Berlin juxtaposed

A scheduled dad week with a trip-on-a-whim plan landed us in Berlin a week and a half ago. A new place for all of us with the exception that PB went in college one year after the wall came down ('91- he said it's changed since then).  Berlin was on our side trip request list since planning our trip to France. I was so excited that we could make it happen. It was an easy under 2 hour direct flight  from Nice. We found a perfect hotel, Pension Peters, that had a room for 5 available. A room for 5 is rare in Europe. I called it my camp cabin because the kids were in twin beds lined up against the wall in front of the big bed. On our first morning, the hotelier recommend that we start out with a boat tour of the city. It was a perfect start in a big city. I was beside myself taking photos- the lines, shapes, colors, organic, inorganic, old, new was pumping my photo blood. I realized early on in our exploring that Berlin had so much to compare and contrast. The old versus new- history, walls, wars, economy, culture, etc. 

In Berlin, the ugly and bad things are quietly laid to rest. Most are not acknowledged. The city that once had a "death strip" for 29 years dividing it into East Berlin and West Berlin has very little physical presence today. Berlin doesn't capitalize on the ugly facts. We had to search hard for the landmark sights of modern day history's past. Like the sight of Hitler's bunker- the place that he killed himself when his control was crumbling and the Nazi book burning. One is a parking lot and the other is an unmarked window on a library plaza. 

We visited the German History Museum, ate currywurst under the tracks, walked in the street market, toured the Pergamon and ate wienerschnitzel in a beer garten.  Trying to balance the  past and present, we had several meaningful conversations  with the kids. There's a dark and disturbing past to ponder and digest and a seemingly healthy and thriving economy to understand.  Berlin has made 2 contrasting sides seamlessly  blend together. The Berliners have a pleasant outlook on life. They deserve a change for the better and we enjoyed seeing a slice of it as it's still changing in front of the world.  

the big one- market day in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

Photo eye-candy from our 30 minute Sunday morning rural drive from Avignon to visit what's known as the grandaddy of the French markets in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. I was warned several times that parking is an issue. The town is surrounded by water and the market is popular. We found a free spot for the little car and beelined straight in. Goodness gracious! Antiques, fresh produce, baked goods, clothes, hats, flowers, soap, toys..... they had it all. We looked with wide eyes, had a picnic lunch with a duck, bought some soaps and meandered the morning away. 

Provence Road Trip- Avignon & Les Baux


Early in the dark of Saturday morning, we put Wilson on a plane headed to Amsterdam. He was graciously invited to join his granddad, Joe, for a week long tulip gazing river cruise. So off he went leaving PB with his 3 girls. We opted for a weekend long road trip to Provence.  Setting our base in Avignon, we drove about 2 1/2 hours in a small, stick-shift rental car. I drove and PB navigated. Rusty- I haven't driven in 8 weeks and never-mind it's been since high school that I drove a manual car. We survived and thoroughly enjoyed our road freedom! I loved seeing all the spring blooms, buds and fresh green along the highway.

Avignon was calm and relaxed (oh almost forgot, they were having a union strike/all nighter at the Palace of the Popes). We toured the the palace our first evening before dinner.  It's the largest Gothic palace built for a newly elected Pope from the 14th century who did not want to live in Italy. It was the seat of the Catholic Church- moved from Rome for about 100 years. 

Then, the famous bridge- Pont Saint-Benezet. It's famous now because of a nursery rhyme song. We had a Raffi tape when the kids were babies, so they knew about this bridge. When it was built in the 1100's, it was strategic- one of three built across the Rhone during the middle ages.

Les Baux

We mostly drove the scenic country roads home to Nice on Monday.  We did a one hour quick stop in St-Remy-de-Provence. That town quickly impressed us. I definitely put it one my short list of places-to-rent-a-house one day. It is the town where van Gogh was hospitalized for cutting off his ear. He then painted like a mad man for his mental therapy. 

Continuing on the scenic road, we stopped at a pull off area for a steep foot climb to a lookout over Les Baux. The panoramic Alpine view was stunning and the prominence of Les Baux in the distance was impressive. Les Baux is basically a high perched castle ruin with a medieval town at its feet.  It was not at all what I expected. So well preserved, we traversed the ruins and enjoyed several of the setup medieval crafts and skills needed back in the day. We finished noting all of the educational enrichment we covered- art, history, science, language and math. Wow! Travel School road trip score!

a dad week- eze and monaco photo highlights

*If you only check out one of my photos below...... look at the last one. It shows Monaco setting up the bleachers for the Grand Prix. It's real people.

