Author: Julie

Hi, I’m Julie, and ever since I went on my first family vacation trip as a kid, I've been a little obsessed with seeing new places. I’ve found that there is something interesting about every place, no matter how boring it may seem at first glance. Travel is the most exciting adventure we can have! I live in a college town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore but like to escape whenever possible to see new things, eat new foods, take more pictures, and make new acquaintances. I am married with two children (only one still at home). Also living with us are a contrary tabby cat, and an goofy little dog who is part Corgi. (We’re not sure what the other part is!) When I am not traveling, or writing about my travels, you will find me planning my next trip, daydreaming about returning to one of my favorite places, reading a good book, or working on a craft project. I hope you enjoy reading about and seeing the places I’ve been. Remember, travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer…
A Road Trip for the Hamilton Fan

A Road Trip for the Hamilton Fan

(This post was originally written July 2017; updated September 2020.)

Are you a fan of the wildly popular Broadway musical, Hamilton? I certainly am, so I figured it might be fun to do a Hamilton road trip visiting all of the places connected to this founding father. I’m listing them in chronological order; however, I will have a list at the end that organizes the sites by state, and a map to guide you in planning your Hamilton road trip.

In New York you can be a new man

In the first year or two after his arrival on the mainland, Alexander focused on his education. During this time, he came under the influence of William Livingston, a leading intellectual and revolutionary. Hamilton even lived at the Livingston residence for about a year. Livingston’s house, known as Liberty Hall, is now the Liberty Hall Museum of Union, NJ.

Hamilton entered King’s College in New York City (now Columbia University) in the autumn of 1773 as a private student and officially matriculated in May 1774. As a result, if you visit the college today, you will see Hamilton Hall and a large statue of Hamilton in front of it.

alexander hamilton road trip columbia university hall statue
Hamilton Hall at Columbia University (source)

After his education, Alexander Hamilton joined a New York volunteer militia company. He drilled with the company in the graveyard of nearby St. Paul’s Chapel.

You walked in and my heart went BOOM

Hamilton met Elizabeth Schuyler while stationed in Morristown, New Jersey in the winter of December 1779-March 1780.

They were married on December 14, 1780, at the Schuyler Mansion in Albany, New York. The Schuyler Mansion still stands, and it is a New York State Historic Site. Between 1763 and 1804, this mansion was the site of military strategizing, political hobnobbing, elegant social affairs, and an active family life. You can tour the mansion for $5 (students and seniors $4 and children under 12 receive free admission).

alexander hamilton roadt trip albany ny schuyler mansion
The Schuyler Mansion in Albany, NY (source)

The Battle of Yorktown … 1781 …

Hamilton was there, and you can be, too.

The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown (Virginia) tells the story of the nation’s founding, from the colonial period to the Revolution and beyond. Indoor galleries feature period artifacts, immersive environments, interactive exhibits and films. One film, “The Siege of Yorktown,” has a 180-degree surround screen and special effects. The museum also has outdoor living-history areas, in which visitors can witness artillery demonstrations, or drill with wooden muskets at a re-created Continental Army encampment.

alexander hamilton road trip american revolution museum yorktown
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown (source)

After the war, I went back to New York

In July 1782, Hamilton passed the bar and set up law practice in Albany after six months of self-directed education. Unfortunately, I could not find any reference to the location of his law practice.

Back in Manhattan, in 1784, he founded the Bank of New York. The bank opened for business at 326 Pearl Street only a few months after the departure of British troops from American soil. Sadly, that building has not stood since 1881. It is interesting to note, however, that the Bank of New York became one of the longest operating banks in American history. It stayed in business for over 220 years before it merged with another bank in 2007.

I was chosen for the constitutional convention

The Annapolis Convention of September 1786, held at Mann’s Tavern, consisted of twelve delegates from five states. Hamilton played a major leadership role at the convention, where he drafted a resolution for a constitutional convention. As a result, he came one step closer to achieving his longtime desire to have a more powerful, financially independent federal government.

The Constitutional Convention took place in Philadelphia the following year from May 25 to September 17. Delegates met at the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall. After months of work in defining and improving our fledgling nation’s government, they emerged with the Constitution of the United States of America.  Alexander Hamilton was the sole signer from the state of New York.  Today, you can see the Constitution at the National Archives in Washington DC.

alexander hamilton road trip independence hall philadelphia
Independence Hall, Philadelphia  (source)

The New York state Ratifying Convention took place in Poughkeepsie in June 1788. Most delegates to the ratifying convention were anti-Federalists, and they opposed ratification.  However, Hamilton led the Federalist minority in a tenacious and persevering fight for ratification. The original Dutchess County Courthouse where the convention was held later burned down and a new courthouse was built on the same site. Outside the courthouse, signs mark the historic site of the New York Ratifying Convention. Inside the US Post Office at the end of the street, you can view a large mural of the New York Ratification Convention.

We’ll get a little place in Harlem

Alexander Hamilton owned just one home in his lifetime: a Federal style mansion known as The Grange. Originally built on Hamilton’s 32-acre country estate in upper Manhattan, the home was moved twice, and is now located in St. Nicholas Park in Hamilton Heights, Manhattan. It is maintained by the National Park Service, who restored it to its original 1802 appearance.  The Park Service also provides guided tours daily.

alexander hamilton road trip grange new york
The Grange (source)

Weehawken, dawn.  Guns drawn.

After decades of insults and provocations between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, they met to duel at dawn on July 11, 1804 in Weehawken, NJ. The dueling grounds, located along the west bank of the Hudson River, have a historic marker and a bronze bust of Alexander Hamilton… in Hamilton Park, adjacent to Hamilton Street. Also on Hamilton Street is a large boulder upon which Alexander Hamilton rested after being shot.

Paralyzed by a bullet that struck his spine, Hamilton was ferried to the Greenwich Village home of his friend William Bayard Jr., who had been waiting on the dock. Hamilton died the following afternoon, July 12, at Bayard’s home. According to Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow, “A large bloodstain soaked into the Bayard’s floor where Hamilton expired, and for many years the family refused to expunge this sacred spot.” The house currently at this address is not the one in which Hamilton passed away, but there is a marker to commemorate the place of Hamilton’s demise.

Hamilton’s tomb lies near the southern fence of Trinity churchyard in New York. Eliza is buried next to him, but she outlived him by 50 years.  Also buried in the cemetery are Angelica Schuyler Church and Hercules Mulligan.

alexander hamilton road trip grave site epitaph
Hamilton’s grave site at Trinity Church

Who tells your story

Numerous locations in the United States pay tribute to Alexander Hamilton and his legacy. To name a few:

Hamilton served as one of the first trustees of the Hamilton-Oneida Academy in Clinton, New York. After receiving a college charter in 1812, it became Hamilton College.

It isn’t mentioned in the play, but Alexander Hamilton envisioned using the Great Falls of the Passaic River in New Jersey to power new factories.  While Secretary of Treasury, Hamilton selected the site of the nation’s first planned industrial city. Then, in 1791, Hamilton helped found the Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures (SUM), a state-chartered private corporation to fulfill this vision. SUM founded the town of Paterson and today, there is a statue of Hamilton overlooking the falls in Paterson, New Jersey.

The United States Capitol in Washington DC has a statue of Hamilton in the southwest portion of its rotunda.

In 1790, Hamilton created the United States Revenue Cutter Service to help with customs enforcement. In 1915, the service combined with the United States Life Saving Service to form the United States Coast Guard.  So it’s no surprise that the main administration building of the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, is named Hamilton Hall.

In 1880, Hamilton’s son, John Church Hamilton, commissioned Carl Conrads to sculpt a granite statue of his father, now located in Central Park, New York City.

alexander hamilton road trip central park statue new york
The statue of Alexander Hamilton in Central Park, New York. (source)

In 1990, the U.S. Custom House in New York City was renamed after Alexander Hamilton.

The U.S. Army’s Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn is named after Hamilton.

In Washington, DC, the south terrace of the Treasury Building features a statue of Hamilton by James Earle Fraser, dedicated on May 17, 1923.

In Chicago, a thirteen-foot tall statue of Hamilton by sculptor John Angel was cast in 1939. Installation at Lincoln Park did not occur until 1952, however, due to issues with the accompanying structure. The statue underwent restoration work in 2016 and now gleams shiny gold.

A bronze sculpture of Hamilton titled The American Cape was unveiled at Journal Square in downtown Hamilton, Ohio, in October 2004. (That link will take you to a site with multiple images – it’s really striking, so check it out!)

The Road Trip

Because most of these sites are close together, I think it makes an ideal road trip.  The road trip itinerary below does not include all of the spots, just the most important ones.  I tried to keep it semi-practical, so you wouldn’t be driving an hour out of your way just to see a statue.

  1. Start at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, Virginia.  I would allow at least half a day for seeing that.  From there, head toward Washington DC. However, if you want to shorten your tip, you can make Washington your starting point – I included Yorktown because I’ve been to its sister site, the Jamestown Settlement, which is excellent.
  2. In Washington, go first to the Capitol building, then the National Archives, and then the US Treasury. From there, head to Philadelphia.
  3. In Philadelphia, tour Independence Hall.  Again, I would allow at least half a day for this.  Then head to New York City.
  4. In Manhattan, go to Trinity Church and look for the graves of Alexander & Eliza Hamilton, Hercules Mulligan, and Angelica Schuyler Church
  5. As you head north in New York, stop by 82 Jane Street, the site where Hamilton died at William Bayard’s home.
  6. Visit Central Park and look for the statue of Hamilton, located east of The Great Lawn between 82nd and 83rd Streets
  7. Go see Hamilton Hall at Columbia University.  Visit nearby St. Paul’s Chapel, where Hamilton and his fellow militiamen did drills in the cemetery.
  8. Make your last stop in the Big Apple the Hamilton Grange National Memorial.
  9. Leave New York and head to the Weehawken Dueling Grounds and Hamilton Memorial in Weehawken NJ. Be sure to look for the boulder.
  10. Visit the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park in Paterson NJ and look for the statue of Hamilton there.
  11. Head north and stop in Poughkeepsie to see the Dutchess County Courthouse. While you’re there, you can also get a look at the mural in the nearby Post Office.
  12. Finally, you reach the end of the trip at the Schuyler Mansion in Albany, NY, site of Alexander and Eliza’s wedding.

Of course, this is just a suggestion.  You could adapt this trip to include more sites, or shorten it by removing some. A full list of all the sites mentioned in this article, and their addresses, follows.

New Jersey

  • Liberty Hall Museum – 1003 Morris Avenue, Union NJ
  • Morristown, NJ – Hamilton was stationed there in 1779/1780
  • Weehawken, NJ – Hamilton Street dueling grounds
  • Paterson, NJ Statue – 72 McBride Ave ExtensionPaterson, NJ

New York

  • Columbia University – 1130 Amsterdam Avenue, New York NY
  • St. Paul’s Chapel – 1160 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY
  • Schuyler Mansion – 32 Catherine Street, Albany, NY
  • Dutchess County Courthouse – 10 Market St, Poughkeepsie, NY
  • Hamilton Grange National Memorial – 414 West 141st Street, New York, NY
  • William Bayard’s home Marker – 82 Jane Street, New York, NY
  • Trinity Churchyard Cemetery – Broadway and Wall Street, New York, NY
  • Hamilton College – 198 College Hill Rd, Clinton, NY
  • Central Park Statue – Mid-Park east of The Great Lawn between 82nd and 83rd Streets
  • Alexander Hamilton US Custom House – 1 Bowling Green, New York, NY
  • Fort Hamilton – 101st Street, Brooklyn, NY

Virginia

  • American Revolution Museum at Yorktown – 200 Water Street, Route 1020, Yorktown, VA

Maryland

  • Mann’s Tavern Marker – 162 Conduit St, Annapolis MD

Pennsylvania

  • Independence Hall – 520 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia

Washington, DC

  • National Archives – 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC
  • Capitol Building – East Capitol St NE & First St SE, Washington, DC
  • US Treasury Building – 1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, in Washington, D.C.

Connecticut

  • US Coast Guard Academy – 31 Mohegan Ave, New London, CT

Thank you for joining me on this tour of Alexander Hamilton’s life!  Please let me know if you take a Hamilton road trip and/or visit any of these places.  I would love to hear what you thought of them!

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Hamilton US Road Trip
From Yuck to Yay! Wine Tasting at Williamsburg Winery

From Yuck to Yay! Wine Tasting at Williamsburg Winery

We recently visited Williamsburg, Virginia on an extended weekend. I’ve been to Williamsburg before, so for this trip, we were looking for something new to do. A friend suggested a wine tasting at Williamsburg Winery, and that sounded like fun, so we reserved our spots.

NB: I did not tell anyone at the winery that I was a travel blogger, nor did I receive any compensation or promotional consideration. This is my review of my experience, 100% honest.

The History of Williamsburg Winery

Situated just south of the city of Williamsburg, on a plot of land with rolling hills and verdant pastures, lies Williamsburg Winery. In a previous life, the property was a farm initially called “Archer’s Hope” after Gabriel Archer. Mr. Archer was the second in command on the Discovery, one of the three ships that brought English settlers to the area in 1607.

Surveying the North coast of the James River, Captain Archer had identified the site of the farm as his preferred spot for the landing. Captain John Smith overruled him feeling that the adjacent island would provide a more defendable site. In later years, Archer was a fierce critic of Captain John Smith and other leaders, even at one point calling for Smith’s execution.

In a nod to his connection with the land, Williamsburg Winery has named one of their wines after Archer: the Gabriel Archer Reserve. Also on the winery grounds, you can enjoy a meal at the Gabriel Archer Tavern, which offers gourmet fare at reasonable prices.

The Tour of Williamsburg Winery

We had a wonderful tour guide named (I believe) Jack, who had retired from his primary profession and worked part-time as a tour guide for the winery. It was easy to see that he enjoyed what he did, although he joked that he only did the tours as a way to give his wife a break from him being at home all the time.

Jack showed us some of the grapevines and talked about planting and harvesting techniques. He taught us about vertical shoot positioning – where the two main shoots or branches of the grapevine are spread out horizontally to the left and right of the stem to form a T. All other shoots grow up vertically from that point.

wine tasting at williamsburg winery - vertical shoot positioning of the grapevines

He told us that in the United States, Virginia is ranked #5 when it comes to wines (after California, Washington, Oregon, and New York).

Jack also explained the differences between how red wines and white wines are made. White grapes go straight to press, and the wine is made in steel tanks from the juice of the grapes. Red grapes are put in tanks and heated to 85 degrees Fahrenheit for about 3-7 days. This process, known as maceration, gives us the flavor, color, and the tannins that come from the grape skins.

