Navigating the World – Portugal Explorers

One of my favorite historical novels is Anya Seton’s Katherine, the story of Katherine Swynford, mistress of John of Gaunt and eventually his third wife. John is the father of Henry Bolingbroke, who took over the throne from the ineffectual Richard II, as Shakespeare so beautifully demonstrated. 220px-Filipa_lencastre

Phillipa tomb

Tomb of Queen Philippa and King Joan in an unusual affectionate pose.

Another child of John of Gaunt, Phillipa, became in her own right one of the most influential monarchs in history when she married Joan III (John) of Portugal. Thought to be too old a bride at 27, Phillipa of Lancaster actually turned a political Anglo-Portuguese alliance into a love match. The king gave up his mistress and devoted himself to his family. Phillipa was well educated herself and ensured that her offspring were similarly schooled. Four sons had significant impact on the history of Portugal, but none more than Infante Henry.

Henry’s 14th-century childhood is illustrated in the lovely children’s book, The Miracle Dogs of Portugal, about the canines famous for their prowess in helping fishermen. They actually herd fish into nets! (The book also mentions that a Portuguese Water Dog lives at the White House, the photogenic “Bo.”)

The Infante Henry grew up believing in the importance of intellectual inquiry in all areas, but particularly in science and navigation.


AlbuQuerque, explorer

IMG_2743Could it be possible to establish a trade route to the Orient? What lay beyond the western shores of Europe? Henry’s work led to the important voyages of Christopher Columbus, who was from Santos, the Portuguese island close by Madeira; Vasco da Gama, who established a trade route around the Cape of Good Hope to India and Asia; Ferdinand Magellan, whose expedition circumnavigated the globe. There is also Afonso de Albuquerque, whose name eventually “landed” in New Mexico. No wonder Henry’s 19th century biographers dubbed him “The Navigator.”


Henry “the Navigator”

Lisbon’s Marine Museum documents this glorious history well. Henry’s statue graces the entry. It is backed by an important map of the world illustrating the Pope’s division of the world into two parts: Spain would have ownership of all lands west of a certain latitude in theIMG_2741 Atlantic; Portugal was given lands east. Only Brazil extended into Portugal’s legitimate territory, explaining why it is the only South American country that speaks Portuguese. The Museum of Fine Arts includes works from the countries explored (and exploited). For instance, Japanese screens depict Portugese visitors in fancy European garb.

Road Works that illuminate this important history of Portugal include the comprehensive Prince Henry “the Navigator”: A Life by Peter Russell (2001), Portugal’s Golden Years: The Life and Times of Prince Henry “The Navigator” (2006) by Carlos B. Carreiro, and The Last Crusade (2011), Nigel Cliff’s award-winning account of da Gama’s discoveries.


Tower of Bellem, set mid-river, which was a beacon for sailors leaving and returning.

The monument of discovery, a site close by the popular Tower of Bellem (Bethlehem), includes sculpted depictions of Portuguese explorers.


Philippa on the Discovery Monument

Only one woman is included in this group of men: Phillipa of Lancaster. She is deserving of a fine biography. It’s a book I’d certainly put on my Road Works list.

Life on the Douro River



Dam, lock, and Viking River Cruise Vessel


Bridge Over the Douro at Night

Mark Twain, Samuel L. Clemens’ pseudonym, refers to two fathoms—safe waters—for steamboats to travel the Mississippi. Navigating Portugal’s “River of Gold,” the Douro, takes careful navigating, not only for its captains plying the increasingly popular tourist route but also for readers. Cruises begin in Porto, which gave its name to harbors as well as to the famous fortified wine. The nearly 600-mile river narrows precipitously in parts, and the highest lock in Europe at 108 feet lifts and lowers specially built riverboats. The steep riverbanks are lined with quintas, massive wine estates. Sandeman, known by its trademark of a mysIMG_2915terious, caped figIMG_2832ured is an easily recognized one. Douro Valley: Journeys and Stories provides a guidebook to the region.IMG_2834


Two mysteries help guests wile away the hours on the sundeck of the river cruisers. The first, Death on the Douro by Roger Aspler (1997), begins with the dramatic death of the “Baron,” Joseph James Forester, a British gentleman who crusaded for higher port standards and who famously mapped the dramatic landscape of the Douro Valley. He drowned in a cataract known as the Devil’s Cauldron when his boat overturned, his body never found. The narrative flashes forward to a more contemporary time with Canadian wine journalist and amateur detective, Eric Brant, called in by a quinta owner to investigate mysterious happenings at the estate near Pinhao. Notable for its excellent details about port and its production, Death on the Douro is less effective as fiction. The protagonist, an aging and out-of-shape connoisseur of wine, somehow finds beautiful women attracted to him. The author commits the crime of “bringing a gun on stage and not having it go off.” Subplots that don’t go anywhere couple with grammatical errors. A nasty dangling modifier early on is confusing. As I’ve said before, where is Maxwell Perkins when you need him? Or perhaps the self-professed “Comma Queen” of The New Yorker could be brought on board.


Bookshop in Porto

A much better written novel is The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro by Italian author Antonio Tabucchi. Although it doesn’t stray from the main setting of Porto, it delivers local color. A young tabloid journalist, Firmino, is sent from Lisbon to Porto (also called Oporto) to investigate a gruesome murder. He has a prejudice about Porto but purchases a guidebook—perhaps from the famous Lello & Firmao bookshop—to learn more about the city. (The art nouveau bookstore, called one of the most beautiful in the world, was a favorite haunt of J. K. Rowling, when she taught English as a second language in Porto.)

Interior staircase at bookshop.

Interior staircase at bookshop.



Tripe at market

Defying expectations, this thriller is also a terrific place to learn about the food of Portugal. Firmino is not fond of Porto’s favored dish: tripe. Truly, Portugal eats the pig from tip to tail. (I passed on pickled pig’s ears.) Rojoes a la mode de Minho is a favorite of the narrator, the slow-cooked pork and potatoes that we ate at the Alpendurada Monastery turned hotel-restaurant, still cooked in the traditional way in wood-fired ovens. Slow-cured hams and local olives offer tasty bites before a meal. The novel’s emphasis on food is carried along by a philosophizing lawyer and gourmand who has a strong resemblance to Charles Laughton.


IMG_2893To check out enticing recipes, seek out cookbooks that feature updates on traditional recipes, such as The New Portuguese Table by David Leite, which includes recipes like a fresh fava bean and fennel salad. Traveling along the Douro will work up an appetite as tours visit not only wineries but also UNESCO-certified heritage bakeries like the ones in Favaios, famous for “Four Corner” bread that takes its shape from ancient Roman recipes.IMG_2909

The town of 1,000 produces eight times its population daily to supply this popular staple to other towns. It’s also the home of muscatel. A wine cooperative produces 30 million bottles of the sweet beverage annually, but the number is misleading as most of the containers are small—just large enough to be added to a glass of beer, an unusual but popular pairing. Tour guides wear shirts labeled “Follow Me. I know where the wine is.”IMG_2916






Slicing cured ham in Salamanca.

River cruises end at the border of Spain, and day trips by bus take in the golden city of Salamanca, home to the fourth oldest university in Europe. Read the 12th entry in Bernard Cornwall’s popular series—Sharpe’s Sword—to find a novel set in this university town during the Napoleonic Wars.


Plaza Mayor in Salamanca




For a fun read, try the nonfiction Cork Boat (2004) which details John Pollack’s funky dream to build a boat out of wine corks (165,000+) and rubber bands (15,000) in Washington, DC, where he was a speech writer for President Clinton, and have it shipped to Portugal, where he sailed up and back down the Douro River! The home of cork loved this adventure and celebrated his successful return to Porto. The memoir also demonstrates Pollack’s alacrity with language; he won the 1995 O. Henry World Championship Pun-Offs. If only we’d known. Our collection of corks saved for some eventual project—cork wreath, cork bulletin boards—is about to overwhelm. Check out a YouTube video of the final product. It takes about 50% of the book to arrive on the Douro River, but then there are terrific details about the area.


In the lock.


The lock entrance, where a gate will descend and enclose the boat for lifting.

The trip back down the Douro River includes five locks to be maneuvered. Although dams have tamed the Devil’s Cauldron, the often narrow river channel requires a savvy captain to find safe waters.IMG_2844

Finding Fernando in Portugal

“Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life.”

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

 Finding authors in country is always a challenge unless they’ve won the Nobel Prize for Literature as Jose Saramago of Portugal did in 1998. He has many titles from which to choose. I selected the historical novel, Baltasar and Blimunda (1998), as it is set during the Inquisition.

Pessoa as painted by NegreirosThe real find, though, in my mind, is Fernando Pessoa, enigmatic author who has been adopted as an icon. The plane we traveled on TAP (Portugal’s airline) was branded with his name. His image appears everywhere, striding confidently forward in fedora, bowtie, and long coat. A famous painting by Almada Negreiros shows him writing at a café (1934). By the way, Negreios is part of the modernist movement in which Pessoa is also a figure; the former’s Manifesto Anti-Dantes (1915) still has legs—even being adopted by a Taberna.

Pessoa authored poems such as the lines that appear above—a portion of a longer work; novels; and even a guide to Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See.

What the Tourist Should See

What the Tourist Should See

Who is Fernando Pessoa?

Born in 1888 in Lisbon, his family moved to South Africa when he was a child, so that he was fluent in both Portuguese and English. He was intensely patriotic; it’s said that he was disgusted that his schoolmates did not realize that the Cape of Good Hope and Capetown were named by Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. He returned to Lisbon as an adult and set about rectifying the country’s reputation as it was no longer carried the status it once did as the home of Explorers who had changed the world by discovering trade routes and making the globe somewhat smaller. The sadness and nostalgia for an earlier time is termed saudade, and its most eloquent embodiment is heard in Fado music.

One of the reasons Pessoa is a man of mystery is due to the fact that he published his work under many names. Influenced by Walt Whitman—“I contain multitudes”—he used heteronyms–multiple pseudonyms. Some of have called him “the four greatest Portuguese poets of the twentieth century.” His 35 Sonnets is available for free download as an e-book.

IMG_2813He’s also the author of The Book of Disquiet, a novel that’s been called one of the greatest works of the twentieth century. Why isn’t Pessoa better known? In addition to the difficulty of uncovering Pessoa within so many noms de plume, there’s also the problem that much of his work was discovered in a trunk after his death in 1935. An international team of scholars set about organizing the 27,000 documents that had not yet been published, The Book of Disquiet and What the Tourist Should See among them.IMG_2728


Brasileria Cafe

Although the guide was written in 1925, it remains amazingly readable, relevant, interesting, and popular. To visit Pessoa’s haunts, go to the Largo Chiado (largo is a public square) and its art nouveau Brasileira Café, where you’ll be able to take a selfie with the sculpted PesIMG_2754soa. Take in the tile-fronted buildings, enjoy a coffee, and read some of Pessoa’s words such as this delightful verse, part of a longer work.


Cat, you tumble down the street

As if it were our bed.

I think such luck’s a treat,

Like feeding without being fed.

 Coda: Other authors to note include the “Bard of Portugal,” Camoes, who authored the epic poem The Lusiads to memorialize Vasco da Gama’s tremendous accomplishment in 1498 of finding a trade route to India and China. It is mandatory reading for Portuguese school children. FYI: the Romans called Portugal Lusitania, the origin of Lusiads title. Tombs for both Camoes and da Gama are in the significant landmark, St. Geronimo’s Monastery in Lisbon, near the Tower of Bellem, another prized tourist site.

St. Geronimo's Monastery

St. Geronimo’s Monastery

Chiado and Carmo are two other well known poets. Eca de Querios (The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers; The Mystery of the Sintra Road) is a late 19th century novelist.

Although not Portuguese, one other “classic” author who addresses Portuguese is English novelist, Henry Fielding, famous for Tom Jones, and less well known for his memoir, The Journal of a Voyage to Portugal, where he was sent to regain his health. Even though he died shortly after arrival, the narrative from the mid-eighteenth century demonstrates his keen eye and biting social commentary.

Another snippet from Pessoa, in parting:

The poet is a feigner

Who’s so good at his act

He even feigns the pain

Of pain he feels in fact.


Madeira: Garden of the Atlantic

image  imageReid’s Palace, a pink hotel founded in 1891 on Madeira, is exactly the kind of luxurious place that Agatha Christie might have stayed, as did George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill. Road Works readers can imagine Miss Marple finding a body along the cliffside among the lush garden foliage or Poirot discovering, during the first running of the famous uphill car race in 1935, that a driver’s crash was engineered. (The 80th anniversary of the race was celebrated during our stay in 2015.)Carshow

Unfortunately, Christie did not visit Madeira. The closest she came was en route from England to South Africa on the Kildonan Castle when she was so seasick that she apparently said after four days of distress, “Just let me off in Madeira; I’d rather be a parlour maid there for the rest of my life than to sail another day.” She used that bit in her 1925 novel, The Man in the Brown Suit. The ship never did put in at Madeira.

Instead of the cozy whodunits that Christie supplies, readers have two mysteries that are mediocre at best, although they do supply local color. Tango in Madeira by Jim Williams (2013) is set post-World War I and actually includes both Christie and Shaw in the narrative. In this fictional account, the Kildonan Castle does moor in Madeira, and Christie does get off—although not to be a maid. When Christie and Shaw populate the cast of characters, then a Christie-style mystery might be expected. The author, though, says that his inspiration was Graham Greene, and that sardonic tone prevails. The mystery, such as it is, focuses on the murder of an enigmatic man. Michael Pinfold, the unsympathetic protagonist (in fact, no sympathetic characters exist) is having an affair with a married woman, having met her at dance lessons—hence, the tango in the title. He admits that he loves her but doesn’t like her. By the way, Shaw is also learning to dance. Interspersed with the narrative are Shavian drama and correspondence. The centerpiece of the mystery is the deposed Hapsburg ruler, and Williams offers a version of how he truly may have died at a rather young age. Think sardonic rather than cosy when picking up this novel.

The second mystery, The Malady in Madeira by Ann Bridges (1969), takes place during the Cold War. Russians are conducting nasty nerve gas experiments on high-plateau sheep—the “malady.” Julia, who has come to Madeira to visit British friends and to recover from the death of her husband (a British Intelligence agent), discovers the drugged animals when they go for a levada walk. Truly, levada—irrigation canal—walks are remarkable on this mountainous island, and the descriptions in the novel are helpful with advice such as to carry a “torch” (flashlight) as some levadas go through tunnels. As it turns out, Julia may be a better agent than her husband ever was as she solves knotty puzzles and willingly puts herself in harm’s way.

Trail signChestnutRewardCurraldasFreirasThe best book I read while on the island was Walk and Eat Madeira, a well written guide to paths and excursions, coupled with terrific descriptions of food and lodging, authored by a British couple, the Underwoods (2012). Their description of roasted chestnuts as a reward for walking Eiro de Serrado heightfrom the Eira do Serrado to the village Curral das Freiras (Nuns Valley) was mouthwatering and accurate. This particular trail traces the route of the mail carrier down to the village, who counted dozens of hairpin turns in her 1500 feet descent among chestnut trees and wildflowers. Updates to trails can be found online. A bonus is the use of recipes in the book. While it’s doubtful I’ll be able to try grilled limpets when back home, Reid’s Cake is definitely a possibility.

LevadaDosTournosSignWe took a pleasant stroll along the Levada de Tournos, departing Monte (above Funchal) and an intense urban setting, and were soon pleasantly in the forest, passing the odd village at intervals as well as an interesting Water House, where the water is channeled to reservoirs and lower fields. Picnicking along the flower-rampant trail—nasturtiums grow in profusion—is pleasant. Trails are easy as pie to get to, as the public bus system is amazingly well organized and regular. Walkers can gain access to many of the routes on a day out from the capital of Funchal.DFLOverLookFunchalWaterHouseNasturtiums





Tour buses can take travelers on an excursion of the deceptively small island—14 miles wide and 35 miles long—but difficult to travel due to mountainous terrain. Renting a car is not advised. Instead, make use of the public bus system, doing the research on the Horarios de Funchal, Roedoeste, or SAM sites. The latter “owns” the eastern part of the island routes primarily, the middle one the western region, and Horarios de Funchal the center and main city. We did a clockwise tour of the central island by hopping on Bus #6 at 7:35 am, which went from Funchal to Ribiera Brava (with a 10-minute “rest” stop), and then headed north through the valley that separates the east and west sections of the island. The Encumeada Pass (3000’) is spectacular and offers lodging for walkers. The descent to Sao Vicente is as breath-taking and (gulp) gut wrenching. Yes, some drop-offs exist, and roads are narrow. Bus drivers honk around curves to warn oncoming traffic, and sometimes, a vehicle must back up to give way to the larger bus.

FlowersTrailOur first leg stopped at Arco Sao Jorge, just in time for a picnic at a lovely flower-filled city park. An hour later, we were on bus #103 headed down a Highway 1 type coastal road to the quaint village of Santana with its triangular-shaped, thatched houses. Depending on the time of day, onward bus 103 may go via Ribeiro Frio (cold stream—noted for its trout) or through a series of tunnels that lead travelers quite quickly to the south coast at Machico. There, it is back along the southeastern coast on an expressway that goes under the airport runway to end back in Funchal.

This “Garden of the Atlantic” seems well suited to fictional treatment, but for the time being, a well-written travel guide with recipes to try at home trumps all.

Boston: The Freedom Trail

Revere House

Revere House

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.


