Land and Heritage: Visiting Ireland’s Southwest Coast

Our two-week sojourn along Ireland’s Atlantic coast was all about land and heritage.

As we explored the southwestern part of the country — from County Kerry to County Clare — we saw an amazing variety of landforms: rugged sea cliffs, windswept beaches, limestone mountains, fertile farms, chains of lakes, hidden valleys, and beautifully austere barrens. The area also is home to dozens of ancient and medieval ruins.

While traveling only about 100 miles (as the crow flies) from Kerry in the south to Clare in the north, progress was slow. Not only did we have to drive a five-speed standard on the left side of the road, but we also had to navigate many narrow local routes, like this two-way road along the coast.

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County Kerry — The Dingle Peninsula

Our meanders brought us to many beautiful spots like this area along Slea Head Drive on the Dingle Peninsula in Kerry. There, the southwesterly winds bring in lots of rain from the Atlantic, and vivid grasslands slope down toward dramatic sea cliffs.

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Off-road, there were many stretches like this along Slea Head Drive — viewing spots above the building surf and rugged coast. Unusually, the area in the foreground of this particular image is a sinkhole, with a hidden sea cave forming beneath the plateau.

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A fascinating ethnographic museum in the village of Dunquin tells the story of the Blasket Islands just off of the Dingle Peninsula.

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Not populated since 1953, the islands once were home to a small but hardy community of subsistence fishermen and farmers who relished island life. The islanders had rich oral traditions, folklore, and customs, and several of them became famous as authors and storytellers whose Irish language tales have been translated into many languages.

From the museum in Dunquin, there’s a beautiful, four-mile cliff walk past wildflower-covered turf and limestone outcrops.

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Dunquin Cliff Walk

Of special note: much of the film Ryan’s Daughter was shot in this village in 1969-70, and the cliff walk passes by ruins from the film set, including a “schoolhouse” built for the movie.

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Eventually, that same path dips down by the water, with great views of nearby islands.

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County Kerry — Killarney National Park

Killarney National Park, one of Ireland’s six national parks, has a great mix of hiking trails and biking paths along three glacial lakes ringed by mountains, old growth trees, limestone caves, and occasional ruins.

Just outside the hotel where we stayed in the park, we could visit the ruins of a castle from the 1200s that command the site of a small nearby peninsula.

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On one of our outings in the park, we took a natural history boat ride from the Dundag Boat House on the shores of Lake Muckross. Until we boarded, we had no idea that the boat skipper — amazingly! — was born in Boston in the 1960s and grew up in Upham’s Corner in Dorchester.

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The skipper’s parents lived in Boston for nine years, returning to Ireland in 1972 after they were disillusioned by “all the turmoil of the ‘60s there.” His story reminded us of others we heard during our trip about the many close ties between this part of Ireland and the United States — ties that go back to well before the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s.

The ride brought us to the part of the park where three lakes come together, the area known as the Meeting of the Waters. The Old Weir Bridge with its twin arches spans the gap between two of the lakes and is believed to date to the 1500s, perhaps even earlier.

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The ride also gave us great close-up views of limestone caves being formed by erosion.

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County Kerry — The Black Valley

Just outside of the national park, the Black Valley is sometimes thought of as a hidden valley, as it sits away from more touristed areas.  Of special note: it was the last part of Ireland to receive electric service in 1976.

The local guide who showed us around the area, George Jackson of Dingle Darkroom, is a delightful free spirit and professional photographer with a passion for teaching people how to make strong photos in off-the-beaten path places that he’s found along the Atlantic Coast.

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We spent quite a while with George in the Black Valley, which we never would have found on our own.  It’s a remote area of scattered small farms and glacial lakes, surrounded by rugged mountains.

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We learned from George that, given how remote the valley is, local farmers receive government subsidies to raise sheep and till the hardscrabble soil there.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the barely-settled valley has some isolated ruins that speak to the difficult lives of small farmers who lived there in the past.

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In quiet parts of the valley, we crossed paths several times with sheep as they grazed on grass and searched for food.

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County Clare — The Burren

Before we went to the Burren, a guest at a hotel in Killarney warned us that “the Burren is barren.”  While some people may think of it that way, we thought that it had a rugged kind of beauty that was distinctly different from the other areas we visited on the trip.

Much of the topsoil in the Burren has eroded away over time — partly due to nature, but mainly due to over-farming and over-grazing.  As a result, the underlying limestone is exposed in many places, like here at Black Head, creating what’s called “limestone pavement.”

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The Burren is one of the few places in the world where Arctic-Alpine and Mediterranean plants grow near one another. Also, the warmth in the “grykes” — the spaces in between the limestone pavements — can support even fragile plant life. For these reasons, some people call the Burren “the land of the fertile rock.”

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In the Burren National Park, a loop trail goes through some old farmland and looks out to Mullaghmore, a major outcropping of limestone that’s the highest point in the park.

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After hiking on our own, we had the pleasure of touring part of the park with Tony Kirby, a local guide with an encyclopedic knowledge of history, botany, poetry, and more.

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As we walked around, Tony told us about human settlements in the area going back thousands of years, dating to the late Bronze Age.

