Archive for the ‘Tours’ Category

Costa Rica’s Natural Heritage

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

James Karr, Smithsonian 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. Below is the second of two posts about the trip. Smithsonian 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. Below is the second of two posts about the trip.

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A Smithsonian Journeys expedition to Costa Rica is like a birthday party: you know you’ll get gifts, but you don’t know what. You can guess some gifts from the itinerary, but the best ones are the surprises—the unexpected encounters, the memorable experiences.

People. The camaraderie of our groups is always a gift: It’s a pleasure to meet travelers, who, no matter what their backgrounds and reasons for choosing a Smithsonian trip, inevitably form a cohesive and communal group. The enthusiasm of fellow travelers is contagious and enriches all of us. But nothing matches the welcoming smiles and friendliness of the Costa Ricans themselves.

Visits to a local school are a highlight of our travels in Costa Rica.

Visits to a local school are a highlight of our travels in Costa Rica.

Places. Two volcanoes have star billing on our Costa Rican itinerary, yet both can be hard to see as clouds swirl up their slopes and around their peaks. But in February 2013, we had clear skies from horizon to horizon and got a spectacular view inside the caldera of Poas Volcano.  This was the first time in eight trips that I saw Poas in full splendor. Wow! What a gift!

Fog characteristic of cloud forests often partially or, as in this case, completed obscures the volcanic caldera of Poas Volcano only a few hundred feet away. March 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Fog characteristic of cloud forests often partially or, as in this case, completed obscures the volcanic caldera of Poas Volcano only a few hundred feet away. March 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Poas Volcano caldera unobscured by clouds and fog. February 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Poas Volcano caldera unobscured by clouds and fog. February 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

As we travel, we crisscross the Continental Divide, the ridgeline splitting rainfall flowing to the Caribbean from rain flowing to the Pacific. The scenery is magnificent, with forests—often protected in national parks and reserves—giving way to cattle ranches and farms growing bananas, plantain, pineapple, coffee, sugar cane, mangos, and more. The last days of our trip, we walk a sheltered Pacific Coast beach, feeling relaxed, meditative.

A special dinner on the beach during our last night at the Hotel Casa Conde del Mar. March 232, 2013. Photo by Edward Getley.

A special dinner on the beach during our last night at the Hotel Casa Conde del Mar. March 232, 2013. Photo by Edward Getley.

Plants and Animals. The multicolored splendor of flowering trees in the tropics is rarely matched in any temperate forest. And when the fruits ripen, we find many mammals and birds lured to the fruiting tree. White-faced and howler monkey troops travel along treetop highways, seeking food, defending territories, and watching over their young.

A curious white-faced monkey encountered during a boat trip on the Tempisque River. March 22, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

A curious white-faced monkey encountered during a boat trip on the Tempisque River. March 22, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Our daily bird walks usually produce a group list of 140 to 160 species. The resplendent quetzal, a species considered one of the world’s most beautiful birds, is a must-see for many traveling with us, and we are often lucky enough to find one. Sometimes, we’ll also spot the tiny six-inch ferruginous pygmy owl, which hunts insects at dawn and dusk, and hummingbirds feeding their young in the nest.

A ferruginous pygmy owl forages in the trees on the grounds of the Hotel Casa Conde del Mar. February 22, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr

A ferruginous pygmy owl forages in the trees on the grounds of the Hotel Casa Conde del Mar. February 22, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr

We rarely see snakes, but the five-to-six-inch orange-kneed tarantula sometimes startles us.

An orange-kneed tarantula observed on a night walk at Monteverde. March 21, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

An orange-kneed tarantula observed on a night walk at Monteverde. March 21, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

 

Experiences. Some of our most memorable events are serendipitous. Once, a restaurant lunch stop led to an invitation to visit a server’s relative, who was harvesting a local palm wine, and  we were treated to an impromptu wine tasting.

