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 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.

 

 

Tango on the banks of the Seine!

Our final day in Paris was sunny and hot. Blazingly so! Saturday’s Techno Parade 2016 meant that bridges were blocked by police barricades. A gendarme searched my backpack and when I asked in my best high school French what was going on, explained about the parade, and gave permission for me to cross.

I walked across a deserted bridge to the left bank. Unable to cross to the right bank, traffic on the left bank metastasized quickly. Cars inched along honking like angry geese, crazed motorcyclists took to the sidewalks, skittish pedestrians were assaulted by sirens and dodged cars at every intersection. Even the bicyclists were cranky!

The Boulevard St. Germain was chock-a-block with shoppers, so I dodged into a shady alley and stumbled upon a wonderful bistro, Relais Odeon, where a glass of crisp white wine and a dish of Pad Thai, French style, revived my wilted spirits. My waiter explained that the French word for a cute, small boy was “mignon,” after I mistakenly said the boy at the neighboring table was “jolie.” He asked if I thought he was mignon, and we had a good laugh, because, in his way, he was – totally adorable – even when harassed by impatient customers inside the bistro and out!

Mohammed had been exploring the Latin Quarter, and met me as I was finishing lunch. We strolled the adjoining cobblestone lane peering into shop windows, savoring the shade and relative peace.

But once we emerged on Boulevard Saint Michel, the chaos and noise were overwhelming. To escape, I descended to the banks of the Seine. Our river cruise the previous day had alerted me to places I wanted to explore. Mohammed chose to stick to the streets. So be it! I couldn’t stand another moment of the madness. And the Seine rewarded me with strolling families, lovers entangled on benches, and in the Jardin Tino Rossi  among the sculptures, dancers!

imageTango has to be the sexiest dance ever invented. People one might pass on the street unnoticed suddenly become gods and goddesses when entwined in each other’s arms, legs and feet paralleling an intimate ballet.  It was  magical, and like the moment with the birds in the Marais, totally unforgettable.

As the tour boats swept up the Seine behind the dancers, I was reminded of our river cruise the day before. We had come by guided bus tour, the one provided by the city of Paris tourist agency, and it was a bumpy, hot ride with a focus on all the major monuments, most of which have some military history or significance. I was duly awed, but a bit bored. How many times can one consider the exploits of Napoleon or the planning genius of Haussmann?

But once we reached the river and boarded our boat, everything changed. A light breeze bathed our faces and flattened our clothes. The light gilded the water, the clouds pouffed like meringue, the moment opened and expanded so that even monuments like the Eiffel Tower that have become visual cliches became stunningly beautiful.

When we had our fill of the dancers and the river that hot afternoon, it was already twilight, so we walked back across the Pont Marie and made our way to a falafel joint in the Marais. There, we ate street food and drank the only less than stellar wine of the entire trip, but it didn’t matter. I still had tango music in my step.

So back we went to our apartment to pack and organize ourselves for the train trip to Basel the following morning. More on that in an upcoming post. For now, drink in the beauty of the Seine. I am!

Walking down memory lane

Basel is a place that will always be dear to me. I first came here as a 20-year-old college student on a junior year abroad. Totally unfamiliar with the history and lore of this city, I was plunged into a world of medieval lanes, a red sandstone Munster (cathedral), an annual celebration with fife and drums corps, outsize masks, and traditional foods that lasts for a week and is a cross between Mardi Gras and an informal roast of all things proper called “Fasnacht.” I had the good fortune to live with a wonderful family, the Metzgers, and to become one of their adopted American daughters. One could call it culture shock, or love at first sight – it was both!

Returning now, 48 years later, almost to the day, I am overwhelmed and in love all over again with this quirky beautiful place. Found at the very heart of Europe, wedged between France and Germany, Basel may be one of the most unique cities on the planet. Here the local dialect is a sing-song mixture of cockney-fied German, idiomatic expressions and puns, with French words thrown in for good measure.

One is much better off not attempting high German here! English is more acceptable to the independent-minded Swiss. Basel is justly proud of its traditions, its medieval Old Town, its art museums, its famous Big Pharma (Roche and Novartis are headquartered here), its banks, and its culture, high and low.

During our first full day here, we were led to the Old Town by my Swiss mother, Ingrid, always an adventurer, who now gets around on a motorized scooter.

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Ingrid took me under her wing when I was naive but attempting to be all too worldly wise, and helped put a solid foundation under the feet of a homesick girl. The year was 1968, a time of great upheaval, and Ingrid and her husband Martin generously allowed me to become part of their young family – Katrin, Maja (after whom my lovely Maya was named) and Lucas – became my adopted siblings.

