Siena is a cacophony,
which can be nice for a day or two, but it could really get on your nerves in
the long term. Every morning, what can only be described as a cacophony of
bells from several different churches start ringing at 7 am, and again at 8 am,
continuing each time for about a minute. In the evening, they ring around 6 pm
and 7 pm. For a small city which had 50,000 inhabitants at its peak in the
1300s, this city has a lot of churches. Outside our window, there are church
bells on top of a parish that is literally next door. If you lean outside far
enough, you can see San Domenico di Caterina, a large, elegant brick building
to our right which is very typically Romanesque and does not have a lot of
large windows, and then dominating our view from the apartment is the black and
white striped masterpiece that is Il Duomo, Siena Cathedral.
To give a little
background (though we’ll really dig into the history soon), Siena is about an
hour and a half by train south of Florence in Tuscany. It used to be its own
republic and a mighty city-state that once defeated Florence in war, but
subsequently, became much more impoverished. As a result, Siena never had the
funds to pull down their medieval buildings, and to this day, most of the city
looks very similar to when it was built, sometime probably between 1100 and
1555 (the time of the Republic).
The first afternoon
we arrived, we trekked nearly half an hour from the train station into the
city, climbing the hillside to the city through a series of escalators and
ramps, and then into the guts of a small medieval city with very narrow
passageways that are lucky enough to fit one car and steep enough to merit
stairs in a few places instead of smooth or scored stone pavement. Our Airbnb
has an excellent view of Il Duomo as well as the surrounding hillside, and off
in the distance, blue-purple hills punctured by the dark green poplars that are
the hallmark of the Italian countryside. Outside our window are a few lovely
restaurants who are capitalizing on the great view, and entertain folks deep
into the night. Every day, there are also sparrows. They have colonized this
city, perching in all sorts of small holes built into these buildings where
they raise their young. They swoop about all day, but especially plentifully
during dusk, scooping up insects and bugs. Perhaps that’s why we’ve had such a
mosquito-free time, in comparison to our time in Venice!
For me, Edinburgh will always evoke an image of calm and comfort, a cup of fragrant earl grey, and a scone piled high with butter and jam. Steve and I spent almost three days here (July 14-17), walking through very historic streets and scaling its heights to see the surrounding scenery, and braving the occasional showers. We left too soon, but I have hopes that we’ll be back.
We stayed for three nights at an apartment in Edinburgh’s Old Town, and spent most of our time wandering up and down the Royal Mile. The Royal Mile is a gently sloping road which bisects Edinburgh, dividing the New Town (not so new, dating from the 1700s) in the north from the Old Town in the South. On the western end is Edinburgh Castle, and after walking by about 45 stores specializing in kilts and cashmeres, on the eastern end is Holyrood Palace, where the Queen keeps her apartments when she comes to Scotland. Just south of the palace is Holyrood Park, a vast inverted green bowl that rises hundreds of meters into the air. It is punctuated by brown rocky craigs and hills, and from street level, you can see people climbing their way up the hill like so many ants. It is an imposing height, but not at all an imposing hike, as we covered the highest peaks of the park within three hours (including a half-hour nap!). Continue reading Wandering down the Royal Mile.→
Summer is in full flower in Basse-Normandie, and it has brought the funniest weather I’ve ever seen. Murray and Julie joke that there’s no point to checking the weather forecast (or what the French call the météo), since it always has a bit of everything: we wake up to brisk and sunny mornings that quickly warm up to hot middays, and work through cloudy afternoons interspersed with drizzle against the windowpanes. It usually clears up in time for brilliant sunsets around 10 pm, and true darkness only descends after midnight. We’ve been keeping quite busy, with our animals and our work, but finding time somehow to admire the weather and the landscape around us. Continue reading The dog days of Normandy.→
For the past week or two, I’ve been putting some heroic efforts toward recounting our journeys in early June with our friend Lele, but I’m giving that up for the moment to write a little about the past two days, because they were very special. France is made up of a lot of famous and romantic things, like the Louvre, love locks on the bridges of the Seine, and Roman aqueducts, but it has smaller, more intimate things too. My college classmate Sarah and her boyfriend Sam live and study in Cambridge, England, but they invited us to experience some of those smaller things this weekend. Sam’s family is French, from Haute-Savoie near the Swiss border, and his grandparents still live in the same town where his mother grew up, in Montchanin-les-Mines, or more commonly just called Monchanin.
On Friday morning, we took the TGV an hour north of Lyon, into the heart of Bourgogne (better known as Burgandy) excited about a short excursion into the French countryside, but unsure of what to expect. At the Le Creusot-Montceau TGV station, the train made a short stop before it proceeded on to Paris, and we got picked up by Sam and Sarah in the old blue Peugeot. Ten minutes away, we turned into a street in Montchanin by the impressive name of Impasse de Chateau d’Eau, and were welcomed by Sam’s grandparents. Continue reading Montchanin and the Chateau d’Eau.→
We now resume our interrupted broadcast of our travels from Spain. It was just two weeks ago that our three brave heroes found themselves in the capital of Catalonia…
The road to Barcelona is well-trodden, and every tour of the city includes its iconic monuments to Antoni Gaudi, the well-known Spanish Catalan architect. This might as well be the city of Gaudi, we had to conclude after three days of wandering around. Our first stop was Park Guell, on a hill in the north of Barcelona that affords a picturesque view of the city. Gaudi designed and built the park in 1914, and it has come to be known for his signature touch of modernist and naturalist architecture, built of strange, organic shapes and encrusted with mosaics. The winding park terrace which is also covered with mosaics are well-known to me, and recall to me the films like L’auberge espagnole and Vicky Cristina Barcelona where I first saw them.
I’m writing a very quick post from the magical land of Paris before I blast off for one more day here. Why is it magical? It must be because there is a roosting pigeon not one meter away from me. Outside the tiny balcony of my friend Dan’s apartment in the north of Paris, in the small sheltered space formed by the corner of the wall and the opened shutters of the balcony doors, a pigeon whom Dan has nicknamed Madame Verdurin is currently roosting with her two (or more) white eggs. Madame Verdurin herself is a character from Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, a doorstopper of a novel which I’ve not had the honor to read yet, and this avian namesake of hers is one of the small things about Paris that is charming.
Magical it is in other realms as well — I have liked this city much better than I thought I was going to. Many nations’ capitals are busy, dirty, frustrating, expensive, and too big for comfort. Paris is quite a few of those things, and most definitely expensive, but at the same time, it is really quite beautiful too. We have been roaming, walking, eating, and seeing things non-stop. Steve and I are practically asleep on our poor feet these days, and fatigue sets in so easily. If I lived in a novel of the late 1800s, my acquaintances would say that I had a run-down constitution and needed to go out to the countryside for a few weeks’ rest and recuperation. Luckily, neither of us have gotten sick, but we are certainly heading back to Lyon tomorrow with a sense of relief. Continue reading A roosting pigeon.→
I felt like I have barely slowed down in the last three days. Our days have been filled with hiking, making food, driving around the south of France, talking, debating, and listening to music, punctuated by brief stretches of silence gazing into the endless mountains or the blue, blue surf of the Mediterranean sea. But here is a bit of free time, before we check out for the night, so I will try my best to recount our trip thus far.
Two days ago, we drove out of Lyon as a party of three, joined by our friend Lele, who is a friend from college and from Chicago. We’ve been planning this trip in France for a while to coincide with his vacation, and thus far, it has been quite memorable! We met him at Part-Dieu, which is Lyon’s main TGV station, and breezed on south for a few hours, exchanging stories and updates from Chicago, until we came to the Pont du Gard.
I had been researching this Roman-age aqueduct since I realized it lay on the road between Lyon and our first destination of Perpignan. It was an absolutely thrilling experience to see in person this kind of historical monument, which is so austere in its beauty but simple in its function – it was built as a part of a 50 kilometer aqueduct carrying water to the city of Nîmes, and bridges a wide gap over a river, and has survived first as a toll bridge and now as a UNESCO world heritage site. Some of the things we have seen in the world improve with intimacy – the closer you get, the more you are awed and moved by the structure you see before your eyes and feel under your fingers. Others, most notably for us like the Taj Mahal, are almost better seen from afar, like a scene out of a storybook or a dream. The Pont du Gard is one of those former structures, and walking across the bridge that was built parallel to it, dipping our feet in the river beneath it, and climbing the hillside paths on either side that bring you so close you can touch the stones of the arches truly makes you realize that you are standing in the presence of something that has been here for nearly a thousand years and will perhaps be here for a thousand more. Continue reading Between the mountains and the ocean.→
On Monday, we took a train just an hour and a half south for a day trip to Aix-en-Provence, in the Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur region of France. One of my favorite things about visiting Europe is that I get to see many of things I learned about in my six years of studying Latin in high school. I first learned about Aix, as it is nicknamed, as the Roman city of Aquae Sextiae, founded in 123 BC after a heated battle by the Romans against the Teutones and Cimbri, two prominent Germanic tribes. The city is geographically positioned practically on the Mediterranean coast, a stone’s throw from Marseille, and about 300 kilometers directly south of Lyon. We’ve been in Lyon for nearly a month now, so it was about time we got to see another part of France!
We boarded a TGV train at Lyon Perrache that left the city at the hazy grey hour of 6 am. We couldn’t really sleep very well, as the morning sun only got brighter on our journey down to Aix. Fortunately, I had given up on sleep and was raptly gazing out the window when we went past the Roquefavour aqueduct, which looks absolutely amazing, and managed to grab a non-blurry photo! It’s neat, though not quite as impressive as the Pont du Gard aqueduct, but we may get to see that! Next, we took a bus from the Aix-en-Provence TGV station into town, and set off on a long rambling walk around the city.