Just as we’re getting in the taxi to Dulles Airport, Anne’s sister calls with news that their dad had fallen and broken his hip. Between that call and another from her brother, we learn that he was adjusting the sprinkler system at home and keeled backward on the concrete patio. He’s in some pain, but aware enough to remind Anne’s mom to bring his laptop with her to the hospital. We keep in touch until departure, last call is to Daddy in the hospital while we’re seated on the plane.
We meet the most delightful people in the United Air Lines Lounge! Last winter we met some people we ended up traveling with in Germany and Italy and today we are surprised to see some dear friends who are going with their parents to Paris for their daughter’s third birthday. Anne and I are both smitten by the little curly-haired girl we haven’t seen since she was just a baby. She breaks confidently away from her parents and into my arms like I’m a beloved uncle. None of the clinging shyness, clenching mama’s skirt, rather she assumed I would be interested in her without the Shirley Temple overly preciousness. We have a short chat with her parents before they have to board the plane to Paris for a multi-generational retreat in the Loire. Normally, here I’d sigh but because we’re headed for the breadbasket of Italy, there’s no pining for Paris. On the plane we wait around so long on the runway that we get to Munich too late for our flight to Milan; so after a sumptuous buffet breakfast in Lufthansa’s Lounge, they put us on a plane to Verona, our final destination today, saving us the train trip from Milan to Verona – first time we’ve ever been so happy for a flight delay! As always, we set out on foot in the sunshine so we don’t sleep the first day away. After taking photos from our hotel balcony of the snow-capped mountains on the horizon, we parade under the ghibelline crenellated medieval city gate for a look at the massive pink marble arena. Here there is a sleek black Ferrari parked in front of the Tourist Information Center, showing off its engine through a see-through trunk. Having only been here in the winter, we are remarking all along our walk down the River Adige that we didn’t know how beautiful this city was. We stop to look back at the old castle and the massively fortified bridge going into it. Our destination is the Basilica of San Zeno just a little outside the city center. Saint Zeno, born in Africa in the 8th century is the patron saint of Verona and there’s an ancient smiling statue of him blessing the Veronese to the right of the altar. The front of the church is two stories. Stairs go up to the choir and altar where there’s a triptych, the Majesty of the Virgin by Mantegna (it had been “acquired” by Napoleon but since then mostly returned – some pieces of it are still in the Louvre; the triptych is now currently being renovated and there’s a full sized digital photograph in its place).
Alongside the altar are 13th century Veronese frescoes depicting St. George and the Princess.
These frescoes are at eye level and have graffiti scratched in them from the 1300s!
Below the altar it appears we’ve gone under a forest where the columns are the roots of ancient trees. It’s cold as a tomb down there and we leave in a hurry. The front doors of the basilica are adorned with 12th century bronze panels that appear primitive compared with those on the Baptistry doors in Florence made 400 years later.
The symmetry of the cloister beside the basilica is calming with its double columned arches. This is the perfect way to spend the first hours on the ground and there’s nothing like a cloister to clear away the stuff that clutters our minds.
We cross the Adige, walk through a neighborhood of apartments, beside the arsenal, and back across the Adige on the fortified bridge.
We climb up to the archers’ perch and pretend to defend the city from invaders. Before we know it, we’re in the thick of the commercial area before arriving at the city’s main square, the Piazza delle Erbe, the site of the earlier Roman Forum.
After a rejuvenating nap at the hotel, we meet Professor Andrea Zafaroni for a guided tour of Verona. We are joined by a family of five from Milan and the eight of us set out on a very educational and fun city tour.
We start at the amphitheatre which is older than Rome’s Coliseum. He explains that most of what we know about what went on in Roman amphitheatres we learned in the 18th century from discoveries at Pompeii.
We also learn the following factoids from the professor:
There are 260 thousand citizens of modern Verona. The city’s most famous exports are Valpolicella red wine, pink marble, and holiday breads like panetone, panestella, and pan d’oro. Verona is Italy’s 4th most often visited city Maria Callas performed at the Verona Opera Festival in 1947 before she was well known and married a Veronese before she fell in love with Onassis. Shakespeare’s, play, Romeo and Juliette was the third version of the story. The fabled feuds between Verona’s political parties (papal guelfs and imperial ghibellines) were common and Shakespeare wrote his play, set in Verona, after reading an English translation of one of them. Until the 1970’s Juliette’s balcony was more often visited than the Vatican museums. Dante was exiled to Verona from his hometown, Florence, because of his political views and became best friends with “The Big Dog” Cangrande of the Scaligeri family. They named themselves that after Marco Polo who spent 25 years in China came back with tales of Genghis Kahn. Kahn sounds like Cane (dog) in Italian so the Scaligeri took the name and symbol of dogs to denote their badness and power.
