Belgium was never particularly high on my list. I’ve always loved the relaxed passion of the Mediterranean nations, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Southern France; the language and ‘joy de vivre’ of France and I was naturally intrigued by the Afrikaans heritage from the Netherlands. To my layman’s understanding of Belgium and Luxembourg they were sort of the mix that wondered whether they were French, Dutch or German, not excelling at one of them, yet thriving on their political stance as home base of the EU. Last year’s trip, (see Summer in the sombre ‘The Somme’) to Flanders was the beginning of my enlightenment, but having spent a magnificent six days over Easter in the Belgian Ardenne, opened my eyes and made me realise that Belgium was a full longed and proper travel destination where you need time to meander, read, listen and just sit around to observe. It is rich in history (not all of it is good though), culture, engineering and finesse. Belgium is sort of my new Number One – sorry Jacob.
We were based in a gîte just outside of Bastogne called Savy555 (find Christine on Booking.com – I recommend that) with a cosy fireplace for the relaxed evenings, a nice ‘stoep’ outside with stunning views over the spacious lawns towards the duck pond end. To perfect the amenities, there is a small braai for the good weather dinners I prepared.
Braai ≠ barbeque nor grill, but for clarity’s sake, let’s use those synonyms if you’re not South African
It is one of those songs, which I cannot read the words without singing the tune. I still have the record (LP) ‘Come along and sing along’ with Charles Berman and company
which I’ve listened uncountable times as a kid growing up in Yellowwood Park, Durban. In my head this Em’rald Isle they mentioned was some exotic sunny island with coconut palms, white sandy beaches and hours of leisure in the sun. I simply had to one day visit it! It was with a big ‘Ahh, they talk about Ireland’ that I later learned what the Em’rald Island actually was, but it never tempered my curiosity to one-day travel over this island.
Nowadays the musical reference to Ireland is probably more Ed’s Galway Girl, and that too is a great song, rather than Kelly.
If I still had a slight expectation of sunny beaches and leisurely hours enjoying those sunny beaches in my head in anticipation of our 10 day Ireland trip, I was rudely jerked into reality when we received the message from Ryan Air about 36 hours before our flight informing us our flight was cancelled! Not delayed, sommer completely cancelled, gone, finish ‘en klaar’. Europe was caught in a week of serious snow and bad weather and Dublin airport was closed for a few days. After frantically phoning around and surfing around (the web kind, not the anticipated sunny waves kind of surfing), Cara was able to get us a 22:00 flight, for the Sunday evening! We were supposed to fly Thursday but had to wait until Sunday night. Before you think of my Ugly Story post and that infamous Lufthansa flight LH572, this was different and we accepted it as such, while keeping our eyes peeled to weather forecasts and news bulletins of the European weather scene. Oh, by the way, after 22 months, Lufthansa refunded us a few euros per ticket, of which the lawyers took nearly half.
We landed in Dublin at 23:30 Sunday night, picked up our rental car, grabbed a serious coffee or two or six, and headed into the snowy, misty darkness of the M4 and the 215km I had to drive to get to our Galway accommodation.
It was a good call to drive through to Galway that night, because we woke the next morning at our destination, with a view across the bay, and a little grocery store stocking real bacon, eggs and cheddar among a few other necessities just around the corner. English breakfasts instead of continental in itself is sufficient reason for visiting Ireland.
Though Lufthansa may be at risk, due to their lack of customer service (see my previous post Flight LH572 July 22, 2016 : An ugly story), we eventually did arrive in South Africa, and we did enjoy all the promised ‘braais’, ‘kuiers’ and catch-up with all and sundry; exactly the things Expats do when returning home for a visit. It was fortunately not ‘allesverloren’!
A truly special place is the Kgalagadi. Its one of those places which I truly wish I could show off to everybody I meet in Europe. It’s a pristine wilderness in the dry western parts of South Africa and Botswana as God intended and where wild beasts roam freely. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is one of the most pristine conservation areas on earth, and that was the first destination of our two week Kgalagadi and Namibian safari.
Special places require special equipment. Though the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park has normal dirt roads and its theoretically accessible with a sedan, its not advisable. Even when the roads are well maintained, you are still confronted with high sand walls next to most of the roads, which means while we are scanning the wide plains for Oryx, Springbuck, Lions et al from the raised elevation of the Land Rover, the sedan driver scans a meter high sand wall for ants, grouse and desert rats! To fully enjoy the Kgalagadi, one needs to have a bakkie, kombi or similar high, big tyres vehicle.
And once we’ve accomplished that satisfactory happiness, slowly and hesitantly we turned our back on the beautiful ‘five towns’ (Cinque Terra) and the natural beauty linking them and headed for the famous leaning tower, the captivating Florence and the awe inspiring, history rich and fine cuisine of Tuscany and Amalfi.
One of the great joys of traveling through Italy is discovering firsthand that it is, indeed, a dream destination. – Debra Lavinson
To have the privilege to sleep in a country guest house, rather than in a hotel room, (or two-man tent for that matter), to eat and be pampered through a five course dinner specially prepared for your little group, and all this in the stunning, idyllic, sought after, much talked about, written about, and filmed about Tuscan countryside, remains in my mind one of the highlights of my now already three year long European sojourn.
And this pampering I furthermore had the privilege to share with my family on my son’s 16th birthday and very very good friends from South Africa. That was good.
Andrea, the owner and restaurateur par excellance of Tenuta Il Verone near Florence, Tuscany with the competent help of Nilce, his Argentinian girl friend is busy establishing a commendable guest house 30 kilometers outside of Florence with a beautiful view over the surrounding countryside. They do, however specifically excel when they cater and serve. Starting with the traditional ‘Prosciutto crudo’ and melon platter, I soon realized I must keep my glass full of chianti’s finest red, go slow on each course of the meal as to enable myself to really get the best of the best of what this evening is promising to become. Not just the quantity promised to intimidate us, but the quality, the tastes, flavours and textures too was going to educate us tonight; ‘keep calm De Wet and go slow!’
