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.

 

 

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

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

 

Save

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

Save

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

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

A New American

A new American in our family! The Sweet Bride has negotiated all the steps required to become a naturalized U.S. citizen: she filed her paperwork, got fingerprinted, and proved she was a “responsible member of the community.” She attended an interview and passed a test assessing her knowledge of English and United States history and government. It only remains to take the Oath of Allegiance in a public ceremony.

On her recent visit here before the test, she brought her booklet of questions to study. We did our best to confuse her with background information about American politics and government to disguise the fact that we, specially I, don’t know all the basics! Do you know all the Founding Fathers? How many amendments to the Constitution? What did the Declaration of Independence do? And when? And how many representatives are in the U.S. House? And why? Sweet Bride knows these things.

She really studied, and adds success with this test to her degrees from Thailand and the one in International Business she received here (classes conducted in English). Two years ago she passed a difficult exam to qualify to be an insurance agent. When I complimented her on passing the citizenship test, she said: “Oh I had easy questions.”

The Sweet Bride amazes me, and I often think about what she’s had to learn after coming to this country on her own. She drives now in Los Angeles on the right side of the road (in Thailand she drove on the left). Not only is English new, but the alphabet and the writing completely different from Thai. Her beautiful hand printing retains a touch of the complicated Thai script she knows. And only the slightest lilt betrays her spoken English as a second language.

Occasionally, when I am chattering on, she looks puzzled so I stop and untangle the paragraph, figuring out which words confuse. Often it is some ridiculously unclear figure of speech – “going bananas” or “barking up the wrong tree.” Why do “fat chance” and “slim chance” mean pretty much the same thing?

And then there is irony. Driving into a completely full parking lot at Huntington Gardens, a native speaker might say: “Well I guess not many people came here today!” She called me on that one – why did I say that? Her efforts at this level of understanding make the communicating richer and richer.

Mrs. Hughes says she makes us cool – adding exoticism to our bland mix. America is lucky to have this new citizen. We are so lucky to have her in our family!

Toonie congrats