Have Book, Will Travel

While cruising Maine’s Penobscot Bay on a schooner, this girl was immersed in a Harry Potter book. She could have been me at age eight.   ©Laurel Kallenbach

You can tell a lot about a person by their books: at home and on the road.

I have shelves of uncategorized fiction, including books I’ve read and those I haven’t. There’s a small, poetry-sized shelf for volumes of poems. There’s a delicious space for cookbooks in the kitchen. The sustainable living books are on my loftiest shelf.

And—of course!—I have devoted several rambling shelves to travel guides and travel memoirs and travel histories. All the destinations are mixed up: Egypt beside Ireland beside Singapore beside Belize. I’ve remapped the world.

Going Places

Whether or not a book is specifically about travel, it takes me on a journey—figuratively and literally. Many times, when I look at photos from past vacations, I’ve noticed that the book I’m reading made it into a picture or two.

Antigua’s Carlisle Bay beach was lovely, but my mind was in 17th-century Holland: I was reading Tracy Chevalier’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring.” ©Laurel Kallenbach

In fact, I often remember the books I read during specific trips, either because they helped pass long hours on the airplane or because I was so mesmerized by the book that it distracted me from the actual destination.

For instance, I read The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan in Fiji. I had plenty of time toward the end of the trip for reading because a hurricane was moving through that part of the Pacific. Although the hurricane remained 500 miles from the Fijian islands, the water got so murky that snorkeling was bad. By afternoon on the remote island of Kadavu, it started to rain buckets. We were staying in a solar-lit, thatched bure; when ours got damp and dark, we huddled in the dining building, which had a metal roof and hurricane lamps. I was happy to disappear into Tan’s magical mother-daughter saga. The next day, we flew back to the main island and stayed at a hotel near the airport. There, Ken and I sat on the bed and gazed out at horizontal rain and wind as they denuded the palm trees. Escaping again into the book, I could almost forget the howling outside.

“The Traveller’s Guide to Sacred Ireland” by Cary Meehan took me to amazing standing stones, like Kilclooney Dolmen in County Donegal. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I read Jurassic Park during my honeymoon on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Ken read it on the flight east—and during our unexpected sleepover in Atlanta due to cancelled flights. Then I read it on the beach and during the flight home. (To help us travel light, we pack books that both of us are interested in. That way we swap books halfway through the trip.)

In Scotland, I read a second-hand Amelia Peabody mystery—one of a series of charming archaeological whodunits set in Egypt during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When I was finished, I donated this one to a retreat-center library on the island of Cumbrae. (That’s another secret to traveling light: leave it behind for someone else to read.)

In England, I read Pride and Prejudice for two reasons: a) because I never had, and b) because it felt right to be reading Jane Austen while visiting the very manor houses, villages and gardens where the P&P movies were filmed.

Dove è la Toilette? (Where’s the bathroom?)

Where would we be without guidebooks and phrasebooks? Lost, I imagine. In the days before e-readers, I photocopied the pertinent pages before I traveled and then discarded the pages as I moved from place to place.

True confession: I still do this because a) I prefer not to lug expensive electronics around the globe, and b) batteries choose to die and wireless tends to disappear the instant I arrive in way-off-the-beaten-path places.

The Temple of Apollo at Stourhead estate in England, was the setting of a love scene in the 2005 movie “Pride and Prejudice.” I read the book while I was in the region. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Rick Steves’ Italy was my lifeline 15 years ago when I traveled alone for a month in the Lake District and Tuscany. I carried photocopied pages (a Rick Steves–sanctioned method), and everywhere I went—restaurants, cafés, museums, hill towns, lakes—Americans pored over the same book. The Rick Steves guide was an excellent ice-breaker: after all, you know the reader speaks (or at least can read) English. Many times I’d lean over to the adjacent table at a trattoria and start a Rick-related conversation:

“I see you’re traveling with the Rick Steves guide. Are you staying in Varenna or Menaggio here on Lake Como?”

“We got into that cute little mom-and-pop hotel in Varenna. You?”

“Varenna. That hotel was booked, so I’m staying at a nice place on the outskirts. A little pricier, but there’s a lovely garden and a fresco in the breakfast room! How are Rick’s suggestions for restaurants here in town?”

“Outstanding! We’ve been to all of them. ‘Stick with Rick’ is our motto.”

Stick with Rick became my mantra for that trip—half of it anyway. I mostly agreed with his recommendations for pretty medieval villages to visit, and I appreciated his historical background. In May, when tourism was light, seeing others with Rick Steves’ Italy was a novelty. By June, as crowds increased, the thrill had worn off and I had to get off the Rick grid for a little solitude.

For better or worse, at home or abroad, books unite us.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted July 2013

What books have transported you most? Does a certain type of book work for you when you travel? And how do you read: eBook or paper? Leave a reply below, if you like…

I used the titles of books to create a little “book haiku” about traveling. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

Ireland’s Púca Festival: Where the Halloween Story Begins

It might surprise you to learn that Halloween originated as a Celtic celebration for the new year, which in the Celtic calendar began on November 1st. (The Celts lived about 2,000 years ago in the area that’s now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France.)

The Púca Festival is named for a shape-shifting spirit from Celtic folklore. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

This tradition of “Hallowe’en” (short for “hallowed evening”) originated as the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced “Sow-win”)—which means “summer’s end” in Gaelic (Old Irish). It was celebrated with bonfires and costumes to ward off bad spirits. Samhain was a festival marking the end of the Celtic year and the start of a new one. It was believed to be a time of transition, when the spirits of all those who had passed away since the previous Oíche Shamhna (Night of Samhain) moved onto the next life.

Samhain was the last great gathering before winter, a time of feasting and remembering what had passed and preparing for what was to come in the future.

Over time, Halloween became Christianized and was known as All Hallows Eve—the night before All Saints Day. Some of the original pagan Samhain traditions were incorporated into the day we now call Halloween.

Modern Ireland’s First Púca Festival

This year, an inaugural Púca Festival celebrates Ireland as Halloween’s place of origin. The festivities are vibrant and contemporary, even though they are strongly rooted in the traditions of the country where Halloween’s traditions all began.

Púca takes place from October 31 through November 2, 2019, in three historic towns located within two Irish counties, and the festivities promise to be an unforgettable celebration of all things unearthly.

Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

Named after Púca (pronounced “pooka”), a shape-shifting spirit or goblin from Celtic folklore, the Púca Festival will capture the spirit of Samhain with three nights of authentic Halloween music, food, light, and spectacle. According to folklore, Púca is oftenseen in the form of a dog, rabbit, goat, goblin, or old man. Traditionally, a Púca appears as a dark horse with a wild, flowing mane.

The Púca Festival will salute the Halloween spirit with processions, light installations, Irish music, and harvest-inspired food. The festival kicks off in the town of Athboy, in County Meath, with The Coming of Samhain (October 31), a re-creation of the symbolic lighting of the Samhain fires in the shadow of The Hill of Ward, one of the earliest places where Samhain was celebrated.

Elsewhere in County Meath, the spectacular Trim Castle becomes the stage for three supernatural nights of music, light, and Halloween fun. The castle grounds come to life each night with aerialists, Púca performers, castle projections, and laser shows—along with the Púca Food & Craft Market.

The Celtic Halloween spirit is alive at Ireland’s inaugural Púca Festival. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

The castle will also play host to a world-class selection of musicians, including Jerry Fish’s Púca Sideshow, Just Mustard, Pillow Queens, AE MAK, and Kormac and the Irish Chamber Orchestra.

Bringing the town of Drogheda (County Louth) to life, the third festival hub will be a haunting, three-day program of music, film, and light installations. The town will play host to projection artists de:LUX, whose artworks over the three festival nights will draw inspiration from tales of Irish folklore and the spirits of Halloween.

Púca Festival will be the ultimate celebration of this time when light turns to dark, the veil between realities draws thin, rules can be broken, and the spirits move between worlds.

For more info, visit Tourism Ireland and Púca Festival.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer, editor, and writing coach

Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

On Downings Beach, Ireland

There’s a working-class beach town called Downings in northern County Donegal, Ireland. Located right on the Atlantic, the views are lovely, and Sheephaven Bay shelters this surprisingly long, sandy beach.

Oceanside Car Park

The Irish treat Downings’ Beach a lot like a local park. And here’s the funny part: They drive their cars right onto the beach and park them surprisingly close to the water. (I suppose it’s because that’s where the sand is hard-packed after the receding tide.) Still, it’s astonishing to see people use the sand as a “car park,” as they call it here. Many families set up beach chairs and picnic right beside their car!

©Laurel Kallenbach

Sunday on the Beach

I took this photo late on a Sunday afternoon in August, after most of the action died down for the day. (That’s why there are only a few parked autos—earlier at least 50 of them were lined in neat rows.)

The horse wagon is for the wee kiddies to ride, whereas the boys in the foreground were more interesting in net fishing. Or were they butterfly hunting?

Downings has a several hotels and pubs (which favor country-western music over fiddles and Irish tin whistles most nights of the week.) The tiny town was once a getaway for folks from nearby Northern Ireland fleeing “The Troubles.” There’s still a large caravan (trailer) park in Downings.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Originally posted in March 2009

Read more about my travels in Ireland:

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

An Irish Dolmen and a Magical Dog

Places I find most magical are in countries with either a very ancient history or where people have a different sense of time—where a day is measured by afternoons rather than nanoseconds.

So in 2004, I made a pilgrimage to Ireland, a nation of storytellers, where you can still hear tales about encounters with fairy folk, where upscale housing developments might still be named for an ancient queen or saint, where you fetch the gate key to a 6,000-year old stone passage tomb at the espresso shop down the hill.

My first view of the Kilclooney Dolmen, which sits on a rise in the land.

I’m a bit obsessed with standing stones, you see, and Ireland has so many!

One morning, I clomped in vain through thigh-high grasses searching for a sacred well along Donegal’s cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. (Wells like these were used in pagan and early Christian times for healing.) Frustrated, I decided to skip my next itinerary stop and head to my B&B for an afternoon nap.

Searching for Stones

As I drove past the road sign pointing to Kilclooney, just 15 miles away, I made a U-turn (not so easy on Ireland’s narrow rural roads!), and took the route leading to Kilclooney’s dolmen, which is a huge stone table built over a tomb entrance.

At the village of Kilclooney, I pulled into a church parking lot and walked to the farm gate across the street—following my trusty guidebook, The Traveller’s Guide to Sacred Ireland by Cary Meehan (I can’t recommend this one enough!).

The rough farmhouse road/path lay behind the gate—where two large red cows stood sentry, menacingly chewing their cud (or the remains of the last pilgrim they had thwarted!). I followed the guidebook’s instructions and knocked on the stone farmhouse door.

“Is this the path to the dolmen?” I inquired of the elderly lady with a cane who opened it.

“Yes, yes,” she answered with a welcoming smile. “Go through the gate and up the hill a way,” she said.

“There are cows?” I stammered.

The woman must have read my mind: “Ah,” she said with a wave of her hand, “Don’t worry about the cows; they won’t touch you.”

Guardian at the Gate

So I set out, opened the gate, and sidled toward the bovine guards, eyeing their horns. I had come all this way, and I couldn’t stand the thought of losing both the sacred well and the dolmen in one day.

At that moment, a black lab bounded through the fence, barking and nipping at the cows, who grudgingly yielded the path. I petted the wagging dog, my hero, then she began bouncing up the trail toward the dolmen.

So I had a four-footed guide, who soon presented me with a reddish rock, dropped it at my feet and stared pointedly at it. On Ireland’s farmland, trees and sticks are scarce, so I picked up the rock and hurled it along the path. So began our game of “fetch,” which lasted the entire half-mile walk to the dolmen: The dog got the rock (always the same one), carried it in her mouth back to the spot in the trail where I had advanced, and dropped it slobber-covered at my feet. I picked it up, threw it ahead and walked some more.

Rocks with a View

When we came up a hill, I gasped when I caught sight of giant rocks like three legs supporting a massive horizontal rock that nonetheless was elegantly stacked so that it looked like a bird taking flight. As we drew nearer, my dog friend guided me safely off the path and across the soggy bog until I arrived at the foot of the dolmen.

I could see for miles over the countryside; there wasn’t a soul around except my canine companion. I explored the stone monument, touching the cool rocks, crouching inside the hollow beneath its “legs,” which once (millennia ago) led into a subterranean chamber.

Kilclooney Dolmen is located in County Donegal, just a few miles from the town of Ardara. You can see my canine guide in the shadow of the dolmen.

I wanted to write in my journal, so I sat on a nearby rock where I had a lovely view of the dolmen against the dramatic sky with storm clouds brewing on the horizon. Minutes later, my reverie was destroyed by an army of buzzing midges. I had to keep moving to escape their bites, so I ambled, assessing the dolmen from many angles and picking a few wildflowers.

Finally, I tied my bundle with a stem, placed the flowers at the dolmen’s feet, made a wish and kissed the bird-like capstone. It’s part of the dolmen lore that a kiss on the ancient rocks will make your wishes come true.

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.

Originally posted in March 2011.

More about megaliths I’ve visited: