Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “World Heritage sites”

Freeway Free in Yorkshire: Fountains Abbey Evokes the Apocalypse

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Imagine that climate change or nuclear Armageddon has erased humanity from the earth.  Imagine that extraterrestrials have arrived on our planet, landing in the middle of Paris.  Imagine them encountering the ruins of Notre Dame Cathedral, and trying to puzzle out the nature of the beings who had created this titanic ruin, and what it might have looked like before disaster struck.

Fountains Abbey in the Yorkshire Dales could be the stage setting for the above scenario.    This site was formerly one of the largest and most prosperous monasteries in Europe.  You can see where the rose windows once were in the massive church, and imagine them illuminating the gaily painted interior, casting a rainbow glow over the monks and the faithful who worshipped here.

Henry8The disaster which struck here was no natural catastrophe, nor military strike.  It was called Henry VIII.  When Henry disassociated himself from the Catholic Church, his new status as head of the English church allowed him to plunder the wealthy monasteries for their long-accumulated riches.  These were the funds which propped up Henry’s massive investment in building up the Royal Navy, his ongoing wars with France and the Holy Roman Empire, and his extravagant tastes in food and dress.  The monasteries were disbanded, their monks and nuns forced into secular life, and the buildings left to disintegrate from weather, neglect, and the tendency of local residents to recycle and reuse the elegant stonework for everything from houses to holding pens.

As I walked among these towering ruins, I couldn’t help but think of a future a few thousand years from now when the great cathedrals of Chartres, Notre Dame, St. Paul, and others might be reduced to empty shells, overgrown with grass and moss.  We humans seemed quite small, and quite transient compared to these sad relics.

It was an  eerie and humbling experience, but also peaceful.  Insignificance can be very restful.

 

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Freeway Free in Wales: Life in the Town, Life in the Castle

20180718_105805webFrom Caernarfon Castle we moved inland to Conwy, a walled market town with some beautifully preserved Elizabethan homes. I could imagine the burgher who lived in Plas Mawr inviting other village citizens to dine, quaffing local ale and bemoaning the unreasonable demands of the lord of the adjacent castle. Meanwhile, the servants in the adjacent kitchen would be skinning the local game and trying to keep drops of sweat from dropping into the soup.

Moving forward several centuries, we stopped at Betws-y-Coed. The ultra-quaint railway station with its ivy covered veranda spoke of Victorian solidity and permanence.

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But the twin ecological monuments on the veranda spoke to very different 21st century concerns.

 

Our next stop brought the world of the castle firmly into the 21st century also, as we stopped at Gwydir Castle, a Tudor-era manor whose young owners have taken it from being an abandoned white elephant to being a reasonably profitable and comfortable bed and breakfast.

The 500 year old cedars have been saved, the ghosts (both human and animal) have been exorcised), the plumbing, including the fountains, have been restored, and there are peacocks begging for crumbs when tea is served in the garden.  (If you want to know more about the restoration, Judy Corbett has written a charming book about the process, Castles in the Air. You will never be able to hear or see the term “fixer-upper” again without a smile.

Freeway-Free in Wales: In Merlin’s Footsteps

20180718_135808docI’m a lifelong fan of Mary Stewart’s four-volume chronicle of King Arthur, told mostly from Merlin’s point of view, so when I found myself touring around the mountains of Snowdonial and through the fortress castle of Caernarvon on the banks of the river Seiont, I pictured the young Merlin with his visions and ambitions in some of the same places.  Wales is a bit magical still.

The castle was expanded and reinforced by Edward I long after Merlin’s time, and subsequently became the ceremonial site for investiture of the Prince of Wales.  It is surrounded now by a car park and a playground, and throughout the grounds are informative placards for a self-guided tour.  But there are still nooks and crannies where I could imagine a young boy hiding from bullies and enemies, over-hearing secrets, and receiving bulletins from the God.

We had unusually balmy weather as we toured around Mt. Snowdon the highest mountain in Wales, the Grey King of legend, so it was easy to imagine myself into the shoes of the other literary characters who kept thrusting themselves into my memory as familiar geographical names came up.  If you are an Arthurian junkie, you will find remnants of T. H. White’s “The Once and Future King”, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “Avalon Saga“, Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” series, Bernard Cornwell’s”Warlord Chronicles”, and other classic and not-so classic versions of his legend wafting across the landscape.  If you have missed any of the above, follow the links to some excellent reading adventures!

Next Week: Freeway-free in Wales: Life in the Town, Life in the Castle

Freeway Free in Wales: From the Castle to the Pits and Back

20180717_145638docAmong the hazards of a pre-organized group tour is that one day may be PACKED with events and places to see, while the next may find you bus-bound as your itinerary hustles you off to the next attraction.  (Above is a view from the bus of the beautiful Welsh countryside near Snowdon. Time to explore on your own, and time to digest your experiences may both be limited.

Today we explored the depths of a slate mine (damp, dark, dusty),

rode on a narrow-gauge railway (clattering, quaint, cramped),

explored Portemeirion, a fantasy village created as “an homage to Portofino” by a self taught architect (eclectic, imaginative, erratic),

ate dinner at a World heritage site castle (lavish, lamb, local lore),

and watched border collies herding sheep into their home pens (energetic, efficient, effective).  20180717_145701

Lots of diversity, but almost too much to take in.  By the end of the day, I am most clearly remembering those border collies herding the sheep as we sat on the wall of our guest house, quietly and remotely and restfully watching.

 

Next Week: Freeway – Free in Wales: Life in the Village, Life in the Castle

 

 

Freeway Free in Wales: Hanging out at Bodysgallen Hall

20180716_211431docWe are still traveling first class:  we were picked up at the Manchester Airport by Jason, a deferential fellow with a strong accent.  He loaded our gear into a Mercedez limo/van, and off we go through misty rain (the first rain in six weeks, Jason says) to Wales, home of unpronounceable names.   We are staying outside of Llandudno in a 17th century carriage house named Bodysgallen Hall.  The castle for which this ample residence formerly served as gatehouse is visible from our windows, at least a couple of miles away across the valley.  Talk about an impressive entrance!20180716_185011web

Our  room has  mullioned windows and a lot of toile and chintz and Turkish rugs. The welcome reception for our group included a harpist as well as a wide sampling of local whiskeys and not-so-local wines.

Now the sun is setting through my mullioned windows, my spouse is in PJ’s reading about tomorrow’s itinerary, and I am contemplating one more tour around the garden outside before turning in.

Next week: From the Castle to the Pits and Back

Freeway Free in Oregon: Up and Around Crater Lake

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The route to Crater Lake through the Empty Corner of Northern California is actually shorter than the I-5 through Medford route.  After our stop at McArthur-Burney Falls State Park we goon to Klamath Falls, stopping to lunch at Nibbley’s for lunch – a kind of cross between the Black Bear Diner and Applebee’s, but local and full of lunching ladies.

 20180928_105111webThen on through smoky haze past Upper Klamath lake and Grass Lake and beautiful stands of sugar pines lining the long straight road until we hit the Exit to Crater Lake, then more old growth forest until we stop at the Visitor Information center to watch the 22 minute intro video and use facilities.  Then more twists and turnouts until we get to the Lodge.

20180929_200226webThe Crater Lake Lodge is not the Ahwahnee, no yet El Tovar or the Old Faithful Inn, but has done its 1995 restoration/renovation best to revive the rustic resort ambience within the limits of a hotel located in one of the snowiest spots in the US, open only May through October if the weather permits.  It does boast pillars and stairways made from Douglas fir trunks with the bark still on, and big stone fireplaces surrounded by the kind of chairs you can sink into. 

