New Year’s Visit to Montpelier

The snow conditions weren’t great for cross-country skiing, so J and I decided to take a short road trip to explore Vermont’s capital city, Montpelier. This small city is not just a miniature version of Burlington, though it does share the Queen City’s progressive attitude.

We took Route 2, which winds along the Winooski River, and entered the city on State Street. The golden dome of the state house shone brightly in the winter sun. In front of the building, water flowed through a hose into the new ice rink the city has constructed.

A little further down State Street, the state court house bells tolled, letting us know that it was noon. We stopped into Capitol Grounds, the local coffee house. A rack of Bernie’s Beans paraphinalia reminded us of the sense of doom many in this part of the country feel about the upcoming changes in Washington.

After a quick cup of coffee, we headed over to Langdon Street, where whimsical art covers many of the buildings.

 

In Search of Bleu Cheese and Peace on the Shores of Mephrémagog

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Since moving to Vermont nearly 11 years ago, I have wanted to try the cheeses and cider made by the monks who live at Saint-Benoît-du-Lac Abbey, just south of the town of Magog, Quebec, at the northern tip of Lake Mephrémagog. It might seem odd to some to drive for two hours just to get some bleu cheese, but for those who know me and my love of a nice piece of creamy Gorgonzola or the pungent flavor of crumbly Roquefort, this trip was nothing out of the ordinary.

On the Road

The drive to the abbey took me through the rolling meadows of northern Vermont, with rows of corn stalk stubble creating a natural topographic map across the fields. After crossing into the woods of Quebec’s Eastern Townships, I worked my way north on twisting roads, through small towns and farmstands closed up for the season, until I saw the sign for the abbey.

Arriving at My Destination

After turning  off of the two-lane main road onto the smaller street leading to the abbey, I could see the monastery’s granite tower reaching above the trees. As I walked from the parking lot, which was nearly full, with license plates from as far away as Michigan, I was in awe of the abbey’s presence. Surrounded by trees with the lake’s waters shimmering just a short distance away, the building stood large in its forest clearing. Resembling an Old World monastery, yet with the clean lines of the modern era, the abbey and the open land around it exuded a peaceful aura.

Inside the Abbey

I pulled open the heavy wooden door and entered the lobby. Despite the grandiosity of the building, the dark entryway looked and felt like any church’s, with wooden doors leading to private rooms and a confessional tucked behind some structural beams. Through a set hallwayof double doors, however, my mood changed quickly as I found myself in a long hallway, surrounded by colorful tiles on the floor and walls. A series of panels on one wall told the story of the monks who founded this monastery.

History of the Abbey

After being exiled from the Fontenelle Abbey in Normandy in 1912, a group of French monks made their way to Canada and founded a new abbey here. Little by little, they grew the compound and finally completed the construction of this abbey in the early 1990s.

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Finding Peace

I reached the end of the hallway and entered the nave. In contrast with the multihued hallway, this grand space was austere, with wood and metal architectural elements more like those you’d more likely find in a Scandinavia design than a Catholic church. A few people sat scattered throughout the pews, heads bowed in mediation. Just outside the nave’s doors, a modern holy water font waited for the next worshippers to arrive.

I stood for several moments, taking in the emptiness of the room. The grand pipe organ stood silent that afternoon, so the only sound was the quiet shuffling of feet as visitors wandered down the sides of the nave. I am not a religious person, but I found comfort in this place. After living through a month of the aftermath of this year’s election, I needed to take a break—a break from the news, a break from thinking about our country’s future, a break from the negativity, both from outside sources and from within my own mind.

Cheese!

Back in the lobby, I found the door to the gift shop, which had been my primary reason for coming here today. The walls were lined with refrigerators full of cheddar, bleu cheese, and smoked fontina, and shelves of maple products and candies lined the rest of the store. I returned to my car with bags full of cheese—three kinds of bleu cheese, in fact—and a bottle dry cider, and, perhaps most important, a newfound sense of calm in mind.

Overcast in Hvar

The lavender-covered island of Hvar, a thirty-minute ferry ride from the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, enjoys a purported 350 sunny days each year. Today wasn’t one of those days.

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My husband and I set out to explore Hvar Town, a twenty-minute stroll from the hotel along the pathway hugging the Adriatic Sea. The overcast sky didn’t make for great photos, but our legs thanked us for the opportunity to stretch out after four days on the motorcycle.

The evening before, our group—a mix of Americans and Canadians, a smiling quartet from Rio, and a pair of wise-cracking Australians—were whisked by water taxi to a local, family-run restaurant where we were wined and dined (perhaps overly wined, in fact) under the boughs of olive trees. So perhaps the lack of sunshine this morning was a good thing, helping us recover from one too many sips of the smooth, rose-scented rakia.

A line of umbrella-toting worshippers slowly walked the perimeter of St. Stephen’s Square. Our guide had mentioned the Michaelmas celebration. Having survived the various saints’ days that overwhelmed summer weekends in the Italian North End of Boston, I had expected celebratory music blaring, crowds of onlookers enjoying traditional foods, perhaps a cadre of raucous senior citizens hoisting a statue of St. Michael. Instead, the queue filed silently through the mist into the church, heads bowed.

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Off the main square, we maneuvered through a maze of narrow pedestrian streets. Restaurants tucked in small alcoves, numerous art galleries, and fashionable clothing shops caught our eyes, but we were searching for something else. Up flight after flight of steps, we followed arrows that promised “Fortica Španjola.” Finally, the stairs ended… halfway to the top of the mountain where the fortress stood. We completed the ascent, catching glimpses of the sea and the Pakleni islands through the palm and pine trees lining the switchbacking path.

We spent the rest of the afternoon nursing cold Ožujskos and relaxing in the tangerine-cushioned lounge chairs along the beach at our hotel. Three bikinied English women, immune to the cool ocean breeze, padded past us and lowered themselves down the ladder into the waves. With their hair piled up in buns, they held their heads above the water as they doggie paddled out to the ropes marking off the swimming area. Despite the waves, the water was clear, allowing us to watch the small fish swarming about and sea urchins crawling across the rocky bottom.

Suddenly, one of the swimmers screamed. “Something touched me!” As they splashed their way back to the ladder, an Italian woman, half-dozing in a lounge chair near the ladder, calmly said, “It’s a diver.” Sure enough, a line of bubbles led from the spot where the women had been treading to a wetsuit-clad man hauling his tank aboard a small boat anchored not from shore.

The women giggled embarrassedly, shivering as the breeze picked up. As they wrapped themselves in orange towels that matched the lounge cushions a little too perfectly, the Italian woman looked up at them. “I told you so. Those bubbles were from the diver. Sharks don’t fart.” One of the English swimmer replied with a smile, “Maybe Croatian ones do!”