By Judith Works
A bookstore will never lead you astray if you’re looking for something to carry you to mysterious places. Our local bookshop in Rome (actually in my office building) had a delightful name, “Food for Thought.” It also had a bin of older paperbacks toward the back where I regularly rummaged to find something inexpensive to read. And, one day, there was Holy Blood, Holy Grail at the bottom of the bin. With a blurb that said it was “explosively controversial,” I bought it. Tucked in with feet on our bombola (our propane heater for supplemental heating in the winter and one that I worried might be explosive in a different way), I dove in that evening. And I kept reading because I couldn’t put it down.
It begins with the story of an ancient and obscure church in the south west of France between the foothills of the Pyrenees and the Cevenne mountains, and spins off into claims that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and their descendants founded the Merovingian dynasty and are thus the rightful kings of France. These claims are amplified by others about blackmail, buried treasure for the ransom of Saint Louis from the infidels, the locations of the Holy Grail, the treasure from Solomon’s Temple, and the mysterious Priory of Sion in Switzerland. The Knights Templars, the Masons and an indecipherable painting by the Renaissance painter, are all thrown in the heady brew in case the reader’s interest begins to wane. If this sounds familiar, it should, as Dan Brown capitalized on some story elements in The Da Vinci Code. In fact, the authors of Holy Blood brought (and lost) a plagiarism suit against Brown in 2006.
Hubby read the breathless book while I plotted a trip to see the mysterious church in a hamlet called Rennes-le-Chateau. I finally located the area, one where the Cathars, a heretical sect, lived and died during the Albigensian Crusade in the Middle Ages. Off we went on our next trip to France.
We left the walled city of Carcassone, not far from the Mediterranean Sea just north of the Spanish border. The vineyards surrounding the city were soon far behind as we drove on winding roads through oak and pine trees amid rough limestone gorges, outcroppings and crags. The sun was misty, the sky a watery pale blue, making the scenery appear ephemeral and steeped in mystery. The ruins of a fortress, Montsegur, high above us, appeared in the damp air as though it was a mirage. It was easy to picture the ghosts of the last Cathers, the 245 remaining survivors of the genocidal campaign by the Church, who were burned in a mass execution after the final campaign ended here. The site was destroyed over the years and now the nearly inaccessible and melancholy ruins of the later medieval castle stand as a memorial to intolerance and a fight to the end. In my mind I could hear the dead still keening for their lost lives and faith.
Some miles up the road, we arrived in the somnolent and isolated hamlet of Rennes Le Chateau, population 92, and no place for lunch. The history of the area is murky: first settled by Neanderthals, who were supplanted by more modern humans including Romans, Visigoths, and various medieval lords, including the Templars, until they gave way to French Royalists.
The site and its supposed history have become great fodder for conspiracy theorists and novelists since Jules Verne. But there was no wide-spread notoriety until several post-War French and Belgian writers claimed that Sauniere had discovered parchments in a hollow pillar dating from Visigothic times during his restoration that “prove” the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. But the stories faded into obscurity until the Holy Blood book hit the bestseller list in the 1980s and the BBC made a “documentary.” The documents have, of course, disappeared. Some say they vanished into the depths of the Vatican.
The “facts” have become a cottage industry with thousands of visitors now stopping at the church feed their fantasies and to fuel the local tourist trade. Books, websites, Youtube videos and podcasts abound for curiosity seekers and those who are die-hard believers. One commentator said it was the French equivalent of Roswell or Loch Ness. Others mention Atlantis.
We drove to the top of the hill, the location of the curious church dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene. In keeping with that part of the world, its history is murky. When a new parish priest, Berenger Sauniere, was assigned to the church in 1885, he began to restore and radically change the church which originally dated from the 8th century, rebuilt in the Romanesque style in the 10th or 11th century. Sauniere seems to have had a shady background both in his adherence to dogma and wealth from unknown sources. He spent great sums of money on the church, a tower for his library and a large villa with extensive grounds.
