Meteora is a five-hour bus ride from the ancient and pagan holy site of Delphi, and a world away in religious beliefs. Glenn and I and the others on the tour lurched around steep roads over a mountain pass marked by small memorials at every curve to those who met with accidents. It was a relief to descend to the plains of Thessaly to reach Meteora and its astounding pillars that abruptly rise skyward as high as 1800 feet above the plain. Neanderthals and our earliest ancestors sheltered in caves here some 50,000 years ago. The surrounding area was known in ancient times, mentioned by Homer and Herodotus, and was the home of the most famous doctor of antiquity, Asclepius, who founded a healing center here. Then, like Delphi, its fame receded into the mists of time until the 9th century when Greek Orthodox hermits settled in caves to lead solitary lives of contemplation and prayer.

Whether from the desire for closeness with others who shared the same beliefs or a change in religious philosophy, the first of twenty-four monasteries was founded sometime before 1200 AD, although sources differ on dates. The first monks drove wedges into crevices to ascend the pillars. Reaching the top, they wove rope ladders which could be drawn up in case of attacks from the Turks, and baskets for building materials and later arrivals. Ladders and baskets were replaced “when the Lord let them break,” which I suspect was quite often.

Some of the building complexes were built on pillars large-enough to support a small church, terraces, lodges and refectories. Others rested on pinnacles so small there was only room for one tiny building.

Now, only six of these religious monuments continue to function while the ruins of the others lie lonely and desolate. Even those that remain are barely populated with dwindling numbers of ascetics desiring the isolated life: about 15 monks and 40 nuns.

We had the opportunity to visit two of the monasteries: 

   St. Stephen is relatively easy to visit because there is a wooden foot bridge from land to pillar although it’s not a good idea to look down if you suffer from vertigo. Monks were living a common life here by the 1300s. Despite the designation, the complex was deserted by 1960, and converted into a nunnery in 1961. We were welcomed by a smiling apple-cheeked elderly woman in black. Hanging on pegs were neat black and white wraps which those of us women who wore slacks had to wind around our waists before we joined Sunday crowds of every age.

Doubly covered, I began to look around. There are two churches, the oldest built in 1545, was heavily damaged by Germans in WWII. The second church, built in 1798, has relatively modern frescoes, some done in 1915, and while lovely, they don’t hold the same fascination for me as other-worldly Byzantine era masterpieces.

The monastery reportedly has a piece of the True Cross and relics of John the Baptist although they weren’t on view, but the refectory holds marvels: icons, embroidery, silver and ancient parchments. The most interesting icon was done by a painter from Crete, later known as El Greco when he moved to Spain to produce the elongated and luridly-colored paintings for which he is famous.

  Varlaam or All Saints Monastery, 1200 feet above the plain, began as a cluster of cave-dwelling monks about 1350 and transformed into a church and cluster of outbuildings in 1518. Stairs were cut in 1923 and we began the long walk and then climb what seemed to be a thousand steps to visit the church, said to have been built in twenty days after collecting the materials for 22 years.

Some creatures took a break on the way up.

As I looked at the winch and rope net used for humans and materials I wondered how many monks and visitors fell to their death as they reached for heaven. The thought of swinging out over the abyss was terrifying. Now a small cable car does the job safely.

The interior of the small church with brilliant gold, red and blue icons; lamps; and furnishings glowed in the dim light, a truly holy atmosphere. Many of the chairs and tables in the church were of inlaid wood in the Syrian style. When I inquired why our guide reminded me that the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox church remains in Istanbul the former capital of the late Roman Empire known as Constantinople. I wished to take photos but unsurprisingly none were allowed

What were these men’s lives really like divorced from the world and its cares? It seemed to me it would have been a short life of privation, freezing cold and snowy in the long winters, with chilblains and arthritis wracking their bodies in an unremitting struggle to reach a state of holiness through ritual and prayer as flickering candles lit the golden icons.

A life I could not imagine for myself but admire anyway. The world could use more holiness.

All photos copyright Judith Works

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Hooray! It’s Panettone season around here.

Actually, it’s the holiday season. In the US this means from Thanksgiving to New Year’s day. So I have about five weeks to indulge in my favorite treat: panettone, that traditional sweet and oh-so-delicious Italian Christmas bread. About the first of November the stores, even in my corner of Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest, begin stacking up the colorful boxes in windows and shelves and I begin loading up the shopping cart. The bread is distinctive – tall and domed and nestled in a paper cuff. The height comes from letting the dough rise three times over a period of 20 hours. It usually weighs a kilo (just over 2 lbs.) and is sturdy enough to last for days without going stale tho’ probably not as long as my mother’s fruit cake that was tough enough to survive a dogsled trek to the North Pole.  The packaging, which gets ever-more elaborate, almost always features a ribbon handle or bow all the better to carry it home. During our time in Italy, I often crowded into a jammed car on the Metro to share what little space there was with others toting their own panetonne.
Ideal for hostess gifts, I also use it for non-traditional recipes like bread pudding and French toast (I should call it Italian toast) although there’s nothing better than a simple wedge toasted and served with orange juice and coffee on a Christmas morning in front of the fireplace.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the bread: The current iteration originated in Milan in the early 20thcentury but it has ancient origins, possibly back to Roman times when the aristocrats dined on a leavened bread sweetened with honey. A slightly more plausible origin is a story about a cake flavored with lime zest and raisins served at the Duke of Milan’s table in the 15th century. Attesting to its popularity, it soon began to be depicted in paintings, and in the 18thcentury a “Pane di Tono” or luxury cake was mentioned by an Italian writer, Pietro Verri. Whatever the earlier varieties contained, modern bakers can’t resist experimenting with additions beyond raisins such as chocolate, dried figs, pears, orange or citron peel, mascarpone, or sweet liqueur to tempt the shopper.

How could anyone resist?  Not me!

All photos copyrighted by Judith Works

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What makes a site sacred? The atmosphere, the setting, the priests who declared it so, or the pilgrims who trek from far away to experience a oneness with their god or gods? Maybe all of the above.

My husband and I set out from Athens for a two-day trip first to visit sacred Delphi, once considered the center of the world. The following day we would visit another sacred site, Meteora, deep in the mountains of mainland Greece. The country’s economic woes were in full view, not only in the city with its empty store fronts, but even more so in the countryside where miles of abandoned buildings, some half-built, were everywhere that cotton fields weren’t. Fluffy cotton balls from the harvest drifted alongside the road to somewhat soften the scene on the fertile Plains of Thessaly before we began a climb into the mountains where, sadly, the roadways were lined in trash.

But religious sentiment was everywhere evident with dozens of tiny models of Orthodox churches, often painted the blue and white colors of Greece, placed near dangerous roadway curves where some unfortunate motorist met with disaster, or perhaps was saved from death by a miracle. We stopped for a coffee at a roadside stop where I slipped into a nearby chapel built for travelers who paused for a prayer before continuing their journeys. I lit a tall beeswax taper to join others casting glowing light on the icons painted in rich gold, red and blue.

We’d been to Delphi some years earlier. Set high on a steep slope not far from Mt. Olympus, it had been a quiet, mystical and enchanting experience with the ancient ruins overlooking groves of olive trees sweeping down to the bright blue sea. It was easy to imagine pilgrims coming to worship Apollo or wait in trepidation for the enigmatic prophecies of the fearsome Delphic Oracle who chewed on bay leaves and inhaled gases from a cleft in the rock for inspiration.

But would she have ever dreamed of today’s mass tourism with buses lined up to disgorge passengers who only wished to climb the marble-paved path to spend five minutes taking selfies before lunch? Perhaps she did, but we were too distracted by the noise and shoving to continue beyond the pillars of the Temple of Athena to climb the top of the hill where we’d previously sat to contemplate the mysteries of the past.

Giving up, we retreated to the quiet museum where we could marvel at the fragments of the treasures that have survived invasions and looting over nearly three millenia. The wonderfully-named chryselephantine heads made of ivory and gold depicting Apollo and and a haughty-looking Artemis brought to mind how religion has informed art until recently. The ivory is blackened by burning in one of the periodic desecrations by marauders or natural disasters, giving the gods an African appearance. I wondered if Picasso had seen them. 

Nearby, is another treasure: pieces of a gold and silver life-size bull. Other rooms hold statuary, building fragments, curious egg-shaped pieces that represent the navel or center of the Greek world, and a gigantic sphinx.

