What did you do in 2016?

Hugh and Brenda on Pont Alexandre III with la Tour Eiffel in background

Hugh and Brenda on Pont Alexandre III with la Tour Eiffel in background

Joyeux fête de fin d’année! (Happy new year’s eve celebration!)

With Greg and Lauren Meyer on New Year's Eve 2016

With Greg and Lauren Meyer on New Year’s Eve 2016

Friends in the US and people we meet here ask us what we do in France. When we tell them we are retired, the French always wonder how we could possibly have chosen France, since our dream is not necessarily their dream. The Americans ask, “What do you do with your time?”, and often we stumble telling about the mundane day-to-day and probably don’t give a very compelling answer. We haven’t posted to this blog very often recently, so consider this an attempt to catch up about what we did with our time in France in 2016.

We spent New Year’s Eve 2015 with our dearest French friends Cat and Jacques and also with our friends Greg and Lauren Meyer, who were visiting Paris from Poulsbo. It was fun to share our friend’s French family celebration with American friends who love the culture here.

Atlantic Ocean from beach on east side of Cozumel Island

Atlantic Ocean from beach on east side of Cozumel Island

On February 3rd we successfully renewed our residence permits for a 4th year in France. From February 14-29 we got away from the Paris winter with our friends Cat and Jacques by going to an all inclusive resort at Playa del Carmen, just south of Cancun, Mexico. While there we visited Chichen-Itza, Tulum (about the same time the Pope visited), Cozumel, Cancun and one of many cenotes called the Grand Cenote. All in all we had a wonderful time and great weather.

Celebrating our 27th Anniversary at Les Papilles in Paris

Celebrating our 27th Anniversary at Les Papilles in Paris

On March 5 we celebrated our 27th anniversary by dining out at Les Papilles, a reasonably priced but very good restaurant in Paris 5th arrondissement. On March 24th I took the train to Brussels to renew my retired military ID card. This was just 2 days after the terrorist attacks at Brussels airport, so the city was locked down. However our financial advisor Brian Dunhill ferried me around to get the ID card renewal completed (and for Mexican food and beer), so everything went smoothly.

Tasha Moretto and new baby Emma

Tasha Moretto and new baby Emma

From April 20 to May 5th we were in the United States, Brenda starting by visiting friends in Poulsbo, Washington and me starting in Pekin, Illinois visiting my brother Chris and wife Michele, and niece Tasha and her husband Dustin and their new baby daughter Emma. I spent much of my time scanning old family slides and photos, since Chris and Michele were in the process of moving to Florida.

Brenda and Beth resting after Bloomsday

Brenda and Beth resting after Bloomsday

Then Brenda and I met in Seattle to travel to Spokane to see her mom, Beth Shaw, and to run the annual Bloomsday road race, where each year we check if we can still make it around the 12k course. On our way back to Paris, we returned to Gig Harbor and stayed with Patty and Bill Wilson (Jr), allowing Beth to see her good friends Edie and Bill Wilson (Sr), who live in a retirement community there now.

Brenda at the dome at The Reichstag building, which looks down on the German Parliament.

Brenda at the dome at The Reichstag building, which looks down on the German Parliament.

In May we received a visit from our Poulsbo friend Don Merry, who stayed a few days with us in Paris before he and Brenda headed out on a Rick Steves tour of Berlin, Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. This was magnificent whirlwind tour that exposed Brenda and Don to a wide swath of European cities and cultures. Brenda loved Prague and Vienna. Upon Brenda and Don’s return for a few days in Paris, we took a day trip to see the King’s herb garden (and other attractions) at Versailles on a guided tour with our favorite cooking school, La Cuisine.

At the outskirts of Tataouine, Tunesia, heading towards the Sahara - the end of the world.

At the outskirts of Tataouine, Tunesia, heading towards the Sahara – the end of the world.

In June, almost as soon as Don departed, we were off on another all inclusive resort vacation with Cat and Jacques, this time to Tunisia, on the Isle of Djerba. It was very hot when we arrived (50°C one day with no air-conditioning yet in the rooms), but for the most part the weather was wonderful. In addition to visiting some of the local towns on the island, we spent one day going to the end of the world (south into the desert) and visiting the village of Tatouine, as well as a troglodyte city started by the Bedouins in about 1100 AD. Brenda fulfilled her dream to ride a camel. This was our first time in Africa and the Magreb, and it was a wonderful experience.

Brenda, Allison, and Dean with Saint Peter's Basilica in the background

Brenda, Allison, and Dean with Saint Peter’s Basilica in the background

In early July we traveled to Rome to meet Brenda’s friend Allison Fankhouser and her husband Dean. Brenda and Allison had taught school together in Australia in the ’70s, and just found each other again a few years ago via LinkedIn. It was our first time back in Rome since the early 2000s, and was it fun! We did some sightseeing, toured the Coliseum and ruins, hung out at the Trevi Fountain, visited the Pantheon, shopped, and dined out. We watched Euro Cup soccer matches in the evening at the hotel. The last day we visited Saint Peter’s Basilica and saw the weekly address by the Pope.

Later in July, we were off with Cat and Jacques to the Brittany region of France, first stopping at the fabulous Mont Saint Michel, then along the coast to Saint Malo, then Dinar, and then inland to the town of Dinan and the Port of Dinan running along the river of the same name.

Just before the start of the Bastille Day fireworks in Paris

Just before the start of the Bastille Day fireworks in Paris

We went to the Bastille Day fireworks at the Eiffel Tower on July 14th. Brenda set down blankets and kept a space in the field from early afternoon until the show started at 11pm. Hugh came at about 6pm with Poulsbo friends Chuck and Cheri Gerstenberger and brought a picnic dinner so we could enjoy the live concert that precedes the fireworks. It was a typically stunning event, and the weather was perfect. You may remember that at the same time some 500,000 people were watching the show on the Champs de Mars in Paris, a madman was driving a truck through the crowd after the festivities in Nice, killing 86 and injuring 435 people. So the evening ended as a somber occasion.

Brenda, Barbara, Terry and Martha at a cafe in Frankfurt.

Brenda, Barbara, Terry and Martha at a cafe in Frankfurt.

At the end of July we traveled to Frankfurt, Germany to visit our friend Barbara Hoehfeld. Friends Martha Pendergast and Terry Campbell from Hansville, Washington, met us there. We stayed at the Hotel Senator near Barbara’s apartment in the heart of town. We spent some time walking along the River Main and admiring the European Central Bank. The wait list for tours there was months long. We spent half a day or so traveling to Darmstadt to see the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, where Martha continued her quest to see all the Pieter I Bruegel (the elder) paintings in the world. There we saw the Magpie on the Gallows. We also toured the Städel Museum and attended a concert by a multinational group from Morocco, toured the Palmengarten and rowed in the pond, and had several unique and wonderful dinners. One day Brenda and I went over to the US Army Base at Wiesbaden, where we were able to update her military ID card. This was an important step in making sure that we continue to have medical coverage here in Europe.

At Berck Plage in Nord Pas de Calais, France

At Berck Plage in Nord Pas de Calais, France

Late in August we went with Cat and Jacques to Le Touquet Paris Plage, a beach community in the French Department (somewhat like a state or county for administering the affairs of a region in France) of Nord Pas de Calais, a region north of Normandy lying along the English Channel. The first night we came to a nearby beach town and joined a parade in progress where the crowd was marching behind the band. Periodically the band would stop, turn around and play a song. We ended up at the beach, where we saw a skit by two women playing employees at a bank. It was a very professional act, cutting and very humorous. Then we slipped next door to the casino, found a table by the window to see the sunset and have dinner, and then watched France lose the European Cup (soccer) to Portugal. Another day we visited the beach at Berck, where we had a very nice lunch and then spent the afternoon laying on the enormous beach in the warm sun. Berck is a fun word to pronounce.

Carl Swanstrom and Linda Gagnier at our apartment in Paris.

Carl Swanstrom and Linda Gagnier at our apartment in Paris.

Early in September our Seattle friends Carl Swanstrom and Linda Gagnier visited Paris. We spent a couple days touring the town on foot, plus making the trip to Montmartre, where I tried to do the professional tour route in reverse as we came back down the hill from Sacre Coeur. We really enjoyed meeting Linda. Carl used to terrify us taking us down the steep slopes on ski trips so it’s good to see that there is someone who can slow him down.

Chantilly

Chantilly

In mid September we traveled with Cat and Jacques to Chantilly, one of France’s most beautiful and iconic Châteaux. We spent the day touring the castle and wandering the gardens in beautiful late summer weather.

Joanie, Brenda, and Beth in Idaho celebrating Beth's 90th.

Joanie, Brenda, and Beth in Idaho celebrating Beth’s 90th.

Later in the month Brenda headed back to the US. She and her sister Joanie, who made the trip up from California, both came home to Spokane to celebrate their mother Beth’s 90th birthday. They got to go mom’s exercise club to swim and work out, spent a day visiting friends in Idaho, and saw some beautiful gardens in Spokane. Brenda attended a luncheon where an old boyfriend (from 1st grade), Bill Moos, now Athletic Director at Washington State, was the guest speaker. Brenda also visited Poulsbo and stayed with her friend Randi Strong-Petersen (up in Hansville). While there she was able to meet with as many of our close friends as possible and find out how things were going.

Pianist Emil Reinert with two friends

Pianist Emil Reinert with two friends at the Romanian Cultural Institute, Paris

While Brenda was gone, Hugh had an invitation from Pascale Velleine to hear her son, Emil Reinert, perform a piano concert at Romanian Cultural Center in Paris. Emil is the grandson of Barbara Hoehfeld, whom we had visited in Frankfurt earlier in the year. He is also a terrific classical pianist, one of a handful young performers invited to play in a series of 1 hour concerts that ran throughout Paris Journées du Patrimoine this year. Barbara came from Frankfurt, and we all, along with a number of other friends of Emil and Pascale, went to lunch afterwards at a Romanian Café just down from the concert hall.

French Prime Minister's desk, Hôtel Matignon, Paris

French Prime Minister’s desk, Hôtel Matignon, Paris

The Journées du Patrimoine are cultural heritage days where in cities throughout Europe, the government and other buildings and gardens not normally open to the public are opened for public viewing. It’s a way to educate the population about the history and functioning of their government and associated facilites. After the concert Hugh was able to get into the Hôtel Matignon, the residence of the French Prime Minister, then Manual Valls, who is now running for President. The expansive garden behind the hôtel was a wonder to behold – one would never imagine it exists when regarding the hôtel from the street.

