On June 25th, we flew, via Paris, to Malta, the island country south of Sicily in the Mediterranean. Malta is beautiful and endlessly fascinating; but traveling there in the height of the summer heat may not have been the most propitious idea. It was like a furnace. Which is not hard to understand if you look at a map of the Mediterranean: Malta is situated on a latitude south of Algiers, Algeria, and Tunis, Tunisia, and is only 221 miles north of Tripoli, Libya. It has essentially a north African climate.
The Maltese people take pride in their glorious history of crusaders and resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War. Magnificent monuments and churches dot the island, like St. John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta with its dizzyingly ornate interior and tombs of grand knights of history, are full of visitors and tourists. The country is truly beautiful, the waters a surreal blue, and the people both friendly and generous. And our host, Rose Faruggia, was most gracious.
One of the culinary delights produced by Malta is called pastizzi, a phyllo dough pastry wrapper containing a filler of cheese and various other vegetables or meats. Rose, who was our neighbor for many years in metro Detroit, used to make her Stateside version of pastizzi using a Pillsburgy puff pastry and filling of ground beef, sausage, onions and peas. In my opinion, they were even better than the Maltese originals, though both are exceptionally delicious. We also had roasted rabbit, a national dish of Malta, which was not bad.
One of our first visits was to St. Paul's Island, where Paul was once shipwrecked as recorded in the twenty-seventh chapter of the Book of Acts. It is reached by a short boat ride across spectacularly blue waters from St. Paul's Bay in the northwestern corner of Malta. The island sports a tall statue of St. Paul that is badly weathered and has seen no visible restorative work since 1844 when it was first erected. The image is perhaps sadly iconic, showing by its neglect the growing indifference of the Maltese toward their historic religion. But there is ample evidence that this was once a country with a vital Catholic faith. Someone once said that there is a church for every day of the year on Malta, which is hardly an exaggeration (Wikipedia lists 359 Maltese churches, if one includes the 46 on the adjacent Maltese island of Gozo)! The antiquity of Christianity is also attested by St. Paul's Catacombs and his Grotto where, according to tradition, he chose to live while on Malta, eschewing the comfortable surroundings offered him. There was a plaque indicating that St. John Paul II had visited the grotto.
While on St. Paul's Island, I had an unfortunate encounter with a cactus, one of the profusion of cacti of the 'Prickly Pear' (Cactaceae) variety I noticed on the island. Which led me to wonder: Could St. Paul's 'thorn in the flesh' have not been a metaphorical malady at all, but a literal thorn? I managed to pull out all the thorns but a small piece that broke off, which subsequently got itself buried deep under the skin and grown over, but it's still extremely irritating. A little "piece of Malta" I brought home and may have with me forever!
Our second day we assisted at a Mass celebrated at St. Augustine's in the old capital of Mdina (the old Muslim capital of Malta) -- a Mass celebrated by one of Malta's two notoriously dissident bishops. Historically a bastion of Catholic fidelity, Malta was already slipping visibly from its pinnacle of intrepid Catholicity at the time of Pope Benedict XVI's 2010 visit to the island nation. Legislative positions on divorce, contraceptives, abortion, and other issues seem fated to follow the rest of Europe.
We also enjoyed side trips to Upper the Barrakka Gardens, where one can see the fortification of Valletta overlooking The Grand Harbor with their canons, which are fired each day at an appointed hour. We also enjoyed an evening drive to St. Thomas Bay, courtesy of Elaine Xerri Caruna, Rose's niece, who generously drove us there. There were numerous families out after 9:00pm, gathered around picnic tables and barbecue grills on the shore while their children waded or swam in the cool Mediterranean waters. This is evidently how one compensates for the heat of the day, by staying out late into the evening enjoying the cool breezes of the sea. Elaine also drove us to the hospital when Theresa began having problems with her braces (which she finally got repaired by an Iowan dentist in Rome). Elaine's son, Isaac, bright beyond his years, was endlessly amusing, using quaint English phrases when talking to the girls, like: "Let's give Phil a fright ..." What a little progidy!