After the platter of exquisite prosciutto we were presented with Andrea’s striking…… PENNE pasta dish followed by a exquisite chicken and vegetable dish. The wine was good and flowing, the food excellent and in abundance and I was getting really relaxed when Andrea entered with the most intimidating T-bone steak I have seen for quite a while. Note that I am South African; we are not easily intimidated by good steak, and I have had the best of the best Argentina and Uruguay could offer in terms of their famous ‘bifo de chouriso’, but this one was right up there with those world renowned ones. By the time that plate of steak was empty, I can vaguely recall that there was dessert and good Italian strong small coffee, but I could not remember the detail as the meat, yes the meat! Dimmed all further taste-bud senses. I do however remember that we still had the most interesting and friendly after dinner chat with Andre and Nilce. Thanx again you two, the stay at Tenuta Il Verone was one of the highlights. But, as is often the case with traveling, the real highlight is that we made some great new friends, in the heart of Tuscany, even through we communicate in a haphazard way, mostly through my daughter’s Spanish to Andrea’s Italian and Nilce’s Portuguese. That is one of the things that make traveling so fantastic!
And then came Praiano, in the heart of the Amalfi coast.
A week of bliss, scenic splendor and relaxation heaven, complete with dinners on cliff edges, swimming of the side of boats in the Mediterranean, canoeing into caves and early morning coffee and stuff with good conversation spanning from Koos du Plessis through to ‘what’s for dinner tonight!’
The Amalfi coast truly is one of the ‘must some day visit’ destinations of the world. The more famous Positano lies 18km further up the road from Praiano and yes, obviously we did visit Positano, walked the little streets and enjoyed the beach and sun. I will never ever say you can skip Positano, as it’s a must see in the same vane as is the Eiffel Tower, the leaning Tower of Pisa or even the Spanish Steps. But I do love finding the lesser-traveled roads and that slightly off the beaten track destinations which is not the mainstream, obvious tourist traps where you hear more English than Italian, for example. And though Praiano is still a very touristy and busy little town (just try to find casual parking!), it is slightly less crowded and more authentic than Positano. Think Fouriesburg over Clarence, think Bacharach over Rudesheim and think Hautvillers over Epernay and you’ll get my drift. That is exactly what Heleen found when she found and booked our stunning accommodation in Praiano, complete with ‘stoep’ (veranda) high on the mountain cliffs with its magnificent view over the Mediterranean, morning, noon and night, nogal! I mean, its here, in Praiano where I visited my first real Italian barber, complete with cutthroat old-fashioned razor and shaving cream (watch my short video). I can admit now that I was probably carefully scared, since I have seen many movies where these visits to the cutthroat barber turn out bloody, but I was okay, maybe because in the small-talk kick-off it came out that I was South African, and Senor Tomasso was a huge Gerrie ‘seer handjies’ Coetzee fan. Gerrie Coetzee was a successful South African heavy weight boxer in the early eighties.
One the must do’s on the Amalfi coast is to rent a boat for a day and visit the Isle of Capri! Yes, the island of the infamous student song ‘it was the Isle of Capri where I met here, ….’ and the non-repeatable rest. What this day on the boat offers is just simply a blissful and relaxing day in the sun, with friendly chatter, every now and then a dive and swim in the blue blue water and a visit to the Grotta Azzura or Blue Caves. A casual lunch in Marina Grande and then more casual sailing back with stops and swimming to wake up your appetite for the evening’s social ‘kuiers’ around the dinner table. I think these type of relaxing holidays are made better by the company you have and mine was just perfect.
And then there’s the drive! I can proudly say that I have driven the Amalfi coast in high season’.
National Geographic’s travel site introduces this drive as ‘The Costiera Amalfitana, or Amalfi Coast, is widely considered Italy’s most scenic stretch of coastline, a landscape of towering bluffs, pastel-hued villages terraced into hillsides, precipitous corniche roads, luxuriant gardens, and expansive vistas over turquoise waters and green-swathed mountains. Deemed by UNESCO “an outstanding example of a Mediterranean landscape, with exceptional cultural and natural scenic values,” the coast was awarded a coveted spot on the World Heritage list in 1997.’ They then go further to summarise with the description ‘The roads along the Amalfi Coast are famously winding, narrow, and challenging to drive. Add in drop-dead views and daring Italian drivers, known for their behind-the-wheel bravado, and this road trip offers one of the more exciting driving experiences in Europe.’ I think ‘daring’ is a soft word for the Italian drivers, especially the ones on their world-renowned scooters. Suicidal is probably a more accurate word, but it does add to the sheer enjoyment of driving while trying to catch a glimpse of the glorious scenery and in the same time keeping an eye out for the scooters and large busses that will simply push you off the road. On busy weekend days, they actually have road assistants who will try to guide the traffic (though the adherence of the motorists are very very low) and even help to adjust your vehicle’s side mirrors so that the vehicles can pass each other.
I say again, I have driven the Amalfi coast, in high season!
As wonderful as was the superb Cinque Terra, Tuscany and Amalfi, so disappointing was Rome. Make no mistake, Rome is a wonderful city, with so many awe inspiring historical sites and stories to get lost into. But it still was extremely disappointing to be exploited by the hospitality industry where its deemed standard practice to charge a 17% service fee, or when you order a beer and just want a beer, you are presented with a liter of beer at 18 € each. At 17% service fee, you pay more for that than what the average person’s meal and drink costs. And this service fee is not even the tip to the waiter, which creates that little ethical dilemma of true service versus fixed restaurant added cost before paying the service fee. They are very friendly in luring you into their osterias but once you’ve had your meal, you’re in for the surprise. The service fee is a fixed percentage added to the bill and which is payable to the restaurant (not the waiter), because you ate there. We had good waiters every time, and who added to the whole dinner or lunch experience with their jokes, mockeries and good service and who deserved their tip, which just means that dining out end on an exorbitantly expensive sour note every time. Watch out in Rome, someone who looks friendly, will eventually stab you in the back!