When I was in seventh grade, I memorized and recited Longfellow’s 130-line poem, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” Actually, Sybil Ludington, a girl of 16, rode twice the distance of Revere to warn of encroaching British soldiers; however, it is Revere’s ride that we remember. Perhaps Ludington was too difficult for Longfellow to rhyme.

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Boston Public Library – Interior Staircase

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Longfellow Ceiling – Boston Public Library

Find Longfellow’s name inscribed in the ceiling at the Boston Public Library, a building where the lions grace an interior staircase.

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Freedom Trail Route Marker

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Revere Marker

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Hancock Marker – Granary Burying Ground

Revere’s House provides good insight into colonial living, and reminds us how important it is to preserve such historical gems; it was sold and re-sold before being rescued in the early 1900s. Revere is interred in the historic Granary Burying Ground with a modest marker; in contrast, John Hancock’s burial spot has a marker equal to his flamboyant signature. Follow the red line embedded in the streets and sidewalks to pursue The Freedom Trail, a 2.5 mile walk of historic sites.


Preceding Longfellow, poet Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), is memorialized in Boston at Commonwealth Mall (between Fairfield and Gloucester). America’s first published Black poet, Wheatley is famous for such lines as these:

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African American Museum

” Imagination! Who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,

We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul. “

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Memorial to the 54th Massachusetts – Civil War

An American-American Freedom Trail includes the “Black 2015-04-12 17.03.51Faneuil Hall,” on Joy Street just above the gold-domed capitol, where visitors can also see the memorial to the 54th Massachusetts, the Black Civil War battalion led by Shaw and popularized in the film, Glory.

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Make Way for Ducklings

One of Boston’s most visited sites is recognition of the popularity of Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey. Located in the Boston Public Gardens where Charles and Beacon streets meet, the duck statues are photographed equally with children and adults.

Not surprisingly, many of the good books for travel to Boston focus on the Revolutionary War. Who didn’t read Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain when in grade school, or see Disney’s dramatization of it? Although marketed for teens, any adult would find The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (two volumes) by M. T. Anderson challenging for its multi-genre format and its dark themes about an Age of Reason group of philosophers and scientists who seek to test an African “prince” for his ability to have intelligence.

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Memorial Hall – Harvard

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Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Jane Langdon writes a fine mystery, and Homer Kelly, her detective, is usually found in New England, and in Boston, in particular. Take an architectural tour of Harvard Square (Yard for insiders), and look at Memorial Hall, a gothic pile of bricks, and then read Langdon’s The Memorial Hall Murder (1978). I also enjoyed Murder at the Gardner (1988), set at the lovely Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where anyone named Isabella can gain free admission. On April 14, a mass is said in her honor as it is done every year.

The Gardner Museum, a Venetian style gallery, was opened while the eccentric Gardner still lived. A friend of Henry James (and some say, a possible model for Isabel Archer), Gardner amassed a phenomenal art collection. It became even more famous as a result of a daring robbery 25 years ago that has still not been solved, and the robbery generated several books, both fiction and nonfiction: The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro; Stealing Rembrandts by Anthony Amore (who is head of security at the museum); Irreplaceable by Charles Pinning; The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser.

Henry James’ rather dense The Bostonians provides inside into turn-of-the-century

Old Corner Bookstore

Old Corner Bookstore

aristocratic families. Lighter fare is The Dante Club, a murder mystery featuring Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Boston and Cambridge not only have the longevity needed for a rich trove of literature from which to choose, they also have great watering holes, like Cheers, made famous through TV.



Awakening the Mayan Past — In Mexico


Tulum Iguana

Digging up good literature about ancient Mayan culture is about as difficult as uncovering the ruins overgrown with jungle trees and plants. Some 3,000 Mayan cities have been identified by archaeologists, and 300 have been excavated, but even there, only partial excavations have occurred, resulting in about one percent on view.


Temple of Masks at Kohunlich (close-up on the right)


Previously, RoadWorks visited important Mayan sites such as Copan, Tikal, Palenque, and Chichen Itza. This trip took us to the crowded seaside site of Tulum, overrun by cruise boat tours, but also to the quiet and more notable sites of Dzibanche and Kohunlich some hours away from Tulum nearer to Chetumal and the Belize border. These were easily accessible from the wonderful resort where we stayed for a week: The Explorean Kohunlich. Frankly, we did not know these locations prior to our visit as they don’t have the press of a Tulum or Copan, but they are significant. Dzibanche, for instance, features not only extensive ruins but also a troop of boisterous Howler Monkeys, and the quieter Spider Monkeys. Kohunlich is well regarded for its Temple of Mascaderos—stunning figureheads that retain their ancient coloring.