On June 30th we flew to Rome. Ah, Rome. The 'Eternal City.' Ever ancient, ever new, it is endlessly enchanting for its layer upon layer of history -- Catholic Rome built atop pagan Rome, and now secular Rome built atop Catholic Rome, virtually swallowing up sacred Rome everywhere one looks today. The lines from Archibald Macleish's Hypocrite Auteur come to mind:
For the first time in my several visits to Rome, I was privileged to accompany a Scavi Tour -- a tour of the excavations beneath St. Peter's, down below the basement-level crypt. These excavations were begun in the 1940s and by the 1950s it was confirmed that the tomb of St. Peter had been found amidst an array of Roman Christian burial sites. One member of our team was our daughter Hannah, who managed to slip in beneath the mandated minimum age of 15 for one reason or another. The principal concern is that they do not want children irresponsibly running around or complaining because of claustrophobic conditions during the 1.5 hour tour deep beneath St. Peter's Basilica. A couple of my colleagues back home, one a very holy Jesuit priest, had suggested with a wink that she wear heavy lipstick, dark glasses and try to look like a very bored teenager; and if that didn't work, to slip the guard a 10€ note. (You gotta love these Catholics!) But there were no issues. In fact, serendipitously (I should say, providentially) a canon law student known to us (Tom Sundaram, a friend of Robert Peters) was able to join our group because the group leader turned out to be none other than a well-known Indian friend, Kiron Rathnam, a wonderful Catholic woman whose account of the excavations were deeply moving and who led us all in an Our Father at the conclusion of our tour. Here is a picture of us, together with Kiron Rathnam and Tom Sundaram (dubbed "Tommy Tsunami" by Catherine Peters, or "Tommy Typhoon" or "Tommy Tornado," by those of us who had trouble remembering what to call him!). Both Catholic friends of Robert in Rome, Kiron led our Scavi Tour, and Tom Sundaram, who shared his wealth of detailed knowledge about miscellania Romana, and was able to join the tour at the last minute.A world ends when its metaphor has died.
An age becomes an age, all else beside,
When sensuous poets in their pride invent
Emblems for the soul’s consent
That speak the meanings men will never know
But man-imagined images can show:
It perishes when those images, though seen,
No longer mean.
The biggest change I noticed since my last trip to Rome 15 years ago is the considerable military presence at all the airports, train stations and tourist attractions. Everywhere there are soldiers carrying automatic weapons, and I saw several military armored vehicles, and one tank. We saw them in Rome, Paris, London, at churches, everywhere, usually in groups of 3-5.
Europe may be "welcoming" floods of Middle Eastern refugees and morphing into 'Eurostan' in certain areas, like parts of Sicily, where street signs look like areas of Dearborn, Michigan, if not Lebanon or Yemen; but Europeans are also being extra careful to guard and preserve their tourist revenue. As Tom told us in Rome, Italy is now a third-world country on life support from the tourism industry pretending to be a first world country. So one learns to live with the constant presence of heavily armed soldiers in Rome, Venice, Marseille, Paris, and London.
One passes freely from one member country of the European Union into another. But when one reaches the frontier between and EU country and a non-EU country (like the border between Switzerland and France, or France and the UK), the transition is time-consuming and frustrating, with all the invasive procedures one expects in a TSA line at an international airport. This was true, for example, before boarding the London-bound Eurostar at Gare du Nord station in Paris; before boarding our train in Geneva for Marseille, France; and at the frontier between Italy and Switzerland, where soldiers armed with automatic weapons came through our train cars looking for undocumented stowaways.
Remember how Hilaire Belloc once declared that "Europe is The Faith and The Faith is Europe"? The monuments to that equation remain in evidence -- much as the old train station and skyscrapers in Detroit, such as the art deco Guardian Building -- remain monuments to a civilization past. Remember how Detroit used to be called the 'Paris of the Midwest'?! A good analogy. But there is little that remains of 'The Faith' in Europe except in enclaves of traditional-minded Catholics, just as there remains little of the 'Paris of the Midwest' outside of several enclaves like the Detroit Symphony Orchestra or the Detroit Institute of Art, which struggle to hold their own.
The itinerary that Robert prepared for us was nevertheless full of many delights. Here is a picture of us with one of Robert's friends from Nigeria, Eustace, studying in Rome. We are standing behind a bust of St. Ignatius of Loyola in the Saint's private rooms in Rome where, among other things, one can visit and pray in the bedroom in which he departed this life. We gained access to Ignatius' private rooms through the courtesy of Hrvoje Juko, a friend of Robert's who is a Croatian Jesuit seminarian who spoke such perfect American English (though he'd never been to the U.S.), he sounded like he had an midwestern accent. We also spent one whole day seeing the major basilicas of Rome. Having already visited St. Peter's after the Scavi tour, we took public transportation to St. Paul Outside the Wall, which is as impressive inside as it is outside. There is so much more than can be told about each of these, but the images of all the Popes lining the walls was as striking as the hideous modern image of Jesus above the nave before the transept. We also visited the Basilica of Basilica of St. Cecilia in Trastevere, which houses a statue of the martyred saint beneath the high altar, of which there are identical replicas in the Catacomb of St. Callixtus and in the Brompton Oratory in London. Unfortunately, St. Cecilia's was inaccessible to us because of a wedding being conducted that day. But we were able to get inside the Basilica of Santa Maria also in Trastevere, one of the oldest churches in Rome with a history running back to the third century, which is remarkable for its many historical and aesthetic assets. We also took in St. John Lateran, remarkable for its dramatic statues of the apostles, and for the relics St. Peter and St. Paul, whose skulls are housed beneath the high altar. We also visited the Colosseum and paid extra to bypass the interminably long lines. At the conclusion of the tour, those of us in our party found a spot overlooking the entire interior and said a prayer for the souls of the many Christians martyred there whose last view of this world was what we were seeing with our own eyes, only filled with roaring crowds of spectators, not tourists.
From Rome we traveled all the way to Scotland by train. We arrived in Venice around 1:30pm on July 3rd. "Ah, Venice!" There is little that is so pleasant as a gentle breeze off the canals late in the afternoon as one sits in the sun watching the gondoliers in their slow progress up the canals with their cargo of languorous passengers. Our most luxurious hotel was in Venice. Everything seems to have been upgraded for the sake of ever-present tourists. In fact, we heard so many different languages spoken and encountered such crowds of visitors that we wondered whether more than a handful of native Venetians were to be found. Indeed, all of the major tourist sites in Europe and the UK seem to have been transformed into Disneyland versions of themselves to the point that one must ask whether a Rome is more than a Catholic Disneyland, or a Venice more than a Disneyland for tourists from Germany, Korea, China, and the United States. (I received two comments on my 'Big D' Detroit hat, both in Venice. One man passing in a crowd said: "Hey, I'm from West Bloomfield!" Another said "Go Tigers!")
We saw only a few Middle Easterners at any of these sites, women in hijabs. Virtually no Japanese. Perhaps they knew that Europe would be filled with crowds of Chinese and Koreans.
From Venice, Robert Peters left us to return to Rome for about a week, while we took the train northward into Switzerland. (Robert would join us again later once we reached London.) The Blosser ancestral home is in the central Emmental valley of Switzerland in the Canton of Bern. We spent a night in Langnau where the Swiss-German spelling of 'Blaser' was not uncommon. The next morning I hiked up into the hills on the north-east side of Langnau and was taken by vistas that reminded me of the Shire in Peter Jackson's cinametic version of Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. On the way down, I noticed a figure approaching me from a great distance. As the distance closed between us, I saw that it was someone jogging. As we got closer, I saw that it was a white-haired woman, perhaps in her early seventies, jogging at an impressive pace up the hill that had winded me just by walking. Must be something in that clean Swiss air or that Emmental cheese!
Our next stop was Huémoz sur Ollon in the Canton of Vaud, site of the L'Abri study center well-known to most Evangelicals. My colleague, Ed Echeverria, spent a year there in the early 1970s, just as I did. We missed each other by a year, as I recall. It was a sort of counter-cultural 'Mecca' for evangelical Christians in the 1970s looking for answers to their intellectual questions, a center that began originally in the home of Francis and Edith Schaeffer. Students flocked to L'Abri from all over the world, from the United States, and from many of the major universities of Europe. The leadership of L'Abri did not suffer idle chatter lightly in those days.
I remember a TIME magazine correspondent visiting L'Abri in 1972. He was invited for dinner to the chalet where I was living in Chesieres. Fourteen of us students were lodging there, as was the custom in the chalets owned by L'Abri. This one was presided over by a former German lawyer, named Udo Middelmann, now married to Debbie, the Schaeffer's youngest daughter. They lived in the chalet together with their four daughters, and were hosts to us fourteen students, and, on this night, to our American visitor, the TIME correspondent. There were fresh flowers and lit candles on the table, which was typical. We all stat down to dinner at two long tables, the TIME corresponded seated beside Udo at the head of one table. Immediately after Udo finished saying grace, he turned to the TIME correspondent and asked him, "So, what do you believe?" And we were off and running. No time wasted on chitchat. This was serious business, conversation about eternal verities. Dinner could last two or three hours, with three or more courses of food served and conversation running deep. I quickly outgrew my annoyance and feeling that such dinners were 'a waste of time,' as I grew to appreciate that these sorts of conversations were much closer to being what life was 'about' than anything I might conjure up to while away my own time. Francis Schaeffer led us to reflect systematically on our faith in a basic, intellectual way, that helped to clarify the important questions about life, as well as the answers to them. Two things became clear to me at L'Abri in those early years: (1) the reality of the supernatural and miraculous; and (2) the reality of life as a spiritual battle.
