Going There #9: Shadows in the Stones

Stonehenge impacts. It just does. Despite detractors who want to say this is better, that’s better, you can’t get inside, whatever, there is no other stone circle in the world quite like it. The dressed sarsens with their phenomenal bulk. The horizontal lintels that look as if giants had placed them. The bold position on Britain’s wide Salisbury plain. Power resonates.

Stonehenge

I felt that power as we walked toward the great stones, just as my characters feel it in my stories. Stone circles play a significant role in my series when we visit Ireland, and my Éireann characters of the Irish clans have a fascination with this grand megalith so different from their own village circles. Some of the characters have the opportunity to visit. Others envision it.

The site was carved out about 5,000 years ago when people dug a circular ditch. About 500 years later others erected the first stones. Those were the smaller bluestones, a type of stone not found in this area, but which scholars believe were brought all the way from Wales, a herculean task. The quarry has been located and stone cuts matched, pretty strong evidence. But why? No one knows. The giant sarsens came later, and over time the arrangement of the stones saw several changes.

My writer friend Lynn Ash had joined me on my trip the day before our visit to Stonehenge, and we took the obligatory photos.

Lynn at Stonehenge
Me at Stonehenge, Photo by Lynn

I first saw Stonehenge in 1993 when I was researching another long-abandoned book. That was before the new Visitor Center. You don’t have to pay to see Stonehenge. It’s right out there on the Salisbury plain, visible from the road and from trails that cross the fields. A fence holds you back a ways. But if you want to get as close as Lynn and I are in these photos and experience the Visitor Center (and it is an experience), you pay. Not a small fee. We each paid about $23 for a set time slot to enter, although you can take as long as you want, once inside the compound.

Compared with the wonderful Almendres Cromlech in Portugal (see “Going There #8”), a site that’s free and wide open to whatever the public and weather may do to it, Stonehenge has become a local industry. Yet somehow that doesn’t diminish the experience–when you give yourself to the wonder.

Stonehenge Looking Southward
Ravens Among the Rocks

The Visitor Center is remarkably well done. Most intriguing is the 360-degree theater in the round where you stand in the center of the stones while seasons and centuries pass. That makes up a little for the fact that a rope around the real stones keeps you out of the center (except for special occasions, like the summer solstice, when people are allowed in, which you no doubt have to reserve far in advance).

The theater’s effect offers a dramatic experience. Many other fine exhibits explain the site and display archeological finds. Outdoors, typical houses of the early period have been erected, and you can step inside to see where people slept.

Typical Ancient House
Bed in Ancient House

I’m not sure about that pillow. I’m of the flatter pillow school.

A sample stone below shows how the giant sarsens might have been moved to the site in those long-ago days. I had to tap the stone. It’s plastic but illustrates nonetheless.

Sample Sarsen

Lynn and I opted to walk to and from the circle. The Visitor Center is a little over a mile away, leaving the circle to stand free and open in its grand position. The day was gorgeous, and the easy stroll allowed us a long view of the stones and the effect of the approach–as my characters would have experienced it. We took the road going to the circle and went back to the center on a trail through the field. A lovely walk.

We had contemplated going to Avebury afterward, another wonderful site where the village is set among giant stones and you can touch them. I had been there before and enjoyed not only the stones, but a lovely high tea in the tearoom of an elegant manor, and I had lured Lynn into this trip promising her “scones among the stones.”

Well, we didn’t have a car, and bus connections would have given us more bus time than tea time. Taxis were expensive there, and we were exhausted. Lynn had taken the grueling trip across the pond just the day before our Stonehenge excursion and hadn’t slept on the flight or very much the night before her departure. I had only flown from Lisbon, but our meeting at London’s Heathrow airport hadn’t exactly been a snap.

Lynn had seemed worried about navigating that huge airport, but I had reassured her that my flight would land about an hour before hers and I could be waiting for her when she came off the plane. We had our iPhones in case it took a moment for us to find each other. The best laid plans and all that. My flight was late, very late. Hers was early. When I rushed into the airport, trying to connect with her, I got no answer. I got delayed in a huge line at border control. While moving slowly through that line I tried email, texts, phone. No response.

Friendly airport personnel helped us–more angels. As soon I got free of border control and found my bag I headed for her terminal–just as she headed for mine. We were striding across moving walkways when we looked up and saw each other. What a relief! We had bus tickets to Amesbury, the small town near Stonehenge, and the bus station was right between the terminals. We made it in plenty of time. But the distress took a toll.

Now we’d spent so long at Stonehenge we gave up on Avebury, but as we sat resting in our room at the delightful Fairlawn Hotel in Amesbury we decided to take an evening stroll to Woodhenge, a satellite site within easy walking distance. We were surely up to a pleasant walk out through the edge of the lovely town. We didn’t account for traffic that buzzed along beside us like freeway traffic on a narrow road, so close to the sidewalk I felt as if a wobble would put me right in a car’s path. But we survived to see this unusual site. A quiet, peaceful place.

Me at Woodhenge, Photo by Lynn

Lynn snapped my picture sitting on the concrete stumps where wooden poles once rose.

On the way back we took a side path to walk a short way along the famous River Avon. That offered another respite of quiet and peace with a generous touch of beauty.

Path Along the River Avon at Amesbury
Shadow in the Stones

As I put this post together, selecting photos from the many I took, I noticed something in the photo at the top of the post that I hadn’t noticed before–the picture labeled “Stonehenge.” An odd shadow. I give a closer look here. Do you see it? Probably a strange slant of the light against the stones.

But it put me in mind of the shadows that linger across this old world. Sometimes the shadows seem to come alive where the past remains so visible, as in these ancient works in stone. Or the crumbling citadels of Greece and Portugal, where archeologists work to ferret out the hidden secrets.

Bringing the past to life is what I try to do in my stories–whether from our own country’s pioneer past in A Place of Her Own and The Shifting Winds, or in these ancient times of my new series. I would keep searching, keep reaching, trying to see into the shadows to bring out the light of a people who did walk in these places, portrayed as truly as I can through the fictional characters in their imagined lives.

NEXT: Outlaw Hideaway

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Going There #8: Falling Back in Time

When you’re already living in the Bronze Age and something appears to be old in the extreme, you have really fallen back in time from our perspective. One of my characters experiences that phenomenon, and when I followed her into Portugal’s interior I fell back with her.

After Zambujal I planned to spend six nights in the charming historic city of Évora in the Alentejo region of central Portugal. I had three focal points–first, the nearby megaliths with their ancient stone circle; second, the Escoural Grotto with its paleolithic cave drawings; and third, the cork oak forests that have played a significant role in the area for millennia. Vanessa, the hostess of my hotel, was arranging tours for all three.

Taking the train, I left the green coastal hills around Zambujal to enter the dryer lands of the interior. But late spring rains had kept the land unusually green for May. I soon began to see sweeping cork oak forests covering the broad plains and rolling hills, the forest floors carpeted with flowers of yellow and white and many shades of blue amid the green. An occasional boulder rose among the wide-spaced trees, reminding me of Portugal’s ancient monuments.

Flowers and Stone in Cork Forest

Cromlech of Almendres and Cork Oaks

My tour group for the megaliths met the next morning in downtown Évora, a few minutes’ walk from my hotel, the Solar de Monfalim. Our friendly guide, archeologist Mário Carvalho, welcomed six of us, Canadians, Australians, and two from the US, and we all headed out with his driver in a van. This being my main interest in the Évora vicinity, Vanessa had scheduled it first. She was still having a little trouble with the cork forest visit because another party had cancelled and I would have to pay more. As Mário chatted with us on the way to the stone circle, asking where we’d been and where we were going, I mentioned my uncertain cork forest tour.

“The megaliths are right in the middle of cork oak forests,” he said. He didn’t think I needed another tour. He turned out to be well informed about cork oak trees and harvests, as well as megaliths, and I decided to count this as two tours in one.

When I told him I had been to Zambujal, he was excited to hear about my unexpected visit with Sónia and Fábio. Mário also took an interest in my books and offered to answer any questions he could, now or after I returned home. I was thrilled to find another excellent source.

The stones of Almendres Cromlech struck me with their numbers and their dramatic setting.

Almendres Cromlech Facing East

This circle has 90 to 100 stones, dancing together in intertwined rings, more than I’d seen in any other stone circle. My camera frame holds only a part of them, looking off to the east. It’s an ellipsis rather than a true circle, Mário told us, and like most, it sits near the top of the slope but not quite at the crest. Besides its size, the Almendres Cromlech carries the power of its age. My character feels that, so I did, just knowing.

Almendres Cromlech in Cork Forest

It’s older than Stonehenge. Almendres Cromlech dates back 6,000 to 8,000 years. The first bluestone ring of Stonehenge is a young 4,500 years old, the great sarsens even younger.

Mário Points Out Cup Marks
More Markings on Stone

Many of these stones at Almendres Cromlech bear markings–cups, circles, half-circles, curved lines like shepherd crooks. Similar markings have been found in other archaic settings.

Mário contemplated possible meanings, the circular lines representing the moon and the shepherd crooks having to do with grasping truth in the same way a shepherd grasps his sheep. Many scholars believe the stone circles helped their builders gauge the astronomical events of the passage of the moon and sun.

Solitary Almendres Menhir

The single Almendres Menhir stands out from the others, far enough that we had to drive to reach it because we couldn’t walk through the property owner’s fields.

This solitary stone was integral to the whole as it provided alignment for determining the equinoxes and solstices.

From that site we went on to the Dolmen of Zambujeiro. Curious at the name which sounds so much like Zambujal, I asked Mário its meaning. “Zambujeiro means a wild olive tree,” he said.

“So, what does Zambujal mean?”

“A group of wild olive trees.”

Ah ha! I had wondered and searched online but never found the definition. I asked if they would have had cork oaks at Zambujal at the time of my story, and he assured me they would have. I was glad to hear that because I needed a large gnarly tree for a grisly scene there.

Harvested Cork Oak Tree

The trunk of the above tree lies in shadow, but if you look closely at the area just above the crotch you’ll see that below a defined line the bark is darker and redder. That part has been stripped of cork. The tree remains unharmed, but can’t be harvested again for another nine years. Portugal is the primary provider of the world’s cork, so the cork in your wine bottle may well have come from a tree like this in Portugal. These mighty trees can live for a couple of hundred years and add beauty as well as value to the land.

The trees are fire resistant but owners still carefully protect them by digging fire breaks and grazing to keep the grass down. Horned spotted cattle have been grazing these lands for many years, and horses have long been a part of the Iberian culture as well.

Cattle Grazing in Cork Oak Forest
Iberian Horse

Iberian horses play a large role in several stories of my series, so I couldn’t resist photographing this beauty.

Our morning with Mário was wonderful. We had a compatible group and he was a great guide, never rushing us, always happy to answer our many questions. A delightful and informative tour. The experience gave me an excellent sense of the place I’m writing about. For more information on these megalithic tours you can click here.

For Mário’s sake, I do want to pass along his concern. The ground under the stone circle is weathering away. The stones may fall. The roads to the site are in terrible repair. Yet no one has authority to care for the site or the roads. It’s private property. He hopes one day the government will take it over and preserve it before too much damage occurs to this world treasure. I hope so too.

Escoural Grotto

Vanessa scheduled a tour for me the next day to see the ancient cave drawings at the Escoural Grotto. Since there was no public transportation available she arranged for a taxi. The driver asked if he could bring his daughter. She had never seen the grotto and wanted to take this opportunity. That worked out well, because this 20-year-old daughter spoke excellent English and his was limited. The grotto was a 17-mile drive one way, so I knew it wouldn’t be cheap, but I had just saved a lot of money by cancelling the cork forest tour.

Entrance to Escoural Grotto

The cave mouth opens against a steep slope embedded with limestone boulders. A small enclosure covers the opening. Our guide led the three of us in–the taxi driver, his daughter, and me–and gave us hardhats. I was glad for that hat more than once. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, so I must offer word pictures.

It’s a small cave, intimate.

We worked our way through the cramped space down wooden steps and walkways. My hardhat bounced off hovering rock overhead. A few bats clung to the higher walls. The electric lighting may have added a yellow hue, but the cave walls looked golden compared to the gray rock outside. I had the impression of thick butterscotch frosting, whipped in wild swirls, hardened and broken off in places to reveal flat nubbly cuts that melted back a little, softening over time. On some of these flat slabs thin ridges ran down like rivulets of water that had turned rigid.

I didn’t see the pictures until our guide turned a light onto them. Then I saw the black charcoal outline of a horse with a deep belly. It looked pregnant, and I mentioned that. She believed the figure represented fertility. Only the lines between the rivulets remained. We went farther below and had to bend down to look at a slab slanted inward. On that slab scratches had been cut into the rock surface creating the outlines of several horses with heads raised, active, alert. Another drawing represented a horned animal.

The depth of time resonated. Into this ancient place of artistic expression my character felt herself falling back tens of thousands of years. And I did, knowing that.

The Knoll

I had one more place I needed to see. The town of Escoural itself. Just three more miles up the road from the grotto. When we left the cave site my taxi driver started to turn toward Évora. “I still need to see Escoural,” I told him.

He wrinkled his brow. “Is nothing there.”

I explained that it was a significant place in one of my books and I needed to see it. His daughter tried to explain. He hesitated but finally turned toward Escoural. The meter was rising. It would soon hit our agreed price and we still had to go all the way back, but I had many chapters in that location. I had seen it on Google Maps, but I really wanted to see the land. Not the town. There was no town back then, but there was a knoll where I wanted to put a fictional village. And I wanted to see the land around it.

We drove into a town whose sleepy streets I had traveled virtually and it all looked familiar. He turned to me. “See? There’s nothing here.”

That’s the idea, I told him. It’s the middle of nowhere. Exactly what I want.

A Knoll in the Middle of Nowhere

About that time I saw my knoll and got excited. “There! Please turn that way.” His daughter had to convince him. And when we came away from the houses and I had a full view of the knoll I asked him to stop so I could get out and snap a picture. It took him a moment to respond and I asked again. I’m sure he was thinking, What is the matter with this crazy lady wanting to stop and look at nothing? He stopped. I got out and took my picture. And a few more. Laughing, I told his daughter, “Escoural hasn’t had this much enthusiasm in years.”

Évora

The rest of my time in Évora I explored the town. I checked out the Roman temple and the museum and the bone chapel and found Vasco da Gama’s house. But much of the time I sat on the lovely balcony of my hotel and took notes and sorted out my thoughts about all I had seen, fitting some changes into the excerpts I’d brought while the memories of my experiences were fresh.

Balcony of Hotel Solar de Monfalim

Portugal had been good to me. Alone, I had felt the raw edge of a culture where communication often confounded me. But that taught me something too, which will work its way into my stories. Most of all I thrilled to ancient wonders and the warmth of people who so willingly shared those with me.

NEXT: Shadows in the Stones

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Going There: Site Research

I’ve just returned from a trip to research sites for my upcoming series set in Greece and Ireland and points in between and will be sharing my adventures on this trek over the next few weeks. I started in the wonderful Greek Isle of Crete where I visited the center of the first stories, the ancient ruins of Knossos.

Knossos Portico Steps

This fabulous site was uncovered about 100 years ago after being buried for some 3,000 years. The archeologist restored parts of the buildings, the unique red columns, steps, and rooms, a controversial practice not accepted by today’s archeologists. But the reconstructions do offer a sense of the place I found intriguing. It was a visit to Crete several years ago that started my whole series. When I saw Knossos I knew I wanted to write about these ancient people known today as the Minoans. So I began to write what would become my opening book in a series.

I visited Greece a couple of times before this year’s trip and Stonehenge in England, and visited Ireland a couple of times as well, but as I continue with the series, new books take my characters to different places in these lands, sites I had not seen before, and I wanted to see those places on this trip.

So, why do I go? I could try to create an entire world in my own imagination, with a little help from Google Maps. But if my setting takes the reader to a real place, I’d like to see and feel the place firsthand. Why isn’t my imagination enough? Well, for one thing the natives tend to get annoyed when you misrepresent their landscapes. But there’s more to seeing a place than getting the description right.

I believe every place has a personality that comes out of the nature of the land, the people who touch it and change it. For historicals, can I feel the echoes of people who lived there before? Echoes of events that affected their lives? Maybe. I’d like to believe so. It certainly seems to happen.

Fodhele Beach

Maybe I’m only reflecting my own feelings off the land around me. But what if there’s a resonance reflecting back? I’ll reach for that. Open myself to it. Let it come in, perhaps in the moment I walk in that place, perhaps later as memory and inspiration slip into my mind.

While in Crete I also visited peaceful Fodhele Beach where a battle rages in one of my books. The water is so clear you can see the rocks in the bottom far out from the shore.

From Crete I went on to the Isle of Santorini, officially called Thera or Thira. Anglicized spellings vary in Greece due to the translations from a language with a different alphabet. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

Next stop was lovely Nafplio in the Peloponnese peninsula on the Greek mainland. From there I took day trips to the ancient Mycenaean sites of Tiryns and Mycenae itself, home of the warriors who sail to Crete in about 1470 B.C. and change the island forever.

Archeologists at Zambujal

From Greece I flew to Portugal to visit the ancient citadel of Zambujal north of Lisbon and had an amazing experience I’ll talk about in a later post. It had to do with modern-day archeologists working on this site, as shown above.

More wonderful encounters awaited me near Évora in Portugal’s interior.

From Portugal I flew to London’s Heathrow Airport where I met my writer friend, Lynn Ash, who would continue the trek with me.

After a little struggle finding each other (more on that later), we took a bus to the charming town of Amesbury, which is only a couple of miles from the famous stone circle, Stonehenge.

The next day we visited those massive stones, along with a gazillion or so ravens. Caught a couple in my photo. They seemed to add to the haunting aspect of the ancient circle.

Stonehenge and Ravens

From Amesbury we traveled north to the Lake District where we were surprised by the rugged mountains and thrilled to the beauty of the lakes. I got partway up a trail above Buttermere Water, where the outlaws in one of my books hang out. The trail never got much easier than what you see below.

Trail Above Buttermere

From the lakes we wended our way into Scotland and across to Cairnryan on the coast where we caught the ferry to Ireland, center of my later books, which intertwine with the first three. We finally reached Rosscarbery and the bay I call Golden Eagle Bay for the Golden Eagle Clan of my story whose village lies a short way above this cove.

Golden Eagle Bay

As daylight dimmed on the bay the search for story sites came to a close. I had a much stronger impression of the places I visit in story. It will take time to absorb all I’ve seen, but already these worlds have become clearer in my mind, and I want to pass that clarity on to my readers. From this overview I’ll share the highlights on my blog in more detail in the coming weeks and hope you’ll join me on this trek from Greece to Portugal to the UK to Ireland, 37 days of reaching into the hearts of lands where my characters roam.

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Website Updated

With new books on the way, the time had come for a website update. And since I was visiting my webmaster, my daughter Christiane, that worked out well. First, we had to change the release date for The Shifting Winds from April to March, since it’s coming out a month earlier than planned. And we had to show it’s availability for pre-orders. With that done, we added an Excerpt so you can read a few paragraphs of the story. Then there were new books to talk about. Today we added a description.stonehenge 3_00001

The above photo I took some years ago shows Britain’s famous Stonehenge, which figures in the newest writing project, Book Five of the Golden Isles Series. The book is called Webs of Stone. You’ll find a description on the newly revised Books page. Up until now I’ve shown only five books for the series because I wasn’t sure if I had ideas enough for a book for this 16-year period in Ireland between the end of Book One and the beginning of the final book. That gap parallels events in the Mediterranean at that time, events shown in Book Four, but what was going on in Ireland then?

My muse was slow to visit, but when I took a Thanksgiving trip to Kansas City to visit Christiane and my granddaughter Calliope, inspiration struck. My muse talked to me. It happens in odd ways sometimes. I was searching for a hideout for my outlaw character somewhere north of Stonehenge (which I call the Great Stone Circle of Wessex in the book). And I wanted mountains. Where would I find mountains in England? Would I have to go as far as the Scottish Highlands? That’s a long way from Wessex when you’re walking or riding a pony. And I’d been in the Scottish Highlands. When you’re used to the Cascades and Rockies they seem like rolling hills. Maybe Wales? I’d seen some real mountains there. I clicked the “terrain” figure on Google maps and found the Lakes District in northern England. Then with a click on “street view” I found myself in rugged, craggy, stone-strewn mountains with steep dropoffs down to lovely lakes. Perfect! I could see myself there, my characters. And the story took off in my mind.

bohonagh with clouds_00001

The photo above shows another stone circle in near silhouette. This is the circle I chose for the home circle of the Golden Eagle Clan, the central clan for both Book One and Book Five. It’s the Bohonagh Circle near Rosscarbery in Ireland. For me it’s the Golden Eagle Circle. I was lucky enough to spend several days traipsing around these pillars and the vicinity back in 2004 when I traveled to Ireland with my good friend Tilly Engholm. She was my next-door neighbor in Portland then, an avid traveler, and we had a great time on this trip–although as I wandered from circle to circle, she began to weary of stones. Once she sighed and asked, “We’re going to go see more rocks, aren’t we, Janet?” And I had to admit we were. I do love the stone circles and the power I feel in them. Fortunately, Tilly was agreeable.

I wrote Book One, Whisper of Wings, that year. Since then, I’ve spent most of my time focused on Crete, where Books Two through Four are centered. It’s lovely to be experiencing Ireland again–and England, with a few scenes on the coast of Brittany and in what is now Portugal.

I’m excited that a new story is taking off and look forward to immersing myself in it. If you don’t hear from me as often in the next few weeks, that’s where I’ll be–Ireland and the High Lakes and the plains of Wessex and those other places–from roughly 1406 B.C. to 1390 B.C., exploring the mysterious circles and other rocks scattered over the British Isles and Western Europe like interlaced webs of stone.

Check out the revisions on my website. Cheers!

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