Good Waves

A few years back, we planned a trip to the Dry Tortugas, a small group of islands off of Florida’s Key West. But bad weather scuttled our trip, so we decided to try again this year—and once again the winds and waves were way too big for a seaplane flight. Oh, well. As the saying goes, sometimes the adventure has you.

With our trip cancelled, we had an extra day to spend in the Keys…and no plan. But there are a lot of things to do in the Keys—even in bad weather–so we had a new plan pretty quickly. Our destination of (second) choice was the Turtle Hospital in nearby Marathon.

The Turtle Hospital was started in 1980 by a VW repairman from New Jersey named Richie Moretti. Richie bought a foreclosed motel, fixed it up, and then promptly stocked the property’s saltwater pool with tropical fish. Guests could then experience easy-access snorkeling as (some form of) nature with no fuss…which is the kind of quirky business that seems almost common in the Keys (think underwater hotel rooms, feeding tarpons at Robbies, or undersea music festivals).

In the mid-1980s, a few years after Richie’s snorkel/motel destination was opened, the cartoon/movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started capturing the attention of local school children—many of whom were learning about fish through Richie’s pool. “Where are the turtles?” they would ask. But Florida law says that turtles can only be kept in captivity if they are being rehabilitated, which makes total sense. So, in 1986, an idea–and a hospital–were born.

Richie’s idea benefited both turtles and tourists, and the motel’s profits were able to fund the Turtle Hospital for the next 20 years or so. But that all changed when Hurricane Wilma tracked very close to Marathon in 2005. Thankfully, the turtles (and people) survived, as Richie and his team had constructed saltwater enclosures designed to withstand a hurricane. But the other structures weren’t so lucky, and there was only enough money to re-open either the motel or the hospital.

Richie chose turtles, and we’re glad that he did (as are a lot of turtles, whether they know it or not). Today the Turtle Hospital is a non-profit with a dedicated team that rescues, rehabilitates and releases about 200 turtles a year. It has released more than 1500 turtles since 1986.

As we toured the hospital, we heard a lot about marine debris. Entanglements are common, and nearly every rescued turtle has a large amount of undigested plastic in its stomach–especially grocery bags, which are often mistaken by turtles as one of their favorite foods: jellyfish. One of the hospital’s volunteers said to us that “these are creatures that have been here since the dinosaurs, and they are disappearing. And it’s mostly because of us.”

A few days after our visit, a 140-pound Loggerhead named Jack-O-Lantern was scheduled to be released on Sombrero Beach (also in Marathon). We decided to drive down from where we were staying in Key Largo, thinking we’d join a crowd made up of hospital staff and volunteers and may be a few dozen like-minded tourists.

When we arrived at Sombrero Beach, the place looked more like a rock concert than a turtle release. There were hundreds of people crowding around a path to the water, all very excited to see what the hospital staff describe as the most rewarding part of their jobs.

When Jack-O-Lantern swam out into the Atlantic, there were huge cheers. As the crowd waved goodbye, I felt a wave of hope–and I don’t think I was the only one.

While there’s no guaranteeing how Jack O’Lantern will fare (many of the same threats to turtles are still out there), the vets and volunteers gave him excellent care and he was healthy and raring to go. The Turtle Hospital is also working with a lot of organizations in support of clean oceans, helping on both ends of the challenge.

For us, what started out as a cancelled trip to the Dry Tortugas–islands named for turtles–somehow led to visiting a hospital full of turtles. We learned a lot, we gained an understanding of how each of us can help (maybe start by keeping trash out of the ocean and supporting organizations like the Turtle Hospital), and we met a group of very dedicated people that are making a difference.

The Turtle Hospital is out there creating more good waves every day, and we are thankful that we got a glimpse of their important work. I’m sure there were some mixed emotions when Jack-O-Lantern disappeared into the blue, but in some ways it would truly be a happy day if we never saw another Jack-O-Lantern.

Jack-O-Lantern is out there somewhere!

Smooth, Best Ever!

It’s fun to share holiday traditions–although I suppose not all of them are worth sharing. For instance, Souzz could probably have done without the hanging bell that plays Jingle Bells for about two hours every time I pull the string, or my family’s spinning Christmas tree heat lamp that eventually caught fire.

