In this ‘enclave of privilege’, large families gather for a meal, and attractive young people relax (in their regulation white tennis gear), chatting after their games, (and then pay with dad’s credit card). I can only hope that their education gives them an appreciation for the ‘want’ that exists in the world. An intriguing feature is seeing that all are well-versed in the ‘art of conversation’ and none has their nose in a mobile phone!
So much more laughter and conversation here in the late afternoon than when we were ‘trapped’ on a cruise boat drifting along the River Spree taking in the sights and forests of both East and West Berlin yesterday. (And waiting for the water to empty at two locks along the way) for nearly four hours thinking that this will never end.
If this were a first time for a cruise on the upper deck of the slow-moving boat, it would be most interesting, with Berlin having more waterways and bridges than Venice. However, yesterday‘s experience with pollinated white wisps of irritation (loosed from the newly-greened trees in the wind) flying up the nose and in the eyes and down my throat was quite a trial.
Thank you, Frank for the river cruise and later for the Sicilian ‘snack’ and bottles of wine. And thank you Carla for the wonderful farewell meal as the sun disappeared over the white-clad players on the clay tennis courts and the evening cooled down.
Johann Sebastian Bach was one of these cantors for twenty-seven years here at the Thomaskirche back in the 18th century. He was hired by the City of Leipzig to compose music for special Court and Church occasions, and to develop the choir.
We attend a special performance of the St Thomas Boy’s Choir and sit in pews ‘choir style’ so as to get a good view of the organ and the choir. I simply close my eyes and ‘imagine’ during the Bach organ solo pieces.
MUSIC – The significance of Leipzig is so much more than the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Here in the mid-18th century, as Cantor of the Thomaskirche, Bach composed most of his music.
We enjoy listening to the students of the University playing the Bach organ (newly constructed to replicate the identical musical tones as that used by Bach himself in the 18th century). Tomorrow evening, we are going to hear the St Thomas Boys Choir, (whose history dates back to the year 1212), singing in the church.
LEARNING – More than forty thousand students attend University here in Leipzig. Many are studying the Humanities or attending the famous Medical School.
Leipzig is also the home of Goethe, a literary celebrity by the age of 25, who was ennobled by the Duke of Saxe-Weimar in 1782 after taking up residence here. Students from all around the world come to study German here in the Goethe Institute.
The over-filled outdoor cafés and bars, so noisy with laughing and conversation is testament to this. And it is the season of white asparagus. Wundabar!
TRADE – In the middle ages, Leipzig was the cross roads of Europe’s trade routes – from France in the west to Russia in the East, and Italy in the south to the Baltic Sea in the north. Leipzig remains a major centre of trade today with its Trade Fairs that commenced centuries ago.
It was here five hundred years ago that Martin Luther translated the Bible from Greek into German for the first time. And with the advent of the printing press around the same time, Luther was able to have the ‘Word’ distributed throughout the land, and also disseminate leaflets explaining his disagreements with the Church of Rome.
REUNIFICATION – Prior to the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, Leipzig was a major industrial centre with eight hundred factories, coal mines, and no protection of the environment; in fact, choking pollution. All factories closed and there was ninety percent unemployment.
Porsche, BMW, DHL and other companies lead the return of industries after the Reunification, and today Leipzig is a thriving city with unemployment at just seven percent.
THE PEACE MOVEMENT – In 1982, even under the rule of the dictatorial German Democratic Government, a Lutheran Reverend at the Nikolaikirche here in the centre of old Leipzig, started weekly ‘Peace Prayer’ gatherings in the church.
This movement developed the momentum that eventually influenced the collapse of the Berlin Wall seven years later. In October 1989, the Military, in tanks, surrounded the church of people defying orders from the State Security to cease the Movement. Ten thousand other people gathered in the Square outside.
The famous conductor, Kurt Masur, loved by the people, broadcast a message into the square, “We want peace. We want calm”. Soldiers were listening to this local hero, and no order was given to shoot.
The Reverend then told the people inside to leave the church, carrying a candle at their breasts, and shouting out, ‘No violence”. The Military phoned Security HQ where there was no answer. They then phoned East Berlin, while the crowds swelled to seventy thousand people and marched to Headquarters of the State Security demanding change.
This was followed by a Peaceful Revolution in which half a million people from all over the GDR marched on the State Security Headquarters again, and occupied it.
One month later, the Berlin Wall came down!
OLD FRIENDS – Four of us, who have shared friendship since our days working with Amex, are here on this little adventure, and to share a reunion.
You might say that we are privileged to receive keys of the city during our special sightseeing tour in Dresden today.
My old friend, Fr Frank introduces us to another of his ‘colleagues’ from his years in the seminary. Fr Christian is a local man, not only well-versed and ready to explain all about this beautiful ‘royal’ town, but also one who carries the keys to the Royal tombs located under the Katholische Hofkirche. This was once the Catholic Church of the Royal Court of Saxony and is located on the square next to the Castle.
