Tag: Churches

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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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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The medieval stained glass of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris - pinterest graphic by travelasmuch
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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A Philadelphia Ghost Tour

A Philadelphia Ghost Tour

Last month, my daughter and three of her friends went to an AJR concert in Philadelphia. Hubs and I provided the transportation, so we had to figure out something to do while they were at the show. Luckily, I happened upon a Philadelphia ghost tour that sounded like it might be fun.

We made our reservation, dropped off the girls, and headed to the meeting place for the start of our tour. Our guide issued us glow sticks, provided a brief introduction, and away we went!

The Ghost of Carpenters’ Hall

Our first stop was Carpenters’ Hall (320 Chestnut Street), built in 1775 for the Carpenters’ Company for the City and County of Philadelphia, the oldest craft guild in the country, and still in existence today. This building was the meeting site of the first Continental Congress in 1774, and the Pennsylvania Provincial Conference in 1776. It was at the latter meeting that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was officially established and declared independent from British rule.

Philadelphia ghost tour - Carpenters Hall

As for the ghost, the story goes that at one point in time, the attic floor of Carpenters’ Hall consisted of apartments rented to members of the guild. One of the residents, Tom Cunningham, died in his apartment in late 1879 from the yellow fever epidemic. (Yellow fever, as it turns out, was quite a big deal in Philly. More on that later.) After Cunningham’s death, other residents stated that they heard footsteps stomping down the hallway and loud banging noises from Cunningham’s old room.

Bishop White House

The Bishop White house (309 Walnut Street) was home to the Rev. Dr. William White, the first Episcopal Bishop of Pennsylvania and chaplain to the Second Constitutional Convention and the U.S. Senate. It was built in 1787, and was one of the first homes to have an indoor “necessary,” or toilet. While that sounds like a luxury of which most would be envious back in the day, it didn’t turn out that way. Servants emptied the waste from the toilets into Dock Creek… the waters of which flowed in back of the Bishop’s house. The waters from that stream were used, among other things, in food preparation for the White family. Five of the Bishop’s eight children contracted dysentery and died from the disease. (This is what our tour guide told us. Other accounts say that the deaths were due to yellow fever.)

City Tavern

City Tavern - one of the most haunted sites on the Philadelphia ghost tour

Once called the “most genteel tavern in America” by founding father John Adams, Philadelphia’s City Tavern ( 138 S 2nd Street) boasts two ghosts of legend. The first is that of a waiter who unknowingly stepped into the line of fire at a duel on the tavern grounds around 1790. Some people have reported seeing his ghost fall to the ground as if shot. This spectre also purportedly moves table settings around and makes silverware clatter.

The second ghost is that of a bride-to-be who was upstairs with her attendants preparing for the wedding. During the excitement, a candle set a curtain on fire and the flame quickly engulfed the room, then spread to the rest of the building. The bride died in that 1834 fire which also destroyed part of the building. Visitors report seeing a ghostly woman dressed in her wedding gown with a long train.

The Merchants’ Exchange

The Merchants' Exchange - a haunted site on the Philadelphia Ghost Tour.

This is probably the most beautiful building we saw on our Philadelphia ghost tour. The Merchants’ Exchange (143 S 3rd Street) was built in the 1830s and is the oldest existing stock exchange building in the United States. The ghosts at this location are those of Harold Thorn, a wealthy but ill-tempered business man, and Jack Osteen (no relation to Joel as far as I know), a blind beggar.

Jack hung around outside the Merchants’ Exchange building, hoping to get some money from a philanthropic business men. While there, he would often spend time with the horses tethered outside the building, petting them and, when he was able, feeding them apples.

One particular day in 1834, Thorn lost a lot of money inside the Merchants’ Exchange, putting him in a fouler mood than usual. As he stormed out, he bumped into Jack. The bling man stumbled to regain his footing and as a result, inadvertently stepped on Thorn’s shoes. Thorn went into a rage and began pommeling Jack with his fashionable walking stick. When his rage subsided, Jack was dead.

In the silence following the attack, one of the horses let out an unearthly shriek, reared up on its hind legs, and struck Thorn with its hooves. The blow killed him. Today people say that they sometimes see the figure of Thorn and a horse re-enacting the scene outside the Merchants’ Exchange building.

Physick House

The entrance to the Physick House - one of the haunted sights on the Philadelphia ghost tour.

Built in 1786, the Hill-Keith-Physick house (321 S. Fourth Street) was once owned by Philip Physick, the father of american surgery. One of the foremost surgeons of the time, Physick was one of the few doctors who stayed in Philadelphia to care for the sick during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. His many patients included Dolley Madison and Chief Justice John Marshall.

The story goes that Physick hired men to dig up bodies from the grave yard and bring them back to his house, where he performed autopsies to study anatomy and discover their cause of death. Once he had finished with them, he buried the bodies in his back yard. The ghosts at the Physick House are supposed to be those of his dead subjects, robbed of their final resting place.

St. Peters Episcopal Church

In 1793, a group of Iroquois chief tribe chiefs traveled to Philadelphia to sign a peace treaty with George Washington. The city was going through a smallpox epidemic at the time. Unfortunately, all of the visiting chiefs contracted the disease and died. Washington buried them at St. Peter’s Church (3rd & Pine Streets) with military honors.

