Category Archives: travel

In the Wild With Whale-Watching Wannabe’s

We hunched shoulder-to-shoulder awkwardly trying to steady “Jell-O” legs on the cramped vessel while dutifully scanning the ocean. The nine of us, decked out from head to toe in screaming orange one-piece jumpsuits, must have had tourist written all over.

“Scan the horizon for movement,” Jason, our certified naturalist and boat operator called out. You can’t miss ‘em; their top fin will come about six feet out of the water.” The blue-green waters gently lapped alongside our rocking 25-foot boat, but yielded nothing.

In addition to the grey and humpback whales we were searching for, here resident pods (families) of orcas – killer whales – also live year-round in the straits surrounding Victoria, British Columbia.

Of the three types of orcas, with each group behaving differently, according to researchers, best known are the northern resident orcas. During the summer months, whale-watching enthusiasts routinely see this species off Vancouver Island. Whale researchers also tell us that orcas are very social creatures. Jason concurred, telling me he often could coax them to play and swim alongside the boat.

On the move again and now well past the breakwaters of Victoria, the Juan de Fuca Straits burst upon us. As we rounded the bend, straits, channels and peninsulas darted off in all directions. Breathless with adrenaline pumping into overdrive, we searched and scanned whitecaps, coastlines; anything and everything in the near distance for any hint of movement.

“What’s that off to the left?” I excitedly asked while pointing a determined finger out to sea.

“Looks like an old salmon fishing boat,” Jason chuckled.

Whale-watching off Vancouver Island near Victoria, B.C. has become one of the most popular must-do activities for visitors to the area.

The chilly water temperature (it averages 45 degrees year-round) and nutrient-rich sea is abundant with salmon. And salmon just happen to be a whale’s first choice for a dinner entrée. In addition to the magnificent and once feared orca, the waters surrounding Vancouver Island feature a variety of marine wildlife including porpoise, dolphins, harbor seals, sea lions, eagles and a variety of sea birds.

Prime time for Pacific Northwest whale watching is June through August when whales follow schools of migrating salmon through scenic straits and island channels.

Whale-watching reservations are required and trips can be booked through a variety of companies, most headquartered out of the Victoria Marine Adventure Centre on the Inner Harbour downtown. Most tours, except during the fall and winter, are three hours long.

Some companies offer an “optional whale sighting guarantee”. They alert you when sightings are 100 percent. Available May through August only, when sightings peak, this is advertised as a money-back guarantee.

Watercraft are well equipped with radar, depth sounders, radio and cellular communications, and underwater acoustic listening systems to guarantee sightings of not only whales, but also dolphins and porpoise.

Over the centuries, whales have been feared as supernatural beings, hunted as commercial products, cheered and applauded for as marine land performers, and respected as the majestic wonders that they are. Their legacy has endured, as man has understood more and developed an appreciative relationship with nature’s most magnificent creatures.

The fascination and thrill of witnessing these aquatic mammals play in their natural habitat must truly be a sight to be seen. Unfortunately on this picture-perfect day in early August, our group saw only breathtaking scenery spanning 93 miles of cold water.

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China’s Terracotta Warriors

Imagine the shock a group of simple Chinese farmers quietly digging a well in a field one day experienced when they stumbled upon an upright life-size terracotta figure of a warrior.

The discovery was uncovered in March 1974, and the site was soon identified as Emperor Qin’s place of burial.

Who was Qin?
Born Ying Zheng in 259 BC, he succeeded his father as king when only 13 years old. Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Qin dynasty, ruled as China’s first emperor from 221-207 BC. More importantly, Qin was responsible for China’s unification, initiating groundbreaking reforms during his reign.

In 230 BC he began his campaign to conquer China’s remaining six kingdoms, thus unifying the country for the first time in its existence. History indicates Zheng accomplished this feat in less than 10 years, and proclaimed himself the first emperor of a unified China.

Marble-statue-of-Qin-Shi-Huang-The-First-Emperor-of-Qin-Dynasty

It was then that Zheng took the title Qin Shi Huang, which means “first emperor of Qin”. Consequently, Qin Dynasty became the first imperial dynasty of China.

One of Qin’s most important reforms was abolishing the old political system and dividing his empire into 36 districts. He instituted this to avoid political chaos.

He then appointed officials based on merit rather than following hereditary lines, as had been the custom. Military officers who distinguished themselves in battle were rewarded with important military positions.

Two other reforms under his rule were the unification of the law and standardizing the Chinese units of measurement and currency.

His most significant act, however, was to unify the Chinese written language by creating a novel, and more simplified, script that became the standard.

Nevertheless, Qin was an unpopular ruler and considered inhumane through much of China’s history. Ruling with an iron hand, he had more than 450 scholars, whose views he disagreed with, killed and ordered most existing books to be burned. Because of this, Confucian scholars portrayed him as a brutal tyrant and upon his death publicly undervalued his achievements.

Qin is credited with commissioning the original version of China’s Great Wall, designed to protect against barbarian invasions. Showing little regard for human life, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of men died during the construction of the famous defensive wall. While little of this wall remains today, it was the precursor to the Great Wall of China.Great-Wall-of-the-Qin

Now, however, the massive mausoleum complex he had constructed for himself near the ancient city of Xi’an reflects his legacy despite the untold numbers who died during construction and the artisans he ordered killed in order to preserve the secrecy of the tomb’s location and the treasures buried within.

Perception of Death
“Treat death as life” was the ancient Chinese traditional perception of death. According to information in the Chinese exhibit that is on display at Doha, Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art, “they considered death another form of living, believing that the afterlife one enters after death is an exact copy of the present one.” That is why personal objects used during their lifetime, such as clothes, daily necessities and status symbols, can usually be found in their tombs or mausoleums.

Terrified of death, Qin was obsessed with acquiring immortality. Later in his life he ordered his court physicians and alchemists to create a tonic or medicine that would grant him eternal life. What they came up with were mercury pills, which would supposedly make him immortal. He died on September 10, 210 BC allegedly due to mercury poisoning.

The Terracotta Army Mausoleum
In early China societies, the custom of human sacrifice was followed as part of a funeral ritual. During the Zhou Dynasty that preceded the Qin Dynasty, this philosophy changed to using clay and wooden figures rather than humans. The Qin terracotta warriors exemplify this philosophical shift.

photo-of-terracotta-soldiers-pitQin ordered work to begin on the famous mausoleum soon after he became king. Historians believe it took 700,000 men and 38 years to construct the mausoleum, which was larger than any city of the world at that time. His burial chamber was to be enclosed within the structure.

The life-size warriors in military formation – more than 6,000 of them – “guarded and protected” Qin’s tomb in the afterlife from evil spirits for more than 2,200 years after his death. In addition to this large pit the farmers discovered in 1974 were three other pits. A second pit contained cavalry and infantry unit sculptures, a third consisted of high-ranking officers and chariots, and a fourth was empty, suggesting that the burial pit was left unfinished following the emperor’s death.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this discovery is that the pits were designed with a sophisticated layout, as load-bearing walls were discovered every 10 feet between where the warriors and horses stand.

Chinese Sculpture vs. Western Sculpture
Within China’s art history circles, the Qin terracotta warriors rank extremely high in artistic value. Every detail of the figures was modeled on real persons from their height and proportion to their facial features resulting in a life-like sculptural style. What makes these terracotta figures so unique is that they all differ from one another not only in facial features and expressions, but also clothing, hairstyle and even their gestures. Every terracotta warrior was originally painted in bright colors, which is believed to have added immensely to their vividness.

4-warriors-&-horse

Western sculpture places its focus on form and muscle. “It uses light and shadow to create a sense of depth, and applies the principles of human anatomy to express the human body’s muscular and dynamic beauty,” according to art historians. Chinese sculpture, however, focuses more on portraying a subject’s temperament, which is why the sculptures show a strong realistic feel with artistic exaggeration of facial detail. Rarely does Chinese sculpture indicate a subject’s muscles or detailed body form.

The Terracotta Army and Their Weapons
The soldiers, archers, horses and chariots discovered during restoration work indicate they were created using molds and an early assembly line-type construction. It is believed that only eight molds were used to shape their heads, while distinctive clay surface features were added after they were assembled indicating a high level of craftsmanship and artistry. This explains why each soldier appears to be unique in its facial features yet most of the figures’ hands are identical.

Archaeologists found more than 40,000 bronze weapons during excavation, including battle axes, crossbows, arrowheads and spears, all of which were astonishingly well preserved given the more than 2,000 years they laid undiscovered. They credit the preservation to protective chrome plating, which reveals the sophistication of ancient Chinese metallurgy given that Germany first used this technique in 1937 and the U.S. not until 1950.

Qin’s Unexcavated Tomb
Since the tomb was discovered 40 years ago, less than one percent of it has been excavated. At first archaeologists were concerned about damaging Qin’s corpse and tomb artifacts, but that gave way to concerns about the excavation’s potential safety hazards. In 2005 a team led by Chinese archaeologist Duan Chingbo tested 4,000 samples of the burial mound earth for mercury, and all came back highly positive. Given this chemical evidence, the debate continues over whether to excavate, how to protect people working at the site, and what methods should be utilized to best protect the artifacts.

Proclaimed one of the greatest archeological discoveries in the world, the Terracotta Army Mausoleum is now unofficially hailed as the eighth Wonder of the World. Four of the unearthed terracotta structures, three warriors and a horse, are currently part of the traveling Chinese exhibit at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.

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Three Major Dynasties: History Told Thread by Thread

Fragile pottery pieces, old master paintings, elaborate jewelry, ethnic clothing and ancient manuscripts spanning thousands of years and dynasties are mainstays of museums. But how often does one see antique carpets that have survived the times?

Imperial Threads: Motifs and Artisans from Turkey, Iran and India, an unique temporary exhibit at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, offers a new perspective to three major dynasties. The cultural exchange between these Islamic world empires led to the creation of some of the world’s most beautiful works of art.

carpets-as-diplomatic-giftsThe artistic collection and interwoven connection of these dynasties – Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal – are highlighted through their handmade rugs, motif tiles, manuscripts and ceramics primarily from the 16th to the 18th centuries. It was commonplace for these empires to exchange artistic and material treasures – and cultures – whether as diplomatic gifts or objects of warfare.

There are 25 historic carpets on display in three sections, divided by bridges, some of which have glass floors with the carpets beneath them for up close viewing, with each section focusing on a specific dynasty. The carpets – some well preserved while others show significant wear – serve as the centerpiece of the entire exhibition.

“We wanted this exhibition to look very special and different,” Dr. Mounia Chekhab-Abudaya, exhibit curator, told Doha’s Peninsula newspaper in an interview. “Each of the three sections has glass floor features because we wanted people to see how the carpets looked like in the palaces, not on the walls as they are usually seen in museums, but on the floor. We wanted visitors to have an idea how grand the palaces would look decorated with various objects and beautiful designs.”

Focusing on the Timurid period in Iran and Central Asia (1370-1507), the Imperial Threads exhibit detailed artistic practices that were shared amongst the three succeeding and neighboring dynasties.map-of-dynasties

The Timurids conquered portions of Iran and Central Asia in the 14th century bringing with them their semi-nomadic traditions. According to exhibit storyboards, the Timurids played an important role in sharing the trade and diplomatic development of the three empires. They also are credited with introducing new artistic styles and practices.

Ottoman Dynasty in Turkey
The Ottoman world took hold at the turn of the 14th century, but the arts scene didn’t begin to flourish until Sulayman the Magnificent’s reign (1520-1566).

As the dynasty expanded geographically and economically, according to a storyboard, this expansion “set the ground for cultural and artistic development that continued until the 19th century.”

When the Ottomans occupied Northern Persia, one of those cities was Tabriz, an important weaving center that provided direct influence on artistic carpet production that included the transfer of motifs and craftsmanship from Iran to Turkey. Tabriz rugs are woven by highly skilled craftsmen using only the finest material and are widely renowned and sought after in collections of Persian rugs.carpet-exhibit

This first section of the exhibit showcases carpets and other mediums characteristic of local tribal designs that were merged with outside Iranian influences.

The different motifs prominent in carpets and other objects on display include cloudband, medallion, animal, cintamani, saz, lotus flower, lattice and flower motifs. Cintamani and saz tile motifs became characteristic of Ottoman materials trending away from geometric designs toward the use of central medallions and the introduction of the saz motif as a principal pattern. These motifs appear in the various pieces produced by artists in the three empires revealing the connection between the neighboring dynasties.

The saz style combines a twisting serrated leaf with other motifs, which can be floral or saz-motif-tilefigural. Artist Shad Quli, head of Sulayman the Magnificent studio workshop, introduced this motif and became well known for his drawings that combined a stylized leaf with dragons.

The wavy ribbon-like cloudband motif forms the shape of a horseshoe. Originally derived from Chinese art, the cloudband is found on a variety of media from the Islamic world including the illuminated Quran and ceramic bowl, both on display. The Mongols introduced this motif in the 13th century.

wavy-horseshoe-motif

Safavid Dynasty in Iran
The Safavid Empire (1501-1736) showcases works from the royal manuscripts workshop, as well as artistic motifs. During this period, books and manuscripts witnessed profound development primarily due to royal court patron support. Textiles and carpets were also produced in great numbers. They played a major role in the sharing and transfer of artistic practices as traveling artists.

illuminated-Qurans

Manuscript illustrations often featured court scenes with palace interiors depicting great detail. “With the representation of colored pavilions, carpets and other fabrics, paintings demonstrated the use of objects manufactured at the royal court workshops in their original and historical contexts,” explains a storyboard. “The meticulous work and the rich patterns and colors used by the painter reveal the attention given to these textiles, and the patterns used to illustrate them may have been adapted from contemporary carpets or other objects with shared motifs.”

Black and turquoise-glazed hexagonal tiles with floral motifs from a Tabriz carpet from the 15th to 16th century were a popular style.

hezagon-floral-tiles

Between war, diplomatic relations and inevitable political changes, “previous objects were transferred across borders whether as diplomatic gifts or war booty, and artists pursued careers from one workshop to another,” reads another storyboard.

Diplomatic Gifts
Gifts were commonly offered to celebrate a new ruler’s ascent to the throne, the circumcision of a ruler’s son, or simply to promote strong diplomatic relations. Common gifts included textiles and manuscripts – always luxury objects – between the three dynasties. This cross-cultural gift interaction explains how styles spread between different courts and influenced neighboring dynasties’ artistic production.