But for the rest of Italy, it is ‘magnifico, superbo, maestoso e grandioso!’ Go and travel the coasts and Tuscan rural areas at leisure and stop often, to grab a macchiato!
‘A man who has not been in Italy is always conscious of an inferiority; from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see!’ – Samuel Johnson
Click on the photos to enlarge
I have seen It, I have traveled It, I have driven It, including that magnificent Amalfi coastal route, I have experienced a cutthroat Italian shave and now I have to share these travels as I simply cannot see so many inferiority complexes continue. However, I doubt if I can even slightly give justice to the experience, pleasure and sights I have seen on my three-week trip in this blogging attempt. If, however, I can inspire just one to visit Italy because of this blog, I’ll be happy.
So, please, go and just do it ✔
To add to an experience such as traveling Italy, its not a bad idea to take some of your best friends along. Sharing the beauty, the tastes, the wine, the music and friendship chatter with Andre en Rentia added that cherry on top satisfaction, which we had. It was good.
The first delightful stretch of road I discovered was still in Austria where I traversed the Alps between Zell am Zee and Heiligenblut over the Großglockner Hochalpenstraße, all the way up to the Edelweißspitze. I seriously suffer from fear of hights and this road tested me to the extreme of my bravery as far as hights go. I will, however be tested further on this journey as far as narrow, winding roads and Italian bus, car and scooter drivers are concerned. I believe I am now an accomplished driver and may even appear as a guest ‘Stig’ on Top Gear. Jeremy must just first discover me!
‘Ah Venice’ unfortunately is rapidly becoming ‘o no Venice’. The once magnificent icon on my third visit there was certainly the disappointment of the trip. Though the little alleyways, canals and architecture obviously are still there constantly posing for the Canon lens,
the Italian charm is mostly gone and replaced by a cheap plastic feel where shopkeepers are all but Italian and where the Gondola boats-men chat on cellphones and smoke rather than sing there once famous opera arias! Even those rows and rows of restaurant chairs on San Marco’s Square were pathetically empty, with some restaurants providing music to not a single customer at dinnertime. The once classy establishment had made way to a cheap ‘follow-the-flag-and-quickly-take-a-photo-from-a-distance’ type traveller who sees, but does not feel nor experience. Have the many years of exorbitant prices caught up with Venice, or is the Europe-wide influx of cheap labour and associated cheap stuff more to blame? It was a sad sad situation to observe. Very disgruntled by what we saw and experienced in Venice we were adamant to find some of the old charm for lunch and Cara took the lead out of the main streets. We were lucky. Seeing a little osteria (Da Mario at Fondamenta de la Malvasia Vecchia San Marco) tucked away in a quiet street we peaked through the door to see it filled with gondoliers.
Surely, this is the local hangout and we must try it. It was the real deal, with cheap great food, beer and wine as well as an Italian ‘mamma’ running the tiny kitchen with all the charm, sweat and noise which one would want and expect as the scene from an Italian restaurant. Venice was not yet completely lost!
Despite the disappointment of Venice, our stay was a delight, even though we camped. I opted for the lessor advertised and harder to find Agricampeggio Mose on Punta Sabbioni.
This camp is part of a working farm where they have a little stall selling the farm produce and which is run by (another) ‘Mama’, who even offer free transport to the ferry-bus and who runs the tiny café-bar, reception, shuttle service and no-English loud and fast Italian conversation with true Italian aplomb. Prepare for your survival by learning some life saving Italian phrases, such as ‘due espresso macchiato per favore’ and practice to say it in the required Italian rhythmic tone, with hands pointed backwards, all fingers clenched together and giving the beat of the request. Very important to then respond to Mama’s question, ‘latte caldo o freddo?’ with a confident ‘caldo’ (for hot milk) and not with a ‘huh!’ to prevent Mama whipping the floor with you! Even with the communication gap firmly in place, Mama’s sense of humor and joking with our ignorance regarding Italian ways and customs will make me recommend her camp-site with great pleasure. Just remember, Venice has plenty of water, take mosquito repellent.
On the west coast in the famous Cinque Terre region is another magic, yet slightly menacing to reach campsite, Campeggio Il Nido, which has been owned and run by Roberto for the past 28 years. Reaching Campeggio Il Nido was, even including the drive across the Alps in Austria, my first real driving challenge, negating the winding and narrow roads with crazy death challenging Italian drivers, each in his own mind totally convinced that his Vespa, Fiat 500 or even Piaggio 3-wheel delivery van/scooter thingy was a full-blooded Ferrari! Il Nido is truly tucked away in the coastal bush, on the edge of the mountain and with the most amazing views of the Mediterranean imaginable. The campsite consist of a few terraces where mostly only two- or three-man tents will fit and since its not in town, its little restaurant is where the entire camp will gather in the evenings and leisurely sit, eat, chat or catch-up on their Facebook status! It was here where I noticed the small interesting little library, with a particularly interesting book, for this part of the world.
Although the five towns that make up the Cinque Terre (remember cinque means five) can be reached by train, taking the hop-on-hop-off boat proved to be a stunningly relaxing way to visit the towns, with the added advantage of providing those exquisite views from the sea on the towns. The five towns that make up this must-visit destination are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Five old world fishing villages consisting of one or two mentionable little streets lined by the most exquisite and quaint buildings proudly inviting the camera lens for more and more. This coastline is rugged, with each town, except Corniglia, hugging a small bay/harbor where ‘the fish know all the fishermen and boats know each other’s name’, as Valiant Swart puts it so eloquently. Cinque Terre should be very high on any prospective traveller’s bucket list. Whether you love simply wandering around, browsing the many little stores, dipping into the clear clear water of the Mediterranean, sitting and sipping something cold to wash away the salty anchovies or actively hiking, taking photos and ‘ticking off’ your bucket list items, you will be happy in Cinque Terre.
