Category Archives: History

The Antebellum Houses of Natchez, Mississippi and Monuments of The Lost Cause

Natchez- Vidalia Bridge, Mississippi River

Like a lot of bloggers, we keep an idea list for future posts as well as rough outlines of posts we’ve decided to scrap or for some reason or other just couldn’t figure out how we wanted to write the story about our travels there.  But the events several days ago on August 11th and 12th in Charlottesville, Virginia, had us thinking about a road-trip we took last year in September on a loop through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.  We were intent on learning more about the history and culture of some of the southern States of the USA, visiting a few of the Civil War battlefields and following along the path of the Civil Rights Movement landmarks from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. In September of 2016, in the waning months of our former president, we thought we were firmly on the path to social justice. Those members belonging to the radical fringe of civil society, the White Nationalist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis and others, slithered underground until given a green light during the presidential campaign to come out in the open.  And, after the inauguration of # 45 and despite months of warnings with the “Muslim Ban,” the dismantling brick by brick of years and decades-old statesmanship programs and policies, the threat of our social safety net being ripped out from under us and the deportation of some of the most vulnerable among us, we were still taken aback.  We watched with horror and sick hearts, as raw bigotry and hateful, anti-Semitic and racial epithets spewed from the mouths of white men (and a few women) carrying guns, knives, clubs and shields as blatant acts of intimidation.  Parading along Charlottesville, Virginia’s streets, the marchers waved their Tiki torches and carried Nazi banners with swastikas along with Confederate flags.  It wasn’t hard to compare them to old documentaries we’d watched featuring long ago Klan processions, cross burnings and the news clips from Hitler’s Third Reich rallies. And the impetus? A call to “Unite the Right” and the threatened removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee, the military commander of the Confederate States of America and a potent symbol of the Lost Cause.

Which brings us to the pretty little town of Natchez, Mississippi, population somewhere less than 25,000, where we spent a couple of nights in September of 2016, en route to Vicksburg.  And our decision not to write about this town until now.  Because, just as Confederate monuments symbolize white supremacy and a war against the United States of America fought in the defense of slavery, the stunning collection of beautifully maintained antebellum homes pay tribute to the Lost Cause and romanticize a genteel south memorialized forever in the tradition of “Gone with the Wind.”  Vast fortunes were made growing and trading cotton and sugarcane and shipping goods upriver on the Mississippi to Northern cities and downriver to New Orleans.  Staggering wealth made on the backs of black slave labor.

 

 

We’d first learned of this town through the Penn Cage novels of Greg Iles and wanted to see some of the heritage architecture he’d written of.  Unlike so many of the South’s grand cities of the era, Natchez came through the Civil War almost unscathed with many of the mansions built before 1860 still surviving.  In the historic downtown, block after block of antebellum homes can be admired from curbside with eighty-two of the Natchez homes in the historic downtown and along the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi river, earning a distinguished entry into the National Register of Historic Places.  Natchez brags, discreetly and ever-so-politely, that half the millionaires in the US resided there before the Civil War and it’s estimated that almost one-hundred of the grand neoclassical and Greek Revival-style structures could rightfully be called Antebellum mansions.

We stopped by the Natchez Visitor Reception Area and picked up tickets to see a few of the Antebellum Mansions which have been turned into living museums with tours offered hourly.  Depending on the time of year, as many as twenty of the mansions may be open for tours.  The tours we picked lasted about an hour each and we split them up, doing two the first afternoon of our visit and a couple of tours along with a stroll about the Natchez City Cemetery (also on the National Register of Historic Places) the following day.

Stanton Hall –   Occupying an entire two-acre city block and surrounded by a wrought iron fence, this Greek Revival residence perfectly met our expectations as to how an antebellum mansion should look. Built in 1857 by Irish immigrant and cotton merchant, Frederick Stanton, the mansion was occupied by Union troops during the war. The Stanton family lived there until 1894 when the building became the Stanton College for Young Ladies.  The Pilgrimage Garden Club purchased the home in 1938 and restored it to its former splendor using many of the original furnishings belonging to the Stanton family.  If opulence ever needed a picture to define it, the inside of this mansion would do it. (No pictures of the inside were allowed, so you’ll have to take our word for it!)

 

Stanton Hall

Auburn – Completed in 1812, the Auburn home was “designed to be the most magnificent building in the territory” and was built for Lyman Harding, the first Attorney General of Mississippi.  After his death in 1820, the home was purchased by Stephen Duncan, a physician and wealthy planter, and his wife, Catherine and remained in the Duncan family until 1911 when the heirs donated the home and 210 acres adjacent to it, now a park, to the city of Natchez.  Unfortunately, the original contents of the house were sold at public auction with few being returned and the home is furnished with donated period pieces.  If we haven’t conveyed it yet, we were duly impressed by the house but by far, the most striking thing about the mansion is the free-standing spiral stairway that rises between the ground and second floor completely unsupported.

 

Auburn Mansion

 

Rosalie –  With sweeping views and located on the Mississippi River Bluff near French build Fort Rosalie (1716), the mansion was built between 1820 and 1823 for the original owners, Peter and Eliza Little.  The home was purchased in 1857 by Andrew Wilson and his wife, also named Eliza, and was occupied by the family and their descendants until the home and the original furnishings were sold to the Mississippi State Society, Daughters of the American Revolution who maintain the home and give the tours.  Occupied by the Union Army in 1863, General Walter Gresham protected the house and its contents and returned it to the family after the Civil War. (Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the home.)

 

 

Longwood – If we had to vote for our favorite mansion, Longwood would win hands-down and it wasn’t even completed.  Still the largest octagonal house in the US and known as “Nutt’s Folly,” its original owners were Dr. Haller Nutt and his wife Julia, members of Natchez’s planter elite. The couple hired a Philadelphia architect to design an “Oriental villa,” complete with a bright red, Byzantine onion-shaped dome. Construction of the eight-sided, six-story, 10,000 square-foot mansion which had original plans for a total of thirty-two rooms and twenty-six fireplaces, began in 1860 but was halted in 1861. The exterior is mostly finished but only nine rooms on the ground floor were completed when construction workers literally dropped their tools, collected their pay and abandoned their work at the onset of the Civil War.  The Nutt family moved their fine furniture inside the finished rooms, living there throughout the war and into the 20th Century with a total of three generations of the family living in the never finished home.  The upper five stories remain just as they were when the construction ceased, making the home a great analogy of the South’s rise and fall.  The Nutt’s grandchildren owned Longwood until 1968 and the property was deeded to the Pilgrimage Garden Club of Natchez in 1970 who maintain the property and open its doors for tours of the historic house museum. (This time we were allowed to take photos of the unfinished part.)

 

Longwood Mansion

 

And here was our conundrum.  Should we write about how beautiful we found this pretty town filled with antebellum homes and selling a romantic story of Old South nostalgia?  These fine and stately homes are indeed works of art: designed by gifted architects, built of the finest materials, containing the work of talented craftsmen and filled with the finest furnishings. The homes of slave owners, many passed down to their descendants, offer a glimpse into the lives of the wealthy southern aristocrats and are treasures for sure but their beauty is tainted by their history and only tell one side of the story.  And the other side? Generations of enslaved blacks who did the work that made the fortunes that built the houses.  Generations of people bought and sold throughout the South, who did their owners bidding, cared for other peoples’ needs and wants, raised children belonging to someone else, cooked and cleaned and planted the crops for their owners.

Somewhere over the decades following the tragedy of the Civil War that left 620,000 dead, “The Lost Cause” has evolved for some into a State’s Rights issue where slavery has been romanticized as a benevolent institution and the patriarchal society of the Confederacy as a grand, genteel civilization.  And unlike the Antebellum homes that offer a glimpse into the lives of the townspeople of Natchez and the wealthy Southern aristocrats who owned slaves before the war, most of the approximately 700 Confederate monuments standing in public spaces today were erected well after the Civil War.  They’re monuments celebrating slavery, secession and white supremacy and were erected as a direct corollary to the rise of Jim Crow laws and the violence and oppression of African-Americans.  And, despite what # 45 says, there’s nothing in those monuments that represents the USA’s rich heritage of diverse cultures, races and religions.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Bohemian Rhapsody: Cesky Krumlov

 

We set off from our temporary home in Prague one sunny morning and drove south through the countryside of the Czech Republic, heading for the small town of Český Krumlov close to the Czech-Austrian border. The landscapes of the Bohemian region were the kind that artists dream of: blue skies with wisps of clouds, rural farmhouses and fields freshly tilled or planted with various crops in checkered hues alternating with huge swaths of bright yellow canola well over two feet high. Time passed by almost dreamily, as we gazed out the car windows at mile after mile of flat land and gentle hills and places where timber logging and sawmills seemed to be the main industry. In some areas, we tunneled through thick woods growing almost to the shoulderless, two-lane road. Here and there the highway wound through picture-postcard towns of small businesses and houses, many at least a century old, set close together, with steeply pitched roofs to discourage the accumulation of winter snow.  White lace curtains hung in the windows, like a throwback to some gentler time.

 

 

The GPS took us right to the little pension we’d reserved for two nights, Hotel Krásné Údolí, dating from 1568.  The smiling owner opened heavy wooden doors that had us guessing how old they might be and we entered into a cobblestoned enclosure.  Straight ahead was the owner’s apartment, to the right was the dining room for guests and at our left was a steep set of stairs leading to the hotel’s six rooms.  Walking down the short hallway we had a chance to peek in the rooms and were totally charmed as each room had its own beautifully painted mural featuring a fair maiden from long ago and a country landscape embellished with flowers. The en-suite bathroom had an ultra-modern, glassed in shower with multiple jets, the Wi-Fi was acceptable and there was even a little dorm style fridge and a comfortable sitting area.  Throw in an ample breakfast that was included in the price of 53 US dollars a night and an innkeeper who did his best to answer our questions and we were doing a happy dance!

 

 

And then there was the town of Český Krumlov itself which topped the quaintness scale and then some.  Called “one of the most picturesque towns in Europe,” this jaw-droppingly, beautiful medieval town situated on both banks of the Vltava River is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due largely to its intact architectural heritage spanning more than five centuries.

 

 

With more than 300 Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque houses, most of which date back to the 14th through 17th centuries, the passage of time has not done much to alter Český Krumlov’s appearance.  Careful renovations have preserved details that had us swiveling our heads: an assortment of gabled roof profiles, frescoes painted across many facades, ornate sundials, shutters, and decorative iron grills over windows and the pleasing harmony of red-tiled roofs.

 

 

Inside many of the former grand houses are restaurants serving delicious Czech dishes, boutique hotels, souvenir shops, museums, jewelry stores offering the semi-precious Moldavite stones found only in the Czech Republic, and shops selling traditional Czech crafts such as wooden toys, Czech puppets and sparkling crystal.  The street layout follows the horseshoe bends of the Vltava River which flows through the medieval town and the feeling is like stepping back a few centuries.  We strolled about the narrow and winding streets, admiring various houses, window shopping, stopping for a drink here and a meal there, in no rush to be anywhere but exactly where we were.

 

Plague Column

Eventually, all the streets we wandered would lead us back to the central town square, flanked by colorfully painted buildings with a fountain and tall Baroque sculpture anchoring one of the corners. Known as the Marian Column or the Plague Column, the statue dates from 1714 and commemorates the victims of the 1680-1682 plague epidemic. At its top and wearing a golden halo, is the Virgin Mary accompanied by the eight patron saints of the town.

 

But then, we’re getting ahead of ourselves because, before and during the evolution of the town, came the State Castle and Chateau Český Krumlov.  Built on a rocky outcrop alongside the river Vltava, the castle overlooks and dominates the old town which was built around it.  Second in size only to the Prague castle, the original buildings date all the way back to 1240 while additional palatial buildings were added between the 14th and 19th centuries.  The massive complex of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque structures totals an impressive forty structures with a covered bridge, gardens and five courtyards.

 

 

Of all these eye-popping gems, however, the stupendous mid-13th century Renaissance tower which stands out at its 178-feet height and magnificent, beautifully restored frescoes in all their pastel beauty.  A cheap admission of about $2.50 will pay the entrance fee to the tower for the privilege of climbing the 162-steps of the spiral staircase to the very top for a heart-stopping panoramic view of the city.  Two of the four bells hanging in the tower date back to 1406 and other small bells known as clock bells are estimated to be four-hundred-plus years old.

 

 

Perhaps because of its awe-inspiring size, the castle enjoyed centuries of quiet and prosperity and the Vltava River served as an important trade route in Bohemia. The castle and its lands passed peacefully between families from the original Lords of Krumlov in the 13th century to the Lords of Rosenberg who reigned over the region’s Celtic, German and Slavic descendants for three centuries until about 1600 and played host to artists, scientists and merchants from all over Europe. The Castle was sold to the House of Eggenburg and the town became the seat of the Duchy of Krumlov for about a century until it passed in 1719 to the House of Schwarzenberg who governed for over two centuries. Seized by the Nazis from its last private owner, Adolph Schwarzenberg, in 1940 and then confiscated by the Czechoslovak government in 1945 during the Communist era, the castle was neglected and ill-maintained as was the town until after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Today, careful restoration and its inclusion into the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 has guaranteed that this fairy-tale city and castle can be enjoyed by the citizens of the Czech Republic and people from all over the world.

 

 

As far as we’re concerned, Český Krumlov is a town that zaps you back in time and can only be described in superlatives.  We spent much of our time there gawping, head-swiveling, jaw-dropping, finger-pointing and stretching our lips into wide grins while we rhapsodized over this Bohemian treasure.  Be sure to include it on your “Must See” list and don’t forget to wear your comfortable walking shoes!

 

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Konopiste Castle, The Heir to the Austro-Hungarian Throne and The Great War

 

Just 50 kilometers southeast of Prague in the Czech Republic, Konopiště Castle sits high atop a hill, surrounded by a thick forest.  Built as a Gothic fortification towards the end of the 13th century, it was a huge and sprawling rectangular edifice with plenty of towers, seven in all, for the most effective defense.  Over the centuries, the castle passed through the hands of numerous owners and was the site of sieges, revolts, occupations and plundering.  It’s appearance also changed through the centuries with a stone bridge replacing the drawbridge, the demolition of some of the towers and after 1725, the transformation of the castle into a Baroque style château. Frescoes were painted on the ceilings, marble fireplaces with carvings installed, gardens planted and statues scattered about the grounds.  At the time of its purchase in 1887 by its most famous resident, the estate was vast, its densely wooded forests filled with abundant wildlife stretching almost as far as Prague.

 

And here’s where our story starts, with the purchase of Konopiště Castle by the Duke Frantisek Ferdinand d’Este.  Better known as Archduke Franz Ferdinand, he was a man with an immense fortune inherited from the last reigning Duke of Modena (now part of Italy) and an eye for only the best.  Employing the services of architect Josef Mocker between 1889 and 1894, he refurbished Konopiště Castle into a luxurious residence fit for a king or, in his case, fit for an emperor and the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.  Among some of his innovations were the installation of electricity and modern plumbing, including a new-fangled flush toilet, along with one of the first electric elevators. The extensive grounds became an English-style park; more statues were brought in and placed about the terraces and rose gardens (a passion of the Duke’s) were planted and lovingly tended.  And then he filled the castle with furnishings of museum quality: collections of the finest antique furniture, paintings, tapestries, crystal chandeliers, Meissen porcelain, and ivory carvings in addition to his hunting trophies and an armory – one of the best in the world – filled with antiquated weapons and medieval suits of armor.

 

 

Not that we weren’t blown away by the immense luxury and the fantastical display of the best that money could buy a century ago, but it was the hunting trophies that caught our attention. Because, competing with the priceless furnishings and countless artifacts, are an estimated 4,000 hunting trophies.  And all those headless antlers arranged like patterned wallpaper, stuffed animals whose glass eyes followed our movements, birds of prey with wings outstretched and animal skins stretched out across walls and floors moved our tour into our favorite category of “This is plain weird and just a little creepy.”  Now here was a side to the Archduke that piqued our interest!

 

 

History hasn’t been kind to Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  Described as “not a very likable man,” he had a reputation for a hair-trigger temper.  In fact, his rants and raves were so terrible that many questioned his very sanity.  He was an obsessive collector and his passion for trophy hunting around the world or in his own well-stocked forests was extreme, even by the trophy-hunting elites’ standards of the time.  Wikipedia says that, “In his diaries he kept track of an estimated 300,000 game kills, 5,000 of which were deer.”  According to our guide, the Archduke kept twelve taxidermists in his employ full-time, ready to stuff at a moment’s notice so-to-speak, and his hunting collection of trophies ranks as one of Europe’s largest collections.  And when he wasn’t hunting live animals, he amused himself by doing a little plinking on his indoor shooting range, a unique and elegant toy with moving targets.

 

 

However unpleasant and arrogant the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s reputation may have been, there is no denying that he loved his wife, the former Countess Sophie Chotek, who he met in 1894. Franz Ferdinand’s wish to marry his beloved Sophie was unfulfilled for several years because he was a member of the Imperial House of Hapsburg and she was neither a member of a reigning or formerly reigning European dynasty.  Franz stubbornly refused to even consider marrying anyone else and the Archduke’s uncle, the Emperor Franz Joseph, finally gave his permission for the couple’s marriage in 1899 but not without some stipulations.  Any descendants from the marriage would not have succession rights to the throne nor would Sophie share her husband’s rank, title or other privileges.  In fact, whenever the couple was required to spend time with other members of the imperial family, Sophie’s inferior royal status forced her to stand apart from her husband, with the lesser mortals. The couple agreed to the humiliating conditions and were married in July of 1900.

 

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Duchess Sophie (source)

No doubt, the Imperial family’s disapproval of their marriage and the snobbish treatment of Sophie led the couple to spend as much of their time away from the royal court as possible.  Konopiště Castle, far away from Vienna and private, became their favorite residence. It was there that Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, by all accounts, lived happily devoted to each other and their three children.

 

Archduke Franz Ferdinand , Duchess Sophie and their children (source)

And so, Konopiště Castle is most famous, not for its own magnificent history and beautiful setting, but because it was the last residence of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife, Duchess Sophie.  Their visit to Sarajevo, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and their subsequent assassination on June 28th, 1914, led to a chain of events that eventually triggered the Great War, World War I.  By the end of the war in 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was no more. Maps were redrawn enlarging Italy and Romania and creating the new countries of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, the Republic of Austria and the newly reestablished State of Poland.  However, the peace was tentative and resentments and violence flared again only a couple of decades later into an even more devastating war, World War II.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Note:  We were not allowed to take photos inside the castle but wanted to share an awesome video that we found online of a tour that Rick Steves made.  Click here.  It’s just a little over 2 minutes and will give you a glimpse of what makes this castle such a must-see if you find yourself in Prague.

 

 

 

Terezin: If A Picture Paints A Thousand Words

It’s the children’s drawings that linger in our minds, haunting us long after our tour of the town of Terezin that once served as a concentration camp. We’d seen some of the drawings years before at an exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC and then at the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague. Pictures showing happier times with houses and gardens, holiday celebrations with family, children playing, flowers and trees.  Pictures showing darker times too: the day-to-day life in an impoverished ghetto, the faces of sickness and starvation, acts of savage cruelty and the endless transports by train of people arriving from elsewhere or departing for the camps.

 

Field of canola with the Small Fortress in the background

Terezin, better known by its German name Theresienstadt, is a little over an hour’s drive north of Prague.  It was originally built as a fortress in the late 18th century by the Habsburg emperor, Joseph II, who named it after his mother, Empress Maria Theresa. (Incidentally, the Empress was also the mother of Marie Antoinette of the “Off with her head” fame.)  The fortress, divided into two parts, never served its military purpose as protection against Prussian attacks but instead proved useful as a prison for dangerous criminals, eventually evolving into a political prison for anyone (which numbered thousands) who the Austro-Hungarian authorities deemed a threat before and during the first World War. (Another interesting factoid is that this is the prison where the assassin of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, whose murder set off WWI, was incarcerated.)

 

Small Fortress, administrative offices and barracks

Small Fortress

Following Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in March of 1939, the garrison town of Terezin would also prove to be the perfect place for the Nazis who, in 1940, modified the political prison known as the “Small Fortress” into a police prison for the Gestapo to interrogate, torture and imprison its enemies. The town of Terezin itself, called the “Big Fortress,” met the Nazi requirements for a Jewish ghetto since it was surrounded by thick ramparts which would facilitate guarding of the prisoners. It was located about a mile-and-a-half from the Bohušovice nad Ohří railway station and had several barracks buildings.  Additional barracks were built by Jewish prisoners with triple-tiers of bunks constructed to make the most of available floor space in anticipation of the large populations (ranging from 35,000 to 60,000) who would be “concentrated” and crammed into the small town. The townsfolk of Terezin, numbering about 7,000, were evacuated and the ghetto opened for business. Between 1941 and 1945, Theresienstadt served as both a concentration camp for many prominent Czech Jews (musicians, writers, artists, poets and prominent intellectuals) and as an intermediate stopping place for other populations including communists, the Gypsies or Roma people, the educated and elite, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and religious leaders.  Tens of thousands of Jews deported from Germany and Austria, as well as hundreds from the Netherlands and Denmark were in the transports into Theresienstadt.  All too soon, many of these prisoners would be outbound, selected for transport to Auschwitz and other death camps in the east.

 

“To the Train Station” by Petr Ginz February 2, 1928 to October 24, 1944

Artist Unknown – Transport – Jewish Ghetto

And yet, despite the abysmal conditions – severe overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, insufficient supplies of potable and even non-potable water, vermin (rats, fleas, flies and lice) starvation rations, illness, disease and death –  a semblance of life went on. In between the work details and selections for transport going to the death camps, noted musicians gathered themselves into orchestras and played concerts, poetry recitals were given, writers wrote, operas were performed, artists sketched and painted with whatever supplies they could find and clandestine classes were held to educate the children.

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944)

In December of 1942, Freidl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944), an Austrian Jew who lived in Czechoslovakia, arrived in the Theresienstadt Ghetto with her husband.  A talented artist, she had chosen to fill much of her limited luggage allowance of 50 kilos (about 110 pounds) with art supplies which she used to give surreptitious art lessons to over 600 children in Theresienstadt between 1943 and 1944.  Serving as a reminder of a world outside the camp, the lessons also provided a sort of therapy to help the children deal with the harsh reality of life in the ghetto and the constant fear and uncertainty that surrounded them.  Freidl Dicker-Brandeis encouraged her students sign each of their works with their names and ages and collected the pictures from her pupils after each class. Over the two years that she worked with the children, she assembled a collection of almost 4500 drawings, watercolors and collages. Before she and 60 of her students were deported in the autumn of 1944 to Auschwitz-Birkenau, two suitcases filled with these pictures were carefully hidden in one of the children’s dormitories. The drawings were recovered after the war and have served as a reminder of the names and lives lost that might have otherwise been forgotten.  An important part of Prague’s Jewish museum collection since the war’s end, the pictures have been exhibited around the world.

 

 

Almost from the beginning of Theresienstadt’s existence, the Nazi’s had maintained the fiction that the ghetto was a place for resettlement, a haven of safety for the Jews of Czechoslovakia (and later, other countries) and a model city of great culture with its high proportion of musicians, writers, artists and prominent leaders.  No one really cared to follow up on their story until a group of 466 Danish Jews (we wrote about them here) were transported to Theresienstadt on October 5, 1943.  Soon after their arrival, both the Danish and the Swedish Red Cross Organizations began asking questions about their whereabouts as well as their treatment and living conditions.  In a move of astounding audacity, the Nazis decided that they would invite the Red Cross to the camp and prove to the world that the Jews were being treated humanely by their benefactors. A huge cover-up ensued to hide all outward signs of the ghetto’s true circumstances: deplorable sanitary conditions teeming with vermin and pests, widespread disease and rampant starvation. Seven thousand, five hundred of the ghetto’s sickest population along with all of the orphans were deported east to the death camps to reduce the severe overcrowding. A predetermined route for the June 1944, visit was decided upon and buildings were spruced up with paint, flower boxes and curtains while the grounds along the way received more flowers, grass and benches.  Shop windows were filled with foods and goods and an elaborate play unfolded with bakers baking bread, a load of fresh vegetables being delivered and people singing. Prisoners were nicely dressed, cued with pre-rehearsed praise for the camp and carefully placed along the route to present a picture of a charming village filled with happy people.  Musicians played music in the background and the Red Cross fell for the ruse, never deviating from the route nor probing too deeply.  In an ironic twist, the Nazi’s liked their elaborately staged hoax so much that they produced a propaganda film called, “The Führer Gives a City to the Jews.”  After the film was completed, the director and most of the cast of prisoners were shipped to Auschwitz.

 

 

Terezin was a way station for almost 150,000 people from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark and Hungary to the extermination camps of Sobibor, Majdanek, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz-Birkenau, to name a few. And, while it wasn’t a death camp by the usual definition, approximately 35,000 people died there between 1942 and 1945 from exposure, starvation, disease, torture and executions.  Fifteen thousand children under the age of fifteen passed through the Terezin Concentration Camp.  Only 132 of those children were known to have survived.

 

 

It’s not easy to visit a place like Terezin, nor is it fun.  And yet, we believe that visits to places like Terezin are necessary and that we owe it to ourselves to learn what hatred based on religion, race, political beliefs and sexual orientation can become.  We need to take those lessons and draw parallels to what we see around us today.  We owe it to the victims to honor their memories and never forget.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Kutna Hora: Medieval Beauty and Bones, Flying Buttresses and Frescoes, Gothic Splendor and Gargoyles

 

Kutná Hora, Czech Republic

Have car – will travel!  And travel we did during our time in the Czech Republic, putting many kilometers on our can’t-lose-me-in-a-crowded-parking-lot, neon-green, rented Skoda during the week we had it.  As luck would have it, the little city of Kutná Hora, population around 20,000, was only an hour east of Prague and almost dead center in the heart of Bohemia, making it easy to heed the advice of several friends to visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

 

cistern

The original silver mining settlement of Cuthna Antiqua, Old Kutna, was settled as early as the 10th century but its economic fortunes were tied to the establishment of the first Cistercian monastery in Bohemia, Sedlec Abbey, in the nearby village of Sedlec in 1142.  The combined riches of the silver mine on the monastery’s property and Old Kutna’s mines led to economic boom times.  In 1308, King Wenceslas II (aka King Václav II) established the Royal Mint in the city which produced the silver Prague groschen coins that were then the hard currency of Central Europe.  Considered the treasure-house of the medieval Kingdom of Bohemia and favored as a residence by several kings and the ultra-wealthy, boom town Kutná Hora rivalled only Prague in importance of enormous wealth, political influence and culture for several centuries.

 

 

According to one of the brochures we snagged at the tourist information center, there are more than 300 Gothic, Baroque and Classical buildings in the city and a walk around the historic center’s narrow and winding streets was a must-do introduction.  Much of the building took place in the 14th century and included a rich residential architecture of places fit for the royals, homes for the very wealthy and their lessors, churches, monuments and a couple of cathedrals reflecting the enormous wealth of city.  Over the years, many of Kutná Hora’s buildings were damaged or destroyed by fires and war but the continued income from the silver mines allowed for these to be reconstructed or replaced as needed.

 

Cathedral of Saint Barbara

 

The spires of the Gothic Cathedral of Saint Barbara, named after the patron saint of miners, dominate the skyline of Kutná Hora from a hill overlooking the city.  There’s really no way to describe this cathedral, whose construction began in 1388, as anything but magnificent.

 

 

Even those tourists who are “churched and cathedralled out” should find many things to appreciate in this over-the-top cathedral with its arches and vaults, flying buttresses and frescoes, multiple stained-glass windows, murals, sculptures, gargoyles and, not to be forgotten, a completely rebuilt and restored Baroque pipe organ from the 17th century.

 

17th century Baroque Pipe Organ

Financed by generations of local blue-blooded families whose fortunes depended both on the politics of the day and riches from the silver mines, the construction of the cathedral was an on-again-off again holy project that spanned several centuries until it was finally declared finished and consecrated in 1905.

 

 

Without a doubt, Kutná Hora is a jewel in the Czech Republic’s crown of historic cities. But, among all its charms, we highly suspect that its most popular tourist site might be the small Cemetery Church of All Saints.  Also called the Ossuary at Sedlec, it’s more simply known as the Bone Church of Kutná Hora. The Sedlec cemetery dates from the 12th century and because of a legend claiming it contained soil from the city of Jerusalem – and was thus a part of the Holy Land – became very popular in Central Europe as a last and eternal resting place.

 

 

Over the centuries, thousands were buried in the cemetery – upwards of 30,000 victims from the recurring plagues or “Black Death” and thousands more slain in the religious Hussite wars. The cemetery became extremely crowded and was closed in the 15th century. The remains of an estimated 40,000 people were exhumed from their not-so-final resting place and unceremoniously heaped inside and outside the underground chapel of the Church of All Saints. A century later, a half-blind monk stacked these bones up neatly into huge pyramids that lined the interior walls of the chapel and gave the faithful some room in the middle for worship. Over the next few hundred years, relics constructed of bone were arranged decoratively in the spirit of “memento mori” – the medieval practice of reflecting upon mortality.

 

 

However, the really bizarre (and endlessly, ghoulishly fascinating) attraction of the Bone Church was the interior decorating performed with a macabre panache by master builder, František Rint, in 1870.  After cleaning and bleaching the bones of the not-so newly departed, he created all sorts of fanciful decorations including an enormous chandelier that includes every bone in the body, a crucifix arrangement and a coat of arms in tribute to his employer … His work is even signed with a flourish in – what else?  bones!

 

 

As the centuries passed, Kutná Hora experienced its share of hard times. Repeated appearances of the plague, the religious Hussite Wars in the 15th Century, the flooding of its richest mine in 1546 and the destructive Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) all contributed to its decline.  By the 16th century the silver mines were producing less and less and were finally abandoned at the end of the 18th century.  Fortunately, time seems have treated the city kindly and its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 ensures that it will be a destination to explore and enjoy by people like us for (hopefully) many generations to come.

 

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

A Walk Across Prague’s Charles Bridge, Three Towers and Thirty Statues

 

It took us three tries to make it all the way across the Charles Bridge but, like they say, “The third time’s the charm.”  Following a leisurely river boat tour that introduced us to the city of Prague on both sides of the river Vltava, we joined the throngs of tourists and passed through the Old Town Bridge Tower to walk a short distance onto the bridge. The Sunday crowds only seemed to grow bigger with each step so we decided to save our crossing for another day and turned back.  A few afternoons later, on a chill and gray day, we reasoned that the cold might keep people away from this popular tourist destination and decided to try again.  Bundled up in our light down coats and new cashmere scarves we’d bought at a street market, we made our second attempt and walked about halfway across before deciding we should have bought mittens too!  However, as the early days of May passed by and Prague warmed up degree by degree, we picked a day in the middle of the week and set off for our third visit.  Success!

 

 

Tourist map of Prague and Charles Bridge – (source)

There are seventeen bridges that cross the Vltava River as it makes its way through Prague but the iconic Charles Bridge (called Karlův Most by the Czechs) is the oldest, with an intriguing backstory and more than a few legends, too.  Replacing the Judith Bridge, the first stone bridge built over the river around 1170 and destroyed by floods in 1342, the Charles Bridge formed the only link between both banks of the Vltava: the Old Town on the west bank and the Lesser Town (Malá Strana) where Prague Castle is located on the east. Known as Stone or Prague Bridge for several centuries, it was the only “solid-land” connection over the river until 1841, making Prague an important trade route between Eastern and Western Europe.

 

 

Czech king, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor (how’s that for a job title?) Charles IV commissioned the Charles Bridge and laid the cornerstone on a date decided by his royal astrologers, the 9th of July, 1357, at 5:31 AM. (When written in a year, day, month and time format, it makes a scale, going upwards and then downwards: 1 3 5 7 9 7 5 3 1.) The King’s favorite architect, Petr Parléř, oversaw the majority of the construction and divided his time between the bridge and his masterpiece, St. Vitus Cathedral, at the Prague Castle.  Finished after Parléř’s death in 1402, the bridge is built of sandstone blocks supported by sixteen arches of varying spans and shielded by ice guards. For centuries, folklore said that eggs were mixed with the mortar to give it extra strength but recent investigations have debunked this urban legend. Nevertheless, the Charles Bridge, one of the mightiest bridges in its time, has survived for 665 years despite countless floods that have damaged or demolished various pillars and arches, invasions, occupations and wars. Horse-drawn trams crossed the bridge beginning in 1883 until they were replaced by an electric tram line in 1905. Shortly thereafter in 1908, the trams were traded for buses which served as public transport until World War II. Cars were allowed to cross the bridge until 1965 and then the bridge was closed to all but pedestrian traffic.

 

Old Town Bridge Tower

Flanked on either end by fortified towers which were built to guard access to the bridge, the Old Town Bridge Tower, a blackened, Gothic structure, is truly impressive.  Built at the same time as the Charles Bridge and completed in 1380, it was part of the royal road and a symbolic archway through which Bohemian kings marched on their way to Prague Castle and St. Vitus’s Cathedral for their coronations. One of the most interesting stories we read (gruesome in other words) was the tale of the Protestant Bohemian uprising in 1621 against the area’s ruling power, the Catholic Hapsburg dynasty.  After the revolt was quashed, twenty-seven of the leaders were decapitated in a formal execution on Prague’s Old Town Square and their severed heads were displayed at the Old Town Bridge Tower in a grisly warning against future resistance or uprisings by the Bohemians.

 

Lesser Town Bridge Towers

At the opposite end of the Charles Bridge stand two more fortified towers, connected by a walkway, which protected the gate to the Lesser Town and serve as the main pedestrian entrance to the Malá Strana quarter of Prague.  The smaller structure dates from the 12th century and is named Judith’s Tower. Originally part of Judith’s Bridge, it’s the only remaining part of the original stone bridge. The larger building, Lesser Town Bridge Tower, was built in the second half of the 15th century and is modeled on the Old Town Bridge Tower. Inside the tower are exhibitions of the bridge’s history and, for a modest fee you can climb the spiral stairs which seem to only get narrower and become steeper (as you huff and puff your way up to the top) for spectacular views of the historical city on both sides of the bridge and the river Vltava, winding its way through the historic city.

 

 

The Charles Bridge itself forms a wide avenue set between its three watchful towers and serves as a kind of open air gallery for thirty impressive, mostly Baroque statues and sculptures made over the years by a variety of artists. It’s hard to believe now as the sculptures have come to be synonymous with the bridge itself, but for several centuries the only decoration on the Charles Bridge was a simple crucifix placed in the 14th century.  A more elaborate crucifix was erected in 1657 followed by the first statue, a tribute by the Jesuits to St. John of Nepomuk in 1683.  Other Catholic orders installed their own venerated statues of favorite saints and patron saints (the majority were erected between 1683 and 1714) and, as the years passed, new ones were added to replace those damaged or lost to floods.  Most of the sculptures were made of sandstone and, beginning in 1965, have been systematically replaced by quality replicas.  The originals can be found in the National Museum’s Lapidary (closed for renovation during our visit) or Vysehrad National Cultural Monument.

 

We’re not quite sure what’s attached to their heads but they looks like pinwheels!

 

By far the most popular statue on the Charles Bridge is St. John of Nepomuk, which can be located about halfway towards the middle of the bridge.  He’s also the first person hurled to his cold and watery grave from the Charles Bridge in 1393. The story goes that he was the confessor to the queen and that her husband, a jealous King Wenceslas IV, son of King Charles IV, demanded that the priest reveal her confession which the good priest refused to do. (The more probable reason may have been a bitter conflict between church and state.)  Wenceslas had poor St. John’s tongue cut out, then weighed him down with armor and heaved him off the bridge. Perhaps the story was a bit too macabre so it was given a pretty little twist and concludes with the stars in his halo following his body down the river.

 

St. John of Nepomuk

Now a patron saint in the Czech Republic, he’s also a protector from floods and drowning.  We noticed a small group around the statue and learned that the real reason for St. John of Nepomuk’s popularity seems to be the tradition that says if you rub the bronze plaques (notice how shiny they are?) you’ll have good luck and return to Prague one day.

 

 

Charles Bridge has provided a backdrop for numerous films and the combination of the Gothic bridge towers on either end, the hulking sculptures that line the parapets and the wide expanse of the Vltava River below makes a visit to this historic bridge a must do for any serious sightseer.  The guidebooks recommend visiting the bridge at dawn (seriously?) when the mist is lifting from the river or in the evening for a romantic stroll.  Weekdays seemed to be less crowded and it’s a great place to people watch, listen to the talented street musicians spaced along the wide thoroughfare, eye the offerings of the souvenir vendors who line both sides of the bridge, and watch the local artists at work drawing landscapes, portraits or caricatures.

 

 

And, to make sure that we would return to what was fast becoming one of our favorite cities, we made sure to give both of St. John of Nepomuk’s plaques a little rub!

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

Wenceslas Square in Prague, Saints and Statues

The city of Prague in the Czech Republic shot to the top of our travel list when friends casually mentioned that an old coworker of theirs had offered them his family’s apartment in the city and said we were welcome to join them for the month of May.  The words, “free accommodations” had us checking flights from Lisbon to Prague and the welcome mat was barely unrolled before we arrived with our suitcases and a long list of things to see and do.

 

 

Wenceslas Square was our starting point, a long boulevard which connects the Old Town of Prague (history first mentions Prague in 1091) with the New Town.  We guess in Europe “new” might be a bit of a misnomer as this area was founded in 1348, ancient by anyone’s standards. During the Middle Ages the rectangular area was called “Horse Market” since that was the business conducted there but, during the 19th century Czech national revival movement, citizens decided the name needed to be upgraded to something a bit more dignified.

 

 

Enter the patron saint of Bohemia, Saint Wenceslas, whose mouthful of a name was bestowed upon the square and in whose honor a noble statue was erected. On the south end of the boulevard is the Czech National Museum (a neo-Renaissance structure undergoing renovation and closed until 2020) and the statue of Saint Wenceslas astride his mighty steed and flanked by four Czech patron saints.  The Mustek metro station is on the north end with a cable car intersection nearby which has cars hurtling by every few minutes (look both ways!) and the streets become narrower and kind of funnel you past a street market right into Old Town Square.

 

 

And in between?  Doubtless there’s shopping elsewhere in Prague but it looked to us like this might be a good place to load up on everything from souvenir magnets to cashmere scarves to Czech crystal, fine jewelry and designer fashions. There are banks, hotels, bookstores, casinos and apartments as well as plenty of restaurants with outdoor tables to people watch and enjoy traditional Czech food or find other favorite international dishes from Thai to Lebanese to McDonalds.  There’s lots to catch your eye as you look around but bend your neck back a little bit because the best views are overhead.  Here is the realm of architectural eye candy!

 

 

 

 

We had a hazy recollection of the Christmas carol, Good King Wenceslas, but the history of the Saint himself, Duke Vaclav I of Bohemia (Wenceslas is a Latinized version) is but a few sketchy details and a whole lotta legend and myth.  Born around 907, he was the son of a Christian father and a pagan mother.  When his father was killed during a pagan backlash against Christianity in 921, the young ruler became the pawn in a power struggle between his Christian grandmother, Ludmilla, and his pagan mother, Drahomira.  Ludmilla won initially and raised the boy for a few years but was eventually strangled by supporters of his mother.  Once Duke Vaclav, by all accounts a devout and pious Christian, assumed full power he had his heathen mother exiled.  He fostered the spread of the Christian faith, was generous to widows, orphans and the poor, founded several Christian churches and kept the Bohemian people independent.  However, in 935, while on his way to Mass one day and, as the story has it, right at the church door, he was brutally hacked to death by minions of his younger brother Boleslaus.  The pagan brother assumed power and was thereafter known as Boleslaus the Cruel. (His biography is undoubtedly a lot more interesting than that of pious brother.) Soon after Vaclav’s death, he was being hailed as a saint and martyr for the faith and miracles were reported at the site of his murder and at his tomb. The cult of Wenceslas spread throughout Bohemia all the way to England.  Several years after the murder his remains were dug up and reinterred at the St. Vitus Cathedral in the Prague Castle complex.

 

 

Taking a break from piety and patron saints, we explored the area just a block off Wenceslas Square and saw a very different statue of Vaclav/St. Wenceslas in the art-nouveau shopping arcade, Lucerna Palace.  Created in 1999 by Czech sculptor David Černý, “The dead horse” hangs upside down from the ceiling of the marble atrium with its tongue lolling out and Saint Wenceslas astride.

Wenceslas Square was a great introduction to Prague and the site for many dramatic events throughout the centuries.  Recent history includes the October 28, 1918, proclamation of Czechoslovakian independence. Following by only a few decades, the square was the scene for Nazi rallies and parades of Nazi tanks in 1939 and during the German occupation. The Prague Uprising by the Czech Resistance in May of 1945 at the end of WWII, marked the end of one era and the beginning of the Soviet Union’s imposition of a puppet regime upon the Czech people.  The brief Spring Uprising was suppressed by Soviet tanks massed in Wenceslas Square in 1968.  Finally, during the Velvet Revolution (November-December of 1989) massive demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people in Wenceslas Square led to the peaceful end of the Communist Era in the country.

Today, the square keeps drawing us back, to wander and gawk at the architecture, enjoy a meal and take endless pictures while we join the other sightseers and locals and enjoy the sights and sounds of this beautiful city.  Prague, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is rapidly becoming one of our favorite cities.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

The Tram Cafe

Portugal’s Love Affair With Tiles and the Museu Nacional do Azulejo

Landmark Green Tile Building, Lagos

You don’t have to be in Portugal long before you notice the colorful, hand-painted tiled plaques on building walls, tiled murals randomly placed here and there as you enter a village and tiles covering the facades of whole buildings. You’ll find tiles inside and out decorating humble homes, large homes, churches, cathedrals, grand palaces and train stations.

 

Peacock Building, Lisbon

 

Old Train Station, Lagos

Named azulejos (our mangled pronunciation sounds something like “a zu lay zhosh”) the tiles are a unique part of Portugal’s artistic heritage. Originating in Persia and adopted by the Moors, the azulejos spread to southern Spain and Portugal. The Portuguese adopted painting on ceramic tile as their national art with many artists preferring tile over canvas, painting religious images and historical scenes as well as vivid, decorative patterns. Inspired by many cultures including Asian, Arabic, Italian, Flemish, Spanish and Dutch, the styles also vary from Baroque to Art Nouveau to contemporary and range from simple, repeating patterns to massively complex and sophisticated murals of fine art.

 

Museo de Azulejo, Lisbon

For those of us honing our appreciation for all things tiled, there’s no better place to learn more about Portugal’s love affair with the azulejos than the National Tile Museum (Museu Nacional do Azulejo) located in Lisbon.  It’s worth the trip alone to see the 16th century building, the Convent of Madre de Deus, which is deceptively modest from the outside and a jaw-dropping example of Baroque architecture and decoration inside.  Important paintings, lavishly gilded alters – and any other surfaces that might have once made the mistake of being plain – relics from the virgin martyrs and of course, the azulejos – all compete for your attention.

 

Church of Madre de Deus (left) and Chapel of St. Anthony

The museum is spread out among the convent’s three floors (there’s a lift too) and set around a courtyard.  Since it was way past lunchtime for us, our first stop on the ground floor was in the café where we had a very inexpensive (less than €5 each) sandwich and coffee in the convent’s former kitchens.  While we scarfed down savored our tasty lunches, we admired the walls around the café which still retain their original 19th century tiles.

 

 

From there, we spent a few fascinating hours learning about the origins of Portugal’s unique artistic heritage and admiring the enormously impressive collection which dates from the 15th century to the present day.

 

 

 

It would be hard for us to pick favorites out of the many tiled murals we saw but, after all the solemn religious art and oohing and ahhing about the sheer magnificence of the tiles, we were ready for a couple of laughs and to speculate about the backstory behind these two tile murals.

 

Social satire? – 1720

 

The Marriage of the Hen – by Singerie, 1660-1667 (A political lampoon?)

And we couldn’t help but wonder if this old saint was flashing us the peace sign.

 

 

Despite its somewhat out-of-the-way location, a visit to the National Tile Museum should be on your list of must-sees whenever you find yourself in Lisbon.  It’s probably safe to say it’s one of the most important museums in the country and a visit will give you some insight into the historical and cultural significance of Portugal’s love affair with the azulejos.  The Portuguese are justifiably proud of their unique artistic heritage and we love being reminded of it whenever we happen upon it in this amazing country.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The King Tut Exhibit: A Little Bit of Egypt in Portugal

It’s always fun when you figure out that those half-forgotten memories of long ago grade-school lessons weren’t entirely wasted.  We remember (vaguely) learning about ancient Egypt, the pyramids and the hieroglyphs, our imaginations taken immediately with the idea of cloth-wrapped mummies, tombs and the stylized drawings of a proud people shown in profile.  Recently, we’ve been researching a future trip to Egypt (just a pipe dream for now but…) so we didn’t have to think twice when we found out that the Tutankhamun – Treasures of Egypt exhibit was at the Pavilion in Lisbon, January – May, 2017.  A recent trip to the city combined a visit to our lawyer with spending time with friends and sightseeing.  And, once again, we found our curiosity piqued and interest captured by the story of King Tut, the boy king in a civilization from over 3,000 years ago.

 

Funerary mask of Tutankhamun

The story really begins with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter.  By the time of Carter’s arrival at the end of the 19th century, most of the ancient Egyptian tombs in the Valley of the Kings had been discovered, typically empty and looted of their treasures.  Carter had started out his career in his teens, sketching artifacts for other archeologists and eventually becoming a well-respected archeologist himself.  Following an interruption of his explorations by WWI, Carter began to focus his efforts on looking for the tomb of the little-known Pharaoh, Tutankhamun.  Akin to an urban legend, knowledge of the tomb’s location had long been forgotten over the intervening centuries, buried by debris from the building of subsequent tombs or deposits by flooding from the Nile.  Financial support for his expedition was received from George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, a very wealthy, amateur Egyptologist (and incidentally, the owner of Highclere Castle, the future home of one of our favorite TV shows, Downton Abbey). After years of intense and systematic, albeit fruitless searching, and just as Lord Carnarvon was threatening to pull his support, the steps to the burial site were discovered in November of 1922, near the entrance of the tomb of King Ramses VI.

 

Tutankhamun’s Tomb (source)

The short film we watched before entering the exhibition built up the suspense for what followed but it’s not hard to imagine their excitement as Carter and Lord Carnarvon descended the steps for the first time and discovered a door with its original seal still intact.  After entering, they found a secret chamber and Carter describes the next few moments:

“…as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.”

 

 

 

King Tutankhamun’s tomb was the most intact of all the tombs that had been excavated in the Valley of the Kings, with more than five-thousand priceless, well-preserved artifacts meant to accompany the king on his journey to the afterworld.  Consisting of four rooms, one of which had murals painted on the walls portraying the king’s funeral and journey to the next world, the innermost chamber was behind a sealed door and guarded by two sentinels.

 

 

 

When the sealed chamber was opened in February of 1923, perhaps the most fascinating find of all was the stone sarcophagus containing three coffins, one inside the other and each more fabulous than the last.  The third coffin was made of solid gold and inside was the mummy of King Tutankhamun.

 

 

Much of what is known about the Egyptian Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, who’s multi-syllabled name was quickly shortened to a more manageable nickname of “King Tut,” derives from the discovery of his tomb as he was a relatively minor figure in ancient Egypt.   The son of King Akhenaten and his sister, Queen Tiye, he ascended the throne following the death of his father at the age of nine or ten and ruled from approximately 1332 – 1323 BCE.  Upon becoming King, and following the custom of keeping the royal bloodlines all in the family, he married his half-sister, Ankhesenamun.  The mummies of the couple’s two daughters, both stillborn, were found in his tomb, and with King Tut’s death, the family line came to an abrupt end.

 

There’s much speculation about what led to King Tut’s untimely death at the age of nineteen and modern forensics specialists have tried to solve part of mystery.  A reconstruction of what he might have looked like shows he was slight of build, taller than we would have guessed at approximately 5 feet, 11 inches, and that his left foot was severely deformed (a congenital birth defect)  with evidence of ongoing bone necrosis.  He would have needed a cane to walk and several walking sticks were found scattered about the tomb.  It’s possible that he suffered from other physical disabilities arising from his parents’ sibling relationship. (The death of his own daughters may have also been caused by unknown genetic defects due to the restricted gene pool.)   More than one strain of the malaria parasite was found upon DNA examination and researchers concluded that King Tutankhamun probably contracted multiple malarial infections, including an especially virulent strain which would have weakened his immune system. Towards the end of his life, there’s conjecture that an infection resulting from a severe leg fracture may have been the ultimate cause of his demise.

Doubtless, the early death of King Tutankhamun would have taken the Egyptians by surprise and they would have scrambled to complete all the rituals necessary to observe the customary seventy days between death and burial.  Considering his status, many researchers have observed that his tomb was smaller than expected, leading to the conclusion that the tomb occupied by the King was originally intended for someone else.  Much of King Tut’s burial equipment was made for the female pharaoh Neferneferuaten (aka Queen Nefertiti) including his middle coffin, the royal jewelry and the iconic gold mask.  That of course leads to the question of where she was buried and with what, but we digress.  Seventy days after his death, King Tutankhamun’s mummified body was laid to rest inside its eternal home and the tomb was sealed to lay undisturbed for three-thousand years.

 

 

The discovery of King Tut’s tomb, the most complete ancient Egyptian royal tomb ever found in modern times, received world-wide press coverage and generated an enormous interest in ancient Egypt and Egyptology.  Howard Carter remained in Egypt for another ten years, working on the excavation and cataloging the 5,398 objects found in the tomb (everything an Egyptian Pharaoh might need for a comfortable afterlife) until the excavation was completed in 1932.  King Tutankhamun’s linen-wrapped mummy rests, as it has for over 3,000 years, in his underground tomb in the Valley of the Kings, now encased in a climate controlled-glass box to prevent the “heightened rate of decomposition caused by the humidity and warmth from tourists visiting the tomb.”  Artifacts found in his tomb are kept at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo but popular exhibitions of the archeological finds began touring in the 1960’s, make them the most travelled relics in the world.

 

King Tutankhamun’s throne

The discovery of King Tut’s tomb has inspired several songs and dances as well motivated untold numbers of kids to learn more about Egypt.  His image has graced the cover of National Geographic’s magazine five times which, considering he’s been dead for 3,000 years, sounds like stiff competition for #45 with his eleven Time covers. Visiting the exhibit was a fun trip back in time on the “Wayback Machine” and when we exited the building we couldn’t help but hum a few bars of Walk Like An Egyptian!

Note:  The exhibit, Tutankhamun – Treasures of Egypt consisted of 100 full scale reproductions made in Egypt using traditional methods.  We found that little factoid out after we went but it only makes us more enthusiastic to see the real deal one of these days!

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Egyptian Boat Model

 

Lent and Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala: Alfombras, Christ Floats and Processions

 

We say this often, but so much of travel is about serendipity, where timing and seasonal events can play a big part in the travel experience. Since we don’t usually pay much attention to religious holidays, we recently missed seeing one of Portugal’s best Carnival celebrations in a nearby town for the second year in a row. And Lent, the weeks that come after the just-for-family daytime parades and the not-so-family night-time, raucous revelry of Carnival, is a time that usually passes by us completely ignored. Followed by many western churches, these six weeks are a solemn religious observance of penitence and self-denial (pastimes that we avoid) beginning on Ash Wednesday and culminating with Easter Sunday.  And no one in the world celebrates Lent and Holy Week (Semana Santa) quite like Antigua, Guatemala, where we arrived, quite by chance, during the Lenten period in March of 2013.

 

San Jeronimo Ruins, Antigua, Guatemala

We could sing out-of-tune odes to Antigua, a beautiful little city flanked by three volcanoes of approximately 46,000 people in the mountains of southern Guatemala.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Antigua was founded in 1524 by the Spanish conquistadors who arrived in Guatemala from nearby Mexico. The Dominican priests who followed brought along their Lenten and Easter traditions from Seville, Spain, including the Alfombras, the “Christ Floats” and the processions.  Some 500 years from their introduction to the Guatemalan faithful, Antiqua’s Holy Week celebrations have become the largest in the world, with a unique fervor and devotion. Each Sunday during Lent found us waking up to our alarm clocks and setting out to walk Antigua’s streets well before daybreak in search of that day’s Alfombras and procession.

 

 

 

 

Antigua is famous for its Alfombras (Spanish for carpets) and it was easy to see the route the day’s procession would take as the Alfombras mapped the way, laid out on the cobblestone streets in front of the family homes or businesses.  Made from dyed sawdust in a variety of sizes and shapes, stenciled patterns and free-form designs, most were decorated with an assortment of flowers including bougainvillea, bird-of-paradise, chrysanthemums, carnations and roses.

 

Making Alfombras

Here and there we’d see fruits and vegetables in a carefully designed pattern as well as glossy, green, pine needles added as further embellishments.

 

 

Many families save all year to create their Alfombras using one-of-a-kind stencils and designs passed down from year to year, many through generations.  The creation of the Alfombras begins the day before the parade and combines hours of tedious work along with a family celebration.  Often, the carpets are completed only shortly before the procession arrives.

 

 

 

The parades are organized by different brotherhoods affiliated with neighborhood churches and each procession begins at that church. In colonial times, the “Christ Floats,” featuring figures of Jesus Christ arranged in biblical tableaus on a wooden platform called an andas, were quite small and were carried on the shoulders of twelve devotees.  Now, as the tradition has gradually evolved into lengthy pageantries of religious fervor, many of the andases are massive. The combined weight of both the elaborately carved wooden platform and religious statues can weigh several tons with the largest requiring up to 100 carriers. It’s an honor for penitents, who come from all over Latin America and pay for the privilege, to carry the andas. The carriers rotate their turns in and out often at the end of each block as the effort to carry the massive andas demands both endurance and strength as they journey through Antigua’s narrow streets for hours.

 

 

The streets are crowded with men wearing robes of Lenten purple (Cucuruchos) and black-clad women (Cargadoras) awaiting their turns to carry the load.  It’s wasn’t hard for us to imagine a beaten Jesus Christ staggering along the streets with his cross as we watched the faithful voluntarily carrying the andas.

 

 

We’d hear the mournful music from the bands playing traditional Guatemalan compositions well before the procession would appear, which gave us time to stake out a place on the sidewalk corner where we’d get a good view of the participants.

 

 

A purple-robed man would appear, amid a cloud of fragrant (and choking) incense, swinging a metal censer suspended from chains.  The carriers of the first float would step upon the alfombra to walk its length, followed by the rest of the solemn marchers in the procession. The bands with tubas, French horns, clarinets and drums, would follow and, at the end, the trampled Alfombras would emerge as mounds of sawdust and debris.

 

 

The street sweepers were the sad finale of each procession and half an hour after the procession passed, there’d be nothing remaining of the glorious Alfombras.

 

 

Holy week (Semana Santa) takes Antigua’s Lenten celebrations to a whole new level as people from all over the world crowd into the city.  (The estimate for 2016’s crowds during Semana Santa was 1.2 million people.)  Beginning on Palm Sunday, the Alfombras become even larger and more elaborate as their creators work through the night to complete them. The parades are each more spectacular than the last, with costumed Romans and Centurions astride horses. Hundreds of purple-robed men and black-clad women mingle with the crowds of spectators. A Passion Play on Friday culminates with a huge procession and the massive andas bearing Christ carrying his crucifix moves slowly about Antigua’s streets throughout the morning.  And then a lull for a few hours.

 

 

The bands begin to play slow and mournful dirges and the funeral processions appear carrying the body of Christ encased in glass upon a platform.  The Virgin Mary, splendidly attired but mournful, appears amid the Stations of the Cross and commemorations of all her moments of sorrow at the death of her son.  Everyone is clad in a somber black with the women wearing veils or mantillas.  The censers spew out choking clouds of sweet incense that hangs in the streets and the mood is as solemn as though the crucifixion had just occurred rather than happening over 2,000 years ago.

 

 

For us, Easter was almost a let-down with hastily assembled Alfombras, a small procession with the resurrected Christ and firecrackers that went off throughout the day. As non-believers and non-Catholics, we’d spent several weeks immersing ourselves in the Easter traditions of La Antigua and the artistry of her Alfombras, Christ Floats and centuries-old Lenten processions.  We fell in love with the city during the Lenten processions and stayed several months longer in Guatemala than we’d originally planned, exploring the country from coast to coast but Antigua’s Lenten and Semana Santa celebrations and traditions remain among our favorite memories of this country. Firmly rooted in the twenty-first century, cynical and lacking any vestiges of religious ideology ourselves, it was never-the-less tremendously moving to see faith and devotion so openly portrayed in La Antigua.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash 

New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina: When the Levees Failed

During the ten years we lived on Padre Island off the coast of Texas, we talked several times of making the nine-hour drive to New Orleans and taking in the famous sights: the jazz and zydeco music, the shotgun, antebellum and Victorian homes, the guesthouses and outdoor cafes, the live oaks draped in Spanish moss and Jackson Square.  The talk abruptly ended at the end of August in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina, the largest and third strongest hurricane ever recorded in the US made landfall, wreaking devastation along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. Along with the rest of the world, we glued ourselves to our televisions and watched with horrified fascination as the events in New Orleans unfolded in the following days.

On our last visit to the US, near the eleventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we finally made our way over the twenty-three mile causeway across Lake Pontchartrain to the city known as “The Big Easy.”  Wanting to experience all the city had to offer, we stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton on Bourbon Street – a choice that resulted in us wearing the ear plugs thoughtfully provided on the bed tables each night – and indulged in many of the typical tourist activities.  We wandered the streets around the French Quarter, devoured the beignets at the Café du Monde and visited Jackson Square, The Cabildo and the St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in the US.  An afternoon ride on the Steamboat Natchez down the Mississippi gave us a view on the city’s riverfront and levee system while the city bus tour introduced us to the wards of New Orleans.  We watched the revelers after dark, listened to the famed sounds of the city, ate some memorable meals and awoke in the mornings to watch the street cleaners washing away the sins of the previous night.

Fun memories for sure and yet, our standout recollections of our time in New Orleans weren’t any of the above. The biggest impressions were made by the “Hurricane Katrina Tour” on the New Orleans Gray Line, a simple exhibit called, “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond” at the Presbytère, and a taxi ride around the lower ninth ward on a dreary, rainy morning with a drawling, middle-aged driver named Junior.  We learned about New Orleans, more about Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath and were forced to question how our middle-class assumptions had shaped our views of the victims as well as our expectations of our government.

Neighborhoods (source)

As with any story, a little context and history are necessary.  An important trade route along the Mississippi River and a shortcut to the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans was founded in 1718 by the French, ruled for forty years by the Spanish, returned to France again and sold to the United States in 1803 as a part of the Louisiana Purchase.  A polyglot of different cultures, including American, French, Spanish, Celtic, English, German and African (free and enslaved), the city also received an influx of Creoles fleeing the revolution in Haiti.  Originally built on the slightly higher ground along the Mississippi River, the city built levees to control the flood-prone river which paradoxically increased the risk of flooding from the Gulf of Mexico.  As the city grew, it began to drain (about 1890 to the 1910’s) the area between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi, known as the “back swamp” or “back woods” because of its cypress groves, using large pumps.  It took several decades before it became apparent that this reclaimed land was slowly sinking; many neighborhoods developed after the 1900’s are now below sea level, an area equivalent to about half of the city’s 200 square miles.  As our bus tour guide explained, it’s easier to understand how the flooding occurred if you think of New Orleans as a shallow bowl.  Earthen levees, as well as concrete and steel flood walls, are tasked with the job of protecting the homes.  (A spoiler: Investigations after Hurricane Katrina into the failure of the flood wall system that existed in 2005 called them the “largest civil engineering disaster in the history of the United States.”)

Elevation map (source)

Before the storm:  On Friday, August 26th, 2005, the city of New Orleans was alerted that a major hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico was heading for the Gulf Coast.  Saturday, the 27th, when the predicted track of the Category 3 hurricane shifted to the Mississippi-Louisiana state line, New Orleans issued a voluntary evacuation order for its citizens. All major roads (Interstates 10, 55 and 59) leading out of the city were converted to outbound traffic only.  On Sunday, August 28th, Hurricane Katrina gained strength as a Category 4 storm, then was upgraded a few hours later to a Category 5 with winds estimated at 160 miles per hour.  A mandatory evacuation order for the city was issued, the first in its history.  The Superdome was opened as a “shelter of last resort.”  Approximately 1 million people left the city with an estimated 100,000 remaining.  The National Weather Service issued the following statement:

“Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks … perhaps longer. At least one-half of well-constructed homes will have roof and wall failure… Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards.”

The day of the storm:  Hurricane Katrina, stretching across 400 miles, made landfall on the morning of August 29th as a Category 3 hurricane, preceded by hours of heavy rains and with winds ranging up to 140 miles per hour. Flooding began even before the hurricane reached the city and, once the storm surge arrived, the towering waves overtopped some of the levees while water below the canal walls seeped through the soil and breached areas along levees on four of the city’s canals. Flood waters rushed through the ruptures and the water rose so swiftly in low-lying places like St. Bernard Parish and the Ninth Ward, that many people had little time to reach the safety of a second floor or attic.

After the storm:  Picture if you will, Louisiana in late August after a heavy rain.  The heat would have been sweltering, in the high 90’s coupled with an ungodly level of humidity.  The sun would have been a blinding reflection off a toxic soup of sea water and mud, gas and oil from ruptured pipes, sewage from shattered lines, and all manner of household and yard debris as well as hundreds of drowned animals and floating human corpses. Survivors sitting in attics or on roofs had to have been completely overwhelmed and stunned as they surveyed the aftermath.  And perhaps the worst was yet to come in the days following the hurricane as thousands made their way to the Superdome seeking water, shelter, food and medicine.  According to one of the information signs at the “…Katrina and Beyond” exhibition at the Presbytère, the majority of the deaths were due to drowning (many residents did not know how to swim) or physical trauma caused by debris.  However,

“… A substantial number died in attics or unflooded homes due to dehydration, heat stroke, heart attack, stroke or lack of medicine. The elderly were most at risk with almost half of Louisiana’s fatalities over the age of 75.”

Initially, parts of New Orleans seemed to come through the hurricane with little damage but as more levees were breached, they too experienced flooding the day following the hurricane. It’s estimated that as much as 80% of the city experienced some flooding and in places the water may have been as deep as 25 feet.

 

explanation for “Katrina Crosses”

What we remember most in the days following Katrina, while we watched the horrific devastation unfold on our TV’s along with millions of others, was the appalling disconnect between what was being reported and our government’s botched response. Thousands of people desperately awaited water, food, shelter and medicine. FEMA’s (Federal Emergency Management Agency) eventual response, assistance and evacuation plans were miserably inadequate.  In the first days following the storm, New Orleans relied almost completely on the heroic efforts of hundreds of first responders, the US Coast Guard, medical personnel, neighbors and ordinary citizens. We watched civilization break down inside the Superdome where hasty preparations had been made to shelter no more than 10,000 citizens as a last resort; up to 35,000 people sought assistance in a reeking space where the heat was stifling, the plumbing systems had failed, the dead were unceremoniously discarded and violence and mayhem reigned. Outside was no better. Our thoughts were similar to Clarence Page, a Chicago Tribune columnist, who asked, “Is this America?”

Perhaps our most sobering lesson came, during our time at the museum exhibit when we found ourselves examining our own biases and assumptions about the New Orleans victims of Hurricane Katrina. Our biggest question over the years had been, “Why did so many stay?” The eye-opener was realizing how, for many, poverty can truly cut off avenues of escape as more than a quarter of New Orleans residents at the time of Hurricane Katrina lived below the poverty line.  Almost 30% of the city’s residents did not own a car nor did they have a place to escape to or a social support network outside the city.  Many lived on government assistance and, since it was the end of the month, had no available cash nor a credit card to pay for any expenses away from home.  Many were disabled, elderly or caring for someone else with chronic disabilities, the aged or young.  Many, who relied on their TV’s for information, learned of the impending hurricane far too late to take advantage of any public transportation that would have helped them flee the city.  One of the saddest and most ironic stories we heard from our tour bus driver was that many of the drivers authorized to provide emergency transportation out of the city had left New Orleans during the voluntary evacuation.

Sculpture of house in a tree – Katrina Bus Tour

Hurricane Katrina was the worst urban disaster in modern US history and the emergency response to the people of New Orleans following the storm was a national disgrace.  No one knows for sure how many people died during and after Hurricane Katrina although the estimate most quoted is 1,836 with 1,577 from Louisiana. It was over a month before the city was dry and many of those who evacuated the city following the hurricane never returned.

We were happy to have a chance to visit New Orleans after all the years we’d dreamed of going and found it to be a charming city that well deserves to be on anyone’s bucket list.  In fact, if you didn’t know about its recent history, you might not question how many neighborhoods seem to be refurbished or new, the numerous boarded-up buildings, the ongoing construction or the many vacant lots that still remain in the Ninth Ward.   In the French Quarter, there are few troubling reminders from the storm that ravished “The Big Easy.” Life goes on and it’s an awesome place to celebrate a special occasion or just the sheer joy of living.  But, like other cities that span a few centuries, there’s a tragic side to the city as well and it’s well worth the time to learn those stories as well.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Vacant lots and empty houses, Ninth Ward – September, 2016

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

 

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba: An Architectural Allegory

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoEver since we’d seen pictures of the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, aka the Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba, we’d known that it would be at the top of our “must see” list when we returned to Spain.  Quite simply, there’s no other building like it in the world and if we had to describe it in less than ten words we’d say, “a sixteenth-century cathedral inside an eighth-century mosque.”  But that doesn’t even begin to convey the ten-plus wow factor of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, without a doubt the most stunning religious place we’ve ever seen.  Nor does it suggest the promising symbolism of two major religions, Islam and Christianity, coexisting in one shared space.

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

 

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 GoCórdoba’s history stretches back for more than two thousand years to its founding in the second-century, BCE and the land upon which the Mosque-Cathedral was built has long been sacred to many religions.  Originally there was a Roman temple dedicated to Janus, the two-faced god looking at both past and future.  When the Visigoths invaded Córdoba in the sixth century, they converted the temple to a cathedral dedicated to the gruesomely tortured martyr, St. Vincent of Saragossa.  Next came the Moor’s invasion at the beginning of the eighth-century and, for a time, the worship space was divided between Muslims and Christians before the cathedral was demolished to build the Great Mosque of Córdoba at the end of the century.

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 Go

 

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

The construction of the Great Mosque of Córdoba began in 784 CE and lasted for over two centuries resulting in what UNESCO refers to as “the most emblematic monument of Islamic religious architecture.”  Thousands of artisans and laborers were employed. Only the finest materials were used: stone and marble quarried from the mountains of nearby Sierra Morena and columns of granite, jasper, marble and onyx recycled from the original temple and other Roman ruins around the Iberian peninsula.   Upon the columns were the double arches which allowed for support of the higher vaulted ceiling.  The lower horseshoe-shaped arches were made of red brick alternating with white stone that continually draws your eye.  The décor was fashioned from ivory, gold, silver, copper, brass and mahogany and intricate mosaics from azulejos (glazed, colored tiles) were designed. Interestingly, the mihrab or prayer niche, a piece of ornate artwork in dazzling colors that stands out among all the other splendidness, faces south rather than the traditional placement towards Mecca.  A remarkable and unique creation, the Great Mosque of Córdoba held a central place of importance among the Islamic community and was a major Muslim pilgrimage site.

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 Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoFollowing the Christian invasion of Córdoba in 1236, the mosque was preserved as a very visible trophy of Castillian Spain’s victory over a former Islamic land.  Besides the symbolism, the Reconquista and kingdom building was a spendy proposition and Spain, not wanting to divert its money from conquest to building places of worship, spent some of its energies converting mosques into churches.  The former Great Mosque of Córdoba was renamed the Church of the Virgin of the Assumption, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and consecrated with the sprinkling of holy water which allowed the transformation of religion from Islam to Christianity.  Over the years a couple of chapels were constructed to the side of the vast space and the four-story minaret, from which calls to prayer were previously heard, became a tower for tolling bells summoning faithful.  For nearly three centuries, no major alterations were made because the church was a little occupied with imposing the one, true religion upon the land. In between converting Muslims and Jews to the correct religion or expelling the lucky ones altogether from the realm, they occupied themselves with the horror called the Spanish Inquisition.Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the reigning monarch, King Charles V (also confusingly known as King Carlos I) turned his attention to the former mosque in response to a proposal by the church to build a cathedral within the center.  Overruling the objections of the people, the King, completely ignorant of the building’s unique beauty because he’d never visited Cordoba, backed the church’s request.  The heart of the Great Mosque of Córdoba was demolished and over the next couple of hundred years (1523–1766) the cathedral was built in a variety of styles ranging from late Renaissance, Gothic, and Spanish Baroque.  Like many cathedrals, it’s breathtaking with its ornately carved mahogany altar and the plunder from the New World gilding surfaces in silver and gold.  A variety of semi-precious stones are used throughout the area and oil paintings of notable events and personages are abundant.  It is however, bizarrely at odds with the original architecture of what was once Islam’s crown jewel.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 Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoThere is one more strange and short chapter in the story of the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba.  In 2006, the diocese of Córdoba dropped the Mezquita (Mosque) part of the building’s name and began to simply call it the “Catedral de Córdoba” in what was seen by many as an attempt to hide its Islamic origins.  In 2013, an online petition garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures protesting the omission.  Finally, in April of 2016, a resolution of the dispute between the local authorities, the regional government of Andalusia and the Catholic Church was reached and the building is now referred to as the Mosque-Cathedral Monument Complex or Conjunto Monumental Mezquita-Catedral.

We started out this post by writing about the hopeful allegory of two major religions, Islam and Christianity, coexisting in one shared space.  In medieval times Muslims, Jews and Christians lived side-by-side and perhaps the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba might be seen again as a symbol of religious tolerance, diversity and multi-culturalism.  We can only be optimistic …

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

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

 

 

 

 

Caballerizas Reales de Cordoba and The Andalusian Horses of Spain

We took the “slow” train from Seville to Córdoba for under €14 and a less than ninety-minute journey through flat, mostly rural countryside, lushly green from the recent rains. We’re not sure why Córdoba hadn’t popped up on our radar well before our last trip to Spain but once we started reading about the city and its history, it rapidly rose to the top of our places-to-go list.  Not to say that we don’t usually do a little preparation before traveling to a new place but this time we were unusually prepared with a two-page list of things to see, including a place we’d run across only in passing; described as a “hidden treasure.”  Located next to the Alcázar of Córdoba, we could see the Royal Stables (aka the Caballerizas Reales de Córdoba ) from vantage points atop the Alcázar’s walkways along the old walls as well as a lone horse and rider practicing a series of moves in a small arena.

view from the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, Cordoba, SpainThe Caballerizas Reales date from 1570 when King Felipe II, described in many accounts as “a great lover of horses,” commissioned Diego López de Haro y Sotomayor to build the royal stables where he hoped to breed thoroughbred Spanish horses.  Not that we’ve visited many stables but we can safely say that these will be among the grandest we’ll ever see and why these stables deserve a place as one of Córdoba’s historic monuments.  The stable area is massive, almost cathedral-like in atmosphere, with a long center hallway and horse stalls on either side.  Sandstone columns support a cross-vaulted ceiling and numerous, small windows light the space in addition to suspended lanterns.  A new stable houses the royal horses while the old stable contains many elegant coaches and conveyances once used by the royals and other elites.Caballerizas Reales de Cordoba, Spain
Old royal stables, Cordoba, Spain

 

Old royal stables, Cordoba, SpainAnd here in the royal stables, according to a decree by King Felipe II which laid out formalized standards, the pure Spanish thoroughbred, known as the Andalusian horse, was officially documented as a breed.  From the very beginning, the horse was incredibly popular among European royalty and became a symbol of the Spanish empire.  The horse carried the conquistadores to the New World and its reputation as a prized war horses almost led to the demise of the breed in the Iberian Peninsula when Napoleon invaded Spain in the 1800’s and seized them for his own invasion.  Luckily a small herd was sequestered at a monastery in Cartuja near Granada and the breed recovered.  Today the Andalusian horses number over 185,000.

Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

 

Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

 

Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, SpainQuite by serendipity and even before we visited the stables, the Hostal La Fuente where we stayed told us about the equestrian show, “The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse.” Purchasing the tickets (a great value at €15 for an hour’s performance) also allowed us to visit the arena during a rehearsal.

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian HorseThe program was a terrific chance to see these magnificent creatures display their intelligence and beauty. Far from knowledgeable about horses in general, we didn’t have to be die-hard horse lovers to be completely captivated by the graceful and magical performance.

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

 

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

 

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian HorseFor those who wanted to get more show for their money, there were several dances featuring a flamenco dancer and some wonderful Spanish guitar in the background which added to the ambience.  For us, the flamenco dancer was extraneous and rather a distraction from the real stars of the show.

For those who wanted to get more show for their money, there were several dances featuring a flamenco dancer and some wonderful Spanish guitar in the background which added to the ambience. For us, the flamenco dancer was extraneous and rather a distraction from the real stars of the show.

 

For those who wanted to get more show for their money, there were several dances featuring a flamenco dancer and some wonderful Spanish guitar in the background which added to the ambience. For us, the flamenco dancer was extraneous and rather a distraction from the real stars of the show.

We were captivated with the intricate footwork, stylized gaits and beauty of the whole performance.  At times, it was almost as though as invisible string could be seen between the rider and horse as they seemed to communicate intuitively.  Obviously, the training involves hundreds of hours with a very skilled trainer and/or rider and an incredibly intelligent horse.

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse

 

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

 

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, SpainInformation:  The show is every Wednesday, Friday and Saturdays at 20:00 and Sundays beginning at 12:00. Entrance to The Caballerizas Reales is free for visiting, from Tuesday to Saturday during the morning hours from 11:00 to 13:30 and afternoon hours from 16:00 to 20:00.

Special thanks to our friend, Kiki Bridges, who generously shared her photos for our post.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

All Roads Lead To Seville

Visits to the city of Seville, Spain, bracketed our year of 2016 neatly, highpoints on either end.  Our first stay in January had us wowed and promising ourselves we’d plan a return to see more of the city.  Our visit in December, had us feeling the same, leaving us with the anticipation of more to see when we go back. And during the year, we skirted the city several times on our way to other places in Spain.  In fact, the joke seemed to be that, from Lagos, Portugal, all roads lead to Seville.street scene - Seville,Spain photo by No Particular Place To Go

One thing we’d learned from our previous visit to Seville: a car was more hassle than it’s worth.  With an historic area that’s compact and walkable as well as daily parking rates that can go upwards of €30, taking the bus was an easy decision to make.  We bought bus tickets, packed our bags, obtained the phone number for a taxi driver and set our alarms for an early Sunday morning departure.

Note to Selves:  Reserve a taxi for early Sunday morning getaways.  We’d made many early morning taxi rides previously but failed to realize that Sunday mornings are sacrosanct to Lagos taxi drivers.  After being turned down cold by the gentleman we’d been assured would drive us, we went down our list of phone numbers with a growing sense of unease.  And at 06:15 in the morning, it wasn’t much fun rousing hard working taxi drivers from their sleep only to be told a groggy “no” for a ride to the bus station.  We came up with a hasty Plan B (and a Plan C should we need it), drove over to our friend’s home who was coming with us and hitched a ride with her pet sitter who’d just arrived. He at least was happy to accept €10 to schlepp us to the station.

The previous week had gifted both Portugal and Spain’s southern coasts with several inches of rain and, because the Algarve is a rural province, the fields were varying shades of green.  The rain followed us all the way to Seville but, after our first day of playing enthusiastic tourists braving the occasional rain showers (and minus one umbrella at the end of the day) the weather changed to cool and partly sunny, perfect sightseeing conditions.  And, for self-professed history geeks and wanna-be culture vultures, Seville is the perfect place to indulge your interests.  There are endless things to see and do in the city but here are 9 things we can recommend:

Real Alcazar of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go1) Topping our list for a revisit, The Real Alcázar of Seville is a group of palaces over a thousand years old dating back to the 11th century.  The upper levels are still occupied by Spain’s Royal Family which makes it the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe.  We have to agree with Lonely Planet who said they hoped that “heaven looks a little bit like the Alcázar”  and we were head-over-heels wowed during our first visit in January.   A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, one, two, three pictures and more are worth a thousand words. Real Alcazar of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Real Alcazar of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Real Alcazar of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To GoWe paid the extra money for the self-guided audio tour but, after only a half hour of listening, left the earphones dangling around our necks because (we can’t believe we’re saying this) the didactic, historic monologue proved to be a huge distraction. This is a place to stop and stare, listen to the fountains and breathe in the scent of sour oranges – a place that really just needs to be enjoyed.

2) For those of you thinking, “Seen one cathedral too many,” the Cathedral of Seville or Catedral de Sevilla is an awe-inspiring, tremble-at-the-knees, kind of place. Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

The third largest church (a football field would fit inside easily) and the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world, it’s also registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We’d visited the cathedral during a service the first time (the organ music was sublime) which limited what we could see and a return was also high on our list of things to do.  Built between the 15th and 16th Centuries, the body of Christopher Columbus is entombed here in splendor and, should you wonder where all the gold Spain plundered from the New World ended up, the 20 meter (66 feet) altar would be a good start. Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Crypt of Christopher Columbus

Crypt of Christopher Columbus

The bell tower of the Cathedral deserves a special mention below.

3) The Tower of Giralda was built in the 12th Century as a minaret of the Great Mosque which formerly occupied the site of the Cathedral of Seville.The Tower of Giralda, Cathedral of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

At 105 meters (343 feet), the tower is an iconic symbol in the city.  Topped with a 16th century belfry and a weather vane of a huge bronze, statuesque beauty nicknamed “El Giraldillo” bearing a cross, there’s no mistaking which religion is on top of the tower now.  There’s a separate charge to climb the tower and, as you climb the THIRTY-FOUR ramps up, there are alcoves along the way to (pretend) to admire the incredible views while you gasp for breath.  And bells that vibrated us right down to the soles of our shoes when they tolled.   Giralda Tower-Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

View from Giralda Tower - Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See. Photo by No Particular Place To Go4) Lest you think that Seville is only full of centuries old palaces, mansions and churches (and it is, it is!) the Plaza de España was built for the Ibero-American Exhibition of 1929, a kind of World’s Fair. Located in the city center in the middle of Maria Luisa Park, the brick monument is an exuberant combination of Art Deco, Renaissance and Moorish Revival architecture, embellished with exquisitely painted ceramic tiles.Plaza de Espana, Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Plaza de Espana, Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To GoThe enormous brick buildings form a semi-circle around a plaza complete with a moat-like canal running through it and crossed by four gaily-painted bridges.  To say we were captivated might have been an understatement and, with the blessing from the warm weather gods, we decided to nix our plans to visit the museums originally on our itinerary and instead spent hours wandering around the grounds, watching inexpertly rowed boats float by and soaking up the feeling of stepping back to the previous century.The Tower of Giralda, Cathedral of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Plaza de Espana, Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go5) Seville celebrates all things Flamenco, an intense dance linked with Southern Spain’s Andalusian Roma, aka the Gypsies.

Flamenco dresses displayed in a shop.

Flamenco dresses displayed in a shop.

By chance, we happened upon a street performance with a thin and wiry dancer who struck theatrical poses, clapped her hands and finger-snapped, swirling and stomping her feet upon a wooden platform.  Her male companions played the guitar and tambourine, while one cupped the microphone in his hands and sang mournfully. Flamenco dancer and musicians. Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go We were so intrigued by the street dance that we followed a friend’s recommendation (thanks KemKem!) and bought tickets for an evening concert.  The flamenco conjures up enough intense emotions to satisfy any drama queen and we also fell under the spell.   In fact, when we did a little more reading about the art form the next day, we learned that UNESCO had “declared flamenco one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” in 2010.

A slightly blurry but nonetheless stirring performance.

A slightly blurry photo but nonetheless, a stirring performance.

6) We’re not quite sure how the massive and very contemporary (2011) Metropol Parasol came to be built in the old quarter of Seville’s La Encarnación square but we appreciated the jarring contrast between the ancient and ultra-modern sights of the city.  Claiming to be the world’s largest wooden structure, we had no trouble imagining the controversy its construction would have roused since its six parasols have earned it the less-than-stellar nickname, “Incarnación’s mushrooms.”  However, we loved its sensuous curves and swoops as well as the walkways on the highest level which gave us an amazing 360° view of Seville. Metropol Parasol. Seville, Spain. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Views from the Metropol Parasol. Seville,Spain. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Views from the Metropol Parasol. Seville,Spain. Photo by No Particular Place To GoWe came to Seville with a map and list of things to do and see but it seemed that the city set its own pace.  We saw more than we realized but found that we also slowed down to enjoy:

7) random and rambling walks throughout the historic city,

8) sharing a cone of roasted chestnuts and stopping at sidewalk cafes to savor tapas and lingering meals with friends and

9) absorbing the sights and sounds of an ancient city coexisting with a metropolitan city of modern and sophisticated people.

At the end of our second visit to Seville we were unsurprised to count the many things we’d seen and done but, like all great experiences, we were left wanting more.  We have many more trips to Spain planned for 2017 (Madrid, Salamanca, Bilbao, Leon…) and, since all roads east of Lagos, Portugal lead to Seville, Spain, it won’t be hard to talk us into making a third visit to a city that’s got a piece of our hearts.street scene - Seville,Spain photo by No Particular Place To Go

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

A note of thanks to our awesome friends Kiki Bridges, and Tim and Anne Hall who blog at A New Latitude who made this trip even more fun by sharing the adventure with us!rainy day in Seville, Spain. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Three Days in July, A Cyclorama and the Enduring Symbolism of Gettysburg

Gettysburg Battlefield, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To GoIt was hard to imagine the brutality of war as we drove through the Pennsylvania countryside.   The landscape was fifty shades of green with rolling hills, great rock outcroppings and a sky of brilliant blue.  And yet, on the days of July 1st through July 3rd of 1863, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War was fought with over 51,000 soldiers wounded, missing or dead at its end.  A war that had begun over states’ rights and numerous contentious issues of free versus slave states, which foreshadowed the greater question of the preservation of the Union, gradually had evolved into an all-out effort to subjugate the old South and banish the institution of slavery.  Like all American school kids, we’d grown up learning the bones of the story and reciting dry facts.  As adults, we’d read our share of the countless books and essays that have been written about it.  And yet, during our visit to the Gettysburg National Military Park, the significance of the Civil War seemed especially sobering in view of the great rifts and divides currently afoot among the people of the United States today. Gettysburg Battlefield monument, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

At the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center we watched a short film which sketched in the historical events leading to the Civil War and, two years into the war, explained the importance of Gettysburg as a turning point in the conflict.  Nearby, a massive painting called a cyclorama piqued our interest and got our undivided attention as it showed in painstaking detail, the final battle in Gettysburg where the Confederate infantry brigades attacked and made one last attempt to overwhelm the Union soldiers.  Known as Pickett’s Charge, the decisive defeat of the south at Gettysburg came in less than half-an-hour with more than 5,000 Confederate men broken upon the fields: missing, wounded, dying or dead.Cyclorama at Gettysburg Museum, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Cyclorama at Gettysburg Museum, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To GoA trendy form of entertainment in the late nineteenth century, cycloramas were panoramic images built in the round that gave the viewer, who stood in the middle, a 360-degree view of the action; battles, of course, were popular depictions.  Hundreds of cycloramas were made and the most popular ones would travel from city to city to be displayed, often accompanied by music and narration to make the viewing of the image a complete performance. Today, only about thirty survive worldwide with three cycloramas located in the United States: Gettysburg, Atlanta and Boston.  The Gettysburg Cyclorama, painted by French artist Paul Philippoteaux, is enormous at 42 feet high (4 stories) and longer than a football field at about 380 feet. After spending months of research on the battlefield, it took Philippoteaux and his assistants well over a year to complete the huge canvas in the early 1880s.  First exhibited in Boston in 1884, the painting suffered a lot of abuse over the years including being sliced into panels and trimmed down to fit into exhibit spaces as well as temperature and humidity fluctuations, water damage, rotting and tears and fire damage not to mention improper storage.  By the time the National Park Service acquired the cyclorama in the 1950’s, and did some restoration work before exhibiting it for the centennial anniversary of the battle, it was in sad shape.  In the late 1990’s a massive conservation effort, the largest of its kind in North America, restored and repaired this historical artwork so that it could be appreciated by the more than 1 million visitors who visit Gettysburg every year. Cyclorama at Gettysburg Museum, Pennsylvania. photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Cyclorama at Gettysburg Museum. Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To GoAfter spending quite a bit of time walking around and examining the cyclorama, we piled back into the car and took the self-guided audio tour around the huge park which covers over nine square miles.  There are approximately 1,300 markers and monuments scattered in the fields and along the roads describing what occurred and commemorating the relevant brigades who fought there. Gettysburg Battlefield monument, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Gettysburg Battlefield monuments, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Gettysburg Battlefield monument, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To GoIn the July heat following the Battle of Gettysburg, the smell of thousands of dead soldiers decomposing permeated the countryside and residents in and around the nearby town of Gettysburg carried peppermint oil and pennyroyal to help mask the stench.  Fearing an epidemic, the bodies of the dead were hastily buried, many only crudely identified with a pencil written note on a board.  Many more corpses, unnamed, were buried in shallow trenches and mass graves. Shortly thereafter, the State of Pennsylvania appropriated funds for the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and purchased a site which included the ridge where the Union forced back Pickett’s Charge.  The reburial of the Union dead began on October 27th, 1863, nearly four months after the battle, with countless graves reopened and the remains identified if possible, many by the things they carried. The bodies clad in Union uniform were placed in wooden coffins and moved to their final resting place.  The grisly exhumation of the original graves took months to accomplish and was overseen by Samuel Weaver who made sure that only the boys in blue were placed in Gettysburg’s National Cemetery.  Any grave containing Confederate dead was closed again, the corpses left in place.Gettysburg Cemetery, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

And what of the dead wearing the Confederate gray, moldering on a battlefield far from their homes?  A women’s group in North Carolina began to advocate for the return of these southern soldiers so that they too could be honored for their sacrifice and laid to rest.  And finally, after nine years, the first of the shipments south of the remains of 3,320 soldiers began. Most of the dead were reinterred in the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, but many also found their final resting places in the town cemeteries of Raleigh, Savannah and Charleston. Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

November 19th is Remembrance Day at Gettysburg.  The day honors those who gave their lives in the war and commemorates the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery and Abraham Lincoln’s eloquent address.  In his brief speech honoring the men who had fought and sacrificed their lives, President Lincoln urged the living to continue their fight for the preservation of the country.  In the years following the Civil War, Gettysburg has become a symbol of healing, a place where former Union and Confederate soldiers returned to reflect upon the battle, but also to shake the hand of a former enemy.  Maybe we all need to remember, despite the contentious political climate that exists today, what has kept our nation united these many years since the Civil War… We can only hope.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

A Hop-On, Hop-Off Boat: Cruising the Canals of Copenhagen

It was Monday morning in the old maritime city of Copenhagen.  Smiling Danes walked briskly past us or whizzed by on their bicycles all looking like they had places to be and things to do.  However, our big question on this Monday as tourists was, “What to do when many of the museums and tours of major attractions are closed?”  The answer?  Take a canal tour and view the city from the water. There are actually several different boat tour companies operating along the canal but the tickets for the hop-on, hop-off boat tour are good for 48 hours and can be combined with a land-lover’s hop-on hop-off bus trip of the old city.  You can choose between a boat with a covered top (to protect you from Copenhagen’s unpredictable weather) or take an open air boat like we did and chance the cloud bursts.  Some of the tours offered a guide but our boat had an audio tour where we could pick the language of our choice to learn more about what we were seeing.  Since the audio that accompanied our cruise was scratchy, difficult to listen to and just plain distracting, we pulled the cheap earphones off and enjoyed the quiet ride of the boat’s electric motor, guessing our location from the free maps we’d been given.

Watch your head - low bridge!

Watch your head – low bridge!  Check out the centerpiece carving below ↓

Tongue out troll! On center arch of marble bridge.

A welcome or a warning?

A blend of different architectural styles

A pleasing blend of different architectural styles.

The Opera House

The Opera House

And more lovely buildings along the canal.

More picturesque buildings along the canal.

Another old and low bridge. Head down and all body parts in the boat.

Another old and low bridge. We kept our heads down and all body parts in the boat.

We caught the boat at Gammel Strand which was about a five-minute walk from where we were staying and cruised along the wide canal for a bit, admiring the variety of very old and new buildings lining the canal. While motoring down a narrower canal, we instinctively ducked every once in a while as the tour boat navigated its way through centuries old, low and arched bridges. Gradually, as we entered the Nyhavn area, the 17th and 18th century homes became more colorful and vibrant, like something from a picture postcard.  Once home to artists, ballet dancers, poets and writers like Copenhagen’s favorite son, Hans Christian Andersen who lived at #67, the 17th century waterfront also had pubs for thirsty sailors and ladies of the night to provide a little company. Translated as “New Harbor,” Nyhavn is in fact a canal that was excavated from 1671-1673 by Swedish war prisoners. For the next 300 years, ships brought their cargo into the city to King’s Square for unloading.  With the decline in the importance of small ship transport, the area gradually faded but underwent an urban revitalization beginning in 1977.  Now the trendy streets lining Nyhavn are filled with upscale restaurants, pubs, street food vendors, cafes with outside tables and specialty stores and the area is lively with both locals and tourists day and night. We hopped off our tour boat to stroll the streets, window shop and gobbled down a tasty Danish hotdog from a street vendor’s cart while we people watched.  After our impromptu lunch, we jumped back on another boat belonging to the hop-on, hop-off Gray Line fleet to continue our cruise and admired the beautiful wooden boats, old schooners, yachts, and small vessels that filled the canal. Nyhavn - Copenhagen canal boat tour- photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Nyhavn - Copenhagen canal boat tour- photo by No Particular Place to Go

 

Copenhagen canal boat tour - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Lovingly refurbished wooden boat

Lovingly refurbished wooden boat

And then we were cruising by Copenhagen’s iconic statue, The Little Mermaid, by Danish sculptor Edward Ericksen who used his wife as a model for this life-size statue.  Inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, the bronze sculpture was completed in 1913 and receives more than a million visitors a year.  For some reasons not quite understood by us, the pretty and innocuous Little Mermaid seems to be a source of ire and controversy and has been beheaded three times, covered in paint twice, had an arm removed and knocked off her pedestal.  She’s the most photographed statue in Denmark but unfortunately, when we had a chance to take her picture free of all those annoying tourists (besides us!) who insisted on posing with her, our photo turned out to be a blur of her backside.  You can find a great photo here.The Marble Church, Copenhagen photo by No Particular Place To Go

We drifted by and caught a rear view of Amalienborg Palace, the winter residence of the Danish royal family since 1794 and the Marble Church, officially named Frederik’s church, with its distinctive copper green dome.  The church, begun in 1749 and finally completed in 1894 after many stops and starts, is open to the public daily and a popular site for weddings on Fridays and Saturdays.  Amalienborg Palace is actually a complex of four identical separate palaces constructed in the 18th century and built around an octagonal courtyard.  The stately residences were first occupied by noble families but bought by the Danish royal family in 1794 when their Christiansborg Palace burned down.  Various kings and their families have occupied the four palaces over the years and the Amalienborg Museum is open daily, including Monday.  We can highly recommend a leisurely visit to this area (we went the next day) to watch the ceremonial changing of the Royal Life Guards, view the inside of the Marble Church and take a tour of the Amalienborg Museum in one of the Palaces.  The museum will show you how the rich and famous lived with rooms lavishly overfurnished furnished in various styles, all reflecting the refined taste of former inhabitants that lots of money can buy. (Here’s a peek below.)

abundant luxury

abundant luxury of a bygone era

We made our way to Christianshavn Canal, founded in 1618 as a fortress city and home for merchants, later incorporated into Copenhagen.  Here we admired beautifully refurbished houseboats and yachts.

Christianshavn along th canal tour - photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Copenhagen canal boat tour - photo by No Particular Place to Go

 

Copenhagen canal boat tour - photo by No Particular Place To Go

Hopping out we wended our way through the lively neighborhood of residences, restaurants and 18th century warehouses to the Baroque-style, Our Savior’s Church, circa late 17th century.  The exterior spiral stairway was added later in the mid-eighteenth century and contains a daunting 150 stairs up to a panoramic view. Topping it all is a golden globe with the figure of Christ wielding a banner.

Our Savior's Church, Copenhagen. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

With our canal boat tour approaching Gammel Strand once again, we passed by the Brygge Harbor Baths, open-air swimming pools right on the canals, that had us reflecting that the Danes are much hardier people than us.  There were the swimmers basking in the Copenhagen summer weather while we glided by in our jeans and light jackets thinking about anything but a dip! Copenhagen-swimming pool by canal - photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

A canal cruise is a terrific way to begin your visit to Copenhagen, see many of the city’s highlights and tourist attractions and orient yourself to where the sights you want to see are.  The trip takes about 65 minutes for the whole loop through the canals and boats run a regular circuit with intervals of about 10 to 15 minutes between pick-ups.  And, lucky us, we liked cruising along Copenhagen’s canals so much that we did the circuit with its hop-on, hop-offs twice!

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Copenhagen Boat tour in blue (Source)

Copenhagen Boat tour in blue (Source)

Them and Us: Mitzvahs and The Danish Jewish Museum of Copenhagen

Danish Jewish Museum Copenhagen photo by noparticularplacetogo.netIt’s a small space, consisting of three oddly shaped rooms, starkly modern and contrasting sharply with the building in which they are housed on the ground floor of the seventeenth-century, ivy-covered, brick building that was once the Denmark Royal Boat House.  The walls are not square, the floor is not flat and the severe angles and planes of the geometric spaces, passageways and vaulted ceilings have you tilting slightly as you move about the museum.  The design, by Polish-American architect David Libeskind, is based upon the four Hebrew letters spelling Mitzvah. Translated into “A good deed” or “The duty to do the right thing ” the museum has an inspiring story to tell: the rescue of the Danish Jews in October of 1943.Danish Jewish Museum Copenhagen photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

Although a lot of the focus of the museum is on World War II, this is not a museum that emphasizes the horror of the Holocaust.  Instead, this museum begins its story in the seventeenth century when the Danish King hit upon an idea to improve the country’s economy and extended an invitation to wealthy Jews in many countries to settle in Denmark. (We couldn’t help but notice a parallel to many countries today who extend “Golden Visas” to wealthy applicants willing to buy property or invest in the economy in exchange for a visa.)  Many Jews, seeking more opportunities or fleeing pogroms and rampant anti-Semitism, accepted the offer.  In Denmark, they were allowed to practice their religion and were able to move about freely rather than live in designated areas (ghettos) common elsewhere in Europe.  In exchange for these autonomies and for agreeing not to compete with the established professions, the selected Jews were granted entry. The immigrants were encouraged to engage in other trades, such as textiles and tobacco production, marketing coffee and tea and trading fur and hides as well as financial activities like collecting fees for the national lottery.  Over the centuries, and with the occasional influx of new Jewish immigrants, the Jews assimilated into the country, interweaving their culture and traditions, intermarrying and living peacefully and prosperously as respected Danish citizens.

German troops parade in Copenhagen. Source

German troops parade in Copenhagen. Source

All that was threatened with the German invasion of Denmark on April 9th, 1940. In the space of a few hours the Danes conceded to the inevitability of Germany’s superior force and, hoping for a peaceful occupation, entered into a period of cooperation with the enemy.  The King retained his throne while many sectors of the government were still allowed to operate.  But, right from the beginning, Denmark asserted repeatedly that “special measures” and attacks against her Jewish citizens would not be tolerated and time after time denied any “Jewish problems.”  Incredibly, the Germans, who valued the meat and agricultural products that were shipped from their “model protectorate” back to Germany and didn’t want to jeopardize the precarious balance, backed down.  While deportations of Jews from the rest of occupied Europe to the concentration and death camps began in March of 1942, the Danish Jews were unbelievably free to continue a more-or-less normal life under the German occupation for a while longer.

Danish and Nazi Germany flags fly side by side Source

Danish and Nazi Germany flags fly side by side Source

By the summer of 1943, however the cooperation between Denmark and its occupiers was wearing thin as most Danes believed that an Allied victory was imminent.  The Danish resistance gained momentum, labor unrest and strikes spread throughout the country. Several German military targets and businesses cooperating with the Germans were sabotaged by the underground resistance movement. The Germans clamped down, arrested several prominent Danes and, by the end of August, martial law and a curfew were in effect.  The period of cooperation was over and, for the first time since the German invasion, Denmark’s 7,800 Jews were at great risk for deportation.

But here’s where Denmark’s story becomes unique when compared to much of the rest of Europe and the Mitzvahs deserve to be counted and remembered.

  • Several anonymous Germans warned their Danish contacts of an impending roundup of the Jews, scheduled for October 2nd, 1943.  When word of the imminent arrest and deportation of this vulnerable segment of the population reached the Danish Resistance Movement on September 28th, they warned the head of the Jewish community, C.B. Henriques who began spreading the news.  At early morning worship services the following day, the general alarm began to circulate throughout the Jewish population urging all to go into hiding immediately.
  •  Neutral Sweden, realizing that the Danish Jews were in immediate danger, announced that they were prepared to accept all of Denmark’s Jews to Sweden.  With this timely offer of asylum towards its neighbor, Sweden threw open it’s safe-haven doors (that most other countries had slammed shut) in an exceptional act of humanity and generosity.
  •  Passage to Sweden, by whatever means and transport available, became the goal for most of the Danish Jews who began to make their way to the fishing harbors along the coast.  They hid in the rural cottages of friends and in the woods, in the homes of their Danish neighbors and in village churches while awaiting their rescue out of Denmark.  In a massive group effort between the Danish Resistance and a substantial number of ordinary Danish citizens, almost all of Denmark’s Jews (7,200) were smuggled out of the country over the course of the next few weeks.  They navigated the Øresund strait from Denmark to Sweden in rowboats, kayaks, small boats and large fishing vessels.  The Danish Resistance smuggled those refugees deemed too young or too old and weak to withstand the rough sea passage through choppy waters inside freight railcars that had previously been sealed by the Germans which were then resealed for passage across the strait on regular ferries.

    Source

    Boat headed for Sweden in October 1943 Source

# 6 Source

Fishermen sailing refugees to Sweden  Source

At the end of this extraordinary endeavor there were about 580 Danish Jews who remained in the country and some of these stayed in hiding until the end of the war, died in accidents or committed suicide.  The majority however (464 people) were captured by the Germans and deported to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in German occupied Czechoslovakia.

  • The Danish Government, far from forgetting its unfortunate citizens, persuaded the Germans to allow the Danish Red Cross to monitor the welfare of the Jews and accept and distribute packages of food and medicine to the prisoners.  Lastly, they exerted political pressure on the Germans not to deport the Danish Jews to the extermination camps.
  • At the end of the war, Europe was in shambles and the great majority of the European Jews were refugees, neither wanted nor welcome in their home countries.  The homecoming for the Danish Jews from Sweden and from the concentration camps was different however, as many returned to Denmark to find, in a final Mitzvah, their homes, possessions and even pets had been cared for by their neighbors during their absence.  (A separate exhibition called “Home” at the museum gives some valuable insight about their homecoming and the difficulties of resuming a normal life after experiencing the trauma of persecution and exile.)

    Celebrating the liberation of Denmark May 5, 1945 Source

    Celebrating the liberation of Denmark May 5, 1945 Source

In the news, we hear and see devastating examples of the hatefest called THEM versus US daily.  It was heartwarming as well as inspiring to learn about a small country that displayed formidable courage and performed multiple Mitzvahs: a country that remembered its duty to do the right thing in small kindnesses and large deeds and stand up for its most vulnerable citizens.

Note: In the end, the Jews of Denmark had the highest survival rates in Europe following the war (greater than 99%) and Yad Vashem, the international organization which researches, documents and commemorates the Holocaust, records the remarkably low number of 102 Danish Jews who lost their lives to the Germans during the war.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

The Pursuit of Happiness: First Impressions of Copenhagen

Historic Copenhagen - photo by noparticularplacetogo.netWhile Denmark had always been on our “Bucket List,” we’d been quick to group it in with the other Nordic countries as simply too expensive to visit in the near future.  However, fate, in the guise of two Canadian friends, extended us an offer that we couldn’t refuse: a place to stay, a kitchen to cook in and a list of inexpensive things to do to get the most bang for our buck.  It took a mere few seconds for us to glance at each other and start googling air fares.Historic Copenhaven - photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

A four-hour bus trip from Lagos to Lisbon was a convenient way to reach the airport and the 3-hour flight to Copenhagen made our rather impetuous decision to visit the city of Hans Christian Andersen seem pretty darn reasonable.  We still had that “pinch me, I’m going to Denmark” feeling when we flew over the wind turbines of Middlegrunden offshore windfarm, less than 4 kilometers off Copenhagen’s shoreline, with the skyline of the capital rising up in the background.

Like any good travelers with an interest in history, we’d done some reading about Denmark, land of the Vikings and especially the origins of Copenhagen, a 10th century Viking fishing village located on a natural harbor with a teeming supply of herring.  The fishing industry boomed, the village became a town became a city and a fortress was built in the 12th century to protect the coast from Wendish Pirates (Baltic Slavs).  The kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden/Finland and Norway formed a union (1397-1523) in part to block German expansion northward and the University of Copenhagen opened in 1479, making it one of the oldest universities in the world.  In the 16th and 17th centuries Catholicism yielded to Lutheranism following a three-year civil war, the Plague was responsible for the deaths of 22,000 inhabitants and the fire of 1728 burnt down almost half of the medieval city.  The beginning of the 19th century saw Britain unleash some particularly brutal attacks on the city to neutralize the Danish fleet during the Napoleonic Wars and yet, despite the warfare and national bankruptcy, Copenhagen entered into a period called the “Danish Golden Age (1800 -1850) where neoclassical architecture, paintings, sculptures and music by Danish artists thrived.  And the history, while fascinating, gets even more complicated from thereon so, in the interests of brevity as well as getting on with our story, we’ll leave you dangling in suspense. (Wait, wait, we’re just about to get to the electrification of the city …!)Copenhagen near the Amalienborg Palace, photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

 

The Marble Chapel

The Marble Chapel

At the airport, we exchanged some Euros for the Danish Krone, stopped by the tourist information booth to pick up a city map and headed in the direction of the bus stop to catch the 5A bus to our stop, Klaksvisgade-Langebro – our tongues and memories both had a hard time wrapping themselves around the names – and meet our friends. And the location of their sublet apartment (furnished of course in Danish modern with some Ikea influence thrown in) couldn’t have been better, within walking distance to everywhere we wanted to see.  Arriving in any city for the first time can be a disorienting blur but a walk about the area our first day gave us a kaleidoscope of impressions to mix with the factoids we’d picked up about this charming city.

Church of Our Savior

Church of Our Savior

Copenhagen - photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

It’s a city that rightly earns its nickname, “The City of Spires,” and the skyline is dotted with these tapering structures.  Towers and steeples adorn many of the older government buildings, churches and castles – jutting towards the heavens, silhouetted against the sky.Copenhagen - photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

 

Copenhagen - photo by noparticularplacetogo.netIt’s a city with a multitude of architectural influences that mix, contrast and ultimately work together to blend the oldest section of its medieval city with eye-catching and exciting modern architectural designs that have been built since the millennium.  The skyline of the historical area is horizontal rather than vertical so that the contemporary architecture doesn’t overshadow the Baroque palaces that mingle with 18th Century rococo mansions along with beauties from the Dutch Renaissance.

The Black Diamond

The Black Diamond

Opera House

Opera House

It’s a city where you’re never too far away from the water.  Built on two islands in the Baltic Sea, Zealand and Amager, Copenhagen has eleven bridges spanning seven canals.  The water gives the impression that everything has just been washed and, when the sun was out, sparkling clean.Copenhagens canals - photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

 

Copenhagens canals - photo by noparticularplacetogo.netIt’s a city of wide avenues mixed with one-way streets of cobblestones and pavement.  A city where three lanes of traffic means a lane for cars, a lane for bikes and a lane for pedestrians. And that middle lane, the “bike path” was actually one of the most astonishing things to us, hailing from the land where the car is king.Copenhagens Bike friendly streets - photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

Here sturdy bikes, unadorned or topped with baskets or pulling kid-friendly conveyances, rule!  Copenhagen is a city of bicycle super highways and networks of lanes that connect the downtown to its outskirts.  In fact, more than fifty percent of Copenhagen’s residents use the bicycle as their primary form of transportation.Copenhagens bike friendly streets - photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

 

Copenhagens bike friendly streets - photo by noparticularplacetogo.netIt’s a city of changing weather.  We changed sandals for shoes and socks, shorts to jeans and carried and donned light jackets as needed.  The sky was brilliantly blue one moment, steel-gray the next and during our visit we experienced intermittent sprinkles mixed with downpours and moments of radiant sun. And yet, while we were scrambling to keep up with the fluctuating weather, the residents carried on according to the calendar, wearing the clothes suited for the month to catch the fleeting rays.  We even spied some hardy souls swimming in the pools adjacent to the canals, celebrating the short summer.Copenhagen-swimming pool by canal - photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

 

Happy and healthy in Copenhagen - photo by noparticularplacetogo.netIt’s a city where the number of daylight hours in the northern latitude carries a lot more weight than other places we’ve been.  The winter solstice has only 7 hours of daylight but our visit was just after the summer solstice, June 20th, and we were treated to a whopping seventeen-and-a-half hours of daylight.  Our first night saw us reluctant to end the day but fumbling for dark socks as make-shift eye masks the next morning when the sun rudely awoke us at 04:30.sculling on Copenhagens canals - photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

 

Copenhagen - photo by noparticularplacetogo.netIt’s a city that radiates health and happiness and has, in fact, landed on various surveys over the years attempting to define the elusive nature of joy as “The World’s Happiest City.”   It’s a “seize the day” sort of city where the inhabitants whizzed happily by us on their bicycles, walked with energetic strides about the streets, relaxed at outdoor cafés like they were posing for magazine covers, lounged about the various open spaces with picnics and drinks and engaged in all sorts of sports.  They radiated such an absurd amount of energy and happiness that we couldn’t help but hope it might be catching!  And, forgive us for mixing countries, cultures and metaphors, we couldn’t help but think of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon to sum up our first impressions of Copenhagen, a city “…where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

anchor street art

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

 

Shoot ‘Em Ups and Spaghetti Westerns in Tabernas, Spain: Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood

High noon at Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood

High noon at Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood

We left early in the morning to make the seven-plus hour drive from Lagos, Portugal, to Mojacar, a resort city where friends were staying in Spain’s Costa del Sol region.  The toll road (the A-22) that took us along the southern coast of Portugal was smooth and sparsely populated and, after several months of driving along this stretch of road, we felt sufficiently confident to listen to an audio book while the miles passed.  As usual, we traded the time behind the wheel back and forth and, with a cooler for drinks and some snacks, we only needed to make a few, short breaks.  About five hours into the drive we passed north of Granada and were thrilled to see the Alhambra atop the hill in the distance which we had visited a few months earlier and wrote about here.  The highway began to climb and wind through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and we spied snow on many of the higher peaks although it was almost summer. Oleander, with pink and white flowers, and bushes with brilliant yellow blossoms filled the median of the highway with vibrant color for miles.  Evidently this was a major freight route because we passed uncountable numbers of long haul tractor-trailers (we’re not sure who drawled, “We’ve got us a convoy” from the old song which cracked us up) laboring their way up the slopes and braking on the downside.

Presently, we left the highway for a two-lane road; the land became more arid and the small olive groves and vineyards that we could see from the road thinned out.  We passed through little villages and wondered out loud why people had chosen to live in such an inhospitable country.  And then, like tech-dependent travelers everywhere, we checked our GPS and finally (a throw-back to our generation) we pulled out our road map of Spain as well to check our whereabouts.

The Tabernas Desert in Spain (with some incongruous teepees!)

The Tabernas Desert in Spain (with some incongruous teepees!)

Another view of the Tabernas Desert with mesas and an old west landscape (see the cemetery?)

Another view of the Tabernas Desert with mesas and an old west landscape

And there we were – right in the middle of the Desierto de Tabernas, surrounded by landscape that looked strangely familiar, like something out of an old, western movie: dusty, dry with low-lying scrub brush, ravines, plateaus and mesas.  In fact, the Tabernas Desert is located in Europe’s driest province, Almeria, where rainfall averages around 6 to 7 inches annually and has the distinction of being the “continent’s only true desert climate.” Evidently, we weren’t the only ones who thought of America’s southwest and old western movies as we gazed at the passing scenery because a few miles down the road we spotted a huge, honest-to-God billboard for “Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood.” Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To Go

Here’s the landscape made famous by many of the old “Spaghetti Westerns,” a term widely used to describe the international films, most of which were directed by Italians and included multilingual crews and casts from Spain, Italy, France, Germany and the US. In fact, between 1960 and 1980, over 600 European Westerns were made.  Sergio Leone, an Italian who shot many of his movies in the Tabernas area, was the genre’s best known director and his wildly popular film-making style in the sixties made his movies international box office hits.  We’d seen the three movies known as the “Man with No Name” or “Dollars Trilogy” with the up and coming star, Clint Eastwood, which included one of our all-time favorites, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” No wonder we had a feeling of déjà vu!Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas - Spain - photo by No Particular Place To To

 

Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To GoThe sets built for many of the old spaghetti westerns were acquired by a stuntman-turned-entrepreneur, Rafa Molina, in 1977 and have been turned into a nostalgic western-style theme park called “Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood.”   At the entrance gate we handed over the not-so-insubstantial fee of 35€ which included a senior discount.  A few steps took us back in time – a hundred years and more – and place – the American wild west – as we strolled through dusty streets exploring movie sets, ready and waiting for their next role as backdrops in an old west or southwestern epic.  Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To Go

Boomers like us will remember the golden age of westerns, the weekly television shows like Rawhide, Bonanza and Gunsmoke. We spent many weekend nights at the movie theater where we could watch handsome men with watchful eyes and murky pasts pursue outlaws who had committed dastardly deeds, protect wagon trains of settlers moving west from marauders and chase after dreams of gold.  Cowboys built ranches, sheriffs delivered law and order by gun or by rope and merchants turned obscure outposts into bustling towns.  These were places where justice was pursued by a fast-draw hero with a dead-on aim, the bad men were easily identifiable by their black hats and “shifty eyes” and anyone foreign was either naïve or downright suspect.  Women knew their places, too: they kept their virtue unsullied and their mouths shut, looked slightly disheveled but alluring and listened to their men.  A feisty woman who questioned the way things were done always had questionable morals.  Stereotypes abounded and, now that we think about it, while westerns were lots of fun in their heyday, sometimes it might just be better to move on …

By Anita Oliver and Richard NashFort Bravo, Texas Hollywood, Spain Photo by No Particular Place To Go

Note:  We’ve only talked about the spaghetti westerns here but the Tabernas Desert and the surrounding area of the Almeria Province have served as the backdrops for over 400 movies of many genres including Cleopatra, Lawrence of Arabia, Patton, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and are even seen in the 6th season of Game of Thrones.  Here’s a link with a little more background:  http://www.unique-almeria.com/movie-filming-locations.html 

To the Manor Born: The Parque da Mina

We spend a lot of our time as travelers imagining.  Imagining what it might be like to live as a modern day Bedouin in Jordan, a Berber in Morocco, a farmer or fisherman eking out a living in Nicaragua, Vietnam or Russia.  We have no problems at all imagining where we would go if money were no object or the style in which we would travel.  And, since we both have a passion for history, we imagine what it would have been like to live at the height of the Mayan or Incan civilizations, travel along the Silk Road or learn about wondrous new places during the time when the New World was being mapped in the Age of Discovery.

Wikipedia has a surprisingly long list of castles and fortresses that are located in Portugal and ruins dating all the way back to the Romans and even earlier. So it’s easy to for us to close our eyes and imagine the lives of the nobility and history’s “social influencers” – what it would be like to stride our way through one of the great halls, feast at a grand banquet in one of the dining halls or sleep in one of the bed chambers of these vast estates.  It is, however, harder to frame a picture of the day-to-day lives of the common folk who tended the sheep, brought in the crops or sold their wares at the markets.  And there’s surprisingly little written on the lifestyles of those wealthy merchants or the “middle class” of Portugal just a few centuries ago.Parque de Mina

Our chance to find out more about how the common folk and upper-middle class lived came when we took a detour on a recent day trip to Monchique, located in the mountain range of the Serra de Monchique of the Western Algarve.   A winding mountain road took us through forests of cork oak and eucalyptus trees, past small farms and the occasional groupings of homes.  A sign for Parque da Mina at the edge of the road invited us to take a right-hand turn and piqued our curiosity so we turned and followed the paved road a few meters to a small parking lot. Upon further reading of another sign we found the tempting promise that we could travel back in time and see how one, land-owning family lived in this area of Portugal.  We ponied up the price of 10€ each (which seemed a bit high but goes towards maintaining the property) and set off down the path as it began to lightly rain, towards the family home turned museum and a glimpse of how life was lived many years ago.

Parque de Mina

Our first sight of the 18th century home made it very clear that this was a property lovingly and carefully maintained.  In typical Portuguese fashion, the home has been passed down by the original family through the generations and the current guardians of the estate have generously shared their family history and opened the home as a living museum to the public. And what a treasure!  We were welcomed at the door by a smiling woman who gave us an informative tour through the old home that was packed full of practical artifacts used in daily life, some extensive and eclectic collections that reflected the family’s interests and some more modern curiosities like the old Victrola we found in one room. Parque de Mina - 18th century Portuguese farmhouse

The tour began with the heart of the house, the kitchen, furnished with a lovely old table and chairs, earthen bowls and a collection of plates decorating the whitewashed walls. Here the meals would have been prepared by those in the employ of the family and the large fireplace in the background serves as the focal point.  Look closely and you can see the keepers-of-the-hearth sitting and enjoying a bit of a rest. Parque de Mina, near Monchique, PortugalNext was the dining room with a rich Oriental rug and intricately carved furniture.  (A maid stands ready to serve some traditional Portuguese dishes.)  Parque de Mina

We passed by the sitting room where the family may have sipped some tea and learned of the news of the day from (what seemed to us to be so quaint mixed in with the formal antiques) a vintage radio perched upon the side table. The bedrooms were tastefully decorated and, since Portugal is a traditional Catholic country, the saints protected and watched over the family while they slumbered.Parque de Mina

 

Parque de Mina,

And then came our favorite room, obviously where the family must have spent their time together playing music and maybe cards, listening to the Victrola, reading and enjoying the warmth of the fire.  Here was their collection of musical instruments and, a sure sign of how times have changed, several species taxidermied and displayed.  A large sea turtle shell stood upon the floor next to the backbone of some huge, unknown mammal.  Viewed by today’s cultural norms the display might be a bit macabre but the home would have reflected the tastes of a well-traveled and sophisticated family who enjoyed and celebrated a good life. Parque de Mina

 

Parque de MinaHere and there were nooks with a favorite collection of the patriarch’s pipes, displays of fine china and a whole little room devoted to an enormous assortment of finely carved and embellished, antique wall and table clocks. We peeked into a room where the sewing machines and flat irons stood at the ready and learned that all families of means employed their own personal seamstresses.Parque de Mina - sewing room

Passing by the office we noticed a colorful painting that, upon closer inspection turned out to be a grisly little scene of hunting dogs bringing down a wild boar and the master with his knife at the ready, lunging in for the kill. A bit removed from the more genteel side of life but another glimpse into times past and the country life of long ago.  Parque de MinaThe last part of the tour took us down a winding staircase to the immense cellar with doors giving access to the courtyard and grounds which, again, had several informal exhibits showcasing the different industries that would have been necessary to support the household. As one of the wealthiest and largest properties in the Monchique region, Parque da Mina had agricultural fields, forests and a working mine that produced iron-ore and copper.

Parque de Mina

The old trades of the region were showcased in several displays of many fine, old agricultural tools and machines whose uses we couldn’t begin to guess at.Parque de Mina

In one corner an animatronic wine maker greeted us in Portuguese and we admired the nearby wine making apparatus and learned about the local liqueur, medronho, made from the fermented berries of the arbutus tree which grows on the property. Parque de Mina

And, in a country where wine flows as abundantly as water, we saw many old barrels and casks used to store vintages of years gone by, some marked branco (white) and tinto (red).Parque de Mina

One of our favorite displays was of a general store and its contents that dated (our best guess only) from the 19th and 20th century.Parque de Mina

And finally, despite the threat of more rain showers we ventured outside to explore some of the outdoor exhibits and especially liked the old vintage vehicles scattered about the grounds.Parque de Mina

 

IMG_7734 (800x477)

Sometimes it’s more fun to take a detour to explore a place you’ve never heard of rather than stick to the original plan and, for us, this turned out to be one of those times.  It’s rare to see a historic home so meticulously maintained and to find so many authentic and vintage collections displayed in each room. We arrived at our original destination, Monchique, a few hours later than we had planned but very pleased to have taken a trip on the “Way Back” machine and imagine what it might have been like to live in this rural area of Portugal long ago.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Precious Oil, Argan Trees and the Tree Climbing Goats of Morocco

goats in Argan trees - On the road to EssaouiraWe were in an herbal shop in Fez, Morocco sipping sweet mint tea while the owner opened up jar after jar of medicaments and shook bags filled with loose herbs.  We sniffed and listened while he expounded upon the healing properties or cooking wonders that each provided and then he gestured us towards a corner where a couple of women sat roasting and cracking nuts with rocks.  To our shame we paid these hard-working women scant attention because we’d totally focused upon the poster behind them of a tree.  And not just any tree but one filled with goats, happily standing on the branches like oversized Christmas ornaments.  Cooperative-Argan oil & spicesA few days and questions later, after a bit of online research and some money that crossed our driver’s palm, we were on our way to the area near Essaouira, about a two and a half-hour drive east from Marrakesh.  Besides being a name rich in vowels, the coastal city of Essaouira is a popular vacation area for European beachgoers and surfers with a rich history dating back to the Carthaginians and Berbers.  Surprisingly though, that was of little interest to us as we were on a mission that had to do with the argan trees and the tree climbing goats in the Sous Valley.  And this day trip would take us to the only place in the world where these trees are to be found, the reason why the southwestern region of Morocco became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1998.

Our drive led us through several, micro eco-systems, both artificial and manmade.  Leaving Marrakesh behind, we encountered crop lands of varying sizes. The majority were small family plots while others appeared to be mid-size fields of wealthier land-holders as well as some walled and guarded properties of seriously, major players or corporations. The signs of irrigation and intensive fertilization were abundant. Concrete aqueducts, modern spreaders and workers bent over hand weeding were only the most obvious. The vibrant greens of the abundant and healthy vegetable crops were the ultimate give away.On the road to Essaouira

In short order this lush, verdant land gave way to what could have been called The Big Dry, where piles of rocks appeared to be the most abundant harvest. Our guide, Daoud, explained that Morocco was in the midst of a multi-year drought. There had been only two or three days of rain in the new year; totally insufficient to replenish the land. The effects of the previous years’ calamities stood in stark relief before us. Homes appeared to be abandoned in piecemeal fashion on both sides of the road. Crops were stunted or dead in the fields. Whole stretches of land were tilled but left unplanted. This was not land lying fallow; it was land farmers would not waste the seed upon, in plots destined to be barren because of the lack of moisture, a harbinger of want, hardship and destitution.

Then, climbing slightly in elevation, we crossed a ridge and descended into another landscape, the only place on earth where the fabled argan trees exist, the Sous Valley. Here in this hard-scrabble dirt grow the trees which for centuries have nourished the local Berber people who inhabit this land.On the road to Essaouira

The argan tree (argania spinosa) grows up to 30 feet in height and lives up to 200 years. It is well adapted to its harsh environment with its widespread root system that allows it to retain moisture and withstand the temperature extremes providing an important defense against erosion and the encroachment of the Sahara Desert, to the immediate south. In a land where not much else grows, the argan tree with its thorny branches and twisted trunks has been used for centuries by the Berber as building material, fuel and food.  And in a splendid example of environmental adaptation, the hungry goats learned to climb the trees to eat the walnut-size, yellow-green fruit.goats in argan trees - On the road to Essaouira

 

goat in Argan tree - On the road to EssaouiraHistory does not record such prosaic events as to who went through the goat droppings and discovered the prize after the fruit passed through the goat’s digestive system.  Who wants to think about such things anyway?  (Okay, we confess, we do and we had several entertaining scenarios envisioned!)  The goats obviously provide the easiest and most efficient way to extract the highly valued kernel but workers can also dry the argan fruit and then remove the pulp or remove the flesh mechanically.

The tan colored nut that remains though, contains one to three oil rich argan seeds and when processed this is the reward which has sustained the Sous Valley Berber for generations. One of the rarest oils in the world, high in vitamin A, vitamin E and essential fatty acids, the extracted oil can be used either as food for humans (the nuts are roasted first to enhance the flavor) or as a medication to heal acne, psoriasis, eczema and inhibit scar tissue formation. It is also becoming increasingly well-known for its cosmetic and anti-aging properties.

goats and argan trees - On the road to Essaouira

 

goat in the argan tree field - On the road to EssaouiraAfter watching the fabled tree-climbing goats and exchanging smiles with a goat tender who brought one of the long-haired creatures over to us to pet, we stopped by a small building on the side of the road, the La Cooperative Feminine Argan Majji, to learn how the oil is processed. nuts to make Argan oil - The Women's Cooperative

Following the removal of the fleshy pulp (by goat or other method) the women begin the labor intensive process to extract the oil. To get to the kernels, they crack the nut open the time-honored way, between two stones, with the leftover shells being gathered for later use as fuel for fires. This tedious work requires stamina, dexterity and finger protection for rocks are hard and fingers ain’t.  Argan nuts rank among the hardest nut in the world and this first stage of breaking them open is the most difficult part of the process. So far a machine hasn’t been developed that splits the nuts reliably and the traditional method, combined with the womens’ skills, remains the most effective way to get to the kernels. Once the kernels are extracted they can be crushed and pounded into a paste or fed into machines that pulverize, press and extract the valuable argan oil. The remains come out in long thin ropes of gray pulp that are fed back to the goats (an elegant cycle) for their second enjoyment of the argan fruit.cracking nuts-nuts to make Argan oil - The Women's Cooperative

 

processing nuts to make Argan oil - The Women's CooperativeMuch of the argan oil produced today comes from over fifty women’s argan oil cooperatives like La Cooperative Feminine Argan Majji that were first formed in the late 1990’s and operate under union protection. The work provides income which many of the women have used to educate themselves and their children, provide healthcare for their families and also gives them economic freedom in Morocco’s traditional society.  And, although the men’s part might be overshadowed by the success of the women’s co-ops, their role is equally important in tending the goats and argan trees, many of which are individually owned.  After all, goats are intelligent animals, but also greedy and rapacious creatures by nature, and need a goat herder to dissuade them from feasting upon other’s trees.

And when we left the Majji Co-operative to visit the coast before returning to Marrakesh we’d exchanged some Moroccan Durhams for a small bottle of oil, soaps and lotions.  We had a new-found appreciation of the argan trees, their valued oil and happy memories of seeing the tree-climbing goats of Morocco’s Sous Valley.

goat in the argan trees - On the road to Essaouira

By Richard Nash and Anita Oliver

 

 

 

It’s FEZinating! Ten Things We Liked About Fez, Morocco

Even though the sun was out and the sky was a deep blue, we were cold as we stood on a barren, windswept hill overlooking the ancient city of Fez.  To our backs were some crumbling ruins with sections of an original wall and a free standing gate and on either side of us, climbing up and down the hills were whitewashed grave markers dating from eons ago. old cemetery overlooking Fes

We watched some men below us carefully spreading out animal hides to dry in the sun before taking them to the tanneries, just like their ancestors had done for centuries.  Our surroundings felt timeless but, in a jarring contrast when we looked below us at the thirteen-hundred year-old, walled city of Fez, we noticed the satellite dishes, all faced in one direction awaiting the magic signals that would bring them to life.

satellite dishes

The feeling of stepping back in time and watching things done just as they’d been for centuries past juxtaposed against the bustle of daily commerce followed us during the days we spent in Fez.  As the oldest imperial city of Morocco it was a major market located along the Trans-Saharan trade route connecting the empires of Western Sahara to the Atlantic and Mediterranean shipping lanes.  Goods like salt, cloth, beads and metal were exchanged for gold, ivory and slaves and caravanned by the Berbers of the Atlas Mountains, first in two-wheeled chariots pulled by oxen, donkeys and horses.  But, as anyone who’s watched an epic desert movie knows, it was the introduction of the camel, probably from the Levant, which revolutionized the industry of desert transport.  Even some of the various names by which Fez is known reflect the mix of civilizations passing through:  the French spelling of Fès, the Berber name Fas and the lacy script of the Arabic culture.

The days spent in Fez flew by quickly as we tried to pack in as many sights and sounds and tastes (and smells!) as we could. However, even self-professed history buffs and aspiring culture vultures have limits and we soon realized that one visit could not cover everything.  The following is our list of recommended favorites:Ryad Ayla

1)  Stay in a Moroccan Riad. These traditional houses of two or more storeys are built around a courtyard with a garden and fountain and are decorated with carved stucco and colorful tiles in geometric patterns.  Once the homes of the wealthy and powerful many of these have been renovated into fine hotels like the Ryad Ayla where we stayed and wrote about it and our next listed place herestreet market in Medina-UNESCO WHS

2) Wander about The Medina of Fes.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this was one the highpoints of our stay and later we had to laugh when we recalled various guidebooks and posts we’d read that suggested “Get lost in the Medina” as a chosen activity.  Once you enter this maze of narrow streets and alleys twisting in various directions there are no other alternatives.  With its shops and bustling souks (an Arab market or bazaar) bakeries and restaurants, crumbling architecture, many historically recognized buildings, mosques, museums, schools and homes, visiting the Medina is an unforgettable experience and a great example of full sensory overload. La Belle Vue de La Tannerie-refurbished tannery

3) Visit the Chouara Tannery in the Moulay Abdellah Quarter of the Medina.  Unfortunately for us, a major renovation was just being completely at the time of our February stay including the restoration of the earthen vats.  In fact, the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, was scheduled the very next week for a dedication of this site that dates back to the 11th century.  A later visit to another tannery convinced us that we may have been lucky to see the Chouara Tannery at its cleanest as the stench from the centuries-old tanning process which includes vats filled with pigeon feces, lye baths, various natural dyes and piles of animal skins is not for the faint-hearted.  But the proximity of the tanneries leads to our next suggestion …La Belle Vue de La Tannerie

4)  Shop in a Leather Souk.  Here’s a much better way to appreciate the smell of leather and the luxury quality of handbags, coats and jackets, vests, shoes, wallets, hats, furniture and poufs.  The leather goods are all beautifully handcrafted in their original colors or rich with the brilliant hues from the dye baths.  And, despite the hard sell tactics, we managed to escape with just a reasonably priced pair of slippers.pottery shop

5)  Watch a master potter and artists at Art D’ Argile.  Visiting this ceramics shop gave us a true appreciation for the artistry and craftsmanship that goes into making the beautiful quality Moroccan pottery found in reputable shops.  We watched a potter making the conical shaped tagine dishes using a foot-driven wheel and women hand-painting ceramic bowls, cups and dishes with beautiful designs.Ceramic factory

However, far and away the most impressive sight was watching the three men seated on the floor chiseling away with small hammers at the colorful, glossy, enamel-painted zellige tiles and patiently chipping them into precise forms. The tile shapes are put together like puzzle pieces using a template to form a geometric pattern that becomes a larger tile, tabletops and other mosaic works of art.  There was a bit of a soft sell here but really, the pieces sold themselves.mosaic

 

Jardin Jnane Sbil-Royal Gardens-Royal Gardens

6)  Stroll through Jardin Jnan Sbil. Sitting just outside the Medina walls, the gardens were once a part of the Royal Palace and were donated to the city of Fez in the 19th Century.  Although it was a cold day we still saw people walking about admiring the grounds and enjoying the open, green space with its towering palms, fountains and other plantings.  However, it took us a while to figure out what was missing but in this traditional Islamic country there were no young lovers strolling about hand-in-hand or seated on the benches, canoodling.King's Palace (one of them)

7)  Admire the exterior of Dar el Makhzen, Fez’s Royal Palace with its seven massive, bronze doors.  Built in the 17th century the mansion covers 80 hectares, about 200 acres and is the (humble) abode of the Moroccan royals who stay here when they’re in Fez. One important note is that, while we had no problem with taking photos of the palace at the elaborate entrance of the seven doors the guards in another area several block away indicated that no photos were allowed.building details in Medina

8) Find your way to the Mellah, the Jewish Quarter of Fez dating back to the 15th Century and follow the winding lanes past homes with intricately carved balconies.  For centuries Jews lived peacefully alongside Muslims in this once vibrant community, now with only about fifty families remaining.  Once there were several synagogues within the quarter and we recommend a …carved doors Jewish synagogue

9) Stop at the 17th Century Aben (Ibn) Danan Synagogue.  This 17th century synagogue is reached by climbing a short flight of stairs and appears almost plain when contrasted to other much more extravagantly decorated Moroccan buildings.  However, this only highlights the beautifully decorated Torah Ark, a huge cupboard of carved wood also dating back to the 17th century which houses a centuries old Torah Scroll.  The building was placed on the 1996 World Monuments Watch which provides funds to help preserve cultural heritage sites at risk.  And we can’t forget to mention the Jewish Cemetery nearby which can be seen through slits in the Medina’s walls or from the rooftop of the synagogue.weaving a traditional rug

10) Practice saying “No.”  A-L-O-T.  Perhaps we should have written this advice first …   No matter where we went in the marvelous city of Fez, there were shopping experiences galore whether we wanted them or not.  At one point we found ourselves in an enormous two-story carpet emporium where it seemed hundreds of rich wool and shimmering silk carpets in deep hues and intricately woven patterns hung from every surface – ceiling, walls and floors.  Any comments we made of appreciation resulted in them being rolled out in front of us with a flourish while the vendor began a steady barrage of offers and counter offers. Saying “no” seemed to amp up the hard sell even more and we finally escaped (or rather skulked away) feeling a bit cheap and ungrateful for not supporting the artisans’ cooperative but with our hands empty and wallets intact.  Shopping in Fez requires enormous willpower and is not for the faint-hearted!handwoven traditional carpets

Our list is, of necessity, limited to the amount of time we had to invest in this marvelous jewel. We’ve only mentioned some of the many things to do and places to go to when visiting Fez. The hardest part of any traveler’s stay might be selecting among the myriad of choices.  The three days we had allocated were totally insufficient to the task. We resolved to make another visit and immerse ourselves, again, in this fascinating cultural milieu.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

It’s All Relative: Old and “New” Fes, Morocco

narrow passages in Medina-UNESCO WHSWe arrived at Ryad Alya in the old Medina of Fès long after the sun had set, following a couple of young men who “offered” to show us the way to our hotel down the dimly lit and narrow lane and piled our small suitcases in a hand cart.  After tipping them and then upping the tip a bit more when they made the face that we became very familiar with during our time in Morocco – basically a grimace conveying the meaning that we were stingy foreigners who had shown disrespect for those who had labored diligently to meet our every need, whether requested or not – we finally escaped into the opening door of our hotel and into another world.

Hassnae, an attractive young woman dressed in skinny jeans like any university student in her 20’s, welcomed us into the riad, a traditional Moroccan house of three stories built around a courtyard.  Furnished with linen-draped dining tables, the large space had a comfortable feel with couches here and there along the walls for enjoying both the bubbling fountain and a garden with orange trees.lute player in Ryad Ayala

An elegantly dressed gentleman in a suit and polished black shoes was seated unobtrusively in a corner, plucking at the strings of a lute producing a soulful melody for the only couple dining.  Hassnae seated us in a lounge off to the side of the courtyard and served us little cups of mint tea, heavily sugared and pretty cookies that, since it had been awhile since our last meal on the road, we wiped out without much ceremony. lounge-Ryad Alya

She then showed us to our room, thankfully equipped with its own heater as the rooms around the garden were all open and it was cold.  Finally, we were able to shed our fleece vests, scarves and coats which we’d worn during our day of travel from Tavira, Spain to Tangier, Morocco and then to Fès. The beds were rock hard and weighted down with heavy blankets that kept us pinned beneath them but we had no complaints.  Actually, despite the late night sugar, we slept like we’d been heavily drugged.Ryad Alya

A tour of the riad the next morning, led by another friendly and pretty staff member named Shaimae, filled us in on the details of the paradise in which we’d found ourselves. Riads, once the fine homes of a city’s wealthiest citizens, lack windows on the exterior walls.  The architectural style is what Wikipedia calls an “inward focus” and opens onto the interior courtyard which provides the family complete privacy from the outside world.  Our riad, Ryad Alya, was originally built in (no typo!)1363.

Riad Ayla

The current owner whom we met that evening, Kholid Filoli, was an articulate, well-traveled Moroccan who spoke glowingly in English of his visits to the US.  He’d bought the riad in 2003 for his wife, an accomplished painter and his daughter, an architect living in Geneva.  The ancient house was renovated by skilled workers who spent three years returning the home to its current glory and converted it into a hotel with five beautifully furnished suites and three less expensive, but no less comfortable, rooms with their own private baths. The walls were embellished with designs in the carved plaster and zellige tilework, “a form of Islamic art” that features geometrically patterned mosaics.

Rooftop terrace of Ryad Alya

Rooftop terrace of Ryad Alya

During our stay in this Moroccan oasis the staff introduced us to many traditional three and four-course meals of unfamiliar and delicious foods, including our first taste of fava beans.  This had (one) of us cracking up intoning Hannibal Lector’s famous line, “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” UNESCO WHS-old city walls - Medina

We’d decided to explore the Medina on our own the first day and we set off with maps in hand.  The Medina of Fès was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 and is said to be the best preserved old city in the Arab world.  Covering 540 acres, it’s also the world’s largest car-free urban zone and goods are brought in by donkeys, mules and hand carts. Called “The Mecca of the West” and “The Athens of Africa,” this ancient walled city is actually divided into two medinas, the Fès El Bali or Old Fès dating back to the 9th Century and the “new” part, Fès Jdid, which dates to the 15th Century.  In this area that surrounded us with its sense of ancient history and present activity are great open spaces of gardens with sparkling fountains and avenues.

Jardin Jnane Sbil - The Royal Gardens

Jardin Jnane Sbil – The Royal Gardens

These skirt narrow streets funneling foot and animal-drawn traffic into lanes and crooked paths where it feels like a great crowd of humanity is pressed around you, engaged in the business of daily living.  Surrounded by walls, the Medina’s space has remained the same for centuries as the number of its inhabitants has increased exponentially resulting in overcrowding – probably not the best experience for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia.  The passageways wind around in a labyrinth with age-old buildings of three and four stories abutting them and as the streets twist the sunlight overhead is partially blocked. building details in Medina

Behind the walls of these ancient buildings in various states of crumbling disrepair and ongoing attempts at restoration, are other warrens of buildings built around interior courtyards where thousands of people preserve customs and traditions passed down through the millennia.  In contrast to other parts of the world, Jews and Arabs have coexisted peacefully for hundreds of years; there’s an old Jewish quarter occupied by a dwindling population as well as the Ibn Danan Synagogue dating from the 17th century. Throughout the Medina are schools for secular learning and madrasas where the religion of Islam is taught.  Groups of children passed by us greeting us in Morocco’s unofficial first language, French, with “Bonjour Madame et Monsieur,” the boys in street clothes and the girls uniformed in white coats resembling lab jackets worn over their street clothes.

Medina of Fes-UNESCO WHS

 

Jewish Quarter Bakery

 

Jewish Quarter

Open shops on the ground floors offer anything a shopper could want: leather goods, jewelry, dried fruit and herbs, ceramics and metalware, every day and finely embroidered clothing for special occasions.  There are bakeries where families bring their bread daily to bake in communal ovens and butcher shops with fish displayed on ice next to pharmacies, barber shops, small cafes and restaurants.  Lining several of the twisting lanes were other vendors conducting an informal farmers’ market with brightly colored fruits and vegetables piled on makeshift tables.  Heavily laden donkeys and mules led by men in peaked hooded djellabas passed by and there were women completely veiled as well as those wearing robes and headscarves along with many younger women in western style clothing.   street market in Medina-UNESCO WHS

 

street market-Jewish Quarter

 

burrow - In the Medina

We were completely lost and completely caught up in the full sensory overload of sights, sounds, smells and tastes of different foods that we tried here and there.  We gave up on trying to figure out where we were on the map and wandered for a few hours trying to absorb the completely exotic, chaotic and alien world.  And finally, after brushing off multiple offers from the unofficial guides that appeared here and there with offers to show us selected sights and shops with “special” bargains, we struck up a conversation and agreed on a payment with a young man who pointed out places of interest as he helped us find our way back to Ryad Ayla for some much needed tranquility.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Next post: Sights to see in Fes, MoroccoJewish Quarter-women in djellaba

 

The Road to Morocco and Across the Straits of Gibralter

Lagos to Tarifa

A gusty wind and scattered rainstorms accompanied us along the Portuguese coast as we headed east to Spain.  The wind followed us as we turned south towards the tip of Spain and Tarifa, a port city dating back to the 8th century, just 14 kilometers across the Straits of Gibraltar from Morocco.  The wind kicked up whitecaps in the sea promising a rough crossing and, when we checked with the ferry company, FRS, we found that all ferry passages had been cancelled for that Sunday and the following day, when we had planned to travel, looked doubtful as well.  A little disappointed (but we’d seen enough news stories of sinking ferries to be anything but grateful to a company who valued safety) we made our way to our hotel.  The Hotel Convento Tarifa was a converted convent with simple but comfortably furnished rooms and friendly staff who assured us that, if the ferry cancelled its scheduled trips for the next day, we’d have a place to stay for another night.

Guzman Castle (circa 960) and city walls with ferry station in foreground.

Guzman Castle (circa 960) and city walls with Tarifa ferry terminal in foreground.

The next morning dawned bright with a blue sky and a cold wind that seemed just a bit diminished.  After checking with the ferry company we learned that, while all the morning passages had been canceled, the ferry might resume its service with the first crossing scheduled for 13:00.  We hustled down to the station, bought our tickets, (one of us) downed meclizine to stave off sea-sickness and boarded.  We were ON OUR WAY TO MOROCCO.

A little background for those readers who like their complicated history in an easy-to-swallow, capsulized form.  We could start with archeological excavations showing the presence of hominids at least 400,000 years ago or move quickly on to recorded history with the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Berbers occupying the territory between the 8th to 3rd centuries BCE followed by the Romans annexing it for a few centuries.  The Vandals, Visigoths and Byzantines all had a piece of the action from 430 to 700 CE that ended when the Muslims conquered the region and the Berbers, though converted, took to the mountains.  The Muslim conquest brought the religion of Islam to the region as well as the advanced Arab civilization and over the succeeding centuries Morocco was a hotbed of political and religious turmoil with various dynasties squabbling, rising and falling while the Ottoman, Spanish and especially the French crouched like vultures waiting to swoop in and get a share of Morocco’s vast mineral resources as well as its strategic location for themselves.  In 1912 Morocco’s instability resulted in its becoming a protectorate of France with Spain horning in to claim its own zone of influence as both countries vied to exploit Morocco’s natural wealth.  Finally, in 1956, after years of nationalistic movements, Morocco gained its independence from both France and Spain.  Today, Morocco maintains strong ties to the west, enjoying free trade agreements with both the US and the European Union.blog Tarifa to Tangier Ferry

We reached Tangier, Morocco, in about an hour-and-a-half, the ride not particularly smooth but neither of us turned green or lost our breakfast.  Earlier we had decided to heed conventional wisdom and leave Tangier to the day trippers and when we disembarked from the ferry at the tail end of the crowd we found that just a few taxis remained.  Although we had planned to take the train for the five-hour trip to Fès (also known as Fez) it didn’t leave for another two hours and we made a quick change of plans.  We talked to one of the drivers who spoke a little English and lots of Spanish (our common language), conferred briefly and decided to hire a taxi for the drive after agreeing upon a price.  Our driver, who introduced himself as Younes, was full of smiles as he loaded our bags into the van and set off. Eunice - our driver

And very quickly we learned how driving is done in Morocco.  We edged our way into a roundabout of five lanes in which the cars all seemed to be pointing diagonally into each other’s paths jockeying for an in to the next lane rather than staying in what would appear to be their own lanes. Horns honked, cars edged in and out flirting with disaster, miraculously avoiding each other and then we were free and onto the next driving lane and roundabout.  After a lot of quick gasps, clutching the door handle and hitting the imaginary brake pedal, Tangier was behind us and we were in the countryside with Younes demonstrating the next feat in his repertoire of Moroccan driving.  Once again the lanes seemed to be a mere suggestion of where the driver should be.  Younes straddled the center line of the road and only ceded way to the approaching driver at the last moment.  He ruthlessly tailgated the cars in front of us and seized his advantage when a break appeared in the traffic, smashing his foot down on the gas pedal and careening around the car.  Just in the nick of time he’d move to the right to let an approaching car pass us.  And it wasn’t hard to see when he felt someone had violated the traffic rules either as he would twist his wrist and flick his fingers in a gesture of scorn and his lips would curl down in disdain.  All this while he talked to himself and occasionally addressed a remark to us.  And smiled.On the road to Essaouira

We were trapped.  Fortunately for us, we’d had some training as passengers on Guatemalan chicken buses and Nicaraguan roads where the rules were nothing like what we’d learned in Driver’s Ed so we tried to relax, listened to the Moroccan music Younes had thoughtfully provided and gazed out our windows at the passing countryside. Younes kept up his conversation with himself in the driver’s seat, occasionally laughing and nodding his head.  It felt surreal…  The countryside was patchworked fields in brown and green, flocks of sheep scattered about with shepherds close by.  Small 3-wheeled trucks loaded with as many as eight people passed, which Younes jokingly call “Pakistani taxis.”  On the edge of the road were burros and mules hitched to small carts led by men in robes with pointed hoods (djellabas) pulled up against the cold wind.On the road to Essaouira

 

On the road to EssaouiraWe drove through small towns with shops along the roadside selling souvenirs and pottery and outdoor cafes filled with men only, sitting at tables watching the cars go by, drinking from small cups and talking.  The signs appeared in Arabic with an occasional translation in our own Latin alphabet for us to guess at the pronunciation.   Flat land and hills passed by, shockingly littered for as far as we could see with trash and plastic debris. Off to the south-west the Atlas Mountains emerged in the distant background.

We stopped at a large restaurant, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, for a late lunch about mid-way through the ride.  A butcher brandishing sharp knives hacked at legs of lamb and fed the meat through a grinder.  Walking into the restaurant we were surprised.  The many tables were set with white linen and because it was late in the afternoon our group was the only one on our side of the restaurant.  Younes urged us to order the sweet tea with mint and excused himself for prayers.  A trip to the bathroom was our first encounter with a squat toilet but the sink was equipped with running water and soap.  We picked a ground lamb dish which came with Moroccan flatbread and a colorful salad served family style and enjoyed our first delicious Moroccan meal with Younes as our guest.Lunch on the road - butcher

 

Moroccan salad

Back in the van the afternoon faded into evening and still the ride went on mile after mile, darkness draped around us, a few stars peeking through clouds.  We’d forgotten how dark it could be in the country with no lights along the road to mark our way.  The van’s headlights pierced the night, the Moroccan music played in the background and Younes continued his self-talk.

And finally, we were in Fès winding our way through roads with street lights and shops, cafes open for business and people walking along the streets.  Periodically, Younes would take advantage of the stalled traffic, roll down his window and shout at the adjacent taxi driver for directions to our destination; more-or-less the Moroccan taxi drivers’ GPS.  At last, he stopped at a lane that led to our riad (a traditional house with a central garden and fountain) and indicated that cars were not allowed in this portion of the Medina (the original historical Arab city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and that we needed to walk from there.  A group of young men argued over who would help us with our luggage, small carry-ons with wheels that we could have pulled ourselves, and we found ourselves paying for a service we hadn’t requested, caught up in a kind of hijack as they led us down the dimly lit, narrow lane, into the medina, showing us the way to Ryad Ayla.

Next post:  Fès, Morocco

By Anita and Richard

 

 

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