But Sauniere came to a dismal end: In 1910 he was summoned to an ecclesiastical trial for various offenses against the Church and was suspended from the priesthood when he refused to produce his account books or attend the trial. He died without the Last Rites in 1917. He had been declared penniless, but his life-long “housekeeper,” suddenly became wealthy and moved into the villa. The French government established a new currency in 1946. Rather than declare where her wealth came from, the woman, Marie Denarnaud, burnt the old francs and died penniless too. I don’t know what had been really going on but something clearly was very odd about the situation.
Book in hand, we approached the church, first passing a closed gateway to the church yard with a memento mori skull and crossbones as décor over the door. We reached the main entrance and looked up to see the Latin inscription “Terribilis est locus iste” carved on the lintel. Depending on your inclination, it can be translated as “This is a horrible place,” or less dramatically (and less nysterious), “This is a place of awe.”
Whichever is correct, the words established a mood that wasn’t dispelled when we entered the nave and approached the holy water stoop supported by a horned and cloven-footed devil. For those who don’t believe in conspiracies, the choice can be explained by looking at a catalogue of church refurbishments published in during the period. Still, it seems less than suitable and not a place where I’d want to dip my fingers. Specialists have found other anomalies but these two were enough for us. The church was dark and damp and gave us the creeps. It was easy to imagine flickering candles casting moving and distorted shadows over dark rites with pagan roots. Was the church ever used for happy events like marriage or baptism? Whatever its current use, I couldn’t wait to get out into the clean air.
We wandered toward the disused tower which had been the good Father’s library. It, too, was dedicated to Mary Magdalene. In keeping with the general desolation, the stained-glass windows had been broken by vandals. Pieces of glass lay scattered on the ground. I couldn’t resist picking up a handful for a memento of a most peculiar place, neither horrible nor of awe, but all the same, unsettling. But rather than stuffing the shards in my pocket, I let the glass fall through my fingers, back to the ground where they could await some other curiosity seeker.
It was definitely time for more mundane and contemporary activities: a late lunch in Limoux, famous for it’s sparkling wines and good food. We dined on cassoulet, and raised our glasses to the authors of the book who provided endless fodder for conversations about the past.
Photos copyright by author, except for Montsegur which by MDenis from Wikipedia CC
The author, Judith Works, is on the board of EPIC Group Writers, inveterate traveler, and author of the memoir Coins in the Fountain – A Midlife Escape to Rome
Maybe we were crazy. “A bit daft”, some New Zealanders exclaimed as they scratched their heads when we took off on our bicycles for another day. We slowly pulled into traffic, pedaling up yet another steep and busy road. A long ascent reminded us that if we want to finish this 11-day bicycle trip, we better conserve.
We were daft. We did not adequately research how much climbing there would be, especially in those mysterious meters. We were also not young anymore — we were nearing (cough) 70. And we actually paid for this physical “opportunity” when a younger couple in their early 50’s told us about a website of bike tours. We had met Ellyn and Michael mountain biking in Moab, Utah numerous times, so bicycling was in our blood.
A month later, the four of us agreed to pay a New Zealand stranger to try his self-guided, independent bike tour to the West Coast and Banks Peninsula on the spectacular South Island of New Zealand. He would provide bikes, the routes, and places to stay each night. No sag wagon. If a bike broke down, the guys were our fixers.
After a tedious 30-hour flight from Seattle to LA to Nandi, Fiji, then to Wellington, we finally arrived in Christchurch on the South Island. What a shock to see a still-devastated downtown from the 2010-2011 earthquakes. Cathedrals and high rises still gutted open, they awaited insurance and restructure issues to settle. Old wooden cottages with wrap-around porches, like the charming B&B where we stayed, had no damage. We were told those structures simply swayed to the beat. Then a recent earthquake in November, 2016 dramatically cut into many tourists’ plans, including ours.
