Ann Patchett’s “The Dutch House”

A list of books for Christmas gifts occupies the front of my mind this time of year – they please in many forms (beautifully illustrated books, a graphic novel of the Mueller report!), but finding the right book is still challenging.

So, I enjoyed reading Ann Patchett’s piece in The Guardian books newsletter about her habit of giving books for all occasions (she owns a bookstore).

And her new book, The Dutch House, belongs on the list. It’s the stuff of fairy tales: a mother disappears leaving two children with a distracted father in a haunting, enormous house. The father remarries, then dies, and the wicked stepmother casts out the children. (It’s also a modern tale of real estate and sibling devotion.) I’d saved it for a concentrated time of reading, the book rewarded the wait, and made a long flight pass quickly!

One day on our trip after a library visit, Sweet Baby asked me how books are made, and I gave an overlong explanation of signatures, endpapers, binding, printing.

And then we just made a book – sketchbook paper cut and folded into pages sewn with dental floss – with a story dictated to her mom and illustrated admirably!

 

Five Decades and Holding

50 Years! My good-natured (the explanation for this longevity) husband and I celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary in California last week. I still can’t grapple with that number, but it was fun to mark it with the SoCal branch of the family.

From their house we drove north to a rented house in Montecito, (right near Santa Barbara) for three days. Cars and people a plenty, but the beach is perfect – white sand, hard-packed by the water and fine for walking. We picnicked on the beach, watched Sweet Baby love holding on to her dad’s shoulders as he caught waves near shore on a boogie board, walked along Butterfly Beach and goggled at the mansion built by the emperor of Beanie Babies, visited Ganna Walska’s Lotusland (built over decades with an astounding collection of tropical and sub-tropical plants, some 20 different gardens filled with stories of horticulture and history, never just one of anything but mass plantings of giant trees), played a lot of UNO and JENGA, and ate a celebratory meal at a Montecito restaurant (featuring fantastic plant-based food) to mark the actual event.

We laughed a lot about that blustery day 50 years ago, when we married in a cabin on Kenai Lake in Alaska – and I thought about how lucky I’ve been and how grateful I am.

Most often these days Sweet Baby draws mermaids – complicated aquatic creatures with elaborate clothing, curls, and crowns crowded onto a page – but she took time out to draw us on our special day in 1969!

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Kinds of Courage

I’ve been thinking a lot about courage. So I noticed when Bill Nighy, a character in the movie made from Penelope Fitzgerald’s book, “The Bookshop,” told the heroine, the young widow Florence: “You possess the trait I admire above all in a person – courage.”

Florence has a courage born of her essential goodness, her tolerant nature, her assumption that others are as kind and accepting, as she is. But the residents of the village where she sets up her new bookshop in an old house are not, and she faces petty-minded meanness meant to defeat her. The movie tries for a little redemption lacking in the book, but this is Penelope Fitzgerald, and the story captures a moment, a place, and particular people.

To me, this movie was perfect, but I am in a distinct minority. A friend thought it wasn’t good, another said the reviews were terrible. (I’d be so curious what you thought if anyone watched, it’s streaming on Amazon.) The cast is stellar – in addition to Nighy, Patricia Clarkson is the softest-spoken evildoer ever, nearly whispering her potent threats. And Emily Mortimer as Florence, wounded by the death of her beloved husband, brims with the courage and enthusiasm of a new venture. Courage calls to mind wonderful words – pluck, mettle, spunk, spirit – those are Florence.

So one can have courage in the face of emotional or physical pain or in the case of Raynor Winn and her husband, Moth, as told in her memoir, “The Salt Path” – in the face of both. The Winns are an ordinary couple in their 50s with children in college, living in a house they’ve restored in Wales with rental cottages providing their income. And then, in nearly unimaginable circumstances, through a bad investment and a failed legal case, they find themselves losing the property. Hoping the marshal come to evict them will leave, they huddle in a closet under the stairs, and Raynor’s eyes fall on a book at the top of a box – Paddy Dillon’s guide to the South West Coast Path around Cornwall.

Their next blow comes just days later when Moth receives a terminal diagnosis of corticobasal degeneration. And so, why not, they embark to walk the coastal path (it makes a sort of desperate sense) – a 630-mile trail stretching over headlands rising above the Atlantic, dropping to sandy coves, and repeating – again and again and again. They walk through blistering heat and rain, “shards, thundering against waterproofs,” heavy pounding rain, a drumroll without conclusion,” rain – furious and horizontal,” “sheets of grey falling from cloud to sea, a visible cycle of water.” Campgrounds being out of financial reach, they sleep “rough,” surviving on noodles and rice, and the occasional kindness of strangers.

The book is a meditation on homelessness (they learn to not reveal that fact to people), and fine writing about their experiences and about the natural world – dolphins, sea birds, and seals, cliffs, hedgerows, and weather – in this most beautiful area (Poldark country). I loved this hard-to-put-down memoir of courageous survival and growth.

Ireland Part Three – Last Days on the Dingle Peninsula

Dingle tips uphill from a busy marina on a large protected harbor with just a narrow opening to Dingle Bay. Once known for smugglers, Dingle is now popular with tourists for seafood, still-spoken Gaelic, and lively pubs with Irish music.

On our day there, we made wet trips (the storm hadn’t finished with us) to and from our guesthouse to see the town, to do laundry, and to purchase practical Irish wool hats (and a dear fisherman’s knit sweater for Baby brother). The Bob received a thorough bike shop repair of its front wheel. Cold wind and rain discouraged a walk to the harbor entrance, but Lady B and I visited the local aquarium. I’m always curious to see her take on things, what will puzzle her, what will engage – penguins being the highlight here.

The next morning we woke to glorious and welcome sunshine! The van dropped us at the beginning of Ventry Beach, with its miles of broad, hard-packed sand. The little people ran and ran, chasing each other, and pausing to examine beach discoveries. Narrow metal bridges lifted us out of a marshy area, and just before the trail headed inland, we stopped to eat our sandwiches.

After crossing the busy main road (road encounters are few but sometimes scary), we climbed uphill for the rest of the day, skirting the side of Eagle Mountain and approaching Slea Head. We negotiated a narrow, rutted path, climbing up and down and around rocks and over stiles (a tough go for the Bob’s handler). Contained by stone fences outlining a patchwork of fields on the hillside, sheep kept us company.

Sweet Baby walked and talked the whole seven miles, pretending to be teacher or nurse, helping and encouraging student or patient (her mom and me) over rocks, close to sheep, and informing us that the farmer had given permission for this trespass.

As we rose above the coast, the views grew ever more spectacular. We were so lucky with the sunshine, clouds hovered at the horizon, but the day stayed dry and clear, and we could see the beauty of this part of Ireland. Gorgeous vistas of sea, sky, and distant mountains spread out behind, beside, and in front of us, and, one after another, the largest Blasket Islands come dramatically into view.

The next day, our last on the Dingle Peninsula, we toured the Blasket Center – a stunning modern building with exhibits giving a glimpse of a vanished way of life. Long isolated from the rest of Ireland by wild ocean and distance, the culture and language of old Ireland survived on the Blaskets for far longer than on the mainland. In good weather you can visit the islands now, but residents had all left by the 1950s.

We walked another great beach in the afternoon and built a structure of stones to leave behind. We ended the day in the wrong pub for pickup, but another cozy, fire-warmed, inviting space.

I’m grateful for all these days and our intrepid family! You could spend much longer in this way, way west of Ireland where only the wild Atlantic lies beyond the shore. You could hope for the Camp to Inch route with clear skies, for Dingle days without rain and wind, and sail to the Blaskets on favorable seas. And for sure you could eat more delicious vegetable soup in pubs along the way (in any weather)!

Ireland Part Two – The Epic Bit

The morning brought gray skies, and we tucked rain gear and lunches into our packs – hopeful we wouldn’t need the former and sure we’d find a lovely setting for the latter.

The day’s route wasn’t long – by the end we’d walked just under eight miles – but the first hill was described as “steepy.” Steepy indeed! Straight up for an hour or so along a little used, narrow road, bordered by hedgerows full of crocosmia and tall shrubs of fuchsia. Blackberries slowed Sweet Baby, as she stopped to pick and eat. Beyond the hedgerows, dotted with grazing sheep, lay fields divided by stone fences.

Scattered raindrops and strengthening wind, beginning to shake the fuchsia blossoms, should have been a warning, but focused on the rigors of uphill, we reached the top before realizing the weather had turned.

Exposed, no longer protected by the hedgerows, rain and wind hit us. With a broad open valley ahead, lunch turned into a sandwich gobbled while donning extra layers. Trying to wrap plastic bags around packs, my hands quickly grew stiff with cold. Baby Brother and Sweet Baby loaded up into their packs, and to buffer the wind, their moms tucked blankets behind the dads’ heads.

One step in front of another, heads down, we spread out in smaller groups along the valley road, ruts rapidly turning to puddles. Bedraggled sheep regarded us stoically.

Water ran down our faces, as fat, soaking raindrops borne on a lashing wind drenched us. The Alaskans, Lady B in the Bob, soon pulled ahead, tiny dots disappearing into the distance. The Sweet Bride and I trudged along together. When I fretted about the trail boss bringing up the rear with his dad and Sweet Baby (long out of sight), she assured me, “don’t worry, he can handle it.”

The thin wool hiking skirt I wore above soggy leggings was soaked but still warm to my knees. But a layer of nylon pants added when we stopped, now funneled rain directly into my boots. Pushed by my hood and drenched, my hat kept rolling down and covering my eyes. None of our rain jackets provided any barrier to this deluge.

At first we skirted puddles, then just plowed through, stopping no option. (It must be so beautiful in that valley on a clear day, but now mist muffled the mountains to either side. I’d imagined a walk where I thought about my ancestors tending sheep or farms along this way long ago – instead I thought about their endurance!) Pages from the route booklet, quickly turning to pulp in my pocket, indicated a “forest” a little more than a mile ahead.

At the forest – just a small plantation of conifers – not the sheltering stand of trees we’d hoped for, we caught up with the Lady B and her family, brought to a stop after the Bob’s front tire exploded. Lady B allowed as how she could walk, and her dad could push the Bob on its back wheels.

And so she did. The wind lessened a little as we headed down, but the rain still poured. At a bend in the road, we crossed a river on a little bridge by a farm and headed up a narrow trail (tough going for the Bob), and suddenly we could make out the coastline of Dingle Bay!

But we rounded a bend and found the trail become a watercourse, rushing with strong current steeply downhill. Always intrepid, the Sweet Bride, plunged right through, and Mrs. Hughes as well – while lifting Lady B across. Mr. Carson came back to guide me.

And then we were down! The wind picked up again by the sea, and rain teemed as we crossed a road to see waves crashing on the sandy expanse of Inch Beach – and the welcome shelter of Sammy’s Pub and Restaurant.

Mr. Carson unloaded Baby Brother, stuffed a bar in his pocket, and ran back up the mountain to help the others (arriving just as they reached the washed out trail). The rest of us, thrilled to be out of the storm, commiserated about our new understanding of “soaked to the skin,” ate chocolate chip cookies and carrot cake from Sammy’s large pastry case, drank hot chocolate and pots of tea – and dripped. Mrs. Hughes discovered her waterproof backpack nicely held a puddle of water at the bottom. My cell phone in a small plastic bag stayed dry, but the big garbage bags on the packs proved worthless.

Unexpectedly, Peter Galvin showed up with a pile of dry towels – soon followed by the van for our ride to Dingle. It must be a spectacular drive from Inch to Dingle – wild ocean and layers of mountains in the distance – but invisible this day as the van’s windows fogged from our damp.

The landlady of the guesthouse in Dingle greeted me, disheveled guest, with understandable irritation, “One really shouldn’t be about in this weather,” but her showers were lovely and hot.

At dinner, out of the Dingle rain and warm in a busy pub, revisiting the day (the coldest he’d ever been according to the trail boss who broke mountain rules with a cotton shirt), I learned that Sweet Baby and Baby Brother, cozy in their packs, slept nearly all the way through the tempest. His mom told us Baby Brother sighed and said: “This is nice!” as she placed the protecting blanket. Sweet Baby, when she woke, chatted, made numerous unfillable requests to see her mom or to get down and walk, and cautioned Papa Jim on the steep downhills. Lady B slogged through puddles and mud – resolute.

It was a memorable day!

Ireland Part One – Arrival

My mother’s parents came separately from Ireland to America in the late 1800s (part of the huge emigration caused by the potato famine). My great-grandmother, Kate Barton (only 14 when she left), met and married Thomas Scanlon here. Although unknown to each other in Ireland, both came from the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, from hamlets near a short spit of land in Dingle Bay called Inch.

When I read about the beauty of the Dingle Peninsula, I began to dream of another family walk. Wonderful Ireland Walking Holidays, the company we used to walk on the Wicklow Way last year, offers a route along the Dingle Way (a 100-mile long-distance trail around the peninsula, linking footpaths, beach traverses, and small roads). Peter Galvin, the helpful owner of Wonderful Ireland, tailored a route for us, selecting portions negotiable by the Bob stroller.

We all arrived in Cork on the south coast of Ireland on the same blustery day – the Alaskans via Reykjavik, Dublin, and a tough, three-hour bus ride. The rest of us touched down at Heathrow and flew on to Cork.

By evening, as the first rain in Ireland for months settled over the city, we ate together at a pizza place in the old part of Cork. The reunited cousins were so glad to see one another, and Baby Brother spotted the first of many pieces of heavy equipment – luckily internationally available to please this two-year old. For a jet-lagged crew, spirits were remarkably high.

The morning brought an uproarious breakfast – if you are six and three and two, a repeated silly phrase brings noisy peals of laughter – in this case occasioned by Sweet Baby renaming her grandfather “Papa Jammy.” (So much fun to hear all that laughter.)

A perfect place to recover for a day, Cork is friendly and unpretentious. The historical part of the city sits on an island formed by two strands of the River Lee, and we walked a circle to see local landmarks. We learned about the history of Cork at a small museum, and at the 17th Century Elizabeth Fort, the youngest three were eager to scale the ramparts (but taken aback by realistic models of heads on pikes). We looked in at the English Market (full of local produce and meat), found a good playground and bookstore, and retreated from rain to a Mexican comfort dinner next to the hotel.

The next day in spite of valiant efforts, we missed our scheduled train from Cork to Tralee. As frequently happens in Ireland, helpful people (train staff in this case) pitched in to help with the baggage and direct us to an alternate train. On the train we ate lunches, played UNO, and saw the first of a multitude of sheep, many vacas, and an occasional crane truck or excavator. In Tralee, a van, pulling a trailer (suitcases, strollers, and backpacks in duffle bags) picked us up, and delivered us to Camp Village on the north coast of the peninsula.

For dinner, we walked uphill to Ashes pub – a 200-year old building welcoming with a real fireplace ablaze, cozy lighting, lots of locals, good beer and food. I asked our server about the names Barton and Scanlon, and she said, “Oh, you’re in Scanlonland around here!”

In the morning we would begin by walking up and over to cross the interior of the peninsula to Inch Beach!

Un Lieto Fine – Roma

In Rome, the Val d’Orcia heat persisted as we joined other tourists near famous sites: an impenetrable cluster around the Coliseum, mobs being shushed in the Pantheon, people packed around the Trevi Fountain. But the eternal sites are still rewarding.

One day we all rode the Hop-On Hop-Off sightseeing bus, and Lady Baby and her family pedaled around the Borghese Gardens in a “surrey” – a family bike. Another day they took a tour of the Coliseum geared to children, while Baby Brother sat happily on a comforter on our apartment’s tile floor. He played with his traveling toys, empty boxes, plastic bottles, and utensils scavenged from the kitchen. The day her parents toured the Borghese Gallery, Lady Baby learned the rudiments of chess from her Uncle Tu Tu and dissolved into private laughter with her cousin.

The Testaccio neighborhood might be the place to stay in Rome – quiet streets, few tourists, lots of interesting food, and a fine playground. On an early morning run, Mr. Carson discovered Testaccio’s Nuovo Mercato, and led us back later. Mrs. Hughes and I sifted through piles of riches in a stall selling vintage linens – white cotton tablecloths and pillowcases embroidered with images of teacups or countryside flowers, with and without lace – deciding who would like what.

Trips usually include the unexpected – but countless warnings predicted our first pickpocket experience: at the Barberini metro station, crazy busy on a Sunday evening, two girls oddly pressing close as we boarded the Metro, then Poppa Jim discovering an empty front pocket.

And that mishap led to another new experience – filing a police report in Rome (not in hopes of recovery, but perhaps insurance). We learned the appropriate agency was not the carabinieri but the polizia – where we were initially turned away from the station, told to sit on the curb and wait, and then finally admitted. A helpful officer took our information, covered a copy of her report with official stamps, and remarked: “You don’t expect us to do anything about this, do you?”

We retreated to Eataly, the enormous Italian food emporium where you can sit at one restaurant, gather food from any other, and eat together. Sweet Baby’s parents bought us dinner and groceries, and we called the credit card companies.

On our last day we set out early, stopped at a nearby “bio-café” for chocolate croissants, then followed the Trail Boss to the quiet neighborhood of Trastevere and the beautiful, 16th Century Villa Farnasina – few other visitors, windows open to the gardens, and walls covered with frescos by masters like Raphael.

The next morning we awakened at five a.m. to help the Alaskans depart for home. As the taxi waited in the early darkness, a sleepy Lady Baby stood still for a hug from each of us, then grabbed her mom and cried. So me too. The rest of us left Rome a few hours later.

It was such a privilege to be with all of these people I love for this long adventure – I am very grateful.

 

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A Walk In The Val d’Orcia II

In Pienza we had an extra day: time for a laundromat and a break from daily walking for the little travelers. Both Pienza (a “masterpiece of human creative genius”)and the Val d’Orcia (a “well-managed Renaissance agricultural landscape”) are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. You experience both while standing in Pienza’s perspective defying, trapezoidal 15th Century square and glimpsing, through openings past the cathedral, the valley landscape. We could view the sweep of the Val d’Orcia from Pienza’s “balcony,” a low-walled walkway running the length of town, and trace our route, from hilltop to hilltop.

We were often in awe of Lady Baby on this trip – neither adult nor easily carried baby, but unfailingly patient and loving with her cousin and brother, and much of the time, an engaged tourist. Through headphones, she listened intently during a tour of the Renaissance Papal palace, elaborate rooms and a courtyard with herb garden, and inquired of the guide, “Exactly where is the sarcophagus?” Standing in Pienza’s cathedral with head tilted back, camera ready, she studied the frescoed walls and decorated ceilings and pillars, asking questions and making comments. Happily for all, a recommendation from the palace guide led us to Buon Gusto – another best gelato ever.

Early the next morning – wearing our Francigena T-shirts printed by Mrs. Hughes – we posed for a photo on the balcony and set off on the final leg to Montepulciano via Monticchiello (a revised plan to shorten to six a hot 13 kilometers).

Hide-and-seek by the side of the road and lifts from parents helped us to Monticchiello. We ate our sandwiches in a shady playground below this tiny, fortified town (important in the long rivalry between Florence and Siena), then walked about. In a bar we paused for ice cream and coffees, and the proprietor called us a van for the rest of the dusty, steep road.

In Montepulciano we stayed in the beautiful 12th Century Palazzo Ricci in a high up room, overlooking the city and countryside. Montepulciano’s playground improbably included a box hedge maze, and the cousins ran until dinnertime. We ate outdoors at a windy restaurant tucked up into the walls of the city, where a canopy overhead flapped vigorously, sounding like a tent on a mountainside. Some had a last ribolitta, and finally, the carnivores shared a long-desired bistecca florentina.

The Sweet Bride, Sweet Baby, Lady Baby, and I retreated from the dinner table and sat on the cathedral steps on the austere Piazza Grande, empty at dusk, surrounded by venerable palazzos. I said, in the way of adults, “Oh isn’t this amazing! “Just a town,” replied Lady Baby. I said “Really? Like Anchorage?” She said, “Anchorage has trees and grass!” I came back, too quickly, with something flip, then begged her not to tell her parents what I said. Nothing is more ruthless than a five-year old with power over you! I’ve never seen her laugh so hard – “I’m gonna tell them!” she shrieked and giggled, as I tried to convince her she’d get me in trouble – more peals of laughter.

I like to think of her someday bringing a grandchild to that historic square – and laughing.

A Walk In The Val d’Orcia – Part I

Arriving in Montalcino, a small and walled hill town, famous for Brunello wine, we piled out of the van into midday heat and were led down a little street to our apartments in an old building (angled walls, wide wooden floorboards, and high ceilings). Later in the afternoon, we climbed to the ramparts of the fortezza for stunning views, walked part way around the town walls and up to the Duomo, and had a cheerful dinner on the edge of the town square. Under our windows that night, cars roared and accelerated up the narrow streets, noise amplified by stone buildings.

So the next morning a sleep-deprived group set off for our first day of walking – 11 kilometers to Castelnuovo del’Abate – up, along a ridge, and then down, often through forest on a rough track littered with stones slippery underfoot. The heat was a dehydrating bludgeon. (At some point on this journey, Mrs. Hughes allowed as how “choosing to be uncomfortable on a trip” was a Gilmore thing. Some truth to that.)

At first, kicking a soccer ball with the little travelers on the strade bianche and lots of snacks helped us along. But soon Mr. Carson loaded Baby Brother in the Ergo on his front, Lady Baby into the backpack, and then ferried his sleepy children the rest of the way! We carried so much water, but bottles nearly emptied by lunch where we stopped in the churchyard of a tiny hamlet. A passing resident led us to a spigot.

Exhausted, we arrived at the base of Castelnuovo del Abate at a guesthouse with kind owners. While the girls ran about the courtyard (using stored energy), dinner revived us, and we talked about the next day. An ominous warning in the route booklet: “please note this is probably the most demanding leg of your walk” – led Mr. Carson to offer to ride with the baggage and his children. Then we all decided to ride, except Mr. Carson who opted to run.

Always in Italy, comfort and delicious food can mitigate much self-inflicted hardship. In San Quirico d’Orcia, we found the Tuscan hotel you dream about – Palazzo del Capitano – with cool, spacious rooms and a beautiful garden fragrant with rosemary, lavender, and jasmine. Near the town square we ate the best chickpea soup ever, followed by vegan pistachio gelato! Soon enough Mr. Carson appeared, dusty but happy, confirming that the route would be brutal and relentless as a walk – all down, all up, and all hot.

The next day, nine kilometers to Pienza, followed stretches of the Via Francigena – for hundreds of years a major route from Rome to the north, and now small gravel and dirt lanes. The floor of the Val d’Orcia is a series of steep, short, ups and downs over clay hills, the roadsides ablaze with red poppies and yellow broom smelling like sweet peas and jasmine.

Every once in a while someone would exclaim, “ooh!,” – a reminder to look up at Monte Amiata in the distance, scattered cypress near farmhouses perched on hills, and wheat fields – all orderly, all beautiful. Occasional cars passed – stirring up clouds of white dust until they saw us (crazy Americans, the Italians must think). The topo map would indicate a little patch of trees near a stream, but we’d find a dry dent and scrub shrubs.

At lunchtime, we deviated off the road to an empty farmhouse and a tiny chapel “dedicated to the Madonna di Vitaleta – the suckling Madonna.” Because our group included one so honored, we excused our probable trespass, and gratefully ate in the shade of a lollypop-shaped tree.

And this leg Lady Baby walked almost the whole way, with only occasional lifts from one of her parents. She speculated about an abandoned farmhouse with an outer staircase intact but no wooden floors, an echoing empty well, and a stone outbuilding with a large oven. Toward the end of the day, water bottles reduced to hot dregs, we stopped at the 10th Century parish church of Corsignano, once the center of paths and roads on the Via Francigena, with a spooky crypt to explore and a fountain outside for thirsty pellegrinos.

Up a little road, walls looming on either side, to the square by the gate into Pienza. All the hilltop towns amaze, but Pienza is perfecto!

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An Afternoon in Siena

Six big and three little travelers generate a pile of luggage: three car seats, two strollers, two baby backpacks, two hefty large suitcases, a couple of duffels, some smallish roller bags, and assorted carryons containing toys, snacks, and approved electronics. That pile and transport by train, bus, and van created complex logistics as we headed toward our walk in Tuscany.

In the Rome airport while we waited for the Alaskans (having endured a 20-hour journey, they landed an hour behind us), we purchased train tickets and food for lunch. After a warm reunion of the little cousins, we headed north to Florence, and then trekked across the Santa Maria Novella piazza from train station to hotel, our first encounter with heat that the Italians called unseasonable. Our late arrival left just enough time for dinner on the windy piazza, a walk around the Duomo in evening quiet, and first gelatos.

At breakfast the next day, Lady Baby inherited a camera of her own and Sweet Baby a child-size pair of binoculars. With carrying cases strapped around their necks, they looked like true explorers as we crossed the piazza again to catch the bus to Siena. (The Trail Boss rode in a taxi with the mountain of baggage.)

In Siena, we shuttled our belongings to a nearby hotel, and set off along Siena’s narrow streets to find lunch. While the others visited the Palazzo Pubblico to see Lorenzetti’s “The Allegory of Good Government and Bad Government,” I stood in the archway of the Palazzo in the cool and watched people on the Campo, Siena’s tilted arc of a piazza and site of the famous Palio horse race.

It was Sunday and local youngsters demonstrated judo and gymnastics – huge pads softening the landings of their flips. The Campo resembled a beach, where families lounged on the bricks, heated from earlier sun, but shaded in the afternoon. We also sat, and I stretched my legs out (like sitting on a heating pad) and held Baby Brother in my lap. He grew sticky in the heat, and we stripped first shoes and socks and finally shirt. He’d grin and grin, catching the eye of any passerby (particularly the pretty girls), as he flirted with his Princess Diana, head-tucking smile. Jet-lagged, nap schedule in shambles, he remained cheerful and game (always).

In part, that’s because their moms anticipate and meet all the needs of these little travelers. Both masterful packers, they remember all the favorite possessions (Baby Boy, Baby, and a blanket known as “blank”), various drinking vessels, sleeping accompaniments, and clothes for every contingency from Irish mist to blistering Italian sun. Mrs. Hughes brought a miraculous stroller, weighing only nine pounds, collapsing to fit in a daypack, and holding a 50-pound little person in a pinch, and the Sweet Bride always pulls out, of a purse or pack, the exact thing to soothe a situation.

The time change caught up with the Alaskans, and they retreated to their little hotel balcony with pizza and beer, then early to bed. The rest of us found a favorite restaurant (from another visit) and ate bowls of ribollita.

In the morning, a van driver would pick us up for the ride to Montalcino and the start of a four-day walk in the Val d’Orcia.

 

 

 

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In Dublin’s Fair City

After arriving at our modern apartment in Dublin, high in a small but tall, glass-encased building in the Docklands near the Grand Canal, we set off, Sweet Baby sleeping in her stroller, to walk along the River Liffey.

Peering into the courtyard at the main entrance to Trinity College, I remembered being there the weekend I turned 21. A friend and I took the night ferry from Morecambe, England, near Lancaster where we were at university, to Belfast and then hitched a ride to Dublin. (Not a well thought-out adventure, but memorable.) In the 1980s our family visited when the boys were five and one, wore matching green jogging suits, and paid most attention to a much-desired Lone Ranger figure, purchased in an Irish village.

This time we followed the now grown up one-year old, as he led us to see city sights. Dublin’s General Post Office – headquarters for the Easter Rising in 1916, which led to the creation of an independent Ireland – is still the main post office, and it also houses an interactive exhibition documenting the rebellion. Nearby on O’Connell Street, the Dublin Spire reaches skyward 390 feet, replacing Nelson’s Column blown up in 1966. In Dublin the Rising and the Troubles remain close at hand.

