The autumn sun illuminated the rocky landscape as two kayakers plied the waters of the Gard River in Southern France. Crimson and yellow trees danced on the gentle breeze, alongside a tree bearing one over-ripe pomegranate. The pair of kayakers continued their journey down the calm river and eventually glided underneath an arch of France’s magnificent Pont du Gard. Up until that point, I was content taking in this architectural marvel from land, but now I suddenly wished I was also in a kayak seeing it from a different perspective.
Built more than 2,000 years ago, the Pont du Gard (translation: Bridge of the Gard) is a three-tiered aqueduct bridge that once carried water to the city of Nîmes, a Roman colony. It took 5 years and approximately 1,000 men to build this ancient masterpiece.
The autumn leaves near Oberammergau, Germany have reached their peak, so the surrounding hillsides are dressed in shades of copper, saffron, and a bit of green.
One of my favorite places to ride my bike is to the nearby Ettaler Weidmoos, a tranquil nature preserve that’s part of the Ammergau Alps Nature Park (Naturpark Ammergauer Alpen). Here, depending on the season, you’re likely to see ducks, unique orchids, and even birch trees felled by beavers. The air is fresh, the water is crystal-clear, and the mountains are majestic.
The art of paper marbling is mesmerizing. An artisan applies droplets of paint to a small pool of water. The colors appear to gracefully dance upon the surface of the water, but these individual splotches of paint respect the neighboring colors’ boundaries. As the artisan adds more and more colors, this dance continues. Finally, when the artisan feels the effect is just right, she gently places a piece of paper on the surface of the water, and voilà, the art is transformed from an ephemeral state to one that’s everlasting.
I first held a piece of marbled paper in my hands when I was a child. My mother liked stationery decorated with this effect, and so too, did some family and friends who mailed us letters. I’m not sure when precisely my love of stationery and collectible paper items was born. However, I remember trying to hand-decorate stationery when I was a child. (The attempts were admirable, but lacking in sophistication!)
As I grew older, I also collected lacy vintage valentines, trade cards (stylish advertisements), and post cards from the 19th and 20th centuries. Decades ago and even now, I still love sending and receiving hand-written notes. Of course, since almost everything is now digital, paper correspondence is more and more of a rarity. Still, I try to strike a happy medium.
With that said, it comes as no surprise that during our recent trip to Florence — a city long known for its handmade marbled paper — I was eager to learn more about this elegant and historic technique.
One sun-drenched afternoon, Shawn and I visited Giulio Giannini & Figlio, Florence’s oldest marbled-paper maker. There, we met Maria Giannini, the 6th-generation artisan who runs this iconic Florentine business.
The enchanting Croatian island of Vis has had many identities over the last few thousand years. For a time, it was an ancient Greek colony known as Issa. Then, from the 1950s until the 1980s, Vis was a secret Yugoslavian naval base that was off-limits to foreigners. From there, tourists — and filmmakers — started discovering Vis’ many charms, with the Mamma Mia sequel being filmed on Vis (and not Greece) in 2017.
The arts have long flourished in Florence — the so-called “cradle of the Renaissance.” Hundreds of years ago, there were tens of thousands of artisans in the city, each dedicated to everything from leather goods and hand-decorated paper to jewelry making. Over time, the number of workshops has declined. Nevertheless, Florence still has a sizable amount of artisans and craftspeople, including several master mosaicists who specialize in Florentine marquetry — also sometimes called pietra dura or Florentine mosaics.
With its pretty palazzi and mountain vistas, the northeastern Italian city of Pordenone offers a superb blend of beautiful architecture and nature. Home to just over 51,000 people, Pordenone is located a mere 90km (55 miles) from Venice. This makes for a delightful day trip. But, Pordenone can also be a great place to base yourself, as I’ve done twice.
Located among the leafy foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, the Azerbaijani town of Sheki is green, tranquil, and artsy. Low-rise buildings feature eye-catching stone and brickwork. People smile easily and are eager to engage in conversation. What’s more, Sheki still bears delightful evidence of its Silk Road past.
Before we got there, I had the distinct feeling that I was going to love Sheki, given its smaller size, artisanal traditions, and natural surroundings. My intuition ended up being correct, as Sheki was among my favorite destinations during our four months of travels in the Caucasus.
One of the most iconic images from the country of Georgia features the Gergeti Trinity Church dwarfed by immense mountains. This 14th-century church is crowned with cone-shaped towers and is located in the heart of the Caucasus. It’s just a few kilometers from the Russian border.