Monthly Archives: February 2017

Looking For America: Thoughts on our Travels and Black History Month

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

We’re not special.  However, we won the birth lottery by being born in a rich, western country.  And, dare we state the obvious, we won the lottery again by being born white in the US.  With no apparent barriers in our way and a little native intelligence, we reached out for the opportunities afforded by having university educations and grabbed our piece of the American dream.  We never critically questioned our privilege.

Several months ago, in September of 2016, we returned to the US for a short visit and once again, became tourists in our own country.  Against the backdrop of the divisiveness of the US election where race, religion, gender equality, basic healthcare and immigration status had become massive issues of contention, we explored for ourselves what it meant to be citizens of the US.

Gettysburg Battlefield monument

Gettysburg Battlefield monument

One of our first stops was in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to visit the Civil War battlefield where thousands of men died fighting for conflicting ideologies: State’s rights versus Federal rights, slavery versus abolitionism and a rural, southern society versus the social disruption the north was experiencing with the spread of manufacturing, commerce and the industrial revolution.

WWII and Washington Monuments

WWII and Washington Monuments

We moved on to Washington D.C, one of our favorite cities and spent a day on the National Mall, walking past the almost finished National Museum of African-American History and Culture, returning to those monuments honoring the men and women who have served our country and many times made the ultimate sacrifice.  This was also our first visit to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, located on the west bank of the Tidal Basin not too far from the Lincoln Memorial on whose steps Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech where he visualized an end to racial inequality.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

 

Just a few steps away is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, one of our favorites, a four-room outdoor monument commemorating each of his four terms. Perhaps because of its proximity to Martin Luther King Jr.’s memorial, one of FDR’s quotes seemed to have a special meaning.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington D.C.

 

Jackson Square with St. Louis Cathedral in background, New Orleans

Jackson Square with St. Louis Cathedral in background, New Orleans

We drove from Georgia to spend a few days in New Orleans, Louisiana, another first-time visit for us in this city renowned for its French and Spanish Creole architecture, music and food.  The city’s graciousness contrasted sharply with its 19th century history as the largest slave market where more than 700,000 slaves brought to the Deep South arrived via the “forced migration of the domestic slave trade.”  Here we saw, too, where race and deep poverty played a part in 2005 in determining who escaped Hurricane Katrina – one of the deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States – who lived through the disaster that reduced the city to a desperate, hellish nightmare and who perished. Since we were living on Padre Island off the Texas Coast at that time, we remembered watching as the tragedy played out on the news, questioning if this was really happening in “our” America.

condemned house - 9th Ward

condemned house – 9th Ward

Spending a couple of days in Natchez, Mississippi, we visited a few of the magnificent Antebellum homes, spared from the Civil War and preserved with loving care.  Before the war, Natchez boasted it had the most millionaires per capita of any city in the US.  And yet, here again we were reminded that these houses and great fortunes originated from growing sugarcane and cotton using slave labor.  Here we also learned that Natchez had been home to the second largest slave market before the civil war.

Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama

Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama

From the Vicksburg National Military Park, another Civil War Battlefield honoring those who fought and died, we made our way to Selma, Alabama.  We arrived in the small and dusty town of less than 21,000 on a September afternoon that had us wilting with the temperature hovering at almost 100 degrees.  Evidently the heat had driven everyone inside because, except for our car and a very few others, the streets were deserted. However, in our imaginations, Selma had attained an almost mythical status because of the Selma to Montgomery marches.  Here was where “Bloody Sunday” occurred on March 7th, 1965, when John Robert Lewis, now a U.S. Representative from Atlanta, Georgia, led a group of six-hundred marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, en route to Montgomery.  Blocked by local police and Alabama State troopers, they were ordered to turn around, beaten with clubs and tear gassed with over fifty people requiring hospitalization.  Civil rights activists poured into Selma and Martin Luther King Jr. attempted a second march on March 9th. Finally, on March 29th, after receiving federal protection, Dr. King led a group of 10,000 marchers from Selma.  By the time they reached Montgomery five days later, the marchers had grown to over 30,000 people, black and white and representing many faiths.

Our last destination took us from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, only an hour by car.  Arriving on a Saturday, the downtown area streets looked all but abandoned and, again, the late September heat was smothering.  We paid our respects to the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” inside the Rosa Parks Library and Museum. Rosa Park’s arrest in December of 1955 for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger inspired a 381-day bus boycott in Montgomery and ended with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses is unconstitutional.  Possibly even more thought-provoking than this museum was our visit to the nearby Southern Poverty Law Center. The Civil Rights Memorial, outside the center, is a black granite memorial inscribed with the names of forty-one Americans who died between 1954, the year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in schools was unlawful, and 1968, the year Martin Luther King was assassinated.  Inside the building, a timeline of the Civil Rights Movement explains the events that occurred and honors those who gave their lives.  At the end of our tour, deeply moved, we were given the opportunity to add our names to the “Wall of Tolerance” where we pledged that we too, would work for the same ideals of justice, equality, and human rights.

