I confess, I am spontaneous.  Some might say “Sally is impulsive” but that has a more negative tone than “spontaneous.” Whatever adjective you use, I have to admit that sometimes I really should be more careful about what I sign up for!

A few months ago I was reading an article about the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage trail in southern Japan.  It sounded intriguing, somewhat romantic and certainly “out of the ordinary.” (magazine photo of couple in traditional Heian dress)

Walking the Kumano Pilgrim trail

Without much further investigation or research, I impulsively purchased a ticket to Osaka. Three hours train ride and a bus trip later, I was at the beginning of the trail.

The Kii Peninsula has been associated with nature worship since prehistoric times and there are three main shrines in this region which have been pilgrimage destinations for the imperial family and aristocrats since the 10th century. The Kumano Kodo trail is one of two UNESCO recognized pilgrimage routes. The other being the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain.

Green indicates the major Shrines. I was on the trail to lower shrine.

Walking those 500 plus miles on the Santiago trail a few years ago, was a highlight of my life. I thought I would enjoy the Kumano as much as the Camino trail. After all, it is only ninety six miles! I looked forward to seeing old villages, farms, open fields, wonderful vistas and interesting insights into local life.  However, it turned out to be quite a different experience.

The entire five days are in the mountains among forests  with occasional vistas over more forested mountains. Had I studied topographical maps before I committed to this trip, I would have quickly realized that this just was not the trip for me, not someone with a bad knee that objects strongly to stairs. I was warned that this was a Level 4 hike. Is that a 4 out of 10? I was soon to find out that is 4 out of 5 and that I probably need a Level 1 on my next trip!

The first day was a killer.  Most everyone I met agreed it was indeed one of the hardest days.   We climbed a mere 2.8 miles but with 1214 feet ascent with boulders as high as 30 inches.  The path was entirely in the trees and never seemed to end.   Every time you thought surely you had reached the top, higher and higher went the trail.

While the book claimed it was a quick two hour hike, most everyone took at least 3 ½ hours. One young man did it in just under two hours but two days later, had to give up entirely because his knee had gone out.   It took me five hours to reach the small village where I was staying the night. Already it was dusk, the sky darkening with storm clouds which had been gathering most of the afternoon. What had started as a pleasant sunny day was now dark, ominous and I was lost.  I had walked past the little trail that led to my inn for the night. Thankfully a farmer,  took pity on me, flagged down a neighbor who made a call to my ryokan to verify that I was their missing guest and then took me in his car to the inn just as the rains came down.

My first night wearing a yakata. Note traditional open fire pit behind me.

Ryokans are quaint at first, but the four inch pad on the tatami mat is not the same as a mattress. There is a nice puffy duvet but the pillow takes some getting used to.  It is hard and filled with rice husks.

Then in the night, if you have to get up, you fish around for the flashlight, open the sliding shoji screens, put on slippers, pad down the hall to the toilet, (which is low on the floor and you crouch over it) slip out of the slippers and then into special bathroom slippers, repeating the process back to the futon pad (about four inches thickness) and by then, you are wide awake. Don’t even mention the sixteen hours jet lag.

When I arrived at my ryokan on that first night  exhausted and utterly at the end of my endurance, I was given a room within the kitchen.  A platform and paper Shoji screens separated my space from the stove.  I had to lie there recovering from my five hour hike (remember it was supposed to take just two hours…) listening to slicing, chopping, sizzling, fridge door opening and closing, kettle boiling, dishes, splashing water…  After the meal, it was more noise as clean-up progressed.  To top it all off, at 5.45 the next morning, the whole process began again as they owner prepared breakfast for myself and the other single guest.

There was a fearful storm in the night.  I lay there (between my trips down the hall) listening to the storm rage around the home and point the roof above me. Suffering from jet lag, I lay wide awake, thinking about the day ahead and anxious about climbing those rocks which would be slippery, my poncho flapping around me, my poles sticking in the mud. I decided that henceforth I would forget about pushing myself to do something that was not enjoyable and instead, I would take a bus to each nightly destination.  I was glad to learn on the fifth day, that no one I met had hiked every day.  All agreed it was extremely difficult and frankly, just not rewarding.  The path is entirely in forest with few vistas and apart from a few simple shrines (usually rocks with inscriptions) en route, there is little to see on the hike. However, the main Shinto shrines are grand, imposing, spiritual destinations and fortunately, accessible by frequent bus service!

Shrine at Nachi-Taisha in the Kumano route

I prescribe to the tortoise and the hare method of climbing.  Very slow, plodding ever upwards.  A blog I had read said (i) it was easy to get lost on the trail.  Wrong. There are little blue tiles along the path whenever there might be a question as to where the trail went. (ii) The same writer said you could go a whole day and not see anyone.  Wrong again.  I was passed up by at least two dozen people, all looking as if they were out for a Sunday stroll while I lay splayed across a rock, trying to catch my breath.  Admittedly, I was carrying 24 lbs on my back and they were wearing just day packs.  (iii) This same blog writer said that sending your luggage ahead was risky and it takes two days.  Poppycock to that.  Admittedly it does cost $25 a day per back, but the service is very reliable.

It was precisely 7pm on our final night and by now, after six days staying in small Japanese inns (Ryokan) we knew not to be late to arrive for dinner.  Everything would be laid out at each place setting, meticulously arranged and worthy of yet another photo to post on Facebook to make our friends totally envious.

One place setting for our final night dinner.

There was a bustle of noise as shoji doors were slid open, murmur of voices and the padding of slippered feet along the hallway.  We were all dressed in identical yakata (printed cotton robes secured with a belt tied in a bow.) I couldn’t but help thinking of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Three Little Maids from School are we….”

Some of the folks gathering in the dining room I already had met on the trail or at ryokans on previous evenings.  This was our last night since we had reached the end of the trail and tomorrow we would be moving on with our Japan adventures or traveling home.  I was looking forward to spending my last night with some delightful travelers from Australia whom I had come to know during the week.  But it was not to be.  The ladies of the house had decided where we were to sit based on our room number and I was placed across from a man with a strong Australian accent who introduced himself as Dan. In less than a minute, before I had even stirred my miso, Dan asked, “So, did you experience any spiritual enlightenment on the trail?” For once, I found myself without knowing quite what to say.  At first I thought “Goodness, that’s the kind of question I myself would ask of a stranger!”  Then, realizing he was being serious and not joking , I thought  “that’s a pretty heavy question to ask someone you have just met.”

I squirmed around a bit, stretching my legs out on the tatami mat under the Japanese style table that was about sixteen inches off the ground. I hoped I wouldn’t poke Dan in some awkward spot.   Except for one guest, everyone one of us chose not to sit in the traditional Japanese style where you place your knees on the floor and then sit back on the top of your feet with the tops of the feet flat on the floor.  We were all sitting, legs stretched out under the table, trying to avoid hitting the person across the table. Sitting for a long time in this fashion, with no back support, can be tiring.

Getting back to Dan’s question about having a spiritual awakening, I would have to say, on greater reflection, that I did have an awakening of sorts. I had to come to terms with my own physical limitations. I hate to admit that I cannot do all those things that I once could do.  That includes heavy uphill hikes.  Next time I see a hike labeled LEVEL FOUR, I know to steer clear!  Perhaps I have also learned to be a bit more careful about what I sign up for – read the fine print and don’t believe other people’s blogs!

 

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Posted in Camino de Santiago, Japan, Kumano Kodo | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Me? Spontaneous?

“Spontaneous” was one of the three words used by friends to describe my personality. We were playing a parlor game (do they still call these games “parlor games” since most of us no longer have a parlor?) where we describe one another using just three adjectives.

My husband of 45 years has borne the brunt of my spontaneity over and over again. He rolls his eyes when someone says “Oh your wife, she is so spontaneous!”  He is only too happy to tell them about the “Geneva Incident.”  We were traveling around Switzerland,  in a VW pop up camper with our three children aged three, eight and ten. (How I so wish we had kept that beloved van….)

On this particular day, we were parked right by the lake about 25-30 miles from the city of Geneva itself, having lunch.  The table was set, cheese, bread, and fruit were laid out.  The children were playing down by the water. The perfect picnic in a most perfect spot.

Suddenly a boat came into our view across the lake, slowed and pulled up into a dock not more than a hundred yards down from where we were parked.  Here is where the “do it now, think about it later” syndrome hit.  I raced over to the dock to find out where this lovely boat was going.  I discovered it was going across the lake to the city of Geneva. I ran back to the family and said to the kids, probably a sense of urgency in my voice, “Quick, now, grab a sweater, we are going for a boat ride.”  “See you in Geneva,” I called out to Lee, almost as an afterthought.