And once we’ve accomplished that satisfactory happiness, slowly and hesitantly we turned our back on the beautiful five towns and the natural beauty linking them and headed for the famous leaning tower, the captivating Florence and the awe inspiring, history rich and fine cuisine of Tuscany and Amalfi. But that’s the next post.
‘it is situated on a fertile plain, far from the mountains, an hour along the track, with large quantities of wine and grain on either side, and the land is good for wheat, onions and other fruit of the garden. This city is the centre of Alsace and is a single league away from Kiesersperg, Ammersweiler, Rechenwyer and Rappoltzweyer, towns that make most excellent wine, the finest of all Alsace’ in the words of one Sébastian Münster in 1552. Yes, 1552! Unfortunately Messieur Münster lived many years too early to be treated to the delicate tastes of Messer’s Pierre Jourdan, Danie de Wet and many more who produce those fine ‘tranquille’ Cabrières, Chardonnays or Sauvignon Blancs way way down south at the tip of Africa. Judging Messieur Münster’s praise for the Alsace wines, I am very sure he would have approved with great satisfaction the younger South African products.
However, he was justly accurate in his description that Colmar is a pleasant city, even beautiful with its stunning, be it slightly confusing architecture. This is France in 2014, but the German Tudor style is in abundance, and beautifully restored, maintained, decorated and neatly painted sitting there just waiting to be photographed or painted. I can’t paint, though. To understand this slightly confusing ‘look’ of this treasure of a French city, I had to ask Google for clarity.
Colmar is first mentioned in 823. Roughly around 1226, Colmar was made an imperial town (city formally responsible only to the emperor in the Holy Roman Empire) by Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, a Roman Emperor. In 1278, King Rudolph of Habsburg gave Colmar its civil rights. Rudolph was originally a Swabian count, but was the man who sort of started the Habsburg dynasty, who ruled much of Europe for nearly 600 years from the 1200s out of current day Austria. Thus, this is the first mention or reason for the German architecture and place names so evident in French Alsace.
Ever since those days, there was a tug of war (pun intended) between the Germans and the French for this beautiful little town. In 1648 the Treaty of Munster handed part of Alsace back to France. In 1871 the Treaty of Frankfurt sees Alsace come under German rule again and a German ‘kommisar’ replaces Mayor Peyerimhoff. In 1883, French is banned from all official documents. On 23 August 1914 a French cavalry rides into town, but hesitantly retreats back into the mountains when the confrontation gets too hot! ‘Zeez French were lovers, not fighters!’ However, on 18 November 1918 the French troops moves into the city and the Tricolor once again is hoisted. It was still not the end, though. June 1940, those dark dark days in European history dawn on Europe and the German troops again annexed Colmar and Alsace. They take it so far that everybody between the ages 14 and 18 is forced to join the Hitler Youth! Then, five years later on 10 February 1945, General Charles de Gaulle marches into Colmar after the battle was one a week earlier.
May 29, 2014, my family and I ride into Colmar after a relaxing full-day road-trip of a mere 440km from Köln through some tiny little roads which included parts of the Mosel Valley, and unpack our weekend luggage. Colmar features as the second town in the recent article ‘The 23 Most Quaint Small Towns You Must Visit Before People Find Out About Them’ on sfglobe.com. So, maybe this post of mine will spoil Colmar for a few future visitors since I can now, after my visit actively promote Colmar as a worthy visit.
‘Quaint small town’, however, is a very loose term for many of these gem towns we so enthusiastically seek out. Europe is really old, as can be seen from the time-line above, which means for a destination such as Colmar, the ‘quaint small town’ is purely the centre old part of town. The village is surrounded by a large busy modern and often ugly outside city which does distract from the experience. In the ‘quaint small town’ of Colmar, we bought our groceries in one of the largest modern supermarkets E.LeClerq I have seen. The E.LeClerq chain is widely spread across France, and I always wonder whether it is the successful result of Messieur Le Clerq, the ‘often disguised as a secret onion seller’ in Allo Allo’s venture.
That centre ‘quaint small town’-part is definitely worth a visit though. It provides ample awe-inspiring old-Europe architecture, the beautiful buildings, people watching, fine cuisine and photo opportunities galore. I often regard the highly spoken of ‘flammekueche’ also known as ‘Tarte de Flambee’ in these parts as a lame effort to copy a pizza and hardly ever order that. This weekend though I was pleasantly surprised by the excellent cheeses the Colmar chefs use to dress their ‘flammekueche’ and I thoroughly enjoyed the local ‘potjiekos’ dish (its more a casserole) called ‘baeckeoffe’
or ‘baker’s oven’ (see the German in this French province). It consists of sliced potatoes, onions (bought from Mssr LeClerq, no doubt), carrots, cubed meat, predominantly beef and pork, which have been marinated overnight in Alsatian white wine and juniper berries before being slow cooked in a traditional sealed ceramic casserole. The taste is further enhanced with leeks, parsley, garlic, marjoram, thyme and time.
As I tend to do, I did drive to the real quaint towns too with a day-drive through the likes of Neuf-Brisach, Breisach, Riquewihr, Hunawihr and Eguisheim. Under the title ‘the most quaint towns’ Colmar can never be visited in isolation. To complete the experience, one has to visit Riquewihr, the fortified church in Hunawihr and the quaint Eguisheim too. Neuf Brisach is a nice to see due to the fact that the town in its entirety is still walled and moated off, but the other three are pristine examples of the feudal medieval towns where the town was build and walled off around the church and market square. Nowadays there are plenty of little bistros, cafés, bars and restaurants lining the streets amongst the ‘vinstube’, cheese merchants and in general typical local merchandise aimed at the tourist market. To complete the picture, these little villages are nestled in the midst of the famous Alsatian vineyards, which prompted me to make a note to visit the area in autumn again.
An environmental feel-good story in this part of Alsace is for sure the breeding of the storks. I remember reading a book in primary school translated from Dutch into Afrikaans as ‘Die wiel op die skool’ (the wheel on the school), which was a story about the school providing nesting to a stork. Well, that is all I remember of the story, or maybe not even. I suppose the name gave me a hint. Nevertheless, I have now seen it with my own eyes. Many a roof in Alsace, even in the centre of towns, have a wheel of some sorts on its roof, with a breeding stork happily returning the stares of the tourists in the streets below while caring for their young.
As a dog owner, the term Alsatian obviously rings an inquisitive bell. I found the explanation rather interesting. The name German Shepherd, for the Deutsher Shäferhund, a breed which obviously originated in Germany, was changed by the UK Kennel Club after World War 1 due to the belief that ‘German’ in the name would harm the breed’s popularity due to the negative sentiment towards the Germans at that time. Thus, the UK Kennel Club officially changed the name to ‘Alsatian Wolf Dog’ after the name of the French German border area of Alsace. Many other international kennel clubs used this name. The name was officially changed back to German Shepherd in 1977, though ‘Alsatian’ is still often used in parenthesis.
The camping scene in Europe is a curious but very healthy industry, which covers a wide range of different vehicles and tents. I was pleasantly surprised to find a real stove-like fireplace in our pitched tent, complete with wood and chimney through the canvass. Novel touch by the French! The most popular camping for the Europeans are definitely the motorhome (various shapes and sizes) and normal caravan. However, tiny tents, from one consisting of only a stretcher bed with a meter high tent on the stretcher to old-timer restored VW Kombis (as we know them in South Africa) and completely fitted Land Rover camper vans grace the lawns with their presence. I wonder if that Swiss Land Rover has ever put rubber to a dirt road. A number of people cycle, others travel by motorcycle and a few hitch-hike with their rucksacks if not using conventional transport. But the travel and sightseeing scene is truly alive and well in the rural areas of Europe.
So, yes, I agree with the article in http://sfglobe.com/?id=908&src=home_feed regarding Colmar. Incidentally I have also visited Annecy and can vouch for that too. And where they state in the article ‘We advise you to plan a trip before they become too crowded!’ I sincerely hope my blogpost regarding Colmar doesn’t make your planned trip too late. However, feel free to contact me for advice when you need advice or help or a chauffeur!
I am so looking forward to our summer tour to Italy in a few weeks.
The next morning was Sunday; Easter Sunday, the day of The Resurrection. We started the day with a magnificent sunrise sermon on the banks of the river Rhine, feeling the Good News and seeing His great works in nature. Pastor John and Amos were their brilliant self and fed us spiritually before the men fed us with pancakes, bacon and syrup, the way the Americans have breakfast.
Click on the photos to enlarge them
Then we hit the road.
It was mid-April and the ‘Tulips from Amsterdam’ were standing tall, flowering in their full splendour and we were in the mood for some iPod ‘Ek-en-jy-en-die-highway’-family time on the road again. Thus, westward bound we took off with an initial stop logged as Lisse, the hometown of Keukenhof and the Tulip. We’ve been there before and were not interested in doing the entire garden walk again. We just needed a reason to drive a few 100 kilometers, see some Dutch ‘platteland’ (pun intended) and then see where the road will take us after that.
Keukenhof is beautiful (see my post ‘Tulips from Amsterdam’ dated 19 April 2012) but it is so crowded that one visit somewhere in your life is probably enough. However, do that one visit, if you’re in the area.
This trip was one of those ‘drive in a general direction’ type trips. No specific destination in mind, just see what you’ll find to see. And for this, you need to get off the highways and tread on ‘de smalle weg’. The thing is, we’re in Europe. Its been decadently civilised for many years. Even ‘de smalle weg’ here is a tarred road, with plenty of civil engineering ingenuity to ease up the going! And that’s exactly what we found at Deltapark Neeltje Jans.
However, before reaching Neeltje Jans, I felt quite at home with the day’s drive. We missed Amersfoort but passed Utrecht, Dordrecht, Breda, Roosendal and Middelburg. Dundee was unfortunately over the channel in Scotland.
Neeltje Jans is an artificial island halfway between Noord Beveland and Schouwen Duivenland in Oosterschelde. It was constructed as part of the Oosterscheldedam, which is actually built as a storm water surge protection. After the mega floods in 1953, this well-known civil works construction was necessitated. ‘Most of Zeeland is at or under sea level. In 1953 the dikes were in poor condition and too low. In those days the chance of flooding was once in eighty years. Thanks to the storm surge barrier, this risk has now been reduced to less than once in 4000 years. Take the opportunity to visit this construction inside and outside. You will be surrounded by concrete with a 200-year guarantee, 45 meter wide steel doors are raised to let the tides rush through below them. A must to visit – a must to have seen!’ (www.neeltjejans.nl).
We were just in time for a stunning sundowner photo-shoot, amongst those monstrous wind turbines that nowadays spoil the entire European skyline. Sometimes I believe the scenic pollution of these monsters is worse than burning a few tons of good quality Waterberg steam coal. Unfortunately, we were too late to visit the museum and construction sites, which gives the added incentive that I’ll have to go there again, with better time management this time. Though we wandered (and not all who wander are lost!) through the beautiful little town at Vrouewenpolder (I’m not sure if the town’s name is actually Vrouewenpolder), we couldn’t find accommodation that late on the Sunday evening of Easter Weekend, and had no other option than to push on.
Most of the times traveling without a plan and just driving is fun. However, we were now dead tired, it was late and dark and we still had no accommodation for the night. Only option, and I dread to admit that, was to head for the Formule 1 70km southeast on the outskirts of Ghent. Formule 1 hotels are not to be recommended as accommodation. However, if you arrive there after 23:00, need a shower and a bed and plan to hit the road by 08:00; it enables you to see places. In that case, its fine, if you can bare the smell of smoke in the carpets and duvets.
Bruges is beautiful, its clean, its fascinating and has great architecture with the prominent Belfry of Bruges being the most famous. It was famous long before Collin Farrel were even born, as this fascinating bell tower was originally constructed in 1240.
The ‘little red brickwork’ architecture in this part of Europe must be extremely inspiring for an architect to visit, photograph, copy or simply just admire. I loved our morning ‘in Bruges’. I just hate those plastic silly traveling merry-go-round fun park junk Europe allows on all its magnificent old town squares. No proper angle to take photos, the magnificence of the square spoiled completely by plastic clowns and little bumper cars with irritating continual music sounding worse than those ice-cream Combis from the 70s. I cannot believe in this day and age that there are still people who spend money on those.
And fancy that, being served at the restaurant, by a Belgian waiter who grew up in Rwanda and spent his first 35 years there. We were so intrigued with each other’s stories and political commentary that the poor man was in trouble with a few of his other customers. Here was a man who saw serious genocide and had to escape it himself, but who also saw and experienced that magical natural beauty and splendour of the African bush to such a level that he does speak fondly about the place. But, it’s the politics he hates.
1000km in 1 day 6:22 hours and a successful sightseeing family bonding weekend behind us!
The Europeans are a classy bunch, well, mostly. The high fashions of Paris, Milan and London are well known across the globe and browsing throung the streets confirm this. At this very moment I’m sitting in Extrablatt am Neumarkt in Köln having a breakfast and I’m amazed at how well dressed every-one around me are. Scarfs, jackets, boots and cardigans of the highest quality, design and fashion are in abundance. Even jeans are wore with style so typical of European way and not in the casual way the Saffas will wear them. Its not always easy to put your finger on the exact difference, but the general look certainly is different.
But, ‘o my word’ the Europeans are bad at beach attire! The men, I specifically mean the men, are incomprehensibly bad when it comes to dressing for the beach. Let me put it clear that I find very little fault with the swimming attire the European beach-going ladies wear (or not wear). But why the men have stuck on wearing only ‘speedos’ or even worse, those tight fitting little trouser costumes with the short straight ‘legs’ sometimes even with the little fish belt and buckle, that I last wore as a five-year old boy back in the sixties, I simply cannot comprehend. As soon as a boy turns 7, the mom should put him in baggy shorts, and nothing else, and that is what he should wear to the beach for the rest of his days. But then again, its probably better for them to wear those ugly costumes, than the few (mostly guys, it seems) who wear nothing and parade around on the fringes of some normal family beaches in the Adam suits. These Europeans surely have some strange habits.
My preference, though is travel, photos and stories, not fashion. So travel I did once more during the past summer holidays. With parents visiting and us having to hit the road all the way to the Costa Brava in Cataluña, that stunning country bordering Spain,
we decided to try out the very popular RV (recreational vehicle) or camper van as they are also called, as means of transport and accommodation. I am used to camping; in South Africa, I own a 4×4 trailer and we have done many off-road camping trips to nature reserves, wild life areas such as Baviaanskloof, Marakele, Mapungubwe, Kruger National Park, Botswana and Swaziland. Take note, these are all remote wilderness type destinations, none are beach holiday ‘caravan parks’, which means the shear thought of camping in the RV in a crowded caravan park where the tent ropes of your neighbour stretches into your braai area was daunting, to say the least. I do, however, believe in trying out new things first and then decide whether its good or not in stead of just writing them off from preconceived perceptions, thus entered behind the wheel of the monster camper with some uncertain anticipation and hit the road.
Many of my travel companions in the past must have rued traveling with me, as I tend to add time and kilometres in curiosity of places and other roads than the obvious straight line. The result of this was that we added 600km to our already 1200km trip from Köln to the Costa Brava but the positive is that we were able to explore the Loire Valley of France and to witness the decadence of the royalty of 16th century France. The architecturally magnificent Chateau de Chambord being one fine example of this decadence. This castle was built for François I in the 1500’s and took 30 years to build. It was built as a ‘hunting lodge’ and apparently with money laundered from the church. Must have been some hunting party when these guys came together to shoot boar as this chateau has 440 rooms. Since it was built in the wild and for hunting purposes, the effort and cost to furnish it was so vast that it was never furnished on permanent basis. Each time it was used, everything was brought with the hunting party; imagine that! No wonder François spent only 7 weeks there in all his life, and no wonder the French revolted some 250 later.
Our end destination was Lloret de Mar (pronunciation lesson nr 14, Lloret is pronounced Joret as double ‘l’ in Spanish is a ‘j’. Disclaimer though for the Capetonians, please don’t start calling Llundudno Jundudno as it is named after a Welsch town, not a Spanish one). Lloret is a smallish town on the spectacular Costa Brava, some 70km north of Barcelona and this is where my daughter decided to spend the next 8 months to learn Spanish. I too asked the question ‘why learn Spanish in Cataluña?’ but when I saw the beauty of Lloret de Mar, any other reason wasn’t required anymore. With beaches (ignore the men in their bathing shorts for proper comprehension here), cafès, villages, parks, horse-riding and Barcelona at her doorstep, it will require some discipline to focus on the studies, thus preparing her well for what lies beyond being able to speak Spanish.
And exactly here, at Lloret de Mar, is where we camped in our RV for a week. The RV camping went well, as its very easy camping with everything in its place. Setting up camp very much consists of
park your vehicle,
turn the fridge from 12V to 220V,
stack out your chairs and table
and open a beer!