But one holiday tradition that is squarely in the shareable category is Souzz’s family egg nog. The nog tradition has its roots at the historic Buffalo Club in Buffalo, New York. In the 1920s, Souzz’s grandfather and his friends often enjoyed freshly made nog in the club’s elegant dining room, perhaps after a long day at work.

The nog recipe was soon brought home for the family’s annual New Year’s Eve party, and it eventually found its way on to the next generation(s). Making (and enjoying) the nog is now one of their biggest annual holiday traditions (well, that and spontaneously breaking into Christmas carols, which ironically makes me want to drink more nog).

The nog recipe is pretty straightforward: eggs, sugar, cream, nutmeg, a little brandy, a little rum–and roughly a cask of bourbon. But what really makes it special is how it is assembled. When the time comes, at least eight to ten folks across several generations crowd around a big antique (1920s) crock that seems to have its own magnetic pull. Hands swoop in and out adding ingredients and stirring, like an eight-armed mixologist (ok, so I need to work on my metaphors).

Some of the family take the same roles from year to year, while others move into whatever needs to be done–but lively conversation and laughter are a constant, and the process can never be rushed.

Back in the day, young nieces and nephews wandered in and out of the kitchen puzzling over what could possibly be so amusing–and now they have grown into full-fledged participants. A few of the in-laws generally stand to the side and make snarky comments—while secretly wishing that they had a family tradition as cool as this one.

After the nog is assembled, the crock is topped with an old cookie sheet and put outside in the snow, where it blends a little more each day. Souzz’s dad would always ladle out a cup the next morning and declare that year’s batch as “smooth, best ever!” It was something that he said–and meant–every single year.

There are some classic nog memories from over the years–like when Aunt Connie got engaged over a glass, or when Maggie (the family Labrador) over-served herself on some leftovers. And then there was the year that I opened the door to find the mailman helping himself to a cup (no wonder my Christmas cards were late).

Once again this year, the nog crock will be squarely at the center of the holiday for a few amazing hours–an enduring tradition that finds its place in the middle of the hustle and bustle of modern-day Christmas. It’s a ritual that feels like holiday magic–and especially so in a time where things can be so fleeting.

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Souzz’s parents are no longer with us, something that we feel even more during this time of year. But the making of the nog will always be a symbol of their grace, their love of life, and their love of family. When I raise my first glass of nog this year, I’ll be sure to say out loud that this year’s batch is “smooth, best ever!”

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Exactly the Same and Totally Different

Unlike my usual musings about food and travel, today I want to share a trip down memory lane…on skates. I played in the Virginia Tech Ice Hockey alumni game last weekend, and it was an experience that triggered some great memories for me (along with a few bruises).

It’s amazing what the Tech program has become, especially in light of its very humble beginnings. The team was started in 1984 with a few flyers tacked to bulletin boards around campus. There were also a couple of short articles in the Tech newspaper, the Collegiate Times, mostly intended as an appeal for players. A classmate from Boston, Dave Keery, was the visionary.

I was on Tech’s inaugural team, and it was a great group of guys with a decent skill level. We had a lot of fun, in spite of the fact that our games were late at night and an hour’s drive from campus–pretty much guaranteeing that the only people watching would be on our bench. But it was a heart and soul group of kids who really loved the game.

Our home games were at the LancerLot in Vinton (a Roanoke suburb) against the likes of Liberty, W&L, and Roanoke College. In those first years, there were just a handful of nearby colleges with teams—mostly schools with lacrosse programs that drew students from the northeast.

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The LancerLot in Vinton, where we played in 1984-86 (and where the team still plays)

We took a few road trips, too, including a memorable one to the University of Tennessee. That trip was college budget travel at its finest; we fueled ourselves on camp stove hot dogs before sleeping on the floor of a friend’s fraternity house. We also brought back souvenirs in the form of oddly patterned bruises from the chain link fence at the Ice Chalet, the dusty old rink in Knoxville.

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Team photo from 1987, compliments of Dave Keery

Not everything gets better with age, but Tech’s hockey club certainly has. Today’s team bears little resemblance to the ragtag bunch that skated in those first years. They (we?) now play in the Atlantic Coast Conference Hockey League against pretty stiff competition and they’ve won several championships. They also have a full-time coach with some highly skilled players, and are one of the strongest programs in the mid-south.

I came away very impressed with this year’s team–as both players and people. Those guys certainly had game, but they also showed a lot of class with the old-timers. They were curious about our stories, they took it easy on us in the corners, and they involved us in the play even when we routinely mishandled the puck (well, at least when I did). Thankfully, there was no checking, although I did accidentally crack helmets with one of the current players (it actually felt good to make a little contact, even by mistake).

For obvious reasons, jumping on the ice with the current players was a big leap over the boards for me. But it was great just to be on that sheet of ice again, some 35 years later. That rink is a place where I made great memories and lifelong friendships, and the current players seem to be doing the same thing now.

Just before the game started, I got a text from my friend Lara (also a Tech grad). She wished me luck…and then she followed with “I love that story about when you were like 24 and accidentally joined an over 50 league and checked someone. I hope that’s not you today.” Like so many of the best experiences in life, things in that moment were at once exactly the same and totally different.

More Bottle, Less Beer

Belize has a lot of coastline, and a lot of beaches–and we learned on our visit that it also has a lot of beer. But Belize is decidedly not the land of craft IPAs, as almost all of the beer here is much lighter (except perhaps one newcomer, Hobbs). For the most part, tap handles in local bars tell a singular story–about Belikin, the national beer (think Budweiser, but with an accent).

Belikin offers several different brews, and all are light and relatively low-alcohol—perfect for enjoying on the beach and/or in the heat.

Belikin is a Mayan word that means “Land Facing the Sea,” and some say that it’s the origin of the name Belize–although we also heard that Belize means “muddy waters” in the Maya language. That story seems more plausible than a country named after a beer (although Souzz’s favorite beer, Oberon, would be a great name for a country, just sayin’).

Beer in Belize is served with a napkin artfully wrapped around the neck of the bottle–like a drinkable version of Woody from Toy Story. The napkin seems like a nice little piece of flair, but it’s there so that you have something to wipe the rust from the cap away from the mouth of the bottle.

The majority of glass bottles in Belize are washed and re-used, so drinking beer here means you are basically sharing a bottle–and hopefully it wasn’t with that guy at the next table last night that was eating ceviche like it was a bowl of soup…which made me want to have three more Belikins.

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There are other brews, although most are from Belikin’s brewery or at least are a similar style.

In stores, beer is sold as singles and each beer generally runs about two dollars (US), although bars sell “six packs” in buckets on ice (for about $15 dollars US, hard to pass up). And when a server brings you a bucket of beer, it feels like there’s some purpose to the activity of beer drinking. With that in mind, we’ve accomplished a lot on our trip.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that Belikin is served in bottles that are smaller than those in the US, a little more than nine ounces. We didn’t notice at first because the weight of the glass gives you the sense that you’re holding a “regular” bottle of beer…but the end of the beer comes more quickly (and isn’t that always the way?).

As for the bottle size, there’s apparently a running joke here: “Belikin – more bottle, less beer.” That seems about right…or, as they say in Belize, “Yaaa, man!”

Stone Woman

Yesterday in Belize we visited Xunantunich, a Maya archeological site near the Guatemala border (about three hours drive from our AirBnb in Placencia). Humans have been at this site going back at least to 3000 B.C., and the structures date to around 700 A.D. Most of the excavation at Xunantunich occurred between 1890 and 1960, but archeologists are still discovering things—including a previously untouched burial chamber that was found in 2016.

 

While historians have no idea what this site was called in ancient times, the modern name of Xunantunich means “Stone Woman.” It gets its name from a ghost that was first reported in 1892. A local hunter said he had encountered a woman dressed completely in white with fire-red glowing eyes at the base of a pyramid-shaped structure called “El Castillo” (The Castle). As the legend goes, she ascended the stairs and disappeared into a stone wall.

