Book Release: The Secrets of Sinclair Lodge

The third book in the Dunnhill Mystery Series is available for pre-order!!

Can you tell I am excited?

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Release date: December 17!!!

Click here to order!

In Sinclair Lodge, you are never alone…

Sara Eriksson has moved to Dunnhill, a charming, small mountain village tucked in the Northern Cascades, to be closer to her boyfriend David. The start of the winter season has transformed the town into a snow-lover’s paradise—but perhaps not the paradise Sara had in mind.

Sara’s bank account is a disaster. Work is hard to come by. David, who is mourning the loss of his grandfather, has withdrawn into an obsession for skiing—an obsession he desperately wants to share with Sara. She doesn’t know how to ski, but David is determined to teach her. And if that wasn’t enough to deal with, she stumbles upon a dead body.

When an unexpected job offer comes her way—tutoring a young girl in the famed Sinclair Lodge—her problems seem to be solved. However, she quickly finds out they are only getting started. As she mingles with the rich, powerful and disturbing members of the Sinclair household, she becomes entangled in a web of secrets, lies and intrigue. Before long, her haunting dreams and visions return, slowly exposing the terrifying truth.

But what is the truth? Whom can she trust? And who might be coming for her? The journey ahead is a treacherous one. She soon realizes she has to watch her step, for there is danger hiding in every corner…

 

 

A Hundred Years to Never Forget…(Let’s read some books about the Great War)

It’s been a hundred years since the end of World War I—an appropriate time to highlight some books I read this year on this subject. The books are all different—the main characters have different nationalities and the books are set in different locations—providing an interesting perspective.

World War I has always appeared as a messy affair to me. First, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, and based on alliances, other countries joined in; with Britain, France, Russia, Italy and the US on one side and Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire on the other. Eight and half million soldiers and seven million civilians lost their lives in the span of four years.

But a book usually focuses on one region. Let’s start with The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. It’s set in France during World War I (and World War II) and embraces the role women played in it. The book has two closely connected storylines. In 1947, we get to know Charlie, an American girl trying to locate her French cousin, who is presumed dead. In 1915, we follow Eve, who works as a spy for the Alice Network in France during World War I.

I liked the story set in 1915 the best. The danger of Eve’s job, the double standards she had to deal with as a woman in her profession, her resourcefulness and bravery, all made it impossible for me to put the book down. I don’t know as much about World War I as I would like, and I certainly didn’t know about the Alice Network. The afterword by Kate Quinn is a wonderful addition; much of the book is based on true events.

It’s so easy to ignore women in history who did amazing things. Because, let’s face it, back in the beginning of the 20th century women weren’t supposed to do “amazing things.” The women who were part of The Alice Network, lived in a time in which they were still not allowed to vote, yet they showed themselves capable enough to spy on the enemy and put their lives at risk. For me, Eve’s story alone made this book an excellent read.

As Kate Quinn explains in the afterword, the Alice Network and Alice Dubois, or Louise de Bettingies, really existed. She organized a vast and highly effective network of informants in the area of Lille. Louise was captured by the Germans in 1915, and died in prison in 1918, before the end of the war.

My interest, sparked by reading The Alice Network, led me to pick up a classic describing life in the trenches: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (written in 1927). Mr. Remarque himself was a soldier on the German side. Instead of glorifying the war, his descriptions of the carnage and total despair these men faced, paint a vivid picture of the utter madness of war. In a few passages, he flat-out taunts the people in power, questioning why the common men always end up fighting a war that was not theirs to begin with. Not surprisingly, the book was forbidden by the Nazi regime. Mr. Remarque had to flee Germany soon after publishing it and in 1938 his German citizenship was revoked.

Some of the areas of fighting in West-Europe, initially nothing but scarred fields of mud and craters, were cordoned off after the war and have since then developed into lush forests, but unfortunately, some are still littered with (unexploded) shells. Other areas apparently are still toxic, containing high levels of arsenic. For reference, check out this article in the Atlantic.

