Tag: Historic Sites

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.
A Murder Mystery Train Ride in Lancaster County PA

A Murder Mystery Train Ride in Lancaster County PA

On a recent trip to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, we booked tickets for a Murder Mystery dinner. On a train. Because who can resist having dinner on a train? My companions for this murder mystery train ride were my daughter, the other girls in her Girl Scouts troop, and five or six Girl Scout moms. We had a blast!

But First, the History (of course!)

We arrived early enough that we got to look around a bit and learn about the place. I discovered that the Strasburg Railroad is the oldest continuously operating railroad in the western hemisphere! It opened in 1832, and today it is considered a heritage railroad. It has the United States’ only operational wooden dining car on which visitors may dine while riding. 

Back in the 1820s, canals were becoming the most efficient and popular method of land transportation. And southeastern Pennsylvania was on the verge of being shut out of the pipeline as most goods were moved through Baltimore instead of Philadelphia via the Susquehanna Canal. The few goods that did go to Philadelphia traveled via wagon through the small town of Strasburg.

In 1831, Philadelphia tried to reclaim its status as a transportation hub by opening the Philadelphia and Columbia railroad. Unfortunately for Strasburg, the new railroad would have bypassed their town completely and, as a result, harmed them financially. A group of businessmen decided to petition the state for the opportunity to build a connecting railroad from Strasburg to the Philadelphia and Columbia.

And thus, the Strasburg Railroad was born. The railroad only measures 4.5 miles long. Typically, you can travel round trip on the railroad in about 45 minutes for special excursions, like the one we went on.

The Setting

From the moment you leave the parking lot and step onto the platform at the Strasburg Railroad, it feels as though you have gone back in time.

Going back in time on a murder mystery train ride

What’s really interesting is that the Strasburg Rail Road is a real, operating steam railroad. Steam locomotives pull the Strasburg Rail Road trains, and passengers ride in authentically restored, turn-of-the-century wooden rail cars.

The Meal

In all honesty, I tend to expect the worst when it comes to doing something that includes a meal. In my experience, dinner included experiences tend to be less than mediocre. Happily, that was not the case on Strasburg’s Murder Mystery Train Ride. It was both palatable and substantial. Their menu:

  • Salad
  • Choice of entrée – Chicken Marsala, Broiled Cajun Tilapia Filet, Prime Rib, or Vegetarian Chef’s Choice
  • Seasoned potatoes
  • Vegetable of the day
  • Dessert – Choice of Cheesecake, Shoo Fly Pie, Apple Pie or Chocolate Cake
  • Lemonade or water (additional beverage options available for purchase)

The Drama

The murder mystery play was “The Choir Sang Murder!” by Act I Productions. The plot: Strasburg Rail Road is hosting a concert for its dinner guests, featuring The Strasburg Choir. The menu looks wonderful, but it was never meant to include murder! When the choir’s heavy-handed director is bumped off during the ride – in front of the guests – someone has hit a sour note! From the twisted mind of Debi Irene Wahl, this fun murder mystery sings madness, harmonizes murder, and serves up some serious discord!

Salad and program from The Choir Sang Murder, a murder mystery train ride at the Strasburg Rail Road.

No one in our group had ever been on an experience like this. We had no idea what to expect. So when three young ladies clad in choir robes came pushing and shoving their way into the dining car, arguing loudly, we were a bit surprised.

The first was Max, the choir treasurer who has a tendency to get in financial trouble. Then there was Carol, the Choir Director’s sister-in-law, who may have had some self-serving motives. And the third was George, a surly goth girl who had begrudgingly joined the choir as part of her court-ordered community service.

The girls squabbled among themselves for a few minutes, and during that time we learned of their suspicious pasts. Most of their character faults seemed to center around mishandling of finances. It almost seemed that this would be a mystery regarding a theft, not a murder.

Then Tillie, the Choir Director, entered our car. She was everything you might expect from a choir director – loud, theatrical, and in charge. She brought the protestations of the three singers to a halt. Dialogue ensued, there was a bit of a scuffle, and the next thing we knew, Tillie was dead. Oh, Tillie, we hardly knew ya!

Who was to blame for Tillie’s sudden demise? Thankfully, the conductor was on the case. He came to investigate, asking us passengers what we saw, and providing us with some background information as well.

The conductor, who led the investigation on the murder mystery train ride in Lancaster County PA

The End (No Spoilers!)

You would think that a bunch of middle and high school girls would be too cool to get into a small scale dramatic production like the murder mystery train ride.

But you’d be wrong.

When it came time to declare who we thought the murderer was, these girls were soooo into it! They compared theories and argued with each other (sometimes vehemently). I couldn’t believe how much they enjoyed themselves! My daughter nearly wrote an entire thesis when she was filling out her “whodunit” form.

