Colorful Vignettes – introduces photos with their background story as well as gives accounts of travel experiences wherever they happen ….
One unique location is also the heart of Marseille: the basilica Notre-Dame de la Garde, it stands elevated on a limestone rock formation that is part of the mountain range surrounding the city. From this height you have a 360° view that makes you aware of the natural beauty the city is nestled in: the Mediterranean sea and the Calanques.
A proof that Marseille has integrated the ‘wild’ that surrounds it is Calanque Sormiou, the 9th district. It was formerly a small fishing village while it is now a favorite place for boat owners to rent small accommodation for their weekend and holiday boating adventures, and for true hikers to explore the mountain range, high and low.
At Calanque de Sormiou, there are similar Pine trees along the coral green sea that I photographed at the neighbor Calanque: Morgiou. However, here the green parts in the waters are much larger. The inviting and refreshing sea with its deep colors, set in a highly diverse limestone mountain range, make for a wholesome counterbalance with the dynamic buzz of the as diverse city that is Marseille.
The calendar I have this year contains twelve paintings by Vincent van Gogh. I noticed that he often uses a unique color green to depict the sky. Of course, Impressionist painters can use any color to convey their impression of a scene, but it made me wonder if there is actually such a thing as a green sky. Or, do you need a painter’s eye to see it?
Magically enough, there was a clear green sky during a visit to Calanque du Port d’Alon. Adding to that, in the same area, of Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer, there was farmland with blossoming fruit trees that reminded me of one of my favourite paintings by van Gogh: ‘Amandier en fleurs’, ‘Blossoming Almond tree’ which is set on a pale sea-green sky.
These were not almond blossoms but the flowers of the Mirabelle tree, a plum variety. Taking photos of one artfully pruned tree in full bloom, the sky in the background was deep blue. I could have changed it into sea-green, in photo-edit on my computer, but that’s not me.
When western Europe and elsewhere in the world were facing heavy snowfall and dips in temperature deep below zero, we, John, Nathan and myself, and John’s second son Kenneth with his four friends, headed for the ultimate adventure of the winter season: the Alps, in the region of Haute Provence, France. It turned out to become an incredibly beautiful experience.
Having lived about forty years in south and southeast Asia, India and Thailand, I always avoided the winter season when visiting my family and friends in Europe. This time, prepared for the cold and attracted by the unicity of the Alps, I was rather looking forward in taking a jump into this snowscape. John had organised this ski vacation for his sons and friends, rented two apartments in Barcelonnette, for the two different groups, and everything worked out perfectly well, as everyone found inspiration in this magical setting of white mountains.
Although we planned cross-country skiing for Nathan, the weather changed from quiet overcast to frequent snowfall, and we decided to go for daily walks, first by free shuttle buses that take you to the various ski pistes and from there exploring the area on foot. Of course, Kenneth and his friends, who are teenagers, had come exclusively for skiing and snowboarding and they enthusiastically stuck to that, for the whole week, between five to seven hours per day.
No need to do activities in order to enjoy the Alps. Walking through this snowscape triggers an as exhilarating state of being. Somehow there was no sense of cold, but the experience of oneness and wholeness, as the purity of the Alps is uplifting and spiritually nourishing.
The cozy town of Barcelonnete is situated in the region of Haute Provence, about 1100m high, with the immediate surrounding Alps at 3000m high, which is perfect for skiing. The higher Alps are above 4000m, with the Mont Blanc at 4808m above sea level. At 3000m one can speak of eternal snow, as you will find snow there also during the summer season.
In France, schools have two weeks of winter vacation at the end of February and beginning of March, and that means time to enjoy the pleasures that winter can bring. The diversity of the French landscape and climate are most obvious at the Côte d’Azur of which Haute Provence is part. From the coastal city Nice one can see the snow peaks of the Alps while enjoying the sunny weather that comes with the Mediterranean region.
Free shuttle buses will take you to the higher ski destinations around Barcelonnette, but we also took the opportunity to explore the direct area of the town, which inspired as much with its snow covered land. The town is situated in the Ubaye valley with the Ubaye river running through it, formed by the melted snow from high up.
After six days in snowy heights, now again at home in Marseille, when going to sleep at night, I see peaceful snowscapes when closing my eyes. Never thought that the Alps would have such an impact on my well being, within and without.
