Laurel’s Compass Travel Blog

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

Uncovering Callanish’s Secrets: An Archaeological Tour

Update: With great sadness, I’m reporting that Callanish researcher and archaeo-astronomer Margaret Curtis died in March 2022. Read on for the insights Margaret shared with me when I visited the Callanish Neolithic sites on the Isle of Lewis in 2012.

Seeing, touching and photographing the astonishing Callanish stone circle on Scotland’s Isle of Lewis is only part of the delight of visiting. Because I’m more than a little obsessed with these prehistoric treasures, I wanted to learn what archaeologists think about this particular circle when I visited. So I did a little research and dug up a wonderful guide, Margaret Curtis, who has observed and excavated sites around Callanish for almost 40 years.

Margaret Curtis led tours of the Callanish standing stones. Here, in 2012, she explained the Triple Goddess stones inside Callanish III circle. © Laurel Kallenbach

I first read about archaeo-astronomer Margaret Curtis on artist Jane Tomlinson’s blog post,  and knew that I had to meet Margaret. So I phoned her before I left the States to request a tour. Just like that, I had an appointment with a local expert!

As it turned out, Donald and Nita Macleod, the owners of Leumadair B&B where I stayed, are good friends and supporters of Margaret’s research. So, Donald drove me and Margaret on not one, but two, tours of Callanish—which encompasses far more than just the large circle I’d journeyed to see. [Note: The Macleods have retired, and Leumadair B&B is now closed.]

Many megalithic sites—including other circles, stone rows, burial cairns, and single standing stones—dot the countryside and farmland. Collectively, these 20-plus sites are called the Callanish Complex.

Monoliths, Moons, Mountains, and Myths

I was so lucky to hire Margaret Curtis to be my guide.  She shared her enduring passion for the secrets and mysteries of the extraordinary Callanish Complex.

Here’s Margaret Curtis with the Callanish I endstone in 2012. This stone marks the end of the avenue of standing stones that leads up to the central circle. © Laurel Kallenbach

Over the decades, Margaret’s  life’s work included logging untold hours examining the stones; finding ones covered by thousands of years of peat; and unearthing hidden, but important, sites.

Yet earthworks and rocks are just part of the story. Like the Callanish builders four to five millennia ago, Margaret was also a student of the sky. Although she never formally trained as an archaeologist or astronomer, she chronicled how ancient people carefully planned the Callanish sites to mark a number of astronomical events, including a lunar rise and set that occurs only every 18.5 years. Now that takes decades of observation on both the part of the builders and the archaeological sleuths! (Over the years, Margaret carried out her extraordinary work and research with her first husband, Gerald Ponting, and with her late husband, surveyor Ron Curtis.)

The standing stones on this Scottish island align with the sun and moon, yet there’s a third element at work here that makes the Callanish Complex extremely brilliant and, well, complex. On the horizon to the south are mountains, dominated by Mt. Clisham. If you use some imagination, you can see the head, breasts, belly, and knees of a reclining form. In English, she’s called Sleeping Beauty, but in the old Gaelic she’s “Cailleach na Mointeach,” the Old Woman of the Moors. I like that name so much better than the one referencing the fairy tale.

Behind the Callanish Visitor Centre is the reclining figure of the Old Woman of the Moors. The blue mound just to the left of the highest peak is her face. You can just make out the nose in the center of her “face.” © Laurel Kallenbach

 

The Man (or Woman) in the Moon

Cailleach na Mointeach, who also represents the Earth Mother or Earth Goddess, is the key to why all the Callanish standing-stone sites were built, archaeo-astronomers believe. The circles are all located in areas where viewers could see the once-every-18.5-year lunar event: when the full moon, at its rare southern extreme, rises from the sleeping body of the Old Woman of the Moors.

This celestial event was important enough that prehistoric people erected stones that would frame this special moonrise and moonset. As she wrote in Callanish: Stones, Moon, and Sacred Landscape (coauthored with Ron Curtis): “Seen from the Callanish area, the moon at its south extreme rises from some part of the Sleeping Beauty, passes low at due south, sets into the Clisham Hills, then reappears briefly and dramatically in the deep valley of Glen Langadale.”

Callanish III stone circle, where the two center stones frame the face of the Old Woman of the Moors. This is where the moon rises every 18.5 years. © Laurel Kallenbach

And there’s more: when the full moon reappears in the valley, a living person can stand inside the ring of stones and be silhouetted by the moon—a vision that’s as heart-stopping today as it must have been in 2200 BC. (You can see some photos of this at The Geo Group website. The last event occurred in 2006.)

Walking with the Wise Woman of Callanish

In 2012, when she was in her late 70s, Margaret was truly the Wise Old Woman of Callanish. She said she was personally most interested in the area from a scientific point of view, but she acknowledged that her work also drew from local history, folklore, and ethnology. She gave tours to modern pagans and goddess worshippers, and she said that their insights into earth-based rituals informed her work. After all, there are no written records about Callanish, so oral tradition in the form of legends can contain kernels of truth.

The white mineral deposits on the bottom half of this stone form what looks like the Horned God (Callanish I). His large  torso is slightly leaning to the right, and you can make out what look like antlers on his rather small head. © Laurel Kallenbach

At the start of my tour, Margaret took me to her workshop, where she demonstrated how the Callanish stone circles were designed to be ellipses—not just a poorly made circle—and how the stones were erected. She even let me hold a 4,000-year-old arrowhead—a tiny remnant of the prehistoric people who lived on this island. Mind-boggling!

Later, we ambled through Callanish I, the main stone ellipsis, which Margaret called both “a stone-age computer” (because it marks solar and lunar events) and a “community center” (because it was a gathering place for singing, dancing, and burying the dead).

In a way, Callanish is still a community center—of World Heritage Site calibre. Over the days I was there, I heard visitors from several continents speaking various languages, and I watched children have foot-races down the stone-lined avenue, the ancient entryway to the main circle. I saw photographers and artists capturing images of the stones on paper or in digital format. Couples paused to kiss. Baa-ing sheep gazed over the fence at the stones. Dogs lifted their legs to pee on the stones. Ravens alighted on the monoliths. Many people sat amid the stones and meditated or wrote in their journals. Occasionally someone would sing.

“People tuck flowers or special, meaningful items into the stone gaps and graves here,” said Margaret. She pointed out that someone had climbed up and left a carved bone atop the tall End Stone of the Avenue—the very top that had been broken off since Victorian times and that Margaret found amid a pile of rocks. The top has now been cemented on, thanks to her!

A peephole formed from two stones. ©Laurel Kallenbach

If you look through the rectangular peephole formed by two separate stones, you may be able to see sunrise at Summer Solstice. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Along the way, Margaret related the individual history of many other stones, which she knows like the back of her hand. She pointed out a stone in which the hornblende crystals naturally form a shape that looks strikingly like the pagan Horned (or Antlered) God. The gneiss stones were surely chosen because of their shape, size, and the presence of quartz (a crystal associated with the sun) or hornblende (a mineral associated with the moon).

She also showed me the notches in two separate stones in the Callanish I circle. At Summer Solstice, these two notches form a square “viewfinder” through which you can see the midsummer sunrise. In addition, an east-west line of stones lets you sight through two stones to witness both the Spring and Fall Equinox.

Stones That Mark Celestial Events

There are really too many highlights from Margaret Curtis’ tours for me to relate, but here are a couple of other Callanish sites on the Isle of Lewis that are well worth visiting:

The standing stones at the Barraglom Narrows are just part of about 20 prehistoric sites that comprise the Callanish Complex. © Laurel Kallenbach

1. Barraglom Narrows  stones (Callanish VIII): These standing stones are picturesquely positioned on a cliff overlooking the narrows that separate the Isle of Lewis from the Isle of Bernera. By sighting the east horizon from the third large stone here, you can spot two standing stones on a distant ridge. On Beltaine (May Day) you can see the sun rise between the two standing stones.

2. Callanish III stone circle: Sitting in what’s now a cow pasture (watch out for cow pies!), this small, elliptical circle surrounds four stones, which Margaret believes represent the Triple Goddess (one each for the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone) and her male consort (represented by a tall penis-shaped stone). If you stand at a sighting stone a few hundred yards outside the Callanish III circle, you will see the full moon rise at its rare southern extreme (every 18.5 years) from the body of the Wise Woman of the Moors—and that event is exactly framed between two stones. Four hours later, if you move to a second sighting stone that’s at a different angle to the circle, you see the moon reappear from behind the mountain in the valley of Glen Langadale. This too, is perfectly framed by two stones in the circle.

I loved visiting Callanish, especially at about 7:30 p.m., when this photo was taken. I’m wearing rain pants to cut the sharp wind and so that I could sit in the grass by the stone of my choice without getting damp. It’s not all paradise. Shortly after taking this picture, I had to put on my wool cap and gloves for warmth. And the midges start biting at sunset. Still, there’s no place I’d rather be.

Well, if anyone is still reading this too-long post, you’re probably as much of a standing stones geek as I am. Here’s to looking at the moon…

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and wannabe archaeo-astronomer

 Next blog post: An eco-friendly farm B&B with a view of Callanish

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

Updated: April 2022

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The Bolder Boulder 10K Race Is Back!

After two years of being canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Bolder Boulder foot race returned to the neighborhood streets of Boulder, Colorado. It’s been a tough two years, and the absence of this race—which is almost synonymous with Memorial Day in my home town—has been sorely missed. But for 2022, the race was back to jubilation!

Local kids spray a Bolder Boulder runner with cool water at the 2022 Bolder Boulder 10K race. ©Laurel Kallenbach

As the Bolder Boulder website notes, there’s a lot more to race day than the 10K. It’s part run, walk, parade, costume party, pro race, and sponsor expo. There’s both a Citizen’s Race and the International Pro Team Challenge, which attracts top male and female athletes from around the world. There’s also a category for wheelchair racers. Founded in 1979 as a small, local 10K,  the Bolder Boulder has since grown to be one of the largest community running events in the world. Before the pandemic, our town celebrated every Memorial Day with more than 50,000 participants and 70,000 spectators.

The finish line is always at the University of Colorado’s Folsom Field, which becomes the perfect venue for everyone to gather and watch the professional race and the Memorial Day Tribute. All the runners finish in the packed stadium where crowds are cheering. Afterward, many people stay to watch the grand finale, the Memorial Day Tribute.

Runners and walkers of all ages have a thrilling time on the Bolder Boulder race route through town. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I live about a 10-minute walk from 19th Street, one of the principal throughways for the race, right at about Mile 3 of the race. After having no race in 2020 and 2021, it was exciting to head down to watch a nonstop river of runners, joggers, and walkers jubilantly celebrating on a sunny and cool day. My husband, Ken, usually runs the Bolder Boulder, so I generally post myself someplace on 19th Street and wait, camera ready to snap some photos of him in full runner mode. Sadly, this summer he was out of town, but I wouldn’t miss this the opportunity to revel again with thousands of other spectators—especially after missing the race for two consecutive years.

 

A few people ran the 2022 Bolder Boulder with masks on. Others wore masks around their necks for after the race when they entered the crowded Folsom Stadium. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

I have to admit that as I walked toward the race, a dark thought crossed my mind. This was a gathering of tens of thousands of people. What if there were a shooting? Just three months ago the Table Mesa King Soopers grocery store reopened after the deadly March 2021 shooting. I took a deep breath, shrugged off my fear, and kept walking. I’m so glad I did, because when I arrived, the race was blaze of energy and smiles, costumes and local bands playing music along the race route. After isolating for the better part of two years, there I was amid happy humanity. The sight made me laugh; it also brought tears to my eyes, realizing the toll the pandemic has taken on us as social beings.

 

Runners get splashed with water near Cotton Candy Corner of the Bolder Boulder race. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

I also was keenly aware of the smell of sunscreen as racers passed by. The waft of scent from people who were breathing hard due to physical exertion set off another alarm: we emit about 130 times as many aerosols per minute during high-intensity exercise than when we’re at rest, say studies. All those airborne particles  raise the risk of transmitting COVID-19. But those statistics are from gyms, I reminded myself. Out in the open air, the risk is much less. Plus, there was a light breeze.

Soon I relaxed and laughed at runners raising their arms to receive a sprinkling of cool water from kids with their Super Soaker water blasters. I was also standing on “Cotton Candy Corner,” where volunteers were handing out cotton candy for runners in need of a jolt of sugar energy. Across the street a band was playing bluegrass.

Some young runners take a cotton candy break. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

Memorial Day marks the official beginning of summer. This year, for me, the Bolder Boulder is a reminder to get back in the swing of doing social, summer activities that I love and that make our town unique—including celebrating the joy of  being in community with others in the great outdoors.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

 

A spectator cheers at the Bolder Boulder. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

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My Pilgrimage to the Real Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey: A New Era is now in movie theaters, and I’m reliving my exciting visit to Highclere Castle in 2012.

I admit it: I’m among the millions who are enthralled by the hit PBS television series, Downton Abbey, set in England during the early 20th century. We Downton Abbey fans are fascinated by the escapades of the Granthams and Crawleys, who live in an opulent country manor house.

Catching the first glimpse of Highclere Castle—the film location for the Downton Abbey TV series and films—literally took my breath away. ©Laurel Kallenbach

So, as I was planning vacation in southwest England in 2012, it made sense that my husband and I should seek out the real Downton Abbey: Highclere Castle. This beautiful estate—set on 1,000 acres of parkland in Berkshire, England—about 1.5 hours west of London—is the film location for the “upstairs” scenes of Downton Abbey.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Downton Abbey is a posh costume drama—OK, it’s really a souped-up soap opera—that follows the lives and romances of the aristocrats and servants who live in this lavish estate home. The story also jumped to the big screen and has, to date, two major motion pictures.

The cast of the Downton Abbey TV series, which airs on PBS

Meet the Carnarvons

In real life, the Carnarvon family has lived at Highclere Castle since 1679, and the history of the house rivals—and sometimes parallels—the dramatic storyline of the hit show that’s filmed there.

To get the scoop on the Highclere estate’s history before we traveled to England, Ken and I read Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbeypenned by the current Countess Carnarvon, Lady Fiona, who is the Eighth Countess Carnarvon. The book contains many juicy historic tidbits—some of which are  even more fantastic than the fictional TV show. Here are just a few:

  • In 1895, Almina Wombwell married the estate-rich but cash-strapped George Herbert (the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon). Almina was the illegitimate child of the über-wealthy Alfred de Rothschild. Her generous dowry funded many improvements at Highclere Castle—and the tales of her shopping sprees are mind-boggling to us 21st-century commoners.
  • During World War I, Almina, the Fifth Countess of Carnarvon, transformed Highclere Castle into a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers—as did the fictional Lady Grantham and Mrs. C

    The Countess Carnarvon’s biography of Lady Almina .

    rawley in the Downton Abbey television show.

  • Lord Carnarvon, Almina’s husband, funded Egyptologist Howard Carter and was instrumental in discovering the tomb of King Tut in 1922. Some artifacts that Lord Carnarvon brought home from archaeological digs are on display at Highclere Castle.

This last fact really piqued my interested, as I’ve had a lifelong passion for ancient Egypt. I’ve known who Lord Carnarvon was since I was eight years old—so imagine my excitement when at Highclere Castle I saw old photos of Lord Carnarvon studying maps of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings in the same library where Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham gives instructions to Mr. Carson, the butler.

A Tour of Highclere Castle

Since Downton Abbey’s premiere, visitation to Highclere Castle has quadrupled, so I reserved tickets online 90 days before our visit—to assure that it wouldn’t be sold out. (Highclere isn’t open to the public every day because it’s a private home. Tickets gain you entry for 2.5 hours either in the morning or afternoon. There’s a separate admission fee for the Egyptian exhibition.)

The three Crawley sisters—Sybil, Mary, and Edith—from Downton Abbey. Photo courtesy PBS.org

Our first glimpse of Highclere Castle was from the parking area; a bus was disgorging passengers. So we headed first to the loo, as we’d had an hour-long drive, which involved getting lost along the way. (What’s a pilgrimage without a long, winding road filled with travail?) In our case, we had to brave driving on the left side of the road, and we had to stop for directions twice. One sweet older man at a nearby village told us to cross the bridge, travel up the hill past the estate owned by Andrew Lloyd Weber (the composer of Phantom of the Opera, Evita, and Cats fame), and straight on until we saw signs.

Once inside the Castle, we ooh-ed and ahh-ed as we passed through the marvelous Entrance Hall into the Library with its gold-plated, leather-bound books; red carpets; and carved shelves. It’s odd when a place you’ve never been before seems so very familiar. Such is the theatrical magic of film.

Although there’s no formal tour at Highclere, each room has a knowledgeable docent who answers questions about the room. Several of them worked as stewards during Downton Abbey filming. Their job then—as it is while visitors stream through—is to be sure that nothing is disturbed or broken in the historic building while the light and camera crews are at work.

Highclere Castle’s Music Room is lined by beautiful tapestries displaying monkeys, rabbits, peacocks, and owls. This room isn’t used as a Downton Abbey setting, probably because it’s rather small, but it features a desk that belonged to Napolean.

The regal Oak Staircase. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

The Smoking Room doesn’t appear in the TV show either, but as the place where the men gathered after dinner, it was also the storage spot for a number of Egyptian artifacts. Funerary jars that were once used as umbrella stands are now in museums.

The lovely green-and-yellow Drawing Room, on the other hand, is the location for a number of scenes in Downton Abbey, as Lady Grantham and her daughters often meet there. During season 2 of the show, the wounded WWI soldiers slept on cots in this French-style room, which was decorated by Lady Almina in the early 20th century.

Throughout the house, tables and walls are covered with portraits of the Carnarvons—from the 17th through 21st centuries. The modern snapshots—far less formal than the paintings—are a reminder that this is still a private home.

There’s other evidence of modern use too. There’s a hair drier on the vanity in the Mercia Bedroom (Lady Grantham’s bedchamber on the TV show—much featured in the scenes in which she nearly died from Spanish flu). Occasional guests stay in the very bedrooms that are broadcast around the world.

The Stanhope Bedroom, decked out in red carpet and draperies, was the perfect setting for the scandalous television scenes involving the infamous Mr. Pamuk, who spent his last night in this bedroom following a romantic tryst with Lady Mary.

Highclere’s Stanhope Bedroom became Mr. Pamuk’s bedroom in Downton Abbey. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

For the record, Mary’s bedroom and dressing room are actually a stage set and don’t exist in Highclere Castle. Neither do the kitchen and servants’ rooms. Downton Abbey’s entire downstairs is constructed in period style in the London studio.

The Saloon, Oak Staircase and Dining Room

The highlight of our Highclere Tour was the Oak Staircase leading from the Gallery-level bedrooms to the main part of the house. Ken and I paraded down the ornate-banistered staircase like Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary into a large room called The Saloon, the heart of this grand house—and a room that’s much featured on Downton Abbey. Its stone fireplace, carved cabinets, and arched doorways appear in famous scenes such as the Servants’ Ball and the concert for the soldiers. This spot just took my breath away.

The elegant Saloon is overlooked by the Gallery. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

It was delightful, also, to visit the Dining Room, where many an elegant meal—usually partaken of by the Dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith—is filmed. It must be quite an experience for the present-day Carnarvons to sit at the table under the watchful gaze of the portraits of their ancestors.

Just as we left the main part of the house to go to the Egyptian exhibit, one of the guides asked whether we’d seen Countess Carnarvon, who had been walking through the rooms chatting with them just minutes before. Rats! We missed her. She was probably wearing jeans and blended in with the visitors.

Perhaps it’s just as well…I hadn’t practiced curtsying. But I can’t help thinking it would have been fun to say, “Good morning, Your Ladyship.”

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer/editor

P.S. Many thanks to the Carnarvon estate for use of the photos of the interior of Highclere Castle. You can see slideshows of Highclere Castle photos at the castle’s website.

Originally posted: February 2013

Updated: March 2022

Read more Downton Abbey posts:

Highclere’s Georgian-era house was remodeled in 1849 and became the Victorian castle as it appears today. Architect Charles Barry built the spires in the style of London’s Parliament Building, which he also designed. © Laurel Kallenbach

 

 

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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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