Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Enchanting Iguazú Falls

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

Jeffrey A. Cole has led over 50 Smithsonian Journeys to Latin America since 1992, including 26 to Peru and 20 to Chile. He has taught Latin American Studies at Clark University, Tulane University, SUNY-Oswego, Cornell University, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Smith College.

In the spring, Jeffrey led a group of Smithsonian travelers on a Patagonian Explorer adventure.

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For the 2012-13 season, the Patagonian Explorer journey will offer a pre-tour excursion to Iguazú Falls. Iguazú, which in Guaraní means “big water,” is one of the must-see places in the world, and I am very pleased it is now available to Smithsonian travelers. When Eleanor Roosevelt visited the falls, she was asked her opinion, and her response was reportedly “Poor Niagara!”

Iguazu Falls

Iguazú Falls. Photo by James Elliott.

Many will remember the falls from “The Mission,” with Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro, which chronicles the removal of the Jesuits from the region in the seventeenth century. Others may have seen nature programs about the swifts that live among the falls. Whatever your inspiration, Iguazú Falls – like Machu Picchu in Perú – usually exceeds even the loftiest of expectations.

Urraca

Urraca. Photo by James Elliott.

The experience is now enhanced by a network of walkways along and over the falls on the Argentine side, including one that leads to the “Boca del Diablo” (“Devils Throat”), where the volume of water and the noise it makes are impressive. It’s also enhanced by the presence of coatíes (raccoon-like animals) and fantastic birds, including the macaw and blue-and-yellow urraca. At the end of the day, as the sun goes down, the sound of the falls and the animals make Iguazú a very special place, and one you’ll remember fondly.

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Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Patagonian Explorer tour here.

From Toulouse to Sarlat

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

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).

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

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After a copious breakfast at our hotel in Toulouse early Sunday morning, we board the bus, leaving La Ville Rose, the “Pink City,” along almost deserted streets.  Our trip today will take us to Sarlat, one of the principal cities of the Perigord, but first we will share some unforgettable experiences in the “Red City” of Albi, from which the Medieval Albigensian Crusade took its name.

In Albi’s main square two imposing structures await, the Cathedral of Ste. Cecile, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Archbishop’s Palace, which has been transformed into the Toulouse- Lautrec museum.

Hotel d'Assezat, Toulouse

Hotel d’Assezat, Toulouse. (Photo by author.)

At first sight, the Cathedral, made entirely of brick and mortar, looks more like a fortress than a church, reminding us of its origin as a statement of the Catholic Church’s power, a symbol of overwhelming force in face of the Cathars who had challenged the legitimacy of the Roman Catholic Church and its clergy.  Then, upon entry to the cathedral, what a surprise awaits us: one of the most extraordinary churches that one could hope to see.  Not only is the nave divided by a beautifully sculpted Jube (rood screen), separating the lay people from the clergy in their chancel, as was common in the Medieval period, but the walls and ceilings are covered with remarkable paintings.  Below the organ, a fresco of the Last Judgment stretches behind the altar, painted by Flemish artists in 15th century Italian Renaissance style.

Painted ceiling of the Chancel, Cathedral of Ste. Cecile

Painted ceiling of the Chancel, Cathedral of Ste. Cecile. (Photo by author.)

The Toulouse-Lautrec museum has been renovated recently and provides a wonderful setting for the paintings of this outstanding French painter who was born in the town of Albi, and whose wealthy, aristocratic family had extensive holdings in the surrounding countryside.  The collection includes some of the painter’s earliest drawings and paintings and features his pioneering poster art, as well as lithographs, pastels and paintings from each stage of his development as an artist.  Particularly appealing are some of his finest portraits, his paintings of horses and other animals, and his especially sensitive treatment of the women of the “comfort houses” of Montmartre in Paris.

The building that houses the Toulouse-Lautrec collection, formerly the Archbishop’s Palace, is a work of art in its own right, and the palace gardens offer a backdrop for gorgeous views over the Tarn River.

View over the Tarn River from the Bishop’s Gardens, Albi. (Photo by author.)

As we leave Albi behind, we follow a small, picturesque road through the countryside of southwestern France, passing the beautiful hillside town of Cordes, perched high above the valley of the Tarn. We make our way toward the Perigord and an early evening arrival in Sarlat.

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Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ France Through the Ages tour here.