"We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Martin Luther King Amos 5:24

Our road trip in the US a few months ago gave us a chance, again, to learn and reflect more about our country and ourselves.  In the past, our country has honored multiculturalism and diversity while straddling a divide that threatens to grow wider each day. As bleak as it seems however, there is much to celebrate and many reasons to remain hopeful.  The US’s own Civil Rights Movement continues to provide inspiration for those who seek justice today as well as sanctuary.  And it’s becoming more and more evident that there are thousands willing to take up their banners and march.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Cordoba and Once Upon a Time

pretty door - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To GoOur arrival in Córdoba didn’t go exactly as planned and reminded us, once again, that the travel gods have a sense of humor even if we don’t.  We’d arranged a swankier than usual room at a small boutique hotel through hotels.com since one of our nights in the city would be free with their loyalty program and, following the hotel’s instructions, arrived mid-afternoon to check in.  Since the hotel was in the historic part of the city, a maze of winding streets with many only wide enough for bicycles and pedestrians, the taxi driver dropped us off and pointed the way down a cobbled path.  We found the correct address along a whitewashed wall of connected two-story residences, took hold of the heavy brass knocker, and rapped, a loud and hollow sound that seemed to echo down the narrow lane.  We waited a bit and tried again (and again) with similar results.  Finally giving up, thoroughly out-of-sorts, grumbling and dragging our overnighters behind us, we managed to plaster smiles on our faces as we asked for directions and followed the pointing fingers of a few helpful people until we found a street busy enough to hail a taxi.  Fortunately, we had the name of a place to give to our driver, Hostal La Fuentes, where a friend of ours was staying.  Now that the travel gods had had their fun, they decided to smile on us and we were happy to find a clean and comfortable room for three nights at half the price. A call by Skype to hotels.com resulted in the cancellation of our reservation and a refund of both our money and the free night to use in the future.  Travel is a good way to remember that, contrary to our illusions and the plans we make, we really don’t have control over much!

street scene - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To GoWith the detail of where to stay for the next three nights resolved, we turned our attention to making the most out of our visit to the historic area of Córdoba. Its history stretches back over two-thousand years and includes a population who practiced three major religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994, you can bet that the city has many fascinating stories to tell.

Roman Bridge - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To GoOnce upon a time, Córdoba was a Roman city.  Founded around 152 BCE alongside the Guadalquivir River, the Romans constructed a wall around the city and built a bridge.  Known as El Puente Romano, the Roman bridge still spans the river and has been restored and renovated numerous times. The Romans shipped Spanish olive oil, wine and wheat back to Rome and the city was the capital of the Roman Province of Hispania Ulterior (the southwest corner of modern Spain) which translates rather poetically into Further or Thither Spain.

Roman Bridge - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To GoOnce upon a time, Córdoba was ruled by the Visigoths. After Nero fiddled and the western Roman Empire collapsed, and despite invasions by several tribes of Germanic origin, Córdoba continued to flourish.  The Visigoths brought Catholicism with them when they conquered the city in 572 CE and built a couple of churches over their relatively short rule of 150 years.

Once upon a time, Córdoba was a major Islamic center. The Moors invaded and conquered the city in 711 and occupied it for the next 525 years.  In its heyday, the city became the capital of the Caliphate of Córdoba, governing almost all of the Iberian Peninsula.  As one of the largest cities in the world with a population estimated around 450,000, as well as one of the wealthiest in Europe, Córdoba was a haven with a reputation for progressive thought.  Here, Muslims, Jews and Christians coexisted, more or less amicably, in a spirit of religious tolerance.  During this time, the city became a center of Moorish philosophy, architecture, mathematics, arts and poetry. And thriving alongside the Muslims, the Jewish community also became an important seat for Jewish scholarship, medicine, learning and culture. Perhaps most notably for us travelers, this was the era of some of the Moor’s greatest architectural glories.

Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To Go The Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos or Royal Palace is an enormous complex with multiple towers and a fortress begun in 785.  It has a complicated history beginning as the home for Caliphs (leaders of the Muslim community), Spanish Kings and Queens, the Headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition, a garrison and military prison as well as a civil prison.  Now a national monument, it’s not hard to imagine the history that played out within its maze of mostly empty rooms, halls and towers. Outside, are the patio and magnificent gardens laid out in three terraces with ponds and fountains, boxwood hedges, cyprus and citrus trees and flowers, few of which were in bloom since it was winter.

gardens - Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To Go

Alcazar de Reyes Cristianos - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To GoConstruction on The Great Mosque of Córdoba (now called the Mosque-Cathedral) began in 784 and continued over two centuries.  Without a doubt, the most stunning religious monument we’ve ever seen; we devoted our last post to this magnificent building that you can find here.

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoA reconstruction of the Albolafia Water Mill (1136) is next to the Roman Bridge on the northern bank of the River Guadalquivir.  Water was drawn up by a chain pump and carried through a series of aqueducts to the Alcázar Palace Gardens.  Legend has it that Queen Isabella ordered the water wheel dismantled since its noise disturbed her.