Before husband Lee could realize what was going on, I was clip-clopping down the dock in my sandals toward the boat, with three kids trying to keep up.  I saw that the ferry was leaving in just a few minutes.  Tickets in hand, clambered aboard, “toot toot,” and off we went.

 

There was Lee.  Totally bewildered as to what had just happened.  He had to pack up all the lunch things, close up the camper, and turn to several maps trying to figure out how to get himself into Geneva by road.

Now in case you don’t know, Geneva happens to be a rather large city.  It has a huge lakeside harbor with a famous fountain in the center.

The harbor is shaped sort of like a crescent, and has a lot of boats docking there from all over the lake.  Lee had no idea whatsoever which boat we were on, what dock it would head towards, and at what time it would arrive there.  Upon arriving in Geneva, he proceeded to drive back and forth along the broad street that circles the harbor, trying to watch for our particular boat.

Meanwhile, The kids and I were having a lovely time out on the water.  “What a great idea” I thought, patting myself on the back for giving the kids such a special outing.It was a lovely cruise on the lake.

We got off the ferry in Geneva, and looked around for Lee but couldn’t see the white van anywhere.  So we strolled around, picked up ice cream cones and ambled around the water front.  I am not quite sure how it happened, but purely by chance, the kids and I were standing on a corner enjoying our ice creams when Lee pulled up in the van for a red traffic light.  At first we didn’t see each other, but then he glanced over to the nearby sidewalk and there we all were !!   He leaned on the horn, and we all piled into the van. The light changed to green, and off we went.

Us in the Swiss Alps (before the “Geneva Incident”

Our state of mind needless to say, was rather different to his.  The kids and I were in an easy happy mood.   Lee was absolutely fuming, livid.   He had spent nearly a frantic hour driving around to all the docks searching for us, without a clue as to where he might find us.   As I remember, he didn’t say a word to any of us for well over an hour as we drove across the border into France.

Spontaneous I am. No doubt about it.  Plunge in and then worry about the consequences later. But look at the experiences I would have missed had I thought about so many opportunities first.  I don’t know about you, but I find it is pretty easy to talk oneself out of something if you wait long enough.

As for the other two adjectives used to describe me, they are less exciting than being “spontaneous.”  Take a moment, ask yourself, what three words would you use to describe yourself.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Family, Memoirs, Switzerland, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Chianti Classico

 

Le Freschette Agritourismo, Radda, Ital

I was stretched out on a lounge chair, sedated by a carbohydrate-loaded lunch of bruschetta with sweet tomatoes, and pates of white beans, mushrooms and liver, followed by home made pasta with a rich ragu sauce.  The finale had been a toss up  between the Tiramasu or Panacotta with red berries. The wine was from the grapes growing in the fields below me, here in the Chianti region of Italy.

My eyes were shut, I was drowsy with satisfaction and just about to drift off when there was a low rumble in the distance.  I would have let it rumble along but my sister woke me from my reverie ” What’s that?” She asked.  I knew I would have to bring my consciousness to the surface to answer.  Should I just ignore her, or come up with a joke.  Too tired to think of something along humorous lines, I told her it was just a storm over in the distance.  I squinted out of one eye at the pure blue sky decorated with a few puffs of white clouds.  Closed my eyes again and let myself sink once more into that delightful state of blankness.

 

The rumble was louder this time. I again opened one eye just the tiniest bit. “Oh oh, what happened in the last few minutes?”  The clouds had all come together to form a large black mass that was hanging ominously overhead.  The patchwork of countryside was now partly in shade while the rest was sunny.  Uncanny.  More rolling thunder and getting closer and closer. I sat up, looked at the sheets and laundry hanging limply on the line and wondered if the Signorina would be out to rescue them.

The air cooled, I retreated into our apartment expecting a rainstorm any moment.

Memories of childhood summers spent with my aunt at her home in the hills above Cannes in the south of France, came flooding back. There the skies would open and there would be torrential rain, lightening, thunder and just as suddenly, it would end. The sun would come back out and the water would be lifted back up as steam.

Not today.  The thunder did its best but no rain followed. It left and once more we were basking in warm sunshine.  Perched on the old stone wall, dotted with occasional terracota pots with red and white begonias, I looked out on this amazing scene that had not changed in hundreds of years.

Other homes, as old as the fifteenth century stone farmhouse that we were staying in, were off in the distance.

