Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A Montana Must-See

Hikers seem to spread out the higher you get on the trail.  Coming from sea level, my family gets a little quieter as well.  Every switchback in this area of Montana holds a new wildflower, breathtaking vista or potential wildlife hazard.  When we can catch our breath, we sing camp songs or chants hoping that the park ranger’s promise that parties of four or more never encounter bears because they make too much noise is true.  

The air is dry at that altitude.  A more lush forest floor gives way to alpine flora, tall spiky spruce and friendly fir trees.  It is not hard to remember to stay hydrated when a water break is also a great chance to catch your breath.  Rounding a ridge high up the mountain, we spot a waterfall about 30 feet up a creek bed and so we stop for a break and enjoy chipmunks stealing bits of hikers’ picnics.  

As much as I want to groan, “How much farther?”  I know that won’t help at all.  Distractions like the herd of mountain goats so migrating across the ridge above help me forget about my tired legs and burning lungs.  Every guidebook and ranger we consulted  promised the payoff is worth it but this is June and the last 1/4 mile of the trail is covered with a foot of unmelted snow turning the trail into a slushy mess.  The children think it is great, pelting each other with snowballs and running down the slope.  Every time I go downhill, all I can think is that I have to climb back out.

Finally, we cross a small snowmelt creek, round a patch of trees and see the bluest lake I have ever seen.  Iceberg Lake sits in the bowl of a glacier high above the rest of Glacier National Park.  The thrill of the summit overtakes everyone.  Hikers jog the last hundred yards.  Foolish teenagers try to surf the broken sheets of ice that remain from the winter.  We sit down, break out our picnic, liberate our feet from our hiking boots and  enjoy the day sinking our toes into water so cold it will give you an ice cream headache.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Barcelona- Modernistas Paradise

An art history education is a slippery slope. With children, you never know if they will grow to hate something because you overdid it when they were young or if you are fostering a passion that will grow. A trip to Europe has the potential to do either of these. 

Barcelona, the capital city of Catalonia, the northeastern region of Spain, is a great place to start. Fueled by the independent nature of the region and it's the close proximity to more modern French thinking, Barcelona cultivated some of the most fabulous, forward-thinking modern artists. In addition, the city has idolized these men, creating lasting monuments, beautiful museums and celebrating their successes with pride.

Home to two "single artist" museums, Barcelona supports the Museo Picasso and Fundacion Miro.
The Museo Picasso is a wonderful, colorful place to indoctrinate a young person into the art world. Set in an old palace located on a narrow, cobblestoned side street in the Old City, Museo Picasso takes you room-by-room, step-by-step, period-by-period through Pablo Picasso's life. You are privy to sketches he did as a young 12 year old boy. You can see how his art education refined his drawing. And you can see how trips to Paris influenced his use of color. Then you enter his world of cubism and the move to neoclassicism changed art forever. No matter what your artistic preferences, whether you can spend hours on end in a museum or could care less- there is something in this building that will touch you. So easy to process, so beautifully designed.

In a totally different setting, a cable car ride across the beautiful harbor and a short walk along a wooded road surrounded by public park space, is the Fundacion Miro. Joan Miro, born in Barcelona into the family of a goldsmith and watchmaker in 1893, began drawing at 7 years old. He studied art at the academy La Escuela de la Lonja in Barcelona and found a small group, "Agrupacio Courbet" that was interested in charting new territory with Catalan art. For the next 50 years he progresses from realism through surrealism to the point of abstraction where everything realistic disappears and the forms, shapes and colors take on more meaning. In this modern museum made of large windows, white walls and modern staircases, Miro's art takes shape and begins to move. It is easy to become a fan of abstract art with the wonderful audioguides to lead you through the process.

In addition to wonderfully curated museums, there are works of art scattered throughout the city. Parc Guell, a wonderful outdoor park full of sculptures and modernist architecture was designed by Antonio Gaudi. Originally designed to be one of the first "suburbs" of Barcelona, the project failed since no one was willing to move that far out of the city in the early 1900's. However, throughout the park you can see Gaudi's creative hand at work. Beautiful mosaic tiles line the great staircase entrance which at first glance reminds one of the ribs of a great fish. The longest bench in the world wraps its way around the large plaza area overlooking the Mediterranean. And Gaudi's hand shaped many areas of Barcelona.
Casa Batllo, an architectural masterpiece, designed for the Batllo family, originally served as an apartment building for the family that commissioned Gaudi to design and build it. The inner staircase uses natural skylights and differently colored blue tiles to create a play of light that seems to draw the light inward. And most importantly, Gaudi's masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia, adorns the Barcelona skyline. Commenting that "my client is not in a hurry" Gaudi worked on the cathedral until his death with ferocious tenacity. His modernist approach to the cathedral gives it a playful, dribble castle facade but tells with amazing clarity the story of Gaudi's faith.

