Inspire Me! blog

Pandemic-style fall mini-adventure pt 2 – dark frights!

I read an interesting analysis today about why we like to believe in unexplained phenomena, like Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts, and other things give us shivers: that as science increasingly tries to explain everything, we respond by looking for ways to find enchantment in things that can’t be so easily explained.

I think that’s quite true, but the real question is why we continue to search for enchantment.

When I was growing up, cities were a lot darker than they are now – smaller footprints, longer distances between them, fewer businesses with lights drowning out the stars. Now it’s hard to find a dark quiet spot anywhere, even in the small city I live in, but when I was a kid, every turn in the night promised all kinds of possible adventures. Today all the bogeymen are real (some of them are even in governments), but back then they were all in our imaginations, populating the shadowy borderland between what we could see and what could be lurking just beyond.

I suspect that the more reality gets in our face, the more we want the fun of imagining things that would make us gasp in wonder and trepidation. I’ve never seen a ghost, although I know several people personally who say they have, and I want to believe that there could be, because it would mean that there’s more dimension to our world, more to find and explore. I want that sense of mystery – especially around Halloween, the night that the Celts believed opened the doorways between our world and the unseen realms beyond.

The final day of our fall mini-adventure earlier this month took us to the city of Kingston, Ontario, an area that has been inhabited since for perhaps 10,000 years by various groups, becoming the first capital of the ‘United Province of Canada in 1841. The modern city grew out of a lot of history, and there are areas where you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time.

Kingston was a strategic military outpost, particularly during the War of 1812. We’d visited its massive Fort Henry, which broods imposingly over the entrance to Lake Ontario, briefly a few years ago when we were in town for a family wedding, so on this trip we decided to give it a better look during the daytime before it turned into the haunted Fort Fright in the darkness of the October nights.

The Fort has the perfect setup for a haunted attraction: a wide walkable ditch between its outer and inner fortifications. Lit by an eerie red glow as you walk up the long pathway, you enter the upper portion of the fort and line up at safe distances to wait your turn to embark on the frightful journey through the lower levels. A bald zombie-type creature with a Don-Rickles sense of humour keeps you entertained while you wait; for some reason he fixated on my choppy hairstyle and called me “Porcupine Lady”, so when he bemoaned the fact that he couldn’t achieve the same result I kindly suggested he try out Hellraiser’s approach and stick spikes into his head.

My hubby and I have been to many haunted attractions. We aren’t frightened by the jump-scares, so for us it’s all about the ambience and the creativity, of which there were plenty at Fort Fright – some scenes below.

These attractions give us a chance, just for a while, to pretend that we’ve stepped into that shadow border between reality and imagination. The more immersive the better, and we also like snickering at touches of macabre humour – even Zombie Rickles, who spotted me as we were walking back out and threw a few more cheeky insults my way. I waved and recommended duck tape 😊

Pandemic-style fall mini-adventure – it can be done!

Well, my day started off with a bang today.

The keyboard on my laptop, which was perfectly fine when I shut things down last night, decided it wasn’t going to work today. After much cursing followed by research, I believe it may be fixable, but in the meantime I spent half my day running around to buy a new laptop with an SSD drive that was on sale at Best Buy (since the one I’ve been using is about 4.5 years old and nearing the typical lifespan of its HDD drive, and I also have a 40-minute tea talk to do via Zoom next week which I hope the upgraded equipment will make smoother), and a small wireless keyboard that I hooked up to the old one so I could type this blog without using the slow onscreen keyboard.

So, a few dollars poorer now, I’m a little less aggravated sitting on the couch typing this post. (Wish me luck setting up the new one tomorrow and transferring all the files.)

Hubby and I were very fortunate to be able to take a little vacation break last week. We decided to head to eastern Ontario for the fall colours and some Halloween-themed events. As you might expect, a lot of autumn events have been cancelled this year, but I found a few that were still running. Here’s how the planning went:

  • Checking lodging websites throughout the summer. It was challenging to find accommodations for a week – evidently a lot of Ontarians were travelling within our own ‘backyard’ in order to stay safe. We ended up booking basic rooms at the lodge associated with the golf course we wanted to play a round or two at – sadly all the rooms with fireplaces were booked up, but the basic rooms looked nice enough in photos and frankly we were delighted enough to be able to get away from the house for a few days.
  • Recurring checks on activities from August to September. They seemed to be pretty variable, depending on how the prevailing health wind was blowing. Some places opened in June/July and then closed up again within a few weeks. (I imagine there must have been cost-benefit issues with staffing, maintenance, etc.)