How much one can do, meet, work, discover, and dive into the past, in just one week. Another work trip to now famous Sittard for house improvement, joined by John and Nathan for the weekend, and after that, alone, and together with my sister Petra. We met with Carmen Cumi, a Dutch writer, on Saturday, to transport waste and rubbish in her oversize red Ford van that she rents out in her free time. We managed with the four of us to drive two giant loads of waste to the local Milieupark, while a genuine friendship developed among us. Annoying challenges were met with real laughter. That’s how one solves problems.
For the rest of the week I stayed with my sister Petra, in Heerlen, and planned two visits to my past: my birthplace, Kerkrade, and the city where I lived during my student years, Maastricht. It was then that it started snowing and freezing. One night it was -7° Celcius. What did I remember of my childhood until my seventh, before my family moved to Brabant? Quite some memories were triggered by walking through this former coal mining town, although in three steps one is at the other side of the town, by way of speaking, as everything looks now much smaller. I took a half day to re-explore my birthplace.
The bus had taken me close to the centre where I easily noticed Joep, the miner, still standing tall with his miner’s lantern in his hand. Here were also the church, and nearby primary school that I had attended. It was easy to refind my way and the two houses we had lived in. Walking down to the railway station triggered more memories as I discovered the place where there was formerly a large pond where we would catch tadpoles, as children do. On its place a UFO can be found: probably a coal mine artefact.
Behind the railway station I noticed the Hambos, a forest area where my parents took us on Sunday afternoons. ‘Vanilla ice cream’ came to my mind, as at the entrance there would be an ice-cream vendor. The snowy landscape stimulated the joyful memories of sleighing, and gliding downhill. I now tried gliding on the thick snowy path, and still managed well. Far .. one can look here, as it still has mainly remained farmland. There I discovered ‘circles’. Probably a water purifying system.
The next day a visit to Maastricht with Petra, where we also would meet her husband Hans. The city is famous for its international universities and its importance in the European Union. Most of all, the distinctive medieval architecture gives the city its unique character. Whereas in Sittard, Heerlen and Kerkrade one hardly sees a soul in the streets, the streets of Maastricht are full of people. It is a student town, an art town, a cultural town, with surprisingly beautiful sites and corners. The buildings of the former old ceramics factory, the Sphinx, are renovated and reused as cinemas, restaurants, and accommodation for students and tourists.
Converting old buildings into useful and commercial spaces is quite common in the Netherlands. When the number of churchgoers declined in the not so long ago past, many churches were converted into exhibition halls, market places or even bicycle storages. The majestic 13th century Dominican Church of Maastricht is today a sophisticated bookstore, having preserved the beauty of the original church design.
As any cosmopolitan city, Maastricht is full of luxury shops. An unusual shoe shop drew our attention, selling flashy shoes meant for an exhilarating nightlife. A new curious feature in the city is the underground bicycle park. For more than a year the area had been uprooted for its construction, but today it looks clean and neat. After all, the Dutch have their bike culture and that deserves the same status as the car and its carparks. Now underground, less bicycles clutter the sides of the streets of Maastricht. My memory about my past has now been refreshed with the new footprints that I left behind in the snow …
Every time I visit the Netherlands by plane I notice, after landing, the sun having disappeared behind the clouds, not to come out very soon, and neither for long periods. Well, this time it is winter, what can one expect but grey sky? What I did not expect was that within four days I experienced rain, hailstones, snow and a storm of around 140 kph! Luckily, I was in south Limburg where the storm was much less severe. Elsewhere, trees were uprooted, roofs were blown from houses and heavy lorries toppled on highways.
Sittard, in south Limburg, was my destination where I would stay from Monday until Friday to do some work on the house that John inherited from his mother. During that period the sky poured rain, threw hailstones, sprinkled snow, and finally shocked us: the Dutch, and the neighbours, with a furious storm not known in the country for decades. You would think that the weekend that followed people would be rewarded with an all embracing sun. Indeed sunlight came through on Sunday morning but only to disappear after a few hours, leaving the country behind cold and grey.
On Saturday and Sunday I was happy to visit my oldest sister Petra and her husband Hans, in Heerlen, who had one year earlier visited me in Marseille. Good conversations and rich food. Hans is uniquely knowledgeable in the culture and landscape of south Limburg and had planned an enticing walk for Sunday afternoon, starting in Gulpen. The weather was not alluring, cold and overcast, but I easily recognised the landscape of Gulpen and environs from my childhood time when we would make such lovely walks with the whole family.