On this trip we had the pleasure of renewing our acquaintance with our good friend, John Sandri, although his wife, dear Priscilla, was unable to spend much time with us due to memory loss issues. Yet it was heartening to see them both again.
What was less heartening was our visit to Farel House, the study center with its library, which used to double as a chapel on Sundays (Here is a picture of the upper level with a few students gathering for a lecture). The books are all still there. In fact, the collection has been enlarged. But by many of the wrong sorts of books. One must know his enemies, of course; so that is no indictment in itself. But what was that smell as we descended to the lower level? The sharp order that forcibly stuck us as we reached the landing was the smell of urine. Don't they clean the toilets down here anymore? How could the whole library be allowed to be enveloped in such a rancid odor? I hoped that this, too, did not betoken anything more troubling than a bit of neglected plumbing or cleaning. But one wonders what happens to an institution such as L'Abri when its founders, Francis and Edith Schaeffer have passed from the scene and their oldest daughter is suffering dementia. Sad. What do they teach here nowadays, I wondered.
Our group was assigned to the ground floor of Chalet Les Melezes in Huemoz. There is no photograph that can do justice to the panoramic view of the alps from the front door of Chalet Les Melezes. In one direction, one sees the Les Dents du Midi, which I remember climbing with a friend in 1973. One looks down and across the Rhone Valley where Hannibal marched his army and their elephants on the way to Rome, and the overwhelming massiveness of the mountain range jutting up above them on the other side. We walked up to the winter ski resort of Villars for dinner, a mile or more that seemed like ten because of the unaccustomed climb. The views from Huémoz and Villars are simply breathtaking. In fact, I'm not sure there is a more impressive vista of the Alps in all of Switzerland. Certainly there are higher mountains, but none with a view quite so overwhelming and awe-inspiring. As someone in our group said, it would be difficult not to believe in God here. Before crossing the bridge into Villars, we walked through Chesieres, where I had lived in 1972-73. The Hotel Les Bruyères, in whose restaurant I had worked as an apprentice cook back then, had been turned into modern chalets with multiple apartments.
The next day, July 7th, we took the bus down the mountain to Aigle (a station on the rail line from Paris to Istanbul made famous by Agatha Christie's novel, Murder on the Orient Express), caught a train to the beautiful resort town of Montreux. Situated on the northeast corner of Lake Geneva, or Lac Léman, Montreux is famous for its international jazz festival every July, its ornate hotels and quai along the waterfront. We breakfasted at a cafe with some outside tables and then took the ferry from Montreux to Chateau de Chillon. The ferries all bear the French flag on the bow and a Swiss flag on the Stern, because they service not only Swiss ports on the north side of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), but also the French side on the south side of the lake.
Another view of the Les Dents du Midi mountain range that is no less beautiful is from the Chateau de Chillon just east of the resort city of Montreux on Lac Léman. The Chateau, also called "Byron's Castle" because of a poem Byron wrote about the "Prisoner of Chillon," leaving his own signature among the graffiti carved into the pillars in the dungeon where the subject of his poem was imprisoned. When I lived in Switzerland, we used to go down to Chillon, taking with us a baguette, a block of local cheese, and bottle of good red wine. We would pass lazy afternoons along the banks of the lake near the walls of the Chateau.
One thing I learned from Theresa on this trip to Chillon was that Pope Felix V, before his election to the papacy, lived at Chillon and did much to restore the chateau. There is still a chapel in it, though the Catholic elements -- altar, crucifix, tabernacle, etc. -- have all been removed, doubtless a result of the Calvinist Reformation in the Canton of Vaud.
Seeing this lake again, amidst these mountains, reminded me of four happy weeks I spent in 1972 in the village of Thollon-les-Mémises, up in the mountains on the French side of Lac Léman (not to be confused with Thonon-les-Bains, the popular site of the hot spring baths down along the southern shore of the lake, just west of Evian). Looking northward and away from the mountains of the nearby ski resort offers a beautiful panorama of Lac Léman and of Montreux across the lake from a height that gives the village its nickname of the "Balcony of Léman" (Balcon du Léman). L'Abri Fellowship Foundation was endeavoring to start a French branch there. As October progressed into November, one could track the transition of the seasons down the sides of the mountains. In the spring, the valleys would already have blooming flowers while the mountains remain shrouded in drifts of white snow.
