Europe Without the Crowds: December / January (by Jenni)

Our arrival to Europe was remarkable for a couple of reasons. First of all, we were met in Paris by Valerie’s sister and brother-in-law. It was very nice to have someone meet us at one of our arrivals. Secondly, the weather was like a slap in the face. We had definitely left the tropics! Our suntans were covered with hats, scarves, mitts, jackets, and snow-pants.

We spent a few very cold days exploring ruins and museums. We were fortunate enough to get to see a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at Sainte Chapelle. Sainte Chapelle is renowned for its floor-to-ceiling blue stained-glass. We also went up the Eiffel Tower and spent most of a day at the Musée d’Orsay. One can’t help being moved when standing in a single room surrounded by works of art by Rodin, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Renoir, and Monet. Visiting Notre Dame is also very moving, but in a different way. While there, Audrey and Oliver began thinking about an 8 year old friend of ours who was recently diagnosed with brain cancer. They lit a candle and we all prayed for him.


We took a train from Paris up to a little town in the Swiss Alps to spend the holidays. We had shipped our snow-shoes and winter gear ahead of us. But, when we arrived, we found spring-like weather and ended up taking several hikes wearing short sleeves. From our base in the mountains, we took several short trips in the region. The Olympic Headquarters are located very close to where we were staying. We spent an afternoon at the Olympic Museum and learned about the meaning of “time” while also learning about the history of the Olympics in ancient Greece, and the Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, who brought the games back in the early 1900’s.

Yes, the fireplace — one of many in the castle — is big enough to walk into. Audrey making candles at Château de Chillon.

In Switzerland, we also visited Roman ruins including Lousonna, the Roman city center of modern Lausanne, and, of course, castles. In December, we visited a castle called Chateaux Chillon while they were having a medieval festival. The castle was full of life with people dressed in medieval attire playing period instruments and dancing. They were teaching board-games and making crafts the way it was done 600 years ago. Audrey and Oliver made candles by tying a string onto a stick and dipping it repeatedly in a vat of beeswax held over a fire. After their candles were thicker than their thumbs and cooled a bit, they trimmed them using a sharpened stone, rolled them out with a piece of wood, then twisted them into a decorative shapes.

We explored the whole region a great deal. We learned about Swiss chocolate at the Maison Cailler, the chocolate factory. While the best cocoa is grown in South America, Switzerland is where milk chocolate was invented and perfected in the 19h century. We learned about cheese at the Gruyère cheese factory, Maison Gruyère, where we saw the cheese making process from start to finish. We also learned about the martyrdom of Saint Maurice while visiting the abbey where the longest continuous prayer (over 300 years) occurred.

After a side trip to Morocco, we took a train from Switzerland to Rome, Italy. We walked the city and visited ancient ruins. Audrey and Oliver had just finished re-reading The Hunger Games and it was really cool to see statues and paintings of the Romans and Greeks some of the characters were named after. We ended up using The Hunger Games to help teach about ancient Rome, its gladiatorial excesses, and the persecution of Christians.

Speaking of gladiatorial contests, the Museo Stadio di Domiziano, which is in the excavated site of Domitian’s stadium below the Piazzo Navona was full of displays about gladiators and their many character-based costumes.
Medusa turning to stone, Bernini outdoing himself.

My cousin, David, has lived just outside of Rome for over 20 years. His band, Yampapaya Tribe, is multi-cultural with a distinct upbeat African sound. During lunch in a cozy, traditional, Italian restaurant, David and his girlfriend, Francesca, performed an acoustic set of songs for us. It was a magical afternoon never to be forgotten and the perfect way to end our time in Europe.