In September I was thrilled to see confirmed October dates for three activities we really wanted to do : Pumpkinferno at Upper Canada Village, Fort Fright at Fort Henry in Kingston, and a 1000 Islands cruise, although we did get a subsequent email from the cruise line that our original choice of date had been cancelled and we needed to pick a different date. We’d kept our itinerary really flexible around the blustery fall weather and any surprises, so it was a minor inconvenience. I did happy dances on the day I secured online tickets.

  • Several hours over the summer researching how many restaurants were still open and offering something gluten-free. A few places that we wouldn’t have minded trying out seemed to have shut their doors due to the pandemic, and others had very limited menus, so I needed to know just how often we might have to forage for meals in local grocery stores.

Here’s how it turned out. On the Saturday morning we threw our luggage into the vehicle and hit the road. We stopped in at a great gluten-free bakery in Oakville called Kelly’s to pick up an assortment of muffins for in-room breakfasts and a tray of their fabulous pumpkin scones for the picnic lunch we’d be having enroute to our final destination. It was a beautiful fall day, a mix of sun and clouds with a cool breeze coming off Lake Ontario.

Our picnic spread
The scones, with a vegan spiced maple frosting

We hurried past Toronto, which always has heavy traffic, then got off onto a more rural road through an assortment of pretty small towns dating back to the 1800s that we’d never explored before. On the outskirts of Port Hope we found a picnic area overlooking the lake and a walking trail, and spread out a plaid blanket on which we laid our lunch fare – a thermos of hot tea, scrambled egg + cheese + bacon sandwiches on gluten-free buns, and the pumpkin scones that had been calling my name for the previous two hours.

A view of Lake Ontario from the walking trail

After a good lunch and leg-stretch along a bit of the trail, we resumed travels with hardly anyone else on the road besides us – one upside to the pandemic, at least. We reached our lodging at dusk, checked in and settled into our riverview room on a hillside, and walked down to the main building for dinner.

Checking into the lodge

Glen House was obviously designed for groups of male golf buddies – our room was essentially a small cabin with a door in back off the parking area and a front door stepping out onto a balcony and a view across a lawn to the riverfront the lodge property sits on the edge of.

Rear entrance to our cabin-style room
Our sleeping & seating area
View from our balcony

There was a small kitchenette with sink, mini-fridge and coffee/tea maker, a nice-enough bathroom with a walk-in shower and a vanity that could have been a bit larger for my taste, and a small flat-screen TV with just a handful of stations. Our seating area/bedroom held two queen-sized beds, and there was a separate bedroom with another two beds. The love-seat in the seating area was actually a fold-out bed, which explained the odd tilt forward the seats had – I had to prop myself up on it to play on my laptop and my hubby in one of the tub chairs had to keep retrieving my mouse for me every time it slid off my lap. All in all, it was clean, comfortable and had good heating, which we really appreciated on the cooler nights north of Lake Ontario. Housekeeping was not allowed to enter our rooms for the duration of our stay, but there were plenty of towels and the front desk gladly supplied anything we ran low on.

Key lime cheesecake

The dining room was warm and welcoming, and the tables were well-spaced. There were indeed several groups of male golfers staying there, so as the rare female guest I was an anomaly, but most of the dining room staff were female and everyone was very nice. The menu was small, but all the food we had, whether breakfast or dinner, was quite delicious, especially the key lime cheesecake that was the featured dessert that week.

Waiting to board our cruise boat while the crew disinfected it between sailings

The next morning we woke to cloudy skies, but the weather held out and we were able to take our 1.5 hour cruise among the famous 1000 Islands that straddle the St. Lawrence River between Ontario and New York State. It was a lovely way to spend an autumn afternoon, with an excellent commentary by the crew as we wound through resplendently rustic island estates.

Gorgeous island shorelines
Gannets perched on rocky outcrops
One of the many ‘cottages’ tucked away on their private islands

The only thing we weren’t able to do was disembark at Boldt Castle, a famous manse with a tragic history that’s on U.S. soil, but the cruise circumnavigated the island and we got a pretty good look at the exterior and grounds, including the huge ‘yacht’ house on its own separate island.

Boldt Castle on Heart Island
The humble yacht house

In the strong chill breeze aboard the boat we’d worked up an appetite, so afterward we decided to have an early dinner at the cozy Cornwall Pub in the tiny town of Rockport where the cruise boats were based. I had an excellent barbecued-chicken pizza on a gluten-free crust – the advantages of a tourist town, even off-season during a pandemic! We doggie-bagged the leftovers for noshing on that evening back in our room.