But first, we meet the affable Fr Christian in the Old Market Square and start with a visit to the imposing Protestant Frauenkirche. After lying as rubble for decades since World War II, this imposing edifice has finally been rebuilt using 45% of the blackened original stones. The church was not bombed, but in the bombing of surrounding houses by the British towards the end of the War, the building simply collapsed in the heat (like the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001).
The enormity of its circular tiered-interior with decorations in soft colours of a ‘Bauern Baroque’ (farmer’s simple baroque) style, catches my eye. Inside of the dome contains paintings of the Evangelists and the Virtues (better appreciated when seen enlarged in the viewfinder of my camera).
We then walk along the impressive outer wall of Dresden Castle (known as the Fürstenzug, Procession of Princes). It is the largest porcelain artwork in the world, 100 metres in length, made of twenty-three thousand Meissen porcelain tiles. It features a mounted procession of the rulers of Saxony from the twelfth to twentieth century, Including one of August the Strong, The Catholic King of Saxony (which incorporated much of present-day Poland at the time), with his horse stepping on a red rose, the symbol of Protestantism at the time.
Now, for the keys not of the city but to the crypt, to view these Royal ‘catacombs’ of large bronze tombs, and hear the stories that embrace the history. The Saxons were also the Kings of Poland during those centuries and all are buried here in the Catholic Hofkirche, previously the Catholic Church of the Royal Court of Saxony.
In the crypt, there’s a shrine for the eminent ruler, August the Strong, with the message, “I have to be buried where the Kings of Poland are buried, in Krakow, but my heart belongs to Dresden”, and we see this heart, in bronze, next to the tomb of his wife, who bore him sixteen children. Harkening back to the Fürstenzug, the mural of Meissen porcelain tiles, we now better understand a detail in his portrait showing his horse stepping on a rose, the symbol of Protestantism.
Back to the world of the living, and we find ourselves in an empty Catholic Hofkirche. As if by a divine signal, as we enter, the organ begins to play a rousing welcome. The organist is rehearsing for a special Ordination Mass tomorrow, not for us. But we sit and enjoy anyway.
In a local restaurant, just off the wonderful Promenade overlooking the River Elbe, a dish of beef, marinated in sweet black beer with spiced apple and dumplings, and red sauerkraut is my lunch treat.
Now time to drive back to Leipzig in time for a special performance of the St Thomas Boy’s Choir. We sat in pews ‘choir style’ (like Fr Steve Sinn introduced at St Canice St Canice’s KingsCross Sydney ) not so much as to ‘create community’ but so as to avoid a stiff neck turning around to get a good view of the organ and the choir. I simply closed my eyes and ‘imagined’ during the organ solo pieces.
Thomaskirche in Leipzig is where Bach composed so much of his music for Church and Court occasions. He was also cantor and the instructor of the boys in the choir there back in the 18 century…
I first met long-time Swiss friend Eddy in 1972. We were in a seaplane flying to an Amex meeting at Kawau Island on the North Island of New Zealand.
Now, forty-six years later, we are meeting-up with other Amex friends in Leipzig, Germany.
While others recover from jetlag this morning, Eddy and I go out to visit the Monument to the Battle of the Nations, which opened in 1913. This is built on the site of an historic battle here in Leipzig in 1893. The unified armed forces of Russia, Prussia, Austria and Sweden prevailed in a decisive victory over Napoleon and his allies on German soil.
This incredible stone temple is a monument to death, victory, and fantasy architecture. It’s impressive, but has a very cold, militaristic feel. Nothing like the ‘roundness and warmth’ that creates a sense of community as in Byzantine architecture that we came to appreciate from Fannie our guide in Greece earlier this week.
I walked up too many steps and now the left cheek of my derrière is reminding me with sharp jolts of pain. Thankfully, intermittent rolls of thunder and rain beating on the window pane as I lie on the bed seems to soothe it some.
Thessaloniki is the second city of Greece. We all ask ourselves how this very lively spot on the Aegean Sea seemed to be off our radars for so long.
What brought us here to northern Greece were two archaeological sites not far from Thessaloniki, at Vergina and at Pella.
As we soon discover, Thessaloniki is well worth the visit too, and the archaeological sites are so much more than a ‘pile of old stones in a dusty landscape’!
Far from it. This is the home of Alexander the Great, and the commencement of the Greek Hellenistic period.
What draws our interest is that the discoveries are so recent. World class small museums have been constructed on the actual sites where the palaces and tombs were discovered. Both sites are within easy driving distance of Greece’s lively and youthful second city, Thessaloniki.
Vergina is best known as the site of ancient Aigai, the first capital of Macedon. It was there when in 336 BC Philip II was assassinated in the theatre and Alexander the Great was proclaimed king. The ancient site of this first capital of the Kingdom of Macedonia, was discovered in the 19th century.
