I was baptised at the First Baptist Church of Whittier when I was twelve years old. I did it to make my parents happy. It did. I really didn’t know what I was doing then, taking Christ as my personal savior, and for the longest time, while I’ve had an affinity for Christ, I didn’t relate to the personal savior aspect. I see Christ dying on the cross, resurrecting, and having everlasting life as a metaphor for the notion that we do not die and simply cease to exist, but manifest in a different plane, with different attributes, or simply change state and our consciousness has a different point of view.
But then I saw the crucifix on the grounds of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima, in Fatima, Portugal. It’s a gargantuan cross (122 feet) with a long lean Christ hanging lifeless, dead at the hands of his own, and I started to cry. The only way to stop was to turn away.
Not everyone likes this crucifix, angular and stark, but it carried great power for me, walking toward it, the cross blocking the setting sun. I tried to reconcile my feelings about how a man who did so much for so many ended up on a cross with nails driven through his hands and feet, and left to die in a public display of disdain and power. I could not.
I wasn’t on a conscious pilgrimage during our trip, but by the time we returned home, I remembered many interesting experiences around spiritual places.
Sagrada Famila (Sacred Family) is difficult to describe. It is old, it is new, and like the medieval cathedrals Notre Dame and Chartres, it is being build over generations. It required my full attention.
The cathedral sprouts from the ground in the middle of Barcelona, Spain. It’s got a McDonalds, a Five Guys, and a Starbucks right across the street, which I found both disturbing and amazing that those three companies could pull off that venue.
There are stories of Christ’s life carved around the outside of the cathedral. The final cathedral tower will be the Christ tower, supported by four internal pillars, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Due to complete in 2026.
Late afternoon light streamed through the cathedral, setting the place aglow. My wife went in ahead of me, to get our audio tours. She came out in tears, and simply said, “The Light.”
The ceiling felt familiar, like I’d seen it in a science fiction movie, where people from all walks of life live together in peace and harmony. It gave me hope.
We sat in the nave, to meditate and pray, but it was difficult to stay in that little space when this enormous sanctuary was all around and it looked like Christ was coming in on a parachute.
There is so much color and structure to the inside of this cathedral, yet no statues, other than Christ on the cross.
Architect Antoni Gaudi designed the cathedral. His work can be seen all over Barcelona. A whimsical style and from what I can gather, structurally brilliant. After Gaudí’s death in 1926 the construction was continued by architects and craftsmen who had worked with him, according to his plans and plaster models.
The story of Christ’s birth is told on the oldest side of the cathedral. It is adorned by an enormous supporting cast of story-telling statuary.
The story of his death is told on the newest side of the cathedral. More modern, more angular.
I began a series of blog posts about our trip to Barcelona, Lisbon and the island of Madeira with a post called Why I’m Tired. I hope you’ve enjoyed these images and thoughts as much as I have getting them down. Photos shot with iPhone 8plus and edited in Snapseed.
It’s evening and the tunes are starting to flow through the cool night air. A sparkling sound from the big thumping Sonos speaker gets my head in the game, gets my fingers to moving, and finds a beat that is hard to ignore. Some kind of lethargy has taken hold, and a bit of real-time fatigue, set in motion by a 24 day trip to Europe where we toured Barcelona, Lisbon, and the island of Madeira. If I’m honest I’d say the biggest trouble is that I’ve shed my jet lag but left my heart and a large dollop of my energy nine hours away. Maybe getting it down on paper with a few photos to support, I’ll be able to return to my bay area digs, heart, bones, and spirit.
Last year my wife and I started reading Dan Brown’s book Origin, and while I found the premise interesting I did not find reading it particularly rewarding. The story had its engaging moments, especially the artificial intelligence bits. I didn’t finish it. On return from our adventure one of my friends asked how I enjoyed Barcelona given that I’d read Origin, and I was clueless about her meaning. She said the book is, at least in part, set in Spain. I had not noticed that.
We already bought the book from Audible so I downloaded it and started at the beginning. The opening scene is at Montserrat (serrated edge) monastary, where we traveled to view the black Madonna. Now I have a book to read, but this time with a bit more attention.
We took the metro to the train and rode north out of Barcelona through small cities and farmland, toward a towering mountain, with steep crags at it’s pinnacle.
There are two stops for Montserrat (serrated edge) train station. We took the first for the gondola. The second, I believe, is serviced by a tram that rides a track up the mountain. I’m not positive, but there may be a walking option. The station was the launching point for the gondola that moved us up to the monastery in about 5 minutes. It’s steep, but follows the contour of the land so is never that far from the ground, but looking back down into the valley, it’s a long ways. We were there in October. It was cool on the mountain, but overall, the temperatures were quite mild throughout our trip. Not so, I hear, in the summer months.
When we entered the grounds I was trying to imagine how they built this place. It’s work getting things up the mountain now, but around 1025 AD? It’s a long way from anywhere, and it’s up a mountain. Would be fascinating to go back in time and be a fly on the wall, to see them making measurements, cutting stone, hauling heavy materials up a steep, rocky mountain.
Note the people standing above and to the left of the crucifix. We stood in line for our turn to get there and see the Black Madonna. As we stood in a slow moving line along the inside wall of the cathedral we could look out into the sanctuary and get an up-close viewing of the architecture. Our Donna, below, with the Black Madonna.
There’s a beautiful entry with expansive views over the valley below. We heard about a series of hikes that are available, but that will have to wait for another day.
Outside the cathedral the sun was getting low in the sky, casting long shadows across the valley below where we’d catch our train back to Barcelona.
The ride down was quick and easy. Our car was full and it rode quite a bit lower than a fairly empty car that we pass on our decent.
I’m still a little tired, but I’ll renew myself and talk about Christ in our travels.
They came to Pacifica this past weekend and brought Hwy One to a jammed up stop and wait. They parked on the streets all the way up the hill to our place, and clogged the neighborhoods within a half mile of Pacifica State Beach. My son stopped by, and was not heading home unless he wanted to spend an hour in stop-and-go traffic.
We lathered on sunscreen and walked to the beach where we witnessed dog after dog leading their owners away from the beach. We chatted up a couple with a pair of retrievers in tow, who said the tandem contest was about to start so we hustled. Thirty people stood in line for the restrooms, hundreds stood on the sand watching the last of the entries paddling out. It was a guy with a blue mohawk riding a large board with a small dog on the nose. The dog had great balance, sticky feet that did not let go, and the surfer dude with blue hair knew what he was doing.
We wandered the crowd, rapt with attention for these last two rides, and seemed pretty darn well behaved. We got a couple of shots of the surfing duo then headed to the Pedro Point shopping complex to see if the new Cafe, Soul Grind, was open and it was. This was day one, and they were swamped, but it’s a great space, a cool owner, Jimmy, and has views of the ocean. AND they are going to roast their own coffee. Can’t wait to sip a double espresso in front of the fireplace while coffee roasts in the back and rain coats the parking lot outside.
I’ve started a short story asking where are the black surfers, and there they were among a line of yellow boards, yellow jerseys, learning the ropes. The story is morphing into an old white guy getting schooled by a young black girl with powers beyond his grasp.
I think it was spawned from working with Mat Johnson at the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference last week. A man with a black mom and white dad, Mat’s spent a bit of time bumping up against, and flowing to the other side of the divide that we’ve created. More in another article.
I’ll tell you how to do Point Reyes. First ya gotta get outa bed. Hit the road by 9, and drive straight to Fairfax. I like the back road out of San Anselmo, Central Blvd I think it’s called, near where Andronicos was, but wow, now it’s a Safeway. That road is so old-school Marin; bamboo hedges, bikes on the street. A few stop signs toward Fairfax, there’s a statuary on the right with Buddhas scattered outside, inside, and down to the creek below.
In Fairfax, park in the lot, a block west of Good Earth, a wonderful memory of what SF Real Foods was like in the day. But now for breakfast at Barefoot Cafe. They serve a good cup of espresso and fine egg dishes. The art work cycles through and I like to spend a moment in the restroom where some of their older works are on display. There are many cute little shops within a block or two of the cafe.
On to Point Reyes Station. First thing is go straight to the Station House and book a dinner reservation. OK, you could call or even go online, but I love to see the place, maybe use one of their two restrooms. Station House has a great burger and the bar-b-qued Oysters are a serious local treat. They serve hot turnovers to every table. The perfect vehicle for butter. There might be a musical group playing weekend nights.
Depending on your energy, I’d head down the street to Bovine Bakery for coffee and a sweet treat. The chocolate cherry things in the right display are so sweet they make my teeth hurt, but they are tasty. On sunny days there’ll be bikers on the street, sipping caffeine and carbo loading for the ride home.
If you need gear hit up Cabaline Country Emporium & Saddlery, where we’ve bought shoes, boots, socks, inserts, belts and a hat or two. It’s packed floor to ceiling with outdoor clothing slanted a bit to those who ride horses.
We usually stroll by the Marty Napp’s Photography Gallery who has iconic images of the area with a few surprises each time we visit. There’s also Point Reyes Books whose well-stocked shelves can keep you engrossed. If I could only have one book store, this would be a finalist.
If you like cheese, Cow Girl Creamery. It’s a big store, a little over crowded and over priced but it’s locally sourced, and there’s more than cheese in the shop.
You’ll see Marin Organic written on many Point Reyes restaurants, grocery stores, and farmer’s markets. There’s are options to the Station House. From time to time we’ve selected an Italian place called OSTERIA STELLINA a bit more upscale, with locally sourced food. Not a lot of elbow room.
And then there’s Coyoche. Go across the street from Station House and turn left. There’s a little outdoor mall area with interesting shops, our favorite being, well, actually, I’m not sure which is OUR favorite but we usually shop Coyoche for sales on bath sheets and bedding. All cotton, subtle tones, a little expensive, but a cool place.
There’s more to Point Reyes Station but I need a hike and my favorite without hesitation is the Estero Trail. Getting there is part of the charm. Head out of Point Reyes, like you’re going back to Olema, and make the right just past the bridge over Laugunitas Creek (by the way, Donna and I paddled up that creek where we saw turtles and had a ball. You can read about that trip here.)
Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s old with so much new. We found the town pronounced and spelled several different ways. Bruges, like rouge with a B in front is how most tourists pronounced the quaint Belgian city, but the locals called it Brugggghhh, like starting to say blue in french, but then moving the G sound to the back of the throat and kind of squeezing the finish. I never got it right.
One of my friends at the San Francisco Writers Studio told me about Bruges. “It’s ok if you like medieval towns,” she’d said. “What with cobble stone streets, canals, quaint cafes, and boutique clothing stores,” and we did like all of that.
The trip from Amsterdam to Bruges was relaxing, if a bit underwhelming, until we got off the train in Antwerp. I remember being stunned to a stand still looking up at the massive train station clock. It had been decorated to fill the entire end of the station. It didn’t seem real. We both took photos hoping to capture the elegance of the structure. We probably have 15 images, none show the full grandeur. But our commuter train to Bruges was late so we got to sit in the station, sip coffee, and watch people coming and going in the afternoon glow. We’ve since watched Hugo, to visit that feeling again. There’s something about a train station.
The train to Bruges moved along at a snail’s pace, past Ghent and several other small towns. Medieval architecture sprung from the skyline, like pillars of inspiration.
In Bruges we found the bus to our AirBnB and sat for the 10 minute ride to our new hood. It was a quiet little street, with several homes sporting sculpted gardens. Our place came with two bikes that we rode into town for groceries and dinner. We rode home in the dark, feeling alive and quite free.
In Bruges, we walked down narrow streets, and from time to time could see the spires of one of several church steeples. We managed a stop at each.
There’s something about these old churches. Structures that are built over centuries, over generations. Who had the original concept? How did it change as time changed, as wars were fought, as sons died, as children became adults, and they too died.
Someone suggested that we see the Colin Ferrell movie In Bruges. I’d tried it some years back and didn’t make it very far. I found Ferrell’s constant negativity hard to swallow, but in the movie’s defense, the photography is stunning. There are shots from the water, from towers. It’s really a great overview of the city. And there’s a seriously twisted relationship between Ferrell and the guy who played Mad-Eye Moody in Harry Potter movies.
What I didn’t see was the well-developed retail scene. As we approached the city our first day we saw shoppers carrying bags from the well-known shops you might see in San Francisco, Milan, or Rome. There were great little cafes, cobble-stone streets plazas, bicycles nestled in ivy. Reflections in the water,and church towers framed by a maddening sky.
We had a snack at the Pigeon House. Great little stop for local color. They honor the pigeons who race from as far away as Spain, all the way back to Belgium. The bird is stamped into chocolate medallions.
Speaking of which, Belgian waffles. We only had one, but what a treat. We sat in the back of a little cafe, watched what a nearby table was eating and ordered what they had, one waffle with creme fresh and dark chocolate. The waffle was large but light. We filled a corner with cream and another with chocolate. We took our time. We shared. Donna took her spoon, and with the delicacy of a fine surgeon poured a teaspoon full of chocolate and ate it in one bite.
I gotta say that the town held me from the first steps. Narrow streets, cool old doors, and canals.
One afternoon we were drawn to a bridge by a sound that I couldn’t place. It was musical, like a steel drum, but nuanced with a humming sound. We came across this troubadour playing a Hang Pan and blowing into a diggerydo. He provided a sound that seemed both primitive and contemporary all at once. Since our return we hear Hangman on our streaming stations just about every day.
I could go on and on about Bruges, but our next stop is Paris. So you gotta move on.
We took Norwegian Air out of Copenhagen and landed in Amsterdam a bit late in the day. The train station was a bustling hub of diverse humanity. People looked to come from every corner of the globe. Outside central station it was crowded, rushed, and dirty. By the time we got to our AirBnB, via a 15 minute bus ride, we were sure we’d made a poor decision on where to stay…until we met our host and saw our apartment. Until we woke in the morning to find a green parrot perched in an Elm outside our bedroom window. Until we found the local grocery store had fresh organic produce, eggs with bright yellow yolks, and found the Danish nut and seed bread we’d eaten in Copenhagen. We continued to eat our mostly raw breakfast. I was loving it.
The buses ran prompt and got us around town quite easily. But the streets are the places we found most charming. Strolling hand in hand along quiet canals, as bikes cruised around corners, horse-drawn carriages clopped along the cobblestones, and musicians played music here and there.
And of course the Coffeeshops, not to be confused with Cafes. Both are plentiful in Amsterdam.We talked with the proprietor of one of Amsterdam’s oldest coffeeshops, The Bulldog, about cannabis edibles and discovered that it’s against the law to make anything with cannabis. Even the lollipops and Spacecake are made with some kind of cannabis oil, with little to no psychoactive properties. He said that once upon a time, Amsterdam was the world leader in progressive medicine, but now they are trailing the likes of California, Colorado, and other US Cities.
We hooked up with a friend of a friend, Lorand, who lives in the hip neighborhood of Kinnerbuurt. They have a farmers market that runs the length of a pretty long street, and is open every day of the year. Fresh everything. Lorand guided us through enormous food courts inside a refurbished tram repair center. It’s called Foodhallen. It’s spacious rooms, varied aromas, music, and people made it an interesting place to get a bite and feel the vibe. We also discovered a fantastic cafe where I tried fried goat cheese. I thought it was fish. Our cafe host even got in the action.
We spent hours touring the Nine streets area where we found cafes, retail stores, canals and reflections, plus the ever-presence of bikes, locked and being ridden.
We walked many streets more than once, and it didn’t seem to matter. There was always something to see, taste, smell. We tried to go to the red light district, but each time we tried, the way there was crowded, and the energy was more than we wanted to handle, so we’d mosey on over to the nine streets area and relax into the non-stop shops and cafes.
The only activity we planned in advance was Ann Frank’s house, and if I had one word of advice for that tour, see the movie first. We streamed it on Netflix and it gave such a great sense of the cramped quarters, the difficulty of being quiet, and how personality conflicts are amplified by war and confinement. The place is tiny, the stairs narrow, and with wooden floors, it’s practically impossible to keep quiet.
Our second day in Amsterdam we wandered into a souvenir shop to purchase refrigerator magnets and gaze over all the shiny objects.
What a fun store. I thought it must be hard on a shop owner trying to sell high volumes of tiny items to make ends meet. While doing our transaction we asked if he could point us to the Van Gough museum. He asked if we had tickets, and said that it’s quite helpful to purchase in advance, and it’s great to go late in the afternoon to avoid the crowds. He said he could sell us tickets which turned out to be such a great move.
My lack of art history knowledge caught up with me the next day. We took the tram to the museum area when I got the feeling that Amsterdam was bigger than I’d thought. Much bigger. It’s almost twice the area of San Francisco, and larger than all the cities we visited, Copenhagen, Brugge, and Paris.
We walked by the Rijksmuseum and sat in the sun at an outdoor food court with coffee and a nibble. When it was our designated museum entry time we walked a hundred meters or so to the Van Gogh museum. We’d asked about its location a couple of times and were corrected on our pronunciation each time. It’s not Van-Go, it’s Dutch, Van-gawk, but you have to slur the second syllable through the back of your mouth. An acquired skill I think.
We picked up our audio tour gear, and agreed on when and where we’d meet, since we have vastly different attention spans for museum tours. I started the exhibit and was greeted by a large, say 8×12 foot painting of peasants in the field, some mostly sitting, eating, sharpening blades. I’d seen it in art appreciation class in junior college. I moved on to a series of self portraits and learned that he taught himself many techniques by painting himself, as he did not have money for models. I searched for that image when drafting this blog post but never found it. I did find dozens and dozens of peasant paintings, little studies of faces, feet, and folks at work. He was a prolific painter, who took great pleasure in painting the simple life. When I got to the timeline display of his life, I was shocked to tears when I discovered he’d taken his own life.
We spent a bit of time in the tulip museum, in the Nine Streets area, where Donna learned that many of the varieties of tulips they sell won’t do well in our climate, so we waited for home to buy our bulbs. They went in the soil this past weekend. We’ll wait for Amsterdam in our spring garden.
Outside the tulip museum we discussed a book we’d read. Donna confused All the Light We Cannot See, with bits from The Goldfinch. I’ve had a fear that I might lose my wife to dementia. In that moment, I thought it was happening. I started to cry. Donna took me onto the bridge where I tried to talk about it. She reassured me that she is not losing her mind.
I’d love to spend more time in Amsterdam. Such a vibrant city with more to see than can be done in four days. When we returned home I told Donna I wanted to visit Ikea and get a little hit of Scandinavia. We came home with a few odds and ends to keep our trip alive along with a mounted and framed black and white photo of the same image that got me interested in Amsterdam a few years ago. I’d seen it at an executive office on Sutter Street in San Francisco. It was one of several framed images, all done in black and white, of various cities around the world. Each had one element of color. We brought it home from Ikea. It’s lovely next to our fireplace.
Until we return, we have a photo, we buy aged Gouda cheese, and we recount stories real and imagined.