This past year was unquestionably memorable, if not always for pleasant reasons. We were fortunate enough to be able to escape the cares of the world from time to time, and when we did, our travels reminded us just how much we love exploring the world. Certain moments stood out as cherished memories that we’ll carry with us forever — intangible souvenirs that will never gather dust.
The first time our guide, Brandur, stopped us was to listen to the cries of the puffins. The second time he stopped us, he put his index finger to his lips and said, “Listen.” So we did. “Listen to the silence,” he said. In the Faroe Islands, it’s easy to find pure silence. “Raise your hands over your heads and take a deep breath.” So we did, filling our lungs with the cool air, which smelled of grass, with a tang of brininess from the nearby sea. The vast green landscape on the island of Vágar was topped by black volcanic headlands and inhabited only by sheep, which made rippling patterns as they scattered and regrouped on the distant slopes. After 45 minutes of hiking, we stopped for a break and Brandur poured tea from a thermos and offered us muffins baked by his wife, which were sweetened with beet juice and candied angelica root. We set off again, dropping over the brow of a ridge. What we saw left us speechless. The Múlafossur waterfall plunged from a notch in the cliff edge and fell into the sapphire-colored sea 200 feet below. “You look like children who’ve just woken on Christmas morning,” Brandur said, seeing our exaltation.
San Miguel de Allende is not one of Mexico’s secrets. Its carefully restored colonial center heaves with upscale art galleries, boutique hotels, bars and restaurants. And it all feels tidy and gentrified. It’s not necessary to have a guide to explore the city, but I hoped that the one provided by our travel office would show me places I wouldn’t discover on my own. At the beginning of our tour, Israel led us up the staired street of Cruz del Pueblo in order to enjoy a panoramic view. Part way, he paused. “You said, you would like to see some unusual things? Are you feeling a little adventurous?” We detoured into a thistle-filled meadow, pressing through brambles and wildflowers to a small fortress-like church, with thick stone walls and immense buttresses. I peeked through a crack in the boarded-up door. Inside, a colorful fresco of angels bearing a length of green cloth encircled the lantern of a low dome, and in the apse, Christ with arms outstretched rose above what had been an ornate altar. Outside the front door of the church was a little temescal, a pre-Hispanic-style ceremonial sweat lodge. It too had frescoes, but these images depicted people in feathered headdresses dancing in a landscape of lakes, forests and pyramids. The ensemble of church and temescal encapsulated the religious collision that occurred in colonial Mexico. I returned to the stairs of Cruz del Pueblo reassured that even well-trodden San Miguel still has undiscovered treasures.
As the sun hovered above the Mediterranean, waiters at the Cova d’en Xoroi bar raced to make sure that everyone had been served before the critical moment we were all pretending not to be waiting for. When the sun finally dropped below the horizon like a gold coin, applause and laughter broke out on the outdoor terraces. “I feel like a silly hippie clapping at a sunset, but it’s just so beautiful,” a doctor from Düsseldorf said, speaking for all of us. The primal pleasure of a perfect sunset on a gorgeous summer night in the Mediterranean is something that you just can’t be blasé about. And the joy is contagious. The mood at the bar changed completely. The level of conversation increased and people began talking to complete strangers. We ordered another round of pomadas, Menorca’s signature cocktail of locally distilled Xoriguer gin and lemonade. Just as our drinks arrived, we noticed the silver sliver of a new moon in the now ink-blue sky.
We visited the Czech Republic in early 2020, just before the pandemic started to take hold. An already slow time of year was even slower than usual. We could cross the medieval Charles Bridge with ease at any time of day, but at dawn, we shared it with perhaps only a dozen other early risers. Seeing the bridge’s sculptures and lanterns set against the sunrise skyline of old Prague — a jumble of spiky bell towers and finial-topped domes — was a transporting experience. I treasure the moment, because in an ordinary high season, the bridge can become so crowded as to be almost impassable. We were able to enjoy the luxury of solitude elsewhere as well. In the wonderful new Museum Portheimka, a contemporary glass collection housed in a renovated Baroque palace, there was no one other than two charming guards. And in the National Gallery – Trade Fair Palace, we had its extraordinary collection of modern and contemporary art almost entirely to ourselves. What a privilege, to stand alone before masterworks by Rodin, Munch and Klimt.
I arrived at the Hancock Shaker Village on a cloudless late-summer day to find that I was virtually the only visitor. A utopian Christian group, the original Shakers had settled in New York State in the 1770s. Today, Hancock is a living museum. I followed a trail that passed neat rows of vegetables and sunflowers before coming to an open grassy area, the heart of the 19th-century village. The Shaker aesthetic emphasized purity of design and a lack of decoration, and the group’s Millennial Laws even prescribed the colors that could be used. On the day of my visit, the workshops were silent, with half-completed chairs, chests of drawers and wooden boxes awaiting the return of normality. But in the barns, farmworkers were raking new straw into the pens of the pigs, cows and goats. Thanks to the pandemic and the resulting absence of visitors, the atmosphere of the village that day was one that the Shakers themselves might have recognized. For a while, the 21st century had slipped away and 19th-century rural tranquility had returned. There were no planes in the sky and few passing cars on the nearby road. Somehow, in the exceptional circumstances of the times, it seemed that the Shakers’ innocence and idealism could once again be discerned.