The Pyrenees and Pilgrimage, Part 1 — Lourdes

cathedral bridge 3

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.

cathedral crop

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.

bernadette photo enlarged

“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)

cathedral eve 4

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.

L maples

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.

fort view 2

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 was 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.

museum baby 2

 

 

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.

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.

school museum crop (1)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Making of a Book Cover — Christmastime 1939: Prequel to the Christmastime Series

I was lucky to find a great book cover designer, Laura Duffy, for all my books. The Christmastime series, in particular, required several drafts.

Laura patiently added snow, made streetlights glow, erased modern buildings, and cropped and colored and added details until I had the image I wanted.

The cover for Christmastime 1939: Prequel to the Christmastime Series posed the most challenges. Early on, we decided that it would have a few subtle differences. As a prequel, it would not be part of the color sequence of the other books — green, red, blue. And Laura suggested that the “photograph” be vertical rather than horizontal.

I wanted the cover to evoke a sense of happiness and hope, with just a hint of the shadow cast by the war in Europe. After searching and searching for a photograph that would capture the main character’s (Lillian Hapsey) longing to move to Manhattan and start life anew, I found an image that might possibly work — with a little magic from Laura Duffy.

The photo had certain elements I was looking for: snow, a source of light (a lamppost), and it was immediately recognizable as Manhattan, with the Empire State Building in the center of the photo.

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But it needed some work.

First, the lamplights needed to be “turned on.” It took a few attempts to get the right shade of soft gold. Then we looked at several Christmas wreaths, pine boughs, and red ribbons to attach to the lamppost. We decided on the one below. I purchased the photo and Laura added and aged it.

Next, the Empire State Building needed to be more pronounced. The original photo depicted a foggy day (I wanted snow), and the outline of the building was obscured.  So Laura found and superimposed a clearer photo of the Empire State Building and added a light snowfall.

Empire State Bldg superimposed

We were getting closer, but it didn’t yet capture the charm and promise of new beginnings. I imagined a scene at dusk, people hurrying home after work, the Christmas season in the air — and Lillian pausing to look at the view of the Empire State Building and having a visceral feeling of connection — Manhattan embodied everything she wanted.

So Laura turned day into evening, showing lights in the office windows, and patiently adjusting my requests for “less blue, a little grayer, more dusk-like, a little darker, more snow?” — until finally, it clicked — and I entered the world of Christmastime.

The image captures a moment in the story when Lillian becomes a part of the city she so loves. I could see her dressed in 1930’s shoes and coat, her face raised in happiness, knowing that her two little boys would also love the magic of the city. I felt the image now had charm, a sense of excitement, and the feel of Christmas.

1939

Thank you, Laura!

Check out the variety of Laura’s covers here: https://www.lauraduffydesign.com/ 

Christmastime 1939 is now available (the softcover will be available any day now).

(The final book in the series, Christmastime 1945: A Love Story,  will be published in 2019.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

open window and hills

 

 

Beautiful blue

blue ocean

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

blue mosque

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

blue cathedral rectangle

“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.

lapis painting 1600

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.

blue thread

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.

blue glasses

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

blue stucco ornament

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

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

 

Images from my Pinterest board on color

Downton Abbey — in Manhattan

bells

Recently, my sister-in-law was planning a visit to New York City and when I asked her if there was anything in particular that she wanted to do, she said she would love to see Downton Abbey: The Exhibition. I hadn’t even heard about it, but it sounded like a good idea so I booked our tickets. Though I had only caught a few episodes of the series, I found that I was really looking forward to seeing the exhibit. And in the late afternoon of a cold winter’s day, we stepped into the world of Downton Abbey.

Edith

I was surprised to find that the exhibit was in the recently closed Lee’s Art store on 57th Street, a place I had frequented over the years. The windows that once displayed painting supplies, glittering frames, and whimsical toys, now held an equally enchanting display: images, items, and gifts relating to Downton Abbey — including an exquisite 1920’s dress in peacock blue and gold.

The New York City street was reflected in the window — scaffolding and yellow cabs, parkas and mounds of snow — and seemed a sort of symbolic contrast to the elegance of another era.

window contrast

We strolled through the exhibit, laughing as we were greeted by holographic videos (?) of Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes welcoming us to Downton Abbey, before they had to hurry away. We entered the “downstairs” area and worked our way up.  There was the kitchen with something simmering on the stove, the carton of eggs, the sounds of chopping and pots and pans being moved about. There was Carson’s pantry with the decanter, and there were those famous room bells.

And there was the dining room with the beautifully set table.

dining table

One room had video snippets of different scenes from the series: the explosions and trenches of WWI shifted to tranquil interior scenes of a fire burning brightly in the library.

fireplace video

Another area was dedicated to short film excerpts featuring the acerbic wit of Violet Crawley. And throughout the exhibit were reminders of the period’s codes of conduct and rules of civility.

The clothes were beautiful, and I found myself lingering over the details of trim and beading and lace: the Edwardian opulence of Violet’s clothing, the shimmering elegance of the 1920’s dresses,

and those beautiful necklaces and earrings that complemented the clothing.

On every floor, in every room was the sense of a time gone by and the societal upheavals of yesteryear. One quote posed the idea that perhaps that earlier period was not so unlike our own times, with technology rushing us ahead, creating some disturbing trends, while offering other compensations.

Since I had only caught an occasional episode, I never got to know the characters and plots in the way that many people did.

So, on these snowy January evenings, I’ve started to watch the series from the beginning — paying extra close attention to the buttons and jewelry, the silverware and bells.

 

The Christmastime stories — rural and small-town Midwest

The Christmastime books, stories of love and family on the home front during the World War II years, portray an America with one foot firmly in the past and the other poised on the threshold of change. The setting for these stories, for the most part, is New York City. However, a few storylines are set in the rural Midwest.

I was born and raised in small-town Illinois and the beauty of the landscape there — old farm houses set among fields and pastures, trains running to and from the small towns, the  woods and orchards that change with the time of year — has always had a strong pull on me. The seasons are rich and distinctive, and the snowy winter setting perfect for the Christmastime stories.

In the first book of the series, Christmastime 1940, we find that Charles Drooms’ past is deeply rooted in rural Illinois, and there are a few flashbacks to his boyhood and life on the farm that explain many of his decisions later in life.

In a later book, there’s a scene where Lillian works on a series of illustrations depicting the role of women on the farm. With so many men enlisted, women had to step into the workforce and fill jobs that had recently been held by men. Lillian draws on her memories of visiting Kate’s farm in the summer of 1941.

postere farm woman

Beginning in Christmastime 1943, a key storyline takes place on Kate’s farm involving her daughters, Ursula and Jessica, and the German POWs who work on the farm while Kate’s sons are away at war. The scenes depict the connection of living close to the land with the rhythms of the seasons, and the rigor and back-breaking work required by farm life.

The farm scenes help to portray a period when time moved more slowly, and a place where most foods were locally grown and cooking was done from scratch.

A time when the home arts played an important role in day-to-day living,

and small-town life offered simple charm and the opportunity for visiting and shopping.

The tension between the beauty and bleakness of the Midwestern winter landscape also serves to reflect the complexities in Ursula, a young woman often driven by opposing impulses.

And on a larger scale, the small town and farm scenes offer a counterpoint to the New York City scenes. The tranquility and wholesomeness of the countryside serve as a reminder of how much was at stake in the war.

The rural setting also represents the tens of thousands of young men, such as Kate’s four sons, who left their small towns and farms to fight in Europe and the Pacific. For many of them, it was the first time ever leaving home. For them, the very idea of “home,” and everything it symbolized, became a deeply cherished and protected ideal.

pie and chair

(For more images evocative of the world of Christmastime, please visit my Pinterest boards at http://www.pinterest.com/lindamahkovec/)

London

St. Jpark 2

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.

W pub night

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

Ian night 3

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 Plaza Hotel – book cover

All the book covers in the Christmastime series feature an old-looking photograph set in winter. They to help establish a sense of place and give the impression of peering back in time. The images also portray places that are still in existence in Manhattan, so that the reader can feel it’s possible to step into the world of Christmastime by strolling through New York City, whether literally or imaginatively. Hence, the snowy photographs of a brownstone and several scenes from Central Park.

The covers must also reflect the content and tone of the books. I chose increasingly lonesome images and darker colors as the war years wore on, especially for Christmastime 1942 and Christmastime 1943.

Though 1944 was another terrible year, the Allies were clearly gaining the upper hand, and many people believed that the war in Europe would be over by Christmas. (The mid-December surprise count-offensive by the Germans, resulting in the Battle of the Bulge, quashed that hope, and the war raged on.)

But when December arrived, hope was in the air. For the cover of Christmastime 1944, I wanted an image that was lighter, brighter, and more hopeful. When I came across the image of the Plaza Hotel lit up at night, I thought it would be perfect for the story – especially since the hotel figures into one of the plots.

cover Christmastime 1944

If you’re ever in Manhattan, stop by the Plaza Hotel for lunch or tea. Stroll through the lobby to look at the beautiful bouquets of seasonal flowers, the mosaic floors, and the stained-glass ceiling in the Palm Court.

 

And if you’re in the Christmastime frame of mind, you just might catch a glimpse of a lovely woman in a 1940’s satin and chiffon green dress.

Plaza PP mosaic

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.