That evening we hopped a train to nearby Lausanne, about half-hour west along the lake, where we stayed that night; and the next morning we caught an early train to Geneva, where, because we were crossing the frontier into France, we were forced to wait in such a horribly long line with our passports, that we thought we'd never catch our train to Lyon, where we had reservations on the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, "high-speed train") to Marseille, along the Mediterranean coast in the south of France.
Marseille, France, is perhaps the French counterpart to Naples, Italy. It has a reputation for being a bit of a rough and tumble harbor town. There have also always been a large number of Middle Eastern residents in Marseille, well before the more recent threat of Islamist terrorism. There is much in Marseille to interest sea-food lovers, like bouillabaisse; and Catholics, like the Abbey of Saint-Victor de Marseille, with its catacombs dating back to the fifth century with tombs of martyrs, or Notre-Dame de la Garde with its impressive view overlooking the harbor, with the island of Château d'If in the background; or literary romantics, like Château d'If itself, the fortress and prison island which Alexander Dumas featured in his The Count of Monte Cristo.
We stayed with good friends, Hugh and Martine Wessel. Hugh is a former New York City taxi driver (consequently an excellent driver) who became a Christian convert at L'Abri when I was there in the early seventies, and who spent the balance of his career as a Presbyterian missionary to lapsed Catholics in France! We both attended Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia together in the late 1970s. Thus he did not suffer my defection from our shared Protestant backround lightly and enjoyed needling us with boiler plate anti-Catholic quips and questions. He was nevertheless a most hospitable host, together with his gracious and kindly Parisian wife, who fixed us several delectable French dinners, served together with good French wines, while he offered detailed instructions on how to drink wines and proper French table manners. For example, we were told that it is proper to place our pieces of bread (always a baguette) on the table cloth next to our plates, not on the plates themselves. Similarly, one tears off no more than a bit-sized piece of bread to eat and does not pick up the whole slice and bite off a piece to eat. Interesting.
We also enjoyed an afternoon in Aix-en-Provence, a university town famous for its good light among artists like the post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne. Hugh drove us there and gave us an excellent guided tour, highlighting places where French Protestant Huguenots had been persecuted by ruthless Papists. Of course, I had to remind him that there was plenty of sin to go around, noting the history of persecution of Catholics in France, Spain, England, etc. I wish inter-faith discussions could always be as interesting as conversations with Hugh. His wife, the true saint in the family, would inevitably intervene when Hugh became too excited and call us back to the reality of a table laden with good food. Hugh was good enough to accompany us to Mass on Sunday so that we could find our way there, and he waited at the back of the church until our liturgy was concluded.
After several days in Marseille, we left on Monday, July 10th, for Paris, only three hours by TVG from Marseille.
Paris.... Ah, Paris. How far you have fallen! And yet still beautiful! There is still plenty to delight the Catholic soul there who is willing to risk the postmodern crowds and face the ubiquitous clusters of military personnel armed with automatic weapons. The first site we visited was Sacre Coeur, the magnificent basilica dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a monument to French national penance following the defeat in the Franco-Prussion War and the socialist Paris Commune of 1871. Located at the summit of the butte Montmartre, the highest point in the city, from which it offers a grand view. The church is famous for its perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, which has continued without interruption in the basilica since 1885. Those willing to take a turn at nocturnal adoration are invited to make arrangements at the nearby convent for free board and lodging, an idea for Catholic adventurers on a budget travelling to Paris.
No visit to Paris is complete without the obligatory visit to the Eiffel Tower, and, Notre Dame, with her flying buttresses and grand side chapels. We also toured the Sainte-Chapelle within the medieval Palais de la Cité, the residence of the Kings of France until the 14th century, on the Île de la Cité, which it shares with Notre Dame in the heart of Paris. But one first-time experience for me, and one that brought all of us great pleasure, was our visit to the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal at 140 Rue du Bac, the site where our Lady appeared to St. Catherine Labouré in 1830 and requested the creation of the well-known medal with the words: "Ô Marie, conçue sans péché, priez pour nous qui avons recours à vous!" The incorrupt body of St. Catherine is housed in a glass case beneath a side altar in the chapel.
After two nights in Paris, on the morning of July 12th, we took the Eurostar from Gare du Nord station in Paris to Saint Pancras Station, in London, probably one of the most ornate stations in the whole world, which houses a hotel. One gains an hour traveling from Paris to London, which leaves ample time to do some sightseeing before worrying about dinner. We took our bags directly to our hotel just west of South Kensington and then went to visit Brompton Oratory, which is always a delight. The interior is still a pleasant surprise even after many previous visits. It is simply beautiful. And for me there is always a bit of the spirit of Cardinal Newman about the place even though he spent most of his latter years at the Birmingham Oratory, as well as the spirit of Father Federick William Faber, the convert from Anglicanism and writer of the hymn Faith of our Fathers, who served as provost of the Brompton Oratory throughout his lifetime. There is also the aforementioned reclining statue of the martyred St. Cecelia there (making the sign for One God and the Blessed Trinity with her fingers), two replicas of which are found in Rome (in St. Cecelia's in Trastevere, and the St. Callixtus Catacombs). The Oratory is also famous for its liturgical music program and has produced a number of audio CDs of their four remarkable choirs. (Here's a little something from their Schola Cantorum Boys Choir.)
From the Brompton Oratory, we took the underground, or subway, to Piccadilly Circus, from which we walked to Trafalgar Square. But unfortunately, there was some sort of exhibition of racing cars being prepared and the place was filled with crowds as well as security check points everywhere. The event extended down Whitehall all the way to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, but the walk gave us a good view of that part of historic London nevertheless. We proceeded on to Westminster Abbey, which charged us each a very high entrance fee of GBP 20 (funny in the U.K. the museums are free, but you have to pay to enter churches -- which reminds me of this).
Robert's father tells the story about how he got in to the normally-off-limits Shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, his patron saint, in Westminster Abbey. He told one of the vergers that he was named 'Edward' after 'the king,' and the verger replied that it would simply be wrong for him not to be able to visit the shrine. So arrangements were made, and he was allowed in to make his private prayers before the tomb of St. Edward. What Robert hadn't yet told his father, apparently, was that he himself had used a similar ploy to get into the Shrine, by appealing to the fact that his father was named 'Edward.' Like father, like son!
From Westminster Abbey, we made our way to the Catholic Westminster Cathedral near Victoria Station in time for a 5:30pm Mass, which was in the ordinary form but beautiful nonetheless. The Neo-Byzantine cathedral is relatively beautiful on the inside, and as long as you do not look up you will not notice that the mosaics remain unfinished on the ceiling -- a testament not only to their great expense but to the financial pinch apparently felt by the Catholic Archdiocese of London.
We finished the evening with dinner at the Shirlock Holmes Pub near Charing Cross. The pub has a second floor dining room with an adjacent museum room decked out with Sherlock Holmes memorabilia. The dining experience in the UK seems to have unaccountably improved, and the fare at the pub was no exception. My only complaint is that they no serve their delectable Spotted Dick ...
On Thursday, July 13th, our second day in London, we toured the British Museum in Bloomsbury (free) and the British Library adjacent to Saint Pancras (free). Both were overwhelming in the quantity and quality of what they had to offer, and of course one would require a lifetime to exhaust their collections. But seeing the Rosetta Stone again, along with all the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman statuary in the British Museum was truly exciting, just as seeing all the ancient manuscripts of the Bible and other books in the British Library was.
In the early afternoon we headed to Kings Cross Station, a short walk away, where we had agreed to meet Robert, who flew in from Rome earlier that day. We snacked on sushi and a Napoleon pastry (the best pastries seem to all be named after imperialists) until we met up with him, then we headed north on the fast train for Grantham in Lincolnshire. The Grantham City Hall has a statue out front that offers a clue to one of its claims to fame: the statue of Sir Isaac Newton, whose hometown this was. The other is a plaque on this building, telling us that it was the birthplace Maggie Thatcher, the first woman prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. When we arrived in Grantham, we caught a cab to our hotel, dropped off our luggage, then took another cab to Harlaxton College, about five miles away, where I had taught for two years (1999 and 2003). What is particularly remarkable about the college, besides its serving as a central location from which to visit all of Europe, is that it is housed in what amounts to a castle, or, more accurately, a huge manor house with over 100 rooms. Here is a picture from beyond the Gatehouse with the walled garden off camera to the left. My room was on the second floor, second set of windows left-of-center in a shadow in this picture. It had its own fireplace, its own chandelier, and maid service. Quite a life. When we were there in 2003, before Hannah was born, her mother and I led an instructional class in ballroom dancing for a group of Harlaxton students in the Great Hall. Those were back in the days when I still remembered how to Tango, probably my favorite dance (here's an example from Carlos Saura's 1998 movie, Tango). Of course, Hannah loved seeing all these places and walking the grounds with Theresa and her brother Rob and me. The steps leading up to the Italian garden, the tree-lined walk way leading up to the Dutch ornamental canal, were all more beautiful than I remembered them. Some good work obviously has been done for the upkeep and repair of these grounds.
