St. Mark’s, Venice: Something Sublime

I’m not the religious type. I’m certainly not tied to an organized religion. But when traveling, I often attend a church service at a prominent church, cathedral or basilica, particularly if it it’s known for the quality of its music as well as beautiful architecture and art. So in Venice, I took the opportunity to attend a Sunday high mass at Saint Mark’s Basilica. Oh my. The outside is amazing. The golden glow from the centuries-old mosaics inside takes your breath away. Even the stone mosaic floors are stunning.

Religious or not, it’s hard to sit in such surroundings, bathed in the sound of beautiful voices raised in celebration and prayer, and not believe that something so sublime, created by humanity, wasn’t somehow also touched by the divine.

A few practical notes: Attending mass at San Marco is one of the best ways to see the basilica. In fact, these days, it’s the only way, as the basilica is currently closed to ordinary visitors and those buying tickets for tours are only allowed into the museum. Mass and prayers are offered several times a day, both on weekdays and Sundays. Only the 10 AM Sunday Mass is sung, however. You can (and should) arrive somewhat before the service begins and are likely to be allowed to walk around a bit before taking a seat. Similarly, once the service ends, you can get up and move about, even taking photos for perhaps 10 minutes, before staff members start shooing you out. Understandably, no photographing is allowed during the services, though you’ll see some folks surrepticiously doing so. During my visit, one tourist was brazen, even setting his camera in the center aisle for a better shot. He was quickly and firmly admonished, however, by the St. Mark’s staff and put his camera away for the remainder of the mass. Entrance for services is on the left side of the church, not through the main door on the plaza.


In Bruges

I was fully prepared to fall in love. Bruges seemed like a city I was bound to adore: Stuffed full of the characterful gothic architecture and bizarre small carvings that always intrigue me; Criss-crossed with picturesque canals and quaint, winding cobblestone streets. Sublime chocolate. What more could a girl want?

The truth is, I had also long wanted to visit Bruges because it is the location of several of my favorite historical novels, The House of Niccolo series by Scottish author Dorothy Dunnett. I was childishly thrilled by the notion of walking the same streets, visiting the same places as Nicholas and the other characters, real and fictional, in Dunnett’s astonishingly well researched books.

The Ezelpoort, or Donkey Gate, is one of four remaining original gates into the city.

Alas, the romance was blighted. I blame the scorching hot weather. With normal summer temperatures topping out in the low to mid 70s (F), air conditioners are rare in Belgium. Some shops had portable units that tempered the 90-degree scorchers I encountered in August, but almost no homes have AC. My house swap just outside one of the ancient city gates was no exception. Windows closed at night meant hellacious temperatures. Windows open meant spending the wee hours swatting mosquitoes and scratching.

Part of a monumental 16th-century fireplace surround in the Bruges Vrije or law courts. It was built to honor Charles V, the first Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor.

I was miserable. And I don’t think I was the only one. Thanks to COVID, there weren’t the usual hordes of tourists pouring in on day trips from cruise ships docked at nearby Zeebruges. But the mostly European tourists who did visit looked a bit bedraggled. Some tour guides, shopkeepers and waiters seemed somewhat testy — on edge, if not from the heat, then from the disastrous loss of business this summer. One waiter told me it was illegal to serve tap water at restaurants in Bruges, though other restaurants were happy to do so. If I wanted water with my meal there, I needed to pony up three euros for the bottled version. The woman on duty at the ticket and entry desk at the 16th-century Bruge Vrije refused me entrance, saying my museum pass was not valid except at the “private” museums. No matter that the brochure on her desk clearly depicted and listed both that building and the neighboring Stadhuis, or city hall. I had to trudge back to the tourist office and enlist their help in getting her to let me in.

Perhaps most disappointing: After spending two hours learning how to temper chocolate, make ganache and fill a dozen or so perfect little pralines (what we call simply “chocolates” in the U.S.), my little stash of goodies melted before I could get them back to my lodging. Fortunately, though no longer pretty, they tasted great!

Still, Bruges is in many ways a fairy tale city; its centuries-old architecture and original street plan, frozen in time. Weather and literature played a big role in that story too.

Part of the original medieval wall and tower

Although Bruges had always had access to the North Sea through a tidal inlet called the Zinn, it wasn’t until a storm in 1134 widened and lengthened the channel that the small medieval settlement started to blossom. Poised at the nexus between the Hanseatic trade routes on the Baltic and North Seas and the Mediterranean trade bringing silks, spices, dyes and more to London and other northern European ports, Bruges was well located to become a key commercial center.

Hans Memling’s Madonna and Child. Odd how they got the child’s head and body proportions all wrong!

Innkeepers started offering the foreign traders, along with accommodation, their services as brokers and agents. They quickly adopted the financial and banking innovations brought to Bruges by Genoese and Venetian merchants, and by 1330, what was arguably the world’s first stock market was operating in the square outside the Van de Beurse family inn in the center of Bruges. With all that wealth accumulating in the city, patronage of the arts also flourished. The city’s rich burghers, as well as the Duke of Burgundy himself, commissioned numerous works from Jan Van Eyck and Hans Memling. Bruges became the cradle of Flemish Primitives.

One of the many Bruges bridges

But by the 1480s, Bruges was headed into a downward spiral. The Zinn was silting up, impeding ship traffic. And the city’s leaders were rebelling against Maximilian, son of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick and the widower of Margaret of Burgundy, who had ruled following the death of her father. Trade moved first to Antwerp and later to Amsterdam. Bruges dwindled from a population of about 200,000 in its heyday to only about 50,000. By the mid 1800s, it was reputedly the poorest city in Belgium.

