Posted by: kimberlysullivan | September 12, 2017

At home in Guéthary, Pays Basque, France

Guéthary, Pays basque, FranceLast week, I wrote a post about an enjoyable coastal hike we took on a family holiday to France’s Pays Basque.

This week, I’ll write about the little coastal town that served as ‘home’ during our stay in France’s southwest region. Guéthary, a small town just a few kilometers south of Biarritz, made a perfect base for our stay.

We divided our time between lazy beach days in Guéthary, visits up and down the coast to see interesting Basque coastal towns, excursions into the Pays Basque interior, where more interesting Basque towns tempted us and visits to the nearby Spanish Basque towns.

Guéthary, Pays basque, FranceGuéthary was laid-back and enjoyable, with lots of pretty villas from the 1920s and early 1930s, in what would have been the heyday of this outpost just south of sparkling Biarritz. The views over the coast are charming and quite a few beaches dot the area, so you can enjoy your time trying different ones.

This is a haven for surfers, and the waves can be quite strong. Beaches are clearly divided with blue flags for swimmers, and green flags, with red circles, for surfers.

Guéthary, Pays basque, FranceAs a former lifeguard, I can only sympathize with the poor lifeguards who clearly earned all the euro they were paid constantly calling surfers out for crossing into swimming territory when they got excited about catching the perfect wave. Surf boards and little children simply don’t mix well.

Guéthary is at the far western point of the Central Eastern Europe time zone, so sunsets are extremely late – and fun to watch the drama and colors of the sun slipping behind the horizon of the Atlantic.

Guéthary, Pays basque, FranceThere was a lively crowd of surfers, families, couples and those who have been vacationing here for decades that kept then town busy, but also low-key. The restaurants were okay, although we preferred to buy dinner from the local markets and cook at home during our stay. There were lots of good places to enjoy an aperitif and oysters – alongside those stunning sunsets.

Wednesday evenings were set aside for pelote (a traditional Basque sport) matches on the town’s fronton.

Guéthary, Pays basque, FranceEvery Basque town has a fronton – the wall and hard court where players practice pelote against rival towns, which often serves as the town’s place or piazza (main square). And to the glee of my kids, it served as a convenient wall on which to practice tennis each morning.

We enjoyed watching a match one evening – although I’m not sure we grasped all the rules, or that it captivated us enough to become rabid pelote fans back home.

Guéthary served as an excellent base for exploring this interesting region, and we enjoyed our brief time here as ‘locals’. Although, while we are always happy to practice our French, I must admit none of us made ANY progress with the complicated Basque language.

I’ll enjoy memories of this charming little town along the Atlantic Ocean.

Guéthary, Pays basque, France

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | September 8, 2017

Wise words (learned on holidays) to face the ‘rientro’

Banon benchIn Italian it’s called the ‘rientro’. In French the ‘rentrée’.

In America, where holidays are so stingy – if you’re allowed to take them at all – I doubt the term exists at all. If it did, it would be called ‘The Return’.

Back when I worked in my own country, I wasn’t familiar with this expression (or the feeling), but now that I’m accustomed to lovely, long summer holidays, I feel it (sharply) when they come to an end.

Do I ever.

After having been relaxed and out in the fresh air, that fear creeps back about once again being tied to computer screens, and e-mails and meeting after meeting. Deadlines loom and pressure begins to build up.

A good strategy is to try to return home with clear memories of that relaxation and reflective time, and to incorporate it into your daily routine as much as possible. Even if it’s only a few minutes every day.

That’s why I love this bench from the little town of Banon, in the Luberon Valley of France’s Provence region. After climbing up the steep slopes of a little hill town to reach the church, we saw this bench boasting views of the valley below. On the bench was painted the words:


Vous avez gagné

un repos bien merité

And after our efforts, we did deserve a little rest. What a thoughtful person to have put this bench and words of wisdom there. And I will remember that bench fondly now that I’m in the midst of ‘rientro’ anxiety.

Here’s wishing a little well-deserved time for reflection and rest for us all post-vacation! Buon rientro a tutti!

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | September 5, 2017

Hiking to Spain along France’s Pays Basque coastal trail

Sentier littoral, Pays Basque, FranceThis past summer, I enjoyed a fabulous summer holiday to France’s Basque region (Pays basque). It was my first visit to this corner of southwestern France, bordering the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the border of Spain to the south.

It was easy to fill my three weeks here with interesting places to visit, even if the weather didn’t always cooperate.

One of the  activities on my must-do checklist was to follow the 25-kilometer sentier littoral (coastal path) that follows the coast from Bidart-Guéthary all the way down to France’s last outpost before the Spanish border – Hendaye.

Sentier littoral, Pays Basque, FranceWe were incredibly lucky to enjoy beautiful weather on the day we undertook this hike. This isn’t a given in the region, where weather conditions can change rapidly, but on our day we enjoyed sunny skies and warm temperatures, but often with gentle sea breezes.

The path is well-marked with yellow trail markings and – when it cuts through towns- clear indications for the sentier littoral. We already knew the round-trip 14 km path between Guéthary and neighboring Saint Jean-de-Luz, which we’d already taken, so this part of the journey was familiar.

Sentier littoral, Pays Basque, FranceDespite this familiarity with the path, the stunning views over the bay of Saint Jean-de-Luz as you round the corner were no less dramatic.

The path itself has quite a few ups and downs, but it is relatively easy – just ensure you have good walking shoes … and take water along with you.

The path takes you through the towns of Saint Jean-de-Luz (where King Louis XIV married), Ciboure (where the composer Ravel was born and where Matisse spent time painting), Socoa, and finally on to Hendaye.

Sentier littoral, Pays Basque, FranceThe views over the coastline are breathtaking, and we took many opportunities to pause and enjoy the surroundings. In the distance, you can see the Spanish coast, and we enjoyed watching it appear closer and closer, as our point of departure shrank in the distance.

We finally reached Hendaye, with legs pleasantly sore and our stomachs grumbling and eager to sit down for a hearty lunch. We stopped off at the extremely helpful tourist information office to get information on the return voyage.

Sentier littoral, Pays Basque, FranceAs enjoyable as the walk was, we had no intention of making a round-trip for a total of 50 kilometers in one day. Sadly, on a Sunday, the choice of buses and trains were far fewer than we imagined, so we had to shorten our trip and come back with a train earlier than we would have liked.

This meant that we had to give up our plans to take the ferry over to the Spanish side to enjoy a walk in Hondarribia – only a fifteen minute ferry ride away, with frequent ferries departing from Hendaye’s port. That will have to be for next time.

Sentier littoral, Pays Basque, FranceInstead, we cooled off and relaxed our sore muscles with a pleasant swim in the gentle waves off Hendaye’s long, sandy beach. As we packed up to get to the train station, we had a great time watching high tide transform the Hendaye beach, the waves devouring all that golden sand as the water reached the rock barrier reaching up to the promenade.

We took our last (brief) hike of the day – up to the train station where we caught the evening’s last train up to Guéthary.

Sentier littoral, Pays Basque, FranceNeedless to say, the quick train ride back was much easier than the 25-kilometer hike, but like my youngest son, who never shies away from an athletic challenge, there was a part of me that wanted to make the return hike and enjoy the full 50-kilometers of that Basque trail.

That will also be for next time.

When you’re in the Pays Basque, be sure to pack along your trekking shoes and enjoy the spectacular views as you hike the length of the French Basque Country all the way to Spain. Happy hiking!

Sentier littoral, Pays Basque, France

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | September 1, 2017

Book review: The Human Flies

The Human Flies coverI bought this novel when traveling in Norway. Embarrassingly, aside from Ibsen (whom I love), I’m completely ignorant about Norwegian writers.

I know Norway boasts thriller writers, such as Nesbo, who fill the book shops, but I was looking for something different and picked up this debut mystery novel by contemporary author Hans Olav Lahlum.

The cover reviews promised an ‘Agatha Christie-style locked door mystery’, and this was exactly what the author delivered.