And no one who has ever seen The Charioteer can forget the perfect serenity of the slender young man as he holds the reins to guide his horses to victory.

But my favorite is the small bowl finely painted with a scene of Apollo, the god of the sun, healing, music, and poetry, holding his lyre and pouring a libation while a sacred raven perched on a branch listens. What ancient tune did the god play? If we could hear it now, would we feel close to a sacred state?

All photos copyright Judith Works

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It was easy to see where the term “ritzy” came from when the liveried doorman opened the portal for my daughter and me to enter the Ritz Hotel in London. She had arranged for tea at the hallowed hotel as a special treat. The lobby, filled with stylishly-dressed people who looked like they belonged there, was overwhelming with its marble floors, heavy silk draperies, enormous flower arrangements, and discreet shops filled with expensive jewelry. Anyone fond of minimalist décor would cover their eyes as they gasped in anguish. I loved it!

We were ushered to our table in the Palm Court by a tail-coated maître d’ with an iPad. The atmosphere was even more sumptuous than the lobby with a glittering chandelier hanging from the skylight, gold-framed mirrors, a gold-painted sculpture of cherubs with scaly legs and fish-fin feet holding up a heraldic shield (presumably with the Ritz insignia) while a half-naked woman below gazes upward in wonder.

A gigantic flower arrangement on a pedestal, potted palms and a grand piano completed the scene. The pianist played show tunes to provide a background to the tinkling of china cups and saucers and light conversations.

I glanced at other guests seated at tables nearby. All were middle-aged, the men wore suits and ties and the women were dressed for afternoon tea, like us. Our waiter introduced himself, and would we like him to bring a glass of Champagne when he returned with the menu. Yes, we would.
As we took the first sip the maître d’ escorted a young couple to their table directly behind ours. My eyes and those of guests seated at the neighboring tables followed the couple; conversations paused. He wore a skinny suit and a skinny tie, someone from the design or fashion world I surmised. She must have been a model: nearly six feet tall with long straight black hair and bangs brushing her eyes, a low cut blouse and a skirt cut up to – well, you can imagine. But my eyes focused on her shoes: Red suede, backless with four-inch heels. I sighed in envy even though my feet hurt just imagining wearing them.
Our waiter returned with the Champagne and handed us a menu with all the tea selections: Eighteen different varieties selected by the hotel tea sommelier, including such exotics as Rose Congou, Dragon Pearls and Russian Caravan. We decided on the house special: Ritz Royal Blend. When he brought the tea and a stand filled with sandwiches and cakes, he asked if we’d like a photo to remember the event. Indeed, yes, even though it marked us as tourists.

The little sandwiches were quintessentially English: cucumber with cream cheese and chives, Scottish smoked salmon, egg mayonnaise with shallots and watercress; the pastries were French and divine. The last act was scones with Cornish clotted cream and strawberry preserves. It was impossible to finish everything. Our waiter asked if we wanted a little box.

After the last drip was poured from the teapot and final sip of Champagne was taken we picked up our box with the Ritz insignia and reluctantly gathered our raincoats – the nearby National Gallery would be an ideal place to walk off the indulgence. The pianist began his rendition of Puttin on the Ritz. As we descended the several stairs back to the main lobby I turned to take one last glance. A man supported an ancient woman as they too departed. He wore the standard suit. She wore a wreath of flowers on her sparse gray hair, a house dress, and UGG boots.

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Time hasn’t been kind to the Mission of Tumacacori that stands in partial ruin three miles south of the flourishing artist’s town of Tubac in southern Arizona. Dreary weather added to the melancholy atmosphere surrounding the abandoned church when my husband and I visited. Although it is part of a National Historic Monument managed by the Park Service, other than a group of hikers who briefly stopped to use the facilities before they headed out on a birdwatching expedition, the grounds were empty of visitors.

Glenn and I wandered around the dispiriting buildings, feeling the passage of time bending our shoulders downward as we looked at what weathering, looting and vandalism can do. Half or more of the bell tower has fallen; the entrance and nave have lost their statues, plaster, and paint to expose the bare bricks as if construction had only begun. A few lonely gravestone remain outside the mortuary chapel.