Andrea finishes the tour at his favorite place - the unusual raised tombs of the Scala family.
One of the benefits of having Andrea as a guide is that in addition to being an art and architecture history expert, he and a coworker also conduct a tour of historical taverns (osteria) in Verona. He recommended we have dinner at his favorite and introduced us as “tour operators” to the chef/owner who found us a table at 8:30 on a Saturday night.
He brought us an assortment of sliced ham and sausages before the house specialty, risotto with Amarone, the best wine of the region. We split a dish of fork-tender beef cheek and polenta before walking home to crash for good at the hotel.
Since we are nearly ready to depart on our next trip (to Italy this time), we'll take a minute to post a fond farewell to our favorite French city.
We leave Vias in the early afternoon, La Belle Cour chores all done - spic and span for incoming guests, and head east on a cloudy day. As we approach Arles the sun comes out, and we're buffeted by the wind - is a Mistral blowing again? We drop our luggage at the pretty Hotel Le Manoir in Aix, and quickly get outside, walking the bustling cobbled lanes filled with chattering students and shopping matrons. I'm ready for a favorite pastry - a little tarte citron - and Kirk for a pastis so we stop at a popular patisserie, then take my sweet little treasure to a fountain-side cafe. Just one of the things we love about Aix is its beautiful fountains, such as the Place Albertas, above. Each time we walk by that evocative square, especially at night, we can imagine that we are right in the France of centuries ago.
Hotel Le Manoir is a pretty little place with its own parking courtyard, just great for those who are driving in or out of the city. Our room looks out over the tiled rooftops of Aix.
Right across the street is a tiny bistro, Le Petit Verdot, which we've heard of for years but have never tried. The menu of the day, posted on a blackboard outside, looks great so we make a reservation for dinner - and it's a good thing we did! When we return for our 8:00 table (a bit earlier than usual since we have to get up just after 4 am to get to the airport), there are a few tables open, but they quickly fill up. The tables are packed in to the narrow room, with barely enough space for the friendly wait staff to squeeze by. A great choice - we'll be back! We both choose duck - strips of tender breast meat marinated in balsamic, then grilled. We're still talking about that delicious dinner! Au revoir Aix - until the next time....
Tuesday- Wednesday, 8-9 April, 2008 Vias, Lodeve As the weatherman predicted, it’s raining today, the reason we got in a good canal walk yesterday, and left today for errands. Staying warm and cozy inside, we enjoyed a breakfast feast of wild strawberries and crème fraiche and a luscious melon that Jill brought with her. After a morning of errands – still more interesting and exotic to us that at home: a visit to the mairie (town hall) about our water bill, a stop at the bank, and chats with the neighbors – we head to the seaside, for lunch in Meze. Jill remembered going to the same area, where there are several fisherman’s villages by the Bassin de Thau, a large saltwater lake known for its oyster beds, last time she was here. She’s living inland now and wanted to enjoy a waterside meal.
Her Soupe de Poisson (fish soup) with the requisite accompaniments of rouille (a spicy mayonnaise) shredded parmesan, and toasted baguette slices with a garlic clove to rub over the crusty top, fits the bill to begin a classic seafood meal. A bottle of our favorite crisp white Picpoul de Pinet (we passed the vineyards as we drove to Meze from Vias) is just MADE for seafood. It’s chilly, cloudy and windy, so we’re seated inside this time rather than out by the boats, but as we eat, we see the sun come out, and walk off our lunch with a stroll along the port and through the winding lanes of town.
Wednesday- Market day again, and we stop by Maitie’s stall for a plump roasted chicken. “Voulez vous de la sauce?” Yes, we want the roasting juices and sauce of tomatoes and onions! We see what’s fresh and in season, and pick up sweet potatoes and early zucchini to complete our dinner, drop it off in our kitchen, and head out to explore a new town – Lodeve.
Jill had read about it and thought it might be an interesting place to live – she’s looking for a place to rent for a year. Lodeve is just over half-an-hour north of us, and what a change to the landscape from the coastal plain of Vias! It’s tucked into a valley between high hills lush with greenery, and has a star in our Michelin guide – we think that means worth- a- stop- if -you’re- in- the- neighborhood.
We’re wowed by the massive cathedral with brilliant jewel-toned stained glass – we see the Old and New Testament stories in the vivid colors, from Genesis to the Resurrection.
Beside it, the Mairie is housed in the impressive former bishop’s palace - its colorful glazed tile roof more common in northern parts of France. We looked in the windows of all the real estate offices we could find, and stopped into a couple. Jill made an appointment to return Friday to check out a possibility of a rental– we’re eager to hear how that turns out!