As a side note, when we first pulled into Harlaxton Manor, the security guard at the reception desk told us that he had nothing on his schedule about our visit. I had corresponded some months earlier with the Summer Programs and Events Manager, Simon Hawkes, about visiting the Manor, but our scheduled itinerary didn't allow for visiting the Manor when it was not in use by large summer program. I told the security guard of my correspondence with Mr. Hawkes, whose name I could not then remember, and of my acquaintance with previous presidents of the college, Robert Stepsis (who was president when my son Christopher studied there) and Gordon Kingsley, and many others on the faculty. Finally, a man standing nearby spoke up and volunteered to give us a quick tour. It was hardly a "quick tour." I would call it, instead, the "Full Monty." He took us through all the great rooms of the Manor, starting with the grand entrance, pointing out secret passageways along the way, and proceeding the the great staircase, through the lavish bridal suite, and finally through the aforementioned Great Hall (here set up for a wedding). But he went even further and took us out to the grounds and turned us loose to explore them on our own. In response to my asking his name, he would only tell me he was 'Simon,' and it wasn't until we were back in Detroit that I put two-and-two together and realized this was the Simon Hawkes with whom I had corresponded. Thank you, Simon Hawkes!
At this point it was getting on well past dinner time. Our options were to catch a cab back into Grantham for dinner or to walk the mile from Harlaxton Manor to the main road where there was a pub named after Gregory Gregory, the original owner of Harlaxton Manor, named the Gregory Arms. The consensus of our group was that the fare served up at the Gregory Arms was the very best of our entire grand tour of Europe and the UK, surpassing even the delectable dinners we had enjoyed in Rome, Venice, and France. (Here is a picture of the four of us in front of Harlaxton Manor before heading to the Gregory Arms.)
The three taxis we took in the Grantham area were operated by the same the same family, and our two drivers were son-in-law and father-in-law, respectively, both chatty and friendly. The father-in-law, when picking us up at our hotel made a U-turn at one point and found himself stuck behind a car with a timid driver who couldn't seem to get moving. "Haven't-got-a-clue-dot-com," he muttered in frustration -- a phrase each of us has found ourselves repeating endlessly since.
From Grantham we caught a morning train to Glasgow with a change in Leeds. In Glasgow we took some time to walk the city, going down to the Neo-Gothic Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral, St. Andrew's, on Clyde Street fronting River Clyde. Then returning to Queen Street Station in time to catch the train for Oban, which took us up through the magnificent western highlands.
Oban, situated on a little horseshoe-shaped bay in the Argyll and Bute region of Scotland, is, despite its small size, the largest town between Helensburgh and Fort William. Just outside of Oban stands Dunollie Castle, on a site overlooking the main entrance to the bay. After arriving at our hotel, the Kelvin, just a stone's throw from the train station, ferry terminal, and eastern edge of town, we explored Oban, finally settling in at the Cuan Mor restaurant for a good dinner.
The next morning we were up early to catch an early ferry from Oban to Craignure, on the Isle of Mull. From Craignure we caught a 1.5 hour bus ride across Mull to Fionnphort, passing through green highlands that were partially obscured by clouds and rain and along beautiful solitary bays. In Fionnphort, we caught yet another ferry, a small one, cross the straits to the Isle of Iona, our destination for the day.
