The Great Wall of China

On day 2 we met our guide even earlier and headed out of Beijing for the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China. It took something like a half hour to get out of the city and another hour passing agricultural fields and small villages to reach the Wall.  Like everything else in China, the support infrastructure for a major sight like the GW is well developed.  After we left the big parking lot for buses we passed lots of shopping and food options on our way to the ticket office.  But all tastefully done and in good shape.  Eschewing the option of climbing up to the Wall (this is one of the mountainous sections), Maia and I bought tickets for the cable car.  A European-style, 8-person cable gondola whisked us up to the Wall.

Our weather karma had held for a second day and we were greeted with crystal clear air and blue skies for our GW experience. It was glorious!  We grabbed a snack at the upper cable car station and headed up onto the wall.  The Mutianyu section has been heavily restored, so the wall is in great condition.  Guard towers dot the expanse at regular intervals and the wall itself snakes along the ridge of the undulating terrain.  Iconic views welcomed us and drew us along as we hiked for a few kilometers in each direction.  We had to vie with Chinese tourists and their selfie sticks for unpopulated views.  But overall, it was not crowded in the least.  Our small group of 9 seemed to be about the only westerners around.  Although we did meet a fellow from Seattle who took our pictures.

After about an hour of wandering and snapping photographs we decided it was time to descend. Options included a second cable car, a toboggan (luge), or walking.  We opted to walk down.  Our feet and legs were pretty sore by the time we got down but it was certainly worth it.

As is so often the case, photos of the GW tell better stories than my words. I’ll let them do the talking.

Beijing

We started our China adventure in the obvious place: Beijing. I was pleasantly surprised by this sprawling, gigantic metropolis. For starters, it is quite clean for a city, the infrastructure is excellent, and it doesn’t feel like a huge city. That is until one climbs a hill or tall building and get a near-360 view of skyscrapers (only a small exaggeration). There is security absolutely everywhere.

One passes bags through an x-ray machine to enter the subway or any train station, not to mention all the major sights. But the biggest surprise has to be chalked up to luck (or good travel karma?). Our first day here was very windy, which meant no smog. None. Blue skies for the 3 days we were here. Wow. Simply amazing. On our first two days we were able to tag along on Intrepid tours. We started early for our Discovery Beijing tour, meeting our guide William at the Temple of Heaven. This iconic building is as beautiful and impressive as its reputation suggests.

Perfectly round with concentric pagoda layers tapering up to a perfect apex, it is impressively large as well. Being there first thing, we had it largely to ourselves, which must be rare anywhere in China. The blustery cold weather probably helped some too. We were impressed by the detailed decorations and the bright colors used – something one doesn’t pick up in photos and tourist brochures. We learned that this was not a religious temple, but a political one where the emperor came annually to make sacrifices in hopes of a good harvest for the nation. Some of the lesser outbuildings were almost as impressive, had they not been overshadowed by the dominant, much larger ToH.

Next stop was Tianenman Square. We used the metro to wisk across town. It is an impressive system with 9-10 lines, clean and fast trains, orderly modern stations, and inexpensive fares. Tianenman, the largest public square in the world, is very impressive in its scale and communist-era propogandist architecture. We’ve observed that the Chinese love BIG!

The bigger the better. Also: blustery; grandiose; and flashy. But at least they are creative about everything, impressively so. We wandered through Tianenman (not a short sojourn) to the equally impressive entrance gate to the Forbidden City. The FS is the Ming version of propogandist architecture. The scale of this place is equally staggering.

Passing through gate after impressive fortified gate, one burrows down into the concentric layers of the palace complex where the emperor and his extended family and retinue of ministers and retainers resided. To describe it as a palace complex is far to unassuming. This is a fortified and subdivided city. We enjoyed the fresh air and blue sky as we passed from courtyard to courtyard, photographed ceremonial braziers, water vessels, and statues, jostled though mosh pits of Chinese tourists to snap photos of thrones and gilded interiors, and gazed in the windows of the dowager empress’ quarters and the mini-villages of the concubines’ residences. Even with low season crowds it was an enervating experience.

All in all, it was a pretty amazing first day in China.  Big bang sights, a good guide, and blue skies.

