Archive for the ‘Study Leader Posts’ Category

A Journey Through Southern Spain

Friday, November 8th, 2013

_DSC6039_1140H. Rafael Chacón is Professor of Art History and Criticism at The University of Montana-Missoula where he lectures on a broad range of art historical subjects. He received his doctorate in art history with honors from the University of Chicago, having been awarded numerous research fellowships to study in Europe, including an award from the Spanish Ministry of Culture for his dissertation on Michelangelism in renaissance sculpture. He has written on a range of topics related to renaissance and baroque art, both in Europe and in the Americas, most recently focusing on Spanish-style revival architecture in the U.S. northwest during the late 19th century. In 2002, he completed the full pilgrimage from France to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain and in 2010 one of the four principal routes across southern France leading to the “camino.” Dr. Chacón has led numerous successful travel abroad trips with students and has been a speaker for the Smithsonian Journeys program.

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The evening sun is casting long shadows across the vast Andalusian plain and from the vantage point, high on the balcony of the Parador in Carmona, it is easy to contemplate the rich history of the Iberian peninsula. It is autumn, yet the air is still warm and redolent with the scent of boxwood. It is also harvest time and row after row of the silvery blue olive trees hang dense with the promise of another season. Gold begins to tinge the leaves in the vineyards also ready for harvest. In the distance, we see thin wisps of smoke as farmers clear brush and prepare their fields for the rainy season still to come. Portugal-and-Spain-2013-188515

From this perch, it is easy to imagine the thunderous sounds of horses’ hooves on the plain and the clang of steel as armies of Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, and Christians clashed over centuries to seize the promontories and thus take control of these precious agricultural lands. The very stones we have tread on our walk around the charming town of Carmona evoke Roman soldiers marching across ancient Hispania and merchants haggling over the prices of fruits and vegetables: “No thank you, Tullius! Your oranges are much too bitter, only good for decorating the garden or marinating that suckling pig I intend to roast next week!” Today’s faithful enter churches populated by the subtly carved saints and richly embroidered tapestries of renaissance- and baroque-era bishops, but whose foundations were laid by Visigothic kings or Moorish emirs.Portugal-and-Spain-2013-187515
In fact, as we enter through the horseshoe arches of the gates of our parador, once a fortified palace, and walk past the courtyard with its lovely portico of slender marble columns, patterned stucco walls, and bubbling fountains, we cannot help but think of the Moorish kings who built and defended these very walls and spaces for centuries or of King Pedro I, whose love of Islamic ornament guaranteed that mudejar workers would continue to elaborate and expand the palace after it fell into the hands of Christian conquerors.Portugal-and-Spain-2013-183515
But now as the sun begins to set, we finish sipping our glass of sherry from the nearby Jerez region; it is time to retire and our minds turn to the gifts of art and culture that this amazing peninsula will reveal to us tomorrow.

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To learn more about our Treasures of Southern Spain and Portugal tour, click here.

From Sarlat to Saumur

Saturday, June 15th, 2013

johnsweetsJohn 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).

John led a group of Smithsonian travelers on a journey of France Through the Ages.

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Following three days of a fascinating visit in the French Perigord, the Smithsonian travelers enjoyed a final tasty breakfast buffet in the beautiful yellow-limestone city of Sarlat, before boarding the bus for a day-long trip through south-central France to the Loire Valley, where their destination would be Saumur, formerly a Protestant stronghold in the 17th century until Louis XIV’s revocation of Henri IV’s Edict of Nantes.  Along the way, in addition to viewing the beautiful scenery as the countryside changed from mountains to rolling hills to the vineyards and levees along the Loire, the trip was broken by one dramatic and moving visit, a surprising lunch break, and several history-laden photo stops.

