Travels with Mohammed, a postscript

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If you followed Travels with Mohammed, you saw firsthand the beautiful sights and delicious meals, the skylines of Paris and Barcelona, the pristine blue of the Mediterranean Sea in Mallorca. Many of you wrote me that it was as if you were traveling with us.

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Five weeks in Europe was a grand adventure. We sat for hours in cafes, savored the red sandstone cathedral in Basel, the winding streets of the Marais in Paris, the canals of Girona in Spain. We drove from hill town to hill town in Provence, chasing one magnificent vista after the next. We even swam in that salty, blue Mediterranean and hitchhiked from the beach back to the town of Deia. We went without package deals or tour guides, totally on our own, free to wander to our hearts’ content.

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But this “trip of a lifetime” came at a cost. Five weeks of togetherness in three countries proved challenging. All the normal travel mishaps befell us, testing our patience and our resolve to be our best selves together.

The GPS in our car didn’t work, leading to fierce arguments and hours of driving around Provence in circles. We didn’t know that Perpignan had two train stations, one for the high speed TGV, another for regional trains. We couldn’t find the rental car return, which was buried on the second level of a parking garage attached to the station. We came within moments of missing our train, shouting at each other in the elevator, saved only because the train was late. I came down with a dreadful cold, and Mohammed spent our first day in Girona sightseeing alone. Suddenly, we couldn’t seem to agree on which restaurant to choose for dinner, let alone the next logistical challenge of our itinerary.

I could go on, but if you’ve done any independent travel, these things have happened to you too. By the time we got home, our relationship was hanging by a thread. When I describe this to friends, they just laugh, and tell me their own travel horror stories. Some couples seem to take travel stress in stride, and find ways to repair the cracks. We tried. But it didn’t work. And so, with great sadness, Mohammed and I have parted company after 18 months, some of the happiest of my life.

I had no idea that being together 24/7 for 38 days would lead to the dissolution of our relationship. I wish it hadn’t. But I can’t bring myself to regret one moment of our trip, even our fiercest arguments. We were in the moment, living life with passionate engagement, which is what makes travel so intoxicating.

A tour or a cruise would have been less stressful, it’s true. But nothing can erase the vivid memory of speaking garbled French with a woman on a park bench, or waking up to the sounds of Paris coming alive in the morning, or getting lost in the the Jewish quarter of Girona, or getting picked up by a young Spanish couple in a dinged up Honda, our skin salty from the sea, and being driven back to town. May I please do it again very soon!

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Tiny but Mighty

In France they are called Nosiettes, in Spain, Cortados, and in Portugal, Pingos. By whatever name you call them, I love them! Why? Because they are tasty, tiny, and they pack a wallop in the best possible way.

I first discovered the Noisette at Chez Janou, a Provençal restaurant in Paris. It is the perfect finish to a meal – a liquid dessert that happens to be caffeinated. One of its best features is the lovely dollop of steamed milk on top. Straight espresso is a bit too harsh for my taste, but a Noisette with hot milk and sugar – yum!

Soon after Paris, I discovered that a version of this delicious beverage also exists in Switzerland, and I had one after a delicious lunch with a dear friend in Zurich. Then we moved on to Provence, where Noisettes are sometimes served in tiny shot glasses, or sometimes in charming little cups. Anything miniaturized always catches my fancy, but combine it with the chance to caffeinate, and it is irresistible.

After a five-day stay in Provence we made a way too brief soujourn to Les Lavandou at the southern tip of the Riviera, where, once again I found Noisettes. Then we took the high speed TGV to Girona, a jewel of a small city in Catalonia. I inquired about this delicious beverage I had discovered in France and was told that the Spanish version was called a Cortado. Imagine my delight!

On top of that, there is a decaf version, so my cutoff for having a Cortado could now extend into the evening hours. I had Cortados in Girona, more Cortados in Barcelona, and there, discovered the Portuguese version called a Pingo. Portuguese espresso is slightly richer and nuttier than its French and Spanish cousins, and equally delicious.

There are an infinite variety of cups to contain this beverage, some glass, some ceramic. Typically, the ceramic version is white, but not always. Somewhere in Mallorca, I had a Cortado in a multicolored cup with a red handle. Wahoo!

