Archive for the ‘UNESCO World Heritage sites’ Category

Auf den Flűgeln der Musik – On the Wings of Music

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

35_thumbnailUrsula Rehn Wolfman is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Born in Steinfeld, Austria, Ursula was educated in Germany, England, France, and the United States. As an independent scholar who formerly worked with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, her particular field of interest is the relationship between the arts, literature, painting/sculpture, architecture, and music. She has lectured extensively in the U.S. and abroad on French literature and its relationship with the arts. She received the Diplome Superieur from the Sorbonne in Paris and completed her graduate studies in the United States at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor with a doctorate in French literature and philosophy and a minor in art history. Ursula has led tours for the Smithsonian throughout Europe.

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The just-concluded Smithsonian Journeys Tour ‘Symphony on the Danube’ of September 2013, started in Krakow, Poland, traversed the Czech Republic to Prague and continued along the Danube from Passau to Melk, to Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest — its regions and cities showcases some of the greatest European architecture, art and music. Our journey had a musical emphasis, as its title suggests, and musical performances were scheduled throughout the tour, from Chopin’s music in Krakow, to Dvořák’s and Smetana’s in Prague, to recitals on the great organs in Passau and Melk, to Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Strauss compositions in Vienna, and Hungarian gypsy music in Budapest. For me, though, it is always magical Prague, the city of a thousand spires, which leaves the most memorable musical impressions.

Even in Mozart’s time, Bohemia and its capital, Prague, were considered the ‘conservatory of music’ with its exceptionally well-trained musicians, and also with a population profoundly appreciative of Mozart’s genius — very different from Vienna, where Mozart’s genius was not always understood. Mozart’s ‘beloved Prague citizens’ adored his Magic Flute and his Marriage of Figaro. His ‘Don Giovanni’ premiered in Prague’s Estate Theatre, and after his death in 1791, Mozart’s Requiem saw its first performance in St. Nicholas Church in the Mala Strana district (Lesser Town) below the Hrádčany Castle.

Architecturally, with its many Baroque churches, Prague provides an exceptional visual and acoustic background for many of the greatest compositions of the Baroque and Classical periods. These churches, built as basilicas with a central rotunda and soaring, painted heavens with figures of saints dramatically reaching into space, have perfect acoustics, which differ from those experienced in particular by American audiences, who are more familiar with acoustics in their Gothic-style churches or modern concert halls. Baroque-style churches do not exist in America. On my European tours, I always encourage our Smithsonian travelers to experience music of the period performed in buildings of the period.

In Prague, as in Eastern Europe in general, Baroque organs, many still in their original, unaltered state after these many centuries, are tuned to the principals of Baroque music, i.e., almost one octave lower than modern organs. This requires accompanying instruments also to be tuned to the same pitch, resulting in a warm, breathy sound – quite different from what we usually hear elsewhere. The concert we attended in St. Nicholas Church featured Jan Kalfus on the Baroque organ and mezzosoprano Yvona Škvárová, soloist of the National Theatre. The program started with two compositions of the Baroque era, J. S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-Minor, followed by Händel’s Arias from Xerxes, and Semele — with organ and voice soaring in this perfect architectural space –reminding us of the importance of the human voice which found new expressions in Bach’s and Händel’s oratorios. A selection of biblical songs by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and Antonin Dvořák concluded this extraordinary concert, which left us all transported “on the wings of music”.

Another amazing musical experience took place in Prague’s Lobkowicz Palace, where we first visited the extraordinary collection of the Princes Lobkowicz, which was restored to the current Prince Lobkowicz family after the fall of communism.   The Beethoven Room, one of the most interesting parts of the collection, has period instruments on view, as well as the original scores of Beethoven’s Third Symphony — initially dedicated to Napoleon, but changed in honor of an ancestor of the current Prince Lobkowicz, after Napoleon’s advance and subjugation of Eastern Europe — and Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies and Mozart’s re-orchestration of Händel’s Messiah in Mozart’s own hand.

Prince Lobkowicz personally greeted us before the ensuing concert in one of the Baroque Halls of his Palace. A superb quartet played classical and contemporary music. One of the most moving pieces was Antonin Dvořák’s Largo from his New World Symphony, musically connecting Old Europe and the New World represented by our Smithsonian travelers. For all of us it was one of the highlights of our travels — on the Danube and “on the wings of music”.

Antonin Dvořák’s Largo. Video courtesy of Howard Whittle.

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To learn more about our Symphony on the Blue Danube: A Classical Music Cruise click here!

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.

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.

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”