Laurel’s Compass Travel Blog

A travel writer’s guide to adventures of sustainability and spirit

Descent into Dachau: Why I Visited a Concentration Camp

On April 29, 1945, American troops liberated the survivors of Dachau concentration camp in Nazi Germany. This anniversary is much on my mind lately because one of the characters in my novel-in-progress is 18 years old when his unit discovers one of Dachau’s Kaufering subcamps, where emaciated prisoners lived underground.

Entering the gate into the historic site of the WWII-era Dachau Concentration Camp. The words “Arbeit Macht Frei” are ironic. They translate to “Work will make you free.” ©Laurel Kallenbach

I’ve studied and written about the Holocaust since I was young, but I didn’t visit a Nazi concentration camp until a trip to Germany in 2017. I was spending several days in the beautiful city of Munich, where I was enjoying the food, the opera, and museums. There were so many enjoyable options in the city—and then there was Dachau, the original prison camp/concentration camp that Hitler opened in 1933 to detain political prisoners.

Though it’s built 19 miles outside Munich near the village of Dachau, this hellish camp casts a long shadow. It was the dark side of Munich, a city best known for its jubilant Oktoberfest celebration, overflowing with Bavarian beer, pretzels, and sausages.

I see-sawed: Yes, I would go to Dachau. But no—why drag myself into the horrors of history when I could enjoy far more lighthearted pastimes in Munich?

A guard tower and barbed wire at Dachau Memorial Site. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Gates of Dachau

Ultimately, I took the S-2 train from Munich and caught a bus to the Dachau Memorial Site. I have never regretted it. Admission is free, although there was a charge for the guided tour in English.

First I watched a film that covered some of the history of Nazi Germany, including the intense nationalism and anti-Semitism whipped up by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. It explained that the camp was for men only, and that at first most of those incarcerated there were political prisoners—anyone who opposed Hitler—including Catholic priests, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma (gypsies), and conscientious objectors. After Kristallnacht (a pogrom in 1938), more and more Jews were arrested and sent to Dachau, where they did slave labor, often working on armaments.

The tour in English, led by a wonderful interpreter named Rafaela, was so wonderful, especially since I was traveling alone. First, Rafaela emphasized that Dachau is now a memorial site where we come to honor those who suffered and died there. Like any sanctified place, there is no eating or smoking on the grounds, and appropriate attire and a quiet demeanor are requested.

The grounds of the enclosed camp are vast. They were once filled with barracks except for an open area where prisoners lined up for roll call twice a day. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Dachau served as a model for all later Nazi concentration camps. Essentially, it was a school of brutality and fanaticism for member of the SS who ran it. During its twelve years of existence, more than 200,000 men from all over Europe were imprisoned here and in its numerous subsidiary camps in the outlying area. Though Dachau was not a mechanized “death camp” like Auschwitz in Poland, 41,500 were murdered there.

Rafaela led us through the concentration camp’s notorious iron gate which says in German, Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work will make you free.”). Passing through that gate made me swallow hard, because the only “freedom” Dachau offered was death, and men were literally worked to death.

Survivors of Dachau called it “The lie on the gate.” The reality was that Dachau marked the beginning of genocide, planned by Nazi leaders and carried out on a massive, industrialized scale.

Survivors in Dachau packed into overcrowded sleeping quarters, where seven men had to share two small beds. The bunks were three-tiered, and anywhere from 350 to 800 men slept in a single room crowded with 120 beds. Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park

Inside the camp, we had a history lesson about how Germany went from being a democracy to a dictatorship in just months. As Hitler and the Nazi Party took power, the nation’s constitution was abolished. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to a fair trial were revoked. It reminded me that the freedoms afforded to us by democracy are not to be taken for granted or lost because of apathy.

History and the Politics of Hate

The grounds of the enclosed Dachau camp are vast. They were once filled with prisoner barracks (all destroyed except for historic recreations so that visitors can witness the cramped conditions), and an open area where the imprisoned men were lined up for roll call twice a day—morning and evening.

Large signs at Dachau show WWII-era photos. In this one, Dachau prisoners are lined up for roll call. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Rafaela described how roll call sometimes lasted for hours if the number of prisoners present didn’t match the number on the roster. Sometimes dead corpses had to be dragged out for the endless counts. If someone was missing, everyone stood motionless outside until the person was found. Sometimes roll call lasted all night, and people often died from exposure to the elements.

My tour group stood on the gravel-paved site of the roll calls. It was early February and semi-overcast with a slight breeze, and I was cold even though I was wearing a down parka, a wool hat, and gloves. I can’t imagine how the men felt with their bare heads shaved, wearing only thin shirts and trousers and clogs made of canvas. Survivors reported they got cramps in their toes from trying to keep the loose shoes on their feet while they were running.

The Dachau Museum included extensive information regarding the lives of the men imprisoned there, including everything from music in the camp (including choirs and an illegal orchestra) to medical experiments performed on live inmates. ©Laurel Kallenbach

We also toured the “bunker,” the euphemism for the prison, which also acted as the center for torture and detention. Our small group walked in silence down the Bunker corridor, and our shoes on the cement echoed, sounding like harsh SS jackboots in the hall of cruelty. We passed various types of cells, including hunger cells, total-darkness cells, and a vertical “coffin” cell too small to sit or lie down in. There were even cells for SS men who had discipline problems or were too lenient on the prisoners.

One of the more famous prisoners held in Dachau’s prison was Georg Elser, who tried to blow up Adolf Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels in 1939. He was kept alive so that Hitler could mock him after he won the war, but when it was apparent to the Germans that they were losing the war, he was executed in Dachau just 20 days before liberation.

The crematoria were built in summer of 1940, after prisoners from countries other than Germany were arriving at Dachau and the camp’s mortality rate increased. About 11,000 bodies were cremated here. ©Laurel Kallenbach

If Dachau’s prison and the torture center (in the large and gripping museum) weren’t enough to sober me up, Rafaela led the group to the area where we saw the camp’s crematoria—so familiar looking if you’ve seen any Holocaust-era photographs or documentaries. They epitomize the evil of extermination camps—which Dachau was not—although with our guide’s help, I realized that any concentration camp has massive fatalities due to starvation, overwork, murder, and rampant dysentery and disease.

Next, I was shocked to learn that Dachau had a gas chamber. Rafaela did not lead the group into the building with the gas chamber, but she gave us what little information there is about it while we stood outside. The gas chamber is disguised to look like a shower room and some accounts claim that it was never used to kill anyone, just that it was for training SS officers who would later be posted to extermination camps in the East. Other scholars think the gas chamber was used just once; still others say two or three times. Regardless, not viewing the gas chamber is always an option. Indeed, only a handful of people on our tour, including me, walked into this ultimate tool of evil. It was sterile, and did appear like a shower room. There were holes in the ceiling, where there once were mock showerheads—but instead of water they flowed with prussic acid poison gas, called Zyklon B.

The first memorial at Dachau was this sculpture, known as the “The Unknown Prisoner,” a bronze by Fritz Koelle. It was erected on April 29, 1950 (the fifth anniversary of the camp’s liberation) north of the old crematorium. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I did not take a photo of the gas chamber. I did not linger. Perhaps some people could feel the dead. I could not, though I could feel my own anger and fear at the disastrous consequences of state-sanctioned hatred, hyper-militarism, and racism.

During the Nazi regime, Dachau was termed a “protective custody” camp. Meaning, I suppose, that it protected those of the so-called “Aryan race” from those who believed in peace not war, from those who spoke out against tyranny, from homosexuals, from those of Jewish or Slavic or Roma or African cultures.

Why subject myself to the pain of witnessing the relics of inhumanity? When I was 16 years old, I wrote a lengthy research paper for my Honors English class about the literature of the Holocaust. I remember having a dream while I was writing it: an image of a single flower poking up its slim shoot from the trampled-down soil in a Nazi concentration camp. I knew the next morning that the title of my paper was meant to be “A Flower Grows in Auschwitz.”

The flower is a symbol of hope amidst hopelessness, of a sliver of love against an empire of hate. I’m not nearly so idealistic as I was at 16, but I do cling to the idea that nothing good comes from suppressing the vicious, ugly side of human nature. Yet, if we acknowledge that we have the capacity for extreme evil, we also possess the capacity of unshakeable love.

Near the crematoria, which is in the back of the Dachau site, are several churches where people of faith can seek solace. Our tour guide pointed out the Jewish Memorial, the Mortal Agony of Christ Chapel, the Protestant Church of Reconciliation, and the Russian Orthodox Chapel as places individuals could visit after the tour.

