Finally the time came and Rita, my good friend from Pittsburgh, arrived in Antibes. She had flown from Pittsburgh to London and then into Nice. As we waited for her plane, we were a bit taken aback by the armed guards we saw in the airport. I know they’re supposed to make me feel more secure but…
Rita and I had so much on our list of “must do’s” while she was visiting. But first we just needed to get something to eat and catch up. One of the first excursions was to see the Van Gogh Immersion. As you may recall in a previous blog, Bob and I and Cary had enjoyed a Van Gogh Touring Immersion while we were in Lecce. We had read online that the Atelier des Lumieres in Les Baux de Provence (as well as in Paris) was featuring a similar exhibit. This one was much larger than what we had seen. The website provided a lot of helpful information. I found that I could purchase timed tickets in advance avoiding standing in a long line when we got there and I also discovered there was a discount for senior citizens. Ah! The advantages of getting old! We set off on Sunday morning for the two and a half hour drive to visit Van Gogh. I was amazed that Rita was able to jump right in to sightseeing even though she had landed about 15 hours earlier and was experiencing a six hour time difference.
The exhibit is in a cave and its entrance is on the side of a mountain making parking very limited. The fact that we were there on a Sunday afternoon with what seemed like half of France only complicated the situation. Not finding a place, Bob turned the car around for a second pass. We were stunned when a young park employee stopped us and asked if we were looking for a place to park and then held up traffic as we waited for a car parked almost exactly in front of us to leave. Talk about serendipitous!
The exhibit didn’t disappoint. It was very much like the one we previously viewed but this one was absolutely huge. Between the Van Gogh loops, we watched a short program entitled “”Dreamed Japan, Images of the Floating World” based on Japanese prints of the late 1800’s and featuring the art of Kasushika Hokusai’s, The Great Wave off Kanagawa. According to the literature I read, VanGogh was fascinated with Japan. The entire experience left us feeling like we had stepped into another dimension.
From Les Baux de Provence, it was a short drive to the Pont du Gard, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Not knowing what to expect we followed our GPS, then followed the signs to parking and started walking and then all of a sudden, WOW. There it was. We were looking at an ancient Roman aquaduct, built in the first century! It’s three levels high, built from huge stones, cut so accurately that no mortar was needed in the construction. Rita and I decided we had to walk across. And although it was a chilly sunny day, I can’t begin to describe how windy it was. I had the distinct impression that had I been carrying an umbrella I would have been picked up in Mary Poppins style. My reading glasses were literally blown off my head!
Bob and I had loved Avignon and so we wanted to share it with Rita. Unfortunately, it had turned considerably colder than it was on our previous visit but was still enjoyable. And it was a good location to spend the night and continue our adventure the next day. Near the top of Rita’s list was Arles. This is where Van Gogh painted Cafe Terrace at Night. And the cafe still stands. What an emotional experience to stand where Van Gogh stood and painted in 1888.
I had read about the Rothschild Gardens on several occasions. So we set off once again for Cannes, Ahh…way too many Rothschilds! Unfortunately, I had confused the Rothschild Historic Home in Cannes with the Rothschild Gardens in Nice. It caused us more than an hour’s detour but well worth the drive. Villa Ephrussi Rothschild, located right on the water on the French Riviera was constructed at the turn of the twentieth century. We passed on a tour of the inside of the villa. It was the gardens that we wanted to see. The views of the sea took our breath away. In front of the villa is a musical fountain and from there you can wander the nine gardens each with a different theme.
Rita had discovered on ancestry.com that she had relatives living in northern Italy, about an 8 hour drive from Antibes. So having no idea what we would fine, we set off early one morning, stopping to pick up Cary at the Genoa airport. How lucky to have a daughter who is fluent in several languages and willing to meet us and act as our interpreter. From there we drove to Lasino, a tiny village not far from Trento and close to the Austrian border. The drive north into the Dolomites, was a part of Italy we had never seen and the scenery was spectacular and very different from the rest of Italy! When Rita had booked an Airbnb for us for 3 nights she had mentioned that she wanted to see the area where her relatives had lived and check out the cemeteries. When our host, Giada, greeted us she showed us the lovely apartment with gorgeous views of the mountains. She mentioned that there is a woman in the village, Titsiana, who carries the geneology of the families in the area in her head. Would Rita like to meet her? She would arrange it for the next morning. This was far more than Rita had hoped for.
We went off in search of a restaurant. A short walk from our apartment we found a really nifty place to have dinner (connected to a gas station). And everyone was so friendly. Thank heavens for Cary. Without her Italian skills, we would have had very limited conversations with folks. But when people found out that we were Americans and that Rita had come in search for connections to her family, everyone had something to volunteer.
The next morning we walked up to a local bar and over cappucinnos we literally spent hours as Titziana explained relatives and connections.She talked about those who had left for South America and who had left for the United States. So many folks left and no one had any idea what had happened to them. And Cary continued, hour after hour, to translate nonstop. When we left the coffee shop, the ladies asked if we’d like to see the women’s museum. It was a block away and featured the work of the area women during World War II.
There was even a canvas bag from the corn meal that was supplied by the Allies. It’s hard to imagine their lives with all the able men off fighting leaving them to maintain their homes, find a way to feed their families and all the while trying to keep their families safe. This is the stuff we read about in history books.
Later that evening, Giada called and told Rita if she were interested in meeting some of her relatives she’d set it up. The next morning we walked up to the community center and all of a sudden it dawned on us that the folks who were standing there had all come out to meet their American cousin. It still puts chills through me when I think of it. Cary, ever in gear, continued moving with Rita from one person to the next helping Rita understand who these people were. They then invited us into their town hall and the conversations continued.
Folks had brought pictures and even a family tree. It was hard to take it all in. And then the mayor, who also happened to be one of Rita’s relatives, presented Rita with a book of local history as well as a banner of the city.
A smaller group then escorted us up to the local church, with one woman commenting, “Rita, this is the same path your grandmother would have walked.”
From the church we went to the cemetery. It’s difficult to understand the cemetery. As I understood it, because of the very limited space, the graves are changed every 25 years. It’s hard for me to imagine going to a graveyard and then returning years later and it’s different. But in any case there were many with familiar names that Rita recognized from her research although I’m sure it will take quite a while to put it all in order.
And as if that hadn’t been enough, Tiziana invited us to her home where she lives with her sister, Dory, to continue our visit They asked if we’d like a snack and proceeded to serve lunch meats, breads, cheeses and an amazing torte and of course, wine! Cary continued to translate. Then we were invited to another cousin’s home. Here more wine was served! And the conversations continued. Finally, about 6 pm, nearly 9 hours after we first had gathered, we said goodbye already anticipating the next time they might see each other.
It’s amazing how quickly the foreign can become familiar. Three days after first arriving in a small village where Rita thought she would be wandering through cemeteries trying to piece names together, Rita now left with more than memories. She left not just knowing a lot more of her family but to feel personal connections with so many, many relatives she had not even known existed just a few short days before. And how lucky we were to be part of the whole celebration!
Time had absolutely flown and we were getting ready to leave France. The three of us flew to London where Rita would spend a day with us before flying home. Bob and I would have another few days.
We had rented an Airbnb in Belsize Park in the same neighborhood where we had stayed previously because we liked the area, and the bus lines made it an easy trek into London. The apartment was really lovely with high ceilings and leaded glass windows. Because this was Rita’s first visit we decided the Hop On Hop Off would be a good choice so she could get an overview of the city. Of course, we had to have the traditional pictures at Trafalgar Square. We also enjoyed seeing Buckingham Palace. The next morning Rita headed to Heathrow for her flight back to Pittsburgh. What a great time we had!
For our respective birthdays, Bob and I had given each other tickets to see Hamilton. How fun to see it in London! There was some kind of gathering near Westminster Abbey and our bus seemed to be stopped dead in traffic. So we decided to hoof it. After stopping to ask directions to the Victoria Theatre (which no one seemed to have heard of) and accessing our GPS, we finally made it. King Georg is portrayed as such a bumbling fool! At intermission, a man walking into our aisle, leaned over to the woman next to Bob and commented, “At least we still have the queen!”
Theatre is one of our favorite parts of London so the we decided to check out what other plays we might see. Mamma Mia has been running in London for twenty years. Seemed like a good choice and it was great. I found myself humming the music for days afterwards.
When I first learned that we were going to be back in London I connected with a friend, Jackie, we had met in Gosport in 2016. We arranged to meet up for a drink before we headed to the theatre. Jackie is following a book of walks in London. They sound really interesting. She told us that while they’re all within the city, they are focused on of off the beaten paths and are usually connected to history. We are so lucky to met such interesting people in our travels.
It was time to head back to the States. We started the year in the Dominican Republic and then after a weekend in DC, spent the next month in Italy, and then two months in southern France. Now we were headed back to DC and then on to Michigan to our oldest granddaughter’s high school graduation. It was going to seem different to understand the dominant language and use the American dollar. Europe has been wonderful but we are ready to go home to the US for a while!