The yellow limestone of Sarlat's Old Town. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

The yellow limestone of Sarlat’s Old Town. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

The Chateau of Saumur overlooks the Loire River. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.
The Chateau of Saumur overlooks the Loire River. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

The first stop was at the martyred town of Oradour-sur-Glane, where four days after the start of the D-Day Landings in Normandy, the German SS Division Das Reich sent elements of the Der Fuhrer regiment to destroy the little town of Oradour and murder 642 of its residents, approximately one-half of the pre-World War II population. Following the war, the residents of the town decided to keep the town just as it had been left by the Nazis as a memorial to commemorate the cost of the war and occupation to the country. The travelers were given a sense of what a French village of the late 1930s looked like, as tracks from the tramway to Limoges were preserved and the remains of houses were marked with the professions of their former owners, including some professions, such as sabotier (or wooden clog maker), that disappeared in the years following the war. The remains of the village church and the cemetery provided the most emotional memories of our visit. Family members of those killed on June 10, 1944 have left photographic images of their loved ones on top of family grave stones and below the memorial wall in the cemetery. The travelers left the martyred village after an emotional visit with a sensation of having walked on “sacred” ground.

Memorial plaque in tribute to four school girls massacred at Oradour-sur-Glane. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Memorial plaque in tribute to four school girls massacred at Oradour-sur-Glane. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Burned out car, left by Germans at Oradour-sur-Glane. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Burned out car, left by Germans at Oradour-sur-Glane. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Our next stop provided a much lighter moment and a very surprising discovery in the heart of France. Lunch was at La Petite Fountain, a buffet style salad bar, located in a former medieval structure for grain storage. The building has been converted into a restaurant by a charming young couple from Scotland, whose restaurant also serves as a cultural center for the fairly substantial British community who live in the area and come into town on weekends to hear Irish and Scottish music at the bar and restaurant. After lunch we continued to the north with a detour to drive through the 17th-century planned community of Richelieu, named for the famous Cardinal Richelieu, chief councilor to Louis XIII. Our bus driver, Laurent, miraculously steered the bus safely between the walls of the narrow, arched entry and exit to the town and received well-deserved applause from the travelers, who by that time had grown accustomed to his virtuosity behind the steering wheel.

Smithsonian travelers arrive at La Petite Fontaine in Le Dorat. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Smithsonian travelers arrive at La Petite Fontaine in Le Dorat. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Central square in Richelieu. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Central square in Richelieu. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Before reaching our destination at Saumur, we made one final photo stop at Chinon on the Vienne River, where Joan of Arc had her first meeting with the Dauphin, soon to become Charles VII, King of France, after she led the French Army that escorted him to Reims in July 1429 for his coronation. The travelers had a beautiful view of the restored castle from the banks of the Vienne. From there we made our way to the banks of the Loire, crossing the river on a bridge with a beautiful view of the Chateau of Saumur, which to our surprise we discovered rising above the city just behind the hotel Anne d’Anjou, which was to be our base of operations for the next few days.

The Chateau of Chinon overlooks the Vienne River. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

The Chateau of Chinon overlooks the Vienne River. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

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Read more about upcoming departures of our France Through the Ages tour here.

In Search of First Growth Green Tea

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Lee,-Rose140Rose Lee is an art historian, curator and editor of Asian art whose focus is on the material cultures and societies of North Asia.  With a working knowledge of Chinese, Korean and Japanese, she has lived and worked in Asia for over twenty years.  Formerly a curator of Chinese art at the Denver Art Museum and the National Palace Museum of Taipei, Rose has also taught Chinese art history at Colorado College and Soochow University. She currently lives in Washington, D.C. and edits exhibition catalogs and journal articles on Asian art.

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Most of us had stayed up almost to midnight aboard the Victoria Anna to experience the thrill of passing the first of five locks that would take us through the Three Gorges Dam, the largest water control project in the world. This morning, under a mimi (“light mist”) rain, we were at the dam itself to admire its awesome twenty-six hydropower generators and scenic beauty. But first I had to hunt down something more important, a supply of the newly harvested green tea from the verdant mountains framing both sides of the upper reaches of the mighty Yangzi River. Known by Chinese tea connoisseurs as Ming Qian or “pre-Qingming” tea that is harvested before the Qingming Festival that usually falls sometime around the fifth of April, this first-growth tea has grown on me ever since I first sampled it at the Yichang Airport enroute to Shanghai three years ago. Green tea picked after Qingming is considered by tea people as less desirable because its essence gets washed out by the rains that come with the start of the monsoon season in the Yangtze region.

