Do You Also Giggle When You Say Flying Buttresses?

DSC_0516_2Every time I say “flying buttress” he laughs.  For some people, Notre Dame is a religious experience.  Our promenade around the exterior was more like a giggly experience.  Each time someone said “buttress,”  it was pronounced “BUTT-ress.”  You can’t take us anywhere.  Nevertheless, I still think flying buttresses are cool and good for more than just a laugh.


Gothic churches are tall, spacious and filled with light.  Why?  The magic of technology.  Buttresses support the walls outward force.  Pointed arches (instead of the round Romanesque arches) allowed the enormous weight of stone roofs transferring it out and not just to the walls.  Essentially, the buttresses support the weight of the roof. This made building thinner walls with windows possible.


You can see the support inside with a network of columns that become pointed.  They intersect at the top of the roof.


Nowhere can you see this more than in Paris’ Sainte-Chapelle.  Almost all the walls are windows and it is filled with light.



Happy Valentine’s Day

While Valentine’s Day isn’t anywhere close to as big in Switzerland as it is in the US, it’s still possible to find signs of it.  It’s kind of nice because there is no way I would go out to dinner in the US on Valentine’s Day.  The restaurants are too crowded and it somehow seems stilted.  Here, where things aren’t quite as commercialized (or mainstream), it’s quite nice…until you get the Swiss-sized bill and are reminded why you don’t do this very often.   Oh well, at least the chocolates are to die for.


Not Just A Ghost In The Machine – European Vending Machines

This post comes with a warning for Americans (and any other country that doesn’t display items many Americans would feel are more mature or private in public spaces).  Warning – While I took these pictures in the middle of a train station in Switzerland, but in the US (and probably other places) people consider these items to be more of an adult or private nature.


We’ve noticed that vending machines in Europe contain some things that are um, well, a bit different than what you would see in American vending machines (or at least the ones not found in truck stops).  Take a look below and see for yourself.

Yes, that is C-ICE, “Swiss Cannabis Ice Tea,” located above.  It is made from black tea hemp bloom syrup (5%), and hemp bloom extract (0.0015%) that will allegedly give you a “fantastic natural feeling.”  It allegedly has low levels of THC, but appears to be marketed more as a health drink.  We didn’t try it, but the Top Gear guys did when they visited Romania.

Please note that the pack of lighters (above) is located adjacent to a kid’s candy bar. Also for kids is Buffalo Jr., a children’s energy drink.  It doesn’t contain either Taurine or caffeine and is marketed as providing “an additional supply of energy producing L-Carnitine needed for an active life.”

Why Is Antwerp A Center For Diamonds?

We took a quick jaunt around Antwerp when we were in Belgium.  We knew that Antwerp was a center for the diamond trade, we just had no idea why.  I did some research and here’s what I learned.

Until the 18th century, all diamonds came from India. Until Europeans arrived in India at the beginning of the 16th century, they made their way to Europe via trade routes.  One of the major trade routes cut through Venice.  It became the center of the diamond trade.  Bruges was at the end of one of the trade routes. Over time, it developed into a diamond cutting center.

Image from Snatch courtesy of Columbia Pictures and SKA Films

When the Zwin silted up in the 14th century, Bruges no longer had access to the North Sea.  A lack of sea access was not good for trading and the diamond business shifted to nearby Antwerp with its burgeoning trade.  At one point 40% of the world’s trade passed through its port.

Image from Snatch courtesy of Columbia Pictures and Ska Films, taken from Rotten Tomatos.

Antwerp began pioneering new diamond cutting techniques.  Cutting is extremely important because it influences the brilliance (the sparkle) as well as the size of the stone and therefore its value.  The waste should be as minimal as possible.

Image from Snatch courtesy of Columbia Pictures and SKA Films, taken from Austin Chronicle Website

Over time other towns gained in power and prestige.  By the end of the 17th century, Amsterdam had in power to such an extent that it had a virtual monopoly on the diamond trade.  While Antwerp still cut diamonds, Amsterdam kept the best stones to be cut by local cutters.  Antwerp’s cutters got creative and brought their “A” game, transforming small and mediocre stones into higher quality gems.

When diamonds were discovered in South Africa, there was a massive influx of rough stones into Antwerp.   The industry took a hit during the depression of the 1930’s.  Many Jews were involved in the diamond trade and fled Belgium at the outbreak of the Second World War.  To keep as much of the diamonds as possible out of the hands of the Germans, many diamonds were transferred to Great Britain for safekeeping.  The diamonds were returned to their owners after Antwerp’s liberation from the Nazis.  As a result, they industry was able to get back on its feet quickly after the war.

Flawless is a book about the Antwerp Diamond Center heist in 2003. Thanks for the image Union Square Press.

In 2003, there was a successful robbery of the Antwerp Diamond Center.  I’ve included a link to a great article about it.

