Mary Clark, Traveler


View of Trasimeno Lake from Montegualandro Castle

Aerial View of Montegualandro Castle – photo from Castle’s website

Castles come in all sizes.  The largest in the world is not the English Windsor (4th on the list) but Malbork Castle in Poland.  Thanks to many ad-ons for a growing list of Teutonic knights, it measures in at 143,591 square meters.  Compare that to the Montegualandro Castle in Italy with 3100 square meters of space and you’ve got yourself a cozy castle and a magical place to spend the night.

Entry Gate to Montegualandro Castle
Key to castle’s gate
Spikes at bottom of castle’s gate

Soon after crossing from Tuscany to Umbria, we drove up a hill, around the castle’s moat and stopped in front of a 15 foot tall metal gate with spikes below. It had no doorbells or knockers.  We tried pounding on the gate with no response.  After honking our car’s horn, a window opened 30 feet up the smooth, stone wall and a woman’s voice called out “I’ll be right down” – a scene right out of Rapunzel or the Wizard of Oz.   The diminutive Franca Marti soon opened the gate and we walked into the castle’s courtyard, our home for two nights.

Inside of 12th Century Chapel
Exterior of 12th Century Chapel

“We fell in love,” is how Franca described the couple’s quixotic quest to renovate this very old structure.  They had originally wanted a place in the country to build a boat but the castle cast its spell and became theirs in 1985.   After two years of planning and five of reconstruction, the couple moved in and opened four apartments for let.  Ours was in the former tower and, naturally, had rounded walls.  Another was built in the stables with wooden beams and tile floors.  A consecrated chapel from the 1200s was even available for meditation.

Perched on a hill supervising Trasimeno Lake in Umbria, the site for Montegualandro Castle dates back to the Etruscans. And Hannibal used the elevation to sequester troops before attacking the Romans in 217 BCE.  From our window in the tower, we could have watched as Hannibal surprised Roman Consul Flaminio and killed 15,000 Roman troops.

Thanks to the Martis’ efforts, the castle’s title history can be traced to Charlemagne around 800 CE when the land was given to one of his officers.    In the next 1200 years, it passed through several Counts and Dukes, became a (very) small independent state with its own dungeon,  was occupied by Ferdinando de Medici, and later sold to the Pope. One family owned the land for over four centuries.   Most recently in WWII, the Germans used it to keep an eye on troop movements in the valley below.

The next morning, Franca propped a long ladder on the inside castle wall and allowed us to climb to a wooden walk along the parapets and imagine life before canons and other powerful artillery.    Since castles were early home security systems, trees and bushes would have been cleared to prevent enemies from sneaking up the hill.   The old drawbridge,  now walled into a large reception room, kept strangers out as did the filled moat.  An inside well allowed  inhabitants to withstand a short siege.   And gun portals protected the soldiers as they fired.  In the beauty of the renovated castle, it was easy to forget that in reality, castles were often comfortless with dark, damp interiors and straw beds.

Today, the landscape is filled with olive orchards, decorative trees, and farms.  Mountains circle the panorama.  Boats crisscross Lake Trasimeno as tourists swim along the shores. A four-lane highway has replaced the dirt road from Perugia to Florence. The view is no longer tinged with anxiety and the castle walls aren’t for defense.   The Martis recognized the walled enclosure is now about culture.  Montegualandro has a long history of artists stopping nearby –   Galileo, Michelangelo, Goethe, Byron and Stendhal.    By restoring the castle according to strict Italian historical standards,  Montegualandro is again a wonderful venue for artists, concerts, weddings and visitors from small town Texas.

Web Site for Montequalandro Castle

Leave a Comment

Italy – Charming By Design

Country home in Tuscany

In my travels, I often ask locals what has changed in the last ten or twenty years? Were I asked the same of Paris, the answer would include new restaurants and hotels, subdivisions in the county, expanded school campuses, closing of Merico and Phillips Lighting, and the rejuvenation of downtown.  Yet, on a recent trip to Italy, that inquiry generated quizzical looks and slow  responses.   “Nothing” or “Not much” were typical answers.

That reply is exactly why tourists continue to be drawn by the millions to Italy, especially the Tuscany and Umbria areas. Italians know visitors have a certain vision of their country that does not include skyscrapers, billboards, or endless suburbs.  The country also values its long history and has adopted strict rules for renovation of old and construction of new buildings to maintain the “Italian look.”  Red tile roofs (whether real or fake polymer) are required in much of Italy.  Home paint colors are limited to warm, earth pastels such as ocher gold or terra cotta and if you want something else,  permission must be sought from local councils.

Foreigners are so drawn to la dolce vita – the dream of sipping wine on the back porch while watching the sun set across the hills of Tuscany – that real estate signs in hilltop Cortona are in English as are many of the real estate magazines.  Web sites such as Italy Assists and Italymag have forums for those seeking advice on renovation costs and rules – also in English.  But ex-pats need patience.  At one site, businesses are advised to expect a minimum of 135 days before approval of a warehouse building permit.  In recognition of the inefficiencies of the Italian bureaucracy, a new “rule of silence” in larger cities allows construction to begin if you haven’t heard anything from the authority in 180 days.  For residential renovations or new construction, the wait can be just as long.  (And we complain about the 5 days  Paris requires!)

Historical renovation can be even more challenging.  At Montegualandro Castle, just inside the border of the Umbria state, Franca Marti described the journey to renovate their very own castle.  She lamented,  “If one stone has fallen off the castle wall, it must remain there.”  Just the permission to rebuild took two years.  In “Under the Tuscan Sun,”, Frances Mayes writes of the challenges working with master stone builders, wrought iron blacksmiths, and electricians who had never installed a rheostat.  Her home was finished in three years – a time lapse Americans would never put up with.

Restored Milan Duomo

Governments (national and local) pour millions into restoring  cathedrals, palaces, museums, and stone streets inside the walled towns.  This effort brings other benefits for the Italians who live with their history in the maintained areas. As Frances Mayes wrote, the Italians “have the good instinct to bring the past along with them.”   Despite the huge tourist presence, these communities are still active with families who live in the family home, buy in 200 year old stores, and worship in  centuries old churches.  Our guide in Sienna grew up in the porcupine district of that beautiful city, one of 17 such family neighborhoods.  Babies are baptized in the local church as an infant but at age one, they are dipped in the local fountain and wrapped in the scarf of the district indicating they will belong forever to that contrada.

It’s been 43 years since my first visit to Florence  in 1969.  Other than pedestrian streets, a single McDonalds, and changing fashions in the clothes stores,  little has changed around the cathedral.  Even the pictures hung at the Uffizzi Museum are in the same rooms.  It is a city and country that are well-worn from tourist traffic but purposely retain the studied ambiance.  As a hotel owner in Bellagio proudly told me, “nothing has changed” in the last ten years.  I have counseled other travelers of the need to see certain places in the world before old buildings are demolished or modernized.    Italy is not one of those.  This land will be forever charming, thanks to a populace that embraces that which it shares – its history.

Leave a Comment

Captain’s Camp, a desert camp in Wadi Rum, provides taste of Bedoin world

Welcome Tent at Captain’s Desert Camp

Lawrence of Arabia, that complicated Englishman who fought with Bedoin desert tribes for their independence after World War I,  endured days of travel by camel in the glare of the Wadi Rum desert of modern day Jordan but still fell in love with that silent valley surrounded by cliffs and towers approaching 3,000 feet.    He wrote “the crags are capped in nests of domes… They gave the finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture to this irresistible place, this processional way greater than imagination…vast, echoing and godlike.”   Today, Lawrence would be surprised to find his sandy, majestic world discovered by jeep safaris, hot air balloons, an international array of tourists, and a host of desert camps.

Our Jordanian travel agency wanted to book our last night in their country at a Dead Sea luxury resort but the chance to sleep in a traditional Bedoin tent of woven goat hair was far too tempting. Some modern Bedoin families still live in tents but transfer their camp and herds by pick-up rather than camel.  Others help provide a simulation of desert life, taking advantage of visitors’ curiosity.

Inside our tent
Courtyard of Captain’s Camp

The Captain’s Camp is one of the original desert camps and obviously courts the international English speaking crowd.   Its tents circle round a sandy courtyard, using the rock outcrop as an additional barrier to prevailing winds.  A rug path led us to tent number 17.  We opened the heavy woven flap to find three single beds, one small table and chair, one mosquito net and a 30 watt bare light bulb.  More rugs covered our small space in the desert.  The surprisingly clean, communal bathrooms were down another rug path.  Only moonlight would give guidance if nature called in the middle of the night.

Our camel driver, Shaban

For our private camel ride, we joined Shaban, a seasoned, playful guide who loudly clicked and hissed at the animals if they acted up.  By leaning back and then forward, we moved with our awkward hosts as they stood, congratulating ourselves on our upper perch.   Within a few minutes we were away from the noise of the road, into the ancient sands and gently nodding with the camel’s gait.

Back at camp, Shaban invited us to sit with other drivers around a camp fire.   Traditional tea was shared while a new born baby camel and mother provided entertainment.  Modern life dropped in as Shaban visited with one of his small children on a cell phone, making noises that were funny in any language.  His dry-cleaned robes were also delivered then, solving my wonder at the whiteness of his vestment.

A traditional grilled lamb dinner, brightened by the wonderful middle eastern salad, was served on low tables with cushioned benches.  Young Jordanian school girls, visiting from Aqaba, insisted on teaching us local dances that required much jumping, belly movement, and laughter.   Lights were out for the whole camp at 9 p.m. but a nearby French family couldn’t stop laughing and some snoring persisted into the night.  Otherwise, all was quiet as only camps can be.

As with any discovered tourist destination, the Wadi Rum must be protected from overuse and Jordan intends to do that.  The Wadi Rum Protected Area is a UNESCO World Heritage Center in which rare wildlife is encouraged such as the wolf , ibix, and jackal.  Entrance to the protected area is limited.   Most of the desert camps and lodges are just outside the actual Wadi Rum but they are members of The Friends of Wadi Rum who are “ committed to the concept of Wadi Rum as a place for responsible, intentional individuals seeking meaningful, transformative experiences through time spent in our beautiful desert.”   That is a tall order to fill.  Hot air balloon rides and camel races are fun but probably not transformative.

Terry Clark, Jan Walker, and Mary Clark

Yet, a mere 24 hours near the grandeur of Wadi Rum connected us with an ancient desert life that is rapidly disappearing.  The wind blown silence of the camel ride,  tea around a jolly campfire, and the night protection of tightly woven tents gave  just a hint of that world – a world  Lawrence of Arabia would still recognize – and a far more meaningful experience than a night in a luxury resort.

Captain’s Desert Camp

Leave a Comment

What is There To Do in Greenville, Texas?

Greenville’s Art Deco Municipal Auditorium

Greenville has several claims to fame – Audie Murphy, black soil, cotton history, and most recently L-3 Communications, formerly E-Systems.  For  years, I was only familiar with the I-30 corridor  and the football stadium for high school soccer games.   But upon closer inspection, Greenville has some charming places to shop and dine.

Outside patio at Landon’s Winery

Downtown has been greatly enhanced by two wineries, including  Landon Winery, the 10th largest production winery in Texas.  Its bottles fill a wall of this former Kress building and the City Bistro Restaurant spreads out in the remaining area.  The menu is Italian which can be enjoyed inside or alfresco on the large patio.  The more laid back  Blue Armadillo Winery has portable chairs so a group of friends can easily gather round tables and enjoy the live music scene each Friday and Saturday.  With a motto like “Wine a little, you’ll feel better”, how can you lose.

Also downtown is the Art Deco Municipal Auditorium which I drove past before recognizing.  In this 1938 building, the Dallas Orchestra performs three times a year, its only location outside of the Metroplex.  The 1700 seat space is also home to the Kenneth Threadgill series. And it boasts of a performance by Elvis Presley when the jail was actually below the auditorium and prisoners could be heard cheering him on.  Don’t be misled by the City offices which are also housed here.  The performance hall is upstairs and towards the rear.

Sit, Relax, Gossip

In its same location since 1941, C.B.’s Sandwich Shop is really a great hamburger joint. The owner’s father and uncle passed the business down to him.  When asked if the recipe had changed over the last 70 years, he replied, “Why?”  Fortunately for patrons, the Sandwich Shop continues to serves great burgers and fries to a loyal and friendly population, some of whom remember when burgers sold for 25 cents.

After years of passing this by, I finally visited The Audie Murphy and American Cotton Museum.  It’s an interesting combination but both appropriate for Greenville.  The City was once home to the world’s largest inland cotton press that could compress 2076 bales in a day – a record that has not been surpassed.  Children will enjoy the different colors of natural cotton and the many products, such as ice cream and peanut butter, that contain cotton oil.  Today, only one large cotton farmer remains in Hunt county but Greenville will always be grateful for its historical presence.

Audie Murphy’s WWII medals

On the Audie Murphy side of the museum, the most decorated veteran of World War II is honored as well as veterans from the Civil War to the Iraq conflict.  Murphy, a Hunt County native,  was fearless in war as well as in his later movie star days.   The museum still gets international visitors from towns Murphy liberated in WWII.  It’s a great history lesson for kids and adults.

Naot Shoes atThe Calico Cat
Colorful socks at The Calico Cat

From the outside,  Uptown Forum appears to be another historic building.  But the inside is beautifully restored and houses something for everyone.  Guys will be immediately pulled to the Greenville Hobby Depot, an increasingly rare railroad hobby shop.  Women of all ages are drawn to The Calico Cat, a contemporary clothing and gift shop.  I was happy to discover their large collection of Israeli Naot shoes, not an easy brand to find.  Also downstairs is Millie’s Kitchen that promotes its freshly made sandwiches and salads.  Her Kitchen Sampler is the most popular dish.  This is well worth a stop.

Casa Vieja

A true hidden gem is Casa Vieja, opened in 1996 by Raul Campos, a chef trained at The Mansion in Dallas, who fuses his Jalisco, Mexico heritage with Southwest cuisine.  In this very modest house, one can enjoy Red Snapper a la Veracrusana, Shrimp a la Diablo and even Sea Bass or Steak Ranchero.  The chips are served with three sauces – black bean, tomato and tomatillo – and a mango, raspberry creme brulee awaits your dessert order.  What a nice fusion surprise.

16 foot Calcutta Cane Pole

Other notable stops include Ernie’s BBQ, a Greenville staple for generations, and the numerous antique stores downtown, some with their own ghost stories.  A must destination for anglers is the 54 year old  Sabine Bait and Tackle Shop south of town which carries a large selection of bait and hooks as well as hard-to-find fishing poles such as the 16 foot Calcutta Cane Pole made in Vietnam.  All of this makes it well worth pulling off  Interstate 30 for a look at Greenville.

Leave a Comment


 Palm Sunday has always been a favorite service, especially for children.  It celebrates the story of Jesus unexpectedly entering Jerusalem on a donkey.  His followers hurried to line the streets and waived branches and laid coats before him.  Traditionally, palms have represented triumph and victory and have become associated with this Sunday.  Many churches use processions into or around the church to recreate Jesus’ path through Jerusalem.  I had the opportunity of experiencing Palm Sunday where it all began.  

Our Palm Sunday actually started in Bethlehem, at the Church of the Holy Nativity.  Occasionally, the church calendar for the Orthodox and the Latin churches are aligned, meaning Palm Sunday and Easter are on the same days.  This caused  services to be staggered that day so all could enjoy their palm processions.

As we awaited the start of the Greek Orthodox service, I watched the young altar boys dressed in purple jab at each other as kids will do universally.  But soon the chanting began and the long procession slowly circled the church led by the priests, incense burners, acolytes, banners, choir, and then church members, all carrying palms or olive tree branches.  That service would be followed by the Armenian rites.  A separate space serves the Latin church as the Roman Catholics are called in Israel.

Later that day, we crossed back through the Security Wall and saw many Bethlehem residents hurrying to participate in the Palm Sunday processions in Jerusalem.  Because of the crowds, our cab driver could only drop us off several blocks from the start of the Latin parade on the Mount of Olives.  The atmosphere was surprisingly jovial and international.  While we waited, local children peddled palms and olive branches. Spontaneous songs broke out from the diverse groups around us.

I grabbed one of my sisters-in-law and we started walking up the street.  “Where are you from?”, we asked many.  Poland.  The Philippines.  France.  Korea.   Jerusalem. The Maldives. Russia.  Spain.  There were American Mormon teenagers from Nevada,  Girl Scouts,  Boy Scouts,  and a tour group with identifying green kerchiefs.  Gimme hats indicated other tours – “G&S Travel” or “Shepherd’s Since 1965″.  A large contingency hailed from Timor Leste – a sliver of a country near Indonesia that is 96% Catholic and which has only recently begun recovery from years of wars.  All smiled broadly as we snapped their pictures.

The procession began quietly with a few Israeli soldiers leading the way.  But it soon reflected the diversity within the greater world of Christianity.  Six foot palms marked the beat with the drums in a large group from Africa.  Praise songs and dirges were piped out of speakers held by pilgrims.  Franciscan monks, with Crocodile Dundee hats,  carried songbooks and were accompanied by tambourines and guitars.   An elderly woman wearing a hat displaying her mother’s picture  was pushed in her wheel chair.  There were priests by the dozens and nuns of all colors.   At times, it felt like a small town parade.

In the past, a person playing Jesus would ride a donkey at the end.  But, today, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Foud Twal, brought up the rear.  In his resplendent pink robes and gold-rimmed sunglasses, Twal, also the Archbishop of Jordan, carried only a small olive branch.   Those on the sidelines could join the procession at any time as it descended from the Mount of Olives, entered through Jerusalem’s Lions gate, and terminated at the Church of Sainte Anne.  Israeli soldiers provided a rear guard.

The Catholic procession was not the only one that day.  The Greek Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox schedule services in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as do the Armenian and Syrian Orthodox.   From 1 to 6 a.m. on Palm Sunday, Ethiopian Orthodox members play drums, cymbals and tambourines and celebrate Mass.  We also saw the last of a procession outside Old Jerusalem’s wall that was just ending at 5 p.m.

Palm Sunday signals the beginning of Holy Week for millions of Christians.  The next few days are always  more somber and reflective.  But on that beautiful Sunday afternoon in Jerusalem, the mood was light, the music varied, and the atmosphere inclusive.   For that moment, the divisions in Christianity seemed healed.

Leave a Comment

Clint Frakes – Bringing a Spiritual Link to Environmental Consciousness

Clint Frakes

Clint Frakes’ web site promotes his longevity as a tour guide in Sedona, Arizona.   “Guiding pilgrims on Turtle Island sacred sites since 1993” is an offer to explore some important North American locations.   Seekers come to him for spiritual guidance, others for Native American history in the area, and all for his breadth of knowledge.  This gentle man sees life as a published poet would – in observations of the general world made succinct – and with eyes trained by Native Americans.

Clint grew up in Detroit, Michigan.  But after attending Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, Clint was adopted in adulthood by a Lakota (Sioux) family who provided him a “simple spiritual way to guide his life.”  He became a man of prayer and uses Native American practices daily.  On his tour, Clint was able to connect us to the centuries old respect local tribes have for the natural world.

Airport Mesa

At our first stop on Airport Mesa, we meditated on the red rock, considered a wisdom keeper.  Clint quietly educated us.  All things that have transpired from the beginning to now are downloaded into stones – the same silicon used in Silicon Valley.  We only needed to increase our capacity to receive this wisdom of the past.

Yerba Santa

As we walked the paths in the area, Clint revealed the healing properties of indigenous plants – long known by Native Americans.  The plant, Mormon Tea, is good for colds and sinus headaches.  Manzanita helps bladder infections.  Use the Banana Yucca for joint inflamation and prickly pear for scorpion bites.  Red Root dissolves cysts.  But the most powerful is Yerba Santa, used as a lung expectorant and also a treatment for depression.  Since my asthma had acted up in the dust, I wanted to try this one.  Clint advised me to ask permission of the plant to take some leaves and to make an offering.  We poured water on the plant, broke off leaves, and thanked it for its generosity – a surprisingly satisfying gesture.

Kachina rock formation in Boynton Canyon

Boynton Canyon, the Garden of Eden of the Yavapai-Apache people,  was our next stop.  Their legend describes man as emerging from this canyon. But first was Kamalpukwia, the “Old Lady White Stone” who was impregnated by the sun.  The nearby “ Kachina Rock” formation resembles this pregnant woman who later gives birth – by one account to twin boys and by another to a girl – from which all tribes came.  Today, there are many coming home ceremonies in the Sedona area by various Native American tribes  – of the same kind of desire to return to Jerusalem by the Jewish tribes.

Our last experience with Clint involved a Lakota Medicine Wheel he had constructed on a well-hidden lot. This formation is the “underpinning of all ceremonies”, a template for the story of creation.   Each of the 405 stones in the circle represents one earth medicine. Vertical and horizontal lines of stones cross within and a second circle in the middle signifies the Eye of God or one who unites.   The inner formation resembles a Jerusalem cross.

Any spiritual belief can be incorporated into the Medicine Wheel experience.  The four quarters can represent the four seasons, directions or  Gospels.  The first instruction was to take a concern or prayer. We then stepped into the circle from the east, where life begins,  and stated “all my relations” to honor all things as our brothers and sisters.  As we circled three (usually four) times, our prayers were energized by the physical movement and Clint’s singing.  After each of us chose a site to sit inside the circle, Clint explained the meanings of our selections. My quarter was associated with guardian angels, an image I liked a lot.  We exited the circle next to where we began and gave each other a traditional embrace.

Lakota Medicine Wheel 

The Lakotas believe the web of the wheel holds the earth together and man is essential to the balance of earth.  We’re part of the eco-system that must support the natural world around us as that world sustains us.  Our brief encounter with the way Lakotas acknowledge this web helped us appreciate the strong connection between nature and Native Americans – a link that our country’s environmental  consciousness is finally recognizing as essential to the survival of man.  And as a man with a foot in both worlds, Clint Frakes was the perfect guide to bring the two together.

Leave a Comment

Will The Real Sedona, Arizona Please Stand Up?

Tourists visit Sedona, Arizona for as many reasons as there are strata in the surrounding canyon walls – made beautiful by the collision of the Sonoran Desert with the Colorado Plateau.  Until recently,  Sedona’s history was not that different from other desert towns.  Native Americans respected the area as a site for sacred ceremonies and it played a key role in the story of the beginning of man through the Kachina woman in Yavapai/Apache lore.  Coronado and his conquistadores mapped the area in the 1500’s.    Pioneer farmers planted orchards near the waters and ranchers spread out their cattle and sheep.  It was quietly discovered by retirees and some artists in the 1950’s and 60’s including Max Ernst.   But in 1978, the attitude and crowd changed.

One of several psychics

Paige Bryant is a well known psychic who lived in Sedona in the late 70’s and 80’s.  She felt  strong energy sources emanating from below and above the earth – cosmic portals.   Her description of four vortexes of electromagnetic energy began to draw spiritual tourists.  By 1987, Sedona was one of the hosts for the Harmonic Convergence, the world’s first globally synchronized meditation or human intention for the good of the planet.

Holy Cross Catholic Chapel

Soon the Chamber of Commerce, hotels, and restaurants saw the potential in a united presentation of the energy sources in Sedona.   On their maps, small tornado vortex forms hover over Bryant’s sites of Boynton Canyon, Cathedral Rock, Airport Mesa, and Bell Rock.  Crystal shops and yoga tours followed.  The phone books now lists 11 local psychics who can help your sensitivities.

By the 1990’s, the attraction of Sedona’s beauty could no longer be contained.  Larger resort companies such as Hyatt began buying out ranching families and turning the desert into sun retreats with golf and other amenities.  Time shares proliferated.   More retirees came as did movie stars.   And, of course, the service population grew with the tourist industry although most of those employees must commute from nearby towns with a lower cost of housing.  The average cost of a home in Sedona is $394,000.

Businesses along the main drag reflect the hodge-podge offerings for the two million tourists visiting this town of 12,000 inhabitants each year.  Jeep Rentals compete with Crystal Magic for customers.  Hot Yoga and Canyon Outfitters appeal to different crowds.  Cashing in on a more recent industry, the Sedona Wedding Studio vies for the destination couples.

Buddhist Stupa
Buddhist Rock Cairn

The religious world is just as mixed.    A variety of Baptist churches, a single Cowboy Church and the usual list of mainline Protestant denominations compete with Mormons, the area’s largest group.  The stunning Holy Cross Catholic chapel,  designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright,  peaks out between two large red rock towers,  rumored to also be a vortex site.  And the laid back crowd is treated to a rare, western Buddhist Stupa, considered to be the living presence of the Budha and to have healing powers.  Its affect is reflected in the many Buddhist rock cairns built on and added to the trails of the area.

The result of this cauldron of interests is something for everyone.   Hikers happily choose from a maze of trails in and out of the red canyons.  Meditators easily find a quiet spot  to inhale earth’s energy. More sedentary  adventurers ride in pink jeeps that haul them up to mesa tops for a full 360 degree view of the geological wonder.   In the mornings, hot air balloons linger above.  Golfers soak in the clear air and temperate climate for months of playing time.  And, everyone seems to pull off the roads in the late afternoon to take in one more glorious sunset.

Sunset in Sedona

Sedona’s Community Plan acknowledges the challenge of maintaining local character and quality of life while ensuring a quality experience for the visitors.  The balance is delicate,  especially at high season.  But Sedona’s been dealt an amazing hand of light, air, and beauty that will continue to draw crowds.  And whether it’s spiritual solace or spa soaks, Sedona will deliver – as it always has.

Leave a Comment

What Is There To do in Commerce and Cooper, Texas?

 Planetarium on the campus of Texas A&M University, Commerce

The first major sight of Commerce from the north, south, and west is the campus of Texas A&M University at Commerce. The twelve story Whitley Hall is the tallest structure between Dallas and Texarkana.  This 123 year old school of almost 10,000 students has undergone major construction and revision in the last ten years and has become a welcoming, vibrant campus. It is the fastest growing university in the Texas A&M system.   Much of the activity in town is centered around the campus. Here are some suggestions for your visit there and in nearby Cooper.

The Texas A&M Planetarium on campus.  Offering weekly shows, the planetarium helps connect this little spot of Texas with the universe out there.  Comfortable chairs recline and allow star viewing without a stiff neck.  A professor often appears at the end of the programs for follow up questions and comments.  It’s a deal for students and visitors.  If you’re really lucky, there is occasional public viewing  at the nearby Observatory.

Menu at Izzy’s Cakes and Bistro

Izzy’s Cakes and Bistro. Don’t be fooled by the name.  The fare here is not limited to their lovely cakes.  Just across the street from campus is this surprisingly diverse bakery that serves a nice assortment of soups, salads, and sandwiches in addition to their sweet offerings.  The daily soup specials are made with fresh herbs and cheese.

Panda Chinese Restaurant downtown.   Billed as “Fine Chinese Cuisine”, it is, at last, a Chinese restaurant without a buffet.  This means all dishes are freshly made and the choices almost limitless.  We shared several dishes including one of my favorites, Mu Shu Pork.  You can even have Tsing Tao beer with the your meal.

Northeast Texas Children’s Museum

Northeast Texas Children’s Museum on campus.   It’s very unusual to have a children’s museum in such a small town.  Visiting children can push their own grocery cart, climb into a space ship, pull a bubble up around them, explore a tipi, or try their hand at hieroglyphics.  Area schools send buses of kids for special science or health programs.  The many activities fill the common area of a former dormitory that can hold and entertain a lot of children.

The Commerce Public Library downtown.  A stop at the local library gives you two for one – a fully stocked library amidst a 100 year old former post office.  There’s a large selection of historical archives downstairs.  It’s owned by the Commerce Friends of the Library rather than the City and serves several smaller communities.  Check out all of the architectural ornaments remaining from its post office days

KETR radio station on campus.  For a town of 9200 to have available a 100,000 watt radio station is unusual and impressive.  Owned by Texas A&M University, KETR started in 1975 and was greatly expanded in the 1980’s.  Today, it hosts national programs such as “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition” but has wonderful evening music programs centered around Texas Music Artists, Latin Jazz, and Blue Grass.  It also features locals for political and cultural discussion.  Full Disclosure- it carries my radio show, Mary Clark, Traveler

Down the Road from Commerce on the way to Paris is small Cooper, Texas which drops a visitor into a turn of the century East Texas town.  Most people take the bypass around but there are some reasons to linger.

Soda Fountain at Miller’s Pharmacy
Menu at Miller’s Pharmacy

Miller’s Pharmacy  drug store downtown is known far and wide for having an old fashioned soda fountain.  This translates into “real” shakes and malts.  Mabel Wheat still greets you after 60 years in the same location.

Elias Richa, Owner of Little Chef
Little Chef Restaurant

A newcomer to the Cooper is the Little Chef Restaurant on West Dallas Street, a transplant from the Metroplex.  The owner, Elias Richa, got tired of the big city life and brought his restaurant to Cooper.  The menu is ambitious and offers a wonderful assortment of omelettes for the breakfast and brunch crowd as well as sandwiches and meals at lunch and dinner.

Cooper Automatic Gas

An old fashioned gas station experience is available at Cooper Automatic Gas and the Delta County Museum is just down Dallas street. On the square are many more restaurants than expected – Jalapeno’s Mexican Grill, the Pizza Factory and Burgers & Beans.

Leave a Comment

From Serbia to Paris, Texas via a Concentration Camp

This is part of a series of occasional articles about individuals who have traveled to Lamar County to live.

Paul Bayer’s journey to Paris began as World War II wound down in Eastern Europe and with a  grandmother who saved his life more than once.  Paul was born on November 2, 1941 into an upper crust family who owned 100 acres of land in what was then St Georgen, Serbia.  Germans had settled in this area after the break- up of the  Ottoman Empire 200 years before.  With high producing farms, it was a tidy, industrious enclave of what would later become Yugoslavia.  When WWII started, Paul’s father was conscripted into the German army. But the family’s real travails began as the war ended and  Yugoslav guerillas arrived and began moving German speaking citizens around.

In 1945, Paul’s mother was sent to a work camp on the Romanian border.  She did not to see her parents or children for three years.  Their farm was given to a Slavik family.   Paul and his sisters were placed in a concentration camp of 28,000 where his maternal grandmother, Anna Nothof,  used her Red Cross training to treat the sick.   Thin soup and bread barely kept them alive.  Cow dung was searched for undigested corn kernels to clean, grind and eat.  Kept in the basement at night, the children’s shirts were inspected each morning for lice.  When Paul and his sister came down with diphtheria, his grandmother was able to obtain the toxin injection to save them.  Paul also survived typhus.  But in the first winter, his paternal grandmother died of starvation as did his great grandmother and one-third of the camp. 

When packages from relatives in America were cut off in 1947, Anna realized she and her husband would have to escape with their seven grandchildren in order to survive.  After bribing a sentry guard, they set out on September 12th at 2:00 AM  to walk to the Hungarian border, about 50 miles away.

The journey took two months and three days.  They were caught twice and returned to camps.   While on the run, Paul remembers sitting inside corn sheaves during the day and being admonished to be quiet while it was light.   His grandmother cut pieces of corn stalk for the kids to suck out moisture.  Like a mother bird, she would also chew hard food until it was soft and feed it to the children. 

They survived by the kindness of strangers as Anna knocked on doors at night and begged for food.  Finally, in Linz, Austria, they were reunited with Paul’s parents.  Because of malnutrition, Paul had no hair and his head was painted with iodine, causing the new hair to be red.  The family lived in a dance hall’s washroom for men before immigrating to Canada in 1950.  Paul was nine years old.

In Canada, the Bayer family first hired out to work on a tobacco farm but gradually accumulated a thousand acres and 10,000 hogs in Kitchener, Ontario, a town with a long German history.  Paul married Elizabeth Bayer and they had four children.  But the snow depressed him and the farming regulations were stifling. 

When a realtor named Kenn Justice came up north with stories of $1,000 an acre land in Texas,  Paul was interested as were thirteen other Canadians. They looked at Vinita, OK, Dalhart and Paris and he chose Lamar County.  In 1983,  the year the Bayer family moved to Paris, temperatures were below freezing for 13 straight days.  After years of Canadian winters, Paul wore short sleeves and was amused at our discomfort.  

Paul and his family prospered in Texas even if the promised two crops didn’t materialize.  He serves on the Farm Bureau board and has become accustomed to our more laid back approach.  “ What’s the advantage of being the richest man in the graveyard,” he quips.  

Paul Bayer’s story is unusual for our town.  He survived a concentration camp because of his grandmother’s resourcefulness and determination, journeyed across two continents and an ocean , and finally hung up his hat in Lamar County.   He can appreciate our quiet, peaceful life more than most and can help us all do the same. 

Leave a Comment

Jordan’s Desert Slowly Reveals History of Petra

Treasury at Petra

I well remember the first photos I saw of the ruins of the rose city of Petra, reflecting a two thousand year old Nabataean culture in Jordan’s desert.  The most magnificent picture was of The Treasury, delicately carved into the sandstone, appearing to be the facade of a Greek temple.  It looked mysteriously deserted.  Directors of the movie, “Indian Jones and the Last Crusade”, filmed portions of the ruins and it was soon the major tourist destination in Jordan.

Around 312 BCE.,  Petra was selected as the capital of the Nabataeans, an Arab tribe that catered to caravans passing through the desert.    These early lumbering modes of transportation contained up to 100 people and 1,000 camels and carried the era’s most precious commodity – spices –  including the Biblical frankincense.  They  needed a “truck stop” that could protect the traders and water the animals.  To provide this,  the Nabataeans developed an hydraulic engineering system that diverted swollen winter waters, pumped water along stone pipes through the canyon and created areas of conservation.   Following the adage “if you build it, they will come”, the caravan routes soon included Petra on their maps and its residents became wealthy.

First glimpse of the Treasury from the siq

Petra’s history plays out in the entry siq, a narrow canyon that follows the flow of the water that created it, past carvings of camel caravans in the wavy red and brown sandstone walls,  and along chariot tracks from the  original Roman stones paving the pathway.  We first stumbled our way down this road by moonlight to the Treasury to enjoy an evening presentation of local Bedouin flute music amid candle-lit luminares – “a downright fairy-tale magical experience” as described in our itinerary.   Except for the ambulance tucked into one corner, the dark scene was ancient.

Carving of camel feet
Entry Siq

By daylight, the entry gorge was even more spectacular with twists and turns and overhanging canyon walls. It was first known as the “via sacra” or sacred way with no animal sacrifices allowed. Tombs were tucked into the walls, including one of a 27 year old with an inscription, “His death caused everlasting pain to his mother” – a pain we could still feel.  Wheels from horse drawn carriages loudly clanged by us over the stones carrying tourists deeper into the ruins.  Around the corner from the Treasury, the canyon opened up to a treasure trove of archaeological finds.

Roman temple

Roman columns

Theater cut in rock

In 64 BCE, the Roman General Pompey conquered the popular Petra.  Even Emperor Hadrian visited the site.  And since Romans built wherever they went, an open colonnaded street spread before us as we exited the siq.  Royal and common tombs were carved high above the valley floor.  An original Nebataean theater, cut in rock and enlarged by the Romans to 34 rows, had held 10,000 people – a significant chunk of the 35,000 who lived here.

Floor Mosaics from Byzantine Church

In 1990, the American Kenneth Russell uncovered the next layer of history, a Byzantine church dating to 400 CE.  After Christianity was established as Rome’s state religion,  Petra supported a bishop and as many as 12 churches.  At Russell’s church, perfectly intact floor mosaics gave glimpses of everyday life including animals, plants, and shepherds.  Stones from the Roman buildings were reused for the church – early recycling.  And a pile of 150 papyrus rolls found in the church brought that era to life with information on marriage and divorce contracts, references to tribes, and decisions about land ownership.

Our guide, a former archeologist, explained earthquakes caused the city to decline.  At its peek, the Petra area was 70 square miles but today, only 1% has been excavated.  Universities and countries around the world are funding and manning the search for more ruins.

“Roman Centurions”
Surveying rock movement

Jordan is trying to balance the need for tourist largesse and protecting the World Heritage Site.  Other than the entry fee, visitors can spend money on horse, camel or carriage rides, pictures with costumed Roman centurions, guides, food, drink, or post cards and jewelry sold by children and Bedouin women.  But we also saw archeological digs and a scientist monitoring the movement of an overhead rock in the siq to protect tourists below.  Petra is no longer deserted but the excitement now is in what remains to be discovered. – a ruin that just keeps on giving.

Leave a Comment