Next, our somber group ambled back toward the camp’s entrance to the  International Monument, the place where people have created art to express the lesson that something like this should never happen again. “Never again” is the reason we need to be vigilant about human rights abuses—large or small—around the world, including in US prisons and detention centers. None of these should be allowed to get even close to reaching the epic proportions of the Shoah.

Art and Remembrance

Except for the crematoria, most structures on the stark grounds of the former Dachau concentration camp appear fairly mundane at first glance. Birds swoop from the trees; cars drive by on roads at a distance. But Dachau’s artwork shatters any sense of normalcy. At the end of the tour, Rafaela led us to Dachau’s International Monument, a place of art, where people come to pray, meditate, and remember. “Never Again” is the place’s mantra.

The visceral bronze sculpture created by Holocaust survivor Nandor Glid ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Monument is dominated by a huge bronze sculpture of skeletons caught in barbed wire, designed in 1967 by Yugoslav artist Nandor Glid, a Holocaust survivor. Though a solemn quiet reigns over the Dachau Memorial Site, Glid’s sculpture screams of the horror of this place. Visceral, it’s impossible to deny, and it epitomizes the horror of this place.

I gulped back tears and walked from end to end of the massive sculpture. The closer you stand to it, the less you can see of anything but those skeletons looming against the sky. I zoomed in on smaller details of the memorial art through my camera lens: empty eye sockets, finger bones that look like barbed wire.

There’s also an art installation showing the various prisoner badges that imprisoned people were forced to wear. The triangular cloth insignias, worn on the shirt, labeled each man according to his so-called “crime.” (People could be arrested for something as minor as graffiti or saying something against the Nazi regime.)

In the Dachau Monument is a piece of art recalling the triangle badges that marked every prisoner after 1937. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Red was for political prisoners, yellow was for Jews. Blue marked immigrants and purple labeled pacifists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Black was the badge for “asocials” including Roma people (Gypsy), hobos, and prostitutes. Green marked “professional” criminals. Pink was worn by homosexuals. A dot below the triangle meant that the prisoner was to receive extra punishment in the form of hard labor.

Rafaela pointed out that the art installation does not depict the green, black, or pink triangles because the monument was created in 1968 by the International Prisoner Committee that represented former political prisoners. It honored only the categories of prisoners from “recognized” persecuted groups at the time, which were only those who were persecuted for political, racial, or religious reasons.

I also paused to contemplate at the “Never Again” memorial, where those words are carved in five different languages. Ashes taken from the Dachau crematorium on Liberation Day were ensconced in the memorial.

The “Never Again” memorial. Those words are carved in five different languages. Ashes taken from the Dachau crematorium on Liberation Day were ensconced in the memorial. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Liberation of Dachau

The first Nazi concentration camp was also one of the last that was liberated—on April 29, 1945. Nine days later, on May 8, 1945, Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally and the war in Europe was over.

According to Rafaela, when U.S. troops arrived in the area, the first thing they noticed was a putrid stench coming from a train full of dead bodies. Prisoners from other areas of Germany had been locked in the cars for 21 days without food or water. The Americans were also appalled by stacks of naked corpses, stripped because their clothes were needed for the constant influx of prisoners evacuated from other concentration camps. Enraged American soldiers executed several of the remaining SS guards, some of whom were 14 or 15 years old. By this stage of the war, the only German males left to conscript into the army were boys.

The soldiers brought civilians of the village of Dachau to the garish site. Rafaela told us of accounts that those villagers and families of the SS officers, who must have turned a blind eye. When they saw the emaciated corpses, they knew that their home town would forever be reviled for being a a place of evil.

Preparing for a Visit to Dachau

I doubt there is a way to prepare yourself for a descent into an emotional pit like Dachau, but I promised myself that I could leave at any time if I felt overcome by emotion. I was armed by general knowledge about the place, but even so, there were surprises—facts or emotional reactions I hadn’t anticipated.

A number of times while I was walking through the place, especially in the museum, I felt myself hiding behind the detached mask of intellectualism or behind the façade of “neutral” journalist. Somehow it was easier if I used “researching my novel” to shield me from emotional breakdown.

Dachau Concentration camp opened in 1933 and was liberated by American soldiers in 1945 ©Laurel Kallenbach

I believe it requires a detached mindset to visit Dachau, or any “dark tourism” site such as the 9/11 Memorial Site, Wounded Knee in South Dakota, the Manzanar War Relocation Center (California), or the Memorial for Peace & Justice and the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration (Montgomery, Alabama)

I do believe it’s important to pay attention to your body and emotions—and to know when enough is enough. Dachau will always carry the residue of horror and violence, of torture and sadism. Going there confronts us with emotions we prefer not to acknowledge in ourselves: revulsion, fascination, disbelief, hatred, fear of people who are “different.”

There’s also the danger of succumbing to much grief and sadness. The Visitor Center film pointed out that people survived because of “brotherly love.” Prisoners worked 14-hour days on a scant ration of thin soup. Under those conditions, it was hope that kept people alive.

It was those tales of humanity that were more emotional for me. I anticipated the inhumane treatment and the torture, but I wasn’t prepared for the acts of compassion. Reading about people who sacrificed themselves to save others opened the cracks in my emotional armor. Those stories were the things that made me cry.

But it’s also possible that stories of heroism and kindness can be overshadowed by the enormity of the cruelty and depravity in Dachau. The history of Nazi concentration camps is proof that humans have an unlimited capacity to inflict suffering. So, it’s important to be conscious of when you’ve had enough of visiting Dachau. Enough is truly enough. I see no virtue in enduring beyond what your own nervous system can cope with.

However, those who can bear to confront difficult emotions while standing in the exact location of hell on earth become witnesses for truth. We cannot hide from history—or from the fact that our species is capable of unspeakable evil—but we can walk into a place like Dachau knowing that there is some cupful of good, even in the midst of an ocean of evil.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Barbed wire at the Dachau Memorial ©Laurel Kallenbach

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A Museum of Her Own: Women Artists Shine in Washington D.C.

 If you’re visiting Washington, D.C. for the Women’s March—or for any other reason—be sure to leave time to bask in the vibrant National Museum of Women in the Arts, an entire building devoted to female-created paintings, sculpture, photography, book-art, multimedia art, and film through the centuries.

Closeup of Frida Kahlo's "Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky"

Closeup of Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky.” Read details below. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A few blocks off the National Mall, this art museum for women is a gem—and it doesn’t attract the huge crowds that the Smithsonian Museums do, which makes it pleasant—even so, I wish this museum were better known.

Every time I’m in Washington, I set aside time to visit and see some of my favorite permanent pieces as well as the unique temporary exhibitions.

I also support this museum by buying an annual membership, which gains me free access. The National Museum of Women in the Arts is, after all, the first museum in the world dedicated exclusively to recognizing the achievements of female artists.

With its many collections, special exhibitions, and educational programs, the National Museum of Women in the Arts advocates for better representation of women visual artists. It also addresses the gender imbalance in the presentation of art by bringing to light important women artists of the past—while simultaneously promoting the  talented women artists working today. NMWA’s collections feature more than 5,500 works from the 16th century to today created by more than a thousand artists. The collections encompass work in many mediums, featuring paintings by Lee Krasner, Berthe Morisot, Faith Ringgold, Amy Sherald, Alma Woodsey Thomas, Suzanne Valadon, and Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun. Also in the collection is sculpture by Magdalena Abakanowicz, Sarah Bernhardt, Chakaia Booker, Louise Bourgeois, Judy Chicago, Dorothy Dehner, Barbara Hepworth, and Louise Nevelson. In addition, there are works on paper,  photography, and video art.

Read on for some more highlights from one of my recent trips to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in our nation’s capital.

Judith Leyster (1609–1633) 

Yes, you read the dates correctly! Judith Leyster was a Dutch woman who lived before Vermeer and was a contemporary of Rembrandt. Leyster established her painting career independently and was the first woman admitted to Haarlem’s prestigious Guild of St. Luke.

"The Concert" by Judith Leyster, was painted circa 1633.

“The Concert” by Judith Leyster, was painted circa 1633. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Leyster was also the first woman to maintain a workshop with students and to actively sell art on the open market. In The Concert (pictured here), the sitter on the left has been identified as her husband, and the central figure may be the artist herself.

Frida Kahlo (1907–1954)

Like many Mexican artists working after the Revolutionary decade that began in 1910, Kahlo was influenced in her art and life by the nationalistic fervor known as Mexicanidad.

“Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky” by Frida Kahlo, 1937; oil on masonite in the National Museum of Women in the Arts

The artists involved in this movement rejected European influences and favored a return to the country’s native roots and folk traditions.Kahlo often wore the distinctive clothing of the Tehuantepec women in southwest Mexico; she also looked to pre-Columbian art and Mexican folk art for forms and symbols in her paintings.

The compositional elements of the stage and curtains, for example, draw upon Mexican vernacular paintings called retablos, devotional images of the Virgin or Christian saints painted on tin, which Kahlo collected.

Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (1937, oil on Masonite) commemorates the brief affair Kahlo had with the exiled Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky shortly after his arrival in Mexico in 1937.

In this painting, she presents herself elegantly clothed in a long, embroidered skirt and fringed shawl. She holds a bouquet of flowers and a letter of dedication to Trotsky that states, “with all my love.” Although this isn’t one of Kahlo’s more visceral images, it’s still amazing to see the work of the great maestra.

Remedios Varo (1908–1963)

Remedios Varo, “La Llamada” (“The Call”), 1961; oil on masonite, National Museum of Women in the Arts. Photo by Lee Stalsworth

One of my favorite painters of all time is the Spanish/Mexican Surrealist, a woman named Remedios Varo, who fled to France to escape the Spanish Civil War and then left France for Mexico during WWII, when modern artists were persecuted.

In Mexico, Varo remained friends with fellow refugees from her European Surrealist circle, including artist Leonora Carrington, who became her closest friend and collabo­rator.

This painting, La Llamada (The Call) hangs prominently in the National Museum of Women in the Arts and is my favorite of all her works. Because of this work, visiting the museum is always a bit of a pilgrimage for me—a chance to experience her vision firsthand. (In the early 2000s, the museum had a temporary exhibition of about 30 of her works, and I flew to Washington, D.C. especially to view that show.)

Like many figures in Remedios Varo’s paintings, the subject of The Call (1961) is intensely and solemnly focused, as though she is in the middle of an adventure or some kind of quest. Wearing flowing robes and carrying alchemical tools, including a mortar and pestle hanging like a necklace, she traverses a courtyard. Her hair forms a brilliant swirl of light, which seems to bring her energy from a celestial source.

Closeup of "The Call" by Remedios Varo. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Closeup of The Call” by Remedios Varo. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I love how the woman in the painting is illuminated in fiery, orange-gold tones, and how she walks fearlessly and purposefully past the shadowy men entombed in tree bark.

I feel like this woman has a creative spark—in fact, she is herself a creative spark connected to the heavens—and she seems determined to follow her own magical creative path, undaunted by the onlooking men.

Remedios Varo created this work near the end of her life, while living in Mexico where her artistic reputation was growing. It reflects her Surrealist influences and her interests—she dabbled in alchemical experiments—as well as her talent for evoking a psychological dream world and ambiguous narratives through her art.

I have small prints of several of Varos paintings and a refrigerator magnet that I bought at the museum when I visited. Exploring the Sources of the Orinoco River depicts a woman in a Surrealist boat that looks like a fish/overcoat. She has arrived at the source of the Venezuelan River, where theres a chalice with clear water flowing from it—bringing to mind the Holy Grail. Its full of magic and

Faith Ringgold (b. 1930)

When I walked into the room with this seven-foot wide creation, I couldn’t help but smile. It’s the bold and lively creation of Faith Ringgold, who trained as a painter but originated the African-American story-quilt revival in the late 1970s.

"Jo Baker's Bananas" by Faith Ringgold, ©Laurel Kallenbach

Jo Baker’s Bananas” by Faith Ringgold, ©Laurel Kallenbach

This piece, Jo Baker’s Bananas (1997), depicts Josephine Baker, the famous American entertainer who became a stage legend in France where she lived most of her life. Baker’s figure is represented five times across the top, implying movement across a stage. The so-called “Banana Dance” that Baker performed in 1926 at Paris’s Folies Bergère music hall cemented her fame.

Off stage, Josephine Baker used her fame to support the burgeoning Civil Rights movement in the United States. In August 1963, she was the only woman to speak at the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I have a Dream,” speech. Josephine Baker spoke passionately against discrimination, drawing from her own life experiences and painful memories of segregation in the US.

Jo Baker’s Bananas is actually an acrylic painting on canvas, but the border is quilted. Don’t you love the color and movement in Ringgold’s creation?

Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923)

After the Storm by Sarah Bernhardt ©Laurel Kallenbach

Internationally known as an actor in 19th-century Paris, Sarah Bernhardt was also an accomplished sculptor.

Bernhardt witnessed a Breton woman holding her dying grandson, who had become fatally entangled in his fishing net. She immortalized that scene in her poignant sculpture titled After the Storm.

She chose a classical composition that recalls the Pietá by Michelangelo, in which the Virgin Mary cradles the crucified Christ. Done in marble, Bernhardt created this piece around 1876.

Passionate about all forms of art, Bernhardt also painted, designed dresses, directed a theater company, and supervised the sets and costumes for her productions. She was famous for her debut in Racine’s tragedy Iphigénie, which helped make her an internationally famous stage actress. She exhibited her sculptures in Paris, London, New York, and Philadelphia, and in the World’s Columbia Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.

Maria Martinez (1887–1980)

Maria Martinez portrait taken in 1965 by Laura Gilpin. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Maria Martinez portrait taken in 1965 by Laura Gilpin. ©Laurel Kallenbach

For years I admired the shiny-black Native American pottery I saw when visiting New Mexico, but only a decade ago did I realize that most of it was created by a woman who lived in the San Ildefonso Pueblo, a community 20 miles northwest of Santa Fe.

Maria Martinez learned to make pottery from her mother and grandmother, and she became legendary in the Southwest, especially for her black-on-black pottery.

Although this ancient pottery style had been used by the ancestors of the Pueblo people, the knowledge of how to create it had been lost over the centuries. Through study and experimentation, Maria and her husband, Julian, perfected their process for making the unique, beautiful black pottery in 1921. Throughout her life, Martinez collaborated with a number of members of her family, all of them becoming unique artists in their own right.

Because of the work of Maria Martinez, Puebloan traditions continue to thrive today, helping preserve the heritage of this often female-made art form in an era when clay pots have been replaced by modern cookware.

Polished blackware pottery with matte slip paint (circa 1939) by Maria and Julian Martinez. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Polished blackware pottery with matte slip paint (circa 1939) by Maria and Julian Martinez. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The photo of Maria Martinez (above) is by photographer Laura Gilpin (1891–1979), who created a female vision of the American Southwest, which was typically depicted as a masculine place of rugged conquest. She and Martinez were longtime friends, and much of her work highlighted the native people and art-making traditions of the American Southwest. She distinguished herself as a platinum-print photographer, and her work appears in museums around the world.

Lee Krasner (1908–1984)

I love how the curators at the National Museum of Women in the Arts juxtaposed the two pieces of art shown below. The painting on the wall that combines circles, ovals, and chevron shapes is by Abstract Expressionist painter Lee Krasner. Her canvas is titled The Springs (1964), which refers to the village near East Hampton, Long Island, where Krasner and her husband, artist Jackson Pollock, moved in 1945. After his death in 1956, Krasner began using the small barn on the couple’s property as her studio. The nature-based hues in The Springs, along with its arcing lines and interlaced forms, are reminiscent of a wind-blown landscape.

Lee Krasner's "The Springs" and Frida Baranak's" "Untitled" sculpture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Lee Krasner’s The Springs” and Frida Baranak’s Untitled” sculpture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Frida Baranek (b. 1961)

The Brazilian artist’s Untitled sculpture (1991) looks as if it were flying in the wind. Though it appears to be light, Baranek’s sculpture is actually made of rusted iron wire and rods—and it weighs about 90 pounds. The museum notes that the interweaving of wire and rods gives the sculpture a linear quality, as if it were a “drawing in space.” Baranek is interested  in using her art to comment on environmental issues in her native Brazil and globally.

Polly Apfelbaum (b. 1955)

Inspired by Andy Warhol, Polly Apfelbaum often incorporates flower forms into her compositions. The custom-carved woodblocks made for her flower prints—this one is titled Love Alley 4—are based on her hand-drawn doodles and printed on handmade paper.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally published January 2019

"Love Alley 4" by Polly Apfelbaum, 2012. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Love Alley 4” by Polly Apfelbaum, 2012. ©Laurel Kallenbach


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Archways into the Irish Past

Originally posted: March 2016

Nothing beckons me more than the archways of antiquity, so I was charmed by these ruined, but graceful portals that once led into a medieval abbey in Ireland. This one is located at Clonmacnoise, an early Christian site founded by St. Ciarán in the mid-6th century on the eastern bank of the River Shannon.