Charming Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen denizen The town of Chefchaouen is the most charming in Morocco.  In fact, it is one of the most charming destinations on any Imprint tour.  Snugged up against the rugged Rif mountain range in the northeast of the country, the blue-washed village is a place to both explore and relax.  The medina, or old town, is a labyrinth of winding narrow stairs, tiny artisan shops, ornate doors, and picturesque lanes which sweep down a hillside to converge on Plaza Uta el-Hammam.

Kasbah walls

Near the square are the photo-worthy adobe walls of the restored Kasbah (fortress).  Andalusian influences are apparent in the red-tiled roofs, small balconies, and courtyard patios.  Wandering the lanes puts one in mind of the white-washed villages of the Greek Cyclades, except for the universal blue.  It is said the color blue is both cool and soothing – that is the perfect description of Chefchaouen.

Chefchaouen lane

On our recent Morocco tour we had a meandering walking tour, starting at the top of the town where the tiny Ras el-Maa river plunges down a tiny defile and then through the town.  We learned from our guide about the town’s history and some of the local handicrafts on offer. We were told the blue color was believed to repel mosquitoes.  Also, blue is a sacred color for Jews (many of whom arrived in 1492 from Spain).  Perhaps more interesting, the reach of the bluewash is typically just above the door heights.

Chefchaouen buildings

The reason is quite pragmatic:  the job was traditionally done by the town’s women and they tended not to be tall.  The town was founded in the late 15th century as a Berber outpost.  But the Jewish and Muslim exodus from Andalusia (expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella) put its Andalusian stamp on the town.

Colorful spices

We took loads of photos.  Every turn, corner, side street, and shop called out to be recorded.  It was a cold November morning, but the sun came out by midday and most of our group settled into one of the charming sidewalk cafes on the main square for a leisurely lunch.  Many spent the afternoon shopping the many varied souks around the square and among the many alleys of the Medina.

Hotel terrace view

Others relaxed with a Nosnos, the Moroccan version of a cappuccino, in the bright sunshine.  Still others opted to recharge their batteries on the balconies and terraces of our charming hotel (it seems Chefchaouen’s charm affects everything) with its lovely views over the town.  Chefchaouen may not have the notoriety of Fes or Merrakesh, but it was certainly a favorite on this tour.

Chefchaouen steps

Chefchaouen lane

Chefchaouen door

Morocco - Welcome, yes welcome.

Imprint group at Hassan II “Welcome. Yes welcome in Morocco everybody.”  Our charming guide Tariq greeted us with these words several times each day on Imprint’s new tour of Morocco.  The repetition seemed strange at first but we soon got used to it.  First thinking it was a learned, “entertainment” phrase, I eventually realized it was a direct translation of a traditional Moroccan greeting.  More than anything else, this phrase, and its daily repetition, embodied the spirit of the country.  We WERE welcome.  Genuinely, and from the heart - welcome in Morocco.

Muraled walls of Asilah

After a lifetime of travel, one starts to think a new destination will not hold any unique surprises.  But my expectations of Imprint’s new foray into Morocco were way too low.  This is an amazing travel destination.  And perhaps more importantly, it is a country where Americans can experience a democratic, moderate Muslim culture and a safe travel environment.  We are sorely in need of this exact experience in our current age and time.

Chefchaouen denizen

At a time when fear dominates the American psyche, we need to be reminded that a great majority of Muslims are moderate, admire America, and welcome Americans.  Morocco is the perfect place to experience it.  Our guide Tariq was so proud of Morocco’s democratic institutions and moderate views.  He repeatedly pointed out female police, cafes with men and women together, women in western dress, and taught us about educational initiatives targeting outmoded thinking and traditions.  His enthusiasm was infectious and we found ourselves falling in love with his land.

Fes craftsman

As a bonus, we were left largely to our own devices and allowed to shop, observe, explore, and meander without hassle.  However, if we engaged a local they always responded warmly.  A smile was always reciprocated.  A greeting always returned.  And always we heard:  welcome – from everyone.  It would be hard to overstate how pleasant it is to be allowed our “western” space in a developing Islamic country.  Morocco is a paradise for western visitors.  We were welcome – and not just for what money we might spend.  It was the truest kind of hospitality.  “Welcome. Yes welcome in Morocco.”

Visiting Fes madrasa

In the next few weeks I’ll be writing about our travel experiences in Morocco.  But the overriding travel lesson of this wonderful country is that we are not enemies, Muslims don’t hate us, and we share far more that draws us together than that which divides us.  Mark Twain once wrote: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”  That lesson was repeatedly reinforced on Imprint’s journey across Morocco.

