Monthly Archives: August 2009

Landscape: Byron’s Chillon

“Eternal Spirit of the chainless Mind! / Brightest in dungeons, Liberty! Thou art: / For there thy habitation is the heart—” –Lord Byron, from The Prisoner of Chillon

Castle ChillonEven though Switzerland’s Château Chillon has been occupied since the Bronze Age (literally!), it is probably most famous in modern times because Lord Byron wrote a poem about the location after he visited it with Percy Shelley in 1816. Byron became fascinated with the legend of François Bonivard (1496-1570), who was kept as a prisoner in Chillon’s dungeon from 1530-1536. Byron wrote a great Romantic poem on the topic called “The Prisoner of Chillon.” Bonivard was a priest, but he had democratic sentiments, so he was thrown in the Chillon dungeon by Duke Charles III of Savoy. Bonivard wasn’t released until the Bernese took power of this area. Byron’s poem explores the themes of revolution, solitary confinement, and the freedom of the mind.

Château Chillon is just a few kilometers from Montreaux (site of famous jazz festival), and when my friend Hutch and I drove up, this steamer was dropping off visitors on Lake Geneva’s craggy shore.

Boat on Geneva

Byron likely rowed up to the castle, and from a distance, Château Chillon would have been a spectacular sight across the water. The castle is built near the shore, with a bridge connecting it to the land. At one time, guards staged themselves on lookout from the castle’s towers, where they could ward of unwanted visitors with arrows and firebombs.

castle from distance

Of course, we had to go down to the dungeon. From its barred windows, Lake Geneva looked pretty sultry:

Chillon barred windows

For a dorky literary tourist like me, seeing Byron’s name etched in the castle’s walls was definitely a highlight:

Byrons name at chillon

The details:
Château Chillon / Foundation du Château de Chillon
21 avenue de Chillon
CH-1820 Veytaux-Montreaux
www.chillon.ch

Literature: Levine’s The Blue Notebook

“All that is left of me is ink.”
–Batuk, in James A. Levine’s The Blue Notebook

Title: The Blue Notebook // Author: James A. Levine // Publisher: Spiegel & Grau // Pub Date: July 2009

The Blue NotebookBesides reading a steady stream of British Romantic verse (necessary, I justify, for my recent Wordsworth adventure), I’ve also managed to squeeze in a few new fiction and nonfiction books. One I’d describe as a crushing-moving-beautiful-chilling story. It’s Dr. James A. Levine’s The Blue Notebook. This is a first book for Levine, who is also a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, a scientific advisor to the US Gov, and a topical expert who is routinely interviewed for TV shows, magazines, and newspapers. Let’s just say this guy’s smart and talented. And as a writer, he’s proven that he’s no fish out of water. In The Blue Notebook, Levine tells the story of a fifteen-year-old girl named Batuk, who is taken from rural India by her own father and sold into a life of sexual slavery in Mumbai. Batuk writes her story in a notebook as she is held captive in Mumbai’s “Street of Cages,” and Levine manages to channel her words so successfully that the voice of The Blue Notebook is—powerfully and hauntingly—her own.

The subject matter of this book is difficult and upsetting, but Levine shows great courage in telling it. While once touring the slums of Mumbai with a UN officer and a policeman, Levine witnessed first-hand the atrocities of child prostitution and saw one young girl—the inspiration for this story—writing in a notebook. The Blue Notebook will shock those who are unaware of this life, and others will struggle under the emotional weight of it. But this is a story that needs to be told until those like Levine’s Batuk are no longer in a position to tell it.

Dr. Levine is donating all of the US proceeds from The Blue Notebook to the international and national centers for missing and exploited children.

To read my less chatty and more in-depth review of The Blue Notebook on the About.com Contemporary Literature site, click here.

Photo credit: Spiegel & Grau.

Day 8: Wordsworth Alpine Adventure

Italian Trail SignsFinal Day. Well, I made it to Como, Italy—but not walking the entire distance from Chamonix, France as William Wordsworth and his friend Robert Jones did in 1790. I hopped on trains, busses, and boats in order to reach my final destination, and while all of this was good and fun, I’m disappointed to report that long-distance walking trails seem to be a thing of the past in northern Italy. My through-route became patchy after I crossed the Simplon Pass from Switzerland into Italy, but several sections of footpaths through France and Switzerland were simply unforgettable. The Col de Baume and the Col de la Forclaz stretches from Chamonix to Martigny were brilliant, as was the Simplon Pass (the absolute highlight of this journey).

Once I got to Como, I decided that I’d go out exploring on foot, even though I knew that I wasn’t able to walk a long distance to or fro. I picked a day route straight from Como’s city center, and it turned out to be an urban adventure through some side streets:

Urban Trail

The footpath led up some steep switchbacks to the town of Brunate, which sits high above Como on a hill. A funicolare (cable car) also runs from Como to Brunate, and one of the footpaths zigzags right underneath it. I suppose lots of people take the funicolare up to get a glimpse, as I did, of Como from this scenic spot:

Como From Above

From Brunate, a fantastic woodsy trail continued at a gentle slope all the way to the summit of Montepiatto. I didn’t go all the way to Montepiatto’s summit, but instead took a sidetrip to another interesting natural feature called the Pietra Nariola. Basically, this was a big boulder you could stand upon and get the same view of Como as the one above.

Wooded Trail

I made it back to Como in time to do a little lounging around at the Villa Olmo pool…

Como Pool

…and the following morning, I took a train down to Milan station (below), where I connected to another train that took me back north to Switzerland and then west all the way home to Chamonix.

Milan Train Station

In eight days, I covered a distance of around 210 miles. I was able to explore the modern landscapes that prompted William Wordsworth to write some of the most inspired poetry in the English language. I came home with raw feet and with a greater understanding of how adventurous Wordsworth and Jones were…they walked for fourteen weeks, after all, and then took a ferry back across the English Channel, where they returned like good lads to their studies at Cambridge.

Note: this post is the final one in a series of posts about my recent attempt to retrace William Wordsworth’s footsteps from Chamonix, France to Como, Italy on the walking holiday the poet took with his friend Robert Jones in 1790.

Day 7: Wordsworth Alpine Adventure

“And Como! thou, a treasure whom the earth / Keeps to herself, confined as in a depth / Of Abyssinian privacy, I spake / Of thee, thy chestnut woods, and garden plots / Of Indian corn tended by dark-eyed maids…” –William Wordsworth, in The Prelude

William Wordsworth told his sister Dorothy in a letter that he and Robert Jones often traveled between twenty and thirty miles on foot each day during the European journey they took in 1790. Sometimes more. He wasn’t lying. As I researched their route, I became scared by this fact because I knew that I would try to do the same. They were hot-footing it through the Alps, and I didn’t know if I’d be able to keep up.

Locarno Train Station

I couldn’t. Once I crossed the Italian border, I’d mostly abandoned my dreams of walking the entire distance that Wordsworth and Jones had, mostly because footpaths have disappeared and superhighways have been paved in their place sometime within the past two hundred years. After the late night out in Locarno, I had no choice but to take a train or bus to Como, my final destination for this portion of the journey. The train proved to be the best option.

Italian Train

The Italian trains have a retro-cool appeal, don’t they? Although I had spent the previous day traveling by bus and boat to Locarno, this day’s train ride to Como was much more simple. However, I showed up in Como in the muggy summer heat—temperature was around 90-degrees Fahrenheit—and didn’t know where I would stay the night.

Del Duca

My accommodation search took much longer than the train ride, but I settled on a super-tiny room in the Albergio Del Duca, which overlooks the brilliant Del Duca piazza. This day turned into one of those days on which the reality of travel can’t possibly keep up with the dream of it. I simply had to take a nap and then write in my journal and go out for pizza. It seemed like Wordsworth and Jones didn’t have a day like this in their fourteen-week adventure, but I needed to rest if I were to continue walking the following (and final) day…

Note: this post is one in a series of posts about my recent attempt to retrace William Wordsworth’s footsteps from Chamonix, France to Como, Italy on the walking holiday the poet took with his friend Robert Jones in 1790.

Day 6: Wordsworth Alpine Adventure

“Locarno! Spreading out in width like Heaven, / How dost thou cleave to the poetic heart, / Bask in the sunshine of the memory…” –William Wordsworth, in The Prelude (1850)

Traci J. Macnamara shakin bootyDay 6: Italian chaos continues. I begin the day by waiting three hours in Verbania for a bus that never comes, as walking paths between the cities I’m visiting have—for the most part—disappeared. I’ve managed to communicate to another woman waiting with her daughter that I’m bound for Locarno, a lake town on the Swiss side of the Swiss-Italian border. She somehow gets a phone number for the bus company and does some excited Italian screaming on her cell phone while her daughter and I watch on with wide eyes. Five minutes later, a bus arrives. She motions for me to follow her. I do. Another five minutes later, the bus pulls up to a marina, and she again beckons me to follow her—this time off the bus. I get the gist of her plan: we’ll take a boat to Locarno. For one reason or another, this woman and her daughter bail, but I have no other option, so I put on my bikini top and sit in the sun for another two hours waiting for this boat to arrive.

Initially, I didn’t feel particularly excited about traveling on Lake Maggiore like this until the boat was pulling up to the dock. But then once I was on the boat, the day’s worries dissolved, and I felt happy standing outside in the breeze:

Helvetia

I had thought that traveling by boat would be a way-too-touristy way to travel, but it ended up costing about the same price as a train, and we zig-zagged all along Lake Maggiore (for an three additional hours) stopping to drop off/pick up other passengers at these wonderful little lake towns along the way:

Lakes Towns

Just as we were arriving in Locarno, one of the Italian crew members invited me to a barbeque later that evening back on the boat with a wonderful group of people:

Helvetia BBQ

The evening turned out to be the most social of my trek. It began with dinner on the boat and ended with dancing the night away on the shores of Lake Maggiore (that’s me, shaking booty above, and crew members Donato and Simon below):

Crew

Locarno gave Wordsworth reason to “bask in the sunshine of…memory” in his life-poem, The Prelude. I, too, will remember this day spent getting to Locarno for a long time.

Locarno Night

Even if I wasn’t able to continue walking on foot through this part of Italy, as I had originally planned, I was thankful that modern transport got me to Locarno so that I could sit outside on the back deck of this boat, wishing only that I could have stayed there longer.

Note: this post is one in a series of posts about my recent attempt to retrace William Wordsworth’s footsteps from Chamonix, France to Como, Italy on the walking holiday the poet took with his friend Robert Jones in 1790.

Day 5: Wordsworth Alpine Adventure

Italy Shuttle BusDay 5: Italy. Chaos. Now it’s easy to look back on this journey and see that it started going downhill once I crossed the Swiss-Italian border, but while I was in the midst of it, I remained hopeful that I would be able to continue walking along Wordsworth’s path all the way from Chamonix, France to Como, Italy. I had crossed the Alps the day before in walking over the Simplon Pass, so the remainder of the journey was literally downhill, but the cross-country walking portion of it would end abruptly, as I found out on this day. First of all, I had to catch a bus to get across the border, which was tightly patrolled with a barbed wire fence and a guardrail that dropped off steeply into an impassible gorge. I planned to get into Domodossola, Italy and then continue walking south to the shores of Lago Maggiore, where I hoped to spend the night.

The bus dropped me off in Domodossola, a stinky Italian city full of Italian city things, which came as a shock after the previous day’s pine needles and alpine flowers. The streets spiderwebbed out from its center, and I headed towards the hills (Domodossola, from direction of Calvario):

Domodossola View

A wide stone footpath led me along a Sacro Monte, with the Stations of the Cross commemorated one by one in little buildings erected along the way. I peered into the windows of one of them to see life-sized statues depicting Jesus Christ being beaten down by his persecutors. This, I realized, is a normal thing to see in shrines built along mountain paths in Italy. Calvario ended up being a religious site built on top of a hill overlooking the city, and my footpath suddenly looked like this:

Italian Road

Right. There was no pedestrian path, per se, so whoever made my map had marked a road with a six-inch shoulder as the pedestrian path along which I was supposed to walk. I continued in this manner for a while and then figured out how to get on a bus to Mergozzo, the town where Wordsworth stayed on the shores of Lago Maggiore. Again, more scary walking on a road with no shoulder, and then I spotted the sign for a camping area:

Isolino

Since I didn’t know where I was going to stay, I thought a “camping village” might give me some options. But I arrived at the reception area and was turned away. No space, they told me—even for someone by herself with a bivouac sac. Instead of leaving, I snuck into the camping area to see what everyone was doing, thinking that maybe I’d be able to find a space for myself.

Maggiore Fishing

This “camping village” ended up being one of the wackiest Euro campsites I’ve ever seen. People were surely enjoying the beautiful views of Lago Maggiore (above), but they were also camping in RVs and cottages and in tents larger than the size of my studio apartment. Thousands of people. Seriously. This place had organized family programs in the evenings, and kids were running around in their skivvies while parents cooked sausages on the grill.

Maggiore Clouds

After doing a quick walk through, I realized that this isn’t the kind of place where you poach a camping spot with a bivy sac. In a melancholy mood, I walked out to the lakeshore and watched big dark clouds roll in. These clouds were beautiful, but bad, very bad. Seeing no other option, I walked in the dark along the road with the six-inch shoulder to find the little hotel where I slept for the night.

Note: this post is one in a series of posts about my recent attempt to retrace William Wordsworth’s footsteps from Chamonix, France to Como, Italy on the walking holiday the poet took with his friend Robert Jones in 1790.

Day 4: Worsdsworth Alpine Adventure

“…from the Vallais we had turned, and clomb / Along the Simplon’s steep and rugged road, / Following a band of muleteers, we reached / A halting-place, where all together took / Their noon-tide meal.” –William Wordsworth, in The Prelude (1850)

The Simplon SpittalDay 4: The Simplon Pass. This 33-kilometer path runs from Brig, Switzerland, over the top of the Simplon Pass, and through the Gondo Gorge to the little town of Gondo on the Swiss-Italian border. Wordsworth’s account of his Simplon Pass crossing is one of the most widely anthologized portions of his long autobiographical poem, The Prelude. It’s like Wordsworth has all of these expectations about how spectacular it will be to cross the Alps, and he has been anticipating crossing this pass for his entire journey. But he and his buddy Robert Jones lose their way, and because of the drizzly skies and otherwise misty, foggy conditions, they are a bit disoriented and don’t know where they are. So they cross the Alps without knowing it, and when a peasant confirms this, Wordsworth is bummed out in a major way. He launches into this heady reflection on the power of Imagination to shape our hopes and desires (“Imagination—here the Power so called / Through sad incompetence of human speech…”). This is all in The Prelude’s Book Sixth, if you want to read more; in fact, here’s a link to The Prelude on Bartleby.com, in case you want to read the whole poem (it’s really long).

Anyhow, that is the context for this portion of the journey. I woke up early in Brig and was nervous about whether or not I’d be able to do the entire distance in one day. The weather looked unsettled, and I found that I had lots of companions on the trail this day:

Simplon Pass Cow

The lower reaches of the trail—officially called the “Stockalperweg”—cross over brilliant alpine streams and through pastures. Cows, horses, and sheep were on the trail. Multi-colored alpine flowers were all over the place.

Simplon Bridge

By the time I was mid-way up the pass, it started to rain, so my summit view wasn’t too exciting. At the suggestion of a friend who had done some climbing in the Himalaya, I carried an umbrella, and was thankful for having done so:

Summit Simplon Pass

Just beyond the summit, I came upon the Alter Spittal, which is the place where Wordsworth and Jones rested and ate their “noon-tide meal.” This is where the pair got separated from their guide (also pictured top, right):

Spittal in Distance

A few hours of winding through alpine pastures and little hobbit villages later, I came upon the entrance to the Gondo Gorge, which is one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever walked through. In some places, the gorge is only about fifty yards wide, and the footpath winds over, under, and around the road on suspended bridges. A raging stream crashes and tumbles along below.

Gondo Gorge

One of the wackiest portions of this path actually went through Fort Gondo. I was scared to walk through this tight and dark tunnel, so I jogged it. I didn’t quite know what I was going through until I reached the exit and saw a huge military gun still set up for show purposes. Upon stepping outside the tunnel, I realized that at one point in history, the entire distance of this fort would have been armed with massive cannons aimed directly at the Italian border. Go Swiss Army.

Fort Gondo

After ten and a half hours of walking, I stumbled into the town of Gondo and spotted the Stockalperturm, which is the place where Wordsworth stayed the night more than 200 years ago:

Stockalperturm

When Wordsworth stayed here, this lodge was simply called the Stockalper, and it was more of a bare-bones traveler’s lodge. Today, the place has been renovated, and it is simply gorgeous inside. I stayed in one of the bunk-style dormitory beds, but there are also private rooms, and today’s Stockalperturm has an impressive gastro menu. I didn’t think twice about feasting heartily to celebrate such a brilliant day.

Check out today’s Stockalperturm at http://www.stockalperturm.ch/ (site is in German, but you’ll get the idea).

Note: this post is one in a series of posts about my recent attempt to retrace William Wordsworth’s footsteps from Chamonix, France to Como, Italy on the walking holiday the poet took with his friend Robert Jones in 1790.