Blarney: Everything but Kissing the Stone

According to dictionary.com, the definition of “blarney” is “flattering or wheedling talk; cajolery. Also, deceptive or misleading talk; nonsense; hooey” (my personal favorite is ‘hooey’)

The village of Blarney, Ireland is so far from the definition, it is comical! Blarney is an adorable little village that has Blarney Castle at its focal point. The Castle is where the idea of kissing the Blarney Stone comes from… but more on that later.

Situated on the south west part of Ireland, Blarney is a stone’s throw (pun intended) from the major city of Cork. The main source of revenue in the village is the castle and its grounds, as well as the near by Woolen Mills and various hotels and bed and breakfasts. There really isn’t much to the non-castle part of Blarney, but nevertheless it is a massive tourist destination.

The lovely map we got at the tourism office

On our trip to Ireland, Blarney was an obvious stop because of the history of the castle as well as the mythos surrounding kissing the stone. We left Youghal and Cork and drove to Blarney and happened upon a wonderful little bed and breakfast that is still around today, Meadow Bank. I’m not sure if it is owned by he same wonderful lady, but if it is, you MUST stay here on your trip!

The grounds were gorgeous and our room looked out on the back garden lovely flowers and landscaping. Even now, nearly 23 years later,  I remember the comfy room, the beautiful common areas, and the sweetness of the proprietor. She was very kind and gave us all kind so advice on what to see and what to do in Blarney.

A picture with the owner of Meadowbank

After checking in we went to the Woolen Mills and shopped there. I was in heaven! I wrote in my journal that I wanted to buy all of the sweaters that would fit into my suitcase. However, I limited myself to one sweater. I kept that sweater until I had actually worn holes in the elbows (over ten years later), and even then I wore it! On my solo trip to Ireland, I took it with me to wear one last time, and then I left it in the “free bin” at the hostel for some poorly dressed tourist. It was difficult to let it go, if you can believe it– and when I was in Ireland last year I looked for a replacement, but I just couldn’t find one that spoke to me the way that one had. I also still have a gold celtic cross pendant I bought at the Woolen Mills that day in 1997, though I don’t wear it often.

I love this add for the Woolen Mills! I’m so happy my mom kept all these little things!

We ate at the Woolen Mills for dinner that night as well, and learned about the laid back way that the Irish (and much of Europe) likes to eat out… slowly. I remember being frustrated that we had to wait so long for the bill and for them to pick it up. We Americans do not relish the idea of eating out the way Europeans do, and it truly is a shame that we are so impatient.

Anyway… enough of my rant on impatient Americans (of whom I am one myself).

The following day we asked the owner where there was a church we could go to for Sunday services, and she mentioned the Catholic church next door.   However, we asked her if there was a protestant church nearby(we attended a Nazarene church back home), and at the time we did not understand the context that the Irish place on “protestant.”  Consequently, didn’t quite understand her bristling at the question until later. To the Irish, “protestant” means the Church of England… and all that drama with Northern Ireland, which was very much resurfacing in 1997. So we acquiesced and attended the Catholic church instead so as to not offend our very kind hostess.

After leaving the service, we went to go see the famous Blarney Castle, and to kiss the infamous stone. Blarney Castle was not everything I was expecting, but despite that, it was even better!  The castle was huge, you could see it from quite a distance towering over the trees. But what I didn’t realize is that it would be in ruins.

Even so, you can go up in the castle and even see a few rooms, but mostly it is broken down. That does not in any way detract from its beauty, though. There is something majestic in and of itself about ruins. From what I remember, the castle was built sometime in the 1400s, and at some point the Blarney Stone became known as a way, after one has kissed it, to give you the “gift of gab” or the ability to persuade through flattery.

In my mind, I imagined some rock that you kissed and went on your merry way. This is partially true. You do kiss the stone and move on; however, what I didn’t know is that you lay down on your back, hold on to a railing and bend over backward over a cavernous opening in the battlements while a little old Irishman holds your legs down so that you do not plummet to your untimely death.

My mother walking along the battlements

That was a no for me.

Here is a picture my father gloriously snapped when I realized what had to be done to kiss the stone. I am wearing my new sweater!

My parents did kiss the stone, and tried to persuade me to do so as well. Nevertheless, I did not, nor do I have any regrets about not kissing it! I find myself to be pretty naturally persuasive. 🙂

After I regained the use of my legs and my stomach stopped flipping around, we climbed down from the castle and explored the grounds for hours. Honestly, you could explore for several days all around Blarney Castle! It is fast and beautiful! Even in 1997 I was taken aback by the size and variety of the grounds. Today Blarney holds a different place in my heart. On my most recent trip to Ireland I got some heart-rending news just before heading to Blarney, and as I write here, walking around the grounds at Blarney helped mend my soul that day.

Musicians playing traditional music on the grounds near the castle

So many fun places to explore

Back in 1997, I was sad to leave Blarney, but there were many more adventures to be had on our two week trip! Check back next Tuesday to read about our time in Kenmare.

