A Worldclass Garden in Atlanta’s Backyard

Despite opening in 2012, Gibbs Gardens is still a hidden treasure. Nestled in the rolling foothills of Cherokee County, Georgia, about an hour north of Atlanta, the Gardens are almost in my backyard; but I had never heard of them until a couple of British friends told me about them.

Based upon the Brits’ recommendation, I toured Gibbs Gardens today and was not disappointed.

The gardens are the creation of Jim Gibbs, CEO of Gibbs Landscaping Company, who spent 15 years searching for the perfect setting for his family’s estate and a public garden. He found about 300 acres in North Georgia in 1980 and he’s been developing his masterpiece ever since. The result is a lovely landscape to rival any of the glorious European gardens I’ve had the good fortune to tour.

Mr. Gibbs’ labor of love is divided into two large sections: the Manor House and its terraced garden and the Valley Gardens spread out below the house, a series of landscaped loveliness the crown jewel of which is the Japanese Gardens.

A walk from the Welcome Center to the Fern Dell, the far end of the Valley Gardens, is only about a 15-minute stroll, unless you stop to linger in the Japanese Gardens along the way.

The reproduction of Monet’s bridge and water lily garden is quite lovely — though I still prefer the luscious original.

Replica of Monet’s Waterlily Gardens and Bridge

A tram is on hand to cart you around the gardens, but walkers could spend all day exploring the myriad pathways featuring open vistas as well as 24 ponds, 32 bridge crossings and 19 waterfalls. I traversed the Valley Gardens on foot and rode the tram up to the Manor House.

The Gibbs’ actually reside in the home which is not open for tours. The house itself is a beautiful mixture of European architecture and includes some stunning French imports: a 14th century limestone fireplace, 17th century interior doors and 18th century beveled and leaded glass doors and windows.

The family kindly allows visitors to enjoy the scenery in shady sitting areas overlooking the terraced garden or to lounge by the swimming pool.

Whether you spend an entire day or just a couple of hours soaking up the picturesque views, Gibbs Gardens is a hidden treasure, a world-class public garden right in Atlanta’s backyard.

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Tournai: Belgium’s Hidden Treasure

Tournai’s cobblestone streets have witnessed more than their fair share of disaster. A Roman town in the 1st Century perched alongside the Scheldt River, Tournai (Doornik in Dutch) has survived multiple sieges, the plague, the Spanish Inquisition and both world wars.

The Belfry on the Grand Place.

Walking its cobblestone byways today, it’s hard to imagine that the quaint town was virtually in rubble at the end of WWII. Luckily for 21st century travellers, the town was rebuilt to its historic glory. Architecturally, the Tournai today is the Tournai that was.

Prosperity came to Tournai in the Middle Ages thanks to a nearby quarry and all the artisans in the area. The city became known for its porcelain and tapestries.

Tapestry on display in Notre Dame de Tournai.

Notre Dame de Tournai is the center of the town. Construction on the massive cathedral began in 1146 and continued on and off until 1700.

The cathedral as seen from the Belfry.

The cathedral, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, is under massive restoration due primarily to a tornado that struck it (and the town) in 1999.

The cathedral’s interior, despite the maintenance scaffolding that dissects it, still enthralls visitors with whispers of its grandeur.

Perched near the cathedral is the Belfry. Belfries pre-date town halls and served an important legal and civic role. Their bells issued a call to arms, announced public executions, or warned townspeople of a fire or other disaster. In the Middle Ages, they were used as a holding prison for those awaiting trial.

No bats, but lots of bells in Tournai’s belfry.

Today, the belfry in Tournai reliably announces the time. A climb to the top, about 226 stairs, reveals great views of the sprawling, old town and its environs.

Tournai is not crawling with tourists despite being only an hour’s train ride from Brussels and three from Paris. It remains a hidden treasure.

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Midday in Paris

Woody Allen’s 2011 romantic comedy Midnight in Paris is a flick worth watching. In it, a young screenwriter (Owen Wilson) is vacationing in Paris with his fiancee, but finds himself touring the city alone at midnight. Magically, he is transported to the early 20th-century Paris where he meets the writers and artists — Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dali, Gertrude Stein, et al — who made Montmartre (in)famous.

My favorite characterization in the movie is Adrien Brody’s portrayal of Salvador Dali. Brody comically nails the flamboyant artist declaring repeatedly “I am Dali!” In Brody’s version of the artist’s Catalonia accent, it comes out as “I am Dahhhhleee!” which always makes me smile for some inexplicable reason.

Needless to say, I would love to magically return to pre-WWII Paris and mingle at midnight with the cadre of writers and artists living and working on the quaint hilly streets of Montmartre.

A typical street in Montmartre.

Alas, I am limited to roaming Paris at midday which, of course, is delightful in its own right.

Montmatre still has a windmill.

Strolling down a street in Montmartre, you can still see aspiring artists. I ran into a bench-full of students sketching a sidetreet leading up to Sacre Coeur.

I was on a mission to check out a small museum featuring the surrealist works of a guy who said, “I don’t use drugs. I am drugs.” None other than Dali — who now, thanks to Adrien Brody, I always think of as “I am Dahhhleee!”

