Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

Although the weather may not have reflected the idyllic Italian May we had envisioned after a long, cold Northern European winter, we were not entirely disappointed. Spring was in the air, quite literally. The fragrances wafted about from jasmine hedges, flowering bitter orange trees, wet cedars and honey suckle. And wild flowers abounded around and atop the Roman ruins and throughout every country hillside.

Ah, the hillsides. Above the city of Florence and its teaming masses of tourists and students shuffling from David to the Uffizi, in the sleepy town of Fiesole, we took advantage of a generous invitation of hospitality. As much as the artistic wonders that the city contains wowed us, we were enchanted by the green hills that repeated endlessly into the horizon. Olive trees punctuated the panorama and meandering streets contained in old stone walls wound though our view from the front step. We hiked through blazed paths that led us by castles and ancient olive groves filled with red poppies, purple thistles and countless other yellows and whites and pinks in the tall grass.

Although Fiesole was only a bus ride away from the center of Florence, it provided a sigh of relief. We sat under a cafe veranda with a bottle of wine overlooking the red roof tiles packed in around the massive dome of the cathedral in the valley below. Another day, we walked up to the Franciscan monastery perched at the highest point of the town and hid under the exterior cloister while we watched a violent lightning storm submerge Florence and then race up the hillside toward us.

Amongst these scenes of natural beauty that strike memories urging us to return, we found in Fiesole smaller moments as well. At the town cemetery I was stunned (and relieved) to find a public, and clean, toilet. How thoughtful of them to consider what I assume must be the parade of devoted old ladies that hike up this hill to pay their respects. We also stopped briefly in the cemetery. Each stone held a photograph of the person remembered. Most were elderly, but not all. One stone marked the grave of a couple. His picture showed a charming young man, killed during the war. Her picture, beside his, was of a woman in her sixties, buried next to her husband, forty years later.


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Amsterdam appears to be forcefully redefining its public image. I dare to suggest that Amsterdamers themselves never had any doubt about its nature, but city officials seem intent to present a better image to the general public outside. So when a certain disreputable commentator from the United States described the city as a “cesspool of corruption and crime” (which not surprisingly makes no sense at all) two residents, supported by the local tourist bureau came out with the Youtube video “The Truth About Amsterdam.” The country then gave itself the Citymarketing Innovation Award as a little pack-thyself-on-the-back.

Less original but even more alluring to me, for the first time this year Amsterdam, the International Bulb Center and the Tulip Museum got together to plant a whole lot of tulips in public spaces, museum gardens and even a few backyards. This is their attempt “to revive the city as a tulip capital.”

Ten euros bought us a scavenger map, descriptions of the plantings and admission to some rarely seen regal Amsterdam corners. The best by far were the backyard gardens. Some of these were the central spaces behind small museums — Museum Van Loon, Museum Geelvinck Hinlopen, Prins Bernard Cultuurfonds and the Museum Willet-Holthuysen — situated in former canal-side mansions donated back in the day for their current curatorial life. 

Even more remarkable were the equally stately private homes in which Amsterdamers currently live. These included a small patio garden reached through a basement-level kitchen in perfect yellow, the mayor’s home and a dashing estate with a view of the kitchen — vintage silver and china set on display, along with the gentleman of the house eating his lunch.

Of course the biggest garden of them all is Keukenhof, which we had strolled for three hours on a previous day. Between the two tulip tours we witnesses greater shape, height, texture, saturation, density and color variety than I had ever imagined possible in a tulip. There were brand new hybrids, wild varieties and heirloom selections.

Of course, the practical Dutch included in the Tulpen Dagen Passepartout an honest caveat in the guide’s introduction: “Let’s hope they will all be in full bloom!”

They were not. A cold spring has not been overly inviting to the tulips.

But that just meant some of the most notable bulbs were the tulips’ often overlooked companion: the daffodil. This too came in many more varieties than I could have guessed. Some grew with clumps of flowers on each stem. Another in white and creamy orange was called “Butter and Eggs”. But the most memorable was the densely petaled “Narcissus odorus plenus,” which three months of high school Latin meant smelling either really good or really bad.

I took a chance. The flower rewarded generously.

Narcissus odorus plenus

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It started off as The Great Tulip Caper: Three days of biking through the bulb fields of Holland, staying at cozy bed and breakfasts and visiting charming towns, gardens and windmills. Then Iceland got involved and the trip truncated. Deftly adapting to new circumstances, my visiting friend and I rerouted a one-day excursion combining train and bike to maximize both the pedaling and flowering experience.

We opted for the bike shop located at Amsterdam Centraal. Although dauntingly heavy and ominously broken-in, not to mentioned bright red, our rides were deemed part of the adventure. After battling the ticket-purchasing process which erased any illusion Dutch efficiency, we sought out our track. Unfortunately, the entrance involved a narrow staircase with a 90-degree turn and a flood of pushy passengers who had just disembarked. Did I mention the bikes were made of iron?

With the exception of some confusion at our transfer station in Haarlem — Track 4 being located so that only Hogwarts students might guess its location — we smoothly arrived in Hillegom to a cool breeze saturated with the sweet scent of hyacinths. One more set of long steps down and we were on our way.

Both guidebooks and our biking map encouragingly print little tulips throughout the region. The late spring brought us past one field of disappointingly green tulip buds, but we pedaled on and were soon rewarded with row upon row of vibrant colors from tulips as well as hyacinths and daffodils, normally spent by this time.

The simple pleasure of biking through these fields could not be replicated by car, or certainly bus. Yes, the wind was nippy, but with so intoxicating an aroma, we envied the woman who carried her laundry out to line-dry.

Biking also enabled us to take on a late-day adventure after our long stroll through the Keukenhof gardens. With the advantage of long daylight hours, we decided to bike back to Amsterdam. 

It started off well. The Netherlands offers an incredible network of dedicated bikes lanes, often running parallel to roads, but safely separated from them. In addition, motorists plenty familiar with the concept of share the road, provide little concern in the few areas where lanes merge. We ventured off on one such path, soon finding ourselves pedaling past small homes along the side of a wide canal. Pens of sheep and gregarious horses greeted us along the way. Ducks and egrets fished in the waterways that outline every field. It was delightful.

Of course, we did not realize then that the route home would wind us around for 56 kilometers (35 miles). Nor had we come to grips with the reality of a natural feature we had considered: wind.

“I know you said Holland was flat,” my friend had written to me, “but it just occurred to me that Holland is also famous for windmills . . . WINDmills.”

We had made good time before that wall of force hit us. For the most part, the breeze had been to our backs, making the ride smooth and fast. Unfortunately, where our route redirected us into the oncoming gales was at an immensely boring stretch that circumvents the enormous Schipol International Airport.

Just when hope for a good end to the day dimmed, however, we came upon a pleasant surprise. Just past the airport, we stopped to gobble down a much-needed granola bar and examined two signs indicating Amsterdam but pointing in opposite directions. If my limited Dutch was correct, it seemed the one was via the woods or bos. After watching  a solitary jogger turn in, and thus convinced that it could not be too dangerous for two biking ladies at twilight, we followed.

The meandering, perfectly maintained paths drawn along trees and small grassy fields reinvigorated us. When we popped out in the southern outskirts of the city, our enthusiasm was more than amply restored to tackle the slightly more complex city biking. And when our last leg slipped us into Vondel Park we felt a surge of accomplishment as we pedaled past the royal residences and late-day strollers.

It ended up a great tulip caper indeed.

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Eyjafjallajokull Volcano

Tom Hanks made a move twenty years ago that quickly flopped and has become one of those jokes he charmingly chuckles about now. It was called Joe Versus the Volcano, and I loved it.

A quote from the movie quickly sums up the plot:

Joe Banks: I have less than six months to live. The Waponis believe they need a human sacrifice or their island is going to sink into the ocean. They have this mineral your father wants so he hired me to leap into their volcano.

Patricia: What?

Joe Banks: You’re not going to make me say that again, are you?

As the skies above Europe begin to fill with the familiar drone of airplane engines, it seems someone has volunteered for the job. “Take me to the volcano!”

And there ends my five-day run of “blame it on the volcano,” regardless of the nature of the problem. Slam my head into the corner of the stove vent hood again — blame it on the volcano. That email message went missing — blame it on the volcano. Google maps will not cooperate — blame it on the volcano.

