Mysterious Rosslyn Chapel Gets Facelift

Rosslyn Chapel
Sean McLachlan

Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland has been the center of conspiracy theories for at least a century before Dan Brown wrote it up in The Da Vinci Code. This private chapel less than an hour’s drive from Edinburgh has an interior filled with carvings that many believe have symbolism linked to the Masons and the Templars.

In recent years the 15th century chapel has suffered from damp that has been corroding the sculptures and undermining the integrity of some of the windows. The BBC reports that the owners of the chapel — the very same family that built it — have now finished a 16-year conservation project.

In 1997 a steel roof was put over the entire chapel in order to shelter it from rain and let it dry out. It stayed in place until 2010. Workmen also repaired the stonework and windows and made the roof watertight. Now all scaffolding has been removed and visitors can see the chapel unobstructed for the first time in 16 years.

I visited Rosslyn Chapel earlier this week and was impressed by the quality of the restoration. The chapel itself, however, left me underwhelmed. While attractive and filled with detail, it doesn’t contain any more symbolism than any other heavily ornamented medieval church. Go to Notre Dame in Segovia or the Romanesque churches of Segovia and you’ll see what I mean. The 9 pound ($14) entry fee and the rule against taking photos inside also rubbed me the wrong way.

I left with the impression that conspiracy theorists had decided this place was special and have spent generations overanalyzing it. More enjoyable for me and my family was a country walk to the nearby ruins of Rosslyn Castle set above a glittering Scottish stream. Much more picturesque and with far fewer people.

Tallinn’s Medieval Old Town

Tallinn
Tallinn is a medieval wonderland. The capital of Estonia isn’t on a lot of people’s bucket list but anyone at all interested in history, architecture or art will love this place.

The central attraction is Old Town, a medieval walled city filled with old buildings and fortifications. The sheltered bay and the easily defended Toompea Hill made it a natural place to settle. Sometime about 1050 A.D. a fortress was built atop the hill, the first of many. In 1219 the Danes showed up as part of the Northern Crusade to subjugate the Baltics and convert the local pagans to Christianity whether they wanted to or not.

The Danes improved the fortifications and expanded the town, which became part of the Hanseatic League, a trading organization of a hundred northern cities. The Danes sold Tallinn to the Livonan Order, a branch of the Teutonic Knights, in 1346. The Swedes came next in 1561. Tallinn weathered plague and the Great Northern War and became part of Russia in 1710. In 1918, Estonia declared independence from Russia and fought a bitter war against Bolshevik Russia. Independence didn’t last long, however, and the fledgling nation fell first to the Nazis and then the Soviets during World War II.

Despite all this conquering, Tallinn’s historic core has survived remarkably intact. It’s so well preserved that the whole Old Town has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Much of the 14th century city wall still stands, including a couple of stretches where you can climb the narrow spiral staircases of the towers and end up on the medieval catwalk. The Viru Gates, flanked by thin pointed towers from the 14th century, makes a nice entrance into Old Town.

Dominating the town atop Toompea Hill is Toompea Castle and Pikk Hermann Tower. It was used as the center of government since 1229 and is now the site of Estonia’s parliament. Nearby stands the inappropriately named Maiden’s Tower that used to house a prison for prostitutes.

%Gallery-178685%There are several interesting old houses of worship. The oldest is the atmospheric and very chilly Dominican Monastery from 1246. My favorite was the Holy Spirit Church with its colorful Renaissance clock, elaborate altar, and painted pews. The 13th century St. Nicholas got bombed in World War II but was meticulously reconstructed and now houses a display of religious art, including the freaky “Dance Macabre” of cavorting skeletons.

The photo below was taken from the spire of the Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin, one of the many towers that offer fine views of the city. Also try the Town Hall for a great view. The most visible church that seems to get on all the postcards is the Russian Orthodox St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its onion domes.

Several of the medieval buildings house museums: Epping Tower has a collection of medieval arms and armor, the 15th-century Great Guild Hall houses the Estonian History Museum, a 14th century merchant’s mansion is home to the Tallinn City Museum, and Fat Margaret’s cannon tower from 1530 is now the Maritime Museum.

One of the most popular attractions is Kiek en de Kök, an imposing tower on the slopes of Toompea Hill. Its basement connects with a network of tunnels beneath the bastions. There’s enough of interest here that I’ll be dedicating a whole post to this place later in the series.

As you can see from the photos, I visited Tallinn this February. While I only saw about five minutes of blue sky in the six days I was there, and it snowed every day, there are advantages to visiting in the dead of winter. First, prices of hotels and flights plummet and you can pick your dates without having to worry about getting a place. This makes it a good budget travel option for those who don’t mind a bit of cold.

If you’re coming from England, you’re in luck. Ryaniar flies to Tallinn from Luton, and easyJet flies from Gatwick. There are also regular connections from Munich, Helsinki, and other important cities.

Tallinn makes a good budget option whatever the season. Old Town is compact enough that you don’t need to pay for transport, and a Tallinn Card gets you free tours and free entry into all the sites. Being so compact you can see a lot of the city in one day, making the card well worth the money. The cost of the card is 24 euros for 24 hours, 32 euros for 48 hours, and 40 euros for 72 hours. Children up to 14 years get the card for half price. The card comes with a good city map and guidebook.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: A Snowy Traditional Village in Estonia!

[All photos by Sean McLachlan]

Tallinn

Uppsala, Sweden: A University Town With Viking Roots

Uppsala
Uppsala University in Sweden is 535 years old today, having been inaugurated on this date in 1477. As one of the older universities in Europe, it has quite a few sights to see and is located in a town of ancient importance.

The city started as a religious center for the pagan Vikings and the location of their Thing, a general assembly. An ancient temple at Uppsala was said to have had statues to Thor, Odin, and Freyr and the entire building was encircled by a golden chain hanging from the gables. While the old temple has disappeared, there are still some Viking remains in the form of runestones and three large earthen mounds. Legend has it that they’re the barrows (tombs) of the three principal Norse gods, but excavations showed them to be the resting places for three early Norse rulers.

As with many pagan sites across Europe, Uppsala was turned into a center for Christianity and became the site for the country’s first archbishopric in 1164. There’s a little medieval church dating to the 13th century and a much more elegant cathedral from the 15th century. I wish I could describe the interior of the earlier church to you, but on my visit I walked in on a wailing baby getting baptized and had to walk right out! Such are the hazards of travel.

The later house of worship still serves as the cathedral today. Its brick exterior has a warm, homey feel, but when you go inside you find the soaring arches and fine stonework that you’d expect from a European cathedral. Inside you can find the tombs of important Swedes such a King Gustav Vasa (of Vasa ship fame), scientist Carl Linnaeus and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.

As for the university itself, such an old center of learning is bound to have some attractions. In good weather visit the Linnaean Garden, a beautiful botanical garden founded in 1655 and reorganized by Carl Linnaeus, who created the taxonomic system still used to categorize plants and animals today. He got in trouble with church authorities for categorizing humans as primates. Above is a view of the gardens courtesy Andreas Trepte, who caught them on one of those warm, sunny days that are so precious this far north. The gardens are an easy stroll from Uppsala Castle, complete with throne room and a rich collection of European art.

%Gallery-167737%The Gustavianum, formerly an operating theater where 17th century medical students could watch dissections, is now a museum showing off the university’s art and archaeological collections. There’s also a cool exhibit of early scientific instruments. The old operating theater still exists if you want to see what it was like to get cut up in public.

Take some time to soak up Uppsala’s atmosphere. Stroll through the narrow medieval lanes and along the riverside where the students like to lounge. Being a northern city, it changes dramatically with the seasons. My first visit was in winter and was in fact my favorite. Standing atop an old Viking barrow and looking out across the snow-covered fields as the church spire rose in the gray distance, I felt like I was seeing Sweden at its best. Sure, we all like sunshine, but biting cold wind and short, overcast days seemed more properly Scandinavian!

Uppsala makes an easy day trip from Stockholm and is one of the top places to see in Sweden. Gamla Uppsala (“Old Uppsala”) with its pagan remains and early church, is just outside the more modern town.

Archaeologists Search For Lost Grave Of King Richard III

Richard IIIArchaeologists in Leicester, England, are looking for the grave of a king – in a parking lot.

The grave of Richard III is believed to be beneath the parking lot of a local government building, according to analysis by the University of Leicester.

Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the decisive battle of the War of the Roses. The victor was Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII.

Richard was buried at the Franciscan friary of Greyfriars. Later development erased all trace of this church and the site was lost. Richard III is one of the few English kings for whom there is no recognized burial place. Now archaeologists have analyzed old maps and believe they have pinpointed roughly where the church was.

Heavy machinery moved in this weekend to break up the pavement, the Leicester Mercury reports. Once they’re done, the archaeologists will dig two trenches using more meticulous methods in the hope of hitting part of the church. The trenches will run from north to south, maximizing the chances of hitting the church. Medieval churches were traditionally built from east to west.