Even some of the freestanding drystone walls in the area are hundreds, or thousands, of years old — it’s amazing that they’ve lasted all that time without mortar or cement holding them together.

Depending on the location, the walls mark the boundaries of land once tilled by struggling tenant farmers, the one-time wildlife “parks” where wealthy gentry once hunted game, former pilgrim sites or small churches once managed by monastic orders, or other forms of divided land. In that sense, the Burren landscape “tells many stories” of power and inequality that might not be so obvious at first glance.

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Before we left the Burren, we made a point of visiting some local ruins. Perhaps the most impressive one was the portal tomb at Poulnabrone, which contains the remains of more than 30 people from several thousand years ago.  The rock balancing on the stone pillars weighs over 1.5 tons.  Scholars say that this is arguably the best-preserved ancient tomb of its kind in all of Ireland.

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Reflecting on Our Trip

As much as we enjoyed hiking and biking amid a variety of landforms, we also marveled at southwestern Ireland’s rich cultural heritage. Humans have left behind traces of their homes and communities in this region for thousands of years: communal tombs, pagan religious sites, stone forts, medieval churches, old stone walls, and more.

In hindsight, we didn’t anticipate how much we would enjoy experiencing and learning about Ireland’s southwest coast. Its distinctive blend of natural, cultural, and historical features — not to mention its warm and friendly people and its relaxed way of life — were thoroughly enticing. As you may have guessed, we’re already figuring out how and when to set up a return trip there!

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Traditional Culture, Timeless Vistas in Eastern Switzerland

Switzerland is home to dozens of villages that have barely changed over time.  When you enter these small towns, modern life seems to melt away.  Instead, you feel like you’re in another century.

On our recent trip to eastern Switzerland, we visited two villages that – in different ways – have held onto their traditions and cultural heritage.  Here we’ll share a few glimpses of the local life that we especially enjoyed.

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Of the two villages we visited, Appenzell is the more colorful one.  Much of its center dates back to the Middle Ages and is listed as an official Swiss heritage site of national significance.

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For many years, it’s been customary to paint the exterior of buildings there with elaborate drawings and designs.  For instance, the featured image at the top of this post shows murals on the facade of the hotel where we stayed, the Hotel Säntis.  Here are several more examples from around the village.

Another longstanding tradition is the annual parade of cows.  At the end of the summer, local farmers wear traditional costumes and escort their herds down from higher pastures to their winter quarters near town.  Luckily, we saw several of these processions, to our great delight.

We even saw cows parading right through the middle of the village center.  One of the waiters at our hotel said, “this is ordinary for us – cows are part of our lives.”

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Rural life has inspired all sorts of musical traditions in this area.  Yodeling, of course, is one of them.  But dairy farmers also use an assortment of whoops, yells, and other melodic calls to keep their cows in check.

When we were in town, we attended several folk music performances by locals.  Part of what made them so special is that the performers dressed in traditional costumes: white shirt with suspenders, a dangling earring worn in the right ear, and even special ruffled socks.

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What we didn’t know until later on is that some of the musicians practiced what’s called “coin rolling.”  Basically, each singer rolls a five-franc coin around the inside of a deep earthenware bowl.  The resulting sounds are meant to mimic the sounds of distant cowbells.  In combination with four-part harmonized yodeling, this type of Swiss Alpine music has been very popular over the last century.

We also saw groups of people in Appenzell burst into beautiful songs while they ate outdoors or as part of a special street fair.

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Finally, we were lucky to catch an annual Middle Ages festival when local townspeople dress up in period clothing and turn the village center into a colorful street fair.

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Arosa

In contrast to Appenzell, which has held onto its historic center, much of the center of Arosa, the second village we visited, now caters to the ski crowd – lifts, shops, and restaurants are largely geared toward winter visitors.

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Even though it’s become known as a ski village, there’s still lots of great vernacular architecture in Arosa.

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This church, for example, dates back to 1492-1493, and is still used for weddings and summer concerts today.

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Other local chalets date back to the 1700s or call to mind the longstanding tradition of making handmade cheese in Arosa.

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The hotel where we stayed has been an inn since 1911, and the same family has run it since 1955.  The current third-generation owner was born in Arosa, and he’s one of only three remaining independent hotel owners in the village.  He and his wife are very proud of their family-run inn.

To honor tradition, the hotel serves a special fondue dinner once every week.

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From this cozy inn in the original part of the village, we enjoyed fabulous views right outside our bathroom window and balcony!

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As this photo suggests, Arosa is a great hiking base – its lifts connect to dozens of miles of hiking trails with gorgeous views in every direction.

During our stay, we enjoyed some thoroughly transporting hikes – often, we were the only ones on the trails.

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Finally, like in Appenzell, farming is a major local industry in Arosa.  Here, too, we got to see herds of cows with clanging bells returning down from the high pastures.

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Inspiration for the Future

More than on other trips we’ve taken, we got to experience traditional ways of life in Appenzell and Arosa.  It was fascinating to be in such peaceful places where people have held onto their heritage so strongly.  The rhythms and routines in both of these villages drew us in and took us out of our daily routines.  Going forward, we’re going to seek out more places like them, far from the hyper-busyness of the modern world.