Vatican Musings

On a recent trip to St Peters Basilica and the Vatican Museums I was reminded of the good old days when a visit here was a relaxed and slow visit.  These days the numbers of visitors has exploded with new middle class travelers from China, India, and Eastern Europe.  A guided visit through the museum is a crowd gauntlet one must endure to get to the prize of the Sistine Chapel, which is equally crowded.  While Michelangelo's masterpiece rarely disappoints, it is like viewing from a mosh pit.  Even the truly immense St Peters Basilica groans under the weight of tens of thousands of tourists every day.  Now when we take a group through it is more about survival than slow enjoyments.  Many of the fun and unique details are getting lost.  So I've decided to write about a few. Sistine Chapel peaking over St Peters Square

In St Peters Square there are some interesting things to observe.  Just to the right of the immense (and forbidding, I think) facade of the Basilica one can just see the peak of the Sistine Chapel sticking up.  It is here the faithful look to see the smoke that announces the successful election of a new pope.  The colonnades, designed by Bernini, are elliptical in shape. There are two bronze disks, one on each side of the Egyptian obelisk that marks the center of the square.  From each, the respective colonnades line up in perfect perspective, with only the foremost of the four deep columns visible (the other 3 lined up perfectly behind).20160819_122820

perspective from the "Centro del Colonnato" marker

Move off the marker, and the perspective changes and one sees all 4 rows.

from a few feet off the marker - note the columns behind

20160819_122236Lastly, before entering the mighty church, or upon leaving, one can photograph the Swiss Guards in their colorful traditional costumes.  Contrary to popular belief, the outfits were not designed by Michelangelo. But the post of protecting the pope has been granted only to the Swiss since 1527. In that year Rome was attacked and sacked by German (Protestant) soldiers.  The pope had several groups of mercenary bodyguards but only the Swiss maintained their posts and defended the pope's retreat to Castel Sant Angelo.  More than half of the Swiss guards lost their lives in the skirmish. Since then, only the Swiss have been allowed to protect the pope.

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Inside the Basilica there is much to see beyond the "usual suspects" of Michelangelo's Pieta', Bernini's Baldacchino, and the floor markers that show where the other great churches of the world would "fit" inside St Peters.  I like the large porphyry marble disk in the floor in the back of the nave that marks the spot where Charlemagne knelt to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the old St Peters on Christmas Day, 800 AD.

20160819_121115The statue of St Peter on a throne is a common sight.  But I'm not sure everyone notices the bronze feet where the pious have stopped for a rub for hundreds of years.  The church offers a dispensation for the act. Both feet are burnished and clearly wearing away.  And they are not the originals - long ago replaced.

20160819_120903Then there is the scale of St Peters.  The dominant impression for first time visitors is how immense it truly is.  Yet Bernini and others used many optical tricks to "shrink the scale" and make it seem smaller than it actually is. Take the statuary in the support piers.  On first glance they appear to be of equal height.  But in reality, those up near the ceiling are a full 50% larger.  If they were the same as the lower statues, they would seem tiny they are so high up.  Though they hoped to make the space feel smaller, nonetheless they intended for visitors to be in awe of the mother church of the universal catholic church. In that they were certainly successful.

Umbrian Wine Tasting

Cecilia hosting a tastingFor many years I've had the good fortune to take tour groups to Tenuta le Velette winery in Umbria for tastings.  Hosted by Cecelia, the latest matriarch of the Botai wine making family, my groups always have a memorable experience here under the Umbrian sun.  But I don't believe I've ever blogged about it.  Le Velette view OrvietoThe estate is located about 10 kilometers from photogenic Orvieto.  In fact, the view from the terrace overlooks rows of vines across to the famous cathedral on the tufa stack that hosts the town. Etruscan cellarThe history of the estate is long and illustrious.  Etruscans carved out cellars in the soft tufa soil, storing grains, wine, and anything else needing preservation.  Turns out, the natural underground keeps wine at a near perfect temperature for storage.  Part of the tasting is a trip down into the cellars - up to 3000 years old.  Later the Romans made wine in the area. Le Velette wine glassesThen in the middle ages the monks of a nearby monastery continued the tradition.  In the 19th century the Counts Negroni sold the property to the Botai family.  The region, famous for its crisp, light whites is perfect for wine production. The climate is near perfect plus the tufa soil has all the right minerals and holds water like a sponge for the vines.

20160818_123007We gather in an elegant dining room in the manor house of the estate for our tasting. We taste 2 whites, a red, and a dessert wine while having a wonderful picnic lunch of cheeses, meats, pizzas, and Torta alla Nona (Grandma's Cake) for dessert. Appropriately, the ceiling is frescoed with images of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine.  We taste great wine, sample some fun food, take some memorable photos, and create great memories of our time in central Italy.20160818_123100harvest

San Clemente - Lasagne di Roma

Over the years Rome has been one of my favorite tour destinations.  That is likely due to my fascination with history.  There is no other city in the world to compare with Rome when it comes to layers of history.  Ancient, early Christian, Medieval, Catholic, Renaissance, Baroque, and modern Rome are layered one upon the other like a lasagna.  As a guide and tour operator, I love peeling back the layers to look at what is below.  The whole city is like a great scavenger hunt through the ages. 20160820_095750

Among Rome's many, many great sights, my favorite "lasagna" experience is the Basilica of San Clemente.  A stone's throw from the Colosseum, this amazing little gem is largely overlooked by tourists.  Yet for those in the know, it is a treasure.  The 12th century church boasts some of Rome's best mosaics.  The apse mosaic is particularly impressive with the very unusual element of an acanthus plant at the foot of the cross.  I find that fascinating because the acanthus plant was a symbol of eternity (I guess because it is essential a weed that never dies) for the ancient, therefore pagan, Greeks.  Also, there is a hand (the hand of God) reaching right out of the clouds to signify God's participation in the apse scene. The entire upper church is a great example of the constant recycling of materials one sees throughout Rome.

Cosmatesque candlestick

Before the age of Romanticism, the ancient past was not valued and leftover bits of ancient Rome were seen as readily available (and free) building materials in the poor Middle Ages.   The shrewd observer will note that none of the columns match.  The floor is decorated with smaller pieces of marble, probably taken from the forum.  Tiny pieces were also used to decorate lamps and candlesticks.  This style, copied all over Italy, is named for the family that developed the  technique in the 13th century - Cosmatesque, named for the Cosmati family.

Cosmati floor

But far more impressive than the mosaics and recycled antiquities is that fact that the Basilica sits atop a 4th century church, long forgotten in the mists of time until a priest discovered supporting arches within a plastered wall.  When he investigated, he found the second church, buried and forgotten underneath.

Courtyard and facade San Clemente

Archeological excavations ensued, revealing some of the oldest mosaics and earliest known Christian graffiti in the Eternal City. And low and behold, the 4th century church was built on the ruins of a pagan temple dedicated to Mithras from the first or second century.  For a fee visitors can descend into the excavations to view the mosaics, graffiti, ancient altars, and even a copy of the altar of Mithras found underneath (original now in a museum).  Like a Disney ride, it is a journey through time - or at least through a physical metaphor of the Roman lasagna effect.

Modern pilgrim trail marker in pavement outside S Clemente

H. Bosch - Ahead of His Times

I recently concluded a tour that included the incomparable Venice.  Many other cities in the world try to compare themselves to Venice, but it is all mere marketing.  There is only one Venice, unique in the world. Giorgione's enigmatic "The Tempest"

One of the sights one visits in Venice is the Accademia Museum, the great painting gallery of the Venetian Renaissance. Replete with Titians, Bellinis, Tintorett's, Tiepolos, Veroneses, Giorgiones, and Canalettos, it is a world class gallery.  20160814_105609Currently the Accademia has a special exhibit of the Flemish painter Hieronymous Bosch who apparently spent some time in Venice before making dishwashers.  Apart from having one of the all time great first names (though he probably was teased as a child) he was a successful late 15th century artist. That success seems to defy all reason for me.  Not that his art is not fascinating, arresting, and thought provoking - all good things in art.  But rather that his art was sought out 500+ years ago.  Bosch's paintings are full of fantastical creatures, phantasmagorias, and nightmarish scenes. 20160814_105512Fraud would have a hay-day with this guy and, in fact, Bosch's art would have resonated with Sigmund's contemporary, Salvador Dali.  Dali clearly drew some inspiration from Bosch, and the kindred spirit of subconscious angst is obvious.  I bet Timothy Leary was a fan as well.

