I Paint my Garden

I garden like I paint. I think of colors, background, textures and composition just as I would for a painting. The result is a wilding of a garden but a happy one. I cannot say I planned my garden. Landscape design has never been in my repertoire of work. My garden happened after my trips to the nursery. I decided on plants to suit my whim just as I put the brush down on a palette and decided a color to be mixed with another.

My flowers are to be seen next to one another. They serve as each other’s background. No flower is an island. The flowers themselves are no rare species – just a garden variety. The ones available at the time.

The most common thread in my garden is the always dependable nasturtium. They are everywhere this time of the year and they pull everything together – like a matriarch offering her bosom to all her wayward children.

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The nasturtium does a great job photobombing every chance she gets.

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Other flowers soon imitate her behavior.

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Some flowers are good at finding sparing partners. The language of flowers has always meant that flowers talk – to each other. We just listen and interpret their language.DSC_0426DSC_0427DSC_0429

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The ones that talked most to us are usually the loners because they are less complex in their messages.

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But I am a romantic at heart. I like my flowers to have companions and conversation- with other flowers.

Flowers enrich and compliment each other. That’s why we have a garden not a showcase of individual flowers. No flower is an island, no man or woman is alone. Countries have borders simply to remind themselves that they have neighbors. Borders are meant to be crossed. Flowers overlap and co-exist. Of all human misapprehensions, the one that is the easiest to correct is the one that we invent: a language for flowers which we don’t really listen to.

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An Afternoon at Keukenhoff

My three lovely cousins and I had the chance to see Keukenhoff this past April. We were lucky with the weather cooperating and the crowd not too large because it was during a weekday.

We took the bus from Schiphol Airport and had a pleasant 30 minutes bus ride through the country side, tulip fields. The multitude of flower beds throughout the site were just out of this world. Tulips of all shapes and colors were mixed with an artful design intent for play of color and textures. We took a leisurely, meandering stroll toward the three pavilions showing different exhibits and on the far end of the garden, the vista continued onto tulip fields that were banded in  bright colors of red, yellows, and oranges.

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The display of tulips throughout the garden was a tour de force in plant choices or in this case, tulip choices. Not one bed was the same as the next in terms of mix of colors and types of flowers. Not all beds were flat and rectilinear. Some were boxed in, some meandered through forest like settings, water features, or outlining buildings. We saw tulips with their common accompaniments such as lily of the valley, grape hyacinth, anemones and then we saw them with the most curious partners in crime.

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One pavilion explained the history of the business of growing and naming tulips, another showcased themed displays and yet another presented rare tulips from nation wide growers.

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I was awestruck by the endless varieties of tulips that were presented. Tulips of beige, mauve and exotic colors, fringed, parrot and striped, double or bicolor, lily or peony, late or early. It seemed that people have arrived at all types of  tulip cultivars in all combinations of colors and shapes.

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Let’s  not forget the friends of tulips – the ones that complimented them.

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And what’s a tulip show without what was considered the most expensive tulip? The striped tulip – a freak  accident involving a virus in  such a virtuous world of pure beauty.

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I felt so blessed that I reconnected with my cousins on this trip and forged a stronger – more grown up/ woman warrior type of bond (we used to hang out when we were little and were up to all kinds of pranks and mischief) with them. It was time for a celebration of family ties and  here is proof that I was beyond intoxicated….

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Breathless in Seattle

My friend and I took a road trip to Seattle this past week. We were at heart romantics and had always wanted to see a Seattle that we imagined with all the romances and images spurred on by the movie Sleepless in Seattle.

We went by car and got to Seattle in the afternoon giving ourselves just enough time to see the Space Needle and the Chihuly Garden and Glass. We only had a view of the Space Needle from its foot but took most of the time to explore the wonders of Dale Chihuly works.

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The exhibit were arranged by inspirations and themes. There were vessels inspired by Native American tribal arts, then there were sea creatures among masses of tentacles. There was a glass ceiling in an exuberance of colors and textures.

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Then there were a garden of spikes, boats of globes and vessels displaying the layers of veins, splotches, rays and all that could be done with glass.

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The garden was an excuse to display Chihuly’s work. The plant choices were clearly meant to compliment the art work with a few towering sculptures which stood quite forcibly apart from any surrounding background.

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Dinner was a loving affair between Art and Food at Art of the Table on Stone  Way North across the Fremont Cut which linked Seattle to Puget Sound. We had chosen the three courses dinner and had attacked it with gusto! Cilantro cured salmon gravlax, smoked porcini stuffed quail, white chocolate cremeux. A feast for the eyes and palate.