 The weather is quite warm, with a persistent smoky tang in the air from three surrounding wildfires.  But we find a sheltered nook just below the rim walk where we set up our champagne and crackers and camp chairs and we are Rockefellers with the best lake view in the house. 20180928_173549web

 After demolishing the champagne and crackers, we amble our way back up the path to the Lodge and its dining room. The ambience is much less formal than that of other National Park Lodges we have enjoyed – lots of hiking boots, cargo pants, flannel shirts.  I did put on a glittery sweater to dress for dinner, and I am definitely dressed on the swanky side. After dinner we move out to the porch, where dozens of rustic wooden rockers are lined up to view the lake.  Overhead the sky has cleared, and we can see millions of stars spangling the Milky Way. My spouse even catches a falling star or two. 

The next morning we return to the Lodge Dining Room for breakfast.  After glimpsing a gigantic platter of pancakes at the next table, I prudently order a half-serving of Creme Brûlée French Toast, which was delicious and plenty to start the day. If I had known the French toast would come with a dollop of fruit on the side I would not have bothered to order the Fruit Cup.  The latter included fruit of the imperishable rather than flavorful sort:  white centered strawberries, stringy pineapple, tough melon.  I pick out and enjoy the blueberries, grapes, and marionberries , but they are only too few.

20180929_100502webThe next morning the smokiness has magically disappeared and the lake is the blue seen normally only on cheap postcards.  We decide to take the 2 hour trolley tour around the rim with Ranger David Grimes (star of the introductory video at the information center).  What a good decision! The tour makes plenty of stops for admiring and taking pictures of the lake, and we have the pleasure of listening to a knowledgeable and very entertaining speaker while not having to keep our eyes on the road.  

We lunch at the Lodge, (actually the only choice other than a sandwich bar at the gift shop) sharing with a chipmunk which has invaded the room, being alternately cute (at someone else’s table ) or repugnant (at your own table.) That evening after dinner we move again to the balcony with rocking chairs but this time a  storm has arrived  over the mountains surrounding the lake, and we are treated to a stunning lightning  show.  The next morning the weather has turned cold and drizzly, and the lake is almost invisible in the fog.  A perfect day to leave.20180929_092019doc

 

Freeway Free in Texas: The Missions of San Antonio

I had not been aware that the Alamo is only one of five San Antonio missions which together comprise a National Historic Park as well as a World Heritage Site.   W and I saw them all.

20170403_081959.jpgThe Alamo is not a large building, and until the Daughters of the Republic of Texas appealed to the state government, it was in danger of disappearing entirely under one or another wave of urban development which swept over San Antonio.  Now, of course, it is a cultural icon as well as a huge tourist attraction.   The State of Texas has taken over responsibility for funding its maintenance, with the DRT acting as custodians.

 

Since its time as a church, the Alamo has been an army barracks, a fort under bombardment, an army storehouse, and simply abandoned.  No wonder it is the least lovely of the five San Antonio missions.  It has no bell tower, no frescoes, no WPA restoration of dubious accuracy, no green lawns.  It does have some beautiful old live oak trees which were transplanted to the grounds, and a very well stocked gift shop, and mobs of tourists coming in waves from tour buses. We chose an audio tour so that we could try to go where the bus tours and field trippers were not, but were only partially successful.

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The other missions make up in picturesque elegance what they lack in historical drama.  Conception has two towers a la Notre Dame de Paris.  San Jose has expansive grounds and a lovely window called “Rosita’s window” through which those Indians who were yet unbaptized could peek in and observe the religious ceremonies.  Here we were guided by the  incredibly perky Ranger Tatum who gave us a chirpy but very modern tour of the “Queen of the San Antonio missions” – exposing the inauthenticity of the WPA’s reconstructions, and the wrong-headed -ness of the priests’ aspirations regarding the natives.

San Juan has been spiffed up with whitewash and has an open belfry with the five bells arranged in tiers.  Estrada is the last and least restored, but its dilapidation has a raffish charm all its own.

 

The missions were opened as a way of establishing Spanish culture and faith in the New World;  the missionaries were at the same time agents of the King as well as of God.  The natives came to the missions as a last resort – they were being terrorized by tribes of Apaches who were invading south Texas in order to escape the even more martial Comanches, and they were dying of sicknesses brought by their early contacts with the Spanish.  The missionaries promised shelter from and defense against the Apaches, which they delivered in exchange for the natives’ abandoning their language, beliefs, and culture – even their names.  However the missionaries could not protect against the illnesses.  The priests believed that the natives were dying because of their sinful lives, not because of contagion, which was not then understood.  By the end of the mission era, 80% of the indigenous tribe members who had come to the mission for help were dead.

Lovely weather, and as we proceeded sown the Mission Trail the outer Missions were progressively emptier.  We walked a lot, mostly on paving stones and bricks and clinkers.  We felt we had earned a margarita at the end of the day at spangle-lit Mi Tierra, the doyenne of San Antonio’s Mexican restaurants. followed by a delicious platter of Monterrey Speciale, and a middling good flan to share at the end of the meal at the end of the Trail.

 

 

Freeway Free in Texas: What my Texas History book forgot about the Alamo

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I had not been aware that the Alamo is only one of five San Antonio missions which together comprise a National Historic Park as well as a World Heritage Site.  The Alamo, of course, is the famous one, enshrined in national memory by a succession of movies – Fess Parker as David  Crockett, Steward Granger as Jim Boweie, John Wayne as David Crockett again, all making this bit of history larger than life.  I learned a lot that I had not taken in during my 7th Grade Texas History class, including:

Davy CrockettDavy Crockett went to Texas to try to recoup his fortunes after a failed attempt at reelection to his Tennessee Congress post.  He was essentially bankrupt.

Native born residents of the province of Tejas were mostly mixed-blood of indigenous and Spanish settlers, and were called Tejanos.  Immigrants from the United States were mostly from the Southern states and were called Texians.

 

220px-Antonio_Lopez_de_Santa_Anna_c1853Santa Ana was not just the general defeated by Sam Houston at San Jacinto.  He was the Mexican general who led a coup against the established Federalist government of Mexico after Mexico gained independence from Spain.  He quickly established himself as the center of power, and had already put down revolts against his coup in three other Mexican provinces before moving north to put down the rebellion in Texas.  Following his defeat in Texas he was in and out of power as the President of Mexico for another twelve years.

 

Many Tejanos joined the rebellion against Santa Ana because they resented the loss of local control under the new centralized authority.  Many Texians rebelled because they had moved to Tejas with their black slaves, and the new centralized government outlawed all slavery.

William Travis, leader of the troops at the Alamo, had a black slave, Joe, who survived the battle and was allowed to go free to carry the news of the defeat to Sam Houston and the other rebels.  Sarah Dickinson, a Texian woman whose husband was killed in the battle, was also allowed to go free, just in case a slave’s tale would not be believed. (Or was it the other way around?)  The Tejano women and children who survived were also freed.  Joe was reported to have impressed the Texas Cabinet with “the modesty, candor, and clarity of his account“, but all the same he was returned as chattel to the heirs of the Travis estate.

So in some ways the war for Texas independence was a preliminary skirmish in the Southern defense of  their “peculiar institution” of slavery.  Somehow the heroic defense of the Alamo did not come across that way in my 7th grade Texas History class.

Freeway Free in France: A Drizzly Day Among the Honored Dead

P1030342webWhat better way to spend a gray and drizzly Sunday in Paris than wandering around the cemetery of Pere-La-Chaise, site of burial of many notable and not-so-notables of recent (since the 1800’s ) French history? The requirement for burial here is that one must have been a French citizen OR have died in France (which is why Jim Morrison and Maria Callas are here.) WB and I spent several contemplative hours in the light rain contemplating the mortality of such immortals as Delacroix, whose masterpiece “The Raft of the Medusa” is harrowingly evoked in bas relief on his tomb.