Some guests get carried away when casting  their vote for who the murderer is.
(potential spoilers concealed)

As a bonus, everyone who guessed the correct answer was entered in a drawing for a prize.

Recommendation

This was a really fun outing with the girls! I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it as much if I had been riding with just adults. But for family fun that’s not your usual activity, I highly recommend the murder mystery train ride and dinner at Strasburg Rail Road!

(pinnable image) Murder Mystery Train Ride at Strasburg Rail Road in Lancaster County PA
The Paris Deportation Memorial: Dark Side of the City’s History

The Paris Deportation Memorial: Dark Side of the City’s History

At the eastern tip of Ile de la Cite, just behind Notre Dame Cathedral, the overlooked Paris Deportation Memorial honors some 200,000 of France’s victims from World War II. This memorial is not for the soldiers, however, but other casualties of that war. It honors the men, women and children who were arrested, rounded up like cattle, and sent out of Paris to Nazi death camps.

The History

France’s role in WWII was a complicated one. What follows is undoubtedly an over-simplification. My goal is not to bore you with too many details, but provide some basic background information.

In 1939, France had invaded Germany, but by May/June of 1940, Germany had defeated France and its Benelux neighbors (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg). To make matters worse, Italy had also invaded France from the south. The French had little choice but to seek peace.

Hitler carried a grudge over the way WWI had ended so poorly for Germany. If the French wanted peace, it would be only on his terms. He wanted to have an armistice (truce) signing with the French in the same exact place where his country conceded defeat to the Allies at the end of WWI. Needless to say, he wasn’t feeling particularly generous toward the French. One witness on that day reportedly said of Hitler, “I have seen that face many times at the great moments of his life. But today! It is afire with scorn, anger, hate, revenge, triumph.”

Among the terms of the Armistice of 1940: the Germans would occupy almost two-thirds of France (at France’s expense). Any German national who had sought asylum in France would be turned over for deportation to a concentration camp. And no French soldiers who were prisoners of war would be released under the armistice. As a result, one million of them spent the next five years in German POW camps.

The Deporation

Beginning in 1942, Jews in France faced deportation. Tragically, the French police actually aided in the effort to take these families out of their homes and turn them over to Nazi authorities. (Hard to imagine? I highly recommend a novel set in Paris during this time period: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay.)

In all, around 200,000 people were deported from France and sent to 15 different Nazi death camps. I learned that the term “death camp” covers different places: concentration camps, special camps of the SS, killing centers, internment camps, regroupment camps for deportation, retaliation camps for prisoners of war, etc.

I also learned that it wasn’t just Jews who were deported – of the 200,000 roughly 76,000 were Jews. Sadly, 11,000 of those were children. Each prisoner sent to a death camp wore a blue and white striped uniform with a special insignia – a colored triangle patch – to indicate his offense. Political prisoners wore a red triangle, Gypsies brown, homosexuals pink, Jehovah’s Witnesses purple, and criminals green. Jews were additionally identified by a yellow triangle, sometimes combined with another one.

Explanation of prisoners' insignia at the Paris Deportation Memorial.

The Design

Built in the location of a former morgue, the Paris Deportation Memorial is, fittingly, underground. I found it cold, impersonal, cramped, and dark. Which is exactly as it should be, given what it represents. Quite the contrast after strolling past Notre Dame Cathedral and taking in views of the Seine River.

Approaching the memorial from the outside, you can’t help but notice that the lettering declaring its purpose is crude and harsh, all straight lines. It almost looks as if the detainees had carved the letters and numbers into the stone themselves.

Entering through a narrow stone walkway that leads down below the ground, you approach one of the memorial’s few open spaces.

The Paris Deportation Memorial - with a window to the Seine.

Overall, the memorial is shaped like the prow of a ship. Gazing out at the Seine River through the barred window, you can easily feel like a prisoner. Just imagine having to leave all that you know behind for such a grim future.

The Paris Deportation Memorial

From the open area shown above, you pass through a narrow, almost claustrophobia-inducing passage to explore the inner, underground areas of the memorial.

A plaque on the floor of the underground chamber bears the inscription: “They descended into the mouth of the earth and they did not return.”

Inside the memorial crypt lies the Tomb of the Unknown Deportee. The remains placed in the tomb are those of an individual who died in the Neustadt concentration camp. Pebbles line a long corridor known as the Hall of Remembrance to represent the Jewish tradition of placing a stone on the grave of a loved one.

One area had a concrete wall with fifteen triangular niches cut into it. Each triangle bore the name of a death camp to which French citizens had been deported.

triangular markers with the Nazi death camp names at the Paris Deportation Memorial.

