About Road Works

Professor of English

Stories of Switzerland

My view of Switzerland is derived primarily from watching the film Heidi starring Shirley Temple. Although it was produced in the 1937, it was still popular some 20 years later when I was growing up, the curly-topped singer and dancer herding belled cattle, goats, and sheep in the Swiss mountainside home of her Grandfather. The tale of the precious little girl, which is in the tradition of “and a little child should lead them,” continues to be popular; the children’s book by Johanna Spyri, originally published in 1880, has been translated into multiple languages, apparent in bookstores and tourist shops—alongside another children’s book, Wolli, featuring one of Zermatt’s equally precious black-faced sheep.

That celluloid depiction was not far off the mark as our visit to Zermatt and surrounding villages included a celebration of bringing the cattle down from the summer alpine pastures with the cows festooned with flowers and crowns one day as well as a “Most Beautiful Sheep” contest the following day. Centuries old houses, barns, and granaries still exist in Old Zermatt as well on the hills and paths above the town. A trip to Zmutt, 1000’ above the tourist-crowded town, reveals an iconic mountain village with a restaurant for trekkers and discrete satellite dishes on a house or two. Still, the bells on the necks of cattle and sheet clang appealingly.

The Zermatt area has been a tourist mecca for well over a century. And no wonder. The Matterhorn is a dramatic icon on the skyline, unconquered until 1865 when Edward Whymper and a group of six others ascended the summit. Their story is embraced at the Matterhorn Museum, which includes a fragment of the rope that broke, resulting in four of the party falling to their death.

Walt Disney in Zermatt

That story is the basis for the Newbery Award winning book, Banner in the Sky by James Ramsey Ullman (1954), which inspired Walt Disney to make the film, Third Man on the Mountain (1959), starring a young James MacArthur, one of the child actors in the Disney stable (perhaps better known for his role as “Book ‘em Dano” in the original Hawaii 5-0). As with many Disney productions, the film tied into a famous Disneyland attraction: the Matterhorn ride.

Tense mountain climbing scenes figure prominently in two other novels, although neither is set on the Matterhorn specifically. Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan (2017) is the thrilling true story of Pino Lella, an Italian teen from Milan, who helps Jewish refugees and downed Allied pilots escape into Switzerland via a mountain monastery. Until 1943, Italy’s Jews were fairly safe, but with Mussolini’s fall, the Nazis took control. Pino not only climbs and skis mountain passes; he also becomes a spy when selected as a driver by a Nazi officer. (A film version of this popular novel is forthcoming.)

The Eiger Sanction (1972) by Trevanian (the pseudonym of Rodney William Whitaker, who chaired the media studies department at the University of Texas-Austin), concludes with a tense mountain climbing adventure on the treacherous Eiger, familiar to anyone who has seen the Clint Eastwood film of 1975. The novel, however, is quite funny, a send-up of popular spy novels such as the James Bond series by Ian Fleming. The characters’ names offer clues that the author doesn’t take this story seriously: Wormwood, an incompetent CIA agent; Clement Pope, another agent in the story; the albino Urrassis Dragon; Randie Nickers, one of the several women that anti-hero Jonathan Hemlock beds. Banner in the Sky, Beneath a Scarlet Sky, and The Eiger Sanction offer thrilling details and technical background about the intricacies of mountain climbing.

Another satire deserves mention: Mark Twain’s story of his trekking from Zermatt to Riffelberg. This short story is contained in the longer A Tramp Abroad, downloadable for free from Gutenberg.org. Twain organizes a party to make the hike, a route that is more easily done today via the cog railway, the Gornergrat Express. His group is roped together from the starting point of Zermatt as “one can never be too careful about falls,” and the train extends half a mile with donkeys, guides, and supplies. He notes that the Baedeker Travel Guide says it’s an easy day hike to Riffelberg, but Twain insists it’s at least seven as they got lost. Today’s hikers can follow the Mark Twain Weg (way) from Riffelberg Hotel—built in 1855 and surely an overnight stop for the author–to Riffelalp described as a “gentle descending trail.” What is not noted is that the path features drop offs that may scare off even a literate acrophobe.

