Provence’s Ironwork Bell Towers

Aix-en-Provence

Provence is windy.  During our trips to Provence, we saw a large number of wrought-iron bell towers.  Produced in Provence since the 16th century, they are unique to the region.   Once I saw my first one with The Luger on our trip to Avignon, I noticed them everywhere.

Near Les Baux

Their light and open framework allows the area’s strong winds, Le Mistral, to blow through them instead of blowing them over.  Their sound carries for miles.  They usually top the town hall or church, but can even top  a rampart gate.  Many of the towers have a strong Italian influence (which isn’t too surprising given Provence’s proximity to France and considering parts of the Côte d’Azur belonged to France at one time).

Vaison-la-Romaine

Aix-en-Provence

from the highway

Near Pont du Gard

The bellowers date from different eras, but most were built in the 17th and 19th centuries.  They were typically produced by local craftsmen.  Each designed and crafted the tower in their own particular style.  As a result, they vary dramatically in style.  Cool huh?

City Hall in Aix-en-Provence

St-Paul-de-Vence

On the way to Gap

Breaking Wind – Le Mistral

Provence was windy.  I’m not talking about a slight breeze.  I’m talking about a fierce, howling, incessant wind with giant gusts.  Provence is known for its ferocious, cold wind known locally as “Le Mistral” (or mistrau in Provençal).  It blows for days at a time, reaching speeds of 100 km/hr (62 miles/hr).  Some have described it as a hurricane with sunny weather.

WARNING! Please be careful during your visit, particularly if it is windy, especially near the edges of the cliffs, the Sarassine, the Paravelle towers and the Dunjon. Please keep an eye on your children! Culture Espaces accepts no responsibility. – Sign in Les Baux that translates into “if you get blown off the cliff it is your own fault.”

The result of an atmospheric phenomenon, it usually develops as a cold front moving down across France. Winter’s cold air piles up in the Alps before spilling over the mountaintops, down into the Rhône valley to the Mediterranean (towards Marseille).   It works to blows away clouds and moisture, providing towns like Aix-en-Provence with an average 300 sunny days a year. In our two trips to Provence, we experienced two rainy days.  Go figure.

Le Mistral is the single most important factor in shaping the Provence’s trees are  Provençal landscape.  Trees are permanently bent in the wind’s direction.  Vincent Van Gogh’s  swirling landscapes depict the the effects of the Mistral on the countryside.

Le Mistral flattens the grasses in the field, bends the top of the cypress trees and even in knocks over flower pots, tosses patio furniture around, tears the washing off the line, tosses garbage cans blocks away and pretty much sweeps away anything that isn’t tied down.    The howling wind even blows doors wide open and people off their feet!

When the Mistral blows, no one goes out unless they really have to.  People huddle indoors with their shutters battened; the streets are empty.  The wind becomes the topic of every conversation.   Legend has it that the Mistral will blow for one day, three, six, nine or even as many as twelve days.

Like the Föhn, people claim that Le Mistral can cause headaches, restlessness in children and even affect pets.  It makes everyone bad tempered and exasperated.  Some even claim that it causes mental instability, making people mad.  That was probably great for Van Gogh.

Le Mistral’s has positive effects on Provence and not just if you want to fly a kite, windsurf, or sail.  It blows stagnant waters dry and stopping disease from spreading.   Locals call it “mange fange” which translates into swamp eater. The Mistral’s winds drying effect on the area keeps the Rhône vines, including Châteauneuf-du-Pape, free of mildew (great for wine lovers).  The humidity in the air is blown away, leaving things dry and the view crystal clear (great for artists).

Bellinzona’s Strategic Location

Bellinzona has been a fortress since Roman times due to its strategic location.  It is located on the valley floor at the base of the great alpine passes of the St. Gotthard, San Bernardino and Lucomagno (Lukmanier).