If they do find any bones, they’ll be able to tell if they belong to the slain king. Genealogists have discovered a direct descendant of Richard’s sister and will be able to use DNA analysis to check for a match.

The work should be finished in two weeks. On September 8-9 the excavation will have an open house for the public.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

A Drive Through Rural Oxfordshire And Buckinghamshire

Oxfordshire
England is so much more than its cities.

Most itineraries take in London and one or two more: Oxford or Cambridge, Brighton or Bath. While I love all these places, and live part time in Oxford, it’s the countryside that I truly enjoy. Glimpsed from the motorway it makes a pretty backdrop, but get off onto the country lanes and you’ll find villages filled with history, old inns with great beer, and amazing stretches of natural space.

Oxfordshire is one of my favorite parts of England. While it’s more built upon than the northern counties it is rich in antiquarian landmarks. Yesterday my wife and I set out to explore them with the same two friends who took us out on our last rural ride through Oxfordshire. While I have a ton of work to do this week and next, I can never pass up the offer of a road trip through England.

I thought I knew Oxford University inside and out, but our first stop proved me wrong when we arrived at the university’s Harcourt Arboretum a few miles outside town. Peacocks strutted amid a forest of trees gathered from all around the world. I can’t say I’m a big arboretum goer, and while I prefer natural forests to artificial ones, I did enjoy it. The sight of power lines and the distant hum of the motorway did nothing to reduce the feeling of calm that settled on me. Thoughts of my book deadline and the thousand other things on my to-do list disappeared.

Soon we were off to something I know a bit more about – medieval history. Passing down narrow country lanes flanked by hedges and old, lichen-covered stone walls, we came to the village of Ewelme (pronounced “you elm”). Like many English villages, nobody knows just how old this cluster of thatched-roof relics and Victorian trophy homes is. Ewelme became prominent in the middle of the 15th century when Alice, wife of the Duke of Suffolk and granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer, built a church, school and almshouses here.

The church is one of those magnificent little houses of worship you find all over England, such as in Dorchester or Binsey. Like with most of my visits to rural churches, we had it to ourselves, and we wandered at leisure admiring the heraldic carvings, fragments of original stained glass, and the alabaster tomb of Alice herself. The tomb is a bit grim even by tombish standards. In addition to carving her lying in state with her hands clasped in prayer in true medieval piety, the sculptor added a second image of Alice at the base showing her decayed and rotting. This was supposed to be a reminder of the way of all flesh. The creepiness still works six centuries on.

%Gallery-163241%Through a narrow doorway and down a flight of steps we entered a small cloister surrounded by 13 little houses. The charity that Alice set up is still in operation and needy people from the parish still live in houses paid for by Alice’s original donation. They are snug, tidy little homes and worlds apart from the grim concrete monoliths many of England’s poor live in.

The third building is a school that’s said to hold the record for the oldest continually operating school in the country, according to whoever it is who keeps track of such things. Sadly it was shut up for the summer, so we were left studying the worn medieval carvings on the wooden door and wondering what lay on the other side.

Suddenly this peaceful village scene was interrupted by the roar of jet engines. Seven red fighters shot overhead, trailing colored smoke. They were the Red Arrows, putting on a show at the nearby RAF airfield. They banked and looped and resisted all attempts at a decent photograph. After a while I stopped trying and simply watched. As we retired to a nearby pub for lunch (fish and chips and real ale, what else?) the Red Arrows were replaced by noisy relics from World War II that flew so low we could see the pilots. It was good to know the pub was safe from the Luftwaffe.

One-and-a-half pints and 50000 calories later, we headed out through more winding little lanes past curious cows and old cottages to neighboring Buckinghamshire, where we climbed a steep hill to Brill, a village that has one of the region’s oldest surviving mills. The mill has been standing here since the 1680s and while it no longer makes flour, it offers a fine backdrop from which to look out at the surrounding countryside.

The hill itself is pitted and gouged with steep clefts. Brick makers in centuries past dug out great chunks of the terrain in search of clay. This provided a great opportunity for a group of local boys. One half of the crowd tried to kick a football over to their friends on the other side. Each attempt ended with the ball plummeting into the pit and one poor kid scrambling down to get it. They weren’t deterred, though. I got the feeling that whoever managed to kick a football over that crevasse would become a village legend, his boyish exploits repeated and exaggerated for generations at the local pub until he took on the legendary stature of a Robin Hood or King Arthur. Or maybe he’d just impress the local girls. Either way, they kept trying.

A day spent away from the cities reveals England at its best. So if you’re in this or any other part of the country, it would be worth your while to rent a car and see the lesser-known rural sights. Just be careful driving on the left.