It was a plus that the story was set in 1968 Oslo, and dealt with a city – and nation – coming to grips with life and economic growth after World War II and complicated reactions ranging from guilt to silence regarding instances of collaboration during the Nazi occupation of Norway. This is the interesting historical backdrop to the mystery.

Young detective Kolbjørn Kristiansen- also known as K2 – gets called into a murder case. In Oslo, on 25 Krebs Street, a well-known Resistance fighter and national hero has been murdered. The residents of 25 Krebs Street will all become suspects as the investigation centers there. Kristiansen involves wheelchair-bound, mystery-novel-devouring Patricia on the case. Conveniently, Patricia craves the intellectual challenge of solving the case, but does not want to share the spotlight, which proves advantageous to Kristiansen.

I enjoyed the locked-door nature of the mystery (the classic whodunnit tale), the investigation centering around the quirky residents of 25 Krebs Street, and all the interesting historical background about Nazi-occupation era Norway that is revealed throughout the novel. A very good read, and the first of a series.

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | August 29, 2017

Stretching my legs with a passeggiata in Sora, Italy

Sora, Lazio, ItalyI’ve long been curious to visit the town of Sora, in Italy’s Lazio region and located in the province of Frosinone – just along the border with Abruzzo.

Since it’s a little off the beaten trail from the surrounding areas I visit more often (including the wonderful Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo), I’ve never managed to get there.

Sora, Lazio, ItalyThis summer, however, as I was dropping one child off at tennis camp in Abruzzo and picking up another at running camp in the southernmost point in Lazio, I noticed that the long trip between the two destinations happened to take me by Sora.

Sora, Lazio, ItalyAnd so I finally visited the town on a sunny Sunday in July – and after all the driving behind me and all that ahead of me, it was the perfect excuse to park, stretch my legs and explore the town.

This town with a population of a little over 25 000 has ancient roots dating back to the Sannite people, who were conquered by the Ancient Romans in 345 B.C.

Sora, Latina, ItalyAfter the fall of Rome, Sora faced many invaders – including Saracens and Longobardi, to name a few. The Normans and the Papal forces also fought fierce battles here in the 12th century.

Sora was devastated by the destructive earthquake of 13 January 1915. In fact, there’s a new monument marking the centenary of that event on the town’s main square. Much of the city had to be rebuilt following that devastating quake.

It was a pleasant town in which to stop and stretch my legs on a long trip. Sadly, the town was setting up for a street food festival, which would have been nice to see, but I needed to continue traveling to pick up my son. For next time …

Enjoy Sora when you are in this section of Italy’s Lazio region.

Sora, Lazio, Italy

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | August 25, 2017

Quality over quantity – E.M. Forster

EM Forster“My regret is that I haven’t written a bit more.”

E.M. Forster

I was surprised to read E.M. Forster’s regret – if anything, it proves that harboring regrets makes no sense.

It’s true that the British writer Forster (1879-1970) only wrote six novels (one published posthumously) over his long lifetime – in addition to his short stories, essays, plays, travel writing, and book reviews – but those he left  us are impressive.

A Room with A View, Howard’s End, and A Passage to India are all masterpieces of English literature (and if you haven’t seen the movie versions of all three, rush out and do so now!). Forster’s first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, isn’t perfect, but it still has so many brilliant lines and perfect scenes that are clear in my mind even years after having read it.

There are plenty of authors who have been far more productive, but haven’t ever produced anything at this level. I feel the same about the author Jane Austen. While it’s a shame we only have seven of Austen’s novels to enjoy, what an amazing seven they are.

So here’s to celebrating quality over quantity. Clearly, Forster never had any real cause for regret …

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | August 22, 2017

Oslo’s National Museum of Art

National Museum of Art, Oslo, NorwayOn a visit to Oslo, there were three museums I wanted to visit, but I only had time for one. Therefore, the centrally-located National Museum of Art made the cut, and I have two more museums I need to see on my next trip!

Oslo’s National Museum of Art is definitely worth the trip on your next visit. It’s a good-sized, but not overwhelming museum, and there were good audio guides included in the price of the ticket.

The Bridal Procession in Hardanger, 1848

Bridal journey in Hardanger, 1848

Although the Munch Room is the most famous, and contains one of the world’s most recognizable paintings – don’t make a beeline there. There’s plenty more to see.

It was interesting to see how – in the absence of serious art institutes in Norway many years ago – Norwegian artists would go to train first in Dresden, and later in Paris and Rome. Those artists often adopted styles they learned there.

Two girls on a plain, 1883

Two girls on a plain, 1883

But luckily, there were many artists who painted homegrown scenes, and there are many interesting examples at this museum, including Brudeferden i Hardanger (Bridal journey in Hardanger) painted by Norwegian romantic nationalism painter Adolph Tidemand in 1848. The painting depicts the natural beauty of Norway’s fjords and the traditions surrounding the bride’s journey to her new home.

I also loved “Two girls on a plain”, painted in 1883 by Erik Theodor Werenskiold. Werenskiold was known for his depictions of Norwegian peasant life , and I enjoyed this depiction of these two young girls (friends? sisters?) taking a break from  their grueling labor to chat and enjoy the weak sunlight as they observe the landscape around them.

After all, they probably know all too well that the winter months won’t afford such time for leisure and quite contemplation.

Grindelwaldgletscher, 1838

Grindelwaldgletscher, 1838

And then there are depictions of Norway’s harsh and imposing – yet beautiful – nature, particularly in Thomas Fernley’s Grindelwaldgletscher, painted in 1838.

This monumental, romantic scene depicts the power of nature and inspires awe, even more so because beside this glacier stands a man observing the ice formation. He is a mere speck beside the mighty glacier.

Although the Norwegian romantic painters deserve a visit, it is Norway’s most famous son who attracts all the crowds – and the room dedicated to him is the highlight of the museum.

The Scream, 1893

The Scream, 1893

Edvard Much (1863-1944) is Norway’s most famous artist, and The Scream, painted in 1893, is his most famous painting. The painting needs no introduction and, not surprisingly, it has the largest crowd around it.

Knowing about the embarrassing history of thefts of this iconic painting – one such theft in which a post-it was left by the thieves in the space it previously occupied suggesting the museum invest in better security – I expected it to be, well, more closely guarded. But Oslo is not Paris or New York, so it was nice to be able to admire this painting without the glass and arms-length barriers in place.

The Dance of Life, 1925

The Dance of Life, 1925

The Dance of Life (1899) is also there, the painting thought to follow a woman through the various stages of her life: young and virginal in white, at the height of her sexual power on the dance floor (with a partner believed to be a self-portrait of Munch himself, and a much more ravaged version clad in black on the far left. The moon creates a phallic symbol on the sea, perhaps symbolizing fertility. It’s an arresting painting, one I saw many years ago at a Munch exhibition, but I was thrilled to see it in its natural home.

I’ve chosen two of my favorites, but all of the Munch collection is impressive to see – and next time in Oslo I will also get to the dedicated Munch Museum, although I’ve seen much of the (impressive) collection at a Swiss exhibition years ago.

So be sure to visit Oslo’s National Gallery on your next visit to Norway.

Oslo National Gallery, Norway

Reading on location

Enjoying the excellent The Admissions on an idyllic beach in the Bahamas

I’ve already written a post about context reading.

The concept is the same as ‘context drinking’ – how that Tuscan wine just tastes so much better when  you drink it on holidays on a sunny piazza  in Italy than it does when you bring it home to Peoria.

Location reading

Reading Beatriz Williams as I relaxed sore muscles after days of skiing in Val Gardena

When I travel I often look for books set in the places I’m visiting. It always helps to bring the location to life.

But I also notice that being on holiday – and probably being so relaxed and happy – also makes me remember the books I was reading on those vacations better … even without the link to the specific location.

Many of the books I’ve enjoyed on these holidays were excellent, others were average, but they stick in my mind longer because I was happy and relaxed when reading them.

Location Reading

Reading The Human Flies on a perfect spring day in Sperlonga, Italy

And I link scenes or chapters to the location I was where I read them.

If I’d had the time and money to do this in college, I would have been far better off booking plane tickets and jetting off to exotic locales to study.