Just outside Ireland's Clonmacnoise are the arches of a ruined Nun's Chapel, where I discovered a sheela-na-gig. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Just outside of Ireland’s Clonmacnoise Monastery on the banks of the River Shannon are the arches of a ruined Nun’s Chapel, where I discovered a sheela-na-gig, a carved-stone figure of an old woman. ©Laurel Kallenbach

For an hour or more, I wandered through misting rain, winding my way among the ruins of a cathedral, two round towers (built primarily  for monks to watch for invaders), numerous Celtic crosses, and ancient grave stones at Clonmacnoise. During the so-called Dark Ages, this religious center was filled with scholarly monks. It was Ireland’s Golden Age of Learning.

Clonmacnoise tower overlooking the River Shannon

Even today, this home of the 6th-century saint Ciarán is revered. In Temple Ciarán, where the revered saint is believed to be buried, farmers still gather clay from around the ruins of the church and place it at the four corners of their fields as a blessing.

In Search of a Sheela-Na-Gig

The historic architecture there was more than enough to make Clonmacnoise a part of my itinerary, but I was also on a quest to find an odd detail carved into the arch. The carving is known as a sheela-na-gig, a stone figure of a naked, old woman squatting and displaying her vulva.

These somewhat grotesque female figures are usually found on Norman or Romanesque churches, usually over a door or window. It may seem like a strange thing to put on a church, yet there are many in Ireland, and while I was visiting, I wanted to see as many of them as I could.

After exploring the Clonmacnoise museum and monastery ruins, I  headed east along the pilgrim’s path and out of the officialClonmacnoise site. Down the road a short way was a 12th-century chapel for nuns.

No one else was at the Nun’s Church while I was there, so I wandered around trying to locate the sheela-na-gig, which my guidebook said was located in the arch. (As you can see from the photo above, there’s more than one arch!) Soon I had a crick in my neck from looking up. Frustrated and impatient, I decided to start calling out “sheela!” as I circled around the whole ruin. It took a bit longer, but at last I spotted her amid the many carvings on the outer ring of the chapel’s lintel.

An Irish sheela-na-gig, carved into the front arch of the Nun's Chapel in Clonmacnoise. This is a closeup; the actual size of the sheela was probably only five inches in the diamond. You can see her face, and just make out her feet behind her head, with a display of her crotch below. ©Laurel Kallenbach

An Irish sheela-na-gig, carved into the front arch of the Nun’s Chapel in Clonmacnoise. This is a closeup; the actual size of the sheela was probably only five inches in the diamond. You can see her face and just make out her feet behind her head, with a display of her crotch below. ©Laurel Kallenbach

If I hadn’t seen pictures of this sheela-na-gig in books, I wouldn’t have recognized her, because she has a very stylized, smiling face surrounded by what I guess are her legs wrapped yoga-style behind her head. At last I was beholding a sheela in situ. Although I’d seen a number of them at the National Museum of Ireland  in Dublin, there’s just nothing like locating a piece of art in its natural habitat!

There were actually two other faces lower down that frankly looked more like a sheela-na-gig than the real one—round head, pronounced ears, and deep eyes—except the rock carving stopped at the neck; there was no lower body.

So what’s the significance of a sheela-na-gig, and why is she clutching her genitalia? No one really knows, but there are many theories:

• Sheelas are like gargoyles, designed to ward off evil spirits or to warn people of the perils of lust.

• They are fertility symbols. This theory seems unlikely, because sheelas rarely have breasts and their boney ribs, bald heads, and almost skeletal features are often depicted. There’s nothing sexy about a sheela-na-gig.

• Sheelas are a depiction of an ancient Irish crone goddess, Cailleach, who was very powerful and could sometimes appear as a comely maiden, a mother, or a grandmother. This last goddess theory is the one that interests me most. In medieval Ireland, people often embraced both Christian and pagan beliefs, and the two merged. I’m fascinated by the Divine Feminine, and I like the thought of there being a fierce hag warrior on castles and churches throughout Ireland and Great Britain.

In case you think me batty, I can tell you that I’m not alone in my fascination with sheelas. There are sheela-na-gig T-shirts, hoodies, and necklaces. And singer PJ Harvey wrote and performed a song called “Sheela-na-Gig” back in 1992. (Read more about this topic at my post, My Hunt for Sheela-Na-Gigs). You can see 3-D images of some of Ireland’s sheela-na-gigs that are in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

If you like Celtic crosses, the Clonmacnoise Monastery is a wonderful place to see them.

I’ll always remember Clonmacnoise fondly, especially because it was the first time I’d ever seen a sheela-na-gig “live,” outside of a museum.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Clonmacnoise is located 21 kilometers from Athlone, in County Offaly. The Nun’s Chapel is just outside the main gates of the Clonmacnoise complex. For more information about travel in Ireland, visit Tourism Ireland.

Read more about my travels in Ireland:

A view of Clonmacnoise. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

A view of Clonmacnoise. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland



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Take a Celtic Seaweed Bath on on Ireland’s Coast

I had a wonderful—and surprising—spa treat on a cold, rainy day near Sligo, Ireland: a warm seaweed bath at Celtic Seaweed Baths (now Voya Seaweed Baths). I’ve had what Americans call “kelp baths” before, and they usually consist of a tub filled with water turned greenish from powdered made from dried kelp.

Strands of seaweed—freshly harvested from the Atlantic Ocean—turn your bathwater a rusty color, but the effects are great for the skin. Photo courtesy Voya Seaweed Baths

However, a seaweed bath in Ireland is a completely indigenous experience, which involves getting into a tub of warm water with three- to four-foot strands of fresh-harvested kelp right off the Atlantic coast. Bathing with olive-brown chunks of underwater plants is a cross between a mermaid experience and “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” No matter how you consider it, your skin and hair feel silky afterward.

My 50-minute treatment started with a 15-minute steam to open my pores. Then I gingerly climbed into the tub where the seaweed (Fucus serratus) was floating. The water and tub are extremely slippery from the seaweed, so I clung to the grip rails. Thankfully, there was a rubber, “no-skid” mat on the bottom of the tub.

Yes, that’s seaweed in the tub! It makes the water slippery, but it’s very relaxing. Photo courtesy Voya Spa

Once I was done navigating the slippery tub, the experience of steeping in the rusty, tea-colored water and bobbing about with my seaweed felt divinely relaxing. I massaged my tired traveler’s feet, did a few stretches, and submerged my head a few times so that my hair benefited from the treatment, which is rich in minerals and vitamins.

After about 30 minutes in the bath, I hoisted myself out (remember: slippery!), showered, and dried off—feeling as limp and drifty as, well, seaweed! And my skin felt soft and supple. And I was considerably more relaxed and warmed as well.

You can find Ireland’s only indigenous spa therapy at Voya Spa (formerly Celtic Seaweed Baths) in Strandhill, Co. Sligo. A single-person 50-minute bath costs  €30. Voya Spa also offers massages and other treatments.


Health Benefits of Seaweed Baths:

  • Relaxes the muscles
  • Infuses the skin with vital minerals (especially iodine) and antioxidants
  • Acts as a moisturizer by forming a protective gel-like layer on the skin
  • Supports skin regeneration with some anti-aging properties
  • Detoxifies the body
  • Moisturizes hair and decreases static charge

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

For information on visiting Ireland, browse Discover Ireland.

Fresh seaweed harvested right off the coast of County Sligo. Photo courtesy Voya Seaweed Baths

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5 Reasons “Outlander” Fans Will Love Scotland’s Isle of Lewis

Outlander-coverCan’t get enough of the stunning scenery from Outlander? The Isle of Lewis, in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, has loads of history and spectacular vistas that will satisfy those who love this romantic, adventurous TV series.

1. Magical Stone Circle

The ancient stone circle called Craigh na Dun that transports Claire into the past is fictional, but the real circle that it was built to resemble is Callanish stone circle on the Isle of Lewis.

Built from multi-ton stones that were dragged for several miles across the land, the Callanish circle is situated on a hilltop with a view of Loch Roag and the mountains to the south. It’s not hard to imagine this beautiful and scenic circle as being a magical portal through time. These standing stones have been part of this windswept landscape for more than 4,000 years, and during all those millennia, they’ve remained the constants as people farm the land and wage wars and fall in love. To read more about Callanish, click here.

Callanish with woman visitor ©Laurel Kallenbach

A woman inspects one of the Callanish stones on Scotland’s Isle of Lewis. ©Laurel Kallenbach

2. Scottish Heather

One of Scotland’s national flowers, the pink-purple flower of hardy heather is well suited to Scotland’s rugged, rocky hills. One legend surrounding heather is that it grows over the places where fairies live. And some Highlanders attached a spray of heather to their weapons for luck. Scottish heather has had plenty of medicinal uses through the ages, including as a remedy for digestive problems, coughs, and arthritis. In Outlander, heather is just one of the botanicals that Claire Beauchamp uses in her healing practice. The Scots’ love of heather is exemplified in a Season 1 episode in which a man is fatally gored by a wild boar. As he lies dying, Claire asks him to describe his home. He tells her that the heather is so thick he could walk on it.

Scottish heather on the Isle of Lewis ©Laurel Kallenbach

Scottish heather on the Isle of Lewis ©Laurel Kallenbach

3. Old Broch Tower

In Outlander, Lallybroch (also known as Broch Tuarach) is Jamie Fraser’s estate, which includes several crofts (see #4) on the ancestral land. A “broch” is an Iron Age fortress-like round-tower unique to Scotland. Not far from Callanish, on the Isle of Lewis is Dun Carloway Broch. Few brochs as well preserved as this one, and you can feel some of the Fraser clan’s heritage in its mossy stone walls. This one overlooks the nearby coast.


Dun Carloway Broch ©Laurel Kallenbach

4. Crofts (small farms)

A delightful scene in Season 1 of Outlander involves Jamie collecting rent from the tenant crofters soon upon his and Claire’s arrival at Lallybroch estate. Jamie proves to be a bit too indulgent with a few of his less reputable farmers. A croft is essentially a small agricultural unit, usually a part of a landlord’s larger estate.  On Lewis, you can see crofts and visit a historic “blackhouse”—one of the old farmhouses with no chimney that was always so smoky that the ceilings and walls turned black.

A farm on the Isle of Lewis ©Laurel Kallenbach

5. Hills, Lochs, and Beaches 

Outlander features gorgeous cinematograpy of the Highlands, with craggy hills, lush forests, and placid lakes. Lewis has no shortage of scenery with rocky outcrops, hills and mountains, plus overlooks of the wild Atlantic coastline. In fact, aside from small villages and the town of Stornoway (where there’s an airport if you prefer to fly rather than take the ferry from the mainland), most of Lewis is peat moorland, freshwater lochs, silver-sand beaches, and flowering meadows. These beautiful, wild places are perfect for hiking, bird- or whale-watching, fishing, boat trips, cycling, or scenic driving.

Cliff Beach, Isle of Lewis. Photo courtesy Visit Scotland

Cliff Beach, Isle of Lewis. Photo courtesy Visit Scotland

For more information, see Visit Scotland’s Outlander map of film locations. Or visit the Isle of Lewis information site.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor 

Originally published June 2016

Read more about my travels in Scotland:

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Dresden’s Frauenkirche: From a Church in Ruins to a Rising Phoenix

The famous photo of Dresden after it was bombed in February 1945.

A famous photo of Dresden after it was bombed by Allied forces in February of 1945.

Today Dresden, Germany, is a glorious, vibrant, colorful city, but for decades it was remembered as an ash-covered, bombed-out shell. Grainy black-and-white photos of  rubble and piles of burned corpses in the streets were emblematic of  the annihilation caused by the WWII bombings in early 1945.

I’m writing this on February 13, 2017, Dresden’s Memorial Day, on which the city commemorates February 13, 1945, the day the British and American allies began bombing the historic city, which is sometimes called “The Florence of the Elbe River” because its church domes, spires, and ornate palaces and opera house are reminiscent of Florence, Italy.

The WWII bombing of Dresden turned much of the historic Old City to rubble. Few structures withstood the inferno generated by 650,000 incendiary bombs that the Allies dropped on the city during a  48-hour period. The human toll was about 25,000 dead, mostly civilians.

Some people say that Dresden was an “innocent” city with no Nazi ammunition factories or tactical advantage for the war. Others, including my guide for the “Slaughterhouse Five” tour, say otherwise. They point out that in 1934, the city of Dresden welcomed Hitler with open arms when he attended an opera at the beautiful Semper Opera House in the Theatreplatz. In honor of the fuhrer, Dresdeners renamed their theater square “Adolf-Hitler-Platz.”

In addition, there seem to have been some logistical centers located in Dresden during the war. Apparently, armaments were stored there, and military training was done in or near the city. These may have been for defense of the city—in times of war, it’s always difficult to know where to draw the line. And after almost six years of the war, the Allies were desperate to finish it, although Dresden’s destruction may not have played much of a part other than as a display of military dominance.

This  photo of the gutted ruins of the Church of Our Lady in Dresden was  taken in the 1960s, about 20 years after Dresden was bombed.

The primary symbol of Dresden’s destruction is the Lutheran Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), which had one of the largest domes in Europe. Several hundred Dresden residents took shelter from the bombs in the church’s underground vaults and crypts.

The church withstood the bombing for two days, but ultimately, the dome collapsed on the morning of February 15 from extreme heat; the temperature surrounding the church was estimated at 1,830°F. Reports say the church pillars became red-hot and exploded and that the outer walls shattered. More than 5,000 tons of stone plummeted to earth. The people in the basement evacuated just in time, only to succumb to the firestorm outside.

Dresden's Frauenkirche current reincarnation. Photo by Christoph Muench, courtesy Dresden Marketing Board

Dresden’s Frauenkirche’s current reincarnation. Photo by Christoph Muench, courtesy Dresden Marketing Board


For decades, Dresden remained a city of rubble. The East German communist government cleared the streets of tons and tons of rubble, and decided to leave the two pieces of wall that stood as a memorial to war.

After German Reunification, plans began to rebuild the Frauenkirche. In 1993, archaeologists numbered every stone in the Frauenkirche ruins and photographed each stone’s location before clearing the area for reconstruction. “Rebuilding by replacing every stone that still existed into its original place became the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle,” says Grit Jandura, PR manager for Frauenkirche Dresden.

Visitors light candles for peace inside the Frauenkirche sanctuary. Photo courtesy Frauenkirche Dresden

Visitors light candles for peace inside the Frauenkirche sanctuary. Photo courtesy Frauenkirche Dresden

The church was completed and re-consecrated on October 30, 2005. It now stands as regally as ever, dominating the Neumarkt Square, with the statue of Martin Luther in front standing upright again. (During the bombing, he was “knocked out of his shoes” as the German expression says; only his feet on the pedestal were intact.)

War and Peace

The rebuilt church is now a monument to peace and reconciliation after the horror of war. Perhaps wounds have healed, but the painful scars from the bombing still exist, says Jandura. On my visit, I found a number of stories about the church’s resurrection to be especially touching. For instance, on the altar is a cross made from three iron nails taken from the ruins of England’s Coventry Cathedral, which the Germans blitzed in November of 1940. Both Dresden and Coventry suffered a similar tragedy during WWII, and with this gift, they are forever linked.

The  melted tower cross was discovered in the church’s rubble. It’s now a reminder of war. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Also, the tower cross that crowned the Frauenkirche’s dome was bent and melted after it fell during the conflagration. Warped and blackened, the cross is now displayed inside the sanctuary as a reminder of the destruction of WWII’s incendiary bombs.

However, there is a new, shiny tower cross atop the church. It was donated by the people of the United Kingdom, the country that dropped the first bombs on Dresden. While visiting, I learned a touching detail: the Englishman who crafted the metalwork for that cross turned out to be the son of one of the pilots whose plane dropped bombs on Dresden. The pilot’s son crafted the new replacement cross for the reconstructed church for free.

There are those who say that the restored Church of Our Lady is lovely, yet it’s no longer a harsh reminder of wartime atrocities. “Many wonder how children can learn about the cruelty of war now that the Frauenkirche is whole again,” says Jandura.

Outside the Frauenkirche during my February 2017 visit was a temporary art installation of upended buses by Syrian-German artist Manaf Halbouni that serves as a monument to contemporary wars. In Aleppo, Syria, people have been using buses as barricades against sniper bullets.

An art installation titled "Monument" recreates an image from the Syrian civil war: buses propped up vertically in an Aleppo street as a barricade against sniper fire. The artist is Syrian-German artist Manaf Halbouni. In the background is the Frauenkirche. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

A 2017 art installation titled “Monument” recreates an image from the Syrian civil war: buses propped up in an Aleppo street as a barricade against sniper fire. (This view shows the underside of the buses.) The artist is Syrian-German artist Manaf Halbouni. In the background is the Frauenkirche. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

The bus art installation—raw, mechanical, and titled “Monument”—was quite controversial in Dresden, yet it was a new testament to war’s horrors. In Dresden, where the Frauenkirche has returned to “normal,” it’s unsettling to remember that the world is still filled with violence and hatred, and that wars rage on.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted: February 2017

Flowers and notes are attached to the grillwork on the underbelly of the buses. The note says, "Respect, Tolerance, Courage, Change, Responsibility, We Are Humans ©Laurel Kallenbach

Flowers and notes were attached to the grillwork on the underbelly of the buses in Neumarkt Square. The white note says, “Respect, Tolerance, Courage, Change, Responsibility, We are (all) Humans.” Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach


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Oregon’s Sylvia Beach Hotel Is for Book Lovers

If you’re a literature lover, allow me to introduce you to the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon (a two-and-a-half-hour scenic drive from Portland). A quiet place on the Pacific coast, this 20-room inn sits atop a bluff right above the surf and offers a cozy, fun literary getaway for readers and writers. Each of the Sylvia Beach hotel’s rooms are decorated with mementos of famous authors—from Jane Austen to Alice Walker to Dr. Seuss.

The J.K. Rowling room at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon, features a Harry Potter theme with furnishings from Harry’s room at Hogwarts. Photo courtesy Sylvia Beach Hotel

If you can set aside your book or the manuscript of your magnum opus while staying at the Sylvia Beach Hotel, you can enjoy strolling on the beach or taking a (chilly!) dip in the ocean. You can also explore the artsy, historic Nye Beach neighborhood with its lovely mix of bookstores, cafés, bistros, galleries and the Yaquina Art Center.

Ken and I stayed in the Sylvia Beach Hotel 30 years ago, and we stayed in the Tennessee Williams Room called “Stella!” (a famous line from A Streetcar Named Desire). Its double bed was draped with mosquito netting ala Night of the Iguana. (The Stella room has since been converted to another author.) On another trip to Oregon’s central coast for whale watching, we stopped by to see how the hotel was faring. As always, its literary theme is as whimsical as ever.

The Dr. Seuss room at the Sylvia Beach Hotel is popular for the young at heart. Photo: Sylvia Beach Hotel

Literary Magic

The Virginia Woolf Room offers an ocean view and faces “To the Lighthouse,” although in this case it’s to the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse. You can have A Room of One’s Own and write at the 1930s-style desk—or share the queen-size bed with someone special. The F. Scott Fitzgerald Room contains Jazz Era furnishings, including a writing desk and a framed poster from the 1949 film of The Great Gatsby, starring Alan Ladd as Jay Gatsby. You can also indulge your inner child in the Dr. Seuss room, decorated in homage to One Fish, Two FishThe Cat in the Hat, and other genius works for kids.

Miso Pumpkin Soup, one of many delicious dishes served in Tables of Content restaurant.

The Sylvia Beach Hotel is truly a retreat for readers, writers, and visitors who want to rest, restore, and read. There are no TVs, radios, telephones or Wi-Fi at the Sylvia Beach, but who needs them there are books and journals tucked into every nook and cranny? The rooms aren’t grandiose, but what they lack in space, they make up for in literary spirit.

Tables of Content Dining Room

Meals are a time to be social at the Sylvia Beach—even if you keep your nose in a good book during the rest of your stay. Breakfast is included in the room rate, and guests sit at tables of eight in the “Tables of Content” dining room. (I think group tables are a great, no-stress way to get to know other literature lovers!)

Dinner, which is served at 7:00 p.m. each night, is another chance to enjoy pleasant conversation with a bookish bent. The food is served family style (with a choice of four entrees) and the evening’s icebreaker is game of Two Truths and a Lie. Essentially, you introduce yourself to those at your table with two biographical facts and one whopper of a fib! Then your fellow gourmands guess what part of your tale is a lie. Coming up with a lie gets your creative juices flowing, and when I played, it was fun recalling unlikely trivia from my past.

The Mark Twain room has a fireplace and private ocean-view deck. Photo courtesy Sylvia Beach Hotel

Rooms at the Sylvia Beach

All the hotel’s rooms are themed according to an author. Here’s a sampling:

Classics: Rooms directly over the surf with fireplaces and decks. They include Agatha Christie, Chez Colette, and Mark Twain.

Best Sellers: These rooms have an ocean view with panoramas of the coast and the Yaquina Head Lighthouse. In this category are rooms devoted to Jane Austen, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Dr. Seuss, John Steinbeck, Emily Dickinson, Ken Kesey, Ernest Hemingway, J.K. Rowling, F. Scott Fitzgerald,  Herman Melville, Jane Austen, Lincoln Steffens, and Virginia Woolf.

Novels: These rooms have no ocean view, but they’re still cozy and fun. Here you’ll find Shakespeare, Gertrude Stein, J.R.R. Tolkien, Oscar Wilde, and Jules Verne.

The Sylvia Beach Hotel is situated on a hill overlooking the Oregon Coast. Courtesy Sylvia Beach Hotel

Who Was Sylvia Beach?

In case you were wondering if this ocean-overlook hotel was named for a beach called “Sylvia,” let me put your questions to rest. Sylvia Beach was an expatriate American who dominated the literary scene in Paris between WWI and WWII with her English-language bookstore and lending library, Shakespeare and Company. James Joyce fans will recognize Sylvia Beach as the publisher of the Irish author’s famous book, Ulysses (1922).

COVID-19 Update: The Sylvia Beach Hotel and Tables of Content Restaurant is open on a limited-occupancy basis. The staff is committed to the health and safety of guests, diners, and staff and therefore requires proof of COVID-19 vaccination for all guests ages 12 and older.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted on May 15, 2010

Are you a bookworm? Let readers of this blog know about  other literary getaways they shouldn’t miss. Simply leave a poetic or prosaic comment—or let us know your favorite author.

The Alice Walker room features African decor, with a double bed, and ocean view, and  The Color Purple theme. Photo courtesy Sylvia Beach Hotel

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Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr., in Washington, DC

Originally posted: April 2017

On my most recent visit to Washington, D.C., I visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in spring. Regal and inspirational, the likeness of this great civil rights leader gazes out over the waters of the Tidal Basin. Sculpted by Chinese master artist Lei Yixin, the memorial is particularly gorgeous when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.

Cherry blossoms decorate the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist minister and social activist who became a world-renowned leader during the U.S. civil rights movement from the mid-1950s until he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. As I stood looking up at the towering statue, I feel intense gratitude for his important work, which changed this nation—even though there is still a lot of work to be done in the United States and worldwide concerning civil rights for all people, regardless of race, nationality, gender identity, ethnicity, and religious belief.

A Message of Nonviolence

Dr. King is the first African-American honored with a memorial on the National Mall. He played a pivotal role in ending the legal segregation of African-American citizens, and he influenced the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He also received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 because he preached and practiced a nonviolent philosophy striving for freedom, justice, and equality.

There are quotes by Dr. King carved upon a wall at the back of the monument. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Quotes by Dr. King are carved on a wall at the back of the monument. In this 1963 quote, King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” ©Laurel Kallenbach

My visit to the memorial was particularly meaningful because I remember the day Dr. King was assassinated—it was my brother’s birthday—and my family watched the funeral procession on TV a few days later. Also, I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and in the early 1970s there was a lot of racial tension leading up to school busing to desegregate the public schools. I was shocked when I heard that the Klan was staging rallies; naively I had assumed the days of the KKK were long gone.

Words That Changed America

On a sunny morning during the Cherry Blossom Festival, the monument was buzzing with people from all over the world, speaking numerous languages. I watched as a young Muslim woman had her photo taken in front of Dr. King’s statue. Drummers from the Boulder Philharmonic—who were in D.C. as honorees of the 2017 SHIFT Festival of American Orchestras—played near the monument. Elsewhere, African-style drumming resounded across the Tidal Basin.

"Out of the mountain of despair." ©Laurel Kallenbach

“Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope” ©Laurel Kallenbach

On the massive stone behind Dr. King is inscribed “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” a line from his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.

