In 1995, our daughter Kathy gave me the most wonderful and
unexpected Christmas gift. She sent her dad and me to London. She
had made monthly payments all year to cover our fare on British
Airways, our stay at the St. Giles Hotel, and a bus tour of major sites.
As an English major who had written an unpublished book on Lord
Byron, I was overjoyed at the prospect of visiting sites associated with
him. Before we left, we bought a guidebook and good walking shoes
and mapped out some of the places we wanted to visit.
Our hotel room was as efficient and tightly packed as a mobile home.
At night, we'd watch the BBC and pore over the guidebook and
maps, plotting our route for the next day.
London and beyond
Because of my interest in Byron, our England trip was planned
around a certain theme. The first day, we took the bus tour to help
orient ourselves, but we left the tour at Green Park near St. James
and walked up to 50 Albemarle where John Murray, Byronâ€™s
publisher, still is a going concern. We saw the drawing room
upstairs with its three tall windows familiar from the drawing of
Byron, Sir Walter Scott, Dâ€™Israeli, and other Murray authors,
and a second room displaying two well-known Byron paintings.
The rooms are still used by the firm on a daily basis.
Murray purchased the prime property with the proceeds from
Byronâ€™s hugely popular Childe Haroldâ€™s Pilgrimage. As
an author, it stoked my desire to someday make good money for a
We walked through Green Park to Buckingham Palace, then
through St. Jamesâ€™ Park to Westminster Abbey. We toured
the Abbey, seeing the graves of musicians, statesmen, kings and
queens. There was a plaque for Byron, which had been added
much later. At the time of his death, he had been refused burial
there. It made me reflect on the things we do in life and how they
continue to haunt us after death.
That night, we ate at an 18th century tavern off Bloomsbury with a
restaurant above, where we talked with some of the first real
Londoners weâ€™d met. Frank had roast beef and Yorkshire
pudding, and I had steak and kidney pie--good, hearty English food
like Byron would have eaten, in a tavern he might have frequented
when he wasnâ€™t starving himself to maintain his ethereal good
Saturday, we visited the National Gallery and saw one of my
favorite paintings, Turnerâ€™s The Fighting Temeraire. The
Romantic painting contrasts the beauty and slow pace of life before
the Industrial Revolution with the pollution and speed after. Byron
lived during that transition, and as a Romantic himself, felt pulled
between the stability of the past and challenges of the future.
At lunch in the gallery basement, we got a great view of the statue
of Nelson, the military hero of the Romantic Age, which is too high
to see well from street level. Then we went to the National Portrait
Gallery to see 19th century portraits, including Byron and his circle.
Monday, we took the train north to Nottingham, getting a good
view of the parts of London where people actually live, as opposed
to hotels and monuments and businesses. In the countryside, we
saw emerald fields and hedgerows, long-haired horses, white swans
and sheep and many, many new white lambs.
In Nottingham we walked up St. James Street to the house where
Byron and May Gray stayed. Itâ€™s a law firm now, and we
talked with one of the solicitors, filling him in on the history of his
building. He had never even noticed the plaque on the side of the
building. Then we crossed the street to the Infirmary where Byron
was treated. It made alive the pain Byron suffered in an attempt to
treat a handicap that twisted his life.
The next day, we took the train to Hucknall, where a friendly verger
showed us through the church where Byron was buried. I
wondered if the attentions of those who memorialized him there
compensated for his rejection in London.
|Frank at the
Billie at Newstead Abbey
(Click on the picture for a virtual tour)
Then on to Newstead, where the custodian gave us a private tour
of Newstead Abbey, Byronâ€™s ancestral estate. The abbey
was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539 and granted to Sir John
Byron, an ancestor of the poet. Only the 13th century front of the
ruined priory church survives, which reminded me of the gothic
themes of Romanticism.
As we toured the Great Hall, the Great Salon, and the small and
large dining rooms I thought how much Byron would have
enjoyed seeing the house in its restored state. Many of these
rooms were uninhabitable in his day. He was a young lord with
property, but little money to keep it up. Surviving ceilings and
overmantels hint of the baronial glory of the original estate.
We climbed the spiral stairs to the Priorâ€™s Oratory, where
Byron claimed to have seen the ghost of the Black Friar. His
adjoining bedroom contains his furniture and personal
possessions, including the gilt bed with four posters topped with
baronâ€™s coronets that he had made for his rooms at
Cambridge. Our guide unhooked the velvet rope to let me touch
his bed. The Chinese-patterned hangings and curtains are
reproductions of those Byron ordered for the room in 1801.
Exoticism was an important part of the Romantic movement, and
Byron wrote several long poems on Eastern themes.
From there, we went down to the North Gallery, which had
served as a library but now serves as a museum for Byronâ€™s
belongings and pictures.
Planning a trip around a theme can deepen the experience. Not
only can you learn about a particular subject or individual before
you go, but you have a context for the sites you see while youâ
€™re there. Ten years later, I fondly recall the places Byron
lived, the sights he saw, and the associations with his life and
poetry they produced in me.