Ironically, it was partially Bruges’ poverty that saved it. In the mid 1800s, as many other European cities were undergoing wholesale destruction of old neighborhoods and rebuilding, Bruges was too broke to do so. As a result, the city’s Gothic churches and cloisters, Sint Jan’s hospital and most of the medieval and Renaissance commercial and residential buildings of the city center fell into disrepair, but survived. So did the original medieval layout of the city. Today, the entire historic center of Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the city experienced a rebirth, and it was literature that midwifed it. Bruges-la-Morte, by little-known Belgian author George Rodenbach, was published in 1892. It’s a tragic story of a grief-stricken widower who becomes obsessed with a dancer who resembles his late wife. As a symbolist novel, it was considered by critics to be quite good. But what really set it apart were the 35 black-and-white photographs used as illustrations — a first for a work fiction. The evocative photos of the city made Bruges itself almost a character in the novel and, among well-off Brits and other Europeans, sparked broad interest in visiting the city. Tourism became and remains Bruges’ most important economic engine.

More than a century later, history repeated itself, with the release of the popular British-American movie, In Bruges. A dark comedy starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as two Irish hitmen hiding out in the city, the film’s atmospheric setting inspired another round of tourism. Now, along with the medieval buildings, tour guides point out which hotel the stars stayed in.

Paris in the Time of Covid

Paris is weird right now. At least that’s what the Parisians I met on my recent visit told me. It’s too quiet. There’s no buzz, no excitement.  Doubtless that’s true.  Certainly traffic at restaurants, hotels and stores has all but collapsed, first under strict stay-at-home rules to prevent the spread of the corona virus

Not enough space in front of your cafe to put tables out there?  No problem, run them down the sidewalk in front of the neighboring school!

and now from the dearth of summer tourists. Theaters, large and small are dark.  The big Paris l’été festival has been cancelled.  Restaurants have largely closed their interior dining rooms and moved what tables they can outside.  Traffic, both pedestrian and motorized, is scant, though bicycles and scooters are abundant.

But here’s the happy little secret:  For those of us fortunate enough to be tourists in Paris in this bizarre summer, it’s fabulous.

The museums are open and blessedly uncrowded. All museums and monuments are requiring advance reservations, in order to enforce social distancing and hold attendance to just 50% of usual. But for the most part, the strictures are moot; there aren’t enough people requesting slots.   I booked a reservation for the Louvre the

Short lines at the Louvre. Yippee!

day before I wanted to go. It took no more than 5 minutes to get through the first ticket check and security.  A year ago, I waited at least 40 minutes in last July’s heat wave to spend my allotted ten seconds in front of the Mona Lisa.  This year, the line was minimal and guards were more relaxed about moving folks along.  (Still, it wasn’t worth a second look, as the museum’s most popular exhibit rests behind glass and 20 feet away from viewers.  I’d rather go gaze at the spectacular Winged Victory of Samothrace, instead.) The Orangerie, where Monet’s monumental water lilies panels are mounted, was nearly empty. So was the Marmotton Monet museum, with its special exhibit on Cezanne.

If ever there were a year to visit Versailles, this is it.

The longest I waited in line for anything, was about seven minutes, to get into a special exhibit of James Tissot’s work at the Musee D’Orsay. But that was on late-opening night, which usually attracts larger than usual

Another plus: Getting great photos was easy. I often end up not even taking pictures of places I’d like to remember because I hate photos with people in them. Especially people I don’t know, casually smoking a cigarette in the doorway of an elegant 18th century building or striding purposefully across an exquisite garden in shorts and a vulgarity-stewn T-shirt.  This year: No problem!

But perhaps the best thing about visiting Paris in this strange year of Covid, was the  slowed-down pace.  Without having to worry about fixed time to visit a museum  or wasting precious hours in lines or standing about waiting for a table at a café, I had

A walk by the Seine.

oodles of time to just relax and ramble through the city.

One day, I found myself in a district dotted with stores providing specialty cookery, pastry and candy making equipment.  In retrospect, it made sense, as it was close to Les Halles, which until 1971 was Paris’s central fresh food market.  The grand-daddy of the shops, E. Dehillerin’s feels more like an old-fashioned hardware store than an upscale cookware supplier.  Its wooden floors creak and its few cramped aisles are crammed floor to ceiling with copper pots, brioche pans, fluted tartlet tins and the like. When you’ve found what you want (or asked for it), a shop assistant carefully takes your finds to an old wooden countertop and slowly and carefully wraps each item in paper.  Once you’ve paid, you present him with the receipt and he hands over your new treasures.  The minute I found the shop I knew:  This was it! This was the Parisian shop where my sister must have found that perfect little wooden-handled angled spatula that I covet and she zealously protects.  Eureka!

Another day, while meandering around looking casually for a cobbler who I might persuade to punch a new hole in shoe strap, I came upon Le Grand Café Tortoni.


Tucked away on a Marais street which seems to specialize in gentlemen’s tailoring, the 19thcentury shop is a wood, glass and marble step back in time. At one time a very successful and popular café and ice cream parlor, founded by an Italian gelato maker, it’s now home to a small café cum perfumerie, carrying scents, oils, lotions and so on from one of France’s oldest perfume makers.  Officine Buly was founded in 1803 and revived after a century of sleep in 2014. I can’t tell you how good all the company’s dozen or so fragrances smell, since I went straight for the one with a name that conjured up the crisp, green scents I love:  Scottish Lichen.  It came home with me that day.

