Lessons Learned While Traveling

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On August 11, 2001, my husband George and I departed for a journey around Europe that lasted until the following July. It was sometimes challenging, sometimes tiring, always interesting and the greatest experience of my life (other than some important family times).

While we traveled I kept a diary, recording not just the places we saw but also my reactions to some of our many experiences. We were in Belgium on 9/11. We were in England for the Queen’s 50th Jubilee. We caught a glimpse of Pope John Paul II. And we met many good people.

Just before we left George gave me a digital camera, still a new gadget then and something of a novelty. How I loved that camera! The pictures I took with it look terrible now because the quality was so poor but I took thousands of pictures on that trip!

After 15 years I’ve finally combined my diary with some of those photos and the great many postcards, ticket stubs, maps and brochures we sent home as we traveled. Together, in large binders, they take two-feet of shelf space. I tell myself they will delight me when I’m a (really) old lady so I’ve created these scrapbooks for that future me.

I’ve just read the last paragraphs of my diary for the first time in quite a long time. I had no memory of these words or the experiences they describe. They were written in the months after 9/11 and the beginning of America’s war in Afghanistan. They were written nine months before the Iraq war began. I’d like to share them with you.

“Our excellent adventure is nearly done. We have had a wonderful trip. We have seen so many famous, historic, interesting and beautiful places. We have met so many good and interesting people. Four people we met yesterday and today represent the best part of our trip, and I want to record them as representative of many others.

“We ate at a Pizza Hut in London last night, and our waitress was a young woman from Poland. She was delightful and she was happy that we had been to Poland and especially that we had been to Gdansk as her home is near there. She is earning a master’s degree in Linguistics. She said her life’s dream had been to go to India, and she went there for a month last year. She is a very happy person and we really enjoyed talking with her.

“Then we went to the left-luggage room at Charing Cross station, where I had parked an extra duffle bag I had to buy yesterday for all the souvenirs and junk we are hauling home. The young man working there began quite a conversation with us. He said he is from Lille, France, and that his mother is from Martinique. Again, he asked a hundred questions about where we had been, what we had seen, what we liked best. He was so much fun to meet because he was so genuinely interested in what we had to say.

“This morning I talked for a while with Yolanda, the young assistant manager at the hotel where we stayed in London. She is from Barcelona, and she liked hearing about our trip. She told me a bit about her career and we talked about how great Barcelona is, and about Spain. Each of these young people was so interested in our trip – it was fun to tell them about it.

“Next we took a cab across London to catch our train. It was driven by a man about 40, a Muslim Pakistani, very religious but very knowledgeable about Judaism and Christianity as well has Islam. He said people harassed him after September 11 but that has stopped. He said the politicians make all the trouble, that God teaches us all to be good to one another which is what he believes in. He opposes what the terroristic fanatics have done, and I think he probably represents the vast majority of Muslims.

“Four people in less than 24 hours who represent the hundreds of smart, interested, kind, well-meaning people we have met on our journey. That has been the best part and the most important lesson we have learned. From this trip I learned that all people are alike, that we all want the same things, that this is a small planet.”

Tomorrow the best president of my lifetime will leave the White House and the most unfit will become President of the United States. Like most of my friends I am worried and frightened. I’m going to work at remembering the last lines in my long diary: “All people are alike, we all want the same things, this is a small planet.”

Libbie

 

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Christmas in Jerusalem

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My brother Ben and his wife, Agi, were invited to spend the Christmas just past in Jerusalem. Our nephew is living there for a while. Ben and Agi were invited to a banquet in Bethlehem and midnight mass in the Church of the Nativity. On Christmas day they went to the Dome of the Rock in the old city of Jersulem. I’ve asked if I can share with you the email Ben sent me on Christmas day and my brother has agreed to that. Agi is an excellent photographer and she’s shared some of her photos with me so I can show them to you. Both Ben’s story and Agi’s photos really make me want to go there next Christmas!

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We spent a very interesting Christmas Eve in Jerusalem and later in Bethlehem. We were guarded by heavily armed, very serious-looking men the entire time we were in the West Bank. Bethlehem, like the rest of the West Bank, is in pretty dire straits but the dinner was incredible. Then we walked from the restaurant to the Church of the Nativity for midnight mass which was also really something. The Archbishop of Jerusalem was presiding, and there were six or eight bishops there as well. There are quite a few Christians among the Palestinian people, so there were about 10,000 people in and around the church on Christmas eve. The service went on for two hours. Mahmoud Abbas and his entire cabinet were there. For me the most interesting part was the walk from dinner to the Church, because we walked as a group for the better part of a mile through the center of Bethlehem. To be honest, it was scary as hell. Since it was Friday night, there were young men hanging out everywhere, and a lot of them were not happy to see us. Our PA security guys were all over, pushing people out of our way, scanning the rooftops, checking people’s hands. Never have I seen so many submachine guns in my life. At one point our group got too spread out so we had to stop and wait for the others to catch up. I kept Agi very close, and kept looking for rocks or bottles to fly our direction, but we got to the church without any incidents. We spent Christmas day in the Old City (of Jerusalem). We entered through the Jaffa Gate (the City Wall is completely intact), and immediately felt like we were transported back in time several hundred years. Almost all of the streets in the center of the Old City are covered, so you have the sense that you’re inside a giant bazaar. The streets are quite narrow, and there are thousands of small shops on both sides, with men who are VERY eager to engage you and sell whatever it is that they’re selling. You can’t throw a rock (not a good idea in any case there…) in any direction without hitting a mosque, a synagogue, or a church – Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Roman Catholic – they’re all jammed in there together. The Via Dolorosa is a very narrow street; since we were there on Christmas Day, there were groups of pilgrims praying at the Stations of the Cross, while kids on scooters whizzed by them and people were haggling over trinkets right beside them. Jerusalem is quite the ecumenical city!

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We were lucky to make it up to the Dome of the Rock for a few minutes before we were kicked out. Non-Muslims are allowed inside the compound twice a day for a few hours, but the line was so long, and the security people were so slow that only a fraction of the people waiting in line actually made it before the hour was up. Also, a Jewish group were staging a demonstration and tried to take Israeli flags into the compound, but they were turned around by Israeli security, so that slowed things down quite a bit. As it turned out, we only got to stay for about fifteen minutes before the imams started chasing all the non-Muslims through one of the gates back into the Old City.  It was an amazing place. Interestingly, there’s a sign above the entrance where non–Muslims enter,  warning all Jews that the Grand Rabbi of Jerusalem forbids Jews to set foot on the Temple Mount, not because it’s controlled by Muslims, but because it is a holy site in Judaism, and thus only accessible to certain Jews.

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It was quite a remarkable place, and yes, you did get the sense that it was a holy place. The shrine itself is off limits to all non-Muslims, and all political and religious symbols are forbidden, though I did see a very elderly Orthodox rabbi surrounded by security guys walking across the square – he may have been there for a meeting with the imams. It was also the only place in Jerusalem where we saw Islamic women in hajibs or burkas. I generally see a lot more hajibs on campus here in Columbus than I did in Jerusalem!

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A new year, new plans, same old me

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My apologies for the long delay in adding something to my blog. The election and its outcome, visits to my family in another state and a varied assortment of holiday entertaining and minor illnesses all combined to interrupt my plans and my good intentions. But a new year has arrived and with it, more good intentions! I’ll be more faithful in updating blog in the year ahead.

Of course I’m planning exciting travel in 2017! And I’m making plans for this blog, plans that I hope will interest you. I spend the summer at Fruit Hill, the farm in Ireland where I stayed for six weeks last spring. I’m also planning a visit my family members in Florida and to (finally!) make my first trip to Disney World. I’ll be going to Alexandria Virginia first, if all goes as planned, and I look forward to time in Washington DC’s neighborhoods and museums. I’m looking into volunteering with young children or refugees and will be writing in the future about my search for the right place for me.

That sounds like a list of New Year’s Resolutions, doesn’t it? I look forward to sharing my travels – both past and future – with you in 2017. Are you making travel plans? If you are, please share them with us in the Comments section below.

Wishing all the best for you in 2017!

Libbie

The picture shown above won 2nd prize in the “intermediate photographers” category of the first photography competition I’ve ever entered. It was taken at the Palais Royale in Paris.

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So I have this can of cinnamon…

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I bought a can of cinnamon at Trader Joe’s a year or two ago. The brand name is Szedeg and there’s a small drawing of an ancient church on the can. That’s the only clue of where or what Szedeg is. Where in the world is Szedeg?

Googling led me to a travel website on which I could lose an entire day. Although I don’t have time to write posts and edit photos now (11 days until this election is history!) I wanted to take time to share this with you.

The site is Lonely Planet’s “Best in Travel for 2017.” http://www.lonelyplanet.com/best-in-travel. It turns out that Szedeg is the third largest city in Hungary and that Lonely Planet recommends it as a “best place to visit.” I’m game!

Lonely Planet publishes excellent travel guides covering the world. Their website is deep and deeply helpful. The British version of Lonely Planet Magazine is my favorite travel mag. Recently LP began a new American version of that magazine that costs less in North America than the British version. It may be more focused on places of interest to us. You can find both of these at Books-a-Million and at many other bookstores. Or just read about these lovely places online and dream!

Did you vote yet?

Libbie

The photo at the top of this post is of the harbor at Hvar, Croatia, a place listed in the list of Best in Travel for 2017.

 

 

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On the Appalachian Trail

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This is a guest post written by one of our sons, George Griffin III, about his first experience hiking the Appalachian Trail.

“If we find you collapsed beside the trail, George, we will pray over you.”

I laughed, but Tex wasn’t kidding. He saw I was hurting, and along with his wife Beverly, knew what it was to hurt along the Appalachian Trail.

An elderly couple from Dallas, they hiked slowly but consistently, for weeks. Purposefully, but burdened with heavy packs and hampered by Bev’s ankle — injured long before their mission on the Appalachian Trail — on they went. When we said goodbye that morning, that offer of intervention was, I felt, sincere and I might need it. I also knew I would see them later, hours behind me but before nightfall, at the next shelter. These two were no-quitters, and by my third day on the trail I was genuinely impressed.

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My friend “Just Bryan” invited me to join him on a small portion of his trek across half of the Appalachian Trail’s nearly 2,200 miles. He began Mother’s Day at Harper’s Ferry, W.Va. and was determined to reach one end, Mt. Katahdin, Maine, another 750 miles north of where I joined him in southeastern New York State.

By now a baptized-by-trail “LASHer” under any interpretation, Just Bryan had hiked more than 350 miles. “Lasher” stands for “Long Ass Section Hiker.” That’s one degree less hardcore perhaps than the “Through Hikers” who dedicate their full time and fuller stamina to the complete distance of the Appalachian Trail, from Maine to Georgia, or vice versa, in one fantastic march. No small feat his, if he can manage — besting over 1,100 miles of trail, including the trail’s second tallest peak, Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, before summer’s end.

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My end appeared much closer. Three days of 10 mile up-and-down, hardscrabble hikes had ruined my feet and I openly questioned whether I could do the eight miles tomorrow to reach a highway and egress to the motor lodge, a shower, and beers.

At the shelter that night, I gently removed the boots I bought used on Craigslist, slipped on my “camp shoes” (cheap green flip-flops) and hung my hammock. Just Bryan lit a fire. He had already unpacked and claimed his space within the shelter. I didn’t understand it, but to him this was paramount.

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Shelters punctuate the Appalachian Trail but can be far apart, 20 miles or more. Long stretches of trail offer no shelters at all. Threadbare, the three-sided structures of wood are a foot or so above the ground and open to the elements on one side with an overhanging roof. Roughing it for sure, but for hikers who don’t want to haul and pitch a tent, shelters are critical. Just Bryan shaped his hiking plans on securing himself a space each night — most shelters sleep only six — so he hiked with fervor. When I complained that this pace kept me from enjoying the woods as fully as I hoped, he said dryly, “This is not camping, dude, it’s hiking.”

As the afternoon faded into evening, I understood. More and more hikers came to stop for the night. Shelter space tightened. Tents popped up, hammocks were hung. People who said goodbye hours earlier reunited, strangers became temporary friends. Shelters offer more than just weather cover and water — they are a social center that breaks the lonely miles of trail. At peak season they hum with interesting folk.gjg-3

Tuna Roll — his trail name — is an Iraq War vet. Maine or bust for him. Many former service members appear on the Appalachian Trail this time of year, Afghanistan vets too. Some know both wars. They huddle together at the shelters like some kind of self-help group, trading stories. I think the trail offers its own kind of therapy; these guys pack light, move fast, push on through pain. From the moment he arrived to the time he went down for the night, Tuna Roll chugged Coors tallboys he had hiked up the mountain that afternoon.

While he spoke very little with us, Tuna livened up when a mother and teen daughter team of redheads emerged through the forest. He had seen them before, but they were new to us. I wished Tuna had kept quiet, for he indulged in use of the “f” word, sentence, phrase and thought. When he hushed, I found out they were from Burbank, Calif., on the trail since school ended and hoping to make it from the Delaware Water Gap to New Hampshire. The night before, camped in a state park on the trail, their food and toiletries were stolen as they slept. I gave them a lot from my overburdened pack.

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George on the Trail.

Good — because I brought too much, and was feeling it. My shoulders ached, my hips, where most of the pack weight is borne if you are doing it right, were chafed and bruising. My feet were a mix of blisters, cuts, moleskin, tape, and pain. The first night, I jettisoned a lantern, some Gold Bond, and a book a neighbor lent me. He puts his name and address on stickers in his books so I left a note and $3 for whoever found it, asking it be returned. (Sorry, Conley.)

The hiking, however, was beautiful. Rich oak-heath forest of trees old, new, and reborn splayed out uphill and down and when we peaked, after a long, torturous, switchback ascent, I was healed by an expansive Hudson Valley view, or uplifted, unexpectedly washed in rich, white mountain laurels. Spectacular in full bloom. Despite the lingering pain, I am hooked. I want to LASH again, slow down, perhaps take my son and do the length of the Appalachian Trail through Virginia (550 miles, its longest single state stretch) which many say is its most scenic.

If I do, I hope to find Tex and Bev again, for an update, good news and celebration. Early in their trek north, word came from home — a young granddaughter named Harmony had been diagnosed with lymphoma. Instinct said quit and return — their daughter said go on. Instead they wiped tears, shaved their heads and continued, hiking and praying, and asking all their fellow trekkers to sign the cards they send back to Harmony regularly from the trail.

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George Griffin is a reformed television news producer now working on his fatherhood skills. He’s not much of an outdoorsman.

 

Posted in Outdoor Adventure, U.S.A. | Tagged | 2 Comments

The Most Beautiful Villages of France: Astonishing Lavardin

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Sometimes the slow traveler finds the best places purely by accident. One of the best of those accidental discoveries for us was the day we found Lavardin. Following a week in the Loire Valley on a cloudy Saturday morning we headed to Orleans. Along the way we discovered Lavardin, a village that has been inhabited since long before Julius Caesar conquered the Gauls and France.

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A beautiful garden and fine homes on the river banks.

The village lies along the banks of the river Loir (not Loire, a different river entirely). An old stone bridge connects the two sides of the place, enticing us to make an unplanned stop. We saw on the high hill above the town the remains of a fortress/castle built in the mid-1100’s and largely destroyed by the French king, Henri IV, around the year 1600.

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The 1000 year old church of Saint Genest in Lavardin.

On this Saturday morning we enjoyed seeing gardeners at work along the banks of the river. At the bridge we found a restaurant we would have liked to try had we been there a bit later in the day. We followed the main street over the bridge and into the heart of the village where we discovered the Romanesque village church named for Saint Genest. We saw no one around the church but the door was unlocked so we entered.

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A glimpse of the interior of the church. This photo is swiped from http://ateliermaisonconti.blogspot.com where you’ll find many more fine pictures of the frescoes in this church.

We have wandered into many ancient churches in Europe. George was particularly fond of exploring and photographing them. But this church held a surprise for us that we’ve found nowhere else. The walls were covered in paintings that are many hundreds of years old. We didn’t have the cameras and lighting required for good photos of this marvel but I’ve found a website that will show you what we found in Lavardin’s 1000 year old church that day. Please click here to see it.

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The remains of the 900 year old castle stand today much as they were after King Henri IV’s knights destroyed it.

Since that day in 2005 much work has been done to restore these images in this historic village church. They will continue to astonish visitors for many years to come.

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The cute old car seen in this photo is called a Citroen Deux Chevaux, a beloved relic in France. It was manufactured from the 1940s to 1990 and many of them are still running. The name means “two horses.” Citroen, the manufacturer, designed this inexpensive car for farmers who were still using wagons drawn by horses after World War 2.

Resources:

The village of Lavardin has an excellent website that will show you more of the village and tell you the town’s history across several millennia. Click here.

For years I’ve followed the blog written by Ken, a native of Morehead City, NC. Here’s a link to his post about Lavardin’s church.

The history of the Citroen Deux Chevaux courtesy of Wikipedia.

Posted in France, Most Beautiful Villages of France | Leave a comment

The Most Beautiful Villages of France: Historic Twins

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The Dordogne River winds slowly across southern France, passing centuries-old chateaux and villages. The region known as Perigord is now more often called Dordogne. Here life moves in old, gentle ways. In small villages along the river the townspeople remain well connected to one another, sharing community festivals and dinners, meeting one another at weekly outdoor markets, sharing wines, patés and brandies made from their walnuts. The weather in southern France is often mild in winter attracting many British people who relocate to the Dordogne region for retirement or to establish small businesses. The area is very popular with tourists who are familiar with France. Many local people, both French and British, operate B&B’s or offer vacation rentals and camping sites on old farms. Today they live together in peace but the French and the British have not always been good neighbors.

The history of this region is both long and brutal. Prehistoric cavemen are believed to have lived in this area of France 30,000 years ago. The famous cave paintings of Lascaux are just 20 miles north of the Dordogne river. Two-thirds of all the cave paintings known to exist are in southwestern France. Richard the Lionheart was killed in a battle here in 1199. Between the years 1337 to 1453 the two countries often fought over control of southwestern France in what is called the Hundred Years War. Relics of war can still be found across the region in the form of ancient fortress-castles. Two of these chateaux crown the neighboring villages of Beynac-et-Cazenac and La Roque-Gageac. Battles were sometimes fought between these fortress-castles which are only three miles apart.

Today these peaceful places are members of association called The Most Beautiful Villages of France. Each village is comprised of houses built of golden stone centuries ago. An ancient chateau still stands at the top of each town. The chateau at Beynac is open year-round for tours. The houses in Beynac are stacked on the steep hills and cliffs above the river, the foundation of one at the roofline of its neighbor. The homes in La Roque-Gageac have been sandwiched between the river and the cliffs that run beside it. Each of these villages is the site of fine restaurants and vacation rentals. Boating and camping along the river is easy to arrange. The atmospheric old town of Sarlat-le-Canéda is just twenty minutes away.

Here are some pictures George and I took a few years ago when we explored this part of France. I look forward to returning.

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The chateau at Beynac

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Beynac is so steep that this street runs along the roofs of the adjacent houses.

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Can I please live in this house in Beynac?

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Tourists enjoying a ride on the Dordogne river.

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The road into Cliffside Roque-Gageac

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Buildings stand between the river and the cliffs in La Roque Gageac.

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The chateau at La Roque Gageac

Resources:

Think you might like to know more about visiting Begnac and La Roque?  Here’s a good site to begin with.

My friend Elinor and I have discovered a series of novels set in the Dordogne region of France. Elinor’s much more discriminating about what she reads that I am so I feel safe recommending these to you. The series begins with a book called Bruno: Chief of Police by Martin Walker. I’ve read all but the latest one and find Bruno and his friends to be very likeable.

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