The French in Graz, or what language do we speak now?

When our daughter was almost 15, she participated in an exchange program to France:  touring Paris, other cities down toward the south of France and a few weeks home-stay with a French family.  She came home a confirmed Francophile/phone (and I had someone with whom I could hone my many years of studying that language).

One of the lovely consequences of her travel was the beginning of a long-term friendship with our friends, Chantal and Andre.  They mothered and fathered her in France when she was a typical goofy teenager, and helped her with her French vocabulary.  Over the years, we have watched and celebrated, via photos and packages, mail and email, the Christmas holidays, their move to a new city, new jobs and enterprises, our children matriculate through high school and into higher education, their oldest daughter and our son marry, and most recently, the birth of their first grandchild, a boy, and the anticipated arrival of our first grandchild, a girl.

They’ve been once to Montana, and our children visited them again during respective short and long-term residencies in Europe.  So we were thrilled when they wrote to say they could visit us in Austria, while en vacances in Italy.  Between our trip to Spain and a planned meeting in the Salzburg, Austria area, the timing was perfect!

The French occupied Graz at least once before, Napoleon in 1797, and laid siege to the Schloßberg in 1809.  The Austrians successfully defended against 8 attacks but had to surrender after Austria was defeated by Napoleonic forces at the Battle of Wagram.  All the Schloßberg fortifications were ordered destroyed but the bell tower and the civic clock tower, often used as the symbol of Graz, were spared after the people of Graz paid a ransom for their preservation.  The Schloßberg is marked with plaques with references to Bonaparte and to the French in general.

Napoleon’s troops didn’t have a GPS to find Graz.  Our French had one but it was fairly useless for direction into the Leechwald where we live! Our French arrived the day before Easter Sunday, bearing not arms but gifts:  French cheese, wine, salami, house gifts, Italian Easter Bread and best of all, themselves!



Andre and Chantal on the funicular up to the schloss

busker at the top

never have seen a Renaissance busker with a program before!













Chantal, who's an artist, loved the artistic bird houses!

Bill, Chantal and Andre













the gardens in Graz are coming along!


The second day of their short visit, which was Easter Sunday, we took a trip out to the Piber Horse Farm, about 25 km from Graz.  It’s the farm where the Lipizzaner Horses are bred and raised until they are about 4 years old, at which point, stallions who seem ready are sent to Vienna and the Spanish Riding School to continue their training.  The mares stay on the farm to raise more foals!  The stallions return to Piber when they are 25-28 years old to enjoy a well-deserved retirement.

It was a gorgeous day!  Piber has a schloss (palace), an old church, a small but informative museum, and the farm!


the little church in Piber


and the Schloss










We tried a little driving practice while we waited for our tour. Kein Glück, es war gebrochen!

Chantal tried her hand at braiding. Very important skill (for Moms and Lipizzaner owners)!

Andre tried out the wind up merry-go-round




But the real attraction at Piber is, of course, the horses.  There were some new or soon to be new additions to the Lipizzaner family.  The foals are born black or brown.  At about 6 months they would join other 6-month old foals and their moms in a cohort of black, brown and white.  Later, they would be branded, depending which of the of 6 Piber stallion ancestry lines they are born out of.    And (gasp) some would be sold!  One in about 100 is born black and stays that way.  I wonder if we could get a discount on him?

4-day old foal and Mom

We're soooo cute!

Buy me! Only 12.000 € !

the 1/100 throwback to the black horses!

brands, first of which dates back to Leopold I

pretty nice retirement, n'est-ce pas?


I don’t think we can ever resist seeing the inside of these Austrian churches!

Romanesque beginnings, baroque overlay

Lots of people were coming in their holiday best to Piber.  This is a traditional Styrian look:  green for the intense green of the land, blue for the sky and sometimes dotted with pink for the wildflowers.

The last day of their visit, Chantal wanted Sachertorte.  Never mind that it’s in Vienna, many specialty bakeries or konditorei try their hands at the famous dessert.  We found a great konditorei – no Sachertorte that day,  but it did have some awesome desserts.  We  brought them back to split up after lunch.  We also shared with Kristina via Skype! She was, after all, the reason for our original connection!

Philip Konditorei: cakes, breads AND ice cream!

mmmmm (no translation needed)

Skyping the desserts

Although we weren’t sure, having just arrived back from Spain, what language we were speaking  at any moment, there are some things that simply transcend differences in dialects and les langues maternelles.  Friendship is one of those.

guys and engines - everywhere the same!

Friendship needs no language except that of the heart.

Merci bien for reading!  Jusqu’à ce que plus tard!

