The Pyrenees and Pilgrimage, Part 1 — Lourdes

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The beautiful town of Lourdes, France is located in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Two structures dominate the town and its history — the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Lourdes, situated on the wide, flowing Gave de Pau, and the thousand-year-old fortress, the Chateau-Fort de Lourdes, built on a high rocky bluff.

Lourdes fort 2

Lourdes has a rich and varied history.  Artifacts dating from the prehistoric times to the Roman  have been found in the area, and “the town and its fortress formed a strategic stronghold in medieval times.” (www.Britannica.com)

However, the town is best known as a place of pilgrimage for Catholics the world over, visited by millions every year.

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The identity of Lourdes as a market town, mountains crossroads, and fortified stronghold forever changed in 1858 when a young girl, Bernadette Soubirous, experienced numerous visions of the Virgin Mary in a grotto near the river.

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“The visions were declared authentic by Pope Pius IX in 1862, and veneration of Mary as Our Lady of Lourdes was authorized. The underground spring in the grotto, revealed to Bernadette, was declared to have miraculous qualities, and Lourdes became a major pilgrimage site.” (www.britannica.com)

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Lourdes is an international destination, a place of hope for many who cannot walk or are battling sickness or a chronic condition. They line up to hear mass given in front of the grotto, and fill up bottles with the sacred grotto water from numerous taps. Behind the cathedral, alongside the river, are private bathing rooms where pilgrims line up to bathe in the waters, hoping for a cure or improvement.

 

Even in the offseason, the shops and crowds can make the place seems touristy, but the solemnity with which the pilgrims pray and believe, and the sheer beauty of the place, preserve the sense of the sacred.

cathedral way flowers

The Gothic-styled cathedral, with its soaring spires and long narrow windows, was built above the grotto in 1876. It is made of the same gray stone as the rock beneath it and seems to have risen directly from it.

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cathedral river

The chateau-fort, which was never conquered, sits high above the town and is today a museum. Like the cathedral, it is made from the gray granite of the Pyrenees and appears to be a continuation of the thrust of rock on which it was built.

Lourdes fort

From the fortress top, you can see that the village itself is nestled in the strong arms of the valley mountains. The vantage point offers spectacular views of the town and valley below.

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museum view fort

“The château fort de Lourdes is strategically placed at the entrance to the seven valleys of the Lavedan. The castle’s origins go back to Roman times….The oldest remains date from the 11th and 12th centuries” and were reinforced several times in later centuries. (www.wikipedia.com)

 

“Within its walls there is a botanical garden at the foot of the 14th-century keep, and the Pyrenean Museum.” (en.lourdes-infotourisme.com)

museum stone

The museum is filled with artifacts and offers a glimpse into local life of the past centuries. Several exhibits are dedicated to marriage customs, clothing, farming and husbandry, and day-to-day living.

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museum bedroom

As daytime draws to a close, the crowds disperse, the sounds of the day shift to the soft sounds of evening, and a tranquil beauty pervades Lourdes.

 

Cathedral eve

From one of the bridges over the river, you can look back and see the cathedral and, in the distance, the fort. These two main structures of Lourdes — perhaps representative of two opposing human impulses — today rest comfortably together in the valley town.

cathedral candles tree lit

With the church bells ringing, the grotto candles lit, and the lights coming on in the town, you realize that Lourdes is unique — a sacred site of hope and prayer, rich in layers of history — a town born of the awe-inspiring beauty of the Pyrenees.

Annette’s orchard — seasonal charm

orchard dinner

In the Christmastime series, Lillian Hapsey visits her sister, Annette, in upstate New York, close to where they grew up. Annette and her family live on an orchard, which provides Lillian a welcome change from the bustle of Manhattan. Though Lillian only visits once or twice a year, the orchard offers her a wider scope of seasonal beauty and an opportunity to be with family.

Lillian and her boys, Tommy and Gabriel, have fond memories of spending Thanksgiving and Christmas at Annette’s. Depending on the weather, they take hikes through the woods, sometimes taking the logging roads. The boys and their cousins explore the woods and run wild through the orchard, and with the help of their Uncle Bernie, they gather firewood to make bonfires at night, sometimes roasting marshmallows. If there is snow, they go sledding and take sleigh rides.

When the sisters are together, they take long walks along the country roads, gathering bunches of bittersweet and pine cones. At night, they fix a cup of tea and stay up late talking in front of a crackling fire.

One of the things Lillian most looks forward to is preparing wonderful meals with Annette. Part of their tradition is to make dishes that their mother used to make when they were girls.

To the delight of the children, they also make special seasonal treats — apple cider donuts and caramel apples, holiday cookies, and snow ice cream.

And every time Lillian visits, Annette packs a basket for her to take back home with her, full of wholesome goodness from the orchard: honey and beeswax candles, maple syrup and jars of apple butter, bottled pears, jellies and jams — and apples.

When Lillian returns home to Manhattan, she often adds Annette’s orchard gifts to her breakfast and dinner table — besides being a tasty addition, they serve as a reminder of their days up at the orchard.

Annette’s orchard is a haven for Lillian and her boys — a cozy, welcoming place, full of good food and adventures. For Lillian, it gives her a sense of stepping back into her beloved girlhood days, and is a lovely way for her to enjoy the seasons.

(Photos from Pinterest. You can visit my book boards at: https://www.pinterest.com/lindamahkovec/)

The Romance of Travel: Carcassonne

Carcassonne distance

For many years I had longed to see the beautiful medieval city of Carcassonne and recently I was able to make that dream come true. Carcassonne did not disappoint.

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Located in the Languedoc region of southern France, Carcassonne is famous for its medieval citadel, La Cité, the largest walled city in Europe, with numerous watchtowers and double-walled fortifications. Languedoc is also famous for its wines and the hilltop city sits high above the surrounding vineyards.

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I arrived Carcassonne in the evening under a near-full moon. The hotel I stayed at was located at the foot of the hill, and I had a magnificent view of the fairytale city from my balcony.

Every day, I crossed the footbridge over the river Aude, climbed the steep cobblestone streets to the top of the hill, and entered the citadel through the lowered drawbridge. I spent hours wandering around the labyrinthine village, climbed the ramparts and spiral stairs of the towers, walked the walls which provided magnificent views of the valley below, and then rested and recharged at its many outdoor cafes.

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Carcassonne was occupied by the Romans and later the Visigoths. Its strategic hilltop location was fortified over the centuries with walls, towers, drawbridge and moat, a fortress, and a cathedral — the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire. Layers and layers of history pervade the stones and gargoyles, the slate roofs and worn steps.

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Today Carcassonne relies heavily on tourism and has several hotels, restaurants, and shops — even a small museum on the history of the French school system.

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The heraldic Occitan cross, which dates back to the 12th century, and the fleur-de-lis hearken back to its medieval history and can be seen throughout the city.

In the fall, Carcassonne has a particular beauty — pensive, tranquil, a bit wistful — and despite the tourists, a few quiet areas can always be found.

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It is at night when the magic of Carcassonne can most be felt — when the years of history fall away and you step into the past. The crenelated ramparts and rounded towers take on an architectural sharpness, accentuated by light and shadow.

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Crossing the drawbridge you can imagine the creak and clang of its chains, and you notice that the sounds inside the walled village are different — quieter, sometimes hushed. The interior of La Cité is softly lit by lampposts. Gold light pours onto the stone walls and archways and illuminates the curves of the cobblestone streets. It becomes a place of shadows and textures, mystery and beauty, drawing you further up into its heart.

Even in the off-season of late October, the hilltop is surprisingly alive at night and the sound of conversation and laughter fill the outdoor cafes that ring the small square at the center. Wandering through the narrow streets, you come across several restaurants and hotels that bid a warm welcome.

Carcassonne sets one to dreaming. Its deep history and beauty inspire, shift your perceptions, and bring about a silent exchange with the past. For many, it is representative of the unattainable — something actual, yet ever elusive. In 1887 Gustave Nadaud wrote a poem called “Carcassonne,” in which an old man dreams of seeing “fair Carcassonne” before he dies. To him, the city embodies the longing for an ideal, a place of profound meaning, an experience that could be his — yet it remains beyond his reach. The final line is “each man has his Carcassonne” — a beautiful distant dream.

Carcassonne dream (1)

Carcassonne — medieval city, hilltop fortress, fairytale village, a step back in time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Miranda’s garden — autumn days

“The sun shone on the garden, thick with late summer flowers and early autumn blooms.”

Though most of the story of The Garden House takes place over summer, the book ends with the beginning of fall, and a sense of change. I imagine the main character, Miranda, strolling through her garden at this time of year, gathering a few autumn leaves that have fallen to the ground and clipping blooms for displays around her home.

She would use certain flowers and berries and turn them into wreaths,

fall GH wreath 2

or pair them with candles to create a cozy fall ambiance.

fall branches

Most of the cut flowers would become arrangements that Miranda would place on bookshelves, counters, and tables throughout the house, with one special bouquet for the dining table.

fall bouque Paula

I imagine her preparing one of her special meals for her children who would visit over the weekend, or perhaps her friends next door would stop by for dinner.

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Miranda would add leaves and moss, or branches of berries and a few apples to the dining table to give it an autumnal feel.

And if the weather was mild, she would choose to have dinner under the trees on her beloved deck.

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As the autumn days grew cooler, Miranda would take a moment in her garden to curl up on a bench with a shawl, or find just the right spot to enjoy a cup of hot cocoa and good book.

reading and cocoa

Beauty. Meaning. Books.
http://amzn.to/2x8QhNp

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Bookstores

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The longer nights and cooler temperatures of autumn are perfect for browsing through a good bookstore — and leaving with an armful of books.

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“There were fewer finer things in life … than spending time perusing the shelves of a good bookshop.” ― George Mann

bookstore

“The truly wide taste in reading is that which enables a man to find something for his needs on the sixpenny tray outside any secondhand bookshop.” ― C.S. Lewis

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“To my mind there is nothing so beautiful or so provocative as a secondhand bookstore.”
―Lionel Barrymore

 

“Perhaps that is the best way to say it: printed books are magical, and real bookshops keep that magic alive.” ― Jen Campbell

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“Books are an escape route. A refuge…. a tunnel to the outside world. A glimmer of something beyond.”―Chloe Coles

 

“Reality doesn’t always give us the life that we desire, but we can always find what we desire between the pages of books.”― Adelise M. Cullens

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Happy reading!

 

 

The Romance of Travel – Italy

 

Country road

A friend of mine recently returned from two weeks in Europe. She took writing and drawing classes in Italy, spending most of her time on the Amalfi coast.

Amalfi

Her pictures and stories filled my head with dreams — and plans. I’m long overdue for some traveling, and Italy has been beckoning for quite some time.

Verona fall

 

 

 

 

 

“Italy is a dream that keeps returning for the rest of your life.” — Anna Akhmatova

Chianti

 

“You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” — Giuseppe Verdi.

Bobbio

 

Travel opens the mind, fills the soul, and touches the heart. It allows you step out of your daily routine and see the world afresh.

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September Gold

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The early days of September are tinged with soft shades of yellow and gold, full of warmth and sunlight. Pale or saturated, these tawny colors are the harbingers of autumn’s richer colors and cooler temperatures.

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“I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house.” ― Nathaniel Hawthorne

yellow trees

“Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons.” ― Jim Bishop

“Autumn seemed to arrive suddenly that year. The morning of the first September was crisp and golden as an apple.” ― J.K. Rowling

yellow path

“September: it was the most beautiful of words, he’d always felt, evoking orange-flowers, swallows, and regret.” ― Alexander Theroux

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Bronze, blonde, amber, honey, flaxen — now’s the time to enjoy September’s gold.

Sept 15

London

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London is a labyrinth of parks and avenues, winding streets and narrow alleys that lead you from one beautiful neighborhood to another. A quick trip over Thanksgiving impressed me anew with the loveliness of London.

St. Ermin’s Hotel in Westminster was the perfect place to stay. It’s a beautiful Victorian building close to St. James Park and Buckingham Palace and just a block away from the Tube. They were just beginning to decorate for Christmas while we were there.

Hotle night

It had been many years since I last visited London, and for the most part, it was like seeing it through fresh eyes. The skyline had changed greatly — the London Eye alone transformed the feel of the skyline, as did the Shard.

While we were visiting the Tower of London,

Tower 3

I was struck by the architectural layering of history: a row of Tudor-styled buildings stood behind the thousand-year-old crumbling walls of the fortress, and behind them both rose the Shard. All over London, the historical and the modern are intertwined.

Tower and Shard

For the most part, my husband and I played tourists, going from one historical site to another: The Tower of London, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Trafalgar Square, the Westminster area (we were disappointed to find Big Ben covered in scaffolding). But Buckingham Palace was beautiful, especially at the end of day when the lights came on.

Buckingham closeup night

This was the first time I visited Notting Hill, and I was immediately taken with its charm. I would love to see it in the spring when the wisteria is in bloom.

NH window

Another afternoon we spent in the ever-changing Brick Lane neighborhood, full of wonderful Bangladeshi restaurants.

Brick Lane

Also new on this trip was a visit to the Leighton House, home of the artist Frederic, Lord Leighton. I fell in love with the exotic tiles and lamps, and the colors he surrounded himself with — rich peacock blue, muted gold, and dark woodwork.

Leighton House tiles

I’m glad we visited London in the late fall. Dusk came early, and by 4:30 the corner pubs and restaurants dotted the evening with golden light and a feeling of coziness and cheer spilled outside onto the sidewalks.

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Buildings that were beautiful by day took on a deeper beauty by night.

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The shopping areas of Oxford and Bond Streets, and Picadilly Circus glittered with tiny lights and holiday decorations, and were bustling with red double-decker buses and crowds of happy shoppers. A stroll through Selfridges offered a glimpse of the glamour depicted in the Masterpiece period drama Mr. Selfridge.

Stores like Harrods and Selfridges brought to mind the wonderful scene from Howard’s End where Mrs. Wilcox and Margaret Schlegel do their Christmas shopping.

howards-end-christmas-scene

Scenes from movies and books are everywhere. We took a train to the Baker Street Station and above ground saw the Sherlock Holmes Museum (with a long line outside).

Baker Street crop

At King’s Cross station there is Platform 9 and 3/4 from Harry Potter (with an even longer line of children waiting to get their photo taken). Though my list of things to see included the Charles Dickens Museum, the Samuel Johnson House, a stroll through Bloomsbury, and several other sites and parks, five days didn’t allow it.

So I’m already working on another list for my next visit.

Ian night white flowers

 

 

 

 

The autumn leaves are falling like rain…

autumn mist and leaves

There’s a poem I’ve come across over the years that is simple, beautiful, and lyrical. It seems to find expression in different times, in slightly different wording. All the versions are evocative, stirring up rich images and emotions.

The autumn leaves are falling like rain,
Although my neighbors are all barbarians,
And you, you are a thousand miles away,
There are always two cups at my table.   – Tang Dynasty poem

In this version, most likely translated from the original, I imagine a rugged landscape,

rugged autumn

 

 

 

 

 

 

perhaps the Great Wall of China,

GW China autumn

and a cup of tea.

Chinese teacup

A quick search reveals a few remarkable facts about the period the poem was written in: “China’s Tang Dynasty, 618-907, is often considered the Golden Age of Chinese poetry. During this period, poetry was an important part of social life at all levels of society. Scholars were required to master poetry for the civil service exams, but the art was theoretically available to everyone. Tang poetry has had an ongoing influence on world literature.” (Wikipedia)

However, there are other, similar versions of the poem. Perhaps the poem has been been translated in various ways throughout the years, or perhaps different poets were moved by the universality of the poem and reworked it for their time and place.

For example, this later version about an earlier period, is said to describe the far reaches of Britannia under Roman rule:

Here at the frontier 
There are fallen gods 
And my neighbours 
Are all barbarians 
Although you 
Are thousands of miles away 
There will always be on my table 
Your cup.

Different imagery comes to mind: the wall morphs to Hadrian’s Wall, the landscape shifts to bleak highlands. I imagine damp cloaks, stomping horses, tents pitched next to a sputtering campfire.

And more recently, these lines, close to the original, appear in John Fowles’ The Magus:

“Here at the frontier there are falling leaves; although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, You are a thousand miles away. There are always two cups at my table.”

rainy leaves window

All the versions suggest forced separation – perhaps by war, conquest, travel of some sort – contrasted with the memory of friendship, the comforts of home, civility.  They speak of longing, memory, and the hope for future togetherness. And most of all, they express that it’s the simple things in life that have the greatest pull on us.

 

 

 

 

October

autumn lake

There’s an old green-covered book I open this time of year. The spine is split in some parts, the lettering on the cover is faded. It’s a book of poems by Robert Frost that my mother gave to me in high school. It was already worn back then. I don’t know if she bought it used somewhere around town or if someone made a gift of it to her years before. It wasn’t a formal presentation or given to mark a special occasion. It was like the other things she gave to us – a sort of “here’s something you might enjoy,” or “take a look at this.” Items that would simply appear on our dressers without any note at all – Classic Comics for my brothers, a porcelain bluebird for my sister’s collection, a red maple leaf, an exotic stamp off a letter from her brother who traveled widely. Things that would delight, pique our curiosity, entertain, or answer to inner longings.

The book of poems resonated deeply with me, especially the ones in the beginning of the book from the section “A Boy’s Will.” The autumn poems in particular became the ones that most spoke to me. “October” might have been the first poem I ever memorized, outside of school assignments. I memorized it because I wanted the words inside me, I wanted to walk through an autumn day and have the words at the ready: “O hushed October morning mild, Thy leaves have ripened to the fall, Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild, Should waste them all.”

CP autumn bridge

These many years later, the words are still there. As I walk through the neighborhood or cut through Central Park, a solitary leaf might float down from a tree on a mild autumn day, and I hear the words: “Release one leaf at break of day, At noon release another leaf.” The birds in the autumn sky might caw and without any prompting my heart recites: “The crows above the forest call; Tomorrow they may form and go.”

CP yellow elms

The simple book of poems remains the touchstone of autumn for me – it embodies the solitary, the nostalgia and memories of other Octobers, and the deep connection of inner yearning with outer seasonal beauty.

book with leaves

(Thank goodness Robert Frost didn’t stop at October. His poem “My November Guest” soon became my favorite.)

yellow leaf on bench