Category Archives: Destinations

Vera: British Mystery Draws Us to Northumberland

Every corner of England looks enticing if you watch PBS and their imported shows from BBC and other British producers–particularly mystery shows. (mouse over map to see what county or area is featured.)


SHERLOCK, the contemporary take on Sherlock Holmes, teases us with images of today’s London in the VERY SHORT (3 episode) seasons.

SELFRIDGES, although the longer running series about a popular department store is not a mystery, it takes us through several decades of commercial London and cuts across various social levels.

INSPECTOR LEWIS (and its forerunner Inspector Morse) lures us to the charming university town of Oxford, west of London.

Cambridge England
Peterhouse, Cambridge England. Photographer A.D. Teasdale

GRANTCHESTER, with its hard-drinking, mystery solving, sexy young priest, does its best to lure us to rival university town Cambridge, north of London.

Yorkshire, England
A village in Yorkshire, England

DOWNTON ABBEY, another non-mystery show that has been seen by just about everyone, has just about everyone yearning to rent a manse in the green, green moors of Yorkshire in northern England.

LAST TANGO IN HALIFAX , a love story rather than a mystery, shows us a contemporary Yorkshire right in the middle of inland Yorkshire.

South Coast of England
The territory of Foyle’s War, along the English Chanel in the South of England.

FOYLE’S WAR takes us back in time to World War II and to the  south coast of England for more charming villages and bucolic scenes. Several counties were used as settings, including Sussex, Surrey, Dorset,, Hampshire and Kent.

DOC MARTIN ignites a passion for the rocky cliffs, green fields and flower-filled quaint villages of Cornwall in the southwest.

VERA

Northumberland
Northumberland Border

And now along comes the mystery series VERA, intent on dragging us all the way up northeast–almost to Scotland– to her stomping grounds in NorthumberlandAccording to the tourism folks, the show has done a terrific job of increasing the number of visitors to this chilly if scenic part of Britain.

I may be influenced by her wonderful first name :-), but Vera Stanhope, Detective Commissioner Investigator (or DCI as we fans call them) strikes me as one of the most interesting of all the English mystery solvers.

She is never outdoors without an overcoat and long wool scarf, and usually a waterproof hat. Indoors, she is rarely without a flagon of ale–unless more staid setting demands a cup of tea–either of which one would think would be needed to warm up after those windy forays outside.  Her somewhat frumpy middle age is rescued from plainess by big, soft, brown eyes.

Her demeanor is winning, going from sympathetically calling a suspect “luv” to barking insults at her crew if they don’t respond quickly enough to her commands. When she gets down to seriously questioning a bad guy, you know this is someone you would not want to mess with!

But about that constant coat and wool scarf–Northumberland is definitely not going to be a fun and sun vacation. So what is the draw? Dramatic landscape, crashing waves, endless vistas, castles and Hadrian’s Wall.

The series is based on books by Ann Cleeves, and Northumberland’s tourism blog explains how you can follow in Vera’s footsteps in an article on literary travel.

What have I missed? Have you seen other English TV that makes you want to travel?

Darn that PBS/British television partnership for making us want to travel all over England!

 Disclaimer: I have included some links to Amazon here, in case you’d like to buy CDs or download some of the programs. Although it costs you no more, when you shop through my links, you are helping A Traveler’s Library, because I am an Amazon affiliate.

Summer Reads: A Double Header: Italy and Maine

Destinations: Italy and Maine

Books: Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen (NEW in June, 2015)

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim (originally published 1922, NEW in Penguin Classics in June, 2015 with introduction by Brenda Bowen.)

Four women who are strangers come together to rent a vacation home for a month. They become friends, renew romantic attachments with the men left at home and experience the magic of place.

That describes both of these books. The venerable The Enchanted April (Penguin Classics), first published in 1922 by Elizabeth Von Arnim and the new book inspired by that one–Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen.

I realize that the style of Elizabeth Von Arnim can seem a bit dated–the book is, after all, 83 years old. But I enjoy the trip back in time and a refresher course in the dry wit and emphasis on propriety of manners seen in books from England in the 20s.

Of course, the thing that everyone enjoys about this book is not the time travel, but the travel to a gorgeous piece of the world–Italy–somewhere near a coastal village, in a mansion practically smothered in flower beds, where flowers bloom all summer, presenting a constantly changing foreground for the mountains and the sea.

I had seen the movie (1992), but not read the book. I remembered gorgeous scenery, but not much more.

I am very glad I had this opportunity to read Von Arnim’s original book. Two women meet in a private club in London where they both have noticed an ad for an Italy villa for rent in Italy. Lottie Wilkins persuades Rose Arbuthnot to join her there, and they recruit the beautiful and well-born Caroline Dester. The fourth character, Mrs. Fisher, is an older woman who likes to name drop about famous people she knew, and judge everyone around her.

 There were many things she disliked more than anything else, and one was when the elderly imagined they felt young and behaved accordingly.

Von Arnim’s well-crafted sentences of description are what was missing from the movie, although the movie showed us the scenery that we can only imagine in the book, as when Lottie first looks out her bedroom window in Italy.

All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet.  The sun poured in on her.  The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring.  Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violet and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword.

As I rewatch the movie on Netflix, Joan Plowright, as the very proper Mrs. Fisher, recruited to help pay the rent, still cracks me up. Mrs. Fisher’s mannered observations bring to mind Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey.  And lo and behold, Elizabeth Von Arnim makes an appearance in Downtown Abbey, so perhaps the writer was influenced by her as he penned the character of Violet.

Please don’t skip the introduction to the Penguin edition of The Enchanted April.  It frames the book perfectly, and sets the scene for the time and the style. Perhaps it will lead you to Brenda Bowen’s book, Enchanted August

Bowen, who obviously adores Von Arnim, updates the 1920s book’s concept, placing it firmly in the 20th century. Playing to an American audience rather than the British home of the other author, the book is set in Maine. The two women who launch the idea–Lottie and Rose, and the woman trying to escape all her adorers, Caroline Dester, share the names and character traits of the matching characters in The Enchanted April.

Class disparities in the American version are  based on occupation and celebrity rather than inherited titles.  Lottie and Rose meet at their children’s upscale preschool in Brooklyn rather than in a private club in London. Caroline is a movie star instead of a titled wealthy woman

Lifestyle changes in the past 80-plus years are striking. The large cottage in Maine has no servants. Unlike their predecessors in that isolated Italian villa, where they had only each other, the ladies interact with other summer residents on the small island somewhere near Mount Desert.  The two younger women have children–an encumbrance that would merely have cluttered the lives of the women in Von Arnim’s book. And of course they must worry a great deal about computer reception and cell phones with no signal.

While the women in the English book take advantage of the isolation to contemplate their lives, the American women busy themselves with projects–Rose in the village library and Caroline with a teen age drama group. Is this lack of introspection an American trait, or a casualty  of the cultural changes between 1920 and 2015?

Admittedly, in 1922, Caroline Dester also has no desire to tax herself with introspection as she lies in the sun in the Italian garden:

It was very curious, and no one in the world could have been more surprised than she herself, but she wanted to think. She had never wanted to do that before…She had not been there more than a few hours when this strange new desire took hold of her.

I found one other difference to be perhaps whimsical but. to my mind unnecessary. One of the characters–the fusty older woman, Mrs. Fisher– became a fusty older gay man, Beverly Fisher, grieving the passing of his partner, a famous poet.  At the risk of sounding incredibly politically incorrect and insensitive, I have to ask,”Why has it become obligatory to include at least one gay character in every book, movie, and TV show?” Does that make up for pretending they did not exist for the past 200 years of American literature and entertainment? I don’t think so. The question should be, what does this sex change of a character add to the book?

Answer: The character of Beverly Fisher is pivotal to Enchanted August, replacing the cook in the original version with his gourmet creations, eliciting much more sympathy than the older woman in the original, and in general practically stealing the show. But it takes away the intimacy of a women-only retreat and their sharing of knowledge about their own development and the men they deal with or have dealt with.

In general, Enchanted August presents a lovely escapists novel for summer reading. But Brenda Bowen’s writing is uneven. She took a great chance in allowing her first adult novel to be compared to the seasoned writing of Elizabeth Von Armin. There are times when Bowen rises almost to the eloquence of Von Armin, although she is writing about a much less eloquent age. And through most of the book I was eagerly turning pages to see how things would turn out for one of the characters, who were appealing each in their own way.  However, there were also times when the plot seemed to bog down in trivia and the unnecessary intrusion of subplots concerning the island’s summer crowd.

Which place would I most want to go for a month?  If I could travel back in time, as well as distance (and at 1920’s prices), the Italian villa would be a dream.  But all things considered, I have to admit that I would probably be most comfortable in a large cottage on an island in Maine.

How about you?  Would you like to inhabit the world of The Enchanted April, or that of Enchanted August. Or does a month away with three other women sound awful. Or if you’re a guy–would you join these four women if invited?

Germany in Georgia

My 48th State – Georgia

Changing planes at the Atlanta Airport did not count, I decided. Nor did the half day drive between Alabama and Chattanooga Tennesee that I wrote about previously. That was a great drive, but not an overnight.  If I wanted to check off Georgia as a state I had visited, I needed to see some unique Georgia sites and spend at least one night.

No seashore, islands, plantations, or even the bustling city of Atlanta on this trip, but instead, a scenic byway through the mountains of northern Georgia and a pretend German town, Helen, Georgia. The northeast corner of Georgia in the Blue Ridge Mountains, boasts some beautiful scenery. Particularly approached as we did coming down on byways from North Carolina.

Now I’m keeping track of U.S. theme towns that think they are in some other country. I’ve visited some. I have  been to the  charming Leavenworth Washington and the delightful Fredericksburg Texas, two towns that are wannabe German. But you could also visit Hermann Missouri , Frankenmuth Michigan, or the Amana Colonies in Iowa. In my home county of Holmes in Ohio, there’s a Berlin (pronunciation BER-lin after World War I), but its theme is Amish rather than just German.

In California, we stopped off in lovely Solvang, that  pretends it is Danish. I haven’t been to the other Scandinavian town I’ve read about–New Sweden, Maine. I also have not visited Lindsborg Kansas, that calls itself Little Sweden USA.

Georgia
Downtown Helen Georgia

In Helen, we stayed at one of the lodgings that had been made  to echo Bavaria. (Even the Motel 6 and the Wendy’s look Bavarian instead of mid-century American.) We opted for a corny Heidi Inn, a non-chain place where we could have taken a room in the windmill tower.

Georgia
Heidi Motel, Helen Georgia

Since we didn’t have long enough hair to let down a la Rapunzel, however, we settled for a ground level room.

Georgia
Heidi Hotel front, Helen Georgia

Now, I realize that these pictures make the town and the motel look rather appealing, but pictures can be deceiving. I did not link to the motel, because I cannot recommend it. Only a few places that we entered looked like they were making an effort to be spruced up and present a truly Bavarian air.  Most of the town looked shopworn and beat down by the recession.  We were disappointed by everything except the cheerful and helpful server in the restaurant where we had dinner.

Our experience no doubt was colored by a very different impression of Leavenworth Washington, where everything seems to be newly painted and spruced up.

With the exception of motels and some of the restaurants, you have to pay $5.00 flat to park anywhere in town (for two minutes or the whole day).  Even if you are just planning to pop into a souvenir shop, it will cost you $5.00. It irritated us so much that we did not spend any time shopping. Their loss.  For a tourist town, and one that was pretty empty, that seems like a pretty poor policy. There is free parking on top of a very steep hill at a city park, and the town is fairly small, so if you are staying the night and are hearty, you can leave your car at a motel and walk around.

Fortunately, our breakfast the next morning at Hofer’s Bakery -Konditorei nearly made up for the rest of our experience. (And they had ample free parking)  My breakfast of various German-style sausages and other meats took me back to our trip from Munich to Austria through the heart of Bavaria. The decor was authentic. A terrific mural shows the whole process of a loaf of bread from wheat field to bakery shelf. they even had grocery shelves devoted to German items. I just noticed that you can buy their baked goods on line, so if you’re homesick for Germany, take a look.

All in all, my advice is to enjoy the scenic northeastern corner of Georgia, drive through Helen and make a stop at Hofer’s, but do not plan on stopping long.

Clearly, my visit to my 48th state was a mixed experience and there is much more to the state than the tiny corners that we drove through. If you want to see backroads Georgia, as I mentioned in my article on Alabama, the Lookout Mountain Parkway takes you to the fantastic state park, Cloudland. I was so impressed that if I get back to Georgia, I will definitely explore more state parks.