Patty Wilson and Brenda at the Eiffel Tower

Patty Wilson and Brenda at the Eiffel Tower

In early October, about a week after Brenda’s return, Patty Wilson visited us from the US. We had stayed with her and husband Bill Jr. at their Gig Harbor home in May. Patty had been to Paris a number of times before so she was capable of getting around. Brenda took her shopping at our local market and then cooked at our place. We visited some of Paris’s covered passageways and walked and took photos along the Seine and down by the Eiffel Tower at night. The girls went shopping and sightseeing in the Marais and at the Jardin du Luxembourg. Patty took us out to for an excellent dinner at Le Bistro Paul Bert, a fine restaurant where we had not dined before.

View from breakfast at The Mansion Resort in Ubud, Bali

View from breakfast at The Mansion Resort in Ubud, Bali

As Patty’s stay in Paris was ending, we took off for vacation in Bali with Cat and Jacques. First we took a flight to Doha, Qatar on the Persian Gulf and then caught a connecting flight to Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia. In case you don’t know much about Indonesia and Bali, Indonesia is the 4th largest country in the world (250 million) and the largest Muslim country. It consists of a long chain of islands south of the equator. Bali, a smaller island in the middle of the chain, is still more than 80% Hindu with a population of over 4 million, mostly concentrated in the south part of the island. Except for rising problems with over population and development in the south part of the island, Bali has preserved much of its Hindu character and life style despite the modernization that has occurred elsewhere in the country. Indonesia was a dutch colony (Dutch East Indies) from the early 1600s until World War II, when the Netherlands gave up possession to the Japanese. After the war it became an independent country and, after a long period of authoritarian rule, held its first direct presidential election in 2004.

By the Bali Sea on Lembongan Island, Indonesia

By the Bali Sea on Lembongan Island, Indonesia

We stayed at two different hotels, 5 days at The Mansion Resort in Ubud, towards the quieter north central part of the island and 9 days at the Artotel in Samur, on the east coast of the heavily populated south part of the island. Both hotels were beautiful, the Mansion old and traditional, the Artotel brand new, open, and modern. We interspersed days at the beach with days of sight seeing and hired a guide named Willy to manage the tours. He spoke both French and English and was constantly enlightening us on small facets of Balinese life and Hindu traditions. We saw two traditional dance shows, several artisan shops, and several important and beautiful Hindu temples. One tour provided lunch at a windy restaurant atop one of Bali’s volcanos, and another a beach fish fry where the surf kept chasing us from our seats to farther ashore all night long. On our own we toured Sacred Monkey Park at Ubud. Brenda volunteered to feed the monkeys, which was as easy as buying bananas from the lady and holding them high over your head. The Balinese monkeys take care of the rest – they climb you with their sharp little nails. We heard that the best way to see how Bali used to be was to take a fast boat off shore to one of the nearby islands (30 minute ride), so one day we went to Lembongan Island and hired a driver to take us around the bumpy island roads. Along the way we visited a mangrove and a spectacular beach with giant surf pounding against the rocks, then sunned ourselves and had a great lunch at a restaurant and pool near the beach before beating our way back across the waves to Bali. Some days we just went to the beach and ate at local restaurants. One negative was that Hugh contracted some kind of dysentery towards the end that made him very ill for 10 days or so (7 of these back in Paris). He got to meet the hotel doctor and go to the hospital to get the blood test for Dengue fever. Fortunately no Dengue. All in all, the Bali trip was a grand adventure that went very smoothly.

Brian Dunhill with Brenda at the American Club of Brussels for Thanksgiving

Brian Dunhill with Brenda at the American Club of Brussels for Thanksgiving

It was nearly November when we returned from Bali, and with Hugh’s continuing illness, the US Presidential Election, and the Washington Huskies trying to win the Pac 12 football championship, there was lots to keep us busy. We intensified our search for an unfurnished apartment, trying to narrow down the neighborhood, price, and essential features. We’ve been pretty slow with this step and our stuff from Washington remains in storage here in Paris. At the end of November, we took the train to Brussels for several days and stayed in a fancy hotel near Place Louise (Wilcher’s Steigenberger). The highlight of our trip was Thanksgiving Dinner at the American Club of Brussels held at the downtown Sheraton Hotel. We were guests of our financial adviser, Brian Dunhill, and his company Cross Border Planning. Brian is also President of the American Club, so he is a busy guy. Like last year, the dinner was superb, with a turkey for each table prepared by the kitchen staff according to the special recipe of one of the club members. Everything else was very good. It was a traditional meal for this very traditional holiday. We also walked around city center to see the Christmas decorations and the beautiful light show at night in the town square. Another night Brian suggested for us a local Belgian restaurant near our hotel, Le Chou de Bruxelles, that served excellent mussels and fries, a Belgian specialty, and fine, fine everything else. We also spent a wonderful afternoon visiting the European Union Parliament’s Visitor Center called the Parlamentarium. It provided numerous educational exhibits describing the history and operation of the European Union.

French friends Cat and Jacques at our apartment

French friends Cat and Jacques at our apartment

It’s December now and the year is slipping away. When we haven’t been traveling, we’ve been doing what we usually do with our time in France, French lessons twice a week, usually by Skype, twice a week to the local market for food, running workouts every other day, with long walks on the off-days, Hugh keeping up the Poulsbo Rotary web site, keeping up with life in the US by listening to KPLU (now KNKX) in Tacoma, calling Brenda’s mom twice a week, spending time on Facebook, doing the laundry without having a dryer, spending every Sunday at the movies with Cat and Jacques and then staying for dinner and playing scrabble (in French) until 2am, and other stuff like that. Study for the French lessons consumes lots of time since we learn about France as well as the French language. And we have to cook and clean house. Hugh has run about 700km over the past year, and Brenda has run a bunch too, plus she works out with her personal trainer Margaux once a week. We have a little home gym with a yoga mat, several stretch bands of varying intensity, and a core bag. Margaux has taught Brenda plenty of ways to get a good workout without need for a weight set or exercise machines. Hugh just copies.

Brenda on Rue Cler at Christmas

Brenda on Rue Cler at Christmas

So that’s what we’ve been doing to stay busy. We want to thank everyone who has visited or allowed us to visit all through the year. I know I haven’ t mentioned all the guests we saw here in Paris, but thanks for your visit. Our lives have been the richer for it. We wish you and your family a Happy New Year and hope you will have a fun, healthy, and productive 2017. Bonne Année!

Return to the US to sell the house and say goodbye

March to July, 2015

After 4 months in Poulsbo we have returned to Paris.

The time in Poulsbo melted. We had no idea it would be so busy – our plans to keep up with people in Paris, continue French lessons, etc., faded in the rush to get everything done and see everyone we could. Hugh said he got to Seattle once and Bainbridge Island perhaps three times during our stay.

6th Avenue Poulsbo home and garden

Our 6th Avenue home and garden

We prepared our home on 6th street for sale. Connie Lamont toned down the interior paint palette, and Chad Lyons Painting did the work. Suzy Legiere directed the house staging, while her husband Mark Middleton expertly priced and marketed the property, and then found the perfect buyers in the very first day! Jill Harris and Jim Pijan prepped the gardens. Rolling Bay Plumbing replaced a sink and fixed plumbing leaks. Bill Hill (Hill Construction) made repairs recommended by the ace home inspectors Ron and Adam Perkerewicz. Michael Mills recoated our wood floors. Sunset Electric completed minor electrical repairs. Paul Klingbeil (All Kitsap Windows) cleaned our windows and gutters. Jacqui’s White Rose Cleaners gleamed up the interior.

We worked hard to keep the garden groomed and the grass green-it was our way to bid goodbye.

Piles of photos and letters to be scanned

Some photos and letters to be scanned

We sorted through boxes and boxes from our storage unit. Hugh scanned hundreds of letters, notes, and photos – those family momentos we had been saving all these years. We donated clothes and furniture to Fishline and nearly all our books (perhaps 250) to the Friends of the Library. Our storage unit shrank from 10×10 to 5×5 after we shredded 35 boxes of business and personal records.

Andrea Lanyi priced items, set up tables, then “merchandised” and sold hundreds of items at our giant and very successfull garage sale. Chuck Finkbiner and Carolyn Stein hauled away things we couldn’t sell. Neighbors Paul and Kathleen helped with signs and were great customers too, as was Don Merry’s wife Kathy Parker.

After ridding ourselves of most of our clothing, personal possessions and furniture, we spent a very long day packing and loading what was left for shipment overseas. Our car, purchased when we arrived, was re sold on consignment through Kevin Hogan at Liberty Bay Auto. Our friends Wanda and Dave Taylor bought it.

Some of our things in the process of being arranged for the garage sale

Some of our things in the process of being arranged for the garage sale

Much in Poulsbo was the same, though we recognized many changes – the new Safeway and CVS Pharmacy, the closing of Albertsons and the new areas of road improvements and home construction. The price of food in the Pacific Northwest seemed much higher than when we left – perhaps we just forgot? The city of Seattle looks like a war zone with all the new construction. All in all, Poulsbo remains a town with lots of energy, making great improvements while preserving its character and uniqueness. We couldn’t have hoped for better weather during our stay.

We visited as many friends as we could. Breakfasted with Ardis Morrow, Gretchen Pickens and Donna Davidson. Attended Ardis’s 90th birthday party as well as the 80th birthday party of Bill Austin. Met the group in downtown Poulsbo to celebrate Donna Etchey’s birthday. Dined with Lauren and Greg Meyer, Jeff and Carrie Goller, Ann and John Pyles, Wally and Wendy Hampton, Jerry and Becky Deeter, Steve and Cindy Garfein, Eric Thanem, Martha Pendergast and Terry Campbell, Jeff and Denise Bauman, Bryan Johnson and Rob Gelder, Randi Strong Petersen and Dick Soderstrom, Cami Gurney. Partied at the home of Gay Brownlee who kindly hosted a wonderful John L. Scott reunion. Spent several Sundays and the 4th of July at the home of our dear friends Barb and Dave Maxey and their special group of friends. I spent many peaceful hours at the home of Peter Hasson and Andrea Lanyi. We stayed overnight in Seattle with Laurie Greig (who was our wonderful hostess in Provence last year). I danced, lunched and toured gardens with Signa Palmerton, walked the beautiful gardens of Sharon and Don Savelle and Hugh and I celebrated the 3rd of July fireworks at a party at the home of Gabe Gaylord and Jim Korzetz.

