Tails From the Vienna Woods


Western Europe

Our Swing through Spain. Part III: Toledo

The Toledo, Ohio, USA and Toledo, Spain connection is the oldest established Sister-City relationship in the world, dating to 1931, though their cultural relationship dates to the early 1800s.

As with our journey to Segovia, the Renfe high speed train whisked us to the Toledo train station in about 25 minutes, from where we caught a short bus ride into the city center.  Toledo is a medieval walled “city of three cultures,” where centuries ago Christians, Arabs, and Jews coexisted peacefully. Imagine.


Our visit to the former capital of Spain was spent wandering the narrow lanes, shopping (on a Sunday!  Yay!) admiring the architecture and soaking up the lively nature of the city. This is the Toledo train station, of “Moorish Revival” architecture style that was also visible through the city.


The Toledo Cathedral, spectacularly intricate on the interior. Alas, no photos permitted.
And the former Jewish Quarter, with its narrow and winding streets.


Toledo is a noted producer of Marzipan, and it seems, most of the lovely concoctions are made by nuns.

Too cute.

The Bisgara Gate leading to the main plaza in Toledo. In Marzipan.

A few more city scenes. Toledo, we found, is better experienced in person than through photo snaps.

The city loves its medieval history; it seemed that every fifth store sold swords, knives, and shields. No kidding.

Anna Grace and I walked out of a store to the sounds of a marching band!  The Jefferson Forest Marching Cavaliers from Forest, Virginia USA were marching through the streets of Toledo, performing a mix of holiday music and other popular tunes. The mood was festive–people lined the tiny streets while the police kept the main lanes clear for the band!  Fun!


Having spent more time shopping than anticipated (we were in search of attire for Honors Orchestra, as we had discovered Spain has more clothing stores that appeal to Anna Grace), we had to “make do” with cones of Spanish ham and manchego cheese as we raced back to catch our return train.

Before we knew it, our lovely city break was over. Like usual with our city breaks, we missed a couple of things here and there; could always have spent a little more time in one city or the other; and definitely could have benefitted from a “Spanish History for Dummies” tutorial beforehand. But isn’t that a purpose of travel, to learn and to be inspired?


Our Swing through Spain. Part II: Segovia

High speed trains whisked us from Madrid to Segovia in about 35 minutes. That is, the trains whisk passengers to the Segovia station that sits 6km outside of the city, in the middle of nowhere. Thankfully the #11 regional bus is timed to transport visitors to Segovia’s Old City in just 10 minutes.

The bus deposits visitors smack in front of the Aqueduct, the city’s signature attraction. I won’t spoil the engineering details for you except to write that they are impressive.

A few segments along the aqueduct are accessible for tourists to explore, and the underground route of the aqueduct is marked throughout the city.  Thankfully the area has not been (too) polluted with tourist tchotchke vendors.


Segovia Cathedral commands attention in the city center, and understandably so.



The cloisters were closed to visitors on our day; hence, the reflection from the door in the photo.

From the Cathedral the medieval lanes, lined with a good mix of pleasant stores and tourist crap, lead one to Alcazar, the summer castle home of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.


We have come to accept that no matter where we travel in Europe, there must be at least one major attraction that is under restoration.

The rooms are simple and with intricate, shimmering ceilings.


Anna Grace is demonstrating the proper position for the knight; the asymmetry was killing me, but I thought better than to move him.

The Throne Room. Despite this being the site where Christopher Columbus secured financing from Queen Isabella for his new world adventures, there is no mention of the meeting anywhere in the castle.

View from one of the terraces.

An inner courtyard.

An inner courtyard with charming photobomber.


Segovia had a thriving Jewish population for almost 300 years until their expulsion in 1492 by the “Catholic Monarchs,” Ferdinand and Isabella. Nice.

To our disappointment, the culinary offerings in Segovia were mostly limited to either the very pricey suckling pig (the local delicacy) or three course prix-fixe meals, both of which offered far more food than we were interested in eating. Thankfully, a menu board near the Jewish Quarter directed us to a Pakistani restaurant that we would not have otherwise spotted. And you know how we both love our curry.

After lunch, a little more wandering before catching the train back to Madrid.

Possibly the largest pimientos that we have ever seen.

Olive trees, as snapped from a train traveling 249km/hr. (~155mph).




Our Swing through Spain. Part I: Madrid

With three weeks on the winter school holiday calendar, a haphazard plan to escape the grey of Central Europe, if even for a few days, was hatched. Truth be, the grey doesn’t really bother us; Washington, D.C. isn’t all that sunny in the winter, either, but when great airfares to a typically sunny clime are available, why not soak in a little Vitamin D while you can?

Madrid was our destination. Anna Grace and I left the boys at home for a long weekend of endless college bowl games, movies and pub dinners, arriving in Spain’s capital on 1 January.

Provence, the iPhone photos.

There’s some fun stuff here!
Never far from home. In the Verona parking garage, advertisements for the other garages managed by APCOA. (Only Döbling friends will appreciate this photo.)

We were so BORED driving through Switzerland that the local Swiss folk music actually entertained us.

 Alas, we missed the running of the bulls in our Provence village by one day. Perhaps next year.

 Meringues in the window of the village boulangerie.  Only €2,50 for all that sweet, airy goodness.

 Our street.

 Jack struggled with the French version of “coffee.”

An old French Monopoly game kept Jack and Anna Grace amused on pool breaks. Spending 50.000 French Francs on a hotel was fun!

 Downtime in the yard.

 Interesting journal in one of the paper and book shops we browsed.

 Ours is not, but the sign was cute nonetheless.

A few scenes from Avignon, home to the Catholic Church before the smack down Pope-Off with Rome.

Way too many of these signs everywhere we traveled. At least the Austrians have a sense of humor about road construction.

A point of commentary. One day, in one of the markets, Tony and I overheard a slovenly, overweight and obnoxious American husband speaking to his friend on the sidelines: “I bring her to France and all she does is effing shop.” Okay, then. 
The following day, in a different market, we overheard Mr. Evolved again offering this theory to his friend. 
“We haven’t evolved too far from our hunter-gatherer time. Look at the women. Just like in the days when men hunted for food and women gathered nuts and seeds, our wives are just picking through the linens.” 

Tony recognized Mr. Evolved, too, and grabbed my elbow to steer me away before I could respond to the asshat’s statement. 
Finally, Clayton Theodore’s sad face on the evening we had begun to repack the car, sensing that his days of napping on the terrace and chasing lizards in the yard were coming to an end.
To Provence. Until we meet again.

Switzerland and the Tirol. Homeward Bound.

So, a 13 hour drive in one direction means a 13 hour drive in the return direction. By design we routed northernly through Switzerland into Austria rather than back through Italy. I am sad to write that Switzerland was BORING. We were stopped at the French/Swiss border and questioned as to where we were coming from and as to why we were transiting through the country. Really? And, we were made to purchase an annual vignette (€40) for the cross country driving pleasure.  Sorry, Switzerland, your lame driving maximum speed of 120 km/hr and your BORING, BORING, autobahn (where did you hide the Alps?) did not inspire us to return. Ever.
Four miserable hours across Switzerland (and some terrible, no good, and horrible rest station sandwiches) later we crossed into the Principality of  Liechtenstein, and then into Austria where we all enjoyed the views that Switzerland had hidden from us.
Obsteig, Austria, and our Landhaus for the evening. The food and the scenery were unparalleled. Be jealous.

Later in the evening the storm clouds moved in.

 The morning journey home through the Tirol and Salzburgland.

We paused in Salzburg for petrol. Abbey Road, Auf Deutsch?

 Homeward bound and a beautiful finish to one of our favorite European holidays ever.

Provence. We came for the food.

The Provencal market days were special. Medieval villages sprinkled like the lavender fields across the south of France erupt once or twice a week to showcase the French’s occupation with food. I already believe that I am secretly French given my own preoccupations; more affirmation came this week, when even the children did not complain about waking early to drive an hour across the Vaucluse for a market.
Seasonal products were the headliners, along with so. many. aged. cheeses. At each of the markets I ordered a small wedge or a round or two of whatever a French grandmere was requesting. We learned quickly that French grandmeres know their cheese. 
The charcuterie, terrine, and fresh meat and seafood selections were dizzying. 
Anna Grace said, “Non!” to fresh bun-bun on the grill, but watched eagerly as the Poissonerie cleaned and prepared our squid tubes fresh from Marseille for dinner one night. 
But whatever we brought home from the market, my guy was always ready to grill.
One vendor thoughtfully provided a decoder sheet for his vast and aromatic display. No donkey sausage for us; the wild boar and two rounds of cheese made for perfect pool break nibblies instead.
Provence is proud of its Mediterranean heritage, evidenced in small part by the paella available at just about every market. The paella was on par with that we’ve enjoyed at Spanish restaurants, too; and we tussled like unruly children over the fresh steamed langoustines in each take-away portion.
I have this piece of Le Crueset in my kitchen, and can only hope that someday it bears such beautiful scars.
This sign at a restaurant in one village market caught my eye.  Only the French would refer to their best chefs as “disciples” of Auguste Escoffier.
The markets offered more than food, of course. There was brocante and bric-a-brac to be had for all tastes…

…and in the case of these gorgeous seltzer bottles, I discovered my taste was “expensive.”
Savon de Marseille. “Au Lait” is my and Anna Grace’s favorite scent, and many, many blocks were tucked into the luggage home.
No surprise that the majority of my souvenirs were èpicerie. And, no surprise that I eschewed the traditional Provencal mass-produced patterns for embroidered linen from a small vendor. My only indulgence? New Laguiole to join my old Laguiole.
As for my secret French heritage? Well, I do think the lavender complements the Czech crystal and Polish ceramics nicely…

Yes, Provence is beautiful.

As the OCD travel planner for member of the family, I researched and researched and researched the “best” lavender driving routes for this holiday. A Provence tour has been on my proverbial list for an inordinate amount of time, and by gosh, I was not leaving the south of France without seeing lavender.
Well, plans be damned. The insolent lavender across Provence does not all flower at the same time (as in the “postcard” photo at Abbaye Senanque that we’ve all seen a million times). We quickly learned to be happy about this minor detail. Given the gross number of tour buses streaming about, being a week or so ahead of the summer crush was good.
Sometimes, to our delight, though, the fragrant buds presently themselves perfectly. Can you hear the bees buzzing about?
As we learned on our day drive, there is no true “lavender route.” We discovered fields of lavender here, there, and everywhere; up close and in the distance as we motored around the Luberon. Wherever we paused, though, the heady aroma of warm lavender welcomed us.
We exchanged pleasantries with fellow lavender lovers from all over Europe along our drive, too, taking turns snapping family photos. Lavender lovers are a friendly bunch!
Baby lavender!  The plants should be in full bloom next summer, and we may just have to visit beautiful Provence again.

A Grand Canyon, Ochre Cliffs, and a Tour de France Summit Point

In planning our Provence holiday, more attention was relegated to the quintessential Provence tour of lavender, quaint villages, and driving distances (returning to the villa to spend the afternoon at the pool being a high priority, as well). Little did we know, then, that our drive through the lavender fields would astound us with stunning topography…
Driving through Gorge de la Nesque. 

 Mont Ventoux in the distance, a summit point along the Tour de France route.

One of at least four rock tunnels we passed through on harrowingly narrow cliff-hugging roads. We approached this particular tunnel at the same time as a Belgian driver in a camper van, and in order that we all safely passed, mirrors were tucked in and breaths were held. One more spray of clear coat on the Volvo and we would have been in trouble. Quite the Fahrvergnügen.

How the Belgian camper van cleared these tunnels we do not know. We do suspect there were words between the Mr. and Mrs. when all was said and done, though.
And later, just before these cave cliffs we nearly collided with a tour bus. I had to reverse our vehicle a good distance back along the winding roads in order to find a space for the bus to pass without scraping our car, and came within millimeters of scratching against a rock cliff. Scary driving. We think the bus was not supposed to be on the road, as it would have been impossible for two buses to pass anywhere along the route.

Toward the end of our afternoon we spied the ochre cliffs near the village of Rousillion, spectacular against the afternoon light.

None of us could find the words to describe our day in this part of France. The photos are merely reminders; the memories will be forever. 

Shakespeare would agree: it’s a tragedy

School broke for the summer last week so the pace at home naturally slowed, as well. The children and I played tourists, watched a bit of the anti-Erdogan demonstrations across the city, and otherwise lazed around. Not quite the routine we desired for the entire summer (we were bored by Tuesday), but we knew the scene would soon improve.
By Friday, viola!  We were on the road to Provence, a last-hurrah of sorts family holiday before Jack heads to the US. ViaMichelin insisted the drive from Vienna to “only” be 13 hours, but we have experienced enough of the 8-turned-12 hour drives to Cape Cod to know that we had to parcel the travel into two days. Plus, with an almost 13-year old daughter in the house who liked the movie, Letters from Juliet, Verona seemed the perfect overnight.
The scenery changes against the blue summer sky made for an exquisite travel companion, and in good order we arrived in Verona.

Verona is an ancient city that UNESCO has on its heritage list because of its architecture, which did not disappoint. The city is compact, making it relatively easy to see the major architectural highlights in a few hours.
Did you know there are over 200 Roman amphitheaters of varying architectural integrity across Europe? This is Verona’s contribution to the tally.

Verona, some will note, is also home to a certain 14th century brownstone tucked into a courtyard with a famous balcony. Not any of these balconies, lovely to look at as they were…

…but this one at Casa di Guilietta. Though entirely a Shakespearean creation, it is believed that he was inspired by Verona to compose his tragedy, Romeo and Juliet.  Lovers and tourists flock to Juliet’s balcony; some even pay to relive the famous scene.
Truth be told, our visit to this “mecca” horrified us. The beautiful covered archway into the courtyard has been terribly defaced with “messages” to Juliet.
Railings put in place along the courtyard are dedicated to lovelocks, but of course.

For some, to our disgust, their eternal love is better expressed by a wad of chewing gum stuck to another of the courtyard walls. Ewww. The “security” people in the courtyard seem unable to stop this, for some reason.

Band-aids for the betrothed? We were incredibly disappointed in our visit, Anna Grace especially. 
Overall Verona was a charming Italian city worth our overnight stop. We found a garden pizzeria for dinner and settled in with the other restaurant goers to cheer on Italy in their World Cup match against Costa Rica. Things did not go well for Italy, though, and soon one could hear a pin drop in the garden.
Between the awful state of Juliet’s balcony and the Italian football loss, even Shakespeare would have to agree: it’s a tragedy.

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