Each triangle contains soil and the ashes of the victims from the corresponding camp. Elsewhere, a map of France showed the total number of people deported from each region:

A map of France shows the numbers of people sent to Nazi death camps in each region - Paris Deportation Memorial.

In conclusion

I have often written about places that are not enjoyable to see, but that I feel should be seen, such as the 9/11 Museum & Memorial in New York City. As a history geek, I have a keen appreciation for the adage “Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it.” I encourage you, if you are in Paris, to take an hour or so to visit this stunning memorial.

Paris Deportation Memorial pinnable image

A Local’s Guide to Salisbury Maryland, Home of the National Folk Festival 

A Local’s Guide to Salisbury Maryland, Home of the National Folk Festival 

A Local’s Guide to Salisbury Maryland

The National Folk Festival will once again be held in my home town of Salisbury Maryland the weekend of September 6-8, 2019. What’s more, it will be held here next year as well! So here’s your guide to Salisbury, Maryland, written by someone who has lived here for nearly 25 years.

Locals Guide to Salisbury Maryland (vintage postcard)
By Tichnor Brothers, Publisher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

About Salisbury

With a population of some 30,000, it’s the largest city on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and the No. 1 fastest growing city in the state, according to city officials. Founded in 1732 and incorporated in 1854, it also is the county seat for Wicomico. The area offers the ideal mix of an urban center, nestled within a scenic rural region, centrally located to three major metropolitan areas (Baltimore, Washington DC, and Philadelphia). I’ve lived here since 1995, and I can’t imagine ever leaving to live someplace else.

The National Folk Festival

Free events are great, and the National Folk Festival is no exception. If you’re like me, you might think that a “folk” festival will be geared toward aging hippies who want to sit around and listen to mellow music. Not so! Folk does not mean folk music! The National Folk Festival is a celebration of the roots, richness and variety of American culture.

The three day event will feature musical performances and dancing by over 350 performers from all over the world. To name just a few:

The Sea Gull Century

Every year in early October, Salisbury University holds a nationally acclaimed bicycling event, beginning and ending on its campus. The event takes bicycle riders on a tour of the Eastern Shore and offers two routes (100 kilometers or 100 miles).

Guide to Salisbury Maryland - Sea Gull Century is a 100 mile bicycle ride held in October.

Riders will enjoy highlights such as live music, food and the National Seashore of Assateague Island where they will see wild ponies, sandy beaches, coastal marshes and maritime forest. All riders returning from the ride are welcomed back with a lively lawn party!

Whether you’re here for the National Folk Festival, the Sea Gull Century, or for some other reason, there is plenty to see and do in Salisbury. Here are my recommendations for visitors…

Where to Eat

For some of the best thin crust pizza in town, head to Lombardis (315 Civic Ave; 410-749-0522). The decor isn’t much, but the wait staff are friendly and if you have kids with you, they will love the giant mural of cartoon characters and superheroes in the back dining room.

If you like your pizza to be a little more gourmet, then Mojos (213 E Main St., 443-944-9507) is the place to go. Their brick oven pizzas are amazingly tasty, and they offer some interesting topping combinations for their specials. They even have a pickle pizza! Their totally yummy cheese pizza is just $5 on Monday evenings – the same night that they have an entertaining live trivia game starting at 8:00 pm.

Who doesn’t love ice cream? A Chincoteague Virginia favorite, Island Creamery, recently opened a shop in Salisbury (306 Dogwood Dr, 410-831-3103). With all of the traditional favorites and unusual flavors like Cantaloupe and Wallops Rocket Fuel (chocolate with cinnamon and chili pepper), there’s something for everyone.

Back Street Grill (401 Snow Hill Road, 410-548-1588) offers a build-your-own sandwich menu and some of the tastiest salads in town. My favorite sandwich is the Back Street Deluxe: turkey and ham with cheddar and pineapple on a croissant, heated. So yummy! They also offer great specials on weeknights, like tacos for $1.25 each on Mondays and $5 burgers on Wednesdays.

Market Street Inn (130 W Market St, 410-742-4145) is an upscale restaurant located on the Wicomico (pronounced why-COMic-oh) River.

Local's Guide to Salisbury Maryland: Market Street Inn offers guests riverside dining and drinks.

I’ve never had a dish here that was anything less than spectacular. In addition to gourmet fare, they have outdoor seating, which offers a great view of the riverfront. If you’re lucky, you might even see a Great Blue Heron while you’re there.

Brew River (502 W Main St, 410-677-6757) is a popular restaurant located on the Wicomico River. They have great dinner specials, with half price prime rib on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and 2-for-1 crab cakes on Thursdays. The restaurant also features an outside dock bar that is one of the most happening nightlife spots in town. If you go, be sure to grab a coconut muffin from the bread basket – they’re delicious!