Jack also showed us some large concrete eggs that reminded me a little too much of Mork from Ork. (Nanu Nanu. RIP, Robin Williams.) You can see examples of concrete wine eggs here. The shape of the vessel promotes constant movement, which gives the wine a richer flavor. Also, because concrete is somewhat porous, low levels of oxygen can enter through the walls of the egg and improve the flavor of the wine.

And of course, we got to tour the cellar, where we saw row after row of oak barrels. The wine ages in these barrels, and inevitably draws some of its flavor from the wood. The hints of vanilla and notes of spice that you see listed in a wine’s description? They come from the barrel.

wine tasting at williamsburg winery - oak barrels hold red wine in the cellar

Barrels, we learned, are quite expensive, and can only be used for a maximum of 4-5 years. With each use of an oak barrel, it loses some of its ability to add to the flavor of the wine. The amount of oxygen that transports through the wood of the barrel also diminishes over time.

The Wine Tasting at Williamsburg Winery

Finally, it was time to try some of the wines that we had learned so much about. We had booked the Reserve Tasting, which was a selection of nine different wines (3 white, 5 red, and 1 dessert), served with four types of cheese: Brie, Manchego, Maple Smoked Cheddar, and Stilton.

the reserve wine tasting at williamsburg winery included a selection of cheeses which complemented the wines

If, like me, you are rather inexperienced at wine tastings and/or every time you’ve tried wine you’ve thought, “Yuck. Why do people like this stuff so much?” then I’m going to let you in on a secret. A little bit of cheese can make a world of difference. Seriously!

Jack explained that when pairing wines with cheese, it is best to pair the milder tasting wines with milder cheeses, and strongly flavored wines with stronger cheeses. You do not want the wine to overpower the cheese, or vice versa.

Pouring red wine at a wine tasting at Williamsburg Winery

With each wine he poured, I took a small sip, and to be honest, I didn’t care for the wine very much. Then I took a bite of cheese, followed by another sip. That second sip of wine was amazing! This happened every single time, without exception.

They gave us a cheat sheet that listed the wines we were tasting, with descriptions of each and prices on the back. We sampled:

  • Wessex Hundred Viognier – 2018
  • Virginia Petit Manseng – 2018
  • Wessex Hundred Chardonnay – 2018
  • Merlot Reserve – 2017
  • Virginia Trianon (77% Cabernet Franc, 23% Petit Verdot) – 2017
  • Gabriel Archer Reserve (40% Cabernet Franc, 40% Petit Verdot, 20% Merlot) – 2017
  • Petit Verdot Reserve – 2017
  • Adagio (37% Tannat, 33% Petit Verdot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon) – 2017
  • Petit Fleur (515 Vidal Blanc, 25% Muscat, 24% Traminette) – 2018

My favorites were the first three (all white wines), the Merlot, and the Petit Fleur dessert wine because I tend to enjoy sweeter, not-so-dry wines.

The descriptions on the cheat sheet included phrases like “approachable” tannins, earthy character, and “well structured” oak. I’ll be honest, I don’t know what any of that means. But what I can tell you is that the Petit Fleur almost single handedly turned me into a wine aficionado. When I raised the glass to my nose and smelled the Petit Fleur, I said that it smelled like a summer meadow – sunshine and flowers. I enjoyed smelling it as much as I enjoyed drinking it!

In Summary

The Reserve Wine Tasting at Williamsburg Winery was a great experience! I learned so much about winemaking and discovered that I really can enjoy wine. Even a dry red wine! I’m so glad that we went – it’s really opened up a new world of possibilities for me where wine is concerned!

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My Airbnb Bucket List: North America Edition

My Airbnb Bucket List: North America Edition

On The Big Bang Theory, Dr. Sheldon Cooper once said, “If there were a list of things that make me more comfortable, lists would be on the top of that list.” I identified with this statement so much! I love to make lists almost as much as I enjoy crossing things off of them. And to those who know me, it should come as no surprise that I have an Airbnb Bucket List — places that I want to someday stay. I thought I would share part of it with you, and maybe you’ll be inspired to start your own Airbnb list.

There are seven properties from North America on my Airbnb Bucket List. Most of these I just happened to find as I was looking for potential vacation destinations, and thought they were so ideal I saved them even though I ended up going someplace different.

Underground Hygge – Orondo, Washington, USA

My Airbnb Bucket List

Hygge is a Danish word that means cozy, charming, or special. This Airbnb property in Orondo, Washington surely is all of those things! If you have ever wondered what it must be like to live in a Hobbit hole, this is your chance to find out. Located on a mountainside in the Columbia River Gorge, the view from the round front door is amazing:

My Airbnb Bucket List - view from the Hobbit Hold in Orondo WA

But I need more than just a charming exterior in a getaway. (Especially when it costs $400/night!) I want to have an experience. And with the charming, earthy furnishings and decor of this hobbit hole, I’m sure I would do just that. Nearly everything in this Airbnb property is made of wood, for a super-rustic and natural feeling — even the bathroom!

Bathroom at the hobbit hole that's on my Airbnb Bucket List

Average price: $400/night.

Little Luxe Retreat – Oceanside Oregon, USA

I have this insane need to see water. I don’t need to get in it (truth be told, I never did learn how to swim) but I just take comfort in knowing that it’s nearby. There’s something about seeing the movement of the water and hearing the sounds of the waves and seagulls that puts my soul at peace. And while this renovated 1947 cabin doesn’t have a huge wow factor from the street, that all changes when you go inside and step out onto the balcony.

Spectacular views from this little cabin on my Airbnb Bucket List

Like mountains? It’s a beautiful view. Like beaches? It’s a beautiful view. And just off of the wraparound deck is a gated patio with a private hot tub:

Hot tub with a view of the ocean at the Oregon cabin on my Airbnb wish list.

The description of the property says that the bed is positioned perfectly so you can wake up to ocean views that can be seen through the doorway. Can you imagine any lovelier way to start the day? I can’t.

Average price: $137/night.

Secluded In-Town Treehouse – Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Airbnb Bucket List - Secluded Treehouse in Atlanta Georgia

I’m not the only one who has this property on their Airbnb Bucket List – it’s Airbnb’s #1 most wish-listed property in the world! If you ever wanted to have a sleepover in a treehouse when you were a kid, this place could be your dream come true.

It consists of three separate rooms connected by rope bridges among lush green trees… hard to believe they’re in Atlanta! One room is a deck with a hammock, one is a sitting room, and the third is a bedroom. You may want to check the forecast or average temps before booking, though, as the rooms are semi-open to the elements and do not have air conditioning or heat. A private bathroom is available but it is in a separate building (the hosts’ home nearby).

Average price: $389/night.

Stunning Bark Point Home on Superior’s South Shore – Herbster, Wisconsin, USA

This uniquely designed home is the perfect getaway to enjoy nature. It’s located right on Lake Superior and boasts amenities like a patio with built in fire pit.

Airbnb Bucket List - this Lake Superior home in Wisconsin is one of my must stays.

What’s more, it boasts 300 feet of private shoreline, and stunning views of the lake all year round:

Airbnb Bucket list - view from bark point retreat

There are a few caveats for anyone booking this property, however. First, it books four to six months in advance, so you have to plan ahead a bit if you want to stay here. Second, the floor plan is very open, and bedrooms do not have the traditional four walls and a door. But if you’re into sunsets on the lake, don’t let that deter you.

Average price: $199/night.

Alfie the A-Frame, Sechelt, British Columbia, Canada

You gotta love a house that is named Alfie, right? And it’s just as cute as you might imagine it to be.

Airbnb bucket list a-frame in british columbia canada

I will confess, I have had a fascination with A-frame houses ever since I was a kid playing with my Fisher Price Little People A-frame playset. So I’m a bit biased. But this one almost looks boat shaped, and I think that makes me love it even more. It’s just so stinkin’ cute!

But even better, look at this view from Alfie’s upstairs bedroom:

And if that isn’t enough, step out onto the adjoining balcony for an even better view:

I don’t think I would ever want to leave!

Average price: $109/night.

The Lighthouse Ocotal, Del Coco Beach, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Airbnb Bucket List - a Costa Rican lighthouse

The Lighthouse itself has one bedroom and a small living area and bathroom. The main house next door has two additional master bedrooms a smaller bedroom, a kitchen, and a living room.  But the best part of this property is its stunning patio with infinity pool and views of the Pacific Ocean.

Airbnb Bucket List - Costa Rica lighthouse with infinity pool and views of the Pacific Ocean.

Yep, I can’t help but picture myself in some long, flowy robe standing there with a glass of wine, gazing wistfully out at the sea…

Average price: $320/night.

Waves and sand sunset paradise – Aguada, Puerto Rico

This property’s owner says it best: “JUST IMAGINE: Sitting on the balcony enjoying a cup of coffee while you see the sunset reflected on the ocean, getting up and sleeping with the beautiful sound of the waves. This beautiful beach front apartment is a truly dream come true. It’s literally steps from the beach with private stairs to give you access.”

My Airbnb Bucket List - gaze out at the water from the balcony of this property in Puerto Rico.

Those steps on the right hand side of the picture take you right down to the beach. And once you’ve finished your beach time, come back to relax on a lovely open air daybed swing.

I don’t often spend vacation time relaxing. Usually because I want to see all the sights and do all the things, but here? Here I would be all about relaxing and doing not much of anything at all.

Average price: just $75/night!

Setting Up Your Own Airbnb Bucket List

You can create your own wish list in Airbnb. When you find a property you like, click on the red heart to save it. When prompted for a name, you can call it Bucket List or whatever you want. (Mine is called “I Want to Stay Here”.)

I’m always looking for more places to add to my Airbnb Bucket List. Have you ever had an Airbnb property catch your eye and make you dream of staying there? Let me know about it in the comments!

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Mont St Michel, the Holy Fortress of France

Mont St Michel, the Holy Fortress of France

When I was a senior in high school, I saw a poster of Mont St Michel, France. It was the most romantic, spellbinding, and fascinating place I had ever seen. At that point in my young life, it had not even occurred to me that places like Mont St Michel actually existed in the real world. Seeing that poster may have been the very moment when my travel addiction was born. So when I booked my solo trip to Paris, of course I spent a little extra for a side trip. Here’s a review of my Mont St Michel day trip from Paris.

Photo credit: Trey Ratcliff on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Why Choose a Mont St Michel Day Trip?

Few places are as romanticized as Mont St. Michel in Normandy, France. Built upon a rock, the abbey juts out of the sea with its spire reaching heavenward. It is akin to something you would see in the illustration of a fairy tale. More than three million people visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site each year, vastly outnumbering the mere 50 individuals who call it home.

Surrounded by water, the tidal island of Mont St. Michel at one time could only be reached at low tide. Higher tide levels left the causeway submerged below water. Yet despite its location, it was a renowned center of learning and, for about 1000 years, a popular religious pilgrimage destination. The fact that it was so hard to reach did not deter the medieval pilgrims, who nicknamed it “St. Michael in peril of the sea.” Thankfully for modern day visitors, a bridge now allows full time access to the island regardless of tide.

History of Mont St. Michel

According to legend, the archangel Michael appeared to Aubert, the archbishop of Avranches, in 708 AD and instructed him to build a church on the rocky island. Aubert was reluctant to act upon his command, however, and resisted until Michael appeared three times. On the third visit, Michael touched Aubert’s head and burned a hole in his skull. Apparently, that was enough to persuade him; a church was built the following year. Later, a Benedictine abbey was built on the site in 966 AD.

In 1067, the monastery of Mont St Michel gave its support to William the Conqueror, who was fighting for the throne of England. In appreciation, he rewarded the monastery with properties and grounds on the English side of the Channel, including a small island off the southwestern coast of Cornwall. The English island was modeled after Mont St Michel and became a Norman priory named St Michael’s Mount of Penzance. (I’ve been there, too. Read about my visit here.)

In 1203, King Philip II of France tried to capture Normandy, including Mont St Michel. As a result of the battle and a very large fire, the abbey was destroyed. He compensated the monks for their loss by paying for the construction of the monastery known as La Merveille (“The Wonder”).

Construction of the monastery was followed in 1256 by fortifications on the island. This proved to be a wise move. Over the centuries, Mont St Michel grew and flourished, resisting multiple attacks during the Hundred Years War and the French Wars of Religion. However, by the eighteenth century, its glory days were behind it. By the time of the French Revolution (1789-1799), only seven monks called the monastery on Mont St Michel home.

Under Napoleon’s reign, Mont St Michel became a prison, referred to as the “Bastille of the Sea.” This era saw the construction of a treadwheel crane in an old ossuary. Six prisoners walked inside the 12 foot diameter wheel in order to hoist necessary supplies up to the prison.

Mont St Michel day trip -- massive treadwheel used to hoist supplies up to the monastery when it was a prison.

Mont St Michel: the Details

The structures built upon the island of Mont St Michel symbolize the class structure of medieval Europe. God, the abbey and monastery are at the highest point, some 300+ feet above the sea. Below the monastery lie the merchants’ stores and housing, and at the very bottom, outside the walls, the fishermen’s and farmers’ housing.

At the very top of the steeple there is a gilded statue of St. Michael, sword pointed down toward the vanquished dragon he stands upon.

Mont St Michel day trip - a golden statue of the Archangel Michael tops the abbey steeple

This statue is one of only a few examples of ornamentation, however. By and large, the structures of the abbey and monastery are empty. As I toured the buildings, it seemed most of the rooms looked like this one:

Typical room at the abbey as seen on Mont St Michel day trip

Even the church nave was rather barren and plain. Impressive in size, yes, but still rather unadorned.

Photo by Jorge Lascar via Flickr

The cloister at Mont St Michel abbey is different from what you would see at most medieval cathedrals and monasteries. It is not in the center of the monastery. It served as a place for spiritual meditation for the monks who lived there.

Mont St Michel day trip - the abbey cloister

Hands down, this was my favorite spot.

Getting to Mont St Michel

From Paris, you can catch an early morning high speed train to the city of Rennes, the capital city of Brittany. The train leaves from Gare Montparnasse, and travels the 220 miles in about two hours. From Rennes, you can catch a bus that will take you the rest of the way in a little over an hour.

Car parks are located about 1.5 miles from the Mount, but you can take a shuttle bus (called Passeurs) from the visitor’s center. Shuttles operate from 7:30 am to midnight. Alternatively, you can ride a horse drawn carriage (called a Maringote). At 45 minutes, the carriage is considerably slower, but so much more romantic.

A horse drawn carriage takes visitors to the car park - Mont St Michel day trip.

Booking a Mont St Michel Day Trip with a Third Party

Because my primary interest in a side trip was seeing Brittany, I chose a day trip package that offered Mont St Michel as well as St. Malo and Dinan. (I booked my trip through Link Paris. I paid full price, out of my own pocket, and they had no idea I write this travel blog. So you get a 100% completely honest review!)

The Link Paris driver, Marc, picked us up at the train station in Rennes and took us to St Malo first, where we happily explored for an hour or so. Then it was on to Mont St Michel, followed by another quick stop in Dinan. Marc, who spoke English, was friendly and informative. Additionally, he provided us with maps, brochures, and recommendations at each of our stops.

The best parts of booking my Mont St Michel day trip this way: I didn’t have to worry about logistics. The folks at Link Paris took care of buying all the tickets I needed. I also didn’t have to take more than one method of transportation (no bus transfers, no car rentals).

The worst parts of booking my Mont St Michel day trip this way: I did not get to set my own schedule. I would have preferred more time in Dinan, for instance, but I was at the mercy of the group schedule.

However, all of the above would likely be true for any group travel experience booked through a third party. I am in no way implying that Link Paris is better or worse than any other agency.

If you’re wondering what this sort of day trip costs, I paid a little over $300. The package included all expenses except meals and any souvenirs I wished to purchase.

My Take on Mont St Michel

In all honesty, I found Mont St Michel to be somewhat disappointing. As I mentioned, the abbey was fairly empty, devoid of furnishings and art. There weren’t even many informational signs to read.

The town below the abbey was just the opposite – overcrowded with tourists and souvenir shops.

Mont St Michel day trip - the streets are narrow and crowded.

The crowds, combined with the narrow streets, made me feel almost claustrophobic at times. Ultimately, I decided that I could best appreciate Mont St Michel from a distance. But as always, your mileage may vary.

I will say, however, that even though it wasn’t an ideal destination for me, I’m still glad that I went. It was great to satisfy that 18-year-old me who fell in love with it at first glance and dreamed of going there someday.

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The Best Flamenco Show in Madrid

The Best Flamenco Show in Madrid

The Spanish tradition of flamenco encompasses much more than a woman twirling around in a bright dress, castanets clicking away in her hands. It is a folklore tradition rich in history and full of emotion. While flamenco originated in southern Spain, it is alive and well in other regions of the country too. Here’s my experience at the best flamenco show in Madrid.

The History of Flamenco

The exact origin of flamenco is unknown. Most historians believe that it originated in southern Spain, specifically Andalusia, in the sixteenth century.

Oddly enough, the word flamenco is Spanish for Flemish, meaning someone or something from Flanders, Belgium. And Flanders was at one time a Spanish possession. However, there are two other theories of the origin of the name. The first holds that it is derived from fellah mengu, which means expelled peasants and possibly refers to Moors and Gitanos (Romani people of Spain, or Spanish gypsies). Historians believe that these two groups of people had a profound influence on the creation of the flamenco tradition, and were later driven out of southern Spain. The second theory proposes that flamenco is from the Spanish word for fire because of the dance’s fiery emotions.

The best flamenco show in Madrid has its roots in gitano traditions of southern Spain
A Gypsy Dance in the Gardens of the Alcázar, by Alfred Dehodencq, via Wikimedia Commons

What Exactly Is Flamenco?

Flamenco is perhaps best known for its dance component. However, the musical accompaniment of a guitar, and the songs that are sung in flamenco are both integral parts to the overall flamenco experience. Flamenco’s key characteristics are hand clapping, foot stomping, and intricate, sometimes exaggerated, movements.

Traditionally, the women who dance flamenco will wear a form fitting colorful dress that flares out with layers of ruffles at the bottom.

(Source)

Their hair is usually pulled back in a bun or braid, and they often will wear flowers or a special comb called a peina in their hair. They also wear a lacy shawl-like garment called a mantle over their shoulders.

My Experience at the Best Flamenco Show in Madrid

After a little research, we determined that the best flamenco show was the one held nightly at Las Carboneras, a short distance from both Plaza Mayor and the Mercado San Miguel.

Las Carboneras offers two shows nightly, and you can make a reservation for the show plus a meal, or for the show by itself. Both tickets include a drink. In order to keep our costs down (because this excursion was not sponsored), we opted to eat dinner before the show at the Mercado San Miguel.

The best thing about flamenco at Las Carboneras is that there are no bad seats. It’s a small venue, with seating for about 50 people. (Take that with a grain of salt – I’m guessing, and my estimating skills aren’t always spot on.) Tables are arranged all around the stage, and the tables and chairs in the farther reaches of the room are elevated to provide for better viewing.

The food – what we saw of it on other people’s tables – wasn’t that impressive looking, so I really felt like we made the right choice by eating dinner before hand. A trio of Italian women slightly older than us were at the next table. They had enjoyed some sangria at the Mercado San Miguel before coming to the show. Very friendly ladies, even with the language barrier. We attempted to make small talk, using gestures and Google translate, but before much time passed, the lights dimmed and the performers came to the stage.

The Show

There were seven performers — four men and three women. One man played the guitar and two others sang. The three women and the remaining man were the dancers. The women and the guitarist took a seat while the other three men stood behind them on the stage.

Seven performers on the stage at the best flamenco show in Paris

The music began and the performers were either singing or clapping their hands and/or tapping their feet. It was a little surprising at how much music could be created with just one guitar! After a moment of great anticipation, the dancers got up one by one and did an introductory dance.

The dancer in the vivid blue floral dress was probably my favorite. Older than the others, and less svelte, certainly not your stereotypical flamenco dancer… but she very clearly loved what she was doing and enjoyed her time in the spotlight.

one of the dancers at the best flamenco show in madrid.

The second dancer, dressed all in black except for her red patent shoes, was next. As she danced, the other dancers called out to her, sort of cheering her on.

Then it was the third woman’s turn. Dressed in yellow and green, her style was one of smoldering intensity. she danced not just with her legs and feet, but with her entire body.

intense dancing at the best flamenco show in madrid

Finally, it was the male flamenco dancer’s turn. He reminded me a bit of Jason Momoa, so needless to say, I was riveted.

male dancer at the best flamenco show in madrid

After this sort of introductory dance, each dancer had an extended turn in the spotlight.

This time around, it was the woman in the green and yellow that impressed me the most. Her rapid-fire toe and heel tapping was amazing! Made my ankles hurt just to think about how many times she was stomping against the stage.

The Heart of Flamenco

Whether considering just the songs of flamenco, or just the dancing, and especially when considering both, there is undeniable emotion. I understood not a single word of the flamenco songs, but I could tell that they were full of emotion. Some celebratory, some mournful, but all full of emotion. It showed in the way the dancers moved, the expressions on their faces, the strumming of the guitar and the tone of the singers’ voices. It was the emotion that made the experience seem so much more than watching a performance. Seeing the best flamenco show in Madrid was a celebration of cultural heritage from centuries past. Definitely a must-see if you’re in the Spanish capital!

Some Interesting Flamenco Trivia

  • Flamenco has seen a surge in popularity in Japan. In fact there are more flamenco academies in Japan than there are in Spain!
  • In 2010, UNESCO named flamenco a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
  • There are over 50 different styles of flamenco known as palos. Some have 4 beats while others have 12, some are solo while others are for couples, some are sung while others are accompanied by guitar, some are identified by geographic region of origin, etc.
  • You may know fandango as a movie app. However, the original fandango is a lively flamenco dance for couples.
  • Flamenco music was traditionally only accompanied by toe and heel clicking, finger snapping, hand clapping and shouting. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the use of a guitar was incorporated.