 

Other posts from my 1997 trip to Ireland:

The Gift that Launched A Thousand Trips

Dublin: love at first sight

Powerscourt: Surprised by Beauty

Glendalough: My First Love

Waterford: More than Crystal

Waterford: More than Crystal

On our two week trek around Ireland, we found many interesting sites both planned, like Dublin, and unplanned, like Powerscourt. And after the “high” of Glendalough, I didn’t know if our trip could get much better, and we’d been in Ireland less than a week.

The 1997 tourism map for Waterford

The next stop on our trip was scheduled to be Waterford. We actually spent the night there the evening we left Glendalough. Our accommodations for the night were Diamond Hill Inn (now Diamond Hill Country House). I honestly remember nothing of this bed and breakfast, so I’m sure it was not terrible, but not as memorable as some of the other places we stayed.

That evening we didn’t get much of a chance to explore other than eating dinner. In my journal I wrote about how nice the restaurant was, but since the idea of public journaling (essentially what blogging is) was not even a glint in my eye in 1997, I didn’t anticipate ever wanting to know the name of the restaurant again. Consequently, though the food was amazing, all I know is that it was somewhere in Waterford.

The next morning we hopped over to the Waterford Crystal Factory.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Waterford Crystal is internationally famous for their plethora of famous additions to our culture. Probably the most notable item to the majority of people would be that Waterford Crystal makes the “ball” that drops in New York City on New Year’s Eve. However, they are also responsible for chandeliers in some amazing places like Windsor Castle (London, England) and the Kennedy Center (Washington, D.C.). Waterford Crystal also makes everything from paper weights and vases to the statues for the People’s Choice Award winners.

We spent about two hours at the factory going on a tour and then ogling the showroom where you can buy things for between (at the time) £4 to £10,000 — side note: Ireland didn’t change to the Euro for another four and a half years. We had a lovely time, and even teenage me didn’t mind touring the crystal factory where you get to see all kinds of methods for shaping and engraving the crystal. It was actually quite fascinating. I highly suggest taking a tour and checking out the showroom and all of the beautiful things you could never possibly afford, and then buying something a bit more modest.

Waterford has much to offer. For one, it is the oldest city in Ireland. According to Ireland’s tourism website, the Vikings developed a settlement there over a thousand years ago. However, my cousin Tom would insist here that I clarify the term. “Viking” was originally a verb – to travel or to be a part of a traveling expedition. The term was then applied as a noun meaning people from Scandinavia who went viking. (How’d I do, Tom?)

Nevertheless, Waterford got it’s name from Old Norse Veðrafjǫrðr, which means “ram fjord”. However, the native Irish eventually took the city back, and then eventually the British wanted to stake their claim as well. It is a beautiful place with a wonderful port that is well situated to defend, so it is no wonder it was a contested location.

After we left Waterford, we traveled south and west to Dungarvan, another beautiful costal city.

The wind and rain pelted us as we got out to look at the beautiful St. Mary’s Church of Ireland. The ocean was dark blue and incredibly intimidating as the waves crashed long the stone wall around the church. As I would later realize was a common theme in much of Ireland, Dungarvan was both beautiful and intimidating.

After a quick look at names on tombstones, we hopped back into the car and drove a bit further west to a town called Youghal. Also a port city, Youghal was also commandeered by the Scandinavians as a base when they would go on raids along the south coast of Ireland.

My favorite thing about Youghal was the pub where we ate. I checked online just before  writing this, the pub still exists – Moby Dick’s

Photo courtesy of Youghal’s tourism website

It was a cold and rainy day and we had quite a bit of fun there because the pub owner was trying to have a conversation with my father, and my dad simply could not understand his accent. Though, I’m sure time has rounded the edges of my memory, I remember a conversation something similar to this:

(something unintelligible from the owner)

Dad: I’m sorry, what was that again?

Owner: What language do ya speak?

Dad: English. American English.

Owner: (laughing) Well, ya haven’ a prayer of understandin’ me then, have ya!

We all laughed, and somehow conversation became a bit easier – perhaps the owner knew to talk slower and louder for our benefit. We had a glorious meal, and the sun came out for us for a while so that we could walk along the port and see the vessels in the harbor.

After leaving Youghal we continued to drive and came upon some very typical Ireland- beautiful vistas, sheep, and even peat marshes!

Since the road was completely blocked with sheep, we stopped and the sheep parted around us, jumping and baa-ing loudly. It was hilarious!

This was all-in-all a lovely day trip. It was only two hours of driving between Waterford and Blarney where we ended up staying that night– but you’ll have to wait until next week for the blarney on Blarney! 😁

 

Other posts for this trip:

The Gift that Launched A Thousand Trips

Dublin: love at first sight

Powerscourt: Surprised by Beauty

Glendalough: My First Love

The Gift that Launched A Thousand Trips

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Photo by Aaditya Arora on Pexels.com

I am obsessed with traveling. I know this about myself, and people often point it out to me. I will see someone that I haven’t seen in a while, and often their first question is something like “So, where was your last adventure?” or “Where are you headed next?”