One last book suggestion: Before A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle authored several novels, including And Both Were Young (1949; reissued 1983), which features a teen girl being dropped off at a Swiss boarding school by her widowed father, a fairly common practice at the time to send girls to “finishing school.”* As with much of young adult literature, the protagonist, “Flip,” for Phillippa, has difficulty fitting in but finds a friend in Paul, a young man traumatized by the recently concluded war. A sympathetic art teacher helps Flip deal with the death of her mother, and, in turn, Flip is key to Paul’s recovery. Skiing figures prominently in the happy outcome, and readers also learn that the art teacher and her husband helped refugees flee from Germany into the safety of Switzerland over mountain passes.It’s the same theme readers find in Beneath a Scarlet Sky.

Switzerland offers glorious scenery and the potential for lots of healthy exercise with well-marked trails and paths for hikers and bikers. Cable cars, gondolas, and railways take sightseers to stunning vantage points looking at mountain peaks and disappearing glaciers. The Matterhorn itself is extraordinarily impressive but dangerous. Some 500 climbers have died trying to ascend. On the other hand, mountain guides have reported successful climbers who have teed off on top to launch golf balls into Switzerland and Italy or who have opened their paraglide chutes and jumped. For my own taste, I think I’ll stick with the vicarious thrills of a good book.

Good Swiss Milk to be Strong and Healthy

*For a YAL novel featuring a boys’ boarding school set in The Alps, check out the Alex Rider novel that I reviewed in fall of 2011: https://wp.me/p1PLCA-Q.

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Antwerp Gems

Antwerp’s Art Nouveau Train Station

Grote Markt (Great Market)

For anyone who wears a diamond, Antwerp is most likely a connection. It is the center of the diamond industry where the raw materials are shaped into gems that say, “I love you.” A new museum devoted to the diamond industry tries to exploit Antwerp’s reputation as the Diamond Capitol of the World. It wasn’t on our must see list as I don’t particularly care for diamonds. What I do care for is interesting literature set in the places I travel—books that illuminate the geography of a place. For this trip, I chose two odd bedfellows: A Dog of Flanders (1872) written by British author Marie Louise de la Ramée but published with her pseudonym “Ouida” and On Black Sisters Street (2011) by Chika Unigwe.

The former, a sentimental story of orphan boy Nello and his loyal pooch Patrasche, relates a series of events as they dip deeper and deeper into poverty. Ironically, this children’s book is not well known in Belgium, but it is wildly popular in Asia, particularly Japan. Thus, when tourists came looking for the sites of the novel and found none, city leaders obliged and funded a sculpture of the poor unfortunates in front of the Cathedral, an interesting interpretation of the finale of the novel where the two pals are found frozen to death because no one would shelter them. The bricks of the square rise up almost like a blanket to cover the pair, and the white marble suggests snow.

Poverty and deprivation are also themes in the contemporary novel On Black Sisters Street, which recounts the grim tales of four African women who find themselves working as prostitutes in Antwerp’s Red Light District, parading in seductive clothing in picture windows for potential clients. The narrative focuses more on Lagos than Antwerp with only rare glimpses into the streets of the medieval city such as when Sissi, on the last day of her life, freely walks in the Cathedral and Grote (Great) Market area of the city. Black Sisters Street does exist but refers ironically to nuns.

Considered two of the oldest printing presses in the world.

Given the excellent medieval buildings that still exist in Antwerp, I would have appreciated a novel set at that time. We visited the excellent Plantin-Moretus Museum, the former home and business of trend-setting printer and publisher Christophe Plantin. The 16th century entrepreneur was the first of nine generations of printers, who broke ground in the study of language and linguistics, atlases, scientific and humanistic treatises, and multilingual Bibles. He survived in spite of dangerous changes in religion (Catholicism vs Protestantism) and ruling governments (Spain, France, Netherlands). Although Antwerp was known as the “City of Books” for its 140 publishers, printers, and booksellers, Plantin and the Moretus heirs that followed stood at the head of the industry, not just in Antwerp but in the whole of Europe.

Other impressive architecture includes the former Butcher’s Hall, a Gothic brick building that serves currently as a music museum; the Grote Markt buildings with traditional Hanseatic style roof lines; Rubens House; a girls foundling home; and the hotel Elzenveld where we stayed, a former medieval hospital. Its ground included a ghostly sculpture of two robed figures that we had actually seen before—near Death Valley in Goldwell, a strange and funky outpost for a Belgian sculpture workshop. The flash of recognition was a bit startling. More contemporary architecture is evident in the shiny, metal-clad MAS museum near the docks.

A trip to Belgium must include moules et frites—mussels and fries (don’t say French fries in Belgium!) A relatively new chain—Frites Atelier—strives to take fries to a higher level with artisan sauces and toppings. Another favorite was Fish A Go Go, a funky narrow stall with a few upstairs tables that sells darned fresh seafood like calamari Tepanaki, sardines with lime zest, and spicy octopus and potatoes. When it comes right down to it, I am attracted to a city’s cuisine. Food for the body and the mind are the real gems of any locale.

Gutenberg’s Legacy

Whenever I traveimg_7151.jpgl, I begin with a list of books to read on the journey. The trip to the Rhineland and beyond involved such a list but with a special focus. I’ve embarked on a project to write about the history and development of writing, and where better to focus than on the origin of the printing press—in Mainz, Germany. Gutenberg worked for decades to create a prIMG_7093ess that would produce editions of The Bible that were correct and uniform. The high level of secrecy and the enormous amount of risk—financial as well as personal—are detailed in the novel, Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie (2014). Why risk? At the time, sacred documents were created by scribes; a single Bible might require three years’ time to complete. Books were of such value that they sometimes came with chains to secure them.

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Gutenberg in Mainz Market Square

Might a printed version without the touch of the human hand, inspired by God, actually be the work of the devil? Gutenberg and his associates might very well have been burned at the stake for their audacity.

We learned at the Gutenberg Museum that increased access to books and literacy drove the creation of spectacles. The Pharmacy Museum in Heidelberg Schloss noted that printed books helped standardize recipes for medicines with the printing of ingredients and depictions of botanicals. The impact of the printing press cannot be underestimated. No doubt, this is why Gutenberg has been termed “The Man of the Millennium.” IMG_7243Mainz, a center for trade in the Middle Ages, is a charming town on the banks of the Rhine, populated by numerous churches, historic buildings, and a stellar boat museum.

It was also the site of a British prisoner of war (POW) camp in World War I, described in Alec Waugh’s The Prisoners of Mainz (1919). Yes, this is Evelyn Waugh’s brother. It is one of those British stiff upper lift narratives of the time that almost makes the war seem like a lark—even while describing gruesome realities of The Front. World War II and its aftermath but on its distaff side—the women—is the focus of Jessica Shattuck’s best-selling novel The Women in the Castle (2017). The widows of those men in the plot to kill Hitler band together to survive.

And speaking of survival, Illuminations, a novel about Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt (2012), brings to light the amazing woman of the Middle Ages, who was dedicated to the church by her family when only eight years old, and who became a major figure as a Benedictine abbess and composer. Her compositions continue to be performed today.

Mark Twain also makes an entrance with his voluminous travel journals, in particular, The Innocents Abroad and A Tramp Abroad (both can be downloaded for a modest price). His entries on Heidelberg are particularly entertaining. He visits the student “jail” on the Heidelberg University campus—where errant students are housed in somewhat barren surroundings but which became a badge of honor for them, as well. The current tour of the jail reveals an impressive amount of graffiti left by its inmates, who apparently also partied during their brief internment. It ends, naturally, in a shop where tourists can purchase SWAG and hoodies emblazoned with Heidelberg University.

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Student Jail

More recent travel narratives focus on the Rhine River. Castles in the Air: A Journey Down the Rhine by Simon Worrall (2013) explores the hillside strongholds that populate the banks of the Rhine River. These castles in medieval times served as toll gates for traffic on the river. If a ship didn’t pay, it could be blown out of the water. And, it appears that there may have been little coordination among the landowners who taxed the waterways. The famous cat and mouse castles—Katz and Maus–were owned by brothers who competed for tolls.

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Near the cat and mouse castles is the famous Lorelei—the turn in the river that has caused many shipwrecks. The “Song of the Lorelei” speaks to longing and love. Difficult to comprehend for contemporary visitors, the river separated peoples on opposite sides of the bank. It was rare for them to marry. There are, in fact, very few bridges that span the Rhine.

 

While the Rhine or the Elba might not seem related to the Mississippi, Germany has a love affair with American Jazz, evidenced in Dresden’s Dixieland Jazz Festival held each May. No bands from the USA are needed; there is a wealth of groups from Europe who perform over the multiple-day festival.

Kurt Vonnegut’s novel that includes the burning of Dresden, Slaughterhouse Five, is a natural choice for a RoadWorks Books. The Women in the Castle also contains a harrowing scene from the Dresden bombing. And, the marks are of the fires are still visible on the reconstructed buildings.

We visited Nuremberg, known for its Nazi war rallies as well as its role in the trials of war criminals from World War II, but committed now to being a city of peace and human rights. Its medieval walls still stand in many parts of the city. The Church of St. Lorenz honors the saint who was martyred on the grill and who is reputed to have quipped, “Turn me over; I’m done on this side.”

Nuremberg is also know as “The Pencil Capital of the World,” for its family factories that produce the well known brands Castell-Faber, Staedler, and Stabilio. The Museum of Industry and Communication has an excellent exhibition on the history of pencil production that dates back to the 18th century. Remember: the pencil was revolutionary at the time, offering a writing implement that was accessible and fairly inexpensive—in contrast to quill and ink. Nuremberg is also home to the artist Albrecht Durer, and his home is a testament to this status during his own lifetime. It is well preserved and well worth a visit.

The pencil is mightier than the sword! IMG_7132

For our Rhine and Moselle River sojourns with forays to the local castles, we stayed in Boppard, a convenient place for ferry hopping and hikes—wandersweg–above the town on the quaint Hunsrücksbahn railroad.

We ventured to the Monastery of Maria Laach (Mary of the Lake), where monks continue in the ancient traditions with a book bindery. The church there is, quite likely, one of the best examples of Romanesque architecture in Europe, and its gardens and shops are also inviting.

I will also plug the excellent Riesling that we found in Germany. In the States, the Riesling that appears on our shelves is often sweet, but the real thing is much better. We can also testify that the cheese and fresh strawberries that we picked up for our lunches and picnics were terrific.

Germany is a country too large, diverse, and rich in culture to encapsulate in a brief blog, and, so often, we rely on the compelling literature of World War II to think about this nation, but we departed feeling that we had uncovered a history of writing and printing that offered a more nuanced view of a nation that has been essential to the cultivation of literacy. Thank you, Gutenberg.

Equal-opportunity pedestrian lights in Dresden.

 

Traveler’s Note: We traveled to Germany in May; the temperature veered from pleasant to quite cold.

The author biking along the Elba River in Dresden and trying out quill pens in the Museum of Industry and Culture in Nuremberg.

“Never stop exploring”–my North Face suitcase.

NeverStopExploring

 

Maui Wowee!

220px-Unfamiliar_fishes_vowellI admit it. I’m a nerd. Maui, one of the most popular islands of Hawaii for tourism, was a highlight for me because of the history of its 19th century printing press. When I began compiling the RoadWorks book list for a December, 2017 trip to the vacation paradise, I ran across Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes. Vowell, a well-known NPR contributor, has written several volumes that look at historical moments in a slightly different angle. Unfamiliar Fishes offers a back-story on how the Hawaiian Islands were—rightly or wrongly—taken over by the United States. As O. Henry demonstrated in his wonderful short story collection on Honduras, Cabbages and Kings (see RoadWorks from March 2012), corporate America took over “banana republics,” except in the case of Hawaii, it was sugar cane and pineapples.

But, here’s the point: in 1823 when the Boston-based missionaries arrived to bring Christianity to the “natives,” no written Hawaiian existed. It was an oral culture. That changed with the missionaries’ dogged persistence to transcribe the local spoken language into written documents. They created an alphabet, based on the Latin version, but using fewer letters appropriate to the language. That meant a lot of k’s and vowels. IMG_6731The typical 26 letters narrowed to just a few more than a dozen. And then they began printing spelling guides and primers for schools on a second-hand printing press that had definitely seen better days. IMG_6730

The result? Forty years later, the Hawaiian people were one of the most literate in the world, reported by Mark Twain and Charles Dana. The missionary zeal, combined with Royal backing and native intelligence, resulted in a highly-educated populace. Government and legal documents were published but also books that documented the rich culture, flora, and fauna of the islands.

I learned about the Printing Press Museum from Vowell’s book. A replica of the Maui press is housed in the original printing house, Hale Pa’i—now a museum—on the grounds of the old mission school that is a thriving and highly-regarded secondary and boarding school.

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Hale Pa’i Printing Press Museum

It produced the first newspaper west of the Rockies on Valentine’s Day, 1834, Ka Lama Hawaii (The Light of Hawaii), a weekly for the students. The 200 copies of each of four pages were printed one page at a time, the paper being placed on the tympan and secured with an overlaying plate called a frisket. Sticks of type were composed and placed in the stone and then inked by hand. The apparatus with the paper was then laid over the type becoming a coffin that was slid forward under the platen so that it could be cranked to lower it and press the paper downward onto the inked type. Visitors to the Lahaina museum can take home a copy of the front page that was produced for them.

Vowell’s book is head and shoulders above any other book that I can recommend although Mark Twain’s Roughing It in Hawaii offers a contemporary version of this transition from an oral to a written culture. He recognized the negative consequences of colonialism and missionary intrusion on the Hawaiians. To get a sense of the 19th century Hawaii that he describes, visit the town of Lahaina and its historic and cultural sites. At the Wo Hing Museum that documents Chinese immigrants, make sure to visit the annex where period films are shown, including the Sunday afternoon horse parade and transferring livestock from island to island by boat (strapping cattle to boats by their horns). It is next to the wonderful Baldwin Home Museum, an example of architecture for early missionaries. The latter is where I found a convenient pocket-size Mark Twain in Hawaii, published by the University of Hawaii Press.alohaquilt

The spreading Banyan Tree by the Court House is a noted landmark and makes an appearance in Jennifer Chiaverini’s The Aloha Quilt. This is an easy beach read about the history of quilt making in Hawaii, introduced by the missionaries but adapted by the locals—they prefer applique to patchwork. The novel is part of the Elm Creek Quilters series, typically set in Pennsylvania but transported to Maui due to one of the recurring character’s need to escape from a difficult marriage. Its best attribute is that it tells a history of the Hawaiian people. A side trip to Oahu to see the Queen’s Quilt that she made while under house arrest would be worthwhile.

Another series set in Maui is the detective mysteries by Toby Neal. I chose Bitter Feast, set at a re220px-House-without-key_coverstaurant—the sous chef is found dead in the cooler—as Maui is also known for its fine dining. I admit that I did not find the characters—two detectives who had met on cases in previous books and married—endearing. I preferred the Charlie Chan mystery set in Hawaii, The House Without a Key, by Earl Derr Biggers. Charlie Chan, in the tradition of Hercule Poirot, uses his sharp intellect to solve a locked door murder. It also brings to light interesting cultural facts such as the College Boat that transported Hawaiian students back from the Mainland each June.

Maui has fabulous beaches and ocean views, but I enjoyed seeking out other venues beyond the sand—even if traffic was horrific. The Iao Valley State Park recognizes a stunning landscape but also the site of an important battle that left hundreds, if not thousands, of warriors’ corpses in the “Damming of the Waters.” Near it is a Heritage Park that features the diverse architectural styles of the various settlers of Maui: Portuguese, Koreans, Japanese, and the missionaries. Try Picture Bride by Mike Malaghan for a view onto the plantation system and the importing of women frIsabella Birdom Asia as wives of workers. At the base of the valley road is the lovely gardens and house of the Bailey House Mission Museum.

To time travel to Hawaii in the 19th century, read two of Robert Louis Stevenson’s stories: In the South Seas and Island Nights’ Entertainment. Personally, I enjoyed intrepid explorer Isabella Bird’s account in her The Hawaiian Archipelago. On Horseback in Hawaii. She is a frank and articulate writer.

Maui is more than sand, whales, and water. Its history is fascinating, and it can be an eye opener for tourists to understand that this independent nation was taken over by missionary and corporate interests, becoming a US Territory and, eventually, a state in 1959.

Note: We traveled to Maui in December 2017. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the winter months for a visit–even if it’s the time Mainlanders wish to get away–unless you are a surfer. Waves are huge, and it can be stormy and rainy. We didn’t snorkel nearly as much as we hoped to do because of rough waters. We did enjoy whale watching though.

Corsican Literature: V is for Vendetta

Stunningly beautiful and geographically rugged, Corsica has inspired stories that focus on its vendetta tradition. Really. I was taken aback to find so many works that used vendetta as a theme: Balzac’s Vendetta; Guy de Maupassant’s “The Corsican Bandit” and other stories; Alexandre Dumas’ The Corsican Brothers; Journal of a Tour to Corsica by Boswell (1879), or Columba by Prosper Merimee (author of Carmen). A father casts aside his beloved daughter when she falls in love with the son of an enemy; a son kills 14 family members to avenge his father; and two brothers feud. Even a contemporary thriller, Mazzeri, by Peter Crawley (2013) included retribution for long-held feuds while it also featured a love story and Russian thugs.

The Rose Café, in contrast, by John Hanson Mitchell (2007) is a memoir about sitting out the Vietnam draft working in a café in Corsica. It includes delightful character sketches while also charting the summer love affairs of the patrons and staff.

Travelers to this French island, once dominated by Italy—hence the Genoese towers on nearly every outcropping by the sea—can learn about its history through Dorothy Carrington’s thorough Granite Island (1971), still the most authoritative source. The icon of Corsica, the image of a black Moor with white bandana, derives from the defeat of the Moors in the Middle Ages when an Aragon king added a illustration of four such profiles to his coat of arms. When has a country ever adopted a defeated people as its symbol? Still, the head shows up on its flag, license plates, and ferries.

 

We watched the ubiquitous ferries enter the historic harbor of Bastia from the terrace of our hotel high up in the Citadel.

From Bastia, a good day trip goes north to Cap Corse. A lot of travelers circumnavigate the cape by car, but an alternative is to go to the end of the road at Matinaggio and then hike the Sentier des Douaniers, the trail used by custom officers to try and catch smugglers. The entire trek takes eight hours, but that can be shortened by any amount of time, either turning back, or catching a boat ride after a couple of hours.

That offers an opportunity to stop for degustation of Corsican wines, cheese, and sausage at the delightful Terra de Catoni; its owner retired from corporate life to re-invigorate the family vineyard.

White wines are particularly good, and the fromage tends to be chevre or sheep cheese. The longur is a smoked pork fillet that reminds me a lot of the hams that my Dad smoked after the fall butchering on our farm in Missouri. Our lunches when traveling tend to be cheese, bread, fruit, and wine, so stocking up on local farm fare is helpful.

On the way back to Bastia, the village of Erbalunga features a distinct Genoese fort overlooking its harbor. Its church was reputed to host some interesting relics, including a piece of clay that formed Adam. I took a lot of delight in reading Gertrude Forde’s account (1880) from her journal of a visit to a grotte (cave) near the village. In fact, if I were to recommend one fun read for visiting Corsica, it might very well be the two volume work of this intrepid woman and her two friends. Frankly, we cringed on driving some of the vertiginous roads of the island, but these 19th century women got about by carriage, and if she ever felt that the driver was “asleep at the wheel” so to speak, she had her umbrella ready to poke him; fortunately, he always seemed to wake up in the nick of time before any precipice. And, believe me, there are definite drop-offs. We crossed the island from Bastia to Porto via the Col Vergio highway, which overlooks two impressive gorges and a summit graced by a Lady of the Mountain sculpture. De Maupassant describes the area around this mountaintop “bandit’s hideaway”: “ ….. “ Wonderful hiking opportunities exist along the route, including the Sentier des Condamnees (trail of prisoners) that was used for logging and the nature trail, Sentier de Sittelle (Nuthatches), which is signed by pictures of the bird.

Serious hikers follow the “Mare to Mare” (sea to sea) or “Mare to Mont” (sea to mountain) trails. All of these are well-signed. Another good way to hike the mountains is to take the “little train” from Bastia to Ajaccio, but stopping along the way at Vizzavona to do an easy hike such as the Cascade d’Anglais (waterfall) and then hopping on a return train.

Porto itself is home to UNESCO-designated sea preserve and calanques. A boat tour or kayak expedition is a good way to see these sites, which may include Girolata, a village that is accessible only by water or a 90 minute walk from the highway. Forde describes in her 19th century narrative why Porto is so impressive: “These rocks are impossible to describe; their grandeur can only be felt. . . They rise almost perpendicularly to their fearful height….” They felt the Porto rocks to be the “most beautiful site in Corsica. . . . It is impossible to imagine anything more sublime than these blood-read precipices—more wonderful, more perpendicular, and more lofty . . .and again falling beneath us in an unfashionable gorge that made one shudder to look into.” When Forde and her party reached, Porto, only five houses existed. The threat of malaria resulted in a chill in tourism. Today, many hotels exist, and bus tours predominate as passengers take one of many boat cruises to the Preserve of Scandola. (Beware meeting tour buses on the narrow roads into the village.)

And, speaking of possible obstacles on the road: who let the hogs out? Some 45,000 feral pigs inhabit the island and may lounge on roadways, along with the occasional cow that displays bovine cognition lower than that of the rooting pig. At a picnic and hiking stop along a mountain road, we found the pigs to be just as demanding as the marmots of some of our national parks, begging for handouts.

It’s a far cry from the days of Gertrude Forde when 9 francs a day would pay for expenses of food and lodging. A bottle of 1769 Vineyard Corsican wine costs more but is still reasonable. That is the year Napoleon was born and Corsica’s independence died. In spite of patriot Paola, Corsica became a part of France, which, ironically, Napoleon countenanced as Emperor.

Forde noted in her preface that “The popularity of Corsica is increasing so rapidly, and information regarding the island is so difficult to obtain, that these sketches may not be unacceptable to intending travelers.” And this was 1880. Corsica is not a well-known destination for USA travelers but definitely one of natural beauty worthy of a trip. And how interesting that a 19th century journal about such travel still inspires.

Note: Historic reads such as de Maupassant and others can usually be downloaded for free via the very helpful Gutenberg.org. This LINK contains a list of dozens of books about Corcsica. Our favorite travel guides include the DK Guide to Corsica and Walk and Eat Corsica, one of a helpful series for hikers.

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We’ll Always Have Paris

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.
–Ernest Hemingway

I am the most fortunate of persons: I have traveled to Paris on multiple trips. When I was studying French in college, I didn’t bother to learn the personal pronoun versions (tu, toi) of vous as I was quite sure that I would never know anyone that well in France. Now I find that my halting French at least gets me out of the starting gate. I can order sardines in a markets, like the charming Marche des Enfants Rouges–so named as it inhabits a former orphanage where the children where required to wear red.

In previous posts on Paris and France, I’ve covered several titles. A new one to me is the very popular The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George, about a sad man who has mourned a broken love affair for 20 years. I’m grateful to my friend Andy for treating me to this novel. He calls himself a “literary apothecary,” and has an uncanny ability to pair books with readers to help them mend. When he finally reads his lover’s letter after two decades, Monsieur Perdu (appropriately lost in French) cuts loose his boat-based bookstore on the Seine and proceeds by waterway to the south of France to find out what happened to his love.

Along the way, he passes through some of my favorite countryside, the Luberon and coastal village, Cassis. It is a charming, four-hankie kind of read.

I also picked up Hemingway’s nostalgic A Moveable Feast (1961), in which he looks back on his time in Paris.

It was a lovely guidebook to his haunts: walks in the Luxembourg Gardens; drinks and writing at Les Deux Magots; his residences in the 5th arrondissement near Monde L’Arabe and the ancient Roman amphitheater, in Arenes de Lutece (39 rue Descartes and 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine). According to my dissertation advisor, Dr. Dorys C. Grover, the story about a hungry Hemingway hunting pigeons in Luxembourg Gardens and hiding them in the baby carriage is apocryphal. I trust her.

It was a return to a writer whom I’d admired greatly when in junior high through college—perhaps not so much now. The novel The Paris Wife from Hadley’s point of view was enlightening, and I reported on it during an earlier sojourn in the City of Lights. I also stopped by Shakespeare and Company, the groundbreaking bookstore founded by Sylvia Beach. She loaned books to Hemingway and other authors. He returned his; apparently Henry Miller did not.

Yet another novel to consider set in this time period is Francine Prose’s Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 (2014), which was shortlisted for the National Book Award. Although overpopulated with characters, none of which is sympathetic to the end of the narrative, the book offers insight into alternative lifestyles in Paris pre-World War II and the disastrous circumstances of France’s cooperation with the Nazis. It also includes vignettes of real people such as Josephine Baker and characters that mirror actual people such as Henry Miller.

In addition, I read a couple of American expatriate memoirs—women who had fallen in love and remained in the country. French Toast by Harriet Welty Rochefort was just okay while the more recent Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes by Elizabeth Bard was more satisfying, if also a bit more narcissistic.

Although not fiction, David Leibovitz’s L’Appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home, is anticipated, due out this fall. I’m a big fan of his The Sweet Life, essays about moving to Paris.

Having visited Paris before, we now seek the out-of-the-way experience: the Musee des Arts Forains (a delightful 3-hour experience of historic carnival/carousels in the Bercy area); a walk on the Promenade Plantee (think NYC’s Highline Trail); the little known Musee Trente (artwork from the 1930s); biking on the newly-pedestrianized highway by the Seine using the bike-sharing Velib service; an after hours concert in Notre Dame.

No matter how many times we visit the home of the Eiffel Tower, we never run out of activities or books to read.

