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 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.

 

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

 

 

 

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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.

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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.
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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.
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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?

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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,

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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

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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

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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!

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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Learned the Hard Way

All things considered, phase one –the exploratory phase—of my itinerant retirement is going remarkably well. Which is not to say that there haven’t been some “oh shit” moments.  So a little advice for anyone contemplating a similar adventure:

1. If you take a bus to a small town out in the countryside, make sure you know where to catch the only bus back.

The ride to Le Vigan, a small town on the edge of the Cevennes mountains was lovely. The goat cheese festival that drew me there, not bad, and I had a pleasant afternoon in the leafy park on the edge of town. I sampled some cheeses, lunched on grilled lamb and fresh salad, and dozed in the dappled sunshine. Edith Piaf recordings over a PA system alternated with lively and entertaining performances by the local band, it’s members clad in a dozen different iterations of striped shirts, pants and hats.

The bus making the journey back to Montpellier was scheduled to leave at 4:55, and I was waiting for it 10 minutes early. I wasn’t too concerned when it wasn’t there at 5:00. But by 5;15, I was pretty sure something was wrong. Up till then, every bus I’d taken had been smack on time. So in my fractured French, I asked a passing couple if they knew if the bus was ever this late. No, they answered in English. But the bus had already left, from the main stop in the town center. It didn’t come up to the final stop in the park on festival days. Some 60 euros poorer, I left the next morning, having spent the night at a local hotel and eaten an overpriced veal ragout for dinner. Still there was one plus: My hotel room had a tub and I got a nice long bath that night.

2. Always arrive at a new apartment with a stack of tissues in your luggage—especially if you arrive late at night or on a Sunday, when stores are closed. Apparently, you can’t count on a supply of toilet paper.

3. Do not overestimate your ability to learn new skills at age 62. I figured “how hard could it be to ride a motor scooter?” I should have been tipped off by the three grinning Frenchmen watching me from across the street as I climbed on for the first time. They’d clearly seen this drama unfolding before. I managed to wave jauntily to them and successfully traveled about 50 meters before I had to turn a corner. Down she went. I wasn’t hurt, fortunately, merely stuck under the tipped-over scooter and trying hard not to look embarrassed.

The young man who bounded over to help me up and right the scooter didn’t speak English, but he was pretty clearly saying “I don’t think this is a good idea”. I managed in a combination of Franglais and pantomime to convey that I wanted to get the scooter over into a nearby parking lot, where I could practice a bit more before taking it on the road. Reluctantly he wheeled it over, while making me promise “just one more try.” It wasn’t enough. This time, when the scooter went over, the side mirror broke and I called it quits. But I got to ride back to the shop on the back of the scooter, holding on to a cute French guy!

4. Do not order something based on a picture in a menu. It sure looked like a nice grilled piece of fish—something like tuna or swordfish. It tasted like cardboard and had the texture of a rubber boot. Sepia a la Planche turns out to be grilled cuttlefish—aka a chunk of a big squid.  In fact, don’t eat at any restaurant that has pictures in its menus. It’s probably aimed at tourists who the proprietors figure wouldn’t know good food anyway and, in any case, won’t be back.

5. Ask which floor your AirBNB apartment is on. The first one –in Valencia—was four long flights up. It made me feel better about the volume of Spanish cheese and fresh bread I was eating, but reclimbing those stairs for a forgotten umbrella was torture. As for hauling 50 pound suitcases up and down? Oy. The second one, in Montpellier, was on the ground floor. Easy on the knees, not so good for letting in sunlight. And when the windows were open, you could reach out and pet any passing dogs (windows don’t have screens here.)

6.  If you park in a garage, have cash, even if the signs say they take credit cards.  Some of the self-pay kiosks don’t take credit or debit cards from outside the country you’re in. Note that French drivers are unbelievably impatient with anyone who holds up the exit lane figuring that out.

7. Watch out for those fruity wine drinks. The first time I ordered Aqua de Valencia, I thought it was a generous pitcher that I got, but what-the-heck, it ‘s just OJ with some cava (Spanish champagne) in it.  It wasn’t until I tried to stand up (and later looked at the bill I’d signed) that I realized it had clearly been aqua valenciameant for two people. And it wasn’t until a day or two later that I learned, no, it’s not just a bucket-sized Mimosa.  Aqua de Valencia packs a potent punch of gin and vodka as well as the cava.