© photos, unless noted, are property of the blog writer and may not be used or reproduced without permission.

Gibraltar: The Rock!

The traffic getting into La Linea (Spain) was as bad as predicted: Long lines of cars and gridlock before we could split off to find underground parking in La Linea near the McDonalds.  Once we parked, it was a long walk to one customs station and then a short hike across the airport runway (it must be the only runway in the world with a traffic light!) and past another customs station, and then into downtown Gibraltar.


our first look at Gibraltar

the airport runway of Gibraltar

crossing the runway

What a transformation from Spanish to British culture!


the familiar British phone box! I know - completely dorky pose!

Gibraltar, as all of Europe, has a long history of occupation by different groups (Neanderthals, Visgoths, Moors, the Hapsburgs, Spanish, British).  Its strategic location at the mouth of the Mediterranean has been very important for the Brisith since the early 18th century.


early fortification on Gibraltar

modern day police action in Gibraltar

The Brits have managed to hang on to it, but not without some protest from Spain.  We grabbed lunch, in pounds, at a fish and chips restaurant, which seemed only appropriate, and headed toward the cable car which could take us to the top.

The weather continued to hold but looked threatening.  We were getting close still had a ways to go, when we bumped into a tour van selling seats for the ride up, stops at 4 destinations, and the ride down – 20 euros.  As we glanced at the gathering clouds it seemed like a good idea.  So we abandoned our idea of the cable car up and the 4 hour hike down and jumped in!  We had great views, (Morocco somewhere over there through the fog!)…..

we saw nearly everything we could (including the aggressive monkeys and Barbary apes),


the caves on Gibraltar

(Can you believe people actually let the monkeys climb on their children’s heads! )

why is this child smiling????

(On the other hand, maybe this an idea for a new ‘hat’ style!)


(Others preferred giving the monkey/ape “the High 5”!)


High-5's all around. Monkeys are paid in farfelli pasta!

and most important, we stayed out of the absolute deluge that began soon after the first stop.


Other highlights of the tour included:


tunnels left over from the Great Siege in the 18th century


The early miners were suffocating so made windows to be able to breathe.


Which they soon realized were perfect for cannons!

There is still a large military presence on Gibraltar.   But maybe they are not so busy anymore, or they stay in good shape by playing football (soccer).  We counted no less than 4 soccer fields!

The commercial airplanes take off between stoppage of traffic between La Linea and Gibraltar and also after the birds nearby have been scattered with explosives.


plane taking off, birds getting scattered

Meanwhile the weather continued to worsen, provided rain isn’t your favorite.

And up there in the sky, those black specks are some kind of eagle (the birdwatchers we saw at the previous stop told us so!)

With a last view of the Union Jack, we descended by van (van being the operative word here).  Sometimes you just have good ideas and need to act on them!  This was one of those times!  We were still congratulating ourselves as we slogged through the constant downpour back to La Linea and drove in the rain toward Sevilla.


lots of wind farms in this part of Spain!

Thank you, as always, for reading!  Cheerio!


Spain: Los pueblos blancos de Andalucía

Our first view of Sevilla during Holy Week came during our trip out of town to Guacin.  I will say more about Semana Santa and this apparel in a later update.

Semana Santa begins in Sevilla

Renting a car from Auriga Crown rental was quick and relatively painless, if you don’t count the insurance and fill-up fee.  We are used to us and the car getting the once over on our way out the gate, but there was no one to report to that our car had a major dent in the passenger side door.

With our limited Spanish vocabulary, we were worried about navigating Spanish roads, but we needn’t have fretted.  The roads were well marked and except for an unanticipated detour into Ronda en route to our destination, we found our way easily. (And, I am so glad to be partnered with a man who does not mind stopping to ask directions at the local petrol station!)

One tends to think of Spain as somewhat arid, but this section of Andalucía – and actually into Malaga Province – quickly becomes mountainous, moving from scrubby vegetation to lush, and adorned with pueblos blancos (white villages) that cling to the mountainsides like shimmering jewels in a crown.  The road between them is reminiscent of the Going to the Sun Highway minus the guardrails and frequent turnouts, hence few pictures along our route!  You will have to imagine the “ooos” and “ahhhs”!  This part of Spain is also a central flyway for birds migrating up from Africa and we planned to do some birdwatching here.


on the way to Guacin

wildflowers blooming on the way to Guacin

pueblo blanco

Guacin is one of the southernmost pueblo blancos, sitting at about 630 km above sea level.    On a clear day, you can view all the way to Morocco from the village. Derived from the Arab word, “guazan” (strong rock), the village is perched on the crest of the Sierra del Hacho, and due to its key strategic position was once a major Roman settlement.  Many ex-pats and artists live here, as well as traditional Spanish families.  The main business is tourism.  The streets are as narrow if not narrower than in Cordoba.  We saw why our car had a dent and realized every car we looked at had similar scrapes and dings.  If you want to know how narrow, think of any movie filmed (or stage filmed) in a European city that has car chases and pedestrians jumping back into doorways as the cars scream by!  That was us in Cordoba and Guacin!


narrow streets in Guacin

Once we managed to rouse the innkeeper at La Fructosa  and figured out where in town to park the car (not on the street!), we headed out to the only restaurant open that evening:   a patio setting for tapas once again, with the freshest possible olives and mediocre red wine.  It started to get chilly so we moved indoors.  I engaged our server about the FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid soccer match we had seen on TV the night before and the second glass of wine was the ‘good stuff’.  Maybe he subscribes to the Cana method.  (The Spanish are near to fanatic about their soccer and posters of the World Cup winning team are posted in most of the train stations!)

courtyard where we ate dinner - Casa Antonia's


We kept our binoculars handy to see the passing Griffon Vulture, but were not rewarded.  So it was off to sleep, dreaming about seeing Africa from our bed, and hoping for good luck in birding the next day.

view looking west from our balcony the first evening

looking toward Africa. If you squint, you can see it, maybe!

La Fructosa, formerly the 3 story Pensión La Española (early 20th century) has been restored by the current owners.  The very lowest floor, where there is an ancient wine press that served for consumption by the original owner’s family and other locals, has been transformed into a restaurant open on the weekends but also where we had breakfast each morning.


the old wine press at La Fructosa

This was the view the next morning.

We headed out on a hike, anyway, guided by a typewritten, two-page extremely detailed description we found in our room. For example: “Continue along the path, pass a rusting black and white sign “Ojo al tren” and you reach a sign “Via Pecuaria”. Here loop sharply to the right, cross the railway track then bear left and follow a narrow path between a fence on the left and brambles on the right.”

We guess it must have been a description written some time ago, with ensuing property and gate changes, as eventually where we were walking and what the paper said no longer matched!  No matter, we enjoyed the cork trees,  the views of El Hacho,  the flowers, Red-legged Partridge, the fields of olives and oranges, and the walk.

olives! (even fresher!)

blue flower in Spain - like shooting star










orange trees

cork trees









el Hacho


If we had continued, we would have been caught in the drenching rain storm that continued for most of the rest of the day!



Based on a recommendation from a birding acquaintance, we drove the 15 km down to El Colmenar on the Rio Guadiaro, to see if we could find the vulture feeding station behind the railway station there.  This road was even narrower and more winding than the one the day before—on the map it looks like a slinky ready to expand and is the sort that could bring on queasy stomachs! When I dared to look, the scenery was breathtakingly gorgeous!

coming into El Colmenar


many goats


organic farming (olives!)

We finally did see Griffon Vultures and a few other choice birds as well, not at the feeding station, but soaring up in the sky where they belong!  That night, Monday, we found another restaurant open and had to go in, not only because it was the only one open but because of its name!


La Taberna del Zorro

Which was, ironically,  located right across from the police station!

Returning to our rural hotel, we found the local church and some signs going up for Semana Santa.


Iglesia de San Sebastian-early 16th century

Maria Dolorosa


which apparently includes a run with a bull!

The next day it was on to Gibraltar. But not before we got up very early for a hike up to the old castle in Guacin.  The Castillo del Aguila (Eagle’s Castle) dates from the Roman era and was later expanded by the Arabs into a fortress.  It wasn’t open on Tuesday, but we thought the hike would make good exercise before breakfast.  What a treat that was!



view from the path up to the castle

castle looking up

We even saw a black kite riding the thermals and a surprise when we reached the summit.


this guy was waiting for us when we reached the top!


view of the descent from the castle

One last view of the village fountain, and we were on our way to Gibraltar.


Gaucin fountain of the 6 pipes

We were holding our breath for good weather and bird-watching en route.  And if birds weren’t in the market, then at least we would see the Rock, with the Mediterranean on the left and views to the Atlantic on the right!

Spain: Charming Córdoba – Sephardic and Kingly Cultures

After the amazing visit to La Mezquita, we weren’t sure what (or if) we wanted to see (anything) next – so moving had been the experience.  We tend to alternate between figuring out our destinations (and doing prior research) and just letting our feet wander and see where we end up.  Now was one of those times.

In the tenth century Córdoba was the seat of Jewish learning, scholarship and culture.

