Royal Mile

Last week-ish — I don’t remember the exact day (sue me, I’m retired) — Carol and I went out for an afternoon and evening on the Royal Mile. That’s the street that runs from Holyrood Palace, one of the Monarchy’s royal residences, up a long steep hill to Edinburgh Castle. It was typical Scotland “good times” weather, which is to say damp, chilly, and overcast. (At this point I’m sufficiently dialed into the local Weltanschauung that I welcome such weather as a good excuse for investigating pubs.)

We started out with a self-guided tour of Holyrood. I’d like to be able to show you what it looked like inside, but unfortunately the palace is one of those historical sites where you’re not allowed to take pictures. Carol and I speculated it’s probably for security purposes, since the Queen lives there for a short time each year. One doesn’t want terrorists to get ahold of some tourist photos and triangulate the mortar coordinates of Prince Philip’s place setting in the formal dining room. Which could absolutely happen.

So in lieu of visual aids, I’ll describe the palace for you.

I want you to imagine a lofty, square room, with a tall window set in a deep stone embrasure. The interior walls are covered in dark wood paneling, rather resembling Littlefinger’s brothel in Game of Thrones. Throw in a couple very large, faded tapestries; some paintings of people with trowel-shaped faces in Renaissance Fair costumes; and a massive square bed decorated so as to ensure vivid nightmares.

Right. Now read that paragraph over, ten or a dozen times. There you are, you’ve just toured Holyrood Palace.

Yes, yes, I’m joking of course. There was also a dining room.

Every great house needs a murder story, and Holyrood is no exception. In 1566, David Rizzio, faithful private secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, was stabbed to death in her presence by henchmen of her husband, Lord Darnley, who was also on hand. Presumably this made dinner conversation awkward between them for some time thereafter. Signage in the palace is unclear as to the motive for the secretary’s murder, though at the time rumors swirled that his typing was execrable and his shorthand even worse. His body was dragged away to Mary’s Outer Chamber, where the blood stains are still visible on the floor, owing to the sixteenth century’s lamentable dearth of effective liquid floor cleaners.

For me, the highlight of my Holyrood visit was seeing the Queen’s Gallery. What I expected to find was a dolorous lineup of portraits of the usual royal suspects; but instead, the gallery was given over entirely to artifacts brought back by Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Albert Edward (later King Edward VII), from an expedition to the Indian subcontinent. The precious items were gifts from local potentates. There was no prohibition to photographing them, so see if you can spot them in our extensive and growing Edinburgh Gallery. Hint: they’re nearly all sharp. It is said that you can tell a great deal about someone by the sorts of gifts they give; but in this case it may say more about the recipient and his forbears, that the crown prince came away with enough knives, daggers, and pikes to take on an entire army of private secretaries.

After exhausting all the possibilities of Holyrood, Carol and I ascended the Royal Mile to find a place for dinner and suitable liquid refreshment. And this being Scotland, by “suitable” I obviously mean “whiskey”. I’m not a professional drinker, but a draught of excellent single-malt scotch from the land named after it is something to warm the haggis of any reasonable person, especially on a raw Edinburgh evening.

And since it was to be my birthday present from Carol, we felt we had license to look out a nice place, even if the price was a little beyond our usual guidelines. Despite the chill, there were plenty of people on the streets, window shopping and enjoying the old town vibe. We stopped at several pubs, previewing menus and scouting ambience, before settling on The Whiski Rooms, a cosy place on the Mound. (Crossing the Mile a few blocks down from Edinburgh Castle, the Mound runs down steeply on either side toward the parallel streets below.)

We both opted for a safe food choice with fish and chips, and saved our adventuring for the drinks menu — though the fish turned out to be a bit unusual in its preparation, and quite tasty. With some trepidation for what I was getting into, I ordered a flight of four whiskies. I needn’t have worried: the pours were quite modest and I was able to walk unaided by the time we were ready to settle up. All of the four scotches were excellent, but the Glenfarclas 15 and the Glendronach 18 were the stars.

