Bridging the gap… and Advent 1

They say no news is good news and everything has been fine – just really busy and intense!

IMG_0796 So a long post is probably due…!

Following my last post, my friend and I did indeed visit the Birmingham Art Gallery. The fantastic Edwardian Tea Room impressed us before we even got to the Pre-Raphaelites!

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The Art Gallery was purpose-built (though this hall probably wasn’t originally intended to be a Tea Room!) and was definitely intended to impress and show off the collections in Birmingham, of which the Pre-Raphaelites are only one, and which we simply couldn’t take in all at once. It’s obviously a matter of taste, but I did enjoy looking at the varying styles within that category and finding little details that are simply pleasing…IMG_0731IMG_0732 Isn’t this cat gorgeous?!

Although we are close to Birmingham, I have never really known the city very well and even less so since it’s all been renewed, refurbished and in many cases, utterly changed (i.e. the “new” Bullring Centre!), so I was pleased and surprised to see how grubby old canal areas have been made trendy and lively with a huge amount going on from shops and restaurants to galleries and businesses. As there was a family connection, we also visited a small gallery called the Ikon, thinking we ought to be open to some more modern forms of art… I’m afraid that is all that can be said, as we thought the exhibits more than a little strange and an understanding of “art” that clearly supercedes anything we would consider in that category! But it was interesting to see something different, nevertheless, and we were extremely impressed at how beautifully the old school building had been restored and could appreciate the juxtaposition of the 19th century brick and stonework with the modern additions of glass and steel.  IMG_0734 IMG_0736IMG_0737IMG_0740

Not long after this nice little jaunt, it was time for me to head back to Switzerland, where my family had had to manage without me for a month – unheard of! Finding everything in good order and a warm welcome, I set about preparing for my next absence 😮  IMG_0811

As I knew I would be away during Advent, a time of year we all enjoy so much, it seemed to me a logical conclusion to spend the rest of November in a state of pre-Advent, including all those restorative elements such as baking, candles, decorations, downtime with tea, reading, knitting… you name it! It’s the little things like mandarines (clementines/tangerines) being available and an abundance of greenery and plants like poinsettia that make the difference, I suppose. In any case, we managed to spend a lovely three weeks of home comforts and seasonal activities to rival any other perfect Advent: wandering the pretty boutiques and Christmas markets of mediaeval towns (Stein-am-Rhein and Colmar), a little bit of non-stressful Christmas shopping, plenty of tea, cappuccino and hot chocolate, the aforementioned fruits and biscuits and then also a big dinner event with a Christmas show and another evening comedy event with a Christmas theme, plus a couple of visits to the cinema (that would be the new Bond – ace! – and Kristin Scott-Thomas’ latest offering in French – “Dans la maison” – which she does so well). I had time to see my friends for birthdays and days or evenings out or just a cup of tea and a chat, and to spend time with each of my daughters and grandchildren. My youngest daughter and I found time for a baking session (cinnamon stars!) and a couple of shopping trips in preparation for Christmas but also to feed her newfound enthusiasm (via her vocational training) for sewing… All in all a very successful and intense period of time that I thoroughly enjoyed!!

IMG_0767 This young lady is now walking… and still can’t keep still for a photo!

IMG_0784 Gallivanting with Helen in Baden – The Brown house with its collection of Impressionist paintings, interesting family history and beautiful interior IMG_0780 I thought the gardens and topiary very pretty, along with the garden furniture 🙂

IMG_0788 Still in Baden, one for my husband! The cold, dark day merited plenty of woollies…

IMG_0819 PERFECT weather in Colmar (Alsace, France) – I could bore you stupid with beautiful photos of the mediaeval buildings in Colmar, but thought you may not know that Auguste Bartholdi designed the New York Statue of Liberty, a miniature of which is standing on the little plinth next to him in this monument! IMG_0826IMG_0821IMG_0831IMG_0848IMG_0843IMG_0869IMG_0838…with a pike that probably doesn’t quite rival my grandad’s stuffed one…! IMG_0851Wonderful food in Colmar, too – this was an Apple Strudel that was delicious as well as beautiful!

While on the subject of food, I hasten to recommend the restaurant “Au Rendez-Vous de Chasse” of the Grand Hotel Bristol, just across from the main railway station in Colmar… Both buildings are art nouveau and retain all their turn-of-the-century style. The hotel is very nice, not overdone, and our rooms were lovely, plus the brasserie and breakfasts were excellent. The restaurant, however, is a proper posh French restaurant and my birthday menu was out of this world… http://www.grand-hotel-bristol.com/restaurant-gastronomique-colmar takes you to the website with some beautiful images of the delicious food and how it’s presented!

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Local interest

Although I am staying in the industrial Black Country area of the Midlands (UK), you may be surprised to know that the countryside is never very far away. Within 15 minutes or so, through grubby and often neglected suburbs – even more dismal in the chilly autumn rain – the greenery suddenly increases, the houses become either bigger or more attractive (or both!) and the sides of the road leafier, until you suddenly realise you’re actually in the countryside and travelling through some attractive and picturesque English villages.

I took advantage of the fact that my ladies are now able to manage to make themselves a cup of tea and a sandwich to take a day off, and headed out to the National Trust property of Wightwick Manor, just to the west of Wolverhampton and apparently, exactly 10 miles (16 km) away from my base. Having heard good things about the estate, I was keen to see the William Morris textiles and “Brotherhood of Pre-Raphaelite artists” collection that are such defining elements of this particular house, and I was certainly not disappointed.

Although the house appears to be a Tudor manor, it was in fact built behind the original 16th century house from 1887 onwards, initially a comfortable family home which was soon after extended by as much again to the large manor we see today, presiding over large, well-proportioned lawns and woodland, with beautiful grounds, particularly a generous rose garden and a large kitchen garden – and visitors are permitted to ramble around to their hearts’ content. Perhaps more attractive in warmer, or at least dryer weather!

The Mander family was an important one in Wolverhampton and the present day town centre mall is named after it. It had made its name in varnishes, paints and printing inks from the late 18th century and by the time Theodore Mander came to build Wightwick Manor, he had a large fortune to draw on. The family had originally bought the old house but found it too small for their needs, necessitating the new-build, and then its extension from 1893. Being keen on the late Victorian Arts and Crafts movement and the Aesthetic Movement initiated by the author John Ruskin, the owners built in a “naturalistic”, yet popular “Old English”-style, so that apart from the William Morris wall coverings and textiles, De Morgan tiles feature prominently in the large fireplaces, Kempe glass is everywhere and much of the art is by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown and others of the era – a marvellous and valuable collection (though a good deal was added post-1937!).

Of course, many of the textiles are a little faded and worn after 130 years or have been introduced or replaced at a later date, and yet it is astonishing how well much of the colours are preserved in the wallpapers. Even if the colour contrasts are no longer quite as vivid in the textiles, they don’t appear frayed or tired, just comfortable and inviting. In fact, the whole house is like that – it makes you want to sit and bide your time. Despite the dark oak panelling in Jacobean style that is a dominant feature of the lower floor, the atmosphere is cosy rather than daunting and many windows of varying sizes and shapes, often bow windows, feature window-seats for sitting and enjoying the lovely views over the lower part of the estate, its lawns and gardens and many many great trees. It’s easy to visualise the ladies in their loose, jewel-toned gowns, having the leisure to sit and sew or knit quietly, or to lose themselves in the extensive collection of books that fills the house – not only in the library, but also overflowing in the Great Parlour and smaller bookcases in the upstairs corridors. There is a calm, comfortable feeling in all the rooms, rather than the pomp and splendour of greater stately homes. Surely the owners enjoyed the books and art themselves and weren’t just collecting these things to show off…

The Great Parlour was the main part of the extension added soon after the house was built, doubling its size. An enormous mediaeval hall with towering vaulted wooden ceiling, fantastic painted panels, Morris wall coverings and upholstery, a huge deep fireplace with sofas either side and fine collections of blue and white china (mainly drainer plates), as well as objects brought back from foreign travels. Along the whole south wall there are large windows, all shapes and sizes, it seems, so that the hall is well lit. It features a minstrel’s gallery above, though that is on the wrong end of the hall to be authentic (we were told), and actually gives access to the visitors’ bedrooms that had become necessary additions to the house as the family’s importance increased; Theodore Mander eventually became Mayor of Wolverhampton. Sadly both he and his wife died young, aged only 47 respectively. His eldest son took over the estate and younger siblings and later went into politics, eventually becoming Sir Geoffrey Mander. Over a period of 50 years, all kinds of important people were entertained at Wightwick, from the Duke and Duchess of York to Captain Scott (of the Antarctic) and Prime Ministers such as Stanley Baldwin! The large, formal dining room and billiard room (for the gentlemen) show how exquisitely they were received.

  Sir Geoffrey Mander

 

Jane Morris by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1870 (completed by Ford Madox Brown)

Interestingly, the day and night nurseries are featured when you tour the house. Our guide pointed out that they were much closer to the family apartments than was common among that class at that time – she suggested it may be due to the fact that Theodore’s wife, Flora, was Canadian and perhaps encouraged a closer relationship to their children than was usual. It is those private bedrooms which are kept separate and inaccessible – members of the Mander family still visit and spend time at the house, descendants from all over the globe, apparently. (After reading the guide, I noticed how bitter the last Mander owner was – perhaps her father was too busy with politics and her mother too busy with cats, Pre-Raphaelites and biographies to be loving parents?! It seems a shame and the house does not reflect her obvious dislike in any way.)

To finish, it is fascinating to see some “behind the scenes” rooms – a large, tiled Cook’s kitchen, pleasant servant’s hall, roomy scullery and laundry but also the in-between rooms such as the boot room or the butler’s pantry and the back stairs…

Unusually for a house with timed tickets and a guided tour, the visitors are free to browse the upstairs and secondary rooms of the house on their own, with only a few stewards available to keep an eye out and to answer questions (they are very knowledgeable). You can try and envisage yourself as an esteemed guest in one of those visitors’ rooms, which aren’t ostentatious but again, comfortable. A large, albeit shared, bathroom is another plus – warm, too, as the house was built with central heating, as well as electricity! One of those rooms has its own writing and dressing room overlooking the east orchard and used to house a large, elaborate bed said to have been slept in by King Charles II on his travels; however, he slept in it at Mosely Old Hall, so that has been removed back to where it came from.

I certainly had a lovely day out, enjoying the tea-room/restaurant with meals including vegetables grown in the Kitchen garden, the browsable National Trust/William Morris shop and the second hand book shop. Upstairs in the old house some Halloween crafts were being offered for children and I noticed there are a number of events planned for the winter season – how lovely to see so much life in a listed property!

And as I came back out, the sun had appeared to emphasise the wonderful colours of the autumn leaves on the mature trees!

Next stop, the Pre-Raphaelites at Birmingham Art Gallery!

(Outdoor photos my own, the rest collected…!)

A Grand Day Out

Autumn has definitely arrived, even the calendar says so. Now we really are into the last quarter of the year, and the weekend was quick to confirm it, with cold, grey rainy days that had us hunkering down with pumpkin and other soups and seasonal fare.

However, Friday dawned beautifully bright and sunny with a clear blue sky that stayed with us for the whole day and as one of my best friends was visiting, it was a great opportunity for a Grand Day Out!

