Monday, November 4, 2019

DRAGON SKIN - The Faroe Islands


The wrinkled sea shining in the damp silvery dawn made me think of dragons’ skin and old Norse gods as the ship glided slowly into the harbor at Torshavn. The sun pierced dark clouds to illuminate buildings and harbor.

I imagined the characters from Norse myths: Grendel, Beowulf, Thor, Odin, and all the rest were hiding somewhere in the hills overlooking the harbor.

Torshavn is the capital of the Faroe Islands, a self-governing country within the Kingdom of Denmark (which also includes Greenland). A collection of eighteen islands rising abruptly out of the North Sea in the middle of a stormy triangle made up of Norway, Iceland, and Scotland, it’s low in population but high on atmosphere with mists, waterfalls spilling down the cliffs, sheep in green pastures, and sod-roofed homes. Although Celtic monks arrived in the 600s, it was the Norsemen in their dragon-prowed long ships who settled the country around AD 825. The inhabitants have made their living mostly from fishing ever since. And everywhere there are monuments to the enormous death toll arising from venturing into the treacherous waters.

I’d enjoyed a previous visit to the Faroes and was delighted to take another look at Torshavn (Thor’s Harbor) and to explore a different area of the countrythis time concentrating on the largest island, Streymoy, where Torshavn is located.

The capital is a combination of modern glass-sided buildings, and sturdy old sod-roofed houses jumbled together, some dating from the 1500s.

It was obvious that beyond fishing, the tourism industry is growing rapidly, with birdwatchers, hikers, and other adventure tourists. Several four- and five-star hotels are under construction in Torshavn, and for those who want the very best and can afford to pay, there is a Michelin two-starred restaurant, KOKS, on the nearby island of Vagar serving such traditional foods as fermented lamb, wind-dried and air-salted, along with high-concept presentations of bounty from the sea.

Tradition is much in evidence. I strolled through the oldest part of town, stopping to watch a man in old-style clothing re-sod his roof while his helper clad modern safety-orange helped lift the heavy squares of dirt and grass.

The Faroese language is a variant of Old Norse and, judging by the music stores and ads for performances, very much a living language. With the exception of Viking heavy metal, most of the music videos I’ve watched seem melancholy and feature the weather. Besides the music stores, the main shopping area has a shop with traditional clothing, a bookstore with books in Faroese, and sweater shops common to all Scandinavian countries for good reason. With a cool, wet, and windy climate combined with a long dark winter, knitting is a natural pastime although the islands’ sheep are grown only for meat, the wool unsuitable for craft work.

The landscape on our way north was mystical in keeping with the ancient myths. Clouds rose and fell, fields of grass bent in the breeze, showers fed the eternal waterfalls, sheep grazed, orange-billed Oystercatchers poked along the fjord shorelines.

Village churches and farmhouses with their wild-flower-covered roofs looked as if they had always been there.

But when I turned my attention to the present, it was easy to see what a wealthy country it is. The houses are perfectly kept, the cars are new, the roads are perfect and the closer islands are connected by bridges or underwater tunnels. The infrastructure is paid for with high income taxes like other Scandinavian countries. The people I talked to were happy with the arrangement. With good infrastructure, free schools, medical care and old-age support, they said they got their money’s worth.
The end of the journey was the settlement of Saksun, in an enchanted valley with a lacy waterfall spilling down a slope, an old barn built of stone, and a sod-roofed church facing the fjord.
 It was if we’d stepped into a magical scene from time immemorial.

In keeping with the atmosphere, I visited a nearby farmhouse, abandoned at the beginning of the 20th century and now a museum. The main building of stone and wood was constructed around 1820, although an older building once occupied the space. Within its thick walls was a smoke-room, cow-barn, henhouse, potato shed, as well as the living quarters where the occupants raised their family, sheltered the village priest when he passed by, ate their simple meals out of wooden bowls balanced on their laps, and no doubt, watched their children suffer with no medical care. How hard it must have been in the isolated spot when the long summer days turned to long dark winters.

As I enjoyed coffee and home-made waffles in the tiny kitchen flooded with summer sunlight, I couldn’t help but wonder if the family told stories of the old times when dragons appeared in swirling mist shrouding the farmstead. Then, after the cows in the stall were settled and evening prayers were done, the wick on the oil lantern was trimmed and the family slipped into beds built into niches to await another day of toil.

All photographs copyright Judith Works   

Saturday, September 7, 2019


Sometimes a respite from all the jangles of our livesthe clicking, beeping, dinging, and talking headsis necessary to preserve our sanity. Sometimes when we don’t know who to believe or even why, it's a balm to mentally return to a time when certainty ruled people’s lives. A time when few expected a change in their status; when having a "brand" was not an objective. A medieval world most of us would find hard and confining but tempered by a close relationship with the divine and a secure place in the social order.

A first stop to contemplate that medieval world on a day out of London was Salisbury Cathedral. Some 90 miles west of London, the cathedral is most famous for its ever-so-slightly skewed spire, at 404 feet, the tallest in Great Britain. The cathedral sits in the middle of an immense greensward in the middle of the town of the same name. Because of its easy access from London and nearness to Stonehenge, it has a heavy influx of tourists.

As we approached the entrance, the magnitude of the attraction was evident with lines of tour buses in a parking lot disgorging passengers. We joined the crowd to enter a medieval world from floor to vaulting.

The foundation stone was laid in 1220 and consecrated in 1258 but the cathedral isn’t far from the ruins of an Iron Age settlement, later Roman fort and then a Norman town known as Old Sarum where an earlier cathedral once stood. The stones of that cathedral were used to build an English Gothic architectural wonder where we stood among the others gazing upward at the vaulting supporting the building. Most extraordinary are the curving scissors arches leaping into the air where the nave and arms meet to form the traditional shape of a cross. The mason, Master Nicholas of Ely, who designed and oversaw the workers didn’t need computer programs – his architectural vision and skill was in his brilliant mind and hands.

I want to say I was moved by our visit, but in truth, there were so many people I was just another gaping tourist and that so-called thin space where heaven and earth are separated by only three feet wasn’t in evidence. And so, after admiring the medieval clock still working since 1386, and shuffling along with others lined up to glimpse the copy of the Magna Carta (one of four in existence), it was a relief to enjoy an early lunch in an old mill where swans leisurely paddled and a view of the distant cathedral echoed one of John Constable’s Romantic 18th century paintings.

The discussion over a sandwich of crusty country bread filled with cheddar and diving Wiltshire ham washed down with local ale, centered on what to see next. Stonehenge is jammed, Avebury sounded interesting, but where I’d long to go for years was Wells. Our driver blanched when he thought I said Wales but after convincing him that wasn’t the case, we headed cross country to the small town set in the rolling Mendip hills deep in Somerset. And there I found my transcendent experience: The thin space where sacred and profane meet.

The small town of Wells is without railroad or freeway connections and therefore lacks day-trippers. It exudes a sense of peace because the center of life is the magnificent Gothic cathedral. The first known settlement was around a holy well in Late Roman times: 400 – 600 AD, a time when the Roman Empire had collapsed and England was a conglomeration of small Saxon kingdoms. The King of Wessex gave land for a church to a bishop in 705. The small church became a cathedral in 909. The foundation for the current masterpiece, the first Gothic-style church with its pointed arches and abundance of stained-glass windows in England, was laid in 1175 but the building wasn’t completed until 1508, a testament to the power of faith to persevere.

Visitors were few and quiet allowing us to wander at will and to contemplate the structure in a hushed atmosphere. Time stood still, or even ran backward. The entrance to the nave made me think that the ribbing on the ceiling was like looking into the insides of a fish or whale—a view Jonah might have seen. But again, it was the scissors arches that captured my awe. How could have William Joy, the master mason in 1338, known that to brace the central tower he needed to build magnificent swoops of stone on three sides of each of the four pillars? They were a divine inspiration.

Time slowed as we wandered the vast space, contemplating the beautiful Nave, Lady Chapel, Cloisters, and the substantial area behind the main altar called the Quire and Retroquire. The lower part of the beautiful windows are a simple jumble of glass - the remnants of the biblical scenes smashed in a time of religious strife in the 17th century.

But we returned repeatedly to the arches to wonder at their perfection and to imagine the candle-lit processions with Choristers chanting and singing as they still do.

All was silent as I imagined Evensong in my mind’s eye.

We climbed a set of stairs to enter the octagonal Chapter House.

Around the sides are seats where the Canons, who managed the church and its business affairs, sat under their name; their assistants, the Vicars, sat at their feet. In the center of the room is a pillar with 32 vaulted ribs springing from it as if it were a fountain.

The windows are mostly clear glass as the originals were smashed in the 17th century as they had been in the main church. We crept carefully down the stairs that that resembled a gush of cascading water imagining how many Canons and Vicars must have lost their balance and fallen to their deaths as they descended in flickering candlelight.

We paused for reflection in an ancient graveyard

 before strolling in the lovely quintessentially English Vicar's Close, a stone-paved street connected to the church by an overpass called the Chain Bridge. The street is lined with about twenty lovely homes and gardens, originally built in 1348, and still occupied by fortunate cathedral staff such as the Organist and choir master. Although I have no doubt the interiors of the homes are modern and have high-speed internet, the exterior of the Close is an English dream encapsulating everything magical about English villages.

Too soon, it was time to leave.

We headed east back to London, stopping along the way to allow a herd of cows heading for their own barn. Traffic stops at milking time in the countryside. But as we approached London the present day took over and the conversation returned to the subject on everyone’s mind: Brexit and what the future held.
All photos except that of Constable painting copyright Judith Works
Constable painting from Wikipedia, pubic domain

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Israel: Acre and Caesarea

I met a traveler from an antique land.

To be honest, I didn’t actually meet anyone in person but through the 1912 edition of Baedeker’s Palestine and Syria travel guide, a wonderful Christmas gift. I love old guides that reveal so much about conditions as seen through the eyes of whomever contributed to the text and what they thought would be important to the inexperienced traveler who had a case of wanderlust.

The red-covered Baedekers were known to be reliable and the traveler wouldn’t want to be without one – remember Lucy Honeychurch who was lost in Santa Croce without her Baedeker in “Room with a View”? I do have the very one Lucy carried (or at least a copy of Central Italy which covers Florence and Rome). Both guides were bought from the well-named Insatiables bookstore in Port Townsend, WA.

According to the flyleaf for the Palestine and Syria book, my fellow traveler was someone named D.P. Wetherald. I don’t know if it was a he or one of the intrepid British women like Gertrude Bell who tramped all over the area before World War I and drew the boundaries of the countries in the Middle East after the war. Whoever it was, bought the book in Cairo on March 7, 1914, just six months before the world turned upside down and the subsequent fall of the Ottoman empire that ruled the area. The guide covers what are now Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and Jordan.
With the exception of Lebanon and Syria, where we’d planned to go just before the uprising, we’ve had the good fortune to visit most of the major sites described in the book. Most recently, we spent time in Acre as did Mr. or Ms. Wetherald.

My ghostly fellow traveler must have had a special sentiment about Acre because I found a tiny dried wildflower pressed into the page containing a map of the area which has been settled since time immemorial.

It was Canaanite before waves of invaders moved in: the Phoenicians and Persians, the Greeks and Romans. It was in Acre that Herod received Emperor Augustus in 30 BC. The Roman Empire declined and other groups like the Seleucids, the Byzantines, and Ommayyad caliphs took over in a dizzying mash-up of history.

The port served as the gateway to the Holy Land during the Crusades where in 1104 the Knights of St. John conquered the city and built a gigantic castle for their headquarters. The city was popular with such travelers as St. Francis, a Holy Roman Emperor, and a king of France. Richard the Lion-Hearted saved the city from Saladin only to lose it again. The Crusader’s ever-shrinking kingdom finally came to an end in 1291. The castle was later occupied by assorted Ottoman pashas, but withstood Napoleon’s siege. It changed hands repeatedly again until 1948 when the Israeli’s took possession from the British who grabbed it in 1918, only four years after my traveler, Wetherald, visited.