And so does Ireland’s amazing literary heritage – we visited the James Joyce Center, and a fine exhibition about W.B Yeats at the National Library of Ireland. We didn’t make it to peek at Dublin Castle, headquarters of the Garda in Tana French’s detective novels, but I thought a lot about all the other Irish authors I love, and the ones I read this winter like Maggie O’Farrell and Molly Keane. Frank Delaney’s “Ireland: A Novel,” is a tale of Irish history from prehistoric times to the 1950s, and it came alive at the National Museum of Ireland full of cultural artifacts from the millennia before invasion and colonization.

When weary of our activities, Sweet Baby played at the playgrounds in leafy Merrion Square and St. Stephen’s Green, the green heart of the city. (Nobody would guess, but Sweet Baby is, by an eighth, a wee Irish lass.)

And I am now full of curiosity and regret (“why didn’t I ask more questions”) about my mother’s parents who separately left County Kerry in the west of Ireland during the huge Irish emigration in the late 19th Century. My grandmother Kate was only 14.

The rain held off till our last night, then poured while we ate dinner (so many good meals in Ireland), and spoke of this brief visit and our hopes to return. Then early to bed for a six a.m. plane to Rome, and a rendezvous with Lady Baby and her family!

A Walk In Ireland

In late May Sweet Baby and her family joined us in Seattle, and we flew on to London. Tired from wakeful hours aloft, Sweet Baby disembarked sound asleep in her mother’s arms, eye mask firmly in place. We walked, and she rode in her stroller, through the miles of Heathrow tense with heightened security. At our gate the Aer Lingus plane to Dublin waited – teal green with a lime green shamrock on the tail.

We planned two days of walking on the Wicklow Way (in the Wicklow Mountains National Park south of Dublin) – from Enniskerry village to the ancient Monastic City of Glendalough. Inhabited since Neolithic times, these mountains served as hiding places for the Irish during Norman and English invasions. Lower in elevation than Alaska or Washington mountains, they are still rugged – with colorful place names like Knockree Hill and Glencree Valley and dramatic views over faraway lakes.

Peter Galvin, owner of Wonderful Ireland, the company providing our luggage transport, accommodations, and route booklet was, as they say in Ireland, grand – attentive, helpful, communicative. His van driver picked us up at the airport, told us of a deluge the previous day, and questioned conditions for walking. We arrived at our guesthouse in a mizzly rain.

After a tea and biscuits greeting, we wandered Enniskerry, a sweet village with a triangular central square surrounded by shops and restaurants. In the late afternoon, we walked through a mossy graveyard toward the renowned but already closed for the day Powerscourt Gardens. On this route even tiny villages had lovely restaurants with local produce and craft beers. And in a cheerful pub, we ate delicious vegetable soup and “chips,” and then collapsed into comfy beds for a long sleep. Outside rain poured down, and we woke to a tremulous sky.

A pleasure of this sort of travel is to don hiking gear and greet your family at breakfast, sometimes bare bones, but here laid out formally with linens, pots of jam, and toast racks, and it’s always fun to talk to other guests about their travels. On first days, we’re a little nervous, or I am, not yet settled into the routine and heading into unknown terrain.

At the start, weather gray but dry, we climbed steadily up through low bracken and heather for nearly two hours, ascending Crone Mountain and skirting Djouce Mountain. It was Sunday and we encountered many Irish people – fit hillwalkers and hillrunners. Most received a friendly “Hi!” from Sweet Baby as she rode in her backpack listening to music through big pink headphones, or walked using the shortened version of my poles.

That day we encountered our first boardwalks. Designed to protect the fragile bogs (and it surprised us to find bogs on tops of hills, more accustomed to lowland wetlands). Over mucky bog puddles, each boardwalk section, less than two-feet wide with big staples for traction, stepped up or down and tested our balance. Stupendous views spread out at this point, the Wicklow Mountains folded one over another retreating into the distance. In windless sections we swatted midges – prone to dive bombing in swarms. Our stops were short.

Talking to Irish people became a huge pleasure – their lovely accents and senses of humor, always making a joke, eager to tell stories. We spent that night in a guesthouse near Roundwood, where the proprietor teased us about our election, and his son explained his choice to study Irish Gaelic in college (we got accustomed to signs in both Irish and English).

The second day we hiked a great long day to Glendalough – a name that means a valley between two lakes – much up and down through forests and wildflowers to St. Kevin’s valley, made shadowy by hovering mountains. To find our guesthouse we crossed a wide but shallow stream on large stones – more balancing.

In the morning we crossed the stream again to explore the ancient monastery founded by St. Kevin, who discovered the valley in the sixth century, when seeking solitude for his hermitic life. Said to have lived 120 years, St. Kevin selected a most beautiful spot – now popular with visitors for the tranquility of two lakes set in dramatic scenery and ancient remains, including a round tower built a thousand years ago as a bell tower and place of safety from invaders.

In the Glendalough Visitor’s Center we were tickled to see an article from the Irish Times describing Michelle Obama’s visit to Glendalough with her girls, the headline read: “Midges Make the Most of the Obamas at Glendalough.”

We walked back to cross the river and wait for the van to take us to Rathdrum to catch the train into Dublin.

 

 

 

Sweet Baby Travels – England

After a little more than a two-hour flight from Sevilla to London Gatwick, we exchanged T-shirts for sweaters, sandals for umbrellas, tapas for pub food, and formal gardens in dry terrain for the lush gardens of England.

By this time Sweet Baby expressed definite opinions about tolerated confinement, whether pack or stroller, car seat or high chair. But she is always glad to ride in her pack on her dad, the family gardener, and we planned three garden visits with lawns and space for running.

In the Kent countryside we stayed in tiny Biddenden Village (a pub, a post office, and a smattering of other buildings smack beside a busy road) in a 400-year old Tudor house – low ceilings, creaky floors, steep staircases, and comfortable rooms.

At Great Dixter (made famous by garden writer Christopher Lloyd), in spite of borders of glorious color and meadows of wildflowers, we loved the house best. Built by Lloyd’s father and the architect Edwin Lutyens, it combines two 15th century dwellings to reimagine a medieval manor. A great room with vaulted ceilings and leaded windows downstairs, and a solar upstairs, with worn rugs, bookshelves, and lived-in chairs cozied up to a huge fireplace. A little hungry for home comfort by now, we might have settled in.

The day of our Sissinghurst visit we woke to cold rain, but after Sweet Baby’s morning nap the clouds lifted. Sissinghurst (my favorite garden) is romantic and full of story, and in spite of summer solstice and the full bloom of Vita’s famous roses, weather kept the crowds down. We walked paths through the white garden, the herb garden, the cottage garden, and climbed the tower. For lunch we ate ratatouille made from produce grown in the Sissinghurst vegetable garden.

The threat of Brexit had begun to color things even before we left Spain, and in the UK tension was palpable. In the village, angry Brexiters complained to us about Obama’s statements to remain, and in London the night before the vote, vocal supporters of each side lined tube station entrances. Our old friends were divided, he to stay, she to leave. And the day after the vote, people looked stunned as they carried on.

Founded in 1673 as an apothecaries’ garden, the Chelsea Physic garden is a tranquil, walled space overlooked by buildings, full of labeled medicinal plants from around the world. On the same day as the huge and sad memorial for Jo Cox in Trafalgar Square, I walked the paths, pushing a sleeping Sweet Baby in her stroller, thinking about the commonality and continuity of plants, looking for solace in the centuries-old garden.

On our last day – a final walk through London and history. From our place near Covent Garden, west through Trafalgar Square (setting up for the Gay Pride Festival), along the Mall to St. James’s park (many visitors, a polyglot of language), ate waffles sitting on a bench, and watched the crowd gather near Buckingham Palace. Then we circled back past Westminster Abbey and Big Ben, toward Parliament (posters and stickers littered the sidewalk). We turned onto the Victoria Embankment along the Thames, and crossed the Millennium Footbridge (a bride and her wedding party walking in the midst of the crowd). We spent time in the Tate Modern (Sweet Baby running the ramp in the Turbine Hall), then walked on to the Borough Market for lunch.

Sweet Baby took her parents home for the afternoon nap, but the two old, true London lovers finished it out – back across the bridge and up to St. Paul’s, along Fleet Street and the Strand, and through Covent Garden.

Overhead a jet plane flyover trailed tricolored smoke and thunderous noise – and a downpour began, wilting feathers and costumes and melting face paintings on passersby.

That evening, in the midst of post-festival crowds, Sweet Bride miraculously found us a table at a Thai restaurant where we ate and replayed Sweet Baby’s first big trip.

“Wow!” we said.

Sissinghurst I

Sissinghurst II

 

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Sweet Baby Travels – Spain

In the old part of Sevilla, streets are so narrow it seems like you could touch hands from one wrought-iron balcony to its opposite. When a car passes, pedestrians on the skinny raised sidewalks flatten against buildings. The day we arrived, building shade gave some respite from 100° heat, and we found welcome cool inside our hotel. Our adjoining rooms with a little hall between pleased the Sweet Baby.

We planned an Andalucia sampler. Two days in Sevilla, two in Granada, then back to Sevilla for two. Traveling with a baby requires equipment these days – stroller, backpack, front pack, car seat – a mountain when added to handcarries with toys and snacks and our regular bags. Somehow the Trail Boss made fun from seeing how quickly and efficiently we could organize ourselves to move between curb and check-in, or onto elevators and trains (always about to depart).

We walked early in city quiet and cool – past the Seville Cathedral, along the Guadalquivir River, into the beautiful María Luisa Park (with playground), and, because of the late Spanish mealtimes, returned in time for breakfast. We ate many tortillas de espanol – eggs and potatoes – sometimes in a baguette, sometimes wrapped in wax paper, and tapas that turned meals into feasts. Sweet Baby, an adventurous eater, dove into tapas on offer, murmuring her “num, yum!” of approval.

On this trip Sweet Baby put it together that her little palm out wave and friendly American “Hi!” made life interesting. She’d fix on a person, begin a program of wave and “Hi!” till a stranger engaged – then she’d sparkle her sweet smile. Restaurants provided a particularly target-rich setting. A big tattooed guy responded with caio several times, and then in a friendly way suggested she eat her pasta. After many “Hi!” and hola exchanges, a handsome, ponytailed waiter brought her a tiny dish of chocolate chips. She warmed up everyone.

Before a meal, one of us would take her outside to the nearby piazza or plaza – she turned bollards and chains marking off some part of the square into playground equipment: under, over, lift, and repeat. She watched little girls turn cartwheels or kick a soccer ball, and kids race bicycles. When music played, she stopped and swayed back and forth – her dance moves. I liked to watch the Sweet Bride talking babies with other traveling parents, whenever Sweet Baby encountered a person her size.

Each day we walked for miles, and Sweet Baby rode in her backpack above the footsore crowds. We marvelled at the Alhambra, the Generalife, the Alcazar – structures and gardens so complicated and glorious and old. Sweet Baby uttered a perfectly timed “Ooooh” or “Wow!” expressing wonder at the Queen’s Bath or the Court of the Lions.

In Granada (higher than Sevilla and cooler), we spent a day wandering the grounds and buildings of the Alhambra and Generalife. Having read about a famous view point across from the Alhambra, the Trail Boss led us the next morning (clutching our hot drinks and bag of gofres, sweet waffles) aboard a tiny city bus (a school bus for many children) as it snaked uphill through a tilted neighborhood of houses with peach or lavender walls, green gates, and magenta bougainvillea.

We sat on benches in a little plaza to eat, across a forested ravine from the Alhambra on the opposite ridge, and identified the buildings we’d seen the day before.

“Best breakfast ever,” the Sweet Bride said.

Alhambra tile

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Sweet Baby Travels – Italy

To reach the Tuscan hill town of Pitiglano, you turn off the highway from Rome onto a narrow twisting road. Around a final bend and across a deep ravine appear the tumbled together medieval stone buildings of Pitiglano.

When Sweet Baby arrived there this June (as part of a multi-country adventure), she brought her parents and paternal grandparents for a walk from Pitigliano in Tuscany to Orvieto in Umbria. (Route booklet and baggage transport provided by an Australian company called “Hidden Italy.”)

Deposited at our hotel just outside Pitigliano’s main gates, near the arches of an ancient aqueduct, we ate dinner in the café out front as the sky faded and swifts soared along the city’s steep walls. Sweet Baby tucked into her pasta.

After breakfast the next morning, she sat in her backpack carried by her dad, and we walked through Pitigliano, gathering foccacia, cheese, fruit, and chips from tiny shops.

This La Tuscia route reveals much about the predecessors of the Romans, the Etruscans, a civilization once dismissed and now (because of archeological discoveries) greatly admired for art and culture. For more than 2500 years, people have used the trail linking Pitigliano and our first destination, Sovana.

Tackling daily hikes from seven to 12 miles, we climbed up and down a series of tufaceous hills, wooded and wild. Via cava, distinctive narrow sunken roads (cut into the soft tufa rock by the Etruscans) lead down from or up into hill towns, providing paths for travelers then – and now.

Often slippery underfoot, two raised tracks allow purchase for cart wheels. Mules used to walk in the middle drainage channel – as did we. Within these tunnel-like canyons, time has softened the sides that towered over us – foliage and moss dripped and draped, enclosing us in a green and stony world.

Etruscan funeral chambers line the walls of the via cava. We passed a series of caves from prehistoric times, built upon and adapted by succeeding peoples – complicated communities of two-story caves with openings for smoke to escape, “windows” for light, niches and benches, and echoes of people long gone. Once in a clearing outside the square opening to a large cave, we stopped for lunch. As Sweet Baby picked up stones and little leaves, it was easy to picture earlier toddlers doing the same thing in the same spot.

We’d been warned about rain and the dangers of wet via cava. Most days we woke to blue-sky beginnings, but one afternoon during a badly timed cloudburst, we navigated a short but wild link on a narrow road with speeding drivers. Leaving the road, we cautiously descended (gripping our hiking poles) the spectacular Via Cava San Rocco – so beautiful and far less scary.

At the top of the via cavas we often encountered strade bianche and a mile or so of classic Tuscan countryside with gentle forests and meadows for stops in the sunshine. We saw farms with sheep, hedgerows and fields colored by red poppies, blue or yellow asters, and delicate Queen Anne’s lace. You understand the long appeal of this part of Italy – easy fortifications and nearby rivers and fields rich with food.

All the little towns share a hill town nature – but each has a distinct personality. Sovana, continually inhabited since Etruscan and Roman times, feels wide open with many restaurants and cheerful with flowers in window boxes and tiny gardens.

The next day, climbing hills so high we could see Pitiglano and Sovana far behind us, we reached Sorano – an Etruscan town built on a Bronze Age settlement, with a Medieval past and a Tuscan hill town present. Our hotel sat at the very top – a military fortress in the 11th century. After hot showers we sat with cold drinks in a courtyard bright with evening sun.

The next town, San Quirico, differs from the others. A German headquarters during WW II and destroyed by allied bombs in 1944, it’s a modern Italian small farm town. We arrived in the rain at the town’s only hotel, drank beer on the veranda, watched the downpour, and then ate dinner in a large and deserted dining room. The resident daughters alternately invited and teased Sweet Baby while they ate their dinner and drove a little bike between tables. She stared in fascination.

Fifteen months old in June and weighing 20 pounds, Sweet Baby was a good-natured and flexible traveler, as we suspected she would be. I hadn’t thought about the joy of seeing her each morning at the door to our room – flashing her big smile and saying, “Hi!,” or how much fun it would be to watch her exploring this new world and finding repeated entertainment in water bottle lids, various zippers, and roller bags (good for a quick ride in a hotel hall).

She adapted easily to naps in the pack, morning and afternoon, sleeping with her head on a down vest or leaned against the sunshade. Sometimes she toddled along strada bianca or climbed tufa rock steps, her little legs working hard.

The afternoon we arrived in Sorano, we paused at a dramatic lookout over the valley, ate a handful of nuts and watched Sweet Baby chase a metal water bottle she rolled down a slope. She’d traded her rain soaked pants for my wool socks pulled up over her knees – worn with her hiking shoes and a diaper. You smile a lot when she’s along.

Our last day we walked out of Tuscany, entering Lazio along a path now known as the Brigand’s Way. Up and up, then down, down – beginning to catch glimpses of the large and beautiful Lake Bolsena below.

We were to rendezvous at a trattoria on the shore for a ride around the lake to a modern resort hotel. We might have delayed a day here – exploring Bolsena’s ancient center, enjoying the pool and the sunshine, and walking on. But we’d elected to forgo this last day of very long mileage and accept a ride into Orvieto, gaining time to explore its renowned cathedral and museums full of Etruscan pottery and sculpture. Now we could picture these objects decorating the cavas, part of ancient, everyday life.

A night’s sleep, the train to Rome, and onward.

hiking boot

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