Rise Up Coffee Roasters is a local favorite. Go to their College Avenue location (105 East College Ave., 443-358-5248) to get breakfast or lunch, or just hang out for a while. Alternatively, you can hit their drive through location (529 Rivderside Drive, 410-202-2500) if you’re on the go. They only roast certified organic and fair trade coffee, so you can feel good about caffeinating here. But even if you’re not a coffee person, it’s worth a stop: the frozen hot chocolate is A-MAZ-ING!

Local's Guide to Salisbury Maryland: Bordeleau Vineyard & Winery features a beautiful estate with a well-stocked tasting room.
Bordeleau Vineyard & Winery

Bordeleau Vineyard & Winery in the neighboring village of Eden (3155 Noble Farm Rd, Eden, 410-677-3334) offers both white and red wines on a beautiful estate (above) that often serves as a wedding venue. The Bordeleau tasting room is open Wednesday through Sunday and is a comfy, welcoming place to sample their vino.

The Brick Room (116 N Division St, 443-358-5092) is a quaint little bar with a comfy outdoor seating area.

Salisbury MD local's guide - enjoy a drink on The Brick Room's patio

For a real treat, go up to the bar and order an old fashioned. Watching them make it, you will be impressed by how much art goes into making the classic cocktail.

Acorn Market (150 W Market St, 410-334-2222) offers breakfast and lunch in a relaxed atmosphere. They offer a selection of freshly made to order sandwiches and salads, and some of the most scrumptious baked goods you will find. I especially love their sweet potato biscuits.  You won’t be able to get dinner here, though, as they close at 3:00 pm each day.

Classic Cakes (1305 S Division St #8, 410-860-5300) makes Smith Island cakes. If you’ve never heard of such a thing, you are in for a treat! Maryland’s official state dessert is a nine-layer (yes, NINE!) yellow cake with chocolate ganache type frosting.

Local's Guide to Salisbury Maryland: Try the official state dessert. a nine-layer Smith Island Cake.

That’s the traditional version. But Classic Cakes has taken it up a few notches and made many delicious varieties: cookies and cream, Reese’s cup, coconut pineapple, banana, red velvet, and many more. I like the classic and the banana best. They also sell cupcakes but don’t let that tempt you… the cake is way better, and they even sell it by the slice.

Where to Stay

Salisbury isn’t different from other cities in this regard. There’s a selection of hotels from 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 stars. If location is important to you, then you can’t do much better than LaQuinta, which is right next to the city’s Riverwalk Park and newly constructed amphitheater. Downtown bars, restaurants and shopping are a quick 10-15 minute walk, and a bank next door to the hotel has an ATM, should you need one.

If Airbnb is more your thing, there are quite a few properties to choose from in Salisbury, from single rooms to riverfront lofts. Just make sure before booking that the property is in Salisbury and not a nearby town like Crisfield or Pocomoke. Those towns, while technically nearby, would add 30-45 minutes of driving to your outings, and would provide you with fewer things to do/places to eat. Book an Airbnb through this link and you will receive a discount on your stay!

Finally, if you’re a camping kind of family, I’m sorry to say that there aren’t any campgrounds in Salisbury. The town of Berlin has several camping options, however, and is about 30 minutes away by car.

Where to Shop

If you’re into country decor, Salisbury is your Mecca, as it is home to The Country House (805 E Main St, 410-749-1959). Set aside at least half a day to look through their items, as the store is huge – 48,000 square feet – and no space is wasted.  They carry all sorts of wonderful items, from curtains to floral to apparel and seasonal items too.

Angello’s Unique Gifts (100 E Main St, 443-358-5152) is a great spot to browse. This is the perfect place to pick up a souvenir of your visit, or a gift for someone who is hard to shop for. They even do embroidery to personalize your purchase.

Local's Guide to Salisbury Maryland: Dana Simson offers whimsical ceramic creations at Chesapeake East.
Some of Dana Simson’s ceramics.

If you’re into quirky and colorful handmade ceramic pieces, you must go to Chesapeake East (501 W Main St, 410-546-1534). From dinnerware to decorative items, artist Dana Simson creates whimsical pieces that will make you smile. In addition, she also sells stationery, paintings, and prints.

What to Do

If you’re coming to Salisbury for a special event like the National Folk Festival or the 100 mile Seagull Century bike race, you might want to stay an extra day or two and check out some of the other things our little city has to offer. For instance:

The Salisbury Zoo (755 S Park Dr, open daily 9:00 to 4:30) is a 12-acre zoological park that has offered free admission ever since it first opened in 1954. The zoo is home to 100 animals, most of which are native to North and South America. The zoo is an absolute gem and one of the things that make Salisbury a great place to live and visit.

Local's Guide to Salisbury Maryland: The Salisbury Zoo is a great place to visit... and it's free!
The alligator at the Salisbury Zoo is all smiles.

At one end of the zoo, children will absolutely love the playground known as Ben’s Red Swings. The playground was created to honor the memory of Ben Layton, a local boy who died of leukemia at age 4. Ben wished that when he got to heaven he would get red wings because red was his favorite color, and that was the inspiration for the name of the playground. The playground was largely funded, built, and maintained by community volunteers, and it is a real treasure to the children who live here. If you’re visiting with your family, be sure to let the little ones burn off some energy at Ben’s Red Swings.

Another way to let the kids (and adventurous adults) burn off some energy is to take them to Altitude Trampoline Park (30174 Foskey Ln, 410-896-2219) in the neighboring town of Delmar, Maryland. In addition to over 24,000 square feet of indoor trampolines, there is also a Foam Pit, Dodgeball Arena, Kid’s Arena, Aeroball and Laser Maze. Hours of fun! Rates range from $15-$20 for one to two hours of jumping fun.

Salisbury is home to a minor league baseball team, the Delmarva Shorebirds. The season will have ended before the National Folk Festival takes place, but if you’re visiting April thru August, consider spending an evening at the ballpark. Many games conclude with a great fireworks show, and there are often special events and giveaways as well. Tickets range from $2 to $13.

Local's Guide to Salisbury Maryland: Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art

The Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art (909 S Schumaker Dr, 410-742-4988) has been recognized by USA Today as one of the 10 best places in the U.S. to view American folk art. Operated by Salisbury University, it showcases the contributions of artists who have carved birds both as tools for the hunt and as objects of artistic enjoyment. The museum regularly offers children’s programs and hosts community events at its beautiful waterfront location.

Finally, for garden enthusiasts, the campus of Salisbury University was recognized by the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta as an arboretum in 1988. The campus features over 2,000 species of plant life, including magnolia, rhododendron, viburnum, Japanese maple, bald cypress, and Crape myrtle. Notable areas of interest – and great Instagram spots – on campus include the pergola near the University Commons, the Holloway Hall courtyard garden, the Bellavance Honors Center’s Japanese garden, the Link of Nations, and the Miller Alumni Garden.

Beaches

There are at least a half dozen beaches within an hour’s drive of Salisbury. They each have their own distinct vibe, and their own pros and cons. I’ll outline the three closest ones below.

The Cove (Cove Rd, Bivalve MD – about 30 minutes from Salisbury) is the perfect beach for families with young children. It is a sheltered cove off of the Chesapeake Bay. The water is shallow, warm, and has very little current, so it’s great for toddlers and preschoolers. Older kids and childless adults, on the other hand, will probably be pretty bored at this beach.

Assateague has two sections – the Assateague Island National Seashore (7206 National Seashore Lane, Berlin, 410-641-1441), and Maryland’s Assateague State Park (6915 Stephen Decatur Highway, Berlin, 410-641-2120).  It takes about 45 minutes from Salisbury to reach either of them. Both charge a small entrance fee. You will be able to see the famous wild Assateague ponies at both.

Local's Guide to Salisbury Maryland: The beach at nearby Assateague Island offers visitors a look at the wild ponies who have lived there for centuries.

Both offer ocean and bayfront beaches. Both allow pets in designated areas. You can camp at both, and both have bike trails. The biggest difference is that the state side has a restaurant/concession stand and gift shop, whereas the federal side does not provide any opportunities for you to spend money once you pay for admission. I prefer the federal side as it tends to be less crowded, and I almost always see the ponies when we go there.

Ocean City (paid parking at the Hugh T Cropper inlet parking lot – 809 S Atlantic Ave, Ocean City – about 45 minutes from Salisbury). Quite the opposite of Assateague, Ocean City has plenty of places for you to part with your cash.  In addition to a stunning oceanfront beach with crashing waves, there is a 2.5 mile long boardwalk lined with restaurants, souvenir shops, hotels, and arcades. Be sure to get Thrasher’s fries while you’re there. It’s a must!

A Local's Guide to Salisbury Maryland

In Conclusion

I hope you will find this guide to Salisbury Maryland useful. I love this town, and I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. If you visit, I’m sure you will agree!  Do you have any other suggestions to add? Did you try any of the places I recommended here? If so, leave a comment and tell me about it!

Happy traveling!

A Local's Guide to Salisbury Maryland - Home of the National Folk Festival
Inside Père Lachaise: The Most Interesting Cemetery in Paris

Inside Père Lachaise: The Most Interesting Cemetery in Paris

If you’ve been a Travel As Much reader for any length of time at all, you know I have a long-standing fascination with and love of old cemeteries. So when I booked my trip to Paris, I knew visiting an old cemetery would definitely be one of my stops. I did a little research and discovered three big cemeteries from which to choose: Montmartre, Montparnasse, and Père Lachaise. Reading up on all three, it seemed that Père Lachaise was the biggest and the most interesting cemetery in Paris.

