On a winter’s day, a double helping of English cheddar cheese (Yes, please)

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Cheddar and Black Pepper Scones pair nicely with a bowl of soup, or as an afternoon snack with a cup of tea.

By Betty Gordon

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

On a rare snowy day in January here in the deep South, when going outside for any length of time was further discouraged by temperatures barely in the 20s and a gusty wind, I headed to the kitchen. I weighed making some of my favorite recipes, but this seemed like an opportunity to try some new ones.

(I’m not a cold-weather wimp — I’ve lived in North Dakota, Connecticut, Michigan, upstate New York and Missouri. Residents of those states know a thing or two about cold and snowy weather.)

I love cheese, particularly extra-sharp cheddar. I build sandwiches around it, eat it out of hand with apple slices, snack on it with crackers, layer it in casseroles, and fold it into savory baked goods. All in moderation, of course, because cheddar has a hefty fat content.

With a 20-ounce block of Coastal rugged mature cheddar, made by Ford Farms in Dorchester, England, in the refrigerator, I decided to build around that ingredient.

And what better food on a blustery day than soup? On an earlier spin through one of my cookbooks, I had marked Potato, Parsnip and Cheddar Cheese Soup, and settled on making that.

The roux made from flour and butter (or margarine) helps thicken the soup, as does the addition of heated milk and melting cheddar. When all that is whisked together, then stirred into the vegetable base, the yield is a stick-to-the spoon thick, mildly flavored bowl of comfort.

Because cheese can present one of the hardest cleanup tasks, use an enameled Dutch oven, such as Le Creuset, for making the soup. If you don’t own one, then keep a close eye on the soup and the heat level on the stove once you’ve added the milk-cheese mixture. You don’t want it to burn and make a crusty mess.

To accompany the velvety soup, and to have a “utensil” to mop up every little bit of it from the bowl, I made Cheddar and Black Pepper Scones. Hot out of the oven, they reminded me of bumpy, flaky biscuits. The cheddar oozes as the scones bake, giving them that little extra oomph. When cooled, the texture was denser, more like traditional scones.

Light cream-colored Coastal cheddar is aged for up to 15 months. Flakier than some cheddars, it has thin veins of calcium lactate crystals that impart a subtle crunch. The hit of salt is also a nice contrast to the mellow, nutty flavor of the cheese.

The soup can be a main course, balanced with a mixed green salad with red bell peppers, grape tomatoes, celery, onions, carrots and olives. Or any combination of your own liking, of course.

If you’ve had a an outdoorsy day, burning a lot of calories and energy, then there’s no need to feel guilty about this splurge on the cheddar side.

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Creamy Potato, Parsnip and Cheddar Cheese Soup is stick-to-your ribs comfort food.

Potato, Parsnip and Cheddar Cheese Soup

Hands on: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Serves: 6 to 8

1 1/2 pounds russet potatoes (about two large), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice

1/2 pound parsnips, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice

2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice

1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped

4 cups water, vegetarian stock or chicken stock

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter or margarine

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups milk

6 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, cut in small dice or shredded

Carrot curls for garnish (optional)

In a large, heavy Dutch oven, combine potatoes, parsnips, carrots, onion and water or stock. Bring to a boil over high heat. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover partway, and reduce heat to medium. Stir every 10 minutes or so. Simmer until the vegetables are soft, about 30 minutes.

After the soup has been cooking about 20 minutes, begin the milk-cheese part. In a heavy saucepan, melt the butter or margarine over medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour and and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in the milk. Lower heat as necessary and do not let the mixture reach a boil. The mixture will thicken as you continue whisking, for 3 to 5 minutes. Add the cheddar cheese and continue whisking as it melts. Keep the mixture warm until the soup is ready.

Pour the milk-cheese mix into the vegetables. Stir thoroughly. Add salt and pepper to taste. Ladle into individual dishes and garnish with carrot curls on top. As it cools, the soup will form a skin on top, so stir before serving.

Refrigerated leftovers will keep 3 to 4 days in a tightly covered container.

Adapted from “One Potato, Two Potato: 300 Recipes from Simple to Elegant — Appetizers, Main Dishes, Side Dishes, and More” by Roy Finamore with Molly Stevens (Houghton Mifflin Co., 2001, $35)

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Lining the baking tray with parchment paper can make cleanup easier because any cheese that melts won’t stick to the paper.

Cheddar and Black Pepper Scones

Hands on: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes to 1 hour 40 minutes

Makes: About 40 (1 1/2-inch) scones

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter or margarine

1 cup (4 ounces) cheddar cheese, shredded or cut in small dice

1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper (decrease the amount if you want less heat)

3/4 cup (6 ounces) buttermilk, plain yogurt or sour cream

Milk for glaze (optional)

In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar. With a pastry cutter or two forks, cut in butter and cheese. Stir in black pepper. Cover and refrigerate dough for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Stir in the buttermilk, yogurt or sour cream. The mixture will be very crumbly. It should hold together, but if not, add buttermilk, yogurt or sour cream by the tablespoon as needed.

Gather dough into a ball and turn out onto a well-floured surface or piece of parchment paper.

Pat the mixture into a 12-by-8-inch rectangle about 3/4-inch thick. Cut into 1 1/2-inch squares. Transfer the squares to parchment paper-lined baking sheets, leaving about 1 inch between squares. They will rise and expand as they bake. Brush top of each square lightly with milk, if desired.

Alternatively, use a 2- or 2 21/2-inch floured biscuit cutter to stamp out scones, or cut dough into larger squares or triangles.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, turning the sheets about halfway through and swapping positions on oven racks, until lightly golden on top. The melting cheese may dribble a bit, and baking on parchment paper will speed the cleanup.

Store for up to a week in an air-tight container.

Nutrition information, per 2-scone serving: 132 calories, 6.4 grams fat, 4 grams protein, 1 gram sugar, 1 gram dietary fiber, 19 milligrams cholesterol, 302 milligrams sodium, 14 grams complex carbohydrates. (These figures apply to the 1 1/2-inch scones.)

Adapted from a King Arthur Flour recipe, http://www.kingarthurflour.com

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At the National Piping Centre in Glasgow, Scotland: Eat, drink, pipe, sleep

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Framed by the window behind the silhouette of a bagpipe is the Theatre Royal, directly across the street from the National Piping Centre in Glasgow. The theater is home to the Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet.

By Betty Gordon

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In October 2017, I visited Scotland for 10 days. This is the third in a series about my wanderings. For a post about Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford, see December 15, 2017; for one about the retired Royal Yacht Britannia, see post of January 9, 2018.

“Would you like a wee dram?” the young, dark-haired, blue-eyed woman asked me from behind the bar/check-in area as I arrived at my hotel in Glasgow.

It wasn’t even noon yet. I eyed the small clear plastic glass, not much larger than a thimble, about three-quarters full of a beckoning golden liquid. Behind it on a rectangular silver tray sat a bottle of Glenfiddich whisky. Small bites of crumbly shortbread were scattered on a plate.

A bit startled by the offer, it didn’t take me long to reply: “Yes, thank you.” Down it went, smoothly, with just the right amount of warmth trickling in my throat to stave off a chilly Scottish morning.

The Pipers’ Tryst is not only a very friendly place to stay, it’s a celebration of many things Scottish. Besides the whisky, locally sourced menus offer traditional Scottish favorites, and right next door to the eight-room hotel is the National Piping Centre. The buildings occupy the converted, Italianate-style Old Cowcaddens Church, built in 1872.

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The National Piping Centre (left) adjoins the Pipers’ Tryst Hotel. Both occupy a former Italianate-style house of worship, the Old Cowcaddens Church, constructed from cream sandstone and completed in 1872. 

It’s also well-located, about a 10-minute walk to the city center and main train station, and close to the Cowcaddens metro stop. Directly across the street is the Theatre Royal, the oldest theater in Glasgow, and home of the Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet.

I stopped in one day to check the schedule but unfortunately no performance coincided with my stay. Several other music venues are also nearby.

In my modestly furnished room, red-and-tan plaid blankets and matching throw pillows were on the ample bed (some rooms have a green-and-blue color scheme), which was also equipped with a coffee/tea-making station (two two-cookie shortbread packages provided daily). Scottish spring water was in a tall, capped clear glass bottle on a small dressing table. The room was pretty Spartan, but it was enough for my purposes.

The spotless bathroom was larger than I was expecting, and looked like it had been more recently updated than the sleeping area.

Perched on the corner of the tub was a 3 1/2-inch tall rubber duck, jauntily dressed in in his own red-and-black plaid, black tam-o’-shanter, red-and-white epaulets, and with a blowpipe pressed to his beak. Angus made me laugh out loud.

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Say hello to Angus, posing here on the bed, but who was more at home on the rim of the bathtub.

Management discouraged “adopting” Angus (i.e. sneaking him home in a suitcase), but for those honest and quickly enamored folks, this little fowl’s “siblings” were available for purchase. (Yes, I bought one.)

Breakfast was included in my booking, and included anything I wanted from the continental buffet and a cooked-to-order entree. The buffet featured freshly baked croissants and pastries, Scottish yogurt, fresh fruit, an assortment of cereals (bran, muesli, cornflakes), butter and jams, juice, coffee, tea and milk.

Several mornings I ordered smoked salmon and scrambled eggs (from free-range Scottish chickens). I was delighted with such a generous portion of slightly salty salmon — three wide, thick slabs of glistening, pink-orange flesh. The salmon was crying out for a jump onto a bagel slathered with cream cheese. I made a mini open sandwich with salmon on toast instead.

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Part of the dining area and bar at the Pipers’ Tryst Hotel.

One morning I tried the vegetarian version of the Pipe Major’s breakfast. My plate was loaded with creamy scrambled eggs, sautéed mushroom cap, a round tattie (potato) scone, sautéed potato cubes, grilled tomato half and veggie haggis. Toast was served separately.

Haggis is a well-known Scottish dish, but many people scrunch up their faces when they hear it described: oatmeal, seasonings and sheep or calf’s offal (internal organs) mixed with suet and boiled in an animal’s stomach.

The veggie version was more appetizing. Without the animal component, it resembled a side dish of oats and lentils, had a hint of cinnamon, and salt (they use Hebridean Sea salt or Maldon) and pepper. I liked it.

The Pipe Major’s breakfast includes what I had, but comes with a slice of real haggis, Ayrshire bacon, Stornoway black pudding (pork sausage with dried pig’s blood and suet) and sausage.

The Pipers’ Tryst Restaurant also does a brisk lunch and dinner trade. The menus change with the season, again concentrating on locally sourced vegetables, meat and seafood (see website for details).

In addition to a wine list, Scottish gin and Scottish craft beer and cider, there’s a wide selection of Scottish whiskies.

To tour the Museum of Piping in the National Piping Centre (technically a charity), I waited for a less-than-ideal weather day. In that I didn’t leave the building, that meant I didn’t have to wear a coat or lug an umbrella. Just walk through the small corridor from the Pipers’ Tryst dining area to the marble-floored lobby of the center, which opened in 1996, with its patron, Prince Charles, in attendance.

The bagpipe is quintessential Scotland. Or as the Reverend Patrick MacDonald said in “A Collection of Highland Vocal Airs” (1784): “The great Highland bagpipe is the instrument for war, for marriage, in funeral processions, and for other great occasions, the smaller being that whereon dancing tunes were played.”

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In Scotland, many occasions call for a bagpiper, especially when you feel like celebrating.

The museum is home to a small but prestigious collection of piping artifacts, compiled from Scotland’s national museums. Bagpipe tunes played in the background as I spent about an hour reading about bagpipes, looking at old instruments and sheet music, and watching a short film.

Among the most treasured items is the chanter belonging to Iain Dall (Blind John) MacKay (circa 1656-1740), a renowned piper, poet and composer. (The chanter is a long cylinder with finger holes on which the melody is played.) MacKay’s chanter is believed to be the oldest in existence and was handed down through eight generations of MacKays. After a stay in Canada, it joined the museum’s collection in 2010.

The exhibit traces about 300 years of the history of the Highland instrument, mainly in Scotland and Europe, though the idea of drones, an air-filled animal-skin bag and a chanter teaming to make music can be traced to ancient Egypt.

It’s also unclear whether Roman legions brought the instrument to Scotland or if it arrived via occupying tribes from Ireland.

By the 14th century, bagpipes were widely played in Scotland, gradually gaining in prestige and replacing the harp in popularity. Highland bagpipe players’ reputations grew in status and they secured patronage, especially from clan chieftains.

It took until the early 18th century for bagpipe music to be notated, an invention that first appeared in “Collection of Ancient Martial Music of Caledonia” by Donald MacDonald.

And who can forget the rousing role bagpipes have played over the centuries, accompanying warriors into battle?

If center visitors are so inclined, they can have a go at playing a bagpipe, an option on the “meet the piper” tour. (I visited too late in the season to be able to take advantage of this. The schedule for 2018 isn’t on the website as of this posting.)

Individual lessons are offered, either in person or via Skype, and last 50 minutes. There’s also an e-learning portal featuring lectures and tutoring.

So if you have even a wee interest in bagpipes or a hankering for well-prepared Scottish specialties, get thee to the National Piping Centre and its adjoining restaurant.

Quick reference: The National Piping Centre and the Pipers’ Tryst Hotel, 30-34 McPhater Street, Glasgow, Scotland. www.thepipingcentre.co.uk Museum of Piping hours: 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Fridays, 9 a.m.-noon Saturdays. Closed Sundays. Admission: Adults, £4.50 (about $6.36 ); senior citizens, students and younger than 16, £2.50 (about $3.53).

In Sapporo, Japan: Shopping for traditional lacquerware by way of a cultural exchange

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I liked the elegance and simplicity of this lacquerware dish that I bought at a department store in Sapporo. Lacquerware comes in a large assortment of shapes and sizes and can be found all over Japan.

By Betty Gordon

© 2018 text and photo, except where noted. All rights reserved.

On previous trips to Japan, I had admired lacquerware’s elegance and practicality, and had in mind that I might purchase a nice piece in May 2014 on my fifth visit to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Lacquerware is made by applying multiple layers of sap from the lacquer tree (a relative of poison oak) over a wooden, metal, paper or leather form. The dried sap imparts strength and durability to the piece, which can also be decorated simply or elaborately.

The traditional art, requiring great skill, patience and attention to detail, dates back more than 2,000 years in Japan.

Tea cups, rice bowls, trays, boxes and vases are just a few of the shapes made into lacquerware. When hand-painted designs, mother-of-pearl inlay or gold leaf are added to solid midnight-black backgrounds, the contrast is stunning. The price can be too.

Lacquerware can also be red (vermillion pigment is added to the sap) with black accents and artwork. All are buffed to a high sheen and are silky smooth to the touch. The finished product can differ from region to region, some being known for specific floral or avian motifs and colors.

The pieces are generally lightweight, and if not too large, easily portable, so I knew that if I found something I liked, I would probably be able to tote it home in my backpack.

I had left my shopping for my last day in Sapporo, which turned out to be a good thing, because it was chilly and drizzly, and not conducive to more outdoor sightseeing.

Japanese department stores are wonders to behold. Not only are the goods beautifully displayed on par with a museum exhibit, but they are of excellent quality and workmanship. In my experience, Japanese-made arts and crafts are often produced at the master craftsman level.

The stores can also be entertainment in and of themselves. A man sitting cross-legged on a platform sharpening a series of fierce-looking knives was among the interesting activities I witnessed on this trip.

On the lower floors, all manner of food is sold. Among the delights I’ve sampled are green tea (aka matcha), sake, sushi and mochi (chewy, bean paste-stuffed rice cakes), offered on small trays by smartly uniformed young women (often wearing white gloves).

Busy workers mix/chop/grill ingredients to be sold at the glass-fronted prepared food counters, and for the grab-and-go set, a wide array of compartmentalized bento boxes packed with a mound of white rice, a main (usually seafood, chicken or pork), pickled ginger, and a side vegetable make dining options a breeze (and reasonably priced).

I don’t think I need to elaborate on the fact that seafood is among the freshest for sale anywhere in the world.

I was in Daimaru Sapporo on the seventh floor, where the store brochure told me I’d find Japanese ware and Japanese tableware.

I spotted the lacquerware, which was in a department next to the ceramics and porcelain. The ceramics were of very high quality, with beautiful colors and designs. When I mentally converted the price from yen to dollars, I thought I must be doing it incorrectly because the ceramics seemed so reasonably priced.

I went to the counter to talk to the saleswoman, dressed in a skirt and jacket, to try to figure out if my calculations were faulty. What I wanted to know specifically was if the price for the ceramics was for one piece or the quartet displayed together.

Alas, I hit a roadblock, because my Japanese is nonexistent, other than a few words, and her English was in about the same league.

After much smiling at each other, the saleswoman excused herself, and came back almost immediately with a flip phone in hand.

The woman she called spoke excellent English (many stores have in-house translators). There ensued an animated, three-way conversation — me to the woman on the phone, woman on the phone to the saleswoman, and woman on the phone back to me — about the price.

The total was for four ceramic pieces. They would not be sold individually.

I thanked both women. Arigato is one word I do know. Now that I had an idea of the pricing, I went to study the lacquerware.

After about 30 minutes of considering nearly all the items, I settled on a graduated round dish with a small lip, about 9.5 inches across. In the center was a fan-shaped gold design that reminded me of a ginkgo leaf, encircled in gold. I took the red “chop” on the right to be the artist’s signature.

I showed the saleswoman the piece I wanted to buy, and she bent down to look under the display unit to find a new one in its box.

As she stood up, a look of panic crossed her face. I didn’t know quite how to interpret her expression, but it seemed likely there wasn’t another dish like the one I wanted to buy.

Out came the phone again, the saleswoman brought over the department head, and there ensued a four-way conversation with the translator.

A call was made immediately to other stores in the chain to see if the dish was in stock.

One was found, but logistically, it couldn’t be transported to the branch where I was until the following week. That wouldn’t work because I was leaving Sapporo the next day.

I said arigato to all three women again, and they suggested I have a second look around the lacquerware to see if I liked another piece equally as well.

This was not, I repeat, not, a ploy as it would be in some other countries, to get me to buy something more expensive. In a culture that prizes etiquette and politeness, they were not showing me other items just for the sake of making a sale.

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This 15-inch tall lacquered sake bottle (circa 1700-1750) features pine trees, bamboo and family badges. The artist is unknown. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 

While there were many pleasing options, I still liked my original selection best.

My solution was to propose buying the display piece, if, after a close examination, I didn’t find any scratches or nicks marring it.

Reconnecting with the very patient woman on the phone, she said this was highly unusual — selling the floor sample — but they would do so, the underlying sentiment seeming to be that they wanted to accommodate me — the customer.

But the transaction would only go forward if the lacquerware’s condition passed muster with the department head.

So, with gloved hands, the department head personally inspected the piece, wiped off all fingerprints and polished it repeatedly with a soft cloth. She placed the dish in a paper sleeve, and tucked it into a very dark green, almost square box.

Also in the box was a rectangular piece of paper with a red stamp that I took to be its provenance and another sheet of paper. Both are totally in Japanese. Tips for the care of lacquerware (keep out of direct sunlight, polish with a few drops of vegetable oil) were, fortunately, in English.

All parties could not have been nicer or more more eager to help while this series of conversations went on for more than an hour.

But wait, there’s more.

At their insistence, I was given a 10 percent discount because the lacquerware had been on display. Obviously, I wasn’t going to say no to that.

Finally, the receipt was hand-written and paperwork filled out so that I could collect the tax refund in cash in-store. Often, the refund has to be pursued at the airport upon departure.

Lacquerware is widely available in Japan, so, yes, I could have purchased something in Nagasaki, where I was before Sapporo, or in Tokyo, where I was headed.

I might have ended up with a different piece of lacquerware, but I’m pretty sure I would have been treated with equal courtesy wherever I was shopping.

At a port wine lodge in Portugal: The science and history behind the country’s signature alcoholic beverage

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Long-oared, flat-bottom hulled boats, known as barcos rabelos, bring wine casks from Portugal’s Douro Valley to the port wine lodges at Vila Nova de Gaia on the Rio Douro. The bridge is the Ponte de Dom Luis I, designed by a student of Gustave Eiffel.

By Betty Gordon

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the fifth post on my spring 2017 trip to Portugal. See June 2 for a post about unexpectedly meeting author/TV travel host Rick Steves in Lisbon, July 30 for a post about the Casa da Musica in Porto, August 20 on cork and its importance to Portugal, and September 3 on custard tarts.

The last thing I expected to see on a self-guided tour of a port wine lodge was a freely roaming peahen and her fluffy chicks pecking at the English-style garden lawn outside the tasting room.

Huge casks of aging spirits? Sure, loads of them neatly stacked in cool, dark warehouses at Taylor Fladgate & Yeatman, one of several port wine lodges open to visitors in the Vila Nova de Gaia area south of Porto (also known as Oporto).

An elegant dining room, its white linen-covered tables set with china and crystal, with the added enticement of a panorama over the red-tiled roofs looking north across the Rio Douro? Of course.

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Peahen and chicks in residence at Taylor’s.

But the peahen and chicks — and a noisy rooster, too — were certainly surprises. The rooster, particularly, wasn’t shy about wandering through the open doors and around the nearly empty, barrel-motifed tasting room, where my tour ended with a sampling of two of Taylor’s ports, and a chance to consider buying potable souvenirs in the gift shop.

The grape varieties used in Taylor’s port aren’t grown at this city location. Instead, they’re expertly cultivated on steep hillside terraces farther north, in the Douro Valley, where the vines thrive on the climactic conditions.

I didn’t have time to see the valley, easily reachable by boat, car or train, but it’s known to be one of the most scenic areas of Portugal.

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The names atop the buildings designate the locations of some of the port wine lodges. 

In Porto, visitors looking south across the Rio Douro can make out single-name signs stretched atop some of the buildings that house port wine lodges. Not just Taylor’s, founded in 1692, but Kopke, Noval, Sandeman and others.

I am not a connoisseur of fortified wine, which is what port is. It’s generally sweet, and usually served at the end of a meal or with dessert. Cheese, nuts and chocolate pair particularly well with port.

The only brand I was conscious of before my trip was Sandeman, which I had seen in local stores. Its bottles have a distinctive logo, a mysterious black-cloaked silhouetted figure in a wide-brimmed hat, in the style of an old Spanish gentleman/horseman. Known as “the Don,” the logo bears a passing resemblance (likely unplanned) to Zorro.

To get to Taylor’s, I hopped onto Porto’s clean and efficient metro, riding Line D (yellow on route maps) across the Ponte de Dom Luis I, a two-level arched bridge completed in 1886. The metro train and pedestrians utilize the top span; vehicular traffic dominates the lower. If the structure brings to mind the Eiffel Tower’s criss-crossing metalwork, that’s no coincidence. Téophile Seyrig, a German student of Frenchman Gustave Eiffel, emulated his teacher’s designs.

I disembarked at the General Torres stop, and wound my way through a warren of steep, twisty streets trying to find the entrance to Taylor’s. Road signage was not particularly helpful, but some locals who were kicking around a soccer ball pointed me in the right direction.

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The entrance to Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman’s port wine lodge. The company was founded in 1692.

I decided to visit Taylor’s because of its long history, and because it was among the lodges that didn’t require a reservation.

The self-guided tour can take an hour or more, depending on how many of the short films you watch and how much of the information your read on the mounted displays. Some of the data covers Taylor’s founding, history and its quintas (wine estates), some is about port production and some covers the manufacturing and maintenance of equipment such as oak barrels.

Grape-growing has a lengthy history in Portugal, at least 2,000 years. Roman soldiers are credited with planting the first vines, possibly as early as the second century B.C.

A trading, military and political alliance between England and Portugal was established by treaty in 1386. English merchants (and later Scottish) settled in Portugal (and vice versa), and wine became one of their significant exports.

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The largest oak vats at Taylor’s hold up to 20,000 liters of wine. Their size means the port and wood have less contact during aging. The fruitier ports are aged in this size vat.

A commercial spat with France in the 17th century curtailed the importation of its wine to England, thus opening up further opportunity for larger quantities from Portugal. But the long distance between the countries presented a problem.

The idea of fortifying wine by adding brandy at the time of shipment in order to protect it from spoiling on the journey began in 1678. It was not sophisticated, but it worked.

Adding the brandy earlier, before fermentation is finished, revolutionized the process, though it took quite some time — into the 1800s — to be accepted as the industry standard.

Taylor’s still relies on the age-old practices of hand-harvesting the grapes and crushing them by foot. The grapes are picked around mid-September, then sorted and stemmed before being placed in granite tanks.

Some of the same employees who picked the grapes form two facing side-by-side lines and become “treaders,” methodically marching left, right, left, right for two hours at a time, and slowly advancing toward each other as directed by a line commander.

It looks messy — people clad in shorts and Taylor’s T-shirts are thigh-high in grapes and their juice — but in the second phase, the serious work has turned into a party atmosphere. Released from their human chain, the treaders stomp enthusiastically in unencumbered style. (Go to the Taylor’s website to watch a film about this similar to the one that I saw on my tour. Managing director Adrian Bridge does a good job of explaining the process.)

When the treaders are finished, fermentation accelerates. The brandy addition follows, after which time the wine is left alone until spring. Incidentally, this brandy is not to be confused with brown-colored alcoholic beverages such as Calvados or cognac. The brandy used to make port is 77 percent alcohol by volume, clear and colorless, and sometimes called “grape spirit.”

In earlier years, the casked wine was loaded on to flat-bottom hulled boats known as barcos rabelos for the often hair-raising trip from the Douro Valley to the lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia. Negotiating fast water, rapids and skinny gorges dictated that the man steering with one long oar had to be a master of his craft.

Today, Taylor’s has a modern warehouse in the valley, reducing the amount of wine that is transported downstream. A series of 20th-century-built dams has also tamed the river for the boats that still make the journey.

Once at the lodge, the length of aging and type of receptacle (cask, vat or bottle) determines the final product, which has many variations and can range from fine ruby to classic vintage to 40-year-old tawny. The longer the ports age, the lighter in color they become.

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Visitors to Taylor’s tasting room collect their glasses of port wine from the stand at left. The gift shop is behind the arches in the rear of the photo.

In the tasting room, I sampled Taylor’s Chip Dry Port and Taylor’s Late Bottled Vintage Port (2012).

Pale straw-colored Chip Dry Port, introduced in 1934, is a blending of white grapes aged two to three years in oak vats to produce a “sophisticated aperitif.” The yield is a “crisp dry finish” with a “complex nuttiness,” the website says.

Late Bottled Vintage Port spends four to six years in vats, then is transferred to a bottle and is ready to drink. Its “deep red youthful color and intense fruity flavors [are] reminiscent of cherry, blackberry and blackcurrant,” the website says.

After my tour and tasting, I wandered down to the buzzing riverside area, listening to the musical performers and watching the small boats pulling up to the quay. Many were carrying wine casks in the barcos rabelos tradition. Since this was May, it’s entirely possible the casks were en route to the port wine lodges.

With the sun beginning to set, throwing a beautiful shimmer on the river, I walked back over the bridge and climbed hundreds of stairs to return to Porto proper.

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In the summer months, guests at Restaurante Barão de Fladgate can dine on the terrace.

Quick reference: Taylor Fladgate & Yeatman, Rua do Choupelo, no. 250, Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal. Admission: Adults, 12 euros (about $14.70), includes audio tour and tasting; ages 8 and up, 6 euros (about $7.35), kids get grape juice and crackers. Private tours and groups may be booked through the website. Hours: Cellars, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Tasting room and shop, 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Closed December 25. Restaurante Barão de Fladgate: 12:30 to 3 p.m. and 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. The website (www.taylor.pt) is packed with information, enough to satisfy the port wine novice and the expert alike.

In Scotland: 20 years into retirement, Royal Yacht Britannia still shipshape and welcoming visitors at Port of Leith

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Queen Elizabeth II entertained guests in the Royal Yacht Britannia’s state drawing room. Sometimes a film would be shown. On occasion, Princess Diana or Princess Margaret would play the baby grand piano (left, out of frame). The style is more comfortable country house than over-the-top opulent.

By Betty Gordon

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In October 2017, I visited Scotland for 10 days. This is the second in a series about my wanderings. For a post about Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford, see December 15, 2017.

Over its 44-year lifetime, the Royal Yacht Britannia sailed more than 1 million nautical miles around the globe, serving as a river- and ocean-bound ambassador for the British Commonwealth and a floating residence for Queen Elizabeth II and the royal family.

It’s been widely reported that the queen has said the yacht was among the few places where she could be totally relaxed and at ease, even as she carried out her daily, never-to-be neglected monarchial duties.

So it was with much regret that the queen, with Prince Philip and royal family members in attendance, watched as the Royal Yacht Britannia was decommissioned on December 11, 1997, in Portsmouth, England — shortly after its farewell clockwise circumnavigational tour of Britain.

All the clocks were frozen at 15:01 (3:01 p.m.) as the queen was piped ashore for the final time.

With her black-gloved left hand, the queen, wearing a bright red coat and matching hat, wiped away tears trickling down her left cheek, an extremely rare — possibly unprecedented — public show of emotion from Her Majesty. Such was her affection for the Britannia.

Today the yacht is berthed at the Port of Leith, in greater Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s among the most-popular attractions in the city, which I can attest to, having navigated the crowds on a Saturday visit in October.

Much of the furniture, color schemes, silver, artwork and decorative items on display are the 1950s (and later) originals, having been little updated from that decade. While elegant, there isn’t a hint of over-the-top opulence.

The queen and her husband had detail-oriented input when the ship was being built, right down to selecting the particular shade of deep blue for the hull.

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An 11-foot scale model of the Britannia made from Lego blocks is in a glass display case at the Visitor Center in Ocean Terminal. At quayside, it was impossible to get a full-length photograph of the yacht.

Access to the ship is via the Visitor Center on the second level at the Ocean Terminal shopping center. Pass the 11-foot scale replica in Lego blocks, and enter a small gallery, whose walls are lined with historical information, photos and memorabilia spanning the yacht’s life.

Stepping aboard is like a mini-journey back in time. Everything is shipshape to royal standard, all polished brass, gleaming glass and highly waxed teak decks, as if expecting the queen and her retinue to arrive at any moment.

When she was in residence, the crew — known affectionately as “Yotties” — always wore rubber-soled shoes so as to quash any noise, and they were to complete their topside chores near the state apartments by 8 a.m. so as not to cross paths with the queen. Should this happen, they were to freeze, stare straight ahead and wait for her to pass. Royal protocol was rarely breached.

Visitors can wander freely over five decks, checking out such locations as the state apartments, state dining room, state drawing room, sun lounge, the wardroom, the petty officer’s mess, the royal deck tea room, the operating theater, the galleys, the engine room and the laundry, the last two being nearly nonstop hives of activity when the yacht was under way.

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With more than 240 crew aboard, and the royal family and guests, the laundry was one of the busiest places on the yacht.

A typical day in the steaming-hot laundry would include at least 600 shirts being washed, starched and pressed, in addition to sheets, towels, tablecloths and whatever other linen needed attention.

What’s surprising is that the yacht doesn’t seem very large overall. The state bedrooms that Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip occupied were not only small — the word cozy comes to mind — but separate, connected by a door. Each is utilitarian, with a bed, desk and chair, bureau and other furniture.

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Part of Queen Elizabeth II’s bedroom on the Britannia.

The yacht was used four times as a honeymoon hotel, first by the queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, and Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1960, next by the queen’s daughter, Princess Anne, and Captain Mark Philips in 1973.

Prince Charles and his bride, Diana, the Princess of Wales, honeymooned around the Mediterranean in 1981. Diana famously visited the crew below decks and joined them in some singing. In 1986,  Prince Andrew and Sarah, the Duchess of York, were the last royal couple off for a post-ceremony cruise.

Eagle-eyed viewers of the Netflix series “The Crown” may think they’re seeing the real Britannia, but this is not the case. The HMS Belfast, berthed on the Thames in London, stood in for her illustrious cousin as a filming location.

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The informal sun lounge, where breakfast and afternoon tea were often enjoyed, was said to the the queen’s favorite spot on the Britannia. Board games and a bar area were stored in the bulkheads. The stuffed corgi, sitting on a chair at left, was part of a contest to count how many of the little dogs could be found around the Britannia. Corgis, of course, are the queen’s beloved companions.

Britannia’s keel was laid in June 1952 at the John Brown & Company Shipyard in Clydebank, Glasgow, where the ocean liners Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary were also constructed. (The shipyard closed in 2001.)

The then-unnamed yacht, referred to as No. 691, and one of the last fully riveted ships, measures 125.65 meters (412 feet, 3 inches) in length overall. It was equipped to carry 330 tons of fuel oil, and its range was about 2,000 miles, cruising at 20 knots. Tanks stored 120 tons of fresh water, with additional tanks available to increase fuel and water capacity. (For more statistics, see the website.)

Many thousands attended the launch on April 16, 1953, where Queen Elizabeth II, mindful of continuing post-World War II austerity, christened the Britannia with a smashed bottle of Empire wine — not champagne. The name had been a closely guarded secret, and when it was announced, an audible gasp emanated from the assembled mass, according to press reports.

