Tag: Historic Sites

A Road Trip for the Hamilton Fan

A Road Trip for the Hamilton Fan

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

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

In New York you can be a new man

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

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

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

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

You walked in and my heart went BOOM

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

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

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

The Battle of Yorktown … 1781 …

Hamilton was there, and you can be, too.

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

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

After the war, I went back to New York

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

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

I was chosen for the constitutional convention

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

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

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

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

We’ll get a little place in Harlem

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

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

Weehawken, dawn.  Guns drawn.

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

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

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

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

Who tells your story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Road Trip

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

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

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

New Jersey

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

New York

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

Virginia

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

Maryland

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

Pennsylvania

  • Independence Hall – 520 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia

Washington, DC

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

Connecticut

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

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

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Hamilton US Road Trip
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
To the End of the Earth: Point Lookout, Maryland

To the End of the Earth: Point Lookout, Maryland

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

view from Point Lookout, Maryland

The Early Days of Point Lookout

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

The Turbulent Times of War – Part 1

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

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

The Turbulent Times of War – Part 2

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

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

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

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

What Remains at Point Lookout Today

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

Privately owned & maintained confederate soldier  memorial at Point Lookout Maryland

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

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

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

Lighthouse at Point Lookout, Maryland

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

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

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

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

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Madrid Day Trip: The Walled City of Avila Spain

Madrid Day Trip: The Walled City of Avila Spain

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

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

The Walled City of Avila is Rich in History

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

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

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

The Walls

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

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

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

The Cathedral of Avila

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

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

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

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

The Basilica of San Vicente

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

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

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

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

What to Eat in Avila

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

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

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

Why You Should Visit the Walled City of Avila

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

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One of the Most Unusual Things to Do in Madrid

One of the Most Unusual Things to Do in Madrid

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

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

Getting In

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

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

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

The Transaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Experience

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

My Recommendation

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

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

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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
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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