Driving east from where I live you can be in the foothills of the Cascade Mountain Range in under a half hour. Keep going and you’re high in the rugged Cascade Mountains. Continue over the passes and you leave the mountains behind for the dry, shrub-steppe country of eastern Washington.
The road I’m talking about is Route 20, also called the North Cascades Highway. Each winter it closes near the highest point because of avalanche danger, and it doesn’t reopen until May, or even June. You can’t follow the the road all the way over the passes now, but it’s still worthwhile to drive east on Route 20 as far as possible for some mountain scenery. That’s what we decided to do on a bright, sunny day in February.
You can read about traversing the wild Picket Range here.
Munsterland is in Germany, part of the North Rhine-Westphalia region which is famous for its castles and manors. Last April we stopped here to visit friends as we drove across Germany, from Cologne to Hannover. We didn’t cycle from castle to castle (a popular regional pastime) but our friends’ home is a castle in its own right, a haven where we felt secure, well cared for and enveloped in hygge. The small town we stayed in is probably like many others in the region, but wandering through the village and past the edges of farms around it was a magical experience for us. Meeting up with someone you know who lives in the place you are passing through brings a refreshing dose of reality to a journey. For a few hours you feel less like someone tasting bits and pieces, and more like someone who is connected to the culture and nourished by the landscape.*
Now, almost a year later, the brief time spent with friends in a far-away place already feels nostalgic. You’ll see that in these photos.
It’s archive time. A string of wet, gray days prompted a look through Lightroom’s bulging files and folders. Sometimes I scroll around arbitrarily, and sometimes I think of a place or subject and type it into the keyword field. Any archive review is bound to turn up something that deserves attention and this time, photos from a 2018 trip to Los Angeles caught my eye.
Before moving on to the photos I want to mention what happened to my Lightroom catalog and workflow process over the last few days. With the expert help of Alex Kunz, my impossibly messy catalog (the result of a computer crash, a hard drive crash and years of bad organization) has been sorted out and cleaned up. It’s a new world in there! And to top it off, I’ve learned that certain habits I had, like creating virtual copies every time I edited a photo, are unnecessary. The recycle bin is full (gotta remember to empty that!) and my editing process is now quicker and easier. What a difference! Kudos to Alex, whose services I highly recommend. Whether you use Windows or Mac he can help solve problems. His rates are reasonable, he’s trustworthy, he’s thorough – and he’s also a fine photographer.
The first image here is a view of Los Angeles from the hills above it, specifically the San Gabriel Mountains, northeast of the city. It’s not an exceptional image but it sets the scene for a trip we took in October 2018 when we spent a day or so downtown, explored the hills around the city, drove out to Joshua Tree and went to the beach.
Or Gent. Either way, if you’re American you may not get the pronunciation quite right. In this Belgian city, as in most of Flanders, the primary language is Dutch (Ghent). But French (Gent) has a presence here too, and in nearby Brussels, French is the dominant language. Many Flanders residents, especially younger people, speak Dutch, French and English, a lingual multiplicity that reflects a complex, interesting culture.
In April we traveled to northern Europe, landing in Amsterdam. We planned to spend time in the Netherlands and Germany, looking up long-lost relatives and meeting blogging friends. Why not circle round and add Belgium to the itinerary? It’s the home of Magritte, Tintin and Django Reinhardt. Its constitution guarantees freedom of language, there are weird political machinations, fine chocolate, a penchant for brilliantly self-deprecating humor…in short, it must be interesting. So I looked for a base for a few days in Belgium.
Bruges came up right away. Frankly, people talked it up so much that I was scared away – my sense was that we’d drown in a sea of tourists in Bruges, straining to see the sights. I settled on Ghent, which also has canals, Flemish architecture and fries, but is a grittier university town and sounded more to our liking. We didn’t even go to Bruges. And because of Ghent’s central location I got carried away thinking about all the places we could visit that are only a train ride away – Antwerp, Brussels, even Lille, France are all in striking range. On arrival in Ghent we studied the calendar and train schedule with more sober eyes, paring it down to a day in Antwerp, a day in Lille (I was focused on seeing France, if only a corner of it), and a day seeing Ghent. Not enough, for sure!
For our day in Ghent I zeroed in on the MSK Musuem, or the Museum voor Schone Kunsten (the Museum of Fine Arts). Along with art museums in Antwerp and Bruges, MSK is part of the Flemish Art Collection, a comprehensive collection of five centuries of Flemish art. As an American art lover who had never been to Europe (when I was young and could have scraped the money together for a trip to Europe I wasn’t interested; later, family and work conspired against it) I valued the opportunity to see an excellent museum that isn’t overwhelmingly large. Over the years I’ve spent many hours at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum, the Frick, the Met Cloisters and the Morgan Library. Each one boasts an excellent collection of European art, but it’s just not the same as viewing art inside the country where it originated. To wake up in a European medieval city, sip coffee in a corner cafe, take a tram to the museum, gaze at sumptuous artworks spanning centuries, and then wander through the old part of town and into a cathedral or cafe is to begin to tie it all together. An altarpiece is no longer an isolated piece of art and an impressionist painting gains deeper context, making a sensibility and culture that are decidedly not American a little more transparent.
So here we are at MSK. Certain things catch my eye. I have no interest in recording consensus-approved highlights; instead, I photograph museum scenes, works of art and small details that I want to remember.
For more on the fascinating Mr. van Caeckenburgh, see this article.
Panamorenko, born in 1940, died earlier this month. Another eccentric Belgian artist who explored hidden corners of the psyche, he made imaginary flying machines and other constructions which he thought of as more akin to poetry than to sculpture. We were lucky to view this huge, elaborate work in the same room at MSK where it was shown back in 1980.
AND NOW, it’s time to take a walk.
Thank you, Ghent/Gent – we hope to be back some day.
If you take the fastest route you can reach the little town of Ferndale, California in twelve hours from our house. Happily, we had time to spare so we took a longer route, avoiding Seattle traffic by taking a ferry to the Olympic peninsula and heading south along the scenic Hood Canal.
A ferry ride is a nice way to begin a road trip. On a cool September morning we watched two seals and a Great Blue heron fishing in the harbor while we waited for the next Coupeville – Port Townsend ferry. The heron’s successful catch was an auspicious sign for the start of our the trip.
After disembarking from the ferry we drove through Washington and Oregon, stopping for the night in a small town off Route 5. The next day it rained off and on as we wound through southwest Oregon and into California via the Redwood Highway, finally arriving in Ferndale. The two long days on the road were a bit of a slog but we were in good spirits as we settled into one of our all-time favorite airbnb’s. The cottage was stocked with fresh eggs, home made muffins, local jam, coffee, tea, chocolate and wine – how could we not feel pampered? I woke up early Monday morning to fresh, cloud-dappled skies and a rainbow.
We had a leisurely breakfast, then headed into town. Ferndale is known for being a throwback kind of place where people cherish their old-fashioned, small town way of life. The atmosphere is such that movies have been made here and the entire town is a state historic landmark. The uniqueness could have gone to town’s collective head but residents go about their business in a low-key way, keeping the town a few degrees away from preciousness.
After wandering around town we drove up to Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge. This is dairy country so there was a slight delay as a herd of cows crossed the road.
At the Ma-le’l Dunes unit at Humboldt Bay NWR we hiked across an expanse of sand dunes out to the beach. It feels so good to be at the ocean when you haven’t seen it for months. I took off my shoes and socks and waded in the cold water, delighting in the small spectacle of foamy water swirling over rippled sand. All day the skies paraded towering cumulus clouds as the storm we came in on sailed out to sea.
The next day we followed a road out of town to a place on the map marked “Centerville Beach.” It turned out to be a county park, the kind where kids meet up after dark for a bonfire, and people walk their dogs unleashed and drive their trucks on the hard sand beach. To the south we saw cliffs rising steeply to grassy, rolling hills dotted with evergreens. Curious, we began walking down the broad, deserted beach towards the cliffs. There were strange rock formations along the way, things that make you wish you had a geology guide tucked in your pocket, or a handy app to consult.
Way down the beach we found a big piece of driftwood that we simply had to have. It was water-logged and very heavy. How could we get it all the way back to the car? Eureka! I found a fresh length of Bullwhip kelp, we tied it to the driftwood, and dragged it over the sand. Worked like a charm. (You’re right, I was NOT the one doing the dragging.)
Centerville Road swings past the beach and uphill into the grasslands. We wondered what was up there. On the map there didn’t seem to be much, though we imagined the ocean views had to be spectacular. Up we went, following the narrow, pot-holed road around tight curves, past deep gullies, up hills and out onto open range land. A few herds of grazing cattle and widely-spaced ranches were the only signs of humanity until we arrived at a small parking lot and trail. We hesitated to take the trail all the way down to the beach, thinking about the steep climb back up, so we ambled along the winding dirt path for a half mile. The views were breathtaking. We admired golden grasses and lingering wildflowers and wondered about animal trails tunneling through the grass. A fist-sized hunk of fur had been left on the trail next to some scat. There are mountain lions in the area. Maybe this was the site of a kill.
We spent the rest of the day exploring by car. Older wood frame homes dotted the countryside – some barely standing, others well kept. When I stopped to photograph one of them the neighbor from across the street approached us. Uh oh, I thought, here’s trouble. But no, he just wanted to offer us a few apples from his heirloom tree!
We drove through the town of Scotia, which we learned was built for loggers employed by the Pacific Lumber Company about 150 years ago. When a new owner took charge of the company in the 1980s, logging practices changed, clear-cutting for quick profit became common, and protests ensued. You may have heard about Julia Butterfly Hill’s two year sojourn living high in a 1500-year-old redwood tree to protest logging practices in the late 1990s. That tree was finally protected. During the 2008 recession the lumber company declared bankruptcy. Now the company, called Humboldt Redwood Company, is divesting itself of Scotia real estate. Logging isn’t as profitable as it once was, and running a company town no longer makes sense. What we saw was a depressed town, a busy lumber mill and an elaborate educational exhibit with live salmon, promoting the company’s efforts to preserve salmon habitat. Logging can pollute the streams where salmon reproduce; they and other animal and plant species may be threatened when timber is extracted haphazardly. On the surface the town of Scotia was calm, but protests at nearby logging sites continue.
Wednesday morning we hiked at Headwaters Forest Reserve, a preserve comprising over 7,000 acres of redwood forest which was protected in 1999, thanks to over ten years of grass roots organizing to save one of the last intact old growth forest habitats from the saw. The land had been owned by the same lumber company that founded Scotia, the town we looked at the day before. For over 100 years the family-owned company provided an important, and probably sustainable livelihood for Humboldt County residents but a hostile takeover in 1985 put the company into the hands of an outside corporation that drastically increased the timber take and violated environmental regulations. Activists rallied together to stop the company, using legal actions, protests, road blockades and campaigns. Feelings on both sides were intense enough that one activist’s car was bombed. It took years to reach an agreement in which the company was paid to hand over 7,472 acres of forest land.
Previously logged forest is slowly being restored at the reserve, where you can still see evidence of logging. One intact old growth groves is open to anyone with the energy to hike 10.5 miles (17km). Alternately visitors can make advance arrangements for a tour to another old growth grove that’s only accessible with a guide. We hope to do that next time, but our walk through the surrounding, previously logged areas was delightful.
The weather was unsettled. Light rain interrupted us a few times but the forest is thick and we weren’t bothered. The woods had a magical look that morning, especially around the South Fork Elk River, where I concentrated on photographing the ever-changing reflections of foliage in the water. (Some of those photos are in the post “Transitory States.”)
We had time after hiking at Headwaters to return to the Lost Coast Headlands via another route, Mattole Road. This remote, scenic road is described here, on a “dangerous roads” website. We went as far as Steamboat Rock. We pulled over and wandered on the deserted beach, feeling like we were indeed on a lost coast. Interesting traces of ocean life and intricate rock formations were plentiful, but this time we only pocketed a few small shells and rocks. (The photo below of Ferndale was taken when we stopped for coffee before driving to the Lost Coast.)
Our time in Humboldt County went by way too fast. Thursday we had to be to another airbnb in Waldport, Oregon, before dark and it was 6 1/2 hours away. We planned to punctuate the drive by meeting Gunta for coffee in Gold Beach. That left an hour or so for one last stop to gape at California’s redwood giants. I chose a location in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park called Cal Barrel Road because it was on the way, easy to get to, and is home to some of the really big ones.
Steam poured off the tree trunks seventy feet over our heads as warm sunlight met cool, damp bark. It’s impossible to describe the experience of standing among these ancient beings and needless to say, photographs don’t do justice to 300-foot-tall, 1800-year-old trees. I hope you can see them someday for yourself.
Perhaps I should have broken this post up into several shorter ones. If you read all the way to the end, thank you for your patience!
Light, water and movement: taken together they’re a recipe for enchantment. When light dances on water, patterns emerge as endless revelations. When the air pushes water this way and that or blows clouds across the sun, the patterns break up and reform in fleeting frames. Photographing these mesmerizing permutations of light and water, I never know what will happen, and that, of course, is a big part of the draw.
During a recent road trip we stopped for provisions at the North Coast Coop in Arcata, California and got into a conversation with the check-out person. The tall, wiry man was friendly and eager to talk as he rang up our purchases. I asked about his favorite hikes in the area and without hesitation, he began proclaiming the virtues of a place I hadn’t heard of. “Go to Headwaters Forest Reserve” he said. “They built a new trail, and it’s my favorite place for walking!”
The next day we drove out to the trailhead, parked, and set out on a mostly level trail that follows the South Fork Elk River through a picturesque forest. We got caught in rain showers a few times, but there was ample shelter under the thick canopy of tall, moss-laden trees. With rain and sunshine alternating, everything sparkled. On the trail, nursery logs supported mature trees, ferns arced over the forest floor, and a big, black beetle stopped us in our tracks. It was a glorious walk. Then I saw the colorful reflections on the gently rippling river and I was spellbound.
I have come to expect hypnotic reflections at certain spots on the lakes closer to home and the play of light on water never gets old. Whether air currents ripple the water or allow for relative stillness, the mirrored reality is captivating and mysterious. Here’s a group of photographs of reflections in lakes, streams and ponds near home.
These intimate immersions into transitory states of nature seem more vital than ever to our sanity in the face of the onslaught of bad news that presses against us every day. I don’t take the grace of being alive in such beautiful places lightly. I wouldn’t be there and the images would not have been made if activists and preservationists didn’t fight to preserve the land and waters where I walk.
In northern California, Headwaters Forest Reserve protects precious old-growth forest and watersheds that were almost lost to logging. This unique ecosystem was being actively clear-cut as recently as the 1980’s, but Earth First! stepped in and raised hell. There were boycotts, tree-sits, protests, and counter-demonstrations by truckers and loggers. During this period the Northern Spotted Owl and Marbled Murrelet were listed as threatened, enhancing the public’s understanding of the need to preserve this critical habitat for them.
The 1990’s was a challenging time for loggers, mill workers and their families, as well as for activists, legislators and others, as the fight to save previously unlogged forests heated up. Gray areas – the complexities of the situation as a whole – got lost in black and white thinking as the opposing sides became polarized. But after years of struggle the 7500-acre Headwaters reserve was transferred from private ownership to the public in 1999. The region may feel calmer now but in fact, nearby forests on the Lost Coast are threatened today. Activists continue to mobilize.
To see the original old-growth trees at Headwaters Forest Reserve you have to hike 10.5-miles (about 17km) round-trip or make a request in advance for a guided five-mile hike. On this trip we hiked shorter trails that don’t penetrate the ancient old-growth forest, but we enjoyed the trails we took immensely. We hope to do the guided hike next time. Photos #1 – #7 and #17 and #16 – #19 in my previous post began life at Headwaters.
Photos #8 – 13 and #16 were made within Anacortes Community Forest Lands (ACFL). In the late 1980’s residents came together to protect land on Fidalgo Island that was being logged for revenue by the city of Anacortes. The forest was disappearing and the city wasn’t making much from logging it, so concerned citizens rallied together, educated key people and involved local teachers and children in the cause. Within a few years the logging was stopped and managing the forest lands for recreation instead of profit became a city budget item.
Photos #13 and #14 were made at local gardens. Again, people worked together to create these gardens for recreation and education. Bonhoeffer Gardens in Stanwood, Washington, preserves native plants for the enjoyment and edification of the public. The Discovery Garden in Mount Vernon, Washington, was created by a Washington State University Master Gardener class to educate and inspire the public. It features a mix of native and non-native species laid out in more than twenty separate demonstration gardens linked by paths and plantings. The Discovery Garden and Bonhoeffer Gardens each have water features – what is a garden without water? When the light is right, the reflections never disappoint.
It’s a little town in northern California – more precisely, in Humboldt County, home of mammoth redwood trees, counter-culture cannabis growers, and (more prosaically, because everything shouldn’t be exciting) dairy and beef farms.
we were driving onto the Coupeville ferry and crossing over to the Olympic peninsula. It’s a longer route, but so much prettier, and we avoided Seattle traffic. Heading south along the Hood Canal (it’s a fjord!) on a quiet two-lane road, we passed Hamma Hamma and Lilliwaup,
glimpsed a herd of elk grazing by the roadside, then merged onto the interstate (ugh). We powered past Portland and stopped in a town called Brownsville for the night. Google pointed us to a local joint called Kirk’s Ferry Trading Post for dinner. The food went down even better after we watched a vintage truck –
the one we thought was part of the display of vintage tools and stuff –
start up with a groan and a growl and slowly, very slowly, putter down the road. (We noticed the pickup truck owner’s wife scowling as she sped away in a separate vehicle).
The next day we crossed the Oregon/California border and sailed down a loopy mountain road in a downpour, finally arriving in peaceful little Ferndale at dusk. Early the following morning I wandered outside where a peaceful, pastoral scene unfolded: the world refreshed by September rains.
Contentment worked its way under our skin and deep into our bones as we strolled wide beaches, hiked emerald forests and motored through rolling hills that overlooked the empty Pacific far below. Daily coffee in a laid-back cafe with a workshop where a man builds kayaks anchored us to Ferndale’s gentle rhythms.
We’re home now and I miss this exquisite corner of the world already.
Maybe you can see why.
We met a cast of friendly, eccentric characters on the trails, including a 94-year-old man intent on hiking a steep trail connecting grasslands and beach, a woman of a certain age hiking barefoot in the rain with two tiny dogs on leashes and a cat on her back, and a man who seemed to go nowhere without his two cockatoos.
On the way back home we spent two nights on the Oregon coast in the little town of Waldport. More on that later, but here is a view from the beach at low tide one morning:
This trip went by too fast. I know I’m privileged to be able to spend any time at all at such spectacular places as California’s redwood forests and its nearly deserted northern beaches. Breathtaking scenery lurks around the corner anywhere you look though, if you let old habits drop away and look with new eyes.
Yesterday I went hiking in the North Cascades with a friend who loves the mountains and is as curious about plants as I am. It’s time for berry picking now and most of the wildflowers are finished, but we hoped to find a few flowers hanging on. One of the flowers still blooming was a delicate, pure-white flower that looked familiar. I knew I’d seen it in the field guides but I couldn’t remember the name for it. I made a few quick photos to study when I got home. The pretty little wildflower was dropping snow-white petals onto the dark soil at the trail’s edge; it was a lovely, poignant sight signifying the end of summer.
After I got home I looked for the plant in my field guide and found it: it’s the Fringed Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia fimbriata). The odd name instantly brought up a memory of my mother saying “Grass of Parnassus” as she described a similar wildflower she found hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina, where she lived. In fact, Grass of Parnassus is probably one of the flowers we saw on our last drive up into the mountains back in 1999, when she was fighting pancreatic cancer. Late that summer I visited her to help out and we took a pleasant drive together to see the scenery. It was one of many visits I made that year before she finally drew her last breath in her own bed, on Christmas Eve.
My mother loved wildflowers and passed that along to me. Mountains, too – she hiked many miles in the Blue Ridge Mountains with her hiking buddies. We never hiked in the mountains when I was a child; we lived in places with rolling hills and we vacationed nearby, or at my grandparent’s home near the ocean. But I remember standing on a hillside outside of Syracuse, New York with my mother when I was a schoolgirl and gazing at a glorious view spread out below us. It was essentially the same feeling I get from mountains vistas, that peaceful relaxing into open space that assures you there are endless possibilities ahead.
My parents retired to place where they could hike in the mountains, and without making the connection to what they did, I did the same thing, although I’m on a different side of the country. But it’s no surprise since they set the stage early on, conveying a deep and lasting appreciation for nature. I kept the passion alive, thanks to my own enthusiasm and to the people around me. Now I’m living in a beautiful part of the world, making forays out to places that nourish the most fundamental parts of my life.
I’ll keep going back up to the mountains as often as I can, which isn’t as often as I’d like. It usually involves a long drive on terrible roads, and a bit of planning. But oh, is it worth it!
5 – 7. Wildflowers and butterflies on Sauk Mountain.
Late in July I hiked Sauk Mountain, another North Cascade Range peak. I didn’t quite make it to the top that day but that did not diminish my pleasure. The wildflowers were riotous, the butterflies and bees happy, and the view seemed endless. I’m sure my mother would have enjoyed that day. My son would have too, if he’d been there. The passion for nature, especially for the mountains, is alive in him.
There’s something exhilarating about being high up in the wilderness. I’m thankful that my parents instilled a keen appreciation for the outdoors in their kids, and thankful I have friends and family who share the passion. My wish for you is that even if the mountains aren’t accessible and the wilderness is out of reach you can still go outside, quiet down, and forget yourself. With a little luck, the energy around you will bring peace, and maybe even a tear to your eyes.
You may expect to see nature photography here, but please bear with me as I detour to share a stimulating afternoon in Antwerp that I enjoyed earlier this year.
While staying in Gent, Belgium, last April we decided to visit Antwerp, which is only an hour away by train. It wouldn’t be a see-the-sights day – that’s not our style. I had read about an unusual museum there, the Museum Plantin-Moresus. It was the residence and workshop of a great printer-publisher of the Renaissance era, and we were both intrigued so we made that our goal for the day.
I was having one of those travel days when it takes all morning long to pull myself together. Checking the train schedule, we saw there was time for a leisurely late morning coffee at the cafe across the street from our airbnb apartment. Good, we needed it! Then it was a quick tram ride to Gent Sint-Pietersstation where we lined up for tickets, grabbed fresh sandwiches to eat on the train, and boarded.
The ticket taker looked a little worse for the wear but was keeping up appearances with his cap, tie and jacket. Verdant fields flowed past the window and before I knew it, we had arrived at Antwerpen Centraal, one of Europe’s most beautiful train stations. The bustle reminded me of New York’s Grand Central Station, which I used to commute through. Here though, everything was more ornate, ceilings were higher, the architecture grander. Throwing any semblance of not-a-tourist-coolness aside, I gaped, craned my neck, and clicked that shutter.
Consulting a Rome2rio app for directions, we headed for the museum. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is the original workshop and residence of Christophe Plantin, an influential 16th century printer, publisher, and humanist. The museum is housed in a series of centuries-old buildings with a dizzying array of rooms (34 of them!) that ramble around a central courtyard. The quiet, softly lit rooms are packed with extraordinary early printed matter, old printing presses and family artifacts. Immersion in the world of early printing appealed to me; I have fond memories of a day spent at a small printing house helping fine-tune a run of brochures I designed for a specialty bakery business years ago.
Exploring room after room, occasionally getting lost in dim corridors as I stepped up and down stairs and across creaking floors, I perused hefty religious texts embellished with gold, precious illuminated prayer books, important botanical reference texts, an “early modern ode to women”, almanac illustrations, maps and more. I was deeply impressed not only by the workmanship, which is beautiful, but by the variety of subject matter. Seeing the breadth of topics that rolled off the presses here 450 years ago, I felt an inkling of how exciting it must have been to be alive during a time of such intellectual fervor. The era’s enthusiasm for knowledge was right there on those delicate pages, shining a light across the centuries.
Plantin was born in France about 500 years ago. He started a bookbinding business there but relocated with his wife to the commercially vibrant town of Antwerp in 1548. He set up shop and joined the Guild of Saint Luke, where painters, sculptors, engravers and printers apprenticed and connected with clients. He was industrious and produced impeccable work; before long he and his son-in-law Jan Moretus were running one of Europe’s top publishing houses. The Plantin-Moretus family continued the tradition another three hundred years, finally selling the building where it all began to the city of Antwerp in 1876. The museum opened the following year.
The Low countries in Plantin’s era were the center of western culture; by 1560, Antwerp was the richest city in Europe. It was also the site of religious conflict. In 1523 two monks had been taken away and burned alive for refusing to recant their heretical Lutheran beliefs. The powerful King Phillip II of Spain put immense pressure on Lutherans and Calvinists, and the printed word played an important part in the struggle. Plantin published all sorts of things, including Calvinist pamphlets. He is described as a Protestant sympathizer, a very dangerous position to take. Savvy person that he was, he found his own middle ground in the creation and publication of a major work, the “Plantin Polyglot” (Biblia Polyglotta or Biblia Regia). This complex, impressive multi-lingual bible satisfied the needs of scholars – but it also pleased King Phillip II.
Times were turbulent enough that Plantin fled to the more liberal Leiden at one point, only to return soon afterward to Antwerp. He seemed to walk a line as fine as the ones he printed: by 1585, Plantin was considered the primary printer-publisher for the Counter-Reformation, while secretly helping Calvinists in Utrecht organize an anti-Spanish printing press. With all this, it amazes me that he managed to live into his late sixties.
The museum has a world-class drawing collection, the oldest printing presses in the world, an extensive library, and more. Over 25,000 books and manuscripts can be searched on its website. If you are ever in Antwerp, it’s worth seeing.
If printing interests you, a well-written, illustrated history of printing from pre-history to 2017 can be found on this site.
The museum was closing but I could hardly tear myself away. We were kindly escorted out with our souvenirs – one was a 12″ x 16″ print of a grotesque face from the 16th century that children are invited to color. We will probably frame ours.
We had time for a look at Antwerp’s Grote Markt, an historic gathering place dating back to the 13th century where Guild houses – ornate and dignified buildings designated for various trades – reflect Antwerp’s prominent position in the 15th and 16th centuries. I took a few pictures with my camera and phone as the sun began to set and museum overload began to take hold. Tired and hungry, we found our way to a Thai restaurant, a good choice for hungry folks on a budget who want food quickly. Later we took a wrong turn on the way to the train station, but that happens when you travel on your own in a country whose language you don’t read or speak. Eventually we got back to Gent and collapsed.
I would have liked more time in Antwerp, but I learned a lot just from seeing the Museum Pantin-Moretus. I could sense how thrilling the acquisition of knowledge must have been to people in 16th century Europe, and I got a better grip on the critical role played by people who printed and disseminated that knowledge. The variety of printed matter that Plantin and Moretus published and changes manifested by the printed word could be likened to the explosion of information we are undergoing by having the internet at our fingertips. Understanding the degree of danger present in the religious struggles Plantin was navigating, coupled with impressions I gathered from the American Pilgrim’s Museum in Leiden bring to mind my own ancestor’s migrations from Europe to the New World. Their arrival from various northern European countries spanned the 17th to the 19th centuries, which means their lives were shaped by the same history I had the pleasure of being immersed in, if only for a few hours.
It goes without saying that religious struggles continue. The same with migrations for a better life. I hope that the humanist ideals Plantin stood for aren’t entirely buried under today’s divisive rhetoric. Travel is all about being moved and changed by your experience, and that minor museum in Antwerp made a day that reverberates.
…in another world. That’s what I felt on one magic Saturday in Leiden, the Netherlands. I was deeply engaged in a swirl of impressions, or was it a banquet of sensations? It began as soon as I awoke that day, tucked into an airy room on the second floor of an elegant private home:
It was tempting to stay snuggled in the thick duvet, or just to rest my gaze on the canal across the way with its swimming grebes, soaring magpies, fat old sycamores and pale daffodils waving atop a parakeet-green carpet of grass. But Leiden beckoned.
We slipped downstairs, walked along the canal, crossed a bridge and made our way to the heart of the city, at the confluence of the Oude and Nieuwe Rijn rivers, flowing through Leiden as canals. The old part of town is a picturesque neighborhood of cobblestone streets, bike-lined bridges arcing over winding canals, and handsome historic buildings, many from the 16th and 17th centuries, when Leiden was in its prime. It’s all very walkable, with enough restaurants, bars and coffee shops scattered around to grab a sit-down when you need it.
The Saturday market was bustling that cool Spring day. De Markt is supposed to be one of the best in the Netherlands, with packed stalls selling all the vegetables, fruit, fish, cheese, meat, baked goods and flowers you could want. As we walked towards the market we heard a merry musical sound that we couldn’t identify until we saw it – a colorful antique street organ parked on the cobblestones to entertain shoppers! One couple broke into a waltz, their wide smiles flying through the air. It was one of those great travel moments that one remembers later with a sigh….
Soon I was tired of the crowds, so we broke away from the bustle and wandered down a side street.
That’s when the magic took hold. In a matter of seconds, a hush replaced the market noise. It was the kind of stillness (no car noise, just the ring of an old church bell) that makes it easy to imagine you’ve dropped back into another century. I rested my gaze on a folding table set out in front of a narrow row house, holding an assortment of oddities – a globe, a broken tile, some worn books. The door to the building was ajar. It was dim inside and I sensed that a pile of treasures was waiting there. But it all seemed too precious – I doubted that I could afford anything in a European antique store. As I stood there hesitating (undoubtedly with a longing look on my face) a smiling couple exiting the store urged, “You must go inside!” So we wandered in, and for the next hour or so we were immersed in a self-contained little universe of delights and discoveries….
It wasn’t necessarily the objects themselves, though many were fascinating. It was the atmosphere, the jumble of centuries and continents, the dark recesses that held one unexpected object after another. The store, called Anterieur, is a warren of poorly lit, connected rooms that meander through the block, rooms that open onto snug outdoor spaces full of plants and statuary and rusty implements, rooms behind doors, behind rooms, behind windows….
I suppose I’m romanticizing the store – you might think it’s a mess! But for me that day, it was a delightful, otherworldy maze and I’d gladly return. If I could go again I would buy that textile I passed on, and another tile or two….
Right around the corner from Anterieur is an unusual small museum, the American Pilgrim Museum. I had read about it and I was curious. There was a sign: someone would be back to open the door in fifteen minutes.
The door featured a hand-stitched, ragged-edged cloth sign announcing the hours and price (five euros) – the perfect introduction to an eccentric and evocative museum. When it opened up again there were just a handful of us, mostly Americans. Our guide was the unforgettable Jeremy Bangs, the director and a distinguished Pilgrim scholar.
The museum is one of those places that’s impossible to describe, but suffice it to say that the experience was yet another immersion – this time into an intimate space full of objects both precious and mundane, that a small group of people left behind over four hundred years ago. Leaving England to find religious freedom, the Pilgrims spent time here in Leiden, where attitudes towards freedom of thought tend be very enlightened. They found work at the university – the oldest in the Netherlands – or in the cloth trades. But they struggled financially, and had misgivings about the liberal Dutch life – their children might stray, their hard-found religious freedom might evolve into a purely secular one. After ten years the group resolved to cross the Atlantic to the New World, where opportunities were plentiful and they could keep their faith firm. Back to England they went, to arrange for a ship and passage, and then, off to America. After the Leiden sojourn perhaps the pilgrims were a little better prepared for what lay ahead.
In the small museum housed in a fourteenth century building, the light is the same natural light supplemented with candlelight that was used four hundred years ago. Artifacts are not hidden behind glass, but are there to be touched and sensed fully. A latrine is in the corner, bone dice from a game children played lie on a table, and an amazing hand-painted linen banner carried in processions (seen above) hangs from the ceiling. Mr. Bangs hews to no script; each tour is different, depending on who is present and what questions they ask. I wished I had been better prepared because the man has such deep knowledge of his subject, but frankly, it was enough to simply take in the atmosphere.
After the museum we made our way to the Burcht, an historical fortification and park sitting on a hill in the heart of Leiden. Ages ago this was a shell midden, then in the 1200’s it was a residence, later it was a refuge from floods, later still a city water tower. A long history! Up in the old stone castle we enjoyed a view of rooftops from walkways circling the inside of the old brick building. The views were obscured by the budding branches of sycamore trees, which was fitting on that early Spring day.
The Burcht is guarded by the Leiden coat of arms, a lion and two crossed keys. We saw the crossed keys symbol over and over, throughout the city, and beyond question, the city opened its doors to us that Saturday – with or without keys.