We started off with a pretty quick drive to Lucerne for lunch, probably one of the last we’ll enjoy outdoors this year (and even now we were glad of the warm red blankets supplied by the restaurant!).  And that is just the coffee and dessert!!

We did find it necessary to have a stroll for the sake of our digestion and for some, a bit of a swim among the ducks and as far as we could get away from the swans…

Wool was bought, too – we’re going to make these: http://www.knitty.com/ISSUEdf12/PATTbff.php       🙂 🙂 🙂

My husband had an appointment up a mountain, and while we waited for him, we were amused to witness the tail end of the local cattle market! This was very much a village affair  with not a tourist in sight, and is proof of a couple of things you might have heard about Swiss country life: the cows were wearing big bells and were herded off up the road, clanking their way out up the village high street, and we also saw a dog-cart pulled by Bernese Mountain dogs (wagging all the way and with happy laughing faces!) and led by a couple dressed in the local Sunday traditional costume. (I have video proof but can’t seem to embed those here, unfortunately!) There were also a couple of young women and girls in the workday costumes and most of the men and a lot of children were wearing the typical Edelweiss workshirts…




(The one we saw had two dogs pulling the decorative milk-cart filled with flowery churns!)

Another short drive took us to another lake, further east, to the southern end of Lake Zurich at Rapperswil. Others had taken advantage of the gloriously sunny afternoon for a trip on a big old boat    With weather like this, we had to climb up to the top of the little hill the old town is nestled into, up to the castle 

 

From up here, there is a wonderful panoramic view both up the lake to Zurich and down over the town to the mountains behind – Although Rapperswil is a town of roses, it was figs we found growing up the castle walls! After admiring the old town from above we finished the afternoon off in style with this Sour cherry, redcurrant and blueberry tarts… yum!

Four seasons

I don’t suppose anybody actually noticed that I have been doing this blog for a year, now… well, why would you, especially when time has flown by so fast and August 2012 completely escaped my grasp?! I expect the lost month is simply proof of how time can slip through your fingers. Certainly, I can’t quite see where summer went, weatherwise, since we had only a few days of a heatwave before autumn literally dropped in, ready for September – dropped temperatures, dropped rain and dropping leaves as we speak.

August was a month that saw some birthdays (a great summer kid’s party described over on my daughter’s blog at chaperontachete.wordpress.com), some outdoor movie fun (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – a true must-see – at the Open Air Weinfelden), some new starts (my youngest in a new apprenticeship for 3 years and my grandson at Kindergarten), seeing friends for lunch, attempting to find the ideal combination of sun and wind for sailing, the end of an era for another daughter, an emigration and some health upsets in the family. No wonder the month whisked by.

Having seen the dressmaking apprenticeship off to a good start, with a mountain of books and specialist tools to be acquired, I proceeded to accompany my middle daughter to England, where it seems that there will be less of this

 (made by my youngest’s boyfriend, who is training to be a baker!)

and (hopefully!) more of this

Yes, what a dilemma, exchanging Swiss brunches for English cream teas… as long as there is some family along, I think we will agree to enjoy both!

The Oxford area is new territory for me, having only ever been there once before. In a couple of days we managed to explore a good chunk of Oxfordshire, though, from Abingdon  through some delightful small towns (notably Wallingford, Faringdon and Wantage) and adorable villages such as Uffington or Harwell – real thatched-cottage-and-roses-round-the-door stuff, and we even saw part of the Uffington White Horse:

 (this is not one of my photos – apparently you can only see it properly from certain far-off locations or the air, so I was actually a bit disappointed with the one hind leg I could see and am calling it the Uffington Squiggle…still impressive with the surrounding countryside, though)

One of the highlights of the visit was going to be Kelmscott, possibly the most beautiful hamlet (apparently a population of 101…) that is perhaps best known for Kelmscott Manor, rented by William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the late 19th century and later bought by Jane Morris for the family – the name was famously also used for the family’s London house and Press. We did make it to Kelmscott, which is very remote and off the beaten track, and found it to be breathtakingly lovely – and the Manor closed to the public for a private party. Ah well, another day. (wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelmscott) 

Fortunately, Oxford is never closed. Or perhaps unfortunately – I don’t know when the town  might ever have a quiet period, but its fame and popularity mean that it’s either overrun with tourists or with students or both. However, we did at least manage a few snaps and that cream tea above meant we also dodged the raindrops! This leads to the area where the colleges are, which I was interested in, having recently read Dorothy L. Sayers’ “Gaudy Night”, set in Oxford in 1935… perhaps Lord Peter Wimsey might just sweep round the corner! Down that passage there on the left is Brasenose College. (that’s the Bodleian Library on the right…)

There is certainly a lot to see and do in and around Oxford, so I’m looking forward to a few more opportunities, there! Museums and concerts appeal, though I’m not sure I’d go as far as doing the “Morse walk”, the “Alice tour” or any of those tourist offerings. In fact, I did see an episode of “Lewis” while I was in England and kept jumping up excitedly to point out landmarks I’d seen on my visit, and was thrilled to see they’d filmed in the covered market where I’d admired the beautifully arranged fruit and veg behind Laurence Fox and his suspect…

This was the lull before the storm, as apart from a lovely family afternoon with cousins, the rest of my visit to England was taken up with getting to know the National Health System and its defects and juggling the logistics of hospitals with those of looking after my granny and feeling relief that my daughter was close by to provide back-up! All’s well that ends well, though, and the patient is convalescing so that I am back home again, with the other three generations looking after each other, now, instead 🙂 

Darling buds of May…

Well, as long as we are just about still in May, I really need to catch up with blogworld! It’s been a month that has simply blasted past, and has been beautiful and memorable in many ways, as well as transitioning from cold and wet to sometimes extremely warm and summery, offering opportunities for work and play galore!