Rome and Florence
In 2000, Kathy gave Frank a trip to Rome, where he had attended
high school, translated sermons, and guided guests. Thus, he was
the perfect guide for his wife, who had never been there and didnâ
€™t speak the language.
We organized the Rome trip around clusters of sites we wanted to
see in walking distance in various directions from our hotel. The
first day, we walked south to Santa Maria Maggiore, a large
church with wonderful mosaics, then to St. Peter in Vincoli, where
we saw Michelangeloâ€™s Moses. From there we walked on to
the Colosseum and the Forum and climbed the Capitoline Hill to
the museums and the mayorâ€™s office, with facades designed by
Michaelangelo. At the museum, we saw parts of the huge statue
of Constantine and my favorite, the Dying Gaul. We got back to
the hotel exhausted from walking and climbing on rough Roman
The next day, we walked west to the Castor and Pollux statues at
the presidentâ€™s palace, to the Trevi Fountain where I threw the
traditional coin, and to the Pantheon, a stunningly simple Roman
structure that impressed me with its weight and perfect proportions.
Then north and east to the Spanish Steps for lunch and a tour of
the Keats/Shelley house. Further north in the Metro underground
walkway to the Villa Borghese, where we saw several Berninis--
the Pauline Borghese, Apollo and Daphne, the Rape of
Proserpine and Berniniâ€™s David.
The next day was Sunday, with an early wakeup call and the
Metro west to the Vatican Museums. It was the monthly
admission-free day, so the crowds were incredible, but once the
museums opened, the line moved fast. We saw the Laocoon,
Apollo Belvedere and the large Raphael paintings. I could have
looked all day at the Sistine Chapel, despite the guards shushing
and the cell phones ringing and a woman walking backward into
me and stepping flat on my foot.
The pope had just blessed the crowd, so we felt like spawning
salmon trying to get inside St. Peterâ€™s. It was so huge, and
beautiful, especially the Pieta. Iâ€™d seen many pictures of it,
but they were no substitute for the real thing. The Bernini canopy
and window were stunning, also the doors the pope comes out of
once every 25 years, and Berniniâ€™s statue for a tomb with a
skeleton holding an hourglass reaching from under flowing drapery
to remind us of the brevity of life.
Rome has almost too much history to grasp. Itâ€™s hard to think
of living there with any sense that anything you do can have an
impact. I think our shorter history lets us think the things we do
matter and that we can accomplish something.
The next day, we took the train north through the outskirts of
Rome with apartment blocks with clothes hanging on the
balconies, past factories, and into the countryside. The hills were
green with vineyards, olive groves, and two-story farmhouses of
bright-colored stucco or duller rock.
Billie on the roof terrace with Il Duomo
At the station at Florence, where Kathy had studied one
summer in Pepperdineâ€™s Year-in-Europe program, we
caught a taxi that took us on a wild ride around the Duomo,
down a street and into a narrow alley to our hotel. The
Brunelleschi Hotel is built around an old tower. From the roof,
we had an incredible view of Florence, with the dome of the
Cathedral in one direction and the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio
in the other.
It was harder to keep things straight on the ground. With no
square blocks and walls all around, I kept starting out the
wrong direction. We went to the Duomo, where we saw the
gates of the baptistry and the salmon and green marble set
geometrically into the facade, then to the Ponte Vecchio with its
I love Giotto, and we were able to see his works at the Uffizi
and Santa Croce, or whatâ€™s left of them after floods and
earthquake. We had dinner at a nice little place near our hotel
that had been in business for 400 years.
The Bargello Museum, the oldest civic building in Florence,
looks like a fortress and served for a time as a prison. Now it
houses an interesting collection of sculpture, paintings and
household items spanning some eight centuries.
The Medici tombs feature Michelangeloâ€™s Dawn and Dusk
and Night and Day. Stunning! We saved the best to last,
visiting the Accademia and seeing Michelangeloâ€™s
Prisoners and David.
In Italy, the variety of artists and works and the great span of
history was like dipping into a treasure chest each day and
coming up with a handful of precious and beautiful objects of all
Our last dinner there was at a wonderful old restaurant with
frescoes of Florence on the walls and vaulted ceilings with
heraldic seals from all the towns around, including our waiterâ
€™s hometown. Frank had Florentine bistecca, and I had
shrimp, calamari and octopus scallopini.
I wish I knew how the Italians cook seafood so it melts in your
mouth. It was one of many secrets Iâ€™d like to learn, but
maybe the secrets are part of the charm, like the mysterious
smile of a waiter that says youâ€™re getting something really
special, no matter how many people have had the same dish.
(Click on the picture for
virtual tours of the Forum
and other Roman sites.)
(Click on the picture for virtual tours of the
Duomo and other sites in Florence.)
(Click on the picture to go
inside the British Museum
and to other London sites.)