Today, their ghosts are said to haunt the area because they were buried in a location that was not consecrated for the Iroquois. And because their graves are unmarked, the bodies can’t be moved — no one knows for certain exactly where they are buried.

Old Pine Street Church

Old Pine St. Church & Cemetery (412 Pine Street) – also known as the cemetery that Nicholas Cage ran through in National Treasure – was occupied by the British Army from September 1777 – June 1778. The British soldiers stripped the church of its pews, and used the church building as a stable and hospital. They also used the cemetery as a target range to improve their marksmanship.

It is said that the spirits of those British soldiers have been condemned to remain there as an eternal punishment, and that the fancy fence that surrounds the cemetery is there to keep them locked in.

Washington Square Park

William Penn laid out five public squares in the 1680s to keep the green in his “greene Countrie Towne” of Philadelphia. One of those public squares is Washington Square, and during the Revolutionary War, it was a mass burial ground. It served as a mass burial site again during the yellow fever epidemic that struck Philadelphia in 1793.

Grave robbers were very common at that time, so Quaker nurses wearing black cloaks would patrol the area to keep the graves undisturbed. They say that today, the spirit of one such nurse named Leah still walks through the square.

Congress Hall

Next to the imposing and important Independence Hall is a smaller building called Congress Hall (6th & Chestnut Streets). The United States Senate and House of Representatives met at Congress Hall while Philadelphia was the capital of the United States, from 1790 to 1800. President George Washington took his second oath of office in this building, and John Adams’ inauguration also took place here.

Congress Hall, allegedly haunted by President John Adams - part of the Philadelphia ghost tour.

They say that the ghosts of some of America’s early legislators inhabit the building, including President John Adams. The story goes that President Adams’ spirit regularly knocks the paintings on the walls so they hang crookedly.

How to Take a Philadelphia Ghost Tour

The ghost tour we enjoyed was the Spirits of ’76 Ghost Tour. It lasts about 75 minutes, and takes you to 20 different allegedly haunted sites in the historic center of Philadelphia. You can also buy a ghost tour combo ticket with a Constitutional Walking Tour. 

While we did not see (or feel the presence of) any ghosts, we did enjoy seeing some of the historic buildings and learning about the history of the city. I would recommend taking this tour if you’re looking for a fun, family-friendly evening activity.

Please note that I paid for our tickets. Spirits of ’76 Ghost Tour was not aware that I was a blogger, nor that I would be writing a review of my experience.

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The Medieval French Town of Dinan

The Medieval French Town of Dinan

There are six Celtic nations* – areas in which a Celtic language are still spoken to some extent today. Five of the six Celtic nations are in the UK. The sixth is in France; specifically, the northwestern region of Brittany. Because of my deep and abiding love of Cornwall, another Celtic nation, I knew that when I went to Paris, a day trip to Brittany was a must. I found a guided, one day tour of Brittany that included the fairy tale village of Dinan. The other two stops on the tour were St. Malo and Mont St. Michel. Adding a third stop seemed over-ambitious to me for a one day trip. I was skeptical as to the value of going there, so I looked Dinan up online. Once I saw what it was like, I couldn’t have been happier. It is the most beautiful medieval French town!

* In addition to Brittany and Cornwall, the other Celtic Nations are Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and the Isle of Man.

About Dinan

The town of Dinan is built up on a hillside, overlooking the River Rance. We drove up to through the town straight to St. Sauveur Basilica, a Gothic-Romanesque church.

We arrived in this charming, medieval French town fairly late in the day but the cathedral doors were open, so we stepped inside to explore. There were lovely stained glass windows depicting the saints of the Roman Catholic Church.

We also saw a couple of stone sarcophagi (I think that’s the right name for them).

The Secret Garden

Then we ventured outside the church, and I wandered around to the back of the building. Here I found “Le Jardin Anglais” or The English Garden. Tucked away behind the imposing church, it was a place of beauty and peace. It was also a place of solitude, as I had the entire area to myself! I thought the name was quite appropriate, as it did remind me quite a bit of the gardens I’ve seen on my trips to England.

Wandering around the back of the church also gave me an opportunity to look over the town’s ramparts. The view of the town and the river below was excellent, and I highly recommend taking in the view from this spot if you visit Dinan.

The Town Center

I left the church and walked toward the historic center of this medieval French town. Because it was late afternoon/early evening, and a gloomy, rainy day to boot, there were very few people in the streets. Combined with the cobblestone streets and historic half-timbered buildings, the lack of pedestrians made me fantasize for a moment that I had stepped back though time to a different era. (One can always hope!)

There were creperies and small shops, but we were on a tight schedule with very little time to explore properly. I did not venture inside, but instead just walked around and took in all the beautiful details.

I saw half-timbered buildings in several different colors – dark red, light blue, and even a grayish green color. It seemed garish and artificial compared to the strictly black or brown Tudor style buildings I’ve seen in the UK. I asked our bus driver about this and he assured me that the colors were historically accurate for that region. (I remain skeptical, but not bothered enough by it to do the research and determine if this is the case.)

When to Go

The weather was less than ideal when I visited Dinan, and it was still stunningly beautiful. I’m fairly confident in saying that there may not be a bad time to visit. However, if you are traveling to France in an even numbered year, I encourage you to visit Dinan in mid-July for the town’s Festival of the Ramparts (Fête des Remparts). The town is transformed with decoration and many locals dress up in medieval garb for this two-day festival held on the third weekend in July every other year.

Paris’ Church of Saint Sulpice

Paris’ Church of Saint Sulpice

When I went to Paris earlier this year, I stayed in the most amazing Airbnb. It was super small and stuck up on the top floor of a large building with an open courtyard. Normally, it was not a place I would have chosen. But when I discovered that the tiny little apartment had a view of the Eiffel Tower, I booked it almost immediately. Because, my friends, if you are going to Paris, you might as well stay someplace that reminds you you’re in Paris every time you glance toward the window.

View of the Church of Saint Sulpice and the Eiffel Tower from my Airbnb in Paris

*sigh*

Okay, back to business. When I gazed out the window at the Eiffel Tower, I couldn’t help but notice the church off to the right with the two round towers. I consulted the map, determined that I had a great view of the Church of Saint Sulpice, and decided to check it out. I was glad I did, and I’ll tell you why you should visit the church when you’re in Paris.

The History

A church has existed on the site since the 13th century, and construction began on the present building in 1646. If you’re into architecture, the Church of Saint Sulpice has a lot to offer: concave walls, Corinthian columns, pilasters, balustrades, double colonnade, loggia, Ionic order, and a bunch of other features about which, sadly, I have no clue.

At one time, there was a solid-silver statue by Edmé Bouchardon. Cast from silverware donated by parishioners, it was known as “Our Lady of the Old Tableware”. Sadly, it disappeared during the French Revolution. However, a breathtaking white marble sculpture of Mary by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle replaced it:

By Selbymay – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

During the French Revolution (1789-1799), Robespierre established the Cult of the Supreme Being during the Revolution as the new state religion, replacing Catholicism. At that time, the Church of Saint Sulpice became a place of worship for The Supreme Being. A sign at the church entrance said “Le Peuple Français Reconnoit L’Etre Suprême Et L’Immortalité de L’Âme”’ (“The French people recognize the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul”).

The Art

Churches contain some of the most beautiful art in the world, and Saint Sulpice is no exception. It proudly displays not one, but three original murals by Eugene Delacroix.

A mural by French Romantic artist Eugene Delacroix at the Church of Saint Sulpice.

Eugene Delacroix, widely regarded as the leader of the French Romantic school of art, has three paintings in the Church of Saint Sulpice: The Expulsion of Heliodorus, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, and Saint Michael Vanquishing the Demon. The first two are murals that are over 23 feet high, and the third is a ceiling mural that stretches 16 feet across.

The thing that struck me most about Delacroix’s paintings was that they were full of movement. This was especially the case with The Expulsion of Heliodorus:

The Expulsion of Heliodorus by Eugene Delacroix, one of three murals by the artist at the Church of Saint Sulpice.
The Expulsion of Heliodorus by Eugene Delacroix

Figures tumble down toward the bottom of the frame. Others are caught with a weapon in their hand mid-swing. An urn is toppling over, and the horse is rearing back on his hind legs. Chaos erupts from every brushstroke. The story depicted here comes from the Catholic Bible, in the book of 2 Maccabees. In reading it, you can see how vividly Delacroix captured the action:

But Heliodorus carried on with what had been decided. When he and his spearmen approached the treasury, however, the ruler of all spirits and all authority made an awesome display, so that all those daring to come with Heliodorus fainted, terrified and awestruck by God’s power. A horse appeared to them with a fearsome rider and decked out with a beautiful saddle. While running furiously, the horse attacked Heliodorus with its front hooves. The rider appeared to be clothed in full body armor made of gold. Two young men also appeared before him—unmatched in bodily strength, of superb beauty, and with magnificent robes. They stood on either side of Heliodorus and beat him continuously with many blows.

2 Maccabees 3: 23-26, CEB

The other mural, directly across from the Heliodorus mural, depicts a semi-violent scene from Genesis, wherein Jacob wrestles with an angel.

Jacob Wrestling with an angel, a mural by Eugene Delacroix inside the Church of Saint Sulpice.
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Eugene Delacroix.
Note the French flag in the lower right corner.

This painting captures the pivotal moment in the Book of Genesis when Jacob’s receives a new name. No longer known as Jacob, from that moment forward he is Israel, which means “God contends”.

I loved the detail of the beautiful sculpture atop the tomb of Jean-Baptiste Languet de Gergy:

The tomb of Jean-Baptiste Languet de Gergy, a priest at the Church of Saint Sulpice in Paris.

It was under Languet de Gergy’s tenure as priest at the Church of Saint Sulpice that the gnomon (see below) was built. He is the central figure of the sculpture, with death behind him and an angel before him.

The Gnomon

By definition, a gnomon is the part of a sundial that casts a shadow. The gnomon of Saint Sulpice was constructed to establish the exact astronomical time. Why? In order to ring the bells at the most appropriate time of day. This astronomical device consists of three parts that work together. The first: a brass line set in the marble floor of the church, oriented along the north-south axis.

Second: a small round opening in the southern stained-glass window of the transept. The opening is about 75 feet up from the floor. Sunlight shines through that opening and creates a circle of light on the floor. At noon each day, that circle of light crosses the brass meridian line in the floor.

Third: an obelisk, illuminated near its top when the sun is at its lowest at midday.

The obelisk at the church of Saint Sulpice

If the obelisk did not exist, the sunlight would hit an area about 60 feet beyond the wall of the church.

