After a harrowing train ride from Liverpool to Sheffield that took 5 hours because of a disabled train which caused countless delays, we finally got back to our little flat in Sheffield at 12:47 AM. We returned with wonderful memories, however.
We arrived in Amsterdam and found our way to our friend Gerry's (pronounce heddi) house 20 minutes outside of Amsterdam in a little town called Santpoort Zuid. Gerry and her sister Erika intuited our arrival and met us near the train station. We had a lovely visit with these two sisters who are also sisters of Jan (pronounce yan) Gleysteen (pronounce hleyshteen). Suzanne had been in Gerry's house before as a child for the 1967 Mennonite World Conference.
Our first day in Holland began with a typical Dutch breakfast of bread, cheese, and hagelschlag (pronounced hahilshla) -- chocolate hail (sprinkles but actual chocolate). We also tried appelstroop (pronounced apple shtroap) which is a cross between apple butter and treacle (somewhat jellyish)! The weather was cold (not too cold)-- in fact it snowed that day. We ducked into a wonderful little coffee shop in Jordaan (pronounce yordan accenting the a), the trendy part of Amsterdam, on our way to the Anne Frank house (I (Naomi) got a book out of it, it was good because if I didn't have a book I would have run out of books after reading 2 other books: Inkspell the sequel to Inkheart and No Shame, No Fear, a Quaker book about when the Quakers were persecuted; both I would recommend) . We were let in just as it was getting particularly nasty weather-wise. After reminders of Holland's sobering recent history -- specifically a reduction of the Jewish population from 140,000 to 20,000, we went on to find the Singel Kerk -- the Doobsgesind (pronounce dopskesint) Mennonite church that is situated on the Singel canal. We had learned that there was to be an informal violin, voice and piano recital. We were treated to the Frank Sonata (first movement), a set of Rachmaninov lieder, and a polonaise by Scriabin. The performers were three friends who perform together, and who also teach at the conservatory (the singer looked Italian and sang very operatically). The church is one of the hidden churches of Amsterdam -- from the front it looks like a house, but once inside, it is a large sanctuary for what today is a smallish congregation. Gerry attends there most weeks.
As we walked, we crossed one canal after the other, saw beautiful gables, and oodles of bicycles. Many were simply locked to themselves using a very large chain lock. (There are so many bicycles that there are not enough places to lock them to something.) Another interesting anecdote: As more people were driving cars in the 1960s, there evolved a problem of cars driving off the little roads into the canals. The city decided therefore to put tons of Guilders into building small rails to prevent cars from rolling off into the canals. Even today, however, at least one car falls into one canal or another every week.
From there, we found our way to the Van Gogh museum, which is a real feast for the eyes. Not all of the famous Van Goghs were there, but enough to give us a sense of his artistic evolution. A few days later, we were in Provence visiting the psychiatric hospital Van Gogh checked himself into for awhile, and saw the grounds including a flowering tree that may have inspired Van Gogh's welcome painting for his nephew (see picture of flowering tree).
The next day in Holland, Gerry drove us all over the countryside, first along the North Sea, then to see a very interesting museum that explains how the polders were drained to make up 25% of the land in Holland, the most populated area of the Netherlands. The museum is actually one of four steam pumps built in the 19th century with the help of English (Cornwall) technology. One hundred and sixty three windmills would have been necessary to pump the amount of water these four steam engines pumped over a 2 1/2 year period. Now, only three are necessary to manage the water. These have since been converted from steam to some other form of energy, leaving the fourth as an example of how these worked originally. A friendly curator started up the pump and we were able to see it in action. The water was pumped into a nearby canal that was 6 metre higher than the polder, and the whisked into the North sea. The curator did not seem particularly concerned with rising sea levels -- the Dutch have been managing their water for centuries. They will continue to adapt and maintain. Interestingly, they are returning some of the reclaimed land back to the sea -- for purposes of balancing salt and fresh water bodies.
We then went to see the windmills. The windmills were set up for tourists, and so we had our fill of clogs and cheese, as well as an interesting opportunity to see the innner workings of a peanut oil mill.
Our drive home took us through lovely countryside, glimpses of which we saw the next day at the Reijks Museum, with all the landscape and portrait paintings of the wonderful Dutch painters like Rembrandt, Steen, and Vermeer.
We took a canal boat ride, which was a nice way to see Amsterdam, but not terribly photogenic because of the window reflection. We spent most of our time on the Gentleman's Canal seeing expensive real estate with double staircases and lovely gables, the narrowest bridge and canal, the seven canals, the twin sisters. Amsterdam is full of lore in this regard.
Following this tour, we sought out the Begijnhof which is a quiet courtyard in Amsterdam. This one dates back to 1389 and in fact has a wooden house -- one that did not get swallowed up in the many fires that took most of the others. The inhabitants were, and still are women only. Originally, it was a lay Catholic community of women who took care of the elderly and the sick. There is a hidden Catholic church, as well as a church given to the Scottish Church in 1607. Queen Elizabeth II visited the "English Reformed" church recently. Today, the women residents have jobs in all professions, and are not necessarily committing themselves to a spiritual vocation. However, the old wooden house still serves a social function. It is a reference place for homeless people. None are housed here, but they are given information on where to go.