No matter where you go in Barcelona, you are surrounded by the energetic art history. This is not the stuffy art from the classical wing of the Louvre but art in motion, colors that jump off the canvas, buildings that seem to talk to you with their playful designs. It's easy to appreciate.


At the end of the day, a nice break is to sit in an outdoor cafe, with a glass of red wine and enjoy some tapas and people watch.  I will add an article with tapas recipes but for now.  Know that many Spaniards enjoy a few green olives, some small dill pickles, and some slices of bread and cheese suffice.  If children are with them, patatas bravas, russet potatoes cut into thin shoestring slices, fried(but not greasy) with a spicy mayonaisse(maybe add chili powder, fresh garlic and salt?) are a good addition.  More importantly, SIT DOWN with family and friends and TALK about your day- OUTSIDE if possible.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Catalan region of Spain- Fresh Surprises Abound

Images of old dark streets and ancient cultures haunted my planning. Research had unearthed a multitude of wonderful sites to see and things to do but I had reservations. This was our first trip abroad with our children and I had just read the novel Shadows in the Wind which painted a dark gothic picture of the port city.

The city of Barcelona is rich with history dating back to 300BC.  Founded by Hannibal's son, Hamilcar Barca the city was constantly under attacks and ruled by Visigoths like Charlemagne's son, Louis.  Finally when the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella united the Iberian peninsula and moved the capital of Spain to Madrid, Barcelona was able to emerge and develop as a unique Catalan capital. 

For centuries, it's port and proximity to the border of France kept commerce strong. A large statue of Christopher Columbus stands near the harbor pointing west toward the New World and the Chocolate museum touts the history of explorers and the rich goods that they brought to Barcelona. 
Catalonia, the northeastern region of Spain, celebrates it's difference from the rest of the country. As late as 1950, Barcelona and the region of Catalonia revolted against the rest of Spain and the rule of France.  However, with the Olympics in 1992, Barcelona established itself as a city rich with art, culture and a modern personality blended with old world charm.

Visitors beware, even with a strong grasp of the Spanish language, it is still hard to read many signs since they are all in Catalan, a unique dialect that is somewhat Spanish/French-but not really. However, a conversation with a taxi driver in my non-Castillian spanish was doable. Staying near Las Ramblas in the Ciudad Viejo(Old City) was perfect. The Hotel Jardi was off the beaten path and in a nice little square called Placa del Pi. This afforded us the opportunity to walk most places and enjoy European  after-dinner strolls and window shopping in the evenings while enjoying gelato.

One of the more eventful walks was an early morning stroll to La Boqueria for breakfast. The large open air market is full of fresh produce and meats all grown or raised within a couple of hundred miles. This is fresh, in season, regional cuisine at its best. The apples' price tag not only listed the product and variety but also the region of origin. Each shopkeeper artfully arranged their wares. Stacks of papaya, mounds of chestnuts piled on beds of fig leaves, even the dried meats hanging from the rafters looked delicious. My children begged for half slices of dragonfruit served with tiny plastic spoons and curiously asked what different nuts and spices were. In the end, we all sat at a tiny cafe table with the best cafe au lait I've ever had and sampled pastries from the vegetarian pastry shop.
This farm-to-market-to-table atmosphere is commonplace for Europeans. Rarely do you encounter large amounts of processed foods or quantities of meat that are not local. As a port city, Barcelona restaurants offer an abudance of seafood while meat seems to come more often in the form of dried or cured meats like prosciutto or Iberian ham. In addition to local produce and meats, you can spot bakers every morning delivering bread to restaurants and markets. These loaves last no more than a day or two, mainly because they are delicious but also because they are made with fresh ingredients and no preservatives.

The common Catalonian eats a small breakfast, mainly coffee and a pastry, a midmorning (10-11am) snack, usually a bocadillo, a sandwich made with a hard bread, tomatoes and meat or cheese, tapas in the evening, preferably with a glass of wine, and a late dinner. This, combined with the afternoon siesta, is a wonderful routine that we should all work hard to assimilate.

