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!

Yucca the Spanish Dagger

The bell-shaped flowers of a Yucca

  • 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.

A flowering Yucca in the midst of a private garden

  • 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.

The ornamental Yucca can stand pretty tall, sometimes up to 8 meters

  • 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.

Art in Arles

View of Arles from the terrace of Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles

  • 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.

Olive Orchard, 1889 (cropped version); Vincent van Gogh

  • 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.

The Family, 1970 (cropped version); Alice Neel

  • 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. 

Untitled, 1978; Ramon Grandal, Argentine

  • 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.

A wedding party happening at the Town Hall, Place de la République; Arles

  • 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.

A place for all, taking it easy at the Obélisque, La Place de la République; Arles

A Light Coastal Train Trip

Sunset light sets everything aglow; Saint Tropez, France

  • 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.

On time to enjoy the sunset from the docking area of Saint Tropez

  • 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 shady side of Cannes

  • 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.

Palme d’Or on a street fence in Cannes

The older part of Cannes

There are plenty of hotels in Cannes with a view on the Riviera

  • 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.

Tranquil waters at the docking site of Antibes, along Fort Carré

Nathan seated at the foot of Fort Carré, deeply enjoying this sunny trip

  • 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.’

A luxury yacht built by the Dutch company Feadship, with the Alps in the background; Antibes

  • 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.

The Alps enhance the coast line on the side of Nice; French Riviera, Antibes

Entering Morgiou after 6 PM …

Little Morgiou harbor, once a fishing port, today part of a national park

  • To protect La Calanque de Morgiou against the burden of too many visitors, vehicles are only allowed after 6 PM during April to September. To go back and forth this enticing mountainous area would take about a day, and during summer that would be too warm. So how to get there in the evening when you do not have transport? Luckily, John visits Morgiou regularly with his son Nathan, and on a Saturday he invited me to go there for a swim.

The Calanque mountains reflect the changing light of the sunset sky

Two Pine trees at azure waters

  • By scooter this is an amazing ride of panoramic views. In  2014, we were here during April at noon time, and I took a photo of these two pines. Because of the strong daylight the photo was highly contrasting. Now, in the evening and in the middle of the summer, the site appears softer and lusher.

That boat knows where to park, while we were ready for a dip into ice-cold refreshing water

  • It is impossible to be here and take photos and not take a plunge into this inviting sea. The water is refreshingly ice-cold, so it takes a few minutes for the body to go beyond its resistance. After that you do not want to leave anymore.

Constant changing of the light and constant movement of the sea

A rose for Coby

  • We made this visit in the evening of Saturday, July 15 and the next evening, July 16, the mother of John passed peacefully away at the nursing home in Middelburg, with family present. She was 86 years old and had been saying earlier she wanted to return to God. John left the next day for the Netherlands to bid his last farewell to her and to arrange for the cremation that took place five days later. This vignette is dedicated to her: Coby Glastra Boonen.

Agaves along the Coast of Marseille

An Agave’s flower-tower ready to bloom

  • Any time there is the opportunity, John and I make tours on his scooter along the coast line of Marseille or into the Calanque mountains, these are great times to fulfil my photography interest. Within a week, I took photos of Agaves which were ready to bloom, and I definitely wanted to see the flowers later as well. 

Agaves blend well with the Mediterranean landscape

  • I never had seen an Agave in full bloom, either they were still in the buds or the flowers had already withered. I anticipated white flowers but was surprised when I revisited after one week, now by bus, that they are yellow. 

Agave americana’s yellow blossoms, like a chandelier

  • The name Agave derives from the Greek word ‘agavos’ meaning ‘illustrious.’ The plant symbolises long life, health and fertility. The succulent leaves can heal wounds and the juice is used to make the Mexican tequila. For me, the sight of an Agave is art alive. Another giant and ancient plant that keeps thriving on earth.

An Agave’s chandelier of flowers at the Corniche corner of Marseille

Between Nine and Noon

Marseille is an integrated part of its natural setting

  • After I had taken Nathan to school before 9 O’clock in the morning, John, his father, suggested to make a tour on his scooter to view Marseille at its top. Also a great opportunity to see the Oleander and Bougainvillea in full bloom, which are abundant there.

The lushness of the Côte d’Azur are well represented by the Oleander and Bougainvillea blossoms

  • From the top of the city down to the beach site La Pointe Rouge, Marseille can be seen sitting on its hill  with the Notre-Dame de la Garde overlooking the area. La Pointe Rouge is famous for its activities of sailing, kayaking and windsurfing.

Marseille seen from the boating area La Pointe Rouge

The active coast of Marseille; the bicycles can be rented