Guédelon walls

Guédelon – A 13th Century Castle in the 21st Century

Castles are fun! 

Just like lots of little girls, I loved imagining I was a princess with a castle.  While I often dreamed up my own castles, I had the distinct benefit of having seen both real castles and castle ruins during my childhood visits to Ireland.  So it was easy for me to imagine what my castle would look like.  And while I certainly enjoyed the ‘pretty dress and tiara’ part of princesshood, a shortage of knights in shining armor was no deterrent –  I could slay the dragons just as well, if needed.  Racing across imaginary ramparts and tearing up and down circular staircases was no problem. 

So for me, a trip to Guédelon was really fun! 

Guédelon castle

Guédelon tower

In Burgundy, a castle nearly hidden in the forest

 Tucked in the French countryside between the villages of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye and Saint-Amand-en-Puisaye, Guédelon is about a 2-hour drive south from Paris.

Guédelon carpentry

Castle and tower from the carpentry shop

Started in 1996, the idea was to build a 21st century medieval castle using only 13th century construction techniques.  The site was selected for its abundance of stone, sand and lumber – there was no need to transport supplies.  For the mill, there is an available water supply.  No machines, power tools or gasoline engines are used by the 40 or so craftsmen who are involved in the construction.

Guédelon building

Building walls using blocks and mud mortar

It is nothing short of a marvel!  A small “town” has sprung up around the castle itself – not homes, but rather buildings for the craftsmen and stalls/sheds to care for the animals.  Draught horses pull the wagons, sheep provide wool to make linens and thread, ducks and geese meander about.

Guédelon horses

Horses and carts for moving goods

Guédelon sheep

Sheep raised for wool

There is a carpentry shop, stone-cutting, the mill and a kiln for making blocks/bricks/tiles.  Natural dyes provide the colors for paint and wool – and all of it is created onsite and by hand. 

Guédelon spinning

Wool spun to make cloth

Guédelon paints and dyes

Natural dyes made by hand

The project pays for itself by charging admission to the nearly 300,000 visitors, many of whom are school children, who come every year to see the progress.  There is a modern café which serves hot and cold food and a very nice gift shop.  They all contribute to the maintenance of the project which is expected to be completed by about 2030. 

Cuédelon chapel

Painted walls inside the finished chapel

Work and Learn

Groups can schedule a “hands-on” opportunity to carve sandstone or to speak with craftsmen as they work. There are no set demonstration times for the various skills used in the construction of the castle, but rather visitors can watch and ask questions as the craftsmen go about their regular work.  Individuals who want to help with the project can take courses and spend 3-7 days working on the site.  There is an apprentice program for young people and even courses for professional training in heritage skills. 

Guédelon basket weaver

A weaver making a colorful basket

Guédelon stairway

Completed chapel tower

While there, I heard a group of visitors commenting on how much had been completed since their last visit.  I think it would be great fun to return to see the progress. 

Tourist Spot and Much More

But Guédelon is much more than simply a tourist attraction.  The work done there provides important historical, archeological and sociological insight.  The attention to detail for the windows, stairs, and arches demands serious research and intense architectural scrutiny.  The knowledge gained helps architects in both archeological excavation and building renovation/restoration. It’s an on-going history lesson! 

Guédelon castle keep

Interior of the Castle

Guédelon is open daily at 10 am from March until November.  If you’re looking for something unusual and fascinating I highly recommend a visit.  Especially if you love history and architecture.  Or maybe you just want to race across the ramparts and prepare to slay that rapidly approaching dragon…

For more information, visit the Guédelon website:

Pursuing Thoroughbred Royalty: Claiborne Farm

The name Claiborne Farm is synonymous with greatness in the Thoroughbred Racing. 

That is why, on a recent driving trip from Colorado Springs back to the east, I could not pass up the chance to venture just 12 short miles off the interstate and stop in Paris, Kentucky to visit the final resting place of the incomparable Secretariat. Having had the good fortune to have seen him win the Preakness during his Triple Crown campaign, Claiborne was an obvious stop.

Most people are probably familiar with Secretariat, indisputably one of the greatest thoroughbred horses of all time. But if not, Big Red, as he was fondly called around the stable area, won racing’s illusive Triple Crown in 1973. The chestnut son of Bold Ruler out of a mare by Princequillo still holds the record in all three of the Triple Crown races:  The Kentucky Derby, The Preakness and The Belmont Stakes. 

Once Secretariat was retired from racing, he stood as a stallion at Claiborne and remained there until his death in 1989 at the ripe old age – for a racehorse – of 19.


Despite the day being showery and wet, Claiborne was beautiful. The field stone pillars gracing the entrance proudly proclaimed the name given by founder Arthur B. Hancock in the 19th century. The tree lined drive wound down to the office which gave way to miles of black board fencing and cream colored barns and outbuildings. Over 3000 acres of rolling fields and paddocks are home to more than 250 thoroughbred mares, foals, weanlings, yearlings, horses in training and, of course, the stallions. 


I stepped into the office to check in for my pre-arranged tour and stopped dead in my tracks. The room was cozy and comfortable, with wing chairs and small tables strategically arranged around the stone fireplace.  But what instantly caught my attention were the leather halters hanging on the walls.  At first I could hardly believe they were real, but then I began reading the names:  Nasrullah, Bold Ruler, Nijinsky II, Danzig, Princequillo, Swale.  I touched them almost reverently, quietly  breathing some of the greatest names in horse racing history.  I stroked the brass nameplates imagining each one, not hanging in orderly rows on the wall, but rather gracing the noble heads of their respective owners. I felt as if I were in the presence of royalty.  These were the names of great sires that I had been hearing since I was a child.  Some of my earliest memories are of discussions of racing pedigrees and these names were nearly as familiar as my own.


Path leading to the stallion barns and breeding facilities

Wandering outside to await my guide, my gaze drifted out across the green meadows drinking in the tranquility.  The pleasant silence was broken only by the chirping of birds and the occasional distant whinny of an unseen horse.  As it turned out, the other visitors who had signed up for the tour decided to postpone due to the inclement weather.  I got a private tour.   


The Stallions

Late summer is a quiet time at Claiborne; there isn’t as much going on as during the late winter breeding season and spring foaling season.  John, my guide, and I strolled and chatted beneath the shade of the sycamore trees, some of which were planted by Arthur Hancock himself.  Only a few buildings are included on the tour.   In the c.1860 tobacco barn turned breeding shed, we discussed the merits of artificial turf and decided that it is better suited for breeding barns than racetrack surfaces.

In one of the stallion barns, Algorithms and Orb were lying down, taking a late morning nap.  Their box stalls were immense, bedded in fresh straw with screens painted the signature cream color.   The barn was immaculate, the aisles and walkways paved with rubberized bricks. 

Claiborne Farm nameplates

Brass nameplates adorn the stalls with the most recent occupant listed first



Secretariat’s name appears just over that of his sire, Bold Ruler



Circling around to the six-stall barn, I met Blame, notorious for his defeat of Zenyatta in the 2010 Breeders Cup Classic, and War Front. On each stall door was the name of the current occupant (first) and all those famous horses that had lived there previously.  John carried a stash of red and white mints in his pocket and the clever horses knew to come to the door for a treat when we arrived.  Blame, in particular, who licked my hand after I produced the mint, seemed to relish his sweets.  Perhaps he knows that he is “equine-nongrata” in the eyes of many visitors to Claiborne.  Some have never forgiven him for ending the winning streak of the great filly Zenyatta.

Blame looking for sweets

Blame looking for sweets

War Front refuses to pose for the camersa

War Front refuses to pose for the camersa

We paused at each stall where John was able to tell me about pedigrees and statistics about every horse.  He was a wealth of information, had some great stories about each animal and easily answered all my questions. 

John pointed out the paddock where Secretariat used to be turned out and explained the need for the privacy fence that had been installed along the road.  Apparently when Secretariat was retired to Claiborne Farm, there were so many people who wanted to catch a glimpse of him that they would stop along the road clogging up the traffic. If the tours were filled and they couldn’t get in, some people had even climbed the fences to get in to see him!  Imagine the potential danger for people unaccustomed to thoroughbred horses – especially stallions!  

The Stallion Cemetery

Our final stop on the tour was one of four thoroughbred graveyards at Claiborne – the main stallion cemetery.  There are 21 stallions buried on the site located just behind the main office.  It is framed by manicured hedges, and once again I found myself standing in awe of the great names.  Beginning with Swale, the son of Seattle Slew who died suddenly of a heart attack just 8 days after his Belmont Stakes win,  I moved silently around, stopping at each grey, moss-covered stone to pay my respects:  Gallant Fox, Buckpasser, Mr. Prospector, Riva Ridge, Round Table and finally, Secretariat




Mission accomplished.  But so much more.  Even for someone like me who was raised on thoroughbred farms, knows racing and understands the business, it was a wonderful day.  I would highly recommend it.  Claiborne Farm will not disappoint. 

Continuing the legacy

Today, the fourth generation of the Hancock family has taken over the reins of Claiborne operations.  There are currently 11 stallions continuing the long tradition of Classic race winners, Horses of the Year, Leading Sires and Triple Crown Winners.  Visitors are invited to come for guided tours at 10 and 11 am daily.  The tours are free, but it is customary to provide a gratuity to the guide. 

Contact:     703 Winchester Road, Paris, KY 40361   Phone:  (859) 987-2330   (859) 233-4252 



Gougane Barra – St. Finbarr’s Oratory

As I approached the access to the tiny island, the only sound was the soft crunch of my footsteps on the loose gravel.  The day was sunny and warm; the crystal azure sky

Rom Cua - Gougan Lake

Rom Cua – Gougan Lake

turned the glacial lake a deep, almost ocean blue.  Beyond the lake, the red sandstone mountains soared above the basin enhancing the dramatic setting of St. Finbarr’s Oratory and giving the valley its name – Com Rua, the Red Hollow.

St. Finbarr's Oratory

St. Finbarr’s Oratory

Nearing the grey stone church, I was again struck by the absence of sound.  Birdsong and the occasional soft pat-pat of the lake lapping at the shore were the only sounds to disturb the contemplative silence.  The brown, Gothic entrance was closed, but the handle turned easily and granted entry to the Chapel.  As my eyes adjusted to the dimly lighted interior, they were rewarded with a view of one of the most charming Chapels I have seen in Ireland.  The main altar, constructed in marble, is carved with intricate celtic symbols and statues.  Behind, the honey-coloured, wooden altarpiece continues the carved celtic theme, with intertwined celtic knots and symbols of eternity.  Above the altarpiece, two narrow stained glass windows rise like tapers and filter the natural light with images of St. Finbarr and St. Maria Patrona.

Main Altar, St. Finbarr's Oratory

Main Altar, St. Finbarr’s Oratory

Gougane Barra. The name trips lightly off the tongue and for anyone who has been there, the idyllic setting begs a return visit.  It is no wonder that the 6th Century Saint Finbarr decided to build a monastery here in this quiet place to educate his followers.  Originally, access was only by boat, but today there is a footpath that leads from the mainland.  The monastery at Gougane Lake became known as Gougane Finbarra, which eventually shortened to simply Gougane Barra.

The site has inspired poems and songs, and the Chapel is a favourite for brides.  During the penal times locals secretly wended their way through mountain paths  in order to celebrate Mass at the monastery and still today, it is considered a Holy Place where pilgrims come to pray and collect water from the Holy Well.

Prayer cells in the Monastery ruins

Prayer cells in the Monastery ruins

St. Finbarr’s original monastery no longer exists, and the current ruins are part of a 17th Century monastery built by a priest who, following in the footsteps of St. Finbarr, also aspired to a life of prayer and contemplation.  Behind the chapel, enclosed by four stone walls and surrounding a large wooden cross, are a series of prayer cells.  Each of the back walls of these prayer caves or cells is inscribed with a cross.  Even today, it is a wonderful place to pray and reflect.

In addition to the historical information surrounding Gougane Barra, there are numerous legends as well.  One of the more famous ones tells of the chase and expulsion of a great sea monster from Gougane Lake which resulted in the creation of a large channel that is now the River Lee.  The river, whose source is Gougane Lake flows west to the sea at Cork City.  To commemorate this legend, tucked into a hedge along the road near the isle, is a charming little sea monster just waiting to have his photograph taken.

