Category Archives: Travel

October on Prince Edward Island…

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“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” Lucy Maud Montgomery

 

As we tour Prince Edward Island this was indeed my prevailing thought, but they’re the words of the island’s most famous author, Lucy Maud Montgomery. Are they not precisely the sentiment that her beloved character, Anne, of Anne of Green Gables would exuberantly exclaim?

The island in October is simply stunning with hues in their autumnal glory, but it isn’t only the natural flora that wows. Whether in the cities, hamlets or countryside, the islanders truly delight in the season with elegant pumpkin-lined porches and flourishes of wreaths.

Prince Edward Island’s narrow roads wend through the forested and pastoral countryside – explosions of burnt reds, oranges, and golds line the way. Road signs suggest that you just might just be required to give way to a horse and carriage. The island does have that feeling of serenity, of simpler times, of history that lingers still.

My mom and I are first-time visitors this far east in Canada. It’s the ideal time to visit this ‘Garden of the Gulf’, yet be forewarned as many sites have already closed for the season. As the smallest province of Canada, PEI is a graceful canvas of quaint harbours, colourful bait shacks, tidy homesteads and lush agricultural land. It produces 25% of the nations potatoes, complimenting its fisheries, tourism, aerospace, bio-science and renewable energy endeavours.

It wasn’t too long after crossing the Confederation Bridge to the island that we chance upon Victoria by the Sea. With its squat lighthouse – traditional white, trimmed red – the small harbour town welcomes with a hearty bowl of seafood chowder, local crisp white wine, and glimpses into a fisherman’s daily life. Ropes, nets, buoys, and boats are at the ready for forays out to sea.

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In the summertime, the small harbour would be astir with visitors. Now we wander happily along the quiet streets and chance to meet Ben. Positioned just across from the lighthouse, this artisan moulds candle holders from the iron-red sandstone and clay of the island. The light glimmering from Ben’s tiny studio brightens up the gloomy October afternoon.

“This was once a healing house,” Ben tells us. “In the early years, diphtheria took many lives. Instead of going to the sanatorium, if a family had the means, they’d build a small cottage on the property for their loved one’s isolation… and hopefully recuperation.”

Ben’s perch has a view of the quaint wharf and the water, he finds it peaceful… just the way he likes it. Happily posing for a photograph with my mom, he gives us a few pointers for the island. “Don’t forget to say hi to Anne,” he says with a friendly laugh. “She keeps the tourists coming!”

After time in Nova Scotia, we’re touring for four days and chancing upon the unexpected, meeting locals, is very much part of the journey. Ben’s friendliness is matched time and time again in the days ahead.

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“The legend is that the island was formed by the Great Spirit placing on the Blue Waters some red crescent-shaped clay. We called it Epekwitk – cradled by the waves.” The Mi’kmaw, First Nations

The accent of many islanders hints at their roots, of the vast number of Scottish, English, Irish and Acadians who settled. Yet long before this time, the Mi’kmaw First Nations thrived on the island they called Epekwitk – the long pristine beaches, sand dunes and red sandstone cliffs inspiring their creation story.

IMG_0403I was fortunate to meet Bernie – not long after leaving the island –and I consider it an honour to have met this proud, compelling elder of the Mi ‘kmaw nation.

Gathered one evening around a blazing campfire, Bernie Francis greeted our writing group in the tradition of a powwow. With a healing drum and the gift of cedar, tobacco, sweetgrass and sage, Bernie’s soulful tunes wafted over us, spiritually connecting us to the land, to traditions, to storytelling.

The reverence for his nation’s people, who once moved with the rhythm of seasonal hunting and gathering, was palpable. We felt enveloped in a honeycomb of stories, heritage and soulful lyrics. As a Mi’kmaw elder, Bernie exemplifies the keeper of wisdom and traditions bestowed upon him.

As a linguist, he helped design the now official orthography, the writing of his people’s language. There had not been one and this achievement earned him honorary doctorates and grateful accolades. Leaving home, and the country, at 14, Bernie would eventually return in later life to work as a Director of the Court Worker Program, ensuring fair and just treatment of his people. His accomplishments are many, yet around the campfire that evening as Bernie serenaded us in Mi’kmaw, Spanish, and English, he taught us the gentle art of humility and generosity. For me, our evening with Bernie was the apogee of my trip.

Back in Charlottetown, I learn about the irrevocable change for the Mi’kmaw people. In 1763, The British, claiming dominion over the Maritimes, called the land St. John’s Island. Then a name change to Prince Edward Island, in honour of the fourth son of King George III, Prince Edward the Duke of Kent, Commander-in-chief of British troops, North America.

Hostilities grew as the island was soon divided into a mere 67 lots of properties – allocated to the King’s supporters by means of a lottery, most were absentee. Prince Edward was the father of Queen Victoria and in the course of her long reign, many more were encouraged to settle here, though the French were the first colonial settlers in Charlottetown.

In 1720, not far from the present-day city at Port La Joye, they staked their settlement bringing along Acadian settlers. Some forty years later, it was besieged by the British and renamed Charlottetown after the King’s consort. Then followed the tragic, wrongful expulsion of the Acadian settlers by the British –  an indelible stain in Canadian history.

Today, Charlottetown is widely remembered as the birthplace of confederation, where meetings and negotiations took place to discuss the forming of the nation – official on July 1, 1867. Paradoxically, Prince Edward Island declined to give up its status a colony of Britain, declining to join the fledgling union. Soon, it would be the railway that sealed the bargain.

 

“The railway moved mourners to funerals, brides to weddings, brass brands to picnics, hockey teams to tournaments. It got farmers’ produce to market, children to boarding schools… Islanders moved and mingled to the whistle of the train.” A signboard near Charlottetown’s first train station of 1907 

For many, before the railway came to Prince Edward Island, one could live ten miles from another village and barely know it existed. In 1871 this changed dramatically as railway branch lines slowly criss-crossed the island. Yet with too few passengers, too little freight, too many stops (every few miles) and unable to pay the debt, the colony faced bankruptcy. In 1873, Prince Edward Island reluctantly agreed to become Canada’s seventh province – the new nation would assume the island’s railway debts! Not only did this create jobs to compliment the long established fishing economy, railway coincided with the rise of shipbuilding and new wealth from shipping and timber.

The charming streets of Charlottetown attest to this. Perhaps a grand mansion such as Beaconsfield, its rooftop glass belvedere viewing out to the sea, its wealth of William Morris wallpaper speaking to its privileged past. Or wander the walkable streets and admire simpler homes, their facades in heavenly painted shades, their heritage and names proudly on display. I revel in the rich architectural past and their various styles – Georgian, Greek Revival, Italianate, simple Island Ell and Four Square – each with their own unique elegance.

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“It’s delightful when your imagination comes true, isn’t it?” Lucy Maud Montgomery

Back into the countryside, it was time to make our way to the ‘Anne of Green Gables’ house in Cavendish. As a writer, I wanted to know more about the author who created the spunky, loveable Anne Shirley. What had inspired Montgomery? Was the setting for her inspiration as beautiful as portrayed in her books. If you haven’t watched the current CBC series, Anne with an E… I simply implore you to do so!

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The drive from Charlottetown to Cavendish provides another showcase for the island’s beauty, but the town itself disappoints. With not much more than the church where Montgomery once played the organ, the small post office (already closed for the season) and the local cemetary the attraction is the home of a relative where Montgomery spent much of her time. The setting does feel like a storybook and it’s clear why she felt such a deep connection to the landscape. Embraced in the Cavendish community, Lucy was raised with a love for natural beauty… for the woods, the fields, the shores. Her imagination transformed it into a vivid, fictional world.

From the age of fifteen, the author began submitting poems, essays and stories. She partly credited fireside storytelling for her gift, ‘the romance of them in my blood.’ Despite the constrained expectations of women in the Victorian era, Montgomery was independent and strong-minded. She went away to Dalhousie University, became a school teacher, habitually rising early to write before class. After years away from home, she returned to care of her ill grandmother who ran the Cavendish post office from the kitchen of her own home.

It once stood near the present Cavendish post office, and the often lonely and dispirited young author discreetly sent out submission after submission from the humble surroundings. The manuscript of Anne of Green Gables, once stored away in a hatbox and safe from further rejection, was finally accepted on the sixth try. Published in 1908 to wide acclaim, it was an instant success. Lucy never shied away from the issues – the emancipation of women, freedom of speech, the struggle of identity, even the colonial treatment of the Mi ‘kmaq.

Anne Shirley’s adventures continued in numerous books – even as Montgomery struggled with her own depression and that of her husbands, a preacher, who ministered near Toronto. The author was stricken with the Spanish flu and almost died in 1918, afterwards almost divorcing her husband for his uncaring treatment. Difficult to obtain in Canada until 1967, Lucy ultimately decided against a divorce believing it was her Christian duty to make her marriage work. She returned to her beloved island as often as she could.

Awarded an OBE, many other awards, she is one of the most prolific authors in Canadian history. Upon her death 1942, Lucy Maud Montgomery was buried in Cavendish, the place she had always loved and that had given her so much inspiration.

As I wander the grounds, a single bus load of tourists from Japan is soaking up the surroundings, reminding me that from the outset Lucy enjoyed an international following and this continues today. Indeed, I get a true sense of the writer and her muse… this evocative place that she called home.

 

“On a cold day a winter sleigh ride and a picnic to survey the land for the best placement of the island’s first lighthouse. 13 miles across the frozen bay… basket lunches of bread and cheese, and fortifying wine was consumed by all.” Historical notes, March 31st, 1840

 

I had this one last destination in mind, Prince Edward Island’s oldest lighthouse. After all, I had been ‘collecting lighthouses’ throughout this trip. With the wind whipping up the waves and cold air biting, I venture out into the Atlantic wind to savour the lighthouse up close. My mom wisely remains in the warmth of the vehicle, as I peer up, then out, and around, to fully appreciate this vital structure.

Once the location for Point Prim Lighthouse had been determined by the surveyors that freezing day in 1840, it ended five years of petitioning, planning and funding. Simply put, as Charlottetown grew and shipping traffic increased, shipwrecks were piling up along the rugged shores. Merchants and fishermen often faced ruin and loss of life. Between 1770 and 1845, up to 100 ships had foundered in the island’s waters. The traditional bonfires at a harbours entrance now no longer sufficed.

As I guard myself against the roar and the spray of the ocean, I spare a thought for the lighthouse keepers. Their job was often one of loneliness and danger, but also of meaningful industriousness. The keeping of logs to record weather patterns, the buffing of the lights copper reflectors and the gleaming of salt-sprayed windows. And the summer months of tending gardens, farms and fish traps. Their names are recorded for posterity at many of the lighthouses and here at Point Prim, their contribution to the community is poignantly mentioned… ‘those enduring contributions.’ It strikes me that here on Prince Edward Island, community is and has always been the bedrock of this intriguing, compelling land.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A ‘Come from away’… feeling at home in Peggy’s Cove

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The Buoy Shop owner tilts his flat cap ever so slightly as he considers my question.

“Well now, you must be a come from away – not from these parts – if you’s asking that. Different buoys you know, have different purposes.”

Roger is seemingly drowning in buoys. They dangle in nets and perch in the crooks of his aged bait shop – shades of blues, turquoises, oranges and faded reds.

“See this small one here, it’s carved from Portuguese cork. Those net floats there, they help catch the fin fish.” Roger’s sliver mustache curls into a smile when I ask how long he’s been a fisherman.

“I’m fifth generation, my children are six. These days, it’s more lobster fishing, but it was once more cod and haddock.”

Once I’ve browsed and chosen a handcrafted wooden buoy, Roger offers some advice. Shoving his large, calloused hands into the pockets of his checked flannel jacket, he cautions me. “You’ve come on a nice day, but yous be sure to stay off those black rocks. They get slippery and we don’t want to be fishing you out of the sea.’’

Roger and his Buoy Shop are an institution in Peggy’s Cove. Now, gazing out over the steamship-sized inlet, one gets a sense of time standing still, of maritime heritage preserved and presented to perfection.

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Crab and lobster traps nestle against weathered bait shacks. Snakes of rope coil on wooden docks. Small schooners, dories and Cape Islander’s anchor in the late October sun.

To get a true snapshot of Peggy’s Cove, I amble across from the docks, along the narrow path of Lobster Lane. A stranded buoy, bobs in the shallows and seaweed smothers the rocks at waters’ edge. Clusters of buoys arrayed in bouquets of colours and sea-green Adirondack chairs poise out to sea from the deck of the lonely Wharfside Cottage. The end of the season is already upon many parts of the Maritimes as the come from aways return to other parts of the province, country, or the world. The more permanent homes perch on a gentle cliff above, no strangers to the volatile maritime weather. Theirs is a spectacular, albeit often wind-whipped vista.

The gentle sibilant breeze is suddenly interrupted by the engine of a Cape Islander. The Harbour Mist,a lobster-fishing vessel, glides past slowly. Its cherry-red bow gracefully parting the deep-blue waters as it returns to the safety of Peggy’s Cove.

I soon hear an, “Ay, welcome back,” as the crew is greeted back home. The welcome, and the relief, of a seafarer’s return has been playing out here since 1811 when six families were issued a land grant of 800 acres. Fishing was their mainstay, but cattle also grazed the fertile soil that surrounds the coastal village. By the early 1900’s, a lobster cannery, a church, the General Store, and a schoolhouse supported a population of some three-hundred locals. Today, only thirty-five permanent residents call it home.

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Wandering onwards, I chance upon much more charming names than ‘General Store.’ These days it’s The Foggy Rock, Hags on the Hill and the Sou’ Wester. The once settlers’ cottages serve as quaint gift shops, restaurants and even the old schoolhouse has been converted into a charming homestead.

I hear the scraping of a wire-bristled brush even before I chance upon it. Eliza is five-steps up a ladder, tilted against the old school house. She is brushing away layers of paint… patinas of history. I peek through the window, admiring its transformation from schoolhouse to cozy cottage.

IMG_0998“It was built about 1858,” Eliza tells me, gingerly backing down the rungs to welcome me. “I married the son of a local fisherman, about forty years ago.” Yet our conversation soon meanders not to the personal, but to the local economy, now greatly influenced by the multitude of bus tours making their way from Halifax.

“The number of cruise-ship tourists grows each year,” Eliza laments. “We’re becoming overwhelmed.” Eliza and other locals agree that surely there is a limit as to how many buses these narrow roads, limited parking, and the environment can sustain.

She mentions Roger, back at the Buoy Shop. “He’s one of the residents speaking out. As am I, but some older people are leaving well enough alone.”

Of course, the star attraction of Peggy’s Cove is its iconic lighthouse. One of the most photographed images in Canada, it beckons to millions of tourists a year. The eight-sided concrete tower rises 50 feet from the grey-white granite outcrops; ancient rocks polished by glaciers and the ocean’s unrelenting tide. Guiding vessels into St. Margaret’s Bay since 1914, this lighthouse replaced the first structure of 1868– a mere beacon on the roof of a lighthouse keepers wooden home. Up until automation in 1958, the keepers ensured the kerosene oil lamp perpetually shone – first red, then white, then green – finally settling on red to conform to world navigation standards.

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I watch visitors clamber over those evocative, timeless outcrops; thankfully none are venturing down to the perilous black rocks where rogue waves have swept some out to sea. I gaze back towards the land… vegetation ablaze with the burnt reds of autumn and the church spire rising above the paint-box hues of bait shacks, cottages, and anchored boats.

A fighter-jet suddenly pierces the sky, roaring low over the cove and I turn again to the silvery-blues of the ocean. Just beyond, is a sacred place. It’s impossible to not think of those who perished here in the tragic aviation crash of September 2, 1998. The memorial, two imposing oval granite monuments at nearby Whale’s Back, lie in direct alignment with the crash site. “In memory of the 229 men, women and children aboard the Swissair Flight 111 who perished off these shores. They have been joined to the sea and sky. May they rest in Peace.”

As I take my leave, the strains of a bagpiper punctuate the scene. His kilt fluttering gently in the breeze, the piper stands alone. The melody drifts over the rocks and across the sea.

The plaintive tune harkens to the many Scots who sailed to this new land. It evokes the ferocity and the serenity of this rugged landscape. It honours the tragedies, and the vibrance of life at the cove. It is one of the most beautiful, soulful and unique places I have visited.

With it all, this appreciative come from away, feels very much at home here…

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From the ‘notes’ archives… The Kingdom of Brunei – it’s always about the people

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From the ‘notes’ archives

The Sultan of Brunei – surely, stories of his legendary wealth precede him. His tiny oil-rich kingdom on the island of Borneo has a population of just over 400,000. The nation enjoys free medical, subsidised housing, higher education, and no taxes. I had known most of this when my husband suggested that I join him on a business trip.

I was also aware that in 2014, the Sultan had introduced Sharia Law to his kingdom and contradictory for someone who lived for seven years in the Middle East, I found myself questioning whether I wanted to go… to a country that I perceived as having oppressive and inhumane laws. Yet I also asked myself whether it was fair to be ‘judge and jury’ when it comes to human rights. Most countries have tarnished legacies in their history. In my country of Canada for example, it includes both the past and the present… including the treatment of our indigenous peoples, the Japanese, the Doukhobors, the Chinese.

Even though Brunei’s framework of law stood counter to my enduring, perhaps slightly romantic, belief in the universal hope for equality, I decided to accompany Bruce on his trip. I resolved to simply let the people and the place speak for itself.

Flying from our home in Bangalore, through Singapore, we were welcomed in Brunei’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, with genuine graciousness. Airport officials met our eyes with smiles and casually chatted about our travel plans as we awaited our bags. In a somewhat chilling counterpoint, my gaze landed on a notice, ‘Death for all drug traffickers’. 

Through our week-long visit I saw no outward signs of the law, which I soon learned was undergoing a ‘phased implementation’. It wasn’t necessary to cover my hair in public, fashion attire ran the gamut from revealing sundresses to full burka. Time enjoyed at a resort was like any other. Young romantics cuddled on benches as they took in the spectacular sunsets and bikinis were the norm around the poolside. And it shouldn’t have surprised us that the only wet part of the ‘swim-up bar’ is the water.

Brunei is a ‘dry’ country where no alcohol is served or purchased – although I don’t rule out the existence of the odd illicit ‘speakeasy’ with guarded door and secret knock, or so we were quietly told. Despite the warnings of drug trafficking, the authorities are more lenient on alcohol and we learned (too late, alas) that we could have brought a few bottles of wine into the country after all.

We stayed in the Bandar area and Bruce made the daily trip to his company facilities in Kuala Belait, one hour’s drive to the east. I admit, most days I luxuriated in the impressive Empire Hotel and Country Club. No expensive had been spared in creating the lush, sprawling grounds, complete with a golf course that meanders along the edge of the South China Sea.

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Guests were sparse however, save for a few busloads of visitors from China and Korea, and young soldiers on leave for the weekend – British troops and Nepalese Gurkas stationed near the vast oil refineries. This is a remnant agreement between the Bruneian government and their former colonial masters. “Just in case of attack,” our congenial taxi driver informed us.

With a sense of humour and with a certain ‘joie de vivre’, the people of the small nation quickly chipped away at my preconceptions and reservations.

img_2622The nature of the residents is evident not only from the locals, but from other nationalities as well… those from the Philippines, India and Nepal. Working long hours in the service industry, we often heard variations of the sentiment, ‘It’s a good place to work. We work and save money, there’s not much else to do.’

img_2633Indeed, the heart of Bandar Seri Begawan does not take long to explore. There is an abundance of power-evoking government buildings situated on tidy, manicured streets. But its uniformity lacks exuberance and is somewhat of a bland experience for a traveller.

A number of side streets channel the characteristic Indian and Chinese entrepreneurial spirit; tailoring and barber shops, traditional medicine, spices and bespoke jewellery.img_5595

Along with grand mosques, red Chinese lanterns announced a traditional Chinese temple, while white crosses marked the ubiquitous St. Andrew’s Church. Yet I learn that strictly no religious celebrations other than Islam can be held in public. “If it weren’t for the children’s school life here,” an expatriate confides as we chat in a cafe, “life would get extremely monotonous.”

Still, I know from a previous trip to Borneo (an island shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei) that there is much to explore. Borneo is home to the world’s oldest rainforest with unique flora and fauna and its fine white-sand beaches are breathtaking. It is the domain of majestic hornbills, four-hundred species of butterflies and the elusive proboscis monkey.

Back at the tame but salubrious Empire, we are told rather conspiratorially that the vast complex was built by the indulgent and profligate brother of the Sultan, now living in exile with his royal title intact. We are driven past villas that are maintained at-the-ready for the extensive royal family. A little digging on the internet reveals why indeed the family is so vast and extended. And dare I say, therein partly lies the source that fuels perceptions of hypocrisy underlies the nations’ laws.

The Sultan is a Bolkiah, a descendent of the long lineage of Sultans who have ruled over the Bruneian empire since the 1400’s. They controlled most regions of Borneo and Seludong, including modern-day Manila in the Philippines. An ambitious British adventurer would capitalize on the empire’s decline in the mid 1800’s, infringing on the Bolkiah’s long reign and ultimately usurping power.

