Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

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.

20180718_154934web

 

 

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.

Advertisements

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: Flying First Class!

20180715_132754doc

My father used to say “It only costs a little more to go First Class.” But that was back when a first-class upgrade set you back only about $20, and sometimes you could get one just by flirting with the ticket agent.

When I had a day job, I did quite a bit of international traveling in Business class and amassed enough Frequent Flyer points to gain access to United’s Red Carpet Club and other elite airport venues. More recently, I have had to join the hoi polloi in Coach class and in the ordinary waiting areas of airport terminals, so it was a real treat when we were upgraded to Business class on our flight to Great Britain.

The first surprise was our access to the Polaris Club Business Class lounge, which United now shares with Lufthansa and Continental. Wow! The old Red Carpet Club gave you coffee, tea, and pre-packaged cheese slices and crackers to tide you over while you waited for your flight. If you were lucky, they might not be out of apples or bananas. The Polaris Club is several levels of comfort and cuisine apart.

Not only are there espresso machines, but also several open bars with serve-yourself beer and wine as well as available mixed drinks. Food stations include German-style cold cuts and sausages for make-your-own sandwiches; a breakfast station with bagels, French pastries, hot and cold cereals, fruit, and yogurt; and a steam table offering hot miso soup, steamed rice, potstickers, ramen, and sushi.

20180715_132838web

Tucked away next to the restrooms and private laptop cubicles were showers! United has apparently picked up some classy tips from its European and Asian partners.

Once we were on board, we found seats that could be stretched out to lie flat, with pillows, blankets, big screens for on-screen movies, lots of storage for carryon luggage,  plugs for our laptops and Nicholas, an assiduous purser to answer any question. In Frankfurt the Polaris Lounge was equally well equipped as at SFO, and even on the small plane to Manchester we were served quite a creditable Salad Nicoise with wine. It’s been quite a while since I felt so pampered by an airline. A great start to our British adventure!20180715_151353doc

Next week: From Top of the Castle to Down in the Pits in Wales

I’m Back!

Oh, you didn’t notice I was gone?  I did take a break over the holidays, and when I returned on January 2nd I found myself locked out of my blog admin access – I could see my blog, but not add any posts, nor reply to comments. Worse, I could not access support, my account page, or any part of the nuts and bolts behind WordPress.

Many thanks to the WordPress forum for quick response (once I was able to log in with a different computer).  Turns out something in my computer’s cache had gone sour – clearing all cookies took care of the problem.

I will resume normal Tuesday blogs tomorrow, with the start of a new travel series “Freeway Free in Great Britain”.  Stay tuned, and thanks for your patience!

A Piece of My Mind: Tradition (Los Altos Town Crier 11/7/18)

 
P1020475docJust finished with Thanksgiving, just starting to get my mind set for upcoming Christmas, so it’s no wonder I’ve been mindful of traditions.

In my family, Thanksgiving has always been a holiday of hospitality, with assorted family members from near and far, old friends and some new ones, significant others and random dorm-mates, all sharing around a table or two or even three.  Over several generations, some of our traditions have morphed or been abandoned, while other new ones have been added.

When I was a girl it was my job to polish the silver in anticipation of any holiday gathering.  My mother would bring out her wedding silver, together with silver plated serving platters, a gravy boat, and covered casseroles, all needing considerable elbow grease to bring them up to her sparkling standard.  I was also in charge of making place cards and arranging the seating, preferably alternating men and women with no one from the same family sitting next to each other.  Later I became the hostess, and my granddaughter took over polishing my wedding silver as needed, as well as making and arranging place cards.20151125_182234web

Growing up we always shared Thanksgiving with another family we had known since I was a toddler.  They always brought candied yams in a casserole and a couple of kinds of pies.  Decades later those friends had passed on, but meanwhile I have secured a husband who is a master hand at mashed potatoes, and my brother-in- law prides himself on pies.  No chance of a carbohydrate shortage here!20151126_195352web

 

After Thanksgiving dinner had been cleared, we would set up the table for a game of Michigan (aka “Tripoli” in some circles) using a game cloth that had been hand-stenciled by my grandmother, and some poker chips which were as old.  This game depends mostly on luck and can be played by anyone old enough or young enough to hold a fan of playing cards.  My mother took delight in cheating, and we all took even more delight in catching her at it.

More recently, my husband added a tradition of offering champagne or sparkling cider to all before sitting down to eat, together with an obligatory group sing of “Over the River and Through the Woods” to the faltering accompaniment of my recorder.  (Having drunk a glass of champagne in advance helps everyone to participate with gusto).  The wearing of pilgrim hats or other costume items is optional for this performance, which  is a great ice-breaker for any of the new significant others or recently met friends.

All great traditions.  But this Thanksgiving our minds were also aware of the wildfire victims who had lost so much of their traditions to inferno, and the migrants at our southern borders and  around the world who had abandoned their traditions in hope of finding a new home free of hunger and fear.

I thought a lot about the American tradition which has seen our country as “a nation of immigrants” , as “a melting pot”, as “a shining city on a hill.”  I remember the poem which I memorized for school as a girl,  inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty:

Bring me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Bring these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.Bronze-plaque-of-New-Colossus

This is a tradition of hospitality that is more difficult to stick with in challenging times, but more important than turkey, more American than apple and pumpkin pie.  As a nation I hope we can live up to this traditional vision of our best selves.