The most important remains are the monumental palace, lavishly decorated with mosaics and painted stuccoes, and the burial ground with more than 300 tumuli, some of which date from the 11th century B.C. One of the royal tombs in the Great Tumulus is identified as that of Philip II, who conquered all the Greek cities, paving the way for his son Alexander and the expansion of the Hellenistic world. It was discovered in 1976 and excavated under the leadership of Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos.
What’s fascinating is that the Museum is built underground ‘around the actual tombs’! They are still intact! Exquisite, precious items of gold and finely carved ivory miniatures were found in the tombs. They are beautifully displayed along with other funerary objects placed in the tombs for their use in the afterlife.
When Philip II’s tomb was discovered, it was so well camouflaged. It was never disturbed or looted as so many others before this. It was such a surprise for Andronikos, who realised that his years of work finally proved that this place was the site of the traditional capital Macedonian Kingdom of 2,400 years ago.
This discovery has current day political significance too, as it proves that Macedonia is in mainland Greece. The claim of the bordering state in the former Yugoslavia, to be the real Macedonia, is simply not true.
Philip and his son Alexander were born in Pella. Here, we see a re-creation of the Summer Palace of the Macedonian dynasty. It’s a large building with a rectangular atrium – as a reference to the central peristyle courtyard of ancient houses in Pella.
We walk easily through four themed well-curated rooms. It’s so easy to understand aspects of daily and public life in ancient Pella. We view amazing original mosaics lifted from Pella’s sanctuaries (the carefully chosen pebble used as the eye of the deer is of a size and has the right angles and colour that brings the animal to life). And, in another thematic group on a higher floor, we see the findings from the city’s cemeteries.
Our guide helps us to know so much more about the mighty Alexander. He was a student of Aristotle, but also learned much from his father as to how to respect and govern his people. It’s hard to believe that he lead his first campaign at the age 18 and was dead by the time he was only 31.
He was a brave leader, a man of the people, who conquered lands all the way east as far as India. His great legacy was uniting his people in one great state.
Alexander had a ‘deep appreciation’ for his friend, the handsome Macedonian fellow warrior, Hephaistion. In those days, it was very customary for members of Alexander’s Army to take fellow soldiers as lovers while away on Campaigns. It is said that this made them all the braver as they had strong motivation to protect each other when going into battle.
Alexander married the beautiful Roxana of Bactria, and fathered at least one child, Alexander IV of Macedon, born of Roxana shortly after his death in 323 BC.
We left the cruise this morning. After getting through the morning traffic of Athens, we headed straight up Highway 1 to the east coast town of Lamia, on the Aegean Sea where we stopped at a Greek Fish Tavern for lunch. Then on to Meteora.
We couldn’t wait till tomorrow to go see these amazing monasteries on pillars of amazing rock carved by nature over many millennia. So I bring you into the picture, and share a couple of pics tonight.
Next morning, we brave the 169 steps winding up to the top of one of the pillars of rock, the mountain, to visit the Varlaam Monastery.
On the way up, we can see that the unique ‘geological formations’ like pillars of stone here in Meteora are no more than small stones and rocks that have washed down from rivers past over the millennia. What remains are these hardened pillars on which many monasteries have been built.
We are fortunate to witness first-hand how all this came to pass, and still exists today with seven monks living in this particular monastery.. The story is worth reading.
In 1350, an ascetic monk named Varlaam climbed this great rock and settled at the top. He built three churches, a cell for himself and a water tank. No one chose to follow his lead, so after his death the site was abandoned.
In the early 16th century, two priest-monks ascended the rock and founded a monastery. They renovated Varlaam’s church of the Three Hierarchs, erected the tower, and built a katholikon (1541-42) dedicated to All Saints. We visit this today and hear the monks singing.
Using ropes, pulleys and baskets, it took 22 years to hoist all the building materials to the top of the rock. Once everything was at the top, the construction work took only 20 days.
Varlaam Monastery was continuously occupied by monks (about 35 at a time) throughout the 16th century and into the early 17th century, after which it began to decline. Steps were first carved into the rock in the early 19th century and have been altered several times since.
The frescoes in the main church were painted by the celebrated iconographer Frangos Katelanos of Thebes in 1548 (the date is inscribed on the south wall). They appear as colourful today as they must have when first painted.
Our guide Fannie described in evocative terms the different symbolism in the architecture of ‘Gothic’ Catholic churches and ‘Byzantine’ Orthodox churches.
Fanny explained that the pointed arch of a Gothic cathedral ceiling was designed to draw the eye up and reflected the belief that ‘God was in heaven’, while the curved dome and ceiling of a Byzantine church reflected the belief that God dwelled in the church ‘among the people’. This thought is also reinforced in the art and beauty of the church.
We see in the old tower the old windlass and rope basket (1536), which used to transport monks and supplies to the monastery. When asked how often the rope was replaced, a 19th-century abbot famously replied, “Only when it breaks.” It was used as recently as 1961-63, when the refectory was renovated into a museum of religious artefacts.
If you click on the map, a slideshow of all the photos in the body of the Silver Wind blog post will commence.
In many of the ports, we have private transportation arranged in advance, with the added comfort of keeping much to our own pace. As days go on, we start later, and return to the ship after lunch, beautifully ‘dulled’ by wine and ready for a snooze.
‘Easy does it’ is what holidays are all about, no?
After departing the port, we drive by the base of Mount Vesuvius and drive for a couple of hours south passing the headland of Eboli to arrive at one of the most well-preserved collections of Greek Temples anywhere in Europe – in Paestum. Originally created as a tribute to the Greek god Poseidon, we learn about the history of this ancient period.
Since 1988, UNESCO has recognized Paestum as a World Heritage Site. Unlike the busy Pompeii and even Herculaneum, Paestum has very few tourists. The ancient Greek temples dating back to the 6th century BC provide a uniquely Greek experience in Italy.
We roam through the ruins with our guide to see three temples including the preserved temple of Hera II (once mistakenly believed to be the Temple of Poseidon).
Being our first excursion, and lots of traffic on the roads around Amalfi, there are ‘some’ in our number fretting that the ship might ‘go without them’. So, we cancel the planned stop in Ravello on the way back in favour of going to a little family restaurant in Vietri sul Mare, near Salerno. What a treat!
Here at the simple La Playa Trattoria, a young husband and wife, (friends of our driver host, Rosario), rustle-up a lunch of regional specialities, marinated anchovies, octopus salad, tomatoes, insalata caprese, tuna lemon balls, and to think that I would like sardines stuffed with mozzarella and deep fried would be stretching it – before I tasted these!
Of course, we make it back to the Silver Wind in time! And the sea has calmed.
Taormina is a destination that we’ve visited before. On a little stroll (through throngs of locals enjoying a sunny Public Holiday) we decide that the best thing to do is to enjoy some lunch in a quiet trattoria.
I found the main square and the colonnaded building where Alan and I enjoyed Greek meatballs for lunch on a cruise here some fifteen years ago. But, this time the old town beckoned, and it was so much more interesting, Silver Wind is in port till late this evening, so back we go to town for a Greek meal – will report later.
Which one of us represents Ulysses, the legendary Greek king of Ithaca and the hero of Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey today? However, we’re not returning to the waiting wife Penelope after fighting the Trojan Wars for ten years; we’ve barely travelled ten hours from our last port of Corfu.
Finally ashore by tender after a lazy morning, there’s hardly a soul in sight Edmundo and I ‘hire’ the only cab on the rank here in downtown Vathi. This is the largest little town on the whole Island of Ithaca. Off the beaten track we go, rattling in our ageing Toyota Camry around the sea before changing gears to chug and rattle around hairpin bends as we wind up the mountain side to visit a monastery; all but deserted, but affording good views back down to Vathi.
Cypress sprout out of olive groves and rock on one side of the mountain, but simply add height to the forested sides on the other. Simple little houses up here but no people visible. Occasional clumps of red or pink roses suggest that someone does care. The birds singing are the only real signs of life. Descending to small towns on the north shore, a little more colour and life, with more blooming roses and bougainvillea, and loquat trees laden in yellow fruit in the back yards.
We skip through the small town of Stavros (tourist buses sighted), and Frikes, and continue around to an all but deserted fishing town of Kioni. Here, around a little bay, original-style houses that were not disturbed by the 1953 earthquake still stand. It proves to be a great place to stop for lunch.
The plate of grilled vegetables and cheese balls is more than enough for two. The chef says that his special herb on the vegetables is black salt, but I’m sure there’s thyme or similar added to the sesame seeds that make it taste so good. The arrival of my local goat cooked three hours in the outdoors oven was too much. I hope the local animals enjoyed their special treat.
Everybody is jockeying for positions at the bow of the ship to see us enter the Corinth Canal. Juanita von Stieglitz and Shenagh amble along in sun hats looking like they’re off to a bush picnic. But they well and truly hold their own. And reserve a prime position for me.
O me with all the faith, am proven wrong. While the teeth-chattering band of fearful sailors (the ‘ye of little faith’ crowd) seem to relish their fears of being stuck somehow in the transit being realised. They now have a real-life drama of being ‘stuck in the mud’ to relate to friends back home.
I continue sitting on the aft deck sipping my Earl Grey and enjoying a hot scone, as I hear the captain announce that the ship is stuck from a combination of mud under the keel and a strong current against us. The water is so shallow that they cannot use any propulsion.
Another pot of tea is called for while waiting for the Pilot and Canal authorities to get us moving again. And of course, we do.
Returning to my cabin is like moving from day into night. I find myself ‘entombed’ in the dark between stone-walls. I can pick the weeds growing in the crevices and see the rocks all but scraping the keel of the ship below.
Now to prepare for guests this evening.
POST-CORINTH CANAL CAVIAR AND CANAPÉS
It’s less than a week to go till we disembark in Piraeus, so today’s easy day ‘at sea’ and the excitement while transiting the Corinth Canal is a good excuse for our little group to get together for a few quiet drinks.
Also a chance to discuss the upcoming visits to Santorini, Rhodes, Ephesus and Mykonos. If that sounds exhausting, you might be ‘on the money’.
“Clouds come down over Santorini each evening kissing the volcanic soil with their moisture.” Fairytale? No!
Nick the Greek, our affable taxi driver says so. In this otherwise dry island where people have to ship in their drinking water, the grape vines and vegetable plantings are watered naturally, as if from the Gods.
And to add a note of veracity to this claim, the Baroness Juanita advises us that she’s recently invested in an Israeli firm that specialises in microclimates, and is building the capacity to do exactly this, to water, green and make productive, dry areas of the earth.
Nick the Greek came into our orbit when we had to find a way to get from the top of Santorini down to Ammoudi Bay, below the scenic village of Oia, at the other end of the island, for lunch. And how great that is.
After stopping at Oia village for the regulation photo-stop to capture us in front of the blue domes and white houses, Nick continues on to a shelf of land right on the sea, where sit four taverna.
The Ammoudi Bay Fish Tavern, open to the breezes with tables right next to the clearest waters of the caldera, is one of the island’s gems. Of greater memory is the sun-dried squid, char-grilled and delivered with just a squeeze of lemon. Lip-smacking good, as is the calamari. Shall I go on?
Groaning, sated, and delighted with the local Santorini white wine (kissed by the clouds), we leave the table, (having avoided the fish and lobster in the display cabinets at €70 a kilo).
Rhodes is the largest medieval city in Europe, from 4BC to the present day, and six times larger than the Vatican. The Knights of St John ruled here for two centuries before the land was occupied by the Ottomans. The Italians came in 1918 until ousted by the Germans during the War.
The Colossus of Rhodes stood astride the harbor here in Rhodes, for but seventy years, in 2 BC, before an earthquake felled it, and it sunk to the bottom of the sea. Arabs retrieved it centuries later and sold the metal to Jewish merchants for re-sale into munitions and other scrap metal.
We manage to reach the walls of Rhodes’ Old City and begin a walking tour from the Gate D’Amboise. We enter through these massive gates and marvel at the imposing Palace of the Grand Masters from the outside
Mercifully we are already inside this UNESCO protected Palace, seated in a sheltered colonnade listening intently to Maria’s fascinating story of the Colossus of Rhodes, as torrents of water start to bucket-down in the courtyard. Then up an impressive stone staircase (with no rails) to explore the rooms with imported floors of original Pagan, Greek and Roman mosaics, and view other rooms preserved as they once were during the times of the Knights.
I was unaware that it was only after the Second World War that this island was annexed to Greece.
A delicate balance today between fellow travellers with interests primarily in visiting Ephesus Ancient City, and the more devout with interests also in what a little house up in the mountains above the ancient city represents to Christians. Thanks to our friendly local guide Hakan, we do it well – finishing up in a small family establishment near the port in Kuşadasi, OzUrfa Restaurant, with excellent kebabs washed down with refreshing local wines and beers.
It is thought that Mary and the beloved disciple John came to this part of the world from Jerusalem across the sea. Imagination and some quiet contemplation helps to truly appreciate this place. I wouldn’t mind settling in this peaceful with little birds singing as they flit from branch to branch. Perhaps, I wouldn’t like to walk to a well somewhere to get the water to bathe, as Mary did. I wonder if she cooked kebabs as delicious as we enjoyed?
Visits of three popes to this House of Mary in recent times is an indication of the significance of the site. Silently inside, we can see the lamp that was gifted by Paul VI, a chalice from St John Paul II, and a gold rosary from Benedict XVI. My sister Anne and I take the opportunity to light candles, and say a prayer for elder brother Tony, and also remember other friends and family.
Ephesus Ancient City is so much more than I expected. It has been excavated from under tons of silt built-up over the years by flooding from a river than brings floods down from the mountains. So much silt that the once seaside City is now some miles inland with fertile lands of peaches and olives all the way to the now distant sea.
Famous in antiquity for its Temple of Artemus during the years of the Roman Empire, the Greek port of Ephesus became the greatest city in Asia Minor. We start at the upper Magnesia Gate of Ephesus Ancient City and walk through history along marble streets lined with extensive ruins from state buildings to public buildings, the Roman Library, Theatre, ending near the ancient Harbour.