Armed with a tour map, and assisted by an elfin elderly man whose mission in retirement was to guide tourists to the most remote celebrities, we did the [ghost] town, paying our respects to Heloise and Abelard side by side in death as they were denied in life, plus Colette, Modigliani, Edith Piaf,  Honore de Balzac, Maria Callas, and many others .

Somehow I ended up with no pictures of Jim Morrison’s grave site, but fortunately there are plenty of places on the web you can check out.  At present the site is cordoned off to prevent the vandalism which you can see documented at the link I provided.  Strange for fans to show their admiration by trashing the grave.

A whole section of the cemetery consists of memorials to French citizens deported by the Nazis during the World War II Occupation.  It seems as thought the French conscience is still uneasy at what was allowed to happen to its citizens during that fraught time.

And of course, there are a number of sites with memorable sculpture and meaningful inscriptions honoring people of whom one has never heard.  I would like passers-by to pause by my grave one day and wonder what sort of person chose my epitaph, as I wonder about Mssrs Kieffer, Percheron, and Maria.P1030370doc

“Nothing which does not fall, and does not decay!

Mysterious abyss where the spirit hides!

A few feet underground silence abides

And so much noise above in light of day!

-V. H. [could be Victor Hugo?]

 

 

 

Freeway-Free in France: Saturday on the Seine

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WB and I took the bus to the Pont Neuf today and walked down to Notre Dame.  Since we had Museum Passes we spend about an hour down in the Crypt, which harbors a number of relics of Gallic, Roman, and medieval times which were exhumed when they built an underground garage under the Pavee in front of the cathedral. Very interesting but fearsomely educational with all sorts of cool interactive 3D computer representations of the Ile de Cite at various stages, the cathedral in various states of construction, etc. We would have spent even more time but it began to feel a little claustrophobic. 

We then strolled across the pavee to the cathedral, where an impressive mass was being held.  We were able to walk quietly around the edges of the church, admiring the wonderful carvings around the sacristy and the gorgeous windows.  

P1030324webThen we went to the memorial to the 200K Frenchmen who were taken away by the Nazis and never returned, which is hidden below ground level at the end of the garden behind the cathedral.  After that, a cup of restorative tea and a couple of scoops of glacé at Berthillon’s seemed in order.  P1030325web

 

 By the time we finished our break, it seemed a strike of bus drivers had broken out, (what is a visit to Paris without a manifestation of some kind?)and we were forced underground to the Metro, which involved a lot more steps and stairs for poor WB’s knee.

 Happily, the Galleries Lafayette has a direct entrance from the Metro at their stop, so we executed some efficient shopping and then went to ooh and aah at the Art Deco atrium and stained glass dome which they acquired when they merged with La Samaritaine a few years ago. 20160924_054841web Next up to the rooftop terrace to admire the view of everywhere we had been and wave at the folks up on the Eiffel Tower.

 By the time we got down, the manifestation seemed to be over, so we caught a bus which nearly took us to where we wanted to be.  Winifred chugged off to the Musee d’Orsay, while I decided to skip the Louvre this trip and check out the Monet water lilies and the Picassos and Renoirs at l’Orangerie.  Lots of lilies.20160924_075112doc

I didn’t feel like going back to the Metro station and there were a whole lot of policemen around, so I walked slowly back to the hotel, stopping here and there to check out some menus for possible dinner tonight, and a little browsing of the clearance rack in the dress shop on the corner.  

 A bit later WB arrived – the buses were stopped again so she had to walk from the Musee d’Orsay.  She is taking an exhausted rest’. We will decide about dinner in an hour.  No word from Dianne, who was planning to spend at least part of the day circling the city on the Route 69 bus – hope she didn’t get marooned somewhere.

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