If you leave a little to serendipity, you’re sure to find delights in Paris:  The last remaining puppet shop in the city on the Ile de St. Louis.  Betrand’s, a bakery/café on the

left bank with a window full of the biggest, most colorful (and most delicious) meringues you can imagine.  The fascinating exhibit hung on the protective fence around the construction site of Notre Dame, explaining how the cathedral’s structure is being carefully dismantled and/or shored up in preparation for eventual repairs.  A tiny shop that specializes in beautifully made hand-forged Laguoile knives.  The charming little house of an 18th century Italian rogue who convinced a gullible Bishop that he had cured him of asthma before the two were caught up in the infamous “affair of the necklace”, which helped turn the Paris populace against Marie Antoinette.

Oh, and by the way, Parisians are doing a great job complying with Covid health and sanitation measures.  Every shop has hand sanitizer right at the door and shop assistants are vigilant about insisting customers use it.  Ditto, mask use and limitations on how many people are in a small store at one time.  About a quarter of the general population seems to be wearing masks walking in the streets or parks, but all put them on when entering a building or transit of any sort, and even when just standing at the bus stop.  Hand sanitizers are everywhere, including stands at every bus stop and at the entrance to every Metro stop.


The Hibernian Connection

In the United States, once a year, on March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is Irish., gleefully drinking Guinness and Smithwicks and scarfing up soda bread, corned beef and  cabbage.  The rest of at the time, about 35 million Americans–a bit more than 10% of the total population–claim Irish heritage. In New England — the northeastern corner of the U.S. where I grew up –more than one in five have Irish ancestors.

And it’s no wonder.  Since 1820, about 6 million people have emigrated from Ireland to the U.S., nearly a million in the decade between 1850 and 1860 alone, in the aftermath of the potato blight that decimated Ireland’s food supply.  Their impact on American culture and history is enormous. Nearly 200,000 Irish born fought in the U.S. Civil War, 90% of them on the Union side. Irish immigrants became leaders in the burgeoning U.S.  labor union movement which helped forge a thriving American middle class. Irish men found work in growing urban police and fire departments and remain a significant component of forces in New York, Boston, Chicago and other cities.

Before spending the last month in Ireland, I knew, of course, about the great waves of Irish immigrants who washed up on American shores during and after the horrific midcentury famine in Ireland. My own family has Irish roots: My mother’s paternal grandfather, James Kelley, arrived in the U.S. in 1866, one of a half-dozen or so solo male travelers  with that name listed as steerage passengers on steamships arriving in New York City that year from Ireland.  His wife, Julia (or perhaps Juliana — census takers in those days were either partially deaf or had the devil of a time understanding Irish accents, so exact names and spellings changed from one census year to another) , was born in the U.S. in 1853. Her parents had arrived  in New Jersey from Ireland a few years earlier. The gravestones of two of my dad’s great-grandparents, Michael and Kate Shoughro (or Sugrue as it is more normally spelled when anglicized) indicates that they were from County Kerry. They must have also arrived in the mid 1800s: their first child, Bridget, was born in Kerry in 1856; and died at age eight in Rhode Island in 1864. Another great grandmother seems to have originally come from County Clare. She emigrated to the U.S. in 1872 with a passel of Bristow kids born during a preceding decades-long sojourn in Greenwich, England.

The Famine Memorial in Dublin, outside just EPIC-The Erish Emigration Museum

What i didn’t realize until I visited EPIC The The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin
was how much earlier Irish immigrants to the US had been arriving and what an important role they played in our colonial history. The Irish were the second-largest group of early arrivals, behind the English. The majority of them were  Ulster-Scots or “Scots-Irish”, a term used loosely in the U.S. for Protestant Irish, who came largely, but not entirely, from the north.  Between 1717 and the early 1780s, roughly a quarter of a million of them flocked  to the American colonies.

Of the 56 signatories of the Declaration of Independence, four were born in Ireland.  (Only 8 total were born outside the American colonies). Another 4 were the children of Irish immigrants.   Four delegates to the constitutional convention in Philadelphia and signatories of the Constitution were born in Ireland. One — Thomas Fitzsimmons — was a Catholic. His role as a delegate –along with that of fellow Catholic Daniel Carroll of Maryland, the son of a County Offaly man — paid proof to the the founding fathers’ devotion to religious freedom.  In the generations since, the descendants of Irish emigrants have continued to play an outsize role in American politics: Half of the 44 men who have served as U.S. presidents claim an Irish heritage. Both of Andrew Jackson’s parents were born in Ireland. So was James Buchanan’s father.  Woodrow Wilson, William McKinley, Grover Cleveland, Andrew Johnson  and John Kennedy were the grandsons of Irish-born emigrants.  Others whose Irish roots stretch further back include Polk,  Grant,  Arthur, Harrison, Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, Harding, Truman, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, both Bushes, Clinton and Obama. For a small island nation that, at its peak (in the 1800s) had a population of under 9 million  and currently has only about 5 million inhabitants, that’s punching well above its weight class.

The harbor at Carrickfergus.

The interactive EPIC museum devotes a lot of real estate to the Irish diaspora and the impact men and women born in Ireland or whose ancestors were born there, have contributed to  the worlds of art, literature, science, medicine, sports, entertainment and more.  From Dr. James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA’s double helix structure, to Oscar winning actor Daniel Day Lewis, hundreds of Irish, Irish American, Irish Australian, Irish-English , Irish-Spanish and Irish-everything else individuals are identified and lauded for their accomplishments.

But to me, the stories of more ordinary folks were more interesting, particularly those whose paths took the same course as my great grandparents and their children and siblings did.  Census reports indicate that  most of my Irish (and English, for that matter) progenitors worked unskilled jobs in the abundant textile mills of New York and New England,  There’s the occasional farmer, teamster or construction worker, but most list themselves as “bleachers” or “weavers” or simply as mill workers. Others call themselves  “day laborers”  and eked  out a a living at  farms, mills, coal yards or wherever else they could earn a buck.