Admittedly, I’m not sure if this system works as well with economics or physics textbooks. But it’s certainly worth a try.

Location reading

Bliss in Bali

And even the books that would have quickly trickled out of my already-overloaded brain lodge there longer when I’m reading them at a location I enjoy.

Here I am reading lazily at a great hotel in Bali.

Location reading

ALWAYS love reading in the mountains of Abruzzo

The book was by an author I enjoy, but it was set in Italy and everything was off with the novel. The only reason much of it still remains lodged in my brain is because of how this lazy pool and beach reading punctuated my relaxing days in paradise.

Do you blame me?

So when I read books on holidays, I realize I often recall where I was when I was reading certain segments or chapters – and sometimes those vacation memories are much sharper than the stories themselves.

Happy “location reading” on your holidays this summer!

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | August 15, 2017

Bigger than Versailles – the Royal palace at Caserta

Regia di Caserta, ItalyI’ve already written about exploring the amazing gardens of the Reggia di Caserta.

It had been years I’d been ‘ meaning to visit’, so I was thrilled to finally make it to this royal palace in Italy’s southern Campagna region.

Regia di Caserta, ItalyAfter the impressive gardens – DO do do dedicate enough time for a proper wander in them – the palace is a bit of a let-down. Yes, it was built to be larger than Versailles, but this was at the end of the 18th century, so by Italian standards, it’s almost modern.

The Royal Palace of Caserta (Reggia di Caserta) was built for the Bourbon kings of Naples. Construction began in 1752.

Reggia di Caserta, ItalyCharles VII of Naples worked alongside his architect Luigi Vanvitelli, using Versailles as their model. Vanvitelli died in 1773 and the project was taken over by his son, Carlo. It was only fully completed in 1845, even if the royal family began living there in 1780.

The palace has a remarkable five floors,  1,200 rooms and 1 ,742 windows. Oh, lucky servants…

There is also a spectacular library and a theatre modeled after San Carlo in Naples (see my earlier post about that famous opera house).

Reggia di Caserta, ItalyNot surprisingly, with 235,000 square meters,  it is the largest royal residence in the world. Caserta boats 40 monumental rooms, compared to Versailles’ 22.

During World War II, the palace would become the site of the Allied Force Headquarters, and in April 1945, it was here that the Germans signed their unconditional surrender of forces in Italy.

Don’t miss the spectacular Reggia di Caserta – and, in particular, its stunning gardens – when you next visit this region.

And when you return home, be thankful you do not have 1,742 windows to clean …

Reggia di Caserta, Italy

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | August 11, 2017

Book Review: The Expatriates

The Expatriates novel coverI enjoyed this novel following the lives of three expatriate women living in Hong Kong.

The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee explores the lives of three women – all adrift in their own way –  living in Hong Kong’s expat community.

Mercy is a Korean-American Ivy League grad who has been drifting ever since graduating and setting up roots in Hong Kong. Margaret is the wealthy housewife of an American executive, whose coolness masks her own disappointments. And Hilary is a wife and a mother of three trying to come to grips with a devastating loss.

I’ve long been an expatriate myself, but primarily in countries more expensive than my own, and where I’ve worked to live as part of the new culture. Perhaps because of this, I always find myself fascinated by the disturbing aspect of expatriate life in many countries, where hired help is inexpensive and middle class western expatriates begin to feel it’s normal to have an army of around-the-clock servants – or ‘helpers’ as they are called here. I enjoyed this euphemism, since ‘helpers’ implies that the women themselves were somehow participating in the work, which rarely seemed to be the case.

This worrisome aspect of expatriate life is handled deftly in this novel, as is the resulting feelings of superiority and ‘otherness’ of these expatriate groups who do not try to mix with the locals and who never really become a part of the culture in which they are living.

In this expatriate world, the foreigners all cling together in a claustrophobic, narrow world where one befriends primarily those of one’s own nationality. These were the aspects of the novel I enjoyed most.

I also enjoyed the individual voices of the three women and following their stories, although I felt the first half of the novel was stronger than the second.

An enjoyable and thought-provoking novel. I’ll look forward to reading more by Lee.


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