The small Dali Museum is in Montmartre tucked in a corner on Rue Poulbot.

In a city known for its museums, this isn’t one of the best, but if you like the mind-warping works of Dali — including all those melting clocks — it’s certainly worth a visit.

I’m taken with Dali’s obsession with time — the fluid passage of which is irrevocably slipping away from each of us.

I left the museum thinking “I am Donna!” A declaration to the universe that I passed through, albeit in a nanosecond. Yet, time is mystical. It stopped for me today. I walked the streets of Paris at midday and a moment seemed timeless.

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William Built It

Caen, nestled near the coast in northern France, was definitely put on the map by William of Normandy — better known as William the Conqueror — who built Caen Castle here in 1060.

I visited William’s stronghold for the first time today. Venturing to Caen is a two-hour train ride on the SCNF out of the St. Lazare station in Paris.

My last trip to Normandy, in 2008, was part of my first trip to France. The rolling, green hills of Normandy and the wide beaches along the coast are among my favorite landscapes in a country filled with exceptional landscapes.

Caen has grown to a metropolitan area of 400,000 people since William’s day, but the Conqueror certainly left his mark on the city — not to mention the country across the Channel.

Part of the castle footprint.

The castle is perched in the heart of the old town, flanked by two abbeys, the Men’s Abbey and the Ladies Abbey, built by William and his wife, Matilde. The royal couple are each interred in their respective abbey.

We didn’t have enough time to visit either abbey, but the towers of the Men’s Abbey dominated the distant skyline from the castle ramparts.

The abbeys and about eight other churches survived WWII, but two-thirds of Caen was destroyed during the war. The city rebuilt and moved on, a mix of ancient and modern worlds. But I confess, it’s the ancient which captivates me.

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The Lion and the Swan

Nestled in the heart of Switzerland amid the Swiss Alps, the city of Lucerne is famous for its breathtaking lake.

Humans have been controlling the water level of the lake for more than 150 years using an ingenious Needle Dam developed by Charles Poirée.

The water level of the lake is still regulated manually by the removal or insertion of the dam’s “needle” timbers.

Removing the needle timbers allows the water to flow.

The crystal clear water provides an idyll home for water fowl, including these beautiful swans.

But the most famous creature in this lake city is a lion made of stone.

The monument of a dying lion carved into a giant rock commemorates Swiss soldiers who died defending the Tuileries Palace in Paris during the French Revolution.

Yet, the lovely Lucerne has much more to recommend it than the courageous lion and the elegant swan. Wonderful frescoes adorn the facades of buildings in the Old Town squares.

Of course the city features beautiful churches…

Hofkirche

and the Ritterscher Palace, but one of the most intriguing structures is the Spreuer Bridge.

The timber bridge was built in 1408, making it the oldest in Switzerland. Inside the covered bridge are 67 paintings depicting a Dance Macabre which were added between 1626 and 1635.

The views from inside the bridge put the paintings to shame.

Lucerne is a jewel. The man made objects in the city and around the lake are stunning…

but it’s the lake itself, cradled by snow-capped mountains, that is the real masterpiece.

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Fountains on the Rhine

When my “Castles on the Rhine” cruise ended this morning in Basel, Switzerland, little did I know that I was entering a town that could be dubbed “Fountains on the Rhine.”

Basel is home to more than 300 fountains. Apparently, you can drink from all of them; and locals even take a dip in the larger ones when the weather turns hot.

And they’re not just for humans. I saw a dog owner hoist his pet for a sip during a morning stroll around town.

Apparently the nimble canine had navigated the fountain’s height before because he looked quite comfortable being perched about three feet off the ground.

I spotted several other fountains of all shapes and sizes as I walked around the old town. Here’s just a few.

My favorite was Tinguely Fountain created by artist Jean Tinguely in 1977. It was a delightful mix of machines and water.

Other than fountains galore, Basel is known for its grand Minster which started life in 1099 as a catholic cathedral, but is now a Reformed Protestant church.

Outside.

Inside.

The Minster sits atop a hill overlooking the Rhine. John and I traversed the river on a small ferry boat attached by an overhead cable to keep it from being swept off course in the swift current.

John awaits the ferry.

Across the river, a towering steel sculpture commemorates the spot where Germany, France and Switzerland meet.

Basel reflects its geographic position, an interesting mix of German and French, but from my perspective, it leans heavily toward the German experience in architecture and culture.

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The Wine Road

The wine route runs about 106 miles through Alsace passing rolling vineyards and 100 picture-perfect villages.

Vineyard along the Alsace route.

We were fortunate to visit two of them on this trip: Kayserberg and Riquewihr.

Kayserberg

This medieval village is a real gem.

The colorful, old houses were all postcard-worthy.

Of course, there was a castle standing guard over the picturesque town.

Riquewihr

Riquewihr was smaller than Kayserberg, but charming in its own right.

The quaint, colorful houses were equally fetching.

This is our last full day aboard the S.S. Antoinette. We arrive in Basel, Switzerland tomorrow where we will disembark for a couple of days before flying to Paris.

Touring the Alsatian villages proved a terrific way to end a wonderful cruise.

Vive la France!

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