A popular whale-watching town called Kiakoura still had train tracks laying on the beach with landslides covering major roads. So our tour coordinator rerouted us on a “plan two” mere weeks before we left the states. We would now cross the gorgeous Southern Alps on the magical TransAlpine railway with our bikes in the baggage car, to the little town of Moana where the ride began. Little did we know that everyone in the world seemed to come with us, since Kiakoura was off limits. But onward we must pedal.
On the previous day, our young Kiwi pulled up to our B&B in his van and left us with four quality bikes, straddled with two waterproof panniers and a front pack of tools, tire tubes, pumps, maps and hope. We had never carried our clothes and gear before. Limiting clothes and one extra pair of shoes to six pounds in each bag and no make-up - frightening. This new weight took careful balancing in windy conditions, but it wasn’t our only new lesson: we were now riding on the other side of the road.
We pedaled on major highways for 30-45 miles a day to our nightly BnBs. It was not far, but it was hilly and busy nearly every day. Where were the bucolic, empty roads that we saw on the website? Ellyn was not afraid to walk up to a guy enjoying his beer at a local pub.
“Hey! We’re on bikes. Here’s my map. Can you direct us to a smaller road so we don’t have to ride that crazy highway out there tomorrow?” she points.
I think I see his buddies snicker. There are no alternate routes, but it seems that smaller roads in this lightly populated country would not reach our final beds. It had all sounded so dreamy five months ago.
Did we train? Oh yes.Three months of spin classes, swimming and core work helped dramatically. It was a terrific feeling to get stronger as we were getting older. Alas, such preparation did not include practice on narrow roads, one-lane bridges, and continuous traffic. Seattle’s rainy autumn made riding outdoors less appealing, but at least we could experiment with our rain gear on the hills of Edmonds.
Honestly, our New Zealand rides did include quiet snippets of beauty - lovely sheep farms and stunning ocean views. But it was usually drowned out with an LA- freeway drone of tour buses, milk trucks, and travel vans breathing down our bent backs. All four of us were scared.
“The white line is our friend,” I nervously chanted by the second day.
Any deviation from the edge of the road was a possible disaster — no guard rails, deep ravines, and not even three inches of asphalt forgiveness. If we pedaled too far inside the white line, we risked vehicles whizzing by so close that the force would wobble our thin metal steeds. We all spread out with our trusty orange reflector vests and little blinking lights. Is that enough to keep from dying?
When we waited for each other at 10 kilometer increments, it was a relief that no siren was heard. We drank water, shared nuts, reviewed maps, and laughed at our folly. Sometimes we reminded each other to glimpse beyond the white line. Look: rolling green pastures of sheep and cattle have their own personal views of the beach at the Tasman Sea. In America, there’d be private driveways or hotels to obstruct the view. The tall, swaying tree ferns on the mountainsides were alluring. Sometimes there was a funky ole cafe or tavern at a crossroads where we’d have a pot of tea and remark that these New Zealanders sure are a cordial lot! Raising our teacups, we toasted our continued luck: no need to don rain gear again.
Baffling as it may seem, an unusual pattern began to emerge. An new confidence pulsed through our muscles and minds as we summited difficult terrain without walking the bikes. A feeling of invincibility bloomed as we let loose and sped down the other side with that teen-age thrill — whoopee!
More comforting patterns became apparent. We enjoyed Michael and Ellyn’s daily company. With pleasure, we sopped up two delicious eggs, bacon,’n toast, granola and fresh fruit, every morning by our lovely hosts. We pushed
off before the forecasted rain. We rotated who lead, who swept. We stopped often to explore. Heads up, historical signs caught our attentions now. One taught us about the early coal mining towns that once densely populated the remote area. More importantly, I learned to shut up about the traffic or outwardly worry about the upcoming climb. What good was I to the group? I finally quelled my fears and rode with the flow. Maybe that is why my husband stopped on a lonely hilltop, and straddling our bikes, he kissed me.
On our way to Punikaiki Tavern, a country roadside attraction, we peaked a long hill to find a bustling intersection of tour buses, families spilling out of cafes and souvenir shops with ice-cream cones. The world-famous Pancake Rocks and shooting blowholes of ocean spray beckoned us down the trail. We witnessed strange, layered rock formations and ocean bursts. And oh, we were
w a l k i n g. So lovely was this movement.
Upon our return to the bike stand, two young Aussies on two wheels of their own, were surprised to see us oldsters walking up to our own bikes. Sun-baked, with wrinkle-deep cheeks squeezed by our helmet straps, we exchanged comments how rarely cyclists were seen on these roads. Their incredulity of our route was a cherished moment. Funny how those precious slices of acknowledgement can fuel yet another hill.
Rita Ireland has been lucky to teach in various parts of the world. It was a lovely impetus to escape -- growing up on an Iowa farm. Rita now lives in Edmonds with her spouse, David, who found her reading on a quiet Sunday morning beach in Los Angeles 41 years ago. They have two children who now live far away from their home. Her favorite part of a long teaching career was being the librarian at Meadowdale High School. She was thrilled to buy books, enticing teens to read.
by Rita Ireland
New York City can be a daunting city to explore because it is so huge and expensive. With a 40th wedding anniversary to celebrate, and other cities and countries under our belt, my husband and I wondered why do we keep ignoring this grand city? Was it fear of being in such an overwhelming place? Maybe. But, all that changed this fall when we spent twelve glorious days there. Here are our suggestions:
1. Get busy. Start researching months ahead. Lonely Planet’s New York City was our guide. Online resources like Rough Guide to New York City and Trip Advisor also provided insights. We first created personal lists of our top fifteen things to do - culminating with a new list and a quest to understand “while in that neighborhood, let’s see….”
2. Get goin’. Use credit card miles to obtain cheap plane tickets, of course; or sign up for fare tracker websites like Kayak so you are alerted to deals. JetBlue has consistently lower prices. JFK Airport is the least complicated to reach the city - take the AirTrain for $7.75. And LaGuardia’s NYC Airporter bus is currently $13.
As for new Broadway shows, tickets are hard to get. But, if you purchase from home, you can relax. When there, many long-running shows can be booked for half the price for a next day performance. Lines at Times Square could be unnerving, so head over to the less crowded ticket booth in Brooklyn: http://www.nytix.com/Broadway/DiscountBroadwayTickets/TKTS/.
3. Get creative where you stay. Why pay $350-$500/night in a Manhattan hotel when you can stay in a private home for $180? Using AirBnB (or VRBO) in a neighborhood provides a quieter, homey feel. How about Staying in Brooklyn Heights in a historic brownstone on the top floor with a private entrance? Fantastic! A few blocks from the home where we rented a room was the new Brooklyn Promenade overlooking the breathtaking Manhattan skyline. Subway lines into the city were easy.
4. Get down. Down into the maze of subways. Forget expensive taxis or Ubers. Save money for dinners and plays by using the easy subways. They are cheap, ubiquitous, clean, and crime-free. Free music by buskers is a bonus. Buying an Unlimited METRO pass for a week provides a smart, flexible plan. Avoid buying the pass at crowded Grand Central -- any subway entrance will do.
5. Get moving. Just start walking. Pedestrians are so colorful: it’s a plethora of United Nations, wide-eyed tourists vs. fast-walking Wall Streeters, friendly vagabonds vs spiky-heeled models. Blocks are long: ithe workout is a good way not to feel guilty buying an eclair. Head over to Chelsea to walk on top of an old railroad, called the High Line, a creative path that winds its way through gardens, food vendors and public art.
Biking provides a fun perspective of Manhattan too. Rent a bike from a vendor near the free Staten Island ferry - Battery Park, then ride up the flat Hudson River Trail - to the majestic One World Trade Center- more than the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, its park below is a most reverent reflection of 9/11. If energetic, bike all the way to irresistible Central Park. Then simply return bikes at the park to the same company. Take advantage of the food trucks at the southwest entrance - best juicy gyro ever!