How Big Is It?

Rick Steves devotes several pages, a map, and a guided walking tour of Père Lachaise in his 2019 Paris Guidebook. I followed the walking tour dutifully for the first ten minutes or so, then managed to get lost. That was no fault of Rick’s – I am directionally challenged, not very good at reading maps, and often struggle with losing my bearings. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t find my way back to his neatly planned route. I decided to throw caution to the wind and just wing it.

Whether I’d been able to stay on the Rick Steves route or not, there is no possible way I could have seen everything in Père Lachaise in just one day. The cemetery covers 110 acres, and contains 70,000 burial plots with over 1 million bodies. That means there are roughly twice as many dead people in this cemetery than there are living people in Miami, Florida!

I tried to take some photos that accurately depict just how massive this cemetery is. The best I managed was this shot:

If you zoom in on the angel’s feet and look at the graves behind her, you will see that they stretch back at least 10 rows! This one photograph probably has about 75 graves in it, perhaps even more.

As the biggest, most interesting cemetery in Paris, Père Lachaise sees about 3.5 million visitors every year. It is the most visited cemetery in the world.

The History

According to Wikipedia, when Père Lachaise opened in 1804 it was not a very popular place to bury your loved ones. Roman Catholics did not wish to bury their dead at Père Lachaise because the site had not received an official blessing by their church. Others felt that it was too far away from the center of the city. In fact, it was such an unpopular choice that in its first year of operation, only 13 people were buried there.

The powers that be came up with a marketing plan to make burial at Père Lachaise seem more desirable. They had the remains of the popular poet Jean de la Fontaine and playwright/actor Molière transferred to the cemetery. That year, the burial numbers rose from 13 to 44.

Business continued to increase over the years and, in 1817, they tried a similar marketing stunt. This time they moved the 12th century philosopher Pierre Abélard and also Héloïse, the nun with whom he allegedly had an affair. Once again, the status of having one’s final resting place in the same cemetery as someone famous held great allure for Parisians. By 1830, the cemetery contained more than 33,000 graves and needed to be expanded. Today, the cemetery restricts who may be buried there (you must have either lived or died in Paris) and they even have a waiting list.

What Makes it the Most Interesting Cemetery in Paris?

The Graves of Famous People

One of the reasons Père Lachaise gets so many visitors is that some notable people are buried there. For Americans, the most famous is probably Jim Morrison, lead singer of the iconic 1960s/1970s band, The Doors. I’m not a fan, and as I’ve mentioned, I was hopelessly lost, so it wasn’t on my must-see list. I did, however, manage to find the grave of Marcel Proust, French author from the early 29th century. (Confession: I only found this because I saw someone else taking a photo and I was nosy enough to go see why they were taking a picture of an otherwise unremarkable grave.)

Other famous people buried at Père Lachaise include: playwright Oscar Wilde, composer Chopin, singer Edith Piaf, and the world’s most (only?) famous mime, Marcel Marceau. However, the casual visitor would overlook most of these. Like Marcel Proust’s grave, they are not overly ornate. I preferred to wander and look for more unusual and/or impressive gravesites rather than focusing on the people who occupied them.

Unusual Graves

Père Lachaise is full of unique graves and funerary art the likes of which I have never seen before. For instance:

Theodore Gericault’s grave was a fitting tribute for an artist. He lounges above a depiction of his best painting, The Raft of the Medusa, a paintbrush in one hand and a palette in the other.

I don’t know who this person was in life, nor do I know why he has a little man standing on the palm of his hand. If you know, please leave a comment and solve the mystery for me!

This massive chimney-like structure standing so much taller than all of the graves & vaults had me thinking it was the Crematorium, but it’s actually a grave marker, believe it or not. It belongs to one Felix de Beaujour. He was the French diplomat to the United States in the early nineteenth century.

Creepy Graves

I don’t know who she was in life, but she was definitely the creepiest thing I saw in Père Lachaise. The mystery here is whether her eyes are supposed to stare through the living, or if it’s just a coincidental streak in the patina. Either way, I almost didn’t want to turn my back on her.

Georges Rodenbach’s grave wins runner up for creepiest bit of funerary art in Père Lachaise. It reminds me just a little too much of a vampire coming out of his coffin once the sun has set. Yikes.

Graves Depicting Grief

Occasionally when touring a cemetery, I find gravesites that just overwhelm me with a sense of profound grief. For instance:

The person depicted by this statue slumps forward, face buried in her hands. I could almost see her shoulders shaking as she sobbed over her loss.