Some of the women are occasionally listed as mill workers too, though in the once-every-10-year censuses, they more often appear as “housewives” or “homemakers”.  Doubtless some worked for at least a time as domestics; at one point, roughly 70% of the cooks, nannies and maids in New York City were “Irish Bridgets”. Prior to the famine years, most of the Irish coming to the U.S. were single men. But starting in the middle of the 1800s, an increasing number were young women on their own. Of the 4.5 million Irish who emigrated to the U.S. between 1850 and 1920, well over one-fourth of them were women between 15 and 24 years old. Many were happy to claim the higher wages plus free room and board that came with life catering to the needs of a burgeoning middle class, despite the long hours and lack of freedom it entailed.

Looking across a river in Londonderry. The could almost have been the view from our living room window where I grew up in Rhode Island

As I traveled around Ireland last month, I found myself thinking about those men and women of the Kelley, McCormick, Moriarity, Shoughro and Leahy families, wondering what their lives were like in Ireland and what it was like to move halfway across the world. I think about how different their lives must have been in their new homes:  Did they miss the small routine patterns and pleasures of life back in Ireland, as I sometimes miss an American burger, supermarkets that are open past midnight and shopping at Marshalls?   Did they sometimes long for the taste of some favorite food that just didn’t taste the same made by different hands and with slightly different ingredients?  Surely they must have.

The 2 mile long beach at Port Stewart, Londonderry.

I think, though, that it must have been a comfort for those who, by luck or intent, wound up in the New England countryside rather than in the crowded, dirty metropolises of New York and Boston in the 1800s. The land and the sea doesn’t seem so very different from what they may have known back home. The dunes and sandy beach of Port Stewart  in Londonderry County felt an awful lot like Cape Cod to me.  The rolling green pastures and peaceful fishing towns of Antrim could have been Little Compton, Wickford or any one of dozens of small towns in Massachusetts, Connecticut or Rhode Island a century and a half ago.  One whiff of the sea — a powerful mix of salt, seaweed and shellfish–on a rocky coast  in Donegal, and I was instantly transported to the boulders along Ocean Drive in Newport.

A stretch of rocky Northern Ireland coast.

In a way, I suppose, Ive done my forbearers’ journey  in reverse, leaving the U.S. for a new life in Europe.  But our experiences aren’t really comparable. There are, of course, huge obvious differences wrought by technology.: I can be “home” in a matter of hours, not weeks.  While my great grandparents bid goodbye permanently to family, neighbors and friends  and would have gone weeks, months or even years with only an occasional letter bringing them news, I am pretty much constantly in touch with my son and friends in the U.S.  I hear their voices and see their faces via FaceTime, whenever I, or they, feel the urge.

But there are more profound differences in our experiences as well. They were, for the most part young and looking for an opportunity for a better life, a place to build their families and call home forevermore.  I’m old (well comparatively, anyway!)  and resting on my laurels.  I don’t need to make a living here, to assimilate and stake my future on my ability to adapt. I’m really just a traveler, who will likely pull up sticks in 5 or 10 years and return to the U.S. I can miss Smuckers’ all natural peanut butter or jones for a TJ Maxx fix and know that in a matter of months I’ll enjoy them again in the U.S.  But they must have felt a kind of mourning for the things they’d likely never encounter again.





Dhún na nGall, in Pictures

The first stop on the Great British Isles road trip is now behind me. On Saturday morning, I left County Donegal and drove a rather zig-zagging 160 miles through County Tyrone to Ballycastle in County Antrim on Northern Ireland’s coast.  That brought my total mileage for the trip so far to something over 2200 miles!  Aside from the long trip to get here, I put in a lot of miles driving around little roads in Donegal.

It’s beautiful countryside with a variety of landscapes:  Rugged cliffs, soft green pastures, boggy fields and sweeping sandy beaches.  Here are some favorite pictures — click on the photo if you want, for an enlargement and to read the captions.

Malin Head at dusk
Malin Head at dusk. It’s the most northern point in Ireland.

New mills Corn and Flax Mill
Newmilll Flax and Corn Mill. At one time a triangular shaped region of less than 1000 square miles n what is now Northern Ireland and Ireland produced 80% of the world’s linen,. At the time, linen was extensively used for variety of industrial and military purposes. During wars, demand soared. As the strongest available fiber, the exterior skin of the first planes was made of linen. It was also a type of body armor, for the ropes on parachutes , for book bindings and much more. Growing flax and preparing it to be turned into linen, however, was so labor intensive that each farmer could only manage about one acre of the stuff.

The view at Crohy Head, near Dungloe. The wind and the sea have carved the rocks into fantastic shapes.

Doe Castle, a picturesque ruin overlooking Sheep Haven Bay.

House Speculations

Why do so many Irish houses — at least houses in County Donegal where I have been for the past 10 days — not have yards and lawns?  Why are they surrounded by what are, for all practical purposes, parking lots?

I figure there must be a reason.  Houses — and we’re talking ordinary people’s houses, not grand estates or historic specimens — vary widely from culture to culture, geographic region to geographic region. Homes in Spain are made of stone or brick, depending on the size and age of the home.  Roofs are almost uniformly terra cotta tile.  Wood is in short supply; and the hard surfaces of stone and tile keep cooler in the hot summers.

The cottage I’ve been staying at, on the shores of Lough Salt.

