Monthly Archives: September 2012

In the Shadow of Vesuvius

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Dormant since 1949, Vesuvius is still an enormous presence that looms over Naples. Villages flourish along its base, and the inhabitants know exactly which route they are to take in case of an eruption and where to go for safety. “But,” says Paolo, our guide, “they probably won’t leave till ash starts falling on them.”

Our first stop is Sorrento. A tunnel cuts through the mountains and takes us to this fabled city by the sea. Today that sea is not the sparkling blue of legend for rains have washed silt into the waters. Rain threatens today, too, and we don raingear before we explore the city itself, pausing at a shop that specializes in inlaid wood and chatting with one of the owners, a Brooklyn transplant who married a Neapolitan and loves this city.

After an excellent lunch (ah, Sorrento knows how to cook pasta!), we travel to our main destination— Pompeii, which slumbered undisturbed after the fatal eruption for 1700 years before being re-discovered. We have heard so much about this ancient, doomed city, but what we find exceeds expectations. Pompeii is a very large city. We walk for nearly two hours but only see a small portion for, Paolo tells us, archeologists are busy in the other areas.

We peer into a gymnasium where gladiators trained for combat, and at bakeries where charred remains of bread were discovered long ago. There is a rich man’s villa, complete with the recessed area that collected rainwater for household use, and traces of  once-rich frescos on the walls. Floors still preserve designs created thousands of years ago, and on the walls of a brothel there are detailed pictures of the pleasures to be found in that establishment. Throughout, we walk on a stone-studded road that is 2,000 years old—a road grooved with ruts that long-agi chariots made.

In a small amphitheatre  we are encouraged to sing and test the acoustics, and a few steps away there is a chamber where two mummified forms are displayed. These, Paolo explains, were plaster casts made from figures preserved by hardened ash. He tells us that by the time these mummified figures were found, only bones remained within the hollow shell. Plaster was pumped into this shell, and when the plaster hardened, the ash was carefully removed. We stand by these figures for some time, noting the detailed features of a man’s face, the sandals still on his feet. There is something remote about these remains, a sense of a tragedy that occurred so long ago that even the ghosts must be silent, now.

Finally, we come to the great, open forum of Pompeii. Far in the distance above the marble columns looms Vesuvius—now swathed in cloud. The forum stretches all around us, and while the rest of us explore the temples of Apollo and Diana, I walk a little way apart. I rest my hands against a cold, marble column wondering about the ancient people who lived here. What did they think? Did they—rich or poor, free or enslaved—feel threatened by the rumbling volcano? In those last days did they still laugh, dance, love, and have great hopes for their children? Who were you? I ask the silent marble, but only the raindrops answer me. Rain has now begun to fall in earnest and it is time to leave Pompeii.

But I wonder… what would it be like, this ruined place that was once so prosperous and beautiful, in the silence of the evening when no tourists crowded the streets and all was still except for the wail of wind? I will never know, of course—Pompeii has secrets that it will never reveal.

 

Once they thronged these streets

            Bought bread, listened to music…

            Now, all is silence.

 

Tomorrow we sail for Rome… and then fly homeward. Our travels—this time—will be over.

A gloomy Vesuvius looks down on the ruins of Pompeii’s Forum

A City In the Clouds

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Palermo, Sisely

A city in the center of the Mediterranean, Palermo was once named Ziz, or Flower, by Phoenicians who arrived on these shores in the 8th century BCE. The Phoenicians were the first of the many invaders who captured and tried to hold this strategic city. Byzantines were here, and Arabs, and the Romans—who renamed the port Panoramus (CentralHarbor)—and the Normans, under whose rule the city prospered and grew.

Our tour begins under the threat of rain (“Bring rain coats and sweaters,” warns our guide, Anita,), but the sun is bright as we set out toward the Temple of Segeste, the most complete Graecian style temple in Sicily. On the way Anita, tells us about her country, including anecdotes about the ‘Honorable Society’—better known to us as the Mafia. “The courts take so long to try a case,” she sighs. “Sometimes a grievance is not settled for years! People are then tempted to resort to the Honorable Society.”

Until recently, she adds, the Mafia’s power seemed unshakeable. Even in prison they enjoyed power and good food. “In days past they were treated like kings. Dinner? They got lobsters, steaks, whatever theywanted.” However, there is hope for change.  “There is a candidate in the upcoming elections who might curb their power.” She points to a house that we pass along the way: it sports a large sign that proclaims, ‘No Mafia!’

