Sunday, August 28, 2011

Discovering Ljubljana

Emily enjoys the Baroque facades in old town

After almost two weeks of vacation in places we'd never been, with weather worthy of California, we are feeling massively restored. What wonderful adventures we had, meeting fabulous people, staying in incredible places and viewing extraordinary landscapes. I took almost 600 photographs, as everywhere I looked there was something to seduce the eye. I will have several weeks worth of post material from on our short escape into southeastern Europe.

We begin in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Emily and Jos have a residency at the summer festival organized and run for twenty years by an old friend, Nevinka. This summer they began a first exploration of a project which will continue to develop as the months and years go on. It's called Holz, the German word for wood. They are working with an Austrian friend Lois (pronounced not in the American way but more like Loyce.) He is a master carpenter and set designer. He has worked with some very well known artists and theater companies. The three of them spent all day for a week in a room together creating an installation. It was something completely new for all of them. I will post photos and details later. In the meantime, they required some assistance in entertaining Quinn, and this was the job that fell to us. It's nice work if you can get it. And it provided a very good excuse to join them on vacation even if it is high season in our business! We rarely get away in the balmy months of the year.

Slovenia has many charms, and its capital city is one of them. Ljubljana is among the smallest European capitals, with about 280,000 residents. It is attractive and walkable, with a beautiful river running right through the middle. On the street English is not the language one hears. We always feel like we're on a real vacation when we don't often hear our own language or meet our fellow countryman around every corner. Tourists in this city are more often Italian, Austrian or German, Yet, in general, most Slovenians speak some English. At least the young, and since Ljubljana is a city of young, dynamic individuals, we had quite an easy time of it, despite not having a word of Slovenian to offer up. One would have to describe the average Slovenian you meet on the street as friendly. It's such a warm and happy place.

And it was warm, literally between 35-39ª C (95-102ª F) every day we were there.

The city is surrounded by forested mountains, the historic buildings are from the Baroque period and everywhere the roofs are red tile. A thousand year old castle looks down upon the old town. All this makes Ljubljana an extremely attractive city.

Saint Nicolas Cathedral is at the center of the old town. The first church to be built in this spot was in the 13th century. The current structure was built in the 17th.

The bronze door is impressive. The handle is kept polished by the many hands which touch it every day.

The interior is sumptuous with paintings by Italian masters depicting miracles of Nicolas, the patron saint of fishermen.

It's pleasant to walk around the city, as the center is a pedestrian-only zone. There are expansive squares,

and everywhere you are close to the river.

The architecture is glorious and the colors bright.

The streets tend to be wide and so even if there are other people, one never feels crowded. Unlike Prague, Ljubljana has not yet been overrun by tourists.

There are lots of bikes, bikers. They have a rental system like Paris.

Some of the buildings are kept in pristine condition while some others have been allowed to fade a bit. These were among the most charming.

The palette used on the buildings is unexpected.

A network of bridges crosses the river from one bank to the other, and the quays are verdant.

The water changed colors through out the day.

The most famous of the bridges is the Dragon Bridge, which was two blocks from the gallery where Jos, Emily and Lois made their installation. Quinn became excited each time we crossed it, which was always at least twice in a day. He called it the "Dragonah-bridge" pronouncing the words with something of an Italian accent. The dragon is the symbol of Ljubljana. There were four such bronze dragon statues, one at each corner.

The Tromostovje (Three Bridges) is at the heart of the city. It seems quite Venetian to me.

All along the river you find cafes and restaurants. Eating and drinking are favorite pastimes. The restaurants are inspired. We had some remarkable meals here.

There is also a lot of commerce throughout the city, with open air crafts markets everywhere. The produce market is open most mornings and has stands of the freshest and best produce available anywhere, as every single stand offers only small local farmers produce. This is not always the case in the markets we have here in France, where many vendors are resellers and not necessarily producers.

Here is the only place where we found that no one spoke English at all. These are the traditional Slovenians who spend their time in the garden, not on the internet. We particularly liked this woman who specialized in beans. She had several varieties, but nothing else.

Once a week there is an antique/flea market where Jos, Emily and Lois found many of the things they used for their project. We really enjoyed browsing this seemingly endless row of stands. There were some unique pieces with reasonable prices.

One evening we came into town just as the sun was setting. All the buildings were bathed in pink light. As we were in the car, it was only my eyes, and not my camera, that could take in the sight. This was the best I could do after we had parked. It was a memorable vision.

Night life in Ljubljana is swinging, though not loud or obnoxious. Lots of restaurants on the streets were open to welcome people for a leisurely meal after a long hot day.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

En vacances

This week we took a walk through the forest of Vibraye. I've often talked in this blog about the forest of Montmirail, which has trails that begin just a few steps from our front door, but until this week, we'd never actually visited the much larger Vibraye forest, down the hill from our house a few kilometers.

France has a wonderful system of public trails. One could easily walk from the top of the country to the bottom following them. In fact people do, as they follow the route to Santiago de Compostela, they follow more than a 1000 miles of well-maintained trails. When I worked in Berkeley, I found Fodor's Short Escapes in France at a local bookstore. It was filled with wonderful walks, many of which we've enjoyed following. Practically every tourist office and bookstore sells directions for local trails. The French love to walk and they have a very well organized system of trails. It's easy to follow them, as you are given distinctive blazes on trees or posts to mark the route.

It was a wonderful sunny day and the light filtered through the trees casting lacy patterns on the wide pathways. We were by no means alone. The trail attracts hikers, bikers, joggers and strollers. The forest itself is logged responsibly, trees replanted and all kept neat and tidy. Along the way we saw large stacks of logs.

It was an incredibly green space, filled with deciduous hardwood trees, possibly beeches, supporting an understory of luscious ferns. I vowed to return for an autumn walk without fail.


I got quite a few things almost done in the atelier, although I'm not ready to share them quite yet. I also did a little more decorating in the boutique, to attract window shoppers. I made several garlands of cut up prints and paintings, strung them on embroidery thread and hung them in the window. I then added a few transparent polka dots of rice paper to the windows themselves.

view of our boutique window from the outside looking in and the inside looking out

Rick framed most of my prints and we have a display wall for them. He did a very nice job. 

We are leaving on vacation tomorrow, staying in Ljubljana, Slovenia for one week, providing childcare for Quinn while Emily and Jos put together a theater festival there. A second week will be spent with the three of them in the Austrian Alps. 

I expect to come back with lots of stories to tell and photos to share, but until the end of August, this blog will be silent.

Happy end of summer!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Swan Lake

It has been a rather quiet week. One might suppose that this would be a busy month in our business, but just the opposite is true. Most of the country is at the coast right now and we've had a week of calm, with only the occasional visitor. 

We used the opportunity to get a few other things accomplished around the house, such as refinishing our computer desk. Unfortunately I have no before photo to share with you, but imagine this pretty table lacquered in thick mat black. It looked rather like a table for a Chinese restaurant. The top was covered with felt. Green felt when we first purchased it, green like a billiard table and with large holes here and there. There is a rather embarrassing story to tell of trying to purchase a new piece of felt to recover it.

French is all about the vowels and how you pronounce them is really critical in making yourself understood. Although the difference in the sound of eu as opposed to ou is subtle to the American ear, it makes a world of difference to a French one. When I asked a nice man at the fabric store for some felt, I meant to say feutre, but instead asked for foutre, which is an entirely different request. Put delicately, as it is in my dictionary, I was asking to be "possessed sexually." Hmm. Luckily Jos was with me and stepped between me and the salesman to take over the transaction for me.

In the end I did get the felt, without the other and we recovered the table in a maroon felt. This was four years ago. Suffice it to say that my mouse did not like the fuzzy felt and the fuzzy felt didn't much care for the mouse either. Another large hole developed just where the mouse rests. When we went to the Marché Saint Pierre in Paris a few weeks back, I found a nice piece of white naugahyde for just a few euros. It seemed the right thing. Leather would be really wonderful, but dreadfully expensive, even if such a big piece could be located. My idea, while we were at recovering the table top, was also to strip off the black paint, down to the bare wood and then whitewash the thing.