Homes in Florida have no basements: the water table is too high.  Bavarian and Austrian homes have steeply pitched roofs and deep eaves, designed to help heavy snow slide off them and away from the house.  And when driving through France recently, just north of the Pyrenees, I noticed that nearly all the homes dotting the countryside had hipped roofs, a design that is particularly good at handling rain and snow drainage and especially strong to withstand high winds.

Rural Donegal homes are most likely to be single storied, frequently  with a second story tucked under the eaves.  They are stone (or these days, concrete block)  with a  cement or lime rendering. With the amount of stone there is all over this country, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would seek out another building material. The presence of chimneys bespeaks the ready availability of peat to burn, both for the heat and the charm of the fragrant fires. Most homes are painted white or tan; a few are peach, blue, lilac or other pastel.  Old or new, they  often have a IMG-1024distinctive contrasting trim on the corners A sprinkling of older homes still have thatched roofs — about an equal number of them in disrepair and all but abandoned or  clean, tidy and very picturesque cottages.

But nearly all newer home and many older ones lack what we Americans would see as an essential home component: A front lawn or garden. Where Americans in most parts of the U.S. would plant grass, and spend their weekends mowing, trimming, fertilizing and otherwise coaxing it to a uniform, velvety texture, the Irish have gravel or asphalt. New homeowners in the U.S. flock to garden centers and nurseries, buying shrubs and trees and perennials to tastefully landscape around a newly built house. To us, greenery snuggled up to the walls of a home is essential to making it look warm and welcoming. Even in the arid climate  of the Southwest or in water-starved California, where xeriscaping is becoming popular, yards are still carefully planted, though with cactus and and other less-thirsty vegetation.

Not in Donegal. Nearly every ordinary home IMG_1012that hasn’t passed the century mark, is fronted, if not surrounded, by a flat expanse of nothing. Lord knows it can’t be lack of rainfall that makes homeowners here shun greenery close by their homes.  Donegal gets an average of nearly 50 inches of rain a year. The chances of an entirely sunny day range from a low of 3% in May and August to a high of just 13% in November. And the odds of a at least some rain falling on any given day dip below 20% in only one month of the year: September. In eight of the 12 months of the year, chances of a day being a rainy one are at least 40%.
So why do they pave the areas around their homes? Could it be an echo of an old farmhouse and yard design, when animals and carts or perhaps tractors and other farm machinery were all corralled close to the home?  Is it for drainage purposes? Maybe the notoriously wet weather actually discourages greenery in close proximity to buildings. Could the damp climate necessitate a border of dry pavement to keep homes dry and clean?

The Irish version of a McMansion. Note the contrast trim on the corners and the grand driveway that all but encircles the house.

Some larger newly built homes have established a patch of green in front, but they still have a wide swath of driveway that directly abuts the front of the house –a sort-of poorer man’s version of the grand alleys and courtyards in front of stately homes, like the fictional Downton Abbey. But in these cases, there are no grand entranceways nearby and no horse-drawn carriages ever approach them. It’ll be Granny, coming to babysit the kids, who  parks her Volkswagen Golf three feet from the front door, not the Dowager Duchess arriving for tea.

Perhaps, though, it’s just that in a country that is bursting with vegetation — lush green pastures, huge rhododendIrons, hydrangeas and flowering trees, wildflowers painting the fields and roadside ditches — few folks feel the need to plant and tend a lawn and garden.






Thanks to Three Americans

Glenveaugh Castle and gardens, as well as the national park they stand in, are one of Ireland’s great national prizes, but its largely thanks to three Americans that it exists. Much like Glenveaugh’s setting —  acres of cultivated gardens surprisingly plunked down in the middle of over 25,000 acres of wild Irish landscape — the story is one of great contrasts: horrific cruelty and great generosity, with murder and  mystery thrown in for  additional spice.

The story begins, not with an American, however, but with an Irishman: Captain John George Adair.  Born in 1823 in County Laois  to a family of minor Anglo-Irish gentry, Jack Adair attended Trinity College in Dublin. He trained for the British Diplomatic Corps and held a military officer’s rank, but his personality was singularly unsuited for such endeavors. He was by all accounts, hot tempered, abrasive and self absorbed. Adair ended up gravitating toward  the business world, running brokerage businesses in England, Ireland and the United States,. He also made a fortune n land speculation and ranching in the U.S., providing the seed capital for a 1.3-million-acre , 100,000-head cattle ranch in the Texas panhandle, near Amarillo. A now scaled-down JA Ranch still exists.

It was on a hunting trip in 1857 that Adair first glimpsed what was to become the vast Glenveaugh estate — over 25,000 acres incorporating not only huge swathes of bog,

The walled garden.

but also the lovely Lough Veaugh and County Donegal’s two highest peaks.   Declaring himself enchanted with the beauty of the scenery and intending to build a hunting lodge there, he started shortly after to assemble his domain, buying some land outright and contracting farm-fee rights for other tracts. The farm-fee right  entitled him to collect rent from the resident farmers, but did not convey  to him either ownership or sporting and shooting rights over the land.  And that proved to be too hard for the hotheaded and hard-hearted Adair to endure. According to one account, when he insisting on hunting on farm-fee land, angry tenants who viewed this as a violation of their landlord/tenant agreement responded by spoiling his shoot. They beat the bushes to disturb the game and encircled the hunter. The incensed Adair swore vengeance.

By 1860, he had acquired outright ownership of all the land and was in a position to extract his revenge.  Moreover, that year Adair’s land steward, a Scot named James Murray,  was murdered, his bloodied body found on a nearby mountainside. The perpetrator was never identified, but Adair was convinced one of his tenants had committed the crime.  Whether or not the hunting story or Adair’s suspicions about Murray’s murder are true, it was certainly a fact that Adair was determined to do what he wanted with the land and he didn’t much care what that meant to the tenant

The four-story square tower.of Glenveaugh Castle.  Because the material is hard grey granite, embellishments and carvings are relatively simple and few.

families who lived there, some of them for generations.  Adair called on local authorities to carryout his eviction orders, employing a force of over 200 men. Over the course of three days, more than  240 men, women and children — a total of about 45 families — were summarily thrown out of their homes.  The first to go was a 60-year-old widow with her six daughters and one son.  A crew of “crowbar men” demolished more than half of the homes or  rendered them uninhabitable, lest the tenants return.  Some of those evicted wound up in the workhouse in nearby Letterkenny, but with the aid of a local relief fund, about half of them — young people aged 16 to 28 — were able to emigrate to New South Wales, Australia. The so-called Derryveaugh evictions earned Adair the biter enmity of his Donegal neighbors.among


In 1869, the first American entered the picture.  Cornelia Wadsworth Ritchie was an attractive 34-year-old Civil War widow with two young sons and an impeccable family pedigree. She was soft-spoken and kind, the polar opposite of the 46-year-old Adair. Nevertheless, when they met at a political gathering in New York, the two hit it off and subsequently married. The couple divided their time between Europe and the U.S., spending some months in  England, some in Colorado and Texas and some in Ireland, where they worked to achieve Adair’s vision of an Irish estate that would rival Balmoral Castle, Queen Victoria’s summer retreat in Scotland. The result was a solid and picturesque gray granite baronial mansion with a four-story tower, surrounded by lush gardens and overlooking the picturesque Lough Veaugh.

Beds of columbine, poppies, roses and more in the walled garden.

After Adair’s death in 1885, Cornelia spent more time in Ireland, undertaking  a series of improvements to both the house and gardens. Among them: the planting of a shelter belt of Scotch Pines, separating the gardens from the wild expanses beyond. A round tower, which softened the lines of the house and expanded the living area.  A charming gardener’s cottage adjacent to a traditional walled garden. And a Victorian “pleasure ground”, with  a large sweep of grass, a pond, walkways and plantings.  More critically, her kindness and generosity to the poor and needy  helped repair relations with the local communities.  Cornelia died in 1921, and her only living child, a son from her first marriage, inherited the estate..

Eight years later, Glenveaugh was in the hands of another American, sold to Arthur Kingsley Porter, a Harvard professor of fine arts,  a Celtic culture and arts scholar, and a member of a wealthy banking family. Porter and his wife Lucy  made repairs on the house and gardens and frequently entertained  prominent members of the Irish literary and arts world. They were particular friends of  renowned Irish writer and painter, AE Russell, and  several of his paintings remain at Glenveaugh. The Porters weren’t too enjoy the estate for long, however. In 1933, Porter mysteriously disappeared after going for a walk on Inishbofin Island, where he maintained another home.  Did he fall from the cliffs and his body wash out to sea as Lucy maintained? Did he commit suicide?

Wall decorations made of mussel and periwinkle shells in the entry way. Stags horns are also a predominant decorating theme throughout the house.

Officially, the coroner’s report listed the event as death by misadventure, but the truth is far from clear. Certainly, Lucy knew more than she was letting on, including that her husband was, in fact, gay, and that a homosexual love affair, conducted with her knowledge, had ended badly only a short time before his disappearance.  That, combined with repeated, though  possibly spurious, sightings of Porter in Amsterdam and other European cities over the coming years, fed rumors that he had simply chosen to start a new life, leaving behind his wife, his career and Glenveaugh.

The third American to own Glenveaugh couldn’t have been more different from Adair. In 1939, Henry Plumer McIlhenny acquired the estate from Lucy Porter, whom he knew from his days as a student of her husband’s at Harvard.  McIlhenny,’s grandfather had emigrated to America from Milford, a small town near Glenveaugh, and  made his fortune with the invention of a popular coin-operated gas meter. McIlhenny himself was a well-respected art collector with a home on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, and he served successively as curator, trustee and chairman of the board of  trustees for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He loved Glenveaugh and for over 30 years spent summers there, working on improvements, particularly in the gardens. In both Philadelphia and Ireland, he was known as a kind, intelligent, charming and generous man who loved to entertain in grand style.  Guests would be picked up by McIlhenny’s car and driver at Shannon Airport and endure a day-long drive up north to spend a week or more at Glenveaugh. Among his notable visitors:  Greta Garbo, John Wayne, Ella Fitzgerald, Yehudi Menuhin, Marilyn Monroe, and Clark Gable.

In 1975, McIlhenny sold the bulk of the estate  to the Irish government, the Office of Public Works, for the establishment of a national park  The price? A princely $1 an acre.   In 1983, he donated the castle and gardens to the nation of Ireland.







On The Road Again

The itinerant is itinerating again.  After spending the past two years settling into life in Spain — buying a home and watching it being built, struggling with the Spanish bureaucracy and learning (to my great regret) about Spanish taxes — I headed off a few days ago on what I’ve been referring to as the Great British Isles Road Trip. From June 1 to mid-September, I’ll travel around Ireland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales, staying mostly in a series of homes that I’ve “swapped” the guest portion of my new home in Spain for. There’s a 400-year old stone cottage in the Cotswolds;  a new apartment on the South Bank in London; a fisherman’s cottage in Port Isaac, Cornwall (aka Doc Martin’s Portwen); a holiday apartment on the Northern Irish coast of Antrim; and a historic thatched cottage near Salisbury, among others.  I’m looking forward to all of them.

