Sunset over Old San Juan

Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis cemetery in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico ©Laurel Kallenbach

Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis cemetery in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico ©Laurel Kallenbach

This view of the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis cemetery in historic Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, is iconic. (An old edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook has this photo on its cover.) The desk attendant at my hotel shared a scenic tip: Walk to the 16th-century Castillo San Felipe del Morro fortress in late afternoon to watch the sunset. I took his advice and was not disappointed!

I wandered along the old streets on the cliff above the ocean for a while. Nice to be out of the traffic. Just as I reached the old fortress walls, the sun was at its most golden. Looking east over the walls, I could see this chapel and historic cemetery bathed in the warm light, with the Atlantic sparkling and blue. Breathtaking!

Supposedly, the Spanish colonists built the cemetery in the mid-1800s overlooking the Atlantic Ocean to symbolize the spirit’s journey to cross over to the afterlife. I can’t imagine a better place to spend eternity!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

 

Antiquities Under Attack: After the Tunis Museum Shooting

When I heard about the March 18, 2015, terror attacks on tourists at Tunisia’s National Bardo Museum, I was saddened and horrified that people died while appreciating the history and magnificent art of the ancient world. Then it sank in: I visited that museum on my first-ever trip abroad.

This lion mosaic is one of the treasures at the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Photo courtesy Bardo Museum

This lion mosaic is one of the treasures at the Bardo Museum in Tunis.    Photo courtesy Bardo Museum

Back in my teens, my high school Spanish club journeyed to Spain and Italy—with a stop in Tunisia to tour the ancient ruins of Carthage and wander through Tunis’ vibrant and colorful Arab souk (market), which made quite an impression. However, the highlight of my first foray into North Africa was a visit to the Bardo Museum where the mosaics and statues from the ancient world were protected and displayed.

At 16, I’d never seen ancient art in anything but a book; in person, it was dazzling. I could hardly believe I was seeing the genius of talented artists thousands of years before. In fact, the Roman-era mosaics and sculptures I gazed at—and that survived the shootings—are among the best-preserved works of their kind in the world.

Thirty years ago, the Bardo Museum was not as sleek and sophisticated as it looked in the post-shooting photos. Indeed, the museum was remodeled and redesigned in 2012 to be the cornerstone of Tunisian heritage that would help attract millions of tourists. Although damage to the artwork was minimal, the loss of human life was tragic. And the aftershocks of the attacks will be felt for years.

Tourism is an important part of Tunisia’s economy; on a recent NPR report I heard that people in the streets begged international journalists to tell people to please come visit their country. Even though the Bardo Museum has reopened—and presumably has heavy security—attendance is sure to suffer for several years.

A floor mosaic of Poseidon, Roman god of the sea, on his chariot. It dates to the 2nd century CE. Photo courtesy of the Bardo Museum

A floor mosaic of Poseidon, Roman god of the sea, on his chariot. It dates to the 2nd century CE. Photo courtesy of the Bardo Museum

Annihilation of Cultural Treasures

In the past 15 years, wars and terrorism have taken an appalling toll on ancient art in the Middle East, including the region often called the “cradle of civilization.” in 2001, the Taliban dynamited the Buddhas of Bamiyan, sixth-century figures carved into the sandstone cliffs in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley. Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the National Museum was shelled and plundered, resulting in many antiquities destroyed or stolen. In 2014 and early 2015, Islamic State terrorists have been bulldozing and sledgehammering works of art across Iraq, annihilating the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria.

The loss of human life in terrorist attacks is horrible. And, for me, a museum lover and Egyptology fanatic, the loss of antiquities is inconsolable. Watching videos of thousands-year-old Assyrian statues being toppled off pedestals and broken is as heart-breaking to me as seeing footage of a person being killed. During WWII, the Monuments Men, a special unit of art experts from the Allied Forces, risked their lives to rescue looted artwork of Europe from the Nazis. I’m hoping UNESCO, which has spoken out against the destruction of antiquities in the Islamic world,  can create some kind of similar unit or special forces to help protect ancient treasures against future attacks. Their decimation is rightfully being called “war crimes” and “cultural cleansing.”

A sculpture of a winged bull with a human head guards the palace gates at the ancient city of Nimrud (in northern Iraq), which was destroyed by Islamic State terrorists.

A sculpture of a winged bull with a human head guards the palace gates at the ancient city of Nimrud (in northern Iraq), which was attacked in March of 2015  by Islamic State terrorists. Photo courtesy UNESCO.

What can we do? After the September 11 attacks on New York and the Boston Marathon bombing, these cities asked visitors to return—to show solidarity and support through tourism. New Yorkers and Bostonians exhibited great pride and resilience in the wake of those disasters. I hope, too, that the people of Tunisia, of Iraq, of Syria, and of Afghanistan feel great pride in their cultural heritage.

All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Egypt to see the antiquities I’ve adored since I was a kid—but honestly, concerns about political upheaval in the country have prevented me from going. Yet, I believe that when travel lovers experience the wonders of the world—past and present—they reinforce the pride of the descendants of those cultures.

Yes, travel is an act of bravery; it’s also an act of peace and solidarity with the world. It’s time for me to be brave and start planning a trip to Egypt—and back to Tunis. There are treasures there I want to see and welcoming people I want to meet.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S. Would you consider traveling in north Africa or the Middle East? Why or why not?

For information on traveling in Tunis, visit Come to Tunisia.

An early Christian baptismal font on display at the Bardo Museum.

An early Christian baptismal font on display at the Bardo Museum.

 

 

Time Traveling to Ireland’s Temple House

No photograph could prepare me for the my first glimpse of Temple House, a Georgian mansion set on an estate of 1,000 acres a few miles south of Sligo. After I drove past the gates and through the green pastures filled with sheep, the sight of the stately home took my breath away. It’s huge and imposing—like something out of a wonderful costume-drama film.

TempleHouse

I stepped back into history during my visit to Temple House, an Irish country manor in the rural area south of Sligo, named for ruined medieval Knights Templar Castle on the grounds. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

Despite the grandeur—and everything from Temple House’s exterior to its antique-furnished rooms is grand—it’s a homey place run by the down-to-earth Perceval family, who have lived here since 1665. Deb and Sandy used to manage the guesthouse until their retirement; they’ve since turned it over to their son, Roderick, and daughter-in-law, Helena.

In My Lady’s Chamber

I stayed in the smallest room: the pink room, which is anything but small. I slept cozily in a half-canopied bed and tucked my luggage into a huge wardrobe, as if I were Irish gentry. I had a small writing desk, and I absolutely adored throwing open my ceiling-high shuttered windows each morning to behold the soft, green fields dotted with sheep. (The only thing not historic—and happily so—is the bathrooms. They’re modern.)

 

Bedroom in Temple House, Sligo, Ireland

There are six guest rooms much like this one, all lavishly furnished with a mixture of family heirlooms and other antiques. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Although the mansion has 100 rooms, only a handful of them are restored and habitable. (Imagine trying to heat 100 rooms! In fact, I doubt there’s electrical wiring to all parts of the house.)

I especially loved the elegant dining room, the site of fabulous breakfasts and dinners. (The innkeepers emphasize locally grown foods, many from their own organic garden.) Guests gather at the immense, lavishly-set table while a crackling fire warms the room and paintings of the Perceval ancestors peer down from the walls. Roderick regaled us with colorful tales of his family through the centuries. I’d look from his face to his Victorian forebears—and noticed the same features: a similar nose, the shape of the eyes, a chin!

I can’t imagine growing up amidst so much history and finery, but then I remember that it takes huge sums just to keep up the place. The Percevals have to work hard preparing meals, cleaning bathrooms, changing linens and entertaining guests, so it’s a modest living—just in a grand setting.