Sailing into the History of Turkey’s Beautiful Coast

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Stephanie Larson is an associate professor of classics at Bucknell University who received her Ph.D. in classics from the University of Texas at Austin. She has great interest in the modern histories of both Greece and Turkey.

In April, Stephanie led a group of Smithsonian travelers on a voyage around Legendary Turkey and the Turquoise Coast

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As the Smithsonian Study Leader on the April 2012 Legendary Turkey program, I was thrilled to meet another fascinating group of Smithsonian travelers who had worked in such varied fields as nursing, education, medicine, law, geology, physics, neuropsychology, computer science and epidemiology. It is not every day that I have the opportunity to travel around the ancient Aegean and Mediterranean coasts with people who are so interesting in their own rights and also who are so interested in learning more about the history, archaeology and modern culture of the region. The variety in the Smithsonian travelers’ experience lent itself to stimulating questions and really deep and fascinating discussions, both on-site and during afternoons we spent relaxing on the gulets, beautiful Turkish wooden boats.

Turkey Coast

The western coast of Turkey. Photo courtesy of Flickr user audi_insperation

For example, as one travels down the western coast of Turkey and learns more about Greco-Roman antiquity, one cannot help but think of all the influential people that have come from this region who have influenced the later development of fields like philosophy, art, religion, history, and medicine. As a group, we talked and learned about Heracleitus, St. Paul, Galen and the Pergamene School of ancient sculpture. But as we considered all the great strands of these movements that either started or were influenced by ancient people from the west coast of the Aegean, we found ourselves concentrating on Herodotus, the so-called “Father of History,” who came from ancient Halicarnassos, now modern Bodrum, on the southwestern Turkish coast.  Having just visited the site of ancient Troy, our group was particularly fascinated by how Herodotus explains the origins of the Trojan War and why the Greeks sent a huge fleet against Troy in the second millennium BCE.

Ephesus

Ephesus, ancient ruins on the west coast of Turkey. Photo courtesy of Flickr user eleephotography

In the opening section of his History, Herodotus gives a different version of the war’s beginning than the usual story of the Judgment of Paris. For Herodotus, there are no goddesses involved; Aphrodite is not an anthropomorphized deity descending to earth from Olympus to make trouble with the humans. In Herodotus’ version, Paris, the prince of Troy, steals Helen from Sparta because other men had been stealing women throughout the Aegean and had not been punished for it. So, Paris figured that he too could get away with stealing himself a wife, and so he went to Sparta and carried Helen away. At least this is how Herodotus explains it. Our group talked about this story for quite some time, and we concluded that by taking the gods out of the narrative, Herodotus could indeed be rightly called the “Father of History,” as he attempted to reconcile a mythical story with a war that was thought to have happened seven-hundred years before his time. One of the best parts: We were having this discussion about Herodotus on the deck of a beautiful gulet, over a glass of wine and with the warm Aegean sun on our backs!

Gulet

The traditional Turkey gulet. Photo by Matanya, via Wikimedia Commons

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Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Legendary Turkey and the Turquoise Coast tour here

Elegant, Intimate Úbeda

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

Dianne Konz has taught Spanish literature, language, and civilization at the University of Texas at Austin and at George Washington University. She has also lectured and published studies on Spanish and Latin American literature, and Spanish culture.

Recently, Dianne and a group of Smithsonian Journeys travelers explored the Paradores and Pousadas of the Iberian Peninsula.

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Stepping out of the gorgeous 16th-century palace—our home in Ubeda—onto the plaza ringed by golden brown Renaissance stone, it is hard not to feel the presence of the past. The tranquil elegance of the beautiful square is undisturbed by the occasional passing of locals headed toward the church at one end, or the breathtaking overlook just down the street. To the right, perhaps the most beautiful plaza in Spain, anchored by a majestic and serene Renaissance palace—today’s city hall. A passing shower has left the smooth, timeless stones of the plaza glistening beneath our feet. It is refreshingly cool this afternoon, and the air is fragrant with the scent of wood-burning stoves and fireplaces. We are off to get our bearings and discover the town.

Interior courtyard of the Úbeda Parador. Photo courtesy of Flickr user david_jones

Ubeda is a quiet city where single sounds emerge—church bells, lively conversations, children playing, a car passing. As we amble down the narrow streets, we pass palaces that were once homes to wealthy and powerful figures in the 16th-century Spanish court. Elegant coats of arms carved in stone, like silverwork, adorn the surface of some façades, giving quiet witness to the families that lived there. Today, these palaces are the backdrops for thoroughly modern and vibrant—yet traditional—Spanish life. Our street gives way to another beautiful square with a bandstand in the center. It is nearly the end of the school day and boys kick a soccer ball across a sandy playground. The elegant palace ahead with the Italian-style loggia is now the local music school.  As we pass, I ask a teenager which instrument he studies. He smiles, pats the case, and says with a wink, “Saxophone.”