I have never visited any of the battlefields in West-Europe, but this summer we went to Slovenia and Italy, where there was extensive fighting as well. Triglav National Park, in Slovenia, is a beautiful mountainous area—you can hardly imagine its bloody history while enjoying the amazing views of emerald rivers, pristine waterfalls and rocky mountain tops. My daughter decided that if there are fairies, they’d be sure to live in this place.

The fairies may have thought differently a hundred years ago. An estimated 300,000 soldiers died and 700,000 were wounded on the Soča Front. The Italians invaded this part of Slovenia to open up the way to Vienna, but instead faced years of fighting the Austro-Hungarian army uphill.  Then, in 1917, a German offensive blew right through the Italian defenses. The battle of Kobarid (Coparetto) and the following retreat has been well described  in A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, who himself was an ambulance driver in this area during the war.

I read A Farewell to Arms during high school, but I will admit it was kind of lost on me at that time, and I discarded it as a depressing love story. Having reread the book after our visit to Slovenia and Italy, I can say I appreciate his writing style and tone a lot more than I did when I was younger. The love story was still very sad, but having a better sense of the places he described deepened the reading experience.

It’s been a hundred years—how easy it would be to stop remembering. But if we let time erase the memories of the horrors of war, who is to stop us from making the same mistakes over and over again? These three books are all poignant tales that will ensure you won’t forget.

The Three Legs of Sicily

I love traveling with my kids. They see the world differently; there is always something to wonder about. It reminds me to keep wondering. There are things I don’t notice anymore because I’ve seen them before. And then there are things I don’t notice because I wasn’t paying attention.

During our travels this summer, we spent two wonderful days in Sicily, Italy, a place I’d never been to before. Two days are not enough. It’s a fascinating island—the references to Sicily in Greek Mythology are numerous, there is a lot of history, good food and of course, the Mediterranean Sea. Besides that, when in Sicily, you can’t fail to notice a few things. One, the number of churches. Two, the references to The Godfather. And three, their flag. The depiction on it is everywhere—T-shirts, bibs, you name it.

The Sicilian flag is not your usual stripe/triangle/star equivalent—instead it has three, dare I say, rather shapely legs, and a winged head in the middle. Which begs the question; why three legs? And who’s the head? I was asked these questions many times by my inquisitive ones, but I had no good answer. And I couldn’t call a friend, as I was overseas and did not have cell service. Google was painfully out of reach.

Curious, I looked it up when we were back in the USA. The three legs are a triskelion, which is an ancient symbol. I am not sure why there are human legs involved in the shape, but it definitely catches the eye. There are Greek coins from Sicily dating back as far as 300 B.C. with this three-legged symbol. The triskelion apparently represents the three “points,” or the triangular shape, of Sicily.

The head—shockingly—is Medusa. I can honestly say it would never have occurred to me. I remember reading about Medusa, and she wasn’t that friendly. Adorned with snakes for hair, a set of boar tusks and wings, she was not considered very “pleasing”. So unpleasing in fact, that beholding her appearance would turn anyone into stone.

I was surprised to find that her image was actually used frequently throughout ancient history. It was used to keep evil away or plainly served as a warning, implying the Goddess Athena’s protection. In Sicily’s case, Athena was the patron goddess of the island.

Even in modern times Medusa continues to fascinate us. For instance, she is displayed on the symbol of Versace, but instead the image shows her from before when she was turned into a snake-haired, evil monster and is still a beautiful young maiden: a symbol of beauty, that everyone falls in love with.

Of course, now the cat was out of the bag, and my kids wanted to know who Medusa was. Good grief. Greek mythology is a bit brutal, meaning, I always have to tweak stories here and there (a lot). The challenge is censoring enough but not too much—and shielding my iPhone from my son who desperately tries to read over my shoulder as I go along.

I admit I censored—heavily. Apart from the brutality, the last message I want to convey to my (young) kids is how a woman gets molested (by Poseidon), and then gets punished for it by an angry Athena, who turns her into a hideous monster. So much for justice, female solidarity, or just speaking out in general.

Anyway, that’s just the beginning of the story. Perseus (one of Zeus’ sons) is ordered by King Polydectes, who’s a jerk, to cut off Medusa’s head and bring it to him. The Gods help Perseus by giving him a helmet of invisibility (Hades), winged sandals (Hermes), a sword from Hephaestus and a mirrored shield from Athena. The reflection of his shield allows him not to look at Medusa directly, which is how he gets the job done. After Medusa is defeated, the winged horse Pegasus springs from her body—her child with Poseidon.

Medusa’s head, as it turns out, comes in handy. Persues uses it on his travels to change Atlas into a mountain (the Atlas Mountains in northwest Africa) and, when he finally returns home, King Polydectes into a statue. He then gives the head to back-stabbing Athena, who puts it on her shield, so she can turn her own enemies into stone. Which is why the image of Medusa is probably more of a reflection of Athena’s protection than of Medusa herself.

There are different versions of the myth apparently, but this was the one I came across. It’s hard not to feel for the poor woman.

My daughter asked me if Medusa ever lived in Sicily. Good question. I told her I didn’t think so and anyways, I reassured her, she’s dead. I explained that she most likely never existed in the first place, but my daughter believes in fairies and magic (she really liked the Pegasus part, after all, it’s almost like My Little Pony), so I’m not sure I convinced her. I promised her nothing in Sicily would turn her into stone.

My daughter wasn’t so sure. She pointed out how we’d seen Sicily’s volcano, Mt. Etna, and the scars of lava covering the landscape, as evidence of the most recent eruptions.

True enough.

But lava is not all bad. It brings fertile soil. And on the flag, Medusa’s head is surrounded by three ears of wheat—signifying the fertility of the land.

Isn’t it amazing, the stories one flag can tell…

Slaying the Dragon

It’s been a while since I wrote a post. Stuff happened. More accurately: Shingles happened.

Shingles gets its own capital S. Why? Because Shingles sucks. Big time. Are there worse things than getting Shingles? Absolutely. But still, it was a miserable affair.

For those of you who haven’t made their acquaintance with Shingles, let me introduce you. It’s a reactivation of the same virus that causes chickenpox. After one recovers from the chickenpox, usually sometime during childhood, the virus does not die as one would expect. Instead, it takes a long, nice, quiet vacation somewhere within nerve tissue near the spinal cord, while we continue life, blissfully unaware of its presence.

That is, until it decides the holidays are over. Pox, apparently, is an old medieval term for curse. Ha! Well put. During a period of poor resilience the lurking virus pops up like an evil jack-in-the box, travels along a nerve to the skin and produces a localized, nasty rash, as well as a tremendous amount of pain.

I never thought about Shingles before it slithered its way in—or rather—out. Why would I? I haven’t reached the age when they start offering vaccination for it. Surely young people don’t get it, right? Wrong, unfortunately.

The chickenpox virus is a member of the Herpes family—the medical term for Shingles is Herpes Zoster.
Zoster is derived from Greek, meaning “girdle” or “belt”. Shingles’ rash looks like a belt when it’s located on the torso, as it wraps around one side. The English word “Shingles” most likely comes from the Latin word  for “girdle,” which is “cingulus.” It has nothing to do with the roof of your house. Even though my six-year old kept asking me why the roof was making me sick.

Yes, why indeed? Not the roof, but why did I get Shingles? I did not feel like I was overly stressed. Yes, I was possibly chronically sleep deprived and I had just recovered from a cold, but that was not anything I hadn’t handled before. Be that as it may, the Shingles hit me hard. Sitting in the doctor’s office, my rash solicited the empathetic “Oh my, I haven’t seen it this bad in quite some time!” which no patient wants to hear ever, although I appreciated the frankness of it. It sure validated my intense discomfort. Shingles, as I discovered, can be extremely painful.

I had some time on my hands to think about this pain—that is, after I slept for a week. It’s quite amazing how many different qualities pain can have. As it turns out, Shingles is an absolute treasure trove for descriptive writing. It felt like a dragon had lodged itself in my liver, where it strangled me with its tail, while simultaneously breathing fire and stabbing me with its nails.

Shingles’ pain is relentless and exhausting, even after the skin has healed, and because it’s nerve pain, it doesn’t respond well to normal pain medication. There is something about chronic pain and having to grit your teeth the whole day. Let’s just say I was not easy to be around with. At some point the healed skin started to itch terribly as well, and upon scratching it would erupt in flames, so it was either pain, itch, or burn, or all of the above. Next time I am contemplating killing off an unlikable character in one of my books, I may just consider giving him/her Shingles instead.

So, what did I do? There’s not much you can do unfortunately. I took my anti-virals. I rested and wallowed in my misery. And I hoped it would go away—which is not a given. For some people the post-herpetic nerve pain can last a long time. I was reluctant to take any medication other than Tylenol or Ibuprofen, so I finally opted for some acupuncture. Whether it was this or just the natural course of the illness, I’ll never know, but after weeks, the pain did slowly improve. Now, three moths later, it’s more like background noise: annoying at times, but ignorable.

During all this, my website languished, as did my Facebook page. I worked on my work-in-progress, but only when I felt up to it. In the summer we took a long vacation and I focused mainly on family time, resting and maintaining a healthy life-style.

I cannot tell you how grateful I am the dragon is on its way out.  Slowly withering away, it still softly claws at me every now and then, but hopefully soon it will take its last breath.  And I pray it has not created any offspring to come back and find me; one visit was more than enough.

Think Spring

Think Spring

That’s what I told myself as my kids had a snow day earlier this week. But it’s not easy when you look outside, and everything is white.

“Think spring,” I said, when I took the trash can down the driveway two nights ago and had to lug it through inches of icy slush. And why not? Obviously, my plowing service is thinking it’s spring as well.

“Think spring,” I tell my children, when they complain of still having to bring their snow pants to school mid-April. They are sick of winter. And frankly, so am I.

I have relatives in the Netherlands raving about their beautiful tulips and their magnolia trees bursting with blossom. Instead, my daffodils still have to find their way up. I don’t blame the poor flowers; if I didn’t have to, I wouldn’t want to come out either.

The birds in my yard have been out of sorts. Most have now returned for—yes, spring—but building a nest in this weather must be an uncomfortable task. My dog is miserable. She freezes her paws off, as well as her you-know-what, every time she has to go pee. We are all done with winter, yet it keeps lingering, like that unwanted guest you so desperately want to leave your house but can’t get rid of.

But yesterday, the most amazing thing happened. The sun came out, the temperature hit a balmy 50 degrees Fahrenheit, snow started melting, and despite the unfortunate hailstorm shortly after that, I am pretty certain that finally, spring is starting. Why? Because I looked at the calendar (it is mid-April…) and at the weather forecast. It’s coming. And those few sunny hours reminded me that soon, my children will want to go outside again.

There’s only one problem; I am writing the next book in The Dunnhill Series, and it’s set in…right, winter. And even though I am so done with the cold and snow, I still have to write about it.

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I decided that winter would be the right season for book 3. Maybe because when I started writing, it was winter, and I wasn’t yet sick of it. Besides, Dunnhill is in the mountains, and winter in the mountains is much better than winter in Michigan. And maybe I imagined I would write faster and be done by now, but with three antsy children—let’s just say it’s not going as fast as I hoped.

You could argue that as a writer the season within a book shouldn’t pose too much of a problem. Just “think winter” right? Normally I would agree, but here in Michigan, when spring finally arrives, something strange happens. Suddenly there’s flowers everywhere, as spring rushes like mad into summer—lush, green and warm—it truly is glorious. And during that time, the idea of winter becomes like a whiff of smoke, elusive and fleeting. The moment the weather warms up, most of us Michiganders seem to get hit with collective amnesia and forget about winter. If we’d remembered, we’d all leave this state for good.

This is why I need winter. You know—to hold on to what winter really feels like. My lawn is turning green and I am already starting to forget. The truth is, I have no desire to remember. I am ready for spring. Book or not.

Over the next few months, I’ll try my best to think winter while sitting on my deck, enjoying the sun and the only thing cold will be my drink. But if spring in my book happens to arrive a little early, I hope you will understand.

Asmat Bis Poles and Rituals of the Dead

This time, a guest blog from my good friend and AWESOME writer Jennifer S. Alderson, who has a new book coming out! Read all about Zelda Richardson’s new adventure in Rituals of the Dead, a book filled with mystery, art and anthropology. This time Jennifer takes us back to historic Papua New Guinea, where headhunters once roamed…

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I am so excited to announce the impending release of my third novel, Rituals of the Dead: An Artifact Mystery. Set in Amsterdam and Papua New Guinea, it combines anthropology, art, and history into one thrilling adventure. It’s been a joy to write because the subject matter is near and dear to my heart.

The exhibition central to my artifact mystery is based on an actual exhibition of bis poles entitled Bis poles: Sculptures of the Rainforest. They are ancestor objects akin to Native American totem poles. They were created to honor dead ancestors during a six-week long ‘bis’ or headhunting ceremony.

Those featured in this exhibition were primarily collected from Asmat, a region of Papua New Guinea whose villagers (also called ‘Asmat’) are famous for their exquisite wood carvings. Bis poles are considered to be the highpoint of Asmat art. Since Westerners discovered them in the 1930s, they have been a much desired cultural artifact, purchased by private collectors and museums. Though most were acquired through barter and long negotiations, too many of the Asmat objects in public museum collections worldwide were stolen by opportunistic Westerners.

 

 

I worked on this exhibition in 2008, as a collection researcher for the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam’s anthropological museum. I was tasked with conducting archival and photographic research into the poles, as well as a number of legendary Dutch missionaries and anthropologists active in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s through the 1960s. During my research, I came across so many bizarre stories about headhunting raids, brave missionaries, crazy explorers and daring anthropologists. It felt like I had the basis for a great mystery in my hands.

My hope in writing this book is not only to entertain readers, but also inspire them to learn more about the Asmat and their fascinating culture. I can’t wait to share Rituals of the Dead with mystery and thriller fans!

Thanks Jennifer! I can’t wait to read it. Learn more about Rituals of the Dead below, and find out how to order it!

RitualsoftheDead_500wRituals of the Dead: An Artifact Mystery

Art, religion, and anthropology collide in Alderson’s upcoming art mystery thriller, Rituals of the Dead, Book Three of the Adventures of Zelda Richardson series.

This time she’s working at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam on an exhibition of bis poles from the Asmat region of Papua New Guinea – the same area where a famous American anthropologist disappeared in 1962. When his journals are found inside one of the bis poles, Zelda is tasked with finding out about the man’s last days and his connection to these ritual objects.

Zelda is pulled into a world of shady anthropologists, missionaries, art collectors, gallery owners, and smugglers, where the only certainty is that sins of the past are never fully erased.

Join Zelda on her next quest as she grapples with the anthropologist’s mysterious disappearance fifty years earlier, and a present-day murderer who will do everything to prevent her from discovering the truth.

Expected release date March 2018.

Pre-order Rituals of the Dead now via Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Barnes & Noble NOOK and Smashwords. 

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Rituals-Dead-Artifact-Adventures-Richardson-ebook/dp/B0795Z3HRX/

iBooks: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/rituals-of-the-dead-an-artifact-mystery/id1332496345?mt=11

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/nl/en/ebook/rituals-of-the-dead-an-artifact-mystery

NOOK: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/rituals-of-the-dead-jennifer-s-alderson/1127732017?ean=2940155064152

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/771033

About the Author: Jennifer S. Alderson worked as a journalist and website developer in Seattle, Washington before trading her financial security for a backpack. After traveling extensively around Asia and Central America, she moved to Darwin, Australia, before finally settling in the Netherlands. There she earned degrees in art history and museum studies. Home is now Amsterdam, where she lives with her Dutch husband and young son.

You can find Jennifer on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, or her website.

Quills and Pencils

First, let me wish you a happy 2018! It should prove an interesting year. I am working on book 3 and 4 of the Dunnhill series, and hopefully they will both be ready before the year is through.

I love writing. Modern technology, and specifically the DELETE-key are good friends of mine. My writing process involves a lot of delete-rewrite-delete-rewrite. Can you imagine writing four hundred years ago—without that DELETE-key? So, no complaining here, we have it easy.

I assume Shakespeare used a quill. Quills were often made from the wing feathers of a big bird, like a goose. I suppose you didn’t have to wrestle one for it, but still. Then you had to prepare the quill, after which you could write with it after dipping it in ink. The metal dip pen, which replaced the quill, made an entrance in the nineteenth century. It didn’t require sharpening, or chasing a goose, but you still had to dip.

So, which ink would you use? The most popular one was something called “iron gall ink”, which, to me, sounds quite unappealing, since it reminds me of a gall bladder.  It actually has nothing to do with that. The oak gall, or oak apple, is an 1-2 inch “apple” on an oak leaf that arises from the secretions of the tree reacting to the gall wasp larva, after the wasp lays an egg in the leaf bud. Apparently, the gall contains tannic acid, which you can extract by crushing and soaking the dried galls. After you strain the extract, you add some ferrous sulfate and voilá, you have ink. Quite honestly, I am still baffled someone thought this one up—making ink from oak galls?

Roald Dahl, whose books I am extremely fond of, wrote (and rewrote) many of them with a pencil. I can feel my hand cramping up just at the thought of it.

Speaking of pencils, for the past two years I had to buy pencil lead for my son’s school supplies, which always left me a little confused as to why it’s called “lead.” It never made sense to me, since it’s obviously made out of graphite.

Perhaps I’m a bit of a nerd, but I like to know where words come from. Apparently, after discovering a large graphite deposit in England around 1500 AD, people first thought it was a form of lead. They noticed the lead, or “black lead” as they called it, was excellent material to write with. The wooden holder was invented, because graphite is rather soft and brittle. The name “graphite” wasn’t given until 1879, and comes from the Greek “graphein” — to write.

The pencil, if you are dying to know, comes from the Latin word “penis” (which means tail) or more precisely, the diminutive “peniculus,” which referred to the artist’s fine brush of camel hair. I don’t think I will ever look at a pencil the same way. Or a tail for that matter.

Obviously, being a writer in current times is great. I think I will return to my laptop and delete-rewrite some more words…

Keep checking in for more upcoming book news, or follow me on Facebook!

Giveaway Alert! A chance to win both my books!

Help me out, and you will have more to read!

This Giveaway is hosted by TravelByBook. Click the link, and you could win a copy of The Baby on the Back Porch and The Charm of Lost Chances (ebook only). All you have to do is come up with a name for a character in my next book…easy enough right?

Go check it out!

(Unfortunately, you can’t leave names in a comment here, since it it hosted through Travel by Book.)

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Changing The World—A Book at a Time

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird

Recently, it was Banned Books Week. Books get banned for many reasons: religious concerns, too much sex, the wrong kind of sex, too much violence, or just the language the writer uses.

As a parent, I don’t let my children read every book that is out there for them. They are still young, so I can control what they read—for now. Some books may be age appropriate, but just not “my child appropriate.” If I deem a story too scary, or think they may not fully grasp the content, I will put it aside for another time. Obviously, this is not the same as “banning,” where I would make the decision for my child that a certain book is not appropriate, ever.

I believe that fictional stories will help children to better understand the world we live in. Our (global) society, has a broad variety of people, with many differences in backgrounds, lifestyles, and convictions. But without exposure, how are we to understand one another and find common ground?

Books can do so much more than just take the reader along to faraway place, a beautiful romance or heartbreaking tale. Books can increase knowledge, stimulate the imagination, and transport the reader into another person’s mind. Reading can force us to walk in the protagonist’s—or for that matter, the antagonist’s—shoes, albeit for a limited time. This can make us love the book, or resent it, but whatever the outcome, it will hopefully stimulate some understanding or empathy, and perhaps help us form more nuanced opinions. A book can unveil and challenge our prejudices, and make us reconsider them.

Obviously, books can have the opposite message as well, like one of hatred, or intolerance. History has shown us the power of propaganda. Nevertheless, I believe reading stimulates the ability of critical thinking—that is, if we dare to reach outside our own bubble.

As a writer, I must confess I write mostly to entertain. That by itself is hard enough, without having to aspire to more lofty goals. But the notion that books can change the world is a powerful one.

Writing can be difficult—even frustrating— demanding a lot of effort, and sometimes offering little in return. But, despite all this, keep on writing. Your story can do so much more than you realize. It can break down barriers.

Our Basque Experience (with kids)

I have a great passion for traveling. Nothing is as fun and exciting as discovering new places, food, people and, yes, stories. Every place has its own stories, some from the past, some from current events, and some from imagination. I love going places, seeing places, and reading or hearing about them.

A while ago, I visited Basque Country, in Northern Spain (and Southern France). With vistas that are beyond stunningly beautiful, friendly people, wonderful food, it was a fantastic experience, both for us and the kids. And the stories, ah, the stories, were plentiful!

Basque Country has a turbulent history, and I do not presume to know the place well, or to fully understand its struggles or know its people. The Basques have their own language and culture, despite being part of Spain (and France). And in case you forgot while being there, the Basque flag is visible in so many places it will quickly remind you that first and foremost, you are in their territory.

Basque Country has so many things to offer—too many for this blog post.  The Camino de Santiago, of course, is famous, and something that is still high on my list of things to do. But for now, my children are too young, so we had to find different entertainment. A beach is always a great place to start. And Basque Country has plenty.

Its northern Atlantic coastline is breathtaking, with sandy beaches, steep rocky cliffs, lush vegetation and scattered old villages and towns waiting to be discovered. One of my favorite trips was to the chapel of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, and old chapel on a small peninsula connected to the mainland by a walkway with ~240 steps. The site goes back many centuries, but the chapel has been demolished few times. According to tradition,  when you get to the chapel and ring the bell three times, you can make a wish and it will ward off evil spirits. Let’s face it, we can all use some of that while traveling.

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Fun fact on the walkway: if you are a Game of Thrones fan, you may recognize the walkway to Dragonstone, where Daenerys Targaryen walked up to the mighty castle. Even though there is no castle, and no dragons either, the walkway is very real!

While exploring some of the villages in the rolling foothills of the Pyrenees, we came across Zugarramurdi, a pretty village tucked in between the hills, where time appears to slow down to a snail’s pace as you wander through the streets. It’s very peaceful now, but has a tragic history. The village was the site of the ruthless persecution of witches, during the time of the Inquisition. There is a small museum dedicated to the women who were taken away, some of them never returning. My kids thought the museum was a little scary, but they did like the witch cave, which is also near the village—presumably the site where the women came together to do whatever it is that witches do. There was a short but appealing hike to the cave itself (many steps, wet slippery rocks and a bridge over a stream), with the cave having plenty of opportunity for them to explore and let their imagination run wild.

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Zugarramurdi

More inland we visited the charming town of Oñati, which means “place with many hills.” The city sports many frog images as logos, and one of the stories in our guide book explaining this referred back to a count from long-ago, who apparently had a black and white checkered tile floor in the entrance of his estate. Annoyed at the villagers, who were muddying up his white tiles when visiting his castle, he ordered them to only stand on the black tiles. Thus, the villagers hopped from black tile to black tile, after which he mocked them and called them frogs. Even so, the town has adopted the frog with pride.

Oñati also has an ancient, extensive and beautiful cave system (the Arrikrutz caves), albeit a very chilly one. An English-speaking guide took us on a tour deep down in the earth, escaping the sweltering heat outside. The caves with all its stalagmites and stalactites, as well as the prehistoric finds, were telling their own fascinating story. Nothing makes a vacation as precious like a good reminder of your own short life-span.

For me, when I travel, it’s the stories that make a place come alive, give it that little extra, and paint my memories more vividly. When I think back of Basque Country, I think of all these places, and many more. But mostly, I think of sitting at the sea-side with my family, eating an unidentified fish-dish with a name I can’t pronounce, drinking a bottle of txacoli, and telling stories to my children. And I hope they will remember.