Patches of olive groves, swaths of vineyards, fruit trees, tall cypress and other vegetation all fitted together like jigsaw pieces to create a divine landscape.  This is the Chianti district of Italy, the area below Florence but above Siena.  Famous for hundreds of years for producing red wine, almost every farm had a vineyard and either processed its own grapes, or took them to the Black Rooster coop.  The shelves of the local supermarket as well as speciality stores are filled with wines bearing the names of many of the small communities of this area.

Wines from Le Freschette, each year a label with an image of her children

Our agritourismo where we are staying in Radda, Le Fraschette, is just one of hundreds of wineries that makes its wine from start to finish.

Excitement around the farm is building as relatives begin to arrive to prepare for the harvest in just four days time. About twenty people will turn up and clippers in hand, will pick the grapes from the field below us.

 

They will work long hours and be done in just two days. Already relatives are arriving to prepare for the big day.  The workers have to be fed.

It’s time to let the dogs out, grab the guns and go hunting!  Dogs have an uncanny sense of time and for the past couple of days they have been baying and howling, anxious to be released to join the fun.  Male members of the extended family are arriving for an early start in the morning and there is anticipation of bringing home at least twenty rabbits for the women to make into Ragu de Coniglio to go with all that home made pasta.  The bottles from last year’s harvest are ready to be enjoyed along with the meal.

Le Fraschette is an idyllic spot to simply slow down and savor the timeless simplicity of a life lived on this very estate for over five hundred years.  Desiree Gagliardi, our hostess, came to live here twenty years ago when she married into the family – a family that has lived within these old stone walls for many generations.

        

The wine label for Le Freschette Chianti.

Desiree is the only one with a rudimentary knowledge of English and an absolute delight.  There are two apartment on the grounds and we had a choice.

Our apartment

View from our terrace

I couldn’t resist the one with the window offering a scene as if lifted from a Renaissance painting.

View out the kitchen window

What a pity that we cannot stay as long as the previous tenant, a couple who drive here every year from Denmark to enjoy three long weeks of peace and tranquility. At the very least, if we could just stay to help with the harvest…. Sadly, we will have to return again another year or maybe we should come back in November when it’s time to pick the olives?

Posted in Food, Italy, Memoirs, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

At the End of the Road (Part II)

The Polebridge Mercantile, on the western edge of Glacier National Park in Montana, that  we see today was built by Bill Adair in 1914 to serve the hundred or so settlers in the valley.  He and his wife Jessie had originally built a Mercantile across the river in 1904 but had to relocate when Glacier Park was formed and homesteading was not permitted.  He chose this particular spot because of exceptional fishing and if anything, Bill Adair liked to fish.  He is also remembered for a fondness to grow king sized cabbages and for “enjoying a nip or two.” The running of the store was left to his first wife.  I guess it was too much for her and she died rather prematurely.   Bill managed to find himself a second wife, Emma, and by 1917 the two of them had acquired twenty two acres, planted in hay, potatoes and garden vegetables, four work horses, one hundred chickens and a milk cow.  By 1922 more than 150 homesteads dotted the fifty mile stretch of the valley.

Bill and Emma around 1920

Looking at the photo of Bill and Emma, I wonder what sort of a life she had.  I mean, there was Bill out fishing all day, growing his giant cabbages and nipping at the bottle when he could.  Who turned those cabbages into sauerkraut, collected the eggs from 100 chickens (and cleaned out their mess), picked the potatoes, planted and harvested the vegetables, all the while running the home and store. It was Emma, that’s who.  On top of all that, remember that Emma had to prime the pump to get water, chop wood to heat that water and fill the kerosene lamps for light. We won’t even mention how cold that toilet seat out in the privy was in the winter….

We had a sneak peak into the life of a pioneer woman while staying up the road at the Ben Rover cabin, named after a man who lived there year round with is wife Annette just after WWII.

Ben Rover cabin

Originally of Norwegian descent via North Dakota, (Rover sure doesn’t sound very  Norwegian) Ben settled in the valley and grew alfalfa and raised cows for milk he sold to the Mercantile. Although the cabin was sold by Ben in the 1970’s and eventually purchased by the Flathead National Forest to preserve the wilderness from developers, the cabin still retains the feeling of life as it must have been for Ben and Annette.

The furniture is heavy “wagon wheel” style with couch and chairs covered in “Bears in the Woods” upholstery that probably will last another forty years since it no longer shows the dirt.  The bookcase is stocked with well read copies of Readers Digest Condensed books along with a few more recent mind-numbing paperbacks.