Behind that is a granite mountain split in half, which some people say represents Stone Mountain in Georgia, the site of a Civil War memorial carved into the side of the mountain. It depicts Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis. Stone Mountain is also the place where the Ku Klux Klan was re-founded in 1915. My personal interpretation is that the bisected mountain represents the monolithic block of racism that the Civil Rights Movement cleft in two. Even so, there will always be work to be done in terms of racial justice.

Visitors pored over the quotes from Dr. King's speeches about freedom. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Visitors pored over the quotes from Dr. King’s speeches about justice. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A wall behind the monument is inscribed with words from Dr. King’s speeches over the years, including a famous line that I find so inspiring: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

I also loved King’s hope-filled statement, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” (You can learn more about the quotes at the memorial on the National Park Service website.)

The struggle for civil rights for the descendants of enslaved people will continue, and thankfully the wisdom and vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. will encourage and empower people forever. Having a monument to commemorate one of our most courageous and tireless heroes is a powerful reminder of the conflicts of the past—along with the work that must continue into the future.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is part of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, and it is open free of charge. The memorial is located at the intersection of Independence Avenue and West Basin Drive SW in Washington, D.C. Parking is limited near the memorial. The nearest metro stop is Smithsonian.

Originally posted: April 3, 2017

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance editor and writer


An excerpt from King’s “I Have A Dream” speech,  delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963:

“One hundred years later [since the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863], the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”


“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” Dr. King spoke these words at the March for Integrated Schools, April 18, 1959) ©Laurel Kallenbach

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Whales and Winter Gales along the Oregon Coast



During the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m reminiscing about travel adventures of yesteryear. This trip was taken in early January of 2010.

Wind lashed the craggy Oregon shoreline, driving rain in horizontal sheets across my window. In the drab, January-morning light, it was impossible to tell where the steely sky met the pewter sea—yet somewhere out there were gray whales. But where?

A gray whale breaching. Photo Andre Estevez (Pexels)

The whales’ winter migration is the reason my husband and I came to Depoe Bay, Oregon’s whale-watching capital on the central coast. From mid-December to mid-January, the leviathans swim by—as many as 30 per hour—bound for Mexico’s warm waters. Though the whales also cruise these waters during spring and summer, winter is tops for sheer numbers. It also happens to be storm season.

Scanning the watery horizon from our oceanfront rental condo, Ken and I spied a posse of pelicans strafing the waves with their fish-seeking beaks, and sea lions, whose sleek backs flashed in the frothy waves. But no whales.

Sign of a blustery time ©Laurel Kallenbach

After breakfast, we donned raingear and began exploring. Depoe Bay, a charming fishing village 12 miles north of Newport on the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway (Highway 101), sits right on the water. A sea wall runs the length of the three-block downtown, where a geyser-like “spouting horn,” sprays water skyward when waves hit the lava tunnel. We ducked into a handful of gift shops and art galleries to escape the rain. Not surprisingly, the sign at one fishing/whaling charter read: “2 Rough 2 Sail 2 Day.”

Stormy Weather

With damp spirits, we visited the Whale Watching Center in Depot Bay, which is run by Oregon Parks and Recreation. The Center’s museum is packed with information about these marine mammals, which grow to the size of a school bus and eat 1 ton of mysids (tiny shrimp) daily. From the elevated indoor/outdoor viewing station, park rangers answer questions and point out blow spouts (caused when whales surface and exhale). Check in advance for opening times.

Whale Watch volunteer Cheri Bush wore a “Whale Spoken Here” button pinned to her vest. “Two days ago, we spotted 26 gray whales,” she reported. “You need good visibility, because in winter they stay 5 to 7 miles offshore. On a clear day you can see the blows without binoculars.”

Caught by cetacean fever, Ken and I decided to visit the best whale-watching overlooks along the Coastal Highway in hopes that the weather would clear. Of 26 overlook sites in Oregon, eight are clustered between Depoe Bay and Newport. During the annual Whale Week, volunteers stand ready from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. to help you spot whales.

A volunteer at Depoe Bay Whale Watching Center scans the horizon for signs of migrating whales as they swim south. ©Laurel Kallenbach

We started at Boiler Bay Scenic Viewpoint, just north of Depoe Bay, where gusts pummeled us with a rain/salt-spray mixture. We peered from under our rain hoods to see a misty bay with a cave and waterfall. A rusted boiler from a 1910 wreck poked from the water, and three wet-suited surfers tested the waves. Under better conditions, this spot would be perfect for detecting whales, but besieged by weather, we soon headed south to the Rocky Creek overlook where we admired the foggy ocean from the car.

Next stop: the ominous-sounding Cape Foulweather. Captain James Cook named this panoramic promontory in 1778—and it certainly lived up to its name that day. Yet, as we beheld miles of coastline, it was easy to imagine whales cavorting offshore. What’s a little rain to them?

A mile down the road was Devil’s Punchbowl, a popular whale- and storm-watching overlook where the ocean slams into a hollowed-out rock bowl. We quickly moved on, wistfully eyeing driftwood-strewn Beverly Beach. On a nicer day, we would have enjoyed walking there, searching for agates.

Instead, we harbored at the Oregon Coast Aquarium (admission fee) in Newport for an up-close view of the ocean world. At the recreated Orford Reef habitat, striped tiger rockfish and halibut with two eyes on one side of their body swam by. In the outdoor pools, sea otters amused us with somersaults; in the aviary, a tufted puffin “flew” underwater.

Yaquina Head and Lighthouse on the Oregon Coast ©Laurel Kallenbach

While we were at the Aquarium, the rain stopped, so we drove to Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area (admission fee), another prime whale-watch venue on the Oregon Coast. This narrow spit extends a mile into the Pacific, and an 1873 lighthouse perches atop the basalt cliffs. Yaquina Head affords a 360-degree view, but for a really high vantage point, we climbed the 110 spiral staircase steps to the top of the lighthouse. Cormorants, oystercatchers and harbor seals were some of our sightings—but still no whales. We hiked down to Cobble Beach, where high-tide waves jangled the polished black stones, creating a pebble chorus.

That evening, Ken and I developed an appreciation for storm watching—while soaking in our oceanside hot tub. The rough surf was mesmerizing. “Ooh! Aaaah!” we exclaimed as wave after wave exploded against the rocks, flinging spray high into the air. It was like Fourth of July fireworks created in white sea foam.

Thar She Blows!

On our last day at the Oregon coast, the rain slowed to a drizzle. We decided if the whales wouldn’t come to us, we would go to them. At Dockside Charter on Depoe Bay harbor, grizzled fishermen sat around tables drinking coffee. When we explained we wanted to chase whales, they shook their heads. “Won’t see anything,” they predicted.

Captain Loren Goddard, with Dockside Charters in Depoe Bay ©Laurel Kallenbach

Luckily, Loren Goddard, a captain with a sunny disposition, agreed to take us out in his 33-foot cruiser, Affair. The water wasn’t too rough, and the fog cleared five miles offshore. Loren idled the motor, and we scoured the seas for signs of whales.

There!” I shouted, pointing wildly at a column of spray a quarter mile away. Like a puff of smoke, the blow hung in the air for several seconds, then dispersed. “Good eye!” called Loren. A minute later, we saw another blow. “He’s heading this way,” said Loren. Closer now, the whale’s dark back crested the water again, and we noticed its knobby dorsal “knuckles,” which reminded me of a dinosaur backbone.

Gray whales spouting in the water. Photo courtesy Dockside Charters

Ken and I bounced on our seat like little kids. Minutes later we spotted a pair of blows and tail flukes, and we watched two giants head south in tandem.

“I thought the visibility would be horrid, but we’re right in the middle of whales!” cried Captain Loren.

Over the next hour we saw about a dozen gray whales—none up close or breaching (jumping above water)—but we were thrilled anyway.

The next morning, the rainclouds parted. As we drove north up the Oregon Coast on our way back to Portland, Ken and I stopped at Boiler Bay for a last Pacific overlook, sans gale-force winds. We’d come to the Oregon Coast during winter in the hope we’d catch a glimpse of migrating whales on their way south to Baja for the season. And we succeeded, despite all the inclement weather that came our way. Yet in the process, we made an unexpected discovery: that nature’s wild display of oceanic fireworks was equally satisfying as finding whales in the mist.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor


Beverly Beach, seven miles south of Depoe Bay on the Oregon Coast  ©Laurel Kallenbach

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Christmas Past and Present in a Medieval German Town

Esslingen’s Old Town Hall presides over the Medieval Christmas Fair. ©Esslinger Stadtmarketing & Tourismus GmbH

Originally posted in December 2014

December 2021 update: Because of the COVID Omicron variant, this Christmas market, and most others in Germany, have been canceled. 

In an old-town square in Esslingen, Germany, a jester on stilts roams the cobblestones, stopping to juggle and pose for photos with wide-eyed children. Musicians on a stage play ancient, nasally instruments and sing bawdy songs. (Although I don’t speak German, naughty humor seems to be universal.) A woman in a long skirt and laced-up bodice carries a basket of elegant, hand-dipped candles for sale.

Colorful scenes like these unfold before me as I eat homemade suppe und brot—soup and bread—served in handmade crockery bowls in the medieval part of the Esslingen Christmas and Medieval Market.

Medieval drummers and musicians entertain in Esslingen. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Held annually from late November until December 21st, the Medieval Christmas Fair (Mittelalter-märkt) and the traditional Christmas Market have lured me to historic Esslingen am Neckar, a 1,200-year-old town near Stuttgart in southern Germany. Just a 2.5-hour train ride from modern Frankfurt, old-town Esslingen feels centuries away, with its medieval churches and colorfully painted, half-timbered houses with crisscrossed beams.

Esslingen has hosted a Christmas fair since the Middle Ages. Called Weihnachtsmärkte and Christkindlmärkte in German, Christmas markets originated as town fairs as long as a millennia ago so that villagers could stock up on supplies for the oncoming winter.

The medieval streets of Esslingen. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Esslingen is the ideal location for this annual celebration, and I’m among hundreds of delighted visitors exploring the exotic booths and huts in the costumed medieval portion of the market—while also appreciating the Christmasy atmosphere in the “contemporary” part of the market, which itself is actually quite Old World and old-fashioned.

Going Medieval

The Medieval Market—a cross between a Renaissance festival and Christmas fair—has the appeal of craftspeople dressed in period costumes demonstrating revived old art forms and trades. During my two days in Esslingen, I watch calligraphers, candle makers, blacksmiths, knife grinders, soap makers, bakers, tanners, brush- and basket-makers, and mead brewers plying their trades as they might have 700 years ago.

I linger at a number of tents and rustic huts and buy gifts: herb-scented soaps, a fudge-like Afghani sweet called shirpera flavored with cardamom, rosewater, and pistachio. (Such Middle Eastern treats came to medieval Europe via the Silk Road.)

A baker checks on fresh bread baked in a wood-fired oven. ©Laurel Kallenbach

In a special kids’ courtyard, children play Old World games such as hatchet-throwing, egg-breaking, and archery, and they ride a wooden Ferris wheel.

Give Me That Old-Time Christmas

In the traditional part of Esslingen’s Weihnachtsmärkt, rows of wooden huts (called stuben) are so thickly decorated with evergreen and pinecones I think of fairytales—the ones where the forest magically engulfs the kingdom, which sleeps for centuries. If that’s what happened in Esslingen, the town joyfully awakened to celebrate Christmas.

From the elaborately embellished huts, local vendors sell chocolates, pretzels, stollen, wood and glass ornaments, jewelry, and regional specialties such as handcrafted schnapps, honey, jam, and wild boar meat.

A fir-covered “stube” selling candy in the Christmas Market in Esslingen. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Browsing through Esslingen’s traditional Christmas market, I pause to watch as an old man in a Bavarian hat carves a bird. With fine-edged knives spread on his worktable, Helmut Höschle removes bits of wood from the feathers with a surgeon’s skill. His handiwork is quintessential Old World carving, much like the Nativity set my parents have at home—a gift from relatives who brought home figures of shepherds and the three kings decades ago from their travels in West Germany.

Gluhwein mug, Esslingen ©Laurel Kallenbach

Walking through a Christmas Market is a sensory carnival, with elaborate decorations to gaze at, special holiday foods to sample, gifts to shop for, and all manner of music and entertainment.

When you get a bit overwhelmed, it’s time for a mug of glühwein—hot, spiced wine (pronounced “gloo-vine”), which is surprisingly sweet with hints of cinnamon and citrus. It can pack a punch, too, depending how long it’s been since you ate a bratwurst or currywurst.

In Esslingen, there are several glühwein vendors. My favorite is the giant Glühwein Pyramid: an outdoor tavern topped by a giant multi-tiered “carousel” with carved motifs such as angels, snowmen, toy soldiers, or manger scenes and a propeller on top.

The bar also serves beer, alcohol-free drinks, and Kinderpunsch (berry juice for kids). At German Christmas markets, you pay a deposit for the commemorative mug. I keep mine as a souvenir, but you can return the mug in exchange for your deposit.

Time Out from the Market

Thoroughly chilled and footsore from hours of exploring the old town and the markets, I take respite at a 150-year-old Schwaben restaurant (the region where Esslingen is located) called Der Palmscher Bau. 

Closeup of the Pyramid atop the gluhwein bar. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Located in an 18th-century building, its comfort-food recipes, served in rustic-tavern ambiance, are a hit with me. The hot, creamy forest-mushroom soup thaws me out, and I love the Schwabian rostbraten (roast beef) with grilled onions and a dark sauce served with noodles and sauerkraut. (A dry Esslingen Riesling accompanies my dinner, naturally.) For dessert, I choose apple küchle, a roll-up with thin layers of dough and subtly spiced apples. Every sweet morsel gets forked into my grateful mouth.

Even a market as dramatic as Esslingen’s requires a few timeouts from the Christmas revelry. My choice: soak in the natural thermal waters at Merkel’sches Baths and Pool, about 10 minutes away from the Old Town center. The saunas, steam rooms, mineral baths, and massages are divine. (Most Germans don’t wear bathing suits except in the large sports pool. Check the schedule for women-only hours if you’re the modest type.)

I can also recommend yet another diversion in Esslingen: a tour through the fascinating Kessler wine cellars to see how the oldest sparkling wine in Germany is fermented. A guide takes me down into the 13th-century vaults where bottles of the wine ferment. From the damp ceilings, cellar mold hangs like Spanish moss; it’s not cleaned away, the guide explains, because the growth absorbs stagnant air and releases oxygen, which freshens the air.

After the tour, the Kessler tasting room is a delicious revelation. I sip the 2009 Pinot Blanc, and its taste reminds me of apples and herbs—while outside it is the chilly, middle of December. Someday I really must return to Esslingen in the autumn for the grape harvest and the accompanying wine festival.

The chestnut seller peels off the outer husk of the winter treat before roasting. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Grand Market Finale

After sunset, I pull my wool cap farther down around my ears to keep warm. The smell of roasting chestnuts lures me to a booth where a man calls out to the crowd: “Heisse Marroni! Hot chestnuts!” He removes the lid off the three-foot-diameter pan and stirs the browned chestnuts, their skins popping open.

I buy a paper cone of the hot nuts and gingerly peel one. My fingers blacken from handling the charred skins, but they’re warm. I pop the smoky, starchy chestnut meat into my mouth. It’s bland and dry, but everywhere people are gobbling them, so I figure that perhaps it’s an acquired taste.

After dark, the Christmas Market blazes with colored lights. In the pulse-quickening medieval streets, however, only a few are electric; the rest are flaming torches and braziers, which lend an ancient mystery and romance to the place. Musicians pound on drums while a fire-dancer snaps sparks into the air with his bullwhip. It’s all thrilling and quite dramatic.

Then the church bells peal to announce 5:00 Mass. A crowd forms around the Old Town Hall with its wedding-cake curlicues on the façade and its astronomical clock (built in 1589), which still keeps exact time and displays positions of the sun, moon, and zodiac constellations.

The astronomical clock on the front of Esslingen’s Old Town Hall marks the hour with the animated flapping of the eagle’s wings. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I’m not entirely sure why everyone is gathering, but it doesn’t take long to find out. What everyone is craning to see is the mechanical Imperial Eagle above the clock, which a flaps his wings as the bells ring.

Today’s crowd wears Gore-Tex parkas instead of cloaks and leather leggings and people snap pictures on cell phones. Even so, we’re collectively enthralled by the magic of an antique clock.

It just goes to show that Christmas beauty and merriment have lasted for centuries … and will continue on, I hope.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Esslingen Medieval and Christmas Markets: 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily from late November until a few days before Christmas. Search for information on all of Germany’s picturesque Christmas markets, visit Germany: The Travel Destination.


Read more about Germany’s Christmas markets:

Helmut Höschle, a local woodcarver, works on his beautiful figures in his cheery Christmas hut. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Originally posted in December 2014

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