it’s impossible to summarize Lisbon in one succinct title. Romantic, historic, lively, beautiful, full of surprises … you get the idea. A lively city that’s a young persons dream, then you step into an old fado bar where an aging singer defies time with romantic songs from Lisbons historic past. You walk up desolate narrow steps and turn a corner to street musicians and young people enjoying the dramatic view below. The cab driver when we arrived was proud of the copied relics to sister cities San Francisco and Rio de Janeiro, but the truth is I don’t think there’s any city in the world quite like Lisbon.
Every day stepping out of our flat and up or down the hilly street we were met with surprises. What looked like a quiet street turned into an evening of eccentric bars and pub crawlers. The nearby river (still miles from the ocean) turned into an exciting waterfront offering sunset cruises and river taxis. The hostel down the street opened their doors to an inviting garden with guest musicians. Markets, vendors, tourists, locals, tapas, sardines…. All with a unique mix of western and middle eastern flavors.
So it was indeed bittersweet to leave Lisbon, and difficult to fly back to Paris where Zhen and I (for now) went our separate ways. A 50 day adventure covering the most beautiful places across four countries …. The Alps, Paris cafes, the French Riviera, Spanish Flamenco, and Portuguese magic. Now we await the immigration process, but have plans in place to ensure that this adventure continues to grow and flourish. Thank you for joining us on this amazing trip, and we look forward to more ahead. Live your life to the fullest and keep your dreams alive!
Barcelona is a BIG city. After arriving late Saturday night it seemed the best way to get indoctrinated the following morning was the hop on-hop off bus that all major European cities offer. This is not a place to discover on foot. As it turned out, the impression from that bus tour (there were actually two) was consistent with our observations that followed. An expansive city with some delightful jewels found in a sea of densely populated square blocks of similar looking buildings. The jewels were well worth discovering, but you had to seek them out. Fortunately our hotel was right in a strategic tourist area very near the Old Town and well known Market.
Among the jewels found around the city were some architectural gems that attract fans from around the world. I also thoroughly enjoyed the Picasso museum. And of course I was most inspired by the flamenco dancers. We saw one show in an old theater with an open bar in the back where loud fans served as the air conditioning. And another in an elegant historic building that may just be the perfect venue to view any show. Yes, I danced the flamenco for Sugar that night on the expensive mall outside our hotel. She videotaped, but too modest to show here.
A few final thoughts. This was the first stop where we stayed in a hotel so for the first time we actually watched some TV. Was good to get caught up in some news from the States, and interesting how virtually every other channel was focused on either local soccer (the Barcelona football club is huge) or old westerns. They love old American westerns, all dubbed in Spanish of course. And all old. I mean Marlin Brando and Ronald Reagan old. Several channels show these old westerns 24/7. Next and last stop: Lisbon.
Never in my life did I ever expect to run into Snow White on a cobblestone street in a Middle Ages city and receive a personal invitation to watch her live performance. But it happened here, and we were delighted with her enchanting performance. Avignon holds around 100,000 inhabitants all tucked inside ancient Roman ramparts, a topography of narrow winding streets. We arrived on day one of a three week theater festival and every street was packed with tourists enjoying the vendors and actors promoting their shows. There are over 800 theaters of all shapes and sizes inside this charming city, so the challenge was to choose which shows to attend. Our choices were quickly influenced by friendly personal encounters with performers or directors, and a tactical decision to focus on dance and music where the language barrier was not such a challenge.
Among the many wonderful people we met was the Italian writer/producer Carlotta Clerici, who was kind enough to give us a free ticket to her dramatic play. She asked that we stop to meet her after the show, and I surprised her with a copy of my book.
Of course not every person possesses the talent to perform. One thing I enjoyed about France is the individualism of people to come out and express themselves however they wish. We saw people dressed in so many unique styles and everyone just seems to accept you for who or what you are.. so when we saw a homeless man contentedly sketching a landscape from his perch we just assumed he was an established artist. He was so delighted when Sugar showed a curiosity in his work, which looked like maybe grade school level. He even dramatically signed his name when Sugar took out some coins from her purse. But rather than accepting the scratchy drawing she simply thanked him for his time explaining the drawing.
So goodbye to France. Barcelona awaits.
