Summer 2010, by Tiff Fehr
No government would bother with noticing but in July of 2010 the extended Breckenridge family invaded part of Europe. Since we’re collectively law-abiding citizens and perhaps even decent American “ambassador-tourists” nobody took particular note except our employers, left-behind family members and pet-watchers. No police alerts, no plain-clothes tails. Not even longer, extra-consternation delays at customs.
This was a ‘fierce’ crew (all described in relation to me): my uncle, mother, father, two cousins, one cousin’s spouse, one cousin’s best friend, one second-cousin and one ex-step-second cousin. Youngest: eight. Eldest: mid-seventies. Number of zip-off travel pants: two (my parents, bless their misled REI-shopping souls).
A play-by-play would be obnoxious to you and me. However I do want to address a theme that others may find obvious and even naive on my part. It’s the number of places we visited with historic walled towns in their hearts. During the trip planning, we elected to visit Carcassonne with the novelty of a historic walled city in mind. My uncle Lanny wanted to see his grandson—our eight-year-old, Cole—experience a restored medieval fortress town. The rest of us either had a parental duty to mind Cole or wanted a comfortable group vacation leveraged by a parent’s tab. The pervasive theme was uniquely striking, however. And insightful.
I read about Carcassonne before we left so I was expecting castles by our second stop. However we first spent time in Barcelona, Spain, coincidentally arriving the morning of the 2010 World Cup final in which Spain won. Epic party, right? Not so much on our parts. Battling jetlag, we watched the match from our hotel’s rooftop deck along with other guests. I regret not heading downtown to see the festivities but I couldn’t see straight, being nearly fourteen hours off my native time. Still, it looked and sounded like a hell of a time.
Barcelona has a fortified citadel (w), now morphed into a fancy collection of parks, villas-turned-museums, zoos and 1992 Olympic event centers. It’s up on a hill, above the port and kitty-corner to the old town. The modern city sprawls out around both, up neighboring hills and terracing local valleys. Considering the conflict history of eastern Spain between Roman, Visigoth, Moor/Arab and Carolingian/Aragonian groups, it wasn’t a surprise they had a citadel. What was unexpected is it rarely protected the city—it protected the rulers and the valuable Mediterranean port. Not the populace. In various conflicts it actually shelled the town below, when the always-boiling anarchic undercurrent of the citizenry rose up against their rulers and destroyed the original citadel. Being anti-establishment is evidently a time-honored characteristic of the Catalonian and Barcelonian spirit…or so said the locals I met (granted: mostly young, over-charming, jersey-clad bartenders).
Barcelona was remarkable and welcoming in every way. We did the usual touristy stuff but spent a good amount of time walking around the city itself, beaches to old town and back in perfect Med summer weather. Gaudi architecture like the famed, drip-castle-like Sagrada Família church…will take me more time to enjoy. A full day in fact: by 10 a.m. the cathedral’s tour line was full for the day. Barcelona demands a dedicated trip.Barcelona’s notable food We diligently tried the local beer, Estrella, but found it less than compelling. The wine made up for it, including some notable mencia-grape wines popular in Spain. I found the whites more interesting than the reds though both were really good. We had the best meal of the trip at Alkimiawhich I diligently documented food-blogger-style but of course now forget entirely except some blurry photos of ambitious desserts. I do recall one dessert had shaved ice tea as a topper. In a word, ridiculously indulgent.
From Barcelona, Carcassonne (w) in southern France is only a half-day voyage by car. For the warring Christian/Catholic and Muslim factions of the past, it was a far more arduous trek over the dusty Pyrenees mountains. So imagine their consternation to find the lush, populated areas protected by magistrates and garrisons withdrawn into hilltop castle complexes, along with most of the food and populace. That’s modern Carcassonne in a nutshell, perched on a hill above a bridge and trading town (now city). The current walled city is restored to surprising function, ready to resist sieges with decent aplomb. But they’ll let tourists in without a peep. Legions of them, in fact. Kinda defeats the point.
I had a skewed sense of Carcassonne before we arrived, mixing the history with hope for preserved dark- and middle-ages authenticity. Seeing the black tower rooftops spiked over the trees as we approached (from the blind side—my uncle does like a bit of flair) was a thrill of anticipation and amazement…that could have been “old world” Europe or Disneyland. However, the elaborate arrangement of tour buses and cars as well as our assigned parking spot in the now-filled-in moat put it firmly on the side of Disneyland. Former-execution-square-now-foodcourt lunch affirmed it. As did winding lanes of middle-ages tribute junk. And the local business people half-heartedly sporting bits of renn-faire-style costumes. Sigh.