My husband and I visited Acre in October. Wetherald visited March 26, 1914 according to a pencil notation. The guidebook considered Acre to be a minor excursion from Haifa, usually accomplished by boat because of the bad roads. According to the book, while the bazaar-market still presents a lively scene, the interior of the large mosque was “tasteless,” and the Ottoman military hospital “is said to have been once the residence of the Knights of St. John.”

That was then. Now the town, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, is bustling with tourists coming to walk the picturesque old lanes, peer into caravanserais to imagine merchants off-loading their pack animals after the long trek on the Silk Road, dine by the blue sea and venture into the restored Crusader fortress, much of which is underground, dimly lit, and definitely not for those with fear of confined spaces or the dark. Our guide led us ever deeper through beautifully-restored gigantic halls that served as refectory, hospital, a storeroom for the lucrative sugar trade, and one for unfortunate prisoners.

We emerged into the sun and modernity, blinking our eyes before moving into the shade of the souk. The narrow street was lined with shops filled with typical goods found in such busy markets in this part of the world: fresh fish, olives, fragrant spices, sweets, clothing, along with the inevitable buckets, brooms, and detergent.

A door at the end of the street was the entrance to what is called the Templar Tunnel where Crusaders once clanked along in their heavy armor on military business and laborers carted cones or loaves of sugar or supplies to and from the port to the castle. The tunnel is narrow and damp, and the knights must have been short because even I at just over five feet had to bend down in many sections.
We returned to brilliant sunlight at the Old Town, once one of the most important in the Eastern Mediterranean but now home to fishing and pleasure craft.

We lingered by the old sea walls watching the timeless scene and contemplating a sweet message daubed on a wall: a heart and Ali +Hlq.

And on the way back to the bus we saw more evidence of “sweet”:

The following day, we were presented with a graphic reminder that love doesn’t conquer all. We arrived at Caesarea to a scene combining the reality of modern times with the ancientsoldiers eyeing a display of the latest missiles.

Although the settlement was ancient, historical records begin in 22 BC, when King Herod the Great began to build up the town and port. He named it after Augustus Caesar and oversaw the construction of a temple dedicated to Augustus, a theater, a hippodrome and the famous aqueduct. The governors of Judea made it their home town when the area became a Roman province. Among the governors was the infamous Pontius Pilate. Saints Paul and Peter, among many other early Christians, resided here for various periods of time.

Arabs conquered the town but were pushed out by Crusaders five hundred years later. They, in turn, only hung on for twenty-one years before being swept away themselves. But one interesting side note remains: the town seems to be where the story of the Holy Grail began. When King Baldwin took the town on May 17th 1101, he seized an object from a ruined Byzantine cathedral. According to William of Tyre, the chronicler of the First Crusade, it was a round dish carved out of an enormous emerald used during the Last Supper. Baldwin was forced to give it to the Genoese in payment for the loan of a fleet. They took it to Genoa where it is displayed in the cathedral of San Lorenzo. Later, it was found to be Roman glass and is one of many contenders for the true chalice. Whatever the true story of the Grail is, the chronicler ignited the stories, legends, and quests that continue to this day.

The city unfortunately didn’t enjoy the same notoriety and gradually sank into the sand and sea. My traveler’s guidebook didn’t think much of it, saying it was a site that could only be reached by carriage in dry weather, and if you happened to be stuck, “Bosnians have been settled here since 1884 and can supply rough nightquarters in case of need.” The book also advised that the destruction carried out after the Crusaders left was still on-going by locals needing building materials.
We walked over ancient white marble in the blazing sun, trying to imagine the scene first in Roman times when crowds cheered chariot races as in the old film “Ben Hur.”

The heat from sky and marble forced us to retreat under a palm tree for a cool drink before we trekked through a dusty parking lot to take a close look at the aqueduct, partially buried in sand. It supplied water for 1200 years but was dry by the time the Crusaders showed up.

Now, it’s a sad remnant of a once-important city, a structure that now comes from nowhere and leads nowhere, only attractive to tourists and military activity.

Another day passed in the ever-changing, never-changing, always thought-provoking Middle East. Middle-east if you live in the West, the center of the world if you're a resident.

All photos by author except photo of “Holy Chalice” which is from Wikipedia CC, photo by Sylvain Ballet, 19 August 2009

Thursday, April 25, 2019

DESERT SONG PART III - San Andreas Fault and Dates

California is shaky: nearly 7000 quakes in the last 365 days according to an earthquake site. Years ago, when I lived in Anaheim there were constant mini-quakes. I scooted out of my apartment building even though a neighbor said “No worry, it’s earthquake season.” I worried anyway. And like most people living in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve been through several. But the worst was in Rome where an interior wall in our apartment split from floor to ceiling (and far more importantly caused severe damage to the basilica of St. Francis in Assisi). So the prospect of a tour to the San Andreas Fault gave me pause.

The infamous fault runs about 800 miles from northern California to the Mexican border. It’s formed where the Pacific Plate and North American Place continually scrape together as one moves in a southerly direction and the other toward the north, resulting in earthquakesmany small and some deadly large. The jeep tour was on the Metate Ranch where if you expected to see a gigantic crevasse, you’d be disappointed. But the ground is rough and rocky with narrow slot canyons created uplift from the movement of the Plates and carved over the eons by wind and water.

No one knows when the next “big one” will take place but it thankfully didn’t happen on that day.

Besides squeezing through the slot canyons, the tour featured mock-up of a Cauhilla Indian village with a pond, sweat lodge & living unit made from reeds that grow in the pond. Up a steep little hill, was a large rock with holes formerly used by the Indians to grind grains and acorns, a food staple made into a porridge.

Their diet was more varied than I'd assumed and also included pine nuts, mesquite beans, seeds and small animals such as rabbits and lizards, along with the fruit of the California Fan Palm. Native to the area, this palm doesn’t actually produce dates. Instead, it bears elliptical black "berries" about 1/2 inch in diameter. These berries have a very large, brown seed surrounded by a thin, sweet pulp. The tree was all-purpose to natives who ate the fruit fresh or dried, ground the pits into flour and wove the fronds into baskets and roofing.

Dusty from the tour but not wanting to miss out another unusual food stop and to learn all about “The Romance and Sex Life of Dates,” we stopped at the Shields Date Garden. The gimmick has pulled in tourists since 1924.

The date palms we know are native to the Middle East where they’ve been cultivated for millennia. The trees were brought to North America by Spanish missionaries in the 18th century. The palms are difficult to cultivate with precise needs for water but happily grow well in the Coachella Valley.

We started our visit with a date milkshake, a treat made with date crystals since 1936 according to their signs – they were delicious but it must have about a thousand calories. Next, we ventured into their theater to watch a movie from, I think, the 1950s  It tells the story of Shields who worked to breed new varieties of dates, and the workers who take care of the trees from pollination to harvest in his palm grove. Disappointingly, it turns out that date palms are actually quite staid and need to be encouraged to get to know each other by the workers who must perch on long ladders as they hand pollinate the female flowers with pollen from the male trees. Definitely not an R-rated movie!

Palm trees always conjure days of sun and relaxation as the fronds rustle in the breeze, so it was a pleasure to amble along the path winding around the grove of towering palms with ladders hung high up, stored until the next pollination or harvest season.

There were two clues we weren’t in some exotic oasis: Life-size concrete statues depicting Biblical scenes and the noise of nearby traffic whizzing by. Despite the distraction, it was pleasant to dream of exotic scenes from the Arabian Nights as we paused to sit on benches to listen to the chirping of birds in the foliage.

The outdoor restaurant had a menu featuring all things dates. But we weren't hungry and decided to browse the gift shop, not for the sugar or crystals but to sample some of the twelve different varieties grown in the grove to decide which ones we’d buy for gifts (and for us).

The samples were delicious, much better than those we normally bought in the local stores, but I have to admit they were still nothing like those my former Tunisian boss in Rome brought us from his trips home. They were gigantic and a transparent amber color, and came on a sprays heavy with dozens of the divine fruit for us to pick at leisure. 
Soon were were satiated with the samples that topped up the super-rich date milkshakes, feeling like like some of the packages of  dates stuffed with nuts that we’d bought as gifts and for ourselves. It was our last night in Palm Springs. We contented ourselves with snacks for dinner at our condo before packing up for the flight home. Diet to begin the next morning!