Last Wednesday, PB landed in Nice at lunchtime! Man, we were so happy to have him join us. We had meals planned in the neighborhood, close by sightseeing adventures and a weekend road trip to Provence. 

But before we did all of the above, I'm putting it down in the blog for the record (even though I'm really trying to suppress the memory) my required and assigned medical appointment at the OFII (French Immigration Office) last Thursday morning. Truth be known, I had no idea that it was a final requirement of the French visa process. I was bothered for a few days upon receipt of the appointment by email. I had lots of dramatic and detailed public/socialized medical heath clinic visions (I'll blame the nurse in me). All made me want to buy a plane ticket back home and forget about the visa need. But after some quick online research, (thank you Google) I read a few testaments and realized it wasn't so scary. My appointment was at 8:30am. Paul went with me and the kids stayed home to work on school. We left them with lunch money- I had no earthly idea how long it would take. After a cab ride there, a long line in a plain unassuming hallway, then a security, paperwork and passport check- I found myself waiting in queue for the exam. I passed! Including a chest x-ray to evaluate for TB. I was out of there in 45 minutes with my official stamp added into my passport. 

Now, I could let the fun plans begin!

We had a reservation for a dress up dinner, hard-to-get-in spot Thursday night. I had a reason to celebrate. On Friday, the kids worked on school until lunch, then we set out by bus to a hilltop town called, Eze-le-Village. Existing since ancient times, Eze caps a high peak above the coastline. Today, it survives off of tourism. From there we rode a bus to Monaco to give PB a whirlwind pass through. He loved it. The fast luxury cars were still there! I love how the crowd lights up  when they hear a loud engine rounding the corner. We left Monaco by train, and stopped off in Villefranche for a cozy dinner at sunset. They were filming a movie right outside of the restaurant's doors. I could see it from my chair. Anne Lois had to get close and stood outside of the door to watch them shoot a scene. Not sure the day could have been any more perfect.

small signs- Spring in Nice, France

We are all still donning our coats daily and running down to the beach in hopes of seeing sun bathers. I know the pollen is coating everything back home in Fairhope. So shouldn't we see the same here in Nice? Are we not paying attention? Every single day seems to have the same high and same low. The other day, Ab and I went on a walk looking for signs of spring. They were small. But, I can tell that our clothes layers are lighter. Our smiles are brighter. The days are getting longer. And the tourists are more numerous (we don't count ourselves as one of those). It's slowly warming up and I can't wait to see all the beautiful Mediterranean, summer weather loving plants shine soon. We're pretty sure spring has sprung here! 

We're almost halfway through the Travel School Project. Here's a summary-

Under the Dome, Florence- ver. II (Wilson's story)

Question: What do tourists do when they see a massive structure?

Answer: They are willing to spend money and wait in long lines just to climb it.

When you look out over the skyline of the historic city of Florence, Italy, the innumerable towers, churches, and other historic buildings from the Renaissance are all dominated by one of the greatest and most important architectural structures ever. This cathedral, so iconic and important that it simply goes by Il Duomo, or the Cathedral in English. The reason for this building's importance, however, is not its beauty, or scale, or location, or even the Renaissance artwork created by masters such as Donatello, Michelangelo, and Ghiberti. The Duomo is important because of the massive dome that sits on the colorful marble sourced in the nearby mountains. When construction on the original gothic cathedral began in 1296, Europe still had both feet in the dark ages, but as construction moved forward, so did the continent. The architects had created a beautiful basilica that evolved over the one and a half centuries as Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance slowly crept out of the shadows; the Florentines wanted to cap off their masterpiece with a beautiful dome. There was just one problem- a dome had not been built since the fall of Rome almost 1,000 years before. Luckily, Florence was home to some of the greatest minds that the world has ever known. Even without the knowledge the Romans had accumulated over centuries, an architect, named Brunelleschi, reinvented how to build a dome. Now Brunelleschi's dome is a beacon of knowledge, faith, and the Renaissance that thousands of tourists visit every year. Naturally, they all want to climb it, and of course I was in this majority.