Sometimes people ask why I love to travel so much, and it makes me stop and think. I’d just kind of assumed that everyone had the same cravings to go and do and explore like I have. However, I’ve learned over the years that isn’t true. Some people hoard and save their money for things other than airplane tickets and Airbnb stays. Who knew!?

My family has traveled since I was a kid. I remember trips to Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, New England, and abroad as far back as the third grade (and maybe we traveled before then and I just don’t remember). And I look back on those trips with very fond memories.

However, the trip that really solidified my love of traveling was my high school graduation gift from my parents. They told me that I could pick anywhere in the world that I wanted to go, and we would all go there. To this day, I have no idea where they thought I would pick– maybe Australia (because I’d been obsessed with Australia since my childhood babysitter went there), or New Zealand (to visit a former foreign exchange student). But I do think they were shocked when I told them that of all of the places in the entire world, I wanted to go to Ireland– the land of my ancestors to see if we couldn’t hunt down a tombstone with our family name on it (this was before ancestry.com and the internet being useful for anything other than chat rooms).

So, for the next several weeks I am going to reminisce about the trip that launched a thousand trips (give or take)– my first trip to Ireland in the summer of 1997. I dug out my old journal from the trip, and I’ve plotted out the story of discovering where my soul resides to this day: Ireland.

The true challenge will be getting good pictures– so bear with me as I dig through 23 year old photos that were taken on actual film and probably printed out by a teenager at the one-hour photoshop.

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Glendalough, Ireland 2016

The Light and Dark of Athens

Athens was a bittersweet day and a half for our tour. We had a wonderful time exploring the many beautiful things in the city — too many to name in one post, truly. The city is magnificent, but with the magnificent comes the harsh realties of heavily tourist filled cities… thieves.

Our first evening in Athens was very lovely in many ways. One of the wonderful things about Europe that I wish we would embrace here in the US is the delicious tradition of gelato. Yes, we can get it at the grocery store, but in Italy, Greece, and even Ireland (which will be the topic of my next series) had gelato nearly at every turn! Without fail, in every city in Italy and Greece, gelato was a part of the day. In Athens we went to a lovely little “gelateria” called DaVinci’s where we got the most delectable gelato of the entire trip… so of course I took a picture of it!

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I had no shame as I enjoyed every last morsel of this gelato, that I thought might be my very last of the trip (I was wrong, but for less than great reasons– you’ll find out about that next week).

After the gelato, Raquel took us to a very scenic look at the Acropolis by night. We walked and we walked and we walked… at Raquel’s lightning pace, by the way, and it was too much for a few of our number. As chaperone, I stayed back with the stragglers, so I didn’t get to see it in all of it’s glory by night, but I did snap a quick (albeit blurry) photo from where I had to stop. And even though I didn’t get to see the “amazing view” – what I saw was beautiful enough!

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And though I felt very safe walking around at night in Athens, the subway was an entirely different beast. We stayed close together and attempted to watch out for each other, but at some point, one of the gentlemen in our group who insisted on keeping his wallet in the cargo pocket of his shorts (despite being told multiple times not to), lost about 300€, but was fortunate enough to keep the vital things, like credit cards, ID, and passport. It was a frustrating experience, yes, but a lesson well learned to listen when Raquel tells you not to do something!

The next morning we took a tour of the city, starting with the cite of the first modern Olympics, the Panathenaic Stadium.

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The Panathenaic Stadium is very impressive, especially when you realize that it has (in some form) existed since the fourth century! Made entirely of marble, it’s amazing that it went largely unused after Christianity rose to power. It wasn’t until the modern Olympic Games came back in the late 1800s that the stadium was excavated and renovated.  Many events happen here even today — a classic marathon takes place every year, and the final hand-off in Greece of the Olympic torch happens here.

Back on the bus we passed many more impressive sites, but I wish we would have been able to get out and walk around a bit more. However, the purpose of the trip was to get a survey of both Italy and Greece in an eight day time frame, which simply does not leave time to walk around Athens for days and days. Photos out the window of a bus don’t come out very clearly, but I did get a relatively nice picture of Hadrian’s Arch. Hadrian is everywhere in Italy and Greece– he was kind of a big deal. Our guide, Raquel told us that the gate was a divider between old and new Athens.

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Then we moved on to the Acropolis, which was breathtakingly historical. SO many things contributed to my love of it, but I simply could not stop thinking about how people from a time so long ago walked where I was walking. I even took a picture of my shoe after walking around in the Acropolis just so I could remember the dust of the Acropolis was on my feet at one time.

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I know it’s a little silly, but I probably sat and looked at that dust for a full minute pondering the mass of humanity who had been there before me.