Inside Ben Rover cabin

Ben Rover’s cabin is cosy with wood burning stove, wooden paneling and amateur oil paintings of other cabins in other woods.  The kitchen is now well equipped with a propane stove, thank you!  Water is still pumped from a well outside and of course the outhouse is definitely “out” as well.  We lit the few small propane lamps at night but it was still a bit of a challenge to read our Scrabble tiles in the dim light.

About fifty feet from the house is the river, low at this late time of year but nonetheless, little white waves were chasing one another in a hurry to join their mates in the rush south to Flathead Lake, and ultimately, the Pacific Ocean.  Small birds skimmed over the water playing tag, and downstream, and a bit closer to Fred Adair’s Mercantile, the fish were keen to grab a fly from a rod.  History records that Fred’s favorite lure, in fact, his one and only lure was the Coachman fly. Happily some ignorant whitefish mistook the little red spinner on our rod for something similar and found itself momentarily six feet out of the water. An earlier visitor to the cabin had left us a momento of her visit.

The last time we were at the cabin, about five years ago, a brown bear came lumbering out of the woods, smelled our scallops wrapped in bacon over the open fire, and decided to check out dinner. Under no circumstances were we about to share our dinner and so with a cacophony of spoons on saucepans, as well as several blasts of the truck’s horn, the bear reluctantly turned and went up the road.  Along with bears, there are moose living in Glacier National Park as well, and we encountered one on a previous trip. He was nibbling fresh foliage at the edge of Many Glacier Lake. It was the first day the Lodge there was open and obviously he hadn’t got the memo that it was opening day for tourists.  He seemed a bit surprised to see kayaks out on the water.

You drive carefully in Montana!

Back at the Mercantile, browsing among the tourist offerings of caps, T-shirts, mugs, coasters and postcards, I came across this one. My son being a hunter and a camper, it tickled my fancy!

I was reminded of call-in radio program I heard not so long ago.  The caller was quite agitated and wanted the radio program host to do something about the situation.  She complained; “They have put up a “Moose Crossing ” sign at a very dangerous part of the road. We need to get it moved to a safer place so the moose will know where to cross without getting run over. “.  The host played along for a bit, thinking the caller was having him on, but no, she was quite serious. Maybe the moose in Montana are smart and can read……like that $30,000 mule you can train to sit.

Montana is a great State, full of surprises.  Next time you bite into that huckleberry bear claw, just check to see if they have resorted to substituting blueberries.

 

Posted in Glacier National Park, Memoirs, Montana | Tagged , | Leave a comment

At the End of the Road (Part 1)

The last twelve miles were the worst of our thirty five mile drive to Polebridge, Montana. Polebridge is a tiny community located on the North Fork of the Flathead River and lies just outside the western part of Glacier National Park.The road was loose gravel, rutted, potholed, dusty and together with the smoke from forest fires burning not too far away, made for a rather unpleasant experience. Visibility was poor because of the smoke so none of the spectacular mountains of Glacier Park were visible and the forested acres close to the road showed evidence of previous fires with stark black leafless tree trunks poking the sky.

 

On this particular day, there were more cars than usual. The Howe Ridge fire, just across from Lake McDonald and the historic Lodge, had broken out a few days before. Hundreds of tourists were evacuated from their campsites and hotels and forced to seek activities in other areas of the park. Everyone it seemed was headed to Polebridge, if only for a stop on the way to Bowman Lake or even the Canadian border. They roared up the road to Polebridge in their little sedan cars, oblivious to the clouds of dust they were sending up behind, almost blinding any other vehicle unfortunate enough to be on the same road.

There is not much in Polebridge except for a few scattered cabins, some newer homesteads and the famous Polebridge Mercantile (general store).

I love this old red false-fronted building, standing two stories among other single story outbuildings. We first discovered it five years ago and it’s one of those places you don’t easily forget. It’s not much from the outside, just a porch, close to the ground, a few old wooden chairs and a couple of tree trunk stools, and some flowers in boxes between the posts holding up the porch roof. Oh, but inside! Open the creaking wooden screen door and listen to that thwarp sound as it shuts behind you ….a sound that all wooden screen doors seem to share in common. Step inside and Immediately your senses are assaulted by the sweet smell of baked dough and sugar. On the glass counter are huge baked goodies, individually wrapped, and filled with streusel, poppy seeds, seasonal fruit, jams, raisins and the most popular delicacy of all, wild huckleberries.

Once you can tear your eyes away from the goodies, your eyes are drawn up to shelves near the tall ceiling filled with leftovers of another era in this building’s history. There are old kerosene lamps, tin oil cans, black smithing tools, farm equipment, scrub boards for washing clothes, old bottles, old phones ….it’s all up there someplace.

This is what the old Mercantile sold, back when William C. “Bill” Adair built the place around 1914, about four years after Glacier Park became a National Park. When asked why he built it there and not someplace else he is said to have remarked simply “that’s where the best fishing is.” He may be right. I was sitting on one of those old wooden chairs munching away contentedly on my huckleberry bear claw, wondering if you substituted the more common blueberry for the elusive wild huckleberry would anyone be the wiser? Two fishermen in rubber waders up to their armpits walked out the door with their beers and sweet rolls (beer and sweet roll? …to each his own, I guess.) I glanced over at them …..okay, I stared a bit because they were like Laurel and Hardy in rubber. One was definitely on the hefty side, looking a bit like a ripe banana about to pop it’s skin, while his mate, skinny, shorter and frankly, rather sad looking, was more like a guppy in a glass of dirty water, sort of floating around in his beige rubber suit. Perhaps there had been a good deal at the local Sportsman store….”buy one rubber wader, get one free of the same size.”

A woman approached the porch….I was going to say a lady, but at first I wasn’t sure if indeed it was a woman, if you get what I mean….after all, this is back country Montana. With a loud voice she said “Soooo, how’s the fishing today?” And she stretched out her arms four feet wide. The little guy said, raising his eyes to his buddy “well, he caught six.” She turned to the banana and moved her arms in three feet apart. He in turn opened his arms two feet apart. “Trout?” she asked. “Uh huh,” he replied, and I thought to myself “Right. One foot each is probably more like it.”

The things you hear on a porch. The next morning I left our cabin half a mile up the road and walked back to the Mercantile for a coffee. There were five men standing on the porch, paper cups in hand, straight out of central casting. I mean, if you were looking for five men to cast as Cowboys in your latest Western, these men were it. Craggy, rough, dirty, scraggly hair, unshaven. I looked around but not a horse in sight, nor a motorcycle for that matter. As I approached the iconic screen door, I couldn’t help but hear the guy closest to me say…..and this is the God’s honest truth….”Y’know, if you pay $30,000 for a mule, you can teach it to sit.” I wish I had thought to bend over and check the strap on my sandals or something, to hear what the other guys had to say to that whopper, but instead, I went into the store, imagining a mule, sitting. I mean, really, would you then teach it to lift its hoof and beg, like our dog Hannah is so good at doing when she wants a treat. Why on earth would you want a mule to sit, anyway ? Isn’t that exactly what you DON’T want a mule to do? And $30,000? When I searched on line I found you could purchase a stupid mule for just $1,000. For $3,000 it comes with a useless pedigree….and still won’t sit!

Posted in Gear, Glacier National Park, Montana | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Kumano Kodo, what’s that?

Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trail

It was the photo of a woman standing on a mountain top, looking out over valleys below, shrouded in mist.  She wore traditional Heian period dress with the large hat and sheer fabric that came down around the hat and fell like a curtain below her shoulders.  There was a sense of utter tranquility and serenity with that hint of mysticism that held me capture for a few moments and then led me to read the article that followed.

I was reading National Geographic Traveler magazine, lying in bed, flipping pages idly before my tired eyes beckoned me to sleep.    The article was about the Kumano Kodo trail in southwest of Japan.  The Kii Peninsula, south of Kyoto, south of Osaka, is described as being one of the most remote and mystical areas of Japan.

ttps://followsallysdrift.files.wordpress.com/2018/08/pilgrim-man-and-woman-are-hiking-up-the-daimon-zaka-the-route-paved-with-stone-and-lined-with-massive-evergreens-leads-600-meters-up-to-the-the-gates-of-nachi-taisha-wakayama-japan.jpg”> Walking the Kumano Pilgrim trail

[/caption]The trail itself is just one of two UNESCO recognized pilgrimage trails in the world, the other being the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain.A few years ago I walked the Camino trail and I consider it a highlight of my life.

