Sunday, June 20, 2010

Europe 2010 and New GoldenPup

Katrina's quick summary of our trip, given that my blogs about all of our other recent trips -- including our two-week trip to Corsica in 2007 -- are still at the work-in-progress stage, or more accurately, the hope-in-progress stage ;) ...

After a slightly frazzling start -- namely, forgetting one of our two large, 50lb bags in the trunk of our car and discovering that the only way we could get it to Europe by the time we remembered about it would cost at least 500 dollars (i.e. we did without!) -- we began our 3-week trip to Europe. We landed in Rennes, France, rented a car (for having only driven stick shift once before in his life, Michael has now become a very skilled manual driver!), and drove for about 3 hours to the northern coast of Brittany. There we stayed in a charming Chambre-d'hotes (Bed & Breakfast), where for the first time in our relationship, I got to become the speaker and the translator as Michael watched in bewildered silence as I conversed with our hosts in French (usually it is I who have silently watched the conversations between Michael and his family as they speak in Russian, in gradually diminishing bewilderment as my Russian has improved over the years)! ....

Day 1: Chateau de la Roche Jagu

Here Michael and I happened upon a "Spectacle" -- of water and glass, as it was called: it was quite interesting, though perhaps a little too mystifyingly "New Age" for us, with lots of ritualistic audience participation walking around a pond holding long glass tubes...! But there was a really interesting instrument being played during this "ceremony", made entirely of crystal tubes and water, and played somewhat like the piano, but by sliding wet fingers over the crystal, rather than pushing on hammer-like keys...

And meanwhile, the ritualistic walking had transformed into some impressive feats of yoga-like "dancing" by the two leaders...

It turns out I'm not actually that short -- I would not have been able to pass through this medieval door without the square extension on top of the arched door-frame!
And who knew that Misha was such a giant!

Day 2: Côte de granit rose (the Pink Granite Coast)

Isn't French architecture so charming?!...

Île de Bréhat: a flowery island 10 minutes away from the North shore by ferry, where no cars are allowed, and distances are given in minutes!

Abbaye de Beauport(early 13th century)

Day 3: Chateau Fort-la-Latte: a defensive castle built in the 13th century, at the same time when most of the castles in Brittany were built, in order to protect Britton independence from the growing threat of centralized French power; and Michael's favorite castle due to its impressive surroundings...

Chateau de Combourg: childhood home of famous French writer Chateaubriand (18th century), where we discovered that living in a castle might not have been a fairy-tale-come-true back in real historical life when castles were built thick and sturdy for defense (the walls are 3 meters thick!), and furnished not in the lavish aim of personal comfort, but rather dismally with damp, cold, dark rooms and towers haunted by ghosts ... (Chateaubriand himself claimed that the cat ghost who haunted his childhood room not only truly existed, but was actually just the companion of the real ghost, a lord who had died a century earlier in the same tower he would thereafter haunt, identifiable by his wooden leg....!)

Day 4: And, of course, I could not leave Brittany without exploring its mythical Celtic "landes" (moors) and forests, where the old Medieval French lais that I had been reading last semester recount of the mysterious adventures in which white deer or boar lead valiant young knights over into the "other"-world to win the love of some beautiful fairy...

And here, in the Cojoux moors, we got to see some of the prehistoric Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments (4,500-1,500 BC) that Brittany is famous for...

The charming Medieval town of Rochefort,

where we saw a horse-drawn carriage selling fresh fruits and vegetables that reminded Michael of the phrase: if the mountain will not come to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain...!

Chateau Josselin: My favorite castle, where -- because we arrived a little too late to catch the last tour -- we were kindly granted our own private tour, in which I got to practice simultaneous interpretation for Michael!

In the 11th century, this "castle" consisted only of nine defensive towers, but over the next five centuries, a much larger and more luxurious castle connecting all the towers was gradually constructed. Today, though, only a few of the original tours remain, and the history is an interesting one: the duke living in the castle in the 16th century was a Protestant, and during the terrible wars of religion in France, Cardinal Richelieu had to retaliate against this treasonous heretic. Normally, Richelieu would have had no scruples killing the duke and completely destroying the entire castle, but this particular man was actually his distant cousin, and blood ties could not so easily be forgotten.... So, he decided not to kill him, but only to destroy his castle... except that he quite admired the beauty of this Renaissance-style castle, and so decided only to destroy a few of the towers, leaving the rest intact!... lucky duke! (And later in the 19th century, the whole castle was restored and renovated in a neo-Gothic style ...)

And passing by on the way back to our Chambre-d'hote, we stopped to look at this private castle: does this chateau serve as evidence of the progress of modern geographical studies, that teach constructors NOT to build houses on the very edge of a cliff or a lake?! The variety of mold species in their basement must be quite impressive by now!