Just down the street we happened upon a priceless gem: one of the remaining Jewish Synagogues.  It was built in 1315 and is the only synagogue in Andalusia to survive the expulsion and inquisition of the Jews in 1492 and one of only three ancient synagogues left in all of Spain (the other two are in Toledo).

After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, the synagogue of Córdoba was turned into a hospital,  a Catholic chapel in 1588 and later housed a nursery school.  It became a national monument in 1885, and was restored by 1985 in time to celebrate the 850th anniversary of  Maimonides, one of the most important Jewish scholars in history.


statue of Maimonides

a very small but beautiful space

A minyan (ten men) needed for worship

the women's gallery


West wall of the synagogue (note remnants of cross from the chapel days)

East wall - oriented towards Jerusalem

Psalm texts written around doorways and the balcony

Today the Synagogue is an historic site, no longer used for worship.  It is also very crowded as tours from all over the world pour in to the tiny space.  But I was worshiping as I read the (translations of) the Hebrew words inscribed on the walls and I was thinking of so many of my friends who were celebrating Passover this same week.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
‘May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.’
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good. (from Psalm 122)









Just opposite the Synagogue, was a marvelous museum of Sephardic History, with implements, musical instruments, and items from what might be a typical Sephardic household in Spain. The collection comes from all over the Mediterranean where Jews settled during the Diaspora.  There were not so many people here, so easy to enjoy at our leisure, and the explanations were not only in Spanish but also English.  Super!















cabinet to hold the Torah when it is not in use in worship









courtyard at Sephardic museum










poetry from a Sephardic woman poet














By then, we were getting hungry and stumbled upon a small grocery, where the proprietor made us some delicious sandwiches with Serrano jamón, queso, los tomates… while an elderly lady waited for him to finish!  We also got chips, two amazing FRESH oranges, and some Fanta (which I hadn’t had in years!)

the little grocery store where we bought lunch


nice grocer who made us sandwiches of serrano and tomatoes in Cordoba

We took our meal back to the courtyard of La Mezquita and enjoyed the shade of the orange trees (as countless others before us must have enjoyed the same!) while the pigeons begged for food.  Really!  No telephoto needed!


orange trees everywhere

in the Mezquita courtyard

begging pigeon












We finished our day with a tour of the old fortification across the river from the Mezquita.


museum (and former fortification) at the end of the bridge in Cordoba - old roman bridge

The bridge is built on the foundations of an old Roman bridge.  At the other (Mezquita) end, is a monument to Raphael the Archangel in thanksgiving for the end of the Plague. (There are many such statues and monuments, all over Europe!)


statue to St. Raphael the archangel in return for protection from the plague

view of La Mezquita from the tower of the Museum/fort

La Mezquita is the large building on the right. You can see how the cathedral is plopped right into the middle of the mosque.

As we walked back to our hotel, we enjoyed many charming moments in Cordoba.


plants growing between the roof tiles

an impeccably dressed Andalucian gentleman












kids playing soccer in Cordoba

laundry on the rooftops (we can relate!)


The next day was Palm Sunday. We began the morning on the rooftop terrace of the hotel (location of the pool not yet open for the season and blissfully deserted!), watching the swifts and enjoying our grocery store breakfast of somewhat stale croissants and room coffee.



We had hoped to be able to stay for the service in the Cathedral but the timing was not good for our train back to Sevilla.  So instead we wandered over to Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos (Spanish for “Alcázar of the Christian Monarchs”), also known as the Alcázar of Córdoba, which is a medieval palace next to the Guadalquivir River and near the Mezquita, that served as one of the primary residences of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon.

Here there are beautiful and extensive gardens,  a statue of Christopher Columbus with Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, as well as lots of other ‘eye candy’ – fountains, orange and lemon trees, roses, calla lilies, one little girl making her first communion that day (probably with the bishop who was coming for the service at the Cathedral) and a few feral cats.  I could have stayed all day!


first set of gardens and fountains at alcazar

fountains everywhere

lemon trees

fun 'sculptures'

gorgeous roses












feral cat





statue of Columbus with his royal patrons

a little girl (and friend) getting ready to make her first communion

Our last memory of Córdoba was of the buggies and the bells pealing to call people to Palm Sunday mass! (In Austria the parade of palms is done with pussy willows, as there are no palms readily available.  However, in Andalucía, there are no such problems! Palms –and olive branches – are everywhere!


buggy driver - a fixture everywhere, only the hats seem to change!

buggy driver - a fixture everywhere, only the hats seem to change!


Click on the photo to hear the bells from outside the wall of old Cordoba.


From Spain 2011

Then it was back to Sevilla to pick up our rental car for the drive to Guacin.

Thanks as always, for reading!