 

Versions of that story have been repeated many times since, most recently by a tour group from Canada that claimed to have seen her just after sundown. Some believers think that she formerly lived within the city in ancient times, while others think that she was a human sacrifice victim that re-lives her last moments time and time again.

Ghost stories aside, Xunantunich is a World Heritage site–and for good reason. There are six courtyards and more than 26 structures across about a square mile. El Castillo, at the heart of the old city, is the second tallest man-made structure in Belize at 150 feet. Adventurous visitors (including us) can climb to the top through a series of steps, with wild exposure that is not for the faint of heart. Apparently three tourists have fallen here in the past few years, “but they had nothing more than broken legs,” a local told us cheerfully (if not reassuringly).

 

There is great significance in how Xunantunich is laid out against the “axis mundi,” which is the intersection of the two cardinal lines of the old city. And all of the features (stairs, openings, etc.) are prime numbers. The Mayans were quite good with geometry and math, among other things.

We didn’t see any ghosts, but we still enjoyed our time walking through the courtyards and climbing the three main structures. It’s easy to see why this location was chosen by the Mayans, as there are commanding views in all directions.

 

I’m not sure I believe in the Stone Woman, although Souzz does sometimes have fire-red eyes and occasionally disappears—but usually just into the beer tent.

 

Elegantly Simple

Snorkeling and cooking may be an odd pairing, but odd pairings have never stopped us before. So with odd pairings (and snorkeling) in mind, we headed out of Placencia in southern Belize by boat to Lark Caye, and then hit a reef at Bugel Caye on the way back. Placencia Eagle Ray Tours was our outfitter of choice–and Rene and Dido knew their stuff, and also seemed to genuinely enjoy their work. Lark Caye was only about a 40 minute boat ride from Placencia, so it set up well for our trip.

Souzz and I had never been snorkeling before, so we had a few things to learn. For starters, it’s important to sense when waves are overtopping your snorkel and you are getting ready to inhale saltwater…and a few gulps of saltwater is its own kind of motivation to figure that out. There are also a some dangers to be aware of–coral that can sting, jellyfish that “would ruin your whole day,” the occasional stingray, and of course sunburn–so it’s not a “check your brain at the door” kind of activity.

But once we got going, there were amazing colors of coral and fish, a whole world below us that I had never really thought much about before. I can totally see how people get into snorkeling and diving, and we are already plotting our next trip.

We followed our time snorkeling with some beach time and then we went to a cooking class in town that we set up through a company called Taste Belize. Chef Radiance generously shared her home with us and together we made a conch dish with rice, peppers, and zucchini.

In addition to our lovely conversation with Chef Radiance–which touched on a range of topics that included Belize’s independence from Great Britain in 1981, changes brought by tourism, Hurricane Iris, traditional Mayan cooking, and Anthony Bourdain–we learned a lot about how to prepare Belizian cuisine. We squeezed out coconut milk from the pulp (very hands-on), enjoyed cooking with traditionally made coconut oil (a much different taste than what you get at a store in the US), and learned about a new (to us) Belizian spice/condiment called recado.

Recado is a deep red-colored paste made from seeds of the achiote tree (which is native to the tropics). We smeared the conch meat with it before cooking, which gave it a bit of color and also a bit of a nutty and peppery flavor. For our dish, we also used lime, salt, turmeric, Italian spices, garlic powder, and hot sauce.

There were lots of flavors going on in Chef Radiance’s kitchen, but yet everything seemed elegantly simple.

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Aaaah, yes, elegantly simple. Snorkeling and traditional dinners are both elegantly simple in their own way, and they are two more things that are helping us fall more in love with Belize with every passing day.

Panti Rippas

Souzz and I had so much fun in Scotland and the Faroes this summer that we decided we needed another trip abroad this year. With limited vacation time, we had to look for a place that was “relatively” close. We considered Canada and Mexico, but we wanted to go a little further afield.

Enter Belize, a country of 375,000 that is just 1600 miles away–which is closer to us than Las Vegas. Further enticing us was the promise of warm weather, 240 miles of coastline, Mayan ruins, barrier reefs, and a very interesting culture. And as if all of that wasn’t enough, there’s a coconut rum-based drink in Belize called a Panti Rippa.

We arrived in Belize City this afternoon and took a short 25 minute flight in a Cessna Caravan to the village of Placencia (which would have been about four hours by road, wow). Placencia has a population of about 3500, a blossoming adventure travel scene, and a friendly small town feel.

We’re staying at a lovely Airbnb right on the beach, and first impressions are pretty great. There’s a nice breeze, the town is lively and welcoming, and the ocean is delightfully clear and warm.

Tomorrow we head out snorkeling and then have a cooking class in the evening. As we settle into the mellow pace here, our plan seems a little ambitious–especially now that I’m into my second Panti Rippa.

History, and a Nice Menu

I’ve long had an interest in the history of Shenandoah National Park, just a few hours west of us–and this past weekend we found a way to get up close and personal. On a last minute whim, we decided to take a quick overnight trip to Doyles River Cabin. The cabin was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1936–the same year that the Park was established–and is now managed as a rental property by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC).

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As you probably know, the CCC was created during the Depression as a way to provide employment, housing, and food to young men that were facing grim job prospects. CCC “enrollees” were paid roughly $30/month to built roads and bridges and cabins and more. They built a lot of structures still standing in the park (many of the original structures were removed when settlers were forced out by the state of Virginia to create the park; more on that here).

The CCC did a lot of work across the country. In addition to roads and bridges and cabins, they also planted trees, built flood and erosion control projects, erected fire towers, stocked trout—basically did whatever they could to improve the infrastructure of our country.

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The CCC built this enclosure to the spring just below Doyles River Cabin

More than three million young men enrolled in the CCC, including some that later went on to great notoriety–like baseball Hall of Famer Stan Musial and Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager (I’m imagining fireside chats about curveballs at the speed of sound).

Doyles River Cabin is a primitive (no power or water) one-room structure, but it is sturdy and accommodating and in a great location. It also has a lovely covered porch and a beautiful view. PATC has done a nice job maintaining it, and we were thrilled that it was available on short notice.

The hike to the cabin is just a half mile from Skyline Drive. And with such an easy hike, we figured we could carry some fancy food (shocking for us, I know). We brought a small cooler bag full of our dinner, along with some frozen water bottles to keep things cold (figuring we could drink/dump the water before heading home). We did most of the food prep ahead of time, including cracking and freezing some scrambled eggs (for Sunday breakfast) in a Nalgene bottle.

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We dropped our food and overnight gear at the cabin and then headed down trail another mile or so to Doyles River Falls (very pretty, despite the low-flow conditions). We shared the trail with a bunch of friendly folks, and saw quite a bit of bear scat. The black bear population is growing in the park, although we weren’t lucky enough to see one on this trip.

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After our hike, we spent time lounging around the cabin and soaking in the view.

For dinner, we fried up some trout (just as the CCC might have done), made our favorite frybake French potato dish, Potato Gratin Savoyard (probably not what the CCC would have done), and enjoyed steamed mussels (definitely not what the CCC would have done).

As we cooked dinner, we admired the stonework and hand hewn logs that make up the cabin, as well as the beautiful view of the night sky. It’s pretty amazing to think that Doyles River Cabin has been providing cozy nights under the moonlight for 80+ years. The cabin looks fantastic for its age–which apparently is only a compliment if you are talking about a cabin (ask me how I know).

There’s something rewarding about finding an adventure close to home—and even more so when it includes a bit of history and a nice menu. And we have the mussels to prove it.

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Friendly, Curious, and Beautiful

We are headed out of the Faroe Islands today, are back to Scotland for a quick overnight in Edinburgh before heading back to the USA tomorrow.

We capped off our trip yesterday with a ferry out to the island of Nolsoy, about a 20 minute ride from the capital in Torshavn, where we hiked around the town and explored a bit. Later we visited a church in Sandavágur before enjoying a nice meal at a restaurant called Arrstova (“House By the Brook”) on Torshavn harbor. Arrstova is in a wooden building built in the 1600s, but the menu is decidedly modern (my favorite was the lamb tartare, and the multi-course meal was the best of our trip by far).