The first week of the month, once we’d got Mayday out of the way (a public holiday in many parts of Switzerland, including our own), we were busy packing up and heading off across the border to Alsace-Lorraine, in north-eastern France. Although it’s actually quite close, with Basle sitting comfortably in that little corner between Switzerland-France-Germany and then bordered on the north by the German Palatinate region, where I was born, it’s not really an area we’ve explored much before. Our journey was a very specific one, as it was our first outing on a canal boat and travelling two of the many, many canals that criss-cross not only France but also many other parts of Britain, Germany and the lowlands of Holland and Belgium. The other novelty was that it was our first holiday that properly involved three generations – we were partly there to help out my daughter and son-in-law with the two young grandchildren, a boisterous nearly-4-year old and a nearly-crawling 6 mth old! Fortunately, on this occasion, no dogs were involved…

 So, this was our home for the week – a most generously sized rented canal boat, well protected by fenders all round. With three roomy cabins, everybody had plenty of space and my husband, who is 6’4″, was even able to stand up straight without bashing his head on anything! It was certainly the ideal vesself for exploring canals and it’s a good time of year, too, since although we had a couple of squally days, the weather was mostly fresh and mild and to finish up, even quite hot, with plenty of wind blowing through the trees as we quietly moved up and down the waterways.

Our journey began at a tiny village, Lagarde, in the Lorraine and we made our way through countless “uphill” and “downhill” locks, mooring as we pleased in various places including the pretty village of Lutzelbourg and going as far as Saverne, a small town with a huge bishop’s palace and attractive old town. There was very little traffic – no school holidays – and even when we did go looking for provisions, we usually had cycle a couple of kilometres to find the tiniest épicerie with a range of about 30 articles, mostly processed foods! Fortunately, we did eventually find some shops that sold us beautiful fresh veg and fruit, cheeses and meats, so all was not lost…

The stretch we had chosen had several attractions, one of which was the highest lock in France at Gondrexange, 16 metres high/deep – very impressive! We were all glad we already some lock experience by the time we reached this one, though my daughter and son-in-law took to the boat like ducks to water and were soon relaxed and laid back about locks in either direction (“uphill” or “downhill”!). 

 Another great attraction was the hoisting lock at Arzviller, which carries boats between two levels of canal – amazing and impressive! 

 It’s wonderfully peaceful along the canals, lots of birdsong to be heard and the scenery is beautiful, with some surprising sights, such as the canal between two pools…

 And we did quite fancy doing up a lock-keeper’s cottage or two… It was certainly a no-stress holiday – my son-in-law found time to fish

 We spent time cycling (and arrived home to find a new milk campaign going on…)

Copycats 🙂

 

 

 

   Wake up in the morning to this… Or this! And as the evenings lengthened and became milder, views like thisNothing can beat sitting looking out at water in a sunset, armed with a suitable drink – and in my son-in-law’s case, a fishing rod!

Little Mireille is already getting quite independent and must be the most consistently sunny baby I have ever known! Adorable! Keeping her brother out of danger proved to be quite a challenge, though we pretty much expected that! (See, the sun did shine, too!) We ate well when we ate out, though service wasn’t always what we’re used to. At this place in Saverne, Restaurant Katz, the most typical Alsacian-style place we went to, the waitress was forgiven for her initial abruptness by her falling in love with the baby and giving her a huge cuddle while announcing what a lovely “crotte” she is – meaning “bundle” but a word also used to describe less savoury objects :o… Ah well. Overall, we were also fascinated by the language – most of the time, we were able to speak our usual Swiss dialect to the locals speaking their own Alsacian dialects, with perfect comprehension between the two, rather than either (or both) of us switching to high German or struggling with French! Fascinating. Of course, the area has been passed around a lot in the course of history, sometimes belonging to Germany and sometimes to France.  Lutzelbourg, taking shelter in a downpour

It’s easy to live on a canal boat like this, life is easygoing and I can see why people spend months and years doing this, taking advantage of the large network of canals across Europe. It requires very little skill or knowledge and it’s hard to think of a more pleasant way to pass the time than spending it “messing about” on a boat, with plenty of leisure for reading (and knitting :)) and really also very well suited as a family holiday, too!

 Well, you can see I’ve had a holiday, can’t you?!

 

Somewhere else

This week, we had a rather more unusual destination north of the border. Business took us to Mannheim on the Rhine/Neckar rivers for a couple of days. Not terribly far from where I was born, it’s not a place I’d been to before, certainly not that I remember. A relatively small university town in Germany, its population is actually nearer that of our largest Swiss city, Zurich. Its location on the meeting point of three provinces and where the rivers meet, too, meant that we were quite curious to see it. Unusually in Europe, the centre of town was built on a grid system as early as the 17th century – apparently so that everyone would have a view of the palace, which, we’re told, is the second largest Baroque palace (presumably after Versailles).

  Sadly, the weather wasn’t playing along too well in the short time we had to explore the town and we didn’t get to go and look at the Luisenpark, which we heard has lovely gardens and other attractions. Instead, we did have a wander through the small park at the Friedrichsplatz with the large Wasserturm, which was much more cheerful with its spring plantings of colourful tulips, daffodils and violas than the heavy grey skies.

 With the university and important businesses being  based in Mannheim, it’s a surprisingly international place and we heard many different languages – and almost no local dialect in our two days there! Apart from the historical parts of town and the parks, the city comes across as fairly ordinary so one of the last things we expected was to find ourselves greatly enjoying two wonderful meals. Our rather run-of-the-mill hotel with somewhat helpless receptionists initially left us a little frustrated and feeling that we were having to settle for the hotel restaurant – which turned out to be extremely high class and utterly delicious! Thwarted by the weather on day 2, we accepted a recommendation to a restaurant at the top of a department store and again, wow! One of the best meals we’ve ever had – and we are truly spoilt with gourmet restaurants in Switzerland.

So a lasting memory of Mannheim, as we waited for our Inter-City Express train in a rather grimy lounge, was the unexpectedly exquisite food, from beautifully composed salads, duck and fish to exquisite oysters, pata negra, lobster and guinea fowl and finished by a touch of panna cotta with rose syrup, strawberries and rhubarb… sigh! The touch of Champagne was rather good, too :).

Perhaps next time the sun will be kinder to us and we will get to appreciate more of the sights – certainly, the food could tempt us…

 Ah well, back to the grindstone – though with the view above from my window, sunshine and temperatures at home due to go up to 26°C today and tomorrow, I have little call for complaint. 🙂

The Gentle Art of Skiing

I was 34 when I had my first tentative skiing lesson (aged 9 or 10 on this snap!). As a child, once we’d moved to Switzerland, my mother dutifully kitted me out in second-hand gear so I could try it out, but the infernally uncomfortable, vice-like grip of the boots and my flailing attempts to climb a small slope and slide down it again just didn’t seem worth it and so, I never learned. When a young teen, I took up cross-country skiing with my parents and enjoyed its more leisurely pace and the company of the family dog, though I also loved the downhill bits…

So, back to the ski lesson. Never particularly slim or sporty, though fairly flexible and agile, I was full of trepidation as I stepped into the bindings for the first time. The fact that my ski teacher had only one arm was only slightly perturbing – either he was an absolute crack skier to manage it, or it was going to be laughably easy for me with two healthy arms. Another more mature lady and I were sent off to a small slope away from the main runs to practice our “snowplough” and before we knew it, we were being whisked off to the chair lift for our first “blue” run (supposedly the easiest slopes…). At first it all seemed impossible, then became controllable and eventually, pleasure and appreciation began to kick in. And then the single week’s ski holiday was over (with many other highlights, I hasten to add!).

…why yes, I did knit the hat! 
 It was another 5 years before we got our act together enough for a renewed attempt at a ski week, always a logistically demanding exercise, with one child here, another there, ski school and snowboarding club, coordination of time and place and so on. I had another lesson – with Max, this time, who was somewhere between 70 and 80 and who had obviously been on skis for an equal length of time, his tanned, lined face a reflection of a well-skied piste! He refined my style a little, gave me tips on balance and had me performing impressive, snow-spraying stops – I felt like a pro! From then on, I have winged it (sometimes literally!) and found huge enjoyment in swishing down the slopes, mostly with my husband, sometimes accompanied by a skiing or snowboarding daughter or two (or three) and I even proudly more or less managed to keep up when out with my two fearless sons-in-law, albeit only for a couple of runs. My brother-in-law has joined us on occasion, too, which just goes to show what a family affair this whole thing has become. Unquestionably, it’s part of the attraction to have those we love able to join in and have fun together, even when all horizontal space in the holiday flat is taken up with sleeping bags, ski clothing, boots and dogs: real bonding time.

 

 

What struck me particularly this year when I stepped off the chair lift onto the sparkling mountainside, a pure blue sky above and blinding white slopes all around me, was how clever our brains and bodies are. For the 10th time, we are having a ski holiday, just one or two weeks a year when we ski, and I am no longer a very young woman. And yet, I didn’t have to think for a moment about where to put my feet, how to balance, which moves are required, whether a twist of the hip or a bend of the knee will achieve the desired result – my brain simply kicked into “ski mode” and sent me curving relatively gracefully down the run, the same blue run of my first attempts, the same blue run we greet joyfully each year, the same blue run that has steep bits and gentler sections, narrower and wider portions and the same blue run with the mighty panorama view of Alps as far as the eye can see.

 

There are plenty of other runs in this ski arena, neither one of the smallest nor one of the largest in Switzerland. A couple of long blue runs, wide as motorways, sweeping around enormous boulders, glittering in the sunshine and inviting for gentle skiing and boarding at all levels. Quite a few red runs with steeper slopes, bumpier bits or long narrow parts threading along snow fields that require some speed, for the more active skiers or for braver days. I leave the black runs to those who either have no sense of danger or who have been doing this since before they could think (even if many of them look surprisingly mature to be on skis at all!)… though I did once end up on one by accident and was immensely proud of myself to get down it at all and without breaking anything! On all of them, even the blue runs, there have been moments of anguish and terror, deep breaths and eye-squeezing, but as time has passed, I have overcome most of them and sometimes now smile to myself as I swoop easily down through a cut I once struggled with, sliding or tumbling painfully on my behind, unable to cope with the verticality of it all. Gravity always applies.

 Homo snowboardiensis – a typical snowboard stance 

It’s a huge privilege to have the health and wealth (comparative!) to be able to do this. That feeling of privilege extends to the luxury of being able to enjoy a geographically beautiful area from a special point-of-view, to bathe in bright sunlight in January, have a sense of freedom high above the rest of the world, but also to wander through snow-covered woods, admire icy streams and sculptures, feel the sparkling cold, experience the glittering diamond snows and yet feel the power of nature in a snowstorm, hear an avalanche go down, the sensation of being entirely alone on a foggy ski run, wrapped up to the icy eyeballs and beyond in protective gear and the incredibly relaxing hour in the spa afterwards! Not to mention the breathtaking sight of the outlined mountains as that same blazing sun sets behind them, putting the cragginess into intensive relief against the deepening blue sky.

Next year, then.

A Portrait of a Mountain Village

Allegra!

Once again, we have spent a couple of weeks in the Lower Engadin region of eastern Switzerland, right out towards the Austrian border, where the Alps laugh at any concept of political borders and dominate everything from the later sunrise to the earlier sunset and beyond.

 Far away from the superficial glitz and glamour of St. Moritz in the Upper Engadin, the area we come to has retained a lot of its original features, both architecturally and in the people who live here. It’s not a place for the spoilt, soft modern citizen, but somewhere one very much has to choose to live unless born to it. A climate that ranges from six months or more of heavy winter weather to a short, warm, rainy summer in valleys between mountains that refuse to be dominated by mere humans means that the people who settled here were hardy and tough, willing to put up with extreme hardship, and who thereby also preserved their own language in this difficult-to-reach region, tucked high up in the Graubünden peaks. For a long, long time, there were only narrow traveller’s paths up through the crags and along the valley floors, often with precarious ledges around the rocks or on rock faces. It was the discovery of tourism, initially by the British in central Switzerland, that changed this, along with the rediscovery of the health-giving aspects of spa waters (known to the Romans) that triggered the great travellers of the 18th century to make their way to such remote places, in this case, following the river En (which later becomes the river Inn at Innsbruck). It was still very hard work getting up here – the roads weren’t made for carriages and wagons, much walking or riding on mules was involved, not to mention the luggage deemed necessary for such a sojourn, often lasting for months rather than weeks. Something for the very brave and adventurous. How strange these people must have seemed to the robust and healthy mountain folk!

   The gardens of the Villa Wilhelmina, built 1886/87 for Dutch Queen Wilhelmina, who stayed there with Princess Juliana…

Stranger still the enormous, elegant hotels they went on to have built for themselves – huge, impressive and elegant buildings with enough sparkle to attract the very richest guests, eventually even a mountain railway to bring them to take the waters and stroll the gardens elaborately constructed around the luxury accommodation, well away from the huddle of village houses and commoners with their rough habits and lives. A Gothic appreciation of nature and mountains helped, as well as the ambition to be strong and healthy in times where to be anything else was fatal – mountain air, intense sun, spa springs, icy stream water and a wealth of health-giving herbs and plants in an age where medicine was so random and the Industrial Revolution as well as sheer poverty and lack of hygiene were detrimental to the most robust of men, however rich. Over the mountain at Davos was the specialised treatment of TB, known as “consumption” for its wasting effect, with no real known cure except fresh air and sunshine, and perhaps some coincidence. Here, it seems there was more a bolstering of good health at the spa and as the genteel accommodation provided more and more luxury after the advent of the railway, a certain amount of showing off one’s grandeur.

   Such dashing outfits – though probably not quite as warm as our modern ones!

Perhaps this was all very fortuitous. The tourists went on to discover that the summer spa experience could be extended to winter entertainment and from the turn of the 20th century they began to take up winter sports, bringing year-round income to this and other little mountain villages. The inhabitants were happy to have their meagre farming efforts supplemented by the foreigners’ demands for tour guides, spa workers and skiing teachers, sleigh drivers, caterers and hotel staff and it gave some of the younger generation opportunities to move away with the upper classes to fulfil those same and other demands at lower altitudes[1]. Of course, nowadays, with “organic” being the buzz word, the rusticity comes into its own with anything produced at altitude claiming special properties, be it honey, milk, ice-cream or whatever.

And yet the villages and customs remained largely unaffected. Here in the village, the square, squat houses with enormously thick foundations and walls, often made of stone quarried locally and then plastered and decorated in the typical style of the region still stand solidly where they were built – many of them in the 16th or 17th centuries (a very few wooden and/or stone buildings or towers are older) and not looking any different 400 years on. The small windows (to keep the heat in) are set deep into the walls, usually shuttered and occasionally the shutters are as wide as the walls are deep, so that they lie in their niche rather than against the outer house walls. Inside the large, arched, wooden door, there was usually a vaulted, pebble-floored hallway that would include the main cooking stove or fireplace (sometimes connected to the tiled oven) and indoor wood storage, soon blackened by the smoke that was emitted pretty much constantly. The cellar for winter storage would also be at this level, kept at an even temperature by the sheer thickness of the stone walls. Upstairs, the rooms were often wood-panelled, frequently Swiss stone pine (Arve – pinus cembra), a wood known to have health-giving qualities in its essences – it certainly smells fantastic over centuries! Of course, this type of panelling would have been a sign of prosperity to some extent, so that it became significant to show a certain amount of decoration – wood carving being a good way of filling those long winter evenings. Over time, elaborate dressers were built into the panelling, sometimes even providing a small basin and tap from a hidden tank for hand-washing. Crucial for this particular luxury was the main heating source – a large built-in oven traditionally made of hard soapstone (lavezzo) from the local and North Italian quarries, which stores heat remarkably well. This behemoth dominated the small, panelled living quarters, providing not only simple warmth but enough for the women to be able to sit and spin linen or wool, weave, sew, embroider or knit, the young children to survive the icy winters and the older children to work or play, as well as for the men to carry out handicrafts or repairs when housebound by the weather, not to mention the drying of laundry or herbs and the heating of upper chambers via hatches cut into the ceiling. A bed or bench alongside or above the oven were often an integral part of this construction – probably reserved for the oldest, frailest members of the family.

This is my favourite – perhaps because it’s the same colours as The Little Wash House?!

It’s remarkable that the outside of the houses was so elaborately decorated. Known as sgraffiti in its purest form, the artwork on the plaster façades is fantastic. Often geometric, it can become floral or more intricate, depending on the artist and style of the individual villages and some of the 20th century renovations display more contemporary interpretations of the art, almost always very tasteful, if recognisable as such. Again, it would have been a sign of affluence to have the “best” sgraffiti in the village on one’s house. How lucky we are that so much has been preserved!

Part of the building would have housed a barn. For all that the terrain is agriculturally demanding, most would have been used for animal grazing, mainly sheep, goats and cows, with sure-footed donkeys and mules for pulling and transport. The alpine meadows provided the grass and herbs for strong cattle and rich milk (for cheeses necessary as winter nourishment) as well as huge mounds of vital hay for winter feeding and therefore considerable storage was needed. In these integrated barns, large arched doorways, high above ground level, have slatted “fillers”, allowing plenty of air in to aerate the piled hay. Presumably they provided the main access at haying time. Other wooden barns are built in such a way that the slatted walls are made to similarly provide good air circulation. Some beautifully and sensitively renovated buildings are simply glazed behind the slats, leaving the rustic look to the façade, all the while providing modern (insulated!) living quarters indoors, loft-style.

Another feature of these higgledy-piggledy villages tumbled onto the mountain valleys are the centrally-located fountains. A small “square” with a fountain, surrounded by the house frontages is a very typical sight. This water source was obviously vital for survival but also served a social function. While children might be sent to fetch water for cooking or washing in buckets, women of all ages would no doubt come together here for other water needs such as laundry, maybe taking the opportunity to pass the time of day. Many of the houses also have a bench (or two) fixed at right angles to the main entrance – surely young and old took advantage to take the weight off their feet, enjoy what little sunshine might reach the valley in the colder months, to sit and supervise babies and small children (the attraction of that water fountain LOL!), knitting or sewing or carving in hand or pipe firmly fixed at the corner of the mouth…

 The language spoken up here is fascinating to listen to, as well as to read. One of the Romansch dialects, a knowledge of French, Italian and German means I understand maybe a quarter or third of what is said, making me curious for more! German has been the language of schooling for some time and for those involved with tourists – i.e. most of the village – German, Italian and English are no problem. Recently, there has been a move to re-introduce the local dialects into primary schools in order to preserve them. An attempt to create a centralised form of the language in the 70s appears to have failed to a great extent, perhaps luckily for the various dialects which almost died, although it still means there is difficulty establishing a Bündner identity for the whole region. Or perhaps the failed attempt resurrected the dialects and has shown people how they must be used so as not to be lost – in any case, there seems to be no shortage of young families and children speaking the local version around here! Whether on the main village street, on the bus or on the slopes, Romansch Vallader abounds.

In Scuol, the (Protestant) church stands on its own little promontory down on the banks of the En river, with the village assembled at its feet but not completely dominated by it. The top of the small hill is just large enough for the church itself and a small walled cemetery overlooking the Clemgia gorge.

Other traditional events have been upheld alongside those of a religious nature. At the beginning of February, there is the heathen-based Hom Strom – piles of straw collected by the village youth and burned as a bonfire to ward off the winter and encourage the spring, while the villagers sing. Another typical event, made famous throughout Switzerland by Alois Carigiet’s Schellenursli illustrated children’s storybook, takes place on March 1st, originally to celebrate the beginning of the year and chase away bad spirits… It varies depending on the village, but usually involves the youngsters ringing cowbells, using whips, congregating at the fountains and singing. Since snow is an integral part of an Engadin winter, sleighs and sledges are often a part of these processions and there is a particular design of sleigh typical for the region which allows a young woman to sit decorously while being pushed along by her suitor, with the time-honoured colourful costumes and decorations providing much colour.

Here, then, a portrait of a village and an area we have come to love and appreciate for all its possibilities and qualities, its versatility and variety, its culture and its language, its hospitality and yes, even its hardy, individual Swiss-ness. It’s a 14-year love affair that we hope will go on a good deal longer because there’s simply something for everyone!

Grazia fich, a revair!

    


[1] Many Bündner (people from Graubünden) left the area for economic reasons, and many became well-known and well-versed as pastry chefs, some returning to their home valleys at a later date as “Swiss patissiers”. I was amazed to discover this year that the typical “Bündner Nusstorte” is not actually from here, but was developed by Bündner pastry chefs: walnuts didn’t grow up here! Another speciality, “Bündnerfleisch”, dried meat, is also no more Bündner than I am – most of it is Argentinian beef. Sigh. However, I am sure dried and cured meat did form part of the winter diet; perhaps it was more likely to be goat, venison, mutton or donkey?!

Old stamping grounds (literally!)

As explained in a previous post, Sturuss has gone on holiday for a few days over the New Year’s break, back to the village we used to live in for quite a few years. Actually, it’s not much of a holiday, as instead of having a herd of Icelandic mares and a yearling gelding to boss about and generally at least feeling important, with the freedom to wander into a warm stable or out to a cool yard at will for a roll, he’s shut in a 9 square metre barred loose box with a view of giants (= regular riding horses) on their treadmill, with only a bit of time each day out on the sand manège for a roll and a trot round. His carer has taken pity on him and is providing a constant stream of apples, carrots and brushing to make up for it and it’s only until Monday, so…

Of course, this was a great opportunity to go out for a walk around the village and take in some of the old sights and to escape the nightmare of that dreaded treadmill for a couple of hours! (Whoever thought of treadmills for horses should not be allowed to keep horses at all, in my view – they should get themselves a motorbike… :() Neatly brushed, with the worst of the sand removed and hoofs properly picked out, we were ready.

We set off, then, along the banks of the familiar village stream – one of the houses we used to live in backed on to it and always provided hours of fun for the girls and the dogs. Past  the plant nursery – the owner of the nursery used to keep his horse in the same stable as Sturuss, but he wasn’t about just now. We continued alongside a small field that used to house a nervous little herd of sheep whose bells jangled as they charged shyly away from any passersby and past a small orchard where a very pretty black mare used to live: Sturuss would always whinny over to her when he was grazing on our little patch of apple trees! As we turned in to that little road, he called very loudly in the direction of his old stable a little further down the road where he often used to get a treat of banana, one of his favourites, but although I let him have a nibble of his grassy patch, now featuring only one and a half dead-looking trees and boughs, we weren’t going quite that far west, but turned into the village to see some more familiar places.

I noticed that Sturuss was really alert all the way and am convinced he not only knew where we were but also exactly where we were going – I had a fine time keeping up! We know all the houses and most of the people along the way – a farmer here, a friend over there, a new saddler in a converted barn, the wrought-iron craftsman’s smithy, the village shop… Because we know all the back ways and shortcuts, we turned back towards the stream and followed it down through the back of the village, which takes you into a dip past the old sawmill. It was amusing to see the car drivers’ faces as they passed us on the road: some knew us and waved, others just grinned, but I suppose the sight of very furry Haflinger pony with a somewhat rotund middle-aged woman chugging along purposefully is a bit of a sight!

From the old sawmill, you look up to the oldest part of the village on the left and the schoolhouse on the right. On the right-hand side of the primary school, which was originally built in the 16th century as a country residence, is the “Trotte”, a mediaeval stone barn built onto Roman ruins and now a popular cultural venue. Because this is Pfyn, latin Ad Fines, the end of the way – well, the Roman world, at the border between Rhatia and Gaul just before it hits Lake Constance. This is one reason why Pfyn is fairly well documented and very proud of its history, though this was the second time it surfaced – years ago, a big archaelogical dig discovered the Pfyner Kultur of about 3700 years ago to the west of the village and after a further dig in 2002,  in 2007 Swiss TV spent part of a summer re-enacting life at the time of the lake-dwellers, much to the delight of the excited villagers all vying to get onto national telly.

 It’s quite clear from the layout that the “Städtli” (= little town) was a mediaeval settlement – it had market rights and a typically Swiss layout: a long, almost lozenge-shape, oval with houses crowded along the edges, a church at one end and gardens spilling down the slope of the small hill it was built on. There are no longer any town walls, there are only about 10 of the closely packed, higgledy-piggledy houses left, and the centre of it is a small park, so that the oecumenical church at one end, with it’s walled cemetary, does rather dominate, with the “Schlössli” (= little castle) schoolhouse at the other, the Trotte and a very cleverly built modern extension, fitted into the steep slope and mimicking the shape of the Städtli… best seen in an aerial view here: http://www.archaeologie.tg.ch/documents/Adfines.pdf. Pfyn’s success as a market town didn’t last and today the whole village has only a couple of thousand inhabitants at the very most, including all the outlying farms and hamlets, oh, and a chocolate factory!

This time, we didn’t go up through the Städtli, but just admired it from below and turned once again along the stream and through one of the newer quarters of the family-oriented village, towards woods that Sturuss knows only too well – he does love to see what’s going on when he’s out and about! In fact, he was so thrilled to be back and so impatient to get on that he was walking along with his neck stretched out sniffing the ground ahead, obviously taking in the old sights and sounds. He knew where we were going – well, he thought he did, and stopped outside a good friend’s house… she used to come jogging with us and he seemed to enjoy trotting along behind her, following her bright orange jacket along the farm and woodland tracks! Only she doesn’t live there any more and while I was imparting this information to him, he was a bit too quick off the mark and – stamp! – I didn’t quite have time to pull my foot out from under 400 kg of enthusiastic pony…

Well, nothing’s broken and I was still able to hobble along to where my friend has moved to, so Sturuss did get his carrots and banana, after all, along with a big fuss, which he clearly appreciated! In fact, he literally ran circles around us to prove that he’s nothing like, ahem, old, but just raring to go. The way home took us along the old Roman road, past the show-jumping stables, past the post-office and bank, past the carpenter’s workshop and woodyard, the old dairy, all at a rapid walk and almost screeching around the corner back to temporary quarters and the peace of the stream again.

No wonder: his bucket was full of lunch, his loose box full of fresh hay and well, no time to lose….

Advent (13)

Today, we were back in Lucerne. But with a slight difference: it was my 3 year old grandson’s first “proper” train ride – he was quite in awe of getting into the big train (he only knows the small red train that goes past their house!). He soon thawed, though, and had a wonderful time, looking out the window and seeing the motorway and other trains, all the stations we passed as well as the lakes, beaming at other travellers and asking their names (!) and a train change in Zurich, but he was especially looking forward to seeing the lion his mum had told him about:

This memorial was made in the early 19th centruy to remind people of the death of about 760 loyal Swiss guards to Louis XVI at the time of the French Revolution 1789-92. No wonder the poor lion is so obviously suffering, it’s a very moving work and the atmosphere is really quite special: the monument is very close to the centre of town and yet remains quite separate. It’s really impressive.

I first saw this monument about 38 years ago:

 I knew nothing about it at the time, but I do remember the visit, so I wonder if my grandson will have any memory of it when he’s older and it’s explained to him?!

We still don’t have very Christmassy weather, i.e. no snow, but there are some very pretty market stands in Lucerne, as well as a big charity drive via radio going on at present. Nevertheless, chilly drizzle sent us into this place for a nice hot cappuccino

which has a lot more to do with carneval (in February) than Christmas. Still, the masks did impress us all, as they’re quite frightening, particularly for a small child! Lots of buildings are painted in the old town of Lucerne, which certainly gives everything the air of great history. In fact, I was quite surprised to see so many tourists, even at this time of year.

All of our party were tired on the journey home, but the train ride was still a bit of a novelty, and our little boy experienced running for a train connection and a very full rush-hour train for his first outing, too – undeterred, he sat on the steps and played with a few matchbox cars under the gaze of commuters’ amused smiles while we stood almost all the way back and yet he still had the energy to run most of the dark, rainy path back to our house, utterly soaking himself by jumping in the puddles! What fun it is most of the time, just being 3…