://followsallysdrift.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/img_6446_2.jpg”> On the Camino trail

No

[/caption]Not only was it an extreme achievement for me (560 total miles and, they say, the combined heights of all the ranges we climbed equal the climb to Mt. Everest….) but the memory of long, solitary walks through forests, small villages, vineyards, wheat fields and towns, the bedding down in dormitories with up to forty other weary souls, and the magnificent reward of the destination itself, the Cathedral in Santiago is with me much of the time.  It is where I go in my mind sitting in the dentist chair or wherever I need to go to be in  “my happy place!”

ollowsallysdrift.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/p1200772.jpg”> St James in the Portal of Cathedral of St. James in Santiago[/caption]While

While there are thousands of incredibly beautiful, challenging walks all over the world, there is something about walking a path that pilgrims have walked since the eleventh century that appeals to me.  When I walk such a path, I feel their spirit.  I remember the time on the Santiago trail when I was walking along a path beside a major highway. The path then dipped below the road, traffic roaring above and there, just beside the trail was a stone fountain built into the side of the hill where a creek continued to tip water into a basin.  Stone seats were on either side so you could sit and wash your weary feet and fill up your flask.  Carved into the stone face of the fountain were the numbers 1646.  Just think, way back when America was just being discovered, pilgrims took time to build this fountain, to pause, to rest before continuing their journey.

wsallysdrift.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/p1200703.jpg”> Centuries old fountain constructed by pilgrims along the Camino

Other pilg

[/caption]Other pilgrimage reminders on that journey were small stone shrines, little simple chapels, a field where a hospital had once stood centuries ago to care for those pilgrims not well enough to complete the journey and a graveyard.  Much of the Camino walk would have looked much the same all those years ago as it did when I walked in their footsteps hundreds centuries later.

lysdrift.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/img_5607.jpg”> Small shrine with pasted “notelets” with hand written prayers.

Rather than re

[/caption]Rather than repeat the Camino de Santiago experience, I had been thinking about another similar hike.  The Coast to Coast walk from the west coast of England across the Lake District, over the mountains to the east coast, had some appeal.  After serious study, however, I learned that it is not a recognized trail as such, follows ancient foot paths through private property and most importantly, is poorly marked.  One can easily stray from the path and get lost.  A highly detailed topographical map, a compass and GPS were highly recommended by previous hikers. Those who had hiked the Santiago trail said this one was even more challenging.  Reluctantly I filed my research books on the top shelf of the bookcase and decided that was not for me.

The Kumano Kodo trail, (which means the Old Road of Kumano) an ancient trail of Japanese pilgrimage, is the site of three Grand Shrines. From the 11th century successive emperors and their families made the long and difficult pilgrimage to Kumano from Kyoto. I do not plan to walk that far.

ft.files.wordpress.com/2018/08/nachi-taisha-was-one-of-the-main-destinations-of-the-kumano-kodo-pilgrimage-routes.jpg”> Shrine at Nachi-Taisha in the Kumano route

While there are seve

[/caption]While there are several trails (as there are to Santiago) the Nakahechi-do has the most appeal to me because it weaves its way through the forested mountains, small villages and ends up on the coast.  The travel companies rate this as:  “Level 4, Strenous, with days of up to 8 or 9 hours walking and 3000ft of ascent.”  Guided walks are available but the thought of having to keep up with a group, particularly climbing steep inclines, is quite unappealing and stressful.  If I go, I will go alone.

Accommodations along the route are in traditional Ryokans and Minshukus.  These typically feature tatami matted rooms, communal onsens (hot spring baths) and local cuisine.  The Minshukus are smaller, family run and otherwise the same as a Ryokan.

It will be a total unique immersion experience.  I have my Japanese phrase book ready and a backpack.  I don’t call this blog “Follow Sallys Drift” for nothing! Sally is now drifting (strongly) towards the Kumano Kodo trail. Now all I need is to stop the reading, stop the writing and Just Do It!

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If it’s Tuesday, it must be Bruges!

Market Square, Bruges, Belgium

Many years ago, when our kids were four, eight and ten, we traveled in Europe for a month in our VW Pop-Up van (how I wish we still had it!) By the end of the month, when we finally arrived in Bruges, Belgium, there was this pitiful cry from the back seat “Please Mom, no more castles!” My husband agreed to stay in a park with the kids and allow me three hours to run off and see Bruges. Three hours! Oh good Lord, how much could I see in three hours.

It was such a long time ago, but the memory of that wonderful feeling of freedom has never left me. With elation, I remember jumping onto a boat for a cruise on the canals, marveling at the old stone buildings coming right down into the edge of the canal, the hump back bridges, the swans. I watched a lady make lace and I ate chocolate. It was one of the best afternoons of my life!