Cornwall Pub
My delicious g-f pizza

Monday was golfing day, on a beautiful course called Smuggler’s Glen, made spectacular by the brilliant fall colours. The course was busy – a lot of people enjoying what was left of the end of the season here in Ontario (although if we’re lucky we might get a couple more mild days to squeeze in a final round back at home). All of the golf courses in our province have received a lot of bookings this year, since golf as a sport is both amenable to social distancing and a great opportunity to spend time outdoors.

Smuggler’s Glen Golf Course

On Tuesday evening we headed about an hour farther east to the highlight of the trip, Pumpkinferno! Spread through 1 km of historic Upper Canada Village are vignettes built of about 7,000 carved and lit pumpkins that (this year at least) you can slowly walk through and explore in the velvety darkness of a cool autumn night.

The entrance to Pumpkinferno

We’d had to prebook tickets with a specific entry time, and only 360 people total were allowed in for the entire evening, 60 at each entry time with wide spacing between groups. Even the parking spaces were arranged with space between, and there was plenty of parking close up without a long walk just to get to the entrance.

Ticket-holder entrance points

The darkness and dearth of people gave the village an eerie atmosphere, and the wide paths around the property allowed for space to enjoy the displays and music without being crowded at all – even to take my time photographing as many as possible. It was truly impressive and quite magical. It has also sold out for the rest of the month, so I’m glad we booked when we did.

Under the Sea
Superheroes
“Double, double, toil and trouble…”
Psychedelic 60s
A T-rex roars his dominance
The Enchanted Forest

These are just a few of the fantastic creations we saw. Next week, the rest of the trip, especially spooky Fort Fright, the annual haunted attraction at historic Fort Henry, where the dead walk and a sarcastic zombie keeps visitors entertained as they wait their turn to enter!

All photos by me and all rights reserved.

Autumn Mystery Lovers’ Tea

Poirot straightened up and asked sharply: “What has happened?”

“Linnet Doyle’s dead—shot through the head last night.”

Poirot was silent for a minute, two memories vividly before him—a girl in a garden in Assuan saying in a hard breathless voice, “I’d like to put my dear little pistol against her head and press the trigger,”…

I’ve always had a sneaking desire to be part of a Hercule Poirot mystery. How much fun it would be to attend an elegant soiree or, even better, a weekend house party at a great estate while Poirot questions everyone with consummate charm!

The first time my hubby and I went to England, it was in early November and we fully embraced our mystery-geek sides, dressing in trench coats and flannel trousers, visiting 221B Baker Street and the Sherlock Holmes Pub, and warding off the cool weather with hot tea in cozy little restaurants, so I will admit to being somewhat biased, but Fall seems like the best time to dive into a mystery novel. Something about the chill in the air mimics the shivers down your spine as an astute detective tries to outwit and catch the clever murderer.

England is the honorary home base of mystery stories and novels, but the origin of the genre in a major novel is attributed to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841. My favourite authors straddle both sides of the Pond, and farther abroad as well.

I love period flavour and settings that are their own characters in the story. The Victorian setting of the Sherlock Holmes stories enhances the interplay of Holmes and Watson, and created such a powerful aura that to this day some people are convinced that Holmes was a real person. 1930s flavour permeates the stories from my other two favourite British authors, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, and it was the movie version of Death on the Nile in 1978 with spectacular scenes of Egypt as a backdrop that inspired me to pursue my long-held dream and actually put together a trip there for our 10th wedding anniversary.

Edgar Allan Poe’s stories have a decidedly macabre bent that makes them great to read around Halloween, but I also love the moody film-noir vibe of Dashiell Hammett. I really got into The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency stories by Alexander McCall Smith after we’d been to Botswana, and through television we’ve discovered the charming Miss Fisher and intricate Dr. Blake mysteries from Australia, and even the Brokenwood Mysteries crime series from New Zealand. Here in Canada, although we haven’t read the books, we’re proud to be the home of the brilliantly-produced Murdoch Mysteries television series set in Toronto at the turn of the 20th century, incorporating cultural and political details of the era as well as a variety of historical figures of the time – Nicola Tesla, Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle are just a few.

This month, celebrate Autumn by snuggling up with a cup of good tea (and some delicious treats, of course) while you immerse yourself in a great mystery for a few hours.

One of my favourite teas for fall pleasure is called Russian Caravan: it has some smokiness to it, making it a perfect match for more intense fall flavours that won’t get lost against the strength of the tea.

Here are some suggestions for putting together an easy, atmospheric tea to have with your favourite mystery and a pot of Russian Caravan tea (these can all be made gluten-free if needed):

  • A smoked ham and aged cheddar sandwich with mango chutney
  • Roast beef sandwich with horseradish and black pepper crème fraiche
  • Curried chicken, dried cranberry and pecan sandwich
  • Scones with lush pumpkin butter or plum jam
  • A slice of spiced cake – try the recipe I’ve included below

Back in the 1990s there was a wonderful cooking magazine available called Chocolatier. While it was devoted lovingly to all things chocolate, it also featured a variety of other desserts, along with thorough recipes and interesting anecdotes. I loved leafing through each issue, salivating over the gorgeous photos and deciding which recipes I wanted to try out.