We left the Whiski Rooms with a lovely feeling of well-being, and strolled the rest of the Mile up to the castle. Looking out from high parking lot over the brightly-lit city below, I felt a real affection for Edinburgh, and a sense of growing familiarity. We have spent time here off and on since last August with our wonderful host Sue, and it has come to feel like a second home.

Turning our faces back down the Mile, we directed our steps through the colorfully-lit streets and into the night.



Flashback: Malta

Beginning in late April of 2016, Carol and Pip and I spent a month in Malta. The presence of His Fuzziness ruled out the easy route to get to the island nation (flying). Instead we packed up our redoubtable Skoda and took an overnight ferry from Genoa down to Sicily, then a high speed ferry from Pozzalo to Malta.

Only about 60 miles due south of Sicily, Malta nevertheless feels surprisingly remote. Its two next closest neighbors are Tunisia and Libya to the south, and Arabic and North African influences are evident in the architecture and language of the islands. While its official first language is English, the native Malti is widely spoken and found on signage. With roots in the speech of the ancient Phoenicians who came to the islands around 750 BC, Malti has been shaped over the centuries by the many peoples who have fought over and inhabited the land since, including the Arabs, the Crusaders, and the English. It is the only Semitic language written with Latin characters, which is cool if you’re a language geek like me.

Malta encompasses three inhabited islands. At an overall length of about 17 miles, the largest island, also called Malta, hosts the national capital, Valletta. A short ferry ride to the northwest is Gozo, about 9 miles long; and between them is the tiny island of Comino, whose glorious main attraction is the enchanting Blue Lagoon. In total extent, the country is about twice the size of the District of Columbia — but surrounded by over 250 miles of spectacular coastline.

Visit our extensive Malta gallery! »

It’s astonishing how much history and architecture you can shoehorn into such a pint-sized place. Beginning as early as 3600 BC, settlers in the islands were erecting megalithic temples and monuments that would survive the ages. The millennia thereafter saw restless cycles of conquest, settlement, consolidation, and re-conquest. As late as World War II, Maltese under British dominion were still making their imprint on history — sticking a thorn in the side of Nazi military dominance in the Mediterranean, while withstanding constant attack from sea and air.

The most famous episode of Malta’s history was the Great Seige of 1565. 700 Knights of Malta (the Order of St. John, also known as the Knights Hospitaller) and about 8000 Maltese footsoldiers fought off 40,000 invading Turks commanded by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. It was a near thing, the defenders suffering cruel losses and barely hanging onto their last few fortifications before outlasting their exhausted foes. In the decades after, the wealthy Order of St. John healed the country, pouring money into magnificent churches and other public works, including the sumptuous Co-Cathedral of Saint John. The city of Valletta takes its name from Jean de la Vallette, the Knight commander of the Maltese forces that faced down Suleiman.


[Above] Nave of the Co-Cathedral of St. John. In addition to its rich decoration and stonework, the cathedral features two paintings by Caravaggio, who was briefly a brother of the order until he fled after spilling the blood of a prominent knight.

Today, Malta is a thriving, friendly business hub and tourist destination. It is also a surprisingly reasonably priced place to live, where you can find a furnished two bedroom apartment in a nice stone building — practically everything on Malta is built from the lovely local stone — for under 100,000 euros. That won’t buy you waterfront; but given that you almost have to try hard to find a place farther than walking distance from the sea, it’s not much of a hardship. Mediterranean warmth means that you pay little for heat in Malta, while the cool stone buildings and ubiquitous swimming pools help you chill in the hottest months.

I should mention that if you want to buy a detached house, you’ll need to bring along a truckload of money. In a country as small and populous as Malta, land comes at a premium, if at all. The overwhelming majority of homes are apartments, townhouses, and maisonettes. (Where you see a “farmhouse” advertised for sale, it’s nearly always an attached house with a tiny yard.) New construction is virtually all multi-family or attached dwellings, and existing detached homes, when they come on the market, go for an order of magnitude beyond an attached home of similar square footage.

Medical services on Malta are excellent, and out-of-pocket payment for routine office visits is cheap compared with the US, though buying into the national health service as an expat is unfortunately not so inexpensive. The country is also statistically one of the world’s safest refuges from violent crime. With regard to food, despite its tiny acreage, Malta manages to produce a nice variety of gorgeous local produce, and grocery prices generally are about average for Europe. Eating out is quite reasonable, and usually very good.

You will pay a lot for a liter of gas. That, along with the narrow, congested roads, is why most cars on Malta are tiny. If you’ve ever wondered why you rarely see any Suzuki Sidekicks on the American road anymore, it’s because they and their older siblings, the Suzuki Samurai, all emigrated to Malta. Maltese owners love their tough little Suzukis not only for their parsimony with gas, but also because they stand up to the potholes, ruts, and washboard ripples of the infamous roads on the islands. In any case, between the small scale of the country and the daunting aspect of most backroads, you won’t be blowing through a tank of gas very quickly.

Quality of life in Malta can be quite good, though where you choose to live will depend a lot on what you enjoy. If you want world-class culture, thriving night life, great shopping, and fantastic multicultural cuisine, the main island is your huckleberry. Just be prepared for lots of traffic, a very high population density, and a dearth of quiet places to get away from it all.

On the other hand, if you value a slower pace of life, less congestion, and more opportunities to explore the outdoors, you’ll opt for Gozo. You’ll still be able to enjoy plenty of fascinating history and beautiful architecture, as well as outdoor cafes and local color — but you’ll also enjoy wide-open vistas out to the sea, and long, quiet walks on deserted trails. And if you buy a place there, you’ll have peace of mind knowing that those lovely open spaces outside the villages will remain unbuilt by law; the Maltese government has wisely recognized the value of maintaining its remaining green spaces, and so it protects them from development.

It would be overselling Malta to say it’s a place that “has everything.” It’s too small for that. If you’re looking for downhill skiing, or theme parks, you’re pretty much out of luck. Golf begins and ends with the 18-hole Royal Malta course. But if you’re looking for the kinds of things Malta offers in abundance — sailing, hiking, fishing, history, culture, beaches, and the rest — you’ll be hard-pressed to find them better anywhere else that mortals can afford.

I can’t wait to go back.

Flashback: The Crags of the Cathars

One of the chief sightseeing delights of southern France is visting the Cathar castles.

The Cathars, also called Albigensians, were a renegade branch of the Christian church in Europe early in the second millenium CE. Though at one time they could be found in many places, including Italy and eastern Europe, the fullest flowering of Cathar religious and architectural expression came in the 13th century in the mountain fastnesses of what is now the French region of Occitanie.

Visiting a Cathar castle always makes for a good cardio workout. Because their faith was more or less constantly under siege from the mainstream church, wealthy Cathar lords built their strongholds high atop the most unapproachable crags they could command. It’s a testament to human will and ingenuity that these fortifications could be built at all. Whether you’re a medieval soldier in chainmail or a tourist lugging a backpack and camera, you’re wheezing by the time you make the outer gates.

During our months living in Reynes, Carol and I explored three extensive castle ruins associated with the Cathars — Queribus, Peyrepertuse, and Montsegur.

Famous among the Cathar castles, Montsegur, seat of the Albigensian faith, is most remembered for the manner of its downfall. After a nine month seige beginning in the spring of 1243, the garrison surrendered to Catholic crusaders dispatched by French religious and civil authorities to crush the heretical movement. Roughly 500 Cathar knights, dependents, servants, and other believers were caught in the crusaders’ net. More than 200 of them refused to renounce their faith and were burned to death in a field at the foot of the mountain, beneath the walls of their erstwhile stronghold.

In the aftermath of the seige, the Cathar fortress was pulled down and few traces of it remain. Later medieval fortifications were built on the site, and it is those ruins that you see when you climb the hill of Montsegur. They are impressive in their own right; but it is also still possible to see foundations and other traces of Cathar dwellings that clustered on the slopes skirting the original castle.

Wander the ruins of Montsegur with Carol and Pip »

When Montsegur fell, many of the survivors fled to the castle of Queribus. Originally constructed in the 10th or 11th century as a Spanish possession, by 1244 it was held by a knight with Cathar sympathies. Ultimately, Queribus in turn fell 11 years later when the residents abandoned it ahead of an attack by the crusaders. It is regarded as the last bastion of the Cathars in France.

Queribus is the smallest of the three castles we visited, and my favorite. Its white bones bleaching atop a lonely eminence, the ruin provides glimpses of a citadel that must have been lovely in its heyday. Because of the confined space on the hilltop, the castle is piled up vertically upon itself; after climbing from the parking lot to the front gate, you continue to ascend the various levels of the site until you reach the top of the keep, earning a spectacular view far down to the valley floor.

Our friend Sherry joins us for an assault on Queribus »

Just visible from Queribus on a clear day, the castle of Peyrepertuse is the most extensive of the Cathar fortresses we explored. It was built in the 11th century by the kings of Aragon, and was never attacked by the crusaders. Instead, it was surrendered voluntarily multiple times between French and Albigensian forces as local allegiences shifted.

Tapering to a point on its narrow ridge, the castle’s curtain wall looks for all the world like a tall ship, cresting the heights like a prow carving the ocean swell. Perhaps because it was spared the deadly strife that afflicted other Cathar strongholds, there is a spirit of peace that infuses Peyrepertuse. You feel it in the warm hue of the stone, the wide-open space of the yard, and the contemplative quiet within the chapel walls.

Tamsyn helps us investigate Peyrepertuse »

Remarkably, the afternoon we visited Peyrepertuse, we ran into our friends Mari and Greg and their son Ayden, who had hosted us months earlier in Toulouse. (In fact, in one of the last pictures in the photo gallery, you can see Greg [light green jacket] and Ayden in the background, seconds before Carol and Tamsyn recognized them.) Together, they numbered about half the people we knew in France at the time.

France. It’s a small place, really.

Flashback: Arles

After leaving Freiburg in August of ’16, and dropping Randall off in Geneva to fly back to the US, Carol and I continued on to France, to stay with our very kind and excellent friends Greg and Mari (and their cool little boy, Ayden) in Toulouse. On the way, we spent an afternoon in Arles, a sun-drenched city in the Camargue area of Provence. Even feeling as low as I did in the wake of Randall’s sudden departure, I was still beguiled by this beautiful old Provençal gem.

Sited on the Rhone River, Arles is the largest city in France by area. It was an important commercial and cultural center in the western Roman Empire, and already an established Christian bishopric in the 1st Century CE. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Arles features a well-preserved Roman theatre and arena, tightly enmeshed within a network of narrow, bustling streets. Their deep shadows and cool stone provide some refuge from the summer’s heat.

A little more recent in origin is the twelfth century Cathedral of Saint-Trophime. I was eager to see the church, featuring prominently as it did in my Art History studies. Saint-Trophime’s deep, handsomely adorned portal adumbrates many features found in later Romanesque and Gothic churches; and a casket on display inside offers one of the best-preserved examples of late Roman figure carving. The church faces onto the Place de la Republique, the city’s governmental hub, which is organized around a soaring obelisk salvaged from the ancient Roman circus.

Arles is also famous for its association with Vincent Van Gogh, who lived and worked there in 1888-89. He featured one of the town’s many night spots in his famous Terrace of a Cafe at Night, now in the Kroller Muller Museum. The cafe is still open, by the way, in the Place du Forum. You can see it, dressed up in yellow paint and awnings, in one of our street photos.

Visit our Arles gallery »


This past Sunday, Carol and I went to Heidelberg for the day. Straddling the placid Neckar River in Baden-Württemberg, the city hosts one of the most impressive castle ruins in Europe. It has also been a college town since the 14th century, when the excellent Heidelberg University was founded in 1386.  We found the city to be beautiful and bustling, and even—despite the legions of visitors on a sunny weekend—quite gracious.

Have a look at our photos from the trip »

It was also my first real immersion in the German Autobahn experience, which was terrifying  sphincter-twisting  nerve-searing interesting.

The Autobahn comes in two flavors: the kind with speed limits (about half the total Autobahn mileage in Deutschland) and the kind without. Traveling on the latter, which I was for maybe half the trip, I posted a personal record by getting our trusty Skoda Yeti up to about 145. That’s kilometers per hour, mind you, but it was still pretty thrilling for me. Of course, at that speed, I had an unending parade of German and Italian performance cars passing me as if I had brought a golf cart to Daytona. But that’s exactly what those cars are made for. It’s actually kind of fun watching a Lamborghini Gallardo drop you like a bad habit on the Autobahn.

Know what else the Autobahn is good for? Bathrooms.

I’ll probably be talking a lot about bathrooms in this blog, because … well, never you mind why. Let’s just say I’m a 58 year old guy, and keep the HIPAA police happy. If you’re coming from a place like the US, where there’s a free public toilet about every half block, you may find Europe a little … cavalier. But on the Autobahn, blessedly, you’ll get treated to a rest stop about every 10 or 15 miles, just like back home.

Anyway, more on that important subject as time goes by.


One of the things that I, as a former Art History grad student, looked forward to most ardently about living in Europe was all the medieval masterworks I would see: cathedrals, abbeys, castles and chateaux, altarpieces — you get the picture.

The first great castle I saw — Conwy in Wales — I couldn’t stop taking pictures. Visiting the amazing, quirky Romanesque church of Anzy-le-duc — one of the rock stars of medieval architecture books — was like meeting Elvis (or at least Ian Anderson). And the hits kept coming: Autun, Vezelay, Salisbury, the Tower of London….

But after a while, something odd happened. I could no longer get myself out of bed in the morning to go see a cathedral, unless maybe there was a serious patisserie on offer as part of the deal. What I had come to find is that, in a great many European towns and cities, you almost literally can’t swing a dead cat without smacking a thousand year old building. Or as Garrison Keillor might say, over here miracles of medieval craftsmanship are no more rare and wonderful than rocks.

In our family we’ve even coined a term to describe this satiation on ancient monuments: ABC — “another bloody cathedral” (or castle).

At times, though, there yet comes the occasional architectural gem to shake me out of my torpor and restore my sense of wonder. And today’s destination was just such: Strasbourg Cathedral.

The foundations of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Strasbourg were laid in 1015 AD. It was built over a period of more than 400 years, reaching from the Romanesque through the early and late Gothic periods, and harmoniously incorporating elements of all those styles. For over 200 years it was the tallest building in Europe, and is indeed the tallest building built during the medieval period. And does it soar!

Chancel of Strasbourg Cathedral showing Romanesque influences Column with figure sculptures at Strasbourg Cathedral Stained glass window from the south aisle of Strasbourg Cathedral

Influences from the Romanesque period, as well as perhaps from early Christian and eastern empire churches, can be seen most clearly in the wide, handsome chancel (left, above). The round, gold-painted dome with its hieratic tableau overlooks echelons of painted figures, and rounded arches, as opposed to narrow and pointy ones.

Elsewhere, the church wears a pretty familiar array of style cues from the early and high Gothic, but there are some wonderful surprises as well. The large chamber to either side of the chancel, for instance, features a soaring central column supporting the vaults high above. In the south chamber, the column is fantastically bedecked with holy figures (center, above).

But the true glory of Strasbourg Cathedral is its glass (above, right). Respendent in brilliant reds, mystical dark blues, and a vibrant palette of supporting hues, the windows impart a richness to the church that photos unfortunately are inadequate to capture.

For more pictures of Notre Dame, as well as the lovely, lively old town that surrounds it, check out our Strasbourg gallery.