The Magic of Scotland’s Ancient Callanish Standing Stones

Callanish Stone Circle on Scotland's Isle of Lewis © Laurel Kallenbach

2200 BC: People on an island off the coast of northern Scotland selected beautiful, monolithic stones filled with quartz and hornblende (a dark, crystalline mineral) and moved these massive, multi-ton stones for several miles across the land. They erected the Callanish circle on a hilltop with a view of Loch Roag and the mountains to the south. And they probably aligned these stones with lunar cycles.

2012 AD: I spent three days at that ancient stone circle, Callanish (or Calanais in Gaelic). Why did I fly to the remote Isle of Lewis on the outermost, windswept Hebrides with no other agenda than to look at a bunch of old rocks? That’s hard to explain to anyone who’s never been captivated by these mystic sites, built during prehistoric times in what’s now Britain, Ireland, and France.

My obsession with standing stones could be because the purpose of these stones is a riddle that will never be solved. Archaeologists, astronomers, and ethnologists can hypothesize, but we’ll never know the complete “truth.” Stone circles are at the intersection of myth and reality, so in an age when we seek scientific answers to every conundrum, their mysteries intrigue me.

My favorite stone at Callanish looks a little fin-like and has a swirling grain. © Laurel Kallenbach

Or maybe my love of stones has to do with their strength and durability. A 4,000-year old-circle embodies permanence. My own life span will come and go, but these stone structures will last forever—or at least a whole lot longer than me.

Beauty in Rock

Regardless of esoteric pondering, Callanish is simply beautiful. Its stones are delicate, interestingly shaped, crisscrossed with grain, and crusted with crystals and lichens. And it’s a joy to watch the light change on them.

Every evening after dinner—which I ate at the Calanais Visitor Centre because there are no other restaurants nearby—I wandered among the stones as the golden sunlight peeped out from behind the clouds and made the stones glow.

Early evening happens to be when the crowds who come on tour buses have gone, and a devotee like myself can spend some quiet time in the circle.

Fondling the stones is allowed at Callanish. © Laurel Kallenbach

My first evening at Callanish, when I was massively jetlagged after that day’s journey from Colorado to Scotland, I had a half-hour to say “hello” to the stones with no one else there. In private, it’s wonderful to hug a stone, to run your hand over its textured lumps and crevices. Some people will do this in public, but it’s nicer to have some privacy. I’m shy about such things; I think the proud stones might likewise be a bit sheepish about public displays of affection.

The following two evenings, the weather was clearer, and the serious photographers with their tripods and long lenses appeared as the sun sank on the horizon. The photographers are a quiet lot, mentally calculating F-stops and ISO settings and deciding where and when the sun would turn the sky peach, then pink, then hopefully salmon and crimson. I was busy snapping shots too, although at sometime every evening I would sink into the grass with my back against a stone and bathe in the warm rays as day faded.

Nightfall comes again, as it has for four millennia in the memory of stones.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Next blog post: An archaeo-astronomer reveals some secrets of the Callanish stones.

Sunset at Callanish © Laurel Kallenbach

Seeing the Stones

  • There is no admission fee to the Callanish Stone Circle, and you can visit anytime, day or night.
  • The Calais Visitor Centre is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. April through September. During winter months (October through March) the Visitor Centre is open Wednesday through Saturday). It contains a very nice coffee shop/restaurant, gift shop, and toilet facilities.
  • Unlike at Stonehenge, visitors can walk through the circle and touch the stones. Although there are no signs forbidding it, I suggest that people not climb on the stones in order to protect this beautiful site—and to avoid having to rope it off as it became necessary to do at Stonehenge.
  • I stayed at a nearby farmhouse B&B, the wonderful Leumadair Guest House. I could see the main Callanish circle from my bedroom window, and the circle was just a scenic, 15-minute walk away.

The setting sun peeks from between two stones at Callanish © Laurel Kallenbach

For more info, click on Visit Scotland or Isle of Lewis

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Touring England’s Ancient Roman Baths by Romantic Torchlight

A statue of a Roman emperor peers down into the torch-lit main pool at Bath's ancient Roman ruins. Photo courtesy Roman Baths

I’ve been to a lot of museums in my time—most fascinating, some grotesque, some silly—but Bath’s ancient Roman museum wins points for being romantic. During July and August, the Roman Baths stay open late and are lit by torches, which gives it that authentic 10 A.D. feel. With steam coming off the pool and a view of the nearby spires and pinnacles of Bath Abbey, it’s a sweetheart’s dream.

My husband and I visited the ancient baths right after experiencing another romantic venue in the city of Bath: the Spa Thermae, the modern equivalent of what the Romans built more than 2,000 years ago. The two of us were still glowing from spending a few hours submerged in the warm pools of water that have bubbled up from the ground for longer than human memory. When we entered the magical, after-dark atmosphere of the museum, we were greeted by statues of emperors flickering in the firelight. Below was the main pool, where the Romans soaked for health and relaxation.

Bath Abbey is beautifully lit at night, and it looks spectacular from the Roman baths. Photo© Ken Aikin

England’s Roman occupiers called this place Aquae Sulis, Latin for “The Waters of Sulis.” (Sulis was the Celtic goddess who reigned over the thermal spring, considered sacred.) The Romans associated Minerva, their goddess of wisdom and the arts, with Sulis the Celtic goddess. They built a temple, along with elaborate baths and steam rooms, dedicated to Sulis Minerva at the site of this sacred spring.

On our evening excursion, Ken and I felt like we were walking with the spirits of long-ago visitors who traveled from across the Roman Empire to take a dip in the healing, 114-degree water—just as we did. As we wandered through the museum, a few costumed interpreters demonstrated what life in this Roman outpost was like millennia ago.

Gilt head of the goddess Sulis Minerva. Photo: The Roman Baths in Bath

The artifacts were beautiful: from coins that people threw in as offerings to the goddess to samples of inscribed curses that people left. The gilt-bronze head of Sulis Minerva is quite stunning. Her statue would have stood within her temple beside the Sacred Spring. I also loved the “Gorgon,” a man’s face, circled by flowing hair carved from Bath stone.

Despite all these treasures, the best part (for me) of visiting the Roman baths was sitting on the stones beside the central bath.

Surrounded by pillars and statues illuminated by flickers of torchlight, I dipped my hands into the warm water and watched the bubbles surface from deep within the earth. I could have been a woman enjoying the baths thousands of years ago. The evening was quiet, with only a few visitors in the last hour. Never has a history museum been so evocative.

A plunge pool at the Roman Baths. Photo: The Roman Baths in Bath

The Rise of a Green Empire

For an ancient ruin, Bath’s Roman Baths are quite forward thinking. To be more sustainable and to reduce its carbon footprint, the museum:

  • Uses energy from the hot spring to heat buildings.
  • Relies on energy-efficient lighting, including floodlights that reduce energy consumption by 60 percent and LED lights on the Terrace and in the Reception Hall.
  • Serves ethically sourced tea and coffee in the Pump Room.
  • Cooks with local ingredients as much as possible.
  • Uses recyclable paper bags and 100 percent biodegradable carrier bags in the shops.
  • Is committed to recycling.

Mood lighting on Bath's Roman Baths at night. Photo© Ken Aikin

It’s nice to know that conservation of the past goes hand in hand with conservation of natural resources—so that we all have a future to look forward to.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

For more information on visiting the historic city of Bath, England—a UNESCO World Heritage site—refer to the Visit Bath website.

To read about what it’s like to soak in the natural mineral pools at Bath Spa Thermae, read my blog post about this modern spa.

Bath Thermae Spa in England: Better Health through Water

When the traveling gets tough, the tough take a bath. After a long day of sightseeing or hiking through the countryside, one of the best things to do is soak your achy feet in the hotel hot tub or spa.

The Rooftop Pool at Thermae Bath Spa overlooks a glorious view of the city of Bath, including Bath Cathedral. © Bath Tourism Plus/Colin Hawkins

It turns out this watery antidote for stress has a long tradition: The ancient Romans had a saying for it: “sanitas per aquam,” which translates as “health through water.” And not coincidentally, the word “spa” is an acronym taken from that Latin phrase.

Geothermally warmed mineral springs were the first spas—used for healing. These waters naturally bubble up from the ground, bringing minerals from the earth’s core—minerals that can help improve certain skin conditions, arthritis and other musculoskeletal ailments.

In Bath, England, warm mineral waters have welcomed visitors for millennia. The Celts worshipped the water goddess Sulis there, and the ancient Romans (who ruled Britannia from the 1st through 5th centuries A.D.) built stone-enclosed pools and steam rooms for their health and restoration.

During the 1700s and 1800s, the British aristocracy flocked to the town of Bath for social parties and to “take the waters,” encouraged by the tale of how Queen Mary’s fertility troubles ended after she bathed in the waters and ultimately gave birth to a son.

Modern Spa, Ancient History

Today, Thermae Bath Spa is located in a chic modern building not far from the ruins of the ancient Roman baths. Although no one’s claiming anymore that the water cures infertility or any other major health problem, this is still the perfect place to shed your street clothes and spend a half- or full-day in a robe and swimsuit soaking like a Roman.

The indoor Minerva Pool has jets and moving water currents. © Thermae Bath Spa/David Saunders

My husband and I visited Thermae Bath Spa on a chilly, drizzly English afternoon, when a hot soak was most inviting. We started with a dip in the Minerva Bath, a large, indoor thermal pool equipped with massage jets, a whirlpool, and a “lazy river” with a current strong enough that it carried us around the pool. We hung onto flotation “noodles” and cruised the perimeter without moving a muscle. Between the water’s temperature (92°F) and the mineral-rich water (the slight sulfur smell is the giveaway), we felt like limp noodles.

After a long drink of water (it’s important to rehydrate while you soak), we checked out the über-cool co-ed steam rooms where we sweated in glass-enclosed circular steam areas. Each had a different aromatherapy scent: lavender, eucalyptus, rose and frankincense. A central waterfall shower was the spot where everyone gathered to cool off before trying a new scent.

At the center of the Thermae Bath Spa Steam Room is a ceiling shower for cooling off after a hot steam. © Thermae Bath Spa/David Saunders

A note about facilities: pools, steam rooms, and the locker rooms are all co-ed. This is Europe, after all! It was a little odd for us Americans who are used to gender segregation in public restrooms, gyms and pools, but we went with the flow. The locker rooms do have private cubicles where you can dress. Bathing suits (what the Brits call “swimming costumes”) are required.

Although Thermae Bath Spa offers a number of water-centric therapies—including watsu (massage done while you float in a warm pool), Vichy showers, body wraps and more—we opted for pool soaking, which we could enjoy as a couple. If you’re visiting Bath for several days, I’d highly recommend taking a separate day for a massage or special treatment.

For the grand finale, my husband and I deepened our relaxation in the steamy Rooftop Pool. The water was perfect, and the views of Bath’s skyline were spectacular. A high-pressure cascade gave us a deep-shoulder massage and sent a wave of tingles over my scalp. The added bonus: A huge rainbow appeared in the sky, arching over Bath’s cathedral. The entire pool population ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the sight. Unforgettable.

Feasting in the Natural Foods Restaurant

The spa's Springs Café serves wonderful local cuisine. Photo courtesy Thermae Bath Spa

Afterwards, we realized we were hungry, but weren’t quite ready to leave. No problem, the spa’s Springs Café Restaurant serves everything from light snacks, appetizers, paninis, and hot gourmet meals. The atmosphere is casually elegant, and almost everyone comes in their robe. So, in our white, toga-like wraps, we dined quite well on slow-cooked Wiltshire beef and wild mushroom and Bath Blue cheese risotto with glasses of wine. The menu emphasizes nutritionally balanced foods made from locally produced fare.

Soaking, steaming, feasting—what more could we ask for? My husband and I came away from Bath Thermae Spa feeling relaxed, radiant, well-fed, and squeaky clean. The ancient Romans definitely had the right idea—and the city of Bath has created a first-class modern version of the historic baths. Add it to your itinerary—it’s a highlight of the city.

Clean Water Policy

The thermal water at Thermae Bath Spa bubbles naturally to the earth’s surface, and is estimated to be 10,000 years old. It contains more than 42 different minerals, the most concentrated being sulphate, calcium, and chloride, which are reported to be good for sore joints and some skin conditions.

The spa filters the water to remove iron and bacteria. A tiny bit of chlorine is added for sanitary reasons.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

For more information on visiting Bath, England, see Visit Bath.

 

The Georgian exterior of Thermae Bath Spa shows the honey-colored Bath stone that appears in buildings throughout the historic city. © Bath Tourism Plus/Colin Hawkins

Close Encounters of the Galápagos Kind

On the Galápagos Islands, you can get close to the wildlife. Photo courtesy Ecoventura

Life on a sustainable Ecoventura cruise in the Galápagos Islands is never dull: every day our group made two shore excursions to see exotic birds, strange reptiles and amusing animals. We hiked, sea kayaked and snorkeled at a different island daily—each more lovely than the one before.

A Galápagos trip is a crash course in species that live nowhere else on the planet. I felt like I crammed a full semester of zoology, ornithology and botany into a single week. Most important, experiencing the wildlife up close and personal solidified my commitment to protecting these species. (My husband and I make an annual donation to the Galápagos Conservancy now.)

By the way, the reason Galápagos animals and birds live in harmony—with no fear of humans or each other—is there’s no competition between species. They don’t prey on each other, so when we bipeds approach, they don’t see us as a threat either.

We’re taught never to touch an animal, which can be tricky. On an Española beach, a seal lion pup was so curious about us humans that we had to run away from him!

Here are some of the trip’s nature highlights:

The Nazca booby is just one of the booby varieties we saw. Photo courtesy Ecoventura

“I Love Boobies”

In the Galápagos airport, you can’t miss the T-shirts that say “I love boobies!” above a photo of these humorous birds. When I first saw the shirts I rolled my eyes, but I have to admit that by the end of my trip I was saying: I do! I do! I do love boobies!

We often saw both blue-footed boobies and Nazca boobies (identified by their white feathers with a large black stripe), and they’re the most charming birds.

One afternoon, at Punta Suarez on the island of Española, we watched a male blue-footed booby performing his courtship dance. He bobbed up and down. He puffed out his chest. He hopped on one bright-blue foot and then the other. The female seemed mildly interested, until he picked up a stick in his beak and presented it to her. She accepted! I think we witnessed a marriage proposal.

Sally Lightfoot Crabs and Sea Lions on Santiago Island

Sally Lightfoot crabs with a marine iguana. Photo by Tony Karacronyi, courtesy Ecoventura

I loved seeing these intensely-bright red-orange crabs against the black lava rocks. It’s fascinating watching them scoop up algae with their front claws and bring it to their prehistoric crabby mouths.

Their faces are laced with colors: blue, yellow and subtle striations of orange-red.Near the crabs, lava-black marine iguanas spit salt out of their dinosaur-like noses with a hiss. A little creepy, but very mesmerizing!

Later we snorkeled and spotted three green sea turtles, their flippers like gentle wings gliding through the water. They stopped to munch on clumps of orange and yellow sea lettuce.

A diver gets a peek at a sea turtle in the Galápagos' Pacific waters. Photo courtesy Ecoventura

The really big excitement was the two sea lions who swam past us as we snorkeled. They didn’t stop to greet us, but it was exotic to be just an arm’s length away. And I felt truly at a disadvantage as we lumbered through the waters while they elegantly whirled past.

The Birds of Isabella Island

As we hiked along the hardened volcanic-ash earth, we spotted the famous Darwin finches. (They were instrumental to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.) Their nests look like balloons with a small opening on one side.

Our guide, Orlando, explained that the males build two or three nests and wait for females to chose one. The picky female goes from one nest to the other, inspecting the real estate, so to speak, until she finds her dream home. There she lays and incubates her eggs, while the male brings her food. After the chicks have hatched, however, Mom takes off, leaving the male to do all the rearing and to act as flight instructor. She moves on to new romance with another innovative nest architect.

Next, we got back into the panga(small boat) and found penguins swimming about. One was taking a rest from fishing, however, and posed photogenically on a rock. Orlando steered the panga just a few feet away. Mr. Penguin opened his eye to check us out, then continued his nap. Click, click, click went our cameras.

Galápagos penguins: We watched them on land and torpedo-ing underwater. Photo: Ecoventura

The day’s grand finale: snorkeling off the panga. As soon as we slid into the water, cute little penguins zipped past us. At first I thought they were speedy fish, but then I noticed their white-and-black tuxedoed feathers, which shimmered with trapped oxygen bubbles. They were so cute, I laughed—which is tricky when you have a snorkel tube in your mouth.

Magazines are always advertising trips of a lifetime. Well, I’ve been a lot of places on the planet, but I can honestly say there’s no other trip like one to the Galápagos Islands. Unforgettable!

For more about the Ecoventura cruise, see my post: “Galápagos Islands: Take A Sustainable Cruise”

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

The male magnificent frigate bird has a scarlet throat pouch that inflates like a balloon in breeding season. Photo courtesy Ecoventura