Leaving the lavenders of Valensole left us wondering what more the French countryside could offer. An answer came quick and more continually followed with surprise after surprise . Our first impression was an emotional visit to an old mental institution which housed the famous artist Vincent Van Gogh leading to the final year of his life. The tranquil setting exhibited the work he did here and even recreated the room he was housed in. Fortunately, this particular institution bucked popular trends at the time by caring for the patients using art in a tranquil setting vs treating them with cruel procedures to kill the supposed evil spirits. This fortuitous timing allowed Van Gogh to create over 150 works in that year, (including some of his most famous) before his release and ultimate suicide with the belief that he was a failure.. We also visited nearby Arlen, where Van Gogh infamously cut off his ear and where the photo above was taken. If you look close, you may also recognize this cafe as the exact same one which inspired the painting below.
For five days we stayed in a 800 year old home in St. Remy. Thick stone walls cooled the home on the hottest days. And we spent every day driving around the picturesque countryside, where charming cities and villages popped out of nowhere snider the mountain valleys and sometimes mountain tops. My favorite was Fontaine de Baucluse,, a charming village at the base of towering mountains. Here the most refreshing waters pour from the mountains and caves to form a river so brilliant and clear that the green foliage underneath makes the river appear more like a lush green meadow then an actual river.
Valensole: Lavender Heaven
When she was a girl growing up in a small town in China, Zhen read a fairy tale about a French girl who lived In the region of Venesole, France. The story painted a romantic setting of picturesque countryside surrounded by vivid purple fields of lavender. Ever since that reading, Zhen has dreamed of one day visiting this region…. and now that dream has come to life.
It doesn’t matter which meandering country road you travel, you will be met with endless fields of purple lavender sprinkled in the open fields between rugged mountains and majestic gorges. Much to our luck, we arrived just in time before the harvest season removes these enchanting purple fields for the mass production of lavender products. We did manage to see the beginning of the harvest in one field, and purchased home made products from another local family farm.
As always, it’s the locals who add the true color to each visit. Walking through this small town, I was shocked to learn one resident t walk up and down a steep hill 5 times each morning and evening to fill his water buckets from a spring well to water the plants outside his upstairs flat. We also enjoyed staying on a small farm just outside the village, where Zhen easily adapted to the country lifestyle of her fairy tale setting.
The train ride into Cannes provided some glimpse of the Mediterranean magic, but the mood was quickly diminished after lugging our baggage through the older part of town in search of the car rental. Google maps seems often to only throw more confusion in France, and rush hour added to the stress of finally settling in our Airbnb. But it was worth it. One block from an awesome beach and walking distance to the lively port area, all in a spacious flat housed in a tasteful chateau. Elevated enough to view the sea while we dined and take in the most refreshing breezes even on the hottest days, I immediately senses that four days here was not enough.
With a car we were able to drive and visit such landmarks as Monaco and Monte Carlo. Of course with a car I also got lost and stuck in a monster traffic jam in Nice. So in the end my favorite memories here are enjoying the amazing beaches in Cannes and along the coastline in the less crowded areas (west of Cannes), and experiencing the markets and cafes along the Cannes waterfront. It is absolutely so easy to fall in love with this place and the beach lifestyle. We stayed on the beach till dark our last evening and got in a morning swim just before our departure, where we met a most interesting Brit who now operates a small beach cafe . He sent me a beautiful work of poetry covering his fascinating and inspirational life story. As we pulled out of town I ran out to give him a signed copy of my book. The joy of giving was purely rewarded as he expressed the most genuine joy in receiving my gift.
As always, Zhen captured perfectly our stay in Cannes.
Tucked away in the French Alps not far from both Switzerland and Northern Italy lies one of the most unique places that I’ve ever stumbled upon. Annecy lies at the edge of lake Annecy, whose tranquil waters sparkle a brilliant teal with its rocky base and feeding from the surrounding majestic mountains. The Old Town is alive with winding cobblestone streets that house centuries old buildings whose arcades shade rows of cafes and market vendors. I knew we were in for a unique experience when our Airbnb host greeted us and walked us up the 98 steps (with luggage) to our renovated flat in the Old Town.
Our first full day in Annecy we had to do the two hour lake cruise to get relief from the heat and take in the majestic beauty of the Alps. From there we also discovered the impressive park system along the lake and nearby beaches. Every day was a discovery of morning markets along the canals and evening strolls through the park and arcades. Tuesday evening we were drawn outside by loud music, only to learn the entire city was filled with live music. Everything from rock, rap, to soulful jazz and a brass band. As soon as one sound faded a new sound emerged accompanied with large crowds.
So now at the new destination in Cannes as I enter this and Zhen draws her next painting. Not the easiest entry, required a bus, two trains, got lost trying to find the car rental in Cannes, crazy drivers, and an incomplete GPS. But that another story for another post. Bonjour!
Paris: a fantasy comes to life.
My images of Paris were formed as a child, watching Saturday morning cartons showing colorful characters with heavy French accents dining at outdoor cafes alongside the many landmarks that Paris is famous for. So as we entered the city I was interested in learning just how much my perception would align with reality. And much to my delight.,the Paris we stepped into was everything I’d hoped for; from the Louvre, Arc de Triumph, Notre Dame, palace of Versailles, Pantheon, Eiffel Tower, and much more. The only diversion from my cartoon memories was the city teeming with tourists and locals all mingling together.. cafes populating every street corner filled with people, and even a few surprises between the cracks.
As wonderful as all these iconic landmarks were, perhaps what I’ll remember most about Paris is lounging in the unexpected luxurious public parks, listening to opera singers and performers practicing their art in public areas around the Louvre, Friday night dancing with the young locals along the Seine River, and hanging out with our Airbnb host who was quite an unforgettable character. Wonderful memories that I’m curious to see how Zhen will now capture as we relax on the train to Annecy.
Above right is Zhen hard at work on the bumpy train ride through the mountains. Not the easiest of working conditions but I believe she captured Paris perfectly.
Bruges; An unexpected treasure
I’m not sure I’d ever heard of Bruges, Belgium before this trip. So when Zhen moved the date up one week (to secure her travel) required finding somewhere to go before our scheduled Paris reservation, I immediately jumped at the recommendation from my friend Douglas who lived several years across Europe. And we were not disappointed.
little could we imagine that this charming city was once the center of European trade and culture. But in reality, it’s not so difficult to visualize this when you spend time in this city. The architecture and feel of Bruges feels little changed from the Middle Ages as many of the original buildings remain intact over a maize of cobble stone stone streets and winding canals. Although Bruges has barely over 100,000 residents, the streets are teeming with tourists visiting a colorful menagerie of shops selling everything from fashionable clothing to beloved Belgium waffles, chocolates, and beer. All of which gives the city an energized eclectic feel that lets you know you are very much in a European city. And I can’t help but reflect on how America’reliance on box stores and internet shopping deprives us all of the wonderful social experience in wining, dining, shopping, and the simple joy of people watching.
As for my reunion with Zhen after nearly 2.5 years apart, we simply stayed at the Paris airport hotel that first day. She had her own harrowing experience to arrive in Paris, and happily greeted me as I walked out from customs that early Saturday morning. So no need to venture knowing we had 7 weeks to explore and adventure ahead of us. There was lots of pent up emotions to release, and lots to catch up on.
And of course every trip has a a story or two. After our first night in Bruges, Zhen expressed her displeasure over the invading mosquito, cramped room, need to walk up creaky steps to share a bathroom with the other guest and owner, and more. My initial reaction was to grin and bear it. I’ve experienced worse and we’re in this amazing city together. Needless to say our moods that first morning matched the gloomy weather. After some argument and going back to see a dirty kitchen and non working TV, we plotted an out. I messaged the Airbnb owner explaining things came up and we had to depart… we fortunately were refunded the remaining days and able to spend the final 4 nights in two wonderful affordable vibrant hotels. We stayed in our room that night hoping not to cross paths with the owner who lived upstairs, being forced to stumble on an explanation. Counting the hours, we arose early and departed with a quick clean up. We stepped out the door and departed the shoddy neighborhood with a sigh of relief, feeling just a bit like kids who did something wrong and hoping not to get caught. Zhen chose this to capture a story of Bruges with this painting, as she will do throughout our travel.
At Long Last ...
I so enjoyed the travel blog I began when travelling to conduct research for my book, Captured in Liberation, and so many people expressed their appreciation in experiencing those travel adventures with me. I last updated the blog in May of 2019 when I travelled to Poland and Italy with my father to celebrate the 75-year anniversary of the Anders Army's victorious battle of Monte Cassino. And now I've decided to update the blog with a new twist.
It's been over two years since I last saw my fiancé Wu Zhen (aka Sugar) when we met in Poland to celebrate my cousin Michal's wedding. Little could we imagine then that the Covid virus would lead to lockdowns, isolation, travel bans, and more. Now, against many odds while an international travel ban still exists for Chinese nationals, Sugar was cleared to travel and now awaits me in Paris. So, I'm all packed, beyond excited for our upcoming reunion, and ready for a summer adventure that will take us across Belgium, France, Spain, and Portugal. I'll share some photos of the experience along the way and invite you to join us.
Author - Andrew Bajda
Since publication of my book in December of 2016, so many amazing things have happened on both a personal and professional level. As the journey continues to evolve, I'll update my travel adventures on this blog, and invite you to join me along the way.