Oysters . . . and other Adriatic adventures

I had never developed an appreciation for raw oysters; nor for oyster stew or oyster stuffing at Thanksgiving, for that matter.

I have been known to order Oysters Rockefeller because that seems a “classy” choice at an upscale restaurant, on the same culinary level as escargot or whole artichokes. I love showy foods, and I admit that I enjoy demonstrating that I know how to deal with such dishes. I have, on occasion, skewered a salty, smoked oyster for a cracker.

But as for raw oysters. No, thank you. I do not love oysters.

My husband, on the other hand, enjoys oysters any way they’re served, but preferably right in the shell, cold, salty and fresh from the sea.

It was a preference he worked hard to cultivate, ordering oysters on the half shell several times in his early 20s. He initially discovered that the slippery oysters didn’t slide so easily down his throat, no matter how much he tried to disguise them with cocktail sauce and and Tabasco. Those first few times, he admits, were less than pleasant experiences.

But he persevered. At a tiny cafe in Brittany, with a view of the oyster fields just out the window, he ordered an oyster. One fresh-from-the-Atlantic oyster. The lone half shell on ice, accompanied by lemon and course sea salt, was brought to the table with a flourish by an ever-so-proper French, waiter. It prompted curious smiles from those seated at nearby tables.

The waiter stood by expectantly, awaiting a reaction.

I was there, cheering him on.

Other diners also waited, and nodded approval as he downed that first cool slippery oyster. It was a personal triumph. And it started a trend. He has since ordered oysters in Maine, in numerous Gulf Coast eateries, and in fine restaurants in cities across the globe. He does, you see, love oysters.

After many years, we returned to that same restaurant in Cancale, France. It had changed a bit over the years, but the oyster fields are still the same, and this time my husband ordered a half dozen and enjoyed every one. In fact, he considered ordering another half dozen.

Today, he rarely passes on the opportunity to order oysters on the half shell when we’re near an ocean that allows them to be delivered fresh and cold from their habitat. He still asks for extra horseradish and hot sauce.

I resisted for the longest time, until we visited the Adriatic three years ago. Sitting on the open deck of a vessel anchored only feet from the oyster beds, I was prepared to enjoy the local fare along with the white wine promised as part of a half-day excursion from Dubrovnik, Croatia.

I had planned to say no to the oysters. But I was curiously enthralled as I watched the servers expertly open the shells and plate up the briny treats. Before I took much time to think about it, I was repeating “I can do this” to myself. I accepted my plate with a bit of trepidation, but I knew my mate would help me out if I couldn’t finish my share.

I sprinkled the smallest oyster with lemon juice, added just a drop of Tabasco, and closed my eyes. My first sensation was memorable. I sensed the cold, and tasted the sea. Then I swallowed. It was a whole new reality.

I actually liked the sensation. I was pleasantly surprised by the silky texture, the intense fresh flavor, and the saltiness. I felt close to the sea and its bounty in profound ways.

It was a lesson. It was delicious. It was unforgettable. Not only was it an eye-opening confirmation of the bounties of the sea, but it was the beginning of a love affair with Croatia. The time we spent there was all too short. Last November we returned to see more of the country.

I did not sample any more oysters, but I did partake, willingly, of other Croatian treats! The food is special, as are the people. To say we loved our two short visits to Croatia is an understatement. I still have no great love for oysters, but Croatia captured our hearts. This Thanksgiving I cannot help but think again of those trips.

I am thankful that we took those trips when we did. When the world is once again healed, we will return. I look forward to it.

And I am sure there will be more stories to tell.

Revisiting Rouen

Last May I wrote about a 2018 visit to this city in Normandy against the backdrop of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing. We were still in the early days of the pandemic. Two months ago, the world marked the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Today we are engaged in another battle against a formidable virus. On November 11, we honored those who serve or have served in our military. Today, we still await a definitive answer to the question of who will be our next president. Through all of this, I cannot help but remember my visit to Rouen. It serves as a reminder that generations of our forebears survived wars, devastating plagues and years of civil unrest. They endured. And so will we. Rouen adds new perspective to contemporary history. Perhaps we should learn from it.

The heart of a great city

William, Duke of Normandy, became King of England in 1066 following his victory at the Battle of Hastings, and the course of history was forever altered for two nations, if not for the entire world. Known today as William the Conqueror, his coronation was held at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, but soon after his investiture, he returned to the capital of Normandy.

Considered a military genius, he was a descendant of the Viking Rollo, was uneducated, lacked culture, and spoke little English. He returned to England to quell periodic uprisings, but he spent most of his reign on the continent. He died near Rouen at the age of 60, in 1087, and is buried near the coast, at Caen, France, in the The Abbey of Saint-Étienne which was founded in 1063.

Another Duke of Normandy, who also held the titles of Duke of Aquitaine and Gascony, and Count of Anjou, was born in England, the fifth son of King Henry II and Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine. He led a turbulent life, rebelled against his father the king, and formed an alliance with the king of France, along with two of his brothers.

Richard I was crowned King of England in 1189, but spent little time there. Like William the Conqueror, he may not even have spoken the language, but he was educated, enjoyed music and the arts, was personable but temperamental and quick to anger. He was also obsessed by the Crusades. He reigned for less than 10 years, and is best remembered for his exploits in the Holy Land, fighting Saladin and the Saracens during the Third Crusade.

Richard the Lionheart, not quite 42 years old, died of an infected arrow wound in 1199. History recounts that he had always “held Rouen in his heart,” and his embalmed heart rests in Rouen’s Cathedral, while his body is entombed “at the feet of his father” at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou. His younger brother John succeeded him on the English Throne, and Phillip II of France gained control over Rouen, assuring that Normandy and Brittany would remain under French control.

I knew of the historical ties Rouen has with these renowned English kings, but it was yet another historical figure that beckoned me to Rouen. The Maid of Orleans met her destiny in Rouen in 1431. She was tried for heresy, witchcraft and other offenses ranging from horse theft to sorcery. She was burned at the stake by the English in a square that still serves as the site of the city’s public market. Her bones and ashes were gathered and thrown into the river.

History recounts that Joan of Arc did indeed hear voices and see visions. She believed they were signs, but modern authorities suspect she suffered from a medical disorder, something akin to epilepsy or perhaps schizophrenia.

Although characterized as a warrior, she actually never fought in battle, choosing to simply accompany the troops carrying a banner to urge them on. Nonetheless, she is credited with turning the tide of battle and securing a French victory over English forces in Orleans in 1429.

Joan was originally charged with 70 crimes which were later narrowed to 12; it is said that she signed an admission of guilt in exchange for life imprisonment, but days later violated the terms of that agreement by, among other things, once again donning men’s clothing and admitting that “the voice” had returned to guide her. She was subsequently sentenced as a “relapsed heretic,” according to historical records.

Joan of Arc — the name stems from her father’s surname d’Arc, even though she was simply known as Jehanne or Jehannette. During her trial, she referred to herself simply as Jehanne la Pucelle (translated as Joan “the maid”).

The young peasant girl became a national symbol, a uniting influence on French forces during the latter part of the bitter 100 Year’s War that lasted from 1337 to 1453. There actually was no victor in the war; the English simply retreated, finally realizing that the cost was too great, and the conflict ended.

Twenty years after the war ended, Charles VII, the French king who owed his position to Joan, held a posthumous retrial to clear her name, and she became not only a folk heroine, but also a mythic symbol of French nationalism.

As a child I was fascinated by her exploits, and by her brazen defiance of existing norms. I am still fascnated, and I wanted to see for myself the place where she met her fate.

For centuries, there was no monument to mark the spot of her demise in Rouen, just a simple cross in commemoration of the 19-year-old’s martyrdom. Today, a large modern Catholic church stands to honor Saint Joan; it was completed adjacent to the square in 1979.

