Friday, April 7, 2017

SOUTHWESTERN FRANCE - Myths and Echoes




A bookstore will never lead you astray if you’re looking for something to carry you to mysterious places. Our local bookshop in Rome (actually in my office building) had a delightful name, “Food for Thought.” It also had a bin of older paperbacks toward the back where I regularly rummaged to find something inexpensive to read. And, one day, there was Holy Blood, Holy Grail at the bottom of the bin. With a blurb that said it was “explosively controversial,” I bought it. Tucked in with feet on our bombola (our propane heater for supplemental heating in the winter and one that I worried might be explosive in a different way), I dove in that evening. And I kept reading because I couldn’t put it down.

It begins with the story of an ancient and obscure church in the south west of France between the foothills of the Pyrenees and the Cevenne mountains, and spins off into claims that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and their descendants founded the Merovingian dynasty and are thus the rightful kings of France. These claims are amplified by others about blackmail, buried treasure for the ransom of Saint Louis from the infidels, the locations of the Holy Grail, the treasure from Solomon’s Temple, and the mysterious Priory of Sion in Switzerland. The Knights Templars, the Masons and an indecipherable painting by the Renaissance painter, are all thrown in the heady brew in case the reader’s interest begins to wane. If this sounds familiar, it should, as Dan Brown capitalized on some story elements in The Da Vinci Code. In fact, the authors of Holy Blood brought (and lost) a plagiarism suit against Brown in 2006.

Hubby read the breathless book while I plotted a trip to see the mysterious church in a hamlet called Rennes-le-Chateau. I finally located the area, one where the Cathars, a heretical sect, lived and died during the Albigensian Crusade in the Middle Ages. Off we went on our next trip to France.


We left the walled city of Carcassone, not far from the Mediterranean Sea just north of the Spanish border. The vineyards surrounding the city were soon far behind as we drove on winding roads through oak and pine trees amid rough limestone gorges, outcroppings and crags. The sun was misty, the sky a watery pale blue, making the scenery appear ephemeral and steeped in mystery. The ruins of a fortress, Montsegur, high above us, appeared in the damp air as though it was a mirage. It was easy to picture the ghosts of the last Cathers, the 245 remaining survivors of the genocidal campaign by the Church, who were burned in a mass execution after the final campaign ended here. The site was destroyed over the years and now the nearly inaccessible and melancholy ruins of the later medieval castle stand as a memorial to intolerance and a fight to the end. In my mind I could hear the dead still keening for their lost lives and faith.


Some miles up the road, we arrived in the somnolent and isolated hamlet of Rennes Le Chateau, population 92, and no place for lunch. The history of the area is murky: first settled by Neanderthals, who were supplanted by more modern humans including Romans, Visigoths, and various medieval lords, including the Templars, until they gave way to French Royalists.


The site and its supposed history have become great fodder for conspiracy theorists and novelists since Jules Verne. But there was no wide-spread notoriety until several post-War French and Belgian writers claimed that Sauniere had discovered parchments in a hollow pillar dating from Visigothic times during his restoration that “prove” the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. But the stories faded into obscurity until the Holy Blood book hit the bestseller list in the 1980s and the BBC made a “documentary.” The documents have, of course, disappeared. Some say they vanished into the depths of the Vatican.

The “facts” have become a cottage industry with thousands of visitors now stopping at the church feed their fantasies and to fuel the local tourist trade. Books, websites, Youtube videos and podcasts abound for curiosity seekers and those who are die-hard believers. One commentator said it was the French equivalent of Roswell or Loch Ness. Others mention Atlantis.


We drove to the top of the hill, the location of the curious church dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene. In keeping with that part of the world, its history is murky. When a new parish priest, Berenger Sauniere, was assigned to the church in 1885, he began to restore and radically change the church which originally dated from the 8th century, rebuilt in the Romanesque style in the 10th or 11th century. Sauniere seems to have had a shady background both in his adherence to dogma and wealth from unknown sources. He spent great sums of money on the church, a tower for his library and a large villa with extensive grounds.