Why do I wax rhapsodic about this beverage? For me, it symbolizes the cafe culture I have come to love, and which I already miss dreadfully. Most restaurants will not bring a Cortado or Noisette with dessert – it comes after. It is meant to be savored on its own.  And they most certainly will not bring you a check while you are drinking one. We had to beg for our bills after meals, and often waited up to 30 minutes to receive them.

No one in France or Spain rushes a meal, or even an afternoon snack. Eating and drinking with friends in cafes is sacred time. People think nothing of doing it for hours. What we Americans might consider wasting time, is elevated to an art form. The Noisette or Cortado or Pingo is the final brush stroke on a masterpiece. I heartily approve of this custom!

Symbolism writ large – La Sagrada Familia

You can’t walk through a centimeter of La Sagrada Familia without tripping over a symbol. I gasped when I entered the apse through a side door, along with hordes of other tourists on an overcast morning in Barcelona. It is unlike anything I have ever seen – a forest of archetypes, a symphony of stained glass.

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Mohammed and I each had audio tours so we went our own ways. Good thing, too, because I kept stopping to sit down, or turn and retrace my steps for another look a something I’d already seen. Because of the ongoing construction noise, and the chattering in multiple languages, I quickly switched to noise cancellation headphones to listen to the tour – and I was well rewarded.

Explaining that the columns actually represent trees, and the elaborate ceiling carvings a sacred canopy, or that the four main pillars supporting the nave are in honor of the four gospels, or that the main facade begun by Antoni Gaudi in 1893 pictures all of the main events in the lives of the Holy Family, only scratches the surface. This basilica, consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, is awash with artistic and spiritual symbols, and the indomitable spirit of Catalonia itself.

I say this with only a basic knowledge of the history of this region. But I’ve seen enough to realize that the Spanish Civil War – and countless earlier fights for survival and independence – have deeply imprinted Catalan culture. The fascists bombed this cathedral – thankfully Gaudi was already dead when this happened in the late 1930s – and destroyed much of what had already been built over the course of almost 60 years.

But Gaudi had left detailed plans for his successors and the work has carried on now for a total of 134 years since the foundation stone was laid in 1882 by the original architect, Francisco de Paula del Villar. A year and a half later, Gaudi took over the project, and Gaudi, to put it all too modestly, was a genius.

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Synthesize is one way of putting it. The engineering required to support the tons of rock and glass in this masterpiece boggles my brain. But the artistic vision of Gaudi and those who followed him is nothing short of other worldly.

The basilica has 4,500 square meters of space where people can worship – up to 8,000 of them. And construction crews with immense cranes are currently working on ten soaring towers – slated for completion in 2026 – 100 years after Gaudi’s untimely death in a streetcar accident. Ultimately, a total of 18 towers will announce the grandeur of this place, visible to the roiling city around it. Like cathedrals of old, La Sagrada Familia will span generations of builders.

Gaudi’s vision extended to the design of pulpits and candelabras, and even a small school to provide education for the children of the original laborers built in the shadow of the cathedral. If you visit, don’t miss a centimeter of it, including the extensive crypt where Gaudi is buried, and where his original models for the construction can be viewed, as well as a video of the dedication ceremony that raised chill bumps on my arms. The pomp and circumstance befits this spiritual and artistic masterpiece.

From the sublime to the somewhat mundane, although equally sublime – food! If you’ve been following this blog, you know I love to eat. And so does my partner. So after spending almost two hours in the basilica, we headed for a repast at Oporto, a wonderful Portuguese restaurant a few blocks from the cathedral.

Here we found peace and quiet (somehow other tourists are not yet hip to this spot) and the most amazing olives and cheese, not to mention  Portuguese dishes like Picu de Gau and traditional biscuit cake, a crunchier version of Tiramisu. Yum!

We capped our adventure with a stroll through the park at Placa de Sagrada Familia, a leafy oasis in a complex, bustling, irresistible city.

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Moody, brooding, beautiful Girona

I’m jumping ahead, but for good reason. I’m here in Girona in Catalonia now, and it’s completely absorbing. Mind blowing, even. I’ll get back and tie up lose ends in Switzerland and France later. For now, I’m a complete fool for this city. Every time I vow to stop taking pictures, I turn a corner and fall into a new well of beauty. Each new sight makes me gasp and reach for the iPhone.

Girona is called the “Venice of Spain” and for good reason. Four rivers converge here. The Rio Onyar is the most visible to tourists. After two days walking this town, Mohammed and I have crossed and recrossed it several dozen times. Each bridge over the river has its own unique character, the most prominent being Pont de Pedra, but I love them all!