My world upside down at Jo Carter's pilates studio

My world upside down at Jo Carter’s pilates studio

Jo Carter welcomed me back to her Bainbridge Island Pilates Studio where I got to work out twice a week. Hugh attended weekly Poulsbo Rotary meetings and made a presentation about our two year Paris sojourn. He kept in shape by running and working out at the Poulsbo Athletic Club.

I got to spend the night with my friend Christine Smith in Port Angeles. She helped me spread my Aunt Phyllis’s ashes. My friend for over 30 years, JonLee Joseph, drove from Oregon to spend the night with us and say goodbye.

I joined my dear friend Don Merry for coffee on many Saturday mornings, for monthly pedicures, trips to the Poulsbo Farmer’s Market and for breakfast at Choc Mo, often accompanied by Wally and Wendy Hampton.

Friday mornings I savored coffee at Coffee Oasis with my cherished friends Mary McAlhany and Eric Thanem. Wednesday evenings were spent with my long time friend Randi Strong Petersen, who not only put us up at her home for the 5 days before our departure but picked us up and drove us to the airport.

My mom and me celebrating completing another Bloomsday

My mom and me celebrating completing another Bloomsday

Hugh and I drove to Spokane in May to participate in Bloomsday with my mom Beth Shaw. And mom visited Poulsbo with her friend Steve, who cooked us marvelous Mexican food. I returned to Spokane in June and was able to see my sister Joani Shaw, as well as my sweet friend Karen Estes who lives in Coeur d’Alene.

It was a whirlwind of preparation and goodbyes. I know I have not mentioned all of our friends who called, e-mailed or visited: Pat Osler, Andi Reed, Debbie Nitsche, Wanda and Dave Taylor, Maureen Meyer, Bonnie and Pete Pederson, Sylvia Smith, Ward Fuentes, Tyson Rodgers, Ed Bomar, Hans Hoehn, Janet Harter, Karen Ramsey, Richard White, Jerry Hall, John and Pamela Krueger, Strong Paulson, Pat Hardesty, Donna Bumgarner, Mark and Patty Nesby, Carol Despeaux, Dan and Tamara Fischer, Carl Swanstrom, Jeff Petersen, and Hugh’s many friends from Poulsbo Rotary, as well as Monty Bolstad and Terry Mahony from his days at the Applied Physics Lab. There are so many others with whom we were fortunate enough to spend some precious time. Please forgive me if I didn’t list your name. You are in our hearts. We miss you. We thank you for your friendship. It was not easy to leave you.

Here is an album with a few photos of friends and events from our visit home.

Vacation to the Dominican Republic

Barcelo Dominican Beach Hotel

Barcelo Dominican Beach Hotel

In September our French friends Cat and Jacques invited us to go on vacation with them. They were planning a trip to the Dominican Republic. Since we are in effect already on vacation in Paris, it didn’t seem like a good idea to me, but they told Brenda and me to think about it and that we would be welcome to join them if we wanted. Brenda liked that we would have hot sunny weather, and we thought what better chance to improve our French than to be able to practice with our fun French friends all day long on vacation.

For many in France, French resorts like Saint Tropez or the Normandy coast are too expensive, so they choose to go outside the country to get more for their money. Our friends take vacation just two weeks a year, and for them the appeal of a destination vacation with a fixed price, including airfare, bus transportation, hotel, all meals, and many amenities is compelling. Travel companies in France offer these types of vacations to many lower cost destinations outside France, including Greece, Portugal, Morocco, Turkey, and in our case the Dominican Republic. The innovator of these types of vacations was probably Club Med, but our trip was organized by a French Company called Promovacances. We paid extra to select a smaller (though still big) beach hotel, the Barcelo Dominican Beach, and to travel on an Air France direct flight to Punta Cana instead of a lower cost airline with lower baggage limits and a flight transfer at Santo Domingo. Cost per person for 2 weeks was about 1600€. We figured that we would have spent at least half the cost of our vacation just in typical day-to-day expenses in Paris, so by that measure it was quite affordable.

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Rough sketch of Hispanola Island and points of interest

The Dominican Republic is located on Hispanola Island, a part of the Caribbean island group Greater Antilles (Cuba, Hispanola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and the Cayman Islands), and shares the island with the country of Haiti. Hispanola was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492 when his flagship the Santa Maria grounded and sank. He left behind a contingent of men who established a community on the north coast in what is now Haiti. That community was destroyed by the native population, but another contingent from Spain returned the following year and established a community on the south coast that eventually became Santo Domingo, the oldest European settlement in the Americas.

In just a few years, the originally large native population was decimated by European diseases, declining from an estimated 250,000 in 1492 to 14,000 in 1517. In 1574 a census documented 1,000 Spaniards and 12,000 African slaves. The Spanish moved on to colonize other parts of the Americas, and English, French, and Dutch pirates started to operate along the island coast. To avoid the pirates, the Spanish colony moved closer to Santo Domingo on the south coast, and the pirates established bases on the vacated north and west coasts.

In 1665 France’s Louis XIV officially recognized the French colony of Saint-Dominique (not to be confused with the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo on the eastern 2/3 of the island). In 1697 Spain officially ceded the western third of the island to France (part of the settlement at the conclusion of the 9 Years War in Europe). The population of this western colony grew, and it became an important trade hub supplying sugar to Europe using its slave population to keep prices low. After the French Revolution in the 1790’s, France was at war with Spain, England, Russia, and the Dutch in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The Peace of Basel, which produced three treaties during the Revolutionary Wars, included a provision where Spain ceded the eastern two thirds of the island to France. French colonists started to move into what had been the Spanish part of the island.

Meanwhile, the French Revolution abolished slavery in 1794. Unfortunately Napoleon reimposed slavery in 1802, and the previously emancipated slaves staged an upheaval in the French colony of Saint-Dominique. At the same time, more than half of the French army in Saint-Dominique contracted yellow fever. The French decided to remove their devastated army in 1803, and the new independent nation of Haiti was formed in 1804, becoming the second republic in the Americas. The United States and Great Britain refused to recognize the Haitian government for fear of what that would mean for slavery in their countries. The US imposed an embargo, the French imposed demands for compensation for property they had lost. Thus Haiti was saddled with debts that turned it into one of the poorest countries in the Americas, and it remains so today. The former Spanish colony on the eastern two thirds of the island, Santo Domingo, remained in French control. In 1805 Haitian troops invaded Santo Domingo and sacked two towns, killing many citizens and thus fueling animosity between the two countries that still exists today.

In 1808, settlers in Santo Domingo revolted against French rule and with the help of the British, returned the eastern two thirds of the island to Spanish control. In 1821 the colony declared its independence from Spain, only to be invaded again and conquered by the Haitians, who abolished slavery and nationalized private property. The education system collapsed, and the university was shutdown. Farmers were drafted into the Haitian army. The economy faltered and the freed men rebelled against the Haitian rulers. Eventually, after 22 years of Haitian rule, a nationalist army organized and won the Dominican War of Independence in 1844. They established a constitution modeled on that of the United States.

Unfortunately the government proved to be very unstable and endured many years of power struggle between competing factions, resulting in civil war, assassinations, and many changes of government. The US invaded and occupied the Dominican Republic in 1916 and finally departed in 1922. In 1924, elections were held that for the first time produced 6 years of stable government. The economy grew rapidly, even when Rafael Trujillo established in 1930 an iron fisted dictatorship that continued for 30 years. In the 1960s the country returned to democratic government, and though there are still ups and downs, it has grown into the 2nd largest economy of Central America and the Caribbean. While agriculture remains the largest sector, tourism is a rapidly rising area of growth in the service economy.

Our hotel was the Barcelo Dominican Beach at Punta Cana, on the far eastern tip of the island. It was along the north shore facing the Atlantic Ocean, but we were close enough to the point so that we could also visit the south shore, facing the Caribbean. In this part of the Dominican Republic, as well as other areas along the coast, there (based on looking at the Google map) must be hundreds of huge hotels, each walled off from the general public and having guards stationed along the beach to keep the wandering purveyors of paragliding, island tours, sunglass sales, massages, etc. from harassing the tourists as they sit in their beach chairs watching the waves come in.

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Guard on our beach watching one of the motorboats next door make his evening landing at full speed.

A typical day at our resort looked like this: Breakfast was served buffet style at a large open air space with both inside and outside seating. It was wonderful and included everything an American or European might expect – breads, cold cuts, fresh fruits and juices, eggs and different meats on the grill, platters of scrambled eggs, potatoes, rice, beans, pancakes, waffles, toasts, cereals, butter and cheeses. Waiters circulated serving hot coffee and tea. After breakfast every day we would go to the hotel lobby to have a café latté and check in on the hotel’s WIFI, which did not extend to the rooms and was reliably slow. Lunch was a similar feast of great variety, served with a glass of wine or beer if you wanted. Before dinner we would always meet at the lounge for a cocktail, our favorite being a mojito. For dinner there was the buffet, but also Brazilian, Mexican, Japanese, Spanish, and Italian full service restaurants. We alternated between the specialty restaurants for dinner. There was also a beach grill and a seafood restaurant that served meals under the stars. We would go to the beach every day and swim in the ocean or in one of the 3 large hotel pools. After dinner every night we would go to a show called “The Spectacle”, which would feature singing, dancing, and frequently skits with audience participation. Although there were featured singers and dancers who we understood performed at a number of the local hotels, the masters of ceremonies and most of the entertainers also worked by day at our hotel. After a week or so all of them looked like family to us. The entertainment was at a very high level and always kept us interested. A couple days it rained and we spent the afternoon at the Starbucks-like coffee shop drinking lattés. Every other day or so we would work out at the health club. None of these amenities cost us anything additional to our up front trip fee.

The waiters and waitresses were always cheerful and many spoke some French or English. A number of them quickly got to know who we were. There was a contest with voting each day on Trip Advisor to see who was the best waiter or entertainer at the hotel. Unfortunately the Internet service made it difficult to vote.

Brenda enjoys her lobster dinner

Brenda and her lobster on her birthday

We did opt for some extras – we paid extra for a fantastic lobster dinner under the stars for Brenda’s birthday. Dinner was great and the atmosphere not to be found anywhere else. Brenda had a massage at the Spa one day. Also we could add the cost of trips or tours booked through the hotel to our room bill.

Cat and Jacques quickly made friends during their beach walks with a young man who represented a shop along the beach. The way the system worked, every purchase could be negotiated, and the store you negotiated with didn’t have to carry the item. Tell them what you wanted and they would go find it. Everyone would make a percentage. Everyone was in the customer referral business. Everyone in our group purchased something from the stores along the beach.

One afternoon we took a taxi to a local mall at nearby San Juan. Everything was priced in dollars rather than the local currency of Dominican Pesos (about 40 pesos to the dollar). The mall was pretty much like being in America.

Brenda and Jacques at the town center market in Higuey

Brenda and Jacques at the town center market in Higuey

One day we took a taxi ride to Higuey (eegway), a city of about 300,000 and the capital of our province of La Altagracia. The city is named after a native chiefdom that was there when Columbus arrived. We first visited the most prominent monument, the large Basilica of Altagracia. Afterwards we had our driver take us into the heart of town to see what it was like to shop on the streets. He first delivered us to a shop where he must have had some arrangement. We looked at merchandise but didn’t purchase anything and then asked if our driver would take us into a shopping district in the center of town. This was an exciting experience that left us far from other tourists, but we were followed at every step by people asking what we needed so they could help us find it and thus earn a commission. One woman who spoke French had some success. Cat and Brenda bought bracelets of Larimar, the green blue stone that is only found in the Dominican Republic. There were lots of clothes and local artwork for sale at these stores, as well as chickens and lots of other things from the farm that don’t turn up at your local butcher shop.

The church at Altos de Chavon

The church at Altos de Chavon

Another day we took a bus ride and catamaran cruise including dance lessons and music, snorkeling, swimming at the pristine island beach at Catalina Island, and a lobster lunch aboard a paddlewheel riverboat on the Chavón River. The bus trip took us through the Casa de Campo resort complex, the flagship of the La Romana All Inclusive Resorts area. It was my understanding listening to our French tour guide that the main customers for the large homes in this resort were American, though we also know that there was a large amount of investment in island real estate by other foreigners. We visited Altos de Chavón, a replica of a 16th-century Mediterranean village located just minutes from La Romana. None of us knew at the time that it wasn’t part of the original Spanish settlement of the island. It was built by craftsmen from the Dominican Republic in 1976. It has a large 5000 seat amphitheater, which featured an opening concert in 1982 by Frank Sinatra. Everything looks as old as advertised, and it has great shops and restaurants to add atmosphere to the appearance of antiquity. The cruise and lunch were fun. There was heavy rain in the afternoon but we were swimming so it wasn’t too discouraging. The cruise took place near the town of La Romana along the south facing coast, so we had a chance to swim in the Caribbean as well as the Atlantic.

Harbor at Bayahibe

Harbor at Bayahibe

Our last great adventure outside of the resort was to take the bus to Bayahibe (byaeebay), a town also along the south shore 10 miles east of La Romana. Cat had learned from one of guys along the local beach that there was a direct bus there from the small town just down the street from the gated entry to our resort. We headed off searching for the bus stop, which we eventually found when a bus pulled up to a corner. We quickly learned that there was no direct bus. Instead we went on the hour long trip to Higuey, and then at at that bus station caught another bus that took us to a place on the highway somewhere, and from there we caught a ride with a hotel bus whose enterprising driver picked us up. An enterprising girl waiting at the drop off with us negotiated a commission from the bus driver by getting us to come aboard and telling us his price. Bayahibe didn’t have much of a town, but it did have a beautiful harbor and beach, where we spent a wonderful afternoon. Afterwords we dined at the Captain Kidd Restaurante and Pizzeria, which was très bon!

Naturally there was no easy bus trip back to the hotel. First we rode in a jam packed van into the town of La Romana, the third largest city in the Dominican Republic with a metropolitan population of about 250,000. We learned from a girl on our bus that there was a bus leaving promptly for Higuey, so we literally jumped off our bus, paying the driver and yelling at the little boys grabbing for our bags and money, and wound through a crowd to another bus, which we hopped on in total faith that it would go to Higuey. We sat in the back of the bus and became acquainted with a boy sitting just ahead of us who was obviously curious about the foreigners who didn’t speak Spanish. Eventually I also met his father, who sat next to me and gave his son stern glances and instructions to behave. He also helped me figure out bus fare and, between each of our non existent knowledge of the other’s language, we discussed that it was good that his son had a father (he didn’t have a mother anymore), that the Dominican Republic had produced some great baseball players, and that there were lots of other parts of the country that we should see and visit. He warned us to take a taxi to our hotel from Higuey and that we should be wary of people at the bus station. Still, once we arrived in Higuey we accompanied a women who had been on our La Romana bus and was kind enough to steer us to a bus that took us back to our hotel.

Moon and beach behind the pool after dinner

Moon and beach behind the pool after dinner

There were many other fun times on this vacation. One significant achievement – we learned to play Scrabble in French, not well mind you. Jacques and I have lost every time so far to those heartless language mavens Cat and Brenda. We monitored the tropical storm Edouard, which passed north of us in the Atlantic during our stay. It caused some rain but had little other effect. We also got to participate in the Air France pilot’s strike, which delayed our return trip by several hours and forced us to fly home on Air Caraïbes instead of Air France. Here we were pretty lucky. Other than cramped economy class seating, it wasn’t much of a sacrifice.

Here is a photo tour showing some of what we saw on our trip.

Trip to Barcelona

Flags of Spain and Catalonia fly above a public building in Barcelona.

Flags of Spain and Catalonia fly above a public building in Barcelona.

In early May we took a trip to Barcelona and spent three days exploring the town. Our Kitsap County friend Don Merry joined Brenda and I as part of a bigger European vacation Don had planned. This was a good deal for us because Don did most of the planning and research and passed on the benefit to Brenda and me.

Barcelona is the second largest city in Spain and is economically important to Europe. It has a rich history and lots of things to do, so like with our trip to Provence, we had to limit our choices. On this trip we were regular tourists, just as if we had come from the US. We flew from Paris rather than take the train because flying was competitive in price and much faster. It was an easy bus ride into the city from the airport.

The history of Barcelona is in some ways like the history of Paris. The first known settlers were Phoenicians, in about 300 BC. Like Paris, Barcelona was conquered by the Romans in about 15 BC (earlier than in Paris). They laid out the grid that became the old town section of the city. Eventually Rome fell and Barcelona was conquered by the Visigoths in the early 5th century, and later was conquered by the Arabs in the early 8th century. Like Paris it was conquered by the the Germanic Franks early in the 9th century (by Charlemagne’s son Louis). He established an area ruled by the Count of Barcelona.

Much like the nobility in Paris had taken local control of the city after Charlemagne had moved his court to what is now Germany, the Counts of Barcelona become more independent and expanded their fiefdom to control a larger area in northeast Spain known as Catalonia. A royal wedding joined the territory of Aragon with the County of Barcelona in 1137. This area known as the Crown of Aragon established colonies and trade with other Kingdoms and cities near the Mediterranean. Eventually there was a dynastic link between Aragon and Castile, and with the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castille in 1469, Spain was united. The center of political power shifted to Madrid. Barcelona still retains the character from its days of independence by celebrating the history, language, and traditions of Catalonia.

In the 17th century Catalonia revolted against King Philip IV of Spain. Catalan forces joined with French forces of Louis XIII to battle the King of Spain. Eventually Spanish forces captured Barcelona (1652), and the French took control of the areas north of the Pyrenees, establishing the mountains as the border between Spain and France. Catalans again sought independence during the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939, and again they lost. General Franco’s rule of Spain from 1939 until 1969 abolished independent Catalan institutions and suppressed the public use of the Catalan language. Despite all these travails, Barcelona became an industrialized and prosperous city. Population grew rapidly as immigrants came from poorer regions nearby. The city modernized extensively in preparing for the 1992 Olympic games.

Passeig de Gràcia in the Eixample

Passeig de Gràcia in the Eixample

We stayed at the Hotel Indigo Plaza Catalunya. Our boutique hotel was in the area of town called the Eixample. This part of town connects the medieval old town of Barcelona to some of the small towns that used to be well outside of the city. The Eixample was built in the 19th and 20th centuries and is laid out in a grid of wide tree lined streets, allowing a good flow of traffic and creating a light and bright atmosphere that takes advantage of the normally sunny, warm weather. Every night we dined outside at one of the many restaurants nearby our hotel.

Don worked with a firm he found through Rick Steves Web site to arrange a private tour, which quickly got us oriented in Barcelona and assisted us in planning the rest of our stay. Our English speaking guide (her name was Montse) met us at the hotel after breakfast. She took us on a walking tour up one of Barcelona’s main streets, Passeig de Gràcia, which was just a couple blocks from our hotel. There she pointed out some of the famous Art Nouveau style buildings and other features in the neighborhood.  With our guide we were able to quickly move around town and get past long lines at the attractions.

Model of the exterior of Casa Mila

Model of the exterior of Casa Mila

Our first stop was at Casa Milà, an apartment building designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí and built between the years 1906 and 1910.  One floor was dedicated to the family of the building owner. There was an underground parking garage and 20 other apartments to provide income for the owners. We were able to see one of the apartments furnished in the original style. The building is now a World Heritage site. It was renovated and restored as part of the city’s preparations for the Olympics. A further restoration of the façade was in progress at the time of our tour. We found the work of Gaudi to be so fantastic and wonderful that seeing his creations became the focus of much of the rest of our time in the city.

Gaudí’s work was influenced by his passions in life: architecture, nature, and religion. Gaudí considered every detail of his creations and integrated into his architecture such crafts as ceramics, stained glass, wrought ironwork forging and carpentry. He also introduced new techniques in the treatment of materials, such as trencadís which used waste ceramic pieces.

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

After Casa Milà, our guide took us to see  the Sagrada Familia, a fabulous basilica designed by Gaudi – and one certainly unlike any other in the world. Barcelona already had a Cathedral, so Sagrada Familia was to become one of the neighborhood Catholic churches supporting the faithful of Barcelona. Gaudi started work on the Church in 1883, and continued work on it for the next 43 years, until his death in 1926. At that point it was only about 25% complete. He left plans for work to continue, and other architects have stepped into the breach and worked on the design, modernized the materials, and worked to continue construction. The church has been built completely through private donations, and no progress was made for many years after the civil war. Today, largely because of receipts from tourism, the church is funded to continue construction, which builders hope to complete by 2026 in time for the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. The completed church will have 18 spires representing the twelve Apostles, the Virgin Mary, the four Evangelists, and the tallest for Jesus Christ. Eight have been completed so far. When completed, it will be the tallest church building in the world. The first entrance, the Nativity façade to the east, was completed in 1930. Gaudi thought that the hopeful scene of the Nativity should be completed first to inspire work to continue. The starker Passion façade to the West showing Jesus death and resurrection was started in 1987 and has been completed in a more modern style. The main entry, called the Glory façade, was started in 2002 and continues today. Since 2010 the nave has been covered and an organ has been installed so that the church can be used for religious services. Church services were conducted in the crypt (the basement) for many years. The space is huge and can accommodate a large congregation.

