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.  

two families' train trip to Barcelona, Spain

Last week, the Travel School Project hit the road- or tracks rather! We traveled by train for the better part of Sunday to Barcelona, Spain to spend a few days unplugged from virtual school. It was our group's first overnight trip traveling together. An adventure that had us all excited. Both families have traveled independently to Barcelona in the past, but it's been a few years for each. Barcelona is one of those European cities that you visit, leave and want to go back.  It has stayed on the top of the group's travel request list. Wilson and Camille were itching to use their Spanish language skills. They've taken 2 years of it. Never mind that Barcelona has the Catalan language too. That's an aspect blended in that can leave an entire group lost. To me, the city has a Gothic and Bohemian mix. It's playful, authentic and richly steeped in the visual arts. A goldmine landing spot for a few days of out-of-the-classroom/textbook learning. I think it's a city for the 5 senses- sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. We crammed in what we could- plus each mom catered to individual requests. Our feet hurt, we slept like rocks and scarfed as much tapas down that we could. Once again leaving us, wanting to go back. 

Examples of outside of the classroom learning Barcelona style:

  • forms of government- yes, there's Barcelona but what is Catalonian? Why is there a recognizable push to be something different? They have their own yellow and red striped flag that shows up in several of the photo below.  

  • architecture/building- a big one in Barcelona. Antoni Gaudi is the city's mastermind of Catalan Modernism. A creative genius. His work has a unique style. We visited several of the now World Heritage sights. The most famous, La Sagrada Familia, has been under construction since 1882. This is my 3rd time to visit the cathedral project over the span of 18 years. I marvel at the progress every time. Definitely an amazing place to see while still under construction. 

  • math- geometry in it's architectural glory.

  • history- Columbus sailed to the Americas for Spain. He returned to Barcelona to to report of the new land to the King and Queen. Host city of the 1992 Summer Olympics.

  • art- the main Pablo Picasso museum. Put together in chronological order. I've claimed it as my favorite art museum for years. Abigail especially enjoyed taking it in because she was too little to appreciate the last time ('12).  Gaudi's work throughout the city is covered in mosaics. Art pad drawing on the go. 

  • food culture- The Boqueria market. Ahhh- I may have eaten octopus for breakfast! It was a delicious ordering mistake- (I'll blame it on the Catalan language barrier). Outside of the Boqueria, we ate, ate and ate tapas. Spices in Spain are a delightful contrast to the bland French food palette. 

  • current events- football craze, refugee crisis, tourism and financial economy

  • language- Wilson, Camille and Elizabeth carried the non-Spanish speakers. I was shocked by Wilson's complete conversation in Spanish with our cab driver from the train station to the hotel. 

  • music- Gaudi's acoustical designs, subway and park artists


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-

grandparent week

Just as we returned late by train to Nice from our Florence trip, PB's parents had arrived the same day via plane from Jerusalem. They rented a modest studio apartment right around the corner from ours for the week.  PB had one day with all of us before he returned to Fairhope. Our week was fast, relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed. We crammed in school sessions, sunsets, shopping, eating and regional sightseeing. As much as J&M have traveled the globe, they hadn't been to Nice before. It was a treat for the kids to show them around. 

Our longest excursion was taking a 45 minute bus trip from Nice up above Monaco to La Turbie. A smallish town not heavily touristed. It holds the ancient Roman ruins known as Trophee des Alpes.  It was built as a trophy high on a hilltop for all to see by land and sea by emperor Augustus. The Romans declaration that they had conquered and ruled the lands- opening roads from Rome to Spain. The ruins have a long history of decay and stone removal/repurposing, but in the 1920's it underwent significant restoration thanks to a US investor- Dr. Tuck. There is also a simple but beautiful one room museum on site. 

Now- the truth. That day we needed new tram tickets and the machines would take our credit cards. No problem. Walk to the bus office, get tickets. Take tram to bus stop. Ok. Get off at tram stop, but where are the buses? Down the hill out of plain site. Ride bus. Kids argue as we get to the ruins (no good reason). Finish and we're having meltdowns (4 out of 6). Mom to the rescue. Buy some snacks and perk them up. Just sometimes (many times) photos don't reveal the truth. 

As our moods began to lighten, we trekked back towards Nice via bus down to Monaco to get on the regional train. I voted to get off a stop before Nice in Villefranche-sur-mer for dinner. It was sunset and a perfect way to end the day in a picturesque riviera village.  Wilson looked hard for a nice dinner spot. It was tricky. But he found a small and charming local restaurant that we all enjoyed. Afterwards, we joked and laughed our way back to the train station walking under the full moon's light.

It felt like a slice of home was with us for a week.  

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. 

laundry art- sunday stroll with a tilt shift lens

We'd all raise our hands to the statement that the past week flew by!  All of the kids are diligently plugging away at their virtual school work. It takes time. Our breaks are trips to the market for dinner food or runs for baguette sandwiches for lunches. Also, the Bullington girls started their dance classes on Wednesdays and the McGriff sailors started sail days with the Nice yacht club. Elizabeth and I have been taking turns cooking meals and rotating apartments for evening mingle time.  Slowly, we are finding our own ways to immerse into our French city. 

This past Friday and Saturday were solid rain days. Yucky wet and cold. On Sunday we returned to church and had lunch in their "hall" for a fundraising event. Afterwards, once the weather started to clear, we all did our own thing stroll style in the Old Town neighborhood. I went out walking with Anne Lois and Abigail. We wandered through the pedestrian only streets with my camera and tilt shift lens and my eyes drawn to the details of the old buildings. I wanted to title the post, "laundry art", but there's more in the photos than just laundry.  So, I'll share my faves from walking back streets and definitely selling myself as a tourist rather than a local.