Romans built fortifications on the spot where Castelgrande now sits.   The nearby town of Bellinzona is named not for the Italian bella (“beautiful”), but for the Latin bellum (“war”), and this truly was a medieval war zone. Several castles in Bellinzona recall a pivotal Swiss victory in 1513. With this success, the Swiss gained a toehold in Ticino.

The Duke of Milan (the Visconti family) purchased Bellinzona in 1242.  They built a new castle atop the town.  Later, their allies, the Rusconi family of Como, built Montebello up the hill.

The Swiss, invigorated by their victory over the Hapsburgs at the Battle of Sempach and wanting to protect their newly won independence decided that possessing strategic Bellinzona on the other side of the Alps would reinforce their defenses.  They began their campaign in the 1420’s.  In response, Milan’s current rulers, the powerful Sforza family, reinforced the castles and built Sasso Corbaro even further up the hill.  They also built a massive chain of fortifications that extended across the valley.

It took the Swiss about 100 years, but they won.  In 1516, Bellinzona became part of the Swiss Federation.  The Swiss did their best to ensure that they kept it.   For the next 300 years, Swiss overlords oppressed and controlled the local population.

The three castles (Castelgrande, Castello di Montebello and Castello di Sasso Corbaro) and their accompanying fortifications are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Our Introduction To The European Football Championship 2012

English: 1964 Euro-Cup. Español: Trofeo de la ...

English: 1964 Euro-Cup. Español: Trofeo de la Eurocopa disputada en el año 1964. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most Americans know football (the American kind and the other known to us as soccer), many are unfamiliar with the European Football Championship (also known as the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship, Euro 2012, the European Championship or Euro Cup).  Here, football/futball/soccer is huge.  People here are excited.  We see flags decorating balconies, viewing parties at bars, people wearing jerseys, etc. Even if people aren’t huge fans, they absorb a lot of football knowledge and culture by osmosis.  We’re enthusiastically embracing Euro 2012 as a chance to learn and are watching games.  Although I don’t think we are as enthusiastic as some fans who have been driving through Switzerland’s streets honking their horns for the past hour.

Meilleurs résultats Euro

Meilleurs résultats Euro (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s how it works.  The top two teams from each of the 4 groups (referred to as pots) move on for a single elimination tournament.  Group “B” with Germany, Holland, Portugal and Denmark, is the toughest section.  Many argue that it is the hardest group ever assembled in international tournament history.  The top two teams in each group advance to a single-elimination tournament.

According to our friends, the Euro Cup is one of the most important soccer tournaments to Europeans.  Although Americans might not be familiar with it, it is one of the world’s preeminent tournaments.    To Europeans, it is second only to the World Cup and to some, it is bigger than the World Cup.  They argue that the World Cup has some weak teams while the Euro Cup only has strong teams.   It is more important than the Olympics and the European Championships.  The Euro Cup occurs every four years, alternating cycles with the World Cup’s so that a major tournament occurs every two years.

Like the Superbowl or the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, gambling pools abound.  Most offices have several pools.  Friends make informal bets.  It’s crazy.

In Geneva, an area with many immigrants and foreigners.  Euro Cup is a chance to embrace your heritage.   Everyone supports their home country and foreign nationals here get together to watch their home country’s games.  Our friend who lives next door to a Portuguese bar reports that it is packed, loud and, um, very festive on game days.

English: UEFA European Football Championship a...

English: UEFA European Football Championship appearances by country. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Neighboring countries seem to rival each other more than non-neighboring countries.  History also may play a role.  We know more about European history than football/soccer history, so there could other explanations for rivalries.   Here are some of the rivalries:

This European  Cup has had a few controversies:

  • They had to post some of the games in Ukraine because some Polish cities (I’m looking at you Krakow) didn’t want to invest in the infrastructure and stadiums.
  • Several government officials are boycotting Euro 2012 to protest former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko‘s mistreatment in a Ukrainian prison.
  • BBC’s Panorama did an exposé on race-related soccer hooliganism in Poland and the Ukraine.  It showed disturbing images of racist taunts, violent attacks of minority students, as well as scenes of fans making Nazi salutes and chanting anti-Semitic epithets.
  • Authorities struggled to contain violence after the Russia – Poland game.

If you want to watch it in the US, a DVR is handy.  Most tournament games air in the morning in America.

We Had Fun Storming Bellinzona’s Castles

From Lugano, we took a day trip to Bellinzona.  Bellinzona’s three medieval castles (Castelgrande, Castello di Montebello and Castello di Sasso Corbaro) and their fortifications are among the most important examples of medieval defensive architecture in the Alps. These fortifications are also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Living in Switzerland, we have castle fatigue.  Poor us.  We happily forego an opportunity to see castles if they aren’t great.  My buddy Rick Steves’ has a list of Europe’s 10 best castles.  I’ve been lucky enough to see a fair number of them and some others, like Windsor Castle, that didn’t make his list.  You can’t swing a dead cat in Switzerland without hitting a castle or the ruins of one (sometimes they’re cooler than the ones still standing).   As a UNESCO World Heritage site, Bellinzona’s castles were supposed to be pretty good and they were definitely worth the trip.

Castelgrande is Bellinzona’s oldest and largest castle.  It overlooks the Old Town. They have built an ingenious elevator/stair system that allows to visitors access the castle from the rock underneath, from inside.  It beats the old school method of scaling the walls.  Castelgrande has a little museum with a cool video that documents Bellinzona’s history and the history of its castles.

Wear whatever you want, but I’d imagine that it is hard to climb the ramparts in these bad boys.

The castles of Montebello and Sasso Cobaro are up the hill above the town.  Although floods destroyed a large part of the medieval fortifications, large chunks of the immense wall remain.   You can see them the photo above.

If you were to ask an eight year-old to draw a castle, they would draw Montebello.  It looks like your stereotypical castle. We climbed the ramparts, posed on the drawbridge and enjoyed the wonderful views.  Montebello’s interior buildings contain a museum with archaeological discoveries and artifacts from Bellinzona that date back to Roman times.

Montebello’s museum also had weaponry.  I had to get a picture with the gun that was about my size.  Who in the heck was large enough to fire this thing?

Magglio, the Luger and Sneaky Pete, got disbelieving looks and thumbs up from people when we told them we hiked up to Castello di Sasso Corbaro.  It was a beautiful day and the views were even better.  From there, you could easily see the mountain passes come together just north of Bellinzona and why it was so strategically important (click here for a panoramic view).

 

Weingut Otto Laubsenstein

While the Rhine Valley is filled with wineries, when we went wine tasting in Germany, we went to Weingut Otto Laubstein in Hochstatten (in the Nahe region near Bad Kreuznach and Bad Münster am Stein-Ebernburg).  We were spoiled becasue the wine was so good.  Every wine we tasted after that, was disappointing.  Don’t get me wrong, they were fine wines, they just weren’t as good as what we had at Weingut Otto Laubstein.

It is a family business.  They have been making wines on the property since 1860 and are in their fourth generation.   Torsten Hashgagen and his wife Marita Laubenstein-Hashagen took over from her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Otto Laubstein.  We were lucky enough to meet them all.

They are passionate about it, take it seriously and are focused on quality.  When we met Torsten, he joked that quality control is his favorite part of winemaking.  Images of him enthusiastically tasting wine out of barrels popped into my mind.  Microscopes and test tubes did not.  We’ve done several wine tours and tastings, but this tour was the first time we saw a chemistry lab.  He uses the technology in his lab to gather as much information as possible about his grapes and wines as well as to compare them year after year to produce the best quality.

