The Plane Truth

A friend forwarded an article to me this week about one of my favorite travel destinations. My heart sank.  It seems trivial at first read, but for the first time in my life I realized we experienced a place that will no longer be part of the travel world for the foreseeable future.  It was a painfully short read.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-23447511

The plane trees along Canal Du Midi

The plane trees along Canal Du Midi

The Canal Du Midi in Southern France is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a favorite with boaters around the world.  The engineering genius of connecting the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, the spectacular beauty of tree-lined canals, locks, tow-paths and villages will be markedly changed when all 42,000 trees that line the bank are destroyed.

Biking through the vineyards along the Canal

Biking through the vineyards along the Canal

I went back into my photo archives to find pictures that capture the incredibly beauty of the place, but it’s difficult. We have a few photos and memories of piloting our hire boat through the canal, the chaos of “all hands on deck” to man the locks, the emotional moment of watching endless shooting stars stream overhead and the magic of dining topside beneath the plane trees at Carcassonne.   Will people still ride bikes along the tow-paths and through the neighboring vineyards?  Will they still stop at the tiny village bakeries to shop and pick up the morning croissants? Will local wineries fare well without boaters tying up along the canals and wandering up for an afternoon tasting and a few bottles of the local vintage?

Enjoying a local vintage...topside on Canal Du Midi

Enjoying a local vintage…topside on Canal Du Midi

Lock keepers managed to find hidden stashes of apple tarts and home made wines to share

Lock keepers managed to find hidden stashes of apple tarts and home made wines to share

So many bridges and locks...

So many bridges and locks…

Moored at Carcassonne

Moored at Carcassonne

Boating under the canopy.

Boating under the canopy.

In 50 years or so, it may return to its former glory, but the knowledge that I’ll probably never see it again nor will my children…is heartbreaking.

Friends and family for a topside dinner

Friends and family enjoying a topside dinner

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The Land of Heart’s Desire: The Yeats Trail

Despite the heroic efforts of  my 11th grade English teacher, I am a literary simpleton.  I  like poetry that rhymes and I routinely confuse Yeats with Keats.  Tragic, really.  My father, far more cultured and literate than I, mentioned an interest in a Yeats tour of Ireland as part of our mini “Gathering 2013.”

With a little Irish luck and a lot of Google maps,  I discovered Coole Park, home of Yeats’ literary patron Lady Gregory  and Yeats’ summer home are next to our ancestral family land in Gort, Ireland. A logical and convenient place to start our tour.   I like to imagine my great-grandfather and Yeats crossing paths in the woods, accompanied by other literary geniuses (George Bernard Shaw, JM Synge and Sean O’Casey) that spent time at Lady Gregory’s home.

Thor Ballylee, Yeats' summer home

Thoor Ballylee, Yeats’ summer home
The tower at Thor Ballylee

The tower at Thoor Ballylee

Yeats’ bought his home in Gort, renovated it and called it Thoor Ballylee, a nod to his passion and interest in local lore and culture.  The bucolic, riverside setting  provided Yeats with an inspirational retreat from the world.  Yeats once said: “To leave here is to leave beauty behind.”   He penned The Tower  and The Winding Stairs and Other Poems while living at Thoor Ballylee.

Coole Park House, home of Lady Gregory

Coole Park House, home of Lady Gregory

Coole Park, a short distance away from Thoor Ballylee, was a hub for the Irish Literary Revival. Yeats often wandered the grounds with Lady Gregory and fellow writers, seeking peace, solitude and inspiration.  It was the setting for many of his poems including The Wild Swans at Coole” and “In the Seven Woods.”   In the garden, an ancient tree bears the signatures of notable visitors to Coole Park.  It’s easy to imagine the writers gathered under its branches, casually adding their mark for posterity.

Into the Seven Woods

Into the Seven Woods

Although the house was demolished in 1941, you can still wander the sheltered wooded paths and along the lake to count the “nine and fifty swans.”

Connemara cottage

Connemara cottage

Along the R345 road

Along the R345 road

Our trail led us from Gort further west to  Connemara.  Yeats visited here often and spent his honeymoon in Renvyle.  A few wrong turns off the highway through Connemara, I’m overwhelmed by the scenery and stop to take a picture. I immediately regret only booking 2 days in this beautiful place.  It is a land of peat smoke, unspoiled majesty and melancholy beauty. It is the “Ireland of Ireland.”  We continue the road less traveled to the sea and spend our time imagining a summer spent in a Connemara cottage.

Lough Gill

Lough Gill

Although Yeats was born in Dublin and spent time in London, it was the mountains, lakes and lore of Sligo that inspired him to write some of his most memorable verse, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

“…arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,  And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:  Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,  And live alone in the bee-loud glade…”

We drove a circular route around Lough Gill to Dooney Rock of  fiddler fame to the boat launch that ferries visitors out to the Isle in summer.  From a distance, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to “arise and go” live on the tiny island, but Yeats often wrote about the familiar landscapes of home when he was far away and homesick.

Heading west, the majestic and magical Knocknarea, with it’s stunning cairn over the burial tomb of Maeve, Queen of Connaught, inspired Yeats to write “The Land of Heart’s Desire” and “The Hosting of the Sidhe.”  Add a rock to her 40 foot high cairn for good luck, take one away at your peril.

Ben Bulben

Ben Bulben

Sadly, the lovely Lissadell House was closed, due to an ongoing legal dispute, so we ended our Yeats trail where the man himself rests, Drumcliff.  Yeats died in France and told his long-suffering and exquisitly tolerant wife, Georgie Hyde-Lees “If I die bury me up there [at Roquebrune] and then in a year’s time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo.”  Although it took far longer than one year, Yeats was eventually buried according to his wishes under the shadow of Ben Bulben in the busy Drumcliff cemetery.

Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!

Things to Know

Thoor Ballylee was severely damaged by floods in 2009 and has yet to reopen.  Visitors can walk the grounds and peek through the windows.  It’s worth stopping by, if only to absorb the atmosphere of the place.

Coole Park was an unexpected surprise.  Despite the fact no house remains, the grounds and gardens are lovely.  The tea room and small museum are worth your time. Check dates and times before you go.

The Tortoise and Hare Go Traveling

When our kids were little, really little, we traveled at a pretty slow pace.  If you’ve  traveled with a Little Person, you understand that everything takes longer than expected. You have to wrestle with car seats, nap time, bed time, hunger pangs, little legs and shorter attention spans.  Now that we occasionally travel without the kids, something is quite apparent.  The Mister and I suffer from TSI…Travel Style Incompatibility.

PicMonkey Collage

My  sweet husband is the Energizer Bunny of travel.  He is the only person I know who completed the entire British Museum collection in 90 minutes.  I am the Cecil Turtle of travel.  It takes me 90 minutes to work through one gallery at the V & A. We are officially the Tortoise and Hare of worldwide travel.

The Mister’s idea of a perfect day in a new city is 12 hours of sightseeing completed by lunch, which leaves enough time for 12 additional hours of sightseeing before dinner.  Twenty-four hours worth of activities squeezed into 8 hours.  With time for a walk before bed.  Rinse, lather, repeat.  My perfect day in a new city is a leisurely mix of wandering, sightseeing and multiple stops for food and photography.  His preferable breakfast is a banana in his backpack and a to-go coffee, mine involves a neighborhood cafe, endless cups of coffee and a lot of people-watching.   How do you plan happy travel for a box-checker and a “loose agenda, this-looks-cool-let’s-go-do-that-instead-after-a-coffee” person?

The Mister and Me

The Mister and Me

We’re trying to figure it out.  He is certainly wiser than he once was and knows it’s better to wake me up with a “Look!   I brought you coffee!” instead of  “Hey!  It’s already 7 o’clock! How much time do you need to get ready to go?”   I’ve learned not to plan sitting-on-the-beach vacations or endless afternoons poking through ancient, overgrown cemeteries.  It’s about compromise and learning from each other.  I think we can do that. How do you balance two different personalities while traveling?  Tell me your secrets!

Things to Know

*No feelings were harmed during the writing of this post.

Missing Pieces

Irish cottage

It was fitting. The driving Irish rain, the cold wind, the pervasive damp.  “Now you know why they left!” I said to my father as we headed away from Gort and into the countryside.  It wasn’t true (or maybe it was).  I drove back and forth along the narrow lane, stopping periodically to peer over a fence and take a picture.  “Could it be this one?  Maybe here?”

Screenshot Burke homestead

Screenshot Burke homestead

We were looking for what was left of my father’s people, or really…what was left of the Burke homestead. The people are long gone. I’ve been on this search before, in Gort, with a list of names and a vague outline of family history.  My sister had since filled in the blanks, researching rumor into fact and filling in missing lines on the family tree. Census forms and land records vaguely outlined the family property and I held a soggy Google Earth screenshot of an overgrown lot and a collapsed stone cottage.  The “homestead” was somewhere along the lane between the lake and the hedgerows.

rainy fields

It was surreal, standing in the middle of a field mentally trying to recreate a life you know nothing about, imagining what was so hopeless about a place you would walk away from everyone and everything you’ve ever known?  What finally drove the family to scatter, each in a different direction like seeds in a harsh wind?  The dates of emigration suggest they left during the Great Famine, which claimed the lives of many and the future of most.  Most headed to America, as did ours, but one family member was left behind.  Rumor has it he was “different” and was left behind to be cared for my neighbors.  There are stories about him, most too sad to think about. It’s hard to really know.