Taking architectural and historical center stage is the cathedral, not to be outdone by the mountains ringing the city.

Today, we walked the massive wall that surrounds the city – I mean on top of it – this wall is the High Line of Europe and has been beautifully reclaimed in key places where it had begun to crumble. Whoever is in charge of preserving historical monuments in Girona – and I suspect many people have been – should be given both an architectural and humanitarian award. The beauty of this place has the power to save souls. It is certainly saving mine from the insanity of this political moment.

Every time we thought we had reached the highest point of the wall, La Muralla as it is known, we found that no, there was more, and still more, each view more breathtaking than the last.

Wandering along the Rambla de Libertad, where most tourists congregate, is a mash up of cultures, languages, history and food. Our first night here, we were fortunate enough to find our way to Divinum, one of the city’s finest restaurants, which is tucked away in a small street away from the Rambla. Here the ambience and the service are top notch, and offer a refined and creative experience  of Catalan cuisine.

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It was a romantic, warm, and uniquely Catalan welcome to Girona, a dinner we won’t soon forget, including some amazing bon bons the staff gifted us with after dessert.

But it’s sometimes the ordinary moments in ordinary settings that stick. Or, even more, the overall tone of a place. And the tone here is very different from Provence, where we last were. Unlike the sunny, open skies of that beautiful region, in Girona the sky, the river, and the seemingly unending warren of beatiful streets creates a brooding, sensual atmosphere that is uniquely Spanish. Don’t get me wrong, I love France! But Spain has a special hold on my soul.

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A day trip to Zurich

Travel can be a lonely business. In the midst of one amazing sight after another, I sometimes find myself longing for a familiar face.

Even before we arrived in Switzerland, I contacted friends who might be in the vacinity of Basel. I sent a “What’s App” message to fellow writer and former Oakland, California neighbor Lindsey Grant. Lindsey and her husband Pat Bowen live permanently in Zurich, where Pat works for Google and Lindsey writes and parents their new baby girl. I was eager to show Mohammed this beautiful city and spend some time with dear friends.

So early on a Thursday morning, we set off on the high-speed train for Zurich. We arrived speedily – 53 minutes on the TGV – and found ourselves across from the station at the Landes Museum cafe.

 

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Lake at Zurich, the Zurcher See

There, we waited until Lindsey and baby Mira arrived after a yoga class. Mira was sleeping peacefully, and enjoys being walked in her buggy over cobblestones so we strolled through Zurich’s OId Town to a lovely restaurant, La Terrase, by the lake.

Lindsey and I both started with a delicious artichoke soup and then ordered traditional Spatzle egg pasta with figs, prosciutto and pine nuts. Yum! Mohammed was more sensible and had a salad. Baby Mira calmly watched the other diners while we enjoyed our lunch, and then snuggled down into her sheepskin-lined carriage for our walk to the ferry on the Zurcher See.

After we boarded the ferry, we settled Mira, and then took turns walking along the deck looking at the amazing views of the distant Alps, the crisp white sails of the boats, and the lovely towns that line the lake. The sky was cerulean, perfectly matching the water, and the day unseasonably warm.

After we disembarked in the village of Thalwil, we walked up a steep hill and took a bus to the village of Gattikon where Pat and Lindsey live. All told, our ferry ride, bus trip and subsequent walk through the village took longer than the train trip!

But we were rewarded with so much beauty. Gattikon is growing by leaps and bounds, and where the edges of this burgeoning suburb meet the country, one finds cows and goats cheek by jowel with modern houses and amenities. It’s tidy, preternaturally green, and quintessentially Swiss – I felt like I had stepped into the pages of “Heidi.”

 

Then we walked to Pat and Lindsey’s sparkling new condo where we played with baby Mira, chatted, and caught up on our lives while Lindsey cooked us an amazing meal. Pat arrived home from work and the conversation turned to our travels, my time in Switzerland back in the late sixties, and our mutual experiences with Swiss mores and customs – that is a deep conversation!

We ended a wonderful evening by walking together to the train station, attempting to put Mira to sleep in her buggy again (it didn’t work!) and saying an all too hasty goodbye. Before we knew it, we were back in Basel, with another wonderful day behind us. Lindsey sent “What’s App” photos of the baby, and a lovely pic she took of the two of us at her dining room table. Good friends, good memories!