The Brittany part of out trip concluded, we spent the next day taking trains from Rennes to Cologne, Germany, where we met Michael's uncle. We stayed in his apartment for the rest of trip, spending our days traveling by bike or tram down south of the city to visit Michael's grandparents (Michael's parents and his mother's parents all immigrated out of Russian to Israel in 1993, but his father's parents and brother immigrated to Germany, lured by Germany's offer of free housing and a monthly pension as reparation for their earlier anti-Semitic crimes). There Michael played guitar, we listened to stories, and of course -- ate! We thought we had "splurged" on food and especially deserts in Brittany, where the Chambre-d'hotes provided bountiful and very sweet French breakfasts (croissants, bread with jelly, crepes with jelly, hot chocolate...) and for lunches and dinners we would enjoy crêpes and galettes (main-meal crêpes with eggs, cheese, tomatoes, onions...), but Brittany has nothing on Russian hospitality! -- you just can't say no! One day, after having already eaten breakfast at Michael's uncle's house, we came over to his grandparent's house where we could only stay for half the day. Even though we had already eaten not too long ago, his grandparents wanted us to help out in the kitchen to prepare lunch, so we entered the kitchen... and did not exit the kitchen until we had to leave their apartment four hours later! And then, getting back to Michael's uncle's apartment, we were offered to join him for his dinner! I don't think I have ever eaten so much in my life as I ate during this trip in Germany! And not only were we continually offered food from Michael's grandparents and his uncle, but every time we passed by a German bakery the delicious aroma of freshly baked pastries and pies wafted by us... As compared to other European countries, German body types are definitely those that most closely resemble Americans, and I can see why! When you go into a pastry shop in Germany, and buy some tasty-looking pastry, it's amazing how it almost always actually tastes as good as it looks!

Originally, Michael and I had planned to go on a five-day camping trip through the Austrian Alps with Michael's uncle during our stay in Germany, but unfortunately (due to our lack of most of our camping stuff in our forgotten bag in Bloomington, and to the awful weather forecast in the mountains of heavy rain and cold), we decided to cancel. Though rather disappointing, it ended up working out nicely, as we then got to spend more time with Michael's grandparents, and got to spend a few days visiting some of Cologne's surrounding castles and towns.

Our first such trip was a day-trip organized by a Russian tour group (there are apparently some million Russians living in Cologne) to explore castles along the Rhine river. Riding in a bus along the scenic river, we got to admire castle after castle, and listen to the history and legends of the area (granted, this was all in Russian, so I unfortunately missed most of the details, but Michael translated later on for me). We made several stops -- the first for wine-tasting (the valley along the rivers supports an incredibly grape-growing conducive climate) in a small medieval town where we learned about the very high standards for German wine-producing (nothing artificial allowed!), and the second for touring Marksburg Castle:

Constructed between the 13th and 15th centuries, this castle -- like all the others lining the Rhine -- was designed for defense and to charge tariffs along the river, but unlike all the other castles, it is the only one that was not destroyed by Napoleon in the 18th century to be left in ruins or subsequently renovated in the following century. Besides touring the castle and its wax museum of ancient Germanic warriors,

I also got to experience one other memorable event. Having grown up with cats, I have come to love animals with a passion, as evidenced by my decision to become a vegetarian. However, I always knew that, presumably, not all animals were as loveable, intelligent, or "alive" in a human-like way as cats are, which I assume is the usual justification people use for killing and eating them (in America at least, people would definitely object to eating cats or dogs). However, I was very surprised to discover the incredibly affectionate nature of a goat that was kept at this castle: Michael discovered that he enjoyed eating grass and flowers out of your hands, which is fun and all, but not particularly surprising. But who knew that a goat would like being rubbed and petted behind his ear so much, and would seem so sad when I had to leave!

Our last stop that night was to the city of Düsseldorf, where we joined the throngs of some million people who were celebrating the finale of a week-long Japanese festival by watching a huge fireworks display over the Rhine, and it was quite a firework display, with glittering explosions of colors and smiley-faces and the night sky shimmering with gold...

Our other trip was a two-day trip Michael and I organized ourselves by renting a car: the first day we drove to Belgium to tour the underground caves in Remouchamps, named "la merveille des merveilles" (the marvel of marvels), where we saw many impressive stalagmites, stalactites, and other rock formations, and took a boat ride through the lower, most recently formed stretch of the cave. As an aside, you can remember the distinction between stalagmites (grow up from the bottom) and stalactites (hang from the top) by the T-shape of the stalacTites (which grows downwards), and the M-shape of the stalagMites (which grows upwards). As per our tour guide, you can also use the "ants in your pants" phrase: "the ‘MITES go up, and the ‘TIGHTS (tites) come down". Afterwards, we spent the evening in the small medieval "city" of Durbuy, and toured a very unusual garden made of sculpted trees...!

The second day, we left Belgium and headed back to Germany, to visit two of the castles towering over the Moselle River: Cochem,

and Eltz:

Both castles possessed an interesting feature: a hanging mermaid winged with deer antlers, meant for good luck! (a little strange, no?!)

Michael's Uncle:


and Grandmother:

And after three and a half weeks in Europe, we returned home to be greeted by the most wonderful of welcome-backs: the meows and purrs of two very loving and very furry kitties!

And only one week later, we added a new furry to our home: a 9-week old goldendoodle we have named Hazel. (And no, he's not a girl: while apparently Hazel is commonly used as a girl's name in America, everyone who thinks that this is exclusively a feminine name should go read Watership Down -- our puppy's namesake is that of a heroic, valiant, and altogether masculine bunny!!) Here he is in his very nice, not-so-little play-pin that Michael made for him...

And finally, our first-ever, amazing vegetable garden! We've already made ten delicious salads from our very own spinach!

1 comment:

Ariel Zlatkovski said...

Nice post, Katrina! I especially enjoyed the part about your trips out of Cologne - I felt some de-javu from my last two summers in Europe, seeing those pictures! Cochem, the fireworks, the wine-growing, the topiare park - all great memories!