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The real Narnia

Today I fulfilled a childhood dream, and explored Narnia. Really.

There is something appropriate in the fact that i entered through a train platform, no less.

For years, taking the train up to Assisi or Florence, one of the stations you pass is Narni-Amelia, and inevitably one thinks of Narnia. But it looks like a small town with little to recommend it, so i have blithely passed on by, spending my rare travel days in more exotic locations. I have always chalked up the similarity to coincidence. Silly me.

Narnia walking

The first clue

Narni is the Italianized name, of course, for a mid-sized town perched on a hill 800′ above sea level, and rising over the Nera river from which it probably got its original name. Settled by the Umbri – neighbors of the Etruscans – sometime before 600 B.C., the village was called Nequinum. As they were wont to do, the Romans showed up a few centuries later, and in about 300 B.C., it became a proper Roman municipality, and, as the original name sounded something like “unable/worthless” in Latin, the name was changed to, you guessed it, Narnia.

As you enter town, remains of an Augustan bridge still straddle some of the valley, built in 27 B.C.. Around the time that Jesus of Nazareth began his itinerant ministry in the Galilee, the future emperor Marcus Cocceius Nerva (96-98) was born here. Pliny the Younger (whose description of Vesuvius gave his name, ‘Plinian’, to that manner of volcanic eruption) recommends the baths here. Near the Ponte Cardona is a marker and a sign in several languages indicating that you are now at the geographic center of Italy.*

According to a 2002 biography of C.S. Lewis, by Lancelyn Green,

When Walter Hooper asked [C. S. Lewis] where he found the word ‘Narnia’, Lewis showed him Murray’s Small Classical Atlas, ed. G.B. Grundy (1904), which he acquired when he was reading the classics with Mr Kirkpatrick at Great Bookham [1914–1917]. On plate 8 of the Atlas is a map of ancient Italy. Lewis had underscored the name of a little town called Narnia, simply because he liked the sound of it.

There is no record of Lewis actually visiting Narni, but the name is not the only connection. There is also a Blessed Lucy of Narnia, a 16th century mystic, whose remains were restored to Narni at about the time that Lewis began to think up his Chronicles.I cannot help but think that the fact that a mystical creature is the city’s symbol and coat of arms couldn’t hurt, either.


Rocca Albornoziana (Cair Paravel?)

If you want to go both higher up and further in, two of the features of the town are the Rocca Albornoziana at the highest point, and the relatively recently rediscovered rooms of the Narni Sotterranea, excavated underneath the deconsecrated Church of San Domenico.

As one walks up through the city toward the 13th century castle – built to defend against Saracen invaders – one can imagine inspiration for Cair Paravel. In good shape, with a lot of modern construction to support a small museum, this is the site of some serious summer medieval fair experiences, it seems. Named for Cardinal Egidio Albornoz, apostolic vicar responsible for restoring the military influence of the Avignon popes in the Italian peninsula in the 1350’s and ’60’s.

On the other hand, the history of the underground reads more like Grossman’s The Magicians than Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. In the late seventies (more than a decade after Lewis’ death) a small band of young people from Narni had formed a kind of spelunking club, and discovered a small crack that lead into an underground chamber, which turned out to be the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel, a twelfth century chapel. Along with the chapel are a series of rooms that turn out to be cells and a torture chamber, used by the Inquisition for a period of about three centuries. Extensive graffiti in one of the cells left by prisoners from about 1745 to 1854. archives related to the activity of the tribunal based in Narni were part of the collection stolen by Napoleon Bonaparte from the Vatican and related to Paris; when the collection was possible to be returned, Vatican authorities at the time sought to preserve only a handful of the Inquisitions records (such as the trial of the Templars) and let the rest to be recycled. One box found its way to Trinity College, Dublin, including some from the Narni tribunal.

Certainly, worth the day trip from Rome!


View of Narni from Rocca Albornozania, complete with trebuchet and battering ram

*Apparently at least a couple other places also claim to be at the geographic center of Italy. The Italian Military Geographic Institute does not endorse any of them, as “”the (Italian) boot is not a geometric design and therefore it is impossible to determine the exact position of the centre of Italy”


Summer Stage I: Sun, Syllabus, and Cyprus

For three weeks, I got to call the island of Athena home. St. Paul shipwrecked here. Phonecians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Turks and more Greeks have called this island home before me. I spent the better part of July living in an apartment with a pool, two kilometers from the beach, with an agenda that primarily included visiting orthodox churches and historic sites while preparing my first university syllabus.