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Venice Volumes: Love and Death

         “. . . Along with everything glorious and holy, there had to be exist its opposite: decay and death. For there to be light, there must be darkness, mystery.”
The Honeymoon by Dinitia Smith, 2016 (p. 125).

Venice is glorified as the perfect tourist city: no cars, no bikes—only water taxis and pedestrians. Although there are pedestrianized cities around the world, surely no other place like Venice exists? For centuries, tourists have been crossing the Academy Bridge, shopping on the Rialto Bridge, and taking gondola rides. That’s apparently what George Eliot, the pen name of Mary Anne Evans, did when she married a younger man and spent her disastrous honeymoon there. Smith’s novel, The Honeymoon, recounts their story. The plain Eliot, famous for her novels Middlemarch, Adam Bede, and The Mill on the Floss, booked rooms at the Hotel Europa along the Grand Canal and set out to visit the famous sites of the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s, and the Bridge of Sighs.

They also toured neighboring islands of Murano—for its famous Venetian glass—and Torcello—for its early Christian church, Santa Maria Assunta.

She was not the only famous writer to visit Venice. Henry James set Wings of the Dove in Venice. Hemingway hunted duck on the shallow waters of the Venetian lagoon and had it prepared at Cipriani’s on Torcello.

Eliot and her young husband could visit in 1880 numerous art galleries, one of the reasons why the Venice Biennale came into existence in the late 19th century to showcase Italian art. Now an international art show, the expansive venue comprises not only the Arsenal and the Gardens but also sites around the city that would be hard to cover even in the months that the exhibition is in place. At times it was difficult to discern what was art and what was not.

Doge’s Palace Prison: Casanova Cell

Carnival Masks

It seems ironic that the Eliot marriage was unsuccessful when Venice is home to one of the most daring lovers of any age, Casanova, who often used Carnivale masks to hide his identity and seduce his lovers. Ian Kelly’s Casanova: Actor, Lover, Priest, Spy uncovers this legendary Lothario. We can also recommend the films that feature Peter O’Toole as an aging Casanova and Heath Ledger as a younger version. Yet another film depicting that era, Dangerous Beauty, captures the woman’s side of the story: the courtesan. Similar to geisha in being well educated and skilled, courtesans who were successful were registered in a city book, and their “coming out” often took place in churches where potential male admirers might look around at the crowd during particularly boring parts of a sermon. An excellent novel of this era is Sarah Dunant’s In the Company of the Courtesan.

Venice oozes history. Other good reads that place Venice in historic time settings include these: The Spy of Venice (#1 in the William Shakespeare Thriller series by Benet Brandreth) and Sylvia Prince’s A Matter of Glass, which concerns the uncontested role of Murano as glassmaker during 17th century through today. Another historical novel is The Lion of Saint Mark: A Story of Venice in the Fourteenth Century by G. A. Henry. The novel The Gondola Maker by Laura Morelliso so inspired my husband that we had to seek out a master craftsman of the oarlock. The one he purchased resembles a Brancusi sculpture.

For mysteries, turn to Donna Leon’s popular contemporary novels that feature Commissario Brunetti, such as Death at Le Fenice.

Peggy Guggenheim quote on garden bench

Art-rich, yes. Atmospheric? Without a doubt. Although visits to museums rich in art is no doubt a requirement—the Academy; the Peggy Guggenheim; and, our personal favorite, the Ca’ Pesaro—we took a lot of pleasure from seeing the fish market and walking the byways, largely unpopulated, away from the main tourist haunts.

On the last day of our visit, we succumbed to the traditional tourist must do—the gondola ride—and as we pulled into our side canal, I saw a plaque, “Robert Browning died in this house,” the Ca’ Rezzonico, also now a museum. We had visited his home in Asolo at the beginning of our trip. His parting words, “Open my heart and you will see / Graved inside of it, ‘Italy.’” Although we had other venues to visit in Italy—the run of the Mille Miglia vintage car race in Ferrara; Ravenna; and Bologna—for me, it seemed that Venice brought the Italian portion of our trip full circle.

Note: This is a short list of books set in Venice. GoodReads offers 225 titles set in Venice! For more recommendations, see these sites:

https://www.theveniceinsider.com/novels-in-venice/.

https://www.waterstones.com/blog/trip-fiction-books-set-in-venice

https://www.tripsavvy.com/best-venice-books-1548178

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