This statue atop a family grave touched me as well. A mourner leans over the body of the deceased, preparing (I suppose) to lay a wreath of flowers on her head.

And, at other times, a grave can be a symbol of the deceased’s grief for the ones they left behind.

Neglected/Overgrown Graves

As with any old cemetery, there are graves belonging to families who are no longer around. These graves eventually fall into disrepair and nature tries to reclaim them. I think they’re interesting because they show that, no matter how much you want the world to remember you, you may end up forgotten after all. (Is that too morbid?)

Thankfully, though, some people dedicate themselves to maintaining lovely old cemeteries like Père Lachaise. I stumbled upon one such group, spending their Saturday tidying up a plot.

The Most Interesting Cemetery in Paris

In summary, Père Lachaise is a fascinating place with amazing art, peaceful walkways, and just a touch of creepiness thrown in for good measure. If you enjoy touring old cemeteries, you should definitely check it out the next time you’re in Paris.

A Review of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, NYC

A Review of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, NYC

On our most recent trip to New York, we had a few hours to kill while my daughter and her friend went to see Dear Evan Hansen. There were any number of fun things we could have done – Gulliver’s Gate, Spyscape, Madame Tussaud’s, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty… I could go on and on. But rather than do something fun, we decided to do something important instead: The 9/11 Memorial & Museum.

I’ve wanted (and simultaneously not wanted) to visit the 9/11 Memorial & Museum ever since it opened in 2014. However, our trips to NYC usually left us with not enough time to fit it in. This time, we made it a priority.

Entering the 9/11 Memorial Plaza

As we approached the World Trade Center site, the first thing we saw was the new building – One World Trade Center. It was beautiful, not just in its appearance but also in what it represented: the determination to persevere after tragedy.

9/11 Memorial & Museum in NYC - One World Trade Center

Impressive, isn’t it? It stands (including the spire) at 1776 feet tall,
the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and sixth tallest in the world. The height is not a coincidence; it was chosen to symbolize the independent spirit of America.

The new building is located on the site of the former 6 World Trade Center, heavily damaged in the 2001 attacks.

A one acre pool with the largest man-made waterfalls in the United States now stands on each footprint of the Twin Towers. Known collectively as Reflecting Absence, they symbolize both the loss of life and the physical void left by the attacks. The waterfalls drown out the sounds of the city, making this an ideal space for contemplation. A bronze ledge surrounding each pool bears the names of 2983 people – those who died in the September 11, 2001 attacks and the previous World Trade Center bombing of 1993.

9/11 Memorial & Museum in NYC - the names of those who lost their lives surround the pools where the towers once stood.

The museum is housed in a strange looking building meant to resemble a partially collapsed building. Mostly glass, both clear and reflective, configured at odd angles.

9/11 Memorial & Museum in NYC - the pavilion over the museum was meant to resemble a partially collapsed building.

Inside the 9/11 Museum

Once you enter the museum and pass through security, you start to get an inkling of (or remember) the enormity of the events that day. One of the first things we saw was the flag that was raised at Ground Zero.

On the day of the attacks, a firefighter saw the flag flying on a yacht in the nearby Hudson River basin. He cut the yardarm off the boat and took it to an evacuation site at Ground Zero. There, he and two other firefighters raised it over the rubble. A reporter captured the moment and from that point forward, it became an iconic and enduring image.

To so many people, the three firefighters raising this flag on September 11, 2001, symbolized the resilience of our nation. It also seemed an act of defiance to our attackers – telling them, in effect, “You cannot break us.”

After viewing the flag, we proceeded downstairs into the dark exhibit halls. The farther down we went, the quieter it got. We came upon a map of the mid-Atlantic region, or home, to me. It showed the location of the four terrorist-hijacked airplanes at the time of their crashes. The following two-paragraph summary accompanied the map, with September 11, 2001 spelled out in big letters overhead.

It struck me as odd that such large scale destruction and loss of life could be so easily summed up.

We also saw the rough slurry wall:

A section of the slurry wall left exposed at the 9/11 memorial and museum in NYC.

If, like me, you have no idea what a slurry wall is, or why it would be significant in this place, allow me to share what I have since learned. A slurry wall is a reinforced concrete wall in areas of soft earth that are close to open water.  Its purpose is to keep water out and support the building from beneath. The building above the slurry wall (one of the Twin Towers) collapsed like a house of cards. When it did, the slurry wall could have caved in, resulting in a flooded lower Manhattan. But, thankfully, the wall held.

Of Tears and Twisted Metal

As we wandered through the space, we saw huge pieces of twisted metal hanging against the concrete walls. In a different setting, they could have been works of modern art. But here, they were a grim reminder of the force of destruction and lives lost. When destruction twists a steel beam into a grotesque shape, how could something as fragile as a human body possibly survive?