Lloret de Mar, as most of the towns on the Spanish coast, stems from old fishing towns where some remnants of the days gone by are still visible. A pristine example of the ‘old town’ still relative intact is the walled old town of Tossa de Mar, a few kilometres north of Lloret. With a sandy stretch of beach lined with multiple restaurants where the tapas, wine and beer are excellent and the view across the sandy beach from your dining table exquisite. To the south the beach is intercepted by a rocky hill with the old walled fishing town and remains of the church still beautifully preserved. Walking the inside path of this old village provides the most stunning views across the roofs of the town to the west, the sandy beach to the north and the pristine rocky seaside to the south, and when we were there, the rising full moon over the Mediterranean to the east.
We had to return home, the holiday was over, and Köln a long drive (10 hours for 450km in the August holiday traffic of southern France just to get to Lyon) away. Then the reality shock of returning home hit me and I realised that my family has now reached that first major change which happens to all families, but for which we were not nearly sufficiently prepared. We had to leave our eldest behind. Cara finished school in June and her first ‘after school’ objective is to learn to Spanish. This is why we headed to Lloret specifically, because this is where my daughter will stay for the next 8 months to learn Spanish before embarking on her university studies. It was one of the hardest parenting duties I have ever had to do, driving back home while your kid stays behind, in another country, nogal!
But then, thinking about it rationally, I realised this is exactly why we moved to Europe originally. We came here for new challenges and opportunities and this has always been a major item on Cara’s bucket list, to live in Spain, learn to speak Spanish and to work with horses. That is precisely what she is now doing. Thus, slowly but surely we are fulfilling what we set out to do, sometimes with a very serious emotional shock accompanying the reality of our decisions, but also with the gratitude and a sense of achievement overshadowing that emotional hesitation. Still, as her younger brother said when we arrived home and the visiting grandparents also left for South Africa ‘our home is suddenly weird’.
… where purple is the reigning colour, kind soft, nice smelling lavender purple! Thus you can see it can never be Prrrôôôvince as the Capetonians would so love it to be.
Rather try the correct Pgôwaañs pronunciation with your lips truly spouted for that French flair effect. And then clutch your baguette under your arm, whether you’re wearing a shirt or not, and munch on your early morning croissant (apply same pronunciation rules as above) with a good, small, strong coffee and just look, smell, drive, walk, photograph and discover the real Provence.
It’s so clichéd to try and write something extraordinary on topics such as Provence and the joys of sniffing out those little-town gems and little mountain roads since even old Julius, Brutus and the other Roman emperors spent their weekends enjoying the Provencal cuisine, baths, gladiator blood-sports, sights and sounds. Jip, this part of the world is truly part of old civilisation, which means there’s so much more to see than lavender. Don’t get me wrong on the lavender thing, though. If you plan to visit Provence, it will be worth your while to plan your visit for late in July, early August, as the spectacle of blooming lavender fields and the ripe wheat fields adjacent are right up there with the likes of Namaqualand, Cape fynbos and Overberg canola fields in springtime.
As with all quality tourist destinations, the big bugging factor is always the tourists! Here it’s obviously continuously present as well and it had me ponder the logic of a big bus tour-package rushing through rustic little roads with hordes of, …. well tourists being dropped off with a ‘be back here in 90 minutes cause there’s still plenty of places to see’ instruction from the guide with the little flag held up high. Provence is not a place for this kind of travel. Provence must be taken at leisure, with a glass of wine, something to chew on and with no fixed itinerary because you never know when you stumble onto that picnic spot that just needs to be tested with your baguette, Provencial sausages and cheeses, olives with herbs, salads and to be finished off with the local nougat for something sweet.
We were very fortunate to have the company of a sister and brother-in-law who accompanied us for a week of traveling Provence, likeminded travellers with very little emphasis on speed and plenty of focus on seeing, learning, tasting, and sipping the local stuff. This resulted in us very quickly becoming too slow and enthralled for our rough initial itinerary, so much so that I had to bully them out of a Paris and Aix-en-Provence stopover to ensure we see the rural area ‘must-sees’.
When I grew up in the 70’s and South Africa started our television broadcasting, one of the household favourites was a French translated series ‘Die meisie van Avignon’ (La demoiselle d’Avignon). South Africa was in love with the series, and probably the ‘mademoiselle’, thus I simply had to see if we could find her in Avignon, and planned our Provence trip to start there. We did not find her, but what I did find was the immaculate walled town, stunning half bridge over the Rhône River and the incredible square and Palais de Papes. This is the papal palace where the Pope Clement V and his court settled when they fled Rome due to political turmoil. From 1309 to 1377 seven French-born Popes lived in Avignon, and even after Pope Martin V returned and settled in Rome, Avignon remained to be an important cultural centre.
But way before the 1300’s this was the playground of the Romans. Though further north in Gaul some little village famously held out against the forces of the Roman Empire (with a little help and nutrition of wild boar and their druid’s magic potion), here in the south the Romans reigned supreme and build roads, aqua ducts, theatres and even an amphitheatre where they quenched their blood thirst on Saturday afternoons before going out on the town for an evening meal. Magnificent remnants of those days are still widely visible with extraordinary views from the top of the amphitheatre over the rooftops of Arles, and a beautiful roman gate at the quaint town of Saint Remy de Provence.
Many years later, here, at Saint Remy de Provence, just over the main street from the roman gate is where Vincent van Gogh voluntarily booked himself into an asylum in May 1889, just after he cut off part of his left ear in some bout of ‘eccentricity’.
Though he was obviously in despair, he continued to be extremely productive, producing more than 200 paintings in a year while living in Arles.
I get itchy for the rural areas and small roads very quickly and thus misused my position as driver cunningly by turning north-east and heading for the quieter Vaucluse area where the lavender fields were in full bloom, in abundance and surrounding age old towns of Gordes, Venasque and the amazing Abbey de Senanque. We pitched base camp in the gorgeous Malemort du Comtat. Malemort is slightly of the beaten track which means you can enjoy time away from the tour-bus tourists jumping into the frame of each and every photo opportunity, fiddling there hair into place, making themselves big into some Alexander the Great type pose just to run off to the next photo shoot, not even taking a look at what exactly was their background in the photo just snapped of them. Here we could spent two long evenings at two different venues amongst locals coming back from a hard days work and sitting down for a semi communal beer drinking evening, observing and interacting with them while enjoying the local herbs and flavours on olives, pizzas and hams (somehow I prefer the term jambon over ham for these local delicacies).
Before heading back north after a hugely enjoyable week in Provence, we had to stop in Carpentras for the weekly market day. Maybe here a tourbus dropping you off and picking you up would not have been such a bad idea due to the parking problem; such is the popularity of the market. From clothes, fish, fresh produce, meats, nougat (extremely expensive if you don’t bargain properly to the amusement of Heleen) to antique tools, baskets and even bunches of lavender are on display in huge quantities.
It was a great week, though a tiring week of traveling roughly 3000km, listening to 355 songs (trust me, I set-up the iPod playlist, it was 355 songs), having a beer or two, scratching many mosquito megabytes, blowing up matrasses, chatting in cafés, awing the lavender, following the Romans, celebrating van Gogh, dipping our toes in the Mediterranean, enjoying pizza and Provencial tastes over a glass of wine or two or six. It was a successful trip.
It was only the western part of Provence and a week was not enough.
… and yes, he’s got a cool beard, Hashim Amlaaaaa.
But greater than he’s beard was the Proteas’ visit to Amsterdam to prepare for the ICC Champions Trophy and their preparation included an ODI against the Netherlands. This provided the opportunity for many Saffas to see ‘their boytjies’ up close and live. Kitman says in 45 years it’s his first live match attendance of his team, and in Amsterdam nogal!
What an exciting and unique outing to be part of the small crowd at VRA Cricket ground in Amstelveen, in Het Amsterdamse Bos.
Sitting on the small stand (the ground has a capacity of just 4500 spectators), in this beautiful cricket setting felt like watching international cricket at the Irene Oval or some rural venue like, say Bergville or Himeville. There were obviously plenty of South African flags and colours, though most of us (yes, me too) had to wear our Springbok attire, as we don’t own Proteas clothes. Maybe, just maybe the boys will deliver in the final and bring home (err sorry, I mean take home) a trophy, which will force my hand. However, what was more enjoyable than seeing the many Saffas around the stadium was the actual Dutch support for their team in this perceived foreign game. And how the Saffas grouped their neutral friends to be South Africans for a day. In front of us sat a group of international students of which two were South African. There they were, a Swede, two Canadians, two Americans, some-one else and even a Britt, al ‘proudly’ wearing their SA flags on their cheeks. It did take explanation on the nuances of this odd game for the entire day to the Canadians and Americans but on their support for South Africa there were absolutely no doubt.
Cricket is not big in The Netherlands, though they have played cricket at this specific venue since 1939. The die-hard Dutch enthusiasts that were there are all huge cricket fans, passionately supporting their team and seriously hoping for another upset, as they have done in 1994 when they beat South Africa in an ODI. And while pondering this stunning event with my Dutch neighbour on the stands over a large local brew (reminder, the venue is set in AMSTELveen) in the very welcome and long overdue European sun, my said neighbour (to my shame I forgot his name) introduces me to a Dutch cricket legend Klaas-Jan van Noortwijk. So there I am, chatting away (as if I’m a Robin Jackman of some sorts) on the tactics, strengths and weaknesses of the 22 players in action with a guy who has scored a 4 off Allan Donald and who has gotten rid of Brian McMillan through a catch on his day. Klaas-Jan is certainly a cricketer of note; still holding the Netherlands’ individual highest score of 134 not out in the 2003 World Cup and being remembered for his 64 against England in the 1996 World Cup and obviously still a hero in the local cricketing fraternity as was evident in how often he is stopped for a few words where-ever he goes.
As with all sport, cricket can be such a cruel reality, as I am sure Dutch number 2 batsman Eric Szwarczynski (ironically born in Vanderbijlpark, South Africa) will still be thinking in weeks to come. After a brilliant spell of 98 against the current number 1 team in the world to then be run out from an excellent straight drive from your batting partner unfortunately through the fingers of Behardien, the bowler, onto the wickets to catch you out of the crease is probably the cruellest way to get your marching orders; a chance in a lifetime gone begging.
In my humble opinion (I’m not really on the Robin Jackman level of cricket knowledge) I am however worried that, though they won on the day, the Proteas are not where they should be. Thanx to JP Dumminy, who stood tall for his 150 not out the win ended as fairly comfortable, yet not too convincing. For us, however, the result was academic, as the outing, the sun, the sights and the pure delight was what made the day. This is what needs to be enjoyed when presented, results can be fixed.
While living in Europe, every opportunity must be utilised, and this was no different. We had the opportunity to buy some real Boerewors from http://www.boerewors.nl and chucked in a couple packs of ‘karnemelk beskuit’ from www.beskuitblik.nl too. Can’t leave Amsterdam with just satisfaction and a cricket win under the belt; you need something tangible too even if I clearly know it will not last very long.
My sincere thanx to the Proteas for playing this game, getting amongst the fans who don’t often have the opportunity to see them other than on the telly, but who never lose the urge to support and appreciate Proteas cricket. Now, boys, go ahead and grab that trophy, even if your current warm-up against Pakistan doesn’t look too good.
I mean, after all, …. ‘he’s got a cool beard’, you boys are feared.