Joan, by all accounts, never doubted that she had been chosen by God for her role in history, but it was not until 1920 that she was canonized as a saint. Today she is revered as the patron saint of France.

Then and now

Rouen is filled with good restaurants, small cafes and local bakeries. It boasts boutique hotels tucked away on narrow streets, within walking distance of major sites, a newly-redesigned and attractive riverbank that beckons river cruisers and bicyclists, picnickers and artists. Prior to the pandemic, visitors from across the globe arrived in the city during every season, seeking their own fulfillment. Rouen’s cultural appeal is catholic, and it resonates on different levels depending on one’s personal interests.

But Rouen offers something else as well. Visit the city during the off-season, and a uniquely personalized view of the city is your reward. The pace of life in this part of France is easy-going and friendly, surprisingly subdued. Indeed, if you stay in the medieval quarter or the university district, the slice of life that presents itself is distinctively “common.” It’s truly delightful, relaxed and unpretentious.

One can walk seemingly endlessly through the narrow cobbled streets of the Medieval quarter. We marveled at the clock, standing under its archway one dismal, chilly late afternoon. We lingered, snapping pictures, studying the artistry of its face and enjoying the music of its chimes. We knew that darkness would soon descend, but we hesitated there, unwilling to break the mood.

It’s impossible to be in Rouen and ignore its past. Napoleon visited textile factories in the city in 1802, helping to build that industry in the region; he also is credited with commissioning the Corneille Bridge and both Lafayette and Republic Streets. In Rouen, it is impossible to escape the emperor’s historical influence. In numerous ways, the history of France is tied to the history of Rouen.

Seeing it all unfold during a walking tour of the city is spellbinding. The most enduring memory, however, is of being alone in the courtyard of Rouen’s ossuary, the “Plague Cemetery.” It is an experience seared into my consciousness, as the world faces an unknown future besieged by a seemingly unstoppable virus.

Later, we ducked into a small brasserie for a cup of hot cafe au lait, and exchanged small talk with the proprietor and two other patrons who were as happy to speak a few words of English as we were to practice our French. We were immediately transported to the present, and we were buoyed by the charm and vivacity of the city’s modern vibe.

We left, strolling the almost deserted streets in search of an informal place to eat. Arriving too early for dinner, we were led upstairs to a warm, cozy nook that suited us perfectly for an early-evening supper. We sipped good red wine, dined on burgers and fries served in true French style, and conversed with the establishment’s friendly proprietor about contemporary life. It was a perfect finale to a day of immersion in the life of Rouen.

We will long remember our visit to Rouen, for any number of reasons.

A day to pay tribute

The world has changed, and no doubt it will continue to do so. However, no matter how much things change, hopefully we will continue to remember our past and to look forward to a bright new future. It is good for us to pause for just a moment to pay tribute to our veterans on this day. One hundred and two years ago, an armistice agreement was signed that signaled the end of what was to be the “war to end all wars.”

That, unfortunately, was not to be, but it was a lofty idea. And, because Veterans Day comes so soon after election day, this seems an ideal time to put our differences aside, and to remember just what it is that makes this country great.

I have written before of Veterans Day. This year, because of a nasty virus we cannot gather en masse, so it is up to us, individually, to honor it in our own ways.

This year, in particular, I believe it is important to look at our past as we look forward to our future — to pay tribute to those who served, and still serve, this nation. Those who don the uniform, any uniform, of the armed forces of the United States of America — deserve our respect. They have our backs. They are sworn to defend us abroad and at home, and they do so with honor.

Now more than ever before, we all bear a responsibility to look at our world with new eyes, with new understanding, with new determination.

This year, I fear, there will be few public celebrations — a sign of the times. But we must still remember — and celebrate — the legacy of the past century.

So, will you join me at 11 a.m. today — the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month — the exact time that that historic armistice became effective in 1918 — to pay tribute not only to our veterans but also to our country? It’s a small, symbolic request, but an important one.

As we face the challenges that lie ahead, whether of COVID-19, unrest at home or conflict with other nations, let us understand that we are strong, and that together we can respond to those challenges.

For at least 100 years, we have been the hope of the world. America continues to be so today. Believe it! Let’s try to live up to that hope!

A lesson in democracy

San Marino, capital of the European “microstate” of the same name, is not on most lists of “not-to-be-missed” European destinations. However, this tiny nation, founded in the year 301 and reputed to be the world’s oldest constitutional republic, ranks among our best adventures.

We had read, in passing, about this tiny, ancient city-state, and could not resist the temptation to visit a modern-day anomaly. The lure of the fifth-smallest nation on earth was strong.

My husband and I planned this quick excursion in conjunction with last winter’s Mediterranean/Adriatic cruise. Tiny San Marino is an easy drive — not more than about an hour — from the Italian port of Ravenna.

The world’s longest-surviving republic has known its share of difficult times and has been occupied three times, it is said, by foreign powers. But it has survived, and today it enjoys one of the world’s most stable economies, much of it derived from tourism, and is considered one of the wealthiest countries in Europe in terms of GDP.

Its claim to be the oldest existing sovereign state as well as the oldest constitutional republic is not disputed. San Marino’s 60-member legislature is elected every five years, and dual heads of state, “Captains Regents,” are elected by the council every April and October to serve six-month terms. From all outward appearances, the system of government, with an unlimited number of political parties, seems to work very well.

I think of San Marino now, as the calendar ticks down to our own election and wish I had been able to spend more time getting to know the people and learning more about their system of government.

The few hours we spent there are unforgettable. The mountaintop site of the old city is spectacular and the people we met were lively, welcoming and “real.” There is something compelling about a “parliamentary representative democratic republic” that has survived this long!

With a land area of only 23.6 miles, and a total population of just over 36,000, San Marino is completely surrounded by Italy. Its official language is Italian, and the currency is the Euro, although San Marino is not a member of the EU. There is no official border crossing.

The drive along the coast from Ravenna takes one along modern highways and through charming seaside resorts before turning inland to wind through agricultural fields and vineyards. It’s pleasant. The weather forecast was for cool temperatures with a chance of rain. We knew about San Marino’s strategic location, but we were not prepared for the fog that shrouded the peak as we began the ascent.

We had seen the pictures of “The Three Towers” that cap the crest of Monte Titano, and the medieval wall that surrounds the capital, also named San Marino. We had hoped to see them outlined by blue sky, as they had appeared in the tourist guide.

A roadside cafe on the way to the old city beckoned us, and we enjoyed steaming cups of hot chocolate with local workmen and uniformed highway police before pushing onward. It was grey and overcast, and the aerial tramway that would have whisked us to the summit on a sunny day was not running.

Not knowing what to expect, we pushed on and were able to park just outside the gate of the medieval city. Passing through the gate was like stepping back in time, or entering another world. Cobblestone lanes not much wider than a primitive wagon path greeted us, and even though the mist hung heavy all about, we were enchanted.

We could not see the valley below, nor could we see the crenelated towers above, but we were content to walk the steep lanes, peering into shop windows, catching glimpses of gardens and marveling at the statuary and art that punctuated plazas and wide spots along the narrow walkways.

We stopped at the upper station of the tramway, impressed by the engineering expertise it had required, and we looked over the edge of the city wall, disappointed at the mist that still blocked our view of the valley below. We ducked into the nearby Visitors Center to have our passports stamped as proof of our visit.

We strolled to the city’s beautiful basilica, marveling at the skill and endurance it must have taken to construct on top of the mountain in 1836, on the site of an earlier church that dated to the 7th Century. We were enthralled, and could have spent longer inside, but because we were on a strict time schedule, we decided to make our way back to our rental vehicle.

When we emerged, the clouds had lifted and the sun was shining. We could not leave without once again making our way to the city’s encircling walls to gaze in awe at the countryside far below us.

Although Ravenna has its own attractions, we were more than pleased by our decision to forego the eight UNESCO world heritage sites located there and head instead to a tiny nation-state with a long history.

It remains a fond memory.