Sunlight is fitful as we reach Segeste and the great, unfinished temple. It stands high and proud and silent on a hill top, and is built of solid limestone blocks. Only the outer parts of the temple were completed, and Anita informs us that this is therefore not really a temple. No inner alcove had been built to house the god. A temple, she explains, was not so much a place of worship as it was a house for the god, and worshippers stood outside where the priest made sacrifices to appease the divinity.

True temple or not, this edifice is imposing. The blocks of limestone were quarried from limestone pits by slaves and then hoisted up by means of wooden pulleys. Since some of the blacks weighed 75 tons, this was no easy feat, and a temple such as this would have taken from 35-50 years to build! As I think of the slaves who were worked to death in this place, a wind stirs up and blasts through us, carrying dust and debris. Perhaps the spirits of the dead are not so quiet here on this hilltop.

From Segeste we continue toward the medieval town of Erice which is well known as a meeting place for scientists worldwide. They meet in the summer, Anita tells us, and adds that it was here that they signed a manifesto against nuclear war. Erice is a fitting place for such a meeting, for the town is built high on top of a mountain which, we are told, encounters the clouds that sail in from Africa. True enough, when we reach the top of the winding road, a mist of clouds blow about us. Perhaps it will rain? But the sun slides out again, and the mists dissipate long enough for us to see the magnificent panorama of sea and land below. Our guide points out the scythe-curve of Palermo and explains that legend has it that Demeter dropped her scythe while searching for her abducted daughter, Persephone, and that this scythe formed the harbor.

We climb a steep road lined with stones that are four hundred years old to see the Castle of Venus—so called because the Temple of Venus, where young women were sent to sacrifice their virginity in service to the goddess—was pulled down and its very stones used to construct the castle. What stories these stones could tell!

Then—lunch. Sicilians know how to eat! With the antipasti and the following courses we absorb understanding of daily life in Palermo and are told that the concept of ‘honor’ has very deep roots in society. Women have their set place in the world—the home. Here they rule all matters, while men foray out into politics and business. In the parliament, Anita says, there are 80 seats—and only four of the seats are held by women. However, she is quick to add, an ‘honorable’ woman is treated not only with respect but with veneration by the males in her household. The Sicilian male immediately hands over his earnings to his wife (so Anita says), and she is treated with chivalry. “It is,” she adds, “not so bad at all. And the divorce rate in our country is 4 and ½ percent!”

After lunch, the long-threatened rain begins to fall. We are glad to get to our bus and to listen to the lively Sicilian music that accompanies us down the misty, winding roads  that lead back to our ship.

From this vantage point,

          Even the clouds seem lower…

          City in the clouds!

View from Erice

 

 

 

A Day In North Africa

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A veil of mist hides the Atlas, and before us lies the coast of La Goulette, Tunisia. On the dock, a trio of camels ambles past while a group of musicians play, whirl, and dance. We are being welcomed to North Africa!

The smallest country in North Africa, Tunisia boasts a cultural mixed heritage of Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, ottoman and French nations—all of whom have come and gone with the passage of years. Wedged between Algeria and Libya (“Full of fanaticals,” grumbles our guide, Rall,), Tunisia is a new and hopeful progressive democracy. Its women are fully emancipated, and polygamy is a thing of the past. Women vote, drive cars, and have rights in all things—including the right to divorce. Rall informs us that for the men in Tunisia, this is a difficult thing. “Women can divorce a man when she wants to, and the rule is that if she has three children, the only thing the poor man can take out of the house is one suitcase!” Surely not, we all cry. “No,”  Rall protests. “It’s true! The women have the power.”

Actually, it was a woman whose power lay behind the great ancient nation of Carthage. Princess Dido, in 814 BCE, made sure that Carthage thrived as an extraordinary civilization until the Punic Wars brought it to its knees. Today we are taken to the site of ruins—not ruins of Carthage, for these were completely obliterated by the vengeful Roman conquerors—but ancient tombs unearthed quite recently which belonged to an ancient people. Carthaginians? Perhaps. There are also ruins of Roman baths and aqueducts which exude, as such ruins always do, a sense of timelessness.

Tunis is also very much about the present. Commerce bustles in the Medina, and in the carpet shop we visit, and we run hands over carpets made of camel hair, lambs wool, and cashmere. Some of the carpets are made for everyday use—we fall in love with one woven of lambs wool and colored with natural Berber indigo dyes—but some would be at home in the palace at Versailles. Deals are made here and in the Souk nearby, where bargaining is an art. I always think I am a good bargainer, but I feel that here I am only an amateur!

Culture is also at the heart of Tunis. At the Brado National Museum, we stand in awe before ceiling-to-wall mosaics  taken from Roman ruins around the country. These are all from different periods—Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman. Some of the subjects are familiar. Here is Ulysses and the faithful Penelope. There is Neptune, triumphant and surrounded by his court. Here are fishermen or hunters going about their business, or a lady at her toilette. Rall leads us to stand in front of a huge mosaic that spans an entire wall and tells us it is the largest complete Roman mosaic in the world. We believe.

In sharp contrast to recent violence in this part of the world, the people we meet today are friendly and welcoming. They are multilingual, conversing with us in Italian, French or English, and not once do we hear an angry or unfriendly word. “In Tunisia,” says Rall, “We have just begun the democracy. It is not easy. For sixty years we have had someone tell us what to do, and our brains have gone to sleep! Now we must wake up and think for ourselves!” He is outspoken about politics. “Look at the fanaticals in Iran and in Syria and Saudia Arabia,” he says, grumbles. “The clerics are worse than the poor fools who throw the bombs because they twist the teachings of the Koran. In Tunisia, we have a protection against such things. In our country education is free from the kindergarten to the end of the University! Education is the key to making sure there are no fanaticals in our country.” We can only hope that this will be as Rall believes.

As if to underscore this hope, he points to a church and tells us that there the three faiths: Muslim, Jewish and Christian, pray together. He also takes us to a place of peace and beautiful stillness. This is a cemetery deeded by the country to all allied soldiers who died defending Tunisia during the Second World War. White crosses and Stars of David stand row after row in a beautifully kept grassy field. Roses and bougainvillea abound, and a marble statue stands by a small fountain. I sign the guest book there and feel that, in a very small way, I am leaving a part of my own history in this extraordinary North African nation.

Mallorca– The Caves of the Dragon

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Mallorca, The Caves of the Dragon

Though it was occupied for centuries during the Iberian Moorish rule, Mallorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands, is now  a self governing Spanish Province.

We arrive in Mallorca early in the morning with hopes of seeing how the famous Mallorcan pearls are created and also to visit the Cuevas del Drach—or the Caves of the Dragon. The pearls, we know, are beautiful—and they are—but we have little idea of what to expect from the caves. After all, we have seen caves before. We have descended into many stygian depths and have left with polite interest and praise.

Nothing we have read or heard has prepared us forwhat we find. The cave descends precipitously into the earth with sides and ceilings covered with stalactites and stalagmites of such fantastic shapes that it takes the breath away. Gently and strategically lit by a lighting plan conceived and carried out by the famous Dr. Buigas, whole city- scapes emerge out of the darkness. Limestone deposits have created a pipe organ here, a Hindu temple there, a grotto over there. There are sky scrapers and gardens and fountains and look—over there is a perfect slice of bacon formed out of stone!

Below lies Martel Lake, an underground body of water that is one of the largest in the world. So still is this water that it reflects the majestic limestone formations, and I notice that some parts seem greener than others. “It is not the stone that is green,” one of the cave custodians tells me. “As the water deepens, the salt, seeping in from the ocean, makes the color.”

We walk down the sloping limestone path and carefully navigate stone stairs all the while keeping eyes glued to the incredible scenery. Surely Gaudi must have come here, we tell each other, for the towering stalactites and stalagmites remind us of the Church of the  Sagrada Famiglia . It makes sense. No artist save nature has been at work here, and Gaudi believed that Nature was the only way to praise the Creator.

We have at last reached the huge cavern that marks the end of our journey. We sit on benches facing Martel Lake, and soon we hear the soft strains of music. Boats, lit by lanterns, are being rowed toward us and on one of the boats is a three-piece orchestra. “Parlez-moi d’amour,” sing the violins—sing to me of love—and the words seem somehow appropriate. These caves have slumbered peacefully under the earth for millennia while aboveground empires have clashed and fallen. Throughout the years while intolerance and hatred have ran rampant amongst men, the silent beauty of this place has remained undisturbed. I wish that we could take the lesson that it teaches back with us to the surface.

Music swells as the boat passes us, then ebbs as it turns and glides back out of view. Invited to take a short trip on the underground lake, we step down into rowboats which slide through the pristine, silent water—away from the heart of the great Dragon Caves and back toward the kingdom of the sun.

Under earth’s surface

            What wonders may lie hidden

            In cool, silent dark?

 

Sunrise over Mallorca

 

Visiting Old Friends

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Florence

There is something about Florence. Visiting this legendary city always makes me feel as if I am returning to an old and valued friend.

We have been to Florence many times before, so we were excused from the necessity of being tourists. We were free to simply wander, to browse, to enjoy the beautiful weather and the wonderful, old city. Florence is truly beautiful. Its buildings are made of stone that seems to hold the gold of century-old suns. It has churches, it is full of art and museums and gardens, and through it glides the River Arno. Florence offers fine leather and elegant paper amongst other things, and we stop to window shop a little. But this is not what we came here for today. We are here to visit old friends.

Michaelangelo’s David has to be one of the most amazing of his many wonderful work. He stands tall and alone in all the triumph of youthful health and vigor, and he commands all eyes to look at him. He dwarfs us all—literally as well as through the force of his presence. He will remain perfect when all of us are dust.

So we have journeyed some distance to admire David, to stand before him in awe, to be amazed once again at the skill of the sculptor and the purity of his work. For a very long time we do just that. Then we turn back the way we came to visit other friends.

These  friends are not like David. They are not beautiful or elegant or even sculpturally acceptable. These are “the prisoners,” blocks of unfinished marble that Michaelangelo began but never finished. Life-sized male figures, they have the look of beings trapped inside marble prisons with no hope of ever winning their freedom. Some have emerged so far as to be given limbs. Some have faces that have begun to form. One prigone has a hand to his unformed face as if to tear away the imprisoning stone.

And looking at them, I feel as though in these imprisoned beings Michaelangelo  conveys the condition of all humanity.

 

Barcelona has not changed since we visited her several months ago. She is still the city courted by mountains and sea, a place where Gaudi’s art can be seen on rooftops and the balconies of apartments. Today we plan to revisit his Parc Guell.

Since our ship docks several miles outside the city, we rumble along on a super-heated transit bus and are disgorged in front of the on-and-off bus stop where we validate our tickets. Then, during the hour-long trip to Parc Guell, we watch the city unfold… busy Las Rambles, fountains and open-air markets and buildings which bear Gaudi’s incomparable signature. We pass by his iconic Sagrada Familia and finally arrive at the foot of a steep slope. Ten minutes’ walk brings us to the park which is mobbed with what has to be a quarter of Barcelona’s population. It being Saturday, everyone has gathered here to eat, drink, climb, and enjoy art.

Art welcomes us as old friends. We walk around reminiscing and once again, Gaudi’s vision astonishes us. Here was a man born centuries before his time. No wonder he walked around in rags, was arrogant and often surly! No wonder he cared nothing for the opinion of the world. He knew what he needed to create, and it must have infuriated him when lesser beings could not follow his ideas. The path of true genius must be lonely, indeed.

            Later, we ride the bus back to Las Rambles and search for some place offering WIFI. Las Rambles supplies everything from trinkets and cappuccino to internet access, so soon we are descending into a subterranean room where, for one Euro per half hour, we are allowed to send messages. Then, relieved that the home folk have been contacted, we leisurely stroll shipward, content with our day and luxuriating in the warm, vibrant pulse of this lovely city by the sea.

Not only the sun

            But the smiles of its people

            Warms Barcelona.

Michaelangelo’s ‘prigione’ (prisoner) forever imprisoned in marble

 

FEARS OF FLYING

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Flying these days is an experience. Whenever we travel, there are always questions: Will the plane be on time? Will I make my connection? Will our bags follow us?

Our own flight plan was simple. On Tuesday we would fly US Air to Philadelphia, connect to an overseas flight for Rome, and board our cruise ship. The Noordam was to depart at 4:30 PM on Wednesday. We would arrive at 8:30 that morning. Duck soup. Easy peasy.

Tranquil in the thought that all was right with the world, we arrived at the airport, checked in,  settled down to read and wait for our flight. We had reached a state of peaceful relaxation when an announcement was made that our flight was delayed. We consulted our time table. Would we have time to connect to our overseas flight?  I went to the flight desk to enquire and was informed that we were being rerouted to another carrier and that American would fly us to Heathrow, England.

“What?” I remember saying. “What? What?”

“Don’t worry, honey,” said the kindly attendant. “It’s not so bad. You’ll get there at 8:00 AM, your flight will leave at 9:30, and you’ll be in Rome by 12:30.” And our bags? I pleaded. What about our bags? Not to worry, I was told. The bags would arrive with us. “Just go to American Airlines, now, and confirm your flight.”