Pictured below is the gate that you have to walk through to get to the Acropolis.  There is exactly one way in and out, and this was the way it was originally constructed for security purposes. I find that fascinating that they worried about security even back then. Obviously we have different means of hurting people now, they still needed to think about how to make the place safe even way back then.

The most identifiable structure is the Parthenon (pictured below). And it is very beautiful. It was under construction while we were there as they struggle against nature and time to keep the structure a semblance of what it once was.

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However, the portion of the Acropolis that fascinated me the most was the Temple of Athena. The sculptures were so beautiful, and the history of the people of Athens and the myth of Athena is just so interesting to me. There is even an olive tree there that is said to have been planted by Athena for the people of Athens. IMG_8797IMG_8798IMG_8799

Here are some of the views from the Acropolis:

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The ruins of the Temple of Zeus

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Another cite, just outside of the Acropolis, was where it is said that Paul first preached the gospel in Greece. He was atop a large rock, situated so that everyone entering and exiting the Acropolis would have heard him. You could go up on the top of it, but I found it more interesting to stand and look up at the people and imagine what it would have been like to listen to Paul. What did he sound like? Did people listen or dismiss him as a lunatic? I stood there for quite some time and tried to soak it all in.

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Later that night, we were once again reminded of the frustrations of traveling. On our way back to the hotel, one of men in our group was robbed on the subway in a classic trick. Someone pretended to fall just as the subway approached a stop, and has he tried to help her, someone else cut the string on his passport lanyard (that he was wearing under his clothes), and got away with his passport, wallet, and money just as the doors were opening. It created a huge headache that included him having to file a police report that evening and then making a trip to the American Embassy the next morning… which should have been a problem because we were supposed to leave the next day. Alas, due to an airline strike, our flight was canceled, which resulted in relief and anxiety for different reasons.

That evening we spent wondering what would become of us the next day instead of our flight, but we were greatly distracted by a night of Greek food, singing and dancing while Raquel tried to find suitable activities for us to do the following day, which you can read about next week!

 

Now for a Break from the Normal Programing: 2019 in Review

Credit to my fellow blogger, WriterInSoul, for inspiring me with her own year in review post. I’m usually a travel blogger, so I wondered if anyone would even be interested in a year in review kind of thing, but this type of writing can often be therapeutic, in a way. And this year has definitely been a year of highs and lows. I know that a years have ups and downs– and I have had much lower lows than I did this year, but I think the whiplash of sudden change from so good to terrible in an instant is often more unsettling to the soul than a long period of turmoil.

Twenty nineteen was a year of extremes.

The year started off very well. On the 5th of January I drove to surprise a friend with a meet up for her birthday. Rachel and I were roommates in college, and she was passing through the hometown of one of our other friends, Jana, on her way home (northern Illinois) from her hometown (Memphis, Tennessee). So Jana called and asked if I could show up and surprise her when they met for ice cream.

IMG_3132So, I hopped in my car and drove the two hours to see her for thirty minutes. And it was glorious. We laughed and got a little misty-eyed, too. Then she hopped in her car and drove north, and I hoped in my car and drove east, but not before I stopped and visited Jana’s father, who I am fortunate enough to also call my friend. He showed me the truck he was restoring, and we sat in the garage and talked about life and, of course, drank coffee.

He is one of the greatest men I know. Though he is not perfect, he and his wife are both the epitome of caring and giving people. Whenever I come to central Illinois, I am welcome to stay at their house on a moments notice. Like that night, I simply buzzed by on my way out of town for an hour or so of chit chat.

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In March I went on a wonderful spring break trip with students to Ireland (my favorite place in all of the world), and we had a amazing trip! Everything went right, the weather was amazing, the traveling from place to place went smoothly, and we were able to have some of the most amazing experiences ever! I got to hold a sheep!

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But less than 24 hours after this picture was taken, the lead chaperone, my dear friend Chase, got word that a former graduate had died by suicide. I write at length about that experience here, but I will write here that the death shook me to the depths of my being. “Bear,” as everyone called him, had been in my creative writing class the year before.  He was nearly always smiling, and when he wasn’t it was because he was angry that someone had mistreated someone else.  He was a self-proclaimed defender of the weak.

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Bear with his ‘Life on a Cardboard Box’ project. “Get it, Pdise? I misspelled ‘brawn.’ It’s funny!”

He rarely wrote seriously, always the clown, but when he did share his heart, he wrote about the death of his brother and how that changed him and left him heartbroken many years later. We’d talked about mental health and how he just wanted to make people’s days better so they would have a reason to smile.

An hour after we got the news, we were off to a new place to see and experience. I didn’t know how to handle the whiplash. I cried much of the day, and avoided people as much as I could (which is not easy when you’re the chaperone of a group of students), but as I mentioned in the blog post I linked earlier, the grounds at Blarney Castle gave me the solitude I needed.

When we returned to the states, there was the funeral to go to. I didn’t stop crying until well after I returned home. And even now, I feel some level of guilt that he didn’t know how much we would all mourn his loss.