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Continue reading “Traditional Culture, Timeless Vistas in Eastern Switzerland”

Glimpses of Portugal at a Possible Tipping Point

The past never feels far away in Portugal.  From its two biggest cities, Lisbon and Porto, to its hundreds of hilltop towns and medieval villages, it’s a country whose ancient history, traditional culture, and complex heritage continue to have a strong hold on the present.

Most of our recent journey to Portugal took place in the northern and central parts of the country — mainly in the cities of Porto and Coimbra and in the countryside east of there.

Before we left for Portugal, we knew that the northern part of the country was mountainous, but we didn’t fully appreciate how hilly it is — it’s a dramatically rolling landscape of rugged slopes, small farms, olive groves, and vineyards set amid small towns and scattered villages.

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Vineyard, fruit trees, and olive groves at Quinta da Pacheca, Lamego

We spent several days visiting the world’s oldest demarcated wine producing area (designated in 1756), the UNESCO-listed Alto Douro Wine Region, which is located in this part of Portugal.  Small landholders have produced wine there for over 2,000 years.  Vintners today produce many excellent wines with traditional methods.  Because of the rugged terrain, even the larger wine producing estates tend to harvest their grapes by hand, not by machine.

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Slopes with terraced vineyards in the Douro Valley, opposite Pinhão

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Hillside vineyard on the road to the village of Favaios

Though the grape harvest wasn’t yet in full swing during our visit, we did get to see some old-fashioned, behind-the-scenes activity up close.

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Tractor hauling a load of hand-picked grapes, Favaios

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Crushing grapes the traditional way, Quinta da Pacheca, Lamego

Another feature of traditional life in North-Central Portugal is the large number of medieval towns in the area, many with intact walls and atmospheric historic districts.

Two of the most impressive towns that we visited were Guarda and Trancoso.  Both of these towns had narrow, cobblestone streets flanked by densely packed houses going back to the Middle Ages.

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Entrance to the Guarda historical center via one of the three medieval gates still in use

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The 15th Century granite pillory in Trancoso was the site of public executions there

In Trancoso, many buildings still have coded markings where so-called crypto-Jews — people who were forced to convert to Catholicism after the Inquisition but secretly practiced their Judaism in their homes — once lived.  Some people theorize that the crypto-Jews put the markings on their homes to show their “allegiance” to their “new” faith.

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Crypto-Jews’ markings on a building in Trancoso

After the fall of the Salazar-founded dictatorship in 1974 (more below), religious laws nearly 500 years old gradually disappeared, and more and more crypto-Jews — still practicing their Judaism secretly — began to observe their Jewish faith more openly.  A community of about 100 Jews opened a synagogue in nearby Belmonte in 1996 and — with the support of the municipal government — launched a Jewish study and cultural center in Trancoso in 2012.

We also saw some of the most extensive Roman ruins on the Iberian Peninsula.  At Conimbriga, which had been a Roman settlement for over 500 years, residents put up a massive wall in the 5th Century to try and ward off invading Swabian tribes (they didn’t keep the invaders away, and the Roman Empire fell apart not long thereafter).

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Archway, Roman ruins at Conimbriga

We had the good fortune to meet many fine people in this part of the country — at the inns where we stayed, at small local museums, or even when we least expected it.

In Serra da Estrela Natural Park, we took a long hike down hundreds of feet through a large chestnut tree forest and then climbed up just as steeply to what we thought would be a waterfall (it’s only a swimming hole in the low-water flow months of summer).

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Hike above the mountain village of Lapa dos Dinheiros, Serra da Estrela Natural Park

There, a chatty man who had been born in a small village about 10 miles away greeted us and struck up a conversation.

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Over the course of the next hour, he recalled that “people had oxen 40 years ago” in his village, and he spoke with obvious disdain about today’s politicians who “just want to build roads and knock down buildings and put up new developments.”  The problem, he said, is that “many people equate heritage with poverty, and it’s difficult to fight that ideology.”

In addition to visiting the countryside and several medieval towns, we spent nearly a week in the cities of Porto, Coimbra, and Lisbon.

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View of Ribeira neighborhood of Porto

Porto, the country’s second largest city, has seen a boom in tourism since the end of the Great Recession.  Though swarming with visitors on the Sunday when we went there, it still was of great architectural interest, with atmospheric side streets and a main train station covered with traditional azulejos (ceramic blue tiles).

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Azulejos-lined walls of the main train station in Porto

Coimbra, a smaller and much more mellow city, is home to the oldest and most prestigious university in Portugal, founded in 1290 and relocated to Coimbra in 1537.

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17th Century clock tower above Paço das Escolas, University of Coimbra

The university features UNESCO-listed architecture, a world-renowned library, and  student music groups known as “tunas.”  The tuna tradition goes back to the Middle Ages.  Today, students wear black cloaks, play period instruments, sing serenades, and perform lively step dances in university courtyards and elsewhere in the historic district.

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“Phartuna,” performing songs and dances in the historic district of Coimbra

We stayed at an historic inn in Coimbra with a storied past dating back to the 1300s.  There, we spoke with the inn’s sommelier, João, who showed us the hotel’s wine cellar and talked with us about his training and his aspirations.

