Travel

The Most Beautiful Church in the World

wide-angle interior showing plant-stem columns, flower ceiling and stained glass

In 1883, whimsical creative architect Antoni Gaudi started working on Sagrada Familia (sacred family), a huge Roman Catholic church in Barcelona, Spain. At the time of his death in 1926 (he was hit by a streetcar), less than a quarter of the building was finished. Slow progress then and later was partially due to lack of funding (it relied on private donations) and the Spanish Civil war (1936-39) By 2010, when I first visited, it was more than halfway done, but the central nave was stacked with building materials so we had to walk around the edges. On my second visit, last September (2018), the interior was complete and spectacular. The outside towers, however are still under construction, and the expected finish date is 2026—100 years after Gaudi’s death.

Known as God’s Architect, Gaudi felt that the Medieval Gothic style of his day was limited. It relied on large support structures called buttresses, and he believed that God’s house should be free of bulky supports, yet limitless in its height and grandeur, so he turned to nature, or what he saw as God’s architecture. The support columns of the church resemble the stems of plants, making the design stronger and lighter and allowing for more natural light. Gaudi built many of his models upside down to show how the weight would be distributed.

The main entrance, in the nativity façade, contains a complex variety of scenes featuring Jesus, Mary, Joseph, angels, kings, shepherds, flowers, animals and birds, all depicting the adoration at the birth and life of Jesus. The rear entrance, or Passion façade, depicts the death of Jesus with simple lines and figures. Many architects have worked on the church since Gaudi’s death, and all did their best to stay true to his plans and vision. Sagrada Familia has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Categories: Architecture, Art, churches, culture, engineering, Europe, History, Photography, Spain, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

5 Days in Venice: Magical or Mundane?

Gondolas in Venice's lagoon

I’ve heard mixed reviews about Venice. Some say it’s the most magical city in Europe. Others complain that it’s too touristy and over-rated. Yes, Venice calls to tourists like the hive calls to a swarm of bees. If you stay in the areas around St. Mark’s Square, you’ll encounter similar swarms of tourists and long lines. But even there, the magic is palpable.

We wanted to visit the Doge’s Palace and infamous prison while avoiding the crowds, so we went late in the afternoon. At one time, Venice’s powerful Doges ruled much of Europe from their palace in the sea. Anyone who opposed them was thrown into the palace’s dungeons, but eventually, more room was needed, so a separate prison was built across a small canal next to the palace and the two connected by a covered bridge. Writers later referred to this passage as the Bridge of Sighs as it was thought that prisoners sighed as they looked out at the pleasures of Venice, which they would never experience again. As we crossed into the prison, we peered out through the small, decorative window openings at a crowd of tourists taking pictures of this famous bridge.

After our palace/prison tour, we decided not to stand in the long, snaking line waiting for the elevator to the top of the Campanile, a tall tower in the square. I bet the view was amazing from the top. Instead, we found a table at one of the outdoor restaurants, ordered some food and a spritz (a Venetian specialty drink) and listened to an orchestra playing classical and contemporary music as the setting sun turned the façade of St. Mark’s cathedral to gold. Definitely magical.

We had planned to ride in a gondola, but in the small canals around St. Mark’s Square, dozens of gondolas, each carrying a couple or family, lined up like a traffic jam on a watery freeway. Many of the couples looked bored or were staring at their cell phones. Not romantic. Not magical.

Instead, we walked the narrow car-free lanes and crossed tiny canal bridges as well as large ones such as Rialto and Accademia—two of five spanning the Grand Canal. Rialto was the first built. Its premiere incarnation in 1181 consisted of a row of boats tied together side by side and planks laid on top of them. With its second incarnation in 1255, it became a wooden drawbridge allowing ship traffic up and down the canal. It collapsed in 1444 (under the weight of a crowd gathered to watch a boat parade in celebration of a wedding) and again in 1524, then was redesigned and built in 1591 as a covered stone structure lined with shops on both sides.

Instead of a tourist hotel, we opted to rent an apartment near the outskirts of Venice island. After taking some wrong turns trying to find the address while dragging suitcases behind us, we eventually arrived at a door in a building down an alleyway. One flight (but lots of steps) up, our apartment was perfect, with a balcony overlooking the small canal below. Our landlady, Sophia, lived next door and her dogs barked each time they heard us coming home. Below, along the canal, a string of restaurants and a wine bar made up the social life of our neighborhood. Sometimes we cooked our meals (there was a grocery store not far away); sometimes we ate out. We felt like we belonged there.

We also adapted to life without cars. Once we located our vaporetto (basically a bus on water) stop, we bought passes and went everywhere. The vaporettos were always crowded with standing room only, so we positioned ourselves near the “door” enabling us to get on and off easily. Coming home in the evening, the Moorish-style palaces and casinos with their twinkling lights spread golden reflections on the water of the Grand Canal.

Conclusion: Magical.

Categories: Architecture, Art, bridges, culture, Europe, History, Photography, Stock Photography, Travel, Venice | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Leonardo da Vinci’s French Connection

flying machine

Leonardo da Vinci was a genius artist, inventor, town planner and architect. In 1516, he accepted an invitation from French King Francois I to live and work in Amboise, France. Until his death in 1519 at age 64, Da Vinci lived in Chateau du Cloux (now Clos Luce) near the royal castle, so, of course, we had to visit the house, now a museum.

Da Vinci’s inventions are displayed in miniature in the house, and full-size around the extensive grounds. Flying machines, paddle-wheel boats, revolving bridge (portable, for armies on the move), helicopter (aerial screw), machine gun, armored car (precursor to the modern tank), giant crossbow, a double-decker bridge that was supposed to help stop the spread of the plague, and his artwork hanging from trees.

We were also lucky enough to be there for a special exhibition on the progression of flying machines, from a man-powered set of wings to hot-air balloons and beyond.

 

Categories: Architecture, Art, bridges, engineering, France, History, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amboise’s Classical (music) Castle

Orchestra and patrons at the foot of Amboise castle

Castles fascinate me: their steep-sided walls meant to repel invaders, their dungeons, their turrets and worn stone steps. Amboise’s fortifications were originally built around the 4thcentury AD, and since then, its appearance has been added to and changed many times as France’s rulers called it home (when they weren’t off making war or consolidating their holdings). A few were born, married or died here. For some time, it was considered a hunting lodge, and 75% of its late-14th-century construction remains today.

After exploring the castle, we found, between castle and garden, a full orchestra preparing for a concert. We made our way across the garden, up the steps leading through rows of round bushes, found a couple of chairs and settled in for a while, relaxing to the strains of music floating through the air. It was heavenly.

You’ll notice one of my photos looks like a framed painting or photo of the castle. Two empty gold frames were cleverly placed at the top of the garden, and we saw many people standing behind the frames to have their selfies taken with the castle in the background. Only one problem: They stood so close to the frame, filling it, that you could barely see the castle. I lined up my shot of the castle through the frame, and then a group conveniently stopped on a landing within my view to admire their surroundings. That’s what I call serendipity.

Categories: Architecture, culture, dragons, France, gardens, History, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

France’s Loire Valley: Medieval Amboise

View of Amboise’ castle across the river from our B*B

My husband retired early this year, so we decided to celebrate with a 7-week trip to Europe (while he was working, vacations could only last 3 weeks). We did all the planning, and now consider ourselves travel-agent worthy. For the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing the adventure with you, starting with our stay in France’s Loire River Valley, which is known for its many chateaus (castles). So, let me first introduce you to the charming medieval town of Amboise.

Getting to Amboise was fairly easy. From Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport we took a train to St. Pierre des Corps, and then a 12-minute train ride to Amboise. As we walked with our suitcases from the tiny train station in Amboise to our bed-and-breakfast, a man riding a bicycle shouted at us that we were going the wrong way. He apparently assumed we were going TO the train station. We laughed, waved and kept on going. A few blocks later, when we found our accommodations, the big, wrought-iron gate was closed and locked. We tried phoning, but no one answered. Uh oh. Next door was a café/bar where the townspeople came to place sports bets (It was odd to see a Chinese family—obviously residents—chatting with the locals in French). We waited there for a few hours, checking every so often to see if the gate had been opened. Finally, we found a woman who lived at the B&B (not the owner), and she let us in. Our room was delightfully French, with a splendid view of the castle across the river.

Categories: Architecture, Art, bridges, culture, France, Photography, Stock Photography, Sunsets, Travel | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

George Patton once dropped bombs on our Hawaii volcano to stop a lava flow

http://www.civilbeat.org/2018/05/the-time-they-bombed-mauna-loa-and-other-lava-stopping-schemes/

Categories: environment, Hawaii, History, nature, Photography, travel Hawaii, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

My Hawaii story for Travel Ideas Magazine

T.I. mag front story photoTO READ THE STORY, PLEASE CLICK ON THIS LINK: Hawaii story for Travel Ideas mag

 

Categories: Hawaii, travel Hawaii, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

CWW: Up and Down

Categories: Architecture, Asia, China, engineering, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

CB&W: Hot and Cold

My challenge to myself is to find these challenge photos from a recent trip to China. Cooking hot Peking Duck, and enjoying cold “iceas.”

Categories: Asia, China, Food, Photography, Signs, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Golden Sunrise

Spectacular sunrise at Kahala, Oahu, Hawaii

Beautiful nature to brighten up the day

Categories: Art, environment, Hawaii, nature, Photography, Signs, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Climbing China’s Great Wall

Looking down at Base Camp and the wall from the top tower at Badaling

Right or Left? That was our choice when we arrived at Base Camp—my nickname for the concrete entryway, lined with small shops and a ticket booth—at the Great Wall of China’s Badaling section, 40 miles northwest of Beijing.

Only select sections of the crumbling Great Wall have been fully or partially restored. Badaling is one of the best. It’s also closest to the country’s bustling capital. As such, it’s the most crowded, especially when we were there—during October’s National Day Holiday, when everyone in the country goes on vacation for a week and makes a beeline for Beijing and the Great Wall. During peak times (i.e. holidays), it’s estimated that 70,000 people per day visit Badaling.

Before traveling to China, I’d watched a tv show documenting the Great Wall’s history. In the 3rd century BC, during what’s known as the Warring States period, Qin Shi Huang’s army defeated armies from the other 6 kingdom states in what is now China. After crowning himself emperor of the now unified country, he ordered most fortifications between the states demolished. Some walls he kept and joined together in a single system to protect his empire from barbarians in the north.

Using mostly packed earth and rocks, almost a million peasants, criminals, soldiers, disgraced nobles and unemployed intellectuals slaved for ten years to construct a wall that stretched 3,100 miles. It’s estimated that 400,000 of these laborers died during construction, and many were buried in the wall, giving rise to its nickname: the world’s largest cemetery.

Over the years, there were various accounts of the wall’s efficacy. As dynasties came and went, it was either repaired or neglected. It kept out some invaders but not others such as Mongol Genghis Khan. Around 1206AD, his grandson Kublai Khan broke through, conquered China and created the Yuan Dynasty, stationing soldiers along the wall to protect merchants and caravans traveling along profitable Silk-Road trade routes.

The year 1368 saw the defeat of the Mongols and the establishment of the Ming Dynasty, which put a great deal of effort into fixing and strengthening the wall, building fortresses, steps, watchtowers and gates; employing skilled laborers; using bricks handmade of granite and limestone; and turning it into the fortification we know today (note: they added sticky-rice flour to the mortar, and although many bricks disintegrated, the mortar is still holding strong, leaving a pattern of holes where bricks used to be). The series of 25,000 towers built less than 500 feet apart and 30-40 feet high enabled troops garrisoned at each tower to see each other’s smoke signals, lanterns, flags and beacon fires and be ready to fight the enemy when and where he should appear.

In the mid 17th century, the Manchus broke through the wall, precipitating the fall of the Ming and beginning of the Qing Dynasty, which lasted until 1912.

map of the many branches of the Great WallSurprisingly, the Wall is not just one wall, but a series of walls, some running parallel or perpendicular to each other. At one time these walls slithered like giant snakes from the Yalu River in the west, through the Gobi Desert, along mountain ridges and sixty-six feet into the sea (so that raiders could not ride their horses around the end) for an estimated length of 5,500 miles (actual 13,170.7 miles, if you count all the branches). Many parts are now in ruins.

So, back to our choice. The left side, we were told, was a more difficult climb but with fewer people. No longer energetic youngsters, we opted for the easier Right side and were grateful for the railing on the steeper sections. Make no mistake—climbing the Great Wall is no walk in the park. There are steps—lots of them, and I noticed many of the younger Chinese huffing and puffing along with me as they pulled themselves up by the railing.

I could easily imagine soldiers running up and down these steps, using the nine-to-twelve-foot-wide top of the wall as a transportation corridor from tower to tower, firing canons and aiming their crossbows through the narrow battlement openings at the enemy below.

The crowds didn’t bother us. We rather enjoyed climbing with the Chinese tourists. Perhaps it was because they were on holiday and in a good mood, but they were courteous and friendly, many asking to take pictures with us. When I asked our guide about this later, she said that when they go back home, they’ll show off their foreigner “friends (us).” We’ll be famous in little villages all over China.

Can you really see the Great Wall from the moon? Well, not with the naked eye. It’s long enough, but not wide enough, says an astronomer friend. But photographs and radar imagery taken from a low-earth orbit do show the world’s longest defense fortification—one of the Seven Wonders of the World—snaking like a massive Chinese dragon across the desert, grasslands and mountaintops of China, enthralling us still.

Categories: Asia, China, culture, History, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

Cee’s Which Way Photo Challenge: Passing Under the Bridge

Colorful ripples reflect our boat’s passage under and past this remarkable color-and-pattern-changing bridge on the Yangtze River.

Remind you of anything?

Categories: Architecture, Art, Asia, bridges, China, cruises, engineering, Photography, Reflections, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cee’s Which Way Photo Challenge: The Great Wall of China

img_1051-copy

From a recent trip to China: Climbing the Great Wall. Stamina required

Categories: Architecture, Asia, China, culture, engineering, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 12 Comments

India’s Ancient Magical Observatories

I wanted to climb the steps, but it was not allowed, and a guard stood by to ensure everyone followed the rules. Still, the idea of climbing on the giant edifices tugged at me just as it does a child who steps into an enchanting playground. And that’s what this place looked like—a playground filled with odd-shaped structures that begged to be climbed.

Part of the Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, India

In reality, though, we were at Jantar Mantar—an astronomical observatory built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh, a soldier, scholar and ruler with a lifelong interest in math and astronomy. He founded the city of Jaipur in the 1720s and built five Jantar Mantar observatories in northern India.

Jantar Mantar means “instruments for calculation,” or “magical calculations.” The Jaipur observatory consists of 18 devices for measuring time, predicting eclipses, observing planet orbits; calculating the lunar calendar and predicting the start of the monsoon season. It’s main purpose, though, seems to have been casting horoscopes, which require a precise knowledge of the positions of the sun, moon, planets and stars at the moment of birth.

The largest instrument (with steps leading to its top) is a sundial 27 meters high, its shadow carefully plotted to tell the time of day to an accuracy of about two seconds. You can see the shadow moving at 1 millimeter per second, or roughly the width of a hand (6mm) every minute.

Influenced by the Islamic school of astronomy, Jai Singh also incorporated elements of early Greek and Persian observatories into his designs. The Jantar Mantars, however, are more complex, on a greater scale, and contain some completely unique designs and functions.

They were made almost entirely of masonry, with some engraved metal rings and plates set into masonry foundations, and they were built large because the larger the scale, the more accurate the measurements. Once finished, they could not be corrected or improved, and observations were limited to those involving the positions and motions of heavenly bodies that are visible to the naked eye.

Over the years, they’ve been restored from time to time—partly because they are tourist attractions, but also to keep them useful and scientifically authentic. Local astronomers still use them to predict the weather for farmers (although the accuracy is questionable), and students of astronomy and Vedic astrology are required to take some of their lessons at the observatories.

Because of their size and inflexibility, the Jantar Mantars were obsolete even before they were constructed and were soon replaced by smaller machined brass instruments and telescopes that proved more useful and accurate. Still, they are amazing reminders of ancient innovation and man’s quest to understand the universe.

Categories: Architecture, Asia, culture, engineering, History, India, Photography, Stock Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

India: Taj Mahal—Monument to Love

 

In a faraway land called India, a great emperor named Shah Jahan adored his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. When she died giving birth to their 14th child, he built her the most magnificent tomb in the history of the world—the Taj Mahal.

Agra 597 “We’ll meet at the bus at 5:30am,” our India tour guide informed us the night before. “We want to be first in line.”

Ugh! Near the front of the line, we stood in the dark for what seemed like forever, waiting for the gates to open. Luckily we were squeezed between “stand in line” railings, so I had something to lean on in my groggy condition.

When we finally entered at sunrise, all sleepiness disappeared, and we were struck by the ethereal beauty of one of the world’s most beloved edifices. Consistently named one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the ivory-white marble tomb takes your breath away when you see it up close for the first time. Its name is Persian for “Crown of Palaces,” and so it is, reigning on a marble base, or plinth, at the far end of a narrow reflecting pool, and guarded by a minaret at each corner.

The tomb was commissioned in 1632 and finished in 1643 using materials from all over Asia (white marble from India, jade and crystal from China, turquoise from Tibet, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, sapphire from Sri Lanka), and it’s thought that more than 1,000 elephants were used to transport building materials. The rest of the 42-acre complex—finished between five and ten years later—includes a mosque, guesthouse and formal gardens. Total cost in 2015 U.S. dollars—$827 million. The project employed some 20,000 artisans under the guidance of a board of architects. In 1983 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for being “the jewel of Muslim art in India.”

Clever subterfuge: To protect the building during WWII, the Indian government erected scaffolding around it in anticipation of air attacks by the Japanese Air Force. Scaffolding was again used during the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971 to mislead bomber pilots.

To this day, the Taj Mahal still stands as a symbol of love. Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore poetically described it as “the tear drop on the cheek of time.” And so it was for Shah Jahan. When he died, he was laid to rest in a sarcophagus next to his beloved Mumtaz.

Categories: Architecture, Art, Asia, India, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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