Tuesday, November 6, 2018


 Užupis is one of the tiniest republics in the world. It's located in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, a city we visited in September. My first thought, when I recently read an article read about it, is that we might have missed this small “nation” of free spirits. Then I remembered the quirky little Bohemian neighborhood (1 sq. km.) with a population of 7,000 where we strolled along the cobblestone streets and returned to enjoy the quaint outdoor cafes. One out of seven of the residents are artists, which explains the abundance of sculptures,  colorful wall murals, and art galleries. 

When Vilnius (pop.575,000) finally received independence from Russia in the 1990s, a group of locals got together to form a republic—kind of tongue in cheek, but not really. Užupis is not formally recognized by any other government, however, it has become a source of pride in Vilnius and throughout Lithuania. From 1941, when the Soviet Union invaded Lithuania, there was heavy censorship and many writers and artists were imprisoned. After 1990 came Lithuanian independence and restoration--art and literature once again flourished, free of forced ideology. Since 2002, The Angel of Uzupis (sculptor, Romas Vilčiauskas), has stood in the main square blowing a trumpet, and sending a message to the world that artistic independence is back in Eastern Europe after many years of oppression.

The Užupis Constitution, written in several languages, is posted on
mirrored plaques along a wall for everyone to see. It was written in a few hours by Tomas Čepaitis and Romas Lileikis in 1998 at the Republic's Parliament Bar, where the government meetings still convene most Friday evenings. The day they wrote it, Tomas couldn't get hot water at his home which explains why one of the 41 clauses is: Everyone has the right to hot water....” Others include: “Everyone has a right to celebrate their birthday or not celebrate their birthday.-----Everyone has a right to die, but this is not an obligation.------Everyone has the right to understand.----- Everyone has the right to understand nothing.-----People have the right to live by the River Vilhele, while the River Vilhele has the right to flow past people.”


If I return to Vilnius again, it will be on April Fool's Day, or Užupis Independence Day, as locals call it. In addition to concerts and parades, this is the one day that travelers get their passports stamped as they cross the bridge into the Republic. They will also use the local (unofficial) currency and treat themselves to beer that flows from the water spout at the main square.

Thursday, October 25, 2018


The village of Bryńsk (formerly Bryńsk Kolonia) is located 173 km (107 miles) northwest of Warsaw, Poland. It's not a typical tourist destination—you could say it is “on the road less traveled.” However, when you are on a mission to find your roots, you may need to go to places that are out of the way and where little English is spoken.

This small village in northern Poland is where my grandmother, her siblings, and parents lived until they immigrated to the US in 1881. It was part of West Prussia and settled by Evangelic Germans after the third partition of Poland in 1795. Baptismal records indicate that my grandmother, Emma Nowak, and her siblings were baptized here. Most Germans fled Poland in the early 1900s. This village was almost completely destroyed by the Russians after World War II. The school, church and their home no longer exist. 

We recently spent some time in Warsaw and I was determined to make a side trip to Bryńsk (pop.700) to see with my own eyes where these ancestors came from. We had hoped to do it on our own, however, it quickly became clear that we were not going to get much accomplished without help. Fortunately, I was referred to a wonderful English speaking tour guide, Ula Modzelewska (Ula Warsaw Tours) who could drive us to the Lidzbark/Bryńsk area and spend the day with us.

Ula picked us up at 8 am. Our first stop was Lidzbark-Welski (pop. 8,500) where we visited the Evangelical and Catholic churches as well as two cemeteries. The town is on Lake Lidzbark and is a popular summer resort. However, it was quiet on this September day. We enjoyed a great homemade meal with meat, potatoes, and vegetables at Cabin Place—the only restaurant we could find open. 

It was about 3 pm when we left Lidzbark-Welski and headed south for the five-mile drive on the isolated, tree-lined road to Brynsk. The village is basically a straight line with about 150 homes on either side of the main street. It has one small grocery store, one Catholic church, one school, and a cemetery. This is the peaceful quiet area, surrounded by forests, where my ancestors decided to settle 150 years ago.

Ron, Michael, Susan
Our first stop was the Catholic church. Ula quickly scouted out a nearby neighbor who could open the church for us. She returned with Micheal Kwiatkowsky, the village councilman, who had a vintage skeleton key to the church and a smile on his face. He gave us a tour and told us about the church and the history of Bryńsk—all in Polish. Thankfully, Ula could interpret for us. She also made a video of the interview which she later sent to me. Michael generously shared part of his day with us, and after we left the church, he walked with us across the street to see the old Protestant cemetery. Unfortunately, there were no markings left on the gravestones or crosses. I had hoped that they would still be readable and I might find a tombstone with Nowak or Pikar written on it, but no such luck.

Michael said that his grandmother told him about the beautiful brick homes that the Germans lived in and how impressive Brńysk was in the 1800s. He then went on to tell us that they were all destroyed by the Russians after World War II.

In 1864, records indicate that there was a wooden evangelic church and school located in Bryńsk Kolonia—they no longer exist. The current Catholic church was built in 1909 as a Protestant church and converted to a Catholic church after the war. 

It was getting late and time for us to head back to Warsaw. We slowly drove down the main street one last time, and Ula stopped so I could take photos. I could have lingered longer, but it was time go. 

Thursday, October 4, 2018


In the medieval town square of Tallinn sits one of the oldest running pharmacies in all of Europe. The Old Town Hall Pharmacy, Raeapteek, has been in operation at the same location for over 600 years. Spanning over a period of 325 years and ten generations, it was run by the Burchart clan (1582-1911). The family maintained a tradition that the eldest son was always named Johann and studied to become a pharmacist.   

Today it is a popular tourist destination, not just to purchase medical supplies, but to peruse the wonderful small museum in a connecting room. It has are examples of medicine and pharmacy goods that have been sold for centuries as well as other antique artifacts, rarities, and curiosities. 

Historically, the pharmacy was also the place to go for medical advice, treatments, and spiritual assistance. A price list of pharmacy goods, dated 1695, gives an idea of what was sold in the Raeapteek during the Middle Ages: 54 different types of water, 25 fats, 32 balsams, 62 preserves, 128 different oils, and 71 medicinal teas. Also, on display are burnt bees, stallion hoofs, burnt hedgehogs, and dog feces that have been preserved in jars and used for medicinal purpose in previous times. 

The pharmacy was also popular as a meeting place where townspeople often stopped by for a popular glass of Claret. 
The medieval drink is made from Rhine wine, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, clove, mace, and saffron, and it can still be purchased at the pharmacy today.
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The Raeapteek is located opposite the Town Hall at #11. Open Monday-Saturday 10:00 to 18:00. Entrance is free.



Monday, August 13, 2018


Last May, we had lunch at a contemporary home that was built on a hill overlooking Lough Gill in Sligo County on the northwest coast of Ireland. The picturesque lough (Gaelic word for lake), surrounded by woodlands, is five miles long and one mile wide. The surrounding landscape looks much as it did 150 years ago when William Butler Yeats frequented the area to spend time with his grandparents. 

As we drove up the tree-lined driveway to the Broc House, we were greeted by Damien Brennan and his wife, Paula Gilvarry. They welcomed us into their home. We enjoyed looking at Damien's collection of Irish paintings, and the spectacular view of the Lough Gill through the floor-to-ceiling dining room windows. We also stepped outside to see the lush green landscape and to hear a story about the hens that provide them with fresh eggs daily. Damien's maternal family ancestors have lived and farmed on this property since the early 19th century.

We were here to dine and to learn about William Butler Yeats from Sligo's local authority and President of the Sligo Yeats Society, Damien Brennan. With a love for all things Yeats, he has chosen to share his passion and knowledge with visitors from all over the world as they pass through Sligo—often referred to as Yeats country. Lough Gill and Sligo county were the inspiration for many of Yeats famous writings making it a perfect setting for a Yeats Experience

Damien read to us on several occasions throughout the leisurely lunch that we shared with a tour group from the US. He was reading from a rather well-used Complete Works of W.B. Yeats. This old classic book appeared a bit worn and crumpled. I would guess that he could quote much of it from memory. As he explains it, he has a passion for Yeats and enjoys sharing it with others. His hope is that guests will leave with a desire to pick up a book about Yeats and learn more about him. Yeats was born in Dublin and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. 

There are 20 islands on Lough Gill, however, the most well-known is the Island of Innisfree—the subject of one of Yeats most popular poems. It was written in 1888 while he was in London and at a time when he was wishing to escape the city to the countryside. Although I find it difficult to understand much of his writings, I do appreciate this poem about Innisfree. Perhaps, because as a youth I also longed to leave the city and spend time at my parent's lake cabin whenever possible. 

"The Lake Isle of Innisfree"

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade. 

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow.
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings,
There midnights all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow.
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day,
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
                                W.B. Yeats, 1865-1939

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We first heard about the Yeats Experience on the PBS series: Samantha Brown's Places to Love - Ireland's Northwest Coast. Samantha interviewed Damien at the Broc House. It was so interesting that I sent him an email requesting a reservation for the one day we would be in the area—this was many months before our arrival. He responded immediately and said that he had a tour group scheduled for lunch on that day and that we could join them. We were delighted. It was one of the highlights of our month in Ireland. (Damien later told us that when Samantha arrived for the story she was accompanied by a large camera crew of seven and a drone that was equipped with a camera.) 

The Broc House is about five miles from Sligo. Taxi from Sligo is 10E.

Related Posts: A Vintage Walk in Dingle - July 14, 2018
                        Stone Fences & Walls of Ireland - June 27, 2018
                        Ireland: Nine Reason to Return - June 14, 2018

Tuesday, July 31, 2018



If you've passed by Broadway and Pacific Highway in downtown San Diego anytime recently, you've probably noticed a monumental 25-foot white sculpture sitting at the base of the newly opened Pacific Gate luxury residential towers.

This sculpture entitled, the Pacific Soul, is the work of internationally renowned Jaume Plensa. He is the recipient of numerous awards and his works can be found in galleries, museums, and outdoor spaces throughout the US, Europe, and Asia. The Crown Fountain, 2004, in Chicago's Millennium Park is one of his many famous projects in public places. Plensa currently resides and works in Barcelona, Spain.

The Pacific Soul is shaped like a crouching human body that is looking toward the nearby Pacific Ocean and is painted in a brilliant white color to reflect the west coast light. It was created with large stainless steel stylized characters from the Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Cyrillic, Arabic, Japanese, Chinese and Hindi alphabets—symbolizing the joining together of humanity through art. The elongated letters at the base give the appearance of roots. The project, commissioned by BOSA Development, opened in January 2018 and was over a year in the making.

Next time you pass by, take time to linger and enjoy this famous work of art that has raised the San Diego public art scene to a new level. 

“....I hope my sculpture will be an icon for the city, embracing the diverse community which is always changing yet always intrinsically connected to the ocean.”
                                                                   -Jaume Plensa

Saturday, July 14, 2018



The weather in Ireland is often rainy and cool, but not today, it was 70F and sunny, a perfect day for a walk in Dingle (pop. 2,000). We headed to the Tourist Information office to get a recommendation for nearby hikes. The woman at the desk immediately suggested a path along the water that started at the end of Coolen Street, a short walk away. It followed along Dingle Bay and then continued for miles on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. She also suggested a picnic and said that we could get our supplies at the Super Value across the street. It sounded perfect, and we were on our way.

I will refer to the hike as the Dingle Coast Walk, however, some call it the Lighthouse Walk. It passes by an intriguing brick tower called Hussy's Folly that dates back to 1845. It was built during the Great Famine as a means of providing employment for the poor. 

The tower and nearby beach are also popular sites to view dolphins and Fungi. Fungi is the resident Dingle dolphin that was first spotted by fishermen in 1983 when he was said to escort the fishing boats out to sea and then back again. He continues to be popular with visitors who often take boat tours to get a close-up view of the little guy and sometimes even try to swim with him. 

The path extends for miles beyond the lighthouse and tower and offers a view of the Lighthouse along the way. Ron returned to town at the lighthouse, however, I continued on. The views of the Atlantic Ocean, with its steep craggy black cliffs, became increasingly more spectacular. My goal was to reach the top of a distant cliff that appeared to be the end of the trail. I stopped a few times to sit on the boulders and take in the views of Kerry Peninsula and the lush green low mountain ranges across the way. I felt fortunate to have it all to myself. 

As I was walking back, I couldn't resist a walk down to a small deserted beach surrounded by cliffs and pointed rocks and boulders. The place was quiet today, but this will change soon as the summer season approaches. I stopped to collect some shells before continuing on. 

The return walk also offers an expansive view of the entrance to the Bay, and the Dingle Harbor that was one of Ireland's main trading posts in the 15th century. Today it is a major fishing port. 

The path on this walk crosses through private property; a common practice in much of Europe. The entryways to the pastures are narrow with steps up to prevent the livestock from passing through. The cows just look on and don't appear to be bothered by visitors. When I did some research on it later, I discovered that Ireland, unlike England and Scotland, has a restrictive policy and in most cases, the walker has no right to be there. For more information click here.

                                                          * * *
The harbor town of Dingle is the only town on the Dingle Peninsula and is the starting point of the famous Slea Head Coastal Drive. It is quite popular and advance reservations for tours and lodging during the peak summer months are almost essential. I booked Rory Brosnan's Dingle Slea Head Tour two months ahead, and it was a great tour. Unfortunately, the cruise to the Blanket Islands was sold out when we arrived—I wish that I had booked that one early as well.

Related Posts: Stone Fences & Walls of Ireland - June 27, 2018
                        Ireland: Nine Reasons to Return - June 14, 2018

Wednesday, June 27, 2018


Ireland is a beautiful country with lush green expanses of open countryside and farmland. Just below the surface of this lush green lies a thick layer of limestone. This Irish blue limestone is the source of the fascinating dry stone fences that can be found throughout the island, and are particularly abundant in the counties of Galway and Mayo on the west coast. 

It was one of our first days in western Ireland when we were driving along the northern shores of Galway Bay, that I began taking an interest in the fascinating patchwork quality of stone fences all around us. 

The ancient tradition of stone fences dates back nearly 4,000 years when stone walls extended over five square miles in the Ceide Fields of County Mayo. However, most of the fences date to the 1840s when land was redistributed and the stone walls defined the field and helped to clear the land at the same time.

The builders from each area had their own style. None are exactly the same. Some were put together loosely by farmers without much skill. They used stones lying around, irrespective of their size or shape—clearing the field at the same time as they were building boundaries. 

Others were built by skilled stonemasons who knew just how to pick the right stones and interlock them resulting in few or no gaps and extreme stability. Locals often know at a glance who built the wall by simply looking at the way the stones are placed.

One of the joys of my leisurely walks in Ireland was taking time to notice the delicate flowers, ferns, vines, and moss that grow out of the old craggy walls. Over time organic material has built up between the stones, allowing plants to take root, giving the walls an appearance of almost being alive—changing with the seasons and getting better with age—just like wine. 

There are many fascinating things about the Irish culture. However, I will always be impressed with the builders that seemed to have an innate ability to spot the right rock and then pile it in just the correct place so that the walls would be around long after they were gone. There is a saying in Ireland: “Stone walls last forever—and men don't."