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After dinner, we drove to Mount Vernon to stay overnight and be closer to our destination for the next day- the highlight of our trip- Whidbey Island!

We approached Whidbey Island from the North through Deception Pass Bridge. The breathtaking view from the bridge was of an unending vista toward a widened passage among the inlets off Puget Sound. The bridge was nested between two high perched cliffs. The water below came into view as we looked down onto the deep green emerald depths. It was as soundless as  only the most peaceful sight could be or the pace of breathlessness between two gulps of air.

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From the bridge, we went on to Coupeville to see its wharf fronting Penn Cove from which mussels graced our lunch table.

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Double Bluff Beach facing Admiralty Inlet was our next stop. The beach was filled with driftwood. We had our fill with selecting a few light pieces to bring home.

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Onward to Langley for dinner at the Portico Latin Bistro and Cantina for sweet potato enchilada, roasted pineapple salad and chocolate flan. Langley also boasted a beach looking out to  Saratoga Passage, one of the maze like inlets in the area.

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From Langley, we took the Clinton Ferry to leave Whitbey Island. A careful timing to avoid the peak hours was a smart thing to do as we saw a ferry wait lane along the road which could take 2 hours if it were filled with cars.

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The next morning we picked up where we left off in Seattle: Pike Place Market along the waterfront with its abundance of flower stalls, farmer’s market produces, artisan wares and foodie venues.

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The trip took only three days including driving time but the images that remained with us varied from cacophonies of color to monochromatic compositions- just like the emotions we went through – from exhilaration to resigned melancholy.

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Columbia Abridged

Columbia seems to be a popular travel destination lately.  Its popularity is quite deserving but one needs to map out the site visits and not take off on a whim. My trip to Columbia centered on three stops: Bogota, Cartagena and Medellin.

Bogota boasted beautiful colonial buildings in the Candelaria district, great museums such as the Museo del Oro and the Botero Museum and great restaurants. For an area to stay in, we chose the Macarena area for our rental apartment. It was a smart choice because it was within walking distances of many restaurants and had a few convenience stores scattered around. A great breakfast place to try is Azimos. It had great croissants, coffee and artisan products. The mural arts in Bogota are very much part of the City’s attraction. We had a tour seeing different styles, different messages and caught a glimpse of the culture of mural artists.

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For restaurants, we had great meals at Tabula and its twin Donostia. The only glitch is that the restaurants, owned by the same owner and shared a common wall, also shared the wine list and the dessert menu. Tabula caters to more family style dining while Donostia gives us smaller dishes. A surprise winner is Salvio Patria. The food is lighter and finer in my opinion.

A short day trip from Bogota, the Salt Cathedral is a must see.  It is one of the only two existing Salt Cathedrals in the world. An entire Cathedral was carved from inside the salt mines. One approaches by the Stations of the Cross presented as carved rooms with different cross designs. Then the main nave can be best seen from a balcony above the narthex. The cross at the chancel is a clever design being a negative space instead of a 3 dimensional object. The side approach from the transept is a simple but nice set of stairs. The lighting is subtle and works in a humble way for a place of worship.

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On the way back from the Salt Cathedral, one must stop by Andres Carne de Res  in Chia for dinner. The restaurant takes up about two blocks and is “crazy”- the only word that came to my mind when I stepped into it. There is not a wall or floor space that is not adorned by decorations. The person who pulled the setting of the restaurant must have had a great sense of humor. There are plates screwed to the ceiling, pots glued to posts, thousands of knick knacks found their places where they should not be. The menu is worthy of a Restoration Hardware catalog but much more colorful just like the ambiance of the space. The dessert menu alone is worth another return trip.

Next stop: Cartagena. One must stay in the historical town to fully enjoy Cartagena. The streets are named and meanders so much that one gets lost if it were not for the numbering system implemented later. The area is full of life, restaurants, shops, music, museums and sights. We had the best meal at Don Juan and not too far behind was a Xmas dinner at Moshi. Activities at Cartagena should include a boat trip to islands where snorkeling, swimming, and fresh seafood lunches are offered.

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Last stop: Medellin. We only stayed one night at Medellin so I cannot give a full account on things to do in Medellin. The city is located in a valley and looks dreamy when seen from a higher altitude. The greeneries are more lush than Bogota. The Botero park and the Museo De Antioquia showed us the rest of Ferdinand Botero’s art collection. We had a good dinner at Bonhomia in the Zona Rosa. That area has great night life but if you rent anything nearby, be prepared to hear music till the morning hours.

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I went on the trip without much expectations having not done the homework myself with all itineraries figured out by another traveler and was pleasantly offered new perspectives,  and sampled delicious meals. It was a treat to be able to visit both Botero museums and park and see a full range of his work. I was very intrigued by the level of modernity seen in the designs of gold work from the Gold Museum in Bogota. I also went shopping in the fabric streets in Medellin but was disappointed at the selection. The high end clothe boutiques however showed fine fabric design which I was not able to find in my short stay at Medellin.

I had a great time seeing the sites, loving the arts from the gold pieces found thousands of years ago to Botero’s sculptures and portraits and street arts, and appreciating the gentleness of the Columbian people. No wonder Columbia is “hip” nowadays.

 

Dordogne Detour

My two friends and I made it to Dordogne in last May. We rented a flat in Sarlat and used it as our home base from which we took day trips to different parts of area. We had a blast even when the GPS from our rental car took us the long way to get to our destinations. We named the GPS Georgette after the Jersey cow because she tended to take us to “greener pastures” where no road signs existed and we were required to go through someone’s private rear yard before hitting a somewhat legitimate road. After a few trials, we relaxed and trusted that eventually she would take us home and were delighted to see the real back roads of Dordogne.

The areas were full of medieval fortresses and hillsite dwellings. The first we saw was Maison Forte de  Reygnac. It was a “Chateau Falaise” built into an existing cave dwelling. The manor was fully furnished with articles used in the period’s daily life. The top of the building was left with parts of the prehistoric dwelling and a magnificent view.DSC_0187DSC_0194DSC_0197DSC_0204DSC_0210

The next day we trooped through the Cabanes du Breuil. These were wonderful 19th Century architectural exercises in stone building. The lower walls were stone with mortar while the conical roofs were dry stacked corbelled vault under stone roof tiles.

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Dordogne was littered with gardens and castles though the castles were not as glamorous as the Loire Valley castles but nevertheless, they were worth a stop. One couldn’t skip the Chateau de Marqueyssac. The gardens were a tribute to the art of topiaries. The 150,000 boxwoods were cut and trimmed, some were grouped to resemble flocks of sheep, while some were of the geometric shapes served as garden ornaments. The property was beautifully situated, perched on a hill overlooking the Dordogne valley and river. A walk around the garden took us through different plant groups, different vistas and some water features.

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Not too far from  the gardens of Marqueyssac was where you could take the barge trip- Gabares Norbert – down the river at La Roque Gageac. The languorous pace of the barge was a nice way to end the day after the energetic walk up above the hills at Marqueyssac.

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Rocamadour was also a not to miss attraction. The village was also a pilgrim’s destination with the Grand Escalier, leading to the Chapelle de Notre Dame with the black madonna statue and the Romanesque-Gothic Basilique of St Sauveur. The town itself was also very picturesque as seen from afar and up close. One could also visit the Maison de Saucisse and shops selling the famous Rocamadour goat cheese on the way back from the church visit.

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France was full of “most beautiful villages of France” but some were not as prosperous as Rocamadour. We went to see Autoire and it was quite desolate, at least when we were there.

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Josephine Baker’s Chateau des Milandes. The highlights were the Art Deco bathrooms! The tour inside the chateau gave us a glimpse of Ms. Baker’s enormous attraction and what a life worth living!

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Another castle to squeeze in the itinerary: the Chateau de Hautefort. The care that went to rebuilding the chateau after a fire was astounding. The garden won best supporting garden in my view but the entry court was no less of a bold move.

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Alas, the Manoir d’ Eyrignac. A tour de force in garden design.

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Castle visits were my thing so we went to see yet one more at the Chateau de Losse overlooking the Vezere river complete with moat and terrace with quaint gardens. This was a more manageable manor. One got to see how a minor lord lived.

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The best town where we stayed was Sarlat La Caneda. We saw Sarlat on market days, Sarlat on slow days, and Sarlat in the early mornings. Sarlat had so many little streets, and gorgeous details including a remodel by Jean Nouvel at the Ste Marie de Sarlat Church converting it into a market hall.

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One did not go to Dordogne and not think about food. Here was the Perigord, the Acquitaine, but most of all, Foie Gras Country. We went to different towns on its market day and got to sample canned foie gras, bought porcini mushroom products, fragrant oils, and fresh foie gras. Sarlat also boasted the premier Patisserie Mertz. We had milles feuilles, eclairs, and other goodies.

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At the end of each day, exhausted from the day trips, overwhelmed by the beauty of the sites but at the same time sated from the leisurely pace that we took to savor it, we would ask ourselves: “who gets the milles feuilles after dinner?” and thought to ourselves how this could not be more perfect.