Dzibanche Temple


What to read to enhance these site visits? By far, the best fictional treatment I found was The Well of Sacrifice (1999) by Chris Eboch. Although marketed as a teen novel, it’s a good read for adults, too. The actual well of sacrifice is located at Chichen Itza, a cenote—a deep pool of water surrounded by limestone. Archaeologists in dredging the well have found traces of human remains as well as precious objects such as jade. The cenote plays an important role in the narrative as a power-hungry priest seeks to take the place of the recently-departed king. For anyone who stands in his way, he tells the people of the city that the gods have ordered a sacrifice. In this way, he removes his rivals, one in particular, Smoke Shell, a young warrior who is enormously popular. Well_cover_from-210

His sister, Eveningstar Macaw, is the main protagonist of the novel, a teen who is knowledgeable of jungle plants and herbs that she gathers for her mother, who is a healer. Will Eveningstar be able to avenge her brother’s death and save the city? That’s a secondary concern as the book’s primary benefit is in revealing day-to-day Mayan life. Admittedly, even scientists do not know exactly what happened in everyday life since the cities were abandoned centuries before, around 900 CE, but murals provide some clues. The author uses what is known to good effect. The Mayan civilization believed in human sacrifice and even blood-letting among its own people; as a result, some scenes can be graphic although nothing in comparison to violence in contemporary films.


Remnants of a ball court, a crucial site in The Well of Sacrifice, where captives play for their honor–and then proceed to their death or to slavery.

The Mayan culture was popularized in the mid-nineteenth century by American John Lloyd Stephens and his artist partner, Frederick Catherwood. Their collaborative work, Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan, is in public domain and still reads very well due to Stephens’ clear prose and Catherwood’s detailed drawings. This 1848 book was very influential in revealing Mayan cities and creating expeditions to unearth them. Contemporary novelist Eboch acknowledges that debt. (By the way, Catherwood’s home in Merida is open to the public.)

A “juvenile book,” The Search for the Silver City: A Tale of Adventure in Yucatan (1893) by John Otis, who penned almost 200 “boys’ books” in the style of Tom Swift or The Hardy Boys, follows two teens who are marooned on the Yucatan after the family yacht catches fire. Along with an engineer who survives, they run into an ex-pat, who has located a lost Mayan city, and who is determined to steal some of its gold and silver. Exploitation of native people reminds us that at one time such colonial attitudes still reigned even centuries after Cortez’s destructive path.

These three books are all available in electronic form, which makes packing much easier. Another possibility is a historical romance by Barbara Wood, Woman of a Thousand Secrets (1999). Frankly, it’s too much romance for my reading tastes. Scott O’Dell, a prize-winning author for young readers, published three novels about classic period Mexico. The first, The Captive (1975), focuses on a Spanish Jesuit, who is taken by Mayans. Unfortunately, it is not in e-book format. His other two novels focus on Aztec and Incas. Likewise, Daniel Peters weighs in with three hefty novels, each focusing on the three major cultures: Mayan, Inca, and Aztec. Another young adult novel is Marc Talbert’s Heart of the Jaguar (1995). I wish I had found Marella Sands’ novels on Tikal before visiting there: Sky Knife (1997) and its sequel Serpent and Storm (2001).

Moving on to other major tribes of Mexico, Colin Falconer’s The Feathered Serpent (not to be confused with the Scott O’Dell novel of the same name) focuses on the Malinali, the Aztec woman—a slave to Mayans—who became the mistress of conqueror Cortes. Gary Jennings’ popular Aztec series offers hefty reads. Simon Levack has a mystery The Demon of the Air (2005) that also centers on Aztecs.

National Geographic offers this list of best books about Mayan culture:

By the way, several books about Mayan prophecy circa 2012 came out about that time. These were not of interest to me.

Florida: Land for Sale, Books to Read

Holiday Flamingos at Florida Botanical Gardens (Largo, FL)

Holiday Flamingos at Florida Botanical Gardens (Largo, FL)

“If you believe that, I’ve got some land in Florida to sell you.” The great Florida land grab of the 1920s is a theme in 7000 Clams, a novel by Lee Irby (2005) that moves from gangsterland on the East Coast to the balmy climes of St. Petersburg. No, the “clams” in its title are not edible; instead, they refer to a $7000 IOU signed by the great Babe Ruth, who is heading for spring training in St. Petersburg, a city that still boasts ball fields.