Gaudi was buried in the crypt, off to the side from the congregational seating. He died in 1926 at age 74 as a result of being hit and knocked unconscious by a tram while on his morning walk downtown. Sadly, because of Gaudi’s plain clothing and lack of identity papers, no one at the scene could identify him. He was near death a day later at the hospital when the Sagrada Familia chaplain finally recognized him.

Entrance to the Picasso Museum

Entrance to the Picasso Museum

After Sagrada Familia, our guide took us to Museu Picasso, located in the heart of the old town section of the city. We took a cab, and during the ride the cab driver and our guide chattered in Spanish and Catalan, which she told us get mixed together in every conversation in the city. The cab driver and many others at restaurants and hotels spoke enough English to ensure our needs were met.

Picasso came to Barcelona from southern Spain when he was 14, and he lived there for 9 years before he moved to France. He continued to visit Barcelona off and on until the Spanish civil war in the 1930’s. After that he thought it dangerous to return. We could not take photos of the art, but if you follow the link to Museu Picasso above you can see lots of information about what we were able to see. This was a museum of his formative years, and if you are mostly familiar with Picasso’s cubism and later artworks, you can see in Barcelona that he was also an outstanding classical artist. You can see how his art transforms as time passes. The museum has some works from his “blue period”, and one fascinating section is devoted to Picasso’s many tries to do his own version of “Las Meninas” (The Maids of Honor), a classical work done by Diego Velázquez in 1656 on display on Museo del Prado in Madrid. On display are Picasso’s many attempts to reimagine this painting in his own style. During his school years, his father sent him to Madrid for his education, but instead Picasso spent lots of time at art museums learning to love classical Spanish art. It was Picasso’s wish to have a museum in Barcelona, and it came about as follows:

….in 1960, on Picasso’s own express wish, his friend and personal secretary Jaume Sabartés proposed the creation of a museum dedicated to the artist’s work to the City Council of Barcelona. By 1963, the museum was a reality and opened its doors in the gothic Palau Aguilar located at number 15 Carrer de Montcada.

Casa Batlló exterior

Casa Batlló exterior

After our first day with a guide we were ready on day two to visit some more Gaudi sites on our own. The first was near our hotel, a residential home designed by Gaudi named Casa Batlló, which was remodeled by Gaudi for the Batlló family between 1904 and 1906. Like other Gaudi designs, it makes use of natural shapes and religious symbols. Architecturally it has few straight lines. The façade is a mosaic made of colorful broken tiles. The roof is arched like the back of a dragon. The rounded turret with cross on top is thought to be the lance of Saint George, patron saint of Barcelona, plunged into the back of the dragon. The attic area is supported by skeletal shaped beams. The fantastic looking chimneys on the roof are designed to prevent downdrafts. The tiles in the central light well become lighter as the distance from the sky light becomes greater, giving the the light shaft the appearance that color is uniform from top to bottom. There is extensive design work to keep water out and provide natural ventilation flow. Everywhere in the interior the colors and curved structures continue. It is fantastic.

In the afternoon we took a taxi farther out of town to Park Güell (Gway), which was where Gaudi lived for many years and where also he designed a section of the park. In 1900 an entrepreneur named Eusebi Güell contracted with Gaudi to design a subdivision for 60 high end homes on a tract he owned at the edge of the Eixample. The tracts in the development had a commanding view of the city and the Mediterranean beyond – it was envisioned as a gated community for the wealthy. Güell moved into a large home already constructed on the property, now used as a school. A lawyer friend of Güell hired an architect to design the first new  home on one of the tracts. A second new home was built by the project’s works contractor. It was constructed as a show house, designed by Gaudí’s assistant Francesc Berenguer, to encourage sales.  Gaudi himself designed numerous features of the grounds, including the guard house at the gate and the home of the guardian.

Park Güell, part of double staircase and hypostyle room

Park Güell, part of double staircase and hypostyle room

He used crushed tile mosaics (“trencadis”), natural shapes, and religious symbols that we saw in other of his works. At the tract entry he created a giant double staircase and two terraces under which are two grottos. There is a giant tile salamander along the stairway and a fountain running down alongside the stairs. Originally the fountain was supplied from a water tank constructed into the hillside to collect the drainage. At the top of the stairs is a hypostyle room (a roof supported by columns). This was intended to be the market place for the development. The colonnade (structure connecting the top of the columns) is crowned by an architrave (a main beam connecting the columns), inside of which flows the water supplied to the fountain. Atop the structure is a large esplanade, originally planned to be a greek theater but now designated as a nature square. Lining the square is a very long curvy tile bench that runs atop the colonnade to give visitors a view of the nature square as well as the view of the city. The tile bench was by design a surprisingly comfortable place to sit – good lumbar support for a hard surface.

There were many other design features of Park Güell that bear Gaudi’s fingerprints. In 1906 he moved with his daughter and his father into the second residence on the property. Restrictions on the sale of lots and the distance from downtown made the project unviable, and in 1914 works ceased to further develop the property, though Gaudi and Güell continued to occupy their homes. Only two of the sixty planned homes were ever constructed. In 1926 after the deaths of both Güell and Gaudi, the property was turned over to the city and converted to a public park. Gaudi’s home opened as a museum in 1963.

Don and Brenda walk down La Rambla

Don and Brenda walk down La Rambla

On our third day in Barcelona we went into the city, first walking along the big boulevard known as La Rambla that runs through the old town to the sea. Along the way we stopped to explore the huge public market nearby. Then we continued down past the statue of Christopher Columbus on the waterfront and on to where we found a nice bench alongside the harbor. There are many other attractions along the waterfront, including public beaches, numerous hotels, harbor cruises, and the tram that takes visitors over to the Olympic Village area.

Just to try something different, we took a cab across town to Parc de la Ciutadella, a large city park with zoo, fountains, a pond, other museums, and lots of places to walk. The area was originally a fortress built in 1715 by King Philip V of Spain as a way to keep control of the rebellious Catalans. Citizens of Barcelona hated the symbol since many Catalans had been forced to help build it. In 1841 the city decided to tear it down, and the park was developed. We checked out some of the features and eventually headed for a large triumphal arch to the northwest. From there we headed  back to explore more of the old city and its architecture and found ourselves an outdoor café to rest – we were tired from all the walking.

Walking in Parc de la Ciutadella towards triumphal arch

Walking in Parc de la Ciutadella towards triumphal arch

There is much more to see in Barcelona – numerous other musuems, churches, world class shopping and food. We left with the strong impression that Barcelona was a place we would like to visit again – if not sooner, perhaps in 2026 to see the completed Sagrada Familia!

Here is a photo tour with annotations that show and tell more about what we saw on our visit.

Trip to Provence

Exterior view of our house in Saint Cannat

Exterior view of our house in Saint Cannat

In early March our friend Laurie Greig called from Marseilles to let us know that she had just landed and would be spending a few weeks house sitting near Aix-en-Provence. The house was owned by some friends of hers. Did we want to take a trip to Provence for a few days? Yes!

With little advance planning we caught a train from Gare de Lyon in Paris and met Laurie at the TGV station outside of Aix (pronounced ex). Laurie had rented a car (and knew how to drive it) – were we lucky or what? We headed to the house in the small town of Saint-Cannat. It was beautiful, facing a field on the edge of town. It had 3 stories with several bedrooms and two full baths, a big country kitchen, and a large living and dining area with a big fireplace – luxurious by our Paris apartment standards.

Provence is a fairly large area with many many places to visit, so we took a modest approach. Paul Cézanne made numerous paintings of Mount Sainte-Victoire near his home in Aix-en-Provence, so we decided to explore that area one day. We wanted to see a good outdoor market, so we chose to spend a day in Saint Rémy and other small towns along the way. We also planned a day to see the Roman ruins at Orange and to visit the nearby wine country of the Rhône river. Since we had a really nice kitchen we planned a couple dinners at home. A couple nights we went out for dinner nearby, one time for our 25th anniversary at a fine hotel in Saint Cannat. The last day before catching the train back to Paris we stopped in Aix-en-Provence to walk around the old town area.

We had mostly good weather, some days with warm sun and others with sun but also cold northwesterly winds called Mistrals.

Mount Sainte Victoire from Pourrieres

Mount Sainte Victoire from Pourrieres

Our trip around Mount Sainte-Victoire was an exploration. We didn’t know what we might find there. Cézanne loved the mountain – he created more than 60 paintings of it. We followed the loop road (named Avenue Cézanne), first stopping on the south side at a forest area with hiking trails and an area information center.  Next we visited the small village of Puyloubier, where we hiked around the narrow lanes, admiring the colorful houses and eventually visiting the local winery to buy a bottle for dinner. Further down the road we stopped to enjoy the  beautiful views of the valley and Mount Saint Victoire from the village of Pourrieres. We stopped at a bar for a bite to eat and watched some men from the local village play a spirited board game that we didn’t understand. Then we continued driving to the north side of the mountain, stopping at Vauvenargues, where Pablo Picasso is buried. He bought the Château de Vauvenargues, situated at the foot of the mountain, and installed a studio there between 1959 and 1962. Picasso reportedly proclaimed to a visiting art dealer, “Cézanne painted these mountains and now I own them.” The Château was closed to the public – a sign at the gate refers visitors to the Picasso museum in Paris, which has also been closed the past couple years – maybe some day. We were hoping to take the hike up the mountain to visit the 19 meter high Croix de Provence, a cross prominently visible from below, but unfortunately we ran out of time. For a first day’s travel, it wasn’t bad. We felt more comfortable driving and reading the map.

Colored baskets at the market at Saint Remy

Colored baskets at the market at Saint Remy

Our second day we visited the local market at Saint Rémy, where we enjoyed the colored baskets and shopped for all manner of clothing and food. We tracked down the birthplace of Nostradamus, born there in 1503. Vincent van Gogh was treated here in the psychiatric center at Monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole (1889–1890). He painted one of his most famous paintings, The Starry Night, as well as many paintings of the Monastery Saint-Paul, when he lived here. Also, Princess Caroline of Monaco chose Saint Rémy as her family’s home for a few years. In the afternoon we crossed the local river, the Durance, and stopped at a hillside town called Lauris, just because it looked interesting. The sun was nice and the views from the hillside were fabulous. There was a hillside garden and museum where we learned something about plant based dyes used to color fabric.

That night was also our 25th Anniversary, so we headed out on the town in Saint-Cannat to a very nice local hotel, the Mas De Fauchon, where Brenda, Laurie, and I had a wonderful dinner.

Inside the Roman Amphitheater in Orange

Inside the Roman Amphitheater in Orange

The next day we headed for the city of Orange, which was founded by the Romans in 35 AD. The name Orange comes from the Carolingian Counts of Orange, Franks who established control in France in the 8th Century. The name stuck through the ages as various nobilities gained control. It was inherited by William the Silent, Count of Nassau in 1544. He also had extensive holdings in the Netherlands. William’s son Maurice helped establish the independent Dutch Republic, still ruled by the House of Orange-Nassau (why do you think their soccer uniforms are Orange?). A later son, William, became William III, protestant King of England and opponent of Louis XIV. William and his wife Mary ruled the British Isles as William and Mary.

You might recall that we’ve already mentioned William III in this blog for his roll in conquering Ireland in 1691 as part of the history leading up to The Troubles. Europe is connected to itself all over the place.

So all this gives the town of Orange a fabulous history. In particular,

The town is renowned for its Roman architecture and its Roman theatre, the Théâtre antique d’Orange, is described as the most impressive still existing in Europe. The fine Triumphal Arch of Orange is often said to date from the time of Augustus or Tiberius, but is probably much later, perhaps Severan. The arch, theatre and surroundings were listed in 1981 by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

We were wowed by the theatre – still used as an outdoor amphitheater for plays and concerts. On site there were films showing performances by Pavarotti as well as other operas and numerous rock concerts. The triumphal arch, much smaller than the Arc de Triumph in Paris, is also much older and precious.

After spending more time in Orange than planned (because it was so fantastic), we checked out a couple wineries in the center of the Côtes du Rhône region. We had time to sample wines from the Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC and Gigondas AOC appelations (demanding levels of distinction that don’t require Côtes du Rhône on the label), and we also bought a bottle of Rasteau AOC (still to be opened). Damn!

We stopped at the remains of a castle near the village of Châteauneuf du Pape. You might know that the Pope moved from Rome to Avignon (11 miles south) in 1309. Pope John XXII built a castle above the town in 1317. The castle later fell into disrepair, with some of the stone being used to build the town below. In World War II the Germans used the castle as a lookout post, and they tried to destroy it when they left the area; however, half the structure remains today. The wine appellation is a fitting tribute to this era of the Papacy in France.

Street scene along Cours Mirabeau in old town Aix-en-Provence

Street scene along Cours Mirabeau in old town Aix-en-Provence

Our last day we decided we were ready to drive to Aix-en-Provence and see the old town part of the city. Aix hasn’t some of the ancient or important historical sites of other cities in Provence, but it is light and bright and clean – a wonderful place to spend a day.

You can see from this sketch that one could take many trips to Provence before thoroughly exploring the area. Here is a link to a slide show with photos and captions showing more about the places we visited.

Northern Ireland: The Troubles

Tour of “The Troubles” in Catholic Belfast

Memorial mural to the Troubles on Falls Road, Belfast

Memorial mural to the Troubles on Falls Road, Belfast

As part of our Belfast visit we wanted to learn more about the conflict in Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles”. Anyone old enough can remember how from the early ’70s until well into the ’90s, year after year, every day there would be stories in the news of bombings and killings and disagreements and fighting in Northern Ireland. How did Northern Ireland come to be? What was the fighting all about? How did it start and finally end?

There’s a great deal of complexity to Irish history, and we can only skim the surface in a short article. Still, the story of this conflict needs to be told because it is like so many others that perpetuate in our world today, whether it be the problems with race relations in the US, the conflict over the state of Israel, or the civil wars in Syria, Afganistan, Iraq, Egypt, and numerous other states.

There are two sides to every argument. The British and their Unionist followers in Northern Ireland had political and governmental goals that to them seemed every bit as valid and necessary as the Irish Republican reasoning that we heard about during our tour. The safety and security of a large portion of the population was at risk through the actions of rebellious minority group. The Irish Republicans whose rights were being oppressed decided to stand up until their grievances were addressed. The best practice for doing this has yet to be invented. Redressing the problems caused when one people subjects another people to their will and discriminates against them is painfully difficult – witness efforts in the US to undo slavery.

We’ll describe our tour and afterwards provide more historical details of the period leading up to “The Troubles”, a short history of Irish Republicanism, and a basic historical recounting of period of “The Troubles”.

Jack Duffin on left as our group winds up Falls Avenue in Belfast

Jack Duffin on left as our group winds up Falls Avenue in Belfast. He is talking about how large numbers of Catholics were suddenly displaced from their homes by security forces.

Brenda and I took a more than 2 hour walking tour of Belfast along Falls Road heading west from downtown. Falls Road runs through the center of the Catholic neighborhood in West Belfast. A couple of major streets to the north was Shankill Rd, which was the heart of the Protestent neighborhood. These two neighborhoods were where many of the incidents of “The Troubles” took place.

Our guide was a staunch Republican (a supporter of a free Irish state and usually a Catholic) named Jack Duffin. He is a left leaning supporter of the Irish Republican Army who would like to see Northern Ireland become part of the Republic of Ireland. Jack was born and raised in the same neighborhoods where the fighting occurred. He had been on the front lines, and many of his friends were killed or arrested during the course of the conflict. Jack now works for a company called Coiste, which has a small office near the tour route and also a great web site at http://www.coiste.ie, where you can learn more about the story of “The Troubles”.

There were only 7 in our group – five from the US and two from Italy. From the US we had a Ph.D. graduate student doing research for his thesis, a UCLA Ph.D student and her boyfriend who were enroute to Egypt for similar studies, and us.

Our tour started at the Divis Tower, the location of one of the early neighborhood battles of 1969, then past Saint Comgell’s Primary School, where we could see some of the bullet holes in the concrete and brick. We stopped at a memorial for the Republicans martyrs from one neighborhood and across the street saw a block of murals supporting various situations involving human rights all over the world. A short while later we stopped at a library funded by Andrew Carnegie. Jack pointed out that the Republicans have a museum in an old factory building that was a linen factory back in the days when Belfast was the largest producer of linen in the world. He described how miserable working conditions were for those early factory workers.

We passed several building murals dedicated to players of the Belfast Celtic Football Club, reportedly one of the best soccer teams in the world from 1891 to 1949. The football club ended in 1949 as a result of fighting between Catholic team members and Protestant fans.

Mural for Bobby Sands and Sinn Fein Headquarters

Mural for Bobby Sands near Sinn Fein Headquarters

There was a memorial on the side of one building for the martyr Bobby Sands. Bobby Sands was a leader of a Hunger Strike in 1981 while he was imprisoned at Her Majesty’s Maze Prison south of Belfast. The Catholic prisoners sent there during “The Troubles” considered themselves to be prisoners of war. In the early ’70s the British government had agreed to grant these prisoners a Special Category Status, allowing political prisoners of the conflict to not wear the normal prison uniforms, not perform prison work, to freely communicate with one another, and the right to one visit, one parcel, and one letter per week. These rights were revoked by the British in 1976, and the hunger strike was a protest that these rights had been removed. Bobby Sands died of starvation after 66 days. During the hunger strike, Sands was elected in a special election to the British House of Commons, though he died of hunger in prison before he could ever take his elected seat.

We stopped in front of the local Sinn Féin office, with memorial placards above the door to fallen members of the Provisional IRA during the Troubles. One was Pat McGeown, a leader who died in 1996 from complications started during his hunger strike in prison in 1981. Another was to Máire Drumm, Vice President of Sinn Féin when she was assassinated in 1976. Two other placards were memorials to 6 members who had been killed by the RUC in the early ’90s.

We passed by the place where President Bill Clinton met with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams in November 1995. Adams has been President of Sinn Féin since 1983. President Clinton was revered by the Catholic community for his support of Gerry Adams and the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Royal Hospital, where the first air conditioner was installed, where defibrillator paddles were invented, where modern gunshot wound treatment was advanced.

Royal Hospital, where the first air conditioner was installed, where defibrillator paddles were invented, where modern gunshot wound treatment was advanced.

A couple blocks later we passed by the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, where Gerry Adams’s life was saved after an assassination attempt in 1984. As a result of the many assaults during “The Troubles”, the hospital became a cutting edge facility for the treatment of gunshot woulds. It also made another significant contribution to emergency medicine – a doctor there invented the portable defibrillator. The hospital was also the world’s first air conditioned public building, the unit having been developed by the Sirocco Works in Belfast in 1906.

We continued along Falls Rd, eventually reaching another area where the street side was lined with posters, one still demanding justice for a bombing in 1971 that killed fifteen patrons at McGurk’s Bar. Individual posters cited the death of over 200 Republicans, showing each to have been murdered at the hands of the Unionist paramilitary groups, the police, or British troops. Jack knew a number of them personally and recounted for us each of their stories.

We went by the home of James Connolly, where he lived in Belfast from 1910 to 1913. Connolly was a socialist politician and leader of trade unions who is revered for his advocacy of Irish nationalism and independence. In 1916 he led a group of volunteers in what became known as the Easter Rising. The Irish Nationalists attacked and took over various areas of Dublin and proclaimed Ireland as an independent republic. The British troops quickly quelled the uprising, and Connolly was badly wounded and had only a short time to live. Still, the British found him guilty of treason, tied him to a chair (since he could not stand) and executed him. Such martyrdom did not go unnoticed – the public awareness soon increased public support for Irish nationalism.

Memorial to some of the fallen Republicans at the Catholic Cemetery on Andersontown Rd in Belfast

Memorial to some of the fallen Republicans at the Catholic Cemetery on Andersontown Rd in Belfast

The tour ended by passing the Protestant Falls Park cemetery, where many of the Unionist victims are buried, and then proceeded to the Catholic Milltown cemetery on the opposite side of the road, where we viewed many graves of the Nationalists, including Bobby Sands.

Our tour ended in the dark and the rain, and afterwards we all went together to a nearby club where we hoisted a pint of Guiness to our guide and to the memory of those in the conflict. The Americans in our group were highly interested in “The Troubles”, and we enjoyed the stimulating discussion. On our cab ride home, the driver related his own feelings about “The Troubles”. He also noted that we’d just come from the most Republican club in town.

See more photos of the tour.

Some history leading up to “The Troubles”

How did Scots and English become the majority in Northern Ireland?

According to a Wikipedia article, the area that is now Northern Ireland was sparsely populated by Gaelic Irish, clans or tribes that migrated seasonally with their cattle. It was the most Gaelic part of Ireland. In the 1590s, the forces of the Gaelic Irish chieftains fought the Nine Years War to oppose English rule in Ireland. The war was throughout Ireland, but was mainly fought in the northern province of Ulster. The English won the war, and in in 1601, in exchange for King James I pardoning the chieftains, they gave up control of their land to England, a substantial part of what is now Northern Ireland. At the end of the war this area was sparsely populated with perhaps 25,000 to 45,000 people.

In 1609 the English organized to colonize a substantial portion of the counties of Ulster, redistributing the land to Protestants from England and Scotland. The English intention was to civilize the Ulster region and to anglicize the Irish, including converting them to Protestantism. The principal landowners, known as Undertakers, were wealthy men from Scotland and England who undertook to import tenants from their own estates. All tenants were to be English speaking and Protestant. Veterans of the Nine Years War also lobbied successfully to receive land grants, these to be paid for by subsidies from other organizations within England. Also the remaining portions of Northern Ireland that were not part of the official plantation, including the area around Belfast, were planted with immigrants in many cases by the private land owners.

In 1641 there was a massacre of about 4000 Protestant settlers when the Irish Catholic population staged a rebellion on the Ulster plantation. Another 8000 Protestants went home as a result. The English sent a force of 10,000 to quell the rebellion, and they committed many atrocities against the Catholics. After the conflict, there were no more Catholic landowners in the Ulster region, but so many of the tenants in the plantation areas had left that the percentage of immigrants was actually greatest in the privately settled areas closer to what is now Belfast.

After England’s William III conquered Ireland in 1691, a complicated series of acts were put in place to limit and discriminate against the Irish Catholics and also those Presbyterian Protestants who would not swear an oath of allegiance to the King. These included exclusion from public office, a ban on interfaith marriages and the state’s refusal to recognize marriage of Presbyterians, barring of Catholics from holding firearms, exclusion from the legal profession and judiciary, ban on converting from Protestantism to Catholicism, and many more similar restrictions. Many of these restrictions were later repealed, but they remained as a strongly resonant element in the politics of Irish Catholicism for long afterwards.

The author and sociologist Allan G Johnson describes how over the years of English control, the English subjected the native Irish to discrimination:

“The British came to view the Irish as something like a separate species altogether, possessing inferior traits that were biologically passed from one generation to the next. In this, the British were inventing a concept of race that made it a path of least resistance to see other peoples as subhuman if not nonhuman, making it easier to objectify them and more difficult to feel empathy for them as members of their own kind, both integral to the exertion of control over others.”

This historical undercurrent eventually resurfaced in the tension between the Irish Catholics and ancestors of the migrant English and Scottish Protestants that boiled over in the a period of civil conflict between 1969 and 1998 known as “The Troubles”.

History of Irish Republicanism

History of Irish Republicanism from the Coiste web site:

Following the enforced partition of Ireland by the British Government in 1921 the newly elected Unionist Government in the Six Counties set about establishing a form of religious apartheid,’a protestant parliament for a protestant people’, as one former Unionist prime minister described it. In the decades between 1921 and 1969, Catholics and Nationalists bore the brunt of institutionalised discrimination and state repression. No opposition to Unionist rule was tolerated.

By the 1960s the Northern Ireland Civil Rights association was formed, and began to campaign peacefully for basic civil rights – one person one vote and an end to discrimination in housing and employment. That peaceful campaign was met with violence by the Unionist regime; demonstrators were attacked with batons, tear gas and eventually live bullets. Whipped into a frenzy of sectarian hatred and fear, loyalist mobs supported by the police force (RUC and B Specials) swept into Nationalist districts throughout Belfast on the night of the 15th August. Hundreds of Nationalist homes and businesses were attacked and destroyed leaving thousands of Nationalists homeless. That evening Gerard Mc Auley, just 15 years of age, was shot and killed by Loyalists. Later Patrick Rooney just 9 years of age was shot and killed by the RUC. Trooper Mc Cabe who was on home leave at the time from his regiment in the British Army was also shot and killed by the RUC in the Divis Street area.

Before 1969 the IRA was a relatively small organisation, made up for most part of older men and women who had previously fought military campaigns against British rule in Ireland. After the suppression of the civil rights movement and the pogroms, hundreds of men and women joined the ranks of the IRA. The British Government ordered British troops onto the streets again and the perennial struggle between the British and Irish Republicans began again.

Short history of the period of “The Troubles”

Wikipedia provides an overview of “The Troubles”:

“The Troubles” refers to the three decades of violence between elements of Northern Ireland’s Irish nationalist community (mainly self-identified as Irish and/or Roman Catholic) and its unionist community (mainly self-identified as British and/or Protestant). The conflict was the result of discrimination against the Irish nationalist/Catholic minority by the unionist/Protestant majority and the question of Northern Ireland’s status within the United Kingdom.

In 1964 Nationalist Catholic Irish began a civil rights campaign to end restrictions on government hiring, gerrymandering of election districts, changing of the vote from 1 vote per household to 1 vote per person, reform of the police (the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was almost 100% Protestant), and repeal of special powers that enabled search without a warrant, imprisonment without trial, banishment of assembly, etc. During the period from 1964 to 1969 the Unionists organized several loyalist paramilitary groups: the Ulter Volunteer Force (UVF) among people in the Shankill Rd neighborhood north of Falls Rd; the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee (UCDC) set up a paramilitary style wing called the Ulster Protestant Volunteers (UPV). During the same period the Nationalists formed the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). During these years there are skirmishes but not outbreaks, and the Nationalists continued to press their case for civil rights.

In 1969, loyalist paramilitary groups bombed electricity and water installations in Northern Ireland, and cast blame upon the then dormant Irish Republican Army. Outside of Belfast, there was fighting between Protestants and Catholics in Derry. Loyalists in Belfast invaded the Republican neighborhoods, burned houses and businesses. Republicans exchanged gunfire with Loyalists and the RUC. British troops were deployed to restore order.

During the period 1970 to 1972, violence escalated and over 500 people lost their lives . Two more Republican groups formed, the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Official Irish Republican Army. Our tour guide was a member of the Official IRA and described the Provisional IRA members as being angered and driven to action by their loss, but not ideologically in tune with the political ideas of the Official IRA. The newer Provisional IRA was more attuned to armed struggle. Unionists imposed a “Falls Curfew” upon the residents of the Falls Rd . Also they imposed internment without trial, almost always applied to the Republicans rather than the Unionists. By 1972 the Provisional IRA had carried out a destructive campaign of violence, killing about 100 soldiers and carrying out more than 1300 bombing of mostly commercial targets. The Official IRA carried out a similar campaign. Loyalist paramilitary groups retaliated by assassinating Republicans, and both Protestants and Catholics were displaced out of their communities by force.

In 1972, the government of Great Britain passed emergency legislation dissolving the Loyalist Government at Stormont, Northern Ireland and introducing direct rule from London.

In 1974 an effort to achieve a cease fire failed, and for the rest of the 1970’s the two sides traded violent attacks. In 1981 ten Republican prisoners starved themselves to death as they advocated restoring a political status to the Republicans in Northern Ireland. The first to die, Bobby Sands, was elected to Parliament. Over 100,000 people attended his funeral. The IRA received arms from Muammar Gaddafi of Libya during this period. During the ’80s, the paramilitary violence between Unionists and Republicans continued unabated.

Sinn Fein headquarters on Falls Road

Sinn Fein headquarters on Falls Road

In the late ’80s, the political wing of the Provisional IRA, Sinn Féin, led by Gerry Adams, sought a negotiated end to the conflict. After prolonged negotiations between Loyalists, Republicans, and the British, the first cease fire was declared in 1994. Subsequent violence interrupted this first attempt. The IRA bombed targets in the UK.

In 1997 a second cease fire was declared with the assistance of the US government as negotiations without the agreement of Sinn Féin became known as the Good Friday Agreement. Later in the year Sinn Féin agreed to the conditions. President Bill Clinton visited Northern Ireland during this time and arranged a US visa for Gerry Adams. He met with leaders of both sides of the conflict and today is well remembered for his influence in helping to bring an end to “The Troubles”.

Though some violence still occurred, the second cease fire has largely held up and a political process has begun. Self government has been restored to Northern Ireland, and the police force has been reformed. There are still some significant problems to be resolved.

Between 1969 and 2001, 3526 people were killed. More statistics of casualties can be found here.

When the north was divided from the rest of Ireland and kept British in 1921, Northern Ireland was about 70% Unionist. Today the percentage of Unionists has dwindled to about 48%, according to our tour guide. Sinn Féin has grown to be the second largest political party in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland: Tour of the Causeway Coastal Route and Glens

Norman castle at Carrickfergus

Norman castle at Carrickfergus

We dedicated one day in Northern Ireland to a bus tour of the Causeway Coastal Route and Glens, including a visit to Carrickfergus Castle, a drive along the Nine Glens of Antrim, a walk along the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, lunch at The Old Bushmill’s Distillery, a visit to the World Heritage Site known as Giant’s Causeway, and an end of the day photo op at the Dunluce Castle.

Carrickfergus Castle was built by the Normans in 1177 and remains a well preserved example of Norman architecture in Ireland. It is located 11 miles north of Belfast along the coastal route and is open for public tours. Our tour focused solely on getting some photos outside. The castle was captured by the Protestant King William of Orange (King William III of England), the first step in his eventual defeat of Catholic King James II in the Battle of the Boyne. Louis XIV of France had supported King James in the battle. Interestingly, the Pope (Alexander VIII) supported the Protestants as part of an alliance (The League of Augsberg), a multi-national alliance opposing the aggression of Louis XIV in Europe. The victory for the Protestants assured continued Protestant and English control of Ireland. The Battle is still celebrated as a holiday called “The Twelfth” since the battle was won on July 12, 1690. Due to a change in the calendar, it is celebrated on July 23rd. The holiday sometimes inflames the continuing conflict between Royalists and Republicans.

Other facts about Carrickfergus: A ship moored nearby Carrickfergus was once attacked by John Paul Jones. Also, US President Andrew Jackson’s father was born in 1738 in the village nearby the castle.

Up the road from Carrickfergus is the town of Larne and a significant industrial area that includes the Caterpillar Tractor headquarters for Northern Ireland, where they are a major employer. My interest in Caterpillar is because I grew up in Peoria, Illinois, which is their world headquarters and my dad worked there as an engineer for over 30 years.