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Cake Repertoire

All through the years, I made cakes. I realize I can’t remember the cakes that I used to make. I find it useful to be reminded of some of the cakes I enjoyed making and savoring. So here are some of them….IMG_4051.JPGSponge cake with caramelized pear, salted caramel cream and rose buttercream

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IMG_2535Pave Royal

IMG_2308Tarte au Fromage

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IMG_3559Pandan Cake

 

 

IMG_3566.JPGLychee and Coconut Gel Cake with Lychee Buttercream

IMG_3599Baked Cream Pie with Roasted Peaches

IMG_3130Onion Financiers

IMG_2104Black Sesame Charlotte

IMG_2044Raspberries Charlotte

IMG_2008Bread Pudding

IMG_0741.JPGLychee Panna Cotta

IMG_0639Green Tea Souffle

IMG_0312Salted Caramel Magic Cake

IMG_0309.JPGTarte au Fromage

IMG_0283Fruit Tart

IMG_0134Peach Tart

IMG_0130Pear Tart

IMG_0026Mandarin Orange Tart

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So many recipes to try out, so little time, too many calories…

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Captured the Loire Valley Chateaux

For me,  the most romantic image of a castle had always been that of Chenonceau with its gallery/bridge spanning across the Cher river. Surely, it was not as fanciful as the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, nor as grandiose as Versailles and nor as meticulous as Vaux Le Vicomte but its singular broadswept gesture across the river put it on top of my list. It was that arched bridge structure that prompted my urge to visit the Loire Valley and its castles. The other castles didn’t disappoint but broadened my appreciation of castle art. Each of the castles I visited had something unique to impart on my novice eyes. I wished I had seen more castles so I could make more comprehensive notes but alas, I only had three and a half days for visits. I knew I missed out on many other castles but a vacation cut short was invitation for a return. A feast would only be better enjoyed if there was room for more. I certainly had room for more of the Loire Valley …

Chenonceau

I was so anxious to see Chenonceau that it was the first one we went to as soon as we set foot in the Loire Valley.  As well photographed and documented as it was, it had a few surprises in its offerings.

The most popular view of the chateau seemed to be the west approach with its bridge on the right side of the castle. I discovered that there was an inlet for boat landings, a little quay so to speak, to the left of the main building. It was nested between the main walk to the main entrance and Catherine de Medici’s garden. Its meandering wall served to lessen the formality of a castle and made it even more endearing by its form following function rather than a need for grand symmetry.

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The view from the east was no less beautiful but what was missing from photographs was the Diane de Poitiers garden.

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The bridge itself showed a clever trick to make it seem even longer and more gracious. It had two main stories between the steep roof with dormer windows and the closed spandrel arched bridge with its cutwater piers. The main floor gallery received less ornaments than the Medici Gallery (second floor) enclosure complete with identical arched pediments over each well cased window accentuated by even more molding patterns between the windows. The result were emphasized horizontal bands of seemingly different treatments for each floor which stretched the building longer. This was probably due to the fact that  Catherine de Medici had the gallery  built over Diane de Poitiers’ bridge. The Italian Renaissance building generally had more horizontal emphasis while French Castles dwelled on verticality by the alignnent of windows.
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One couldn’t disclaim the Cher itself being very much part of the attraction. Its languidness flanked by a dense forest invited further exploration. The bridge reflection on the water made the piers seem longer and elegant while the cutwater sharp angles lessened the  piers’ girth.
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The view of the exterior was breathtaking from all angles whether from far away or from inside looking out.

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The interior was just as tastefully furnished and detailed. The two galleries were spectacular in their pristine white walls, checker board floors and the repetitiveness in their arched window openings. The stone carvings were abundant and deliberate in the stair wells, the ceilings, and the fireplaces. The most remarkable room was the Louise de Lorraine bedroom where the walls were painted black with white designs of symbols of mourning. How befitting that a castle began its illustrious career as a gift from a king to his beloved mistress and ended with the last queen to reside at the castle mourning the love of her life, King Henry III and painted her bedroom walls black with symbols of mourning, tears, feathers, bones and gravediggers’ tool. Diane de Poitiers might have had her signature black dresses but Louise de Lorraine gave us more a lasting impression with her black room.IMG_8225

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Amboise

Once we had our fill of Chenonceau, we visited Francois I’s main home at  Amboise. Here was the King who had catapulted the Renaissance era castle business in the Loire Valley. Amboise first fell into royal hands in 1434 and quickly became many kings’ favorite homes. The castle had more High Gothic styling than most castles and received some of the earliest Renaissance motifs in French architecture.

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The chateau was built against a tall embankment. One could look down and see the town of Amboise with its uniform slate roofs.