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João, a sommelier, showing us his wine cellar

Much as he likes most hand-crafted European wines, João is a very big fan of multi-varietal “experimental” wines from California and New Zealand.  For that reason, he thinks a lot about working abroad someday to learn more about non-traditional production methods and styles of wine making.

Finally, we spent several transporting days in Lisbon, where we visited cafes and walked around some of the city’s oldest and most off-the-beaten path neighborhoods, including the Mouraria, birthplace of the uniquely Portuguese form of music known as fado.

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Stairway in the Mouraria neighborhood, home to many immigrants

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Cafe in the Mouraria neighborhood

We also visited several small museums that offered fascinating insights into the history and culture of Lisbon.  The most compelling one was the Aljube (“deep hole” in Arabic) Museum that pays tribute to those who resisted the dictatorship of Salazar (who was in power as prime minister from 1932 to 1968) and (until 1974) his successors.

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Exterior shot, Aljube Museum

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Wall panel from the Aljube Museum

In hindsight, we thoroughly enjoyed our trip to Portugal — we hiked amid some beautiful scenery, enjoyed fabulous food and wine, learned a great deal about Portuguese history, and met many local people who spoke very openly and very eloquently about the difficult challenges the country is facing today.

Even while we were there, we felt like we might be witnessing Portugal at a critical tipping point.  Especially compared to our previous trip there in 2009, mass tourism (e.g., 500 large cruise boats docked in Lisbon this summer) seems to be threatening much that is unique and special about the country.  We heard from several people that the pressure to draw in tourists — and their spending — is very real.  Especially in Lisbon and Porto, the country may already be reaching its limits to growth.

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Tourists snapping photos of the Ascensor da Bica (Bica funicular)

Very soon, Portugal will need to decide how to reconcile the ongoing tensions between its past and its future.  As a woman we met in the Douro Valley said, if the current trends of mass tourism and growing gentrification continue unchecked, Portugal will lose its way, “and we’ll have to market ourselves as frauds.”

Still, we hope to go back to Portugal someday — it’s a ruggedly beautiful and fascinating country — to connect with its people and its rich yet complicated history.

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Along the Ribeira waterfront, Porto

 

Exploring Italy’s Northwestern Corner

The Valle d’Aosta (Aosta Valley) in Italy’s northwestern corner feels like a world apart. Wedged in between France and Switzerland, it’s a ruggedly beautiful area of high peaks, glaciers, and waterfalls set above small towns and remote villages — a hiker’s paradise — that’s also home to a distinctive multilingual culture and deep-rooted traditions.

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The massif surrounding Monte Bianco (or Mont Blanc), Europe’s highest mountain (elevation: 15,781 feet), dominates the western end of this sparsely populated region.  On the Italian side, Courmayeur is the largest town in the area (population: 2,870).

The massif is enormous, an uninterrupted chain of peaks that’s over 29 miles long, up to 12 miles wide, and over two miles high.  To put it in perspective: long distance trekkers hiking the Tour du Monte Bianco trail typically take 10-12 days or even longer to complete the full circuit around it.

Our base in this part of the Valle d’Aosta, Entrèves, is a tiny enclave on the outskirts of Courmayeur that’s in the shadow of Monte Banco.  Part of what makes Entrèves so special is its cluster of cobblestoned streets and slate-roofed stone houses.

Street scene in the village of Entrèves, with Monte Bianco in the background.

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Like the rest of the village, the charming inn where we stayed had a traditional slate roof, as well as a museum-like interior brimming with oil paintings, carved wood doors, alpine furniture, and a lovely formal dining room.

The main dining room of the inn where we stayed in Entrèves.

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Preparing a cheese plate in Entrèves (note the traditional style of dress).  Locally produced cheese — organic and incredibly flavorful — is a staple of the regional diet.

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From Entrèves, we did some terrific day hikes up into the mountains, on sections of the long-distance Tour du Monte Bianco trail, and alongside some beautiful glacier-fed rivers.

The steep trail up to Refugio Elena, a mountain hut near the Italian-French-Swiss border.

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The view towards Combal in the Val Veny.

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Three glacial lakes at Lac Miage in the Val Veny.

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Panorama views from Punta Helbronner (elevation: 11,371 feet) in Val Ferret.

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The trail below the rapidly receding Prè de Bar Glacier, Val Ferret.

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Each of these hikes gave us a whole new perspective on the power of water to shape an alpine landscape.

We also spent time halfway between Entrèves and Turin in the southern part of the Valle d’Aosta.  There, our base was the village of Cogne (population: 1,439), a hub for hiking in the Gran Paradiso National Park.

A view of Cogne from the trail above the village of Gimillan.

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Though the town may have been busier and more commercial than Entrèves, the hotel where we stayed was full of charm and the traditions of local life.  The rustic but nicely furnished rooms were a counterpoint to the much more elegant dining room with its white tablecloths, silver tableware, and wait service wearing traditional clothing from Cogne.

Our charming room in Cogne.

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The elegant dining room in Cogne, where we enjoyed all kinds of local cheese, honey (dandelion or alpine flowers), bread, wine, produce, and freshwater fish.