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A depiction of a Sultan’s lavish reception for the first Europeans, 1521

That opportunist was James Brooke who would become known as the White Rajah. Arriving to Borneo in 1838 aboard his own trading ship, Brooke found himself at the right place at the right time. Helping quell a rebellion in 1842, Brooke was rewarded with his own sovereign state and would ultimately govern Sarawak (now part of Malaysia) as a British protectorate.

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James Brooke, Known as the White Rajah

Brooke took naturally to island life and worked vigorously to not only suppress piracy in the region but to also eradicate headhunting, a common practice in Borneo. As intriguing as this story is, in short, Brunei became a British Protectorate in 1888 and did not achieve its independence from the United Kingdom until 1984 when development of oil and gas reserves spurred economic growth. The present day Sultan’s father is known as the Father of Independence. It’s clear he lived far more simply than his son.

We see evidence of this as a water taxi drops us off near a charming and homely former residence of the Royal family. Surrounded by a high chain-link fence, we’re still able to admire its simplicity; a sharp contrast to the present day palace complex the Sultan calls home.

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We catch just a glimpse of the 1700 room residence, nestled along the leafy riverside. Naturally,  the Sultan’s palace is off-limits, but its massive, opulent golden dome casts an imposing silhouette on the skyline.

The edifice is pointed out to us by the water taxi driver as we cruise the Brunei River. Did I detect just a hint of disdain?

Our destination, Kampong Ayer is said to be the largest water village in the world; it was referred to as far back as 1521 as the ‘Venice of the East’. It is an extensive community of wooden houses built on timber and concrete piles, connected by walkways to schools, mosques, a firehall, a police station and a recently added museum.

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The village of roughly 3000 people was once a series of smaller settlements, named for the occupations of its settlers. Pablat for those who made fishing gear. Pagan where palm leaves were woven into roofs. Pasir where rice took the form of rice cakes and Pemriuk, the residence for the handicraft of copper pots. Up until the early 1900’s, the home of the hereditary Sultan was also in Kampong Ayer. Its watery channels and rough-planked sidewalks were home to almost half of Brunei’s population.

 

 

 

Above all, the village was known for padian, an integral aspect of life in the water village for centuries. Visiting in 1521, Antonio Pigafetta wrote, “When the tide is high, the women go in boats through the settlement selling all the necessities of life.”

Padian, a term describing how women glided through the narrow waterways in small boats or bancas, piled to the brim with goods to sell and trade. The sellers distinctive wide umbrella hats, woven from nipa leaves, shielded from the tropical elements. Still today, the locals are nostalgic about this bygone era. Speed boats now ply the waters and discarded plastic accumulates around aging stilted wooden homes.

 

As we stroll the boardwalks, we come across a generational family. Grandma lovingly cuddles her granddaughter and we make small talk and they pose for a photo. They eye my husband and express their approval. “Nice man,” they tell me and break out in fits of laughter.

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Nearby we meet Rashme. A boat pulls up to her cafe and a young fellow hitches his vessel to a post for a quick takeaway. The shop owner obliges us with a smile as she holds up the order… two ABC’s, the shaved, flavoured ice, a cooling staple in this country that sits just above the equator. “My cafe here for twenty years,” Rashme tells me through her son’s translation. “Some years good, some years bad.” Her frankness, a reminder of what’s important the world over… that of providing for ones’ family.

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Hopping into a water-taxi, the driver soon entices us to visit the nearby mangroves, “See monkeys, see monkeys,” he implores, pointing to his nose. I keep my fear of monkeys in check as I know we’ll remain safe aboard the small boat.

From Kampong Ayer we wend through narrow waterways lined with homes that perch tenuously on slender stilts. Once in the thick mangrove, the driver kills the engine and we glide into an inlet. We wait and it isn’t long before we hear them; a family of proboscis monkeys, peering down from high in the trees that fringe the mangroves. I catch only a glimpse of their distinctive noses and golden hair, but I hear them chattering and grappling with leaves as a late afternoon snack. The mangroves are also home to langur silver leaf and long tail macaques and even for someone with the dreaded pithecophobia, it was a precious moment to have seen a proboscis this close up. Borneo is their only home on earth – encroachment on their habitat threatens their existence.

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It’s the end of the school day as we cruise back to one of Bandar’s main docks. A ‘water school bus’ passes and without hesitation, students in dazzling white shirts, black songkots on their young heads, shout hellos and wave eagerly. The many personal encounters and the openness of the people remind me of what I know to be true… to judge people by their leader or laws is ill advised and shortsighted, I know that my reluctance to visit Brunei was unfounded.

As a traveller who encounters people from all religions, ethnicities and cultures, it’s impossible to view the world in the black and white tones that certain leaders would have us believe exist. It is quite the contrary and what motivates me, time and time again, to keep packing my travel bags. It’s a privilege, it’s a joy, and intrinsically we are all very similar the world over.

Brunei is a microcosm of diversity – Ibans, descended from the original inhabitants of Borneo and mainly Christian, ethnic Chinese descended from early pioneers from the 6th century. Malays, the majority of whom are Muslim, representing about a quarter of the population, and a further quarter comprising a multiplicity of indigenous and ethnic groups including Indians and Europeans. Somehow it all seems to work, but the central contradiction is Sharia Law which seems anachronistic and out of place in such a culturally diverse society, favouring one world view over many others. As a visitor, I experienced openness and many beautiful nuances of culture nonetheless.

I’m proud to have a Bruneian stamp in my passport. To know the place in some small way is an enlightening experience. To know the people – the warm, engaging, beautiful people – yes, it’s always the people…

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Meandering the Croatian Islands…

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The table was set with lavender and white pressed linens… and for my birthday, a luscious red rose. July 1st found us on the Croatian island of Korcula, a setting of calm and beauty.

Breakfast on the elegant terrace of Hotel Korcula de la Ville was under a canopy of grape vines offering shade from the already warming Mediterranean sun. A feeling of grand, old-world charm infused the scene and I reflected on the famous guests who have shared this space. Visits from King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, Jackie Kennedy following the assassination of her husband, and the prolific English writer Rebecca West.

West in her epic novel, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, A Journey Through Yugoslavia, described the hotel as… ‘Either a converted Venetian palace or built by one accustomed to palaces from birth.’ Her journey through the former Yugoslavian countries, and islands in the early 1940’s, is a somewhat archaic read, yet redolent with descriptions that capture still the essence of the island.

In the weeks prior, we had made our ‘base’ in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where our eldest son lives. Planning to return, we set out on a two week journey through the Croatian islands; regrettably not on the steamships of West’s day, but on the region’s extensive network of modern ferries. We had planned very little and I admit that as the days unfolded in unbridled bliss, I came to love the islands of Croatia.

After breakfast that morning, I opened my journal and with my new ‘boyas’ a uniquely styled crayon (originated in Korcula) I shaded the morning scene. The potted olive trees adorning, the palm trees and soft-pink oleanders anchoring, sprays of lavender perfuming. What I could not sketch were the yachts, ferries and colourful fishing boats moored across the narrow boulevard. Nor could I adequately capture the formidable fortress walls that almost seem to buttress the hotel. As I contemplated the morning, it was with a feeling of much gratitude to be welcoming my ‘new year’ in this utopian setting.

We made a late start to my birthday morning as the evening before, our anniversary, had coincided with Korcula’s famed ‘Half New Year’s’ Party. Apparently one of the only places on earth to do so, the town hosted a carnival-like evening with a parade to show off costumes, a band and a DJ that filled the piazzas with music until the wee hours. As the moon illuminated the sea and the flotilla of yachts that had sailed in for the party, we agreed that it could not have been a more joyous and fun anniversary.

Luxuriating now with one last Americano in the rising heat of the morning, we strike up a conversation with our neighbours at the table opposite, and in particular Tanya who grew up on Korcula before taking up residence in Scotland. Tanya enlightens us on life on the island before tourists and sprinkles in some interesting local knowledge.

“I went there to work; it was supposed to be for just a short time.” she explains. “But then I fell in love with a Scotsman.” I look lovingly across the table at my own Scots beau, having no idea that the conversation would soon focus on yet another Scottish native.

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“I had an idyllic childhood here, really carefree. Our summers were spent swimming in the sea, fishing and picnicking on the islands. When the street lights came on, we knew it was time to go home.”

As we chat, I learn that Tanya’s father had once owned Hotel Korcula and needless to say, images dance in my mind of what life must have been like for her.

“We came often for pancakes and our birthday parties were held here. And yes, there’s been a lot of famous people who have sailed this way.”

Tanya reveals one of the more intriguing characters who came to be considered one of the island’s locals. The dashing Scottish daredevil, Sir Fitzroy Maclean, part inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond character, would fall in love with the island.

“His old villa, Palazzo Boschi is just up the street, close to the Cathedral. President Tito made sure he could buy property here. That was unheard of as a foreigner in the ‘60’s,” Tanya tells us.

It seems Maclean had once called Tito a friend, as well as the author Ian Fleming. Maclean gave up a career as a British diplomat to enlist as a private in the army, eventually serving in the SAS, the British special forces. And  perhaps this quote by Maclean helped inspire the James Bond character. “To some people, my life might seem one long adventure… blowing up forts in the desert, clandestinely parachuting into guerrilla wars, penetrating forbidden cities deep behind closed frontiers.”

Maclean, born in Cairo to a major in the British Army, was raised in Scotland, India and Italy. After attending Eton and jointing the Foreign Office, he was posted to Paris and Moscow where he’d make journeys by train into the Soviet Union and Central Asia to places few foreigners had ever stepped foot in. Rising through the ranks, he was eventually chosen by Churchill to go to Yugoslavia to build a relationship with Tito, Maclean parachuted into Korcula in the summer of 1943 while it was under German occupation.

The scenes are difficult to contemplate today as we relax on the shady terrace. Tanya added that her father formed a friendship with Ian Fleming’s grandson and I picture the two of them sharing stories right where we now sit.

“My dad was the consummate host. This hotel was his ‘living room’. A lot of famous and interesting people… and many drinks…” “He gave it up at the start of the war.” she said, referring to the 1991-95 Croatian War for Independence. Apparently, all hotels ceased to operate during the war, but that was just the beginning.

“I remember the day of the first sniper attack of Dubrovnik. Those idyllic days were suddenly over…”

Tanya’s voice trails off, as if wanting to leave the subject of the war. This happened time and again throughout our travels and conversations in Croatia. It is still painful and we sensed that people want to move forward, trusting that time will heal the scars. The tragic dimensions of that war added an indelible chapter to Croatia’s rich and storied past.

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As big as Malta, this large island just off the southern Dalmatian coast, has been prized by many civilisations. The Illyrians in 1000 BC dwelt here, then in the 6thcentury BC, Greek colonists settled and christened it ‘Black Corfu’ after their homeland to the south. Here, the oldest stone monument in Croatia records that more Greek settlers arrived in the 3rdcentury BC, the two communities living peacefully until the arrival of the Romans. Next in line to conquer the island, they absorbed it into the Roman province of Illyricum. Korcula then spent periods under the Byzantines, Venetians, and sundry others before the Austro-Hungarian Empire enveloped the region. As that empire collapsed, by degrees it fell under the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1918), the socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, then eventually the independent Croatia.

However, a constant in Korcula’s history and the nearby hill-town of Zrnovo, is its excellent culture of quarrying and stonemasonry. We hear that there is a mysterious connection between the people and the stones of their craft – like living things taking the form of ancient walls, robust towers, medieval churches, monasteries, patrician palaces or delicate carvings. Rebecca West enthused… ‘the thousand-year-old architectural wealth oozes like honey from a honeycomb.’

We spend five halcyon days on the island. There are more evenings of music and much swimming in the pristine, pale emerald waters. We marvel daily at heavily laden orange trees and striking purple-mauve bougainvillaea that drape the walls and shade quiet gardens. We taste wine in nearby Lumbarda; we rent a car to see more of the island’s pleasant villages and dramatic vistas. 

 

Our stroll on the final evening takes us past the cathedral – the pride and the ornament of any town along the Dalmatian coast, not only a measure of their prosperity, but also of their artistic enlightenment. I nod at Fitzroy Maclean’s house along the way, wondering if we’ll catch a glimpse of it in the next James Bond movie, to be set in Croatia.

We also pass the reputed home of the great explorer Marco Polo and those lesser revered urban palaces of noblemen and bishops. Then its along the parapets of the town wall, with its belvedere view out to the narrow channel which once bordered two great maritime powers – the Republics of Venice and Dubrovnik. The channel still plays host to the island’s long shipbuilding tradition.

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I peruse the shells and choose two. Admittedly as a kindness to the children, but more as a reminder of this beguiling island.

Back at the Hotel Korcula, I tuck the shells into my bag along with Rebecca West’s weighty novel and daydream of returning. When the tourists leave and the cold bora winds blow this way, this hotel is the only one that remains open during the off season. I easily envision returning then. A little research perhaps… there’s all that Byzantine, Venetian and Austrian history to sink into. A lot of reading… West’s novel will take eons to get through; an ideal diversion while waiting for those warm island evenings to once again grace this golden-hued town. And definitely some writing… what other characters might this island invoke?

Oh, one can daydream of a longer sojourn on Korcula…

 

 

Vrnik

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One afternoon from Korcula, a water taxi ferried us to the tiny island of Vrnik. Claiming even older quarrying history than Korcula, the island proudly boasts once world-class stonemasons. In the search for solid building stone for their palaces, the ancient Romans discovered the milky sable hues of Vrnik stone and set Christian slaves to work in the quarries. That stone, and the craft of those stonemasons was sought far and wide, sourced for the many grand structures along the Dalmatian coast, including the palaces of Dubrovnik. Vrnik stone, from long abandoned quarries, graces buildings from Stockholm to Budapest, Venice to Istanbul.

 

It was late afternoon as we joined the locals, jumping hand in hand into the warm, azure waters. We wandered past charming stone cottages, once homes to retired sea captains, these days summer vacation getaways. Now only three people claim the island as their permanent residence.

We dined at the now redundant but recently refurbished school house, the lower floor transformed into the Arts Club, an excellent restaurant close to the water’s edge. As the lazy afternoon unfolded, vacationing locals gathered around simple wooden tables for a glass of local liqueur. A man sauntered over to the small chapel, opening the doors wide to air it out.

“Only open twice a year now,” we’re told, a testament to the dwindling number of parishioners. Where a century before, some six-hundred people worked in the quarries and along the quaysides, there is now only tranquility, some fishing and gentle repose. The once bald rock-faces are now dressed in lush canopies of trees and shrubs; out of sight perhaps, but still a point of pride.

 

 

Hvar

 

Butterflies on the island of Hvar are dreamy shades; tawny and brown, speckled with tints of lemony yellows. They flit and flutter over the island’s ethereal lavender like heavenly beings. Lavender is profuse on Hvar and if there’s a reason to visit this small island… go for the lavender and stay in Old Town Hvar.

Admittedly, the reputation of Hvar’s old town is more about its glamourous-party side and the catwalk-like promenade where each sun-dress is more gorgeous than the next, where each yacht is more opulent than the last. But that’s not the only story.

We stay just beyond the square, cocooned in the streets that flow naturally up the hillside. The streets are a crisscross of aged chiseled stone – where now restaurants and shops inhabit once stately palaces or simple homes of fishermen and sailors. From our outdoor ‘living room’, we peer out over the town’s rooftops and beyond to the castle. We gaze down at the postage stamp of a church square around which this particular neighbourhood gathers. The small piazza can be a meeting point, a place to pause for the melodic bells, or even to tilt a ladder against the aged wall and take advantage of a caper plant bursting through crevices of stone. The capparis spinose is native to the Mediterranean and as we return to our guest house late one afternoon, the proprietor is plucking from the family caper plant – a simple image, yet evocative of this area.

Like all of Croatia, good food and wine is essential to life. The rich soil, tilled for thousands of years, yields excellent capers, olive and pumpkin oils, oranges and figs… and the wines? Also recommended. And then there’s the lavender!

We decide to cruise the island in a blue convertible VW Beatle that drives like a tractor, but breezes us along the island with a seventies insouciance. We admire vineyards, pastures and small family chapels. We stroll through Stari Grad, one of the oldest continuously-inhabited towns in Europe. Its vibe is more understated and sedate, a much different option to Hvar Old Town.

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We drive on, eastwards to the more modest town of Jelsa. Sampling a glass of local wine, I toast my friend back in Zagreb who entreated me to visit the town of his youth. Our walk around the harbour is swiftly abandoned as the siren call of the town’s rocky strand lures us to the water’s edge…in Croatia it’s natural to simply slip into the embrace of the sea, joining locals who swim with ritual passion. The chatter of half a dozen languages ripples over the water as people splash and glide in the arc of the little bay. We join them for a while, blissful and contented, cooling ourselves in the height of the noon sun.

Yet the true purpose for our cruise is to visit the island’s prolific lavender fields. For sale throughout the island, lavander is bottled or pouched in soaps and sachets. I’m pleased to buy a delicate hand stitched pouch from a local, Anna, who informs me that by mid-July, it’s harvest time and ‘have I seen the fields’ she asks.

In fact we’re on our way and soon, we’re wending our way along a narrow road, clinging to a ridge, dramatic vistas of the sea and the lush forest beyond. Soon it gives way to fields and fields of lavender, the intoxicating scent greeting us as we park the blue beetle. Creeping almost respectfully to the bursts of lavender nestled between rows of Illriyan-period stone walls, the royal-mauve hues are simply spectacular.

Back in old town Hvar cultural life continues to thrive. We enjoy a late glass of Grk on the terrace of one of the oldest surviving theaters in Europe, opened in 1612. It is the ideal spot to watch the sun slowly sink into the placid Adriatic. Now – after the day’s boating, snorkeling and swimming trips – the town square is a swirling mix of locals. Children play football against the town’s pretty church walls, parents chat with neighbours and we travellers find a perch and breathe it all in.

Then an evening stroll along the promenade, ambling past the stately yachts with their lights twinkling against the darkening sky. Hvar is a popular port-of-call in the Adriatic and by this time, we’ve spotted some of the same vessels seemingly on the same route that we are… Split, Korcula, Hvar, Dubrovnik. I keep an eye out for Jon Bon Jovi, and Beyonce who, we hear, are also island hopping.

A few days later, we rent our own small vessel for the day off Cavtat, an ancient summer retreat close to Dubrovnik. Bruce, Ayla and I are exhilarated with our day on the sea. We jump in and swim often, we glide our hands through the water as we put-put along, gazing contentedly out toward the marvellous Croatian coastline. Now this is living… no yacht necessary.

How did Rebecca West put it?

‘In that, and a further bay, we made the boat linger. The green water glittered clean as ice, but gentle. Could we buy some land? Could we build a villa?’

 Oh yes, I understand completely…

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Notes on a train boarding pass… Zagreb, a welcome to Croatia

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It was almost noon as the train rolled into Zagreb. We had left Ljubljana early morning, wending our way along the banks of the Sava river, through Slovenia’s pastoral countryside of summer greens, tidy chalet-style farm houses and tall church steeples.

At a nondescript station, the train stopped abruptly. We were at the Croatian border, a sister country also once part of Yugoslavia – the former federation of the southern slavic peoples.

Guards stamped our passports with curt efficiency (and a charming small train icon). Croatia, until recently absent from my travel wish list, now laid before us.

As I write this now, on day six, how fortunate I feel to be meeting Croatians in their own country. They are disarmingly gregarious, welcoming, and prone to robust outbreaks of humour.

As to the sites and the history? Beautiful and richly layered.

The drawbacks? It is scorching hot, summer-tourist busy, and that’s before we’ve even reached the epicentre of tourism that is Dubrovnik. Yet already, I have developed a fondness for Croatia, for its people and place.

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We’ve journeyed through the Slovenian hinterland before, the views are familiar, yet on the Croatian side of the border, the countryside was not quite as picture-perfect. Absent was the pristine orderliness of farms and villages, those neatly stacked woodpiles and signature window boxes in blossoming reds.

We passed through towns like Zadine Most, Sevinca, Blanca Rozno and Libna. At each station I noticed a station master standing at attention as the train passed. In Slovenia they were dressed in blue shirts, navy trousers and berry-red berets. In Croatia, their shirts shifted to white and each man, or woman, stood as if a sentinel as the train passed.

I began to watch for them, with just a hint of anticipation. I imagined the station masters’ presence as assurance that the trains are running as they should, that all is in order – my mind drifted to the heartaches of this once war-riven region .

Today, the trains are efficient, safe, economic and as always, I relish the unhurried pleasure of train travel. For does not a train journey ease one more gently into a new country, allowing it, mile by mile, to introduce its signature and beauty?

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Zagreb…

We alight at Zagreb, the once-ornate station now showing signs of neglect. Across the street, a park greets us, modern bright blue trams glide past grand buildings. I immediately love that hydrangea is prolific in green spaces and in planters; splashes of colour against the terracotta roofs and cobbled streets.

I try not to compare Zagreb to the more-polished Ljubljana, our ‘home base’ for this past month, but Zagreb at once feels different.

The city is wrapped in much the same layers of history, yet perhaps it reveals its treasures more slowly. But then how better to delight than rounding a bend to come across the chapel within the Kamenita Vrata, the stone gate that guards the old upper town, or encountering the impressively coloured tiled roof of St. Marks. And within half an hour of arriving, I’m welcomed in traditional Croatian style with a glass of chilled local wine. It is the perfect introduction to this beautiful country.

 

The market just off Dolac Square is winding down as we stop for a late morning coffee at Cafe Opatovina. The café has front row seats to the busy market, its chairs mostly occupied by older men, gently rotund, straw hats shading tanned faces, some reading the morning paper, others chatting animatedly. All are already enjoying a beer or glass of wine. As in neighbouring Slovenia, anytime of the day is wine and beer time.

Outsized umbrellas shade both produce and vendors and after coffee, I take note of the cast-iron scales weighing the fruit and veg. I have observed these intriguing contraptions in markets far and wide and notice that these possess a unique ‘holder’, almost like a bucket. And as in India, the vendors rent the scales on a daily basis. I offer a ‘Dober dan,” as greeting to the young man operating the scale-rental stall. I learn that he charges only 13 kuna (about 2 US dollars) for a rental and his face tells me that he’s mystified at my interest.

Meanwhile, my travel companion has ventured off to St. Mark’s to survey the intriguing tiled roof that bears this country’s coat of arms. I’m happy to be alone for an hour or so as it often opens different doors. So it is here that I enjoy a pleasant and unexpected welcome to Croatia.

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I meander through the nearby market stalls; amply stocked with lace and aprons, wicker and honey. A small tavern in hues of Greek blue is tucked alongside and ever curious, I take a peek inside.

Five men, of a certain age, are nestled inside the postage-stamp of a bar, though I soon learn its actually a private club. It’s a cool refuge from the heat and I’m immediately invited to join them.

I’ve read enough about Croatian culture to know that it’s impolite to refuse and after all, the church bells have just chimed noon! I accept a glass of  dry white and join the locals on the long banquette. It seats maybe six people, the exact width of the club at the back.

“Zivjeli”, Cheers! Their toast is wholehearted and genuine.

I ask Branco, Miro, Nikola and Seavo if they come here often. They’re deadpan serious when they retort, ‘every day, and all day’.

When they that learn that I’m Canadian, they’re surprised to hear that our capital isn’t Vancouver or Toronto. Ottawa is indeed a revelation. We discuss the recent Raptors win – big news in basketball-crazy Croatia. Another glass of wine is placed in front of me before I can refuse.

When the ‘men’s club’ discover that I’ve spent time in Slovenia, Branco nudges his heavy glasses up on his nose and settles a little deeper into the sofa to qualify the situation in Croatia.

“Here’s not as rich. Many young people leave Croatia,” he laments. “The retirement pension isn’t enough and we can’t work even if we wanted to. It was better when we were part of Yugolsavia.”

Yet Luca, positioned by chance under a poster of his home town on the island of Hvar, listens to the conversation. He interjects only cautiously. He’s debonair in a movie-set kind of way with a white fedora and a thick moustache complimenting his handsome face. He becomes a little more mysterious still when he mentions that he’s spent time I San Francisco, but doesn’t elaborate. The discussion trails off to handball, local wine and our upcoming itinerary.

“Go to Jelsa for sure,” Luca suggests just as an older gentlemen, with the face of a cherished grandfather, rises from the bar to shake my hand. He proffers me a piece of notepaper. On it is a name of a distant relative.

“In case, you’re in Toronto, go visit. Tell him you met Nikola in Zagreb,” he says with the genuine warmth and another handshake.

It’s time to take my leave and my attempt to pay for my wine is emphatically rebuffed and I accept gratefully. “Hvala lepa,” I say, thanking them for my ‘official’ welcome on Croatian soil. They ease themselves off the banquette.

“Time for lunch,” says Miro. He gives me a final wave from the doorway.

I disappear into the streets of Zagreb’s old town to find Bruce and over a late lunch, we brush up on Croatia’s history. As a country at the crossroads of Central and Southeast Europe, it borders Slovenia, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. Its people are a legacy of their maritime past and history of a former territory of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Venetian Empires… and that’s just the recent past. Even the Greeks and the Romans built on what came before. As Miro had mentioned at the club, “We are a proud mix of everything.”

As we glide out of Zagreb on the 3:20 to Split, I’m appreciative for this snapshot of a city that despite being the capital, is often overshadowed by Split, Dubrovnik, and the much vaunted Adriatic coast.

By 9 pm, Croatian flags fluttering on lamp posts welcome us into Split. The station master, tips his berry-red beret and we enter a city for the ages…

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On Penang Island… a writer in residence, a canvas of storied heritage

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I write this from the island of Penang as a writer in residence. To use that cliche, if I may,  over the moon begins to describe it. I’m ensconced in a studio apartment on Lebuh China, the street of George Town’s earliest traders. In fact, the Chinese have called it Tua Kay, Main Street, since it was laid out in 1786 by Captain Francis Light. That same year, Light with the audacity of those colonial times, ‘claimed’ this island for the British East India Company.

The narrow street that I call home for the month of May, reminds me of so many places; of our travels through China and Thailand, of our two-year stay in Japan, and most recently of our home in Bangalore, India. Lebuh China fringes Little India, and for me, George Town encompasses all of those treasured places… melded into one storied milieu.

Not long after arriving, I set my workspace, found my friendly flower wallah, sourced my go-to corner shops and just a few steps away, found my favourite local cafe. The setting of Ren i Tang – an old Chinese medical hall now a Heritage Inn and Bistro – is simple yet evocative. Its tall ceilings, aged ceramic tiles and reminders of its days as the neighbourhood dispensary, are characteristic of George Town’s iconic shop houses. Many have a unique story to tell and at Ren i Tang, my favourite low table often seems to be waiting just for me at the bistro’s edge. With its open view to the street beyond, I can watch life pass by in a contented and unhurried flow. I might savour a bowl of spicy Laksa, then fresh watermelon juice to help combat the heat and humidity. I admit, I revel in this climate!

Shop houses like Ren i Tang, help give George Town its rich and eclectic character. Many have been refurbished, some are in need of saving, but they all very much contributed to the city being accorded a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008… as did the heritage buildings, narrow roads, colonial-era mansions, Chinese clan houses, ornate temples and Little India. And of course, we must mention the iconic street art, the fantastic street food and the traditional artisans – rattan weavers, garland makers, wooden sign-board carvers, lantern and joss stick makers. Even generations of tart makers are deemed part of George Town’s cultural heritage.

As I pass through the streets whether to research, to an event at Hikayat ‘my’ excellent local book shop, or to meet friends for dinner, all of my senses are invited to engage. The strains of Hindi love songs drift through the balmy, sandalwood-infused air. The tok-tok-tok of an enthusiastically wielded spatula against a wok, large as an upturned umbrella, pre-empts the aromas of Penang’s beloved street food. And as always, commerce abounds – gold jewellers and saree shops, refined displays of colourful Malay batiks,  profusions of collectable Chinese and Nonya porcelain.

Yet, the intrinsic backdrop of George Town is the layer upon layer of founding cultures – Malay, Indian, Chinese, Siamese, Armenian, British, German, and more – all of which appear to exist in respectful harmony. Languages, religions and cultures brush Penang’s canvas with rich and intricate tones, creating a hopeful picture of balance and acceptance.

How did the young Malay taxi driver put it on my arrival?

“Welcome, welcome. First time to Penang, Miss?”

I smiled just a little that, in Malaysia and Thailand, they still endearingly call me ‘miss.’

“No, I’ve been here quite a few times I admitted,” explaining that I have visited often since first working on a book project a number of years ago.

“So you know then. Here, we all live in harmony, many religions, many cultures. How the world should be.”

He could not have said it more poignantly and in truth, I believe this is one of the reasons why I so embrace this small island in the Malay Archipelago. As I discovered through researching its history for the book previously to this one, there are many facets to uncover, yet the building-blocks of this unique and multi-cultural island are steadfast and represented just a short walk from my apartment … the cornerstones of four religions on one harmonious street.

A few evenings ago, I strolled to Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling just before dusk. I wanted to embrace the uniqueness of this treasured street. Initially named Pitt Street after the once British Prime Minster, still today, it is proof that religions can live side by side.

At the Goddess of Mercy Temple, over-sized joss sticks burned in quiet reverence at the edge of the temple. A few last visitors cupped their much smaller pieces of sandalwood, circling them in devoted hands… a quiet Taoist prayer.

A few doors away, the gleaming white spires of St. George’s Church reached skyward, mirrored by the tips of tall palms and framed by the sprawling branches of a grand mahogany tree. It is the oldest Anglican Church in South east Asia. “Two hundred years old today,” a proud parishioner told me. “Please, you are very welcome.”

As sunset swept the sky with wisps of golds and luminous pinks, the melodic call to prayer drifted languidly from a little way down the street. As it has done since 1801, the Mosque seemed to entice rather than summon its believers for evening prayer. As Muslim Malays and Indians made their way, many took the time to nod a hello or bid a ‘good evening.’ In an instant, I drifted back to our seven years in Qatar and Oman where I recall going to Christmas church services. Perhaps, where I first experienced this diverse blend of coexistence. And here? It has been crafted from the outset, as Francis Light encouraged a multi-cultural settlement.

In my glow of bonhomie, a rainbow of pastel colours soon caught my eye from the opposite side of the street. It was the Indian gopuram of Sri Mahamariamman, the oldest Hindu temple in George Town. Since 1833 it has welcomed followers. Many were the original stevedores who loaded and unloaded ships dockside. The temple must have been a refuge and a comfort to some of these first hard working migrants.Then, as now, one enters into a cool, incense-clouded interior. Intricate garlands of roses, jasmine and marigolds also permeate the air. Once a year the devotees place their statue, the goddess Mariamman, on a wooden chariot and an evening procession parades her through the streets of Little India.

That evening however, things were much more serene. Tourists paused to marvel at the dance of colours in the sky and trishaw peddlers waited sanguinely for one last fare. As I continued my evening stroll, I pondered if there was any city in the world where four prominent religions occupy the same street in harmony?

I meditated a ‘gratitude’ for the friends and many acquaintances I have here… all of them representing one of these religions, others, or perhaps none at all. As the young Malay driver commented, “This harmony, is how the world should be…”

 

The tulips of Keukenhof… the flower of Kings and Sultans

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There is a sense of anticipation as we are near the Keukenhof. In gaps between farmhouses and buildings, glimpses of colour flash through the windows of our bus. Field upon field of tulips are slowly revealed, like living rainbows laid flat and narrow. They are a preview of what is to come – a tantalizing aperitif before the sumptuous feast that will soon be laid out before us.

With some time to spare in our travels, we’ve taken a bus from Schiphol Airport to one of the world’s most expansive and joyous displays of flowers. Even before we pass through the gates of these once 15thcentury hunting grounds, murmurs of anticipation bubble and swirl. As we enter, we are arrested, transfixed by the first of many beautiful vistas that have been planned with such loving attention. It is truly a remarkable sight.

Many years have passed since my last visit and so it felt almost like seeing it with fresh eyes. Despite my Dutch heritage, I don’t think that I fully appreciated just what a treasure the Keukenhof is… and just how intimately it is linked to the identity and history of this small nation. Keukenhof, which essentially means kitchen garden, is a wonder, a pride and joy… a celebration of one of earth’s most coveted gardens.

Also known as the Garden of Europe, between October and Christmas, the Keukenhof’s horticultural team plants a staggering 7 million flower bulbs, covering almost 80 acres. With practiced precision, they are ‘timed’ to bloom for the garden’s springtime opening and we are fortunate to be here at the sweet-spot– the day is warm and sunny, the tulips profuse and the first tender green leaves of the trees provide a pastel-lime backdrop to the displays beauty. There is no colour of the spectrum not represented – buttery yellow, creamy white, saffron yellow, crimson and carmine red, plum and deep purple, single colours or variegated; evocative in their diversity.

Without question, tulips are all hermaphroditic, carrying both male and female characteristics. They have petals, sepals and tepals. I learn that their waxy leaves are ‘cauline’, emanating, unwinding from the stem of the plant and that they thrive in climates with long, cool springs for germination. That climate is certainly not only found in The Netherlands, but also in the steppes, meadows and shrubby chaparral, from Afghanistan to the plains of India. But in their journey from eastern origins, it is clear that in the Netherlands they truly found their full blossoming.

Babur, who founded the Indian Mughal Empire five centuries ago, mentioned tulips in his memoir. They were precious, like melons and grapes, and presented as fond gifts. In Turkey, tulips were considered holy, revered even by Sultans who displayed them artfully on their turbans. In fact, it is held that the word tulip is derived from the word duliband (or dulib) the Persian for turban. While the tulips were abloom, tulip gardens were settings for the sumptuous parties of Sultans, some replete with candle-backed tortoises illuminating the sublime setting.

The scene at Keukenhof is more elemental, but no less marvellous than those extravagant scenes. It is serene, yet also exuberant, in its carefully orchestrated scenes and vistas. Exciting, but also hushed, as crowds marvel at the spectacle. In this spectacular parkland setting, the tulips are the main event with fragrant hyacinths and narcissus playing supporting roles to the star attraction.

The tulips are arranged in swathes of colour – some like streams flowing amongst trees or like a manicured English garden, precise and geometric. Other vignettes are simply riots of colour, exuberant explosions. Plaques throughout the garden speak of the vast number of species and variants. Each cluster is labelled, names inspired by their origins or distinct characteristics – pointed like stars, jagged and rustic, or smooth and delicate like a peachy, fulsome breast.

Surely there’s a perfect tulip for everyone’s taste and I quickly spot my favourite… it’s my typical white flower but with wisps of the softest pink. A simple flower, unlike the variegated and marbled varieties which at one point in the tulip’s history became sought after to the point that a bulb could trade for the same value as a well-appointed house in Amsterdam.

During the mid-1500’s, Sultans commonly gave the coveted tulips as gifts to visiting Western diplomats. Then in 1573, one Carolus Clusius planted tulips at the Vienna Imperial Botanical Gardens. He completed the first major paper on the flower, with specific notes on the variations of colour. When appointed director of Leiden University in the Netherlands, Clusius planted a teaching garden and then a private garden in the late 1593. Thus, 1594 is considered the date of the tulip’s first flowering in the country, yet the tulip expert would lose more than one hundred of his precious bulbs to raiding in his garden… the secret of the precious tulip was spreading.

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Tulips gained in popularity across Europe with more opulent varieties pursued to the point of mania. This was a time when people’s appetite for curiosities and natural oddities was at its height in the Netherlands, France, Germany and England, driven by the spice trade from the East Indies. This created a new wealth and introduced a steady stream of novelty.

The ‘exotic’ tulip acquired an aura of mystique and between 1634 to 1637, this enthusiasm sparked a tulip trading frenzy. Bulbs became a form of currency, a luxury product that spoke of the good taste and esteemed learning of the merchant class. Many of those who bought tulips also collected valuable paintings – the tulips themselves were soon depicted in Dutch still-life paintings of the rich and opulent Golden Age.

With the crash of the tulip market in 1637, this former flower of Kings and Sultans set forth on a more democratic path through history, one in which tulips could be owned and adored by all. Today, the Dutch grow almost 80 % of the world’s tulip bulbs – some 3 billion – yet as we stroll through Keukenhof, it strikes me that is not simply a business. It is a source of pride and identity, one that is exquisitely showcased to the world year after year in a springtime of abundance and unbridled colour.

67A86EBD-65E3-48E4-A4E6-9C81B7008E49And I give the visionaries who have shaped this former ‘kitchen garden’ much credit, it has it all!

Play areas for children, indoor displays, whimsical themed arrangements, even the opportunity to climb the steep steps of a traditional windmill to take in the vistas beyond. And their view? None other than those rainbow fields of tulips… as we say in Dutch, echt prachtig,just beautiful!

 

Old Quebec City… the romance, and the fortitude of the King’s Daughters – of all the founding women

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At this time of year, Quebec City celebrates its cold climate and rich heritage with Winter Carnival. It’s a celebration of winter and all that entails; especially those pastimes beginning with ice – palaces, canoeing, sculptures, skating and fishing. People from around the world descend on this historic walled city, the only in North America, revelling in the unique atmosphere. It’s my first visit in the winter and I admit; it is bone chillingly cold, often windswept and the icy sidewalks can be precarious.

Yet the cold seems to subside, if only just a little, when you stroll the vibrant streets. They’re still resplendent with Christmas greenery and décor, enhancing the already romantic streets.

 

And there is much to romance you here: the French language, the mix of French, British and Canadian architecture, the delicious cuisine and of course the statuesque Chateau Frontenac. It is a treasured beauty, dominating the upper town, evoking the chateaus of the Loire Valley of France and on this visit, I was fortunate to add my humble name to its storied guest list.

Completed in 1893, the Chateau was the first of the iconic tourist hotels of the Canadian Pacific Railway. On my third day I join a tour of the hotel, guided by the charming ‘Ms. Emily Post’. The young lady is in costume and character, portraying Ms. Post, an author and daughter of the hotel’s architect Bruce Price.

The tour begins on the long cliff-top boardwalk where squeals of delight from tobogganeers on the swooping wooden-framed run peal in the chilled air. Above us, the sharp crack of ice, breaking like glass under ice-picks of intrepid déneigeièrs clearing the Chateau’s impossibly steep rooftop. Roped in and rappelling down the treacherous facade, they clear the roof of accumulated ice. It’s an arduous and hazardous task which I see repeated throughout the city. Managing this city in frigid temperatures brings myriad challenges not least of which is avoiding dagger-like shards of falling ice from the charming buildings.

 

As much as I appreciate the hotel’s storied history during the tour– including the somber hosting of the top-secret conference in which Roosevelt and Churchill planned the D-Day invasion – I am drawn to the much more distant past. During my five days in Quebec City, it is the Filles du Roi, the ‘King’s Daughters’, and the founding Jesuit and Augustinian Sisters who capture my attention.

The strength and fortitude that was required of these founding women intrigues me. And I reflect that the country might never have developed as it did without them. First, allow me to set the scene…

 

The First Explorers and Samuel de Champlain

The vastness of the Atlantic Ocean mingles with fresh waters at the mouth of the St. Lawrence river and, in the hinterland beyond, lie the lake-strewn lands of eastern Canada. First Nations who had called this home for over ten thousand years witnessed, in the arrival of European traders and settlers, the advent of modern Canada. As early as the late 15th century, they had mostly welcomed trade with various nations who visited their shores. The dominant commodity was fur from the Castor Canadensis,the humble Canadian beaver. They were as gold; European demand for their luxuriant pelts helping transform small trading outposts into a vast nation.

European and First Nations trappers braved the harsh, unforgiving environment to supply ever increasing merchant fleets. Locals bartered for kettles, knives, cloth, blankets, buttons and beads, trading endless stacks of beaver pelts that would be fashioned into hats once in Europe. The Continental, Navy, Clerical, The Paris Beau and the tall dignified Wellington – these names may no longer be familiar but it was unthinkable for any man of standing in the 17th to 19th centuries not to wear a head covering fashioned from beaver.

Statue de Samuel-De Champlain, Québec

Statue de Samuel-De Champlain, Québec

Archaeology suggests that Viking explorers had been unable to build lasting settlements; explorers Cartier and Roberval had failed too. But after a number of visits, Samuel de Champlain had a vision. He had fallen in love with the wilds of the New World and was determined to build a settlement for France. On July 3rd, 1608, Champlain’s three vessels docked at Kebec – ‘the place where the river narrows’.

It was a place of dense forests, lush with butternut trees; a strategic location on the St. Lawrence River where flora and fauna promised survival. Here, Champlain built the first ‘habitation’ with planted gardens, stocked cellars and a palisaded fortress. And unlike previous colonisers, he befriended the First Nations. Their knowledge and friendship was crucial to the new settlement’s success.

Yet hardships from the cold, scurvy, hunger and understandably hostilities from some tribes, would continue to threaten Quebec and it grew slowly. In 1620, Champlain brought his new Parisian bride to the settlement on the St Lawrence. Unsurprisingly, she found life in the isolated outpost difficult and remained only a few short years before returning to France. Champlain would live the rest of his life without her. He was fiercely dedicated to his dream and although the surrender of his New France colony to the British, more than a century later in 1760 signalled the end of his vision, many refer to Champlain as ‘The Father of Canada’.

History books devote volumes to this fascinating, volatile period, recording exploits of the mostly men who blazed the trail. Yet a nation cannot be built without women and for me, it is an equally intriguing chapter in the history of Canada.

 

The King’s Daughters – Les Filles du Roi – and The Sisters

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As the colony grew, New France, was largely a man’s world: soldiers, fur traders, voyageurs and, hoping to convert the First Nations to Christianity, Franciscans priests who arrived in 1615. The Jesuits followed in 1625 and ten years later, the year of Champlain’s death, they began offering classical education. Yet education would begin in earnest with the arrival of Sisters. At the Ursuline Convent and School, I encounter a remarkable woman of faith.

Marie of the Incarnation, as she would come to be known, was from Tours, France. From the age of seven, she knew that she would devote her life to God. Resistant to her wishes, her family demanded that she marry a silk merchant. She was widowed not long after bearing a son and, at the age of nineteen, a vision came to her that she could no longer ignore. It was a vision of saving souls in a foreign land. Giving her son over to a foster family, Marie entered an Ursuline Monastery. She remained steadfast – even as her son could be seen crying at the convent gates and as she was accused of parental neglect. An inheritance designated for her son was also revoked. Yet still, she dreamed of winning souls for Christ in that foreign land. Resolute, she began correspondence with the Jesuits in Quebec.