Along the way we stop at the Odeon, the Fountain of Trajan, the steam baths of Scholastika, the temple of Hadrian and the impressive Library of Celsius. The Library is adorned with columns and statues. We pass the Grand Theatre where St. Paul once preached. With 24,000 seats, it is the largest theatre in antiquity. We walk back to our private vehicle through the Arcadian Way, where Mark Anthony and Cleopatra once rode in procession.
The evangelist St. John spent his last years in the region around Ephesus, and we next visit the Basilica named in his honour. This monumental basilica, built during the region of Emperor Justinian (527-565 A.D.), was in the shape of a cross and covered with six domes. Raised on two steps and covered with marble, the tomb of St. John is located under the central dome.
This whole area takes on much greater importance to Christians of Faith. This part of Turkey was the cradle of Christianity for four centuries after Christ. John, one of the greatest evangelists lived here, and Mary the mother of Jesus spent her final years here.
The First Council of Nicaea, (325), the first ecumenical council of the Christian church, was held here. It was called by the emperor Constantine I, an unbaptized catechumen, who presided over the opening session and took part in the discussions.
The main accomplishment of this Council was the settlement of the Christological issue of the divine nature of God the Son and his relationship to God the Father, and the construction of the first part of the Nicene Creed.
Afterwards we drive back to Kuşadasi for a lunch of the best kebabs at OzUrfa Restaurant.
The iconic windmills of Mykonos are in a state of disrepair. Scandal. Fortunately, friend from Frankfurt days in the early 90’s, David Wright who’s been resident in Mykonos for nearly seven years, is at the dock to meet us when we alight from the tender.
After trying to approach the windmills, we lose the battle against the tide of tourists from six cruise ships and satisfy our sightseeing urge with a quick walk through the colourful back streets.
We then head out of town to a rustic little place, Kiki’s, overlooking a quiet beach for a Greek char-grilled lunch. Just twenty tables under a vine shelter with sea breezes to cool us.
A weekend in Rome with Michael and Frank up the mountain and Juanita and Edmundo in the centre of things makes for a challenging two days in the Eternal City. And Edmundo’s confinement to bed with a cold left the Baroness Juanita alone to covort with Michael and Frank.
Not only the heat, but the ongoing monotonous moaning voice of the tour guide through my ear piece with the most uninteresting drivel about Pope this and Pope that, with hardly a botanical mention. One of our party ‘felt the heat’ so much that I asked for a gendarme to escort us out of Vatican State, back to sanity and the outside world in Italy.
Edmundo waits patiently with our driver Marco at Fiumicino Airport for Juanita and me after our twenty-three hours flying from Sydney.
After another three hours driving north, we finally arrive at Villa Fontelunga, abloom with spring flowers. We are welcomed with the first of what is to be many glasses of Prosecco, and we pause to take in the beautiful views out over the manicured lawns and olive groves to the Val Di Chiana.
We are so far from reality, but already ensconced with that heightened anticipation of the friendly staff treating us royally for a few days.
Cold cuts and salads are set out for our lunch as none of us has any intention to leave the villa. We do go ‘to town’ in the evening to try the local Chianina beef (used for Fiorentina T-bone steaks).
In the morning, I’m up early enough to see Paolo turning out a freshly baked cake for the breakfast buffet. A cappuccino and cake out in the morning sunshine is a great way to start the day (and the holiday).
Our first excursion is into Pienza, a town that is a UNESCO declared World Heritage Site. More recently, the entire valley, the Val d’Orcia, was included on the list of UNESCO’s World Cultural Landscapes.
Thanks to Paolo at the Villa, we have a wonderful local lady drive us there and instructions for where to enjoy a simple lunch outdoors. The rest of the time we wander.
Pienza is the home of pecorino cheese. The cheese aroma wafts from so many of the shops as we walk down the main street. According to some farmers, the secret to their product is the unique combination of Sardinian sheep and Tuscan grass.
Arezzo is a rural centre of Etruscan origin, just half an hour’s drive from our Villa, (or an hour south east of Florence).
Arezzo is a little gem, thanks mainly to the legacy left by its two most gifted sons: the stunning frescos by Piero della Francesca in the Church of San Francesco, and the main square Piazza Grande with the elegant loggia designed by Vasari (the same Vasari who planned the Uffizi in Florence.)
Unfortunately we arrive in the heat of the mid-day sun just as everything is closing. We are doubly disappointed to learn that the next available time for viewing of Piero della Francesca’s fresco cycle ‘Legends of the True Cross’ in the Basilica of San Francesco is not until 6pm.
We did visit the Church of Santa Maria della Pieve, very impressive from the outside, but with an interior so dark, before traipsing up the hill to visit the Cathedral. Back to the Piazza of San Francesco for yet another Campari, and lunch out under a large umbrella.
Driving along regional roads on our way from Arezzo to Siena, wildflowers line the verges. Don’t you love the Spring season?
Rolling green hills sweep away on all sides.
Expanses of rich earth of ‘terra di Siena bruciata’ colour await the planting of sunflowers to turn heads (theirs and ours) later in the summer.
Hilltop towns with towers standing for centuries seemingly never tire of looking out and across to the surrounding mountains watching for any interlopers like us entering their verdant domain.
Cypress randomly dot the expanses of green, waiting for sunrise and sunset to make perfect picture postcard views of what we lovingly recognise as the typical Tuscan countryside. (In between, successive days of blue skies add to our enjoyment.)
Again, crowds have arrive in Siena before us, and after ‘doing battle’, we agree to find the restaurant Osteria di Logge, recommended by Paolo back at Villa Fontelunga, and rest the weary bones. And eat some rabbit!
St Canice’s has been journeying with the community at Railaco in Timor-Leste for many years, supporting a school, medical clinic and nutrition program.
For the past few years, I have become personally involved, and feel very close to the people up there. This video provides a good update.
Friend since 1975, Edmundo generously hosted Cocktails for twenty-five old friends of mine to say hello and to meet Andrew, on his first trip to Florida. We all repaired to the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables where Edmundo’s evening extended for dinner amongst the palms on a balmy Florida evening.
After seafood dinner here in the Brickell area on Christmas Eve, we go to midnight mass at the Miami Cathedral to celebrate the joy of Christmas. To my surprise, the cathedral is quite a way out of town in an area where Haitian immigrants have moved in. The congregation is primarily black, and the Archbishop speaks in tongues – Creole, English and Spanish. It’s the singing of some of the Christmas Carols in Creole that really touches me. So beautiful and more impressive with everyone singing so passionately.
Christmas Night at Peggy’s was the thrill its always been – Christmas tree and gift giving before my favourite stone crab claws and shrimp.
On Boxing Day, Ricardo and Michael Iñesta host us with a group of old friends to marvellous Brazilian fusion dinner (with Ricardo adding Puerto Rican touches to create the other side of the fusion). – again in the balmy air on their terrace.
Andrew and I stayed in a very modern 2-bedroom apartment in a new Swire Hotel on Brickell, ‘East’. So central and being Christmas week, so buzzy.
So ‘Americana’. Let us out of here!
The next morning, we find the cutest little town that has its roots back in the 16 century when the Spanish first colonised this part of the US.
Britain had done a deal with Spain giving them title to Florida in exchange for their taking over Cuba.
During the mid-1560s, the Spanish Empire expanded from its Caribbean strongholds northward, to what is Florida today. The first colony which was founded and remained continuously occupied was St. Augustine. Spanish settlers began immediately to establish a Catholic church.
The old buildings of St Augustine now house ice cream shops, souvenirs, restaurants, bars and so much else. But retains the colonial traces everywhere.
In the Garden of Good & Evil
Mercer House located on one of the wonderful old ‘squares’ in Savannah was easy to find on our horse and carriage tour. Only on driving out to Bonaventure Cemetery to see the other part of the story did we find that we’d both forgotten the plot.
So back to town for some crawfish and a cold beer by the river.
The landscape we’ve been passing through here in the ‘Deep South’ has been flat and monotonous. So today we head out into the back roads to see more of ‘America’.
Dramatically cut short it was when I happened to remember that my passport was back in the room safe in Savannah. Andrew turned around without a whimper. What a good driver!
“GETTIN’ THE WORD & GETTIN’ THE GHOST”
AT MOTHER EMANUEL AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH
It was here in one of the United States’ oldest black churches, long been a site for community organization around civil rights, that white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans including the pastor, in a shooting massacre in 2015.
Andrew and I were not disappointed with the two hours that we sat and stood and sang along with the mixed congregation including many white folk like us. The black women, so many in their Sunday best white suits and hats, were devoutly involved. I recall my dear friend Clara in New York days telling me that here Sunday mornings at church were the best times of the week for her. Clara, I now understand!
Our plans for going on to the Catholic Cathedral for the Sung Mass afterwards were askew as we got more and more involved with what was unfolding at this lively service. It wasn’t just the singing, the organ music, trumpet, drums; it was the people, whipped-up to fever pitch by the pastor. All were elevated by the Word, joining in the singing, swaying, waving arms in the air, and punctuating what the pastor was saying with frequent loud praises, ‘Jesus!’ or ‘Amen!’
It was only Eric, our horse and carriage driver later in the afternoon who shone a light on the rather concerning event during the service when one poor black woman came forward for the pastor’s blessing crying inconsolably, before throwing herself on her back and screaming words to God. “The Holy Ghost was in her” says Eric. Here we calls it “Gettin’ the Ghost”.
Eric also turned out to be very knowledgeable on the history of the area since the days of the British colonial times through the Wars of Independence and the Civil War. We clopped over the cobblestones of the historic quarter on a horse-drawn tour, travelling back in time to the colonial beginnings of Charleston. passed by the old churches, antebellum mansions and lush gardens of Charleston.
“In the beginning”, God intended humanity to cooperate in the preservation and protection of the natural environment. There would be few places on earth where such respect for God’s ‘Creation’ is taken more seriously than here in the beauty of Grand Teton National Park.
It takes a a few days in one of the world’s largest intact ecosystems here in north western Wyoming to shake me out of my apathy. Taking in the grandeur and beauty of the Grand Teton mountain range is but a start. Snow-capped ranges under clear blue skies can disappear, lost in a blanket of white during a snow storm; and clear to provide a saw-toothed silhouette above which the most beautiful sunsets play out in the darkening skies.
Out in the national park and national forests, up close amongst moose, elk, deer, longhorn sheep, eagles, and swans in their natural habitats in mountains and in valleys, only now I can start to understand the morally decaying scenario of our attitude and behaviour towards creation. And realise that this is obscuring our call to take a proactive role in caring for creation. (Do I say, ‘thank you Pope Francis for your exhortations that prick my conscience”?)
It’s experiencing an area as majestic and tranquil as this coupled with an extremely knowledgeable and passionate young guide Gerard to enflame my interests. Learning enough to start understanding how this fragile eco system works, and has been functioning since the beginning of time is a wake-up call for me.. Gerard opened my eyes wider to the wonders of Nature.
TRANQUILITY IN THE RUN-UP TO CHRISTMAS
Christmas carols on a repeating loop haven’t made it into the snow here in the Tetons as yet.
Days to enjoy peace and tranquility in this wonderful valley with a book for company (and a television handy that I have yet to switch on). Of course, I enjoy meal times with Andrew, and we take the odd exploration together to better understand the animals and the local ecosystem.
MORMON TABERNACLE CHOIR PERFORMANCE HERE IN SALT LAKE CITY
It was worth going out on a -6° crisp chill Utah morning here in Salt Lake City to attend the Christmas CBS half hour performance of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with full Orchestra. We were seated in the 21,000 person hall across from the Mormon Tabernacle on Temple Square. Simply perfect acoustics, as you might well expect for such an organisation.
Interesting to see in this city that is the home of the Mormon faith that there is a very large Catholic cathedral from the 19 century Cathedral of the Madeleine. We had time to walk the few blocks and reach there in time for the Sunday sung Mass, a strange but beautiful work for organ and Choir by Benjamin Britten.
There’s not a store or restaurant in the whole city open on a Sunday. It’s like going back in time to my Brisbane days as a youth when you could fire a cannon down Queen Street and not hit a soul.
After Mass, we hopped the free tram down Main street alighting at our hotel to partake of the spread-out buffet at our hotel; with local families of all ages already filling the ‘Garden Restaurant’; they obviously like to dine here early even at lunchtime.
The Christmas lights on Temple Square were quite something else. I could say that I’ve never seen so many families out on any evening, but then I think back to the Sydney New Year’s Eve fireworks or the Vivid exhibits on the sails of the Opera House, and then Australian families come out in force also.
Phil went off to India more than sixty years ago at the age of just 20 to become a missionary. He stayed there for more than fifty years living and learning from the local people of the lower castes. The many experiences he related from his days living with the Indian tribes were always ‘informing’.
However, on one recent occasion at the same time that Pope Francis was in South America, he spoke of personal ‘Freedom’, a concept that clearly resonates with me:
In South America this past week, in his home, Pope Francis seemed unbound, liberated to speak his mind.
He seemed, in a word, free.
Fr Phil went on:
‘Freedom’ . . . is the hallmark Jesuit virtue.
Not piety, as some might think.
Not scholarship, as others may believe.
The freedom to be who you are,
to say what you believe and, above all,
to proclaim the Good News.
From the Gold Coast to Brisbane I was more than fêted during this past week.
I may have watched on lazily as Anne shelled the four of them as my ‘home-coming’ treat, but I was put to work a couple of nights later under Trevor’s watchful eye with the butterflied leg of lamb and Mediterranean vegetables on the BBQ.
It was reassuring to see that Trev’s recent health scare with a stroke that had him in hospital for 5 days hadn’t got in the way of his healthy appetite. Thankfully he is on the road to full recovery again.
Shamelessly, I say that the three of us demolished nearly 1kg of spanner crab meat.
After the Gold Coast sojourn, it’s into the car to drive to Brisbane where Mark and Jenny hosted host us to lunch at their Brisbane home to celebrate Tony’s 82nd birthday – a repast that carries-on through to 8.40 pm.
And this morning, nieces Emily and Lucy came over after breakfast to say hello to their aunt and uncles along with Andrew’s wife Meghann, and her two littlies. Lovely to catch-up after so long.