Photo courtesy of wikimedia

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Like all Chinese green teas, Three Gorges green tea is processed by lightly tossing or steaming in a wok over hot flames shortly after picking to stop the natural oxidation process.  This ensures that the tea will retain a high concentration of vitamin C, amino acids, and catechins—the antioxidant that gobbles up free radicals that damage body cells and contribute to cancer, blood clots, and blocked arteries.  When seeped (at 80 to 85 degrees centigrade, please!), the tea reveals a beautiful yellow-green color and has a grassy taste with overtones of freshly roasted ginkgo nuts. I drink coffee to jump-start my system and get going in the morning.  When I need to calm or clear my mind for serious thinking or writing, I always turn to leaf green tea.  This is something known to Chan (Zen in Japanese) monks who regularly undergo long bouts of meditation.

Along with a fellow Smithsonian traveler, a retired mid-wife who proclaimed green tea one of the most potent antioxidants around, I was very happy to find Three Gorges green tea that was harvested just a few weeks ago in a shop close to the dam.

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To learn more about our Imperial China and the Yangtze tour click here.

The Perfect Finale to a Caribbean Cruise

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

douglas_long-140Douglas Long is the Chief Curator of Natural Sciences at the Oakland Museum of California and a Research Associate at the California Academy of Sciences. Most of his studies focus on sharks, marine mammals, and deep sea fish. He is also involved in wildlife conservation and is on the Research Board for Island Endemics International, an organization involved in saving and restoring habitat for rare island animals. He has taught college courses in the biological and earth sciences for over 21 years and has appeared on CNN, BBC, PBS, and the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week.”

Read a Q&A with Douglas Long here

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The Beautiful View from

The beautiful vista of the Caribbean. Photo credit: Douglas Long

Our Smithsonian Journey through the Lesser Antilles and the Caribbean Sea aboard the Silver Cloud was a beautiful cruise adventure from start to finish. When in port, the diversity of land excursions provided a wide range of activities to suit just about anything one might like to do. On our last day, in the port of Spanish Town on the British Virgin Island of Virgin Gorda, we decided to take an overview tour of the island. We climbed into a comfortable open-air tour van with an affable driver and guide, and embarked on an end-to-end island journey. What first struck me about Virgin Gorda was the lack of development and the abundance of native vegetation. The natural beauty of other Caribbean islands is often impacted by resorts or graze livestock, but Virgin Gorda offered a glimpse of what those other islands may have been like in the past. As we toured over the hills and along the coast, we took in the numerous white-sand beaches, sapphire-blue waters, and stunning vistas that bring people back to the Caribbean again and again.

The Ruins of

The ruins of the historic Copper Mine. Photo credit: Douglas Long

We visited a wide range of sights from the ruins of a historic copper mine, to the massive granite boulders of The Baths, to panoramic views of the other British Virgin Islands from our spot atop Gorda Peak. Each of the passengers was simultaneously enjoying different facets of the tour: feeling the warm Caribbean sun, smelling the sweet trade-winds, listening to the history of the island, settling into the gentle comfort of a rum punch, or in my case, sharing bird-watching tips as we journeyed along. It was one of those instances of being in the blissful ‘now’ of a gorgeous place on a fine day, a relaxing appreciation of the beauty and restoration travel can bring, and how any single place can be enjoyed in so many different ways. As we rolled back into Spanish Town to catch the tender ship back to the Silver Cloud, the first passenger who got off our van belted with gusto “That was GREAT!” Another chimed in, “The best tour yet!” It was the perfect grand finale to a fantastic journey.

Photo credit: Douglas Long

Photo credit: Douglas Long

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Deeply Moving Senegal: Around the World with Dr. Richard Kurin

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

richard-kurinDr. Richard Kurin serves as the Smithsonian Institution’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture with responsibility for most of its museums including the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Anacostia Community Museum, the National Museum of African Art, the National Postal Museum, and others including the soon to be built National Museum of African American History and Culture. He also oversees research and outreach programs, including the Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibition Service, The Smithsonian Associates, the Smithsonian Channel, and the Smithsonian Affiliates—a network of 168 museums across the U.S. Read More»

Dr. Kurin is currently leading a group on an around-the-world tour of some of the world’s extraordinary cultures and will be sending regular updates from abroad. Come back regularly to follow along!

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We crossed much of the African continent flying into Senegal, seeing both the richness of the landscape and the horizon-filling flat plain of the Sahara Desert.