Funding for the journey and a new convent materialised in the form of a pious widow, Madeleine de la Peltrie. By arranging a sham marriage, Madeleine overcame her family’s strong opposition to her traveling to New France. With the official seal of a royal charter, she signed over the bulk of her estate to the Ursuline Order. Marie and Madeleine set sail in May of 1639. To their new life in Quebec, they would take a fellow Sister, a young commoner, three nurses and two Jesuit fathers. It’s believed they were the first Catholic Sisters in North America.

 

In the Ursuline Convent Museum, I gaze at the painting of Marie. She is a vision of steadfastness and devotion to her mission – to convert and educate, ministering initially to the First Nations and later to French settlers. After three years in the lower town of Quebec City, the nuns moved to a new monastery and in a painting of the settlement, I see Madeleine’s wooden home depicted. It is just below the monastery, surrounded by tents; the Catholic Church of that era marvelled at their progress – despite the scarcity of provisions and lack of basic necessities, and the oft hostilities with some First Nations.

Marie quickly learned the languages of the Huron and the Algonquin and even as she became a decorator, an architect and a teacher, the Sister also remained a devoted mother. Her son became a Benedictine monk and in their vast correspondence, until Marie’s death in 1672, the unwavering love between a mother and a son is poignantly evident.

And of being a mother… Marie of the Incarnation would fulfil yet another role in the making of New France. The filles du roi were sailing her way.

As the colony grew, a problem arose. In 1663, the King of France decided to take more control of his far-flung colony and one of his first actions was to address the severe imbalance between men and women. For every woman in the colony, there were at least seven men. Sponsored by the King himself, a program was proposed to increase the population – with shiploads of young women from France.

Initially, it was agreed to sponsor five-hundred women, but it would total some eight-hundred over ten years. In actual fact, many were still young girls, some as young as twelve. Believing that girls ought to marry young, King Louis’s filles du roi were sent to New France for the sole purpose of marrying and populating the land. Often they were orphans or poor, so a dowry was provided. As the the ships arrived at Quebec City, it’s said that some were selected even before they could disembark. Those not chosen would sail further to the next ports-of-call, the fledging city of Montreal being the last stop.

It seems Marie also took a supporting role in this new scheme. Some of the younger girls were first housed and prepared for their new role as wives and mothers. The nuns taught them cooking, embroidery and sewing. They were also chaperones in the selection process. Likened to old-fashioned speed dating, eligible men would enter the room and with the steadying presence of a nun, the young women would ask appropriate questions to the eligible bachelors: How old are you? Do you own property? Do you have any vices?

The letters Marie wrote during the 1660’s reveal much of the hardship that these new settlers faced. In 1668 she wrote, “When they have eaten the barrel of flour and bacon the King has given them, they will suffer greatly until they have cleared the land. It has been decided that only country girls should be sent here. They can work like men and experience shows that those not brought up on the land do not fit in as they don’t know how to cope with poverty and hardship.”

In another letter to her son, dated Oct. 1669, Marie confirms, “As soon as the ship arrives, the men go to meet them in search of a wife… sometimes there are thirty weddings at a time. Wiser people begin by getting a house and place first. The first question the girls ask is if they have a house and property, because those who haven’t suffer greatly.”

In the days I spend in the city, I think often of the these women. I’m empathetic to the hardships and transition most of them would have faced. No doubt some of them did find happiness in marriage and knowing that all were encouraged – through promise of a pension from the King – to have a minimum of ten children, I can only imagine the fortitude and resilience this required on top of the privations and isolation of a settler’s life.

It is commonly held that two-thirds of the province of Quebec are descendants of the filles du roi. Some would also eventually migrate south into what is now the United StatesPeople including Angelina Jolie, Celine Dion, Hilary Clinton and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau trace their ancestry back to these courageous women.

For me, the beauty and romance of old Quebec City is very much alive. The perseverance and fortitude of the Sisters, the king’s daughter’s and all the women who braved the deprivations in those formative years, add to its rich past. Go, if you get the chance. Find their stories… in the monasteries, in the museums, in the lively character of today’s women.

 

 

Slovenia, oh Slovenia… a ‘fairytale’ road trip

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“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to drive up to that furthest church,” I say, pointing with childlike enthusiasm to a steeple piercing the Slovene sky. It’s a cool, but sunny October morning and we’re not far from the outskirts of Ljubljana. The steeple is one of many that announces every small town. They’re invariably nestled in valleys or standing tall on sugar loaf mountains amongst pastoral landscapes. “It’s beautiful, like a fairy-tale,” I enthuse with genuine delight.

Slovenia may not necessarily be on your travel itinerary, but perhaps it should be. Sharing borders with Italy, Croatia, Austria and Hungary, it is easy to travel to; for us, a pleasant three-hour train journey from Trieste in northern Italy. It’s a compact country, which at the crossroads of Europe has seen the ebb and flow of mighty empires and dynastic struggles. Its people are friendly, clearly in love with life, and how could I not admire them when they are so passionate about accordions (says this amateur player), pretty window flower boxes, and meticulous wood piles!

Barely half-an-hour out of Lubijana, where our son and his girlfriend live, it’s clear we’ll be treated to an intimate perspective of this small country. We’ve already fallen in love with ‘Lubi’ and now very unusual for us, we have no set itinerary. Yes, a rough plan of course, but not one hotel booked for our three-day excursion. It turns out to be the best thing we could have done – serendipity can find a way of rewarding you, if you let it.

We don’t make it to that church on that high promontory that I longed to see, indeed we’ll come across many more, and we soon find ourselves having morning coffee against the backdrop of the medieval stone walls of Skofja Loka. The name roughly translates to ‘the bishop’s marsh’ and in 973 the bishopric was granted by Emperor Otto II.

For the next one thousand years the town was tied to that distant ecclesiastical principality, a tower and castle constructed for defence purposes and by 1248, Skofja Loka was granted rights as a market town. Only locals were permitted to trade inside its fortressed walls and now… if only the walls could talk. Yet they do, with faded frescoes still relating its long history and interestingly, I discover that one of the town’s early commodities was frogs. We stroll the streets, locating the ‘frog trail’ winding down to the serene river where one presumes the toads were trapped. Crimson leaves are tangling their way across stone and mortar, weaving in splendid harmony in these deepening days of autumn.

It is a gorgeous setting, seemingly the backdrop of your most beloved fairy tale. Yet despite the tranquil setting, townspeople have known much grief through the centuries: attacks and burnings from marauding Dukes and from the Ottomans, plagues, fires, peasant revolts and earthquakes.

Climbing the hill to the church, we dangle our legs over the aged stone parapet and gaze over rooftops to the castle occupying the wooded hill on the north edge of town. The serrated peaks of the Julian Alps are hazy in distant violet pastels, framing the lush-green hilltops beyond Skofje Loka. The peaks mark the border with Austria and I’m reminded of even more heartache in the story of this enchanted place. I had read its war stories – citizens arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Serbia, mass graves of prisoners of war around the castle and in neighbouring sites. As is often the case when I’m in Europe, the echoes of two world wars seem never far from the surface. Their brutal and bloody secrets seem still to shadow the present. We should never forget the suffering of the past, but in this moment I allow the tranquility of this beautiful place to warm me.

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Back on the road, the scenery is coloured with snowy-white sheep, rosy crab apples and rusty-orange pumpkins – plump and offered for sale at the edge of farmers’ driveways. The narrow highway wends and climbs until we come upon Slovenia’s pride and joy. Lake Bled emerges like a mirage with the much photographed Bled Island and its late 17th century pilgrimage church. Certainly this is part of the storybook I’m creating in my mind, this enchanted setting must be where the heroine lives happily every after?!

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Lake Bled, photo credit Trixie Pacis

It is a vision of ethereal beauty and as we stroll the perimeter of the lake, we notice the pletnas, gondola-style flat bottomed boats. In 1740, twenty-two local families were granted exclusive rights to ferry religious pilgrims to the small church on the island. Still today the role of an oarsmen is exclusive. Most are descended from the original families and whether ferrying pilgrims, visitors for pleasure or wedding parties, the long-standing tradition is part of Lake Bled’s heritage.

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We find a lake-side restaurant for an early dinner and I happen to meet a charming modern-day rower. Jani Klemenčič is a retired Slovenian Olympic rower, now at the helm of the restaurant Špica, a local institution with a stunning backdrop of the lake, the castle and the beguiling island.

As I admire the racing scull boat fashioned into a long bar table, Jani takes the time to chat. He grew up here. “I did a lot of rowing on this lake, always rowing,” he explains. Jani mentions that Lake Bled hosted the World Rowing Championships in 1966, 79, 89 and then 2011. “I medalled in the World’s in 01 in Lucerne,” he says rather humbly. I can’t help but imagine how special it would have been had he won on these home waters.

A display nearby pays homage to many of Jani’s fellow Slovene Olympians. Surely representing your country in four consecutive summer Olympics, as he did, conveys a certain heroic status upon him. “1992 was the year I medalled,” he clarifies, but it less his victories than his fondness for Lake Bled that shines through. “It’s an amazing, safe place.”

We find a simple hotel for that evening and bid farewell to the serene setting the next morning. Driving north west, we aim our sights for the winter resort town of Kranjska Gora in the Julian Alps. I’m immediately smitten by its quaint townscape that harkens back to the 11th century. The town’s Gothic church dominates its ‘skyline’, competing with the mountains and the Alps.

We’re recommended to have lunch, ‘for the famous Kranjska Gora mushroom soup’ at Gostilna Pri Martinu. The traditional restaurant is near the end of what seems to be main street and it is quintessentially Slovene; profuse window boxes, a traditional fireplace with old skis propped nearby and artfully stacked wood piles. Yes, I do have a slight obsession about wood piles and the Sloevenes have mastered the art of stacking. Throughout the town, the wood piles are so perfect, so uniform, even creative, that I send a few pics to our son who happens to be at our home in Canada chopping wood for the coming winter months. “Can you try this one? Or this?” I’m sure he thought I was slightly mad!

But I digress. The soup? The mushroom soup lives up to its reputation and after lunch I happen to chat with the owner, Daria. As well as hotelier, she is also a busy ski-mom. “My daughter has been on the podium for Slovenia,” she tells me proudly. As with Jani, living in an area that hosts sporting events, fosters champions. In this area, its the Alpine Ski World Cup and events at Planica, the ski-jumping hill.

When I comment on the beauty of her country, Daria confesses that years ago, she and her husband had almost immigrated to Canada. “I couldn’t do it,” she admits. “We have it all here. Close to so many countries. We like a simple life and there’s beauty. We’re a country of only two million. We’re a little good at things.”