5. Get lost. Where to go? Flip a coin. Or,I instead of taking the subway one way, go the opposite. Locals are so friendly -- we were often asked if we needed help. Serendipity fosters unique memories. Explore a new ‘hood. Harlem is gentrifying, but you’ll be wowed at Streetbird - Chef Marcus Samuelson’s funky restaurant. Or saunter into a Carnegie library, a garden, a Jewish deli like famous Katz’s, or a tiny one filled with locals -- even better. Walk past a Jamaican joint in the Bronx. Ahh, smell the spices and find a booth. It’s the opposite of standing in lines, where there is stiff competition for The Today Show, Jimmy Fallon, or the Knicks. But it’s authentic.
6. Get dressed. Dressed up, that is. What a thrill to get all decked out for an early dinner in the city, a few blocks from your Broadway show. Unlike your comfy hometown, it’s time to add the dazzles, a quirkiness, or a tie, and get swanky! How often do you feel a bit luxurious? Take in a jazz club, an alfresco cafe, or a late-night cocktail at a local pub or the cigar bar at Manhattan’s Peninsula Hotel?
6. Get over it. When traveling, someone is bound to make a wrong move. “Damn….that subway line was on the other side.” Make a pact of quick forgiveness - and move on. Mistakes will be made, but the cool part will be how fast you can laugh or shrug it off. It could be your best story when you get back home.
7. Get inside. The ambience of Manhattan’s majestic New York Library, the art deco of the Chrysler Building, or solitude in the cathedrals: it’s all so ethereal and breathtaking. And the art museums! The smaller Guggenheim and The Frick are easier to manage. But, oh….save a day for the incredible Metropolitan Museum of Art and MOMA. Lines are shorter in the early afternoon. Here’s our win/win: we leave each other for a while to go our own pace, meet for lunch, separate again, and later show each other our favorite pieces. If off-beaten art paths are your delight, the Chelsea area has weekly exhibits in such fun spaces. http://www.art-chelsea.com
8. Get transformed. Bask in the imagination of creative writers, artists, and politicians over the last two centuries to sift through your head. If you read their histories you may appreciate the beautiful lives which came before you, such as the architects of the Brooklyn Bridge. Stop to hear a local writer at a bookstore which could lead to hearing of an idea you didn’t plan on, which dominos to discovering another part of the city: taking the train to the Bronx! Ahh, the impressive botanical garden is there —with a Frida Kahlo exhibit and a women mariachi band - amazing! Where else, but New York City.
Let the unpredictability of new routes and experiences take over and fill you with awe. Take subways, stroll in parks, and dine at local spots-- this melds your tourist identity into shades of a local. Savor the transformation, take it slow with a sip and a stir.
© Copyright 2017 Rita Ireland
by Tori Peters
I must admit that I have never been a geology enthusiast. During my undergraduate years, I was required to take an earth science course. I chose geology; I can’t remember why. Maybe because the time for the course fit into my schedule better than the geography class. This is where I confess that I earned a “D” grade in that class because I refused to memorize the rocks. As an English major more interested in literature and writing than rocks, I figured if I really wanted to know a rock’s name or what it was composed of I would buy a field guide to help me. Age and travel have a way of tricking me back to geology. Rock names don’t interest me but weathering, anticline, synclines, tectonic forces do.
When Jo, Tom, and Lois, California friends, suggested that we take a road trip to include visits to Zion, Bryce Canyon, Mesa Verde and Grand Canyon National Parks. I jumped at the opportunity. Jo and Lois set the itinerary and made reservations. Tom would be doing most of the driving. I bought Your Guide to the National Parks by Michael Joseph Oswald so that I could educate myself on what we could do and see at each park. In the chapter about Grand Canyon, I read about the Grand Staircase. Oh, that is interesting I thought. What exactly does this mean?
Millions and millions of years ago as Earth tried to figure out her role in the universe and after a high mountain range as high as the Himalayas eroded away, deposits of sedimentary materials from the ever changing landscape in this area that we know as Utah and Arizona, layered one on top of another. Earth’s fractured crust, like most humans, does not sit still. It bumps into one another pushing, pulling apart, and sliding. The land tilts up, folds under, or slides one way or the other. These actions cause the layers of collected sediment to look like a layered cake that has slipped around on runny frosting. I have felt earthquakes, I know how this can be both fascinating and scary. Imagine then the Colorado River and her tributaries eating their way through the layers. The waters carry sedimentary rock down river as they dig deeper and deeper into the earth. Canyons are formed. I wish it were this simple but it isn’t.
I read that Clarence Dutton, an American geologist and Captain in the Army, traveled with the John Wesley Powell expedition to explore the Colorado Plateau. As he looked north from the Grand Canyon, he noticed that the geological landscape formed a geological staircase. The top layer, the top step, he called the “Pink Cliffs” and first step. This became Bryce Canyon National Park. The bottom geological layer at Bryce is the top layer at Zion National Park, and he called it “Grey Cliffs”. The third step, the White Cliffs, is the bottom geological layer at Zion and the top layer at Grand Canyon National Park. I have to admit that I had to think about this for a long time. I understood the words that I read, and I could picture the staircase in my head. Did I really understand?
We did not plan the trip with the idea of the geological Grand Staircase. We drove to Zion first. It was probably on our way to Zion that I mentioned the Grand Staircase to my friends. They thought it an interesting concept, but travel experiences and politics dominated our conversation. At Zion National Park, I was more interested in hiking to Angel’s Landing and astonished at the different colors, so different than Western Washington, then the geology of the canyon. Because I thought it might help us understand the sights that brought forth “oohs and ahs,” I bought a book at the gift store titled Geology Unfolded: An illustrated Guide to the Geology of Utah’s National Parks. The book explained the Grand Staircase and Hoodoos. Don’t you love saying that word, “Hoodoo?” It cries to be the subject of a song. A hoodoo is the result of varied sedimentary material layering one on top of the other, forces of plate tectonics stressing the layers, and climate and water eroding those layers. The finished product, “hoodoo,” named for its strange human or goblin shapes, create a rare and beautiful nature sculptured landscape
We became Hoodoo paparazzi before we even entered Bryce Canyon. Our camera’s clicked at any rock sculpture that looked like a Hoodoo. At Bryce I had to remind myself to stop taking pictures and to experience the beauty around me. The fact that we were walking on the top stair of the staircase entered our minds, but the hoodoos had our attention. Every once in a while one of the four of us would mention the staircase or ask to read the Utah geology book to try and take in the information.
The geological variation on the long drive from Mesa Verde to the Grand Canyon entertained our imaginations. We arrived at the eastern end of the South Rim around 3:00 P.M. At our first stop, Desert View, we explored “Indian Watchtower” designed in 1932 by one of America’s early women architects, Mary Colter. From the terrace and the tower, we had our first sight of the Grand Canyon. I was not disappointed with Mary Colter’s Watchtower but with the view: hazy sky, massive landscape, crowded, and not as intimate as Zion and Bryce.
The next morning, we hiked a section of the Bright Angel Trail. The shadows of dark threatening rain clouds chased each other across the canyon walls. Walking down the trail looking at the colored rock layers that made up the cliff faces, I thought about the Grand Staircase and the geological layers. Like a private library with books piled on top of each other these layers contained stories of wild weather, earthquakes, and of life itself evolving. A vision of my childhood visits to my grandmother’s came into my head. I loved pulling out the few photo albums that she kept on an old oval oak table in the living room. I would carefully study the pictures looking for familiar resemblances and trying to make meaning out of this business of life. As the first drops of an historic rain storm (Apparently it never rains in Arizona in June.) touched my hand and then my arm, I thought, “Ah, these geological layers are like my grandmother’s photo albums.” Piled one upon the other, they hold the mysteries and secrets that Earth has been collecting since her creation. At that moment I wished for the knowledge and the time to read the layers of the geological Grand Staircase and the three parks that are keepers of Earth’s stories in that part of our world.
© Copyright 2017 Tori Peters