That was a gratifying walk and rediscovery of Gulpen after those days of turbulent weather. In the middle of the week I had also met with my second sister Nathalie and her husband Paul at the Greek restaurant Dafne, on the market of Sittard. They were on the way back to Boskoop after visiting nearby Kerkrade, earlier in the day. No time to see more of my family and a longtime-no-see childhood friend. Another time and another visit. The Dutch know, the sun will appear from behind those obscuring clouds, one day, and life will be easy again.
One sunny morning, John and I would visit Cap Canaille near Cassis to talk about work, the exquisite natural setting would inspire for this. A nice drive from Marseille, the journey itself keeps surprising me, now in the autumn season with its changing colors and light.
Cap Canaille is about 394 m high and considered the highest sea cliff in France. The highest cliff or not, the views of the Mediterranean sea are spectacular and today they gave a cloudless picture of the mountain range of the Calanques between Cassis and Marseille.
The winding mountain road called the Route des Crêtes, gives a 360° point of view and shows how the landscape changes between towns. As it is steep here, I am surprised when people dare to take the challenge by bicycle. Once I noticed a couple of which the man rode a regular bike and the woman an electric bike. The woman was smiling. The man was not.
With its unique location on the Mediterranean sea, between the Calanques and the mountain range of Cap Canaille, Cassis is blessed with a great climate for wine culture, producing its variety of rosé and white wines, while attracting visitors who come here to admire its scenic landscape. Just like us. And needless to say, it never came to sitting down to talk work as we were both distracted by the delicate beauty that surrounds Cap Canaille.
The end of autumn approaching, Bernard Biais invited me to visit him in Grenoble. As he is a family friend of John Boonen, he has been several times my guest in Marseille. One day, my ignorance was fully exposed when I asked him if he did not feel very isolated to live in such a faraway village enclosed by mountains. His question to me was: what do you know about Grenoble? Indeed, what did I know? Thinking that I had prepared myself well enough before my visit, in googling information, I discovered that the reality of things was much better.
The journey to Grenoble takes only two hours from Marseille by train, and after my arrival Bernard took me to a unique restaurant where the waiters and waitresses are autistic. Having worked with Nathan Boonen for 2+ years, who suffers from severe autism, I was intrigued by this noble enterprise. At the restaurant there was Richard Ailloud, the boyfriend of Bernard, who would join us for the three days I would be in Grenoble. During our lunch, Colette, the manager of the restaurant sat at our table and answered all my questions of how she ran her business with autists, and we shared our experience and insights on autism. A fascinating story that Bernard patiently translated between French and English.
Yes, my French takes more than two years to develop. When I realised that Richard had similar problems with English we switched between the two languages often, which improved my listening skills and impromptu spoken French. A tour of historical Grenoble was given by knowledgeable guide Bernard himself, taking me to a most interesting outline of the old part of the city. All is so well preserved. One seemingly modest street, rue Chenoise, actually revealed unusual architecture that dates back to the 13th century. We could enter the courtyards of such mansions, which provide total privacy and isolation from the usual city buzz.
Bernard tested my memory by asking which river are we seeing now, the Isère (serpent) or the Drac (lion), and of course I only got it right by the second day. The Drac river flows into the Isère and the Isère merges with the river Rhône, one of the major rivers of Europe, for your information. Talking in two languages can be tiring, but I was looking forward to the next day when we would visit the Vercors mountain range on the westside of Grenoble.
In spite of it being late autumn, the following day was beautifully sunny, too beautiful to stay in the car for too long. We walked through small villages in an agricultural setting. Fresh air, deep fall colors, and people hang gliding from luscious green hills. One double coffee and two double teas for the road, and the waitress took the photo of us.
In the middle, Bernard Biais, born in Paris, teaches project management at the Grenoble Alps University. He is inspired by Inayat Khan, who founded the Sufi Order in the West. On the left, Richard Ailloud, born in Grenoble, retired, is an astrologer and a practitioner of Reiki, and inspired by Buddhism. Myself being a practitioner of the integral yoga of Sri Aurobindo … apparently, our spiritual inclination made the communication flow easily.
And, no, Grenoble is not exactly an isolated village. It is located in the Prealps area of south-east France, famous for its winter sports and especially for being a most important center of research, technology, and innovation in Europe. The World Trade Center of Grenoble makes the city an international financial hub as well. Ask the Grenoblois themselves, as their city has the size for it they call Grenoble the capital of the Alps!