La Boqueria- Las Ramblas, Barcelona

Bocadillo Recipe
 A popular midmorning snack/ early lunch for the Spanish.
One Crusty Baguette
High quality olive oil
one fresh tomato
6 oz (about 3 thin deli slices per sandwich)manchego cheese or prosciutto or iberian ham

Cut the baguette into 6 inch pieces(one baguette should make at least 3 sandwiches) then half it longways.  Drizzle olive oil on each of the slices then cut the tomatoe in half and rub the tomatoe on both sides.  Evenly space your choice of meat or cheese on the slices, put the sandwich back together and enjoy.  Note:  DO NOT overdo the meat and cheese.  A bocadillo has one very thin layer of one of these, these meats and cheeses are strong and do not need to be consumed in quantity to have a great taste.  ENJOY!

Rue Cler -The Quintessential Parisian Market Street

The well-dressed, elderly lady passed by the cafe a leash in one hand and  a rolling cart handle in the other. Her little pug had trouble keeping the pace. At each stand she would pause to talk with the shopkeeper, inspect the fruit or bread, make a purchase and move on.  A young couple, walking hand in hand, pass her coming this way. They are out for a stroll, not worried about groceries. And even though they are dressed in just jeans and t-shirts, they look like models - beautiful skin, shiny hair, scarves carelessly wrapped around their necks, expensive shoes. The couple strolls past the dark complected, Greek man, black shirt and pants with a white apron, standing at attention at his crepe stand- ready to help the next customer.

Tucked away in the 7th arrondisement, just a 5 minute walk from the crowds of the Eiffel tower, is a perfect slice of Paris. The Rue Cler is a bustling pedestrian market street lined with colorful produce stands, flower markets and busy cafes. No more perfect place exists in Paris for people watching, picnic shopping, or an enjoyable lunch at a sunny cafe. The French do so many things well. They seem to have perfected the art of living. Even a trip to the grocery has style and grace. The shopkeepers take great pride in their offerings, l'homme in the boucherie was proud of the meats and pickles we chose and offered suggestions for our picnic. Les femmes in the patisseriewere happy to help our selection of quiches. The produce was all carefully selected and artfully displayed.  The handsome Greek at the creperie engaged my children in a conversation on the morning of Good Friday, sharing his faith and intention to fast on that holy day.

In the evening, the open air cafes came to life with Parisians out for dinner and visits with friends. As tourists, we did our best to become blended visitors, enjoying the peek into their neighborhood. While waiters hustled between tables while patrons enjoyed the beautiful April evenings and the fabulous meals, we did our best to translate menus.

The French eat well. They do not shy away from rich cheeses and wine. Eggs are available as part of every meal. No one seems to be concerned about their cholesterol or carb intake. However, you rarely see an overweight frenchman. They eat fresh, fabulous food in smaller quantities and walk.

And why wouldn't you walk? Every corner in Paris holds another interesting piece of architecture, pretty storefront, stylish pedestrian, funny dog, or piece of history.

My Basic Quiche recipe
 We love quiche at our house.  All kinds.  A few years ago, I realized that if I make one recipe in two pie pans, I can keep them in the fridge and reheat a slice at a time in 30 seconds for breakfasts or lunches.
Buy the pie crusts in the dairy section in the red box - Pillsbury.  You have to defrost them and put them in your own pan and form the crust but they are so much better than frozen and so much easier than making your own. 
Defrost two pie crusts, place in 8 inch round pie pans, tuck under edges and crimp.  Prick the crust with a fork and bake at 450 degrees for about 8-10 minutes until light brown.  Remove and cool.
In a bowl, combine 3 eggs lightly beaten, 1 1/2 cups milk or heavy cream, 1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper.  This is your base.  Your options from here are limitless.
Lorraine- Add 4 oz sliced and cooked bacon
Chile and Cheddar - Add 1/2 cup grated sharp cheddar and one small can drained and chopped green chiles
Vegetable - Add 1 cup spinach(sauteed) and 1/2 cup diced red bell peppers
Tomato basil - line the bottom of the pie crust with sliced tomatoes and 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil.
You can use goat cheese, ham, green onions, parsley.  You can omit the crust and spray the pan with Pam to cut down on the carbs.
Place the fillings of your choice into the pie crusts.  Fill each pie crust with 1/2 the egg mixture and bake at 375 degrees for 25-35 minutes until center is set.  Serve warm or room temperature.  If you are saving, allow to cool completely then cover with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator.  Serve with fruit for breakfast or a salad or soup for lunch or dinner.

Bon Appetit!

From Giverny to Musee d'Orsay - A Day that Leaves an Impression

Everyone has a pilgrimage: for a history buff could visit the Tower of London, a World War II veteran returns to the beaches of Normandy, art history majors could spend months in the Louvre, a marine biologist diving the Great Barrier Reef. While painting and watercolor sketches are lifelong hobbies, I am not by any means an artist. I have always been inspired by the bravery of the Impressionist movement.  In the late 1800s while Paris was being demolished making room for its well known wide boulevards and beautiful slated buildings, a group of artists began to stray from realism.  Inspired by light and nature, they painted shadows in color, left brushstrokes visible and even though their compositions were methodical and their education classical- they seemed to paint with effortless feeling.  So suffice it to say, I had high hopes for the day trip to Giverny and the home of Claude Monet
A train ride from the Parisian Gare St. Lazare to the small town of Vernon in Normandy takes a mere 45 minutes. But during that time, my family  enjoyed quiches and coffee we had grabbed at a market and watched the landscape turn from the inner city melee of Paris to the suburbs then fields and small villages of Normandy. Arriving in Vernon, we hustled to grab the last of the bikes for rent.  The cafe across from the station has several available for just a few Euros if you take the early train. 
This little town has moments of modernization but is still postcard beautiful with its pretty rooftops and old cathedral. It is also interesting to witness the merchants readying their shops for the day, pulling out café tables, arranging produce, sweeping the stoop.  Enjoying the architecture as we left Vernon we rode over the large bridge that crosses the Seine and after navigating the traffic circle were almost immediately on a rural bike path.

The small village of Giverny is a 5 kilometer bike ride with most of the ride on a protected bike path. The path spills out onto a cobblestone road lined with beautiful houses, blooming gardens and small storefronts. Near the end of town, the crowd will tip you off that you have reached the home and gardens of Claude Monet. This landscape has been painted so often, the iconic images are so familiar that one feels an immediate connection to the surroundings. The Monet home welcomes you with its pink façade and happy green shutters, the perfect backdrop to the melody of colors in the garden. Upon entering Monet’s studio, with bright French country sunlight pouring in, it is easy to understand how this environment fostered his artistic nature and the study of light. How the play of light becomes so important, and painting en plein air not posed with controlled arrangements and controlled light. The gardens are still well tended and in April tulips abound, dogwoods and cherry trees are in full bloom and the colors around the Japanese bridge and pond are amazing, although, alas, no waterlilies until October. But it is never ending beauty. So many blossoms and landscapes worthy of achieving immortality through the paintbrush.  Is that what drove Monet’s work? All my attempts to photograph, paint and capture beauty are eclipsed by the spirit of the great painter who walked these same paths. But nonetheless, I encourage you to try as we did. I sat with my children on a shady bench next to the waterlily pond and we all drew and watercolored. Those are the memories I hold of that day- our connection.

After an enjoyable lunch in a café under the trees in Giverny, we pedaled back to Vernon for the train ride back to Paris. The train provided a nice rest hour before the re-entry into the hustle of the city. 

Our day trip to Giverny happened to fall on Thursday which is also the day the Musee d’Orsay is open late. And since provenance had determined that this was to be the “perfect day”, our Paris Museum Passes worked and two friendly guards admitted us with absolutely no line. Within moments, we were in the museum standing in front of the real thing. Monet’s waterlilies seem to take you inside the water, feeling the movement, seeing the play of light.    The audio guide is highly recommended for interesting stories and biographical information if you don't have a degree in art history. I also recommend them for your children. So often, my children tune me out, not necessarily because of the information but the delivery. The audioguides are enough technology and toy-like to interest as well as inform them. (Side note:  Of particular interest to the children were the caricatures of Honore Daumier. These drawings offer a great commentary on political and social situations in France.)

The waterlilies alongside Van Gogh, Renoir, Cezanne, and Gaugin inhabit the beautiful Beaux Artes train station creating a world you could spend days in just soaking up the images.  The amazing story of how those artists, who were ridiculed as “impressionists”, were able to break new ground with their art while almost starving to death in the interim. Several of them were not celebrated until later in their careers, the traditional Salon would not accept their works and patrons were scarce but still they challenged themselves. Renoir gambled everything on an enormous canvas he could barely afford paint for, he hired 13 models and fed them all to paint a moment in time so that 100 years later we still feel their camaraderie and joy. Monet, secluded in the country, painted those lilies over and over until he found what he was looking for. Monet painted the cathedral in Rouen 31 times and over 2 years, capturing the light of each time of day and each season. These were groundbreaking, brave men that succeeded in taking their art to new levels and breaking barriers.  And a century later,still making an impression on all of us.

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