Monday, October 28, 2013

WANDERING THROUGH SICILY, Part I, Guest Post by Gretchen Woelfle

Mosaics, Cathedral Monreale
My friend Gretchen Woelfle recently went to Sicily and sent me this report.  Gretchen is a fellow children’s book author whose recent books include Write On, Mercy! The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren and  All the World's a Stage, A Novel in Five Acts.  Find out more at .
I’m just back from two weeks in Sicily, traveling with a fellow hiker and art lover. It’s a land of lovely landscapes, great food and friendly people, though for me, half the pleasure was the chance to hear the Italian language in all its mellifluous splendor, and to watch the body language that accompanies it.  Men and women are equally adept at choreographing their conversations, and some actually seem incapable of speaking a word without moving hands and arms.

Gretchen in Palermo Alley
Apart from people-watching and listening, there’s so much to do on this island that’s been colonized for millennia by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, French – and by the Italians, whom Sicilians may consider ‘foreigners.’  (Sicily has its own Regional Parliament and a certain amount of autonomy from the government in Rome.) 

Cathedral Viewed from Cloister
Architecture and artwork reflect this cultural mélange and we visited minimalist Arab-Norman churches filled with stunning Byzantine mosaics.  Standouts include the Capella Palatina inside the Norman Palace (Palermo), Monreale Cathedral (near Palermo), and Cefalù Cathedral.

If Baroque is your thing, Sicily is full of it.  A devastating earthquake in 1693 meant that whole towns and cities were rebuilt in the current fashion.  We visited Noto to see some of its most lavish manifestations, and the Val di Noto in the southeast (Ragusa, Modia and more) is similarly blessed (or cursed, depending on your taste.) 

Ceramic steps, Caltagirone
For one week, I arranged a home exchange in Caltagirone, a shabby-chic (my favorite kind) Baroque town that’s also a World Heritage site for a ceramics tradition, still alive and well.  A ceramic-tiled 142-step staircase illustrates their 900-year-old history of the art. The town is crammed with shops selling the latest versions of traditional designs.

Ruins, Agrigento
From Caltagirone we were well-placed for day trips to Greek and Roman archaeological sites, another lure to Sicily.  The Greek amphitheater at Taormina – renovated by the conquering Roman – gives stunning views of both the Mediterranean and Mount Etna.  The Valley of the Temples at Agrigento, near the south coast, is perhaps the most impressive site with three large temples built on a ridge overlooking the sea, and several smaller ones in various states of disarray. A nearby museum displays room after room of artifacts from the ruins.
Greek Amphitheater, Siracusa
Siracusa has heaps of stone foundations from the largest Greek city in Sicily, with an enormous amphitheatre holding 15,000 people, where plays of Aeschylus and other Greek playwrights were premiered (and are still performed each summer.) Archimedes was a native of Siracusa, killed by invading Romans, and his alleged tomb is part of the complex. 

The quarries that provided the stones to build Siracusa are adjacent to the theatre and today are filled with a lush garden landscape.  Some of the quarried caves are accessible, including the “Ear of Dionysius” named by Caravaggio who discovered its fantastic acoustics.  Whether he was referring to the Greek god of wine or the tyrant who imprisoned his enemies there is not common knowledge.
Hunt Mosaic, Villa Romana del Casale
The Villa Romana del Casale, outside the town of Piazza Armerina, is a jewel of a site, only uncovered in the twentieth century. It’s a grand villa from the 4th century AD, and while the buildings are gone, the mosaic floors in dozens of rooms are pristine.  Abstract patterns, mythological subjects, marine scenes, and a 200 foot long Corridor of the Great Hunt are on display. The Great Hunt tells a wonderful story of hunters searching the entire Roman Empire, from Africa to India, to bring back exotic animals to Rome. But the most popular room may be the one uncovered in 1960, showing “Bikini Girls” engaged in various sporting activities. 

"Bikini Girls" Villa Romana del Casale
Next week, Part II:  Gretchen climbs volcanoes and braves the highways of Sicily!

Monday, October 21, 2013

THE WELSH EISTEDDFOD - A Tournament of the National Arts, from the Memoir of Carolyn T. Arnold

A misty morning in Wales. Photo by Carolyn T. Arnold
Think Edinburgh Fringe crossed with Glastonbury – and then think Wales – and you’ll be halfway to picturing the National Eisteddfod, the must-do event in the Welsh festival calendar. Here is a report by my husband’s Aunt Carolyn on the Eisteddfod, which she experienced at the end of her year as an exchange teacher in Wales in 1953.  She did not take any photos of the Eisteddfod.  You can see some images at:

The Welsh Eisteddfod, a kind of tournament of the national arts, is the highlight of the year in Wales.  The roots of this ceremony are derived from very ancient times when bards wandered from village to village and from chieftain to chieftain singing their songs and recounting their stories. It means “a sitting” or “session”. The first authentic Eisteddfod was held at Caerwys and Cardigan in 1176.  The prizes are two chairs or thrones–one for the best performer on the harp, and the other for the best poet.
Various local Eisteddfods are held during the year all over Wales.  Successful competitors attend the National Ceremony [held during the first week of August in a different place each year, usually alternating between north and south.]
The National Eisteddfod begins early in the day with the Ceremony of Gorsedd.  Officials place a circle of stones in a meadow with the entrance facing east.  In the center is the altar stone.  The “druids” are elderly or middle-aged men robed in white.  The druids, bards, and novates (women) form a procession and march into the center of the circle.  Between the ranks strides a man in green bearing a double-handed sword.  Behind him comes the chief Druid who takes his place at the high altar.  Others group around the circle.
The Great Sword is unsheathed and one by one the druids advance and place their hands on it.  The chief Druid lifts his voice and cries in Welsh, “Is there peace?” He calls three times and three times a resounding shout comes from the crowd, “THERE IS PEACE!”  The chief Druid then delivers a long speech in Welsh.  He is followed by other speakers.
The ceremony is over, and the Eisteddfod is opened.  Bands play and the air of festivity heightens.  Competition begins for the performers.  (The judges are out of sight to maintain their impartiality.) Children under the age of 18 compete in the penillion  This is a difficult art as the harpist plays the melody while the vocalist sings the accompaniment.  In other words, the technique of modern singing is reversed.  The children who use the counterpoint prove what an extraordinary part music plays in ordinary homes in Wales. [To hear a lovely example of penillion singing, click here ]
The competition goes on for several days.  In the evening, concerts attract large crowds which are not competitive.  Some say the Eisteddfod is the voice of Wales.
Wales.  Valle Cruces Abbey near Langollen. Photo by Carolyn T. Arnold
Note:  Perhaps the original intrepid tourist was Carolyn Arnold, my husband’s aunt.  A single school teacher in Des Moines, she began traveling abroad when she was in her forties, beginning with a bicycling trip through Ireland in 1950.  She went on from there to spend a year as a Fulbright Exchange Teacher in Wales, to more trips to Europe and beyond, and eventually became a tour leader, including all her nieces and nephews (including my husband Art) on her travels.  When she retired from teaching, she wrote of her experiences in a memoir called Up and Down and Around the World with Carrie.  Today, as I read of her travels, I marvel at her spirit of adventure at a time when women did not have the independence they do today.
Read more of Aunt Carolyn’s travels:
CYMRU AM BYTH - Welcome to Wales,
October 7, 2013

Monday, October 14, 2013

MONARCH BUTTERFLIES at the Ellwood Butterfly Grove, Goleta, CA

Monarch butterfly, Ellwood Butterfly Grove, Goleta, California
Among nature’s most incredible journeys is the annual migration of monarch butterflies.  After spending the summer fluttering and feeding in woods and fields in the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel south for the winter, flying up to 80 miles in a single day.  Monarchs east of the Rockies fly to the mountains of central Mexico. (See update below.)  Monarchs west of the Rockies make their way to California where they gather in eucalyptus groves along the coast.
On a recent sunny afternoon in early October, Art and I visited one of these butterfly groves near Santa Barbara, California--the Ellwood Grove and neighboring Coronado Grove in Goleta, not far from the University of California Santa Barbara campus. Tucked between a residential neighborhood and an open coastal mesa, giant eucalyptus trees grow along a seasonal creek. At the peak of the season, in December and January, more than 50,000 monarchs cluster in the trees in this grove.
We knew it was a bit early to see the giant clumps of butterflies hanging like bunches of orange and black living leaves, but already some of the monarchs had arrived for the winter.  As we walked the shady paths through the grove (which is protected as a nature preserve) a parade of butterflies flitted over our heads, their colorful wings catching the sunlight.  And then we came upon a bush where we found hundreds of butterflies perched like jewels as they fed on the flowers.  As we watched them up close, we could see their tiny legs and antennae and their coiled proboscises sucking up nectar. 
Monarchs have an amazing life cycle.  An adult monarch lays its eggs on milkweed leaves.  When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars eat the leaves. After a few weeks, when the caterpillars are about two inches long, they stop eating, attach themselves to a leaf, and form a beautiful light green chrysalis. Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar grows wings and metamorphosizes into a butterfly. After about two weeks, the butterfly emerges, gradually unfolding its wings. When they dry, the butterfly is ready to fly.  It will look for food, lay eggs, and the cycle of life will begin again.

