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

Ghosts That Haunt Bath, England

Are you brave enough to seek out Bath’s most haunted locations this Halloween? There are plenty of places in and around the historic city of Bath with fascinating ghostly histories and scary stories.

Feel the chills at the haunted halls of Longleat House. Photo courtesy of Longleat

In such a beautiful town, it’s not surprising that some restless spirits still walk the beautiful streets of Bath and refuse to leave some of the elegant buildings they once frequented in life.

For a truly frightening evening, take a ghost walk of the city. A guide will lead you and share the startling stories about Bath’s haunted history with Ghost Walks of Bath. Or, explore the following ghoulish locations on your own…if you dare, that is!

The Grey Lady Ghost: Theatre Royal & Garrick’s Head Pub

The top, left-hand box facing the stage at the Theatre Royal in Bath is said to be the favorite haunt of the Grey Lady ghost. Legend has it that she fell madly in love with an actor in the 18th century and hung herself when her love was unrequited.

The Theatre Royal’s dramatic productions can’t surpass that of the legend of the Grey Lady ghost. Photo courtesy Visit Bath

Built in 1805, the Georgian-era Theatre Royal was beautifully refurbished in 2010. The Main House offers a year-round theatrical program, including many West End productions of plays, operas, comedies, dance, along with frequent Sunday concerts.

You may make it out of the theatre without encountering any specters, but you aren’t safe from the ghost of the Grey Lady even after you leave the Theatre! She is also said to haunt the Garrick’s Head Pub just next door.

Sit back and watch the hustle and bustle of Bath go by while enjoying a beer at Garrick’s Head Pub in downtown Bath. Photo courtesy Garrick’s Head

The Garrick’s Head is renowned as the most haunted pub in Bath, and the ghost of the Grey Lady is only one of the weird encounters you might have. The story they tell at Garrick’s is that the Grey Lady threw herself from an upstairs window following the death of her lover in a dual with her husband. (Slightly different story but with the same gruesome result!) Her hauntings of the theatre and pub are said to leave behind a lingering scent of jasmine.

More alarmingly, over the years Garrick’s Head landlords and bar staff have reported incidents of a poltergeist throwing candles and cash registers across the bar. In addition, it’s said that a blood stain appears on the pub floor in the same place every year.

Garrick’s Head was once the home of the famous Beau Nash, a celebrated “dandy” and the leader of fashion in 18th-century Britain. Nash was the Master of Ceremonies in Bath, a renowned spa town visited by the rich and royal.

Unsurprisingly, Garrick’s Head is a stately building, and its location next to the Theatre Royal always makes for an interesting and colorful crowd. It is open every day from noon onward; lunch and dinner are served in the bar, on the terrace, or in the dining room.

Lady Louisa of Longleat House

Though it is best known for its safari park, Longleat Estate also has some dark attractions even more wild than gorillas and hyenas.

Keep a lookout for the ghost of Lady Louisa who still wanders the ancient halls frantically searching for her long-lost footman lover. The story goes that her jealous husband confronted the footman and pushed him down the stairs before burying him in the cellar, unbeknownst to Lady Louisa.

Nestled in 900 acres of Capability Brown–landscaped grounds, Longleat Manor—20 miles south of Bath—is one of the finest Elizabethan stately homes in the country. There you can step back through over 450 years of history and marvel at the fantastic collection of artworks, paintings, tapestries, and furniture collected over generations.

The wandering phantom of Longleat House. Photo courtesy Longleat

Jungle Kingdom and Animal Adventure let visitors get close to amazing animals. On the six-and-a-half-mile drive-through experience, there’s plenty to look for, from cheeky monkeys to majestic lions.

Make this year’s Halloween one you won’t forget in a hurry with a spine-tingling Longleat Ghost Tour. Your guide will take you through the spooky cellars, attics, and corridors as you explore the Wiltshire estate’s chilling past, from October 26 to November 3, 2019. Suitable for children aged nine and over, this tour will feature live actors, so it’s not for the faint-hearted!

