Friday, April 7, 2017


A bookstore will never lead you astray if you’re looking for something to carry you to mysterious places. Our local bookshop in Rome (actually in my office building) had a delightful name, “Food for Thought.” It also had a bin of older paperbacks toward the back where I regularly rummaged to find something inexpensive to read. And, one day, there was Holy Blood, Holy Grail at the bottom of the bin. With a blurb that said it was “explosively controversial,” I bought it. Tucked in with feet on our bombola (our propane heater for supplemental heating in the winter and one that I worried might be explosive in a different way), I dove in that evening. And I kept reading because I couldn’t put it down.

It begins with the story of an ancient and obscure church in the south west of France between the foothills of the Pyrenees and the Cevenne mountains, and spins off into claims that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and their descendants founded the Merovingian dynasty and are thus the rightful kings of France. These claims are amplified by others about blackmail, buried treasure for the ransom of Saint Louis from the infidels, the locations of the Holy Grail, the treasure from Solomon’s Temple, and the mysterious Priory of Sion in Switzerland. The Knights Templars, the Masons and an indecipherable painting by the Renaissance painter, are all thrown in the heady brew in case the reader’s interest begins to wane. If this sounds familiar, it should, as Dan Brown capitalized on some story elements in The Da Vinci Code. In fact, the authors of Holy Blood brought (and lost) a plagiarism suit against Brown in 2006.

Hubby read the breathless book while I plotted a trip to see the mysterious church in a hamlet called Rennes-le-Chateau. I finally located the area, one where the Cathars, a heretical sect, lived and died during the Albigensian Crusade in the Middle Ages. Off we went on our next trip to France.

We left the walled city of Carcassone, not far from the Mediterranean Sea just north of the Spanish border. The vineyards surrounding the city were soon far behind as we drove on winding roads through oak and pine trees amid rough limestone gorges, outcroppings and crags. The sun was misty, the sky a watery pale blue, making the scenery appear ephemeral and steeped in mystery. The ruins of a fortress, Montsegur, high above us, appeared in the damp air as though it was a mirage. It was easy to picture the ghosts of the last Cathers, the 245 remaining survivors of the genocidal campaign by the Church, who were burned in a mass execution after the final campaign ended here. The site was destroyed over the years and now the nearly inaccessible and melancholy ruins of the later medieval castle stand as a memorial to intolerance and a fight to the end. In my mind I could hear the dead still keening for their lost lives and faith.

Some miles up the road, we arrived in the somnolent and isolated hamlet of Rennes Le Chateau, population 92, and no place for lunch. The history of the area is murky: first settled by Neanderthals, who were supplanted by more modern humans including Romans, Visigoths, and various medieval lords, including the Templars, until they gave way to French Royalists.

The site and its supposed history have become great fodder for conspiracy theorists and novelists since Jules Verne. But there was no wide-spread notoriety until several post-War French and Belgian writers claimed that Sauniere had discovered parchments in a hollow pillar dating from Visigothic times during his restoration that “prove” the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. But the stories faded into obscurity until the Holy Blood book hit the bestseller list in the 1980s and the BBC made a “documentary.” The documents have, of course, disappeared. Some say they vanished into the depths of the Vatican.

The “facts” have become a cottage industry with thousands of visitors now stopping at the church feed their fantasies and to fuel the local tourist trade. Books, websites, Youtube videos and podcasts abound for curiosity seekers and those who are die-hard believers. One commentator said it was the French equivalent of Roswell or Loch Ness. Others mention Atlantis.

We drove to the top of the hill, the location of the curious church dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene. In keeping with that part of the world, its history is murky. When a new parish priest, Berenger Sauniere, was assigned to the church in 1885, he began to restore and radically change the church which originally dated from the 8th century, rebuilt in the Romanesque style in the 10th or 11th century. Sauniere seems to have had a shady background both in his adherence to dogma and wealth from unknown sources. He spent great sums of money on the church, a tower for his library and a large villa with extensive grounds.

But Sauniere came to a dismal end: In 1910 he was summoned to an ecclesiastical trial for various offenses against the Church and was suspended from the priesthood when he refused to produce his account books or attend the trial. He died without the Last Rites in 1917. He had been declared penniless, but his life-long “housekeeper,” suddenly became wealthy and moved into the villa.  The French government established a new currency in 1946. Rather than declare where her wealth came from, the woman, Marie Denarnaud, burnt the old francs and died penniless too. I don’t know what had been really going on but something clearly was very odd about the situation.

Book in hand, we approached the church, first passing a closed gateway to the church yard with a memento mori skull and crossbones as décor over the door. We reached the main entrance and looked up to see the Latin inscription “Terribilis est locus iste” carved on the lintel. Depending on your inclination, it can be translated as “This is a horrible place,” or less dramatically (and less nysterious), “This is a place of awe.”

Whichever is correct, the words established a mood that wasn’t dispelled when we entered the nave and approached the holy water stoop supported by a horned and cloven-footed devil. For those who don’t believe in conspiracies, the choice can be explained by looking at a catalogue of church refurbishments published in during the period. Still, it seems less than suitable and not a place where I’d want to dip my fingers. Specialists have found other anomalies but these two were enough for us. The church was dark and damp and gave us the creeps. It was easy to imagine flickering candles casting moving and distorted shadows over dark rites with pagan roots. Was the church ever used for happy events like marriage or baptism? Whatever its current use, I couldn’t wait to get out into the clean air.

We wandered toward the disused tower which had been the good father’s library. It, too, was dedicated to Mary Magdalene. In keeping with the general desolation, the stained-glass windows had been broken by vandals. Pieces of glass lay scattered on the ground. I couldn’t resist picking up a handful for a memento of a most peculiar place, neither horrible nor of awe, but all the same, unsettling. But rather than stuffing the shards in my pocket, I let the glass fall through my fingers, back to the ground where they could await some other curiosity seeker.

It was definitely time for more mundane and contemporary activities: a late lunch in Limoux, famous for it’s sparkling wines and good food. We dined on cassoulet, and raised our glasses to the authors of the book who provided  endless fodder for conversations about the past. 

Photos except Carcassone copyright Judith Works 
Photo of Carcassone copyright bmsgator from Wikipedia

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

GUEST POST: CUBA - Getting Around with Pens, Caps, Glasses and Maps

           It is a hot afternoon in Santa Clara, Cuba, and perhaps that is why we are the only ones standing at the Tren Blindado park, listening to an engaging gentleman share his adoration of beloved rebel, Che Guevara. We are trying to picture the bold Guevara using a bulldozer to derail the train that ignited the Cuban Revolution.

            More vivid, however, is my memory of trying to give this older gentleman, a veteran who experienced the Revolution fifty years ago, a few coins. He waves off the tip and instead derails us with his simple request:

            “Algunas plumas, por favor?

            We are a bit stunned. He wants a couple of ink pens? Between the three of us, I could only pull up two Bics from my backpack, but he seems delighted! 

            Such an odd solicitation should not have befuddled us, for we teachers have been traversing Cuba for nearly three weeks. Such ordinary requests remind us that items of great worth to some are ordinary to others. 

            After researching Cuba for months, we decide to go without a tour group in March, 2015. We could reduce costs and avoid limitations that can hamper a large group. Typically, whole groups get off the bus together, walk and eat together; yet they probably learn more from guides —and never get lost. That’s not our current style of travel.
            We are curious to see Cuba before it could all change. The two countries are wading in a new political pool: President Obama began testing the waters by “normalizing relations” with Raul Castro’s communist government a year ago.  According to official websites, as long as we have “educational motives,” it is legal to travel as singletons. 

            Reading travel blogs and listening to friends who have traveled to Cuba help to fortify our confidence. Truly, it is astonishing to complete an online booking from the U.S. for rooms in a Cuban home —without payment, simply trust, and the rooms would be there upon arrival! We would pay in Cuban currency, as there are limited ATMs in Havana.

            We learn from previous travelers that there are key items that are simply in short supply in this country. Why not share our “take for granted” products, in hopes they would be conduits to conversations? Laden with this extra weight, we fly to Cancun, Mexico and then to Havana. Cuba is only 90 miles off the coast of Florida - and now, in 2016, direct flights finally operate out of Miami. This is a big deal.

            What is our first thrill upon leaving the little airport?  An impressive array of shiny 1950’s Fords, Chevys, and Buicks slowly parading along the warm Malecon boulevard, often filled with men, their arms resting out the windows, cigars in hand. Oh, the pride of owning such a vehicle, where owners can not rely on American car parts since the Cuban Embargo of 1960. Much ingenuity and creative substitution keep these cars a rollin’.

            Less than an hour out of the airport, I am already dispersing from my bag of baseball caps that friends gave me back in Seattle. In my first hat-sharing, a friendly Havana cab driver took us to a cambio with a good exchange rate. While my friends pick up local currency, CUCs, I stay with him and our luggage. Our ensuing conversation leads to his two children.
            “Les gustan béisbol?  I ask.

            He turns around with a wide grin, sharing that he and his son both play for local teams. When I ask him to reopen the trunk, he looks warily at me from the rearview mirror. But when I produce two baseball caps from my backpack - a Mariners and a Tampa Buccaneers - he is taken aback. He begins a little grateful dance, showing other taxi drivers his new delights.

            He drives us to our lodging, close to an old plaza in the Habana Vieja, where UNESCO is refurbishing Spanish colonial buildings. Children are kicking soccer balls in the shady, narrow streets; and nearby restaurants and bands under the balconies beckon us to stroll over. But first, our taxi driver happily hefts our bags up the two flights to our new casa. To our surprise, the place exudes an old-world elegance: tall, chandelier-filled rooms of antiques. And for only $35 US dollars a night for three of us, how could we not spend five days here?

            Each day we safely walk the curvy, often torn-up streets, ready to play quasi -ambassadors. Learning that older Cubans need reading glasses, it turns out to be a fun way to interact with a Havana street-sweeper or the women sitting on stoops. I ask if they know someone else who could use reading glasses. Lo and behold…they need the glasses. This leads to photo ops and fresh laughter, as they admire the new views.

             One morning we negotiate a taxi ride to the friendly town of Vinales near tobacco hills of western Cuba. Lucky for us, our host at this “casa particulare”, a home stay, was a former teacher. It is there where we connect with two principals to set free the bag of school supplies. They are overwhelmed with our primers, pencils, rulers, markers, maps, and flash drives.

            “Tienes Usted papel?” one asks. “Do you have paper?”

            They explain that the government only provides paper only once a year, so all items must be carefully utilized. Students write on both sides, in the margins, then erase and reuse. Despite lack of paper, the communist government provides free education through college. Literacy rates are high, ever since the government had a highly successful literary campaign in 1961 to educate the country folk.
            We arrange visits to walk to two schools on the hill. Small chalkboards rest on  old wooden tables, three students to a bench in the clean, bare rooms. Dressed in uniforms, in rows, the children are polite, if not a bit stunned.

            I think I hear young students snicker behind me while I attempt to draw the United States map on the board, explaining Washington state vs. Washington D.C.  More riveting are the boxes of Kind bars we pull out —prompting an awkward, self-serving moment.  Hmm, perhaps I may want more credit than I deserve?  After all, what are these children thinking?  Within seconds, the teacher promptly cuts the Kind bars into thirds to reach other students as well. Not a peep was heard.

            We take a tourist bus to remote Cien Fuegos, where the clippity clop of horse-drawn buggies are the main travel mode. We gravitate to the nightly dancing. One of my companions previously took salsa lessons and it pays off! Gentlemen politely take our arms, especially hers, and lead us to dance to the intoxicating music, sometimes on the sidewalk outside the bar. They are curious, polite, and handsome dancers. Pinch us. 

            The Afro-Cuban percussion pulls us in wherever we are. In the city of Trinidad, a historic colony of sugar plantations, we see throngs waiting on plaza steps for the rhythms to electrify their evening. Just as wonderful is the quiet moment: a horseback ride into the countryside where farmers were drinking their Cubita coffee and playing dominoes. It was in Trinidad that my last “hotel” toothpaste and soap are shared. A donated UW baseball cap goes to a skeletal, toothless man selling undecipherable treats from an old wheelbarrow. He beams, bows and wants to share his treats with me.

            Our travel is not extraordinary, nor did we dance with danger. We leave with contentment, lucky to have the richness of time to explore —and more importantly, to connect authentically with Cuban people.

            Cuba seems to be an anomaly. It may lack some basic products, like the oft-seen nearly empty shelves of grocery stores and pharmacies. And if the shelves were full, it was of one governmental brand, not like the abundance of choices here.  Yet, the richness of the culture is spread out to all: the beloved ballet, the intense music, baseball games, and theater— all are affordably priced for locals and tourists alike.

            How long can this vibrant culture of Cuba remain intact, as more tourists and businesses vie for frolic and opportunities? No one knows. If I am lucky enough to revisit this charming country, I’ll gladly pack more pens and reams of paper.

Rita Ireland has been lucky to teach in various parts of the world.
It was a lovely impetus to escape -- growing up on an Iowa farm.
She now lives in Edmonds, WA with her spouse, who found her on 
desolate Sunday morning beach 41 years ago. They have two children 
who also live far away from home.