Thankfully we had the eight-year-old to impress. Beyond his actual years, he conveys an pre-teen air of skepticism and an eye-rolling ability I’m afraid is a family “gift”. Overcoming his air of embarrassment in his extended family was a day-to-day challenge. Carcassonne did a great job overwhelming it, as tourists can walk most of the keep, outer walls and tiered gates. It’s hard to not beam like an idiot strolling along towers, arrow-slits, turrets and murderholes as you walk a perimeter of a amplified, preserved theme-city. Cole went from suppressed excitement to genuine excitement as we toured the castle. By late afternoon the tourists overwhelmed our sense of adventure and we opted for naps in our 10th-century Best Western hotel rooms. By dinner the town emptied out, leaving the working locals and scattered hotel guests like us as it grew drowsy and dark. After dinner Cole, Eric (Cole’s dad) and I went exploring by mobile-phone light which even more fun than the daylight tour. Highly recommended.
The Carcassonne trip included a second goal: visiting with my uncle’s old friends the Clibborns who retired to a farm not far away. They rent their French farmhouses to vacationers which now gives me a whole new awesome plan for my own retirement. We spent an afternoon talking books and history in a wine-grape-shaded veranda next to a field of sunflowers—it’d be a cliché. It turns out the lady of the house—Juliet—is some direct relation to the author Angie Sage who writes a series of successful kids books including the “Araminta Spookie” series and the “Septimus Heap” series. (“Heap”, in particular, works well for the younger “Harry Potter” set and I believe is published by the same house.) On her urging, I downloaded the first and got to reading—it is indeed excellent.Carcassone’s notable meals Dinner with the Clibborns was at a well-regarded local prix fixe farmhouse restaurant within the Château de Cavanac. It was an amazing evening. Despite it being summer I opted for the local cassoulet, the regional specialty bean cassole/stew combo with (of course) a strong inter-town rivalry in terms of proper ingredients. It is now a favorite dish of mine, made all the better by great memories of a wonderful dinner, excellent wine and top-notch conversation with amazing people.
Returning to Barcelona, we skipped over the Med by plane to Pisa, Italy. Pisa’s inclusion was as a meeting point, though Cole’s rather limited eating habits did see us eating pizza from a veranda where we could watch endless tourist do “the pisa pusher”. Funny only due to homogeneity. Romanesque architecture like the baptistry and tower has never been something I admired in art history or architecture classes. Seeing some of its better-known examples in real life was worthwhile though I still don’t care for it. My recurring impression was of an over-frosted ice cream cake. And I was distracted by our impending adventure of round-abouts and Italian roadways to find our rented villa in the hills above Lucca, Italy.
Pisa does have fragments of late-Roman-era wall that ringed the old city—the main plaza around the leaning tower is through a remaining gate. I read more about it on Wikipedia (w) via WhisperNet and Kindle as we took off north, navigating by printed Google Map. It seemed to be the usual protective formations, later raided for building supplies for other buildings as alliances solidifying modern Italian ruled out having to defend the city from the likes of Saracens and Florentines. Given the attraction of the Leaning Tower for tourists, it’s easy to forget Pisa historically housed a maritime fleet to reckon with in the Mediterranean.
Lucca was the sleeper-hit of the trip. What a magnificent wall and city! So, so awesome. In the lead up to the trip, I struggled to remember the name our “hub” city so I did very little research as a result. Our initial drive to our rented villa sling-shotted around Lucca’s round-abouts, so it was only our first grocery trip back into town that we drove around the central city and its wall. I absentmindedly grocery shopped while trying to look at the wall, spires and towers outside the Carrefour windows and guess at what it implied.
Lucca’s 4km wall is fully intact, which is rare in the area where other cities’ walls were dismantled and reincorporated. In Lucca, they just adapted them into greater walls than the original Roman efforts with a second major effort during Florence’s sword-ratting phases in the 15th & 16th centuries and the last big remodel in the 18th century. The wall circles the inner city with a broad greenway moat outside that. The modern city spills away on all sides to the river and hills. The greenway and wall are now public parks, with gates, steps, tunnels and store-rooms within each tower. There are six major gates and thirteen towers(?) in all, historically maintained city’s notable families and bearing their names today if I remember correctly. The top of the wall is quite wide, too, offering room for a two-lone road (used in the past to race cars) as well as greens, gardens, playgrounds and a broad promenade. On a nice day it offers a really quick way around the city by bike. It was like an awesome elevated bike highway! Roughly square due to its grid-loving Roman origins, the later remodels added flair like each side of the wall including different tree species, now hundreds of years of old.