Spring Training Baseball Field - St. Petersburg

Spring Training Baseball Field – St. Petersburg

Perhaps filled with too many characters—a ravishing chanteuse fleeing from Al Capone; crooked cops; a Jazz age coed; a henchman with a heart of gold—the novel evokes an earlier age when The Babe was a god—even if he had feet of clay and was 30 pounds overweight.

Speaking of feet of clay, Beat Generation fans can make a pilgrimage to Jack Kerouac’s home in St. Petersburg (5169 10th Avenue North) or toast him with his favorite drink, whiskey and beer chaser, at the Flamingo (1230 Dr. Martin Luther King St. N), the bar he frequented until he died much too early at the age of 47. Reading his On the Road offers a homage to this trendsetter.

St. Petersburg provides artful outings, including the stunning Dali Museum (go even if you don’t care for surrealism); a fine Museum of Arts with café on the waterside; and a

Dale Chiluly Art Museum

Dale Chihuly Art Museum

collection of Dale Chihuly’s gorgeous glass art. To revel in 1920s style, move on to St. Pete Beach, where the Don Cesar Hotel rises majestically in full pink glory on wide beaches of white sand. Have a drink in the Gatsby Bar, named in honor of author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who stayed there. Stay at the 1928 pink palace for about $200 a night and watch the fabled sunsets.

Don Cesar Hotel (1928)

Don Cesar Hotel (1928)

Florida’s heyday is reflected in the number of attractions on offer in the St. Petersburg/Tampa/Sarasota area. The Tampa Museum of Art features a small but elegant exhibition space and an exceptional café on the riverfront.

Plant Museum - Tampa

Plant Museum – Tampa

The Plant Museum, which is actually a 19th century railroad magnate hotel, is well worth a visit, located on the University of Tampa campus. Its Victorian Christmas Stroll is a delight. The Aquarium gives up close underwater vistas although visiting the Manatee Viewing Center at the power plant in the winter months when these interesting creatures seek warmer waters is another option.


Ringling Circus Museum

Ringling Circus Museum

In Sarasota, the enormous Ringling complex offers a full day of interesting venues in its Circus Museum, Museum of Art, mansion by the sea, and lovely gardens. The mansion, Ca d’Zan means “House of John,” but docents noted it is really the “House of Mabel,” the Iowa farm girl who went on to be a wealthy art collector.

Ca d'Zan Ringling Mansion

Ca d’Zan Ringling Mansion

Florida inspires authors. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling are two classics. Rather than the sad coming of age story that Rawlings penned, try her memoir Cross Creek (1942). John D. MacDonald’s extremely successful amateur detective series featuring Travis McGee—and color-coded titles—are good beach reads. Carl Hiaasen is a great choice for his adult fiction, his titles for young readers (e.g., Hoot), or even his nonfiction like Team Rodent, about Disney’s invasion. (John Ringling preceded Disney, though.)

Peter Matthiessen won the 2008 National Book Award for his Shadow Country, a novel that in itself has a fascinating story. The tale of killer and killed E. J. Watson, Shadow Country is a re-working of an earlier trilogy by Matthiessen, who seems almost possessed by this real-life story of a planter, who was also a serial killer. This 900+page thriller could take an entire vacation to complete.

One final quirky title to consider: The Young Marooners on the Florida Coast by F. R. Goulding. This 1852 entry is considered an early juvenile novel, featuring a young foursome who exist Robinson Crusoe-like on an island in Tampa Bay. It’s available from the Gutenberg Project for free.

Perhaps buying land in Florida is not such a bad deal after all, particularly if it’s on the fabled white sand with an ocean view.




Washington, DC

WashingtonMonumentRoad Works: Washington, DC

Dan Brown’s 2009 The Lost Symbol is a shoe-in for a novel that clearly features important landmarks of the Washington, DC, where reader-travelers can venture for first-hand experiences. Robert Langdon, our Harvard symbologist from the enormously popular The Da Vinci Code returns to deliver a lecture in The Capitol building but literally stumbles upon the severed hand of his revered mentor, Peter Solomon, an appendage that has been tattooed with various Masonic symbols that lead Langdon on a chase to uncover “ancient mysteries.” Langdon escapes through the Library of Congress. The Main Reading Room of the Jefferson Building of the LOC is part of the path, and this over-the-top architectural gem is definitely worth a stop on anyone’s tour of Washington, DC.

