Archive for the ‘Photos’ Category

A Day in Champagne Country

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

John Sweets, Smithsonian Journeys' Study LeaderProfessor John Sweets is Professor Emeritus of History, specializing in the Vichy France era, the French Resistance, and occupied France. He has taught 19th and 20th century European history at the University of Kansas, University College, Dublin (Ireland), The School of International Studies (Fort Bragg, NC), and at the Université de Franche-Comté, Besançon (France). This spring, he led a Smithsonian Journeys group on a tour of France through the ages. See his post below: The perfect day in Paris begins with a glass of champagne and ends with a sunset at the Eiffel Tower.

Our morning begins with an early breakfast before boarding the bus for a trip to the north and east of Paris. A beautiful orange sunrise greets us through the front and right side window of the tour bus as we leave the Circular Boulevard around central Paris and follow the autoroute for a couple of hours. Many of the travelers take advantage of the quiet hum of the motor to catch up on their sleep. Others remark on how quickly we have left the Parisian urban environment and are driving through a rich, green countryside. As we approach Epernay and champagne country, we begin to see the chalky hillsides covered with the three varieties of grapes, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay, used to produce the local champagne, which our guide Dominique reminds us is the only wine legally entitled to bear the name Champagne.

At the house of Moet & Chandon we are met by a lovely woman, stylishly attired in a Nina Ricci outfit, who takes us through all of the steps leading to the production of this bubbly gold. We are particularly impressed with how almost every stage of the process is still done by hand, especially for the vintage years which are treated with special care. Our guide tells us that the Imperial Champagne, a tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte, who was a good friend of the founder of the house, is the best champagne in the world. After she serves us a full glass of this elixir, no one is inclined to doubt her word, although we do ask each other: “Are we really drinking this fine champagne at 10:30 in the morning?”

Moet & Chandon

Geometry at Moet & Chandon. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gin Fizz.)

From Epernay we make our way to Reims for a quick lunch and then a visit to the extraordinary cathedral in the center of the town. It is hard to choose which is the most striking, the exterior façade with incredible sculpture at the entry doors and all the way up the front of the cathedral, or the wonderful stained glass windows, seen in all their glory from the interior of the church, and including very old traditional windows, a beautiful Rose Window, and gorgeous modern stained glass by Marc Chagall, who attempted in his panels to recreate the blue color of Chartres Cathedral. We are also reminded by statues of Joan of Arc, both outside and inside the Cathedral, that Reims Cathedral is the place to which most of the French kings were brought for their coronation ceremonies. In July 1429, Joan of Arc led the initially reluctant Dauphin to Reims to be crowned as King Charles VII and stood in her armor at his side (not in a dress as she is now represented by the statue inside the Cathedral).

After a stop and guided tour at the Mumm champagne house in Reims, capped off by a second full glass of champagne, we board our bus for the return trip to Paris and promptly fall asleep under the warm afternoon sun. After leaving the autoroute we merge into the flood of late afternoon traffic in Paris. After a quick stop at our hotel, we proceed to the Eiffel Tower to finish our day with a spectacular view over Paris at sunset. We arrive to find that due to technical problems, only one of the tower’s four elevators is in operation. To our astonishment, our Tour Guide, Francoise, is able to charm one of the attendants at the entry into letting us move up close to the front of the line. We have only a relatively short wait before ascending the tower and ending our day perched above the city trying to locate, in the glow of an unforgettable sunset, various Parisian sights we had visited earlier in the week.

View from the Eiffel Tower.

Sunset seen from the Eiffel Tower. (Image courtesy of Flickr user Oh Paris.)

Click here to read more about Journeys’ upcoming “France Through the Ages” tour.

Color and Chaos on the Banks of the Ganges

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Minhazz Majumdar, Smithsonian Journeys GuideMinhazz Majumdar is a writer and curator of Indian art, and co-founder of the Earth & Grass Workshop, an organization promoting arts and crafts as livelihood. Minhazz has served as a development consultant for the government of India and for many Indian NGOs and has extensive experience leading groups through India. Most recently, Minhazz led Smithsonian’s “Mystical India” tour through Northern India.
Varanasi, the final destination of the Mystical India trip is one place on earth that cannot fail to move you. Love it or hate it, this city will leave its mark on you. A city that goes by several names, Varanasi, Benaras or Kashi, this site is believed to be the oldest continually inhabited place on the planet. Varanasi may be one of the most ancient cities in the world—but do not come here looking for old buildings or ancient ruins —you will be disappointed. Varanasi is all about ambiance, atmosphere, a certain mood, a vibe and the settings.

The ghats—the steps that lead down to the river—are the centers of life and action in Varanasi. And the river here is no ordinary river; it’s none other than Mother Ganges herself—the life-giving river, the holy river in which devout Hindus come to bathe and wash away their sins.