Tea is served every afternoon in this cozy parlor. (The homemade chocolate biscuits, shortbread and fudge are divine!) ©Laurel Kallenbach

Tea is served every afternoon in this cozy parlor. (The homemade chocolate biscuits, shortbread and fudge are divine!) ©Laurel Kallenbach

The best part of Temple House? Countless things: It’s so comfortable, wondrously welcoming, and the fellow travelers I met were excellent company. There’s a lake that you can boat or fish on and ruins of a 13th-century Knights Templar Castle on the property to explore. (The Templar Castle gives the Temple House estate its name.)

Yet, what I loved most was feeling like I had stepped back into history. (If you really like old stuff, and want to travel back to pre-history, make a day trip to the nearby ancient Carrowmore Megalithic complex.) But even if there were nothing else in the vicinity to do, I can think of no more charming place to relax, read a book, eat fabulous food and dream of eras past than at Temple House.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Ireland:

P.S. For more tips on places to visit in Ireland, visit Discover Ireland.

Sweet Dreams at “Downton Abbey”

Highclere Castle is the film location for the "Downton Abbey" television series. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Highclere Castle is the film location for the “Downton Abbey” television series. ©Laurel Kallenbach

If, like me, you’re addicted to British costume drama Downton Abbey, why moon around watching past episodes? Just go for a visit and live it for real! You can see Highclere Castle’s gorgeous rooms and experience its real-life history through the eyes of your favorite TV character. You can’t help but visualize Mr. Carson presiding over the dining room or Cora Grantham having tea in the library when you’re there.

(You can also live vicariously by reading about my own personal Downton Abbey pilgrimage a couple of years ago.)

If you really want an immersion into the estate where the Downton Abbey TV series is filmed, you can now also spend the night on the property—not at the big house, but in London Lodge, accommodations built into the imposing arched entryway to Highclere Park.

London Lodge, on the Highclere estate, is built around a grand, arched entryway. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle.

London Lodge, on the Highclere estate, is built around a grand, arched entryway. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle.

London Lodge is decorated like a casual, contemporary cottage—with a sitting room, bedroom and full kitchen on one side of the archway, and the comfortable double bedroom, bathroom and dressing area on the other. London Lodge just opened in early 2015—and it’s already booked for the year!

Simply elegant, a stay at London Lodge offers a chance to stay on the Highclere grounds where there are acres of forests to ramble and lovely, expansive views of the castle from a distance. Guests can meander to Dunsmere Lake, The Temple of Diana, and tour the house and King Tut exhibit (ticket required).

Built in 1793 by the first Earl of Carnarvon, the London Lodge arch is made with Coade stone with heavy iron gates, and it frames the grand entrance used by family and visitors Highclere Castlle. The individual lodge rooms to either side were added later, probably around 1840. Over the past two years they’ve been restored by the current earl and his wife to provide unique and luxurious accommodation for two.

I haven’t been to London Lodge, but it sounds just smashing!

Written by the Countess Carnarvon, "Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Read Downton Abbey" chronicles the history of Highclere Castle during the 1920s and '30s.

Written by the Countess Carnarvon, “Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Read Downton Abbey” chronicles the history of Highclere Castle during the 1920s and ’30s.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S.: If you can’t get reservations at London Lodge, you might enjoy Highclere’s 20th-century history in the books written by the Countess Carnarvon: Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey and Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey.

The second book tells the story of one of Highclere Castle’s more famous inhabitants, Catherine Wendell, a glamorous American woman who married Lady Almina’s son, the 6th Earl of Carnarvon. Catherine presided over the grand estate during the tumultuous 1920s and ’30s, a period when many of England’s great houses faded as their owners’ fortunes declined. As WWII loomed, Highclere’s survival as the family home of the Carnarvons was in the balance.

Read more of my Downton Abbey posts: