Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Last Pilgrimage

The Last Pilgrimage: Canterbury and London
So where did I leave off, once upon a time when I was traveling the world ? Coming home is always more complicated than one assumes, so here I am a week and a half back in Florida time traveling to the huge gate that controls the entry to the Canterbury Cathedral precincts, on my own sort of pilgrimage to favorite sites from my year in England 1978-79. Between Anne-Marie and the goofy animatronics at the Canterbury Tales tourist attraction I am coming to understand that a pilgrimage is not necessarily a form of penance or obligation but is in fact - or can be - hugely entertaining travel to deeply inspiring places that teach, heal, and enlighten in an infinite number of ways. I loved Canterbury Cathedral then and just as much now, with its soaring nave, complex vaulting, effigies of archbishops a thousand years passed, and even the tomb of Edward the Black Prince (he's the one in the chain mail). But above and beyond all of these is the myth, the legend, and the reality of Thomas Becket, that troublesome 12th century priest that Henry 2 sent his four knights to murder inside the cathedral itself. Shortly thereafter Becket was elevated to sainthood by Pope Alexander, and propelled Canterbury Cathedral to England's Pilgrimage Site #1. The ensuing riches that came to the church allowed for incredible expansion of the edifice, to include extensive documentation of Thomas Becket's many posthumous miracles in the stained glass windows surrounding the high altar where his remains were showcased for centuries in a golden coffer. However, Henry 8 decided that the whole thing had to go when he took over governance of the Church of England following his highly problematic divorce and remarriage to Anne Boleyn, and now all that remains of Becket in Canterbury Cathedral is his name on the floor where he was murdered, a candle burning in the central nave on the former site of his reliquary, and, of course, the sinuous curves in the stone stairs worn down by hundreds of years of pilgrims. Amazing. And of course, Canterbury doesn't stop there, either - we visited excavations of the original Roman town, the ruins of the Norman Castle, the lodging houses for the gazillion pilgrims, the flint facades of the Victorian buildings, and ended up with a charming boat ride enthusiastically promoted and narrated by recent Canterbury University graduates. Regretfully, after two busy days we checked out of our 600 year old coaching inn, and jumped on the trains for London.
The final stops on our whirlwind tour were another kind of pilgrimage, to favorite museums and must-see-again art works in the British Museum (5000 year old socks, Neolithic gold and African pottery), the Tate Britain (contemporary installations, PreRaphaelite narratives, and JMW Turner's astonishing and ethereal landscapes), the Victoria and Albert (the wonders of the newly renovated ceramics floor), and the British Library (the Magna Carta and Paul McCartney's lyrics for 'Yesterday'). Not to mention kicking around Carnaby Street, visiting the legendary Liberty department store, navigating the underground like pros, and continuing my love affair with hard cider. And then, after this extraordinary action-packed and positively refulgent two weeks it was time to go home - to fly from Heathrow to New York, to take a bus to Newark, to fly to Miami, and then to make the last short hop across the swamp to Fort Myers. Just wonderful.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

London's been fab

And I shall post the final report from the road tomorrow - must sleep before launcing into the great blue yonder


Monday, July 12, 2010

Perfect Weather, Gourmet Food, Farmhouse Lodging, Glorious Scenery – and No Cars

Perfect Weather, Gourmet Food, Farmhouse Lodging, Glorious Scenery – and No Cars
Note: apologies once again for the delays; my nifty little netbook has decided it doesn’t speak Wireless anymore. However, as there seems to be lots of computer cafes in England, these final posts will keep coming !

Venturing into the unknown for our next stop, neither Anne-Marie nor really knew what to expect but whatever that was, it was definitely not as wonderful as Sark turned out to be. I was a bit grumpy about leaving Brittany (and am delighted to find that my thirty year old perceptions of France as insular and rude to foreigners has been completely stood on its head) so I was ready to be hypercritical and took that attitude to the island of Guernsey, our transit point between the flight on a teeny weeny Air Aurigny plane from Dinard and the ferry to the island of Sark. Sure enough, I thought as we drug our bags along the touristy waterfront and dined on instant mashed potatoes while waiting for the ferry. I’ve often found that the places you can only reach by ferry have a certain magic to them, but the 45 minute boat ride to Sark clearly passed through a space-time continuum directly to paradise. The scenery is breathtaking, and while luggage and goods are motored around via carts and diesel tractors, there are no cars – everyone walks, bikes, or rides in horse-drawn carriages to get where they are going. The return visitor trade here is enormous; the minute you leave Sark you start plotting how to get back and who you’ll bring with you to experience this wonderland. Of course, we did have perfect weather throughout our 48 hours here – tshirts and suntanning all day, and snuggled under quilts in the evening with the windows wide open. We spent our two nights in deeply comfortable beds at the Hotel Petit Champ, which is a sort of gourmet boutique farmhouse with spectacular ocean views, horses and sheep in the fields, icy cold swimming pool, easy access to the steep cliff paths, and a cook in the kitchen who could give the Iron Chefs a run for their money. We walked, we bicycled, we clambered up and down cliffs to explore rocky beaches, ventured across the vertiginous isthmus to Little Sark for a luscious afternoon cream tea (tea, cucumber sandwiches, raisin scones, strawberry jam, and rich local clotted cream – unbelievably good), and generally thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. And truly – the food at the Petit Champ was such that if you stayed longer than a couple of days you’d have to buy a whole new wardrobe – irresistible pre-dinner bite-sized appetizers like a poached quail egg inside a tiny nest of crispy fried shaved potatoes on a savory drop of red pepper coulis, followed by tempura squid with tiny pickled eggplants followed by a creamy white onion soup followed by a saffron hazelnut risotto followed by a plate of homemade raspberry, passion fruit, and lemon sorbet and you’ll be pleased to know that Anne-Marie and I shared this five course meal rather than eating the whole thing oneself and you’d better believe we still walked (staggered ?) away from the table fully replete.

After two days so full of marvelousness they felt like two weeks we regretfully left those comfy beds, and began our multi-staged peregrination to our next destination. We bicycled into town, walked the forested footpath down to the port, rode the ferry back to Guernsey, took a bus to the airport, flew to London Gatwick, six minutes later took a train to Red Hill, then ten minutes later took another train to Tonbridge, then three minutes later took another train to Canterbury in a display of British transit efficiency unrivaled in the Western world. Thankfully, our 600 year old Falstaff Hotel was quite close to the train station so we rolled our bags along to a surprisingly charming twin room in one of the maze of ancient buildings that make up the old coaching inn. Soon it was off through the West Gate to Canterbury proper, the walled pedestrian town surrounding the cathedral which was closed to visitors by then but not to these intrepid travelers who shortly discovered that there would be a performance of Bach’s Magnificat and Mozart’s Requiem by the Whitstable Choral Society to be held later that evening in the central choir of the cathedral. What else to do in the interim but eat – we found a terrific pub where we could taste all the ales before ordering our favorite half pint, paired up with seriously tasty individual stuffed pastry pies (steak and ale for SMB, butternut squash for me – the UK is something like 25% vegetarian now) plus mashed potatoes (real this time) and perfectly cooked vegetables (no mushy peas in sight). Then it was back to the cathedral for lovely music – I got to sit in the choir seat reserved for the Lord Mayor of Canterbury – afterwhich we roamed the mighty lively Saturday night streets of this university town, checking out various options for tomorrow’s activities and watching the entertaining revels of the young crowd which included a robust young man dressed up as a pink fairy in fluffy tutu, pink plastic sandals, and a sparkly tiara being refused entry into one bar after another because the bouncers thought that he and his bachelor party mates might cause a scene.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Standing Stones and Floating Abbeys

Standing Stones and Floating Abbeys
I had two absolute ‘must see’ venues for my Brittany journey – the Neolithic standing stones at Carnac in southwestern Brittany (cousins to Stonehenge, site of my wacky summer solstice pilgrimage in 2007), and the fantastical abbey-on-an-island of Mont St. Michel, the most visited destination in France outside of Paris. Happily, Anne-Marie’s equally omnivorous historical obsessions run a similar gamut to mine, and off we went to discover the Stone Age. I was imagining that Carnac was a ‘site’, like Stonehenge, with a single impressive set of stones in a single location. But then again, I did discover on my previous trip that Stonehenge is part of a large region stuffed with Neolithic marvels (Amesbury, Avebury, Silbury Hill, many many many barrows and mounds) so you’d think that I could imagine a similar situation in Brittany, especially since Anne-Marie kept stressing to me that we really needed to leave EARLY because there was a LOT of ground to cover. I blithely chose to believe she just meant the 2-3 hour drive to get there, and was totally unprepared to find that ‘Carnac’ is, in fact, just one stop in a HUGE region of increasingly astonishing Neolithic engineering triumphs that simply baffles the imagination and blows holes in any static perceptions you may have of grunting cavemen and such. The Carnac site consists of multiple parallel lines of stones that run through open fields on and off for about a MILE, thousands and thousands of stones aligned along a common axis AND increasing in size from one end to the other. Yikes. And since after the Carnac alignment and the Musee de Prehistoire in town there are enough additional sites in the region to occupy you for six or seven weeks, we had to choose our destinations very carefully. So off we went to the island cairn of Gavrinis, which is only a mile by sea from the Carnac region, but a 30 mile trip by road (note to self: no cars in the Neolithic) and a fifteen minute ferry ride to the island and worth every second of effort to get there. It’s a long rectangular underground stone burial and/or ritual chamber completely enclosed in a constructed mound; the verticals are about 5-6 ft high above ground and 4-5 feet wide; the main chamber is something like 8’x10’ and it is roofed with a SINGLE ginormous stone and here’s the kicker – almost all the stones are completely carved with patterns of lines and images. Amazing. Then back over the ferry, into the car, and off to visit several other sites including the Grand Menhir at Locmariaquer, which, when it was somehow transported and erected in 4500 BC stood some 60 ft tall, and weighed 280 tons. One stone. Sadly it is now lying on the ground in several parts, but yesterday we went to see another menhir in Dol de Bretagne (see pic) that is about half the size and totally astonishing and is the tallest single standing stone in France. Half the size of the Grand Menhir. 4500 BC.

What can I possibly say about Mont St. Michel that has not already been said in its long history as a pilgrimage and tourist destination? The abbey and surrounding walled town sits on a tiny island reached by a long causeway through an absolutely immense flood plain that is routinely flooded and drained by the second highest tides in the world (see Bay of Fundy for highest). Anne-Marie said she tries to schedule her guests’ visits to coincide with the highest tides at the full and new moons, but alas we missed that bit but it gives me a very good reason to come back. Anyway, after you walk up through a sort of Disneyesque row of restaurants and tourist junk shops and past the abbey lodgings and administrative offices you find yourself at the bottom of the first of many flights of stairs leading up to the abbey proper, and having bought a ticket you plunge into the endless winding corridors, halls, chapels, and stairways that lead eventually to the amazing church on the very very top of the mount. The terrace in front of the church offers a mind-boggling 240 degree view of the flood plain; I really can’t even describe this view and photos can’t begin to capture it. You’ll just have to go. We went in the evening – during the summer the abbey is open from 7pm to midnight, with spooky lighting and individual musicians placed strategically in the larger rooms playing medieval tunes on harpsichord, flute, viola, and harp. And with the sun setting around 10:30, you get to see the sweep of the landscape in daylight, and the magic of the electrified abbey as you come out. I’ve said it before, but – wow.

So I’ve managed to get caught up in real time, and in just a little while we leave Brittany for the island of Sark, by plane and ferry via Guernsey, in the Channel Islands. The day dawned cloudy, but now it is once again gorgeous and sunny and it should be just lovely out there in the English Channel. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Anne-Marie’s Garden

Anne-Marie’s Garden
AMB’s house here ( the tiny ‘commune’ of La Ville Daniou, the town of Langrolay sur Rance, the department of Bretagne, in the country of France) is heaven. Of course she keeps telling me that the perfect sunny weather we have been enjoying since I arrived is decidedly atypical, but I shall continue to believe that it is always paradise here. The house is a two and a half story 19th c stone, oak-beamed farmhouse with another much like it next door opposite a huge and stunning farmhouse housing the farmer and his wife who oversee this corner of heaven and look after AMB’s house when she is off in America. The ‘garden’ out back is the focus of the house – the doors all face onto the garden rather than the road, towards the roses and the vegetable plots and the fruit trees and the Neolithic menhir (Breton for standing stone) that her uncle gave her as a housewarming present (they are truly everywhere – more on that in the next post). I am attaching snapshots from the garden (plus one of the farmer’s corn field next door; she doesn’t garden on quite that scale) that hint at this magical wonderland, best appreciated in the morning while drinking tea and enjoying fresh bread, croissants, and brioche baked that morning at the local boulangerie. (add deep sigh of contentment here). The farmer’s fifteen year old cat, Praline, makes a habit of showing up for extended visits and bowls of milk and hanging out with us in the garden. Today we must pick all the blueberries and cherries and put them in the freezer so that they don’t go to waste. And the raspberries, and the red currants as well. Too bad we can’t reach the last of the sweet cherries at the top of the tree. And we’ll check on the progress of the lettuce, herbs, zucchini, tomatoes, potatoes, spinach, and and and. You can imagine what its like to cook here – head for the garden, forage busily, and eat whatever is perfectly ripe. Not too shabby. And if you’re missing something, as we were the other night, you pop over to the farmer’s house where the farmer’s wife just happens to have freshly picked garlic to complete your dish. And if we weren’t headed off to another amazing destination tomorrow (Sark, in the Channel Islands) you couldn’t pry me out of here with a pickaxe.