On a recent cruise, one of the last ports of call was Zeebrugge, the port of Bruges. It was a very dismal, damp day and the ship was quite a distance from Bruges itself. Husband and son decided to stay on the ship. Not me, I was going to get myself into old town Bruges by whatever means I could. To further complicate the problem, there was a rail strike. Turns out the only way to get there would be by taking two buses, the main bus running only once every hour.

After getting lost a few times, and with helpful hints from fellow passengers and the ticket collector, I arrived at the main shopping street of old Bruges that led right into Market Square, the heart of medieval Bruges. My pulse quickened, my eyes opened and as I turned in a delighted circle, my whole being was lifted in total joy.

All around me were buildings each with their own character. Grand palace-like structures adorned with statuary, tall towers with carvings and wooden balconies, gold decorated medallions, hanging signs, rooftops of all shapes, colors and sizes. Paneled doors, arched alleys, windows that were tall, fat, leaded glass or stained glass, brick, stone and wrought iron, gargoyles looking down at me… it was a wonderful mish mash of hundreds of years of building styles. The lower levels of some of the buildings were now cafes sprouting colorful umbrellas, tablecloths, flowers and a plethora of yellow flags with black dragons to celebrate the fact that Belgium was playing in World Cup soccer later that day.   All this, with a backdrop of clip-clop of horses pulling carriages across the cobbles.

Old Town Bruges is a walker’s paradise. Narrow streets lead off the main square into smaller, quieter squares and lanes cross canals with quaint stone bridges. Looking down are boats filled with tourists quietly passing under, everyone bewitched by this beautiful city. For icing on the cake, add swans! Lots of swans.

Seems there is quite a story as to why there are swans in Bruges and have been since the 15th century. Back then the oppressed people of Bruges rose in revolt against the unpopular Emperor Maximilian of Austria and his henchman Pieter Langhals. Imprisoned in a house on Market Square, Max was forced to watch his best friend Pieter tortured, beheaded and then his head stuck on a spike. The Emperor eventually escaped and took revenge on the townsfolk declaring, among other things, that the city be required at its own expense to keep 52 swans on all its lakes and canals “until the end of time” or else the city would be flooded. Why swans? Why 52? Because swans have long necks and Pieter’s last name in Dutch means “Long Neck”. Fifty two swans because that was the age of Pieter when he was executed.

Across from the Bridge of Love (cross over with your lover and you will never be parted!) is the Beguinage. This was utterly fascinating. You enter through a gate that for 800 years has been closed at 6.30pm every day and opened twelve hours later. Inside are thirty or so white washed houses arranged around a courtyard with a lawn (a sea of yellow daffodils in the spring) and a church. This is the compound of the women, a place where single and widowed women lived together, prayed and helped the nuns at St. Johns Hospital. These women ran their own businesses and kept themselves completely separate from the world outside. Known as a Beguinage, this particular one was founded in 1250 and today the homes house those women, born in Bruges, over 65 years of age with no living relatives for just one fifth rent of homes on the outside. We thought the feminist movement was something new!

The hospital adjacent to the Beguinage, where many of these women worked,  was in constant use for 800 years.  Isn’t that simply incredible!

Canal side of the hospital. The sick could be brought in by boat. The little outbuilding stored the corpses before being taken away for burial.

Besides lace and chocolate Belgium is famous for its beer. There have been breweries for hundreds of years, when it was safer to drink beer than the polluted water. The most famous brewery, right in the heart of old town, is Halve Maan, its logo half a man and half a moon.

With increasing costs and transportation difficulties, it was becoming challenging for the brewery to get its beer from the brewery out to the bottling plant located in another part of the city. So, resourceful Halve Maan, built a pipe line that goes directly out of the building, underground, to their bottling plant!

They recently came out with a new beer named Brugse Zot, “The fool of Bruges.” The story goes back to the Middle Ages. When Maximillan (of the swans) was asked by the people of Bruge for permission to build a mental hospital, he replied that if they would simply close the city gates, this city of fools would have their mental hospital. That Maximillian was not a nice man

Label of the new beer called Brugse Zot 

Bruges offers the world the most fascinating insight to life in the Middle Ages. There are around thirty museums in this small town and I know I plan to return. Won’t you join me?

 

 

 

 

 

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