Timeless Days …

Picture from the past: Hans (top) and I (middle); Kindergarten (1959), Kerkrade, the Netherlands

Have you ever met your best Kindergarten friend after 40 years, and it clicked, as if you were back in time while staying in the present? A state not affected by time. If this sounds complex, it is really child’s play. My longtime-no-see Dutch friend Hans passed by In Marseille with his partner Cia, and we took a plunge into our childhood memories with now six decades of life experience in the background.

La vieille Chairité – museum and cultural centre; Marseille

After Kindergarten we both attended the same primary school, but on my seventh birthday my family moved to another provence, there were maybe two brief visits back and forth after that. Our last meeting was in 1977, in Maastricht, we were in our early twenties, and just before my departure to India. Then, we lost contact.

L’homme à la pipe (detail) (1968); Picasso

Over the past decade, we googled each other but did not find any contact-info, until Hans discovered my sister Petra on Facebook, last year, and soon the link was reestablished through email and WhatsApp. Hans and Cia were keen to visit France and came to Marseille this month via a short trip in the south. The first day we would visit art museums in Marseille, however, time stood still, we were in no hurry.

Deux femmes courant sur la plage (cropped image) (1922); Picasso

We visited Parc Valmer for the view it gives on the Mediterranean sea and nearby islands, like the famous Il d’If. We had lunch at a restaurant at Vieux Port, where Cia wisely ordered her own dish, but I accidentally ordered for Hans and myself the Plat du Jour, instead of the Salad du Jour. These are two entirely different dishes: one is a healthy Greek salad, the other a big fat French hamburger with French fries. We accepted the mistake, received a handshake from the waiter, and enjoyed the delicious burger and fries.

The courtyard of La Vieille Charité; Marseille

Up we went to La Vieille Charité, a Baroque-style building complex from 1749 that was formerly accommodation for needy people, and today a museum and cultural centre. There was an extensive exhibition of Picasso that pleasantly surprised us for the several large paintings that were displayed, which were unknown to us. The second part of the Picasso exhibition was at the modern museum Mucem, but the day had passed into early evening, time for a drink, on a terrace that happened to have a direct view on Mucem – Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations – that is located near the sea.

Hans en Cia in the Calanques de Marseille

The next day a hike through the Calanques de Marseille, to great spots with spectacular views. Amazingly, Cia who broke her left shoulder the weekend before leaving for France, which did not require an operation but remained painful nevertheless, could very well manage the quite demanding walk through often steep terrain. Remaining in movement helped fortunately the healing process. Time stood even more still here in the midst of wild nature, we covered quite some distance in one day in spite of being immersed in conversation.

At repose in the Calanques

Anchored boats at the Calanques de Marseille

A rewarding meeting for the three of us. France and the Netherlands are not too far apart to keep more regular contact, and we will. Meanwhile, time goes on … Hans celebrated his birthday here, and I will next month, and we will be of the exact same age, again, but we choose to stay in our timeless state.

Hans and I in the Calanques de Marseille, France (photo by Cia)

The Ochre Streets of Aix

Le Mazerin cinema in a historical building; Aix-en-Provence

Intending to visit the Granet Museum in Aix en Provence, it takes some orientation to find the place, but no complaints here, the streets of Aix are so attractive, and thus distracting, that it is easy to forget where you were heading to.

Fountain of the Four Dolphins; rue Cardinale

The reasons why the streets are so charming is that the town dates back to 123 BC, went through a longtime development of Roman, Spanish and French influences, came to prosper after the 12th century, and .. all this is still tangible and visible when you walk through this warm ochre-colored environment.

A delicatessen shop since 1830 in a well preserved building

The French know how to preserve all that is beautiful. Aix en Provence became an artistic and educational centre in the 12th century and has remained like that to today. The Impressionist art of Paul Cezanne, who was born here, is still alive, among other art forms like opera and dance. So is Aix an international centre of study, keeping the place young and creative.

At the corner of Chapelle Granet which has become an art museum

Rue Marius Reynaud one of the commercial streets of Aix

Today Aix-en-Provence is everything: a wonderfully quiet yet dynamic town with ultra luxury shops and commercial centre, fine French cafés and restaurants, a university centre, a living art centre, and more. It is the well-preserved historical architecture that holds it all together. Especially in this age of ultra modern, Aix is ultra pretty.

Place de Hotel de Ville

Oh, we discovered the Museum Granet was closed, because it was Monday. No problem, we will be planning another trip soon. Aix en Provence is only 30 km from Marseille, and this region is called PACA: Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, which has a great train system.

Dark and light

The Calming Power of La Côte Bleue

The calming power of la côte bleue; Nathan at Ensuès-la-Redonne

One of the main reasons why I can enjoy regular outings along the coast of Marseille is that Nathan, who is an autist and has a high energy level, finds his deep calm by being in natural settings. He has a personal preference for beautiful spots that are mostly off the tourist track. With all its sculpted mountains, blue sea and fresh air, it is easy to find true repose here in South France, one that reinvigorates the total being.

Houses dotting the Calanque here have private staircases leading to the sea

A half hour train trip, over viaducts that date back to around 1907, takes you to Ensuès-la-Redonne, a lovely small village where we – John, Nathan and myself – visited the little Vieux Port that is situated below the railway station. Those who have their houses built on the Calanque that surrounds the port, enjoy amazing views, with private staircases that take you down for a dip into the ice cold sea.

The Marseille-Miramas train passes every hour over the viaducts that were build around 1907

Content and ready to take the blue coast train back to Marseille

As it is still Spring with the sun less intense, sitting here peacefully and relaxed on large boulders, is all what it takes to come back to a true state of well-being. Even the train trip is an easy going affair that takes you along panoramic views of the ever fascinating coastline.

La Redonne Ensuès seen from its viaduct

High, Wild and Wholesome

Marseille, Frioul Island and Ile d’If seen from Notre-Dame de la Garde

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.

The rich blossoms of the Cercis siliquastrum, Judas tree, can be seen everywhere, in and around Marseille

The favorite Corniche part of the city that winds along the picturesque coastline

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 modest 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. 

A view of Marseille seen from Calanque de Sormiou, the 9th district of the city

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. 

My favorite site and sight: small Pine trees at a colorful sea

Inviting waters at Calanque de Sormiou

Pine tree reaching over to the other side; Calanque de Sormiou

Green Skies White Blossoms

Green sky at Port d’Alon

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?

Seascape with green sky; Calanque de Port d’Alon, between La Ciotat and Toulon

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.

White on Blue

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.

Mirabelle blooms against blue sky

Into the Snowscape of the Alps

House in the heights, at St Anne, Alps, France

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. 

A mountain top of eternal snow, St Anne, Alps, France

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.

The higher mountain range of the Alps, Belvédère, near St Anne, France

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.

Father and child, learning the skills of skiing; Super Sauze, Alps, France

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 scenery around Barcelonnette, Haute Provence, France

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.

Ski resort Barcelonnette, Provence, France

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.

Birch trees at the forest area of Barcelonnette

Farmhouse, Barcelonnette

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.

Barcelonnette at the Ubaye river, Haute Provence, France

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.  

Barcelonnette at night

Snow on the Tracks

Snow on the tracks

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.

Take a seat; benches in Heerlen

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. 

D’r Joep, the national monument dedicated to the miners; the Market, centre of Kerkrade

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.

A UFO has landed in Kerkrade

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. 

Circles; Hambos, Kerkrade

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.

The riverbank of Maastricht, south Limburg, the Netherlands

Petra walks down the pedestrian bridge over the river Maas, toward the city wall of Maastricht

Lumière: cafe, restaurant and cinema in the converted ceramics factory the Sphinx

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.

Bookstore Dominican, Maastricht

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 …

Blue shoes, anyone? Maastricht

The underground bicycle park of Maastricht

Turbulent weather in the Low Lands

After the storm, a weatherproof Maria statue on one of the hills of Gulpen; the Netherlands

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.

‘The Market’ of Sittard during a flash of sunlight

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.

Two woolly cows busy with lunch; the landscape around Gulpen

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. 

Hans en Petra in the Gulpener farmland

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.

Myself and Petra in the winterscape of Gulpen (Photo by Hans Kohnen)

Azure Blue and Luscious Green

That is only one point of view …

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.

A view of the Calanques from Cassis down to Marseille

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.

Brave bikers – not afraid for Route des Crêtes, the winding summit road

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.

Luscious green and azure blue are inherent to the coastal limestone mountain range

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.

Cassis is known for its fine wines and enticing natural environment

Visiting the Capital of the Alps – Grenoble

A view of Grenoble from the Vercors mountain range

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.

A favorite social gathering spot for the Grenoblois: Place Grenette

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. 

In Grenoble, ‘a mountain at the end of every street ‘… said novelist Henri Beyle Stendhal

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. 

The courtyard of a historical private mansion on rue Chenoise, Grenoble

A bridge over the river Isère, Grenoble

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.

Vercors mountain range in autumn

Hang gliding from luscious hills in the Vercors mountain range

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. 

Richard Ailloud, Bernard Biais, and me. L-R

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.

Almost a fairytale, a village in the Prealps near Grenoble

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!