20160814_105540Prior to this Venetian exposure, I had only seen a couple Bosch paintings in Belgium and his magnum opus, The Garden of Earthly Delights, in the Prado in Madrid. I had been fascinated with this artist from the moment I laid eyes on "The Garden" in an art history class decades ago.  It is a very modern, even post-modern painting by an artist centuries ahead of his time.  20160814_105107The best I can do to understand his late Medieval appeal is to remember how superstitious Europeans were five+ centuries ago and remind myself that the Renaissance had not yet evolved into the Age of Reason where science would begin to unlock the mysteries of the universe.  I guess our subconscious fears of hell, eternal damnation, and purgatorial punishment are hardly new ideas.  Dante did I nice job launching that ship with his circles of hell and mental images of fire and brimstone.  And Bosch's depiction of a naked soul in a tunnel of light fits the prevailing interpretation among modern psychologists - a near death experience.  Perhaps Bosch had such an experience.   Maybe he experimented with psychotropic drugs.

20160814_105615Despite my lack of understanding, I'm a little closer to clarity after this visit.  I read the captions beneath the Bosch installments and learned that the various Stregozzo (his mythical creatures) were seen as representations of the temptations and/or weakness of the flesh.  That would fit into what I understand of the general Medieval mindset.  Even so, I marvel at how paintings such as those on display in the Accademia ever made it into churches.

Florentine Guerilla Street Art

20160816_193136I had noticed the funny artistic additions to Florence's street signs over the years without really taking a close look. This time around I started to get the joke. Clet Abraham, a street artist, has been secretly adding clever images to the street signs in Florence for the past half decade or so.  20160817_131534A Frenchman, Clet has taken up residence here and his street art has been seen in other Italian and European cities as well.  But Florence, like for the Renaissance 500 years ago, is ground zero.  His favorite target seems to be the do not enter signs - red disks with a white horizontal bar.  Their message of rejection seems to be too much for Clet to ignore. 20160816_193814 The number of visual puns inspired by these simple "no-go" signs is truly prolific.  The art is both provocative and simply pleasant.  This time in Florence I did like thousands of fans before me and engaged in a "Clet sign" urban scavenger hunt.  They are everywhere.  And almost without exception, they make one smile.  And sometimes they make one think. 20160816_195844What I managed to perceive this time around is that they are not here simply to amuse, which they certainly do, but also to protest in a polite and clever way.  More than anything else, and taken collectively, the street sign art of Clet Abraham is a quiet and creative call to simply get along.  20160817_113315It is a call to question the creeping constraints on society present in all western cultures - both by our increasingly bureaucratized government institutions and from our own fears and anxieties.  It is an entreaty to officials to not be so stern and a clarion for citizens to not forget the age-old Italian attitude of enjoying the journey of life, not just the destination.  For me, the ubiquitous presence of Clet signs added an amusing and Quixotic element to well trodden and familiar streets.  And isn't that what art is all about?20160816_200207

Venice Wanderings

Although I've been to Venice many times with many tours, if one looks, there are always new nooks and crannies to discover.  Such was the case this time when I had a new local guide for our backstreets walk.  New and fun discoveries ensued. ancient book vendorFirst, we stumbled onto the most photogenic, absolutely ancient vintage book seller I've ever seen.  Piled in a narrow courtyard, unprotected from the weather, were hundreds upon hundreds of old books.  It made an old archivist like me both salivate and recoil in horror (an archivist's main job it to insure the preservation of materials).20160813_102452

20160813_183238Next our guide took us to a bridge she identified as Ponte della Tette, which she translated as Bridge of Breasts.  At some time in the past prostitutes were restricted to this area of venice.  The ladies of the evening were in the habit of hanging out of the windows of this canal, showing their "wares".  Over time, the bridge got a reputation and a nickname.20160813_183045

20160813_182619Further along she pointed out some structures I had observed over years without understanding their function or significance. All over Venice one finds beveled stone or concrete placements in corners.  I had never given them much thought, assuming they were some sort of structural support.  This time I learned they are there to prevent men from using the corners as urinals.  If they persist, its a strategically deflected mess - on them.  Clever Venetians.

20160813_085124In addition, there were the usual interesting market scenes and photo ops, narrow streets, and uniquely cone-shaped chimneys (to prevent the spread of live embers) characteristic of the city.  All evidence that the most front-door destinations still have some secret gems to be discovered.20160812_19001020160813_08524820160813_08513820160813_085112