Only the newly painted white dome of the church gives a beacon of hope. Although restoration work is on-going and a small museum is available, it seems fitting that the ruins remain a monument to the fraught history of the area. The past remains part of the present with border wars now involving refugees, economic migrants, and drug runners. Phillip Caputo’s novel, Crossers, brilliantly depicts the area and its fraught recent history.
The Jesuit missionary, Padre Kino, arrived in the area in January 1691, and established a mission to convert the local tribes living in the vast land the Spanish called “pima,” a word that meant “nothing.” What is now the Sonoran desert of Southern Arizona and Northwestern Mexico was christened Pimeria Alta. The padres found Tumacacori and the surrounding area populated by the O’odhams, peaceful farmers who grew corn, beans, squash, and long-staple cotton that we now call Supima.

At first all went well as the Jesuits distributed cattle, tools, and seeds along with their teachings and baptisms. But like everywhere else, the Eden wasn’t to last when Spanish ranchers and miners moved in and enslaved the local population. Apache raiders, pushed out of their own lands by Comanches, began their depredations. Contagious diseases swept the missionary compounds, revolts broke out, churches burned. The time of the Jesuits came to an end in 1767 when King Charles III of Spain suppressed the order, favoring the Franciscans instead. The remaining Jesuit priests of the Pimeria Alta were led in a death march to Vera Cruz, the survivors transported to Spain. Legends of lost mines and buried treasure were born. The old movie, “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” came to my mind.

The Spanish made treaties with some tribes and captured many of the Apaches, who were shipped in chains to the Caribbean plantations or to reservations. It was 1801 and an auspicious time to rebuild the small church into something fitting for the importance of the mission. But the Mexican wars for independence and a decree by the new government forced all Spanish-born residents out of the country. The mission and the partially-built church was abandoned. A few native people held on as the Apaches began to attack again. Finally, they packed the holy statues, chalices and vestments and headed north bent with their burden baskets to San Xavier del Bac, never to return. The ruination began.

Our view of the state of the universe changed dramatically the following day when we visited San Xavier del Bac, a white-washed glory standing proud in the brilliant morning sun. The good padre, Kino, first arrived in the settlement of Bac in 1692 and returned to the site, now not far from Tucson, in 1700 to found a mission. He was interested in saving souls and also curious about the blue shells the local tribes traded. They were abalone shells and came from California, proving that California wasn’t an island and could be reached by an overland route. The door to further Spanish expansion was opened leading to construction of the beautiful string of missions on El Camino Real.

Work began in 1783 on the Mexican Baroque wonder that stands today. Against the odds, with the continuing turmoil of Apache raids, the Gadsden Purchase in 1854 when the area became the Territory of Arizona, Indian Agency interference, an earthquake, and the inevitable depredations of time and weather, the church miraculously survived and thrived.

We joined a few tourists and worshippers to enter the church. Colorful frescoes, baroque carvings that look like draperies, painted wooden statues, gold leaf, pillars and niches, fill the nave, side chapels and high altar, dome and choir loft.

Human-sized angels guard the pillars where the transept supports the dome, painted angels adorn the space where columns meet the dome.

Geometric designs contrast with the swirling decor elsewhere. Banks of votive candles flicker in the dim light.

The theatrics were a contrast to a few quiet worshippers: a man in white, his cowboy hat hung on the post by the pew; a women bent in prayer, her long braid of jet-black hair hanging down her back, along with others who reverently gazed at the blanket covering the effigy of San Xavier with its pinned photos, hospital wrist bands and milagros placed by pilgrims as prayers for intercession for themselves or loved ones.

We sat at the back of the church for many minutes in contemplation. When it was time to move on I lit a candle for the men and women who labored to build this monument to faith, survival, and continuity.

All photos copyright Judith Works
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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 8thcentury, rebuilt in the Romanesque style in the 10th or 11thcentury. Sauniere seems to have had a shady background both in his adherence to dogma and wealth from unknown sources. He spent great sums of money on the church, a tower for his library and a large villa with extensive grounds.