But Sauniere came to a dismal end: In 1910 he was summoned to an ecclesiastical trial for various offenses against the Church and was suspended from the priesthood when he refused to produce his account books or attend the trial. He died without the Last Rites in 1917. He had been declared penniless, but his life-long “housekeeper,” suddenly became wealthy and moved into the villa.  The French government established a new currency in 1946. Rather than declare where her wealth came from, the woman, Marie Denarnaud, burnt the old francs and died penniless too. I don’t know what had been really going on but something clearly was very odd about the situation.


Book in hand, we approached the church, first passing a closed gateway to the church yard with a memento mori skull and crossbones as décor over the door. We reached the main entrance and looked up to see the Latin inscription “Terribilis est locus iste” carved on the lintel. Depending on your inclination, it can be translated as “This is a horrible place,” or less dramatically (and less nysterious), “This is a place of awe.”


Whichever is correct, the words established a mood that wasn’t dispelled when we entered the nave and approached the holy water stoop supported by a horned and cloven-footed devil. For those who don’t believe in conspiracies, the choice can be explained by looking at a catalogue of church refurbishments published in during the period. Still, it seems less than suitable and not a place where I’d want to dip my fingers. Specialists have found other anomalies but these two were enough for us. The church was dark and damp and gave us the creeps. It was easy to imagine flickering candles casting moving and distorted shadows over dark rites with pagan roots. Was the church ever used for happy events like marriage or baptism? Whatever its current use, I couldn’t wait to get out into the clean air.


We wandered toward the disused tower which had been the good father’s library. It, too, was dedicated to Mary Magdalene. In keeping with the general desolation, the stained-glass windows had been broken by vandals. Pieces of glass lay scattered on the ground. I couldn’t resist picking up a handful for a memento of a most peculiar place, neither horrible nor of awe, but all the same, unsettling. But rather than stuffing the shards in my pocket, I let the glass fall through my fingers, back to the ground where they could await some other curiosity seeker.

It was definitely time for more mundane and contemporary activities: a late lunch in Limoux, famous for it’s sparkling wines and good food. We dined on cassoulet, and raised our glasses to the authors of the book who provided  endless fodder for conversations about the past. 



Photos except Carcassone copyright Judith Works 
Photo of Carcassone copyright bmsgator from Wikipedia


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

GUEST POST: CUBA - Getting Around with Pens, Caps, Glasses and Maps







           It is a hot afternoon in Santa Clara, Cuba, and perhaps that is why we are the only ones standing at the Tren Blindado park, listening to an engaging gentleman share his adoration of beloved rebel, Che Guevara. We are trying to picture the bold Guevara using a bulldozer to derail the train that ignited the Cuban Revolution.

            More vivid, however, is my memory of trying to give this older gentleman, a veteran who experienced the Revolution fifty years ago, a few coins. He waves off the tip and instead derails us with his simple request:

            “Algunas plumas, por favor?

            We are a bit stunned. He wants a couple of ink pens? Between the three of us, I could only pull up two Bics from my backpack, but he seems delighted! 

            Such an odd solicitation should not have befuddled us, for we teachers have been traversing Cuba for nearly three weeks. Such ordinary requests remind us that items of great worth to some are ordinary to others. 

            After researching Cuba for months, we decide to go without a tour group in March, 2015. We could reduce costs and avoid limitations that can hamper a large group. Typically, whole groups get off the bus together, walk and eat together; yet they probably learn more from guides —and never get lost. That’s not our current style of travel.
           
            We are curious to see Cuba before it could all change. The two countries are wading in a new political pool: President Obama began testing the waters by “normalizing relations” with Raul Castro’s communist government a year ago.  According to official websites, as long as we have “educational motives,” it is legal to travel as singletons. 