Burke Homestead (view from)

We took one last picture over the field-that-might-have-been-ours and headed back to the car.  A woman nodded hello over the fence. “Can I help you?”  We explained our story.  She nodded.  ” I wasn’t born here, but my husband…my husband would know. You can also try the old Missus up the road.  Her boys went to America.  She’ll know about the Burkes.”

We apologized for bothering her, climbed back into the car and contemplated finding the Missus Up The Road.  As we pulled onto the lane. we looked up to see the husband walking up the drive, waving. “I heard you were looking for your people.  The Burkes, is it?  Yes, we know about the Burkes.  They’re gone now, last one lived just down the lane across from the cottage.  They knocked the house down last year as it ’twas fallin’ in.  They live in America now, the Burkes.”

View from the lot, now cleared for building

View from the lot, now cleared for building

We chatted for a few minutes about the area, the weather and the neighbors before he headed down the drive to the house.  He paused, turned around and shouted ” God Bless ya…and welcome home.”

 

 

How I Wish I Spent My Summer Vacation

It’s inevitable.  Your children grow up and go off to do cool things without you.  As of today, I have one daughter working on a project in Haiti, another in India working with a start-up company and the Youngest One milking cows and making cheese in Switzerland.  The first two situations keep me awake at night, imagining every hideous scenario that might befall them.  The Switzerland project..well, I’m a little more comfortable with that, although I read that 481 people were injured by cows this year in the UK. Yes, I googled it.  I’m a worrier.

Afternoon hike near Bretaye

Afternoon hike near Bretaye

The Youngest One pitched her Switzerland WWOOFing idea right around Christmas break.  WWOOF-ing, an awkward acronym for World-Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms, pairs interested workers with willing farmers in a (hopefully) beneficial partnership. The wwoofer stays on local farm to learn the ins and outs of organic farming and the farmer gets an extra pair of hands to help with farm work.  Summer jobs are hard, if not impossible to find as a university kid on a Tier 2 visa and WWOOFing fit nicely with her Sustainable Development major at uni and her love of all things food.  One planned farm stay turned into 5 farm stays across the UK and Switzerland.

Farm #1  Shopshire, England, 1 Week

DSC_0281

DSC_0259

“Woofers” work 6 – 8 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week.  In exchange, the host farm provides housing, meals and an opportunity to learn the basics of running a farm.  At this particular farm, responsibilities included building a 30 foot polytunnel and extending a fruit cage and feeding/caring for the chickens.

Walks along the country lane

Walks along the country lane

A world-class balloonist lands on the farm.

A world-class balloonist lands on the farm.

It isn’t all work, however.  Evenings/the occasional day off are spent socializing with other woofers and the family, exploring the surrounding areas and soaking up a new experience.

Farm #2  nr Bretaye, Switzerland, 2 Weeks

Goat face!

Goat face!

The second farm was spectacularly located in the Swiss Alps.  Paul and his wife, farm owners for over 30 years, started taking in wwoofers 7 years ago to help with the with goats, dairy cows and drives to morning market.  This “alpage” farm provided the full experience…milking goats, mending fences, making/flipping/selling cheese, rounding up and milking cows, chopping wood and washing farm equipment.  While wwoofers think about the travel/work/experience balance, host farmers worry about wwoofers that cancel at the last minute, don’t show up at all or prove unwilling to share the workload.  In the end, it’s about balance and a shared experience.  When it all works, it’s a beautiful thing…wwoofers contribute and learn about organic farming, farmers benefit from motivated and energetic learners and both parties have a mutually beneficial cross-cultural experience.

Making the cheese...

Making the cheese…

Moooving the cows up the mountain

Moooving the cows up the mountain

** Photo credits/Madeline Belt

Things To Know:

WWOOFing is an international phenomenon.  Each country or region has its own WWOOFing database and registration fee, which makes it a bit cumbersome when choosing a farm. It’s best to choose the region you’re interested in and send off for information and listings.

Farms and projects vary widely, so do your homework before choosing one.  Talk to other WWOOFers, email the farmers, ask questions.  This is NOT a vacation and you will work hard, but it is also a great way to travel inexpensively, meet the locals, try a foreign language and help others along the way.

There are bad woofing stories out there…farmers taking advantage of free labor, accommodations not suitable for human habitation and unsafe working conditions.  To avoid a bad woofing experience:  1. Set clear expectations about work hours, accommodations, meals, language requirements and time off.  Ask about the kind of work you’ll be doing. 2.  Have a Plan B and a stash of cash.  In our house, we call it “getaway” money.  In case you have to, you know, get away.  There are also good wwoofing stories. Do your homework. 

Wwoof Independents has a great FAQ about being/hosting guests through WWOOF.