Saturday, November 30, 2013

Historic Pubs and Happy Trails

Ship Inn, Porlock Weir
      I knew we'd love the Ship Inn (built in 1290) as soon as I saw the sign inside the door: "Beer - the reason I get up every afternoon."  The bar was  in Porlock on the Devon coast, where Ron and I were renting a cottage for a week.
Compasses Inn, Tisbury
Tea in Porlock
      We had made our way across England, staying in old pubs in tiny villages.  Now we were in the land of walking paths and ponies, tearooms and signs on the road like "Duck Racing and BBQ."

Exmoor Pony

El Camino sign
     After two weeks in England, Ron flew to Spain to hike El Camino, 180 miles in two weeks.  From the moment he set foot in Spain during a fiesta, he was on top of the world, no matter how grueling the walks.  (His route, El Primitivo, is one of the most rugged, and he sometimes hiked over 7 hours a day.)

Starting Point: Tineo
      Along the way Ron met walkers from many different countries.  The peregrinos, or pilgrims, go from one albergue (dorm) to another on trails that vary in length and difficulty.  Ron was surprised when he finished his first leg in 3 hours.  He felt so great he decided to take a spur that was supposed to be another couple of hours.  But he lost track of Camino signs and ended up, several hours
"How green is my valley"
later, about 10 miles from his albergue.  He got his bearings and started walking in the right direction, then by some miracle saw a bus shelter with a taxi company's card taped inside.  He called and tried to describe the road he was walking on.  Sometime later a cab showed up and took him back, whereupon the hostess at his albergue let him have it, as he had kept all the other pilgrims waiting for dinner.  But at least he had found his way home.

Ron at a high point on the trail

     I had opted out of the hiking/dormitory experience in favor of spending time in Wales and Ireland.  So the same day Ron flew to Spain, I set out by bus, train and ferry for Tenby, Wales and Wexford, Ireland.
      Tenby is a seaside town in southwest Wales, where faded Victorian hotels line a promenade overlooking a white-sand beach.  I enjoyed walking among gardens on the cliff, listening to waves crashing, or relaxing on a balcony looking down on  the harbor. 
     An Arts Festival was going on that week, with movies, concerts, talks and more.  The highlight for me was a series of 10-minute "plays in pubs."  Three times a night, in the middle of a small pub, two or three people would perform a short play – original, realistic, usually funny;  when that one was over, patrons would move to another pub for a different play.  Conviviality merged with creativity for several evenings of lively entertainment.
Tenby Harbor
     After Tenby I had my longest travel day, with three bus connections to Fishguard Harbor, a 3-1/2-hour ferry to Rosslare, Ireland, and another bus to Wexford.  I was glad to set foot in Ireland, and though rain had hit the Camino, Ron sounded happy as a clam.

House in Wexford
     On my first night in Wexford I settled into Con Mackens pub with a pint of Smithwick's and my journal.  Later I ran into a man who'd been at the pub.  "I was admiring your handwriting before; I can see you're a writer," he said.  Now is that a bunch of blarney or the love of the Irish for literature?  I think the latter, because what followed was a lengthy discussion of the beauty of books, Irish authors, etc.
     Later in the week I met a man in his 70s named Willy who had traveled all over the former Soviet bloc.  He spoke passionately about Sarajevo, its people and what they'd gone through in the 90s war, something Ron and I feel strongly about as well. We continued to share travel stories, with others young and old joining in.  At some point he mentioned he was on his 7th pint, about usual for a Tuesday.  Then his phone rang; it was his 90-year-old mother telling him to come home for supper.
     The thing about Irish pubs is, a person of any age, any gender, can walk into one, just wander in and sit down and no one will give you a sideways glance.  Pubs are a natural place for people to gather or be on their own or hear music.  I saw almost no rude behavior, and many of the bars were quiet, unless they had horse racing or football on TV.
     A reviewer of the new movie, "The Irish Pub," summed up the friendliness of Irish pubs when he quoted "the grumpy Paul Gartlan of the pub that bears his name in Kingscourt, County Davant:  'You go into a pub abroad and they nearly ignore you,' he said.  'Go to a pub in Ireland and they'll be up your arse to find out who you are.' "
     Not to mention the Irish traditional music that seems to come from the very souls of those who can't keep themselves from playing.  A guy will pick up a guitar, then a fiddle or a tin whistle or a set of Irish bagpipes, or he'll sing a lovely ballad – old men who've never paused in decades or a young beefy guy playing delicately on a mandolin.  Players hear there's a session on at the Sky and Ground, for example, and go if they can.  People find out they're gathering and go to listen.
     So I didn't mind that it rained most of the week I was in Wexford.  The rain was soft and lovely.  One night I walked home in the mist through the dark and quiet streets and felt incredibly peaceful.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Good Bad Times

Backpacks outside a hillside bar
     Ron’s El Camino hike had a plot twist or two.  First he met four men he called the D.C. Bombers, one of whom tried to break the decibel level for snoring.  The albergues (dorms) had lights out at 10 p.m. and pilgrims had to leave by 8 o’clock the next morning.  Picture starting an all-day hike on a dark, chilly morning with hardly any sleep.
     Almost every pilgrim Ron met had a Bombers story, and dodging this group became a common sport.  Sometimes Ron walked twice as long as usual to get ahead of them, only to see them turn up.  Since they were struggling on the trail, this meant they were using taxis and taking albergue beds from those who had hiked all the way.
     While trying to avoid these men, Ron landed in a village with no cafes or bars.  The albergue was run by a rude woman who refused to serve him food or tell him where to find any.  Luckily, hours later things turned around when other hikers and cyclists showed up, followed by an unexpected food truck. 
Two Days to Go
     On the whole, Ron’s adventure was challenging and exhilarating, with moments of pure joy.  Thinking back on it, he realized the D.C. Bombers actually made his Camino.  When he changed his plans to avoid them, he met the first group of people he became attached to:  Karin from Austria, who had studied architecture for nine years;  Jamalia, her kind and lovely 20-year-old friend;  two young Spanish men called Jesus and Marco;  Mariush, a 58-year-old grandfather from Poland;  and Achim, 30 years old, from Germany.  Achim had begun his walk in France, where he fell in love with an opera singer from Belgium.  They'd hiked together until the border of Spain, then she had to head towards home.  Achim kept going: 12 weeks, 1700 kilometers in all.  The last three days he and Ron walked together, lost in conversation but not lost on El Camino.
Ron at Santiago Cathedral
Restaurante Entre-Ruas
            Meanwhile I made my way by bus, ferry, train and plane to Santiago de Compostela, the endpoint of El Camino.  Ron arrived the next day on foot.  I’d heard about the incredible feeling walkers have when they arrive at Santiago Cathedral.  Sitting on a wall near the Church, almost blinded by the sun, I watched pilgrims drift in with their backpacks and walking sticks. They looked exhausted but thrilled to have made it.
Ron's friends: Achim is the tallest
            Suddenly I saw Ron, full of energy, striding across the plaza.  We embraced, then went right to an outdoor café to share tapas, drinks and stories, which we continued to do all week.  I met some of his friends from the Camino, and we spent a long lunch and evening with Achim.

View from our apartment
Church of San Salvador
     Then it was on to Seville, our favorite city in Spain for its beauty, food and lively spirit.  Around every corner was a square with neighbors out and musicians playing, or a stunning church lit up at night, or a parade with people in costume for whatever fiesta
Cafe Entrecalles
was going on.  Sevillians know how to party, sometimes until 5 a.m., but most nights we went out for a few tapas and beer, then escaped to the little terrace of our 4th floor apartment overlooking the Church of San Salvador.

Seville Cathedral

     For Ron, walking through beautiful northern Spain and connecting with others was a powerful experience.  He says a lot of things trigger memories of the Camino.  Now getting up before dawn seems good, a reminder of those mornings when he was setting out with his backpack, not knowing how each day would unfold.
     I agree with Ron that surprises are the best part of travel.  We feel lucky to be doing it after all these years.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Why the Irish Love President Obama

Dingle Peninsula

When reading Harvey Gould’s delightful book, A Fierce Local: My Love Affair with Ireland, I thought of arriving on the west coast of Ireland in May 2011.

Our first stop was Ennis and the Poet’s Corner pub.  Stepping inside on that cold and rainy afternoon, we were embraced by the warmth of a fire and the enticing aroma of beef stew.

 “Slainte (to health),” said Ron when he delivered our pints.  As usual with my first sip of Guinness, I paused in reverence and felt happy to be surrounded by a roomful of Irish people, talking and laughing.

Then everything got quiet; conversations ceased, along with the music and even the clink of glasses.  You could have heard a splash of Guinness.

Everyone was staring at a TV with President Barack Obama on an outdoor stage in Dublin, flashing his million-dollar smile.  A crowd of 60,000 filled the streets.  People waved thousands of tiny U.S. flags and mothers carried babies with red, white and blue diapers.  Young women displayed stars-and-striped fingernails, and even teenaged boys looked awestruck by Obama.

Back at the Poet’s Corner, viewers gave the President their undivided attention.  To my surprise, they broke into applause at the end.

Poster, Storefront, County Clare
“Now there’s a speech,” said a red-faced man at the bar.  “He’s happy to be here, and the crowd loves him.”

“Yeah,” I said to Ron.  “If only he were that popular back home.”

Over and over during the next few weeks, people told us what Obama’s message meant to them and why they gave him Cead Mile Failte (100,000 welcomes).

The President admires the Irish and seems to understand them.  In Dublin he declared, “Never has a nation so small inspired so much in others.”  He spoke of their perseverance through centuries of poverty and oppression and the courage it took for many to leave everything they knew, bound for America with nothing but hope and determination to build a better life.

It didn’t hurt that one of those emigrants was his great-great-great-grandfather.  Early in his speech he said, “My name is Barack Obama, of the Moneygall Obamas, and I’ve come home to find the apostrophe we lost somewhere along the way.” (Irish Daily Mail, 5/24/11)  The crowd roared their approval.

Everywhere we went, Irish people talked about the speech and recalled the details of his visit.  They liked the way he gulped his Guinness with the eagerness of a local.

Irish Daily Mail, 5/24/11

“Have you seen your President and Michelle in the pub?” a grocery clerk asked me.  “Oh, I’m sure he’s been behind a pint of Guinness.  Drained the lot of it.”

“And his wife?” said another.  “Went right behind the bar and pulled herself a pint.”

A young man chimed in.  “I thought he might just drive through the village in his limo.  But he got out of the car and stayed an hour talkin’, shook hands with everyone in Moneygall.”

“Probably related to all of 'em,” said the clerk.

Later on in Dingle I met a gentle woman in the library who struck up a conversation about President Obama.  “He knows what we’ve been through,” she said, “because his people have suffered as well.”

A man nearby whispered, ”I can’t believe he was elected in the first place.  It’s a fine thing, and sure it could only happen in America.”

“Perhaps that’s true,” I said, reflecting on the exhilaration felt around the world when Obama was elected.  Maybe the Irish and others want an image of America as a place of opportunity for all, regardless of class or origin.

One thing’s for sure: the Irish were proud of themselves for pulling off the presidential visit, followed by the Queen of England a week later.

O'Dowd's Pub, Roundstone
In a pub in Connemara, I overheard a conversation between a fisherman and a lovely young waitress.

“I can’t believe we pulled ‘em both off,” said the girl.

“Yeah, and nothing went wrong,” he replied.

“In Ireland of all places,” she said.

He shook his head and had a gulp of Guinness.

“Yup,” he said.  “By God, we did it.”

Monday, June 18, 2012

Travel and Six Degrees of Separation, by Harvey Gould

"You'll receive many pleasures from travel," my dad told me once, "one of them including possible unintended friendships."  He then told me of the time he and my mom were on vacation in Mexico and on a bus in Mexico City.  Not far from them, three men were jabbering away in Spanish.  My folks, wanting to express something privately to each other, spoke in Yiddish.  One of the men turned to my parents and asked, "Jewish?" Three Mexican Jews and two American Jews on a bus in Mexico City, all of whom spoke Yiddish? What are the odds?  Whatever they were, this led to a friendship that for many decades kept them in touch with one another.
I remembered that story when I was introduced to the owner of this blog, Jan Schwert. Here’s the background.
In 1971 one of my wife’s and my friends, Dan Flaxman, traveled throughout Ireland. During that trip he stayed at a B&B in Dingle, owned by a Mrs. Farrell. He returned to Ireland in 1972 and 1973, both times again staying at Mrs. Farrell’s B&B.

Left to right, Sarah Flaxman, Harvey Gould and Dan Flaxman at Slea Head, Dingle

In 1990, Jan and her husband, Ron, were in Dingle and met the same Mrs. Farrell. Jan’s blog contains numerous stories of events that occurred to her and Ron in the course of their extensive travels. Years after their encounter with Mrs. Farrell, Jan put up a post on her blog about meeting her.
 In 1998 my wife and I were returning to Ireland for an extended stay, something we ended up doing over the course of a twenty-year period. That year, we invited Dan and his mother to spend some time with us there. They came, and as a side trip, we went to Dingle. While there, Dan insisted on trying to find Mrs. Farrell’s B&B. Though by then it had been perhaps thirty years since he’d been there, we couldn’t talk him out of his hopeless quest. Lo and behold, not only did he find the B&B, but Mrs. Farrell was still there and operating it and we spent an afternoon with her, having tea and listening to Dan reminiscing about the time he’d stayed there many decades earlier.

Harvey's wife Karen at Dingle with Great Blasket Island and movie set from Ryan's Daughter

In 2011 I published memoirs about the years my wife and I spent in Ireland. I included a chapter on Dan’s and his mother’s visit, and, among other things, told the story about his insistence on trying to find Mrs. Farrell (though, in my book, I refer to her as Mrs. Murphy).  Inspired by reading that story, and again recalling Mrs. Farrell, Dan started searching the web on another impossible quest—to find information about her. Voila! Our modern day Don Quixote found Jan’s post about Mrs. Farrell. After he and Jan exchanged a few emails, Dan put Jan and me in touch with one another and not only have we become “email” buddies, but she’s done a guest post on my blog about (drum roll, please)—Mrs. Farrell.
So, dad, boy were you right! Indeed there are unintended friendships from travel! In this case, it started with a few strangers meeting the same woman in a tiny town in Ireland. Then, through an unforeseeable series of coincidences, they were introduced to one another with a forty year gap from the initial meeting to the introduction. Based on those remarkable circumstances, Jan and I are now doing guest posts on each other’s blogs. Who said there’s no such thing as six degrees of separation? Here’s to travel and here’s to our own Don Quixote!    

Guest blogger Harvey Gould is the author of A Fierce Local: Memoirs of My Love Affair with Ireland, a finalist in the San Francisco Writers Conference Indie Publishing Contest. His book includes tales of fascinating people he and his wife met and unique events that occurred to them during extended stays in Ireland over a twenty-year span. The memoir is inspired by the lessons the couple learned when Harvey was diagnosed with a terminal disease and told he had no more than five years to live. For more information about his book, visit, follow him on Twitter at @afiercelocal and "like" his page on Facebook. Harvey also blogs at

Monday, May 10, 2010

Social Climbers

"I want to find that bar," said my husband Ron, soon after we landed on the Croatian island of Korcula.  We had read about a place perched on an ancient tower, with 360-degree views of the city and the Adriatic Sea.

I was standing in our room with my backpack on, ready to settle in. But the lure of the tower was strong; I dropped my pack and followed him out the door.

Korcula expands by thousands in the summer, but in May it was quiet, with hardly any tourists. Ron and I wandered through narrow cobblestone streets set in a herringbone pattern, designed in the 15th century to circulate air among buildings while protecting the city from strong ocean winds.

We emerged from an alley to see a harbor off to the left, where sailboats and small cruise ships floated in the sunlit water. Turning right, we walked below the old town wall, taking in the afternoon sun and the scent of sea air.

“Look,” I said, spotting a sign with a picture of a tower. “That must be the place.”

We went up an outside staircase and entered a small room with bare stone walls and one tiny window. Several people sat in nooks against the round walls. We took more stairs to a second level, where half a dozen men were drinking beer and speaking Croatian.

One of them pointed to a ladder. I walked over, looked up and saw a hole in the ceiling and a circle of blue sky. The men stopped talking and watched.

Ron scampered up the 12-foot ladder to the roof. I followed, climbing hand-over-hand, with my purse looped over my arm. My coat was tied around my waist, and halfway up it slipped down to my ankles, entangling me so I couldn’t go up or down.

My husband peered through the hole. “C’mon, you can do it,” he said. What’s taking you so long?”

I clung to a rung with one hand, grabbed my coat with the other and kept on climbing. When I finally emerged, dragging my coat and purse, the drinkers on the roof looked relieved. Perhaps they had pictured a very old woman struggling up the ladder.

"This is not the grand entrance I had pictured," Ron declared.

A ripple of laughter went around the dozen or so people sitting at tables, bundled up against the wind. They went back to conversing in four or five languages.

We sat at an empty table. A waiter came over and took our order, then clipped it to a basket with a clothespin and sent it over the wall. Ten minutes later the same basket brought up our cocktails without spilling a drop.

We relaxed with our drinks and watched others emerge through the hole in various states of relief and wonder. I tried not to think about going back down the ladder.

A young couple plopped down at our table and introduced themselves as Simon and Naomi from Australia. They were on their way to a family wedding in Scotland and bubbled over with stories about their trip.

Next Corbin and David popped out of the hole. They looked so lively that Simon invited them to join us. We spent hours trading swizzle sticks and travel stories, along with details of our lives back home.

David looked in his forties, Corbin ten years younger. They lived in the suburbs of Dallas, and I was captivated to learn that every fall, they planted over 2000 tulip bulbs, then threw a party for 150 when the flowers appeared in the spring.

Ron said we were retired and spent every spring in Europe. We planned to explore Montenegro before returning to Seattle.

“Montenegro? Really?” said Naomi. “What’s that supposed to be like?”

"Mountains, beaches.... We'll find out more and let you know," I replied.

David calmly described how he organized their trips. Meanwhile, Corbin ran around the roof introducing himself to the waiter and all the other customers.

With every round of drinks, our voices and raucous laughter got louder. Couples looking for a quiet evening left, and soon we were the only ones on the roof.

The group grew calmer as we watched the sun go down, painting the sky in shades of rose and orange. Through gaps in the tower’s crenellated wall, I saw a small boat chugging from the harbor to a cruise ship several miles offshore. The last rays of sun were reflected in its wake.

We lingered over our drinks. None of us seemed ready to leave the crossroads that had brought us together. But by eight o’clock the wind had picked up and our group began to disperse. We hugged each other, Corbin hugged the waiter, and our new friends disappeared through the hole.

Ron and I were the last to leave. When I made it down, the locals I'd seen before glanced over and laughed. It was then I realized that we were the entertainment. Watching tourists climb up to the roof and down again was the highlight of their day.

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