process and theory behind these structures. They are apparently very sound for at least twenty years, and then the reeds must be changed. Of course, there is a certain way to construct them which takes some technique.

We walked all around the island and enjoyed the many pretty bungalows, with their lovely gardens and views over the water.

We all agreed it was probably just about an absolutely perfect day.

Rick and David both grew up sailing boats, so we spent a certain amount of time enjoying the beautiful dinghies moored and sailed all around the island.

My personal favorite is this traditional Breton style boat with the red-orange sail.

We left the island as the sun was sinking in the west.

We made our way back home on Sunday, stopping in the beautiful Breton village of Josselin for lunch. It is, like Montmirail, a petite cité de caractère, a small, authentic and historically interesting village. It had many half-timbered houses, the style which was prevalent in this area of France in the Middle Ages.

David pointed out to us how much he appreciates the lush flower boxes in many Breton towns.

The castle of Josselin was built in the tenth century.

Now I've caught up to the present. We are expecting a week of exceptionally warm weather. The trees are turning colors and village life has quieted down considerably. Next week I'll share a few fallish stories and photos.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Somewhere in Austria

Noma in the sandbox which Hannes put together just for our visit to his beautiful home

After our working vacation in Slovenia, taking care of Quinn (nice work when you can get it), we extended our time off by accepting an invitation to join Emily and family at the home of an old friend of Jos' in southern Austria. Hannes and Tamzin spend much of their time in London, where they work as actors, some of their time in Vienna, where Hannes has an apartment, and the rest in Hannes' parents' home in the Austrian Alps close to the Italian border. It is just two hour's drive from Ljubljana. His parents are now too elderly to take care of this amazing place, but lived and worked here into their nineties.

Austria is completely landlocked, bordered by eight other countries: Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Italy. It isn't too far a stretch to imagine Heidi living in a chalet here with her good old grandfather, which is just how it seemed to me. (I pictured Shirley Temple as Heidi.)

Hanne's farm is located in a emerald green valley, surrounded by high peaks, with acres of land, bubbling brooks, a swimming hole and alpine trees in abundance.

The house itself is ringed by a fence to keep the horses out. Two, who belong to the family, wander freely outside.

Even though the temperatures were still quite high, the grass was lush.

We had met Hannes before but had never seen him in his native habitat. Here he starts a fire where later we will roast fish and lamb.

Tamzin is British and met Hannes in London. She was a wonderful hostess and served an entire house full of people meal after meal, dressed always in an assortment of lovely sundresses.

Hannes' 14 year old son Max was also there. We became very fond of him. When asked what he wanted to do when he grew up, he said he wanted to live here and would be studying to be a veterinarian. This did seem the perfect place to grow up.

Emily, Jos and Quinn stayed at Hannes and Tamzin's house, along with the McBurney family, Simon, Cassey, Noma and Teyo. Simon and Jos went to school together in Paris and co-founded Complicité, a theater company in London. Simon has acted in several movies you may have seen, The Last King of Scotland, Friends With Money and The Manchurian Candidate to name a few.

His wife Cassey is a gifted concert pianist. You can hear her perform here. She was in Austria to perform at the Salzberg Arts Festival. We had the happy opportunity to hear her perform at a nearby music school.

Cassey is also crazy about her own children and everyone else's, the three little ones followed her as if she were the pied pipper.

Feeding the goats in the morning was one of Quinn's favorite activities.

He also took advantage of a plastic bucket and sprinkler to cool off.

All meals were taken outdoors. It was a jolly group and a very relaxed few days.

Be sure to click on this photo taken at sunset one evening. It really is evocative of the long lazy days and evenings we spent there.

Although we spent our waking hours with the group at Hannes', we didn't sleep at the house as there were simply not enough beds for everyone, so we took a B&B room close to the lake, which is at the bottom of their mountaintop. The first morning when we awoke, I saw this beautiful mist which clung to the land.

We took several outings, as the entire countryside is extraordinarily beautiful. The view from one mountain gives a sense of the majesty of the alps, foothills and alpine villages tucked into grassy valleys.

One of our favorite adventures, was taking a boat ride from one end of the Weissensee Lake, to the other. This is a particularly unspoilt lake, with very little of its shoreline developed. Our cruise was over an hour long, providing magnificent views along the way.

Our pilot gave us a bit of a history and geology lesson along the way, which Jos translated from the German for us. Very little English is spoken in this part of the world.

The color of the water changes as one travels down the water. It is a narrow, but extremely long lake.

At the end we disembarked and had lunch at a lovely restaurant. I had good old fashioned hot dogs with mustard, a Austro/German invention. We were right on the water and Quinn could hardly wait to get on his swimming gear.

It was such a pleasant place for a dip. We all went in. Emily is beginning to show the progress being made towards growing Quinn's brother or sister, due to arrive on the scene early next year.

The lake near our B&B is less dramatic, but just as nice for swimming, and quite a bit closer to where we were staying. We went there every evening without fail.

Another day we went hiking  at Die Garnitzenklamm, probably one of the most beautiful places I've ever been in my life. Miles of trails led though forested pathways, with the clearest mountain stream imaginable coursing past.

I loved the sign at the trail head:

And with good reason. The rocks in this part of the world are enormous and each winter more of them are displaced and pushed down the mountainside by ice and snow.

I have never seen water more clear and pure, nor rocks so beautifully arranged by the forces of nature.

this is another photo worth clicking on for a larger view. The various colors of the stones and the absolute transparency of the water make this a remarkable image.

I guess my idea of paradise is something like this mountain, with its bubbling river, splashing down its side. Of course in the spring this dainty brook turns into a raging force, able to toss boulders around as if they were rubber balls.

All along the trail, one saw little sculptures that a passing hiker stopped to create. The stones did invite endless play.

The beauty of the Austrian alps is supreme. As we drove back to Ljubljana to catch our flight home to Paris, we enjoyed our last glimpses of the charm of the countryside.

Next week I will bring you back with me to France.