Cyprus is an island divided, and I wonder if my Irish friends would find something familiar about it. On the southern side, Greek flags are abundant, but it took a couple days before I saw my first Cypriot flag. On the north side, the flag of Turkey is seen at least as often as that of Northern Cyprus.

Cyprus Flag

Republic of Cyprus

Turkiye Flag


Greece Flag


North Cyprus Flag

Turkish Cyprus












Most of the world (except Turkey) sees the northern part of the island as occupied territory, with a massive amount of Turkish military and settlers who arrived in response to an attempted coup  (by Greek Cypriot nationalists) in 1974. About 200,000 people were displaced, both Turkish and Greek Cypriots, forcing ethnic Greeks to the south, and Turkish Cypriots to the north. The Republic of Cyprus (south) controls a little less than 60% of the island, while the Turkish Republic of Cyprus holds most of the rest. There is a UN buffer zone between, and a couple of British military reservations on the south side.

The total population of the island is about 1.1 million, with about 300,000 living in the north, perhaps half of whom are actually Turkish or the children of Turkish settlers (in contrast to ethnically Turkish Cypriots). The Turkish military maintains about 30,000 troops on the island. One Turkish Cypriot shared this analogy with me:

Imagine the UK invaded the US in response to a crisis (say, an attempted coup by the western states, who wanted to unite with Canada), and left a garrison of 30 million British troops on American soil for the next forty years. Obviously, there’s a shared language, ethnicity, history, and origin… but British soldiers on American soil, numbering 10% of the population in the occupied area? Say, New England? How would that go over at home?

Recently, however, relations seem to have relaxed a little, and some transit across the border is allowed. The capital city of Nicosia (Lefkosa) is divided, not unlike Berlin during the cold war, an image Cypriots of both sides used while I was there. While sipping lemonade in the Buyuk Han, an Ottoman-era inn and market, we got to meet one of the northern Cypriot politicians who was working toward reunification, reflecting a significant minority view, that, it seems, is growing with younger Cypriots there.

Sunset at St. George

Sunset at St. George

The first day in Cyprus saw sunset from the church of Agios Giorgios (St. George). Before that, though, a visit to the ecumenical center of Pahos, Agia Kyriaki Chrysopolitissa – otherwise now known as St. Paul’s Catholic Parish of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem in Paphos, Cyprus (entrusted to them since 1986). The Anglican community of Paphos also accepted an invitation to use the Church for worship (since 1988). The invitation was extended to the Maronite, Lutheran and Finnish communities. The site includes “St. Paul’s Pillar”, where according to local tradition, the apostle was lashed 39 times for preaching Christianity, before managing to convert the local Roman proconsul, Sergius Paulus, the first recorded Roman official to convert. (cf Acts 13)

Church at St. Paul's Pillar

Church at St. Paul’s Pillar

In the south, I spent most of my time near Paralimni, on the southeast corner of the island, with a couple days around Paphos, and a couple days around the local region, such as Agia Napa and Cave Grecko.

It is common for many of the Orthodox churches to have some exterior space where the faithful can light candles or incense, even when the church is closed. Sometimes this is as simple as a converted barbecue, or as elaborate as a completely separate building. In the case of Agia Thekla, it was a sea cave turned grotto, covered in icons. (Never heard of St. Thecla, disciple of Paul? You have, you just don’t know it. The oldest image of Paul in the world is in the catacomb of St. Thecla in Rome, just discovered a couple years ago, under a modern office building!)

With more experience of Byzantine orthodoxy from the Russians and other slavs, I was unprepared for the relatively casual approach to worship here: No heads covered, summer clothes (sundresses rather than beachwear, though) some impromptu recruiting of a very excited young acolyte, and observing the feast day by passing under the icon of the saint. Antidiron (it seemed) and a mix of pomegranate, sesame, and almonds were distributed regularly after vespers.


Lefkosia: The Last Divided Capital

In the north, a local couple showed us around – a Turkish Cypriot high school teacher and his Turkish wife, both generous hosts, showed off a few choice sites. There’s an English village clinging to a cliffside called Karmi, where remnants from the British occupation settled and never left, even after the Turks took over. Bellapais abbey looks out over the port town of Kyrenia, and dates back to the 14th century.

Aziz and Turkan, my hosts in the north

Turkan and Aziz, my hosts in the north

The last, we celebrated vespers on the hilltop church of the Prophet Elijiah, overlooking Protaras, on his feast day. If I had planned it, I might not have made it in time, it just happened that my friend and I decided to climb the hill that day, at that hour, and found ourselves ready to get good seats and join in the liturgy honoring the prophet just after the sun set on my last day in Cyprus.

The next morning, a few hours before I flew to Romania, air raid sirens sounded to commemorate the 39th anniversary of the Turkish invasion. Prior to that, most days were filled with church bells and/or the call of the muezzin, both of which fill me with prayerful peace.

Icon of the Prophet Elijah

Icon of the Prophet Elijah

Church of Holy Elijah
Church of Holy Elijah

The Dutch, I Presume?

Holland and Netherlands are not the same thing, and the people and language are Dutch (though Flemish works, too). It does not help the rest of us, I suppose, that the Dutch national team was competing in the World Cup as Holland, though it was in fact the whole of the Netherlands represented. Holland is the western part of the Netherlands, one of the regions and once-independent states that combined to form the Netherlands, which itself is part of the region known variously as the Low Countries and the Benelux region (Belgium-Netherlands-Luxembourg).

In fact, while Eveline and I were touring the canals of Den Bosch, the volunteer tour boat captain asked the 20 people on board how many were from Holland. Considering I was the only person not speaking Dutch, I was surprised when Eveline was the only one to raise her hand – the rest were from elsewhere in the Netherlands: Friesland, Zeeland, Gelderland et al.

Hans Brinker, the boy everyone knows about for sticking his finger in the dyke to keep it from flooding. Everyone but the Dutch, that is.

A few people asked what my impressions of the Netherlands were, and what my expectations had been. Everyone seemed genuinely surprised that growing up on the far end of America, I had even heard about their country as a child. When visiting Kinderdyke, a picturesque concentration of nearly 20 windmills, we saw a notation in the guestbook reading, “It is a childhood dream come true to see these! Thank you!” The mild scoffing by the natives at the remark earned an explanation from me that indeed the mills and dykes of the Netherlands are known to us since childhood. Who knew that most Dutch have never heard of Hans Brinker?

In front of the Binnenhof, home of the Dutch States-General (parliament)

A few words to describe my impressions? Fiets (bicycles)! Windmills, dykes, canals, and polders. Skating. Decorated bread! Drop (liquorice). Small country and houses. Friendly people, hospitality. Stroopwafels and Gouda (‘how-da’) cheese. [The Netherlands is about 16000 square miles – roughly 2/3 the size of Western Washington;  the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.]

M.C. Escher tribute in sand

During a game of Dutchopoly, which was lost to the aforementioned theologian-diplomat, I got a pop quiz from her mom: “Do Americans know any [contemporary] famous Dutch people?” Schillebeecx, of course! And Visser t’Hooft. (Pronounced tohft, not tooft, I discover after the laughter subsides…) M.C. Escher is well known, but I doubt many know he was Dutch. Historical figures are more likely: Spinoza, Erasmus, Van Gogh. I had already mentioned Hans Brinker to mostly blank stares. But actors, musicians, athletes? Not so sure…

My generous hosts

After Amsterdam, I got a full day to explore the university town of Tilburg, Eveline’s college home for the last five years. Big, beautiful, rarely visited churches; bicycles in the tens of thousands parked at the train station; a large outdoor shopping district. I discovered almost immediately that the Dutch do not anticipate size-13 American feet when designing stairs.

Amsterdam may be the capital, but the seat of government is Den Haag (The Hague), which is where the Queen, parliament, and the embassies cluster, not to mention the international criminal courts. Like Amsterdam it dates from about the 13th century, and retains a great deal of European charm. A little less so, Rotterdam, which we visited next. Though an older city, its historic center was all but completely demolished during WWII. Definitely something to be in the midst of The Hague and the sea of orange as Holland won its way to the World Cup finals!


Over the weekend we retreated to Maasdam in South Holland, a small rural town where Eveline grew up and where her parents still keep her childhood house. Her father rides his bike 40 km to work daily, as he has for decades, and her mother has a pair of wooden clogs she still uses for working in the garden. We toured the island by fiets, and I discovered this is a lot easier to do when A) the entire country is flat and below sea level, B) you ride street cruisers rather than mountain bikes, and C) the entire country is crisscrossed with dedicated bicycle paths, not just 18” lanes on the side of a road!

World Cup game ends in five minutes. Your train leaves in three. Where would you be?

Sunday was my first Fourth of July outside the U.S. Thanksgiving in Rome had had all the feel of home, a big feast and a gathering of friends, but there were no fireworks for me for Independence Day. (“So that’s why they always play that movie on TV today!” she says). There is plenty of Red, White, and Blue, however, since those are the colors of the Dutch flag as well – though Orange is the ‘unofficial’ color of the country, William of Orange being the ‘founding father’ if you will. We spent the afternoon touring the windmills of kinderdyke and the surrounding area. It is a little bit eerie to see rivers flowing through fields where the river is consistently higher than the land around it!

The Binnenhof

My last day was spent with a gathering of the Dutch clergy, honoring the end of the Year of the Priest, in ‘s-Hertogenbosch (Den Bosch for short). The guest of honor, presider and lecturer was the recently retired Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has been president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity for the last decade. Between the morning’s Eucharist and the afternoon’s lecture and vespers, we wandered around the town, sampled the famous Bosch Bollen, and toured the city from the canals that run beneath the city.

The cardinal’s address was delivered in German, and we were provided with Dutch translations in advance enough for me to glean the basic points from my host before the lecture began.

Cardinal Kasper in Den Bosch

(As I was searching for an English translation, I came upon a blog, In Caelo et in Terra,  that included them and a photo from the event. I have commandeered both, so please give credit where it is due.) His remarks reflected on his more than half century of ordained ministry, and he addresses head-on the topics of clericalism and celibacy, and does not shy away from the scandal. His central point is that the priest must be a servant of joy, must put aside secondary attitudes (clericalism) and focus on Christ and his community. It was a fine way to end my year in Europe, in the company of a great friend sitting at the feet of a great teacher!

English Translation

Not to be confused with the Netherworld

I have said this before, but it is hard to believe it has been an entire year already. One year ago, I was wrapping up at St. Brendan, still trying to work out visa issues and wondering if I would in fact get to Rome at all!

This morning, as I took my leave of the Eternal City for the summer it was already 30°C (85°F) by 10:00am. By all accounts it has been a relatively mild June, but it is already toasty enough for me. Arriving in Amsterdam a couple hours’ flight north of Rome, it was a much more reasonable 22°C (72°F).

The first thing I saw out the airplane window as we approached the airport was a windmill. Not one of the iconic Don Quixote sort, though, but a modern, white, high tech electricity producer. As for wooden clogs, I did not even have to leave the airport before I encountered a few!

Eveline, a good friend and Dutch theology student who had spent the year at the Lay Centre, was there to greet me and show me around Amsterdam before we left for her university town of Tilburg. This much further north, the days are noticeably longer – more like home. I knew to expect it, but you really cannot prepare for how many bicycles there are in this city! Everyone is on two wheels – kids, parents, professionals in suits/dresses, elderly folk out for a stroll. I can understand why fiets is basically the first Dutch word anyone would learn!

Before Amanda asks, yes, I got to the Van Gogh Museum, but it was closed. Saw the palace, the “new church” (from 1410), various canals, the flower market, Rembrant’s square, ate pannekochen (pancakes) for lunch and Irish pub fare for dinner. Also smelled marijuana wafting through the air at several points on our walk, I got hit on by a guy on a bike, and we overheard a tour guide address his group as they emerged from the red light district: “OK, let’s count everybody. I always lose one of the guys by this point…  Hey, where’s Mike? Oh, Hi Mike! Your daughter told me I had to keep an eye on you since she could not come along today!”

Den Haag, Delft, Rotterdam, Maasdam, Tilburg and Den Bosch (with the just-retired Cardinal Kasper) are all on the agenda before heading for home.

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