Our last day in Amsterdam was spent seeing an exhibit on Greek culture as excavated in Afghanistan. A well-made documentary explained where in Afghanistan the excavating took place. In exchange for the support the French archaelogists receive from the Afghanis, a school has been built by the French for boys and girls, and uses the site to teach about the history of the region. We also learned of what the Taliban did to the historic collection in Kabul during their reign. Thankfully, many of the pieces were saved in a hidden vault that had seven locks distributed among seven different people according to tradition. The Taliban almost found the vault, but were not able to destroy the contents as they did the contents that were left in the museum. Much of today's work is reassembling the broken pieces of statues that merge Buddhism and Greek proportions and poses.
We also wandered through Jordaan one more time and found a delightful cafe along the "Gentlemen's" Canal.
We arrived in Nice to be met by Suzanne's Oncle Jean. He drove us the 2 1/2 hours to Lourmarin, a village in the Luberon of Provence. It was magical to arrive in this very quiet medieval village at 11:30 at night. We went straight to bed and decided Miriam would have the initial honour of opening up the shutters the next morning. What a glorious day that was. We strolled through the town of Lourmarin and took countless pictures -- a photogenic little town wherever you look. We stayed at a Bed and Breakfast called La Cordiere and were warmly received by Francoise and her son Emanuel, as well as Oncle Jean who helps out with breakfast and hosting guests by orienting them to the area.
That afternoon, we accompanied Oncle Jean and a family from South Africa who is interested in buying a few hectares of land to move from South Africa along with their three children and five horses. We stopped in a very touristy and picturesque village of Baux. We were dropped off in St. Remy, where Van Gogh spent some time. The landscapes were familiar from our time in the Van Gogh museum. Artists by this time had discovered the wonderful views and lighting of Provence.
The following day, we went to Rousillon, Gordes and Vaison la Romaine. Rousillon is this amazingly pretty village where the stone houses are reddish because of the ochre mines in the area. This mineral was foundational to dyes. We then moved on to Gordes which is clearly a moneyed village. It apparently was the retreat get-away for popes while they were in Avignon. It has a castle right in the middle of the village. Many of these villages had castles, as well as one or two churches. The Protestants have left their mark on some villlages. Lourmarin, for example, has a Protestant Temple as well as a Catholic Church. In Gourdes, we gawked at the Baroque church interior, and had a delicious lunch of salmon "hamburger" -- salmon between two delicately fried potato pancakes. We toasted to Irene, who had left money for just such an occasion when she was in Geneva in February!
Miriam had seen a coffee table book of Provence at age 10 and had decided that she would like to retire in Vaison la Romaine. When Oncle Jean learned of this, he changed his itinerary and took us to Vaison la Romaine. This is an interesting town made famous in recent years by the fact that there was serious flooding that caused much damage in the new part of town. The old medieval town is up on a hill looking up to the castle at the top. It is an amazing perfect little medieval village, but the life of the town is in the new part on the other side of the river. Miriam decided it was a bit too perfect for retirement property. She will opt instead for the little house with red shutters just outside of Lourmarin.
We came back in time to catch the tail end of a concert put on by a lycee from the area. Two Lourmarin students attend there and because of this, the music groups were invited to perform in the local Protestant Temple. We walked in on a wonderful double bass, accordion and flute trio. There was also a violin quartet that played some jazzy piece. There was also a choir that sang in various styles. The final encore was a work in progress -- Besa me mucho! We were impressed by how well they were prepared as well as the variety of musical styles and the inclusion of so many different talents. The director seemed like a really wonderful guy!
On the itinerary for the following day was a bike ride in the countryside. The weather did not cooperate, however. It rained and rained, so we went to the city of Aix and saw the wealth of a larger city in Provence with tributes to its past including a fountain with "good king" Rene holding the Muscat grapes that he introduced to Provence in the fifteenth century. Further down, we saw a natural hot water fountain covered in moss that dates back to Roman times. We made a special point to see the Place d'Albertas (being from Alberta and all!) It is a place with beautiful Parisian style built by Georges Vallon for the Marquis d'Albertas.
Later, we walked up the hill to what used to be outside the city, to Paul Cezanne's atelier. Again, having seen villages like Roussilon allowed us to enter into Cezanne's landscape paintings so much more. In his atelier, we saw many of the objects of the still lifes, including fruit at various stages of freshness! (Cezanne apparently took so long to paint his paintings that fruit tended to begin rotting.)A charming cat was trying to get in out of the rain. We finished our visit in Aix with a Chocolat Chaud to warm us up, and a Pastis to taste a typical drink for a hot summer day.
Oncle Jean took us back to Nice (if you ever come to this area, go through Marseilles -- it is much closer) for us to catch our plane back to Liverpool. Just when we thought our trip was about over, our English hosts showed their true organizational colours when handling a disabled train. One passenger also going to Sheffield commented how third world the train system can be -- worse than India! Apparently it does not help that each train company has its own technicians, etc. Many travelers waited first seventeen, then 27, then 40 then lost track as each time the announcement appologised politely for the inconvenience. It felt as if it would never end.
Thank you, Gerry, Erika, Oncle Jean, Francoise and Emanuel for your warm welcome and generous hosting! We had a wonderful time.