The Pyrenees and Pilgrimage, Part 2 – Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port

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In the foothills of the French Pyrenees lies the small Basque village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The winding Nive river runs through the town and is crossed by several picturesque bridges.

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With the town’s steep cobblestoned streets, timbered buildings, medieval stone structures, and abundance of flowers, the village must be one of the prettiest in France.

 

 

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The village itself is very small and can be walked in a few hours.  The steep cobbled rue de la Citadelle forms the heart of the village and is lined with shops, inns, and restaurants. A stroll through the town offers a close-up view of the medieval city gate — the Porte d’Espagne — and the 14th-century Gothic cathedral. The architecture in this old section is picturesque with arched doorways, tiled roofs, shutters, and charming details —

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St. Jean carving

all set against stunning views of the valley and mountains.

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There are several walking trails around the area for longer excursions, such as the one along the medieval city wall. This path eventually leads to the citadelle, high atop the village.

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The citadelle was built in the 12th century to protect the river and the crossing route over the Pyrenees.

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The site near the chateau and fortifications offers magnificent views of the mountains and valley, and the village below.

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The citadelle protected the mountain pathway to Spain — the Roncevaux Pass — making Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port an important point on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela — also known as the Way of Saint James, the Camino de Santiago, or simply, the Camino.

For those departing from Paris or elsewhere in France, the route was referred to as the French Way. Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port was the pilgrims’ last stop before beginning the arduous trek through the Pyrenees. Pied-de-Port means “foot of the pass.”

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The city of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain “has its origin in the shrine of Saint James the Great, now the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, as the destination of the Way of St. James, a leading Catholic pilgrimage route since the 9th century.” (wikipedia.org)

Today it is also popular with hikers and cyclists. According to caminoways.com, the French Way is the most popular of all the routes, with over 177,000 pilgrims making the journey every year. Approximately 34,000 pilgrims choose Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port as their starting point.

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(en.wikipedia.org)

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Several shops along the rue de Citadelle sell gear for the trek, including walking staffs or hiking poles. A rhythmic “click, click” sound made by the pilgrims and their walking sticks can be heard in the Camino towns along the route.

Two symbols are found throughout the town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port — on shops, menus, clothing, and souvenirs  — the lauburu, or Basque Cross,

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and the clamshell, the symbol of pilgrimage.

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“Since the scallop is native to the coast of Galicia, the shell also became a memento, a physical proof of having completed the pilgrimage to Santiago….The shells also had a practical purpose: they were a handy and light replacement for a bowl so the pilgrims could use them to hold their food and drink on their long journey….Medieval pilgrims often wore a scallop shell attached to their cloaks or hats during their journey” (caminoways.com), as shown on this tapestry in the village’s small museum.

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The image of the scallop can be found on several inns and shops of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port,

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along with images of medieval pilgrims.

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Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is a tiny town with a long name and a long history. For centuries, it has been a crossroads for travelers and pilgrims, and still offers its charm and beauty for the tourists and pilgrims of today.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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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“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)

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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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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.

 

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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.

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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.

The Romance of Travel: Carcassonne

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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.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Romance of Travel – Italy

 

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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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Beautiful blue

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“Blue, darkly, deeply, beautifully blue.” – Robert Southey

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“Blue color is everlastingly appointed by the deity to be a source of delight.” – John Ruskin

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“A certain blue enters your soul.” – Henri Matisse

Ultramarine – “The most perfect of all colors,” Cennino Cennini

“Sometimes called ‘true blue,’ ultramarine is made from the semiprecious gemstone lapis lazuli, which for centuries could only be found in a single mountain range in Afghanistan.

Lapis first appeared as a pigment in the 6th century. Around 700 years later, the pigment traveled to Venice and soon became the most sought-after color in medieval Europe. For centuries, the cost of lapis rivaled the price of gold.

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Legend has it that Michelangelo left his painting The Entombment (1500–01) unfinished because he could not generate the funds to buy ultramarine blue. Raphael used the pigment scarcely, applying it above base layers of azurite when depicting the Virgin Mary’s blue robe. The Baroque master Vermeer, on the other hand, bought the color in spades, so much so that his indulgence pushed his family into debt.” http://www.artsy.net

Indigo is a natural dye rather than a pigment for painting. It was used to color fabrics, clothing, yarns, and luxurious tapestries. Unlike lapis lazuli, whose rarity drove its high prices, the indigo crop could be grown in excess and produced across the world, from India to South Carolina.

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Commonly considered a shade of blue, indigo is not a separate color in its own right, so why does it get its own band in the rainbow?

Indigo dyeing was especially popular in England, home to physicist Sir Isaac Newton. Newton believed that the rainbow should consist of seven distinct colors to match the seven days of the week, the seven notes in the musical scale, and the seven known planets. Confronting the fact that the rainbow only displayed five unique colors, Newton pushed indigo, along with orange, much to the dismay of some contemporary scientists.” www.artsy.net

“Jean fabric was first produced in Genoa, Italy, in the 17th century; the French city of Nimes copied the technique shortly after (“de Nimes” aka “denim”). The cotton twill fabric, dyed with indigo, was sturdy and washable, making it perfect for workers.” www.artsandculture.google.com 

“Blue has more complex and contradictory meanings than any other color.

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Dark blue: trust, dignity, intelligence, authority

Bright blue: cleanliness, strength, dependability, coolness
(The origin of these meanings arise from the qualities of the ocean and inland waters, most of which are more tangible.)

Light (sky) blue: peace, serenity, ethereal, spiritual, infinity
(The origin of these meanings is the intangible aspects of the sky.)

Most blues convey a sense of trust, loyalty, cleanliness, and understanding. On the other hand, blue evolved as symbol of depression in American culture. “Singing the blues” and feeling blue” are good examples of the complexity of color symbolism and how it has been evolved in different cultures.” http://www.colormatters.com

“Pink for girls and blue for boys is a surprisingly recent tendency. Even as late as 1927 some fashion stores recommended pink for boys.” http://www.express.co.uk

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For a fascinating book on color, read Victoria Finlay’s books.

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Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay  Link: http://a.co/bfRUBxs

 

Images from my Pinterest board on color

Giverny — Life as a work of art

For quite some time, I’ve been dreaming about my next trip to France. Paris, of course, but I also want to see Normandy. Among other sites, Mont Saint-Michel has been beckoning for years. And high on my list is a trip to Giverny — Claude Monet’s home and gardens. I would love to see it in all seasons, but for my first visit, I want to experience it in the springtime. Giverny is what happens when you give yourself completely, and passionately, to something you love.

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Quotes from Monet’s letters:

“My garden is a slow work, pursued with love and I do not deny that I am proud of it. Forty years ago, when I established myself here, there was nothing but a farmhouse and a poor orchard…I bought the house and little by little I enlarged and organized it…I dug, planted, weeded myself; in the evenings the children watered.” – Claude Monet

 

“I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers.” – Claude Monet

 

“My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece.” – Claude Monet

 

“People discuss my art and pretend to understand as if it were necessary to understand, when it’s simply necessary to love.” – Claude Monet

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“I work at my garden all the time and with love. What I need most are flowers, always, and always.” – Claude Monet

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“I want to paint the way a bird sings.” – Claude Monet

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“My heart is forever in Giverny.” – Claude Monet

 

 

 

 

 

Flowering doorways

 

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There’s something about a flowering doorway that moves the heart, that speaks of beauty and happiness.

It greets those who enter by framing them with fragrance, color, and loveliness,

and when leaving the abode, it provides a way of welcoming the day, a portal to pass through sure to initiate optimism and joy.

And if you are simply passing by, it offers a wish for happiness —

 

a silent act of generosity that bestows the gift of beauty and enriches the viewers, who, if their hearts are open, will carry the sweetness with them.

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(all images from Pinterest)

Saint Patrick’s Day thoughts

inner 2May you have warm words on a cold evening,
A full moon on a dark night,
And the road downhill all the way to your door.

 

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If there is a way into the wood, there is also a way out.

 

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May God look down and bless you.
May you look up and give thanks.

 

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“Yes. I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.” – Oscar Wilde

 

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‘Tis afterwards that everything is understood.

 

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“Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fall.” – Oliver Goldsmith

 

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Be happy with what you have and you will have plenty to be happy about.

 

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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.

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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,

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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Travel – Bangladesh

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In the mornings, I stood on the bedroom balcony, and closed my eyes as I listened to the sounds of Bangladesh: bells from the bicycle rickshaws, short beeps from the motorbikes, the alluring call of the muezzin from the nearby mosque. Small birds chirped from trees that rose up past the balcony, and geese squawked and flapped their wings in the neighboring yard.

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One day,  as I was writing, I heard music coming from the street, and I ran downstairs to the front veranda to see what it was. I was delighted to find an enchanting procession passing by on the dirt road outside the house. But then I was told that it was a Hindu funeral and they were on their way to the cremation. Carried on the shoulders of six men was a wicker bier on which the body was laid, its head rocking back and forth with the movement of their walking. The men held burning sticks of incense, and the group that followed made rhythmic sounds from bells and tiny brass instruments. It was a day-to-day event, and the other people on the street took little notice.

A group of giggling schoolgirls in uniforms of pale blue and white passed by, their black hair neatly arranged in buns or in braids. Vendors passed the procession, bent only on selling their wares: a stick-thin man with a bamboo pole across his shoulders with baskets of vegetables on either end, the bangle lady enticing the women in the houses with her cries of “churi, churi!” and a man carrying a colorful stack of cloth on his head. Life and death were in easy company on the busy, dusty street.

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