As for Sangria: Well, we Americans tend to think of it as a fruity summer drink for lightweights..  Take some red wine, add lemonade or fruit juice or club soda and a bunch of cut-up citrus fruit and you’ve got a nice, mild, refreshing summer drink.  Not in Spain you don’t.  Sangria here is red wine mixed with cava and brandy, with fruit soaked in enough brandy to preserve it for years.  I had one; it was good. I had another and staggered out of the bar, forgetting to pay my bill.

8. Just let your hair grow.  Despite checking for recommendations online, casing various stylists’ shops to see if the customers walked out looking good and happy, and even stopping total strangers in the street to ask where they got that really nice haircut, I ended up with some of the worst cuts I’ve ever had.  In Malaga, the hair on one side of my head was a good 1/2 inch longer than on the other. And considering that the longest hair on my head was about 3 inches, it was quite a sight.

9. Watch where you step. Pooper-scoopers are apparently unheard of in many European cities. Ask me how I know.

10.  If an AirBNB is described as “right in the center of things”, keep looking. My Malaga apartment was on the first floor (that’s up one from the ground floor in Europe) facing into what looked like a quiet little square a few blocks from Plaza Constitution, the main gathering place in the old quarter.  Perfect, right?  Wrong. At around 9 that first night, the doors on what had looked like shuttered residences on the ground floor were thrown open. Scores of tables and chairs filled the plaza and people began to gather.  Hundreds of them  And the party went on till at least 5 AM every night of the week except Mondays for the entire month I was there.  No earplugs in the world could have deafened that noise of that crowd.

Malaga street bar

 

The Teeth-Gnashing Frustration and Sly Charms of Sicilian Public Transportation

This week’s train trip from Siracusa to Taormina was easy and enjoyable. Catching the bus from Giardinii-Naxos was easy enough too. It took only three inquiries to figure out where to catch the bus and a helpful TripAdvisor expert had told me to get off at the penultimate stop to be closest to my hotel. Since I had no idea where any of the stops were, however, we whizzed right by it. Still — only a slightly longer walk. No big deal.

The return trip: Not so much.  I had a ticket on a train leaving the Giardini-Naxos train station at 5:53 PM. The receptionist at my hotel told me the buses left Taormina every quarter hour at that time of day and it was a 15 minute trip. So, I aimed for the 5 PM bus to be super safe; figured I’d actually catch the 5:15 PM; and still had the 5:30 to fall back on if something went wrong. I arrived at 5:05. There was a parking lot full of busses at the station, most of them dark with no destinations marked. And thus, my saga begins.

 I ask at the ticket booth in my half spoken/ half-pantomimed bastardized Italian-English. “Bus per estacion Giardini-Naxos, per favore?” The guys there point generally at the parked busses and say something in their own version of Italish that seems to mean “look for the sign on the bus”.

So, figuring maybe the correct bus hasn’t arrived yet or it’s one of these busses, but it isn’t marked yet. I watch for it, eagle-eyed, until 5:20. No Giardini-Naxos sign on any of the busses that leaves. Now I’m starting to get a little alarmed. So I try the ticket office again. This time, one guy points to his watch and says something that seems to indicate “next bus at 5:45”. Whoa. No 5:15 bus? No 5:30 bus? I’m going to miss my train. But I can’t seem to communicate that question; I just keep getting the next bus, 5:45 answer. So, I go approach two bus drivers standing chatting near their idling busses. One shrugs and walks away. The other, god bless him, smiles and says “Giardini-Naxo estacion? Si” and walks over to check with another driver. In a minute, he grins and indicates in his fractured Italish. “Now. This bus.”

So, I get on that bus and sure enough it hauls off in a few moments. I go along thinking “Great.  Plenty of these people are probably going to the rail station, and I know the trip is supposed to take about 15 minutes. I’m sitting anxiously watching the minutes tick down, figuring I need to be ready to run when the bus stops at the station. At just about 5:48, the bus pulls up to a stop. I double check with the driver: “Train station?” “No, no” he says pointing backwards. We’re well past the train station. I didn’t know I had to signal a stop and wouldn’t have recognized it till we were past it anyway.

OK. I guess I’m not taking that train. I get off the bus anyway, since I have no idea where it is headed now. Two kind strangers with good English help me figure out that in a few minutes another bus should come along that will possibly take me all the way to the Catania bus station. We know it goes to the airport and think it stops at the bus station first. I know from reading posts on TripAdvisor that if it does, I should be able to change at that station to another bus headed for Siracusa. And, I figure, the worst that will happen is I’ll end up at Fontanarossa airport, where I know I can get a bus to Siracusa.

So I wait and sure enough another Interbus bus comes along shortly. Who’s driving that bus? The kindly driver who helped me find the “right” bus in the parking lot. He looks flabbergasted when he sees me and is clearly asking me in the Italian I don’t speak “what happened? ” Then he laughs and answers his own question: “Disaster, si?”

In our mixed languages, we establish that yes he goes to the Catania bus station and will tell me when to get off. I need a new ticket, but he says get on. A stop or two later, he motions for me to get off the bus. I know I’m not in Catania, so I’m a bit concerned, but then I finally get that he wants me to buy a ticket at the kiosk there and get back on the bus. So I do, squinting my eyes at him and saying “Now you’re not going to leave without me, right?”. He laughs and says “No, no”, but then jokingly shuts the door on me as I try to reboard. We both laugh and the bus moves on. When we get to the Catania station, he tells me. OK, get off here and I do, thanking him profusely. A few minutes later, when he starts his return trip, he sees me standing on a nearby corner, hesitating to plunge into the three lanes of whizzing Italian traffic to get across the street to the other busses. In a last fillip of kindness, he pulls to a halt and motions for me to cross in front of him, waving and smiling.

Now I’ve got to figure out which of the dozens of busses is the one that goes to Siracusa and where I buy the ticket. I wander around the huge staging area and ask few times, before I am pointed to a little storefront with a blue Interbus sign that’s more than half hidden by some scaffolding and I recognize the blue busses across the street. Phew, this is going to be OK. I manage to buy the ticket and establish that the next bus is in an hour, at 8:30 and leaves from slot 7. “Dove?”, I ask. Where? He points vaguely across the street to the blue busses.

I wait in the air-conditioned station till 8:10, then head across the street. I find signs for slots 4, 5 and 6 with an unmarked additional slot next to them, before another bus company’s area starts. So this unmarked slot is number 7, right? I wait for the bus to arrive. I wait and I wait some more. At 8:30, I’m nervous when there’s still no bus. But I figure: This is Italy. It’s probably just late, right?

At 8:35, as I head back to the ticket office, the guy who sold me the ticket is lounging outside. He spies me and looks quizzically at me. I ask “Bus per Siracusa?” The guy shakes his head and gestures. It’s gone. I clearly look dismayed. Where was it, I ask? “Dove?” This time, he points down the street. Number 7 is apparently half way down the block rather than in the plaza with the other slots. I sigh. My fault. “Next bus?” I ask, hopefully. “Domani”. Uh-oh. I know that Italian word.

But, wait, there’s hope. I vaguely remember that there was a late night train from Catania to Siracusa. So, I head to the nearby train station. YES! On the departures screen, there’s a 9:30 train indicated. I go to buy a ticket. “Una per Siracusa, per favore”. The agent shakes his head and says “No train.” What? I point to the departures screen, “Siracusa?” Again, he shakes his head. “No train,” he repeats, then pausing, says “bus”. I try to explain: No, the bus station ticket agent says no more busses tonight. He clearly doesn’t understand and just keeps rather mournfully repeating, “No train. Bus.”

I go to the waiting area thinking. OK, so I’ll find a hotel. But I’m still puzzled about the train on the departures board. and I ask a woman waiting. “Train per Siracusa?”, pointing at the board. She nods yes and says in Italian 9:30. I try to explain that the ticket agent won’t sell me a ticket and says no train. Though she speaks no English, she understands that I’m in trouble, takes my arm and comes with me to the ticket office. Now there’s a new guy there. I ask, “Train per Siracusa, tonight?” He nods, yes, and points to the departures screen. Now I’m relieved but skeptical and look confused. He motions for me to wait and heads off to find someone else. The Italian woman and I figure he’s hunting for an English speaker. But he comes back and repeats the now familiar “no train, bus” refrain.  Mysteriously, however,  he motions that I should buy a ticket from the other agent anyway. So now I’m back to the first agent. I heave a big sigh and try him again. ” Una per Siracusa, per favore ” This time, he’s willing to take my money, and says simply “bus?” I think, what the hell: “Si, bus.” Then I remember I have a bus ticket. So I show it to him. He looks at it and tosses it back derisively, shaking his head and saying. ” no, no — bus ticket”. By now, I have no idea what’s going on, but I fork over another 6 euros for another ticket to Siracusa. (I’ve now paid for this trip 3 times) and silently issue a little prayer that somehow — bus, train or magic carpet — it will get me back to Siracusa before dawn.

He gives me the ticket and repeats 9:30. It’s now 9:00. I ask “Dove?” He points vaguely outside. I figure I’ve got 20 minutes to figure this last mystery out. I head outside to look around. But before I get far, a young woman with some English comes out of the station and says to me “Excuse me, Siracusa? ” Yes, yes, I think, I’m saved! In halting English, she indicates the ticket office guy inside. “He says that way ” and points to the right of the station. I’m about to head that way when the other more-helpful ticket guy comes out and guides me to a bus parked 50 meters away to the left . The bus is empty. It’s dark. But there is a driver lounging nearby. I say hopefully “Siracusa? “. He nods yes and I get on; I”m not letting this bus out of my sight till it takes off. Sure enough 30 minutes later it fills up, with all the passengers who have now arrived to take the apparently cancelled 9:30 train, and takes off. I now have only one last hurdle to overcome. This time, I sit directly behind the driver. Every time the bus stops I lean over and say “Siracusa?” and he shakes his head no, until finally at about 11;30, he grins and nods “Si, Siracusa.”

Tomorrow i head to Noto, then Modica and Ragusa — all by bus. I’m crossing my fingers.

How to Make A Sandwich, Sicilian Style

Not for nothing is Andrea Borderi called genius. Every day a small crowd gathers IMG_2815at his shop at the edge of the daily outdoor market in the old section of Siracusa, to watch him ply his trade. Over the course of a few hours, he’ll make perhaps a hundred sandwiches, each of them a work of art.

IMG_2914Like other artists, Borderi has complete creative license.  Customers don’t tell him what kind of sandwich they want. They simply tell him how many sandwiches they want and he takes it from there, drawing from his palette of meats, cheeses, vegetables and condiments as the moment’s fancy takes him. But the basic format remains the same.

1. Slice a foot-long loaf of Italian bread and scoop out a bit of the middle to allow more room for the scrumptious fillings.
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2. Start with a layer of flavorful vegetables: Sun-dried tomatoes, marinated mushrooms, a bit of golden corn or perhaps a combination laid out in careful separate dollops along the bread.
3. Throw on a handful of greens–romaine, arugula, red leaf lettuce, etc.–along with some raddichio, all quickly and expertly chopped.
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4. Dice one ripe red plum tomato per sandwich and scoop it on. Now grate fresh parmesan directly on the growing mounds. To complete this layer: Give it a squirt of extra virgin olive oil and squeeze on the juice of a freshly cut lemon half.
5. Add a layer of creamy white, slightly salty fresh mozzarella. While you’re slicing it, be sure to cut some extra pieces, handing them out to the customers in line. After all, no one is complaining about the long waits and most turn down the offer to have a sandwich made more quickly by an assistant, preferring to watch the show and enjoy the genius’ work.
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6. Pare a few thickish slices from a bright yellow cheese and place them on top, along with  few black olives.  Be sure to give the olives a smack with the broad side of a knife and remove the pits first!  If so inclined, sprinkle on a few small slices of a mildly hot red pepper for some extra color and zing. At this point, too, you might add a slice or two of a pungent sausage–salami, pepperoni or the like.
7.  On a sheet of butcher’s paper, layer some slices of your chosen Italian cold cut–ham, mortadella, proscuitto or the like.  Place a row of thick chunks of thrice-baked, creamy  ricotta on top of it. Depending on your choice of meat, you might sprinkle on some fresh basil leaves or dust the meat with wild Sicilian oregano (accomplished by simply shaking a dried bouquet of it over the food). Maybe drizzle a bit of local honey on top.
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8. Now carefully use the paper to turn the meat and cheese into a neat roll. This is the point where the sandwich genius double checks his work, inhaling deeply, to ensure that the meat and cheese are seasoned correctly.
9. Plop the roll of meat and cheese on top of the already huge mound of goodies on the bread.  Top  it with the other half of the bread and carefully cut it in half, wrapping each half in butcher paper.
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Time required to prepare two Borderi sandwiches simultaneously: about six minutes, while maintaining  interaction with the customers throughout. Borderi asks them  where they’re from, periodically hugs and gives the Italian two-cheek kiss to old friends, and hams it up for photos. It’s a show that his audience delights in. (“Obama!” says Borderi to Americans, offering them a high-five and a wide grin.)