            Reading travel blogs and listening to friends who have traveled to Cuba help to fortify our confidence. Truly, it is astonishing to complete an online booking from the U.S. for rooms in a Cuban home —without payment, simply trust, and the rooms would be there upon arrival! We would pay in Cuban currency, as there are limited ATMs in Havana.

            We learn from previous travelers that there are key items that are simply in short supply in this country. Why not share our “take for granted” products, in hopes they would be conduits to conversations? Laden with this extra weight, we fly to Cancun, Mexico and then to Havana. Cuba is only 90 miles off the coast of Florida - and now, in 2016, direct flights finally operate out of Miami. This is a big deal.

            What is our first thrill upon leaving the little airport?  An impressive array of shiny 1950’s Fords, Chevys, and Buicks slowly parading along the warm Malecon boulevard, often filled with men, their arms resting out the windows, cigars in hand. Oh, the pride of owning such a vehicle, where owners can not rely on American car parts since the Cuban Embargo of 1960. Much ingenuity and creative substitution keep these cars a rollin’.






            Less than an hour out of the airport, I am already dispersing from my bag of baseball caps that friends gave me back in Seattle. In my first hat-sharing, a friendly Havana cab driver took us to a cambio with a good exchange rate. While my friends pick up local currency, CUCs, I stay with him and our luggage. Our ensuing conversation leads to his two children.
           
            “Les gustan béisbol?  I ask.

            He turns around with a wide grin, sharing that he and his son both play for local teams. When I ask him to reopen the trunk, he looks warily at me from the rearview mirror. But when I produce two baseball caps from my backpack - a Mariners and a Tampa Buccaneers - he is taken aback. He begins a little grateful dance, showing other taxi drivers his new delights.

            He drives us to our lodging, close to an old plaza in the Habana Vieja, where UNESCO is refurbishing Spanish colonial buildings. Children are kicking soccer balls in the shady, narrow streets; and nearby restaurants and bands under the balconies beckon us to stroll over. But first, our taxi driver happily hefts our bags up the two flights to our new casa. To our surprise, the place exudes an old-world elegance: tall, chandelier-filled rooms of antiques. And for only $35 US dollars a night for three of us, how could we not spend five days here?

            Each day we safely walk the curvy, often torn-up streets, ready to play quasi -ambassadors. Learning that older Cubans need reading glasses, it turns out to be a fun way to interact with a Havana street-sweeper or the women sitting on stoops. I ask if they know someone else who could use reading glasses. Lo and behold…they need the glasses. This leads to photo ops and fresh laughter, as they admire the new views.




             One morning we negotiate a taxi ride to the friendly town of Vinales near tobacco hills of western Cuba. Lucky for us, our host at this “casa particulare”, a home stay, was a former teacher. It is there where we connect with two principals to set free the bag of school supplies. They are overwhelmed with our primers, pencils, rulers, markers, maps, and flash drives.

            “Tienes Usted papel?” one asks. “Do you have paper?”

            They explain that the government only provides paper only once a year, so all items must be carefully utilized. Students write on both sides, in the margins, then erase and reuse. Despite lack of paper, the communist government provides free education through college. Literacy rates are high, ever since the government had a highly successful literary campaign in 1961 to educate the country folk.
            We arrange visits to walk to two schools on the hill. Small chalkboards rest on  old wooden tables, three students to a bench in the clean, bare rooms. Dressed in uniforms, in rows, the children are polite, if not a bit stunned.

            I think I hear young students snicker behind me while I attempt to draw the United States map on the board, explaining Washington state vs. Washington D.C.  More riveting are the boxes of Kind bars we pull out —prompting an awkward, self-serving moment.  Hmm, perhaps I may want more credit than I deserve?  After all, what are these children thinking?  Within seconds, the teacher promptly cuts the Kind bars into thirds to reach other students as well. Not a peep was heard.

            We take a tourist bus to remote Cien Fuegos, where the clippity clop of horse-drawn buggies are the main travel mode. We gravitate to the nightly dancing. One of my companions previously took salsa lessons and it pays off! Gentlemen politely take our arms, especially hers, and lead us to dance to the intoxicating music, sometimes on the sidewalk outside the bar. They are curious, polite, and handsome dancers. Pinch us. 

            The Afro-Cuban percussion pulls us in wherever we are. In the city of Trinidad, a historic colony of sugar plantations, we see throngs waiting on plaza steps for the rhythms to electrify their evening. Just as wonderful is the quiet moment: a horseback ride into the countryside where farmers were drinking their Cubita coffee and playing dominoes. It was in Trinidad that my last “hotel” toothpaste and soap are shared. A donated UW baseball cap goes to a skeletal, toothless man selling undecipherable treats from an old wheelbarrow. He beams, bows and wants to share his treats with me.

            Our travel is not extraordinary, nor did we dance with danger. We leave with contentment, lucky to have the richness of time to explore —and more importantly, to connect authentically with Cuban people.

            Cuba seems to be an anomaly. It may lack some basic products, like the oft-seen nearly empty shelves of grocery stores and pharmacies. And if the shelves were full, it was of one governmental brand, not like the abundance of choices here.  Yet, the richness of the culture is spread out to all: the beloved ballet, the intense music, baseball games, and theater— all are affordably priced for locals and tourists alike.

            How long can this vibrant culture of Cuba remain intact, as more tourists and businesses vie for frolic and opportunities? No one knows. If I am lucky enough to revisit this charming country, I’ll gladly pack more pens and reams of paper.



Rita Ireland has been lucky to teach in various parts of the world.
It was a lovely impetus to escape -- growing up on an Iowa farm.
She now lives in Edmonds, WA with her spouse, who found her on 
desolate Sunday morning beach 41 years ago. They have two children 
who also live far away from home.  
     




       


Saturday, December 31, 2016

DUBLIN IN THE RAIN


Whatever the weather, Dublin is a fine place to visit.

Of course it rained, but being from the Pacific Northwest, my husband and I felt right at home. The rain fell on the sad cluster of statues memorializing the Potato Famine and it fell in the city center. It stopped briefly for Molly Maguire before it began to fall on us. 



We were armed with an umbrella but a vending machine would have saved us if we’d forgotten ours. 



And anyway a traditional pub beckoned for an early lunch. We shook off our umbrellas and raincoats and slid into a booth. Ah, warmth, food, and beer!  Too early for music although that was good because we never would have left.



There were two major sites to explore on that rainy day –first was the Long Room of the Trinity College Library, one of the most famous libraries in the world. Not highly decorated like some in other parts of Europe, but two floors of wonders. The library was founded in 1592 although the current building dates from 1712. We’ve all had the problem of sagging library shelves, and so too this library. By the late 1850s the floor was sagging and the ceiling was near collapse. After extensive work to shore it up it could accommodate 250,000 volumes. Among them are a first edition of Martin Luther’s Old Testament, the proclamation of the Irish Republic in 1916 and a medieval Celtic harp.

But the highlight for any visitor is the Book of Kells, a magnificent and lavishly decorated set of gospels produced between the seventh and ninth century in Ireland. The decorations are full of intricate Celtic swirls and knots, many of the angels and saints have red hair as does the Virgin and Child. Some of the animals are unidentifiable. Umberto Eco, who knew visionary scenes when he saw them, called the book “The product of cold blood hallucination” It was an apt remark.
Much of the decoration repeats standard Christian themes but some illustrations are puzzling such as four men with interlaced legs pulling each other’s beards. Some of the text is inaccurate and there are places where lines have been repeated by mistake or corrections made by some better-educated monk.



The vellum manuscript is extremely fragile and encased in protective glass with the book open to a different set of pages every day. We had the pleasure of looking at a page of illuminated script, and the unforgettable Virgin and Child – a masterpiece of design but surely one of the oddest depictions of the scene ever painted. The Virgin wears a red dress and has heavy dark eyebrows with a tiny pinched mouth. Her legs seem to dwindle to half what they normally would be. She stares into the distance away from the viewer while holding a child that doesn’t look anything like a child of any age, let alone a newborn. He is very long, with feet dangling below her knees and is dressed in green. With jutting chin, pointed nose and a mane of red hair, the child looks to be about forty.