Freeway Free in New Orleans: All that Tourist Stuff

20180520_145218docYou recognize this photo of the Cathedral Square in the French Quarter of New Orleans.  It could almost be a postcard if the cars would get out of the way and the sky be a bit bluer.  It was a warm day in May, and I was glad of the clouds.

 

You recognize these wrought – iron balconies in the French Quarter too.  A walking tour of the area between the Square and Bourbon Street has countless examples of this lovely lace work

.Of course, New Orleans means music.  We saw ragamuffins playing on washtubs, we saw street corner quartets, we sat on hard benches enthralled by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, we were escorted to our restaurant by a second-line band.  Music is all over the French Quarter, and it’s all great!

 

And of course, there’s the food – Beignets and Bananas Foster and Jambalaya and Gumbo and so on deliciously, served in well-known trendy restaurants like NOLA and well-known traditional restaurants like Arnaud’s and Brennan’s, and not-so-well-known but still delicious hide-aways like The Court of Two Sisters.

 

And don’t neglect the simple pleasures of walking around the Quarter, peeking into garden courtyards, stumbling across artwork tucked away at the end of arched corridors, and gawking at window displays. Take your time.  New Orleans is a city for leisure – it’s too hot and humid to hurry!

DSC_6027a.jpg-0510web

 

Hidden treasures: If you need an air-conditioned break, there are two fine exhibits tucked into the building just to the right of the cathedral as you face away from the square.  One details the how’s and why’s and consequences of Hurricane Katrina;  upstairs is a museum of Mardi Gras costumes.  Talk about contrast!

 

 

 

Freeway Free in New Orleans: the National WWII Museum

20180519_092657webWhy, I wondered, is the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, rather then in one of the principal embarkation cities for the European or Pacific fronts?

DSC_6027a.jpg-0373webI guess I was not the only visitor with this question in my mind, as the neighboring plaque explains how A.J. Higgins’ design for landing boats “won the war for us” per Eisenhower, leading to the establishment of a D-Day museum in New Orleans, site of four Higgins plants.  Once the D-Day museum was established, widening its scope to include the rest of the war seemed sensible and cost-saving.  And the National World War II Museum is a true gem.

The main museum is divided into two major sections, one devoted to the European theatre, the other to the Pacific war. The exhibits include photos, little-seen films, recordings of memories from actual participants in the various political and military battles. I spent most of my time in the “Road to Berlin” section, while my partner skimmed through that to explore the Battle of Midway.   I also toured the exhibit adjacent to the lobby which covers the Home Front,  with dueling radio broadcasts from national hero Charles Lindbergh, the most prominent of the isolationists,  and Franklin Roosevelt advocating support of the British through Lend-Lease for Liberty.  Then Pearl Harbor settled it all.

20180519_095524webAn excellent introductory film, “Beyond All Boundaries” shows in the Victory Theater Complex, which also offers live entertainment in vintage 1940’s style. the film orients you to what was at stake in World War II and how the conflict developed.  Even with this as a guide, there is too much to cover in one day.  The Home Front section includes a 40’s era -themed Soda Shop where a visitor can sit down and refuel.

Other buildings include the Boeing Center which displays WWII era airplanes, and a Restoration Pavilion which features displays on the technology advancements that came about under the pressure of war.

The National WWII Museum is a far cry from Mardi Gras, the French Quarter, and Cajun cuisine.  But it’s a Don’t Miss!

 

Freeway Free down the Mississippi: Huey Long’s Long Shadow in Baton Rouge

20180517_173530docBaton Rouge is to New Orleans as Oakland is to San Francisco, forever in the shadow of its more glamorous sister city further south along the Mississippi. As the capital of the State of Louisiana Baton Rouge has its own history and its own character. Like Washington DC, it started out as a small town strategically located in the center of the state. Just as Washington grew into its role and was transformed by Pierre L’Enfant and his grand plan, Baton Rouge was also transformed by a man with a vision. That man was not an urbane French urban planner like L’Enfant.  Baton Rouge had  “the Kingfish” the great populist politician Huey Long.

When I was in high school I read the great novel All the King’s Men, which Robert Penn Warren transparently based on the life and death of Huey Long.  I had been equally enthralled by that other great Southern novel, Gone with the Wind. The contrast between the world’s of those two novels is neatly visible in Baton Rouge.

20180517_173652webBefore the Long Reign, Baton Rouge sported a perfectly ghastly Capitol building, a crenellated castle built in 1849 as if to withstand attacks by the protesting proletariat.  As a proud member of the proletariat, Huey Long naturally preferred a more modern design.  The new Capitol  is a miniature of the Empire State Building,  the tallest Capitol building in the country, and seventh tallest building in Louisiana.   A massive statue of Huey Long  marks the burial site of the Kingfish,  It stands facing the building rather than the city ” so he could keep an eye on the Legislature. ”

20180517_174737webThe Governor’s Mansion seen above, also built by Huey Long has a totally different vibe – it is said he had it built based on Thomas Jefferson’s original designs for the White House, so when he was elected President he would already know his way around.

Long’s mansion was replaced in 1963 by a new building which was modeled on ante-bellum mansions (specifically, Oak Alley in Vacherie, LA).  It could have been used as a site for the exteriors of Tara in Gone with the Wind.  Louisiana’s public face has come full circle.3284_New-Gov.-Mansion_9eff8afb-5056-b365-ab007987e9bb3f4b

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: