Strolling Old San Juan’s Colorful Streets

Some of the most pleasurable parts of visiting a new place are free—as I learned while rambling among the vibrantly painted apartments and churches in Puerto Rico’s historic downtown area of Old San Juan. My entertainment during my two-day solo stay there was soaking up the atmosphere in Old San Juan, founded by Spanish colonists in 1521.

The streets of Old San Juan are a riot of Caribbean color. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The streets of Old San Juan are a riot of Caribbean color. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The architecture is a spicy mix of old-world Spanish and Caribbean tropical hues. When I got tired of walking, I stopped into some authentic local eateries to sample the flavors of the island too.

Yellow window, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Old San Juan is probably Puerto Rico’s most-visited spot, and rightfully so, with its colonial, cobblestone streets lined by a rainbow of apartments with balconies and bougainvillea. Add in palm trees, fragrant food cooking at wonderful restaurants, and sweeping views of the Atlantic, and you’ll fall in love.

I did.

On my two days in Old San Juan, I wandered among the quieter boulevards and simply drank in the colors. Except for the cars parked all along the streets, it’s easy to imagine how the town looked in the 16th and 17th centuries, back when it was a Spanish colony.

Old San Juan has shops, of course. I dropped into a few local artisan shops during the quiet hours, early morning and late afternoon when the cruise ships weren’t in port.

The inner courtyard of private home. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The inner courtyard of private home. ©Laurel Kallenbach

There are also satisfying restaurants, including modest spots where locals grab breakfast or lunch. At Café Manolin, an Old San Juan institution that serves creole-style food, I had fried eggs and beans with tortillas while I watched the old-style orange juice machine mash up oranges and spit out fresh juice. It tasted heavenly.

For high-end dining, there are many possibilities in the old town. One evening I enjoyed an early dinner at the snazzy Hotel El Convento tapas bar, where I sat on the patio overlooking the courtyard. Contentedly, I sipped a Bacardi Mojito and savored slices of Manchego cheese drizzled with truffle honey served with fresh-baked bread.

Mostly though, I wandered Old San Juan until my feet were sore or I got too hot in the Caribbean sun. That’s when I knew it was time to return to my “home” during my stay: the Casablanca Hotel. There I could nurse a margarita or cold Puerto Rican cerveza—the Old Harbor Taina brews are lovely—and watch one of my favorite movies of all time projected on the wall of the bar. Or, I walked up the stairs for a siesta in my room, which was small but comfy with a Moroccan flair.

I never got tired of taking photos of the brilliant architecture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I never got tired of taking photos of the brilliant architecture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The concierge at the Casablanca steered me to the best restaurants, and he humored me by letting me practice my Spanish. (For the record, most puertorriqueños speak fluent English.) This U.S. territory uses the American dollar. And I did a double-take one day when I bumped into the mailman wearing the traditional U.S. mail uniform—with shorts of course!

In addition, the Castillo San Cristóbal fortress and the Castillo San Felipe del Morro  are part of the U.S. National Park Service, where interpreters in those Smoky Bear hats give you guided tours of the old fort walls overlooking the azure ocean.

Mostly I loved Old San Juan’s small details, like iron knockers, glimpses into courtyards of apartment buildings, and colorful shutters. Nearly every apartment number was painted on glazed tiles.

Pink lantern, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Pink lantern, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

One morning, after breakfast, I was crossing a plaza and saw a skinny, feral cat dash out of nowhere and grab a pigeon from a flock pecking at the cobblestones. I was shocked; domesticated cats back home are rarely that fast, but clearly this cat was hunting for his breakfast!

A few hours later, I noticed a grumpy Persian perched inside the window of a posh apartment. He gazed out at the street with a pout that reminded me of a grounded teenager.

No, pampered puss, you have an easy life in your house, I thought. The streets of Old San Juan are lovely for us tourists, but they would be hard for a cat like you.

Brass knocker on a door ©Laurel Kallenbach

Brass knocker on a door ©Laurel Kallenbach

On and on I strolled the quiet streets of colonial San Juan, enjoying the arched entryways, elegant shuttered windows, and ornate iron grillwork—an art form brought to the New World by the Spanish.

Viva Viejo San Juan—viva Old San Juan!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Puerto Rico:

Jedi Knights Arrive in Ireland

Little Skellig island viewed from Skellig Michael, an island off County Kerry. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

Little Skellig island viewed from Skellig Michael, an island off County Kerry. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

Do you watch the end titles of a movie just to see the locations where it was filmed? If so, here’s a news flash: Star Wars: The Force Awakens will treat you to some eye-popping views of a remote, uninhabited island off the coast of southwest Ireland.

Unveiled in the film’s closing minutes, the closely guarded secret ending to the newest Star Wars episode was filmed in September 2014 on Skellig Michael Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Director JJ Abrams—along with cast and crew—jetted into a little village called Portmagee, County Kerry, on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. From there, they traveled eight miles by sea to the starkly beautiful Skellig Michael.

To keep it a secret, locals were told a documentary was being filmed in the area, so they were amazed when it was quietly revealed that it was really Star Wars being filmed in their community.

A press release from Tourism Ireland quoted Gerard Kennedy of The Bridge Bar and Moorings Guesthouse in Portmagee, as saying: “It’s been so hard to keep this secret! It was such a weird and wonderful experience for our small village to be part of the Star Wars story. We enjoyed evenings of music and dance in our bar with the cast and crew. Mark Hamill even learned how to pull a pint with our barman, Ciaran Kelly!”

The monastic Island, Skellig Michael founded in the 7th century, for 600 years the island was a centre of monastic life for Irish Christian monks. The Celtic monastery, which is situated almost at the summit of the 230-metre-high rock became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. It is one of Europe's better known but least accessible monasteries.Photo:Valerie O'Sullivan

Starting in the 7th century, Skellig Michael was a center of monastic life for Irish Christian monks for 600 years. The Celtic monastery, which is situated almost at the summit of the 230-meter-high rock, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. It is one of Europe’s better known, but least accessible, monasteries.    Photo by Valerie O’Sullivan

 

In the Footsteps of the Jedi Knights

Ireland’s County Kerry is one of the island nation’s best-loved destinations—and the first place I ever visited in Ireland. Thirty years ago I was wowed while driving around the Ring of Kerry, a road along the cliff-lined coast with dramatic views over the Atlantic.

If you’re a fan of Star Wars—or of stargazing—this might be just the destination for you. Kerry is one of only three Gold Tier International Dark Sky reserves in the world. The beautiful band of the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, star clusters and nebulas are just some of the wonders you can see with the naked eye in the region.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll even spot Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon as it drops out of hyperspace!

The island of Skellig Michael is accessible only by boat. Today it’s inhabited solely by birds, but monks settled there more than a millennium ago. The stacked-stone beehive huts that the monks lived in are restored and can be visited from May to September each year. (Advance booking required.)

Skellig boats arriving safely after the eight-mile journey to Skellig Michael. Photo: Valerie O'Sullivan

Skellig boats arriving safely after the eight-mile journey to Skellig Michael. Photo by  Valerie O’Sullivan

Traveling with Star Wars

A growing number of travelers choose to visit TV and shooting locations. (See my post about visiting Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed. ),

Locations for The Force Awakens include Scotland, Iceland’s volcanoes, the Abu Dhabi desert, England, and New Mexico. Past Star Wars movies have featured Tunisia, Spain, Lake Como (Italy), Guatemala, Norway, and Switzerland.

Watch a video of scenery on Skellig Michael are available at Tourism Ireland.

May the traveling force be with you!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read about my travels in Ireland:

 

Colorado’s St. Walburga Abbey Offers Contemplative Retreats

Set in a valley in northern Colorado, St. Walburga Abbey welcomes visitors for spiritual or personal retreats. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Set in a valley in northern Colorado, St. Walburga Abbey welcomes visitors for spiritual or personal retreats. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A lifesize bronze statue of St. Walburga in a nun’s habit and long robes gazes serenely over the rocky hills and low pines near Virginia Dale, Colorado. Above the saint, a red hawk dips and dives in the air currents. In this serene Western landscape live 20-plus Benedictine sisters of the Abbey of St. Walburga,  a community devoted to God and the contemplative life.