Another Glen of Antrim

One of the Nine Glens of Antrim

The road then travels from Larne along the coast line between the sea and high cliffs formed from volcanic lava flows 60 million years ago. It took us through nine Glens, steep green valleys that run from the highlands to the sea. The Glens were formed by glaciers in the last ice age , and each coveys a particular story from Irish Mythology.

Later along the road we stopped at the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, which was first built by salmon fishermen many years ago to take advantage of the heavy salmon migration between the small island of Carrick-a-Rede and the shore. Walking 90 feet above the heavy winter waves along the swaying 60 foot span made for an exciting experience. Hang on to your hat and don’t drop the camera!

Brenda at the rope bridge

Brenda at the rope bridge

Then it was on to lunch at the old Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey Plant. They sell some blends there that one cannot buy anywhere else. We had lunch with a girl, perhaps 18, from the Melbourne Australia area where Brenda lived in the ’70s. She was taking a year off to travel around the world by herself, and she had already been across the entire US.

The last major attraction of the day was a visit to Giant’s Causeway. The causeway consists of an extraordinary formation of crystals of basalt rock, thousands of colums of which protrude into the sea along the coast. Legend has it that an Irish giant, Finn McCool, built the causeway by placing these rocks across the water to nearby Scotland, only to flee back home after he discovered an even larger giant living there. The Scottish giant crossed the causeway in pursuit of Finn, but Finn’s clever wife disguised Finn as a baby before inviting the Scottish giant into their home. When the huge Scottish giant saw how large the baby was, he was terrified at the thought of how large the baby’s Irish father must be. He fled back to Scotland, destroying the causeway along the way. All that remains today are the rocks protruding out into the water from Ireland.

Basalt crystals at Giant's Causeway

Basalt crystals at Giant’s Causeway

A museum at the site shows how the action of glaciers and volcanic rock combined to form the unusual crystal formations. We were not as amazed as some perhaps, since we have about ten of the basalt crystal formations as landscaping features in our yard in Poulsbo. They are common in Eastern Washington. Still, Giant’s Causeway was truly amazing!

On our way home we stopped by Dunluce Castle, another old Norman castle, part of which has fallen into the sea. It provided an ancient backdrop to the setting sun at the end of the day.

See a photo tour here.

Northern Ireland: Crumlin Road Jail in Belfast

Looking into a cell block at the Crumlin Road Jail Belfast

Looking into a cell block at the Crumlin Road Jail Belfast

The Belfast Visitor’s Center advised us to take the tour of Crumlin Road Jail (called Crumlin Road Gaol), so this was the first place we visited when we came to town. The jail was built in 1846 during the Victorian era and was home to more than 25,000 prisoners before it closed in the 1996.

The Victorian design was intended to house about 500 prisoners (one to a cell in isolation) , but during the turbulent years of “The Troubles”, prison population grew to about 1500. We saw all the basic elements of prison life. First we saw where the prisoners were received and how they were washed, photographed, and processed. They gave up all their personal effects and lived in isolation, the method then favored by the British to best ensure rehabilitation. Our guide showed us the rooms and procedures used to control prisoners at all times when they were outside their cells. There were women guards for women prisoners and male guards for male prisoners. The prison design was meant to convince prisoners that someone was watching them at all times. We marched into the tunnel that led under the road to the courthouse (now burned down), where the prisoners were taken to stand trial. The Warden’s office was the only room with carpet, so going to see the warden was being “called on the carpet”.

At first the policy for political prisoners was to segregate Republican and Unionist prisoners in different prison wings. In later years the policy was changed to integrate them. After this policy change, political prisoners avoided potentially volatile confrontations by voluntarily segregating themselves to maintain order. Over its history the prison witnessed riots, escapes, births, deaths, hunger strikes, and marriages.

We saw the cell for condemned prisoners. There were 17 executions over the life of the prison, the last of which was in the ’60s. Condemned prisoners did not know that the hanging chamber was only a few feet from their cell, and they weren’t told the date of their execution until the night before it was to occur. They were guarded at all times to prevent suicide. Guards socialized with them and became friends. The English prison system had very scientific procedures to ensure the most humane death possible by hanging. For instance the length of the rope and fall from the scaffold were precisely calculated using the condemned’s height and weight. Executed prisoners were confirmed to be dead in the chamber beneath the scaffold and then placed in wooden coffins and buried in unmarked graves on the site of the prison.

We saw the execution chamber and the room where deaths were verified. It was also the room where other prisoners were punished by flogging.

Visiting the prison provided us with some interesting background about life in Belfast, grim as it might seem. We missed a further attraction – the paranormal tours at night, where ex-inmates show why the jail is one of the most haunted sites in Belfast.

See a photo tour of the Crumlin Road Jail.

Visit to Northern Ireland

Culloden Hotel and Spa in Belfast

Culloden Hotel and Spa in Belfast

Between January 17th and 22nd we traveled to Belfast, Northern Ireland. This might seem an odd choice for our first trip outside France considering there are so many other destinations to choose from. The reasoning went like this: In late October Brenda purchased 2 tickets to see Van Morrison on January 21st at the Hastings Culloden Estate and Spa in Belfast. Van Morrison is from Belfast and now lives there. When we got married we had the band learn Van Morrison’s song “Someone Like You“. Our 25th anniversary is coming soon. We were going to visit Belfast.

Belfast became a city in 1888, but the site has been inhabited for 5,000 years. According to Wikipedia, its population is 286,000 and it has a metropolitan area population of about 500,000. It is the 14th largest city in Great Britain. Though there were castles in the area dating from the 13th century, Belfast became settled as a community in the 17th century by English and Scottish migrants. Thus the native Irish Catholic inhabitants became a minority as a large Protestant immigrant population arrived in the north of Ireland.

Ruins of the Norman's Dunluce Castle from the 14th century

Ruins of the Norman’s Dunluce Castle from the 14th century

Ireland was invaded by the Normans in the 12th century, and the English extended their rule to whole island in 1690, establishing Protestent English rule over a disadvantaged Irish Catholic community and some other Protestant dissenters. Ireland became part of the United Kingdom in 1801. Early in the 20th century, there was a war of independence, and the Irish Free State was formed in 1920.

When the Irish Free State was formed and Ireland was divided into a number of partitions, the partition of Northern Ireland, having a substantial Protestant migrant population loyal to the government of England, agreed by vote of its parliament not to join the Irish Free State but instead to remain part of Great Britain. A substantial minority, mainly of Catholics, had advocated for Northern Ireland to join the Irish Free State.

Tension between the Irish Catholics and ancestors of the migrant English and Scottish Protestants boiled over in the a period of civil conflict between 1969 and 1998 known as “The Troubles”.

Titanic Museum in Belfast

Titanic Museum in Belfast

Fortunately “The Troubles” have receded, replaced by a period of political negotiation instead of terrorist warfare. The city of Belfast is recovering and has a bustling downtown business district with numerous fine hotels and restaurants. We found our trip to be a fun filled getaway.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Belfast became a hub of industrial activity. It was the world’s largest producer of linen and rope, and the world’s largest shipbuilder. It was also a center for cutting edge engineering and other manufacturing. It was the largest city in Ireland for a brief period late in the 19th Century. Among other notable accomplishments, in 1912 workers in Belfast built the world’s largest ship, the Titanic. An excellent museum in Belfast today commemorates that accomplishment as well as the details of Titanic’s ill fated maiden voyage.

Belfast is a pretty fascinating city even in the winter rain and cold. We decided to spend 4 days at the Ten Square Hotel located downtown across from City Hall and then spend the last night at the Culloden Estate where Van Morrison performed.  We did have a clear day when we took a 9 hour bus tour to the Causeway Coastal Route. There we walked across the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge, ate lunch at Bushmill’s Distillery, and walked along the beach at The Giants Causeway, a UNESCO Heritage site of unusual basalt rock columns. I took a few distant photos of Dunluce Castle, a 14th century structure atop a steep cliffside.

Brenda with her trusty umbrella

Brenda with her trusty umbrella

The 10 Square Hotel right in Belfast was a great choice as the location is perfect for walking around the city. The room was very comfortable though all the decor is a dark wood and carpeting and heavy drapes make it a wee bit (yes they actually say that phrase there quite often) oppressive. The hotel restaurant had very good food so we ate there several times. The bar on the week end is a madhouse of heavy drinking young and old revelers. We were glad that we were on the 3rd floor with a conference room on one of the floors in between-the noise did not travel up to our room! The hotel staff left a very nice Happy Anniversary plate of chocolates for us. Thank you! They have work out facilities but not on the premises so we did not utilize them. We walked miles around the city with our umbrellas.

There is helpful signage all about the town. The people are friendly and very proud of their city. We were fascinated by the Crumlin Road jail tour. The City Hall is worth visiting. They have a great coffee/lunch shop and information boards with interviews of Belfast folks who lived through “The Troubles”. The Visitors Bureau very close to our hotel is newly remodeled and has beautiful display cases, friendly staff, tons of brochures, suggestions for things to do. Because of the Visitor Bureau recommendation we were able to go on a walking tour on Sunday with a Republican tour guide who shared not only his political views and knowledge but some excellent Guiness in a local pub.

Van Morrison at the Culloden Estate in Belfast

We took the train from Belfast out to the Culloden. That might have been fun had it not been pouring rain and so windy that our umbrellas turned inside out. Not only is it a bit of a walk from the 10 Square to the train station, there is a quite an uphill jaunt from the train to the Culloden. Better to have taken a taxi from the 10 Square! But hey we got to experience the train and it only cost 6 GBP.

The Culloden Estate and Spa is magnificent. Our room was divine! And the spa there is marvelous. Brenda swam in their fabulous round sky domed pool and ate breakfast poolside the last morning. Van Morrison’s performance was excellent. For 30 years Brenda had wanted to see him live. He did not disappoint-performed non stop song after song. The dinner prior to the performance was delicious, smoked salmon entree, a specially roasted beef in wine sauce with vegetables and a pudding with caramel sauce. We enjoyed talking to the other guests at our table, which was positioned right up front so we could really see Van, his daughter Shana (who did a few numbers on her own and sang back up for Van), and the band. The Culloden staff also gave us a beautiful chocolate plate with Happy Anniversary written on it. We walked about the manicured grounds the last day before taking a cab to the airport (only 10 minutes away.)

Here is a photo tour of the city, the Titanic Tour, and the Concert. We’ll separately post articles and photos about the Causeway Tour, Jail Tour, and “The Troubles”.