She and her family’s three businesses, along with notable sports acumen attest to just that. I mention that we’re ‘on the road,’ yet suddenly have a visceral notion to spend some time here. I’ve noticed in Slovenia that restaurants often have small inns above their establishment and Daria takes me upstairs to entice me to where we might stay for the evening. The chalet-style windows are flung open to old wooden farmhouses and I feel that I can almost reach out and touch the Julian Alps beyond. Although it’s only early afternoon, I decide we’re calling it a day!

“We’ve found our place for tonight,” I tell the others back downstairs who are slightly bemused with my decision to not drive any further today. Daria hands me the keys. “No worries, you can register and pay later.”

There are times when travelling that you know when you need to… stay, spend some time in a place that you didn’t expect to, get to the essence of it…

And so we did and while the others jaunted off for a hike in the direction of the Alps, here I was in Slovenia! Having seen much of Europe, I was still pinching myself that I was exploring a new country. First stop… the museum.

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Sylvester Mirtic greets me warmly in the old farm house. Kransjka Gora still has many of these large farm/barn settlements where animals, hay and equipment share the space below the living quarters. Upstairs is expansive. A wooden bench wraps around the main room’s handcrafted table, the all-important ceramic stove warms the room and I’m shown lovingly and creatively painted beds and dowry chests.

“Notice the carnations that have such special meaning to us,” Sylvester points out. I deduce that this is one of the reasons for the prolific flower boxes in Slovene windows.  He also ensures that I see the Black Kitchen where cooking, baking and meat smoking occurred. It’s a separate room not of wood, but of tiny cobble stones to prevent fire. Generation after generation lived together in these rambling buildings and Sylvester adds interestingly that the language can change from valley to valley, often a reflection of people’s roots.

“I have Bavarian, Austrian and Italian roots,” he mentions and when I tell Sylvester that I was able to use a little Italian over at Daria’s establishment, he’s not surprised. “We feel like a nation, but we’re diverse.”

In fact, what you must know in a nutshell about Slovenia is this. It was once part of the Roman, Byzantine and Carolingian Empire. Then came the Habsburg Monarchy, the Republic of Venice, the provinces under Napoleon, the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary. A lot of empires, before exercising self-determination by co-founding the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs. In 1918, they merged with the Kingdom of Serbia, later named Yugoslavia in 1929.

Then came occupation in WW II, annex by Germany, Italy and Hungary and eventually independence in 1991 when Slovenia split from the disintegrating Yugoslavia. With such a turbulent past, it isn’t surprising that as with Jani, Dari and Sylvester, I sense an acute sense of pride that people have for their country’s eclectic story.

After thanking Sylvester for the tour, I wander the quiet, picturesque streets. Yet more blooming carnations, interesting wood piles and the heavenly scent of wood fires now drift in the chilled air. The chiseled alps take on an alpenglow. And then I happily meet Ivanka.

She is just about to close up her small shop. It’s stuffed with wooden ‘this and that’, curios, wicker and brooms. Her effervescent personality bubbles through despite the language barrier and when I mention ‘Canada’ she breaks out in smile. I hear ‘bambino’ often and know she’s speaking of her grandchildren. Ivanka cradles my chin in her hand and says something with affection. Then she is entirely delighted when I ask to take her photograph. When I show her the result, she is pleased.

“Bella, bella, beautiful, beautiful,” she affirms with a laugh and again grabs my chin and cradles it gently. Like Slovenia itself, I’m immediately drawn to this warm, lovely woman. My gut reaction to spend time in this small town has given me an intimate insight into the Slovene culture and its people. It’s been a day of perfection.

Yet there’s one more stop this road trip is pointing us to – the Slovenian wine region. The next morning we drive through the majestic mountain pass and we’re rewarded with more stunning scenery and pretty small towns. When we reach our destination, the sprawling vineyards strike me as perhaps just as lovely as those of Tuscany.

In Brda, the westernmost wine region, we taste at the grand Vipolze Villa. We stroll amongst roadside vines just before sunset. We make our way to Smartno and finish the day in its walled medieval village. More excellent Slovene wine, the chatter of locals and yes, surely this is how this most excellent, fairytale road trip should finish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Italy, with love… a few unsent postcards

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As with previous years, January finds me dreamily perusing last year’s photos and notebooks. There isn’t always time to write while I’m travelling, so in the chill of midwinter, I gladly relive a few of those interesting vignettes. All three of the settings were first-time visits. Oh the joy of unanticipated discoveries! So today, let’s wander back to Italy…

 

Bologna… of porticoes, tall towers and gastronomy

I can’t think why Bologna hadn’t been on my list of Italian cities to visit. It is now perhaps in the top five of my treasured collection.

Why Bologna? It’s quite simple… the towers, the porticoes, and the food.

Let’s begin with the setting – an architectural feast of light and shadows created by kilometre after kilometre of arched walkways. In fact the over thirty-eight kilometres of porticoes (harking back to the porticus of Roman times) which through their varied construction tell stories spanning the ages – from medieval wooden to frescoed renaissance to the austere functionality of post world war II.

They are simply beautiful. Deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I found them entrancing, and useful as the rain dampened the streets late one afternoon. Through their evocative and protecting arch ways, we ‘mazed’ our way to another of the cities’ well-known landmarks, the tallest leaning medieval tower in the world. At over 97 meters tall, the Asinelli Tower tops that of Pisa – I know, it gets all the attention – but with its little sis, Garisenda nestled beside it, these two are excellent examples of tower homes.

Becoming prominent from the pre-Renaissance period, wealthy, feuding families in the 12th and 13th centuries attempted to outbuild each other, for the purpose of defensive and sheer rivalry. Often taking as long as ten years to construct, as many as 180 of these laboriously built ‘homes’ once dotted Bologna’s skyline. By the end of the 1200’s many had collapsed or been dismantled, making these two ‘sister’s that much more valuable. I admit that despite their enduring presence, they don’t quite have the same allure as the leaning tower in Pisa. Yet, their imposing silhouettes surely transport us to a vision of Bologna’s once-soaring skyline.

Bologna understands both old… and modern vibrancy. The city boasts the world’s oldest university, rendered new by the young and edgy vibe of student life. Students gather and commune in the squares, under and near the porticoes, and most definitely in the Quadrilatero. This compact area is teeming day and night with market stalls, lavish gourmet deli shops and packed cafes.

After all, Bologna is known as La Grassa, the fat one. To say that it is renowned for its food would be an understatement to the Bolognesi. This is where ragu or bolognese originated. Where delicate pouches of ravioli melt in your mouth. Where the Palazzo della Mercanzia keeps the recipes of Bologna’s world famous dishes under ‘lock and key’. Yes, they are that precious.

So Bologna? An amazing display of porticoes and lively streets – a blend of many centuries. And a veritable feast for both the gastronome and the architectural connoisseur!

 

A Lunch Date in Cinque Terre...

There we were, eight of us on a day trip from our writer’s retreat in Tuscany – let loose in the Cinque Terre (five lands). For many visitors these once isolated villages, strung along the Mediterranean Sea, are a destination for hiking from village to village. We do no such thing.

We jump on the 9:30 train from Aulla, to La Spezia. Then onto the ‘Cinque Terre train’ where we cram toe to toe with day-trippers in sun hats, safari hats, hiking boots and backpacks. Yes, many are doing ‘the hike’ a pilgrimage of sorts, but we were definitely the ‘merry writers on excursion’. As the crowded train whisks through the countryside, we catch brief glimpses of tall cypresses against country villas, castles clinging to hilltops, and then finally, of the dazzling Mediterranean. It was official – we had arrived at the Italian Riviera.

We alight at Monterosso and soon cozy-up at an outdoor cafe. Soaking in the shimmering sea, we order our first espressos of the day. We watch loungers and bathers claim their spots under paint-box-orange and Italian-green umbrellas. We, on the other hand, wander. A hat for all is in order and carefully chosen. Then we embark upon a slow, picturesque stroll along an ancient via. It meanders, and along with prickly pears and milky-green olive trees, it clings precariously to the hillside. The emerald-green-turquoise-saphire-blue water fans out below us like a rich, shimmering fabric. Being writers, we ponder… surely there must be a word for such a brilliant colour. None is conjured!

We hop onto a short ferry ride to Vernazza, which despite swarms of tourists and cruise ship passengers, still feels authentic and genuine. It’s an old sea-faring town with car-free, narrow lanes snaking upwards, fringed with mountainside vineyards just beyond the small settlement.

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We join the fray in the busy piazza. It is seemingly laundry day, townfolk’s washing hanging from tall, peeling and faded pastel homes. As in Venice, the port’s water once lapped against the houses themselves, but now this main square folds down to the water; a beach, an impromptu soccer field, a place for passiagetta, the evening ritual of strolling.

It’s time for a late lunch and Roberto, our favourite Italian guy and in our group, manages to secure us a table at a restaurant with a view, Ristorante Gambio Rosso. It is ideally located on the square… allowing us to gaze out to the small inlet, to the crowds and up to the floating laundry. Now Roberto, our ‘gentleman on tour’, becomes our unofficial translator as we navigate the menu. We then dine in sheer pleasure. It is the scrumptious food, refreshing local wine and glorious company over a luxurious long lunch. Allore, it was surely a mix of the right place and the excellent company of ‘merry writers’.

The Cinque Terre –  and especially Vernazza – claimed a little of our hearts that day.

 

Trieste… of the grand, of light on pastel 

Trieste? Yet another unexpected delight hints that there will be yet more to find. Head north, past Venice, 150km onwards, to the very eastern top of Italy’s ‘boot’. Nestled at the foot of the mountains, on the Gulf of Trieste, this once prosperous seaport was one of the oldest cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, it feels a little like Vienna, or Salzburg with stately opulent buildings, many that harken back to the days of mighty shipping companies.

We explore endlessly, we eat often, and sometimes we hide in neighbourhood bars from that wind – the north-easterly bora – racing briskly up the Adriatic. In one, I taste the sweetest, thickest, most delicious hot chocolate I already know I’ll ever savour. It’s barely noon, but the bar is busy. A place where wine and beer already flows and where the daily paper is ritually digested.

When the sun comes out, Trieste is full of light dancing on pastel-hued buildings. Its grand square is simply resplendent. I’m taken aback at how ‘unItalian’ it feels. But then this storied city has always been at the crossroads of Latin, Slavic and Germanic cultures.

We also explore the coast in a little Fiat, grand castles and hillside villages dotted along this narrow ribbon of land between mountain ridge and the azure sea.

Our stay is brief; in fact, we’re on our way to Slovenia to visit our son and his girlfriend. So Trieste… what can I say. Simply splendid that we happened to be passing through!