The nuns observe choral worship seven times a day; maintain a small farm with llamas, bees, and grassfed beef cows; and make handmade cheeses. (And they do all this in full-length skirts and habits!)

The abbey's sanctuary ©Laurel Kallenbach

The abbey’s sanctuary ©Laurel Kallenbach

They also welcome not-particularly-religious people like me who are seeking a quiet place to retreat from the hubbub of life.

Located 35 miles north of Ft. Collins, Colorado, and 30 miles south of Laramie, Wyoming, St. Walburga Abbey is a tranquil spot for people to slip away from the cares of everyday life and retreat into solitude, contemplation, or prayer.

The beautiful, modern chapel and abbey building—created from eco-friendly, climate-efficient building materials—is a breath of fresh air. Here you can spend one to five days getting away from it all in a restorative environment.

And you don’t have to be Catholic. (In fact, I’m told the majority of retreatants are from other belief systems or simply want time to catch their breath in a beautiful setting.)

I’ve come several times to St. Walburga Abbey for writing retreats at the suggestion of writer friends. All of them have gotten their books published, so there must be divine inspiration at work!

Carrying a bottle of healing oil, St. Walburga welcomes visitors to the Abbey. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Carrying a bottle of healing oil, St. Walburga welcomes visitors. ©Laurel Kallenbach

At Home with a Saint

The statue of a serene-faced saint greets me as I drive up, and she sets a welcoming tone. In St. Walburga’s hand is an emblematic bottle of oil. At her burial crypt in Germany, it’s said that drops of oil flow from the saint’s relics, and this oil is used to heal the sick. I’m inclined to believe in this miracle; I know I start to feel better as soon as I arrive in this gorgeous landscape.

Having a set schedule—the same every day—is relaxing for me too. The nuns’ day is centered around the Divine Office—the seven periods of prayer and psalm-singing spaced throughout the day and night. I try to attend one daily, though I’ve never made it to the 4:50 a.m. Matins. There’s a pamphlet with the words that the sisters chant—and visitors can join in. (Just follow the sisters in standing and sitting down at various times. Don’t worry, the liturgy is mostly sung in English.)

I always give the singing/chanting my best shot, even though the pitch is a bit high for me and I’m not always sure when the notes change. But when at the Abbey, it’s nice to join in the culture. And it’s a perfect way for me to break up writing sessions. The words of a psalm sung at morning Lauds (held at a more doable 7:15 a.m.) inspired a scene in my novel.

There are beautiful tapestries to admire in the Abbey, both in and outside the sanctuary. If you are Catholic, you can enjoy a scenic walk around the Stations of the Cross—or you can simply meander the property or sit in the gardens and enjoy the view. In summer when the windows are open you can enjoy the chanting from the garden—or even from your cozy room.

A pastoral setting.  ©Laurel Kallenbach

The pastoral setting is perfect for contemplative walks in nature.  ©Laurel Kallenbach

The history is as fascinating as the place is beautiful. During the early years of the Nazi regime, the nuns of the original St. Walburga Abbey in Eichstätt, Germany (Bavaria), realized they were in danger of persecution, so the Abbess bought farm land on the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado, and quietly sent a few nuns to America to establish a new home for them in the event the rest of the order was forced to flee Germany. In the 1990s, the Abbey left Boulder for rural northern Colorado because the area around their farmland was developed and became surrounded by a busy commuter roads and a noisy highway. There, like me, they found peace.

Abbey Habits

On my visits to the Abbey—I usually go for two or three nights at a time—I feel myself exhale and slow down until I’m in step with this tranquil setting. I’m glad there’s no Internet; and I don’t even check my cell phone to see if there’s coverage. Instead, I chant, I write, I visit with other retreatants or a nun—if she’s got the time. (The sisters have much work to do every day, including cooking, cleaning, working in the gift shop, tending the livestock…and praying of course.)

The garden at the Abbey ©Laurel Kallenbach

The garden at the Abbey ©Laurel Kallenbach

On my most recent visit, the entire retreat center was full with a group of 18 doing a three-day silent retreat. So meals were completely nonverbal, which I enjoyed. On my first visit, the guests consisted of me and just one other woman who was a little too chatty. No worries, I simply pinned a badge on my sweater that stated I was keeping silence. That kept me in my own space instead of making small talk that distracted me from my writing or that crowded out my characters’ fictional voices in my head.

I’ll pass along a tip one of my friends shared with me the first time I went to the Abbey of St. Walburga: take snacks. The cafeteria-style meals are lovingly prepared, but basic and modest. There’s a refrigerator for retreatants, so you can easily store a few treats for between-meal munching. That said, the sisters make a huge effort to accommodate special dietary needs, and there are often homemade cookies for dessert!

Another thing: attire at the Abbey is casual, even though the sisters are wearing their Sunday best every day—except when they change into work clothes and aprons for chores. Because it’s outdoorsy, you need sturdy walking shoes. And you can wear jeans and a T-shirt into the church (but not shorts or sleeveless shirts).

The bell tower, St. Walburga Abbey ©Laurel Kallenbach

The bell tower, St. Walburga Abbey ©Laurel Kallenbach

Last but not least, there are bells. Every day, a sister walks to the bell tower wearing noise-reducing headphones for ear protection, and she begins to ring the bells. First, they peal just one at a time. Then the sister gets both going at once. The jubilant bells beckon to all who seek harmony as if saying: “Come to the life-affirming, serenity-inspired sanctuary that is the Abbey of St. Walburga.”

Who the retreats are for: People desiring peace and quiet and open air. The day begins and ends early. (You’re welcome to keep your own hours, of course, but you should respect the privacy and quiet of others both day and night.) There is no WiFi, and cell phone coverage is spotty, which is perfect if you’re serious about unplugging. Three meals a day are provided; the food tends to be simple. Rooms are comfy and modest with a twin-sized bed and private bathrooms. (There is also a handicapped-accessible room, and one with two beds to accommodate a married couple.) A minimum donation/offering of $65 per night is requested. Here’s more information on retreats (either organized through the Abbey or just personal retreats).

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Watch the “Rancher Nuns” video about the St. Walburga nuns.

The sign on Highway 287. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The sign just off Highway 287 between Laramie and Ft. Collins. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

Floating Lanterns Light Honolulu for Memorial Day

 

Floating lanterns are an Oahu tradition for celebrating Memorial Day in Hawaiian tradition. Photo courtesy Shinnyo-en Hawaii

Floating lanterns are an Oahu tradition for celebrating Memorial Day in Hawaiian tradition. Photo courtesy Shinnyo-en Hawaii

Every Memorial Day, people gather at a beach in Honolulu, Oahu, for a beautiful ceremony of floating lanterns—a serene tradition of peace and remembrance for those who have departed.

I almost never post about events I haven’t personally attended, but when I got the press release about this ceremony I made an exception.

Six thousand candlelit lanterns are set afloat from Ala Moana Beach to honor the fallen, to remember departed loved ones, and as a symbolic, collective vow to work toward a peaceful future. More than 50,000 people attend the annual Lantern Floating Hawaii ceremony on Memorial Day, which gathers the community and visitors for a collective experience of warmth and compassion.

In harmony with Hawaiian tradition, the evening opens with the pū, oli and hula, followed by the Shinnyo Taiko and Shomyo Ensemble. Her Holiness Shinso Ito officiates, conducts a blessing, and is joined by six community leaders for the lighting of the Light of Harmony. After the lighting, the lanterns are set afloat onto the waters of Ala Moana Beach by the general public and volunteers. At the conclusion of the ceremony, all lanterns are collected from the ocean and restored for use in the upcoming years.

A participant launches a candlelit lantern inscribed with thoughts about those who have gone before us.

A participant takes a moment to reflect before launching a candlelit lantern inscribed with remembrances of a loved one. Photo courtesy Shinnyo-en Hawaii.

Attendees may receive a lantern to personally float, or they can write their remembrances on special forms that will be placed on collective remembrance lanterns to be floated by volunteers. There is no charge for a lantern; all donations received at the beach will be gifted to the City & County of Honolulu for the upkeep and beautification of Ala Moana Beach Park.

Some day I hope to take part in this beautiful ceremony and watch my own lantern mingle with the tiny lights of thousands of others as they bob in the bay.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor