30 December 2018

Ten countries I have
visited in 2018

Gondolas tied up and waiting for the tides to fall at Rialto Bridge, just a five minute walk from the Palazzetto San Lio in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

In previous years, in my end-of-year reviews at the end of December, I have often summarised the year’s events in my life, as well providing my own commentary on the year in news, sport, and church life.

However, newspapers and television stations provide substantial summaries of the past year at this time of the year, and the consequences of ‘Brexit’ and the Trump presidency have been devastating and depressing at one and the same time throughout 2018.

Instead, I have decided to end the year on note of celebration over the next few days, looking back at ten countries I have visited this year, ten cathedrals I have visited in Ireland, ten synagogues I have visited across Europe, and ten places I have visited in Ireland this year.

The wisteria was already fading in Hall Court in Sidney Sussex College when I visited Cambridge this summer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

1, England:

As with every year, I have visited England throughout the year. I have stayed twice in London during two-day residential meetings of the trustees of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel): at the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine in Limehouse in the East End in January, and in November in the Kairos Centre in south-west London, close to the campuses of Roehampton University and overlooking Richmond Park.

I was also in London for meetings of USPG’s trustees in May and September, and at the meetings of USPG trustees and council and the annual USPG conference at the High Leigh Conference Centre near Hoddesdon in July, and a regional meeting of USPG volunteers and supporters in Birmingham at the end of November.

I also visited Lichfield three times this year: for two days of retreat and reflection and to celebrate my birthday in January, to lecture on the Wyatt architectural dynasty in April at the invitation of Lichfield Civic Society, and again in November, for a short visit to Lichfield Cathedral and the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital.

I missed the annual summer school organised in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, but I had a short visit to Cambridge in early July, while some of the fading wisteria could still be seen in the courts of Sidney Sussex College.

The arcades around the bailey seen from the Chapel of Saint Sebastian in the Fort de Salses, near Perpignan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

2, France:

In May, I spent a few days in the south of France, staying in Sainte-Marie-la-Mer, a coastal town near Perpignan. Although I had been to Paris half-a-dozen times or more in the past, this was my first time back in France since 2006, and my first time to visit the South of France.

In Perpignan, I visited the Palace of the Kings of Majorca (Palais des Rois de Majorque), the Cathédrale St-Jean, with its Gothic architecture, its wrought-iron bell tower and its cloistered cemetery, and the statue of the Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí facing la Gare de Perpignan, which Dalí proclaimed it to be the ‘Centre of the Universe’ after he experienced a vision of cosmogonic ecstasy there in 1963.

Beyond Perpignan, I visited Collioure on the Côte Vermeille, close to the French border with Spain at the Pyrénées. Collioure, with its typical Mediterranean bay, attracted several Fauvist artists who made it their centre in the early 20th century. They were inspired by the colours of Collioure, its castle, mediaeval streets, and the lighthouse converted into the church of Notre-Dame-des-Anges. Almost 100 reproductions of works by Matisse and Derain are exhibited around the port and harbour in the very same place where they painted the originals in the early 20th century.

I also visited the hills and narrow streets of Elne, including the Cathedral of Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie, and the Fort de Salses, also known as the Forteresse de Salses, an impressive and massive Catalan fortress 20 minutes from Perpignan, off the road to Narbonne.

Tucholskystraße is close to the New Synagogue in Berlin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

3, Germany:

I passed through Frankfurt Airport twice (4 and 9 April), on my way to and from Thessaloniki to experience the celebrations of Orthodox Easter in the northern Greek city.

Both stopovers allowed time to eat, but I was back in Germany later in the year (11 to 14 September), when I spent three or four days in Berlin. I stayed on a corner of Tucholskystraße, around the corner from Oranienburger Straße and the Neue Synagoge or New Synagogue, built in 1859-1866 as the main synagogue of Berlin’s Jewish community.

The visit included a day at the former concentration camp in Sachsenhausen and a four-hour walking tour of Jewish Berlin’s destruction and rebirth.

I also visited the Pergamon Museum, the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and the site of the Berlin Wall, Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom) and a number of historic churches, including the Marienkirche and Sophienkirche, and strolled along Unter den Linden.

Travelling over the Alps, somewhere above Austria, on my way between Dublin and Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

4, Austria:

After experiencing Easter in Thessaloniki, it took three flights to get back to Dublin in April: a flight to Vienna, a flight to Frankfurt, and from there to Dublin. For the travel weary, some say you cannot count being in a country if you have not stayed overnight. Most agree that it does not count if you only touch down for a refuelling or to change flights. But for me, the safe definition is if you have to pass through passport control and have at least a cup of coffee.

In the past, I have stayed in Vienna in 2002, when I was on a panel at a seminar organised by the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, and stayed over twice in 2005 on way to and from China for Church visits.

This time there was time for no more than a cup of coffee in the airport … but I suppose that still counts.

On one of the many daily walks on the beaches of Georgioupoli in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

5, Greece:

I was in Greece twice this year, and stayed in three places. I stayed in Thessaloniki from 4 to 9 April, experiencing Orthodox Easter, but also visiting the city’s only surviving synagogues, the old Jewish quarter, the Jewish Museum, some surviving Jewish mansions on Vassilisis Olgas Avenue, and the Jewish Holocaust Memorial at Liberty Square, a bronze sculpture by Nandor Glid that has been desecrated a few times this year.

In Thessaloniki, there was time for meals with friends, walks along the seafront, visits to churches, cathedrals and a few quiet hours in the Monastery of Vlatadon which is perched like a balcony above the city and the harbour, as well as a full-day visiting Mount Athos.

Later, I spent two summer weeks (6 to 20 June) back in Crete, with one week in Rethymnon, staying at Varvaras Diamond Hotel near the beach in Platanes, and a week at the Corissia Princess Hotel in Georgioupoli.

There were days strolling through the labyrinthine back streets of Rethymnon, long lingering dinners with friends, and days on the beaches in Platanes and Georgioupoli, visits to cathedrals, churches and icon workshops, visits to Chania in the west of Crete, to mountain villages, through gorges and across the White Mountains, to Hora Sfakíon and Frangokastello on the south coast, to the Monastery of Saint George in Karydi, and to villages and olive groves in the mountains.

Las Casas de la Judería, a Seville hotel that is worth visiting … just for itself (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

6, Spain:

With a new passport in my hands from August, I visited Spain at the end of October, and spent four nights in Seville (23 to 27 October. I stayed in the Hotel Las Casas de la Judería de Sevilla, an unusual hotel complex made up of 27 traditional houses, where the 134 different rooms are linked through 40 patios, courtyards, gardens and a labyrinth of small passageways, balconies and Roman-style tunnels.

The hotel takes its name from its location in the heart of the old Jewish quarter of Seville, just minutes away from the main landmarks in the city.

As well as visiting the Cathedral, the Real Alcazar and the other sites every tourist tries to visit in Seville, I also visited places in Seville and Tarifa associated with the extraordinary life of Josefina de Comerford, Doña Josefa Eugenia Maria Francisca Comerford MacCrohon de Sales (1794-1865), who was involved in Spanish political intrigues in the early 19th century.

These include the Convento de la Encarnación, where she was confined after her death sentence was commuted to life in a convent, and the Corral del Conde (the Count’s Yard), where she lived out most of her later years.

In a side street in Tangier, once known as a city of spies and smugglers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

7, Morocco:

My visit to Seville also offered the opportunity to visit Tangier in Northern Morocco (25 October). Tangier once had a reputation as a safe haven for spies and their spying activities. It played host nests of spies throughout the Cold War and before that during World War II, and the association of Tangier with spies and their secretive lifestyles has made the city a location for many books and films.

Gondolas at the Palazzo Ducale, with San Giorgio Maggiore on the other side of the canal (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

8, Italy:

Some important dates in the family calendar were marked with a few days in Venice near the end of the year (5 to 9 November 2018). I stayed at the Palazzetto San Lio in the heart of Venice, between the Rialto Bridge and Saint Mark’s Square. It is at the end Calle del Frutariol in the sestiere or district of Castello, and just a stone’s throw from Rialto and the Grand Canal.

I had visited Venice in the past while staying in other p;aces in northern Italy. But this was my first time to stay in Venice itself. Palazzetto San Lio is a Venetian palace built in the 17th and 18th centuries, and has been owned by an old Venetian family for generations.

During those few days, there were visits to Saint Mark’s Basilica and Saint Mark’s Square, many of the great churches of Venice, the Ghetto and its memorials and synagogues, boat trips along the Grand Canal, and visits to islands in the lagoon, including Murano, Burano and Torcello.

The railway station at the Slovenian side of Europa Square, the crossing point between Italy and Slovenia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

9, Slovenia:

While I was staying in Venice, I visited the divided town of Gorizia, both Gorizia and Nova Gorica, crossing the border between Italy and Slovenia a number of times, arriving and leaving from one railway station in Italy, and having lunch in another railway station in Slovenia.

The frontier dividing Gorizia remained in place until Slovenia became part of the Schengen Agreement on 21 December 2007.

Today, the border between Italy and Slovenia is almost invisible, an artificial line that runs between Gorizia in Italy and Nova Gorica in Slovenia. The most celebrated border crossing is at Europa Square, an open pedestrian square in front of the Transalpina railway station. But there are other border crossings between Gorizia and Nova Gorica, for the border is a straight line that ignores the natural contours and bends in the streets and buildings, still seen in the remains of a fence that once ran across streets and even divided gardens.

Today, the two towns form one conurbation that also includes the Slovenian municipality of Šempeter-Vrtojba. Since May 2011, these three towns are joined in a common trans-border metropolitan zone, administered by a joint administration board. As I stepped between three towns and two countries, no-one asked me for a passport, no one asked me to take my place in a queue, asking for identity, or my opinion on who should be in the European Union and who should be out.

Cherry blossoms at the City of Armagh Hotel during a break at the General Synod this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

10, Ireland:

Of course, most of the year was spent in Ireland, but I visited all four provinces, stayed in places in both the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland – in Armagh during the General Synod – and visited each of the cathedrals in the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe.

This year, 2018, was a year that I was blessed with opportunities to take part in baptisms, weddings and funerals, ecumenical services, and the ordinary, every-day life of a parish that brings me many blessings. There was community engagement too, and I was invited to lift two All-Ireland cups this year: the Sam Maguire Football Cup when it visited Ardagh, Co Limerick, as part of the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the discovery of the Ardagh Chalice; and the Liam McCarthy Hurling Cup, when the Limerick Hurling Champions visited Askeaton.

But, most of all, I was blessed this year by the people I love and the people who love me.

Hands across the border at Europa Square, at the border between Slovenia and Italy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

This Evening: Ten places I have visited in Ireland in 2018.

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