As is true with any adventure, we didn’t know what to expect here…even more so because we didn’t know a single person that had visited the Faroes (well, at least nobody that we had asked). What we found was a rich history and stunning natural beauty, along with more than enough tourist-oriented services and a lot of great people.

While there is not a lot of lodging (and just a handful of campgrounds), the choices are growing through new construction and through services like AirBnb. We really enjoyed our AirBnb house, and our host was super-helpful and responsive.

There’s a Faroese proverb that nobody lives in the Faroes for practical reasons. I’m not even sure what that means, but I can say that we’ve encountered people that are welcoming, curious, and eager to share their culture. And what a fabulous culture it is, with a deep respect for the past, optimism for the future, understandable pride, and a friendly approach to outsiders.

The Faroese are also very trusting. Nobody pays attention to locking anything here, the honor system is everywhere, fancy bikes are out leaning against fences and buildings in town, and the Faroese version of a key swap is to leave the door unlocked and the key on the table.

People are also very active and fit, and many of them were pushing baby strollers up trails that we thought were challenging ourselves. And pretty much every dog in the country is a black and white border collie (ok, so I’m not sure what that has to do with culture, but it does stand out).

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This was our new friend Fram

Topics of conversation with the locals have spanned a huge range, including politics, energy independence, education, and the economics of tunnel building (important stuff when you live in a mountainous country made up of 18 islands).

A quick example of the differences in culture: many of the rental cars are emblazoned with huge rental car logos, which would probably alert drivers in the US to pass at the first chance and maybe give you a “hand signal” if you weren’t up to standard. In contrast, a local in the Faroes told us that he saw the logos as encouraging folks to be more understanding when a tourist drives erratically (like us), too slowly (we did), or seems lost (we were, even though there’s basically one main road through the islands).

IMG_3415Based on our experiences, tourists are greeted with patience, whether fumbling for the right coins to pay, puzzling over a road or trail sign, mangling the pronunciation of a place name, or queueing in the wrong place (not that we ever did any of that, at least not in writing).

There is explosive growth on the islands right now, and people seem realistic about what tourism might mean for their country–both good and bad. For example, the introduction of new visitor fees—some with credit card enabled turnstiles–at the more popular attractions is something that the country seems to be struggling with (a lot of people were talking about it). Coming from the pay-as-you-go culture of the US, it all seemed fair to us–but I’m not sure how it would feel to pay for a hike if I were local.

It says something that the people made such an impression on us, as we don’t speak Faroese–but English is commonly spoken here. And the people were friendly, were interested in our story, and live in a beautiful country. That’s a nice combination for a wayward traveler.

You can’t understand a place in four days, but the Faroes–and their people–showed itself as a world destination. And just as nobody lives in the Faroes for practical reasons, it isn’t the most practical destination from the US. But as we get closer to wheels up, we are already talking about our next visit.

Ruins and Cows

Yesterday in the Faroes we started with a visit to the historic village of Kirkjubøur, about twenty minutes drive from the capital of Torshavn. Kirkjubøur is generally considered the country’s most historically important site, with structures that go back to medieval times. We visited ruins of 14th-century Magnus Cathedral along with a beautiful 13th-century church, Olavskirkjan, and Kirkjubøargarður, an 11th century farmhouse.

Kirkjubøargarður may be the oldest wooden structure in the world that is still occupied—and the same family, the Paturrsons, has lived there for 17 generations. How a wooden structure can last a thousand years is beyond me, especially as I have a fence back home that’s falling apart after a few seasons.

The settlement of Kirkjubøur was founded in part because it was a spot that collected a lot of driftwood, which was an incredibly important commodity in a land with almost no trees. We saw a piece of driftwood on the beach during our visit and I caught myself wondering where it’d come from. If only a tree could talk…well, if a tree could talk, it probably wouldn’t be able to get a word in edgewise.

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Before the Reformation, Kirkjubøur was the center of Catholicism across all of Scandinavia, and the Bishop at the time wrote the “Sheep Letter” there in 1298. The Sheep Letter is a Constitution of sorts, and is the oldest surviving document on the