We hurried off to American— situated at the other end of the airport—where we found Judy manning the counter. When we had recounted our tale of woe, she agreed that this might be a good plan except…

The sign above her spelled out the dreaded word, DELAYED.  We would never make our connection!             We must have looked shell shocked because she patted my arm. “Look, why don’t I book you on the 11:00 AM flight from Heathrow? That way, you’ll be in Rome by 2:20, and you’ll have plenty of time to connect with your ship.”

But our bags? We both wailed in concert. Judy very kindly offered to go down to the baggage hold and personally recheck our bags for us while we phoned our travel agent. We did so, and she promised to inform the shipping line that our flights had changed and to please pick us up at 2:20 PM in Rome.

So, off we went into the wild blue, a blue that we could not see since both of us were glassy eyed by this time. We arrived in due course at Heathrow, sighed great sighs of relief, and went off to gate  21A from which our flight was to leave.

But …  Somehow, the gods of travel had it in for us. Either the flight crew could not find the plane, or the plane was somehow confused about where it should go, or… whatever the reason, a cheery attendant informed us that  our flight was now scheduled to depart from gate 6A. We trudged back across the concourse to our gate and were there told that our plane was delayed and that the gate had changed yet again—this time to Gate 12.

By now I felt as if I were the chorus of a Greek Tragedy.  “Our  bags!” I mourned. “What will happen to our bags?”

Perhaps reminded of her own  grand parents, the attendant went off to check and see that the bags were properly marked and properly uploaded. And then we waited.

If the story ended here, it would be enough. Alas.

When the plane at last arrived and transported us to Rome (with our bags miraculously intact), there was no one  from the Noordan waiting to meet us! The clock was ticking, the ship was leaving! Mike went off to search and found someone from a rival shipping company who kindly called the Noordam and demanded to know what in the world (not precisely his words) was going on?

Finally, two disgruntled young women arrived, complained that they had not been informed of any delays, and quickly ordered a private limo. The elderly driver broke all traffic records (meanwhile avoiding traffic and muttering, Porca miseria! machine imbecile!)  to get us to Chivita Vecchia and the ship… just as the gangplank was being raised!

We were rushed on board, the doors clanged shut behind us, and the ship sailed.

“Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.” Thurber

What a Book Can Do

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The young man was gaunt and exhausted—not surprising since he had not long since escaped from one of North Korea’s infamous concentration camps. In this virtual hell, whole families could be imprisoned for no reason, and every infraction usually resulted in death. A failed escape attempt meant certain execution, but this young man ran anyway inspired by—of all things—a book. Reading and re-reading a tattered copy of The Count Of Monte Cristo that someone had managed to smuggle into the camp had, he said, made him strong. It had given him the realization that he, too, could be free.

There is an ineffable power in books, a force that is hard to explain or define but in which every writer believes. Call it escapism, label it magic, suggest the power of imagination—it is all these things and more. Books can tweak destiny.

Think of Robert Louis Stevenson lying on his sick bed and dreaming, as he reads, of adventures that he will someday write. Think of Boris Pasternak’s books being smuggled back into Russia so that eager minds could absorb his thoughts and ideas, and  of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience which so greatly influenced both Mahatma Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Much less grand but closer to home, I remember my own young self curled up in my favorite chair. With an apple in one hand and a book in the other, I feasted on words and ideas and possibilities as the summer days ticked by. Surely, those books have colored the way I write and think through all these long years.

We all remember special books, don’t we? My dear friend Tina certainly did. When she was a child, Tina once told me, she read Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and fell in love with the possibilities of travel. As a little girl, she said, she would pray that she might visit all the countries of the world. She followed that dream, journeying to places I could only dream of and recounting adventures that alternately filled me with wonder and terror. Widowed in her 60s, she spent two years in the Peace Corps and then recommenced her travels. I still treasure the post card Tina sent me from Tierra del Fuego—and the joy with which she opened her heart to the world.

Perhaps it is truly a form of magic that those of us who write and those of us who read books share a bond not only of imagination but of possibility. For each book that comes into our hands has the power to entertain or enlighten and inspire, or, sometimes, to change the course of our lives.

And of this a tired but triumphant young man from North Korea is living proof.

Lines written long past

Come alive and speak to us

We need but listen.

 

“Peaceful Lake”