A Costa Rican farmer and his son filter and bottle palm wine collected from the trunks of palm trees. March 31, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

A Costa Rican farmer and his son filter and bottle palm wine collected from the trunks of palm trees. March 31, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Another time, our tour director invited us to his family home, where the garden overflowed with 800 species of orchids. We met his family,  including his grandfather, who, at more than 100 years of age, tends the orchids every day.

Orchid expert and tour director Randall Obsney (right) with his parents and grandfather at the family home and orchid garden. February 15, 2013, Photo by Jim Karr.

Orchid expert and tour director Randall Obsney (right) with his parents and grandfather at the family home and orchid garden. February 15, 2013, Photo by Jim Karr.

Then, pausing in a shelter to avoid an afternoon downpour, we found a gift of artwork: motorbike tires crafted into toucans!

Toucan art crafted from a motorbike tire. February 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Toucan art crafted from a motorbike tire. February 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

 

Each trip gives new gifts to everyone, not least of which is the chance to share them with fellow Smithsonian Journeys travelers.

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To learn more about out our Costa Rica’s Natural Treasures 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.

Dreaming in French: A Month in Provence

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

For the Smithsonian group on Journeys’ new “Living in Provence” month-long immersion program, there are as many wonderful reasons for joining the trip as there are Smithsonian travelers. Over the course of the next month, the Smithsonian travelers will be immersed in and learning about French culture, history, language, art, and cuisine while living in Aix-en-Provence’s Old Town, surrounded by historic fountains, local fruit and vegetable markets, cozy cafés, pâtisseries, and gorgeous tree-shaded boulevards.

The group walking to school through the back streets of Provence

The group walking to school through the back streets of Provence

The Smithsonian travelers had an exciting first day exploring the heart of Aix-en-Provence and becoming acquainted with the beautiful ancient city that will be their home for the next month. They also learned the route to their nearby language school both by bus and on foot, met with their French teachers, and had their first excursion to a nearby grocery store to both stock up on familiar essentials and make new discoveries of French products to try during their stay.

Taking a tour of their new home in Provence

Taking a tour of their new home in Provence

In the evening, the group gathered for a welcome reception, featuring some of the region’s delicious wines, as well as kir royal, a delicious apéritif comprised of champagne and cassis, a black currant liqueur. Each traveler shared with one another what led each of them to enroll in this very special shape-your-own-experience Smithsonian Journey here in the cultural heart of Southern France. Each traveler’s motivations and goals are unique and yet resonated with the rest of the group.

Our Welcome Reception

Our Welcome Reception

One Smithsonian traveler looks forward to applying her French skills to reading books in French with her granddaughter, who is studying French in school. Another Smithsonian traveler is considering moving to Europe after retirement, and this month-long program will provide the perfect opportunity to explore that possibility in a comfortable setting and in the warm company of the Smithsonian community.  “It’s all of my bucket list wrapped up into one program!” exclaimed one traveler. Another shared, “By the end of the trip, I want to dream in French!”  The rest of the group heartily agreed. A traveler joked, “I dreamt in French last night, but didn’t understand a word!” We all laughed and told him it’s just a matter of time before he’ll be translating his dreams here in Provence.

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To learn more about our Living in Provence tour, click here.

A Journey through the Other Europe

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013
Motyl,-Aleksander_Must-credit-Anne-Mandelbaum140

Photo Credit: Anne Mandelbaum

Alexander J. Motyl is professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. He served as associate director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University from 1992-1998. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, he is the author of numerous books, including Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires and Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism. He is also the editor of over ten volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism. In addition to his academic career, Alexander is a poet, a visual artist, and a fiction writer. His novels include Whiskey Priest and Who Killed Andrei Warhol.