Along the ghat, one can see life play out in many ways. There are ghats where people come for bathing or a ritual dip in the river, for prayer ceremonies, for yoga, for religious training, for meditation and mindfulness. There are even ghats for washermen (dhobis) to ply their trade, washing all the dirty linen in the river. But most powerful are the burning ghats where Hindus are cremated. For devout Hindus, to die in Varanasi and to be cremated on the banks of the Ganga, with the ashes offered to the river is to achieve “moksha” or liberation from the continuous cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

The winding and crowded city streets of Varanasi are no less action-packed. Every day is a celebration in this City of Light, the city that belongs to Lord Shiva, the powerful Hindu God of Destruction. To get to the ghats for our evening boat-ride on the River Ganges is a full-on sensory experience. We take our final rickshaw ride here–the streets are crowded, colorful and virtually a cacophony of people, animals, vehicles of all sorts, some with powerful horns which they do not hesitate to use.

No words are adequate to describe this ride—it has to be experienced to be believed. You feel your eyes cannot take in the color and chaos any more; your ears begin to feel sound, going beyond hearing; your nose is beguiled by the scents and the dust. It is one of the most exhilarating rides of your life. Suddenly, the rickshaw stops and you have to walk—your being is jostled by the crowd heading to the same place—the ghats. You are safe, you belong here, you are part of a larger whole, alive like you have never felt before.

A few minutes later or perhaps an eternity it seems, you reach the ghats where there are scores of people milling around, getting ready for the evening aarti (fire worship) ceremony. There is such fervor in the air, yet a sense of calmness pervades—instantly the clamor of the city streets is forgotten.

You make your journey down the steps to the river where the boatman is waiting, the journey on the river akin to the journey of life—from life to death to celebration. But that tale will have to wait for another time. It is time to let the ghats of Varanasi get under your skin.

Floating on the Ganges River.

Floating on the “Mother Ganga.” (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Muleonor.)

Ghants along the Ganges River in Varanasi.

Ghats along the Ganges River in Varanasi. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user ruffin_ready.)

Practicing Surya Pranam at the Ganges in Varanasi.

Practicing Surya Pranam at the Ganges in Varanasi. (Photo by Sadie McVicker.)

Boatman on the River Ganges in Varanasi

Boatman on the River Ganges. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Vasenka.)

Man sitting on the banks of the Ganges.

Man sitting on the banks of the Ganges. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Arian Zwegers.)

Varanasi at night

Varanasi at night. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user AinisR.)

Check out the “Mystical India” tour page for more information on Minhazz’s next trip.

Sampling Exotic Fruits in Costa Rica

Friday, May 25th, 2012

James Karr, Smithsonian Journeys Study LeaderSmithsonian Study Leader Jim Karr is professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Washington, Seattle, specializing in tropical ecology, ornithology, water resources, and environmental policy. He also served as deputy director of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama for four years in the 1980s. On his most recent trip with Smithsonian Journeys, he guided a group to some of his favorite locations in Costa Rica. In the post below, the first of two about the trip, Karr provides a guide to some of the exotic fruits encountered (and sampled) by the group along the way.

Volcan Poas

Looking down into the crater of Poas Volcano. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Carlos Reusser Monsalvez.

Poas Volcano, the primary destination for our first day in Costa Rica, is one of several active volcanoes in the country. After a short walk to the caldera rim at 8,740 feet, we descended the mountain and encountered the roadside fruit markets so characteristic of the Costa Rican countryside. A quick stop yielded a basket of plump, sweet strawberries grown in the rich soils on the slopes of the volcano. The strawberries disappeared within a few minutes!

The next day, en route to our hotel at the base of the Arenal Volcano, we again stopped at a roadside market to see and taste fresh tropical fruits. The group recognized many familiar supermarket staples. Even familiar fruits, however, picked locally at the peak of ripeness, provided unexpected taste sensations: pineapples, bananas, mangoes, papayas, and others.

Papaya and Guanabana (soursop) fruit

Papaya and Guanabana (soursop) fruit. Photos by Jim Karr.

Other fruits were unknown to most on the trip. A refreshing drink from guanabana (soursop) tempted us often over the two week trip, and we sampled the soft flesh of cacao to find the seeds, which are ground to yield chocolate.

Cacao fruit

Cacao fruit. Photos by Jim Karr.

Another exotic fruit, the marañón has two distinct segments, a soft apple-like fruit and an appendage that includes the nut we know as a cashew. One can make a jam, a refreshing drink, or ferment the fruit to produce wine. The attached shell contains the cashew nut, but it must be roasted to avoid its naturally toxic content.

Marañón (cashew nut) fruit

Marañón (cashew nut) fruit.

Read Jim Karr’s second post from the trip, “In Search of the Resplendent Quetzal,” and learn more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Costa Rica adventure trip here.