And the sandwiches?  They’re phenomenal, as well as a tremendous bargain: only €5 for one big enough to feed at least two people.

Dolce Far Niente in Sicily

Summer in Sicily reminds me powerfully of childhood. True, it’s a much more exotic setting than the small working class town I grew up in, and the thermometer indicates that it’s at least 10 to 15 degrees hotter most days than southern New England ever got. But there’s much that feels the same. The tempo of life, for instance.  The languor of Sicily in August feels a lot like I remember summers as a nine- or ten-year old: Waking late, with the sun already well up in the sky. Spending hours reading a book or just sitting idling, daydreaming. It’s what the Italians call dolce far niente—the sweetness of doing nothing.

There’s a freeing carelessness that feels like childhood, too. Most days I don’t bother with make-up, just smearing on some sunscreen. And much as I did as a youngster living close to the waterfront, I often simply put on a swimsuit and a light cover-up first thing in the morning, because it’s cool and comfortable and I know that at some point before the sun sets, I’IMG_2240ll end up in the water. Those of you who know me well will recognize this as highly unusual behavior. I typically avoid occasions that require scanty clothing and don’t particularly like swimming either in pools or at beaches. But in Sicily it’s easy to leave behind the self-consciousness about dimply thighs, sagging boobs and ginormous butts. Women (and men) of all shapes, sizes and ages have no compunction about revealing far-from-perfect bodies—pasta-bellies and wrinkles be damned. (Of course, some of them do look pretty good!) I’ve even taken to wearing sleeveless tops in the only slightly cooler evenings, letting my usually camouflaged underams flap freely.

The neighborhood I grew up in was originally a summer community, made up mostly of small homes where families parked for the summer. As time passed, many of the homes were insulated and enlarged for year-round occupancy or new ones meant for that purpose were built. But there were still a number of summer-only residents when I was young; many of the neighbors had boats of one sort or another (I, in fact, had a canoe); and community life centered around the local beach.

IMG_2335In Syracuse, the homes aren’t wooden and are centuries older than the summer houses of Laurel Park, but they share a sort of casual summer shabbiness as well as the faint smell of mildew and damp, and typically inadequate, outdated and often jerry-rigged plumbing and electrical systems. And just as in my hometown, here wet swimsuits and threadbare towels hang outdoors on railings to dry; flip-flops are the footwear of choice for all ages; and meals are casual affairs, often eaten outdoors.

Although there’s no actual beach in Ortygia—the small island that is the antique and cultural heart of the working city of Syracuse—the sea is very much present. While three bridges connect one side of the island to the rest of Syracuse and a marina occupies another stretch, much of the island is surroundIMG_1625ed by a steep, fortress-like seawall, adding to the sense of Syracuse as a place  with a long history of cultures repeatedly clashing  and commingling. At one or two spots, long, steep staircases lead down to small sandy areas outside the seawall and a handful of tourists and locals spread their towels there to take in the sun and jump in the waves.

But I, along with most of the inhabitants, prefer the Solarium—a large wooden deck-like affair accessed by a metal stairway down an outcrop of boulders. Hovering over the water, it’s large enough for a couple dozen souls to spread their towels and bask in the sun until the heat drives them to IMG_2264jump off into the sea. An adjacent spit of boulders shelters those who prefer a more natural, if less comfortable, place to park their bottoms and a higher diving point for the more intrepid teens and tweens.

The water is clear and its temperature perfect—cool enough to refresh, warm enough not to chill. Some people swim vigorously or snorkel, but most, like me, simply float, bobbing up and down in the modest waves, grinning at the deep blue sky and endless sea ahead of them.