What a time we had! Looking through the old photo albums of family dinners, birthday parties, Christmas, and uncountable Sunday hikes, I feel – again and more deeply – how terribly lucky I was to land with the Metzgers on Adlerstrasse. This is my third trip  back and each time I am again welcomed like a daughter.

Ingrid took us to the Old Town via St. Alban-Tal, past the original city wall and the Paper Mill Museum which originally began producing paper in 1453.

Mohammed and I had to walk quickly to keep up! Ingrid buzzes about like a Mayfly on her scooter, pausing only for us to catch up before she zooms off again. She treated us to coffee creme at one of the most famous Basel restaurants, Gasthof zum Goldenen Sternen (the Golden Star Guest House) which sits facing the Rhine River.

Then she buzzed off home, and we wandered the streets of Basel, where I once again marveled at what good builders the Swiss are. Everything here lasts! Most of the buildings in the Old Town were constructed between the 14th and 16th centuries, yet they stand, proud as always above the river. We crossed the Mittlere Brucke  (middle bridge) over the Rhine and wound up wandering along the river, much as we had done along the banks of the Seine in Paris.

Here one finds cafes a plenty, and we stopped at the East West Hotel cafe to sit at one of the wooden picnic tables and enjoy a snack, Basel-style. We could see the traditional Basel ferries crossing the river from the Munster on the city side, or Gross Basel (literally Big Basel) to Klein Basel (Little Basel) where we sat enjoying the sunshine and an amazing apple tart.

 

Then we walked back to Adlerstrasse using the shortcuts and winding paths Ingrid had shown us, logging more than eleven miles that day. It was splendid to be back in this unique place and equally splendid to share it with Mohammed.

Sketches of the Marais

Monumental Paris – the Louvre, the Arc d’Triumph, the Eiffel Tower – inspire awe. But the neighborhoods of Paris inspire devotion. Strolling the streets, lanes, and courtyards of the Marais, we stumbled on one treasure after another. Friends had alerted me, but nothing quite prepares you for the overwhelming sensory stimulation. I felt every inch of this neighborhood in my nerve endings. It was pure pleasure!

Our day began at L’Amuse Gueule over cappuccino and a latte.

From there, we continued up Rue de Francs Bourgeois and stumbled upon a small neighborhood park, Square Charles-Victor-Langlois, where residents were eating lunch on the weathered benches. The sparrows were feasting too! Chests fluffed, these intrepid little birds hopped at our feet, but then flocked to a neighboring bench for provender.

I was hoping for a St. Francis of Assisi moment, and our neighbor generously shared his sandwich with them. It is odd, the moments that stick, and this is one of them. Completely ordinary and utterly tranquil.

Mohammed clucked at the birds, and some hopped our way, but as soon as our neighbor left the park to return to his office, they ascended to the trees behind us.

From the park, we wandered along the street, window shopping. After several detours, including the delicious Ted Baker boutique, we made our way to the Place des Voges,  the oldest planned square in Paris. Perfectly symmetrical, with four identical fountains in the four corners, neat rows of plane trees that would make an obsessive compulsive proud, and identical townhouses ringing the square, it was peopled with picnickers and sun worshippers, and one older couple reading actual printed books!

Mohammed and I had each bought sketch books and it was lovely to get out from behind the iPhone and simply observe. Here are our drawings…

By then, we were hungry! We consulted our “nearby me” options and headed to Chez Janou, a Provençal bistro, a few blocks from the square. This little treasure is tucked away in a quiet corner, with an ivy-laden patio, and some of the brightest, most delicious food we have yet sampled. And, an all-you-can-eat turine of chocolate mousse. Incroyable!

We did not order this masterpiece, but a young couple two tables over did. They offered to share, since we had sensibly ordered the peaches with rosemary, and not the chocolate. While the peaches did not disappoint, the mousse was irresistible, so we accepted two heaping tablespoons and, voila, total bliss.

After a two-hour lunch, the norm in Paris, we wandered back to the square, and then to the Musee Carnavalet. There, we took refuge on a stone bench and watched as a group of school children scattered like our earlier sparrows among the plants and textile hangings. A teacher sternly called them to order.

After a brief rest, on we went, wandering into courtyards, shops, and hidden squares. By six o’clock, we were in a haze of sensory overload, and ambled home via the Seine, totally in love with Paris “on the ground.”