A Hanged Housekeeper: Francis Hotel

The historic Francis Hotel in Bath is haunted by a former housekeeper who sadly hanged herself after a long period of depression. Guests have reported being kept awake by the sounds of her scratching and tapping from inside their room. One guest reported their hot water bottle fles off the table in their bedroom.

The specter of a depressed maid stalks the posh halls of Bath’s Francis Hotel
Photo courtesy Francis Hotel Bath-MGallery

Love Never Dies: Amarone Restaurant

Beau Nash’s lover, Juliana Popjoy, was so distraught when the renowned 17th-century socialite died that she lived the rest of her life in a hollowed-out tree (!!), vowing never to sleep in a bed again. Her ghost now apparently haunts their former home, which is now the chic Italian restaurant, Amarone, located in one of Bath’s elegant Georgian buildings.

Amarone’s relaxed atmosphere, combined with thoughtfully created menus and impressive decor, ensures a memorable experience in Beau Nash’s former home. The menu includes freshly prepared pasta dishes, locally sourced steaks and fish fresh from the Dorset coast, as well as stone-baked pizzas and delectable desserts. The wine list has been compiled to complement the traditional yet innovative Italian cuisine.

As you enjoy your meal at Amarone, you might notice a woman in 1960s-style clothes dining alone. She seems perfectly normal—until she disappears, presumably about the time she receives the bill!

Two ghosts grace the Italian restaurant Amazon. Photo courtesy Amarone Restaurant

Carriage of Eloping Lovers: The Royal Crescent

Will you see the phantom horse-drawn carriage outside The Royal Crescent, Bath’s most iconic landmark? The carriage is often spotted and is thought to carry Elizabeth Linley and playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan as they eloped in 1772. Sheridan won Miss Linley’s hand after he dueled with Captain Thomas Matthews. The marriage started out happy, but later Sheridan was unfaithful. Shortly thereafter, poor Elizabeth contracted tuberculosis and died at age 38.

The 500-foot-long Royal Crescent is arranged around a perfect lawn overlooking Royal Victoria Park and forms a sweeping crescent of terrace houses. It is one of the greatest examples of Georgian architecture anywhere in the United Kingdom.

Bath’s Royal Crescent: the scene of a ghostly elopement. Photo courtesy Visit Bath.

Today, The Royal Crescent is home to a museum of Georgian life at No. 1 Royal Crescent, the five-star Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa, and private housing. You might have seen this popular location in various films and period dramas. Jane Austen’s Persuasion included many scenes shot at the Royal Crescent, and it’s also featured in the 2008 film The Duchess starring Keira Knightley.

For more information, check the Visit Bath website. 

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Photo courtesy Visit Bath

 

My Pilgrimage to the Real Downton Abbey

Highclere Castle, framed by the branches of the Cedars of Lebanon, is the film location of the PBS series “Downton Abbey.” © Laurel Kallenbach

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.

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, 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 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 here.

To get the scoop before we traveled, Ken and I read Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbeypenned by the current Countess Carnarvon, Lady Fiona, who is the Eighth Countess Carnarvon. Among the juicy historic tidbits—often more fantastic than the fictional TV show—are:

  • 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. Crawley in Downton Abbey.
  • 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.

Highclere Castle’s library.  Photo courtesy 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 Crawley sisters 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 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 Entrance Hall into the Library with its gold-plated leather-bound books, red carpets, and carved shelves. It’s odd to be in a place you’ve never been that seems so familiar. Such is the magic of film.

There’s no official tour at Highclere, but each room has a docent who answers questions about that room. Several of them work as stewards during Downton Abbey filming. Their job then—as it is while visitors stream through—is to be sure nothing is disturbed or broken 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.

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

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 lethal tryst with Lady Mary.

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: September 2019

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