Summer followed quickly, and with it the end of the school year. My summers are usually pretty tame, and I try to soak up as much time with my son as I can. I did a lot of reading, and went to several open mic nights where my uncle and cousin played and sang.

I also got a roommate over the summer, Nina, a former student who wanted to break out on her own, but with a little support. She’s been a blessing to our family now that my son gets on the bus by himself now rather than going to my parents’ house in the mornings. And she’s a great buddy for when my now teenager would rather keep to himself than hang-out with his boring mom. It has made that transition much easier for this mom, that’s for sure!

Nina and me as we try out “lip masks” for the first time – do not recommend!

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and this year, my heart was heavier than usual as I walked in the Out of the Darkness Suicide Prevention fundraiser. With Bear’s death on my mind as well as the other losses to suicide the school had faced, I felt like I moved a little slower. But I walked with a glorious friend, Amber, and her daughter who made the walk easier. We talked about all kinds of things, and they lightened my load. A day that could have been easily one of the hardest I’d had in a few months, had a positive spin to it, and I left the walk feeling much better than I thought I would.

The group that walked this year from Cascade High School

Just a few weeks later I got a text message from Chase, the chaperone who’d broken the news of Bear’s death to me just a few months ago.

“Call me” it said.

I was busy getting ready for work, and I was a little annoyed that she didn’t just text me with whatever she had to say. So I finished my hair and pushed the button on my phone to call her on speaker while I put on my shoes.

She was crying when she answered the phone, and my gut sank. I knew that someone was hurt or dead, and my mind whirled wondering who it could be and how bad it could be.

Nothing prepared me for her words. “Dylan is dead.” And again, my mind searched for meaning in this sentence. Dylan who? How did he die? Was it a car accident? But she was crying too hard to answer my questions. But I knew who it was. I just didn’t want to know. And just like that, in less than a year, we’d lost two former students to suicide. And this one was not only a student, but the son of a co-worker – the woman I’d walked with at the Out of the Darkness walk.

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I’m not entirely sure how I drove to school that day, only that it was through tears. And I’m not entirely sure how I told my first period class the news (the administration wanted to students to hear it from a person, not the PA system – which is a good call, just hard), only that it was though tears. And this time there was no Blarney Castle to clear my mind. I taught all day, I coached the Spell Bowl team (some of them crying on the bus) to win the county meet, and went home to be a single-mom. It wasn’t until bedtime that I was able to sit and try to process it all. Being truthful, I don’t know that I have completely processed it yet. I’d never had Dylan in class, but I knew him very well – he was an outgoing kid who loved to help others, he’d gone on the Italy/Greece spring break trip with us, I’d helped him edit papers for his English class, and he was the child of a co-worker and friend. So I knew him better than the teacher/student relationship.

It has never ceased to amazing me how the world can simply upend itself with one phone call. A few brief words and the trajectory of life is completely altered. That day was one of those days. And the haze of the next few weeks is honestly hard for me to remember. Hugging crying students, co-workers, sitting on the floor in the hallway talking to a student about how to keep moving when life feels so heavy.

And the year kept going up and down. My best friend had a miracle baby. My other best friend had a stroke and was in the hospital in Chicagoland for weeks and I couldn’t go see her. I felt like a failure as a friend because she needed people to help her, and I couldn’t make it up to her when she needed me the most. Up – down – up – down.

November and NaNoWriMo came along with tons of students who wanted to write novels with me. My 41st birthday. The end of the semester, and finally Christmas.

So much up and so much down.

But the big lesson I’ve learned this year is to make sure the people I love know that they are loved. I’ve learned I need to check-in with people with more than the often trite “How are you?” Also, I’ve learned that it is very important to take care of myself- to do things that are good for me physically and mentally.

Over the last calendar year I’ve lost 30 lbs and done my best to get more in touch with who I am and focus less on what I do not have. I have become less downtrodden over my seemingly terminal singleness, and realizing what being single can allow me to do: travel selfishly, invite people to live in my little home, and be available for people easier than if I had to take someone else’s wishes and calendar in mind.

Thank you to all who have been a positive influence in my life these last twelve months. I appreciate your encouragement, your mentorship, and friendship even though I am not the best when it comes to returning phone calls. 🙂

I anxiously await what I have to learn in twenty-twenty.

A Surprise Trip to Thermopylae

IMG_8703As I traversed Italy and Greece with my students (with the help of EF Tours), I enjoyed seeing the joy and wonder on the faces of my students as they witnessed the beauty of Europe. It was especially exciting to see the students see something they’d learned about in school. Seeing it makes learning so much more real, I think. And our surprise stop in Thermopylae was exactly that for one young man on our trip.

This young man, Brandon, is obsessed with Leonidas (of the movie 300 fame). Brandon was talking about how he wished he could go see his statue in Thermopylae while we were in Greece, but his GPS told him that it was several days away, and he was intensely defeated.

Leave it to our glorious tour guide, Rochelle.

We were at a gas station getting petrol for the bus. Side note: I had a very delicious cappuccino from an actual cappuccino machine… AT A GAS STATION… for the equivalent of about $1.75. This is one of the many reasons I love Greece.

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Rochelle heard him talking (I think) and casually mentioned over her shoulder that Thermopylae was, in fact, our next stop… and it was only ten minutes away from where we were.  I thought Brandon would start crying… in fact, I’m not a hundred percent positive that he didn’t cry.  Apparently he hadn’t taken his GPS off of the “walking” setting instead of the “driving” setting. Hilarious!

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Brandon’s face when he found out we were going (photo credit Chase Bauer)

Before you know it we were out of the bus at the statue.  In the middle of nowhere is the giant Leonidas towering over the bleak landscape. Rochelle pointed out to us the pass that the three hundred Spartans had defended. Historically there were more than the three hundred Spartans (an additional 5600 soldiers from other city-states), but they were still greatly out numbered by (depending on who you believe) anywhere from 300,000 to 2,000,000 Persian soldiers. When other soldiers fled or surrendered, the Spartans stood firm.

On the statue, which was erected in 1955, is an engraving of the phrase “ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ” which roughly translates to “Come and take them.” This was apparently Leonidas’ reply to Xerxes’ offer to spare the lives of the Spartans if they would lay down their weapons.

The joy of this trip was truly in seeing how moved the students were by the immensity of the statue and their awe of the tale of supreme sacrifice and bravery against unimaginable odds.

We would all like to believe, I think, that we would be able to show that kind of bravery. Leonidas and the Spartans are the epitome of that bravery. The monument is a tribute to that and also a reminder that we all have bravery within ourselves – the courage to do what is necessary and to show honor and perseverance.

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The whole group – including the folks who joined us from California (photo credit: Chase Bauer)

Igoumenitsa to Meteora – the unknown beauty of Greece

Due, I’m sure, to my lack of attention during Ancient Geography, I had no idea that the northwestern coast of Greece was so shockingly beautiful! The drive from Igoumenitsa to a glorious place called Meteora was beyond any beauty I have ever experienced. For those of you who don’t know me well, that is saying quite a bit. For decades I have sworn that Ireland (here and here and also here) is the most beautiful place on Earth. And in full disclosure, I still have an undeniable pull to Ireland that I cannot explain. However, the beauty of Meteora is completely different than the beauty of Ireland. It’s like comparing apples and chairs… they’re not even both fruit!

Greece was both luscious and rugged. The greens and blues were in such beautiful contrast to each other that I was really unsure of how to process that a place like this existed.

We left Italy on the Saturday of the Catholic Holy Week (the next day would be Easter). We entered Greece on the Greek Orthodox Palm Sunday (the week before the Orthodox Easter). In many ways it was like actually going back in time. A few of the students in our group had wanted to attend church somewhere in Greece for Easter services, but there weren’t any because the Orthodox calendar differs from the Catholic calendar. Who knew! Fortunately the kids weren’t too disappointed since we were headed to a monastery anyway.

We stopped along the drive from Igoumenitsa in Kastraki for a lovely dinner where my friend and I ate lunch on the outdoor patio. The weather was glorious — a little chilly in the shade, but the sun gave the air just enough warmth to make you comfortable.

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Behind us you can see the breathtaking cliffs of Meteora that at the time we didn’t know we were heading toward.

After lunch was over, we piled back into the bus and made our way to Meteora. All I knew was that we were going to see some monasteries that were built on top of mountains. I felt like that would be a fitting place for monks, but little did I know exactly what we would see there.

The Meteora monasteries are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and the closest comparison that I can come to is when my son and I visited the cliff dwellings of ancient Americans in the southwest. But those cliff dwellings were just holes in the sides of mountains. The monasteries of Meteora were phenomenal churches and living quarters that were hoisted up the sides of cliffs bit by bit and constructed on the tops of enormous outcroppings of rock. For years some of the monasteries were only accessible by a pulley system. There is still one of the monasteries that is only accessible through a gondola-style contraption that someone inside the monastery operates!

The monasteries are lived in, but for revenue, many of them allow tourists – even on Palm Sunday. We were required to wear skirts and keep our shoulders covered, and they supplied you with a wrap around piece of fabric to wear over your pants so that you could comply with the dress code.   After climbing up a horrifically primitive looking staircase up the side of the outcropping, we made it to the monastery. I am very afraid of heights, so this was no easy task. Most of the climb up I just focused on the shirt or shoes (depending on the steepness of the climb) of the person in front of me.

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It was truly an amazing experience on top of the world in Meteora, and the view from our hotel that night, was nearly as breathtaking.

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Kalabaka, Greece

I am sure that Greece will get at least one more stamp in my passport so I can come back here and spend a few days rather than a single night. It was a wonderful place filled with beautiful blue skies, amazingly green foliage, and ruggedly impressive mountains. I strongly recommend swinging by this lovely town!

The Enchanting Magic of Pisa

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On the epic trip that EF prepared for us, we were not “supposed” to go to Pisa. However, after we requested a side trip, our tour guide agreed to take us the Friday night after we had been in Florence.  I nearly didn’t go because it was an extra fee to pay the bus driver and a tour guide when we got to Pisa. However, since all the group was going, I decided to go as well… and my life is better for having gone.

We arrived in Pisa after dark, and like all of Italy, it was breathtakingly beautiful. Our tour guide met us by the baptistry (see my Florence post about the significance of the different buildings). She there gave us a brief history of the bad soil in Pisa that caused not only the bell tower, but also the baptistry to be slightly tilted.  People don’t often know about the baptistry because the tower is much more tilted.

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Because it was Good Friday, there was a quiet hush over the area due to actual services going on in the cathedral. Our tour guide even whispered as she gave us the history of many doors on religious buildings in Italy and around Europe. Much of the general populace (during the times the religious buildings were constructed) could not read. So often the doors told religious stories so that the illiterate masses could see them rather than read them.

These are the doors on the cathedral at Pisa, including one of the tiles that apparently has something to do with finding love… that tile is actually shiny from the humber of people who rub it for a blessing/good luck.

We were not allowed to go inside the cathedral as it was invitation only due to the presence of a very important Cardinal… or something like that. We were disappointed, of course, but it made sense why they wouldn’t want a bunch of American teenagers just bursting in.

So we walked around the outside and over toward the tower where our guide talked to us more about the tower’s history. Apparently, no one wanted to take “credit” for the starting of the tower, so there is some controversy as to who began its construction. It was only two floors high when it began to sink. They took a nearly 100 year break in the construction due to conflict with Florence and other surrounding towns. This was apparently a good thing because it gave the foundation a chance to settle.

The tower continues to sink a little bit from year to year. It was even bolstered up in the late 90s to decrease the degree of the leaning, but it will likely need to be done again at some point. It was quite an impressive sight to see. I’d heard about it, of course, but I really had no idea how dramatic the lean was. It is positively impressive that it doesn’t tip over. The uppermost floors are smaller than the others to reduce the appearance of the lean and also to add less weight to the structure.

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As we finished our official tour with the local guide, our main tour guide gave us ten minutes before we needed to head back. However, just a few moments later we started to hear singing coming from the speakers mounted on the outside of the cathedral. At first we didn’t know there were speakers, and it was a very beautiful and eerie collection of voices coming from… well, we didn’t know where.

And then, someone pointed out that there was some kind of procession off in the distance from the direction of the town. At the front of the procession was this very important Cardinal carrying an enormous cross, and people were just falling in step behind him, creating this long chain of people from the town who were all singing the same song that was coming from the cathedral. It was obviously in Italian, so I don’t know what the song was, but it was haunting and magnificent.

The procession went into the cathedral, and everyone poured in… so I did too! I got some amazing video of the procession – the Cardinal, other important religious looking people, civilians, and also first responders (police, firemen, etc). Everyone was singing and pouring into the church… it was positively magical!

I’ve mentioned before in other posts that I am not Catholic, but Italy has this way of making you feel a part of the religious experience even though you technically aren’t. The emotion of it all makes it very understandable that nearly 90% of Italy identifies as Catholic (even though only 36% of them consider themselves devout). On this religious holiday, it seemed as though the entire city of Pisa was in or around the cathedral as we open mouthed tourists stood outside.

I called my parents afterward (my father was raised Catholic) and actually cried as I described the beauty of the experience to them.

I don’t remember how much money it cost me to go to Pisa, but it was worth it a million times over! Pisa is a glorious place to spend Good Friday… and probably regular Fridays too.

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Birthplace of the Renaissance – Florence, Italy

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There are few places on Earth that give me the kind of joy that Florence, Italy did! The pictures I took on this dreary day do not come close to highlighting the beauty that Florence offers.

In preparation for the trip to Italy, I watched the first season of the Netflix series The Medici – a bit too rated R for me, but it highlights the rise of the Medici family and everything they did for Florence in the 13 and 1400s. Along with a healthy amount of unnecessary sex and love… quadrangles (?) was some of the history of Florence. It is a fascinating city!

The construction of the duomo is filled with scandal, sabotage, and political gain, but dear God it’s beautiful! Once again, the religious holiday made it impractical to inside due to the lines, but we did get to see all of Florence that day.

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This is the bell tower and cathedral in Florence (the duomo is behind this). The detail is unimaginable – so intricate, it is no wonder it took a hundred and forty years to complete this masterpiece!

A short history about the construction of cathedrals and their surrounding buildings in Europe:

  • Cathedrals and bell towers were originally constructed as separate buildings- unlike today where they are constructed together.
  • Originally, the you were not permitted to enter the cathedral until you had been baptized, so older cathedrals have a separate building called the baptistry. That way people could (pay to) get baptized, and then be able to enter the cathedral in order to worship, receive the sacraments, and to attend confession.
  • Baptisteries were octagonal in shape because in Christian numerology (which was very popular at the time), the number eight follows the “perfect” number 7, thus symbolizing a new beginning.

Pretty cool, huh! Who knew!

Below is a picture of me at the Paradise gate on the baptistery in Florence — so there is Ms. Paradise, in front of Paradise gate 🙂

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Also on our tour we passed the sculpture garden of the Medici family. One of the many things the Medici did for the city was finance artists. The sculpture garden was more of a courtyard than a “garden” – but it was insanely impressive, and during our free time I sat there and wrote in my journal to try to process the beauty of the city.

We had lunch at a beautiful little cafe with tasty, albeit expensive sandwiches, and of course a glass of red wine that was the same price as a Coca-Cola- one of the many reasons why I loved Italy!

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My friend and I also took the advice of our tour guide and found a glorious cafe at the top of a department store that gave us an amazing view of the city. There we had a cappuccino (of course) and sat and talked while enjoying the view of Florence from the air.

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Florence’s most famous tourist attraction is the Ponte Vecchio. It is one of the most recognizable bridges in all of Italy, and it is basically an ancient high-end strip mall. I’m over-simplifying of course, but it was interesting to see the beauty of the bridge lined with jewelry shops and leather purses. However, it is historically accurate. The bridge was the center of commerce when it was first constructed.

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The day was sunny and glorious – but there was so much more of Florence that I would have loved to have seen. It would be very easy to spend a week in Florence, and we were only there for a little over a day. There is, of course, the museum where they have the statue of David. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see that. It was an option, but due to the crowds and our time constraints, I chose to see more of the city and experience more of Florence rather than wait in lines. However, on the outskirts of town they do have a replica that was rather impressive too!

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Next week’s post will be about the most amazing evening of the entire trip – our impromptu trip to Pisa!

Take me Down to the Vatican City

After lunch on our second day in Rome, we left our little pizzeria and walked up to the wall surrounding Vatican City. As I mentioned in the last post, we were there during Holy Week, which for the Catholics is a big deal – and since the Vatican is the central hub for Catholics, to say that it was crowded would be a vast understatement.

This was my first struggle with traveling with a group: You go to see the things that everyone goes to see. It makes sense. We want the students to get the best glimpses of a country and go home with things to tell their friends and family about things that they have heard of before. It makes sense. But Going to Vatican City during Holy Week does not make sense.

I’m not sure how much it costs, because as I mentioned in my post about deciding whether or not to go on this trip, EF covers entrance fees within the cost of the trip as a whole.  But whatever it was, I’m sure it would be worth going to during a normal time.  But there were points when we were on our way to the Sistine Chapel that I felt so claustrophobic, so pressed on by so much of humanity, that I wanted to be anywhere but where I was in that moment. And at times it stole my joy of the moment.T  he sites were still beautiful, though.  And I did my best to ignore the close proximity of so many other humans.

IMG_8287  Above is a picture of the ceiling of just your basic hallway covered in artistically drawn maps. And yes, it is beautiful and the history of Vatican City is so deep and powerful. However, the thing that haunted me throughout the entire place was how much senseless opulence there was. In the time this place was built and decorated, the money could have been spent on things that truly reflected the faith of the Catholic Church rather than only demonstrating its power and wealth.

Once we did get to the Sistine Chapel, I was stunned. I imagined the high ceilings of a cathedral- long and narrow. But the Chapel is… well… a chapel: a relatively small box of a room. It is supposed to be a place of peace and reverence, but because of the large crowds, all we heard were the guards calling for silence. You are supposed to be still and reverent in the chapel, but when nearly 500 people are crammed into a room 132 feet long, 44 feet wide – that’s not easy. The ceiling is a mere 68 feet high (in comparison the main part of St. Peter’s Basilica is 151 feet high). However, despite it’s relatively small size, the art is as stunning as you think it would be.

I stood under Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam”! Unfortunately I do not have pictures of this, because it is illegal to take pictures in the Sistine Chapel. In the cell phone age, lots of people sneak pictures, but I’m a rule follower, so I didn’t. But I don’t need a photograph to remind me what those few moments felt like (they don’t let you stay very long because there are so many people trying to see it). I feel blessed to be among those who have seen that painting in person.

After exiting the Chapel, we walked over the Saint Peter’s Basilica– most definitely the largest church I’ve ever been in. The beauty is overwhelming– and again, the glaring riches of the Catholic church are all on display. To give you an idea of perspective. In the picture below, the letters on the wall are 7 feet tall! IMG_8292

They were setting up for the Easter service with the pope — the covered stage in the middle is where he was going to stand for the service. It truly was an amazing sight. And it was difficult to leave the church, despite the difficulties I had with the gratuitous wealth everywhere.

Overall, the Vatican was a beautiful place that I am glad I was able to see despite my aversions to large crowds. And I am glad I went to Italy with the tour group, because I would never would have braved the Vatican on my own.

Next week I’ll talk about heading out of Rome and the wonderful time we had in Florence!