Most of the posts on this blog are articles previously published in national periodicals. Folks have been asking for these to be collected in one spot...and this is that spot. And, unless otherwise noted, illustrations are by David Gillett as well.



Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Ireland’s remote Donegal is the coolest place to visit this summer


DONEGAL

Driving the twisting ribbon of asphalt that is Donegal’s section of the Wild Atlantic Way coastal route, we had a “Cool Moment”, the first of many in this coolest corner of the coolest place on earth. The Irish language RTE radio was playing and another heart-stopping vista swung into view before us, all crashing waves, misted sea stacks  and foaming surf.  Amongst the Irish chatter, the phrase “Yodel Funk” popped out and, on cue, a funky Gaelic yodeler, backed by a manic tin whistle, gave us a soundtrack to a day of superlatives.


We were on a father-daughter road trip, starting in Belfast where Molly-Claire was living, looping north along the rugged shore of Northern Ireland and then into the wild west of Donegal, the place that National Geographic Traveller anointed number one on its “Coolest Places to Visit 2017” list.

But even before reaching Donegal, we’d compiled our own list of superlatives.  “Hotel Receptionist of the Year”, “Medium Sized Town of the Year” and the lovely “Loo of the Year” (really?) to name a few.  Before leaving Belfast, we’d taken in Titanic Belfast, voted “World’s Leading Tourist Attraction of the Year”.

Good as it was, you have to wonder: who exactly does this voting anyway? But there was no dispute in our mind about the National Geographic’s choice of Donegal as the coolest of the cool, once we got there.

The sun arrived as we did, glinting off the tempestuous Atlantic which is never far away. The roads narrowed, the traffic dried up and the sheep multiplied. The road signs were in Irish, this being the main Gaeltachct, (Irish speaking area) with almost 25%  of the Irish speakers in the country. A point called the Bloody Foreland or Cnoc Fola (the Hill of Blood) figures prominently on the map. This is country with a past.

Donegal has that faded glory feel to it, and the cottage we rented near Ardara was a good metaphor for the county itself. Abandoned and a near ruin, it was found  by architectural historian Dr.Greg Stevenson’s organization, Under The Thatch, which rescues traditional buildings at risk then rents them out to keep them alive and thriving. In his book “Traditional Cottages of County Donegal”, he cites the alarming fact that in 1950 there were 4000 traditional thatched cottages in Northern Ireland alone, but only 150 in 2005.

This cottage could have suffered a similar fate. But it survived and, thankfully, it was also too remote to be tarted up and ruined by amateur renovators. So when it was discovered by Greg, it was the real deal, only in want of a roof, some plumbing , a kitchen and tender loving care. It is minimalist chic in a 17th century sort-of-way, and populated by a careful selection of folk art antiques. Unsurprisingly, it was named “Best Holiday Cottage in Ireland” by the Sunday Times. We were seeing a trend.

Greg had mentioned in his page of directions that it would be rude not to drop by for tea with  neighbour Mary Molloy, the cottage house-keeper. So, as we squeezed past the sheep and made our way to the cottage at the dead end of a road the width of a hiking path, we stopped in.

“ A lovely girl, you are, Molly-Claire!” she gushed, bear-hugging my middle child and  speaking in exclamation marks. “A credit to you, David! Oh what a sweet girl!” Mary and Molly-Claire hit it off like a house on fire, while her husband, the grandly named Columba, sat unmoved at the kitchen table with a wry expression,  unenthused about our intrusion into his world of big skies and lonely winds.

Mary advised us on how to make a turf fire: “Give it air! Give it time! Be patient and it will warm you nicely!”

Thankfully, Molly-Claire didn’t have my Canadian woodsman pride and actually listened to Mary’s advice. Soon, a night of heavy darkness, the smell of turf smoke and the sound of gentle rain lulled us into a deep sleep inside the thick stone walls, our table strewn with maps and books.

The morning took us back down the track, through the majestic Glengesh Pass and into a sea-side world of postcard beauty, the north Atlantic sunlight throwing a golden glow across a landscape little changed for eons.

Maghera beach was our first surprise. Cresting huge dunes of sea-grass, we found ourselves totally alone on a pristine white sand beach that stretched unbroken for a mile along gnarly rock cliffs riddled with caves. “Take care with the tides! Dear me, they can run in so fast! The caves, oh, frightening!”, Mary had warned. With one eye on the advancing surf, we ducked low and explored a deep cave, perhaps the very one that had hidden one hundred of Cromwell’s men many years ago. (They lit a fire and were soon discovered by their pursuers and duly slaughtered, save one who hid in a high crevice.)

Not many miles away as the crow flies, but a good hour as the winding road goes, we pulled into the tiny carpark at Slieve League, the highest sea cliffs in Europe. Rising right out of the crashing surf to a height greater than the CN tower, the cliffs with their colouring of amber, red and white deserve all the superlatives that can be hurled at them. The rolling waves arriving from Newfoundland exploded into mist at the bottom and the clifftops were shrouded in clouds, heightening the majestic mystery of the whole thing.

It is said that one-third of all Ireland can be seen from the cliff’s summit on a clear day. It is in those other southerly two-thirds that the biggest tourist contingents congregate, drinking green beer and loading up on shamrock tea towels. County Kerry is more famous and much busier, with conga lines of tour buses in summer. County Clare’s Cliffs of Moher are tiny compared to Slieve League, but much more famous. Dublin, of course,  is the go-to cultural bull’s eye. Even Northern Ireland, with its world-renowned Giant’s Causeway  (and more recently the World’s Best Tourist Attraction, Titanic Belfast), siphons the crowds off before they can reach lonely, remote Donegal.

And therein lies a big part of the county’s charm:  true European wilderness with a feeling of the undiscovered. For now.

A closer look shows that changes are coming to Donegal. Killybegs harbor is the centre of a booming and expanding fishing trade, the Aran sweater factory in Ardara  is gearing up for a record-breaking season, and the tea shops are starting to make excellent flat whites now. Scenes for Star Wars: Episode VIII, were filmed on the Inishowen Pennisula.  Brexit has brought a dark cloud of questions about a possible return to the hassle of border crossings between the Republic and Northern Island. The wider world is inserting itself into this wild paradise.

And yet Mary Molloy isn’t fazed by these changes, they seem a  world away from her pristine valley. My daughter, after surviving a teary Donegal goodbye, observed:  “ Mary  doesn’t realize how cool she really  is.”  Should be named “Coolest Cottage Housekeeper of The Year”?

She has to be. She lives in a tiny cottage in the coolest corner of the coolest place to visit in 2017. She can build a proper turf fire, and she has Yodel Funk on her Irish radio.
- March 2017



Read the original article on the newspaper's website at :

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/travel/irelands-remote-donegal-is-the-coolest-place-to-visit-thissummer/article34433230/

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Why I Prefer To Travel With A Sketchbook


My son Harry and I had weaseled our way into the cloistered beauty of Oxford’s Magdalen College on May Morning, a few hours after gathering with 20,000 other revelers to greet the sunrise with a hymn sung from the medieval tower, a tradition dating back 500 years. The college had sponsored a jolly day of artistic expression and laid out a banquet of tools for our use: oil pastels, Staedtler pencils, Winsor and Newton watercolour sets.



We sat on the striped lawn and sketched the arcaded front of the New Building (c.1733), adding to the plump sketch books we carried everywhere on this father and son tour of England. Increasingly, our pens and black books were our go-to recording devices, cameras staying more often in the backpacks.



A window on the second floor had once been C.S. Lewis’s room. I made a point of detailing the graceful Georgian sash. “You should flog your sketches to the college,” suggested one observer. But we didn’t: it wasn’t about that. It was about imprinting the day on our minds and hearts, capturing the moment with a physical act. Even now, five years later, I can flip open to those pages and smell the clematis that wound around the solid columns, hear laughter and the crack of a croquet ball on the lawn behind us, see the radius of the Palladian arches, feel the warmth of the May morning sun as it fluttered through the dappled leaves of Oxford. One look at the sketch and it all comes back to life.



Sketching allows all this. Drawing is to photography what walking is to driving: it’s more work, it’s slower, it demands patience and it’s something we’ve increasingly forgotten how to do. And yet, it pays dividends: The work is a rewarding pleasure, the pace allows a scene to sink in and be appreciated, concentration breeds a patient contemplative mind-set … and it’s something that can be relearned.



And it’s not all about great art, or skill. Drawing is something everyone can do. I don’t use an eraser or straight edge when I sketch: misplaced lines, side doodles, quirky shapes are all part of it.



A Princeton study in 2014 demonstrated the advantages of taking notes long-hand, versus typing them into a laptop: more self-editing and more emphasis on certain words rather than just a verbatim recording. With sketching, these same things seem to hold true, and there is more. To sketch a scene is to truly observe it. As Sherlock said to Dr.Watson: “You see but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.”



That, and the physicality of putting pen to paper. There is a visceral muscle-and-nerve connection to the scene in front of you when your mind observes a shape and tells your hand how to bring it to a blank page. There’s a pleasure in it that gives the intellectual imprint depth and substance. The wide net of digital point-and-shoot is fine for a quick pass, but it’s largely a glancing surface treatment and the real work is left to the camera. To sketch a scene challenges our notions of what really matters as we move through a new city or react to the beauty of a great, windswept plain.



It’s heartening to see that sketching is gaining the respect it deserves. At the Rijksmuseum, an important arts and history museum in the heart of Amsterdam, visitors are encouraged to put down their selfie-sticks and cameras and use a sketchbook when they visit the museum’s displays, making small drawings of sculptures and paintings rather than snapping a photo and moving along quickly. “In our busy lives we don’t always realize how beautiful something can be,” Wim Pijbes, the general director of the Rijksmuseum, told the art blog Colossal. “We forget how to look really closely. Drawing helps because you see more when you draw.” The story ran with photos from this experiment showing wide-eyed children gazing at display cases with determined intensity, pencils poised above sketchpads, fully engaged.



To our three kids, travelling with a sketchbook is not a new concept: in cafés, museums, parks, sitting on a bus or on the brink of a gorge. Not only do they seem to gain a bigger appreciation of beauty, they see detail and nuance, entering into the experience of the place. They’ve been able to be truly in the moment, rather than living in some strange parallel world of constant screen time.



If this sounds like a Luddite fantasy, then yes, that’s part of it: a yearning for a pared-down mode of travel, a rejection of the superficial and instant. Sketching is, by nature, an old-fashioned way of seeing. Kids seem to understand instinctively.



Recently, in Rome, I set myself a challenge: no cappuccino without at least a full page in the sketchbook. I haunted the streets of Trastevere and made a painfully slow progression through the ancient Forum, taking increasing pleasure in the small moments afforded by sketching little pieces of antiquity, Ducati motorcycles and crowded markets. On Via Merluna I sat at a red café table, the foamy cappuccino disappearing from my glass at the same pace that a sketch of the street scene appeared on my page. The scene was actually pretty banal; just another street. But as I sketched, it became so much more.



A little crowd, including my excited waiter, gathered around, judging my vision against what they saw and curious about my approach. They wouldn’t have stopped for a selfie-stick. I had enough Italian to know that they approved.



Wednesday, May 11, 2016


Fiction edition  Spring 2016 
  http://davidgillettwrites.blogspot.ca/2016/05/roman-sketchbook.html

Roman Sketchbook

http://davidgillettwrites.blogspot.ca/2016/05/roman-sketchbook.html

" Each page was site-specific, a loosely rendered line drawing of a place and a moment. He thought often of her as he drew. “The historian in her will love these drawings” he thought and the thought kept him going as he walked the darkening streets alone. “She has to love them.”  "

Roman Sketchbook


PERSPECTIVES Magazine    Spring 2016

Leaves slopped into the gutters and crunched underfoot on the uneven streets of Trastavere. Night was coming on and the lights of Rome with it. Still no sign of her.



His sketchbook was filling in nicely. It would be a treasure for him, for his family. An heirloom for future grandchildren: a Roman Sketchbook. In his mind, he worked out the graphics for the cover of the published version.

Each page was site-specific, a loosely rendered line drawing of a place and a moment. He thought often of her as he drew. “The historian in her will love these drawings” he thought and the thought kept him going as he walked the darkening streets alone. “She has to love them.”

Still no sign of her. “Pick any ancient ruin and I’ll be there,” he’d said.  She’d been silent.  “Just look for the guy with the sketchbook, getting all Etruscan,” he’d joked. But maybe she hadn’t looked and maybe she never would. He didn’t know that she drew a blank on Etruscans. On Romans for that matter. It wasn’t her era.

He tried to remember where they had parted. It had been while sipping prosecco in Pizza di Santa Maria, hadn’t it? Or maybe it was long before that. He couldn’t remember. “Let’s split up for a bit and explore,” he’d said, his eye on an architrave.

She’d looked tired and hadn’t enjoyed the prosecco, the day or the view, but he hadn’t noticed that. Her hands were empty and she had a certain look on her face. She’d walked off without glancing back, down via Della Lungaretta, towards the Tiber. But his mind’s eye was on a broken pediment, something from 160 BC the guidebook said.

His phone was not ringing. The problem with smart phones is that they tie you to other people, to deadlines, to hassles, to the office. You can’t be in the moment, you can’t be really present. But he’d take those problems if it meant being tied to her at this particular moment. She’d stashed her phone because one between them (just for emergencies and airline check-in) would be enough. His sat like lead in his pocket, lifeless and refusing to vibrate.

He took a tiny street-side table; maybe he could think and try to remember what they’d agreed upon. “Vino rosso,” he told the waiter who looked impatient and queried him further: “Red wine?

 “Yes, si,” he said. “That’s what I was trying to say. Grazie.”

He wasn’t doing well with his Italian. Or, he thought further, with anything much. His sketches were actually crap. They were stilted and controlled, scratches on a page. They were all the same: frozen upper bits of ruined classical architecture. There was no life in them.

Still no sign of her.

It had been hours now. He couldn’t remember how many. Months really, he mused. Years. He sipped his wine, thought of the endless pediments he had drawn and how he now hated them all. They were heavy lumps of stone, burdening him by a gravity older than Rome.

He watched the Trastavere night fold in on itself, and with it his world.


Published in PERSPECTIVES magazine
Spring 2016       see:   http://www.nxtbook.com/naylor/OAAQ/OAAQ0116/index.php


Friday, February 5, 2016

A DIVINE CIRCUMVENTION
Stay in a spectacular monastery in Venice for what you can afford
The author's sketch from his balcony overlooking Piazza San Marco, Venice
DAVID GILLETT, VENICE     —     Contributed to The Globe and Mail
Published in print  Saturday January 30, 2016   On line Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016 12:16PM EST


                       The curious instruction that bookings could only be made by fax should have been our first clue.
                       Our stay at the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice would be one to remember, akin to sleeping in the quiet eye of a tourism hurricane. And when I asked Dom Paulo, who met us at the thick oaken door in his brown monk’s habit, how much they might expect us to pay for a night’s stay, he bowed ever so slightly and replied: “As you wish.”
                       San Giorgio is one of the world’s longest continually operating Benedictine abbey, offering hospitality in this location since 982. It sits on a tiny island of its own directly across the Giudecca Canal from the famous square Napoleon is said to have dubbed Europe’s drawing room, the iconic Piazza San Marco. It has unparalleled views of this mother-of-all tourist draws, one it shares with the exclusive Belmond Hotel Cipriani on an island next door, scene of George and Amal Clooney’s wedding party. But rooms with a view at the Cip start at an eye-watering €1,650 (more than $2,500) a night. Our room? About €1,600 less, plus we had a hands-down better view from our first-floor balcony. And no zoom-lens paparazzi.
                        That master of Renaissance architecture, Andrea Palladio, designed what would become arguably his finest church in 1565. It is a cool, neo-classical dream in this very un-Italian city where ancient Oriental and Gothic architectures collide in a tumbling cascade of competing styles. Like a marble escarpment of pediments and pilasters, the church is the prow of a much larger ship that is the Monastery of San Giorgio, occupying most of the island with its cloistered mystery. Our private room, one of only five in the monastery’s hostel, was suitably spartan, with two single beds, a crucifix, a desk and a book for our reading pleasure: The Rule of St. Benedict. The floors were terrazzo, the ensuite bathroom was well equipped with shower and bidet and a large antique armoire served as a closet. This was not Cipriani luxe by any means, but spacious enough, cool and quiet; a room for contemplation and rest. It is also an undiscovered gem: During our five-night stay, we met only two other guests, and the hallways echoed with an eerie silence late at night, broken only by the sound of lapping waves and the occasional passing boat. It felt like a world apart – dreamlike. One morning, we flung back our wooden shutters and strolled out onto the balcony to find our building the subject for a group of painters from Florence – that is an experience not to be missed.
But this oasis of calm sits uneasily in a city that is a victim of its own success, a place literally sinking under the weight of an estimated 22 million yearly visitors. Massive cruise ships deposit as many 30,000 tourists daily at the height of the season, causing Silvio Testa, spokesman for Venice’s anti-cruise ship campaign to say a few years ago, “The beauty of Venice is undoubted, but the city pays for it like a prostitute that is too beautiful.”
                        Tourists outnumber Venetians by a ratio of 20-1 in high season, and the locals (an ever-dwindling population), grumble. But this is Venice, the Serene Republic, a city thick with art treasures; a city without cars, floating like a vision upon the Venetian Lagoon, supported by wooden piles made from millions of dead trees, pounded deep into the silt. So to discover this quiet place, one designed for contemplation and yet so close to the centre of action, is extraordinary. I spent an afternoon just sketching, drinking in the atmosphere and the surreal watery light of Venice. In the hushed nave of the church itself, a contemporary sculpture exhibition (part of the Venice Art Biennale) brought the ultramodern into the womb of the sacred and serene. Outside, attached to the church, is a bell tower that seems yet to have been discovered by tour guides, strikingly devoid of lineups for the quick elevator ride to its top. It offers breathtaking views out over Venice, the Lido and the Dolomite mountains that loom in the mainland distance. Unreal.

The writer's wife approaches the Monastery beside Palladio's Church
                     Food in the monastery is strictly DIY. (The monks keep to themselves and eat elsewhere.) A tiny refectory kitchen, stocked with basics such as dried pasta and olive oil, is available 24/7 if you are attempting Europe on €10 a day. The guest book tells of visitors from all corners of the globe who have cooked up their own Italian feasts, which can be eaten in an adjoining barrel-vaulted dining room, hung with portraits of eminent Benedictines. But the Venice of restaurants and cafés is temptingly close, so when it beckoned, we waited at the Giorgio vaporetto (waterbus) stop at the monastery steps for a quick ride to the action. We could take the No. 2 water taxi in one direction to the James Bond-movie set world of San Marco with its inflated prices, Prada shops and trinket hawkers, or in the other direction to the Zattere promenade and the much more interesting and less crowded Dorsoduro precinct with its crooked calli (alleyways) and hidden campis (squares).
In the maze of Dorsoduro, cozy restaurants, often with canal-side tables, abound. Fresh seafood is never hard to find. Al Casin dei Nobili, a lovely trattoria just off Campo San Barnaba, serves a mouth-watering tagliatelle with Adriatic shrimp in a nonna-friendly setting. Or just across the campi, beside the Ponte dei Pugni (Bridge of Fists) and next to one of the last fresh produce barges in Venice, which serves as a floating open-air fresh food market, is Pasta & Sugo. This restaurant is a welcome departure from touristy and overpriced “Olde Worlde” eateries with its bright, contemporary interior and menu of Italian street food. Mix and match the pasta of your choice with one of the mouth-watering ragus prepared at the open kitchen counter. A plate of pasta and glass of wine for a mere €8 ($12)? The city that invented inflated prices still has its bargains.
                             In the 1972 novel Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer, describes the many cities he has seen to a mesmerized Kublai Khan. But in fact, every city he described was actually Venice. It is still like that, a city that is the compact culmination of a thousand years of explosive creativity, a city with a thousand faces. And, in one quiet corner, still available to contemplative visitors, a city of dreamlike peace.
                             Our no-strings-attached monastery stay was refreshing and inexpensive. One does not have to be devout, or even male, to stay in one of the high-ceilinged rooms, or sit quietly in the shadowed church and drink in the ancient music of echoing chants. But a hunger for peace and quiet in the eye of the Venetian storm is a must. That, and a fax machine.
---------------------
If you go 

   Venice is always busy, but the summer months of July and August are the worst and best avoided if possible. We went in October and had nice weather, fewer crowds and plenty of restaurant choice. If you avoid the crowds at the Rialto Bridge and Piazza san Marco, you can even find some deserted squares and quiet alleyways.
Getting there
   Fly into Frankfurt and then to the compact Marco Polo Airport. From there it’s a quick bus ride out to the main island of Venice via the causeway, but take the Alilaguna water bus if you’ve never been. Arriving by water is the only way to approach the city for the first time. E-mail info@alilaguna.it.
Getting around
   Since Venice is made up of more than 100 islands, ACTV, the public-transportation authority, operates vaporetti and other water buses around the clock, with routes that extend out to many of the islands of the Venetian Lagoon. A single trip is expensive at €7.50 ($11.50), but a three-day travel card for €40 is a great deal, and you’ll use it a lot.
The monastery
   Inquire about a room by sending a fax to 39-041-520-6579. Or try calling calling 39-041-241-4717. The monastery has no e-mail or website. The monks offer rooms as part of their mission, so make a cash offerta of what you can afford upon leaving.
When you arrive on the main island of Venice, take vaporetto No. 2 along the Grand Canal to the San Giorgio stop (one past St. Mark’s Square). When you arrive, ring a buzzer marked Monaci Benedittine (Benedictine monks) on the heavy door to the right of Palladio’s church. There’s no checking in; you will simply be led by a monk up some worn stone steps to your quiet room. Rooms have no telephones, TVs or WiFi.

(Online see: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/travel/destinations/venice-from-the-peaceful-balcony-of-an-island-monastery/article28431174/  ) or Google David Gillett Venice

Domini Clark - Travel Editor

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

AN ANCIENT SAXON CHURCH

The little Wiltshire town of Bradford On Avon is considered by some to be the most picturesque in England.
               
Maybe.  But the day we visited was cool and weta darkening sky rendering the narrow streets lanes of despair, relieved only by the ubiquitous tea rooms awaiting the bus tours that , on this particular October day, stayed away in droves.
                Undaunted, my Medievalist wife, Katy, had somehow convinced her husband and three young children to forgo the crescents of Bath for an afternoon and search instead for the tiny Saxon church of St.Laurence built by St.Aldhelm at the turn of the 8th century. Lost for centuries, the small church served as a school, a house and then a warehouse before its resurrection in 1856 by a local curate.
                Sheltering from the rain, we found it permeated by gloom, cave-like. It exuded age, the most thoroughly ancient building we’d encountered so far on a month’s sojourn in England.
                My four year old daughter, Molly Claire, her eyes adjusting to the dim light, responded to the architecture of the tiny chancel by singing, her plaid skirt swinging as see twirled, lost in the mystery of the place. She was alone in a circle of sound that reverberated off the aged stone walls.
                Maybe it was a good thing St.Laurence was lost for a thousand years, consumed by the organic  build up of the town around it. It survived with its soul intact never having suffered alteration, its spare interior imbued with atmosphere, “whispering”, as Mathew Arnold said of nearby Oxford  “the last enchantments of the Middle Age” .
                Carved angels above us on a striking Saxon arch, we watched silently from the side stalls as Molly Claire’s voice rose and lost itself in the echoing shadows amongst the ancient oak black with years.
                No one had told her to sing, but the building suggested it and she heeded. She sang the only song that somehow seem appropriate, an old Victorian hymn her grandmother had used to lull her to sleep:  “This Is My Father’s World”.
                “All nature sings
                And round me rings
                The music of the spheres”

                I kind of doubt she grasped the meaning of the words, if indeed that even mattered. But I’m certain she did sense that some magic was happening,  that the architecture had elicited something from her that was real, and spiritual and beautiful.  The notes she sang rose and joined the myriad others, notes from 8th century voices and a million songs and latin chants since then.
                She joined in and became part of something that day, like a part of the building’s very architectural  fabric.  Her response to the spirit of the place and the built form of the room were nothing short of exactly right. And really, she had such a cute little voice.
-David Gillett
(First published in PERSPECTIVES magazine, Fall 2015)