The isle of Iona, in the Inner Hebrides in western part of Scotland, is where St. Columba and twelve companions brought the light of Christ from Ireland in AD 563. There he built an monastery, the base from which he undertook his evengelistic work among the Scots and Picts. The Book of Kells is believe to have been produced by the monks there sometime before AD 800, but due to frequent Viking raids (during the 806 attack, 68 monks were massacred), the Columban monks relocated in the Columban Abbey of Kells in Ireland, and others fled to Belgium, France, and Switzerland. In 1203 the Benedictine order established a new Monastery, and an Augustinian Nunnery, on the Columban Monastery's foundation. The 13th century Abbey has been beautifully restored today, but all that is left of the Augustinian convent is a forlorn ruin, though even this may have its own kind of beauty. As many as 48 early Scottish kings, as well as kings from Ireland, Norway and France, are said to be buried in the Abbey graveyard. St. Columba himself died on Iona and was buried in 597 by his monks in the abbey he created, by after the Vikings descended on Iona, his relics were finally removed in 849 and divided between Scotland and Ireland.
After touring the Abbey, we walked through the cemetery and sought shelter from the drenching rain inside the cemetery chapel. There a couple of us struck up the Salve Regina, singing it through in Latin, whereupon some Scottish visitors walked in. Hearing us, they waited until we were finished singing, then a gentleman asked in a thick Scottish brogue, "Are you believers, then?" rolling the letter 'r' and inflecting the word 'believers.' Assuring him that yes, we were very much 'believers,' we had a nice chat. Then proceeded our separate ways.
After walking about in the soaking rain and cold for a couple of hours, in and out of buildings, we finally found lunch -- one that later was recalled with much pleasure for its great relief, at a hotel restaurant where some of us had a hearty lentil soup, others had sandwiches, and several of us sampled a couple of the regional whiskeys, including Laphraoig, from the next island south of us (Islay, pronounced 'EYE-lah'). Nothing so warms the body right down to the toes. Before catching the ferry back to Fionnphort on Mull, we helped Hannah find a warm jersey to keep warm. What a contrast from the infernal heat of Malta!
After re-crossing Mull by bus, and taking the second ferry back to Oban, we dashed to St. Columba's Cathedral down the street to catch the vigil Mass, since the Sunday morning Mass wouldn't end in time to catch the train to Glasgow. The interior of the Neo-Gothic cathedral is quite plain, though impressive. But what most struck us was the Scottish brogue of the priest and the antiphonal responses made by the congregation. "The Lord be with you" became "The LARD be with you," for instance, which made it quite difficult to maintain our composure. If "Lord" comes out as "Lard," one wonders how the word "lard" would come out sounding.
Sunday morning I woke up early and climbed a hill behind our hotel (the trail leading to the summit was marked something like "preacher's peak" or "parson's peak"). The view from the top was beautiful so early in the morning. Since we had a couple of free hours Sunday morning, we discovered that we could get in at the Oban Distillery for a whiskey tour. A small distillery, Oban whiskeys are nevertheless prepared and aged with painstaking attention to detail, in contrast to larger distilleries that produce much greater volume. The promotions describe it as "balancing autumn fruits and sea air" and owing "its rich and rewarding Highland character to its very long fermentation process." The tiny copper stills are among the smallest in Scotland, and liquor they distill is slowly condensed in wooden tubs outside among the rooftops, "exposed to the salted sea air, bringing a distinct depth of flavour said to go very well with salted caramel." The whiskey is the aged in casks of oak purchased from Kentucky in the United States, a nice touch. Not as peaty as the Islay Malts, Oban is nevertheless as heady blend of flavors and scents, with hints of peat, salt, a citrus, that surely warrant its high-end price on the market.
We spent all of Sunday afternoon aboard trains returning from Oban to London. We spent our last night in London in a hotel in the vicinity of South Kensington. Early the next morning, Robert and Theresa headed to the airport for their return flight to Detroit, and Hannah and I headed to the Warner Brothers Studio in Leavesden, outside of London, for the tour of the sets used in the filming of the Harry Potter movies. While I wasn't personally expecting much, I was eager to see what some friends, Diane and Alex Begin, though was so amazing about this site. I was actually, as they say, 'blown away'! It was indeed amazing. It's too bad we forgot to bring a camera and had no means of taking photos; but here are a few pictures to give you an idea of what it feels like to walk right into a Harry Potter set! The Great Hall ... Dumbledore's Office ... The Hogwart's Express locomotive ... They even had a setup where you could have yourself videoed riding a broom stick, with a moving background that could have you imagining you were playing Quidditch with Harry and friends. What fun.
After yet another evening at the Shirlock Holmes Pub (eat your heart out, Robert and Theresa!), Hannah and I spent our last night in London and headed home the next day where we were picked up after going through customs by the ever-generous Prof. Ed Peters. Whatever pleasures one may enjoy across the Atlantic, there is finally nothing quite so pleasant as coming home again. Deo gratias.