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Food and wine are focal points at this inn.  A circular kitchen garden out back supplies (literally) locally sourced vegetables and herbs for all of the hotel’s dining rooms, regionally produced cheeses ripen in a traditional cheese cellar, and a wine cellar holds over 1,400 bottles of wine, many produced in pesticide-free vineyards.

Outside our window, the inn’s chefs picked fresh vegetables and herbs every day from a large kitchen garden out back.

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They used the herbs to season the restaurant’s artfully presented food.

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Even more than in Entrèves, we caught glimpses of local life through some of the people we met in Cogne.

Rino Billin, the sommelier at the inn, completed a six-year course of study learning about wines.  His father and brother are also in the hospitality business.   He insisted on bringing us down to the hotel’s wine cellar, which he has carefully curated into a collection worth well over $2 million.

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At the Cooperativa Les Dentellières lacemaking shop in the village, we spoke in French with one of the 40 women who’s a member of the traditional cooperative.

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As she demonstrated how to weave thread around spindles and bobbins at a lightning-fast pace, she spoke about learning to do bobbin-lace work as a very young girl, how the tradition is passed down from mother to daughter, and how weaving is now second nature to her.

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“C’est ma passion,” she said very matter-of-factly as she explained how she could work so quickly by hand and from memory

As we returned to town from a long hike one day, we crossed paths with an elderly French-speaking woman from the nearby mountain village of Moline.  After she complimented Sandi’s outfit, she talked to us about her two cows, which she seemed to be escorting on a late afternoon stroll.

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“C’est ma passion,” she said with a bit of a shrug — the same phrase that the lace maker had used the day before to describe her work with lace.

From our fantastic location in Cogne, we had great views of glaciers and hiked by remote settlements in Italy’s first national park, the one-time hunting reserve of the King of Italy.

Our favorite picnic spot facing the Gran Paradiso Massif.

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At Pont de l’Erfaulet on the trail from Valnontey.

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On each of these hikes, we passed several remote settlements and small farms that were classic examples of vernacular architecture.

An isolated small farm at Tchezeu, about 1,000 feet above the village of Gimillan — itself about 1,000 feet above the valley floor in Cogne.

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The hamlet of Vermiana near Valnontey.

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An alpage (small dairy farm) near Valnontey.

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In addition to hiking in the mountains, we spent four days in Turin, the largest nearby major city (population: 870,702) that’s about an hour south of the Valle d’Aosta.

Turin’s history as a city dates back to ancient times — there are impressive Roman ruins in the historic center, where some of the streets still follow the grid laid out over 1,900 years ago — and it’s filled with many other reminders of its storied past.

In many ways, Turin’s heyday was as a seat of political power.  It was the capital of the Duchy of Savoy that stretched from parts of modern France into parts of modern Italy between 1416 and 1860, when it became (for four years) the first capital of the newly-unified Italian state.  The city is still home to many grand squares and lovely palaces from that era.

Piazza San Carlo, arguably Turin’s prettiest square, was laid out as a parade ground and public market in the 1500s.  Its harmonious look took shape in the mid-1600s.

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Piazza Castello became a more formal square with porticoed buildings in the late-1500s.  The former royal palace and the temporarily closed pavilion housing the Shroud of Turin are nearby.

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Though it’s a city of small-scale buildings usually no more than four or five stories high, Turin had the then-tallest building in the world in the late-1800s, the Mole Antonelliana (“mole” in Italian means “a building of monumental proportions,” and Antonelli was the leading architect on the project).

Originally designed to be a synagogue (Jews wanted to celebrate gaining full civil rights in 1848), the Mole became a very different project as Antonelli kept making major — and very expensive — changes to his initial plan.  Eventually, the city had to take over the project due to the constant cost overruns.

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Today, the building houses a museum of cinema, some offices, and some restaurants, as well as a rooftop observation deck.

In many ways, the Mole is the iconic symbol of Turin.  Local artists enjoy adding its image to all sorts of humorous designs and street art.

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Some people refer to Turin as Italy’s Detroit — FIAT, the country’s biggest auto manufacturer, is still based there, as is much of the nation’s automotive industry.

Before World War II, Turin was an even bigger industrial hub, home to major assembly lines and hundreds of small manufacturers connected to the automotive industry.  In the 1930s, under orders from Mussolini, many of those plants were converted into weapons manufacturing firms, only to became major targets of allied bombing runs during the war — roughly 40% of the city was destroyed by aerial bombing between 1940 and 1945, and about half of the population fled to the countryside at the height of the war to avoid the nearly-constant bombardment.

This exhibit in the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile (The National Automobile Museum) features two icons of Turin — a red Fiat and the Mole Antonelliana — placed on a floor map showing the locations of hundreds of small automotive manufacturing shops in pre-war Turin.

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At the Museo della Resistenza (“Resistance Museum”), the excellent displays tell a ground-level story of the rigors of civilian life in wartime Turin.  The museum features a fascinating mix of exhibits and archives focusing on the city under bombardment, the German occupation, the Italian Resistance movement, and the return of democracy.