Inner Lucca is just as fun as the walls, with a great mix of appropriated Roman grid to stuff in fancy churches, libraries, mansions, schools and watch-towers. I wish we’d found time to climb Guinigi Tower and visit the botanical gardens, amongst many other interesting buildings. Our visit coincided with my cousin’s birthday, so we ended the evening at a random restaurant in town which turned into one of the best meals of the trip. (More on that below.)
I’d return to Lucca in a heartbeat.
I should say a few words about our villa, in San Macario in Monte an extended village in the olive-grove hills above Lucca. With a large party, we used it as solace and a base for day-trips out into Tuscany. First amongst those words: OMG bugs. But fun, Italian bugs that chirped and buzzed all night long. So long as you had a bed above the ground the house-dwelling bugs were easy to avoid. I, however, made the mistake of sleeping on a floor mattress one night and was decently chewed up. I hoped to be an exotic foreign dish but given the long record of happy villa guests I assume the bugs already had a taste for pale, wine-infused American. More words: The villa had a lovely setting, with verandas and patios on all sides up the hillside. Above the house was a grove of huge herb plants and a small “infinity” pool…projecting an infinite horizon of water out into an olive grove. Nice idea, odd execution. One of the better moments was reading “Septimus Heap” poolside as a gardener trimmed the herb bushes, filling the air with rosemary and lavender. Literal bits of rosemary and lavender. But still, it made the sunshine smell delicious.
Someday, I would like to own a wine-grape-covered lattuce over a patio.Tuscany’s notable meals
From Lucca, Florence is a short train ride and I do like functional commuter trains. Florence had a wall at some point—probably a few of them. But it was absorbed into the city long ago. Well known as an aggressive city-state in early Italy (blame the Medicis and papacy wars), it seems other cities mostly played defense to Florence’s offense. Maybe Florence just never bothered to put up walls(?). Given the Renaissance history, riches and collections the city houses, I didn’t even think to look for wall remnants. And because others extensively document modern Florence for tourists—of which I was one of many—I’ll leave it to their summaries rather than recount the usual tourist highlights. However, seeing many of the classic Renaissance paintings and sculptures I studied in Art History—including the original “Rape of the Sabine Woman (w)” sculpture on which I wrote two papers in college—was a treat. Art nerd aside: The fingerprint details are indeed impressive to see in person.
With the size of our group, most outings we drove to/from our destinations. However for our day-trips we split up into smaller groups, largely around getting-up hours and location priorities. Case in point, part of the group went to Cinque Terre by car and part to Rome by train. Meanwhile, my uncle verified the villa didn’t go anywhere while we were out.
A second day-trip took my parents and I to Cinque Terre (w), five villages along the northwestern Med coast called the Italian Riviera, stacked above small cove beaches ideal for smuggling and preying on trade passing toward Pisa, Genoa and La Spezia to the south. Good lord, it’s amazing…and nearly a theme park. A light-rail train connects the towns, bringing a persistent volume of tourists who now make up most of the region’s commerce. Still, the towns are so remarkable as they terrace down creekbeds and complicated, edgy harbors that it’s worth visiting. Just go early and don’t plan to stay over.
Vernazza, one of the towns, has a defensive keep but we didn’t have time to visit. With the steep terracing, I’m not sure I actually saw it despite looking upward a lot at my own peril. Cinque Terre is known for grappa, white wines and the region known for pesto. With so many tourists and trying to get from each town, we had a not particularly notable lunch while walking the cliffs between the towns. (To compensate for the speedy tour by visiting San Macario’s butcher shop for dinner, mentioned above.)
Love this town.
For our last day-trip window from Lucca, a group of us went to Sienna, site of the famous Palio di Siena (w) plaza horse races. And—for recent memories—the underground, plaza-crowd and rooftop chase/brawl with the sleeper MI-6 agent in “Quantum of Solace”. Sienna is a bit different from neighboring cities like Lucca and Pisa in that it spreads across the tops of a series of hills, steep and terraced by city. But the old town owns one particular hilltop, fortified of course. I knew little of the city as we started the serpentine, round-about-filled attempt to find a public tourist parking lot in walking distance to the old town. There are historic walls now serving as buttresses for more terracing than gates. With what perches on top, I’d opt to build on the walls, too.