Albolafia Mill - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to GoThe Caliphal Baths, also known as the Arab Baths, were built in the mid-tenth century and are adjacent to the Alcazar.  The pools reproduced the Roman series of cold, warm and hot water baths and were an important part of social life as well as the ablutions and ritual cleansing mandatory before prayer in the Islamic religion.

The Calahorra Tower - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to GoThe Tower of La Calahorra, the oldest defense building in the city, is located on the far side of the Roman Bridge. Built towards the end of the twelfth century as an arched gate between two square towers, a third cylindrical tower was added a couple of centuries later and connected the original towers for additional fortification.  Past use has included a prison as well as a school for girls (an eyebrow-raising perspective on a previous educational system) and currently it houses a museum with interesting exhibits of Cordoban life and history.  A climb up to the roof is worth the effort as there are spectacular, panoramic views of the Roman Bridge, the city and the Mosque-Cathedral.

Once upon a time, Córdoba was the home of the Catholic Monarchs: Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon.  After centuries of warfare between the Christian Kingdoms and the Moors known as the Reconquista, Córdoba was conquered by the Christians in 1236. The splendor of the era and progressive thought under Islamic rule vanished with the expulsion of the Moors.  Over the next two centuries, the economy weakened and a series of epidemics including the Black Death (aka the Plague) in the spring and summer of 1349 led to a decline in the population from Córdoba’s heyday of 450,000 to 25,000.  Ferdinand and Isabella used the Alcázar as one of their primary residences while they set about ridding Spain of the last of the Moors in Granada (1481-92).  Any Muslims allowed to remain in the city were forced to convert to Christianity and were known as “Moriscos” although they fared better than the Jewish community who were labeled “a scandal against Christianity.” During this time, Jews were either forced to convert to Christianity and become “Conversos” or flee, culminating with the final order leading to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1483.   Here is where Ferdinand and Isabella met with Christopher Columbus to discuss the little detail of financing his expedition to the “New World.”

Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand and Isabella - photo by No Particular Place to GoAnd here is where they launched the Spanish Inquisition, lasting over three centuries, that strengthened the Church and enriched its treasuries. The Royal Palace was converted into a tribunal with interrogation and torture chambers and many of its first victims were the Moriscos and Conversos.

Note:  We don’t usually say to flat out avoid a museum but that’s what we recommend regarding the Gallery of the Inquisition.  This horrifying museum is located in the heart of the historic Jewish quarter (the Judería) and has several rooms filled with various implements and devices used in the Inquisition that are designed to inflict the maximum amount of pain, cruelty and humiliation upon its victims. Many methods of torture made burning at the stake a favorable alternative.

Once upon a time, and over the next few centuries, Córdoba became something of a cultural backwater. Although Spain was at the peak of its power, Córdoba retreated into the background and many of its buildings fell into decay with little business or commerce to entice new residents.

The Caballerizas Reales de Córdoba, translated as the Royal Stables, are located next to the Alcázar and were built in 1570.  Home to the magnificent Andalusian horses, we devoted a whole post about these magnificent animals here.

view from the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, Cordoba, Spain

Caballerizas Reales de Cordoba, SpainPuerta del Puente or Gate of the Bridge was built in the late sixteenth century (circa 1576) in an urban renewal project and effort to spiff up the city with a ceremonial gateway.  Located at the opposite side of the Roman Bridge from the Tower of La Calahorra, the gate is a beautifully elegant structure built in the Renaissance style.

Puerta del Puente (Bridge Gate) - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to GoThe Plaza del Potro is one of many public squares in Córdoba.  Once a horse market, the plaza has a Renaissance fountain dating from 1577.  Off the plaza is the Posada del Potro, a legendary inn described by Cervantes in his book, Don Quixote (1605) as a “den of thieves.”  The inn is now home to the Centro Flamenco Fosforito, a museum which has the reputation as “possibly the best” flamenco museum in Andalucia.

the Plaza del Potro - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to Go

 

Flamenco Fosforito - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to Go

 

Flamenco Fosforito - Cordoba, Spain - photo by No Particular Place to GoOnce upon a time, Córdoba was sacked by Napolean.  During the Napoleonic Wars, the “Nightmare of Europe” fought Spain, Britain and Portugal for control of the Iberian Peninsula.  His armies sacked the city (1808) and for a time were garrisoned in the Alcázar.  Before leaving Córdoba, they seized the Andalucian horses, long prized for their reputation as adroit war horses, to use in their own invasion, which almost led to the demise of the breed.

Once upon a time, Córdoba sided with Franco early (1936) in the Spanish Civil War.  Someday we hope to delve into this subject but for now, it’s definitely another topic and trip.

And they lived happily ever after ….  Well, maybe not all the time but our visit had us describing the city in long lists of superlatives to friends and trotting out the words “picturesque” and “charming” way too often.  Córdoba is a city that had us at hello and left us with the feeling that we had to say goodbye too soon.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nashsteet scene - Posada del Potro, Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to Go

 

Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to Go