After two days and every stripping technique known to man, two caustic chemicals, sand paper, steel wool, wire brushes, electric sanding machines and even a blow torch, we had to admit that removing all the black was going to mean removing the very nice carved flowers as well. So I settled instead for the blackwash look. I like it. It's a great improvement.

I am in the middle of various studio projects, working slowly along. The only recent finished products are these collages which I had quite a lot of fun creating on top of old paintings.

I have spent the week writing about rivers for my family website. It created an urge to get out the kayaks and hit the water. We invited our ever-enjoyable neighbors, Anne and Christine to join us.

We drove just a few kilometers down the road to a very nice lake in Le Plessis-Dorin. It's a fisherman's paradise. Anne and Christine helped unpack the kayaks, which rest so nicely on the top of the car on a rack we've had for that purpose for years. It luckily fits our little French Renault as well as it did our Saab in the U.S.

A family of swans greeted us as we approached the lake, probably hoping for a few crusts of bread, but when they saw our boats, daddy swan hissed and squawked, shooing his group away. The fisherman did much the same, not liking to share their lake with boating people. A representative was sent over to demand our authorization papers. We had received permission from the mayor, but they insisted we call him to verify for their benefit. The mayor gave us the go-ahead and we promised the fisherman to stay far away from the left bank, where they were set up with their lawn chairs, coolers filled with beer and bait, and their handmade fishing poles.

Anne was enthusiastic to get going. She looked chic in her safety vest. Unfortunately only one person can fit in a boat, so we had to take turns.

Off she and Rick went towards the calm end of the lake.

Christine and I were next. I love the quiet that one experiences on the water. It was utterly still on the far reaches of the right bank except for the sound of the wind in the reeds, the call of the herons and ducks and the slapping of the paddles as they scooped up the water to propel us forward. We didn't talk at all.

Anne and Christine were enthusiastic about the adventure and we all decided to do more of this, but next time in four kayaks.

Of course this sky photo (crows above a field), is just for you, Janet.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Celebrating Summer

Fireworks over the castle of Montmirail

This week brought many happy meetings and celebrations. Our old neighbors the Tireaus from Les Alpes Mancelles invited us to lunch. 

 La Moulin de la Ribotière, our first house in France

We had been very close to this wonderful family when we first moved to France and lived in a little moulin, but we'd let far too much time flow past without being in touch. It had been well over a year since seeing them. They are among the sweetest most generous people we know. They made our transition to this country a real pleasure. Their youngest daughter Phillippine was just eight when we first met. She is now fifteen. Aurore, who I always felt very close to was a young teenager.  


She is now a grown woman, working as a professional pâtissière. She lives in Caen and works at a chic pastry shop. Happily for us, she was home visiting and for lunch made us a special chocolate raspberry tart.

It was not only exceptionally pretty, but absolutely delicious as well.

After lunch we walked with them down our old driveway and visited our first French home in the middle of the forest. It really is like Hansel and Gretel's place.


Later in the week Leyla came by for a day of etching. She was keen to develop and reprint her dragon image, which she made here last year. It was George's, (her father's) birthday and she wanted to surprise him with the image.

Leyla and her mother Sophie


At the weekend Montmirail had its annual fête médiévale. In anticipation, I got our shop cleaned up and presentable, adding a bit of decoration.

The village becomes very lively for two days with dozens of activities, demonstrations and vendors selling everything from medieval costumes to bubble gum... not a product I associate with that moment in history. But there's no doubt that the village itself is the real McCoy. Many thousands of people pour into town to enjoy it all.

Within an hour of its closing, all the stands had been taken down. This morning the flags and signs were removed, all the stray garbage collected, and every trace that it ever happened completely erased. It's as if everyone else in town were just as anxious as we to have life back to its quiet simplicity. Still, the festival really supports the community finacially.

Our guests this weekend were vendors and all entertaining characters. Here in France on summer days and nights in small villages there are events of every kind put on by local communities to entertain the vacationing public.


Summer has appeared again, with pretty blue skies, warm temperatures and twittering birds.