Last night, I landed at the first of my exchanges: A charming, modern cottage in County Donegal, in the far northwestern part of the Irish Republic. Just getting here was a major adventure: A drive of about 2500 kilometersroad trip map in my car. And that doesn’t count the 17-hour ferry ride from France to the Southeast coast of Ireland.  When you look at a map, Europe seems so small! The countries are so close together!  But 2500 kilometers is like driving from Washington, DC to Amarillo, Texas.  Of course, when I was done I was in Ireland, the land of freshly caught seafood, Guiness, soda bread, and lilting accents; rather than the place where Bob Wills is still the king.

Most of the drive through Spain was a tad boring, if blessedly uneventful. The stretch through the Sierra mountains is beautiful, but I’ve done it before. From there to Madrid and then north to Zaragoza is mostly flat, hot and uninspiring. But you could make good time and when I hunted down a bed for the night, I encountered the novelty of what was essentially a drive-though hotel!   You check in from your car at a tollbooth-like structure at the entrance to a ground level parking lot below the hotel rooms.  Once admitted beyond the barrier, you are confronted with a series of garage doors, one of which magically opens for you.  Drive in, park, close the garage door and head up the interior staircase to an ultra modern room. No need to unpack the whole car! Or worry about leaving your stuff in a car in an open parking lot!  In the morning, pull out of your garage, hand in your key at the tollbooth reception desk and the barrier swings open for you again. Cool!

Day two brought some gorgeous scenery. I opted for an inland route rather than the motorway that runs up the northern coast of Spain into France. Heading through the Pyrenees was a good choice.  Deep green forests and towering cliffs of dark grey stone , with some mountaintops still capped with snow, at the end of May.  Steeply raked green pastures, dotted with cattle or sheep.  And just after the incredibly long tunnel that transverses the Spanish-French border, a lovely pristine town perched on a hillside and crowned with a beautiful grey-stone church.  In fact, most of the Aquitaine was attractive, filled with lushly green, prosperous looking farms.

As I headed further north, however, time seemed to melt away, while the miles dragged on.  GoogleMaps had led me to expect a drive of about 9 hours from my stopping point near Zaragoza to my goal of Nantes, France. In fact, it took closer to 12 hours and I didn’t even make it to Nantes.  I’d check the time left on my Google maps app every hour or so and discover that I had only chipped 15 minutes off the time remaining.  No idea what was happening. but it began to feel as if I were in some kind of enchanted land where time and space were disjointed. At one point, after driving for about 30 minutes from my last peek at Google maps, I was astounded to discover I had added 10 minutes to my remaining drive time!

Then, another night on the road, and one more at sea. Turns out that the ferries that ply what I have learned is called the Celtic Sea are rather like small, low-brow cruise ships. Having grown up riding ferries that carried as few as two or three cars or as many as 40, on trips that never lasted more than 4 hours, this was a new experience for me. The meal aboard was mediocre and expensive, but after two days of mainlining diet cokes and subsisting on road food, I was happy to have it. The bed was narrow and hard, but I liked the rocking and slept well.

AT 11 the next morning, we docked in IMG_0465Rosslare, at the far southeast corner of Ireland. Dungloe, where I’m berthed for the next two weeks, is in the far northwest in County Donegal, which I am learning to pronounce correctly. Americans are inclined to say DON-e-gal. Bu it’s Don-e-GAUL. When you put the emphasis on the wong syllable, people look at you as if they have absolutely no idea where you are talking about.  Gradually, it dawns on them; “Oh you mean Donegal!)  I’ve also learned that Dungloe, pronounced Dun-GLOW as I was doing, is unrecognizable to the locals.  It’s Dung-LOW or perhaps DUNG-low. I’ve still not quite caught where the emphasis goes, but in either case, the G all but disappears.

The drive north was pure pleasure.
I stopped for some fresh strawberries and munched on them along the way. The roads, even the smaller ones that wind up and down hills and around a million curves, were clear and are well paved.  And the countryside is simply gorgeous.  Delightfully,  the weather behaved fairly well, too, veering from light misty rain to sunshine every 20 miles or so. It surely is no wonder everything is so green.  I marveled at how very different it is from Spain. And yet, as I climbed further north, the  topography changed. It’s rougher terrain here than in the south. One gets the feeling it’s a harder living made off the land or off the sea. And despite the obvious differences, there are interesting echoes of Spain: The low white houses; here, concrete or stone under their skins of white cement and paint, brick in Spain.  Rock strewn hills and scrubby vegetation spreading out to the horizon. And splotches of shocking pink  (oleander in Spain, rhododendrons in Ireland) in an otherwise green and tan landscape.



Geranium Madness

In early May, the city of Cordoba holds a festival called simply Los Patios, when a few dozen private homes as well as public IMG_0334and private organizations throw open their doors , welcoming tourists and native Cordobans in to their interior terraces. The patios are lavishly decorated with flowers:
Vines and small trees trained to grow up the walls. Pots hanging from balconies and fastened to the walls. In wheelbarrows, barrels and a host of other conventional and unconventional containers, on floors, walls, ceilings, stairs and every conceivable space.

There are hibiscus, bromeliads, hydrangeas and a dozen other varieties of gorgeousness.  But above all, there are geraniums — of all sizes, colors and descriptions.  I had no idea that geraniums came in such a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Some look like little butterflies.  Some like azalea or rhododendron blooms.  They are pink, white, coral, red, deep marroon, fuscia and all possible shades in between.  They are single colored, edged, speckled, veined, splotched and eyed.  They are simply amazing and I’m in love with them.



I think I’m going to start collecting geraniums on my patio in as many different colors and varieties as possible!







10 Things I Love about Spain

1 and 2.  The sun and the sea.  Let’s call it a tie. It’s impossible to love one more than the other.