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Stuck at Home? Check Out These Streaming Travel Shows

Stuck at Home? Check Out These Streaming Travel Shows

Sometimes circumstances arise which prevent us from leaving home. Inclement weather, bed rest during pregnancy, and recovery from surgery are all prime examples. Self-isolation during a global viral pandemic is another. But I digress. The point is that those of us who love to travel may, sadly, find ourselves unable to do just that. In those cases, the next best thing to do is to watch some entertaining streaming travel shows. Here are a few of my favorites.

1. Travel Man: 48 Hours In…

I just discovered this show, and it’s a delight. It stars Richard Ayoade, who in each episode, takes a celebrity guest on a weekend trip. He starts out saying, “We’re here, but should we have come?” Then over the course of two days, he and his guest will experience tourist attractions, unconventional methods of transportation, and local food & drink.

Sometimes the attractions that Ayoade and his guest visit are offbeat, like New York City’s Mmuseumm, a museum housed in a freight elevator that specializes in the “overlooked, dismissed, or ignored.” Other times they will go the more traditional route and visit must-see attractions like St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum.

Here’s a clip from the Travel Man YouTube channel where Richard and British comedic legend Dawn French sample ouzo in Greece.

Watch Travel Man: 48 Hours In… on Hulu or YouTube.

2. The Amazing Race

There are at least 29 seasons of The Amazing Race available to watch on streaming services. If you aren’t familiar with this show, where have you been? To sum up, it’s a competition reality show where teams of two compete in a race that takes them all over the world. In each country they visit, they need to complete tasks that (usually) relate to the local culture and customs. As with other reality shows, there’s drama and tears and in-fighting and alliances… but the bottom line is that you get to see a lot of the world while you’re watching it.

Every time I watch this show I think about how much I would love to compete. Then they show contestants doing something like this and I realize that I couldn’t possibly.

Watch The Amazing Race on Amazon Prime, Hulu, and CBS All Access.

3. Jack Whitehall: Travels with My Father

jack Whitehall is a 30-ish comedian from the UK. His father, Michael Whitehall, is nearly 80 and a very Proper English Gentleman. Perhaps I find their relationship so funny (and endearing) because there was a similar age gap between Hubs and his dad. Or maybe it’s because Michael is so stereotypically old school British.

Don’t let the title fool you — Michael is the real star of this streaming travel show. Watch him refuse to dress in anything less formal than a three piece suit, openly insult his son’s manhood, and grumble and complain with style (and the occasional F bomb). Then, just when you think he is the grumpiest of old men, he will surprise you by purchasing a baby doll (whom he lovingly names Winston, in honor of Churchill).

Here’s some unseen footage of their visit to an American diner, posted on Jack Whitehall’s YouTube channel.

Watch Jack Whitehall: Travels with My Father on Netflix.

4. Kindness Diaries

The Kindness Diaries chronicle Leon Logothetis‘ journeys around the world. The catch is that he travels without any money at all. Not a cent in his pocket, and not willing to take money from strangers, he relies solely on the kindness of strangers. People all over the world feed him, shelter him, and spend time with him. Often, the people who share all that they have with him are people who have very little to begin with.

In each episode, Leon provides one of the people he meets with a substantial financial gift that helps them achieve their goals (go to college, buy a car, etc.). He repays their kindness tenfold.

Here’s a clip of an interview with Leon, in which he explains why he embarked on this journey.

This show will restore your faith in humanity. Watch Kindness Diaries on Netflix.

5. Extreme Engagement

PJ Madam is an Australian news anchor. Tim Noonan is a film maker with a penchant for exploring remote areas of the world. They are in love and engaged to be married. This series follows them as they visit far flung corners of the world, exploring the engagement and marriage rituals of other cultures, and testing their relationship as they do. Here’s the trailer:

Watch Extreme Engagement on Netflix.

Other Streaming Travel Shows

Traditional travel shows:

  • Rick Steves’ Europe (Hulu, Prime)
  • Smart Travels with Rudy Maxa (Prime)
  • Travels and Traditions with Burt Wolf (web site, Prime)
  • Places to Go: Your Passport to the World (Prime)
  • A Taste of Travel (Prime)
  • Globe Trekker (Prime)

Travel & Photography

  • Tales by Light (Netflix)

Travels & Food

  • Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations (Hulu)
  • Ugly Delicious (Netflix)
  • Street Food (Netflix)
  • Restaurants on the Edge (Netflix)
  • Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern (Hulu)
  • Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner (Netflix)
  • Somebody Feed Phil (Netflix)

Luxury Travel

  • World Class: Seriously Expensive Travel (Prime)
  • Travel in Style (Prime)

Road Trips

  • Great Drives (Prime)
  • Summer 2019 American Road Trip (Prime)
  • America’s Great Road Trips (Prime)
  • Expedition Happiness (Netflix)

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Sainte-Chapelle: A Symphony of Light & Color

Sainte-Chapelle: A Symphony of Light & Color

If we could hear light and colors instead of seeing them, Paris’ Saint-Chapelle would be a full blown symphony. It has the most beautiful medieval stained glass, some of which is over 750 years old!

Some of the medieval stained glass at Sainte-Chapelle is over 750 years old.

The History

Sainte-Chapelle was part of Palais de la Cité, the residence of the Kings of France from the sixth century until the 14th century. In this old illustration, you can see Sainte-Chapelle on the right, surrounded by other buildings in the royal palace compound:

By Limbourg brothers – R.M.N. / R.-G. Ojéda, Public Domain

Sainte-Chapelle means “holy chapel,” which is only fitting. You see, the primary purpose of the chapel was to house a collection of Christian relics. Those relics included the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at his crucifixion. The crown remains in Paris to this day, housed at the Cathedral of Notre Dame until the 2019 fire made it necessary to move it.

King Louis IX (later canonized and made Saint Louis) purchased the relics in an effort to gain religious and political influence. When the relics arrived in France, King Louis hosted a week-long celebration. For the final stage of their journey to Paris, the King himself carried the relics while barefoot and dressed as a penitent.

From the 14th century until the French Revolution, Sainte-Chapelle was headquarters of the French treasury, judicial system, and the Parlement of Paris. Today, the site primarily houses the Palais de Justice.

According to the Sainte-Chapelle web site, it took a mere seven years to build the chapel. (By comparison, it took 200 years to build Notre Dame. In Barcelona, Sagrada Familia’s construction began in 1882, and has yet to be completed.) Construction of Sainte-Chapelle began sometime after 1238, and consecration of the chapel took place in 1248.

The Architecture

Experts consider the chapel a prime example of Gothic Rayonnant architecture, characterized by an intense focus on illumination and the appearance of structural lightness. They say that King Henry III of England, after attending the consecration of Sainte-Chapelle, had Westminster Abbey rebuilt with key elements of the Rayonnant style.

Inside the church, it seems as if the building is nothing more than a framework to support the medieval stained glass windows. It provides a stunning contrast to most churches of that era, where stained glass windows served as more of an accessory than the main attraction.

There are two distinct areas of the Sainte-Chapelle building: an upper chapel and a lower chapel. The lower chapel was the parish church for those who lived at the palace. Visitors today enter the lower chapel first, where they see a statue of Saint Louis, surrounded by gilt-painted columns.

Statue of King Louis IX aka Saint Louis at Sainte-Chapelle, home of beautiful medieval stained glass.
By PHGCOM – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The upper chapel earned Sainte-Chapelle’s reputation for having the most significant and stunning collection of medieval stained glass.

The Medieval Stained Glass

Stepping into the upper chapel of Sainte-Chapelle is like watching that scene in “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy transitions from life in dull, black-and-white Kansas to an explosion of technicolor in the land of Oz. It is breathtaking, overwhelming, and awe-inspiring.

The medieval stained glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

There are 15 windows, each about 45 feet high, depicting 1,113 scenes in colorful glass panes. Added together, the medieval stained glass covers 6652 square feet! Although some of the windows received heavy damage during the French Revolution and underwent restoration in the 19th century, nearly two-thirds of them are authentic and original.

Three of the windows feature the New Testament. They show scenes of The Passion, the Infancy of Christ, and the Life of John the Evangelist. One heavily restored window features scenes from the Book of Genesis, and ten other windows depict scenes from other portions of the Old Testament. The fifteenth window shows the rediscovery of Christ’s relics, the miracles they performed, and their relocation to Paris by King Louis.

In addition to the fifteen tall stained glass windows, a rose window was added to the church around 1490.

Medieval stained glass: the rose window at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris
By Didier B (Sam67fr) – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5

Damage & Restoration

While nearly two thirds of the windows are authentic, much of the chapel that visitors see today is a re-creation of what once stood there. Sainte-Chapelle suffered a great deal of damage during the French Revolution. At that time, the steeple was removed, the relics dispersed, and various reliquaries were melted down.

Less than 20 years later, Sainte-Chapelle was requisitioned as an archival depository in 1803. As a result, six feet of the medieval stained glass was removed to facilitate working light. It was either destroyed or put on the market.

Then there’s damage caused by the best of intentions. Fearing damage from World War II bombing, authorities applied a layer of varnish to protect the medieval stained glass. As time passed, the varnish darkened, which made it more difficult to see the images. In 2008, a €10 million, seven year program to restore the windows began. The restoration included the application of a thermoformed glass layer for added (clear) protection.

Restoration seems to be an ongoing operation. When I visited, I noticed several architectural elements up against the side of the building in a fenced off area.

Visiting Sainte-Chapelle

Sainte-Chapelle is a worthy destination when visiting Paris. It stunning medieval stained glass makes it unlike most other historic churches in Europe, and it is simply amazing to behold. Here’s what you need to know if you are planning a visit:

HOURS: Sainte-Chapelle opens at 9:00 am daily. October 1 thru March 31, it closes at 5:00 pm. April 1 thru September 20, it closes at 7:00 pm. It is closed January 1, May 1, and December 25 each year.

COST: Admission is €11.50 for adults. Admission is free for children under 18 if visiting with their family.

METRO: The closest Metro stop is Cité on Line 4.

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To the End of the Earth: Point Lookout, Maryland

To the End of the Earth: Point Lookout, Maryland

On a narrow spit of land where the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River meet, in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, there is a small state park with a fascinating historical background. Here’s why you should visit the appropriately named Point Lookout.

view from Point Lookout, Maryland

The Early Days of Point Lookout

Captain John Smith (yes, the one whom Pocahontas saved when her father threatened to kill him) first set foot on Point Lookout in 1608. He explored the area and sent favorable reports back to the British crown, stating that in addition to abundant resources like fish and game. He also pointed out that the area could offer a strategic military position as well. (More on that later.) The first settlement in the state of Maryland occurred in 1634, in nearby St. Mary’s City.

The Turbulent Times of War – Part 1

The area got the name of Point Lookout during the War of 1812. The Chesapeake Bay was a major route for British war ships, based on nearby Tangier Island. Members of the local citizens’ militia in St. Mary’s County established a secret base at Point Lookout to monitor the movements of those war ships. They also established a secret relay system of night time post riders to send intelligence reports to President James Madison in Washington, DC.

The citizens’ militia secretly worked in the area for over a year, until the British came ashore, seized and occupied Point Lookout. Unfortunately, the militia was no match for the overwhelming number of seasoned British troops. American intelligence efforts in the region came to a grinding halt. This turn of events could have been a contributing factor to the invasion and burning of Washington DC by British troops in 1814.

The Turbulent Times of War – Part 2

In 1862, as the Civil War was ramping up, Point Lookout once again became a hub of activity. The area became a bustling port and temporary city of civilians and military personnel and numerous buildings. Point Lookout included a large Union Army hospital, an Army garrison, and a prisoner of war camp.

Maryland Historical Marker - Point Lookout Prisoner of War Camp - Civil War

The conditions for the Confederate prisoners were not ideal. Designed to hold 10,000, the POW camp often held more than twice that amount after the Union and Confederate armies stopped exchanging prisoners. In some cases, there were sixteen men to a tent. Point Lookout was the largest Union-run prison camp and its reputation was one of the worst. About eight percent of the Confederate prisoners died before the end of the war. That may seem like a lot, but by comparison, it was less than half the mortality rate for the men fighting in the war.

In an interesting twist of fate, some African-American soldiers of the U.S.C.T. Regiments (United States Colored Troops) served in some federal Army units that rotated from the front to serve as guards at Point Lookout. In some cases, these soldiers had occasion to guard their former masters, which led to instances of brutality, or of kindness, depending on the nature of their relationship prior to the war.

What Remains at Point Lookout Today

Today, visitors to Point Lookout can visit a memorial honoring the Confederate prisoners of war. A mass grave on the former grounds of the POW camp holds the bodies of the 3,384 Confederate prisoners of war who died there. The grave is marked by a pillar inscribed at its base with the names of the dead. A privately funded Confederate Memorial Park occupies a three-acre site next to the cemetery. Although a US flag is flown in front of the memorial, there is also a Confederate flag on a flagpole just outside the gates of the grounds, in memory of the soldiers who gave their lives for the Confederacy.

Privately owned & maintained confederate soldier  memorial at Point Lookout Maryland

There is a sign at the memorial explaining why they chose to fly the Confederate flag.

Please note that I am merely reporting on the use of the Confederate flag at this privately owned and maintained memorial. I am not in any way endorsing or condoning it.

As one might expect in a geographical location like Point Lookout, there is also a lighthouse, which was built in 1830 and utilized until 1966. When we visited, the lighthouse was closed for renovations, but I was still able to get a photo from a distance.

Lighthouse at Point Lookout, Maryland

As a recreational area, the Point Lookout State Park offers visitors a wide range of activities. There is a fishing pier, as well as a beach area with grills, picnic tables and a playground. The park includes a designated pet-friendly beach, swimming, a water trail, wooded campsites and cabins. Deer and waterfowl hunting are permitted in designated park areas at specific times of year.

The Point Lookout fishing pier. Image via Flickr by Elvert Barnes.

Additionally, the park’s nature center and museum are located within the campground. The Museum and Nature Center are open May through October, Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Center offers programs in nature and Civil War history.

Finally, the park holds some outstanding events throughout the year. Contact the park for a current schedule of historic programs. Popular annual festivities include Civil War era demonstrations and re-enactments.

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Madrid Day Trip: The Walled City of Avila Spain

Madrid Day Trip: The Walled City of Avila Spain

Sometimes, when I conjure up images of medieval European towns, I think that my imagined version must be so much neater and more fanciful than the real deal. After all, how can city walls built in the twelfth century be as beautifully symmetrical and clean as a sand castle dumped from a mold on the beach? Then I visit places like the walled city of Avila and I realize that the reverse is true – the reality is so much better than anything I could have imagined.

The walled city of Avila looks like something from a fairy tale of old.
(Full disclosure: this is a stock photo of the walled city of Avila, courtesy of Pixabay, not my photo. It was snowy when I went – scroll down for my much less impressive winter photos.)

The Walled City of Avila is Rich in History

Avila has been inhabited as far back as the 5th century BC, when a people known as the Vettones lived there. They called it Obila (“High Mountain”) and built one of their strongest fortresses here. Then came the Romans, who called it Abila or Abela. Roman incfluences can still be seen today in the town’s layout. It is rectangular in shape, with two main streets intersecting at a public swuare, or forum, in the center.

After the fall of the Roman empire in the late fifth century, it became a stronghold of the Visigoths, then was conquered by the Moors. What followed was a series of repeated attacks by the northern Iberian Christian kingdoms in a spiritual/geographical tug of war. The city became virtually uninhabited due to the constant conflict.

However, in the late eleventh century, Avila was repopulated following its definitive reconquest by Raymond of Burgundy, the son-in-law of Alfonso VI of León and Castile.

The Walls

Not surprisingly, the main attraction at the walled city of Avila is, well, its walls. The walls of Avila, constructed in the 11th through 14th centuries, are the largest fully illuminated monument in the world. And I highly recommend seeing them at night. They are nothing short of spectacular:

The walls around the city of Avila enclose an area measuring about 77 acres, with a perimeter measuring 8, 256 feet. They are nearly 10 feet thick and include around 90 towers. The walls are considered the best-conserved example of their kind in the world.

Visitors to Avila can, weather permitting, walk along part of the wall. There are four entrance points, one of which is accessible for those with disabilities. However, the best views of the city walls are from the ground, where you can fully appreciate just how imposing they would appear to any would-be invaders.

The Cathedral of Avila

Considered the earliest example of Gothic cathedrals built in Spain, construction of the Cathedral of Avila began in 1107. Notice anything off about it? The cathedral may appear to be a bit lopsided, or it may seem like part of it’s missing. That’s because the south tower, which should be to the right of the entrance, was never built.

The church’s eastern apse was fully integrated with the city walls. In the night shot of the city walls above, the rounded part of the wall that is shown is the exterior of the church apse. Inside the church, we could see how thick the walls were by looking at the windows in that part of the church:

There were so many beautiful things to look at in the Cathedral of Avila. I especially loved the alabaster baptismal font, which depicted Jesus getting baptized by John the Baptist. It dates to 1514–1516.

Interestingly, the cathedral has a secret passage. Be sure you get the audio guide, which is included with the price of admission, to learn about the secret passage’s discovery and possible uses. The signs are in Spanish only.

The Basilica of San Vicente

Another notable church in the walled city of Avila is the Basilica de los Santos Hermanos Mártires, Vicente, Sabina y Cristeta, or Basilica of San Vicente for short. Christian martyrs and siblings Vicente, Sabina and Cristeta were martyred during the rule of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (284-305 A.D.). Their corpses were buried into the rock and much later this basilica was built over their tombs. 

The main attraction in the Basilica of San Vicente is the cenotaph honoring the three martyrs.

The cenotaph features scenes of the three martyrs lives and deaths. They had refused to sign a document acknowledging they had offered sacrifices to the Roman gods, hence their death sentence. Nearby, there is a stone slab in the floor with Hebrew symbols carved on it. The story goes that a Jew, also accused and faced with death, promised God that if he got free, he would convert to Christianity and provide the martyrs with a tomb.

basilica of san vicente in the walled city of avila - the grave of the jew who buried the martyrs

What to Eat in Avila

It seemed like every city we visited in Spain had its own special dessert. ponche segoviano in Segovia, mazapan in Toledo, and in Avila, yemas. Their more formal name is yemas de Santa Teresa. Now if you know Spanish, you may be aware that a yema is an egg yolk.

Occasionally, food will have a name that has nothing to do with what the food actually is. Toad-in-the-hole, for instance, has nothing to do with toads. Or even frogs. But yemas are, in fact, egg yolks.

They are, essentially, a soft boiled egg yolk that has been cooled and dusted with sugar. I tried it. It wasn’t bad. I also had a pastry in Madrid called a rosquilla de yema, which was a donut-like pastry with a sugary egg yolk glaze. Both items were surprisingly not gross. I don’t know that they would be my first choice for dessert, but they were nowhere near as disgusting as I feared they might be. Definitely worth a try if you’re feeling adventurous.

Why You Should Visit the Walled City of Avila

Hopefully you can see here that Avila not only looks great from the outside, but also has a rich history inside its walls. It is a perfect destination as a day trip from Madrid, and a lovely destination all its own. You can get to Avila from Madrid by train or bus, both of which run regularly on a daily basis.

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One of the Most Unusual Things to Do in Madrid

One of the Most Unusual Things to Do in Madrid

As strange as it may seem, one of the most unusual things to do in Madrid is to buy cookies at a local convent. Now, that may not sound unusual in and of itself, but trust me, it’s definitely one of the odder experiences I’ve had while traveling!

On our first night in Madrid, after we ate dinner at the Mercado San Miguel, we decided to explore the area. When we came upon the Monasterio del Corpus Christi, I remembered reading in a travel book that the nuns there sell cookies. But they do it in a top secret manner because they are not supposed to have contact with outsiders.

Getting In

When you arrive at the monastery, you will need to press a special doorbell to gain admittance. It’s fairly easy to miss the doorbell. For that matter, the whole monastery is pretty nondescript… you really have to be looking for it in order to find it.

Unusual things to do in Madrid - the doorbell that gives you access to the Monasterio del Corpus Christi

Once admitted into the monastery, you travel down a winding path to a small dark room.

The Transaction

A sign posted on the wall tells you what types of cookies you can buy:

Unusual Things to Do in Madrid - Buying Cookies at the Monasterio del Corpus Christi

Next to the sign you’ll see a little cubbyhole in the wall that houses a divided turntable. You have to tell the nuns what type of cookies you want and whether you want a kilo or a half kilo. (Note: not all of the varieties listed will be available.) Then place your money on the turntable and watch as it moves to the other side of the wall where you cannot see it.

A few minutes later, the turntable moves back to your side of the wall and voila! A box of cookies now sits where you placed your money.

Unusual Things to Do in Madrid - Tea Cookies from Monasterio del Corpus Christi

I ordered the tea cookies. They were kind of bland, and very expensive but pretty, and very fun to buy.

Unusual Things to Do in Madrid - Tea Cookies baked by the nuns at Monasterio del Corpus Christi

The Experience

It doesn’t always happen, but this time I actually had the forethought to record the experience for you! Take a look:

My Recommendation

It’s not about the cookies as much as it is about having a unique experience that very few places can offer. So, if you’re looking for unusual things to do in Madrid, this clandestine cookie shop should definitely be on your list!

The Monasterio del Corpus Christi sells cookies from 9:30-1:00 and 4:30-6:30 each day. It is located close to the Mercado de San Miguel, at Plaza del Conde de Miranda, 3. If you go, let me know what you thought of the experience!

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