Torsten is committed to continuous improvement and has an exceptional focus on quality.  Signs of it were everywhere, from the small batches to exercise more control over the grapes, to the textbooks within arms reach, to being organic.  When I remarked on the books, Torsten enthusiastically opened them and told me how he still uses them and the pleasure he takes in reading about winemaking.

The winery has Ecovin designation which means that it meets strict, constantly updated (beyond regular EU or association) requirements for quality and ecological consequences.  Ecovin wineries work toward healthy ecosystems in the vineyard by conserving soil and water, encouraging beneficial insects, and refraining from using pesticides or chemical fertilizers.  Winegut Otto Laubstein sees their Ecovin (aka Bio, Organic) efforts as a part of producing superior quality wines.

They’ve even got wind power!

We got to taste some wine at the fermentation stage.  See the difference in the pictures?  The finished wine is lighter, clearer and higher in alcohol.  The fermenting wine is still cloudy and has sediment.  It was interesting to taste the wine in progress.  In case you were wondering, it tastes a lot like the finished product, but is rougher and not as clear.  The flavors aren’t as distinct.

Mr. and Mrs. Otto Laubenstien biggest treasure isn’t their winery; it is their five lovely daughters.  Three of them became Wine Queens (the only time in Germany that so many have come from the same family).   Wine Queens use their knowledge of wine growing and production to promote their region’s wine at events like fairs, business conferences, wine festivals, and openings, both at home and abroad.  Essentially, they serve as an ambassador of their region’s winemaking industry.  I learned that queen is Königin in German; it became my nickname for Marita (who still looks like a wine queen).   Torsten named their upper tier, highest quality wines “Princess” after her and her sisters.   How sweet.

The winery has a wine cellar that is over 400 years old.  It stays at a cool, constant temperature.  The old brick arch of wine cellar was beautiful and if I’d had a sweater, I would have spent hours in there taking pictures.  The wine tour ended in the wine tasting rooms (note the Wine Queens on the walls) where we drank wine and spent hours asking Torsten questions.  Torsten clearly loves his work.

So does this guy.

For When You Really Need To Go

Sometimes you really need to go.  I’m sure you can see the good at home (unless you clean house like he and his housemates did in college). Here are some photos of the bad, the ugly and the just plain interesting toilets we have seen.

Metal toilet, just like in the slammer

At a rest stop on the side of the road in France

I swear that wet stuff is how I found it and not from me.  I wasn’t about to clean it for the picture though.

When you see this, you know you are in trouble because it means that there isn’t any in the picture below

You should have grabbed your toilet paper at the entrance. Don’t learn this lesson the hard way. If you are a woman, pray that a woman comes out of the one you are entering. The men only use them for one reason. See below.

Sometimes they are more permanent like this one in London. It seems as though there are way more of these than toilets for women around. I would love a little bathroom parity. By the way, those aren’t his feet.

I guess it could be worse. This is the one in Chateau de Chillion. It just went down to the lake. Not great for swimming.

Can you guess what these holes were used for on the Swedish warship Vasa?

Along the same lines, the “throne” in the Tower of London

After seeing all of these, sometimes you will gladly fork over some money for a clean bathroom (which is a lot easier with the Euro).

Whether you call it privy, can, potty, flush toilet, bathroom, porta potty, washbasin, toilette, toiletten, lavatory, commode, throne, pot, outdoor restroom, crapper, john, wash-room, rest room, convenience, powder-room, the gents, water-closet, the lav, outhouse, latrine, the netty, the porcelain god, chamber pot, little girl’s room, the breakroom or something else, we all need them.  Hope you’re always able to find one when you need one.  Happy weekend!

Streaking Through Strasbourg

I’m a huge fan of stopping by to see something while en route somewhere else.  On our way from Colmar to Bad Kreuznach, we stopped by Strasbourg.  While we only had an hour to walk around the town, we managed to catch some of the touristic highlights.