Cloud Forests, Hummingbirds and Wiñay Wayna: Springtime in Peru

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

Patricia Hostiuck, Smithsonian Journeys Study LeaderA popular and respected naturalist, Patty Hostiuck is well-versed in tropical as well as polar ecosystems. She began her career in Alaska as a ranger; since then she has worked as a freelance naturalist and lecturer on numerous expedition ships. Patty, who has led over 50 trips with Smithsonian Journeys, has guided travelers to the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers, Chile, Costa Rica, Belize, the Galápagos, Iceland, Botswana, Australia and Borneo, among many other destinations. Below is a post about her most recent trip—this one to Peru.

In April, I served as Study Leader for Smithsonian’s Legendary Peru trip with a delightful group of guests, most of whom were not only first-time Smithsonian travelers but also first-time visitors to South America. Peru is a great country to begin one’s exploration of South America; it contains the greatest number of archaeological sites and boasts the most highly evolved ancient civilizations on the continent, including the Inca Empire. Machu Picchu was the magnet that drew most of these guests here, but as they have now learned, Peru offers other rewards—delicious and daring cuisine; breathtaking scenery and varied geography, from desert to mountains, cloud forest to lowland jungle; myriad wildlife and botanical wonders; friendly, authentic and down-to-earth people; and, yes, abundant shopping!—certainly a country worthy of repeat visits.

Our April visit turned out to be wonderful timing. In Lima, the capital, the weather was sunny and bright, lacking the gray garúa mist that predominates June – October, and the abundance of flowers was a tonic to those of us just emerging from winter. Although April is the end of the rainy season in the mountains, our weather nonetheless was splendid in Cuzco, Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca. Highland terraced crops were like colorful patchwork quilts, while potatoes—which originated in Peru—were being harvested by colorfully dressed, hard-working Quechua people.

Machu Picchu’s high season for tourists is June – August, so it was a pleasure to explore the magnificent ruins in less crowded conditions. In addition, several species of orchids were in bloom including a towering red Sobralia and a dainty pink Epidendrum locally called “wiñay wayna” which means “forever young.” Due to its location in the Andean cloud forest, Machu Picchu and environs harbors a great diversity of hummingbirds. Feeders at our cloud forest lodge attracted energetic swarms of at least six species of these glittering avian jewels with colorful names like Collared Inca, Sparkling Violetear and Chestnut-breasted Coronet.

Peru lived up to all its promises, both cultural and natural, ancient and current. Smithsonian guests departed well-satisfied with their choice and already planning their next visit to South America. What will it be? Patagonia? Amazon?


Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu. (Courtesy of Flickr user quinet.)

Sobralia orchids, Machu Picchu

Sobralia orchids add pops of color to the Machu Picchu landscape. (Courtesy of Flickr user Matito.)

Lama near Machu Picchu

Llama near Machu Picchu. (Courtesy of Flickr user Emmanuel Dyan.)

Hummingbird near Machu Picchu

Hummingbird near Machu Picchu. (Courtesy of Flickr user Ivan Mlinaric.)

Lima Cathedral

La Catedral in central Lima. (Courtesy of Flickr user James Preston.)

Cuzco, Peru

Cuzco, Peru. (Courtesy of Flickr user fortherock.)

Woman cooking on Uros Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Woman cooking on Uros Island, Lake Titicaca. (Courtesy of Flickr user pclvv.)

Click here to read more about Smithsonian’s upcoming Legendary Peru departures this fall and winter.

Inspiring Travel Photos From Smithsonian Magazine’s Annual Photography Contest

Monday, March 19th, 2012

This March, Smithsonian magazine announced the 50 finalists from their 9th Annual Photo Contest. The contest attracted over 14,000 photographers from all 50 states and over 100 countries. The photos offer a virtual tour of the entire globe — ice caves in Antarctica, fishermen in Myanmar, a segway tour zipping by a modern building in Valencia, Spain. See a selection below, and view the full 50 finalists here.

Which ones inspire you to travel?

Fishermen, Smithsonian Photo Contest

“Three fishermen on Inle Lake.” Taken by David Lazar (Brisbane, Australia). Photographed January 2011, Inle Lake, Myanmar.

Old mine in Colorodo

“Old mine on Red Mountain Pass.” Taken by Robert Castellino (Lafayette, Colorado). Photographed October 2009, Ouray, Colorado.

“Blue Ice Cave.” Taken by Jamie Scarrow (Bruce, Canberra, Australia). Photographed December 2011, Antarctica.

“House collage.” Taken by Shyamal Das (Kolkata, India). Photographed October 2010, Sikkim, West Bengal.

Modern architecture in Valencia, Spain

“Segways on tour in Valencia near a modern building.” Taken by Marcel van Balken (Amstelveen, Netherlands). Photographed October 2010, Valencia, Spain.

Aurora borealis in Alaska

“Moonrise over Northern Lights.” Taken by Ben Hattenbach (Los Angeles, California). Photographed March 2011, northern Alaska.

Mammoth Hot Springs

“Steam from Mammoth Hot Springs.” Taken by Steven Ross (Nixa, Missouri). Photographed October 2009, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

“Village boys relaxing.” Taken by Nimai Chandra Ghosh (Kolkata, India). Photographed November 2009, West Bengal, India.