The centerpiece is the remarkable, non-Roman Piazza del Campo (w), the site of the horse races. Also quite striking is the Duomo, Sienna’s cathedral. From the outside, it’s an odd mix of conflicting periods of design and building, including an unfinished nave facing east-west like most other cathedrals. So two facades(?) are complete, as well as the trancept between them. It’s the trancept-turned-full-cathedral that’s amazing. Florence has a stripey duomo, alternating marble types on the exterior for a Dr. Seuss effect but the inside is classic flat whitewash where it’s not decorated. Sienna’s is the same but the stripes continue inside which is just fantastic. It’s gorgeous. With artwork and decorations backed by the intricate interior stonework, it’s awe-inspiring (w). Add classics like a mosaic penitent’s maze in the floor (covered for tourists), striking stained glass, Pisano frescos in the apse and a library chapel with really beautiful illuminated books and we get the best cathedral I’ve ever visited. Beyond the gothic classics, it brings the impact of a church seat at an gut level. I could have spent a whole day in the duomo alone.
Sienna’s iconography derives from the mythical she-wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus, though the Etruscan-founded Sienna was bypassed by the Romans so missed most Roman imposition. There are a bunch of she-wolf sculptures around the city which I happened to like a lot compared to a random Pope. So, Sienna—go there. It’s lovely. There’s a whole series of water tunnels and cisterns beneath the city you can tour, too, where that Bond chase starts. I didn’t even read about those until we’d left.
Venice decided to wall its city with a frequently flooded lagoon that’s sinking. Enough said. What a pretty, dumb town.
Actually, I should say more. It is indeed interesting. The water taxis are great. The old buildings are great. The little bridges and canals are great when you happen on a mostly empty one and can savor it a bit. However, the tourist-ready aggressive businesses, tourists and muggy scent—not so great. The jewelry shop owner who wouldn’t let me stand in the shade of his awning while waiting for my family to gather, first retracting the awning so I was standing in the heat then coming out to bitch at me for blocking part of his window (despite no other people on the street): yeah, you suck. I hope you understood me cursing at you in a few different languages just to mess with your stereotypes.
Austria and Germany could be considered my Euro-mutt family’s homeland (literally on my dad’s side)…so returning to Garmish-Partenkirchen and Munich is kind of “old hat” travel. Parts of our touring group lived around those locations; others (like me as a kid) visited them there. However, I had not yet driven over the Italian-German Alps. I tend to forget how awesome and dramatic the Alps are—they really do command attention. Thankfully the highways are well-situated to oogle impressive vistas, near and high. What was particularly neat was the progression of building styles as we traveled up. Tuscan villas with red-tile, flat roofs slowly steepened into red-brown-shingled chalets and white-washed stone changed to white-painted wood and plaster. Towns spread out from clusters in valleys and occasional hillside estates into a smattering of chalet barns and farms hugging treelines and alpine meadows. That architectural evolution, including occasional defensive castles, monasteries and villas, was quite a lot of fun.
Bolzano was just an overnight stop, connecting our big driving legs of Lucca-Venice-Alps to Alps-Innsbruck-Garmish-Partenkirchen-Munich. Yet it too shared the same mixed architectural heritage even as a stripped-down, bauhaus-punctuated mountain city. And some relief as we moved into a language area more of us spoke than not. Even a light vocab helps with food and drink ordering. We were finally in beer territory. After a lot of rich food in Tuscany, the first beer and spätzle were a delight. (To me, so was watching the tourists—and my family members—line up for Munich’s Rathaus Glockenspiel (w) mechanical clock show despite it being ended for day.)
Bolzano did not have a wall. Instead it had mountains on all sides. Good choice, historical citizens of Bolzano.Hofbräuhaus and Augustiner breweries to make sure they were still up to snuff. Hofbräu…is slipping; Augustiner is still quite good. As evening fell more group members opted for home. Eventually only my dad and I joined a common table (stammtisch) at the Augustiner an Dom, meeting and chatting and drinking with a young inter-continental couple on their way to Jerusalem. We had much fun and beer. Schnizel, bierbrat’l, spätzle, kartoffeln. My genetic-heritage comfort foods.
