Friday, October 21, 2016

The 'mystic' side of Connecticut

It's been many years since I've been to New England in the fall. Although I grew up in Upstate New York and Pennsylvania, my recent trip to visit family ("The Great Beck Trek") took me to a state I don't recall ever before visiting: Connecticut.

Mystic, CT

The Charles W. Morgan in its home port at Mystic Seaport, Mystic CT

I'm staying in the seaside area in the state's southeastern corner known as Mystic Country. The village of Mystic, perhaps best known in pop culture for the 1988 film "Mystic Pizza," is located between Groton and Stonington. Mystic is bisected by the Mystic River, which flows into the Long Island Sound.

The Mystic River Drawbridge opens up to river traffic at 40 minutes past the
hour during the low season, more often in the summer.

With a rich colonial history, the Mystic Seaport showcases the village's richest legacy: shipbuilding. On my walk through town on this post-tourist-season weekday afternoon, I enjoy a lack of crowds (it's an ongoing traffic jam in the summertime), and two hours here allows me time to window-shop, watch the Mystic River Drawbridge in action, and of course, eat a scrumptious slice of cheese at from Mystic Pizza.

Of course I ate here: Mystic Pizza in Mystic, CT

First United Methodist Church in Mystic, CT

On another day, my sister and I tour Mystic Seaport, inspired by an oyster festival happening this day. The seaport is a living and working museum. The world's last wooden whaleship, the Charles W. Morgan, is docked here, and an entire museum is dedicated to her.

Shipyard workshop at Mystic Seaport, Mystic, CT

Mystic Seaport also contains a recreated 19th-century seafaring village with houses, gardens, a schoolhouse, doctor's office and various nautical crafts workshops. In the summer, this is a lively area with demonstrations, chanteymen and interpretors all making the village come alive for visitors. Those wishing to take to the sea can rent rowboats or sailboats, or take a ride on the Breck Marshall.

Admission to Mystic Seaport seems pricey to me ($26 adults/$17 ages 6-17 for a two-day pass) but locals can take advantage of annual membership rates, and it's clear that this is a National Historical landmark is worthy of preservation.

Wheel of the Charles W. Morgan at Mystic Seaport, Mystic, CT 

Loom in one of the homes of the 19th-century village at Mystic
Seaport, Mystic, CT

Mystic River Scale Model at Mystic Seaport, Mystic, CT

Catboats on display at Mystic Seaport, Mystic, CT

On deck of one of the historical vessels at Mystic Seaport, Mystic, CT

Mystic trivia: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall honeymooned at the Inn at Mystic.

Noank, CT

Looking across the river in Noank, CT

Just a couple miles up the road is the lovely village of Noank. I attend a pleasant wine tasting at the local Package Store (where liquor is sold in Connecticut) and enjoy some nice walks along the water.

A flag flies on the harbor in Noank, CT. Morgan Point lighthouse
can be seen in the distance.

This area was the summer camping ground of the Pequots. Its name comes from the word Nauyang, meaning "point of land." Many of the houses here have historical markers. I come face to face with my own little historical milestone in Noank: my first lobster roll, from Ford's Lobsters. Yumerific!

Buoys hang on the shack at Ford's Lobsters in Noank, CT

Lobster roll and chips at Ford's Lobsters in Noank, CT

Noank trivia: Amelia Earhart and George Palmer Putnam got married in Noank on Feb. 7, 1931.

Stonington, CT

Little Narragansett Bay on Stonington Harbor, Stonington, CT

The riches of the bucolic village of Stonington were amassed in the sealing trade. The port withstood two naval attacks by the British — one during the American Revolution and another during the War of 1812. Today, visitors can tour the Old Lighthouse Museum or walk along the harbor. Fresh seafood, a dip at DuBois Beach and a vibrant sunset might round out a typical summer day in Stonington.

Old Lighthouse Museum in Stonington, CT

Pretty house in Stonington, CT

Reproduction of an original American flag
on a home in Stonington, CT

Stonington trivia: Author Peter Benchley wrote part of the novel "Jaws" in a converted chicken coop in Stonington.

New London, CT

Nathan Hale Schoolhouse in New London, CT

My sister's business in New London gives me an hour to explore the city on my own. It's a little early in the day, so some of the shops aren't open yet, but I do find a bakery where I buy a peanut butter-chocolate muffin (I'm enjoying peanut butter at every opportunity while I'm here). Ocean Beach Park is deserted, but I sit for awhile, look at the water and savor my pb treat. 

Brightly painted submarine art at Ocean Beach Park in New London, CT

Located on the mouth of the Thames River (which is pronounced differently from the Old London Thames) New London's wealth came from whaling. Its harbor was considered to be the best deep water harbor on Long Island Sound, thus making it a base of naval operations during the Revolutionary War. The United States Coast Guard Academy is located here, and New London harbor is the home port for the U.S. Coast Guard tall ship Eagle.

One of Connecticut's most famous heros was Nathan Hale, known for his last words as he was being hung by the British for spying during the American Revolution: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." The schoolhouse where he taught in 1774 and 1775 is located here.

Sculpture honoring playwright Eugene O'Neill who lived in New London, CT

New London was the childhood summer home of Eugene O'Neill. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright is honored with a bronze sculpture in downtown New London, and the family home, Monte Cristo Cottage, setting for "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "Ah, Wilderness," is a museum.

Mural in New London, CT, touts the city's vibrant art and music scene.

New London trivia (courtesy of Connecticut College's newspaper, The College Voice): There is a secret button located somewhere in New London that can blow up the bridge over the Thames River in the event of attack. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Toussaint: A day to remember

Toussaint (All Saints' Day) and Halloween are the perfect excuses to share some photographs I have taken in cemeteries during the past year.

Cemetery at L'église Saint-Macaire in Lauzun (47)

The Toussaint holiday is well regarded in France. Known in English as All Saints' Day, the day is one to spend with family and to remember relatives who have died. Many people visit cemeteries and lay chrysanthemums on the graves of loved ones. The actual holiday is on Nov. 1, and schools are off for two weeks around this time —this year from Oct. 20 to Nov. 2.

Cemetery at L'église Notre-Dame in Mérignas (33)

Cemetery at L'église Notre-Dame in Mérignas (33)

Toussaint is not mentioned in the bible. It was founded in the 7th century by Pope Boniface IV to honor Christian martyrs who were massacred by the Romans. The day was celebrated on May 13 until the 9th century, when it was moved to Nov. 1 by Pope Gregory IV. The following day, Nov. 2, is All Souls' Day, and both are somewhat linked with Halloween on Oct. 31. All Hallows' Day is another name for All Saints' Day, thus the day before became All Hallows' Eve, and eventually Halloween.

Cemetery at L'église Saint-Macaire in Lauzun (47)

Ancient gravestones in Castelmoron-sur-Lot (47)

For American children, Halloween is a favorite holiday with its costumes, candy and decorations. It's not celebrated with same fervor everywhere in France, but in my little village, it has become tradition for the kids to gather in the town square to carve jack-o-lanterns. Last year we had nearly 100 trick-or-treaters knock on our door. Hope we have enough candy this year. Thankfully, American "tricks" — which include eggs, toilet paper and shaving cream — have not caught on in France.

Cemetery at L'église Saint-Macaire in Lauzun (47)

Cemetery at L'église Saint-Macaire in Lauzun (47)

Cemetery at L'église Sainte-Florence (33)

Cemetery at L'église Sainte-Florence (33)

Note: I gleaned some of the background information for this article from an Oct. 3, 2016 article by Andy David on I am grateful for the help.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The medieval extravagance of Carcassonne

La Cité de Carcassonne

Our recent ladies' bicycle journey continues 50 km down the Canal du Midi to Carcassonne, a medieval city best known for its breathtaking fortress on the hill known as La Cité. Contained in its walls are a castle, a basilica and a village.

La Cité de Carcassonne

We first visited Carcassonne five years ago on my husband's maiden voyage to France. With its 53 towers, stone walls and drawbridges, La Cité seems to be something out of a fairy tale. But its history, like much of the history of this part of France, is anything but a children's bedtime story. The fortress was built by the Romans about 2,500 years ago. After the Romans were kicked out, Carcassonne was fought over by various waring tribes. Ultimately the well-developed fortress was able to defend against an invasion of Edward the Black Prince during the Hundred Years' War.

An expressive gargoyle on the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire
in Carcassonne's medieval city

For several centuries, France and Spain went back and forth laying claim to Carcassonne, but after the Treaty of the Pyrénées, the area was finally claimed by France and La Cité's strategic importance faded. The 19th century found the fortress in serious disrepair. The famous architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc took on the task of renovating La Cité, and today it is one of France's most visited sites.

A peek through a wall in La Cité de Carcassonne

This is fellow cyclist Veronica-from-Vancouver's first visit to Carcassonne, so we opt to skip our late-afternoon siesta and instead walk up to La Cité. Not everyone is enamoured with the medieval city. With an over-abundance of shops and restaurants, it's very touristy, and in the high season it is way too crowded for my taste. But on this gorgeous autumn evening, most of the visitors have either left or are eating dinner, and Veronica and I enjoy a leisurely hour exploring the city.

La Cité de Carcassonne begs to be photographed in black-and-white.

Back in the new part of town, la Bastide Saint-Louis, our friends dine in an outdoor café in Place de Lattre de Tassigney, and we join them for a glass of wine. It's been a long day, and we all sleep well this night.

Place de Lattre de Tassigney in Carcassonne

Before we set off on our last day of riding, we have a few hours to tour Carcassonne. Bastide Saint-Louis, Carcassonne's town center, was built in the 13th century. The city sits on the Aude River (as well as the Canal du Midi). Among the highlights of this visit is a walk through Square Gambetta, which contains a good assortment of modern sculptures focusing on women and children.

Bronze sculpture in Place Gambetta in Carcassonne

Bronze sculpture in Place Gambetta in Carcassonne

A building with a decorative clock Place Gambetta in Carcassonne

We take a little break in the courtyard of Saint Michel Cathedral before heading up to le Jardin du Calvaire. This unusual fortified garden in the southwest corner of Carcassonne is one of three remaining bastions in the city. Along its shady paths, dotted with cypress, olive and laurel trees, we pass the Stations of the Cross, a chapel built into the hillside and a large crucifixion tableau.

A gargoyle on Saint Michel Cathedral in Carcassonne

A gargoyle on Saint Michel Cathedral in Carcassonne

Joan of Arc statue at Saint Michel Cathedral in Carcassonne

Plaza at Saint Michel Cathedral in Carcassonne

The crucifixion table sits atop the Calvary Garden in Carcassonne.

The chapel at the Calvary Garden in Carcassonne is built into the hillside.

Except for the Château et Remparts de la Cité de Carcassonne, the city is not extremely touristy although it holds many more sites than we are able to visit on this day. After packing our paniers we get on our bikes and head on down the Canal. 

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Lights go up again on Lauzun stage

After around 50 years of being in the dark, the lights go up on Lauzun’s newly renovated theater stage. Well, the lights don’t actually go up until about 10 minutes into the play, as Theatre de Lauzun presents the well-loved farce “Black Comedy.” The play, written by Peter Shaffer, begins in the dark, although for the characters on stage, it’s light. Later, when the electricity goes out, the characters are in the dark, although the stage is lit. The title of the play is a pun. Get it?

The cast of “Black Comedy” rehearses the week before the curtain rises
on the newly renovated theater in Lauzun.

When “Black Comedy” opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 1965, the cast included Maggie Smith, Albert Finney and Derek Jacobi. Two years later on Broadway, Michael Crawford, Lynn Redgrave and Geraldine Page starred.

Despite its success, the director and star of the Lauzun production, Martin Smith, had never heard of “Black Comedy” until he picked up a copy of the play in a secondhand bookstore four years ago.

“I read it and I loved it,” Smith, 64, says. “Many plays seem to fizzle out, but this one holds its appeal and is funny from beginning to end.”

'Black Comedy' cast members Bob Orwin, Teresa Magill and
Jill Richards rehearse the week before the inaugural performance
of the Theatre de Lauzun.

Cast members George Birnie and Martin Smith rehearse for
'Black Comedy,' Theatre de Lauzun’s inaugural production.

It took a few years and a touch of serendipity for Smith to bring “Black Comedy” to the local stage. John Paul Barjou, proprietor of Café des Sports in Lauzun, decided to renovate the old theater located behind his establishment. Barjou’s father had been a crew member for the last play performed at the theater a half century ago. For several years afterward, dances were held in the space, but that was long ago and the theater needed extensive work. So just as Smith was considering forming a theater troupe, the venue was taking shape. Timing, as they say, is everything.

Martin Smith is a founding member
of Theatre de Lauzun.
Smith is in awe of the amount of community support the newly formed Theatre de Lauzun has garnered in and around this small village on the northern edge of the Lot-et-Garonne department.

“Many theater groups have to recruit support, but soon after our group was formed, people were volunteering to help,” Smith says. “I’d say we have 17 or so people helping out behind the scenes on this production, and at least 10 are from right here in the village.”

Smith and his wife Tessa are familiar figures in the Lauzun area. They sing with the Folk Forum 47 group North-South Divide, as well as with the Cantabile choir in Eymet. He is a past-president of Eymet’s cricket club too. But Smith says he never sang or acted (or played cricket, for that matter) until he moved to France 26 years ago. It’s been quite a lifestyle change for this former firefighter. When he isn’t performing or cheering on Club Eymetois de Cricket, he works in construction and is a chimney sweep.

“Black Comedy” is the first play Smith has directed, and he already is planning for the next.

“Theatre de Lauzun hopes to produce two plays each year,” Smith says. “Next summer’s production will be an original work written by Ann-Mary Stanton, one of our members.”

“Black Comedy” is being performed at 8 p.m. on Oct. 13, 14 and 15 in Lauzun. Tickets are nearly sold out. To inquire about availability or to put your name on the Theatre de Lauzun mailing list, email or call