While my family and I were walking enjoying gelato and other Italian fare we noticed one peculiar thing: the usually long line for the 463 step climb to the Cupola Santa Maria del Fiore, the official name for the apex and viewing platform of the dome, was nonexistent. Quickly realizing that now was our best chance to make the climb, my Dad, Paul, my sister, Abigail, and I headed through the side entrance of the cathedral while my mom, Kelly, and my other sister, Anne Lois stayed on the ground. The climbers made it partially up the first series of stairs and part of a spiral staircase before being impeded by a slowly moving line that moved single-file up towards our goal. When we emerged from the spiral staircase into a small room, we started to wonder how high we were and how much further we had to go. We were about to find out. That room led onto a three-foot-wide walkway that wrapped around the interior of the famed dome. The stone walkway is supported by ornate stone beams that were not very convincing. With only a railing and a plexiglass wall that prevented you from falling, but still allowed you to see the entirety of the dome, and a little less fortunately, it allowed a clear view of the cathedral floor. We made our way confidently around the walkway until suddenly we came to a halt halfway between the two doors that cut the dome in half. The delay was not all bad though- it allowed us to admire the frescoes and stained glass overhead; but, they could not hold our attention forever. Eventually, my eyes slipped down to the dizzying gap between us and the horde of tiny tourists that swarmed like bees on the cathedral floor. My eyes quickly snapped up but even the ongoing battle between demons and angels above could not distract from the long drop to the floor below. Inching back, I hugged the wall and glanced over at my dad who empathetically looked back as he came to the same realization. A nerve racking twenty minutes passed by as we wished the line would continue to move forward. Finally, the line moved forward and we stepped safely through the portal that bestowed a renewed sense of security to those who passed through. We then endured a slow second half of the climb because from that point on there was only one path for both up and down. Finally, we completed the last portion of the climb where the stairs were more related to a ladder. Coming out of the trap door on the cupola, we witnessed the breathtaking view of the surrounding city. I knew without a doubt that it was well worth the climb (time spent under the dome included). Not only the view but the inner passages and architectural features of a building that were never meant to be seen by the public eye were amazing to witness. Without a doubt, the Duomo is an architectural marvel and a treasure. 

photos by Wilson and Paul

Florence- version I (Kelly's photo share)

My version of Florence is best told by my favorite photos. A return for all of us, we stayed in a well located and nicely furnished apartment. It had a beautiful terrace on the front that faced a preserved church from the middle ages. 6 days, 5 nights. We took the relaxed tourist mode instead of our usual cram-it-all-in mode. The kids got school work done in the mornings and we'd set out for sight seeing in the afternoons. The Italian food was YUMMY! That was definitely a highlight of each day. All of us have a Florence story to share. Stay tuned for the next few blog posts and enjoy the share from the Kelly's view. 

train stop in Pisa

This week has been our Spring Break Week in Florence, Italy. We journeyed early, in the dark before daybreak to the train station in Nice on Monday. Early in our trip planning, I made a request to PB that we make a visit to the Leaning Tower. PB had been as a little boy. Other than that, it was a first and he was seeing it with fresh eyes.

Pisa once was a major sea port player in the medieval times. It was close to the Mediterranean and had the protection of being upstream by the Arno River. The city used its wealth to build it's few landmarks including the tower. Eventually, the port silted up and it left Pisa in the dry. 

The tower was built over two centuries (starting in 1173) by several different architects. It started leaning at the start and somehow with each architect's turn to fix the problems it has successfully stood un-toppled. It leans at a 15 foot vertical axis angle. In 1990, it was closed for a massive restoration and head-scratching ground strengthening attempts. Because of their success, it is open now for climbing and the city is happy because it relies on its tourists $'s. The tower's neighboring cathedral is stunning. Galilleo was born in Pisa and it's chandelier is said to have inspired him on astronomical theories while watching it swing in the church. 

Our stop off was easy and quick. We left our luggage in the luggage check at the train station, took a cab to the tower area, walked around, visited the cathedral and all but mom walked up the tower. In the next to last photo you can see the family waving down to me as I sat with the backpacks- someone had to watch the stuff! We sat down for a lunch then chugged back to the train for a 30 minute ride into Florence.