The Nazis stormed and occupied the now Czech Republic in 1938, without much warning. As such, the surprised country simply folded to German rule, becoming the new eastern frontier in a matter of days. Brutal, swift and with little to no serious armed resistance. Much of pre-WWII Czech Republic survived the war without direct assault, preserving historic buildings and cities with their trappings of previous empires’ wonders. In Prague, those include well-known cathedrals, bridges, towers, clocks and squares. With the fall of the Iron Curtain in the early ’90s, early Western tourists found the city a preserved, fairytale-like expression of older, aristocratic Europe, largely blasted off the continent during WWII.
It is indeed impressive and charming. The city’s done quite well meeting modern sensibilities intermixed with older landmarks. Prague’s central fortress area gathers around an impressive (expensive-to-tour) gothic cathedral and former-monarchy palaces and halls, collected on a hill and across the river from the heart of the city. We took a small organized bus tour that included walking a fragment of the walls. However, like other cities on our trip, the walls marked more the public-area effort to border the hill’s treasures rather than any current defensive role. In all, Prague is hard to hate yet also hard to really appreciate, with the stifling tourism. I found that a shame.
The beer went a long way to ease my wishes, however.
Mild tourism aside, we were there for the beer. Dropping any other context, the fact you can walk into a local restaurant or pivovar (brewery) and order either dark or light beer and know it’ll be excellent is a lot of fun. My cousin-in-law, Eric, had a singular mission to find specific pivovary in the city, so we happily kept him company. (It helped that we felt some travel fatigue after three weeks of historical details and places—Prague got a short shift in that regard.)
Sadly, Eric couldn’t join my dad, uncle and I on a day-long bus tour southwest of Prague to Pilsen, the home of Pilsner and Pilsner Urquell. The went off to some cool castle thing with Cole. We visited a cave system (the loose tie-in was locals hid contraband—including beer—there during troubled times), a Pilsen brewing history museum and the Pilsner Urquell brewery (w) tour.
A quick aside: Pilsen’s history as a brewing town is interesting in its own right, in that Pilsner Urquell was a co-op created by the town residents so they might pool their home-brewing into one operation…because bootlegging it at home was taking a toll in house explosions, fires, deaths, smells, etc. Can’t hate a backstory like that particularly with its stringent, written-into-the-town-charter rules about beer purity and quality.
The Brewery tour is Disneyland-caliber silliness, in many respects: Special elevators, viewing platforms, multi-room exhibits, a 270° rotating stage showing a wrap-around movie about brewing, odd theme rooms to different ingredients, recreations of some original brewing rooms, etc. But it’s fun and educational. However the highlight is wrapping the tour in the barrel storage cave system under the brewery (and town), where a current brewery member pours each guest a half-keg-cup of unfiltered, unpasteurized pilsener beer straight off a barrel.
Being unimpressed with the series of lime-washed lagering tunnels and underground cold, my dad, uncle and I hedged the various edges of the 40+ tourist group on our tour, looking for the aforementioned tasting session. Well, we’re good at that. So Dad was first to get a pint poured. That’s not for some “first!” mentality—it meant we could sneak back in line at least once. I got two pints. I believe Lanny got two as well. Dad managed at least three, bonding immediately (and with little more than a glance) with the brewer pouring our beers.
I didn’t expect to say it but those two pints of beer are the best I’ve ever had. I like pilsners in any case but the quality difference between barrel to bottle is shocking in this case. I understand rules around filtration and pasteurization and appreciate them. But they gut one hell of a good, time-tested beer. I now feel sad ordering bottled PQ…and haven’t, since. At best, draft. You’re welcome to doubt that, but do consider that the pilsner brewing technique pretty much followed today (with better tools) has been roughly the same since the 1400s.Prague’s notable meals I had to look this up on the internet, but our best local meal was at a well-known brewery called První Novoměstský restaurační pivovar. (See why I had to look it up?) Czech food wasn’t particularly notable to me, myself. But the group liked its overlapping sensibilities with classic German and Slavic dishes—excellent potatoes, greens, meats, egg-pasta, etc. It was tasty, despite strong ordering challenges with/around Czech. The Novoměstský pivovar is known for creative beer flavors like caramel, banana, coffee and more. I remember liking all but the banana beer but sticking with 0,3l malé(schooners) of standard light and dark beer. That stuff was great in its own right.
The trip had no particular finale: From Prague, the group split into factions headed back to the States. Still on speaking terms yet, like all families, probably glad to return to our proper circles and routines. Photo sets made the rounds but the demands of summer quickly dissolved the bonds of any conversation threads during the trip. So it goes.