Sea Monster

Sea Monster

Situated in West Cork near the village of Ballingeary, Gougane Barra features a lovely hotel (closed in winter) and bar with views of the scenic splendor.  We will visit it again on the Emerald Essence Tour 2014.   Lake Chapel Gougane Barra

Hidden Jewels: Loch Gur, Co. Limerick, Ireland

Although I’d heard of Loch Gur and known about it for some time, I had never visited it.  However, prompted by Michael Quinlan, a local author and historian who happened to be the guide on our recent trip, I knew I couldn’t leave Ireland without experiencing this magical place.

Loch Gur

Loch Gur

Tucked into a valley between two ancient hillocks, Loch Gur is a 158 acre scenic gem.   Travelling southeast, it is located a short 22 km (13.7 miles) from Limerick City near the village of Bruff.

The centerpiece of the region is the loch, reputed to be a highly magical site.  Today is it crescent shaped, due to the fact that in the 1840’s the water was lowered by 2.4 metres (8’) for drainage purposes.  The result enabled archaeologists to find many of the treasures for which the region is so noted today.

Interpretive Center

Interpretive Center

After exploring the new and modern interpretive center which resembles the structures that no doubt existed on the crannógs in Bolin Island on the lake, we followed a guided path up the hill for five stops.  At each stop, our electronic audio “guide”, provided historical and architectural information about the excavations, the early inhabitants and the surrounding scenery.  Upon reaching the top of the hill, we discovered benches where we could sit and digest the spectacular vistas of the mystical loch and its hills; Knockadoon on the left and Knockfennell on the right.

There is evidence of human habitation in the area of Loch Gur for more than 4000 years, making it one of the richest archaeological sites in all Ireland.  While that might at first sound a bit dull, it is hardly the case as the history of the region is inextricably intertwined with the mythological folklore that plays an integral part of the Irish oral history.  Ten of those stories are included in the audio tour of Loch Gur.  So after absorbing the history and the views, we sat by the lake, soaked up and ambiance and listened to stories of fairies, a white horse with silver shoes, knights and a golden comb.

After returning our audio guides to the visitor center, we set out to explore the rest of the Loch Gur region.  There are numerous other sites near the loch that should not be missed.  If you climb up Carraig Aille to visit the Ring Forts on Knockadoon you will be rewarded with spectacular views of the other side of Loch Gur and a wonderful look at Bourchier’s Castle.  As you stand within the enclosures you can imagine gathering your livestock and families  within the hilltop fortresses for protection from marauding invaders.  And the views of the lake and the surrounding rich Golden Vale from the top of the hill make the climb worth the effort.  Go through the stile and follow the bollards up the hill directly to the Ring Forts.


Ring Fort at Carrig Aille

Ring Fort at Carrig Aille

IMG_6186A little farther up the road towards Bruff on the left is the “Giant’s Grave” Megalithic Wedge Tomb.  And, shortly across the road from it, Teampall Nua (New Church) named because it replaced  (1679)an earlier church which had been built by the Earls of Desmond.  In 1698 when the famed poet Thomas O’Connellan died while visiting Bouchier Castle, he was buried in this churchyard in an unmarked grave.  According to legend, the goddess Aine stood atop a rock on Knockadoon and keened her sadness at his death when the funeral cortege passed from the Castle to the Churchyard.

Teampall Nua

Teampall Nua

The last, but certainly not the least site we visited was the Grange Stone Circle, the largest stone circle in Western Europe.  At 65 metres (215’)  in diameter, it is larger than even Stonehenge.  The massive stones stand in a perfect circle and on June 21, the longest day, the sun rises to shine its light right through the passage entrance in the eastern wall.  We met the landowner Tim Casey, who eagerly provided lots of information about the history of the place, including pointing out a second stone circle and a monolithic standing stone in an adjoining farmer’s field.  But for his showing them to us, we would surely never have noticed them.

Entrance to Stone Circle with Portal stones

Entrance to Stone Circle with Portal stones

Grange Stone Circle

Grange Stone Circle


Rannach Crom Dubh

Rannach Crom Dubh


Plan to spend most of a day walking and exploring the region of Loch Gur.  There are numerous picnic tables to enjoy lunch or a snack. I suggest you bring your food as the snack bar at the Visitor Center is rather limited.   Personal guided tours are available and can be booked through the website.

Additional detailed information about the sites in and around Loch Gur and audios of stories and legends told by historian Michael Quinlan and former local seanchaí Tom McNamara can be heard at the website Voices from the Dawn.