When monarchs eat milkweed sap, a little bit of the poison in the sap becomes part of their bodies.  It helps protect them from birds and other predators. (Predators do not eat monarchs because they taste bad.)
Information sign at Coronado entrance to grove
Monarch butterflies have a life span of about a year.  Each butterfly makes the migration trip only once.  The amazing thing is that they know where to go even though they have never been there before. If we return again next year to see the butterflies, we will see the descendants of those that fluttered over our heads on this trip.

Coronado Butterfly Preserve:  Located adjacent to the Ellwood Grove.  Click HERE for more information:

Video: For a great video of the butterfly migration and information about other monarch groves in California click HERE.

Directions to the Ellwood Butterfly Grove and Coronado Butterfly Preserve: Click HERE for directions to the Coronado entrance to the Elwood Butterfly Grove and links to other hikes in the Santa Barbara area.

UPDATE February 23, 2014:
Monarchs, milkweed and the spirit of Rachel Carson. See this article in the Los Angeles Times about how pesticides are endangering the monarch butterflies.  Fewer butterflies have migrated to Mexico this year than ever before.,0,7973387.story#axzz2uBU4ETM3
Marker showing paths from the grove across the mesa to the beach in Santa Barbara

Monday, October 7, 2013

CYMRU AM BYTH - Welcome to Wales, from the Memoir of Carolyn T. Arnold

Wales, Looking toward Glyn Dror, near Mold
Perhaps the original intrepid tourist was Carolyn Arnold, my husband’s aunt.  A single school teacher in Des Moines, she began traveling abroad when she was in her forties, beginning with a bicycling trip through Ireland in 1950.  She went on from there to spend a year as a Fulbright Exchange Teacher in Wales, to more trips to Europe and beyond, and eventually became a tour leader, taking all her nieces and nephews (including my husband Art) on her travels.  When she retired from teaching, she wrote of her experiences in a memoir called Up and Down and Around the World with Carrie.  Today, as I read of her travels, I marvel at her spirit of adventure at a time when women did not have the independence they do today.  The piece below, from her book, describes her arrival in Wales in the summer of 1953.

The fourth of July 1953 was one of the most eventful days of my life.  I received a telegram announcing that I had been offered a Fulbright exchange scholarship to teach in Wales for a year.  I was ecstatic!
I sailed in August on the Queen Mary for London.  Then, after a week of traveling in England and Scotland with other exchange teachers, I set off for Wales.  I took the train from Chester.  We had not gone far when the train stopped with a jerk.  We sat there for 20 minutes.  Then, with more heaving, we slowly began to move again.  Later, I learned about that hill.  The trains seldom made it without stopping to get up more steam.  It is no wonder the English think of Wales as the “hinterlands.”
The country of Wales is slightly larger than the state of New Jersey.  Two-thirds is covered by the grassy slopes and rich valleys of the Cambrian mountains.  Protected by the barrier-like mountains, the Celts remained isolated in Wales, thus retaining their own language and culture.
The Welsh language is the oldest living language in Europe.  The remoteness of the country enabled the Welsh to retain their own language, even though it was officially banned by the English in 1530.  A national awakening since the late 1800's has put new life and demand for the Welsh language.  Today, most grammar schools require the study of Welsh.  In “my” school, one course was offered to non-Welsh speaking students, another for those who speak some Welsh at home, and a third for those who are proficient in the language.

St. Mary's Church, Mold
To an outsider, Welsh is entirely unpronounceable.  During my year’s stay, I was unable to make any progress in learning to speak the language except for names of places.  I learned that a “w” had an “oo” sound as in “moon”. A “y” sounds like a short “i”; a double “dd” is pronounced as “th”, and a single “d” sounds like our “d”; an “f” becomes a “v” sound, and “a” is usually short as in “ah”.  The double “ll”, so frequent in the language, is unpronounceable, correctly at least, by an English speaking person.  I was told to place my tongue behind my front teeth and breathe out.  Try that without blowing a bubble!  Someone said to imagine air leaking from a tire with a lisping sound, and you have it! “Llan” simply means “church”.
In addition, Welsh names are long, but each usually has a meaning.  I lived near Bryn Coch Lane, meaning Red Hill Lane.  The longest name of a town has 53 letters: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwrndrobwllantysiliogogoch!  The full name is seldom used except to confuse strangers. (The postal name is Llanfair P.G.)  The name means, I am told, “The church of St. Mary in a Wood of white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and near St. Tysillus’s cave close to a red cave.”  Many towns are called St. Mary’s so from time to time, other identifying phrases were added.
Entering Mold
My arrival in Mold, Wales, was inauspicious.  My friends at home laughed at the simple little name, but I was glad it was one I could pronounce.  The Welsh name for Mold is “Yr Wyddgrug”, but the simple one is commonly used.