The museum’s curator, Francesca, spoke with Sandi about her grandfather, a one-time Fascist who switched over to the partisans’ side when the partisans gained control of Turin on September 8, 1943.  Francesca’s grandfather was sent to a nearby detention center, where he eventually died in custody.  His story has inspired Francesca to dedicate her own life to raising awareness of the city’s history and promoting freedom and tolerance through art.

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While Turin rebuilt fairly quickly after 1945, the consolidation and shrinking of the car industry starting in the early-1970s led to major population losses — the city still has about 200,000 fewer residents than it did at its peak in 1971 — and with many empty buildings, there’s a bit of a hollowed-out quality to the city.  Even so, and even if we didn’t fall completely in love with it, we still enjoyed learning about Turin’s rich history and its prominent place in Italian affairs.

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People sometimes ask us why we go back to Europe so often.  The answer is very simple: we keep finding quiet corners like northwestern Italy where we can hike amid majestic scenery, enjoy excellent food and charming lodging, learn a little history, sample local color, and experience interesting bits of urban life.  The challenge now — as always — is figuring out the next destination.

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An Ocean State Getaway

Rhode Island — “The Ocean State” — is deeply connected to the sea.  It not only boasts a pretty coastline featuring dunes and cliffs and long, flat beaches, but it also carries on with a maritime heritage that, in the Colonial era, was bound up in the Atlantic slave trade.  We got glimpses of its great natural beauty and its more complicated colonial past during a recent five-day trip there in honor of Sandi’s birthday.

We spent our Ocean State vacation around Narragansett Bay in an area of small farms, sheltered harbors, and rural islands.  Wherever we went, the ocean never felt far away.

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Our base during the vacation, the lovely Mount Hope Farm in Bristol, sits between Mount Hope Bay and Narragansett Bay and is part of a national historic site run by a non-profit organization.  Volunteers from the local community tend to the farm’s gardens and help to maintain the property’s buildings that date back to the 1700s.

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The farm also features a community garden that supplies fresh produce for Bristol’s food pantry and a summer camp that teaches local children about caring for the farm’s pheasants, goats, and other barnyard animals.

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Amid some glorious weather, we hiked, watched lots of birds, hung out at local beaches, and did a great bike ride during our five-day stay.

Our favorite hiking spot was at the Sachuset Point National Wildlife Refuge, which features an easy 3-mile loop trail along a rocky coast.  We liked it so much there on the first day of our trip that we went back for another hike on a second day.

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The coastal area around Sachuset Point is on a major bird migration route.  We saw quite a few shorebirds on our walks at the Refuge and explored several of the trails at the nearby Norman Bird Sanctuary in Middletown.

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Another lovely beach in the area is the Nature Conservancy’s Goosewing Beach Preserve in Little Compton — it abuts a long walking beach (South Shore Beach) that doesn’t show up on most maps, but we heard about it through word of mouth.

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We did some fabulous biking at Colt State Park, where nicely-designed trails pass by some pretty tidal marshes, lots of stone walls and bridges, and a handsome stone barn.

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After our visit, we learned some of the intriguing backstory behind the creation of Colt State Park.

The original owners of the property, the DeWolf family of Bristol, were infamous for flouting Rhode Island law and continuing to carry on with the slave trade even after the state had outlawed it.

Decades later, Samuel P. Colt, a grandson of George DeWolf, began the long term project of assembling parcels of land that eventually became the park.  In so doing, he helped to restore at least some of his extended family’s tarnished name.

In a walking tour of colonial Newport, we learned even more about the influence of the slave trade on Rhode Island’s early history.

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Rhode Island merchants played a leading role in the infamous “triangle trade” between America, Africa, and the Caribbean during the 1700s and 1800s.

The scheme went like this.  Rhode Islanders manufactured rum — Newport alone had six distilleries — which they would ship to Africa and sell or trade for slaves.  In turn, they would transport the slaves to the Caribbean or to the southern colonies, where the slaves would be sold or traded for sugar cane.  The Rhode Islanders would then fill their boats with sugar to make more rum from molasses back home and start the cycle once again.

The slave trade was the number one financial activity for Rhode Island from 1720 to 1807.

On a very different note, we also visited the historic Touro Synagogue in Newport.  Built in 1763, it is the oldest synagogue building still standing in the United States and the oldest surviving synagogue building in all of North America.

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In many ways, the Touro Synagogue is a testament to the (relative) religious tolerance in Rhode Island during the early Colonial period.  Thanks largely to the colony’s founder, Roger Williams, who had a then-revolutionary belief in the separation of church and state, Jews could settle there, own and operate businesses, and buy property — a virtually unheard of level of freedom found anywhere in the world at the time.

Today, the synagogue remains an active house of worship, with approximately 105 member families.

Finally, we wrapped up our day in Newport with a celebratory dinner in honor of Sandi’s birthday — a great capstone to a fun and fascinating getaway!

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Turning the Big 6-0

The build-up to turning 60 this year has brought on all sorts of emotions, from deep gratitude for the life that I’ve been able to lead so far to utter disbelief that — somehow — I was turning that old!

To help keep the focus on the gratitude and take advantage of my birthday falling on a weekend, Sandi and I planned out a two-day extravaganza to mark the milestone occasion.

With clear blue skies and weather in the 50s, Saturday was a day to be outdoors.  First, though, we started off with a gourmet breakfast, courtesy of Sandi.

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We decided to spend the day in one of our favorite parts of Massachusetts, Westport, where vineyards on gently rolling hills and stone-walled farms on quiet backroads roll down towards large marshes and beaches along the ocean.

Our first stop was at The Bayside, a throwback of a place where we’ve eaten many meals over the years.  Today, we definitely were the youngest diners among the off-season lunch crowd!

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Right across from The Bayside is a beautiful Audubon Society property, the Allen’s Pond Reserve.  We hiked along the outer path that skirts a pretty marsh and then heads out to the shoreline, with views of the islands in Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound.

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The path continues along Allen’s Pond and then crosses a cobbled beach and follows the shore of Buzzard’s Bay.

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We had the beach pretty much to ourselves.  Though the wind made things a bit brisk, it was invigorating to be by the water on such a glorious day.

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After our fabulous hike, we visited a couple of local galleries in Westport that featured works by local artists.

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We wrapped up the afternoon with a visit to the Westport Rivers Winery for a tasting before dinner.

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To cap off the day, we had dinner at one of our favorite restaurants anywhere, Gracie’s in Providence — a lovely room, fantastic service, and great food.

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Finally, on Day 2, we went to an amazing performance by Circa, an Australian troupe of acrobats who build human pyramids, dance, tumble, and roll to the sounds of lovely classical music (in this case, several works by Shostakovich).

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As we exited the theater and set off for home, we caught the tail end of a lovely sunset.

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Admittedly, it was hard to compartmentalize the tragic terrorist events in Paris and Beirut that had just shaken the world the last few days as we went about marking this personal milestone.  Still, even as we talked about the awful events and felt deeply sad for all of the people who lost their lives so tragically, we managed to set the news aside momentarily — even if briefly, the world seemed full of possibility and hope and peace.

Hiking and Culture in Switzerland, August and September 2015

Much as we enjoy communing with nature by the ocean, we love being in the mountains — the physical exertion of hiking combined with the experience of seeing ancient formations and vistas always moves us to marvel at nature’s grandeur and beauty.

A late afternoon view of the walking path to Lake Sils, with several nearby high peaks (elevation: ~9,500 feet) flanking the shoreline in Sils-Maria.  For five days, we stayed at an inn on the lake that was only a three-minute walk from this vantage point.

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To mark our 60th birthdays this year, we decided to experience nature by going hiking in the Swiss Alps — specifically, in the southeastern corner of the country between St. Moritz and the Italian border known as the Engadine.

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The Engadine (which means “valley of the river Inn”) is a 60-mile long valley surrounded by high peaks, mountaintop glaciers, waterfalls, lakes, remote villages, and wide and peaceful side valleys.  It stretches along the border with Italy and follows the path of the Inn River as it flows from southwest to northeast towards Innsbruck in Austria.

Most people consider the Engadine a winter vacation destination for skiing, and even many Swiss consider it a bit off-the-beaten path for summer hiking.  But as we found, there’s also a great hiking culture there.  In fact, we crossed paths with active hikers of all ages throughout the area — and, in many cases, we definitely were the “young people” on the trails!

We arrived in the Engadine just before a glorious stretch of near-perfect hiking weather: sunny and in the high 60s/low 70s.  That gave us a chance to do day hikes on seven straight days.  Here’s a very small sample of what we saw.

A long climb up a series of steep switchbacks brought us to the Val Fex, a lovely valley of scattered settlements and high pastures.  We followed a stream bed for three miles up the valley to a restaurant at the Hotel Fex (lower right) .

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Another trail with steep switchbacks brought us to two mountain lakes: Bitabergh and Cavloc.  The approach to Lake Cavloc, shown below, crossed many small waterfalls and glacial streams that fed the lake.

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A ride up a cable car and then a hike across a moonscape of rubble brought us to the plateau at Fuorcula Surleij, where the trail descended and then opened up to this majestic view of the Vadet da Tschierva glacier.  We also caught a brief glimpse of a golden eagle circling and soaring across the valley.

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The hike to Morteratsch Glacier (below) crossed a two-mile long valley that had once been covered by ice; signposts along the way showed how much the glacier had receded each decade (over two kilometers) since the 1890s.  Today, new growth forests and rubble show where the glacier had once been.

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The cable car ride up to Muottas Muragl offered great views towards Lake Sils and the neighboring peaks.  We did a long panorama hike and had lunch at this mountain hut before we headed back down on a chair lift.

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After riding two cable cars up to the 9,400 foot summit of Piz Nair, we descended the steep slope that passed through several “layers” of landscape: mountain scree and rubble near the summit, a gorgeous mountain lake near the Suvretta Pass, and faded grass and flowers along a glacial stream.  For most of the nearly 2,000 foot descent, we had the trail to ourselves.

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Our travels weren’t only about hiking, though.  We also had brief glimpses of local culture, visited several small museums, and met some interesting characters along the way.

Architecture in the Engadine was an interesting mix of simple vernacular styles and more elaborate examples of buildings decorated with murals and even sgraffito, where the stucco surface is carved away to reveal a base layer color and design.

Starting in the hilltop community of Soglio (population: 167) in the Val Bregaglia near the Italian border, we did a village-to-village walk passing by many traditional stone houses with slate roofs.

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Elsewhere in the Engadine, we saw beautiful examples of murals painted on houses and buildings.  A favorite place for seeing this local style was in the hilltop village of Guarda (population: 170).  Maybe because it was a weekday, we were among the only people walking around the village.

Exterior views of buildings in Guarda.

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In the first part of our trip, we did day trips from Zurich to two UNESCO sights: the historic district of Bern (Switzerland’s capital) and the medieval center of Stein am Rhein.

A view of the Zytglogge clock tower (“Zytglogge” in Bernese German means “time bell”) in Bern’s historic district.  Built in the early 1400s atop the base of a building constructed around 1220, the clock features mechanical figures that strike the main bell on the hour.  

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In Stein am Rhein, the medieval center has dozens of examples of half-timbered houses, many (like these) decorated with colorful murals.

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On our travel day down to the Engadine, we had yet another UNESCO-listed experience — this section of the Rhaetian Railway is one of only three railways in the world listed in UNESCO.  Many of the tunnels and bridges were built in rugged territory using state-of-the-art methods at the time.  The Landwasser Viaduct, shown below, is nearly 200 feet high and was built in 1901-1902.

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We also visited several museums during our travels.  Here are a few examples.

An unexpected surprise in Bern was the small Einstein House Museum.  We liked it because it told Einstein’s story, warts and all, in Bern and beyond.  Among other things, we learned that he left home at an early age, gave up his citizenship, divorced his first wife, married a cousin, and had many professional setbacks before he finally succeeded with his theory of relativity.

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The destination of our village-to-village walk from Soglio was Stampa, where there’s a small museum commemorating seven different artists from the Giacometti family, all of whom lived in this valley area.  Pictured below is the most famous member of the Giacometti clan, the sculptor and painter Augusto Giacometti.

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In Sils-Maria, we had a fascinating visit at the Nietzsche House, where Frederich Nietzsche spent time for health reasons. We learned that his sister married a racist and consorted with Hitler and that the Nazis twisted Nietzsche’s ideas about a “Superman” to justify their ideas about “the Aryan race.”  A German Jew, Oscar Levy, dedicated much of his life to rebutting the Nazis’ misuses of Nietzsche’s works (he published a famous open letter to Hitler about that).  A controversial character, Levy also became involved in extremist political causes and wrote highly critical pieces about Judaism and Christianity.

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In St. Moritz, we visited the Segantini Museum, which holds the world’s largest collection of works by the artist.  Segantini, who isn’t well known in the United States, was a versatile painter who had an amazing knack for capturing light and shadow and depicting rural life in the Engadine in the late 1800s with a very sympathetic eye.

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On our return to Zurich, we visited the wonderful Landesmuseum that traces the history and culture of Switzerland.  The displays put many of our experiences into context.  For instance, the sobering presentations on World War II showed how the Swiss negotiated a special trade agreement with the Nazis and agreed to place the letter “J” on the passports of German Jewish refugees passing through Switzerland.  The woman pictured below, Elsie Attenhofer, was the “grande dame” of the Cornichon Cabaret in Zurich in the 1930s, a group of artists and writers who staged satirical plays as an act of protest against fascism and the rise of the Nazis in Germany.

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Finally, we met many fine people and an assortment of characters as we traveled around the country.  Here are a few of the people we met along the way.

In Zurich, we attended services at a small congregation and met several people who “commute” every few weeks between their jobs in Switzerland and their jobs in Israel.  The close knit community also included a group of friendly American women whom we called the Expats Sisters Club — they had married Swiss men many years ago and now lead professional lives in Switzerland, even as they look after one another’s families.

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In Bern, we had some fun speaking with a man playing an alpenhorn, the traditional instrument used in the mountains to call cattle down from high pastures.  He hopes to play in Times Square one day.

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In Stein am Rhein, we rented bikes and took a leisurely ride along the river towards Konstanz.  In the small town of Mammern, a local man saw us looking at our map and kindly asked if we needed help.  Thanks to him, we checked out the town’s annual fish festival featuring fresh-caught fish from the river.  At our table, we chatted with this man with a New Mexico tee shirt who lived about 20 minutes from here and spoke about his extensive travels in the American West.

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“Welcome to paradise,” said this engineer from Germany who had relocated to the medieval hilltop village of Soglio.  “I can e-mail people anywhere in the world whenever I want, and this is my view,” he said.

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We decided to hike up the very steep, 35-minute trail to the hilltop village of Guarda because we didn’t want to wait nearly an hour for the local bus. A kind elderly gardener working his beautifully terraced land near the top of the trail said, “Welcome to Guarda!”  He then thanked us for praising his garden and urged us on, saying it was “only five minutes to town!”

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In the end, we found Switzerland to be even more compelling than we expected — a magical place filled with glorious scenery, fascinating bits of cultural heritage, and friendly people who, like us, were seeking inspiration and meaning in communing with nature.  While we’re not sure exactly when we might return there, we know that, if we did, we’d thoroughly enjoy sampling yet another taste of wonder and discovery.

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