Ubeda plaza

The renaissance architecture of Úbeda. Photo courtesy of Flickr user martinvarsavsky

Down the way, we spot a ceramic store. Beautiful earthenware glistens in the window and fills the entryway.   Warm browns and deep greens are the predominant local colors. A unique cut-out style graces many pieces.  As we enter the store, the rich aroma of burning wood draws us to a fireplace along the sidewall. The crackling fire casts a glow on the ceramics all around. We approach to say hello to the owner’s wife, an attractive, dignified woman seated beside the fire. She greets us warmly and gestures for us to come nearer to admire her three-week old granddaughter in the pram beside her. A lively toddler—big sister—pulls up a small bentwood rocker to join them, singing quietly to herself.

Ceramic of Triana

Ceramic of Triana, Seville. Photo by Annual (own work), via Wikimedia Commons

We wander to the back of the showroom, where the owner is deftly throwing a beautiful botijo—a traditional clay water jug—on a potter’s wheelI ask him about the distinctive cut-out patterns in some of his pieces. It is called calado –“calao” in the softened Andalusian speech—a style introduced by Moorish craftsmen centuries ago. He explains that the tall vases with the intriguing open work were used to burn aromatics—mint, rosemary, myrtle, and more—to “give atmosphere” to the room. Rather suddenly, the store fills with a large number of lively local teenagers, here on an excursion to view the potter’s craft. As they circle around this outgoing artisan, he gives them his full attention, explaining his technique and answering questions. They move down the narrow aisles, examining pieces, snapping photos on cell phones, and talking animatedly.  Amazingly, nothing hits the floor. As they file out, the potter waves to them and returns to his wheel. Once again, I am grateful for an up-close and personal view of modern Spaniards—of all ages—in this ancient and traditional urban landscape.

Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Paradores and Pousadas tour here.

An Unforgettable Snapshot on the Euphrates River

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Jodi Magness holds a senior endowed chair in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She received her B.A. in archaeology and history from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and her Ph.D. in Classical archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania.

In May, Jodi lead a group of Smithsonian Journey travelers around the Ancient Worlds of Anatolia.

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The Euphrates River: The name evokes images of the earliest civilizations, mighty ancient powers such as Assyria and Babylonia, and modern Middle Eastern conflicts. And here we were, driving from the town of Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey to the Euphrates River for a boat ride! I had the good fortune of accompanying The Ancient World of Anatolia, a tour of southeastern and central Turkey. As we drove, I craned my head for my first glimpse of the fabled river. Finally, we reached the river, driving along its banks until stopping at a spot where we all boarded a boat. I chose to sit with about half of the group on the boat’s roof, for the best view of the river as we made our way upstream.

I thought about how this river provided not only vital drinking water in this arid region, but also served as a main transportation artery for all of the peoples along the hundreds of miles alongside its banks. And I thought about how millennia ago, humans began to utilize the river to irrigate agricultural fields. Thanks to irrigation, farmers were able to produce surplus crops, which led to the rise of specialized crafts and industries, as not everyone had to grow food just to survive. As a result, hierarchical or stratified societies developed—that is, centralized forms of government—and with them, the need for writing to keep official records. All of these thoughts swirled through my mind as we glided along the Euphrates River. Suddenly, I realized this was a “Kodak moment.” Everyone agreed, quickly assembling on the roof of the boat for a group photo.

Smithsonian group on Euphrates River

Smithsonian Journeys group exploring the Euphrates River. Photo by author

After about an hour, we returned to the dock and disembarked.  I stepped down to the river bank and dipped my hand in, so I could say that I have touched the waters of the Euphrates River. We drove back along the river bank the way we had come, stopping for a delicious Turkish lunch at a restaurant overlooking the water. The meal began with bread served hot out of a traditional oven, followed by a delicious salad of fresh, locally grown vegetables. For the main course, I enjoyed fresh grilled trout; other members of the group chose lamb kebabs or Euphrates fish kebabs. This was one of the many highlights of our tour of southeastern and central Turkey.

Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Ancient Worlds of Anatolia tour here.