Animal motifs, long time depiction in Islamic and pre-Islamic art, were common on ceramics, textiles, stone work and in manuscripts. In Islamic times, these motifs had a secular context, not religious, and were ornamental architectural elements of palaces or display objects for royal settings.

animal-motif-bottles

Combat scenes in particular, depicting strong animals such as lions attacking weaker prey, were commonly portrayed serving to remind the viewer of the valor and courage their ruler held over his enemy.

Due to the development of firearms during the period of these three great empires, they are commonly referred to as the “gunpowder empires”. Highly decorated weapons manufactured in the royal workshops demonstrate the pageantry function of such objects that would have been made for ceremonial use rather than for battle.

On display are a Turkish-made shield and axe from the late 16th to early 17th century. The cane shield is constructed of iron and copper alloy that is decorated with gold floral motifs, woven silk border, and geometric motifs on a yellow background.

shield-&-axe

Mughal Dynasty in India
The third section of the exhibit highlights the Mughal Dynasty (1526-1858). It was during this period that European prints were introduced to the Mughal libraries. Based on patterns from these books, Mughal artists began creating their own patterns. During this time, Islam was gaining popularity in India and Mughal artists created a new style based on European prints and Islamic subjects.

The Mughal Empire also features the culmination of artistic styles that integrate Safavid, Ottoman and local traditions.

Millefleurs-niche-carpetOne of the important artistic styles coming out of this time period was detailed floral designs that were prominent in carpets and jewelry. On display is a silk and pashmina pile carpet that features millefleurs, distinguished by their floral motifs and vivid colors. The carpet design clearly shows a flowering vase at the base and is an early 18th century product.

Nearby are stunning examples of a 19th century enamel and gold necklace incorporating a floral motif, a 17th century jar made of gold, silver, diamonds and mother of pearl, as well as an 18th century ruby and enamel perfume sprinkler.

19th-C-Indian-necklace

17th-c-jar18th-c-perfume-sprinkler

The lattice motif was made popular in the early to mid 16th century and was not only incorporated into carpets, but also on marble decorations for palaces. The interlaced criss-crossed pattern incorporates natural flowering plants and blossoms arranged in rows against a plain background.lattice-motif-pattern

Cuerdo seca tiles were also popularized in the 17th century. These types of tiles were used both to decorate palace or tomb walls, and show the use of realistic floral designs. Originally derived directly from its use in the Safavid Dynasty, the strong colors recall the miniature paintings of the same era.

Cuerdo-seco-tile

Geometric designs were popular in the 16th and early 17th century in India. Carved sandstone of white marble and red sandstone were used for carved, pieced stone screens known as jalis. These screens were used in Indian architecture prior to the Mughal period.

jali-screen-sandstone

Coming full turn and standing the test of time, these ancient motifs continue to be evident in carpets and other objects produced today. Liken it to the cultural exchange during these three major empires, if you will, and transferring that interaction today with the exhibition’s sharing knowledge of the arts.

green-sphere

As visitors enter and leave, an eye-catching spherical LED display projects colorful patterns in succession duplicating the motifs on exhibit.

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Holasovice’s Commitment to Preservation

Tucked away off a narrow country roadway in the Czech Republic’s South Bohemia region sits a tiny well-preserved village. The entire village! Rows of gabled white houses, some in various stages of renovation, line each side of the village green of this charming medieval town. Behind tall gates are barns, most having now been transformed into modern day garages. Each uniquely styled home is similar yet different maintaining authentic details of the past as they undergo their exterior facelifts.bird-in-nest

Holasovice, situated 15 km west of Ceske Budajovice, is a picturesque village that can be traced back to 1292. The entire village – something very rare – is a well-preserved example of a traditional central European community encompassing an 18-19th century architectural style known as South Bohemian Folk Baroque. The village also preserves a “ground plan” dating from the Middle Ages.

Visiting historical destinations is one of the fastest growing activities for U.S. leisure travelers. What’s more, according to America’s National Trust for Historic Preservation, historic preservation is an important component of authentic destinations and experiences. And since American travelers extend their sojourns to overseas historic sites as well, it’s no surprise that I have sought out this UNESCO-listed world heritage site while traveling through the Czech Republic.

mustard-chapel

A mustard yellow chapel dwarfed by a thin wooden maypole stretching skyward, punctuated by lush green grass and a pond set against today’s backdrop of incoming navy blue storm clouds and warm summer temperatures, define Holasovice as we make a left-hand turn into the peaceful rural village of 140 inhabitants.

In Europe, May Day (May 1) has traditionally been observed with celebrations extending back to pre-Christian Europe. May 1 was the first day of summer, while the summer solstice on June 21 was “midsummer”. May Day might be best known for its tradition of dancing around the maypole.

Erected each spring, maypoles are tall wooden poles with several long colored ribbons streaming from the top. On May Day, village children would dance around the town’s maypole weaving multi-colored ribbons in and out creating striking patterns. That tradition continues today in the Czech Republic.maypole

In Europe, May Day (May 1) has traditionally been observed with celebrations extending back to pre-Christian Europe. May 1 was the first day of summer, while the summer solstice on June 21 was “midsummer”. May Day might be best known for its tradition of dancing around the maypole.

Erected each spring, maypoles are tall wooden poles with several long colored ribbons streaming from the top. On May Day, village children would dance around the town’s maypole weaving multi-colored ribbons in and out creating striking patterns. That tradition continues today in the Czech Republic.

Strong encircling stucco walls and wooden gates tightly embrace as they join homesteads together along with a shared barn at the property’s rear, an example of traditional rural settlements of central Europe.so-bohemia-folk-baroque-architecture

Historians liken the unique architecture to the South Bohemian countryside. Outlines of the homes, they claim, appear to copy the roundish shapes of the surrounding landscape with numerous elements of nature represented on gables between windows, and on front entrances and gates.

Historically, the individual homestead fronts are more than 30 meters deep and connect into one unit with the granary at back. This original layout – another reason why this village earned a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1998 – consists of a long middle hall that connected the house to stables and sheds at the rear without needing to venture outside. In other words, the barn at the rear center of the property is jointly connected to respective sheds and a house on either side.

The yard was enclosed by a large barn centered in back with doors at the front and back allowing farmers to pass directly through with their animals and primitive farming equipment into the fields. This Gothic ground plan remains intact.typical-shared-yard

Each July, this old-time village comes alive with its annual two-day fair. Festivities typically include music and traditional dance performances, theater productions, horse rides, jugglers, and national handicrafts for sale that are hand made by artisans from Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia.

This miniscule jewel well hidden among the surrounding flat countryside of grain- yielding fields was a welcome surprise. Holasovice’s preservation has kept the charm of its simple past intact… tantamount to its image from the canvas of history.

 

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Enger Tower Stands Tall in Duluth, Minnesota

The power of observation takes many forms. It can never be overrated or understated. The simplistic beauty of a sea view, towering pines of a forest and a city skyline all offer up splendid scenic beauty with the naked eye.

Duluth, Minnesota, situated on the shores of Lake Superior in the U.S., provides its own scenic sights from the Enger Observation Tower. The tower’s purpose was – and is – to delight visitors with its magnificent panoramic views of central Duluth, the Duluth-Superior Harbor, the North Shore, and the western tip of Lake Superior.

The well-worn 80-foot, iconic stone façade tower is perched high on the Enger Hill bluffs overlooking Lake Superior, rising 531 feet above the lake’s surface.Unger-Tower

As I hiked up the steep incline one sunny March afternoon, sidestepping piles of frozen ice and snow slowly melting into spring, I marveled at the stunning views in all directions. This area of Minnesota is already beautiful – the gateway to the famed North Shore – but at the tower summit, it truly was a majestic sight.

The stone tower itself was rugged in its own right as if knowing it needed to withstand the test of time through brutal Minnesota winters and the unforgiving weather systems that swirl over the shores of Lake Superior.

Dotted with cut window openings throughout the six-story tower, every angle offered a unique view. On the ground tower inserted into the wall next to the stairway is the Enger Observation Tower Marker dedicated to the memory of Bert J. Enger – Native of Norway, Citizen of Duluth.

The Back Story
The Enger observation tower story is that of a common immigrant laborer, Bert J. Enger, who left a legacy fit for royalty to the City of Duluth over an eight-year period.

Born in Hamar, Norway in 1864, Enger immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 13, although records do not indicate if he journeyed alone. He traveled the Midwest working on farms and sawmills in Wisconsin, iron mines in Michigan and northern Minnesota, and the wheat fields of the Dakotas. At some point, he lived on a farm in small town Pine City, Minnesota, approximately 88 miles south of Duluth. It was here that Enger met a business partner, and the two opened a successful furniture store in Duluth.

The former immigrant turned U.S. citizen demonstrated through his own life what so many immigrants fought for and believed in: America was a land of opportunity for an immigrant.Bert Enger

In 1920, Enger anonymously donated $50,000 to the City of Duluth that it might purchase 350 acres of land for a proposed golf course and park for public use. Discovering Enger was the benefactor, Duluth’s city council named the park after him. He continued to share his fortune with the city over the next decade.

Enger, a lifetime bachelor, suffered a stroke and died in 1931. His estate, which he had divided into thirds, bequeathed two-thirds toward a memorial project (Enger Tower), which Enger stipulated was to be “a suitable building on top of the bluff near the Twin Ponds in Enger Park, in the nature of a lookout station, built to accommodate tourists visiting Enger Park.” Around the structure, he directed “that the grounds be beautified and foot paths from all directions leading up to the building on the hilltop be constructed, and a parking space for automobiles be constructed below the paths. The paths are to be accessible to pedestrians only.”Enger-tower-sign

Enger further stipulated that his body be cremated and the ashes placed somewhere in the memorial building. His wishes were granted. Enger Tower was completed in 1939 and dedicated in June that year by Olav, Crown Prince of Norway and his wife Crown Princess Martha, honoring the native Norwegian whose vision and life in America proved that life indeed held enormous opportunities for immigrants. As a fitting testimony, more than 5,000 people attended the dedication.