Of course, there are more logical reasons to be pissed at this geological force of invisible dust. We have a friend stuck here who is unlikely to find a way home earlier than a week after his scheduled flight. There are friends coming from the other direction with a similar problem. And I have been all in a tizzy as The Great Tulip Caper has melted, day-by-day into the Tulip Caper, the Caper, and now, really just a day trip with a bike.

But the good news — for which I am grateful — is that The Great Tulip Caper, Abbreviated is on. Somewhere amidst a dissipated cloud of volcanic glass particles, my friend flies toward Holland. This means no blog posts for a few days — but plenty of fresh material next week.

But I remain a little nervous about our next set of travel plans. So far disaster has struck the transportation network on which we were dependent right before both of our extended excursions, whether it was one of the worst train crash disasters in Belgium’s history or a Icelandic volcano spitefully spewing its gripe over economic meltdown over the European continent. What next? Stay tuned.

In the meantime, a final note about Joe Versus the Volcano. Although — despite my every effort — I generally end up with the shambled look of a bag lady when I travel, I do have a fantasy love of fine luggage. I do not think it is likely to ever happen, but I smile at the picture in my mind of sauntering into an airport with a set of perfectly matching bags, preferably including a trunk. Joe, in preparing for his final voyage, found some pretty awesome suitcases, and I think that is really what I loved about the movie — its homage to fine luggage.

Joe Banks: And then I’ll be staying on a tiny island and I don’t know if I’ll be living in a hut, or what.

Luggage Salesman: Very exciting… as a luggage problem!

. . .

Luggage Salesman: This is our premier steamer trunk, it’s all handmade, only the finest materials. It’s even watertight, tight as a drum. If I had the need, and the wherewithal, Mr. Banks, this would be my trunk of choice.

Joe Banks: I’ll take four of them.

Luggage Salesman: May you live to be a thousand years old, sir.

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In preparation for The Great Tulip Caper I have been biking for about a month now. I have pedaled through outer space, several professional kitchens, a medieval church and several soccer pitches. That is to say, my exercise has been confined to a stationary bike in the living room, in front of the television or a book. To test my progress (and assess the very feasibility of The Great Tulip Caper — more about that later) we ventured out onto the road on a couple of locally rented bikes.

Fairly quickly two ideas of relief spring to mind: Holland’s tulip fields are absolutely flat, as opposed to mostly flat, and Belgians love cobblestones much more than the Dutch.

There we were pedaling through serene wooded parks, no one around but the cheering birds in the trees. Them wam, or wama-wama-wama-wama-wama-wama-wama-wama-wama. The dirt path turns into an old cobblestone lane, much to my teeth- and bone-chattering chagrin. What I had once admired as a beautiful and historic aesthetic touch to Belgium was now slamming my soft brain into the hard sides of my skull. Think I’m exaggerating? Just take a look at this video link.

But relief was soon within sight. Accompanying the Flanders bike route maps is a brochure listing each of the watering holes that your green line of progress passes through. And by water, I mean beer. In Bierbeek we selected In de Molen, which just happened to also be mentioned in someone’s Good Beer Guide to Belgium. Although an unimpressive yellow brick building from the outside, inside we sat at polished wooden tables beneath heavy wooden beams in the company of locals sipping their afternoon beer or coffee. The refreshing La Trappe Wit helped dull the bike-seat pain and hush the whirring in my ears from the parts of my brain that had liquefied. Nourished by a tiny bowl of cheese cubes, served with compliments beside your beer, we set off to further explore the local countryside.

Biking the rural landscape around our little city proved one of the best ways to casually explore its lovely bits and pieces. Past ancient farmsteads and more recent castles, we stopped and admired the green pastures, growing fields and livestock: a typical mix of cows, sheep and, of course, emus.

Emus? Yes. Emus.

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Among the advantages of our home here are the skylights. As the days lengthen they act as natural alarm clocks, dismissing the notion of sleeping in. They offer natural light to my cozy writing nook and even some added warmth on particularly sunny days. Most of all they capture beautiful snapshots of the sky that we might have otherwise missed.

These are great moments I have enjoyed since childhood. The whole family would be called outside to watch a stellar pick sunset or a blue breaking sunrise. There is something about sucking in the fresh air that makes those magical sights all the more poignant. So when the skylight gives a glimpse of an unmissable sky, I scurry out — often in slippers, occasionally in pajamas and mostly without a coat — to take it in fully.

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