- Last month August was definitely the Yucca month in Marseille. Everywhere in the city and on its outskirts you could see the plant flowering, mostly in private gardens and public parks. Although I admire the creamy-white bell-shaped flowers as they are, I find the plant comes out well in black&white photos.
- When I tried to take a more close-up view of a blossom, I found out why the Yucca’s nickname is Spanish dagger, or bayonet. My belly got pierced by one of the spiky leaves, and it hurt. But the Yucca is not poisonous, on the contrary, its fruits, flowers and roots are edible, although those pointed daggers can give a good sting.
- Yuccas are more known as shrubs, but here in south France I have seen Yucca species as tall as a house with multiple trunks and they can take quite some real estate to make their presence. Originally the Yucca comes from the hot and dry areas of the Americas and covers some 40+ species. Highly ornamental, not dangerous, but don’t accidentally bump into one.
- Arles found its fame in Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh who lived here for an extended period during which he produced his major works. The cozy town along the river the Rhône attracts many visitors annually as Arles has developed into an art centre for particularly painting and photography.
- I went there to visit the 48th ‘Les Rencontres de la Photographie’, Meetings of Photography, an international photo festival held since 1970, where photographers can expose their work. The exhibition is divided over many locations in the town, giving the opportunity to see almost all of Arles during your exhibit tour.
- However, not realising that there was an exhibition of eight paintings by van Gogh and many by American painter Alice Neel, at the Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles, it was the first exhibition that came my way, and made my day, as I am a lover of the art of painting, especially of Impressionism. Alice Neel, 1900-1984, did mainly portraiture in the style of realism and expressionism, as she described it herself, and was inspired by especially Van Gogh’s portrait work. Hence, both painters were presented together.
- Since the photo exhibition was spread out all over the town I missed a few as I visited only a day. The untitled photo by Ramon Grandal, a small b/w image in a white matted frame, stayed in my mind. Seeing hundreds of photos in such a short time span makes you filter things out, and one should represent them all, in this case in the category of street photography.
- Arles was probably a quiet town in the past but is today a bustling international place of attraction for young and old and especially for those creative types. It surely inspires me to keep an eye on what is happening on its art scene.
- This brief journey was inspired by Nathan’s frequent watching of train videos on Youtube. He is autistic and does not speak, but communicates uniquely in his own way. Indeed, every summer the family makes a holiday trip by train and this time, through circumstances, it had not happened yet. The journey started on a Sunday afternoon and ended the next day late evening.
- By comfortable train to Saint Raphael and from there by an as comfortable bus to famous Saint Tropez, as the resort town is protected and not connected to the train system. It was the right decision as Nathan was obviously happy with it all. However, the bus ride took much longer than scheduled and we arrived too late to explore Saint Tropez. We had dinner there on the sunsetting coast and then returned to Saint Raphael to overnight in a hotel, also on the coast.
- The next morning we took the train to nearby Cannes for lunch and to view the Vieux Port area where also the annual Palme d’Or Cannes Film Festival is held. The beauty of Cannes is in its rich architecture and its lush location on the Mediterranean coast, which makes it a haven for sailing and yachting lovers. But that goes for about every place along the Côte d’Azur.
- Another train trip in the afternoon took us to nearby Antibes, a peninsula type of town that is the second oldest on the Côte d’Azur after Marseille. We went to the conspicuous Fort Carré, that dates back to the 16th century, as the walk way around it gives an amazing view on the French Riviera from which you cannot only see the city of Nice but also the French Alps behind it.
- The sunny climate of the French Riviera is complemented by the cool breeze coming from the high mountain range of the Alps, where one can ski even during the summer. Also in Marseille, this cooling breeze is mostly part of the daily weather, a striking combination of warm and cool. In winter, when the wind is really cold and strong it goes by the name ‘The Mistral.’
- We have decided that a second trip should be made to Saint Tropez as well as Antibes, since both towns have much to offer in natural beauty and culture. And a bit of the excessive side of culture, like the towering luxury yachts that can be seen all along the coast line, especially in Antibes where they are also built.
- And, there are people who want to get a glimpse of retired actress Brigitte Bardot who lived normally on the coast of Saint Tropez but lives now higher up on the hills to escape this nosiness. I would rather see the natural beauty that attracted BB to settle here, and which was/is the reason for many artists in the past and present to choose Saint Tropez as their summer retreat.