Strasbourg is known for its river.  As we walked along the water, we studied the canals.  Le Barrage Vauban (Vauban Dam) was built in 1681.  The flood gates could be closed and the southern edge of the city flooded, in the event of an attack.  They do boat tours that looked pretty cool.  When we found the landing, a tour bus full of people moving none too quickly was boarding the boat.  We didn’t wait around for the next one.

Le Petite France is an appealing neighborhood situated on islands.  The half-timbered houses date from the 16th and 17th centuries.  It was impossible to miss the flavor of German culture that permeated the area.  This area gets decked out during the holidays for the annual Christmas Market.

Strasbourg’s gigantic gothic cathedral, Notre-Dame-de-Strasbourg, was built in the 11th and 12th centuries (although the 142 meter high spire was not finished until 1439).  It is the sixth-tallest church in the world!  I felt ant-sized next to it.

It is impressive.  Describing the exterior as ornate is an understatement.  The stone is so elaborate that it is almost lace-like.  Its stained glass windows (the Rose window in particular) are considered showstoppers.  Aficionados of churches are impressed by the giant organ, Gothic pulpit and astronomical clock.  We didn’t have time to climb the steps to the top of the bell tower to enjoy the view.  Zut Alors!

Strasbourg has long been a capital of the region.  It was bitterly fought over and changed hands between France and Germany five times between 1870 and 1945.  The Council of Europe is also located here.  For these reasons and its convenient central location) it was chosen as the location for the European Parliament.   This is as close as we got.  Again, sorry.

If Alsace’s Storks Really Do Deliver Babies, We Could Be In For A Big Surprise

We’d heard storks were the emblem for Alsace, we just didn’t expect to see two giant nests the minute we drove up to Euguisheim, our first Alsatian town.

Two nests

Storks were once plentiful in the area.  For centuries, the storks of Alsace lived among humans, building their nests on Alsace’s buildings.

They migrated every year to Africa ( mostly Mali and Mauritania), a 12,000 kilometer (7456 mile) journey.  Over the years, their  population decreased until the 1980’s, when only two pairs remained in all of Alsace.   There were several causes:

  • 90% died on the migration due to hitting power lines, exhaustion and dehydration.
  • Pesticides
  • Urban growth
  • Draining of the marshes along the Rhine
  • On the annual migration to Africa, large numbers of them smashed into power lines.
  • African droughts in their wintering habitat depleted food supplies.
  • In warring African nations, starving residents ate them.

Alsace under took a program to repopulate the area with storks.   They built stands for the nests in Alsatian trees chimney stacks and bell towers.  They also developed stork parks for breeding and raising storks.

For the first three years, young storks are kept in enormous enclosed aviaries to rid them of the instinct to migrate. Alsace took other steps to encourage their repopulation.

  • They provided addition food, in the form of fluffy, yellow, day-old chicks (they also  eat field mice, snakes, frogs and smaller birds such as sparrows).
  • Electric company developed special screens to keep the birds from nesting on poles to decrease electrocutions.
  • Between breeding seasons, they repaired deteriorating nests.
  • Residents are strictly forbidden to remove nests from their chimneys and rooftops.

Today, many storks do not make the dangerous migration and live in Alsace year round, delighting Alsatians who adore them.  Only about half of the Alsatian white stork population migrates.  Half those migrating storks travel to the traditional wintering grounds in Africa.  Others go to Spain, where open dumpsters provide easy meals.  Now, Alsace’s stork population is over 400 nesting pairs!

We visited one of the aviaries and watched storks feed their babies.  It was pretty cool.   Watching them, we could see why the people of Alsace love these majestic birds.  Not all the nests were enclosed.  It was exciting to watch the parents soar overhead.  Each time, I was so busy staring that I didn’t get my camera ready in time to get a picture.  Sorry.

Storks symbolize of happiness and faithfulness/fertility and luck.  According to legend, storks deliver new babies to their families. According to Alsatian custom, a child wanting a little brother or sister places a piece of sugar on the window ledge to attract the stork.  The hope was that it would leave the precious bundle in exchange for the treat.   In case you were wondering, we didn’t leave anything on the windowsill of our hotel room.

Visitors to Alsace, don’t have to look hard for storks (La Cigogne in French).  From souvenir shops to decorations, they are everywhere.

Colorful Colmar

I’ve been lucky enough to travel a fair amount in Europe, but never to Alsace (France) and always wanted to see it.  On the way to visit some friends in Germany, we stopped for a night.  We chose to stay the night in Colmar because it is a Rick Steves’ pick.  If it’s good enough for Rick, it’s good enough for me.  As usual, he didn’t let me down.

Alsatian towns are known for cobblestone streets, restored half-timbered buildings painted a myriad of colors and decorated with flowers.  Colmar is no exception.   Colmar is a larger than most with several distinct neighborhoods.  The Petit Venise quarter doesn’t look much like Venice (its canals don’t look much like Brugges either).  Regardless, you still want to stroll the streets and take pictures.

The “Fishermen’s quarter” is where fishermen and merchants sold fish and seafood here until mid 20th century.

Another famous neighborhood, the Quartier des Tanneurs contains tall houses with rooftop porches where Tanners dried their hides.  These tiny neighborhoods look wonderful in the summer, but are apparently also popular in the winter.  Colmar (and nearby Strasbourg) are known for their Christmas market and festive decorations.

Colmar has several unique old buildings.  The Ancienne Douane (Old Customs’s House), La Maison des Têtes (its intricate façade is ornamented with 106 heads, têtes in French), and the gothic Cathédrale Saint-Martin.

Colmar’s Museum of Unterlinden houses Matthias Grünewald‘s Issenheim Alterpiece.  Acclaimed as one of the most dramatic and moving pieces of art, it is unique and filled with iconography.   While I’m not one for most religious art, it was impressive.  The story behind it is interesting.   The religious community of Issenheim cared for the sick and terminally ill.  Depicting realistic pain, misery, Christ’s death and resurrection, analogized their suffering.

Although it might not be immediately obvious, many consider this one of the most exciting works in the history of German art!

We spent another couple of hours examining the museum’s other art, weapons, gold beer steins and other everyday objects from Alsace’s history.  From masterpieces to the everyday, it is one of the better museums we’ve seen.  Even on one of the first sunny summer days it merits a visit.  For us, the 10 most interesting things were:

  1. We saw people performing restoration work on a painting in the middle of the museum.  It was fascinating to watch them work.  I don’t think my eyesight or hand-eye coordination is good enough for that job.
  2. I stumbled into a room with a series of woodcut prints by Albrecht Durer.  I’m a fan of his and excited to see them up close.  They were pretty sweet.
  3. He liked the collection of old wine making equipment.  If you need to hide some bodies, you could definitely do in their giant wood casks.
  4. I couldn’t help but laugh at some of the suits of armor.  Just like the suits we saw at the Tower of London, there were excessively large codpieces that made me giggle and suits large enough to fit Pavarotti.
  5. He liked the old guns, swords helmets and instruments of punishment/torture.
  6. It was fun to compare the old paintings of Colmar to what we saw strolling the streets.  Some of the areas above were instantly recognizable!
  7. How could you not want to drink out of the gold and silver beer steins?
  8. Populated since the Neolithic era, the museum had archaeological finds in the basement, including burial sites replete with skeletons from Alsace.
  9. The museum itself is pretty sweet.  Housed in a former convent from the 13th century, it remains calm, orderly and detailed.
  10. Cheeky sculptures

Someone should have gone easy on the tartes

Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the French sculptor who designed the Statute of Liberty is from Colmar.  The town is justifiably proud of its hometown boy made good.  His sculptures (above) and tributes to his work decorate the town…and the traffic circles.  They are clearly proud of their hometown boy who made it to the big time.   Thanks for Lady Liberty Freddie!