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A day at the Merian Garten

Time with people we love always passes too quickly. Our final days in Basel with the Metzger family went by in a blur, but it was a memorable one! So much beauty, so little time. One of the highlights was a trip to the Merian Garten, a huge tract of land donated to Basel by Christoph and Margaretha Merian and made into a wonderful family-friendly park.

Part of the larger Botanishcher Garten der Stadt Basel, this place was a surprise for me since it was created after I left Basel following my initial stay as a student in 1968-69. It is filled with secret corners, amazing plants, a little stream, and a hillside of purple flowers that stopped me in my tracks. Ingrid on her scooter, and Mohammed and I on foot, wandered from one amazing vista to the next.

The Merian estate includes a large mansion, several gate houses, a stable, and countless gardens and greenhouses, all for public use. At the back of the mansion is a very schmantzy restaurant and a lovely pond filled with lily pads and carp.

My adopted Swiss mother who is a pro at discovering and sharing beautiful places, led us through the gardens and along a path from the restaurant to another, less fancy, kid-friendly emporium where we could serve ourselves.

There, we chose our food from a sumptuous buffet, including a salad bar, a hot menu of the day, a “kinder buffet” designed for children, pastries, desserts, and infinite beverages, all hosted by Migros, the Swiss supermarket chain. We sat on an outside terrace where children and dogs were welcome, and a group of elderly residents of a nearby assisted living facility were enjoying a private dining experience in a downstairs room. It was a melange of people and food!

After coffee and dessert, we made our way home through the streets and parks of Basel, back to Adlerstrasse for a rest. The next day would find us on a train to Zurich to visit dear friends and former neighbors. More on that in another post.

Surrealism on the banks of the Rhine

Basel is full of surprises. And it is fitting that one of the twentieth century’s most surprising artists, Jean Tinguely (1925 – 1991), grew up here. Known for his avant garde sculptures that mock the machine age, Tinguely was also a painter and something of a philosopher in the “Dada” or surrealist tradition. His work is playful, ironic, and at times, menacing. Mostly, it simply delights.

When I suggested a visit to the the Kuntsmuseum, Basel’s main art museum, I could see Mohammed’s eyes glaze over. So, the Tinguely Museum in Klein Basel seemed a better choice. It proved to be a completely joyful romp!

Designed by Mario Botta, an architect from the Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, the building itself is a work of art. Set on the banks of the Rhine River, it perfectly showcases the “metamechanics” Tinguely created – everything from chairs, to chandeliers, to roaring racing cars, to cannons, and perhaps most famously, fountains.

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We arrived at the same time as a little boy and his grandmother, and he dashed through the galleries, deftly pushing the floor pedals that operate these whimsical creations. Once a pedal is pushed, the sculpture roars to life, and it cannot be restarted for a fixed period to save wear and tear. So we followed in the boy’s footsteps, led by his laughter and sing-song Basel dialect as he exclaimed over each new delight.

When the hammer came down on the head of the furry blue creature, we all cracked up. One of the guards alerted us when enough time had passed so that we could have a turn pushing the pedals and bring the kinetic sculptures to life. Mohammed was entranced. We went from gallery to gallery playing with Tinguely’s strange creations.

At last, we made our way to the cafe, where the waiter suggested a wonderful wine from the Ticino – a white Merlot  – not something I’d ever run across. It was lively, fruity yet dry, and absolutely delish!

A transplant from Sicily, our waiter now lives in Basel with his wife and six-year-old daughter, and he insisted on giving us a precious little panna cotta topped with raspberry glaze. And so we had dessert before dinner. Yum!

Thus fortified, we walked across the bridge and returned to the Gross Basel side of the Rhine. There, we found ourselves inexorably drawn back to the Goldenen Sternen for dinner on the outside terrace. Mohammed had the lamb, and I had the plate of the day, veal with traditional spatzle, a wonderful egg pasta with herbs.

We walked back to Adlerstrasse in the dusk, through St. Albans Tor, and then on the gravel path of Gelertstrasse, where Baslers walk their very well behaved dogs. Walking everywhere during our stay has taught me so much I missed about Basel in my initial year abroad. Back then, I usually took the tram. One of the delights of this trip in addition to great food, great art, and great company, has been getting lost in this delightful city.