Back home – and more scraping and painting for Kirk – HIGH over the street on a third floor window. Always something to take care of on this old house. After our market dinner we walk around our little circular village and call it a day.
Today is Josh’s 31st birthday. I used to thrill him to his toes by holding his two little feet in one hand while he stood vertically above my head. Now I couldn’t get my hand around one of his size 14’s and at 6’4” he’d have an easier time picking me off the ground than I him. Happy Birthday, Josh! Like all four of our progeny (two kids and two grandkids), we pray for you every day and are proud of the man you are (that’s all of us in DC on Easter weekend). Vias has changed little since I was here last in July. But the ancient green-doored maison du vigneron (grape farmer’s town house) with the for sale sign has been sold and either the new owner or the seller took the round metal disc - a sign of sympathy with the cause of the vignerons in the Vigneron Revolt of 1907 - off the large green garage door. Now there’s only one aging door in our village with the sign of the revolution that brought the French national government into the business of protecting the specific names that can be used on the labels of wine bottles. Also there’s a new mayor in Vias. Since the previous one, a conservative, served for 25 years, he didn’t run; and a more left-leaning mayor replaced him, winning the election over the more conservative candidate by 23 votes. Expectations are that perhaps we’ll get a little more favorable attention from the liberal regional government now that our mayor is a lefty. I spent most of the day Saturday flicking then chiseling off the loose plaster from around the courtyard door. It has been applied without the proper binding agent that would make it stick to the stone and concrete underneath. Because I could easily pry most of it off, the wide posts and lentil will now be smooth instead of roughly plastered. Sunday morning I gave it a good coating of primer and Sunday afternoon I painted it white. It’s a good place to work because I’m able to greet all the people who stroll down our little lane. The doorway will need another coat to fill in all the tiny holes, protecting it from the weather but I’ll do that tomorrow. Today I woke up thinking about Josh and mineral spirits. I’d run out of what is here called white spirit. It will thin the paint for the second coat on the door way and clean the brush from last night. I hurried back from the store to meet Alain, our Viasoise neighbor, at 10 AM who had agreed to teach me how to make tomates farcis (stuffed tomatoes). In his mother’s ancient kitchen across the street from our house, he sliced six tomatoes sideways and scooped out all the seeds. He made a bed of chopped tomatoes from the chapeaux (tops of the tomatoes) and placed the spooned-out semi-spherical bottoms on the bed. Starting from a pound of viande farci (ground meat prepared by the butcher for stuffing with herbs, and a little sausage) he broke an egg and let me stir it in. After Alain showed me how to take the center sprout out of each garlic clove, with a little metal hand press he pressed the garlic I’d skinned and de-veined into the stuffing. Next he chopped a handful of parsley tops, and I stirred them into the stuffing also. Then he spooned a heap of stuffing into each tomato cup and poured a generous amount of olive oil over the entire pan. To finish, with the first finger of his right hand he crushed a slice of melba toast in the palm of his left hand and sprinkled it on top of each stuffed tomato. To keep me from leaving with my treasure right away, he poured us a couple of glasses of Muscat and we chatted as usual in our mixture of Spanish, English and French until I couldn’t remember anymore how to say “after” in French. He said that since these were winter tomatoes they’d take about 40 minutes at 400 degrees F. With summer tomatoes it won’t take as long. At noon I had to leave because our friend Jill is due to arrive at any moment. She’s driving down from Lauzerte where she’s lived since retiring in Bermuda two months ago. It’s a little village a half hour north of Cahors in the Tarn et Garonne region. We’ve traveled all over Europe with her and she’s the first guest to sign up for our new week-long tour in northern Italy with the Fine Arts Quartet playing instruments made by Stradivari in Cremona where they were made.
After a delightfully long lunch in our courtyard of gorgonzola/pear/walnut salad and a baguette,we drove down to Portiragnes to start a springtime walk down the Canal du Midi. We crossed over a 17th century humpback stone bridge and walked past acres and acres of vines. Some were getting their first tying of the year, the men attaching the highest shoots to the lowest support wire.
Along the way we passed a colorful Bed & Breakfast Boat – what a fun place to spend the night!
By late afternoon we got off the tow path and explored the main square and church in Villeneuve de Beziers.
We did some wandering through the winding lanes admiring the facades billowing with flowering plants before settling into the restaurant beside the police station on the Place de Revolution for three hot chocolates to warm us up before the walk back. Now the fragrance of all that garlic I peeled this morning is filling the living/reading room at home and it won’t be long until I can show off to Anne and Jill what a fine chef I am while we’re enjoying the lesson in stuffed tomatoes I learned this morning.