My Visit To Louisana And Why The Dane’s Might Be The World’s Nicest People


When we were in Denmark, I decided to go see Louisiana (not the state), a modern art museum about 45 minutes outside of Copenhagen.  I found the train station, purchased tickets and was off.   At the third stop, a creepy guy got on and sat across from me.  It wasn’t long before he was mumbling under his breath.  He tried out various inappropriate words in different languages to see which got a reaction from me.

He also stared and moaned disturbingly at the paper with pictures of Denmark’s new female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt. She’s an attractive lady, but c’mon it’s the prime minister. Show some respect.

When he realized I knew English, he continued in English.  There weren’t empty seats so, I ignored him and kept my nose in my book.  Eventually it was too much and I asked him to “please stop doing that and be quiet”.  He said “no English, no Danish”.  The liar.  He knew a plethora of choice English words; I’d just heard them.  I was so focused on looking at my book and ignoring him that I missed my stop!  Uh-oh.

I got off (so did he by the way – yuck) and tried to figure out what to do.  Luckily, there was a 7-11.  A 7-11?  Yes a 7-11, here they also serve as train stations/ticket agents in smaller towns.  A young woman was behind the counter.  I explained to her what had happened and was sure to note the words he had said about her newly elected prime minister while leafing through the paper.  She got someone to cover for her, took me to the conductor, explained what had happened and got me a free ride to the museum!  I couldn’t have been more grateful. Take my word for it, the Danes are nice. Unbelievably nice. When I saw the museum, I was blown away.  It was amazing.* *Everyone has his or her “things”. Modern art and Danish design are two of mine. I still think that anyone would be impressed by and enjoy this place.  It’s got a beautiful seaside setting, nice cafeteria and thought-provoking art.  If you take a guided tour (or can subtly follow one as I did), the guides do a great job of explaining what you are seeing and putting it in context.


A Thirty Minute Tour Of Tirano


We stopped in Tirano because it is the end point for the Berninia Express.  Most visitors to Tirano stop on their way somewhere else whether on a train journey, to ski areas like to St. Moritz or Pontresina, or on the way to Milan. On someone’s advice, we decided not to stay in Tirano, Italy, but stayed in Lugano instead.  They told us Tirano was small and Lugano offered more to see and do in Lugano.  They were right.  It has only about 9,000 inhabitants (it is still considered a city because it has walls that were built to protect it).  We took a 30-minute train tour of the town.  Although it was in a wonderful setting, our tour was enough. Here are the highlights: The Catholic shrine of Madonna di Tirano is dedicated to the supposed appearance of the Blessed Mother to Mario Degli Omodei on September 29, 1504.  Pilgrims credit the appearance to an end to a pestilence.  They have a nice plaza around the church.

The town has some pretty old buildings but their beauty is trumped by the natural beauty of the Alps that surround it.

Tirano has a river, a gorgeous setting, some tranquil sun-drenched piazzas and some ancient, winding streets.  I’m pretty sure that the food there is pretty good.  We saw lots of people out in cafes enjoying the sun.  If we head there again, I will put it to the test.


Bellinzona’s Churches


Bellinzona is probably Switzerland’s most Italianate town.  Therefore, it is not surprising that it has tons of churches.  Being the idiot that I am, I was still surprised that such a small town had so many.  Being a trading center, Bellinzona drew people from all over, including religious folk.   There are many churches and convents in the area.  The local tourist office has even developed a walking tour that covers some of the highlights.

Piazza Collegiata (also known as Piazza Grande) is one of Bellinzona’s center squares, When you step into Piazza Collegiata, your eyes are drawn to its elegant, imposing Renaissance church.  Its rich baroque interior is incredibly ornate.  Perhaps because it isn’t very large, the Collegiata dei Ss. Pietro e Stefano somehow manages to be intimate, even cheerful.

Dating from 1424, was largely rebuilt by Tommaso Rodari from Maroggia.  He was the master builder of Italy’s Como Cathedral.   Just around the corner, toward the path to Montebello, you pass ancient church buildings.

The 14th century oratory of San Rocco is known for its frescos of St. Christopher and the Virgin Mary with Christ.  These frescos are 20th century restorations, but the Chiesa di San Biagio has some originals.  The Church of San Biagio in Ravecchia, known as the red church, also has frescos.

The walk from Castello di Montebello to Castello di Sasso Corbaro provides a stunning view of the Chapel of San Sebastian (Chiesa San Sebastiano).  On a hilltop with the alps derriere and the vineyards in front, it is sunning.


Our Aixperience

We visited Aix-en-Provence and saw a knife fight.   That wasn’t the only thing we saw.

After leaving the restaurant at dusk, we strolled the streets.  Some towns roll up the sidewalks after dark; Aix does not.  It is practically mandatory to walk the streets in the evening and have a drink on cafe terraces.  Yep.  Streetwalking is mandatory.  It’s especially nice because the old town (vielle ville) is car free, easy to navigate and a manageable size.

Boulevard Mirabeau (Cours Mirabeau), is a grand avenue built on the site of the former ramparts in the 17th century.   Our favorite trees in Geneva, the plane tree, line and shade  the stately boulevard.  The overhanging trees provide much-needed shade on hot summer days.  Moss covered fountains are in the center of the avenue with stately old town houses behind the wide sidewalks.

We strolled it that evening, but went back the next morning to have coffee (and a croissant)  in the legendary café, Les Deux Garcons.  Dating from 1792, many famous people have dined here including: Picasso, Churchill, Edith Piaf, André Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre, Raimu, Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean CocteauSophie Marceau, Jean Reno, Hugh Grant and George Clooney.  It was a regular haunt of Paul Cezanne and Emile Zola.  I can see why.  The cappuccino was tasty and the croissant was wonderfully light.  It was a treat to sit and watch the world pass.

Being American, we like a fast pace and giant to do lists.  It is impossible to live like that in Aix.  It is a place to stop, enjoy the view and make the mundane wonderful.

Aix is known for its many and varied markets.  They have normal markets, local producers markets, flower markets, antiques markets and old book markets.  We visited the morning market at Place Richelme (there are also markets at Place de Verdun, Place de l’Hôtel de Ville and Place des Prêcheurs).  We picked up some fresh fruit and perused the many artisanal varieties of cheese, meats and breads.

 Aix-en-Provence is a university town (University of Provence Aix-Marseille) and filled with academics and students.  It also gets its fair share of aristocrats, people who are wealthy enough not to have to work and professionals.   It has a reputation for being a bit elitist.  If you are interested in Aix, it was immortalized by Peter Maille’s book “One Year in Provence.”

Like many other towns in the south of France (Arles, Orange, Vence), Aix was inhabited by the Romans.  They built thermal baths at Aix, Aquae Sextiae, around 2000 years ago.  Today you can visit the newer (18th-century hot-water baths) and modern spa built atop the old baths (you can see them from the lobby).

Van Gogh In Saint-Rémy De Provence


After cutting off part of his left ear in Arles, Vincent van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, a psychiatric asylum in Saint-Rémy de Provence.  The year was extremely difficult for Van Gogh.  Although he was incapacitated at times,  it was also one of his most creative periods and he produced over 150 paintings during his year at Saint-Rémy.  When he was able to paint, he produced many of his best works.  His landscapes from this period are particularly groundbreaking.

As long as he remained stable, the doctors allowed Vincent to paint and he converted an adjacent cell into a studio. Initially, he was not allowed to leave the asylum grounds.  He painted what he saw from the room (minus the bars on the window).  We saw the asylum’s walled garden replete with irises, lilacs, and ivy-covered trees. Having seen Van Gogh’s paintings, it was hauntingly familiar.

Although it’s not fancy or high-tech, the exhibits teach you about Van Gogh’s life, his mental illness, how he came to Arles, his treatment there, how mental illnesses were treated at the time and his painting.  On our way out to walk the grounds, he said that Van Gogh is now his favorite painter (I’m not sure that he had one before).

Irises exemplifies Van Gogh’s trademark vivid colors and daring brush strokes.  It was one of his early paintings there.  Influenced by Japanese wood blocks, it lacks the higher tension in his later works.  He called it “the lightning conductor for my illness” because he believed that he could avoid further breakdowns by continuing to paint.  Unfortunately this was not so and after painting this, he suffered his first major “attack” at the asylum.

Irises, 1889, Getty Center, Los Angeles

Irises, 1889, Getty Center, Los Angeles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When he was permitted to leave the grounds, he painted the nearby wheatfields, olive groves, and cypress trees of the surrounding countryside.  The Olive Trees, by Vincent Van Gogh, depicts an olive grove just outside the grounds of the asylum in Saint-Rémy.

The museum has plaques at spots where Van Gogh painted, explaining the painting and the view.  They make well-known spots easy to find.  Some spots are so iconic you immediately recognize them even without the plaques.  Seeing the olive groves or the beds of irises, we were filled with awe at Van Gogh’s ability to capture the feeling and essence of them.


Olive-trees (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We went to St. Rémy not knowing what to expect.  Although it was raining to hard to see much of the town, it was a wonderful surprise and a powerful, moving experience (kind of like Van Gogh’s paintings).  It was something we will remember forever and we even learned a little something.


Why Hiking In Switzerland Is Wunderbar


We have been traveling a lot lately, but we spent most of the summer in Switzerland.  Switzerland is wonderful in the summer.  We love it, in part, because it is a hiking mecca.  Here are some reasons why hiking in Switzerland is wunderbar.

  • cable cars
  • there is plenty of opportunity to hike above the tree line, affording breathtaking views

  • the trails are incredibly well-marked and well-maintained
  • the trails are everywhere, they criss-cross the country, including the cities
  • its cities are compact so you are out of the city into the mountains quickly
  • the views are varied
  • at the end of almost every hike, there is a crystal clear blue lake to dip your feet in

  • I have yet  to find a mountain in Switzerland where my cell phone doesn’t work
  • even at altitude, you pass many cafes where you grab a bite

  • the fountains for cows mean that you can refill your water bottle all over the place