My favorite view in Nerja.

It’s sometimes  said that Spain is a cold country with a lot of sun. That may be true of places further north than Nerja and the Costa del Sol. It certainly hasn’t been true here this winter. Most days the temperature has reached the mid 60s, and with the bright sun at midday, some folks sit on the beach or take a run in just tank tops and shorts.  It does cool off quite rapidly by about 4 PM, but rarely have I wanted more than a light polar fleece for the evening.

As for the sea, well I haven’t even dipped a toe in the Spanish Mediterranean yet, but it’s just lovely to wake up to view of the water, shining silver in the morning sun.  Or to walk to town along the beach, listening to the sound of the surf.

3.  The way Spaniards smile and encourage your halting, mispronounced Spanish. I haven’t yet encountered someone who responds with anything but delight when you attempt Spanish, no matter how badly mangled.  The locksmith grinned when I switched to Spanish after he had trouble understanding the English “five” in my phone number. The salesgirl at the Nerja bakery I patronize patiently repeats “ensaimada” with a smile when I try to order the fluffy pastry coil covered with powdered sugar.  And the dentist cheerfully gave me a lesson in rolling my “r’s” when I tried to pronounce the word for my new dental night guard.

4.  The art and architecture.  OMG. The buildings. The ceramics. The ironwork. The carvings and plasterwork. The colors. It’s completely over the top, a fantabulous tangle of Muslim and Christian styles piled one upon the other over the course of centuries. At first, it seems just too much to absorb, but as you quietly try to take it in, your eye alights first  on one exquisite detail after another. The craftsmanship is simply amazing.

5. Convent cookies.  As membership and donations to religious orders have dropped off in recent decades, convents in Spain have turned to their kitchens to shore up their finances, selling preserves and other goodies, especially cookies.  In Seville, a half-dozen or more convents sell their wares, including these traditional sugar-encrusted lemony goodies called yemas. Each cookie is carefully wrapped in tissue paper before being packed into a small lightweight wooden box.IMG_2476

To my mind, the best cookie is a mantecado, a soft crumbly butter cookie, often lightly flavored with lemon, almond or, my favorite, anise.  In the small town of Trujillo, a Spanish companion and I knocked on the door of the tiny Convento de Santa Clara to be greeted by a tiny nun. Wizened and hobbling on arthritic feet, she was at least 80, but smiled broadly when we asked to buy some cookies, please.  She asked where we were from, and when told I was from the U.S., invited us in to view the tiny church and its prized artifacts. Only six nuns remain at the convent, all of them well-advanced in age. The convent isn’t likely to survive much longer–a shame, if for no other reason than that the mantecados they lovingly bake six days a week are delicious.

It’s worth noting that, should you buy some of these cookies when in Spain, prepare to eat them all before leaving the country. They don’t travel well.  They are so rich with butter that they’re extremely fragile, and the slightest pressure turns the round disks into a pile of edible sand. (Did that stop me from scooping it up and eating it? Of course, not!) I suspect it would make a fabulous cookie crumb crust for a pie. Someday, I’ll try it.

6. The orange trees that line the streets and dot the plazas and squares in Valencia, Malaga, Seville and, I presume, elsewhere in Spain.  When in blossom or fruit, the trees perfume the air. I don’t know what happens to the fruit–some of it falls to the ground and seems to be collected regularly by the street cleaners. I’ve never seen anyone actually picking the oranges, but I suspect that urban foragers do a gangbuster business. The oranges aren’t sweet, but bitter and better suited to marmalade than juicing or eating out of hand.

7. The ceramics. The Spanish can make anything out of tile and ceramic.  And it’s always colorful and beautiful.IMG_2387

8. The way even small packages are wrapped and tied up neatly. A pasteleria (a bakery that sells pastries, as opposed to a panaderia, which sells bread) will carefully transfer your cream-IMG_1947stuffed goodie to a gold foil tray, then wrap it in paper and tie it with a ribbon or string. In Valencia, the clerks at my favorite pasteleria eschewed the string, opting instead to hold two corners of the wrapping paper in each hand and swiftly flip it over a few times, winding the corners into twisted horns that hold your package closed. No plastic clamshells for these folks.

9. Seeing nuns in traditional wimples and habits, complete with heavy cotton hose and sensible oxfords. I don’t know exactly why I find this sight so anachronistically charming, but I do. My Catholic friends who attended parochial schools tell me that I might not, had I suffered the knuckle-rappings they did as a child.IMG_2458

To me, a Protestant  growing up in a largely Catholic town, nuns weren’t an uncommon sight, but they were always somewhat exotic and foreign.  Warren, R.I., had a Methodist church, a Baptist church, an Episcopal church and a small congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It also had an Irish Catholic church, a French Catholic church, a Portuguese Catholic church, a Polish Catholic church and an Italian Catholic church. (As a youngster in 1960, I couldn’t quite understand adults’ comments that the country would “never elect  a Catholic (John Kennedy)  president”.  Why not, I thought?  Almost everyone in the U.S. is Catholic, aren’t they?)

10. The smell of leather. Walk along any reasonably touristy street and you’re sure to pass a half dozen or more small shops selling sandals, purses, jackets, luggage and anything else that can reasonably be made from animal skin. Vegans won’t like it, but to me, the smell conjures up images of ruggedly handsome men, wine or whisky in crystal decanters and old, beautiful books. Maybe that’s weird, but the aroma of leather makes me happy.

And 11 (you didn’t really think I could confine myself to just 10, did you?). Flowers blooming all year round–really!  This was taken in a park in Seville  on Feb. 19.