Destination Mexico City

My husband, Cal, appeared in our RV with a brochure for a tour to Mexico that he had picked up on what he had thought was just a free coffee and donuts get-together. The tour was to visit Mexico City, the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary of El Rosario, and the town of San Miguel de Allende. All three are places I’ve always thought would be wonderful to visit but I never really had an idea how I would get there. It was like holding a dream in my hands. The whole itinerary for the week’s tour looked interesting. A quick consult with our finances, a couple of reassuring calls to the travel agency, and within a week the trip was booked. That definitely increased the cost of the donut!

“You’re gonna get shot!” “Oh my…please be careful!” were some of the comments I received when telling family of our plans.

I wouldn’t undertake a visit to Mexico without vetting the company and plans carefully. Viva Tours has been in business for 35 years, taking the snowbirds of the Rio Grande Valley down to Mexico on many different excursions. Our guide, Juan, has led this tour for 16 of those years. He is an archaeologist from southern Mexico who comes up on a reverse snowbird migration to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas every year for three months to be a tour guide for Viva and its owner, Tomas. Juan is experienced, knowledgeable, and personable and we felt that we were in excellent hands throughout the week-long trip.

We met Tomas and some of our fellow tourists at the eye-rubbing hour of 3:30 AM for a van ride to find Juan and the rest of the group in McAllen. There was a transfer to a bus, a quick stop at the border to put our luggage through Mexican security, and a drop-off at the Reynosa Airport. A two hour flight and then…we were in Mexico City.

Our stop that afternoon included one of the things I had come to see and a highlight of the trip for me. The ancient city of of Teotihuacan includes two pyramids: the Pyramid to the Sun and the Pyramid to the Moon. We saw the latter mostly off in the distance from our bus window. We visited the Pyramid of the Sun and its museum.

This pyramid is the third largest in the world. At the top is a huge pedestal where human sacrifices were made. It is located on a central road of Teotihuacan called “Avenue of the Dead” because it is believed to have been paved with tombs. In the museum I was able to get a clearer picture of the ancient city:

The Pyramid of the Sun is in the foreground. The buildings that you see were ceremonial and the people lived in the outlying areas.

The city predates the Aztecs. In its heyday, around year 1 to 500 CE, it was the largest city in the Americas and the sixth largest in the world. It had an estimated population of around 125,000. Teotihuacan was built to be a religious center but became a living city. The pyramid itself dates to around 250 BCE. When the Aztecs saw these ruins, they claimed ancestry with the residents and adopted it as their own.

Although the pyramid was originally thought to be dedicated to the Sun god, hence its name, current thinking is that the god actually worshipped in this pyramid was a water deity named Tlaloc. There was a ten foot moat around the pyramid, and child burials were found in the corners. These are characteristic of water god offerings.

A close up of the pyramid and its surrounding ruins revealed some of the construction techniques. At one time it was possible for visitors to climb it, but now that has been deemed too dangerous.

The museum had some interesting artifacts uncovered during archaeological digs, including many skeletons.

A couple of days later we visited the heart of Mexico City. Moving forward a few centuries, the Aztecs had a great temple here. It was their capital city, as Mexico City is now, and was called Tenochtitlan. They started construction in 1325, rebuilt it six times, and the Spaniards destroyed it in 1521. To add insult to injury, the Spaniards built Mexico City right on top of the rubble of Tenochtitlan. The ancient temple is now being excavated.

You may remember the conqueror of Mexico City from your history books – it was Hernan Cortes and the Aztec leader was Montezuma II. The Aztec’s city was built on an island in a lake, with a system of canals. Originally there were five lakes in Mexico City. Cortes drained all but one, to the present-day detriment of the city. Built on the old lake bed, it is sinking at a rate of about three feet per year.

After an extensive history lesson from Juan, and viewing the Aztec ruins, we took a short walk through the city that Cortes built. The President of Mexico currently lives in the Royal Palace.

Across from it sits the Metropolitan Cathedral, which one of the oldest and largest cathedrals in the Americas. Unfortunately here the sinking I mentioned earlier is happening unevenly, but efforts to keep the foundation level are ongoing.

The organ inside is impressive with its flyaway pipes. There is also a black crucifix here. Poison was put on Jesus’s feet and the whole crucifix turned black. You can find the complete story on Google if you are interested.

Plaza Mayor, where both the palace and the cathedral sit, is grand and impressive.

There is a pretty cactus garden to the side of the cathedral, along with old-style phone booths:

You could receive a cleansing on the street if you needed it. And then you could call someone from the phone booth and tell them how good it was.

A song from a mariachi band, anyone?

On our last morning in Mexico City before departing for other sites, we visited the Basilica of Santa Maria de Guadalupe. It is the second most visited basilica in the world after St. Peter’s Vatican, with twenty million visitors annually.

The image of the virgin Mary superimposed on Juan Diego’s robe, the person who witnessed her appearance in 1531

What I’ve covered here is just the tip of the iceberg for everything we saw and absorbed while in Mexico City. Some of the places we visited may not even make it into the blogs. I’m trying to condense it but I am finding that not to be an easy task! Hopefully I can at least give you a flavor for this great city and its environs.

Next time – a boat ride in Xochimilco and Sunday in the park in a Mexico City suburb. Still to come–butterflies, and San Miguel de Allende


Cruising the Port of Brownsville

The day after we arrived at our winter spot in Harlingen, our park activities department hosted a free doughnuts and coffee morning. Not one to ever turn down a free doughnut, Cal set off to the main hall to take part. He disappeared for quite a while. Just when I was starting to wonder what happened, he returned with tickets for a 4 hour cruise, a Branson-style Kenny Rogers sound-alike concert by a gentleman named Rick McEwan, and a brochure for a tour to Mexico. Neither he nor I connected beforehand that it was an event where options for things to do for the winter were presented. It turned out to be an expensive doughnut!

Booking the actual date of the cruise with Osprey Cruises proved to be difficult because it was hard to find a day when the weather was optimal. That was part of the reason for the two-night stay in South Padre Island which was the subject of my last post. We were to cruise on the morning of the day we checked out of the hotel. The cruise leaves at 9AM and passengers are to arrive at 8:30, so we thought we would spare ourselves a long early morning drive. As it happened, though, it was more windy than usual that morning and a storm was predicted. The cruise company canceled the tour.

We finally found a good weather morning just over a week before our departure from Harlingen. We took off from the dock at Port Isabel–

and cruised under the Causeway bridge through the Laguna Madre. It was so exciting to see dolphins for the first and only time on our visit to the Gulf. It’s hard to get good pictures of them, but you can see one in the picture below.

We went past a rotating bridge, which opened its gate for us.

And then, we were inside the Port of Brownsville waterway. The deepwater shipping channel is 17 miles long and 42 feet deep with 40,000 acres surrounding it. After we went through the bridge, the boat passed through miles of sand and brush. We could see a protected island that is prohibited for us humans to enter and it was full of bird life.

Many birds also filled the shore line.

We soon came to the shipping boneyard. Huge rectangles are cut out of the hulking ships. Those rectangles are cut and ground into steel pellets and reused.

There is currently even a military ship being scrapped. The Kittyhawk is one of the great diesel aircraft carriers built in the 60’s and the last to be decomissioned. It is here being taken apart bit by bit. I could still imagine the sailors waving on board the decks.

There is a lot of scrap to be processed. I enjoyed watching everyone hard at work while we just cruised on by.

There are little pretty little tugboats to be seen. I liked this one which reminded me of St. Joseph, Missouri, in the state I used to call home.

At the other end of vessel life, ships are being built here, too. This one will go to Hawaii. It is to be a container ship for a large shipping corporation there.

There are docking spots for ships to stop and unload goods or just to have a lay by. This ship holds the immense blades that will be installed on windmill farms.

It was time to visit the Brownsville Shrimp Basin. Shrimp boats need repairs, too, and some are in dry dock for that reason, or for a new coat of paint.

You would think that shrimp boats would be out catching shrimp on a workday, but many were docked as we went through the Basin. Currently, it is too expensive for the small-time operators to purchase gas. It costs about $75,000.00 to fill up the tank on a shrimp boat! It is hard to catch enough shrimp to recoup that cost.

And then, the Big Shrimp Handoff: we pulled in to Texas Gold Shrimp Company and two men were waiting there to hand us two big containers of shrimp. No sooner said than done, and we were off again.

We caught all the action from the best seat in the house: the front of the boat. From our position, it felt like we were the only ones on the cruise. It was definitely windy, cool to start, and once in a while we were splashed, but we persevered and the morning warmed up as it went on. Going in and out of the shipping area, there was a long period where we were just sailing with nothing more special than sand and the sea to see. The captain stopped his narration at times to play 70’s music ( what I call Boomer Music). Going out I was munching a doughnut. Coming back I was tucking into a nice bowl of peel and eat shrimp with a cup of pina colada. The dolphins were playing again, and pelicans awaited our return at the dock. Could life get any better than that?

Oh, and the Rick McEwan concert? He was great, and we enjoyed our evening very much.

Next time – about that brochure for a tour to Mexico…


Port Isabel and South Padre Island

Port Isabel and the Queen Isabella Causeway leading to South Padre Island, as seen from Port Isabel Lighthouse

During our Texas stay, we made three trips down to South Padre. On our first, Cal had the brilliant idea of staying a couple of nights so we could be here for more than just one day. It didn’t take us long to get reservations booked after that suggestion. Our second visit, then, was our little mini vacation-away-from-our-permanent-vacation. The morning of the first day was our visit to Boca Chica that was in my previous blog.

South Padre Island lies just off the coast of extreme south Texas. The water in between the mainland and the island is part of the Intracoastal Waterway which goes all the way around the Gulf to the Mississippi River at New Orleans. It is also the southern part of the Laguna Madre, a long and shallow lagoon. Port Isabel is the last town before the bridge to the island.

We stopped at Port Isabel Lighthouse just before getting on the bridge.

Construction on the lighthouse was completed and lamps were lit in 1853. There was a period of stoppage during the Civil War. During that time, both sides used the lighthouse for observation. The last battle of the Civil War happened near here, more than a month after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

We climbed up 75 stairs and 3 ladders before we arrived at the top.   There we were rewarded with the view that you see at the beginning of this blog. It was also interesting to get a look at the multifaceted lens. For those interested in such details, it is a reproduction of a 3rd Order Fresnel Lens.  It was installed just this past December so that the lighthouse was lit for the first time in 117 years at that time.  That must have been a sight to see!

Being able to stay on the island meant that we didn’t need to get up super early to get a good start on our day. We visited South Padre Island Birding Center. This was an excellent stop. We started in their museum, which was mostly a very cute and adorable collection of baby alligators and turtles. Directly outside were some adult versions of the same. These animals are not able to be rehabilitated in the wild so they make their home here.

Big Padre and his little buddy

There were about a half mile of boardwalks over fifty acres of wetlands, with many various birds that could be seen.

An egret on a fishing expedition

From the boardwalk, we could look over the salt marsh, and down into the shallow waters where we could see the reason for the assortment of birds – there was an abundance of fish in all sizes.

The interesting thing about the Laguna Madre is that it is hypersaline, meaning that it is saltier than the ocean.  There are only five other lagoons like it in the world.  The water evaporates faster than freshwater flows into it because of the dry climate, its shallowness, and the fact that it has no significant river source.

A gathering of ducks and roseate spoonbills

Right next door to the birding center is Sea Turtle Inc., which is a refuge and hospital for sea turtles. South Padre Island is a nesting hotspot for Kemp’s Ridley turtles. The center also has several Green turtles. In 2022, they were able to rehabilitate and release 89 turtles, and protect 7,403 hatchlings. We were able to see large tanks of turtles who were not able to be released back into the wild.

Gerry, an Atlantic Green, who is a permanent resident

I was impressed at their ingenuity in giving the turtle below a new lease on life. Allison was missing three out of four of her flippers due to a predator attack, and all she could do was swim in left circles. The staff at the rehab center rigged up a brace so she can swim freely, although she cannot be released back into the wild.

Their hospital is under a tent while a brand new facility is under construction. They have smaller tanks in the hospital for those turtles who are still in states of rehabilitation. When it is exceptionally cold, sea turtles become cold-stunned. They are then weak and inactive, floating to the surface and washing up on the island. There is only a short period of time when they can be rescued. This past December a cold period happened where the organization rescued many turtles, and we saw five in the hospital which were still not yet ready to be released back into the wild from that event.

On our final trip out to South Padre we went out to the rock jetty where most of the turtles are found. It is on the very southern tip of the island in Isla Blanca County Park. It extends way out to sea. We did not see any turtles, but near the jetty is this statue:

It is a memorial to fisherman lost at sea. If you look closely on the left, you will see a grounded weather balloon.

Certainly, the main thing about going to the island is the beach! Driving all the way north of the island, the hotels and condos recede into the rearview mirror, and all that’s left is the dunes and the sea. That’s just the way it ought to be. The road just ends. You can drive on the beach and we could have turned around and headed to the last beach access, but that would have been too easy. We just parked the truck and hiked through the dunes with our Subway sandwiches and lawn chairs.

This friendly little bird led the way for quite a while on my beach walk

Next time – a cruise through the Port of Brownsville


SpaceX, Shore Birds, and the Rio Grande on Boca Chica Beach

An almost-two month stay from January to March in Harlingen, Texas offered several opportunities for trips down to the Gulf of Mexico. The area lies at the southernmost tip of Texas. From our park, it was an hour drive. On our second trip in that direction, we headed to the nature preserve at Boca Chica Beach. You can’t go any further south in Texas, or the United States, on the Gulf than Boca Chica.

Rocket launch fans would know this area as the home of SpaceX. Indeed, as we headed down the road toward Boca Chica, we couldn’t miss seeing the rockets sitting in place. There are days that SpaceX closes the road for a launch or to move their rockets around. We didn’t know that we should have checked first to see if the road was open, so I guess we were lucky that we could pass through.

I took the picture on top from our truck as we were driving by.

Then, further down the road, another site:

The road ends at Boca Chica Beach. The beach itself is drivable. A right turn from the road’s end, and there you are. I was conflicted about SpaceX. On the one hand it is exciting and interesting to see. On the other hand, I didn’t like seeing it from an otherwise pristine beach that had been all natural until they arrived.

SpaceX as seen from the beach

I turned my back to it and just enjoyed the beach. A great blue heron stood sentinel, as if to reassure me that all was still okay in his world.

There were long stretches of beach that were deserted except for the birds:

We talked to some park rangers who were congregated for a chat. They informed us that if we drove further down the beach we would see a lighthouse. Off we went, and thankfully left SpaceX in the distance behind us. It was about a mile or two down, and once we arrived, we found people again.

I must have missed something the rangers said (or they assumed we knew), because the lighthouse is in Mexico. And here is the mouth of the Rio Grande. It never ceases to amaze me how many times we cross paths with this river. The lighthouse is off in the distance, but you may be able to see it in this picture.

The Rio Grande makes its way west in the picture below. The river is very deep where it meets the ocean; the fishing must be good.

A fisherman casting his net

A pair of pelicans observed the action from the American side. The land right up to the river is still part of the Boca Chica Wildlife Refuge.

We had a picnic lunch on the beach before making our way out to further adventures. It had been a great beach morning at Boca Chica.

Life is good.

I was going to put all of our Boca Chica and South Padre adventures in one blog, but it would have proved to be very long. Our Boca Chica morning was part of a trip to South Padre Island. That will be for next time!


A Weekend Celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans

A New Orleans parade float prop

As luck (for me) would have it, my sister moved to New Orleans a couple of years ago to live with her oldest, Kat. I’ve always wanted to go to Mardi Gras there, so I put a trip for Mardi Gras in my plans, and my daughter Katie agreed to come with me. We had booked our AirBnb a year before the trip and it was only a couple of blocks away from my sister. Planning is everything.

I had a lot to learn about going there for Mardi Gras. First of all, there is not one or two parades, but multiple parades going on all over the area throughout the weeks leading up to the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. There are sometimes several parades in one day, with one parade leading the next. The Uptown parades are walkable from my sister’s house. We did not go to the French Quarter parades, or even set foot in the French Quarter on this trip. Both Katie and I had been there before.

Kat advised us not to come on the final weekend of Mardi Gras, which was a huge surprise to me. The crowds are massive and the cost of everything is higher. With Southwest Airlines not behaving as it used to, we may have had more difficulty with our flights. Both Katie and I were glad that we followed her advice.

On Friday night, our first night, we were down on the street after dinner and it was around 11:30 PM before we left. I didn’t even notice the time passing! It was pure fun to watch, wave at the people on the floats, and try to catch whatever they threw down. I got socked in the nose with a massive wad of beads and I didn’t even mind. Well, not too much.

By the end of the night, we’d had quite a haul. Katie and Kat are here modeling their beads, and Katie (on the left) is also wearing her new hula hoop. I was wearing quite a few beads myself.

The goodies that the floats toss out are called “throws”. The beads are just a start, and some of those may have various decorations or lights on them. Katie received some very nice glass beads, plus three hula hoops throughout the weekend. There are also hats and headbands, sunglasses, cups of all sorts (New Orleans dinnerware), bubbles and toys, Kleenex and chapstick, balls and frisbees, bags of snacks, stuffed animals, and other odd things like a manicure set and a bamboo spear with feathers and a rubber tip. I’m sure I’m forgetting something. The people on the floats keep an eye out for the kids, and will try to throw them the nicest toys. It would be fun to be a kid at a Mardi Gras parade.

Katie’s treasures, and this was after just the first evening.

It wasn’t time for bed yet after the parades. We had to have a bite of King Cake back at the house first.

Haydels is one of the best bakeries in New Orleans to purchase your King Cake. It is a blend of coffee cake and cinnamon roll.

The name comes from the Biblical three wise men who brought gifts for the baby Jesus. Traditionally, King Cake is eaten between January 6, the day of their visit, to the eve of Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday. A baby is placed inside the cake. Supposedly if you find the baby in your piece, you will have good luck and will be “king” for the day. I also heard another version in New Orleans, which is that you have to buy the next King Cake. My piece of cake had the baby! I don’t know when I will be back to buy everyone another cake.

We watched just one parade on Saturday afternoon. I enjoyed that one because the groups in each float were the military, police, veterans, EMT, and firefighters organizations. Some of the groups were interesting, such as the Women of the Armed Forces and World War II veterans. I didn’t see any veterans on the float, though. They are all probably too old to be riding around on a float by now.

An EMT float in Saturday’s parade

Saturday was cold, and by the time this parade was over, it was starting to drizzle. Another parade was coming, but we abandoned it in favor of a coffee shop, and then found some little shops to explore over on Magazine Street. Strangely enough, we found a small Alligator Museum. It is one man’s lifetime collection of all things alligator. You could purchase your own little alligator in the gift shop.

Also found on Magazine Street:

And a homage to Mardi Gras:

A nice warm bowl of pho at a Vietnamese restaurant, Pho Tran, was wonderful in this weather.

On Sunday we were back out on the parade route on St. Charles with lawn chairs, lunch, and empty bags to hold our throws. The day was sunny and as it warmed up as it went on.

There was even a float where you could toss your beads or hoops back, if you didn’t want them:

Having lived in St. Louis for so long, I was excited when the Clydesdales and the Budweiser beer wagon came along.

Of course, no parade would be complete without marching bands, pom squads, and twirlers. There were plenty of those. You could even get your own group together, put on some crazy costumes and dance music, and boogie down the street.

Even the houses and trees in New Orleans dress up in their beads for Mardi Gras:

We had a little time on our last day in New Orleans, so we Uber’d over to the Riverfront Mall for a beignet at one of Cafe DuMonde’s satellite coffee shops. There, we also got a look at the Mississippi River and strolled through some of the stores.

Our destination this morning, though, was Mardi Gras World, and from the mall it was a short walk. My sister and I had a picture taken next to this handsome gentleman in the waiting area:

Mardi Gras World is a working studio where most of the Mardi Gras floats are made. Several generations of the Kern family have been creating them since 1932. It has been open for many years so that everyone can get a behind-the-scenes look. First we were shown a short movie about Mardi Gras and the studios. We were given a slice of King Cake since it was Mardi Gras week – hooray! The tour then proceeded to the warehouse and studio.

Inside were floats aplenty in all stages of construction. The various decorations on a float are called “props”. A float prop is pictured at the top of this blog, and there are a couple of small ones below:

The props are made with layers of styrofoam which are glued together with insulation foam. The prop artist will carve it into shape, and then it is decorated. A prop can be redecorated several times, as the head above has been.

Behind the props is a float in progress

There are also props and floats that are made from fiberglass and reused unchanged every year. We had seen this one on the parade route, from the Krewe of Cleopatra, and it was already in the warehouse for next year.

Plenty of props in all phases of construction

A New Orleans Krewe is a social group. Krewes are a New Orleans tradition that go back all the way to 1856. Mistick Krew of Comus was the first one, and it still exists. A Krewe creates the parade and also has a ball. It can cost a lot of money just to join a Krewe. The group needs the funds to purchase all of the throws, which can run into the thousands of dollars. Besides Cleopatra, on Friday night we had seen the Krewe of Oshun and the Krewe of Alla parades.

I have heard that the French Quarter parades can get a little rowdy. The streets are narrow and the crowds can press in. The Uptown parades which we attended are more family friendly. For us, it was nice that we could just walk a few blocks down to the parade route whenever we wanted to go.

Now that we are in the season of Lent, the parades are over in New Orleans. But you can be sure that everyone is already working on next year’s parades. Fat Tuesday is February 13, 2024. It will be early in the year, so dress warm if you come!

Next time – across the Gulf to Boca Chica Beach and SpaceX

Europe · UK and Ireland

Taking a Bath in Bath, England – Europe Travels August 2022

When putting together our trip, I found that we needed to visit one additional spot before going to London. I scrutinized my planning map. Where to go? Once again, I consulted my Rick Steves “Europe through the Back Door”. He gave Bath a solid three red triangles, meaning that it is a definite should-see destination.

In the travel chaos that was the summer of 2022, shortly before we left for Europe, Rick posted on Facebook about crowd management options. He suggested in his post that one should consider touring the less-visited cities that are less full of tourists. One of the examples he gave was Bath. “Instead of Bath, go to Bristol.” But Rick, you told me to go to Bath!

By now we were into late August, though, and the crowds in Bath were manageable. We knew what to do: see the places with the heaviest tourist traffic in the morning, avoid shopping areas in the afternoon, and have a plan for the day. We had come from several places that weren’t heavy tourist sites, so it was a little different, but we enjoyed so many aspects about our stay in Bath.

River Avon runs through the city of Bath, and we needed to walk alongside of it to get to the city center. There was a bridge over a canal that flowed into the river, and most every time a boat was making its way through the lock. A family with two kids was coming through one morning, and even the kids were helping to operate the manual locks.

Waiting to open the gates

The river is always beautiful, at any time of day.

But are there really baths in Bath? Yes! In Roman times, it was considered to be one of the great religious spas of its era and the town was actually called Aquae Sulis. There are three hot springs, and the one with the most water in it is special to the goddess Sulis Minerva. She was worshipped even before the Roman era. A stone inscription dates the complex to 76 AD. We visited the Roman baths with a main bath and ruins of the temple and other bath rooms, housed in a museum with artifacts.

Lest you get a sudden urge to jump into the pool, it is sealed with lead, so your bath wouldn’t be so good for your health. There would have been a roof over this pool in Roman times, but now algae grows because it is open to the sky. For the average Roman bathing here, the baths would have been the biggest building they ever entered in their lives.

Inside, we walked under modern-day Bath through ruins of various smaller baths, cobbled Roman streets, and Temple Sulis Minerva. If we were Roman, we as commoners would not have been able to enter the rooms of the temple. There are altars and a tomb with a skeleton still in it. Many objects such as jewelry and coins that people left behind in the baths are displayed. There is even a gym.

There would have been a full gilt bronze statue of Goddess Sulis Minerva in the temple. The head is all that remains and it was splendid to see. I didn’t get a picture of it, but found a postcard in the gift shop.

Also surviving is a large ornamental pediment, which would have been over the entranceway, with a fearsome head of a gorgon. As with many of the ruins and stones we saw, it would have been brightly painted. The Romans borrowed the gorgon from Greek mythology. It is thought to be was a symbol of Sulis Minerva.

We wandered around through the maze of rooms, all under the city of Bath. These rooms were at bath level.

Of course, the spring is still here, and today there are modern baths. We celebrated our anniversary while in Bath, and took a bath in Bath at Thermae Bath Spa. We carried our bathing suits in our luggage all over Europe just so we could use them this one time. It’s not something we would normally do so it was a great experience. The pools in the baths are not heated because the water comes out of the spring and into the pools at about 93 degrees Fahrenheit. It feels like pleasantly warm bath water. A few floors up, there is an outdoor pool. It was raining so it was very strange to be in the warm water at the same time as the rain, but we could look out over the city as we lounged about. We spent most of our time in the floor-level indoor pool where there was a nice whirlpool and a lot of interesting jets.

Credit: Thermae Bath Spa, Bath, England

After our bath, we had tea (lunch) at Sally Lunn’s. Dating to 1483, the restaurant is in Bath’s oldest house. Sally Lunn came to Bath in 1680 and began selling her delicious French buns, and the rest is history. A Sally Lunn bun is like a brioche. It is part bun, part cake, part bread. This really wasn’t a great place for the real “tea” experience, but our buns were delicious.

Sally Lunn’s buns

For tea, we were each served one bun. One half, cut into quarters, had smoked salmon on top. The other half was served with butter, jam and clotted cream. I was just about full after having just the one half with the salmon, but who can resist all the goodness on the sweet side?

In the basement, a view of the kitchen as it would have been long ago

The other unforgettable experience here was a tower tour of Bath Abbey. The Abbey was founded in the 8th century as a Benedictine monastery and, like Shrewsbury Abbey, lost the monastery during the reign of King Henry VIII. The church itself has gone through many cycles of ruin and repair since 1090, and was even bombed in World War II. She is standing proud over the city of Bath today.

It was 212 steps up to the top of the tower! Along the way, though, our guide had many things to show us. After climbing a little, we were on an outside balcony where the priest could address his congregants on special occasions. There was a long narrow walkway on the roof, some more climbing, and we were in the room where the bell ringers gather. There are ten bells, and each person needs to pull their rope at the proper time to produce the correct melody. I’d be tired from the hike to this room at least twice a week before even proceeding to ring my bell. And several of the ringers are elderly. It’s a matter of great pride to be a bell ringer.

We ducked into some narrow passageways for a look at the bells and the rafters of the cathedral. There was even a tiny peek-a-boo spot where we could look down into the cathedral below. The very top of the roof vaults are only four inches thick!

And then, we were behind the clock.

Finally, we were up at the top of the tower, and given a marvelous view over the city of Bath and the Roman baths below.

After the tour, we visited the inside of the cathedral. The very first king of England, King Edgar, was crowned at the monastery here in 973 and there is a large window with a depiction of the occasion. We looked at the beautiful fan shapes in the soaring ceiling, now more interesting since we had seen the attic. There were large flat gravestones (ledgerstones) on the Abbey floor, 891 of them in total. I don’t know if I walked on all of them. It took twelve years to repair the cathedral after World War II, but repairing the ledgerstones was a whole other project.

Cal needed some fortifications after all that time climbing around the cathedral, and we also took time to listen to the buskers on the street.

From our vantage point on top of the cathedral’s tower we had been able to see that there were three different places where the buskers performed, and they rotated around those places throughout the day. This woman was a classically trained opera singer who performed a lot of songs from musicals that I was familiar with, and we enjoyed an early lunch while sitting on a bench and listening to her.

This little piece of advertising on the cathedral plaza always caught my attention.

In a tucked-away corner of the canal leading to the river, we found this little swan family out for their evening swim.

The day we left Bath, Cal enjoyed an English breakfast. These large breakfasts had lost a bit of their excitement for me after having had haggis and blood sausage in Scotland, and all of them in the UK are similar, so he did the honors while I just had a poached egg and toast.

English breakfast: poached egg, tomatoes, tattie scone, sausage and ham on a large mushroom, and beans

My next Europe posting will cover our visit to Stonehenge and the Cotswolds. First, though, I’m coming back to the present — February is a big traveling month for us, and I already have much to report. My posts will return to the United States for a little while. We’ll be on one of those travels next week so it will be two weeks before I’ll post again. I just returned from a long weekend in New Orleans, so stay tuned for the details!

Next time – Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Europe · UK and Ireland

Higgledy Piggledy Streets in Shrewsbury, England – Europe Travels August 2022

Shrewsbury is likely not the kind of town you would know about if you are trying to decide where to go on a trip to England. And indeed, if you don’t have a lot of time, you probably wouldn’t put it on your list. Tourists are here, yes, but not in droves that we saw elsewhere.

The town lies in Shropshire, in the far west side of England, right next to the border with Wales. It is the setting for a detective series about a 12th century Welsh Benedictine monk who solved crimes in Shrewsbury. Ellis Peters wrote 22 books in the “Brother Cadfael” series. I read all of them, although I enjoyed the earliest books in the series most. A few years back, I looked up what it might be like to visit here, and dismissed it for some reason. Of course, things are not going to look as they did in Cadfael’s day.

But then, a Facebook blogger that I follow called “Florry the Lorry” visited Shrewsbury. The pictures she took of this town are gorgeous. I’m sure that when I commented about a possible future visit here, she replied about the medieval buildings and streets going all “higgledy piggledy”. I can’t find that thread now, but I was ready to go based on her pictures and remarks. Plus, it was right on our path through England.

We spent a lot of time in Shrewsbury just wandering about, admiring the crooked buildings, and peering into shop windows.

For centuries, Shrewsbury has been a designated “market town” which gives it the right to have a weekly market. It was held here, under the archway and the square:

In the 1960’s the need for a new market was evident. The town built a modern indoor market that retained none of the character of the original, but I’m sure the vendors enjoy being out of the weather. We walked through and I did a wee bit of shopping, as well as to have the requisite tea and cakes. I bought some much needed socks, a foldable tote bag, and – a steal – 3 vintage postcards for forty pence each. We had all the fruits and vegetables that we needed back in our apartment.

Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury. There is a statue of him in front of the building where he went to school as a boy. It is now the town library.

There are always so few statues of women that I feel that I should give Mary Webb her due. Her statue was near Charles Darwin’s.

The Shrewsbury places featured in the Brother Cadfael mysteries are Shrewsbury Abbey, the River Severn, and Shrewsbury castle. All of these places still exist…sort of.

The “Castle Foregate” and the “Abbey Foregate” are two place names often mentioned often in the books. It is simply the roads leading up to the gates of the castle and the abbey, and they are street names used today. It’s interesting to think about how old street names can be in a country that has been inhabited for so long.

We walked up the foregate to the castle.

The castle contains an armament museum. Looking down into the knights’ hall, I tried to imagine it as it might have looked in the 1100’s without all the displays.

Shrewsbury Abbey, the home of the fictional Brother Cadfael, still exists too. It was founded in 1083. However, King Henry VIII did away with all the monasteries in England and made himself head of the Church of England. The abbey was destroyed in the 1500’s. The church retained its name although there is no abbey and was no longer Catholic after that point. The Romanesque church that was erected in the 11th century still stands, although parts of it have been rebuilt over the years.

A side gate which would have led to the Abbey is all that is left of that:

Inside Shrewsbury Abbey church

One of the stained glass windows paid homage to the Benedectine monks. There are also two statues of the same man laying down, one which depicts the man with a sword and the other shows him wearing a religious robe of some sort. Perhaps this was an inspiration for the books?

The window and artifacts below honor the memory of St. Winifred, a 7th century Welsh saint. The acquisition of her relics surrounds the plot of the first Cadfael book, “A Morbid Taste for Bones”, and is the story which hooked me into the whole series.

The church organ was purchased in 1911. Installation was never totally completed and by the 2000’s it needed some restoration. The update was finished in 2021. There was a surprise treat in store for us: an organ recital by a professor at a nearby college. He performed excellently and now that the organ could be played to its fullest potential, he (literally) pulled out all the stops.

Especially after visiting the church, I was very impressed with all the research Ellis Peters had done with her books. She wove all of her stories in and around the actual places and historical events that were happening in that era.

We crossed the River Severn often in our forays around town.

We took a boat ride, too. Although unfortunately we chose a rainy morning to do it, the top of the boat was covered and the rain held off until we were almost done. A spot of tea felt great in the chilly weather! The boat captain helpfully gave us a little Shrewsbury tour as we rode.

From the river, we could see little vignettes of the town that we would not have seen otherwise:

Once off the boat, we visited Quarry Park. An old part of the park called the Dingle dates back to 1879 and contains sunken gardens and a pond. It was the city’s way of dealing with what had been a medieval stone quarry. Charles Darwin used to look for newts and salamanders in the pond. The rainy morning made all the flowers look especially bright. Of course, with the off-and-on rain, we had the place to ourselves.

One evening, we headed down the street and saw a footpath called “Pig Trough”. Now, who could resist this? I read somewhere that, in the middle ages, streets would be named after the main enterprises that went on there. Was Pig Trough where everyone kept their pigs? I’ll never know the answer to that, but it will go down as one of our best evening walks. We had no idea where the path was going to go but we followed it all around and eventually it came out farther down the road.

We were in Shrewsbury for a long weekend and that was enough time to see it in a leisurely fashion. I was so very glad that this town had been on our itinerary!

I have been traveling for the past few days. There will be a blog coming up about that and our life in Texas this winter. First, though, I will have one more blog about our Europe trip before I leave it again for a little while.

Next time – we visit Bath, England

Europe · UK and Ireland

A Literary Journey to Haworth, England – Europe Travels August 2022

Historic downtown Haworth, England

It was a day’s train ride from Inverness, Scotland to Haworth. Down we went, back through the Cairngorms with sheep grazing on the heather in bloom and mountainsides dripping their waterfalls. Back down past Edinburgh and into England. Past towns like Berwick-on-Tweed, walled and right on the ocean, where we seemed for awhile to be skimming right on the water. The train was running slow due to some flooding down the track. We were late coming into York, missed our connection to Leeds but found another train, and both the train to Leeds and the train to Keighley were packed. Finally, in Keighley, a cab took us to Haworth. It had been a seven hour journey, and Haworth looked pretty good after a long day!

Coming here was a pilgrimage for me. My favorite book since my high school years is “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte. I pull this book off my shelf and reread it every now and again, and I still find it entertaining. If you are not familiar with it, perhaps you have heard of “Wuthering Heights” by her sister, Emily. I always dreamed of walking on the Yorkshire moors as Charlotte and Emily described in their books. If reading isn’t your thing, hang in there, I’ve also included a hike on the moors and a ride on a steam train here!

Haworth (pronounced, as I learned, “Howorth”) was the home of the Bronte family. Patrick Bronte was the minister at Haworth beginning in 1820, and he and his wife Maria had six children. Maria, and the two oldest daughters, died young. That left Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell. Anne was also a novelist and poet, and Branwell was a failed poet and artist. The four siblings were extremely close and lived in the parsonage with their father. After their mother’s death, their aunt came to help raise the children. Whenever the siblings ventured out into the world, all came home to Haworth as soon as they could. A signboard in the house stated that “it was at home where their creative lives flourished; in each others’ company and close to the wild moorland landscape that was such a source of inspiration to them.”

The parsonage, pictured here, is now a Bronte museum and much of the home is still furnished as it was when they left it. I cannot begin to tell you how exciting it was to walk through those doors.

Here I am, next to a picture of Charlotte on the wall

This is the room, their dining room, where “Jane Eyre”, “Wuthering Heights”, and “Agnes Grey” (Anne’s book) were all written. In the evening, the siblings would be together, and the sisters would walk around the table discussing what they were writing. Cal knew how important this was for me, and made sure to get a picture of me standing here. And then, I just stood and looked a long time at everything.

After the dining room, there was the rest of the house and museum to see. The kitchen:

And the grandfather clock that Patrick would wind every night before going up to bed:

Branwell was a bit of a free spirit, as evidenced by his room. Their setup of it was very honest. Unfortunately, the Black Bull Pub in town was one of his favorite hangouts. You can see a corner of it in the top picture and we had lunch there in the afternoon.

The whole family’s history is interesting but it was Charlotte I had mostly come to see. Even though we live centuries apart we may have had some common interests. I’d love to have a spot of tea and a chat with her. She spent some time as a governess and wasn’t happy in her job. She wrote about it in a journal. Remembering my own working years, I could certainly relate!

As with most women in those days, Charlotte did needlework, as I do too. She made a Berlin wool work bag for her friend’s mother. The work bag was something fashionable to create in its day.

Here is the first American edition of “Jane Eyre”, published in 1848. It was an immediate success. Currer Bell was a pseudonym she used until her book was known and celebrated.

The church parsonage is located right next to the church cemetery. In the Bronte’s time there were no trees, and the stones stood straight and tall. It is thought that this cemetery was part of the cause of so much mortality in the village. The spring which provided the village drinking water flowed right underneath it.

The Bronte siblings’ story is a tragic one. Branwell, Emily and Anne died of tuberculosis. Branwell was the first at age thirty-one, and heavy drinking probably hastened his death. Emily and Anne died within a year of Branwell’s passing. I can’t imagine what it felt like for Charlotte to lose all of her siblings so young and so quickly. She lived a few more years and married, but died from complications of her first pregnancy. Patrick outlived all of his children.

The family is not buried in the graveyard but underneath the church. Anne was buried in Scarborough, where she died.

When we visited the church I was a little distracted by this piece of artwork, made entirely from toast! It was created by Adam Sheldon in 2010, who sadly died in early 2022 at the age of 45.

There were a lot of shops to explore in the quaint village. This part of Haworth is made for tourists with its restaurants and small inns.

The other highlight of this visit, and one of many on the entire trip to Europe, was a hike to the “Bronte Waterfall”. This walk took us out to the windswept moors. Every step was a delight.

The trickiest part was finding the correct path. First, there was a narrow walkway, probably a horse path in days of old, with tall stone fences on each side.

Then, up Penistone Hill and across the Haworth moors. There were open fields of blooming heather, land spread out wide, and farms receding into the distance. Pastures of sheep grazed between endless stone fences. I tried to imagine how this would have looked in the mid-1800’s. Although indistinct in the picture below, the lines in the hill are all stone fences.

Then: through a cattle gate and sheep running loose. Now we were on the gorgeous South Pennine moors.

After passing a wonderland of ferns, we came to a pretty little river. No waterfall in sight.

I was pretty sure we had the right spot, and it was time for lunch anyway. We sat on a rock to enjoy the delicious sandwiches that we had purchased in a meat shop near our AirBnb. Other people came and went, some local and some not, and the missing waterfall was a topic of discussion. Someone finally filled us in: it was simply not there. It had dried up ages ago.

The Bronte siblings would come here for picnics, too. They would sit on the “Bronte Chair” – a big rock – to tell each other stories. We didn’t find the rock either at first, but someone was helpfully sitting on it on our way out. The missing waterfall would have been right behind it. Today it is a waterfall of heather and fern.

Our hike had been seven miles long. It had been longer than we thought it would be, and Cal deserved a reward after putting up with all my Bronte excitement. We totally negated the positive effect of our long hike with this mid-afternoon treat! His is a cream-filled meringue with hot cocoa, and mine is an apple turnover with of course, tea and cream.

We stayed in Haworth for only three nights, but after making sure I saw all of the Bronte-related sights we had time on our hands. If we’d had a car, we certainly would have visited other sights like the Yorkshire Dales. Instead, we looked into the possibility of an old steam excursion train that runs to Keighley. Haworth used to be a mill town which produced worsted yarn and cloth, and the train opened in 1867 to transport coal, textiles and workers to the mills. We rode Keighley and Worth Valley Railway from Haworth to Keighley, one stop short of the whole five-mile line.

On the platform and waiting for the train!

Some folks use this historic steam train to hitch a ride to Keighley because rail regular service from Haworth no longer exists. I mentioned that we had taken a cab to Haworth; when we left, we took a bus. Keighley is a much bigger city than Haworth, but we found nothing of note to see there.

I didn’t initially get a picture of our train because we were busy getting on it. But there is also a historic diesel train which we took on our return to Haworth, and another steam train passed us on our way. We made a stop at a manual switching station and Cal saw that the conductors made a swap of something. He said it was a mail bag. Would they deliver the mail in this way? I’m not sure. Maybe it was the day’s receipts.

The steam train, and a manual switching station

At Damems, we came to England’s smallest train station. Only one train car fits on the platform.

I can’t leave Haworth without showing you a picture of our little Airbnb cottage, which was very old. Cal is standing at the door and he always had to duck to go through. People were shorter in the old days.

The stairs going up to the bedroom were very precarious. At the top there was a measurable gap before one left the stairs and entered the hallway. The cottage was totally renovated, but the stairway was left as it had been. The steps were stone and I could just imagine the generations of weary feet that had climbed those stairs and worn them out in the middle. I hung on to those rails for dear life every time I slowly crawled up and down! It was a sweet little place and I loved our stay here.

The bonus to our stay was a chippy – a fish and chip shop – that did a steady carryout business in the evenings just a few doors down. We had a delicious dinner al fresco on one of their picnic tables. It wasn’t far from the meat shop that sold us our picnic sandwiches, and we purchased the same sandwiches for our train ride south on the day we left.

We are following the Masterpiece Theatre series “All Creatures Great and Small” on PBS weekly. In the last episode, the housekeeper, Mrs. Hall, goes to a train station to meet her son. As she was sitting at the station waiting for him, the name of the station was shown in big letters: “KEIGHLEY”. I shot up, and exclaimed excitedly, “Keighley! That is where we were!” And right there is an aspect of travel I most love: the sudden connectedness to places you had not ever heard of previously, and are now quite familiar with, thousands of miles from home.

Next time – moving on to Shrewsbury, England

Europe · UK and Ireland

Castles and Whiskey in Scotland – Europe Travels August 2022

Before I ever came to Scotland, two of the things that came to mind when I thought of this country were its castles and its Scotch whiskey. In my prior blogs about our visit here, a sharp-eyed reader may have wondered why I hadn’t written about visiting castles. The ones we saw are all in this posting; later, we’ll have a taste of whiskey.

Castles are like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get. Some, like Dunrobin above, look pristine and like every vision you’ve ever had about castles. Others are in ruins. They can be medieval (think knights and coats of armor) or a glimpse at more recent royal life. The inside could be decorated like the occupants just left, it could be empty, or it could be a museum unrelated to the castle. Scotland’s castles were the first for this trip and we saw four of them.

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle is a fortress which was built on volcanic rock. It was once the home of the Scottish monarchs, dating all the way back to Malcom III Canmore whose reign began in 1058. The castle was beseiged 23 times. The oldest surviving building in all of Edinburgh, St. Margaret’s Chapel, is inside the fortress and dates to the 12th century. The city of Edinburgh itself grew out of the castle, spilling down the hillside.

I had purchased tickets for the castle several days earlier but didn’t count on the weather: in typical Edinburgh fashion, it was cold, windy, and rain threatened. Still, it was a thrill to enter the gates of such a famous place.

From the ramparts of the fortress, we could look down on the city below. This is a view of “New Town” and Princes Street in the foreground with a view all the way out to the Firth of Forth.

Inside the castle buildings were the Royal Chambers where Mary Queen of Scots lived and the room where she gave birth to her son James in 1566. There was also the knights hall:

Inside one of the castle courtyards

My memory of Edinburgh castle will always be inextricably linked to the cream tea I had in a cafe just off the Royal Mile following the visit. I was cold and wet and I wanted soup. We visited Deacon Brodies Cafe but we were too early for soup. Instead, I had a Scottish cream tea for the first time. It consists of a pot of tea with cream and a scone with butter, jam and clotted cream. It was absolutely heavenly and I have had nothing better since. I needed nothing else to eat until evening. It was one of those happy surprises that come with traveling Europe. Cream tea instead of soup, who knew?

Loch Ness and Castle Urquhart

And now we come to the third thing people think of when they think of Scotland: Loch Ness.

When planning our trip, I suspected that Loch Ness was not going to be a destination for us. Other places more interesting called to me for the time that we had. This was later verified by Rick Steves, who is my travel guru. For the uninitiated, Rick Steves is the go-to person for all things Europe travel-related. He has guide books, tours, TV shows, and a large on-line presence. I also follow Cameron Hewitt, Rick’s associate. Both suggested giving Loch Ness a pass as its own destination. Rick suggested that if you are on a tour in the Highlands or simply driving from point A to point B, you will probably drive right by it. And then, you can tell everyone back home that you saw Loch Ness.

On our first tour from Inverness, our guide asked if anyone had not yet seen the lake. There were several of us, so she stopped on our way back to Inverness. We hiked down to the lakeshore, and this is it. No monsters in sight. But it is quite pretty, particularly the Highland bluffs on its northern side.

We did, however, see a monster on the way down to the lake:

Castle Urquhart is in ruins. It was built in the 13th century, but its fine location on the lake meant that it was raided several times. The final blow was dealt in 1692 from the British in order to prevent the Jacobite forces from using it, and it went into decay after that. It is now one of the most-visited castles in Scotland, probably because of its location on famous Loch Ness.

On our second Rabbie’s tour out to the Island of Skye, the guide made a quick stop for a look at Castle Urquhart. We were dealt a prettier day than our first visit here, and the lake sparkled. It was a lovely sight, and it was all we needed to see.

Eilean Donan Castle

We visited Eilean Donan right after the Castle Urquhart stop. In the Scottish Highlands, it is amazing how the weather can change in just a matter of 50 miles distance!

Like Urquhart, this castle was also laid to ruins as part of the Jacobite uprisings. It gets its name, Eilean, from the island it sits on. Donan is attributed to a 6th century Irish saint by the same name who came to Scotland and formed a community here. It was built as protection from the raiding Vikings and expanded over the years. The final blow was dealt by the British, though, in 1719, and it sat in ruins for 200 years. In 1911 a man by the name of Lt. Colonel John Macrae-Gilstrap bought the island and dedicated the next 20 years to reconstructing Eilean Donan.

Eilean Donan is one of the most picturesque and most photographed castles in all of Scotland. Every postcard rack I saw everywhere had beautiful images of this place, and many movies have been filmed here.

I’m not a great judge of time. On some of these tours, left to our own devices, we would arrive back at the mini-bus way too early with no one around. Other times, we would find just about everyone already seated and ready to go. At Eileen Donan, we were given an hour to explore. Our guide did not think it would be enough time to actually tour the inside, but we could either do that or purchase a ticket to walk around the outside of it. We couldn’t decide what to do, so we simply walked around shooting pictures, looking in vain for hot cocoa and then had too much time on our hands. It’s a small regret of mine that we didn’t at least buy the ticket to walk across the bridge and around the outside.

Dunrobin Castle

Flipping through my Scottish Facebook group one day, a picture of Dunrobin came up in my feed, and I was entranced. After a bit of Internet research, I found that we could go there on a two hour train ride north from Inverness. Going further up into the Highlands was a bonus. Better yet, the cost of the train ride was included in our Eurrail pass.

On the journey north, we saw herds of cows and sheep. It was funny to watch them run in panic away from the train. After all, it comes through at least twice a day! The white black-faced sheep dotted bright green pastures. The train also disturbed a little horned roe deer, which suddenly leaped out of the tall grasses. Two different flocks of swans graced a small winding river. A castle could be seen high on the cliffs in the distance. For awhile we rode along the sea where there were massive kelpy flats where the tide had gone out, with horses in a meadow on the shore.

The castle, pictured at the top of this blog, is the family seat of the Earl of Sutherland and Clan Sutherland and is still owned by them. The lands were acquired in 1211. The oldest surviving portion of the castle goes back to 1401, but most of what is presently seen was added in the early 1800’s. This castle has its own private rail station, which is where we arrived just like royalty of old. After a short walk through the woods, we were inside the castle.

As we entered the castle, we were greeted by pictures of ancestors and spoils from the hunt.

Dinner was set on the table and waiting for us.

The ladies’ sitting room was lovely. And oh, that library! This was only one wall; all four were covered. Can you imagine having so many books at your disposal?

In the nursery, a child would have every toy and book imaginable for playtime.

There were rooms upon rooms as we wound our way up and down stairs and down long passageways. At times, we could look out into the back garden.

We sat in on a falconry presentation. My impression is that it seems pretty difficult to use falcons to aid in hunting birds.

After watching the presentation and wandering through the gardens, we still had a great amount of time before the train returned. The castle sits on the North Sea, so we explored the shore.

The Sutherlands were loyal to the crown and so Dunrobin did not run any risk of being ruined by the British. It was stormed once by the Jacobites, but of course they did not have the armament necessary to do any damage.

On our train ride to and from Dunrobin, we passed a very large whiskey distillery. There are 141 operating distilleries in Scotland and a person could go on a whiskey tour to visit several in one go. Distilleries abound in Inverness, inviting us in for samples. We are not whiskey drinkers and so by the end of our stay we still hadn’t tasted a drop. How could we pass up this iconic taste of Scotland?

I found something that was a bit of a compromise for our very last night in Scotland: a whiskey tasting evening in a pub accompanied by Gaelic music and stories of Scotland. The owner of the pub played two-hundred-year-old songs on his violin and sang. The stories he told of Scotland’s past were sad. But Scotland’s future is bright: the country is promoting education in traditional instruments such as the bagpipes and violin. The old Gaelic language is being taught, and college is free for all. In 1998, Scotland finally received its own Parliament. A toast to that!

For those in the know regarding whiskey: we sampled Singleton of Glen Ord, Clynelish, Cu Bocan, Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban, and Tomatin.

Next time – South to Haworth, England


Three For the Road

Ducks swimming on the South Llano River, Texas

It’s time to hit the road and head off from El Paso all the way across Texas to our winter spot in Harlingen Texas. Is the truck hitched? Slides in? Stairs up? Let’s go!

Out of El Paso, the mountains were close by for quite awhile, but they gradually faded into distance. The terrain is rugged here. We saw plenty of buttes, strange rock formations, and miles upon miles of open, parched land.

I should maybe have titled this blog “Four for the road”, because there were actually four overnight stops along the way, but our first was at Fort Stockton RV Park. It’s right off the highway and is primarily an overnight stop for RVers crisscrossing the state before or after the long open stretch of west Texas. There are things to do here, but we always say: “Next time!” They do have a handy little restaurant which served us up a good breakfast.

The road entered some pretty hills and valleys of the southwest corner of the Texas Hill country. Our second stop was outside of Junction, Texas for two overnights at Pecan Valley RV. This is a lovely, quiet place just behind a pecan farm. The owners of this park have had it for just a handful of years. They own just two rows of the pecan orchard. The park is a large oval with nothing but grass in the middle of the oval, and RV spaces under plenty of trees ringing just half of the outsides of the loop. There were four sites next to ours, although there were more down the road, and for a blessed twenty-four hours we had no neighbors close by.

A pecan wagon-turned-chicken coop, with our RV in the background, at Pecan Valley

There are deer to be seen at any time wandering around. In a little farm area, there are chickens and goats. Many of the chickens were free ranging and came to pay us a visit. Thanks to those chickens, we were able to buy a dozen multi-hued eggs.

The South Llano River is just a short walk from the goat and chicken pen. The river is what makes this park popular in the summer. Besides swimming, people enjoy rafting, kayaking or tubing. In all of its history, the river has never run dry, although with today’s climate change it does get very low in the heat of summer.

We had a full day to rest up here, so we went over to South Llano River State Park for a hike. At this park there is a large protected area where about 800 turkeys make their home. The turkeys are easily scared off, so visiting their roost is not encouraged. We hiked the Overlook Trail, which, after spending time in the Southwest, was an easy trail up for us. We were even surprised on our hike by an armadillo scurrying into the underbrush. It moved too quickly for a picture.

Cal is appreciating a bench at the overlook. The flat, treed area below the overlook is the turkey roost.

Junction’s single claim to fame is this antler tree, put up by the Women’s Club in 1968.

The Llano river is a bonus to the beauty of this area. I would like to be here when the trees bud again. We’re familiar with Texas Hill country and it was a good feeling to be back.

A short 140-mile drive took us further east to Guadalupe Brewing Company in New Braunfels. Since they are a Harvest Host location, we stayed a night in their back parking lot.

A surprise for this stop was that our daughter Katie, who lives in Austin, decided to come down and join us for the day. She always has ideas for different and fun things to do, so after getting set up at Guadalupe we headed off in her car. First stop: Animal World and Snake Farm Zoo. At first glance, this place looks like a tourist trap off the Interstate. But once inside, we discovered an interesting little zoo with a variety of well-cared-for animals, birds, and a good assortment of snakes.

I don’t think I’d like to meet this reticulated python out in the wild!

We also had cups of food to feed a multitude of goats with many cute little kids.

New Braunfels is but one of the German heritage towns that dot this area of the Texas hill country. We walked the little downtown area. All of the busy activity on this Sunday afternoon concentrated on their large Biergarten with Hofbrau beer on tap. Instead, though, we roamed the city streets, checked out an antique mall, and visited the little train depot. If you are ever in New Braunfels in November, you can enjoy their popular Wurstfest.

We needed to patronize Guadalupe Brewing for our stay, so we headed back. They had a full selection of beers to choose from. I’m not really a fan of beer, but Cal is, so we sampled three small glasses. My favorite was their Texas Honey Ale, which is described as “a blonde ale enriched with Texas honey”. Even the description sounds delicious. They also make a good pizza, and dinner was in order. That was a fun day!

Leaving New Braunfels, we pointed Sam and Frodo due south in earnest. It was getting warmer. Putting San Antonio behind us, we were on new-to-us territory. Our last stop: Lake Corpus Christi State Park. It is about forty miles to the east from the city for which it is named. Once we set up, I just sat at our picnic table and enjoyed the warmth and the cardinals singing and flying over us.

I hiked a mile long loop trail. Cactus on the the ground were interspersed with deciduous trees with no leaves, and here and there was a palmetto or a palm tree. The trail finally opened up onto the lake.

I missed getting an excellent photo that evening, though. We walked down to a large aluminum T-shaped fishing pier in the late afternoon and caught the setting sun over the lake. The sunset was amazing. It was a walk where we were just “going exploring”, and I had left my phone and camera behind. You’ll just have to take my word for it that it was spectacular.

Traveling further south, we entered a coastal plain with low vegetation, more cactus and very little sign of human life. We had about 140 miles still to go from Lake Corpus Christi. Once near Harlingen, civilization returned. Harlingen is in the northeast part of the Rio Grande Valley, an area that also includes Brownsville and south Padre Island to the southeast and McAllen and Mission on the west. It is at the very bottom of Texas, so once again, we are not far from Mexico.

I’ll leave you here for now while we make some new memories. I’m going to pick up my Europe blogs again for three or four weeks. Do you remember my question from way back in November: what did I leave out of my Scottish blogs?

That’s for next time!