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I was most intrigued by the stone carvings inside and outside the building. The figureheads in the gargoyles, column capitals and various corbels were quite expressive with a slight humorous naivete’.
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The garden that we saw was not the original lattice enclosed garden but the twentieth century parterre and bosquet was quite intriguing in its modern minimalism.

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Francois I who was raised there had brought the castle to its pinnacle. He brought Leonardo da Vinci to Amboise, built an underground tunnel to Da  Vinci’s home  to visit him on a daily basis and enjoyed bringing French Renaissance to its peak. The chapel Saint Hubert where Leonardo Da Vinci was buried was a beautiful gem of carved stones and arches.
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The town of Amboise was a very lively town with its shop at the foot of the castle. The Sunday market brought all types of food stalls to town. We found fresh mushrooms, piping hot paellas, artisan breads, succulent charcuterie, all manners of goat cheeses and the Pave Royal (nougat cake from Tours).

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Clos de Luce’

Clos de Luce’, Leonardo Da Vinci’s last home was nearby and proved to be a worthwhile visit. The castle had a great exhibit of models of the Renaissance man’s engineering designs, his garden and a park showing larger scale models.

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Cheverny

Cheverny, known for its interior, was quite enjoyable. While the other castles were royal castles complete with stately throne rooms and bedrooms, Cheverny was a castle for an aristocrat family who might have lead a more “normal” life without too much pageantry. Even Herge’ thought that Captain Haddock could have lived in such a residence. Herge’ removed the two outer wings and renamed it Chateau de Moulinsart. Alas, I didn’t find any treasures in any cellar when I toured Cheverny though I made a point to re read Les Bijoux de la Castafiore to see if any of the illustrated interiors and castle grounds would look familiar.

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I liked that there were a kitchen conveniently located next to a family dining nook, a very usable living room, a decently sized but not too large formal dining room, children’s room, and bedrooms with adjacent baths. The castle was completely livable as a very large mansion.

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The grounds had a modern garden, a stable, the hound house for 70 hounds, and a very nice vegetable garden.

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Chambord

Chambord, with its beautiful rooftops and spires and famous double helix stairs, was breathtaking as a unique blend of medieval castle forms and Renaissance details. I was quite drawn to the funnel shaped roofs, the multitude of dormers and circular building shapes interspersed between rectangular wings.

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The climb to the rooftop was worth it for it gave me so many vantage points to see the play between the roof forms, the dormer details and the intricacies in the stone carving.

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The interior of the castle, besides the famous stairs credited to Leonardo Da Vinci, boasted an extensive series of exhibit showing the history of the French Bourbon kings down to Henri, Comte de Chambord, the last Bourbon claimant of the French Crown.

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Villandry

Though known for its beautiful gardens, Villandry castle itself was a marvel. The courtyard plan was spared from monotony in symmetry when the wings are not quite equal, the windows alignment didn’t really center on the facade, the angles were not quite 90 degrees and the widened moat on the left side gave quite a reflection.

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One of the loveliest dining room graced the castle in its entirely pink color. The rustic kitchen could easily be inserted in a home in the Bay Area, The staircase was simple but beautifully detailed in its limestone and wrought iron handrail. A Moorish ceiling was imported from Spain to decorate the Oriental drawing room.

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No wonder the gardens were a Unesco Heritage Site. The knot garden had four patterns for the many aspects of love.

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The vegetable garden was a clever display of edibles among cutting flowers.

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The water garden was unassuming but generous and serene in its layout. The fountain that connected the water garden to the moat was in the form of stairs under a bridge producing a lovely the cascading effect.

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There were many castles I would have liked to have seen. Blois and Chateau d’ Usse’ came to mind. I saw Azay le Rideau but it was covered with scaffolding so I didn’t list it in this post. The one thing that stood out was that when I was at the castles and looked out on their surrounding, there were not a modern building in sight. The view from the castles were practically the same view the castle owners had. If there was a view ordinance in effect, the effort was worth it. I couldn’t imagine seeing anything modern that would destroy the magic of the Loire Valley. When I was on top of those castles, I could see forever just as it should be – happily forever after.

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I came home not a wearied traveler and was already thinking of another trip. When we travel, separated from all comforts of a home, having to navigate a foreign language, and to plan a bit more carefully where to take our meals, we face a  strange mixture of uncertainty and spontaneity. In that wonderful state of being, we are rendered more aware of the people, the surrounding environment and the culture of the place we visit. We stop taking things for granted, we ask more questions, we question lots of answers and we re-engineer our way of living. We should do the same when we return home and resume our daily routine. After all, isn’t life also a journey for which we have to plan the itinerary?