Saturday – market day in Vias. We wander through the rows of colorful stalls, quite a few less than during the busy summer months, when the market expands down lanes and around corners. I find some young spring artichokes in the market hall in the center of town for Monday nights dinner, and then we’re off running errands, to Beziers, the closest big town, before returning to enjoy a lunch of salade de chevre chaud (salad with goat cheese toasts) in the courtyard. There are always chores to do when here, and this time we notice that the white trim has chipped and peeled on several spots on the exterior – most notably around the courtyard door. So Kirk scrapes it all off, smooths the rough stone and cement, and primes the surface, ready to paint tomorrow. The first time we stayed in Vias (and ended up buying the bed and breakfast we stayed in!), in fall of 2003, we ate dinner at Le Vieux Logis, an ancient residence of the 13th century area bishop and the oldest building still standing in Vias. We’ve heard from people that have rented our house that there are new owners and a new chef, and have been wanting to try it out again. We’re seated right beside the massive basalt fireplace – a listed historical artifact so big we could sit inside it! Dinner is delicious and we enjoy chatting with the new owners. Bon Dimanche! Sunday we get up early enough for Kirk to paint the door surround before we drive back to Montpellier, meeting Vance, Patty and Mary Anne to go to church with them. This morning’s service includes a lot of participation from several people from Madagascar, some of whom regularly attend this protestant church. We enjoy the lively music and the colorful background which looks like Van Gogh olive trees.
After church we park near the beautiful Chateau d’Eau, an ornate and beautiful water tower near the oldest part of town.
We walk through the gardens and into the steep cobbled lanes of old town. Le Petit Jardin is serving lunch in the garden today, and we choose a sunny spot, enjoying the warmth on a cool spring day.
Afterwards we stroll through the Jardin de Plantes, an historical monument of the city, some parts of which were planted and designed in the 1500’s.
One of the things we love about being in Europe is just LIVING in the midst of history. A Sunday afternoon walk in the midst of hundreds of years worth of beauty.
The Mistral, the legendary wind of Provence, pushed our little jet out to sea as we flew into Marseilles. We could see the whitecaps in the wind-tossed Mediterranean below as the pilot did his best to bring us smoothly in for a landing. Tossed around in the air, tipping from side to side, we could feel the struggle against the gusting blasts tunneling down the Rhone valley to the sea. Several of us clapped as we rolled down the runway, applauding the excellent job of the crew – a challenging landing!
Kirk and I picked up a tiny Twingo – I think it’s Renault’s smallest vehicle – and headed southwest towards Montpellier, eager to see his brother Vance and family. Now KIRK is the pilot as we’re roughly tossed around on the Autoroute, fighting the wind. Boy am I glad that he’s driving – last visit here it was just me and I’d really have a rough time holding the car between the yellow lines of the road.
After months of winter browns and grays, my thirsty eyes are gobbling up the greens, yellows, and lavenders of springtime in the south of France. It comes earlier here than at home – lovely lilac-blooming redbud trees adorn the roadside, and Kirk describes the light as a pink glow that you could see from outer space.
Vance and Patty talked us through the last few turns to find their house in Lattes, a suburb of Montpellier. It’s always a huge treat to spend time with them. Patty and Mary Ann had prepared a delicious feast, and waited til we arrived, after , to enjoy it with us. Tired and jetlagged as we were, we kept talking til past midnight!
After breakfast the next day, we all walked towards the water, past horses,
flamingos and spring flowers, basking in the welcome sun and taking deep breaths of wonderful countryside French spring air. So happy to be here!
Slip into the window seat in our aisle and join us on our search for a symphony of views, flavors, culture, sounds, and friends. We'll let you know when we hear the harmony we seek - whether in a WOW classical concert, an awesome night of jazz, a magical vineyard or olive farm, or an outstanding bistro, trattoria, wine, garden, or experience. From our delightful maison de village near a Languedoc beach* to a canal-side string ensemble in Amsterdam, you'll read and feel like a real local.
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The best way to describe us (Kirk and Anne Woodyard) is that we're interested in the stories that make the places we visit come alive. We've visited Europe more times than we can count, learned some entertaining stories there, and met some warm and helpful people who also enjoy the wonders of music and life in Europe. Between our music-related travels, we split our time between our homes near Washington DC and in the the south of France.
We look forward to sharing these stories and friends and experiences with you.
While both of us have experience in organizing travel and music groups Kirk's background is in project management and competitive writing, and Anne is an accomplished pianist with over thirty years of teaching experience, and a travel and food writer specializing in France and Italy.