Chocolatier Magazine, June 1998, White House Desserts 1800 – 1998

Recipe from Dolley Madison’s personal collection, wife of James Madison inaugurated in 1809. “in her papers, Dolley left recipes for ginger pound cake and a strawberry roll. Her love of sweets was legendary and she was quoted as saying, ‘I derive my pleasure from my indulgences.’ ”

Her original recipe for the ginger pound cake was written simply as: “2 lbs. flour, 1 pint molasses, 1 lb. sugar, ½ pint sour cream, 1 lb. butter, 1 cup ginger, 10 eggs, 1 teaspoon baking soda (dissolved in warm water). Mix and bake as a pound cake.”  Chocolatier magazine provided a modernized version that produced a deep amber bundt cake which I wanted to try out as soon as I saw the photo. Finally, with my discovery of a great gluten-free all-purpose flour by Bob’s Red Mill, I gave it a shot. It turned out beautifully (photo below), if perhaps not as smooth an outer surface as the original and a little smaller, since gluten-free flour doesn’t rise as much as regular flour. The texture and crumb turned out beautifully. It made a surprisingly light fall cake, not too heavily spiced and perfect with smoky Russian Caravan tea on a cool day with the leaves falling outside.

Sadly the magazine is no longer being published, so here’s the recipe for you to enjoy as well. I substituted my gluten-free flour one-for-one for the cake flour in the recipe, plus an extra two tablespoons to compensate for the difference in flour textures (cake flour is denser). Make sure all your ingredients are at room temperature before assembling for successful baking. Also, make sure you grease every nook and cranny of your bundt pan, including the centre tube, so it will release the cake completely when it’s done. I find that taking a thin flexible knife (like a small butter spreader) and running it carefully around all outer edges of the cake, including the part around the centre tube, also helps the cake come out better.

(Note: I didn’t use the confectioners’ sugar garnish, so you won’t see that in my photo.)

Fresh Ginger Pound Cake with Cardamom Syrup

Yield: one 10-inch bundt cake serving about 12 to 14

Difficulty: Easy

Preparation: 30 minutes plus baking and cooling times

Ginger pound cake:

3 cups cake flour

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 & 1/2 cups granulated sugar

3 large eggs

1 & 1/2 cups tablespoons peeled and grated fresh gingerroot

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1 cup milk

Cardamom syrup:

1/4 cup water

1/2 cup granulated sugar

3 cardamom pods

One 1/2-inch thick slice peeled fresh gingerroot

6 black peppercorns

Garnish:

Confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Make the cake batter:

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350oF. Butter and flour the inside of a 10-cup Bundt pan, or coat it with non-stick cooking spray. Set aside.

2. Sift together the flour, ground ginger, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In the 4 & 1/2 quart bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixer using the paddle attachment, beat the butter for 2 minutes at medium speed, or until creamy. Add the sugar and continue beating for 2 minutes, or until the mixture is light in texture and color. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating for 30 to 40 seconds after each egg is added. Scrape down the side of the bowl frequently with a rubber spatula to keep the batter even-textured. Blend in the grated gingerroot and lemon juice.

3. On low speed, alternately add the sifted mixture in three additions with the milk in two additions, beginning and ending with the sifted mixture.

4. Pour and scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Smooth the top with a rubber spatula. Bake the cake for 50 to 55 minutes, or until risen and a wooden toothpick inserted into the cake withdraws cleanly. Cool the cake in the pan over a wire rack for 10 minutes, then invert it onto another rack.

Make the syrup:

5. Combine the water, sugar, cardamom, ginger and peppercorns in a small non-reactive saucepan. Set over medium heat, and warm the mixture, stirring frequently until the sugar melts, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let the mixture stand for 10 minutes, allowing the flavors to infuse into the syrup.

6. Strain the syrup through a medium sieve into a small bowl. Using a pastry brush, dab the syrup over the surface of the warm cake, allowing it to sink into the cake before reapplying it in the same area. Let the cake cool completely.