Though this Britannia ruled the waves for many decades, nowhere on the yacht’s hull is its name proclaimed, now or in the past.

Its crew of commanding officer (usually at least the rank of rear admiral or vice admiral), and 20 officers and 220 yachtsmen were all hand-picked, some serving their entire naval careers — and turning down promotions — aboard the yacht.

Their varied duties could range from polishing the state silverware to a daily dive beneath the hull, a step required to survey the integrity of the structure and to ensure the security of the seabed below.

The crew included a band, 25 members strong, each of whom was proficient not only on a string instrument but in playing a wind instrument also.

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The state dining room was the scene of many a banquet, hosting such guests as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and South African President Nelson Mandela. On the walls are gifts from many locales given to the queen during state visits.

Yotties also comprised the wait staff for state banquets, when the queen would play hostess to such luminaries as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, India’s Rajiv Gandhi, U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.

On a state visit, five tons of luggage were the usual fare, including, of course, the crown jewels required for such an occasion, and a household staff of 45. A Rolls-Royce went along too.

The queen’s daily schedule would depend on whether the voyage was for a state visit or simply a family outing. Most days she arose by 7:30 a.m. and retired around 11 p.m.

The Britannia is the last of a long line of royal yachts, 83 to be exact, dating to 1660 and the reign of Charles II.

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This quayside Yottie statue pays tribute to the tireless efforts of the Britannia crew over many decades. Ellis Norrell, the longest-serving of all the Yotties, from January 1954 to September 1988, was the model.

When the upkeep, about £60 million a year, and needed improvements proved too costly, the decision was made in 1994 by John Major’s Labour government to retire Britannia. A move is afloat to build a new royal yacht at a cost of up to £120 million. Prince Philip is in favor and it has some backing from Cabinet ministers. The idea of funding it by lottery has also been put forth.

Britannia can be rented for special events, so if you’ve ever wanted to be treated like royalty, here’s your chance.

But you’ll have to provide your own tiara.

Quick reference: Royal Yacht Britannia, Ocean Terminal, second floor, Leith, Scotland. Hours: 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m. January-March and November-December, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. April-September, 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. October, closed December 25 and January 1. Admission: £16 adults (about $21.75), £14 (about $19) seniors and students with ID, £8.50 (about $11.50) ages 5-17, free younger than 5. Family tickets available. Tickets may be purchased online. Price includes audio tour. Private tours can be arranged but must be pre-booked. www.royalyachtbritannia.co.uk. Transportation: From the city center, take Lothian bus number 11, 22 and 35, or Skylink 300. Or hop on the Majestic Tour Bus at Waverley Bridge.

Brrrrrr. Two healthful soups to take the chill off an Arctic blast (and help you keep your New Year’s diet resolutions)

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Carrot and Parsnip Soup pairs two mild, sweet root vegetables with the stronger spices of ginger, cumin and coriander.

By Betty Gordon

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Cold enough for you? If you’re anywhere in the continental United States or Canada, the answer is probably yes. Even here in the sunny South.

I like soup any time of year, but a bubbling hot pot is particularly welcome these first few days of the new year when the temperature has been below normal — and way below freezing in the upper Midwest, Northeast and northern plains.

Whether warming your hands around a steaming mug and then sipping its contents, or spooning it out of a heaping bowl, there’s no wrong way to eat soup.

The beauty of these two recipes is that they’re simple to make, nutrition- and fiber-rich and contain almost no fat. They’re also very economical, with easy-to-find ingredients.

So if eating a healthier diet and trimming some of those indulgent pounds you might have put on over the holidays are your goals, then get out your favorite knife and cutting board and start dicing.

I’m a latecomer to the delights of parsnips, featured in Carrot and Parsnip Soup below, but I’m fully on the bandwagon now. For those unfamiliar with the root vegetable, they look somewhat like white carrots. Cut off the root and tips ends and peel as you would a carrot.

To my palate, they have a faint cinnamon finish with a sweetness similar to carrots. I usually cook them, but because I like their crunch, I sometimes dice them and toss into a mixed green salad.

Served raw as a sturdy crudité, they hold up to any dip.

The pairing of mushrooms and barley can be found in many international cuisines. This is a thick soup with a lightly chewy element thanks to the barley.

Many recipes call for pearl barley, as does the one below, which means that the bran has been removed and that the grain has been steamed and polished.

As with all the recipes I’ve posted, start with the basics, then make them your own.

Carrot and Parsnip Soup

Hands on: 15 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Serves: 4 to 6

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion, diced (I prefer Vidalia onions)

2 medium garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger

1/2 pound carrots, peeled and cut into half-moons about 1/4-inch thick

1/2 pound parsnips, peeled and cut into half-moons about 1/4-inch thick

1 teaspoon ground cumin

3/4 teaspoon ground coriander

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

4 cups vegetable stock (or chicken stock)

1 cup water

Sour cream or yogurt and chopped chives to garnish (optional)

Saltines (or your favorite crackers) or pita bread for serving (optional)

In a large Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring often, until softened. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for 1 minute more.

Add the carrots, parsnips, cumin, coriander and some salt and pepper to taste. Sauté for 1 minute more, stirring often.

Add the stock and water and bring to a simmer. Partially cover and cook for 25 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.

I like to see the vegetable half-moons nestled in the stock in my soup bowl, so I serve it as is. If you prefer smoother vegetables, puree the soup in a blender and return it to the Dutch oven to reheat. Or use an immersion blender for the same result.

Garnish with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt, and chives, if desired.

Adapted from “Hip Kosher: 175 Easy-to-Prepare Recipes for Today’s Kosher Cooks” by Ronnie Fein (Da Capo Press, 2008, $16.95)

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Many cuisines around the world feature some version of Mushroom and Barley Soup. This recipe contains soy sauce, one of the more unusual ingredients for this traditional soup.

Mushroom and Barley Soup

Hands on: 20-30 minutes

Total time: 65 to 75 minutes

Serves: 6

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion, coarsely chopped (I prefer Vidalia onions)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 pound button mushrooms, cleaned and sliced (use any type of fresh mushroom or a combination adding up to 1 pound)

1 cup pearl barley

3 carrots, cut in 1/4-inch coins

2 ribs celery, diced

6 cups vegetable broth

1/2 cup white wine

3 tablespoons snipped fresh dill (optional)

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon dried marjoram

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Salt to taste

In a large Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, garlic and mushrooms. Cook for 7 to 8 minutes, stirring often, or until onion and mushrooms soften.

Add barley and stir to coat all the grains. Cook, stirring often, 2 to 3 minutes.

Add carrots, celery, broth, white wine, dill (optional), soy sauce, marjoram, thyme and black pepper. Bring to a boil, cover and lower heat to simmer. Cook for 45 minutes, or until barley is cooked through and vegetables are tender. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.

Adapted from “Gourmet Grains, Beans, & Rice: Simple, Savory, and Sophisticated Recipes” by Dotty Griffith (Taylor Publishing Company, 1992)

In Pamukkale, Turkey: ‘Cotton castle’ terraces and ancient ruins

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Centuries of mineral-rich, cascading waters have left deposits which form these pooled terraces in Pamukkale, Turkey. I don’t think I’ve captured adequately the beauty of the natural formations, so check for more images online.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

When I used to work in downtown Atlanta, my newspaper colleagues and I would sometimes grab a to-go lunch at a small storefront restaurant that specialized in Mediterranean cuisine such as kebabs, falafel and healthful Greek-style salads.

On one of the walls was a large travel poster-style photograph featuring a swath of impossibly azure sky and a flock of people sitting, or walking through ankle-deep water over white travertines that consumed the lower half of the image.

Think of puddle-topped terraces of differing size and steepness, descending down an icy cliff side, but without the cold, wind or falling precipitation.

I don’t recall any words in big letters on the poster, touting a particular country. I thought it might be Greece, keeping in mind the type of food that was on the menu.

I asked one of the staff what country was represented on the poster.

Turkey, was his reply. More specifically, the location was Pamukkale, in the southwestern part of the country.

That information went into my mental travel file, hopeful that sometime in the future I’d be able to see this gorgeous vista in person.

Fast forward to the fall of 2012: a two-week trip to Turkey was looming. Istanbul, the Cappadocia region and Ephesus were on my itinerary. They’re all easy to get to by air, train or local tourist company transport. (See my February 27 post on staying in a cave hotel in Goreme, in Cappadocia.)