LOCJeffersonDefinitely take the guided tour of the Jefferson Building to learn about hidden Masonic and other symbols. Read the quotes that adorn the walls—all from Thomas Jefferson. Visit the recreation of Jefferson’s Library as well as the rare Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare’s First Folio. Listen to Groucho Marx tell Johnny Carson that he is highly flattered and proud that The Smithsonian wants his letters.

Langdon and company visit several sites in their attempt to escape the evil clutches of the richly-tattooed villain: the Folger, Metro, National Cathedral, and America’s own Egyptian-style obelisk—the Washington Monument. Will the secret mysteries be found in the Masonic Monument to George Washington near Alexandria? Were the Founding Fathers more committed to Freemasonry than to a new country? If someone can read to the end of this incredible and, frankly, unbelievable narrative, then all will be revealed.

Consider instead President Truman’s daughter’s mysteries. Mary Margaret Truman Daniels wrote (or some allege a ghost writer wrote) several mysteries set in the nation’s capitol, Murder in the Library of Congress (1999), for instance. Since her passing, the series has been adopted by a “co-writer” in much the same way that Dorothy Sayers literary estate signed on Jill Paton Walsh to continue the Peter Wimsey-Harriet Vane series.

DolleyMore satisfying than a Dan Brown thriller are the titles that have a relationship to the District of Columbia. Take, for instance, Rita Mae Brown’s fictional account of the life of Dolley Todd Madison, Dolley (1994), a rollicking good read. She is so obviously connected to the White House, but after her son by a first marriage emptied the family coffers and the intellectually outsized James Madison passed, she spent much of her final days in a house near the executive mansion. A plaque notes its history.  Do visit the Madison family home, Montepelier in Virginia, for the rest of the story.

Certainly, one can watch the franchise Night at the Museum to get a behind-the-scenes look at The Smithsonian. Better still pick up Tony Hillerman’s Talking God (1989), the 9th entry in the Joe Longhorn/Jim Chee series. Henry Highhawk, whose maternal grandmother is a Navajo, is a conservator in the Smithsonian. Both of the Navajo detectives depart from Arizona/New Mexico and wind up in the nation’s capitol. Jim Chee ends one relationship and begins another with Janet Pete, who is the attorney for Highhawk. The novel also features Dr. Caroline Hartman, Curator of the exhibit in the Natural History Museum on “Masked Gods of the Americas.”

Courtyard of National Portrait Gallery

Courtyard of National Portrait Gallery

Speaking of Smithsonian museums, an undiscovered gem for a rest stop is the Courtyard Cafe, a wonderfully open and quiet space for lunch between the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum.


Air and Space Museum

Air and Space Museum

One of my very first connections between literature for the road and travel involved The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (1979). I adored this book, the story of the nation’s test pilots and first astronauts. I challenge any reader to complete the introduction and not be moved. Before the astronauts, there was Chuck Yeager. He broke the sound barrier, and his story is told enthrallingly in Wolfe’s book. See his Glamorous Glennis (a tribute to his wife) aircraft at the National Air and Space Museum. Likewise, the capsules of the inaugural class of astronauts are there. I remember very well getting a pin at my local library, the Warsaw Boonslick Library, in 1960, featuring Friendship 7, John Glenn’s flight. Perhaps that touchstone with my library made Wolfe’s book some 20 years later so very meaningful.

Another favorite venue in Washington, DC is at the American History Museum: Julia Child’s kitchen. The exhibition has gone through a couple of remodels since I first visited it—no doubt based on its enormous popularity and the commercial success of the film, Julie and Julia. Any number of books provide a wonderful basis for viewing her actual kitchen, assembled intact from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts: Julie and Julie, naturally, but perhaps more appropriately, My Life in France (2009), or the remarkable correspondence between Julia Child and her friend Avis DeVoto, As Always, Julia (2010). I  also admire two other books, one from her personal assistant on her PBS show, Nancy Verde Barr’s Backstage with Julia (2008), and the other from her cookbook editor, Judith Jones’ The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food (2008).

Plugging one more off the beaten path site, I recommend a stop at the National Botanic Center, just down the hill from the Library of Congress. In December, the annual model train display is revealed. For 2014, the theme was lighthouses and sailing ships. It’s a wonderful sanctuary–interesting, and educational.

Washington, DC is such a fertile site for so many narratives: the Civil War, Civil Rights, presidential and Founding Mothers. Here’s to fruitful reading in the District of Columbia.