Garnish the cake:

7. Sprinkle the top of the cake with confectioners’ sugar before serving.

I really miss this magazine, but a collection of some of the recipes is available through Amazon: Chocolate passion: recipes and inspiration from the kitchens of Chocolatier magazine. If you decide to try the recipe, I’d love to know how it turned out, and please feel free to share the titles of some of your favourite mystery stories! Happy reading 🙂

‘The darkness takes on a special feel’

“The wind outside nested in each tree, prowled the sidewalks in invisible treads like unseen cats… Anyone could see that the wind was a special wind this night, and the darkness took on a special feel because it was All Hallows’ Eve.” Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree

Finally, October! The month I spend the rest of the year waiting for. I love the moody weather, tinged with a slight chill. Today as I baked some cranberry and walnut pumpkin bread I watched the winds snatch leaves from our linden tree and fling them through the air.

Of course, my hubby was more acerbic about all the leaves on the ground when he was outside grilling sausages for dinner (despite the fact that he hires our next door neighbours’ son to rake them up).

Our leaves are all changing colour early this year, despite a very hot summer, and the scenery is so gorgeous. There are a number of reasons why I chose to retire from a full-time job this year, but one of them was an intense desire to stop living for weekends – to be able to really enjoy each day, and each season. By a certain age you begin to realize that the number of Autumns (or whichever season you love best) you have left to experience is smaller than the number that have gone so quickly by already, and you want to stop wasting time.

This week I celebrated my new freedom by visiting our Royal Botanic Gardens on an autumn weekday, something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Although the colours weren’t as intense there, a little surprisingly, there was enough to keep me and several other keen photographers who I ran into occupied for hours, and we had the gardens largely to ourselves, without the crowds that have often made it really challenging to have a flower or vista to yourself long enough to be able to try out different angles and groupings.

Perfect timing – an orange Monarch butterfly was kind enough to land on an orange flower
Beautiful grouping of fall colours and textures
Sculpture by the Rose Garden Tea House
A soft pink rose with its own hips in the Rose Garden
This deep crimson rose would look wonderful in a vampire’s lair
A ghostly ‘Long Island Cheese’ pumpkin in the Vegetable Garden

I was really pleased with a lot of the photos, and since people have been commenting on my flower photos for years, I think I’m going to start offering a garden photography service now that I have the time.

My house is completely decorated for Halloween, even our bedroom with some chic black velvet skull pillows and a cute satin pumpkin. The framed image over the bed is a fairly new addition. We redid our bedroom last year to accommodate a new king-sized adjustable bed – the walls are a foggy fawn colour that’s very relaxing, but the bedspread I’d ordered from Amazon turned out to be more eggnog than cream. Luckily, while we were in Belfast at the Titanic Museum, there was a print from an artist who paints only images about the famous doomed ship that I fell in love with, and the gold tones of the smokestacks in this image of the Titanic leaving Belfast, where it was built, pulled in the pale yellows of the bedspread perfectly. So every day I get to relive having been able to stand in that very shipyard while I admire how well the print ties in the room colours and now my Halloween accessories.

I’ve been bingeing on Halloween-themed television shows (Halloween Wars, Outrageous Pumpkins and the Halloween Baking Championship) and waiting to find out whether trick-or-treating will be allowed this year. I hope so – another bit of normalcy in our wacky year, and I will diligently make up treat bags with gloved hands. We plan to hand them out with tongs from a Mad Scientist’s Lab table that we’ll set up on our front porch – I promise photos if that all falls into place!

In Canada we’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving next weekend, carefully within our family/friend bubbles – ours will be outside on our patio with sweaters on, mugs of hot chocolate, lots of orange pumpkins and potted bronze chrysanthemums, and a little buffet set up with warming pans and crock pots.

Take whatever time you can to enjoy all the sights, scents and delightful shivers of this most engaging of months – October always goes by far too quickly!

Next week, ideas for an Autumn Mystery Lover’s Tea 😊

As always, all photos are by me unless otherwise specified, and all rights are reserved.

The navel of Peru

The Incas worshiped the Andean mountains, and as we traveled onward from Chivay to Cuzco, we could see why. This stretch was probably our longest on the road, but the mountains were endlessly fascinating – snow-capped peaks in vivid colours from ochre to deep charcoal brushing the piercingly blue sky.

The road at Mirador de los Andes

We reached the Mirador le los Andes, the highest point in the road, where a lookout offers stunning views of five volcanic peaks, including El Misti, the mountain looming over Arequipa, and Ampato, the final dramatic resting place of the Ice Maiden. Disembarking at an altitude of 4910 metres (16, 109 feet), we were warned to take things very slowly when we got off the overland truck, lest we pass out from lack of oxygen. The air was bright and cold as we stepped down onto the thin gravel surface, and it felt like we’d suddenly aged thirty years.

An artful rock stack framed by the mountains at Mirador

A small lake of rocks surrounds the lookout, and it’s become a tradition for visitors to build little rock stacks as a prayer to the gods for safe travels. My hubby and I shuffled around and soaked in the remarkable feeling of standing on the roof of the world, and I unexpectedly understood what drives the Mt Everest climbers: the exhilaration of both seeing what your body is capable of and experiencing sights so profound we were speechless.

The peaks of the Andes are a world unto themselves, with llama farms in the middle of nowhere, odd little outposts dotting the wide plateaus, small villages where people still carry on in the old ways, entrepreneurial women selling their beautiful textiles along the roadsides, and pockets of shimmering blue lakes.

It was growing dark by the time we reached the outskirts of Cuzco, and when I asked the driver to stop for a bathroom break, we discovered that our ailing passenger had relapsed and wasn’t able to walk. I spoke to our overall tour leader and as soon as we reached our hotel, the three of us made a beeline to a small hospital, my traveler head resting on my shoulder for the ride, while everyone else checked into their rooms.

Plaza de Armas at night

The hospital immediately ran a battery of tests, and confirmed what I’d suspected: more altitude sickness, which had driven my traveler blood pressure sky high, coupled with a reaction to the antibiotic that the doctor in Chivay had prescribed. She was put on IV to get her pressure back under control, and a different antibiotic. I processed the travel insurance information as our tour leader translated for me with her far more fluent Spanish.

Finally, exhausted, the leader and I got back to the hotel around 10pm. My hubby had arranged to get some take-out chicken from a little place down the street so that I was able to have a light dinner. Our traveler would remain in the hospital for two days while we moved on to the Amazon jungle the next morning (see my June 25 blog post for the details from that part of our adventure). A few other people who were planning on hiking the Inca Trail also elected to remain in Cuzco to spend more time acclimating. When we returned to Cuzco, she had recovered well and was able to continue on the journey, and the rest of us had acclimated to the altitude as well and were feeling pretty chipper. But we had picked up some additional passengers while we were in the Amazon (the tour could be joined at different points and carried on beyond Bolivia, which was the endpoint for my little group), and they had just experienced a steep change in altitude in a single day, from about 600 feet to over 11,000. Several of them were setting out on the challenging Inca Trail hike the next morning.

None of my group from Canada had wanted to do the 4-day hike, so I’d arranged for our own little adventure,  exploring Cuzco and the Sacred Valley for two days, followed by a train ride along the Urubamba River to the town of Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu and two nights at a hotel in the midst of the Andean Cloud Forest.

Pachacuti, 9th Sapa Inca

Cuzco was the ancient capital of the Incan Empire, considered the navel of its civilization, and it shows. Spanish conquistadores captured the city in the 1500s and literally built on top of what they’d conquered, but although the native peoples assimilated into the Spanish rule they remained unbowed, their skilled artisans subtly adding their own stamp to the churches, incorporating their local delicacies into Christian holidays (guinea pig remains the preferred specialty for Christmas), keeping their Quechua language alive to this day. And in a final irony, every time there was an earthquake the elaborate Spanish buildings would crumble atop their superb-crafted Incan bases.

The Koricancha, where a Spanish convent is built on top of Incan walls

The resulting city, set breathtakingly in the bowl of a ring of peaks, is an amalgamation of old Peru sprinkled with magnificent Spanish architecture, narrow streets spreading upward from the pretty central square.

If you pay attention there are bits of the Incans all over the place, like a sinuous little snake carved high on a wall, to an entire wall with stones set in the shape of a puma, one of the sacred animals of the Incas. It’s believed that the original city was built in the shape of a puma. In this wall there’s also a famous 12-sided stone that everyone goes to see for its remarkably-precise fit among its adjacent stones.

The entire area was considered deeply sacred, and is full of smaller but important sites to visit. Cuzco is definitely a tourist centre, and tours can be booked for all manner of sights and activities. Accommodations abound, from hostels to mid-range to luxurious, and services abound for the independent traveler.

There’s a lively food scene. On our first morning we headed for the legendary Jack’s, famous for its full breakfasts and amazing coffee creations.

The next morning we returned to a place we’d had dinner in the night before, a little place with creaky floors on the top story of a building, where we had the best oatmeal I’ve ever had in my life, rich and sublimely creamy with a perfect amount of cinnamon added; I had planned to go back and ask for the recipe but never did make it, sadly. Chocolate lovers can even take classes in making their own.

Shops abound, many with a spiritual vibe channelling the mystical surroundings – I bought a shaman’s rattle at this little shop down the road from the Incan wall and the 12-sided stone.

In the Gallery above I found a tapestry representing the quipu, the series of knotted strings used for counting, and some believe for language transmission as well. Very few of the precious original quipu survive, so I knew I’d never get my hands on a real one, but my small wall-hanging is good enough for me, a tribute to that remarkable ancient culture.

Entrance to the Cathedral

Touring the Spanish constructions is de rigueur, and gives insight into the blending of the two cultures. In the Cathedral, you can see evidence of the subversive insertion of Incan symbology: every image of the Virgin Mary in her robes is in the shape of the sacred mountain, a painting of the Last Supper features guinea pig on the table, and many of the carved wooden seats have startling finials on the arms in the shape of bare-breasted women. Photography wasn’t allowed in the interior, so you’ll have to go and see all this for yourself 🙂

Cuzco also has an excellent museum to learn more about the Incas and their remarkable civilization.

Stunning Sacsayhuaman

Surrounding the city are a collection of lesser-known but important sacred sights. My favourite was Sacsayhuaman, long stacked walls with massive stone blocks undulating under the deep blue sky and showing the astounding expertise of the Incan builders – they found that making the layers rise and fall within each wall rendered them virtually earthquake-proof.

Fountains at Tambomachay

Tambomachay is believed to have been an ancient palace, and is replete with fountains and baths. It’s set in a lovely valley along a stream lined with olive trees and small shrubs. At the end of the valley, even if you’re not doing the famous hike to Machu Picchu, you can walk for a while in solitary enjoyment along the original trail first laid down by the Incas, who created a vast network of paths for their runners throughout the country, one of which ran far out to the coast at Puerto Inka (see this blog post). People live on the slopes above the site, and women in traditional dress bring colour to the scene.

My opportunity to walk a little of the original Inca trail

At Qenko you descend into the Incan underworld, into a deep cold chamber used for sacrifices. It is a huaca, a natural stone site that was believed by the Incas to have intrinsic sacred qualities.

Quenko

As you might have discerned, we loved Cuzco and could happily have spent at least a week there if we’d had the time. My research had shown reports about a high crime rate, but all of us wandered all over the place and had no incidents, apart from one fellow who left foolishly $700 locked up in his dufflebag in the hotel storage while we spent two days in the Amazon jungle and returned to find it had been stolen. (Note to travelers: always carry your valuables with you.) Cuzco is an intriguing and charming city in a spectacular setting with a large amount of history and culture to explore, so give yourself more than a single day there.

On the day we set out for Aguas Calientes, our package included a tour of the Sacred Valley itself, where the silvery Urubamba River winds among emerald-sided mountains until it reaches Machu Picchu itself.

Looking down on the Sacred Valley

We visited the ancient agricultural site of Pisac, where tall terraces step steeply down a mountainside like a massive stadium. Among their many talents, the Inca civilization also included skilled farmers – each level of the terraces had a different microclimate that would support different types of plants. Modern Peruvians still use these ancient techniques to grow food in what would seem some of the most difficult locations.

The terraces of Pisac

We also spent a delightful hour at the Awana Kancha Cooperative, where sixteen families keep alive the ancient weaving and dying techniques. We learned that the four different camelids of South America – the llama, the alpaca, the vicuna and the guanaco, are all related to the camels we’d seen (and ridden) in Egypt. You can pet and feed some of them, if they’re willing, and learn how dyes are traditionally made from different plants. Women in beautifully coloured clothing demonstrate their remarkable weaving. For visitors to Peru, this place should not be missed.

Llamas come in different colours

Following a steady stream of tour buses, we finally reached Ollantaytambo, well-known as the jumping-off point for the Inca Trail hike, but more significantly as the ceremonial centre of the Incan empire, as well as the royal estate for the emperor Pachacuti, whose golden statue dominates the Plaza de Armas in Cuzco.

Llama escapees on the road
Folloiwing the buses

More steep agricultural terraces rise up a hillside, interspersed with grain storehouses, while at the bottom there are houses, baths and fountains.

This photo gives an idea of the sheer size of Ollantaytambo. Storehouses can be seen in the upper right.

This site was chosen because of a natural feature on the mountainside which the Inca believed was the face of Tunupa, better known as Viracocha, the great creator god who rose from the waters of Lake Titicaca high up in the Andes; we would later see that lake itself and more of Viracocha at the remote ruins of Tiwanaku in Bolivia.

The town of Ollantaytambo is charming, with a colourful market and the train station where, after a quick lunch in town, we boarded our window-lined Vistadome train to Aguas Calientes.

For me this was one of our best train rides ever, as we were transported along the winding Urubamba River along the same route that Hiram Bingham followed in 1911 when he searched for the lost city of Vilcabamba, instead making one of the most famous archeological finds in history, the lost citadel of Machu Picchu. With soft pan-pipe music playing over the intercom, through the domed windows we watched the river tumble by over a series of rapids, past thick walls of vegetation and clouds rolling in over distant peaks.

I could picture what it must have been like for Bingham’s expedition hacking through the untouched jungle in search of ancient mysteries (see this photo from his journeys of crossing a rough log bridge over the raging river below the mountain on which Machu Picchu sits, and more, on the Machu Picchu Explorer website, about the book written by his son).

http://www.machupicchuexplorer.com/AMBpix-2.htm

As dusk began to fall, we arrived at the station in Aguas Calientes,

A representative from the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel collected our luggage and we followed her through town to the property, set in 12 acres of cloud forest on the edge of town, where we would spend the next two nights in Andean comfort as we explored Bingham’s legacy for ourselves. Check back in November for what we saw and experienced in one of the world’s most famous places.

Little cracks, little fixes

I fully support all the measures our government has recommended during this pandemic – I wear a reusable mask in all public indoor spaces, wash my hands thoroughly as soon as I get home and stay home as much as I can without going stir-crazy. In fact, everyone in our neighbourhood seems to be doing the same, regularly hanging out in their yards.

I’m extremely grateful to have a back yard to safely spend time in, and I feel for everyone living in apartments or condos these days. We’re even hoping to eat Thanksgiving dinner with my brother on our patio in three weeks if the weather holds out. We may have to bundle up in toasty sweaters and sip hot cocoa to ward off the chill as we eat surrounded by fall colours, but that will be half the fun.

But this sudden press of humanity on a daily basis has its pros and cons. We’ve chatted with our neighbours more this summer than any time in the past, from a safe distance of course. The flip side has been a sometimes disconcerting lack of privacy. My hubby and I have remedied that as much as possible by putting a small privacy garden along our back fence, with trees that should grow in fairly quickly so that it stops feeling like we’re in two fish bowls side by side.

No one’s talked about what to do if you have aggravating neighbours, though – in our case, kids who haven’t been taught to respect boundaries. Over the years I’ve loved the sound of generations of kids playing on the large island we have in our cul-de-sac, but this summer with everyone home most of the time, several neighbours have complained to one family in particular about hockey pucks hitting their parked vehicles, toys left all over the road and on other people’s lawns, and repeated trespassing. Not the worst problem to have (judging by what I’ve been reading online), but after several months it’s gotten pretty tiresome.

Yesterday, before I blew my stack and turned into a complete witch, I decided a better idea would be to take a break. Channeling Sheldon Cooper, first I did a restocking run to our local pharmacy. There’s something satisfying about foraging for all the things that help to make your life more comfortable, even in small ways – a sense of accomplishment, especially now when so much is on hold.

After that, I checked out the new Halloween stock at our Home Sense store, then hit the country roads for some fresh-air R&R.

First purchase was an assortment of pumpkins for our front porch – a vermilion Cinderella, a squat blue pumpkin and a fat white one, and of course a big orange pumpkin for carving next month. A small pumpkin pie also came home with me for an after-dinner treat. To me, pumpkins are the icons of fall – so warm and homey-looking, and so delicious in pies and Pumpkin Spice Lattes!

Next I spent some time at our local botanical garden. It must be a well-kept secret because whenever I’ve visited this year I’ve largely had the place to myself, even though the gardens are extensive and free to visit.

Entrance to the gardens is lined with benches amid lush planters

The peacefulness of soft sun and a light breeze on my face, the chirping of birds in the trees and bees buzzing around the flowers, never fails to help me decompress, and I love taking photos of all the artistic details – the glow of sun through leaves, the sculptural quality of plants as they bend over the water, a butterfly flitting among the bright fall-tinted flowers.

Next time you’re out in nature, lose yourself for a while in admiring the details – of an intricate flower pistil, the undersides of flowers, bees industriously gathering pollen, the juxtaposition of colours and shapes. Several gardeners were pruning and clearing, and one of them chatted pleasantly with me as I strolled by.

Gardens are magical healing places if you take the time to enjoy all their layers, even if you just sit on a bench for a while and close your eyes to steep yourself in the scents and sounds.

As I turned home, I stopped in at my favourite roadside market to buy some fresh fruit and vegetables – it’s always a treat to see what’s filling their baskets and bushels that can be turned into something delectable for our next few meals.

Feeling much better, my hubby and I had a nice, easy meal topped off with freshly-baked pumpkin pie and whipped cream, and we relaxed for the evening. It’s easy to get caught up in the news and pandemic politics, and in trying to manage daily life while things are all cockeyed, so take a break once in a while and do something that restores your equanimity. And since we’re all in this together, be mindful of everyone around you. Kindness and consideration will help smooth a lot of the journey.

All photos by me and all rights reserved.