I attempted to picture monks in a cold and dank scriptorium sketching out the design and beginning work that must have taken a lifetime for some. The whole effect of the book is fantastic, a product of visions produced by isolation and total devotion to non-worldly events. A world that I could never know or understand.

We returned to reality with a wedding party outside. It was raining but one of the groomsmen protected the bride with an umbrella while families gathered to help celebrate. It doesn’t take rain to stop happiness.



We moved on to the nearby National Museum of Ireland which is devoted to archeology. The Victorian-era building is filled with treasures including beautiful Celtic gold of stunning workmanship.








The museum also has several terrifying bog people who were thrown into the peat where they were preserved over millennia. Common throughout Northern Era, they all appear to have been murdered. Not an exhibit for the squeamish.







Enough for one day, we dodged the rain and found another pub to contemplate the mysteries of the ancient world over a pint or two. 

   


Photographs of the Book of Kells are in the Public Domain
Photographs of the bog men are by Mark Healey from Wikipedia Commons
Remaining photographs are copyright Judith Works

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

ACADIA NATIONAL PARK - A study in scarlet






Acadia -  the very name brings visions of a dream such as that painted by Nicholas Poussin in 1639.



It also brings to mind the Acadians, French settlers in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, who were driven from their homes when the British pushed them out. Many settled in Maine, although some fled to Louisiana and transformed into the Cajuns, famous for good music and good food.




But the word also reminds me of a recent trip to Mount Desert Island and a day spent in Acadia National Park, one of the nation’s smallest, established in 1919, and the first  of our National Parks established East of the Mississippi.




The earliest known European to visit was Samuel de Champlain who arrived in 1604. He described the island as bare and rocky, thus its name. French Jesuits began a settlement in 1613, but during the following century the island was a site of contention between the French, British and then the Americans during the Revolutionary War. 


The island scenery didn’t remind me of ancient Greek Acadia with shepherds in robes, or nymphs and fauns flitting about. Instead, the landscape was a riot of fall color set against a deep blue ocean and matching sky.




Dark Balsam fir and spruce contrasted with maples, birch, and ash, along with red-berried shrubs
Ancient lichens decorate stone slabs and ghost branches laced the underbrush.




Rocks line the coast, some smooth and looking soft like the summers, others jagged reflecting the harsh winters and storms that batter the coast.





After stopping at the beautiful Jordan Pond, where a carpet of red shrubs led my eye down to the water and surrounding hills, we left the park for Northeast Harbor. Along the way, we could see carriage roads build by John D. Rockefeller who, ironically, wished to prevent automobiles on the island. They are now used for hiking, cycling, horseback riding and cross-country skiing. Rockefeller was one of the “Rusticators” who build gigantic summer “cottages” to spend time with fellow plutocrats like the Morgans, Vanderbilts, Astors, and Carnegies. Tourism became a major industry as the island was popularized by painters of the Hudson River School like Thomas Cole and Frederic Church. 






But fires burned the hotels, and the Depression and World War II put an end to the idyll except for a few. One of my favorite authors, Marguerite Yourcenar settled in Northeast Harbor in 1950 where she wrote Memoirs of Hadrian. More recently, luminaries such as Martha Stewart have come to summer.

The little town was quiet, boutiques closing for the season and lobster boats including the Dauntless, tied up or taken out of the water and readied for winter.







But Asticou Inn was open and offering traditional and irresistible Maine food: lobster and blueberry pie served on a sunny deck overlooking the water.






After, we returned to the park and the summit of windswept Cadillac Mountain to walk and enjoy the scenery while working off some of the calories. While the summit at 1528 feet doesn’t really qualify as a mountain to this Westerner, the sweeping view of water and islands  provided a perfect end to a memorable day.




All photos copyright Judith Works
Reproduction of painting by Nicholas Poussin and George Craig are from Wikipedia Creative Commons 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

ACOMA: The Sky City






My friends and I began our visit in the beautiful cultural center at the base of Acoma, about an hour’s drive west of Albuquerque. The ancient settlement itself is located on a mesa 365 feet above the desert floor, a broken land dotted with other rock formations. Settled around the year 1000 AD, it is one of the oldest continually-occupied areas in the country.



Where formerly there were only ladders and steps carved into the rock, a winding road now leads up the steep hill to the cluster of adobe buildings occupied by only 30 people due to the lack of water, sewerage, and electricity. The remainder of the pueblo's citizens have opted for modernity and live nearby where there are schools, shops, and the inevitable casino.






Like most of the Southwest, the Spanish arrived with their horses, guns and religion to irrevocably change the earlier culture. The mission church of San Esteban Rey, dominating the town, was founded in 1629. 



The silent church has only a couple of rows of pews and is mostly used for weddings and funerals. I visualized it in the past with the priest chanting and incense wafting up to the high beams, each made from a single pine tree the Native Americans were forced to carry from the the hills thirty miles away. During their long trek they were not allowed to let the logs touch the ground even at night.

No photos are allowed, but the interior is a mix of Spanish and native décor with outlines of animals, including a bull and horse, above the side doors, and the altar brightly decorated with red and green pillars, carvings and paintings. One wall is decorated by an enormous painting donated by the King of Spain after the founding of the church. In front of the church is a walled cemetery, layered over time as a valley was filled to accommodate the dead. We looked at layer four, now reserved for dignitaries and war veterans. 



The town is almost without vegetation, a lone tree beside a depression in the rock where rainwater collects stands as a sentinel. 



Potters displayed their work nearby. Shops in Santa Fe, with their stratospheric prices, feature the works of the most famous potters, Most are women, although I talked to one on our tour who said she was teaching her two sons. The most valuable pots are those which are totally handmade with clay that includes ground up shards - broken pieces of old pottery. Whether commercially shaped or totally by hand, all feature intricate designs in orange and black. 



As we strolled, we passed two and three-story homes, some with ladders that lead to kivas, rooms traditionally used for men's religious ceremonies. One ladder had a crosspiece at the top in a cloud shape to encourage rain. Kivas are traditionally built underground, but because the ground is too hard to excavate, Acoma kivas are built on the second story of houses. Our guide, Maria, joked that they were early man caves, which made me wonder if they are actually used any more.






A few doors were painted to brighten the scene but the ground and the adobe buildings are all the same color, a warm tan color, making the pueblo appear as though it sprung from the earth centuries ago. A few of the homes still had the old-fashioned windows made of mica which the Spanish may have mistaken for gold when they sparkled in the sunlight.







We paused for lunch at the visitors’ center and the chef joined us to accept compliments on his latest creation: an acorn squash filled with wild rice and pine nuts, topped with grated cheese. Delicious and a recipe I'll try at home.



On the way back to Albuquerque, we passed a small cemetery – so sad and lonely.
.



On the return trip back to Albuquerque, we took a detour to check out a white church on top of a hill at the Laguna Pueblo. The church, Mission San Jose de la Laguna, was built in 1699. As we were standing by the open front door I saw a man running toward us. Unsure if we might be trespassing, we stopped to wait. Out of breath and dripping with sweat, the man introduced himself as Arnold. He lived nearby and was a caretaker. He told us the story of the church, including some of the miracles that had happened there while empathizing that none happened at Acoma. To illustrate the continued blessing of happy events, he said his mother had recently been granted a house nearby on the reservation after many years of waiting.







As we began to move toward the exit, he brought out a wooden flute and serenaded us with a plaintive melody. Perhaps it was the same as that played in the centuries before the Spanish arrived.

    


All photos copyright Judith Works