Pamukkale — roughly translated it means “cotton castle” looked doable, but I had no firm routing for getting there, unusual for me.

I’m the sort of independent traveler who does reams of research before I depart, studying flight, train and bus schedules, and maps. I have a pretty solid plan for how I’m going to get from point A to point B, and that rarely includes a rental car.

This prep not only helps with budgeting but also reduces unwanted “surprises.” It’s not foolproof, but it has served me well over decades of international travel.

That is not to say that I’m inflexible. Attractions, activities or even that begging-to-be- explored narrow side street promising interesting shops or restaurants can be easily accommodated.

Sometimes, serendipity steps in too.

From Istanbul, I took a Turkish Airlines flight to Izmir. The train station was conveniently only a short distance across from the airport terminal.

All the carriages were overcrowded. On the one I boarded, I had to sit in the stairwell for the hour journey to Selçuk, the jumping off point for visiting Ephesus.

In under 10 minutes, I walked from the Selçuk train station up a hill to my small hotel. I noted that I passed several travel agencies with advertisements in the window for regional bus service to a variety of attractions. I planned to investigate further after checking in.

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A stork’s nest, easily visible from the rooftop terrace of my small hotel in Selçuk. The castle-like structure (background left) is the restored Basilica of St. John in nearby Ephesus.

At an informal orientation session with the proprietor on the rooftop terrace, where we were at eye-level with an impressively sturdy stork’s nest composed of large twigs, I met Frances and Gordon, from Oregon.

As so often happens, we struck up a conversation, exchanging information about where we had been in Turkey — I started in Istanbul, they were headed there next — and other countries we had visited.

When I mentioned that I hoped to get to Pamukkale, they said they were planning to go, had a rental car, and immediately invited me along.

It couldn’t have worked out better.

Pamukkale, in western Anatolia, is roughly a three-hour drive on Route E87, heading east from Selçuk, a distance of about 105 miles (170 kilometers). The road in 2012 was smooth, modern and well-maintained.

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From the north entrance of the park, we followed this pretty mosaic pathway that led to the changing area.

We packed our swimming gear, some snacks and drinks and our cameras, of course.

We parked at the north entrance, bought our 20 lira tickets (about $5; price has probably increased) and walked on a mosaic-patterned path a lengthy distance to the changing area.

 

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The amount of water available for a dip varies among the travertines’ levels.

Calcium carbonate-rich water from natural springs cascades down the giant “steps,” leaving icicle-like deposits from one level to the next, sort of like a series of mini petrified waterfalls.

From some angles, the terraces look like rippling waves, frozen before they can roll all the way toward shore.

In certain areas, it is possible to fully submerge in pooled depressions in the terraces, though an actual swim would be less successful.

In our bare feet, we walked gingerly, getting used to the sometimes flat, sometimes uneven surface.

It was not as jagged or slippery as I was expecting, but we still proceeded slowly to lessen any possibility of a mishap. When I bent down to swish my hands in the water, they did not emerge with a slimy or sticky residue.

Late in the season, the water flow lessens, so the cascade was slower than earlier in the year.

Two more attractions make the trip to Pamukkale, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988, worthwhile: an Antique Pool (separate admission fee) and the neighboring ruins of the ancient city of Hierapolis, with its roots dating to the second century B.C.

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The thermal waters of the Antique Pool have been drawing bathers since the second century B.C.

Frances and Gordon opted for a dip in the therapeutic waters, which hover at about 96.8 degrees Fahrenheit (36 degrees Celsius). Bathers can make use of banks of lockers and the changing areas of the facility.

In Roman times, this was a sacred pool, and in some areas, submerged marble columns still exist.

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In 2012, preservation work was ongoing at the Roman theater of Hierapolis, which would have been able to seat about 12,000 patrons. Emperors Hadrian and Septimius Severus built it in two stages.

Meanwhile, I wandered among the ruins, which include monuments, an extensive necropolis and a monumental arch from the early Christian period. (I didn’t have time for the Hierapolis Archaeology Museum, for which there is a separate admission fee.)

Pamukkale, one of the top destinations in Turkey with more than 1.5 visitors per year, is most crowded in spring and summer. Plan accordingly.

At Abbotsford in southeastern Scotland: Where man-of-letters Sir Walter Scott built his fairy-tale castle home

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Sir Walter Scott began buying the land on which he would build Abbotsford in 1811. A modest farmhouse occupied the site at the time, but he had ambitious plans for realizing his dream home.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In October 2017, I visited Scotland for 10 days. This is the first in a series about my wanderings.

With the success of the narrative poems “The Lady of the Lake” (1810) and “The Vision of Don Roderick” (1811), and funds from editing the ballads of the “Minstrelsy” series (1802-3) and other works, Sir Walter Scott had amassed the means to follow his heart’s desire.

That meant owning land in southeastern Scotland, an area referred to as the Borders, where the Edinburgh-born Scott (1771-1832) spent many happy youthful hours on his grandfather’s farm, absorbing the local lore and developing a lifelong appreciation for the beautiful rugged countryside.

So in 1811, Scott, who is credited with inventing the literary form known as the historical novel, began purchasing property — a farm really — that backed up to the picturesque River Tweed near the town of Melrose.

Over the next dozen years, Scott’s holdings increased from the initial 110 acres to 1,400, and he renamed the property Abbotsford. It was his refuge and his pride and joy, though he often referred to it as his “conundrum castle.”

For a time, he and his wife and four children (two sons, two daughters) lived in the farmhouse, adding rooms and outbuildings, until Scott’s ambitions outgrew the humbler abode. They also had a residence in Edinburgh, as Scott had followed his father into the legal profession before becoming a writer.

In a second construction burst at Abbotsford, the farmhouse was demolished, replaced with part of the imposing rectangular stone building that stands today. The mishmash of exterior castlelike elements — turrets and towers, stepped gables and crenellations — is known as Scottish Baronial.

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A view of Abbotsford from the rear. The green expanse at the right leads down to the River Tweed.

This architectural style was popular in Scotland in the 1800s until about 1920. Balmoral Castle in northern Scotland, a favorite retreat of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and Queen Elizabeth II and her family, is a prime example.

In a nod to technological advancements, Abbotsford was among the first buildings in Scotland to be illuminated by gas, installed in 1823.

No inch of the property escaped Scott’s artistic eye, focusing almost immediately on the landscaping, which he eventually transformed into three interconnecting walled gardens (one provided the kitchen’s herbs, fruits and vegetables) and thick woodlands. So eager was he to get started that he had trees planted before he’d taken full ownership of the first piece of land.

To call the decor and furnishings eclectic would be an understatement, but they mirrored Scott’s taste and obsessions, from books to heraldry to possesions once owned by Robert Roy MacGregor, upon whom Scott based one of his best-known works, “Rob Roy” (1817).

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To Scott, landscaping the grounds was as important as the construction of the Scottish Baronial-style home. In the foreground are thistles, a much-beloved symbol of Scotland.

A tour of Abbotsford is sheer delight. From the attraction’s entrance at the well-stocked visitor center/gift shop, it’s a short walk through the well-manicured gardens to the house. On a sunny fall day, purple thistles — Scotland’s national symbol — bobbed in the breeze and the blue-and-white flag of Scotland rippled on the tower’s flagpole.

On the audio guide, a male narrator’s distinctive Scottish burr steered me from room to room, all on the ground floor. The upstairs bedrooms and the lower level that now is office space are not open to the public.

So many interesting items are on display — Scott was an avid collector —  that I replayed some of the information two or three times and consulted the thick notebooks in each room that divulge additional source material.

The entrance hallway is crammed with objects that wouldn’t be out of place in Scott’s chivalric novels: shiny suits of armor standing in wall niches, coats of arms of his immediate family framing the doorway to the study and antlered stags’ heads mounted high on the walls.

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All manner of antique weaponry climbs the walls of the armory. At bottom left is the brass-mounted veneered strongbox that belonged to France’s Louis XIV. The portrait above the mantel is of Scotland’s King James, circa 1507.

The armory builds on this, filled with antique guns and rifles, fearsome swords, fiendish daggers and menacing maces.

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Scott spent countless hours in his study, trying to settle a massive debt through his writings. Up the stairs to the gallery level was a small door, which gave Scott access to his dressing room. He could move easily between the levels ensuring his privacy, while at the same time not disturbing other people in the house.

Moving into Scott’s study, the desk where he wrote many of the Waverley novels dominates the book-lined space. Because of the cost of Abbotsford’s upkeep, and the additional debt he charitably assumed when his publisher ran into financial trouble  in 1826 (owing somewhere around £126,000), his study also became a sort of prison.

Only by exhaustively churning out novels, histories and biographies hour after hour did he stave off bankruptcy.

The room behind the study is the library, the embodiment of Scott’s wide-ranging curiosity. Stacked in sturdy wooden cabinets are leather-bound volumes, some of them extremely rare, that span Scott’s life and interests.

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In the alcove at the far end of the library is a marble bust designed by Sir Francis Chantrey. A plaster cast of Shakespeare is to Scott’s right. In the glass-topped octagonal table (center) are curios, including a crucifix said to have belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots. The portrait above the fireplace is of Walter Scott’s elder son, Walter, dressed in his regimental uniform of the 15th (the King’s) Hussars. Sir William Alan painted it in 1821. Atop the table at left is an urn given to Scott by his friend Lord Byron in 1815.

Works of history, geography, folklore, witchcraft, dictionaries, manuals, law, politics and more, and first editions can be found on the shelves. Unfortunately, visitors can’t thumb through any of the 7,000 books, but they can peer at the spines. Each title is precisely where Scott place it.

A marble bust of Scott designed by Sir Francis Chantrey, given to the author in 1828, is in an alcove at one end of the room. It’s described as an “admirable likeness.” The sculptor also executed busts of George Washington and the Duke of Wellington.

A glass-topped table in the library is stuffed with curios, such as a crucifix that is said to have belong to Mary, Queen of Scots.

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The Chinese drawing room was a favorite post-dinner gather spot for the Scotts and their guests. Daughter Sophia would often entertain by playing the harp. In 1808, Sir Henry Raeburn painted the portrait of Scott with his dogs Camp and Percy.

In the evening, the family would congregate in the Chinese drawing room, where Scott’s eldest child, Sophia, would play the harp, songs would be sung and literary recitations would pass the time.

The hand-painted wallpaper from China depicts idyllic scenes of life in the Asian country, such as long-beaked brown birds perched delicately in leafy trees surrounded by butterflies and flowers, and men congregated around a table contemplating black and white game pieces on a lined board.

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A closeup of some of the details on the Chinese hand-painted wallpaper that was imported by Scott’s cousin Hugh Scott, a captain with the East India Company.

Each of the 24 strips of green-backgrounded wallpaper was 12 feet long and four feet wide, enough to cover not only the drawing room but also two of the bedrooms.

Scott’s cousin Hugh was a ship’s captain for the East India Company and was instrumental in the acquisition of the wallpaper and getting it to Scotland.

The dining room, with a large oval oak dining table that could seat up to 30, was not only the location of many a fine meal, but also where Scott died on September 21, 1832.

Among Scott’s notable guests over the years: English poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), American writer Washington Irving (1783-1859) and Prince Leopold (1790-1865), later first King of Belgium.

On some occasions, a bagpiper in full Highland regalia, would walk back and forth on the terrace, serenading the diners.

Many physical changes were made after Scott’s death, so the dining room looks different than it would have during Scott’s time. All the rooms on the back of the house overlook a wide expanse of grass that leads to the Tweed.

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Gazing at the River Tweed and walking beside its rippling waters gave Scott endless hours of pleasure.

Scott suffered a series of strokes during a year of travel in Malta and Italy in the early 1830s. When he returned to Abbotsford in a greatly weakened state, a bed was set up by the window in the dining room, affording Scott a view of the Tweed in his waning moments.

As his son-in-law and biographer John Gibson Lockhart wrote: “It was so quiet a day that the sound he best loved, the gentle ripple of the Tweed over its pebbles, was distinctly audible as we knelt around his bed.”

Quick reference: The house and gardens are open from March through November. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 1-31. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 1 to October 31. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. November 1-30. The visitor center and restaurant are open year-round except for December 25-26 and January 1-2. Adult admission to house and gardens £9.60 (about $12.80), to gardens only £5 (about $6.70). See website for prices for children, retirees and groups. The audio tour is included in the cost of admission. http://www.scottsabbotsford.com

Visitors are welcome to book accommodation in one of the seven luxurious rooms in the Hope Scott Wing. This part of the estate was a family home to Scott’s granddaughter, added on after Abbotsford was opened to the public. Abbotsford is also a popular wedding venue.

By train, from Edinburgh Waverley station, take ScotRail’s Borders Railway to Tweedbank. The ride is about 55 minutes. From the station, it’s a solid 30-minute walk to Abbotsford. You’ll pass some lovely houses and be within sight of the River Tweed most of the way. Take an umbrella. Scotland’s weather can change quickly.

Australian journalist Kate Webb, held captive for 23 days during the Vietnam War, honored on a commemorative stamp

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Journalist Kate Webb (left), who grew up in Australia from age 8, appears on a new commemorative stamp in Australia. Red Cross worker Rosemary Griggs is in the rear right of the frame. Image from Australian Post via Agence France-Presse.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text. All rights reserved.

On April 21, 1971, The New York Times ran a seven-paragraph article that said Catherine M. Webb, the bureau chief for wire service United Press International in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, was presumed dead.

Webb, then 28 years old, disappeared on April 7, when she and her translator and four others were ambushed on Highway 4, about 56 kilometers (about 35 miles) southwest of Phnom Penh, the capital. They were checking out reports of fighting in the area.

On April 16, a Caucasian body, with one bullet in the chest, was identified by two Cambodian Army officers as Webb’s. It was cremated where it was found, near the site of the disappearance. The body’s remains were transported to a hospital in Phnom Penh.

Her obituary appeared in other media worldwide, and her family was readying a memorial service for the New Zealand native, who was reared in Australia from the age of 8.

But Webb, one of the few women reporting on the Vietnam War and the spillover into neighboring Cambodia, was very much alive.

She was being held prisoner by the Viet Cong deep in the Cambodian countryside.

At the time of her disappearance, nine correspondents had been killed in Cambodia since 1970, and 17 were missing.

Perhaps Webb knew the story of Dickey Chapelle, a ground-breaking photojournalist, who was the first American female reporter killed in Vietnam, while on a patrol with a unit of Marines in 1965. See my post of July 16, 2016, for a discussion of “Fire in the Wind,” a thorough biography of Chapelle by Roberta Ostroff.

Webb, who went by “Kate,” first arrived in Saigon, South Vietnam, less than two years after Chapelle’s death. She was hired as a part-timer by UPI, and caught on full time about six months later.

And there’s no doubt Webb was aware of the story of the capture of Elizabeth Pond, 33, of the Christian Science Monitor; St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Richard Dudman, 52; and Mike Morrow, 24, of Dispatch News Service International.

In May 7, 1970, the three had inadvertently broached territory claimed by forces loyal to Cambodia’s deposed leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk.

They were held for more than five weeks before being released. Dudman wrote a book called “Forty Days with the Enemy,” which was published in 1971.

In “On the Other Side: 23 Days with the Viet Cong” (Quadrangle Books, 1972), Webb describes how she and the others survived, detailing their movements, their treatment and the interrogations by the Viet Cong, who called themselves the Liberation Armed Forces.

Written within months of their release, and based on clandestine notes Webb was able to make while captive, this small volume is a no-frills, in-the-moment retelling of their experience (she never calls it an “ordeal”) and thought processes.

Neither an indictment nor a sympathetic treatise, “On the Other Side” showcases Webb for what she was: a keen, even-keeled reporter, whose quest for the truth behind the story never wavered.

On the day that Webb went out to investigate the fighting, she wasn’t anticipating being gone long from the office. She took no food, water or emergency equipment. Just her camera and a purse.

She was not wearing her usual green drab multipocketed top (United Press International was printed above the left breast pocket on some shirts) and slacks, but was clad instead in white jeans, a blue short-sleeved sweater and sandals.

Another questionable decision: Webb and her Cambodian interpreter, Chhimmy Sarath, left their Datsun and walked to the front lines. With shooting all around, they resorted to crouching in ditches and creeping parallel to the road trying to get to safety.

That lasted about a day before they were seized in terrain controlled by the Viet Cong.

The other four swept up with Webb were Japanese newsreel photographer Toshiichi Suzuki (fluent in Vietnamese); Vorn, Suzuki’s translator; Tea Kim Heang, a freelance photographer; and Eang Charoon, a newspaper cartoonist. The last three men were Cambodian.

All six were forced to give up their shoes, cameras and personal belongings. Their arms were tied behind their backs and they were roped together.

Then, under guard, they began walking, and thinking about survival. Of utmost importance: Convincing the guards and their superiors that all six were journalists. Not spies, especially not American CIA.

Webb says that fear was a constant companion. The six knew they could be shot at any time, but she also realized this was an opportunity to form unvarnished opinions in close-up observation of the VC, and that first and foremost, her reportorial instincts should be utilized.

She says there was no physical abuse, and that the soldiers were well-disciplined and on task. Food, clothing (black, custom-made pajama-like garments) and rudimentary shelter and medical care were provided.

Of note is Webb’s description of repeatedly trying to get across to her interrogators the responsibility of a free press. She was never certain that they understood that as a reporter for an independent business entity, she didn’t work for a government, particularly not the American government.

“ ‘You must be very brave to go down the highway for no reason other than to get the truth. This is hard to believe,’” one interrogator says.

Webb answers: “ ‘I went down the highway because it is the only way to find out what was really happening. How else can I find out?’ ”

“ ‘You can listen to what the government says,’ ” the interrogator replies.

Webb counters: “ ‘The government gives its version, you give yours, so we must find out what is really happening. That’s our job; that’s what we are paid to do. If I did not feel I could do it, I would resign.’ ”

Then, suddenly, on April 30, Webb and the other five were released. Webb, who had contracted two strains of malaria, writes that she never certain why they were let go, other than as “non-military” prisoners, they had no value to the communists.

Webb continued to work for UPI off and on until 1985. She covered, among other stories, the fall of Saigon, and the Khmer Rouge takeover in Cambodia, both in 1975.

She later joined Agence France-Presse, where she reported on the end of the Marcos regime in the Philippines, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the transfer of power from the British in Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997.

She died of bowel cancer on May 13, 2007 in Sydney, Australia. She was 64. In 2008, the Agence France-Presse Foundation created an annual award in her name, given for “courageous reporting” under unstable conditions in Asia.

This fall, 10 years after her death, her career was honored by the Australian Post, which put a likeness of her on a stamp for the “Women in War” series. The $1 stamp is based on a photo from her days in Vietnam and Cambodia, and in fact is the one used for the cover of “On the Other Side.”

In the original photo, Webb, facing the camera, is looking intently at her interview subject — nearly out of the frame — and holding a pen in her right hand and an open notebook spanning both hands. Dangling from the chain-smoker’s left index and third fingers is a cigarette. In the stamp’s image, the cigarette has been airbrushed out.

Red Cross worker Rosemary Griggs is also honored, appearing on the stamp’s rear right. The stamps were issued October 6, in time to commemorate Remembrance Day, November 11, in Australia.

Further, Webb will be the subject of a film based on “On the Other Side.” British actress Carey Mulligan (“Mudbound,” “An Education,” “Never Let Me Go”) will portray Webb, and also be a producer on the film. Production is set for spring 2018.

At the end of “On the Other Side,” Webb concludes that in different, post-war circumstances, she’d welcome the chance to meet some of her captors again “over beer, not rifles.”

Japan’s Himeji Castle: Graceful 16th-century fortification illustrates era of shoguns’ power and prestige

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In the early 1600s, more than 360 tons of wood went into the construction of Himeji Castle in western Japan.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

For earlier posts on my travels in Japan, see May 13, August 9, August 15 and August 22, 2016. For Japanese-related historical posts, see September 3, and December 15, 2016. 

A maze of passageways meant to confuse intruders.

Two floors invisible from the outside.

Three water-filled moats.

Massive sloping stone walls.

Hidden doors.

Eighty-fours gates and more than 80 buildings.

Everything about Himeji Castle screams “defense,” though in its 400-plus-years, it has never seen a battle and in fact is one of the few feudal castles to survive the bombings of World War II intact.

During the war, black netting over the structure helped to camouflage it, so that Allied aircraft had a harder time recognizing it from on high.

Himeji is in the western part of Honshu, Japan’s largest island.

A fortification has stood on this strategic bluff in Himeji since the 14th century, but it wasn’t until the early 1600s that the castle, an acknowledgement of power and prestige in the era of the shoguns, began to take its present shape.

Ikeda Terumasa, son-in-law of the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu, gained control of the land as a reward for his loyalty to Tokugawa (1543-1616) in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. It took nine years to build the almost 150-foot-tall donjon (keep), and successive inhabitants continued to add to the complex.

When it was finished, more than 360 tons of wood had gone into the construction, with the walls further fortified by plaster. With its gently curved roofs, graceful lines and white color, its architecture has been likened to a heron ready to take flight, thus giving rise to its nickname, White Heron Castle (Shirasagi-jo in Japanese).

When I visited on a rainy Sunday in November 2005, I took a 90-minute guided tour in English which included the donjon, where I peeked into multiple empty rooms with shoji (sliding paper doors) and tatami-covered floors.

Our guide, Chiyuki, told my traveling companion and me and a couple from Quebec about the construction, history and castle intrigues — particularly those concerning Tokugawa’s granddaughter Princess Sen — that went on behind the nearly impenetrable walls.

Though she may have been accorded enviable status, in reality, Princess Sen (1597-1667), lived a restricted life. She and the other women were locked into the Vanity Tower each night, with guards stationed outside.

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Metal figures of mythical fish perch on roof corners. Go back to the first photo of this post to note how the fish are positioned atop Himeji Castle.

Chiyuki pointed out details, such as the mythical fish figures (called shachihoko) with arched tails, believed to protect the castle from fires, and other disasters, on the corners of the gabled roofs.

The crest tiles, also on the gables, illustrate the families who lived there over the centuries. Ikeda Terumasa’s family crest was a butterfly with raised wings.

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Family crests decorate the gables at Himeji Castle. Butterflies with raised wings were the crest of Ikeda Terumasa’s family.

It’s impossible to miss the multiple circular, triangular and rectangular portholes cut into the exterior walls, where archers and musketeers would have been stationed during an attack.

The view from the top floor affords an excellent panorama of Himeji, looking south toward the train station (about a 15-minute walk). The station’s location is the approximate area where the outer moat would have been during the shoguns’ time.

About those “missing” floors: Actually, the second and third floor from the top look like a single floor from the exterior. The almost-impossible-to-scale stone walls around the base disguise the basement.

The tour included quite a bit of climbing on steep wooden staircases. This was done in bare feet or socks, because all visitors must leave their shoes at the castle entrance, as is custom when entering most historic Japanese buildings (and nearly all residences).

In the spring and summer months, Himeji Castle is mobbed. Visitors who want to enter the main keep have to wait in a queue before being directed to ticket purchase. The number of total daily visitors is restricted to 15,000, according to its website.

In other words, get there early.

Himeji Castle is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Japan. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

It’s been a filming location for such movies as the James Bond caper “You Only Live Twice (1967) and Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” (1985).

Fittingly, it had a role in the TV miniseries “Shogun” (1980), starring Richard Chamberlain.

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One of the gardens at Kōko-en, ablaze with the colors of autumn in Japan.

About a five-minute walk to the west is the magnificent Kōko-en, a series of nine Edo-style gardens, which opened in 1992 on the former site of samurai residences.

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A bamboo grove at Kōko-en, a brief walk from Himeji Castle.

Each garden is the epitome of calm; several feature flowers, pine trees, maple trees and a grove of bamboo. There’s also a tea garden and restaurant.

Sprinkled within the grounds are covered wooden pavilions, a pleasant place for a brief rest, and a perfect setting to contemplate the surrounding beauty.

Quick reference: Visitors can, of course, find accommodate in Himeji, but it’s also only about a 50-minute shinkansen (bullet train) ride from Kyoto, which has so many delightful things to see that it’s a logical base for exploring the region over several days. Himeji is also easily accessible by train from Osaka.

Himeji Castle (2017 information): 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (last entry at 4 p.m.); until 6 p.m. April 27-August 31. Closed December 29-30. Adults (18 and over) 1,000 yen (about $9), students 300 yen (about $2.70). A combination ticket for the castle and Kōko-en gardens is adults, 1,040 yen (about $9.35) and students 360 yen (about $3.25). Address: 68 Honmachi, Himeji City.

Check the website for its “congestion forecast,” which advises via a calendar the likely busiest days. www.himejicastle.jp/en

Kokō-en: http://www.himeji-machishin.jp/ryokka/kokoen/download/images/pamph/foreign_language.pdf

A version of this post appeared in the January 29, 2006 Travel section of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.