Dakar is the capital of Senegal, the former capital of French West Africa and still the thriving cosmopolitan city of the region. It has grown huge since I last visited some two decades ago, the charming old French colonial quarter overwhelmed by the urban expanse. But development under this long-lived democratic government seems to have taken hold—as we saw new, modern, well-built roads, good housing, schools, public buildings and markets and a wide variety of amenities. We settled in at our hotel on Dakar’s peninsula which juts out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Our big visit was to Gorée Island, a short ferry-ride from Dakar’s port.

Travelers dancing to a Senegalese beat

Travelers dancing to a Senegalese beat

We were welcomed to the island by a percussion band whose rhythms and beats were infectious. Social dancing in Senegal is commonplace. Though the country is some 95% Muslim, the orientation of the multi-ethnic population is quite ecumenical and tolerant. Music and dance are ingrained into cultural traditions and even used by various spiritual brotherhoods. Men and women, Senegalese and American joined in, and soon our whole group was moving with the beat. The music helped create a strong communal feeling among us, and between us and our Senegalese hosts, and I couldn’t help but think about our initial drum circle with Mickey Hart back in Seattle at the start of the trip. There are simply things, like music and movement, that bring people of diverse backgrounds together as human beings.

Gorée  is a tiny island, settled by the Portuguese and then used by the French; its colonial buildings, church and layout are all very charming, until you realize that for some three centuries this island was used as a way-station in the slave trade.

A choir performance at the House of Slaves

A choir performance at the House of Slaves

We visited the incredibly evocative House of Slaves. Here was the building in which 150 or so slaves at a time where kept in cells, chained and auctioned, and then shipped out through a “door of no return” onto slave ships sailing for the Caribbean and the Americas. A choir of teenage girls and boys sang hymns, familiar to many, and set the mood—both somber and uplifting. It was here in this building that man’s inhumanity to his fellow man reached its crescendo. At Gorée, and similar way-stations like it, scholars estimate that some 20 million enslaved Africans were separated from their families and their homes, walked through similar doors of no return and shipped across the seas. Again, as in Rwanda, though we were much affected by the history of the place, we celebrated with the Senegalese the resilience of those who survived—both in the Americas and in Africa. As Gorée now reminds us, the shackles of slavery were eventually broken.

Peering through the Door of No Return

Peering through the Door of No Return

We visited the various museums and artisanal workshops on the island, bargained at its market, enjoyed a meal and the ballads of a local griot—or singing storyteller.

Playing the Griot on Goree

Playing the Griot on Goree

As the group headed back to the hotel, Johnnetta and I broke away for meetings with the Senegalese Ministers of Culture and Tourism. We reviewed with Minister Mbaye the history of Smithsonian programs with Senegal, including a landmark 1989 program at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, as well as the current efforts of our National Museum of African American History and Culture to cooperate with Senegal’s Musée de l’Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire (IFAN) on the archaeological heritage of slavery on Gorée. We are also involved in initiatives to help train professionals in museological work.  Our meeting with the Minister of Tourism is a special treat, for the incumbent is Youssou N’Dour, the famed world music star. He is very interested in encouraging educational, cultural tourism to Senegal and working with the National Museum of African Art and the Smithsonian in doing so.

Dr. Kurin with Cole and Youssou N’Dour

Dr. Kurin and Johnnetta Cole with Youssou N’Dour

The evening program included a wonderful briefing by Kristin Stewart, the public affairs officer from the U.S. Embassy and a film and discussion with Senegal’s most prominent sculptor Ousmane Sow. The National Museum of African Art has one of his most important sculptures as a signature piece in its collection—Sow’s rendition of Haitian independence leader Toussaint Loverture comforting a freed slave. It is a remarkable sculpture, and Sow captures the emotion of the moment in his larger-than-life mud-sculpted figures. He’s a charming and delightful creative soul, and he joined the group for a fabulous dinner and engaging conversation demonstrating by word and art how he uses African history, tradition, and its very soil to mold aspirations of future and universal value.

Ousmane Sow with our Smithsonian travelers

Ousmane Sow with our Smithsonian travelers

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Find more information about our Around the World Private Jet trips here.

Read Dr. Kurin’s previous dispatch from Rwanda: Renewal in Rwanda: Around the World with Dr. Richard Kurin”