A twisted piece of metal from the Twin Towers on display at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum

Looking at these items in person put me in a contemplative, somber mood. It wasn’t until I emerged on a balcony overlooking the lower level, however, that I began to tear up and cry.

"No Day Shall Erase You from the Memory of Time" wall at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in NYC

Amid tiles in various shades of blue, Virgil’s quote from The Aeneid overwhelmed me with emotion. “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” Not only is it a beautiful promise to remember the victims of the attacks, it is a memorial in itself. The letters were made from World Trade Center steel. The sign describing the display said:

“Originally trained as a blacksmith, [New Mexico artist Tom] Joyce was invited to harness the transformative process that occurs when iron is touched by fire. He took wounded, remnant steel – made of iron and carbon – and forged it, by heating and folding, into letters of beauty. The result reminds us that Virgil’s words are not just a statement; they are a promise.”

The Exhibition and Education Level

We went down to the lower level and saw, among other things, a portion of the “Survivors’ Staircase,” which came from an evacuation route used by many people on the day of the attacks. In the months and years following September 11, the staircase was the last remaining structure above ground level.

We also saw the remains of the box columns that provided structural support for the World Trade Center buildings. We saw part of a radio/TV antenna and a crumpled piece of shiny metal bearing an inscription from the World Trade Center Dedication Day in 1973. But it wasn’t until we turned and I saw the fire truck from Ladder Company 3 that I gasped.

The twisted metal of a fire truck from Ladder Company 3 at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in NYC

Fire trucks, as any preschooler can tell you, are big, magnificent machines. They are red and shiny, loud and fast. They are strong, just like the men who ride in them. In a word, they are invincible.

Yet the fire truck before me had none of those characteristics. Its ladder more closely resembled the plastic-coated wire tie that you find on a loaf of bread. Bent doors on the side of the truck hung at odd angles, like an injured athlete’s broken arm.

A volunteer stood nearby to tell us the story of the truck and its captain. The truck, she explained, carried eleven responders, some of whom had just gone off duty after completing overnight shifts, to the WTC site. It was 8:46 when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower. By 9:21, the members of Ladder Company 3 had reached the 35th floor.

In his last recorded transmission, Ladder Company 3 Captain Patrick “Paddy” Brown stated, “We are still heading up”. When the building collapsed a little over an hour later, all eleven members of the company perished.

The Historical Exhibition

The guide finished by telling us that we could see the historical exhibit across from the fire engine. No photos are allowed in that part of the museum, so I have none to share. But I will do my best to tell you about it because it was the most thorough and interesting part of the museum.

The exhibit made use of video clips that looped on continuous playback on monitors. There we saw Matt Lauer reporting on the attacks from the Today Show set. We saw footage of the plane hitting the building. We saw footage of the towers collapsing. And hidden away in an alcove so sensitive visitors would not have to see it if they did not want to, we even saw the clips of people jumping to their deaths from the Twin Towers to avoid the slow and inevitable death they were facing inside the building.

It was almost too much to bear. Because instead of sitting in my office watching the events of the day unfold real time with my coworkers as I did on 9/11, this time I was immersed in it. I was a spectator, surrounded by the chaos and confusion and the fear and the overwhelming sadness of it all. And rather than having time to slowly let it all sink in, I was witnessing it all at once, as if time had somehow sped up. It was brutal.

The historical exhibit also examined what happened before the attacks. I saw redacted copies of government correspondence suggesting that an attack was imminent, and urging action in response. It made me angry. Why didn’t anyone take it seriously?

And I saw exhibits on what happened after the attack. The clean up, the search for people who were missing, the nation coming together united as it has never done since. And, eventually, the re-building, and the hope for the future.

In Memoriam

Moving on from the historical exhibit to a quiet, somber, and dimly lit room, you can see portraits of all of the people who lost their lives on September 11, 2001 and in the 1993 World Trade Center attack: men and women. Latino and African-American, Asian and White. Young and old and middle aged. People who earned six figures and those who earned minimum wage. Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist. Death is the great equalizer.

I looked for Juan Garcia’s photo. I never knew him, but I wrote about him on my old mommy blog as part of a 5 year anniversary blogger project. Seeing his picture on the wall made me feel sad. I can only imagine what it must be like for those who lost someone they knew personally.

In Conclusion

If you have an opportunity to visit the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, you should. It is important to remind ourselves of how good this country can be when we stand united. It is equally important to remind ourselves of the ripple effect that senseless acts of violence can have on society. So go. And when you do, please come back here and tell me how it affected you. I’d love to hear about your experience. Maybe the more we talk about, the more we can do to prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again.

9/11 Memorial and Museum - pinnable image
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!