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

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

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

We wandered toward the disused tower which had been the good father’s library. It, too, was dedicated to Mary Magdalene. In keeping with the general desolation, the stained-glass windows had been broken by vandals. Pieces of glass lay scattered on the ground. I couldn’t resist picking up a handful for a memento of a most peculiar place, neither horrible nor of awe, but all the same, unsettling. But rather than stuffing the shards in my pocket, I let the glass fall through my fingers, back to the ground where they could await some other curiosity seeker.
It was definitely time for more mundane and contemporary activities: a late lunch in Limoux, famous for it’s sparkling wines and good food. We dined on cassoulet, and raised our glasses to the authors of the book who provided  endless fodder for conversations about the past. 
Photos except Carcassone copyright Judith Works 
Photo of Carcassone copyright bmsgator from Wikipedia

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

           It is a hot afternoon in Santa Clara, Cuba, and perhaps that is why we are the only ones standing at the Tren Blindado park, listening to an engaging gentleman share his adoration of beloved rebel, Che Guevara. We are trying to picture the bold Guevara using a bulldozer to derail the train that ignited the Cuban Revolution.
            More vivid, however, is my memory of trying to give this older gentleman, a veteran who experienced the Revolution fifty years ago, a few coins. He waves off the tip and instead derails us with his simple request:
            “Algunas plumas, por favor?
            We are a bit stunned. He wants a couple of ink pens? Between the three of us, I could only pull up two Bics from my backpack, but he seems delighted! 
            Such an odd solicitation should not have befuddled us, for we teachers have been traversing Cuba for nearly three weeks. Such ordinary requests remind us that items of great worth to some are ordinary to others. 
            After researching Cuba for months, we decide to go without a tour group in March, 2015. We could reduce costs and avoid limitations that can hamper a large group. Typically, whole groups get off the bus together, walk and eat together; yet they probably learn more from guides —and never get lost. That’s not our current style of travel.
            We are curious to see Cuba before it could all change. The two countries are wading in a new political pool: President Obama began testing the waters by “normalizing relations” with Raul Castro’s communist government a year ago.  According to official websites, as long as we have “educational motives,” it is legal to travel as singletons. 
            Reading travel blogs and listening to friends who have traveled to Cuba help to fortify our confidence. Truly, it is astonishing to complete an online booking from the U.S. for rooms in a Cuban home —without payment, simply trust, and the rooms would be there upon arrival! We would pay in Cuban currency, as there are limited ATMs in Havana.
            We learn from previous travelers that there are key items that are simply in short supply in this country. Why not share our “take for granted” products, in hopes they would be conduits to conversations? Laden with this extra weight, we fly to Cancun, Mexico and then to Havana. Cuba is only 90 miles off the coast of Florida – and now, in 2016, direct flights finally operate out of Miami. This is a big deal.
            What is our first thrill upon leaving the little airport?  An impressive array of shiny 1950’s Fords, Chevys, and Buicks slowly parading along the warm Malecon boulevard, often filled with men, their arms resting out the windows, cigars in hand. Oh, the pride of owning such a vehicle, where owners can not rely on American car parts since the Cuban Embargo of 1960. Much ingenuity and creative substitution keep these cars a rollin’.

            Less than an hour out of the airport, I am already dispersing from my bag of baseball caps that friends gave me back in Seattle. In my first hat-sharing, a friendly Havana cab driver took us to a cambio with a good exchange rate. While my friends pick up local currency, CUCs, I stay with him and our luggage. Our ensuing conversation leads to his two children.
            “Les gustan béisbol?  I ask.
            He turns around with a wide grin, sharing that he and his son both play for local teams. When I ask him to reopen the trunk, he looks warily at me from the rearview mirror. But when I produce two baseball caps from my backpack – a Marinersand a Tampa Buccaneers – he is taken aback. He begins a little grateful dance, showing other taxi drivers his new delights.
            He drives us to our lodging, close to an old plaza in the Habana Vieja, where UNESCO is refurbishing Spanish colonial buildings. Children are kicking soccer balls in the shady, narrow streets; and nearby restaurants and bands under the balconies beckon us to stroll over. But first, our taxi driver happily hefts our bags up the two flights to our new casa. To our surprise, the place exudes an old-world elegance: tall, chandelier-filled rooms of antiques. And for only $35 US dollars a night for three of us, how could we not spend five days here?
            Each day we safely walk the curvy, often torn-up streets, ready to play quasi -ambassadors. Learning that older Cubans need reading glasses, it turns out to be a fun way to interact with a Havana street-sweeper or the women sitting on stoops. I ask if they know someone else who could use reading glasses. Lo and behold…they need the glasses. This leads to photo ops and fresh laughter, as they admire the new views.