As an aside, you may notice in the photo above that there is a large rectangular area on the right side of the obelisk’s inscription that appears damaged. It originally made reference to the King and his ministers. The revolutionaries removed that part of the inscription during the French Revoluton.

Claims to Fame

Some random bits of trivia about the Church of Saint Sulpice:

  • It is the second-largest church in all of Paris. Only Notre Dame Cathedral is bigger.
  • The two towers of the church do not match. The north tower was replaced in 1780 but due to the French Revolution, the south tower was never replaced.
  • The Marquis de Sade (from whom we get the word sadism) was baptized in the Church of Saint Sulpice.
  • Author Victor Hugo (Les Miserables) married his wife in the church.
  • The church’s Great Organ is legendary. It has 102 stops. I gather that this is a big deal; however, I know as much about organs as I do about architecture.
  • Then there’s that bestseller…

The Da Vinci Code Connection

The church of Saint Sulpice was featured in Dan Brown's bestselling novel, The DaVinci Code.

In Dan Brown’s best-selling novel, The DaVinci Code, the Church of Saint Sulpice was one of the key plot locations. In the novel, Brown refers to the gnomon of Saint Sulpice as “a vestige of the pagan temple that had once stood on this very spot,” although there is no evidence to support this. He also indicates that the meridian line running through Saint Sulpice is the Paris Meridian (which is actually about 2 kilometers away, at the Paris Observatory).

The novel misrepresented the Church of Saint Sulpice to such an extent that when Ron Howard wanted to use the church as a filming location for The DaVinci Code movie, the Archdiocese refused to allow it. Further, the church has had to serve as fact checker for fans of the book who have come to see the church in person. They display the following note:

Contrary to fanciful allegations in a recent best-selling novel, this [the line in the floor] is not a vestige of a pagan temple. No such temple ever existed in this place. It was never called a “Rose-Line”. It does not coincide with the meridian traced through the middle of the Paris Observatory, which serves as a reference for maps…. Please also note that the letters P and S in the small round windows at both ends of the transept refer to Peter and Sulpice, the patron saints of the church, and not an imaginary “Priory of Sion”.

— sign posted at the Church of Saint Sulpice

In the News

Oddly enough, while the Cathedral of Notre Dame caught fire a week after I left Paris, the Church of Saint Sulpice caught fire two weeks before I arrived. Some of the areas were not accessible to me, but at the time I did not know why. Other than some items oddly placed, like the chairs up against the gnomon in the photo above, I saw no evidence of a fire when I visited.

A stop at the Church of Saint Sulpice is a quick and easy addition to any itinerary, and it’s definitely worth a stop in between other destinations. When you’ve finished exploring the inside of the Church, be sure to take in the wonderful view and the gorgeous fountain in the plaza just outside.

Header image source: By Mbzt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Church-of-Saint-Sulpice-Pinterest-graphic
Can’t visit Notre Dame while it undergoes repairs? Check out the Church of Saint Sulpice, Paris’ second largest cathedral.
My Notre Dame Cathedral Tour: 11 Days Before the Fire

My Notre Dame Cathedral Tour: 11 Days Before the Fire

On Monday, April 15, I returned to work after taking nearly two weeks off for my first solo trip – to Paris. I emailed my co-workers to let them know that I had brought a box of Parisian chocolates and some other souvenir trinkets for them.

Around mid-day, one co-worker emailed me back. He wasn’t in the office but had checked his work email from home. Did you hear about what is happening in Paris? he wanted to know.

I had no idea what was going on in Paris, so I Googled it. And my mouth fell open when I saw the news that Notre Dame Cathedral was on fire. Nothing could have prepared me to see the iconic church set ablaze while millions watched, helpless. Especially since I had been there just eleven days earlier.

But that wasn’t my first time visiting Notre Dame cathedral…

1984: My First Notre Dame Cathedral Tour

Notre Dame Cathedral Tour 1984 - I thought I was heading to the toilet and ended up atop the cathedral.

This photo was taken in April 1984, when I took a trip to Paris with our high school’s French Club. Now, I wasn’t studying French… I was taking Spanish. But they needed extra people to go on the trip, and because my Spanish teacher considered me “gifted” with foreign languages, I got to go. Even though the only French I knew was basically “oui” and “non.”

Part of the pre-departure lecture my parents gave me was to make sure that I got lots of pictures of me in front of “French things”. At the time I rolled my eyes and thought that was just silly. However, I’m glad I followed their instructions. This picture alone is worth it. Here’s why:

It was our first day in Paris and we attended mass at Notre Dame cathedral. Jet lagged and confused by all the French (or maybe it was Latin – I couldn’t tell), I nearly fell asleep during the service. When it ended, the teacher ushered us outside and began speaking to us in French. I’d venture to guess that everyone knew what she was saying except for me. I assumed by the vigorous head nodding and enthusiastic responses of “oui!” that she had asked if anyone needed to go to the bathroom. I certainly did! So I too nodded my head and said “oui” like everyone else.

Off we marched, back inside the cathedral, up a stone staircase that twisted and turned. Up, up, up. Imagine my surprise when we emerged not near a public bathroom, but at the top of the cathedral!

So, dutiful to my parents’ instructions, I had a friend snap this picture. I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m sneering a little because (a) I still needed to go pee, (b) I’m afraid of heights, and (c) the gargoyles were really quite creepy. For the rest of my time in Paris, I made sure that I understood the question before I said, “oui.”

35 Years Later…

On this trip to Paris, I flew from Newark NJ to Zurich and then from Zurich to Paris. Unfortunately, my luggage stopped in Zurich and didn’t accompany me to the City of Lights.

I usually travel with only a carry on – a practice to which I will now return! – and I was at a loss as to how to proceed without all of my stuff. The way I saw it, I had two options. I could hole up in my Airbnb and stay there until the courier brought my luggage. Or I could get over the jet lag, then go ahead and see the sights as I had originally planned.

After a two hour nap and a bit of a meltdown with an emotional call to Hubs at home, I decided upon the second option. After all, I had a plan for every day of my trip and missing one day would throw all of my other plans off kilter.

The next morning, I awoke rested and determined to not let a thing like missing luggage derail my vacation. After getting a call that my luggage would arrive around 2:00 in the afternoon, I headed off to see Sainte Chapelle, Notre Dame, and the Deportation Memorial. All were located on Île de la Cité, one of two islands in the Seine River in Paris.

I’ll cover Sainte Chapelle and the Deportation Memorial in separate blog posts. Today, in light of the devastating fire that recently took place, I want to focus on Notre Dame Cathedral.

2019: My Second Notre Dame Cathedral Tour

Almost as soon as I arrived, the bells of Notre Dame started ringing:

As you can see, it was a beautiful day – all blue skies and sunshine. I stood outside the cathedral and took in all of the amazing architectural details.

Thought to be on the former site of a Roman temple to Jupiter, Notre Dame Cathedral has stood in Paris for over 850 years. Until the completion of the Eiffel Tower in 1889, the massive towers of Notre Dame were the tallest structure in the city of Paris (226 feet high).

I wish I could find a statistic for how many figures are carved into the stone facade of this amazing piece of Gothic architecture. Let’s just say a lot. But there’s a good reason for that. The cathedral is an example of a liber pauperum, or a “poor people’s book”, covered with sculptures that vividly illustrate biblical stories. During the era in which the cathedral was built, the vast majority of parishioners were illiterate. The only way they could learn about biblical stories was by looking at the figures carved into the church building.

For instance, if you face the towers of the cathedral, you will find above the middle doorway a vivid portrayal of the Final Judgment:

Notre Dame Cathedral Tour - the iconography of the central portal shows a vivid depiction of the Final Judgment.

Jesus sits on his throne in Heaven. Beneath his feet there are two figures holding scales. On the left is the archangel Michael; on the right, Satan. Each side of the scale holds a person whose life is being judged. Those who have been condemned are being led away by a demon on the right hand side.

The stained glass windows at Notre Dame are just beautiful. There are three circular “rose” windows, and the one on the west facade over the Final Judgment scene is the smallest. That said, the window still measures over 31 feet in diameter. From the outside of the church, you can see three figures in front of the rose window: the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus, and an angel on either side of her.

My Notre Dame Cathedral Tour - The Virgin Mary and two angels stand in front of the cathedral's smallest rose window on the western facade.

Below the window you will find statues of the 28 kings of Judah in “The Gallery of Kings”. During the French Revolution, rebels thought that the statues represented the kings of France. As a result, the angry French citizens lobbed off the heads of the statues. Fortunately, the statues have been restored, and you can see some of the old heads at the Cluny Museum in Paris.

While I stood there admiring the cathedral’s exterior, I started to notice some odd details that I might have overlooked if I hadn’t paused to take it all in. For instance, this poor fellow:

When taking a Notre Dame Cathedral tour, be sure to study the figures carved on the outside of the building.
I’m not sure who this king is, but a much larger man is standing on him!

Inside the Cathedral

As stunning as the outside of Notre Dame is, though, its real beauty lies within.

As with most Gothic cathedrals, Notre Dame has chapels on each side of the building. These alcoves, dedicated to saints, can hold some of the most beautiful artwork found inside the church building. For instance, a memorial to the 14th century heroine, Joan of Arc:

Notre Dame Cathedral tour - statue of Joan of Arc (Jeanne d'Arc)
Statue of Joan of Arc

I especially liked this memorial, dedicated to Denis Auguste Affre, the Archbishop of Paris from 1840 to 1848. The phrase inscribed above his head translates to “May my blood be the last shed”.

Memorial to Denis Auguste Affre

Affre was led to believe that his personal involvement in the June Days uprising of 1848 could lead to peace between the French military and the insurgents. Mounting the military’s barricade, he waved a branch as a symbol of peace and began to speak. Insurgents heard some shots and suspected a betrayal, so they opened fire upon the National Guard. A stray bullet hit Affre, and he died two days later.

In another spot, there was a model depicting the construction of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Notre Dame cathedral tour - model of cathedral's construction

The 14th century wall separating the choir from the main walkway of Notre Dame was decorated with stunning detail.

This scene shows Jesus with the apostles. the inscription, in Latin, says “Christ appears to the Apostles near Lake Tiberias” (Lake Tiberias = the Sea of Galilee). This scene constituted only a small portion of the scenes depicting the life of Jesus.

One massive piece of statuary that caught my eye was the mausoleum of the Earl of Harcourt:

Cancre [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Note that there are four figure here. An angel carelessly holding a torch, a woman kneeling as if pleading to someone, a man who appears to be coming out of a coffin, and a hooded skeleton holding an hourglass in his bony hand.

I read that this memorial’s name/theme was Conjugal Meeting. The angel has lifted the lid on the Count’s sarcophagus, and he has risen. The skeleton, AKA Death, is holding an hourglass to symbolize that the Countess’ time has come. The Countess is reaching out toward her husband and Death as if she is ready to join them. (She outlived her husband by ten and a half years.) It was beautiful and tragic all at the same time.

On a Notre Dame Cathedral tour, be sure to look for the three rose windows of stained glass.
The South Rose Window, one of three in Notre Dame Cathedral.

The south rose window was constructed in 1260, and most of the original thirteenth century stained glass is still intact, even after last week’s tragic fire. Larger than the west rose window that I wrote about earlier, this one measures more than 42 feet across. Unlike the north rose window, which features Old Testament prophets and kings, this one is dedicated to the New Testament.

The center medallion features Jesus reigning as King in Heaven. The sixteen panels beneath the south rose window feature the prophets of the Bible. The four center panels depict the great Old Testament prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) carrying the four New Testament evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) on their shoulders.

From outside the cathedral, the south rose window looks like this:

A Notre Dame Cathedral tour offers glimpses of the church's three rose windows - from inside and outside the building.
The south end of Notre Dame’s transept, featuring the south rose window.

You can see the church spire sticking up above the roof in this photo. Sadly, the spire was completely destroyed by the fire.

At the very back of the Cathedral, I found a small area with the most venerated holy relic in France: the Crown of Thorns.

The Crown of Thorns display, as seen on my Notre Dame Cathedral Tour

The crown of thorns, worn by Jesus at the time of his crucifixion, has been in the possession of the French since 1238, when the Emperor of Constantinople gave it to King Louis IX.

King Louis IX had the cathedral of Sainte Chapelle built to receive and hold the crown of thorns and other holy relics. The crown stayed at Sainte Chapelle until the French Revolution, at which point authorities hid it at a different location. From 1806 until the fire, it was located in Notre Dame cathedral.

The reliquary holding the crown of thorns is in the case that you see between the candles in the above picture. A semi-translucent sheet of bright red material (resembling a cascade of blood) hangs over it. Through it, you can just make out the circular outline of the reliquary.

Inside the reliquary, the crown of thorns is actually thorn-less. Some 70 thorns were removed and distributed to holy sites across the world over the centuries, leaving just a band of rushes for this reliquary. One of the thorns was inside the rooster that sat atop the Notre Dame spire. The day after the fire, someone found the rooster in the rubble … dented but intact.

On the first Friday of every month at 3:00 p.m., the time of Jesus’ death, the faithful attend a special “veneration of the crown” church service.

Conclusion

The fire at Notre Dame Cathedral was certainly tragic, but it could have been much worse. I am so thankfully that I was able to see the beautiful building and all of its treasures before the fire took place. I am looking forward to the day when I hear that the cathedral has been fully restored and rebuilt. Until then, I will cherish the memories of my Notre Dame Cathedral Tour!

Iceland’s Diamond Circle: A Northern Iceland Itinerary

Iceland’s Diamond Circle: A Northern Iceland Itinerary

Iceland’s Diamond Circle

A Lesser Known Tourist Route

A search for things to do in Iceland will inevitably return pages of posts about Reykjavik and the Golden Circle. Far more information than you need, and most of it incredibly redundant. (This is why I chose not to write about the Golden Circle, and wrote about what you need to know about Iceland that other bloggers aren’t telling you instead.) Today, seven months after my trip to Iceland, I discovered something else that most people don’t write about: Iceland’s Diamond Circle. How I wish I had found out about this earlier!

Map of Iceland's Diamond Circle

My loss is your gain. Here’s what you need to know about all of the stops on northern Iceland’s Diamond Circle:

Húsavík

The town of Húsavík has a population of about 2,100 people. It is situated on the eastern side of Iceland’s northern coast, and is known as the whale watching capital of Iceland.

Iceland's Diamond Circle: Whale watching is one of the main activities for tourists in Husavik.
Husavik is the whale watching capital of Iceland.

The town even has a whale museum, which offers visitors exhibits on North Atlantic whale species, the whaling industry, and whale habitat and ecology. It also serves as a center for whale research and data collection.

Húsavík has two other museums as well. The Exploration Museum highlights the history of human exploration. The museum grounds contain a monument honoring the Apollo astronauts who trained in that area of Iceland during the 1960s. The Húsavík Museum centers its exhibits on culture and biology, with exhibits that include a stuffed polar bear that floated over to Iceland on an iceberg in 1969.

Iceland's Diamond Circle: The wood timber church in Husavik was built in 1907
Með Andreas Tille – eigin skrá, CC BY-SA 4.0

Húsavikurkirkja, the church in Húsavík shown above, is a wooden beauty that you should see if you are visiting the town. It was built in 1907 and is in the center of the town, facing the harbor.

Godafoss

Although I hadn’t come across the Diamond Circle in my research, I still managed to find one of the sites on the route. Godafoss is massive, and impressive. Visitors will have no difficulty imagining how they came to call it Waterfall of the Gods.

Iceland's Diamond Circle - Godafoss is just a slight detour off of the circle, but still a must-see in any weather!
My panoramic shot of Godafoss in February.

 

Iceland's Diamond Circle: Godafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods
Godafoss, as seen from above in warmer weather. (Source)

There’s a story about how, around 999 or 1000 AD, lawspeaker Thorgeir Ljósvetningagodi made Christianity the official religion of Iceland. To symbolize his parting with the old Norse religion and adoption of Christianity, he threw his statues of the Norse gods into the waterfall. Most historians believe this to be a more modern story and not a true origin of the name. But still, it’s a great story, isn’t it?

Ásbyrgi Canyon (aka Shelter of the Gods)

Iceland's Diamond Circle: Asbyrgi Canyon is peaceful and a magical setting known as Shelter of the Gods.
Image via Flickr by Bods.

About 25 miles east of Husavik, there is a large horseshoe shaped depression in the land. According to Norse mythology, the rock formation of Asbyrgi was formed by the hoofprint of Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse. Scientists, on the other hand, speculate that it was most likely formed by catastrophic glacial flooding of a river 8-10,000 years ago, and then again 3,000 years ago. Sleipnir must have been a very big horse (as would befit Odin, right?), because the cliffs are some 300 feet high. The canyon is over two miles long, and 2/3 mile wide. It’s a magical place, and local lore has it that Iceland’s elves live in the cracks there.

Lake Myvatn

Lake Myvatn is the fourth largest lake in Iceland. It’s name is Icelandic for “Lake of Midges.” Not Tootsie Roll Midgees (alas!), but midges. That is, flies. If you heard that Iceland is heavenly because there are no mosquitoes there, you heard correctly. But unfortunately, no mosquitoes does not equal no insects, and if you think you needn’t fear summertime bug bites in this island country, you’re wrong.

However, don’t let that deter you from visiting Lake Myvatn. The scenery at the lake and in the surrounding area is stunning. The lake is in a very active geothermal area of Iceland, so one of the most popular things to do (other than admiring the gorgeous scenery) is the Myvatn Nature Baths. There, you can take a dip in the naturally hot waters of the lagoon, enjoy a steam bath, or both. Afterwards, you can enjoy a meal at the on-site restaurant.

Myvatn is also a popular spot for birdwatching, as there are more species of duck there than any other spot in the world. And Game of Thrones fans can explore the area to find Mance Rayder’s wildling camp (Dimmuborgir – see below) and the cave where Jon and Ygritte shared an evening together (Grjótagjá cave).

Iceland's Diamond Circle: The Myvatn Lake area has a unique geological feature known as pseudo craters
Aerial view of a pseudo crater at Lake Myvatn. (source)

Skútustadagígar in the Myvatn area also has something called pseudo-craters or rootless cones. They’re volcanic landforms that look like craters, but never had an actual eruption of lava. The craters are formed by steam explosions.

Dettifoss Waterfall

Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe, with an average water flow of 633 cubic feet per second.

Iceland's Diamond Circle: Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in all of Europe.
Image via Flickr by Michael Voelker

The falls are 330 feet wide and 144 feet high. Unfortunately, the roads that are closest to this site are closed during the winter, so it’s likely you will only be able to see this waterfall if you are visiting in the summer months.

Expanding the Circle

Iceland's Diamond Circle - expanded route with additional sites.

If you have more time, and you want to pepper your travels around Iceland’s Diamond Circle with additional sites, here are a few that you can easily add:

Dark Castles (Dimmuborgir)

Dimmuborgir consist of huge lava rock formations which make you feel like you stepped into another world. It’s no surprise that this place was the Games of Thrones setting for Mance Rayder’s wildling camp.

Iceland's Diamond Circle: Dimmuborgir lava formations create an alien looking landscape that was featured in Game of Thrones.
Photo via Flickr by µµ

The formation of these extraordinary lava cliffs and pillars is caused by lava ponds. Hot lava streamed over ponds, trapping the water underneath. Steam issued through vents in the lava pools and formed these pillars, which then remained standing even after the crust around them had gone away.

NB:  The rocks are brittle and fragile, so for your safety and out of respect for the beauty of Icelandplease do not attempt to climb on them.

Eider Falls (Æðafossar)

Eider Falls is very close (about 6 miles) from Húsavík. It isn’t a very big waterfall, but it is very picturesque, and it’s worth a stop. Just make sure you have good driving directions on how to get there. I’ve heard it’s a bit difficult to find, and there are few road signs to guide you.

The Echo Rocks (Hljodaklettar)

The “echo rocks” or Hljódaklettar, are basalt columns lying in several different directions. Because of their haphazard arrangement, they create unique formations and arched caves that make eerie echoes and reverberations. You may also see basalt rosettes, which are developed when the lava stream forming the columns cools from all sides simultaneously. You can see one, possibly two, in the photo below.

Iceland's Diamond Circle: A basalt rosette is one of the unique formations you can see at Hljóðaklettar
Photo via Flickr by Sveinn Erlendsson

From the parking lot, there are two marked hiking paths. One (a path marked in blue) is a 1 km easy stroll that will take roughly 30 minutes, while the other (marked red) is a challenging circle around the area that takes about 2 hours to complete.

Laugar

Another hot spot of geothermal activity (pun fully intended), Laugar’s claim to fame is its swimming pool. Surrounded by rolling hills, the pool at Laugar is over 80 feet long with a temperature around 85°F.  In addition to the swimming pool, visitors to Laugar can enjoy two spacious hot tubs, a kids’ wading area, and a fitness center. It is a quiet and peaceful area with a beautiful view south the valley.

Get Out There and Explore

Like no other place I’ve visited, Iceland is the ideal country to just drive around and explore. Itineraries like these help, but don’t be afraid to wander elsewhere too (provided that weather and road conditions are favorable, that is). have you visited any of these sites? Let me know in the contents below!

Iceland's Diamond Circle - Northern Iceland Itinerary
Far less known than the Golden Circle, Iceland’s Diamond Circle provides just as many wonderful sights – with fewer tourists. #iceland #diamondcircle #northerniceland #icelanditineraries

Tour the Catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of San Francisco

Tour the Catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of San Francisco

Tour the Catacombs of Lima?

The Monastery of San Fransisco (AKA Convento/Monasterio de San Francisco or the Monastery of Saint Francis) has some delightfully creepy yet somehow artistic catacombs sitting beneath it. For those who like to do something a little offbeat and unusual, maybe even macabre, a tour of the catacombs of Lima is just the ticket! But before I tell you about what you’ll see there, I’d like you to experience it the way we did.

The Site

The Monastery of San Francisco is just a block or so away from Lima’s Plaza Mayor, the Cathedral of Lima, and the Archbishop’s Palace. As such, it is part of the “Historic Centre of Lima,” which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991. The monastery and church are yellow buildings that stand out against the grays and browns of the others in the area. Construction began in the middle of the sixteenth century and was completed in 1674. It’s considered to be a fine example of Spanish Baroque architecture.

Tour the Catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of Saint Francis.

There is usually a small horde of pigeons in the building’s courtyard, and a few vendors selling (among other things) food to feed the pigeons.

We entered the monastery (the building to the side of the church), paid for a tour, and waited for an English-speaking guide.

The Library

After a brief introduction, our guide led us out and up a flight of stairs. I wish I could have taken a photo of the stairway, or rather the ceiling above it. It was a beautiful deep red color and looked more Middle Eastern than Spanish or South American. Before I had a chance to ponder it, however, we moved into the first room: the library. I was awestruck, and I think you can see why;

Tour the catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of Saint Francis, but don't be in such a rush to see them that you fail to appreciate what you see along the way... like this gorgeous library.

Our guide told us that the library contains over 25,000 books, and that some of them dated as far back as the 14th century. The world-renowned library contains the first Spanish dictionary published by the Royal Spanish Academy as well as a Bible dated 1572.

The Art

As with the Cathedral of Cusco, there was a massive Last Supper painting that depicted Jesus and his disciples partaking of Peruvian foods such as cuy (guinea pig) and potatoes. Unlike the one in Cusco, this one included the Devil himself… perched just above Judas’ shoulder. The guide told us how many faces there were in the painting… and while I can’t remember what that number was, it was a lot more than just the 13 men at the table. Looking at the painting more closely, I could see many additional faces – some no more than just a hint of a heavenly presence gazing upon the scene below.

As we walked along the cloister (the covered walkway between the building and the courtyard), we saw beautiful tiles lining the wall:

Tour the catacombs of Lima at the monastery of San Francisco , but make sure you take in all of the other fascinating art & architecture there as well, like these beautiful tiled walls.

One tile bore the date 1620! To think that those tiles have survived nearly 500 years is just mind-boggling. Even more so when you consider that the building experienced three major earthquakes – in 1687, 1746, and 1970. Interestingly, the first two did very little damage.  It was the earthquake of 1970 that inflicted severe damage on the site. And the tiles were not the only art to decorate the cloister – above the tiles you could see the life of Saint Francis of Assisi (“San Francisco” in Spanish) portrayed in a series of murals.

The Courtyard

The inner courtyard of the monastery was quite beautiful, particularly when viewed from the upper floor:

Tour the Catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of San Francisco... then step out into the beautiful courtyard for a breath of fresh air.

We enjoyed looking out at the courtyard so much that we lingered there for a few moments at the end of the guided tour, just so we could take it all in.

The building itself was pretty impressive from that vantage point as well.

The Spanish baroque style Monastery of San Francisco allows you to tour the catacombs of Lima.

The Catacombs

Finally, the moment you’ve been waiting for: the creepy, crusty, dirty, dusty catacombs!  Actually they weren’t all that dirty but they were bit creepy.

In centuries past, it was customary to bury people under churches. This was commonplace until 1808, when the cemetery of Lima opened. At that time, practices changed and the catacombs were closed, after accepting somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 bodies. The catacombs stayed undisturbed until their rediscovery in 1943. When that happened, archaeologists and anthropologists decided to sort through the skeletons. (I’m not clear on why they thought that was necessary.) Apparently whoever was in charge of sorting had a really bad case of OCD.  Instead of keeping the bodies semi-intact, they put all the skulls together, all the femurs together, all the tibias together, and so on. So we passed bin after bin of bones that were not a person, but rather parts of more than one person. It was weird.

But it seemed to be slightly less weird when we got to the well. That was where the bones were not just sorted into bins but rather artistically arranged in to a geometric design.

Tour the catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of San Francisco and you will see this artistic display of bones.

I don’t think I would have the nerve to do all that, honestly. Rumor has it that the catacombs also included secret passageways connecting to the Cathedral and to the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition.

If you’re in Lima and you want to see a really amazing, kinda creepy place, look no farther than the Monastery of San Francisco. It only costs about $3 for a tour, and it will be a fascinating one!

The Monastery of San Francisco in Lima has more to delight visitors than the creepy catacombs. It's on the top ten list of places to see in Lima, Peru!