Should you find yourself in the Twin Port city, regardless of the time of year, plan a short hike up to Enger Tower – open year round – and capture for yourself the breathtaking views.

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Kakopetria Village: Beauty, Serenity and Tragedy

Kakopetria (Greek for place of stones) is one of those villages brimming with history and begging to be explored.

view-of-streets

Nestled into the side of the Troodos Mountain some 2200 feet high and surrounded by thick forest, Kakopetria is the highest village in the Solea Valley. The Troodos Mountain was formed from an explosion of a volcano in the area. When the lava stopped, it became solid.looking-toward-sea-from-Kakopetria

The higher our tour bus crept hugging the heavily vegetated roadside, the more I felt I was shifting further into the center of the earth. It’s difficult to describe the beauty and serenity – and, of course, photos never do justice – but try to imagine the lush green vegetation popping in and out of a forest of pine trees, majestic oaks and even wild olive trees. Hillside terracing spotlights various fruit-bearing trees, such as apple, pear, plum, cherry, apricot and fig that the villagers grow and cultivate.

waterfall-in-KakopetriaA gentle waterfall spilling into the basin within the old village offers melodic serenity and natural beauty. The village was built on the banks of two rivers, which join in the center of the 1500-inhabitant 14th Century village. A hike to the top of the village provides the most beautiful vista of the surrounding landscape as far as one can see. In fact, on a clear day the sea is visible off in the distance.

The entire village is under the protection of the Department of Antiquities requiring special permission if homeowners want to change the exterior appearance of their home. The village’s uniqueness are the narrow crooked lanes mostly impassable by car, and the distinct home construction. The lower portions are constructed with stones while the upper part with clay, mud and bricks. The houses all have tiled roofs and wooden balconies. I found the architecture very appealing.cool-architecture

Almost half way up the steep main street, we came upon the nondescript Church of the Transfiguration. We spent a few minutes inside the small church lighting a candle and snapping a few photos of the interior. I was surprised that even in this tiny remote village, the Greek Orthodox Church also boasted an impressive interior of iconostases. The elderly nun inside knew no English making it impossible to learn anything about the church.church-in-Kokopetria

Back out on the slippery and uneven stone-cobbled road, we walked past numerous winding side lanes the width of a bicycle path and not much more. I can imagine how easily it would be to get turned around if you were trying to find someone’s home. Fortunately for one enterprising homeowner, visitors searching for Irene’s house have a sign indicating the way. Lush green foliage and multi-hued flowers dotted the lanes and flower boxes adding color to the mostly shaded homes. Homeowners lucky enough to have room for a carport utilized the space to grow their own grapes.Irene's-house

There is another reason why this charming village has gained notoriety. Anchored at the start of the climb upward to the residential area is the famous Stone of the Couple. Following an ancient pagan custom of honoring Aphrodite, the goddess of love, newlyweds performed a ceremony by walking around the stone and making a wish. One couple was crushed to death when they lost their footing and tumbled down the rocky incline. From then on, the rock became known as the Stone of the Couple, although locals often refer to it as the Bad Stone. Even today a few couples honor the custom. Eleni, our tour guide, explained that many Cypriots continued to practice pagan customs after the advent of Christianity as many of these practices were deeply rooted in Greek mythology.stone-of-the-couple

Kakopetria is a popular summer and winter resort since its location offers visitors a respite from the sun-scorched temperatures of the large cities, most notably Nicosia, Cyprus’ largest city, an hour or so drive down the mountain. In the wintertime, the mountains are snow-laden offering outdoor activities popular with Cypriots. On weekends, people flock to the village and its handful of hotels are fully booked.

Wandering the narrow lanes and catching glimpses of older Kakopetrians in their windows and doorways smiling as we passed was an enjoyable reconnection with simplicity.

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Cyprus: A Communion with Religion and History

Cyprus-CIA_WFB_Map

An open-air museum is the best way to describe this small island country and its long and storied history. Add in the strong Greek mythology and devout Greek Orthodox religion, and you have a country that is a true communion with history and religion.

Eleni, our tour guide during the week we were in Cyprus, educated us on numerous aspects of her country, including: nature/natural resources, history and geography, mythology, the tourism industry, the Greek Orthodox religion and the politically charged Cyprus Problem. She was cautious to preface some of her opinions, as just that, but I certainly learned more from her than any history book.

Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean after Sicily and Sardinia, and is located about 60 miles from Turkey and 72 miles from Syria. The country was formed from a volcano. According to history, earthquakes destroyed almost all of the towns of Cyprus during the fourth century. Its soil is mainly chalk and limestone with sparse vegetation, and the climate mostly hot and arid.

Geographically, Cyprus is divided into three portions: the Troodos Mountains, the Kyrrian Mountain and the Mesari plain, located between the two mountains. The Troodos Mountain range was formed from an earthquake and is mostly solid lava rock.

Cyprus has two natural salt lakes, both of which are dry most of the year, filling up only during the winter rainy period. During the Middle Ages, the salt was mined and exported, as Europe didn’t have salt for some reason. It is no longer mined, according to Eleni, because it is polluted.

salt-lakeThe largest salt lake, near the Larnaca airport, attracts thousands of flamingoes, wild swans and other migrating birds from Asia during the winter months, which then return to Asia in the spring.

According to the story of how the salt lake of Larnaca was formed, as told by Eleni, when Lazarus came to the Larnaca area in 32 AD, he was thirsty and hungry. He saw a vineyard of grapes ready for harvest, and asked the vineyard owner, an elderly lady, who was holding a basket full of grapes if he might have some. She refused telling him that the basket was full of salt. Lazarus became very angry and reportedly transformed the vineyard into a salt lake and the basket she was holding into a basket full of salt. People who later worked in the salt lake said they would periodically find roots of the old lady’s vineyard.

Larnaca aquaductNearby the lake are the remains of an aqueduct, built in 1745 AD that supplied water to Larnaca and was in use for approximately 200 years.

Natural Resources/Nature
Copper was discovered during the period between the Stone and Bronze ages. At first the discovery was not well known; however, during the 2500 BC period, word got out, and then the island invasions began in earnest, says Eleni. The Syrians, Egyptians and Persians all invaded Cyprus for its copper. It is believed the island has taken the name from the ‘Cypressus’, the Cyprus trees, and that the island gave the name to copper.

black-olivesAs you may suspect, olive trees are abundant on the island. According to Eleni, the oldest olive trees in the country are about 700 years old and still producing. She explained the way to recognize an old olive tree is that it has a hollow trunk. Urban legend says you can put a double bed inside an old olive tree trunk.

In addition to olive trees, there are also plenty of carob trees since they do not require much water and grow well in poor soil. Cyprus has about three million carob and olive trees. The carob has the shape of a bean and is black. There are many seeds within the actual plant. “In the past, four seeds of a carob was the standard measure. The carob is used in the plastic industry making cassettes, cosmetics and carob syrup, also known as black honey,” explains Eleni.

Grapes are another important natural resource. Cyprus has about 120 different varieties of grapes that are divided into two categories: table grapes and wine grapes.

Eleni launched into a story about the wine grapes, which she categorized as Very Good. According to her story, “when Richard the Lionhearted came to Cyprus, the inhabitants wanted to welcome him so they offered him a new variety of grapes. They were very delicious. When he tasted them, he announced ‘very good’. But the inhabitants could not speak his language, and they thought he said the name of the variety. Since then, this variety of grape has been known as ‘Very Good’.”

Table grapes grow in the lower elevations with limestone, while the wine grapes grow up in the mountains where there is high rainfall. Because wine grapes ripen longer and become sweeter, workers are paid according to the sweetness of the grapes when they take them to the winery, Eleni stated.

Pine, eucalyptus, mimosa and cypress trees are popular and also plentiful across the island. The British imported Eucalyptus trees to Cyprus from Australia. There are 27 kinds of Eucalyptus documented on the island. This type of tree has the ability to absorb the water from the ground, another reason why they are so popular.

The government has begun reforesting the trees as many had been destroyed. The three reasons for destruction were:

  • Cedar trees provided hardwood for building products and home building;
  • Trees were cut down for heating homes after the copper discovery; and
  • Forests were destroyed by invasions of armies.

A Brief History Lesson
In 323 BC, Alexander the Great liberated Cyprus from the Persians. This was the start of the Hellenistic period. The capital of Cyprus was transferred from Salamis to Paphos, simply because Paphos was the nearest point to Alexandria. Paphos was the capital from the Roman period of 58 BC until the fifth century AD.

During the Byzantine period from the fifth century to 1191 AD, the Archbishop of Cyprus controlled the country. In a vision, he was told that under a carob tree in a Roman tomb in Salamis were the relics of St. Barnabas. He went there, found them, and took them to the archbishop.

During 1191, Richard the Lionhearted was on his way to the Holy Land. One of his boats (carrying his sister and fiancé) mistakenly landed in Cyprus and the occupants, including the two women, were captured. Therefore, Richard the Lionhearted subsequently invaded the island, taking control of it, and released his sister and fiancé.

“But because he really didn’t want to keep Cyprus,” explains Eleni, “he sold the island to the rulers of Jerusalem. Because of the revolutions, they could not keep the island either, and eventually gave it back to Richard.”

In 1489, the last queen of Cyprus – who had a Venetian bloodline – passed the island to the Venetians who ruled from 1499 until 1571. They placed heavy taxes on people and built many fortifications. None of the walls were finished, however, when the Ottomans invaded. The Ottoman Turks then ruled Cyprus until 1878.

From 1879 until 1960, Cyprus was a British colony. In 1960 Cyprus won its independence and has remained so. As part of the agreement, the British bases would remain. According to Eleni, there are about 99 square miles of British bases on the island.

Archbishop Makarios III was elected president in 1960 was making Cyprus the first country with a Christian leader. His vice president was Dr. Fazil Kucuk from the Turkish Muslim community. At the time of Cyprus’ independence, the population was estimated to be 650,000, of which 80 percent were Greek Cypriots, 18 percent Turkish Cypriots and two percent other minorities, such as Armenians, Latins and Maronites.

“The Greek Cypriots speak the Greek language, as do the Christian Orthodox,” explains Eleni. “The Turkish Cypriots speak the Turkish language and are Muslim, but the common language between the two communities is English.”

military-checkpointThe Cyprus Problem
Soon after the 1960 election, problems began surfacing. In 1963, the Turkish Cypriots left the Parliament. In 1974, Greece tried to assassinate the Cypriot president. “This was the chance Turkey was waiting for,” believes Eleni. “The Turks invaded Cyprus on July 20, 1974 and took control of 40 percent of Cyprus. Two hundred thousand people were forced to leave their homes and came to the central part of the island where the government built them houses. They live with the hope that one day they will go back to their land and homes where they were born. But it’s been 40 years now,” she continues, “and there has been no improvement to the Cyprus Problem. Since 1974, 1,619 people are missing and no one knows what happened to them. So with the solution of the Cyprus Problem, we also hope we will discover what happened to these people, which includes women and children, and whether they are dead or alive.

“When the Turks invaded, Greek and Turkish Cypriots were living harmoniously all across the island. The Turks landed in Kyrenia by boat and the people began fleeing in a panic to save their lives.

unfinished-high-rise-on-Famagusta-beach-1“The Turks bombed the town of Famagusta from the air. When the Turkish Cypriots who fled tried to return to Famagusta, it was impossible because the Turkish troops refused to allow them back. Turkey allowed 140,000 Turkish settlers to settle in Famagusta, giving them property and enticing them to stay on the island. The real Turkish Cypriots were living in poor conditions and many of them were forced to immigrate to other countries. When we say we don’t want the Turks in Cypriot,” emphasizes Eleni, “what we mean are the Turkish troops and the settlers, not the Turkish Cypriots. The Turkish Cypriots are Cypriots. They belong to Cyprus.”

Following the 1974 invasion, it was impossible for the Greek Cypriots to enter the Occupied Area around Famagusta. “If a Turkish Cypriot wanted to come to the west or southern side of the island, there was no problem. This is the reason why we had 8,000 Turkish Cypriots who were passing through coming to work on this side of the island,” reports Eleni. “The Turkish troops would allow them to pass through, but not to stay overnight. For the Greek Cypriots, it was impossible to go to north Cyprus; Turkish troops would not allow them into the Occupied Area.

checkpoint-at-Famagusta“Ten years ago, one day out of the blue, the Turks told the Cypriots that if they wanted to come to this side of the island, they would be allowed in if they brought a passport. You cannot imagine the result!” exclaims Eleni. “Thousands of people came to see the side of the island they had not been allowed in to in 30 years. After 1974 one third of the island population were refugees. The Turkish Cypriots still living in their houses who had not left were overjoyed to see friends and relatives. They invited them in, offering them coffee, and telling them they also wanted a solution to the Cyprus Problem. Settlers who now inhabited the houses shut the doors in the former owners’ faces and would not allow them in to see their old homes.”

Tourism
Cyprus’s economy is heavily based on tourism. About 25 percent of the island workers are in the tourism industry. According to Eleni, today if a Cypriot applied for a tourism job, starting salary would be 700 euro ($800) per month with only one day off a week. And then it is only seasonal. She said that 80 percent of hotels in non-tourist areas close, and if the hotels close, that means restaurants, shops and other stores in the area close as well. That is why Cyprus has such high unemployment from November to May. “It is impossible to find another job because everyone else is looking too. Those who have worked for two consecutive years at the same place can claim unemployment that amounts to approximately 70 percent of their salary for six months and no more,” Eleni states. “If you worked less than two years for a company/shop/restaurant/hotel that closes for the off season, you would need to leave the country and return again for the new tourist season and hope to get your job back or find a new one.”

Last year (2013) Cyprus saw just under $2.5 million from tourism.

Poised among political struggles, early religious strife, the comfort of modern civilization stemming from mythology and ancient ruins, along with the sensory splendor of nature, Cyprus and its historic island culture have something to offer everyone.

 

 

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