             One morning we negotiate a taxi ride to the friendly town of Vinales near tobacco hills of western Cuba. Lucky for us, our host at this “casa particulare”, a home stay, was a former teacher. It is there where we connect with two principals to set free the bag of school supplies. They are overwhelmed with our primers, pencils, rulers, markers, maps, and flash drives.
            “Tienes Usted papel?” one asks. “Do you have paper?”
            They explain that the government only provides paper only once a year, so all items must be carefully utilized. Students write on both sides, in the margins, then erase and reuse. Despite lack of paper, the communist government provides free education through college. Literacy rates are high, ever since the government had a highly successful literary campaign in 1961 to educate the country folk.
            We arrange visits to walk to two schools on the hill. Small chalkboards rest on  old wooden tables, three students to a bench in the clean, bare rooms. Dressed in uniforms, in rows, the children are polite, if not a bit stunned.
            I think I hear young students snicker behind me while I attempt to draw the United States map on the board, explaining Washington state vs. Washington D.C.  More riveting are the boxes of Kind bars we pull out —prompting an awkward, self-serving moment.  Hmm, perhaps I may want more credit than I deserve?  After all, what arethese children thinking?  Within seconds, the teacher promptly cuts the Kind bars into thirds to reach other students as well. Not a peep was heard.
            We take a tourist bus to remote Cien Fuegos, where the clippity clop of horse-drawn buggies are the main travel mode. We gravitate to the nightly dancing. One of my companions previously took salsa lessons and it pays off! Gentlemen politely take our arms, especially hers, and lead us to dance to the intoxicating music, sometimes on the sidewalk outside the bar. They are curious, polite, and handsome dancers. Pinch us. 
            The Afro-Cuban percussion pulls us in wherever we are. In the city of Trinidad, a historic colony of sugar plantations, we see throngs waiting on plaza steps for the rhythms to electrify their evening. Just as wonderful is the quiet moment: a horseback ride into the countryside where farmers were drinking their Cubita coffee and playing dominoes. It was in Trinidad that my last “hotel” toothpaste and soap are shared. A donated UW baseball cap goes to a skeletal, toothless man selling undecipherable treats from an old wheelbarrow. He beams, bows and wants to share his treats with me.
            Our travel is not extraordinary, nor did we dance with danger. We leave with contentment, lucky to have the richness of time to explore —and more importantly, to connect authentically with Cuban people.
            Cuba seems to be an anomaly. It may lack some basic products, like the oft-seen nearly empty shelves of grocery stores and pharmacies. And if the shelves were full, it was of one governmental brand, not like the abundance of choices here.  Yet, the richness of the culture is spread out to all: the beloved ballet, the intense music, baseball games, and theater— all are affordably priced for locals and tourists alike.
            How long can this vibrant culture of Cuba remain intact, as more tourists and businesses vie for frolic and opportunities? No one knows. If I am lucky enough to revisit this charming country, I’ll gladly pack more pens and reams of paper.

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


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Whatever the weather, Dublin is a fine place to visit.
Of course it rained, but being from the Pacific Northwest, my husband and I felt right at home. The rain fell on the sad cluster of statues memorializing the Potato Famine and it fell in the city center. It stopped briefly for Molly Maguire before it began to fall on us. 
We were armed with an umbrella but a vending machine would have saved us if we’d forgotten ours. 
And anyway a traditional pub beckoned for an early lunch. We shook off our umbrellas and raincoats and slid into a booth. Ah, warmth, food, and beer!  Too early for music although that was good because we never would have left.
There were two major sites to explore on that rainy day –first was the Long Room of the Trinity College Library, one of the most famous libraries in the world. Not highly decorated like some in other parts of Europe, but two floors of wonders. The library was founded in 1592 although the current building dates from 1712. We’ve all had the problem of sagging library shelves, and so too this library. By the late 1850s the floor was sagging and the ceiling was near collapse. After extensive work to shore it up it could accommodate 250,000 volumes. Among them are a first edition of Martin Luther’s Old Testament, the proclamation of the Irish Republic in 1916 and a medieval Celtic harp.

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

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

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

We returned to reality with a wedding party outside. It was raining but one of the groomsmen protected the bride with an umbrella while families gathered to help celebrate. It doesn’t take rain to stop happiness.
We moved on to the nearby National Museum of Ireland which is devoted to archeology. The Victorian-era building is filled with treasures including beautiful Celtic gold of stunning workmanship.
The museum also has several terrifying bog people who were thrown into the peat where they were preserved over millennia. Common throughout Northern Era, they all appear to have been murdered. Not an exhibit for the squeamish.
Enough for one day, we dodged the rain and found another pub to contemplate the mysteries of the ancient world over a pint or two. 


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

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ACADIA NATIONAL PARK – A study in scarlet

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

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

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

The earliest known European to visit was Samuel de Champlain who arrived in 1604. He described the island as bare and rocky, thus its name. French Jesuits began a settlement in 1613, but during the following century the island was a site of contention between the French, British and then the Americans during the Revolutionary War. 
The island scenery didn’t remind me of ancient Greek Acadia with shepherds in robes, or nymphs and fauns flitting about. Instead, the landscape was a riot of fall color set against a deep blue ocean and matching sky.

Dark Balsam fir and spruce contrasted with maples, birch, and ash, along with red-berried shrubs

Ancient lichens decorate stone slabs and ghost branches laced the underbrush.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All photos copyright Judith Works
Reproduction of painting by Nicholas Poussin and George Craig are from Wikipedia Creative Commons 
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ACOMA: The Sky City

My friends and I began our visit in the beautiful cultural center at the base of Acoma, about an hour’s drive west of Albuquerque. The ancient settlement itself is located on a mesa 365 feet above the desert floor, a broken land dotted with other rock formations. Settled around the year 1000 AD, it is one of the oldest continually-occupied areas in the country.
Where formerly there were only ladders and steps carved into the rock, a winding road now leads up the steep hill to the cluster of adobe buildings occupied by only 30 people due to the lack of water, sewerage, and electricity. The remainder of the pueblo’s citizens have opted for modernity and live nearby where there are schools, shops, and the inevitable casino.
Like most of the Southwest, the Spanish arrived with their horses, guns and religion to irrevocably change the earlier culture. The mission church of San Esteban Rey, dominating the town, was founded in 1629. 
The silent church has only a couple of rows of pews and is mostly used for weddings and funerals. I visualized it in the past with the priest chanting and incense wafting up to the high beams, each made from a single pine tree the Native Americans were forced to carry from the the hills thirty miles away. During their long trek they were not allowed to let the logs touch the ground even at night.

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

The town is almost without vegetation, a lone tree beside a depression in the rock where rainwater collects stands as a sentinel. 
Potters displayed their work nearby. Shops in Santa Fe, with their stratospheric prices, feature the works of the most famous potters, Most are women, although I talked to one on our tour who said she was teaching her two sons. The most valuable pots are those which are totally handmade with clay that includes ground up shards – broken pieces of old pottery. Whether commercially shaped or totally by hand, all feature intricate designs in orange and black. 
As we strolled, we passed two and three-story homes, some with ladders that lead to kivas, rooms traditionally used for men’s religious ceremonies. One ladder had a crosspiece at the top in a cloud shape to encourage rain. Kivas are traditionally built underground, but because the ground is too hard to excavate, Acoma kivas are built on the second story of houses. Our guide, Maria, joked that they were early man caves, which made me wonder if they are actually used any more.
A few doors were painted to brighten the scene but the ground and the adobe buildings are all the same color, a warm tan color, making the pueblo appear as though it sprung from the earth centuries ago. A few of the homes still had the old-fashioned windows made of mica which the Spanish may have mistaken for gold when they sparkled in the sunlight.
We paused for lunch at the visitors’ center and the chef joined us to accept compliments on his latest creation: an acorn squash filled with wild rice and pine nuts, topped with grated cheese. Delicious and a recipe I’ll try at home.
On the way back to Albuquerque, we passed a small cemetery – so sad and lonely.


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

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


All photos copyright Judith Works

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