 

 

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8056_image_fileEastern Europe remains a region steeped in mystery for many.  Smithsonian Journeys’ “Old World Europe” program provides a wonderful opportunity to see firsthand and appreciate the historical and cultural richness of the region as well as its critical importance to some of the most significant political and economic developments of the twentieth century.7591_image_file

Who can fail to be impressed by Vienna’s stately Schönbrunn palace, Krakow’s Wawel Castle, Budapest’s airy Parliament building, or Prague’s magnificent St. Vitus Cathedral? At the same time, who can view an Eastern European synagogue or the displays of children’s shoes in Auschwitz without empathizing with, and more deeply understanding, the immense tragedy that befell Jews as a result of the savage Nazi pursuit of the “Final Solution”?11226_image_file

Eastern Europe has experienced some of the most debilitating shocks of the recent past. It was here that World War I devastated countries and took millions of lives. It was here that Stalin killed millions. It was here that the Holocaust raged with full force. It was here that World War II leveled cities such as Warsaw and Minsk, produced tens of millions of casualties, and experienced its strategic turning point. D-Day is often viewed as the battle that turned the tide against Hitler. But the invasion of Normandy took place a year and a half after the Soviet Army stopped the seemingly invincible German armed forces at Stalingrad and subsequently began its relentless push to the west.11217_image_file

Eastern Europe also experienced forty to seventy years of communist totalitarianism—an experience that isolated the region from the world and set it back for decades. The collapse of communism in 1989-1991, the subsequent emergence of independent nations, and their ongoing attempt to define their identities and find their place in the world have confronted the peoples of the region with challenges and opportunities that most Americans can hardly imagine. Our trip demonstrated that Eastern Europeans, whether Poles or Jews or Slovaks or Hungarians or Czechs, are resilient, tough, and determined. As we saw, they are survivors who do not give up—a character trait that bodes well for their future within the European Union and a rapidly globalizing world.

Our group came away from its visit with a fuller understanding of the complexities of Eastern European history, of the immense richness of Eastern European culture, of the importance of Eastern Europe’s many contributions to world culture in general and American culture in particular. In turn, I got to see the region and its peoples through the eyes of the group, a uniquely rewarding experience that greatly enhanced my own understanding of this part of European civilization.

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To learn more about our Old World Europe tour, click here!

Springtime in Italy

Friday, May 10th, 2013

Trego-Kris140Kristine (Kris) M. Trego is an assistant professor of classics at Bucknell University who received her Ph.D. in classics from the University of Cincinnati. Kris has been working in Turkey as an underwater archaeologist with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology for the past eleven years, and her archaeological research focuses on the crews’ equipment aboard ancient Greek and Roman ships. Additionally, Kris lectures and publishes on narrative and rhetorical techniques in ancient Greek and Roman authors. Kris looks forward to sharing stories of history, adventure, and discovery in Turkey with tour members.

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Capri

Capri

Springtime in Italy: Is there anything that can so delight all the senses? Cool breezes fragrant with intoxicating citrus blossoms, verdant hills covered with bright poppies, sunlight twinkling over the blue waves, and melodic bird song fill each day. The sun glimmered brightly off the beautifully carved limestone churches of Velletta, Malta and made the sandstone temples of Agrigento, Sicily glow like hot embers against the blue sky. The days were filled with natural and architectural landscapes that summoned from us small gasps and serene sighs and the evenings were spent in convivial conversations over fine dinners aboard the Tere Moana.

Group Photo at Temple of Concordia in Arigento

Group Photo at Temple of Concordia in Arigento

While one day would offer us the opportunity to walk the ancient streets of Pompeii before cruising over to the isle of Capri to wonder at the sapphire light within the Blue Grotto, the next would bring us to the vertical towns that cling to the cliffs along the Amalfi Coast, where we were at leisure to explore the cobbled passages of Positano, lined with galleries and cafes. Whether the pathways we travelled were millennia or centuries old, each brought us to timeless vistas and cultural immersions that enrich far more than the days on which the paths were traversed, but will forever leave traces within ourselves.

 

Etruscan Tombs at Cerveteri

Etruscan Tombs at Cerveteri

Positano

Positano

Theater at Tauromina looking toward Mt. Etna

Theater at Tauromina looking toward Mt. Etna

To learn more about our Voyage of Ancient Empires cruise click here.