Friday, September 15, 2017

Baptisms in the River Jordan

For Christians, being baptized at the site where Jesus was
immersed is a meaningful experience  (Taylor)
YARDENIT, ISRAEL — One of the great joys of travel is having an experience that is completely out of the realm of your every day routine. Whether it is joining in with locals at the Palio horse race in Siena, Italy or kissing the Blarney Stone in Ireland or racing through the Channel Tunnel at 186-miles an hour, the memories last forever.

Visitors to the Holy Land travel there to see sights and shrines that have been a part of their lives since the day they were born. Christians, Jews and Muslims share many of the same stories and locations regardless of their beliefs.
Nearly half a million people from around the world come each
year for the baptismal ceremony  (wikipedia)
For Christians, the two most popular destinations are Bethlehem where Christ was born and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where he is believed to have been buried before the resurrection.

But there's a third locale which brings more than half a million travelers and pilgrims each year to celebrate a ritual that is truly meaningful for everyone who participates. The site is Yardenit, situated at the entrance to Kibbutz Kinneret where the Southern tip of the Sea of Galilee flows into the River Jordan.
Taking the waters

The attraction? The opportunity to be baptized in the waters where Jesus was baptized by his cousin, John the Baptist.
Built with the blessing and help of the Ministry of Tourism of Israel in 1981, Yardenit was established to offer a haven and sanctuary for visitors wishing to be baptized in the River Jordan. Founded in 1913 by immigrants from Eastern Europe, Kinneret is the second oldest kibbutz in Israel.
Upon arrival, one of the first things visitors experience at Yardenit is a verse from the Gospel of Mark describing the baptism of Christ in hand painted tiles by Armenian artist Hagop Antreasssian. The "Wall of New Life", written in over 80 languages and dialects reads:

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove, and a voice came from heaven; ‘Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased.” Mark 1:9-11

Like the Ganges in India, the River Jordan is considered one of the world's most sacred rivers, for different reasons, of course. It is mentioned approximately 175 times in the Old Testament and about 15 times in the New Testament.
The source of the River Jordan near the Syrian border  (Taylor)
"Jordan" is derived from the Hebrew word "Yarden" which means "descender." "Yardenit" translates to mean "little Jordan River."

Named after the Sea of Galilee, nearby Kibbutz Kinneret operates the baptismal site where entry is free for all who wish to watch and/or participate. There are also several quiet areas for meditations, prayers and contemplation.

Watching and waiting
Other than the infrastructure for viewing and crowd maintenance, the banks of the river are as pastoral and serene as they would have been 2000 years ago where tranquil greenery and wildlife abound. Playful Otters are frequent visitors to the river without intruding upon the rituals at hand.

In addition, there are handrails and wheelchair accessible ramps leading into the river and the river is constantly monitored for water quality and safety.

Of course, there are gift shops and places for food and, though the baptisms are free, there are small charges for some facilities and services. For example, participants are required to wear special white robes, which can be rented or purchased at the site.

Dressing rooms are available and swim suits or other clothing can be worn under the robe, but participants must don the robe in order to take part in the rite.
Yardenit is a quiet place where solitude is ideal atmosphere
Groups are commonplace at Yardenit, and many guests wish to have a priest perform the ceremony. The kibbutz has no resident clergy on site, however there are local priests available who can perform the services upon request.

The Jordan was a relatively desolate area for centuries, which made adventurous travelers even more appreciative of the opportunity to experience one of the great moments in religious history.
Bethlehem is the most visited
site for Americans (Taylor)

In 1932, with the construction of the Naharayim hydraulic plant which harnessed the Yarnukh and Jordan Rivers for electricity, the area underwent a dramatic change that allowed the Yardenit site to be constructed.

Despite that, as with so many things in the Middle East, the Yardenit baptismal site is not without controversy.

For obvious reasons, Israel has long maintained that Jesus was baptized on the Israeli side of the river rather than the opposite shore which is the country of Jordan. Thanks to archaeological research, scholars are increasingly leaning toward the Jordanian site rather than that of Israel.

In fact, when Pope Francis visited the Holy Land last year, he purposely held a Mass at the Jordanian location, which added credibility to the claim.
Dhows still ply the waters of the Sea of Galilee much as they
did in the time of Jesus Christ  (Taylor)
Though a predominantly Muslim country, Jordan relies heavily on tourism revenue for its economy. Because the baptism of Jesus is generally considered the beginning of Christ's ministry, Jordan has even gone so far as to use the slogan "Jordan, the birthplace of Christianity." 
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the second most visited
site by Christians in the Holy Land  (Taylor)
The primary baptismal site for Jordan is just downriver from Yardenit where the river widens. There is also slightly better access to the waters for those who wish to be baptized at that location.
Renewing faith  (wikimedia)

One other important difference is the baptismal font which has been restored in Jordan for those who prefer to be sprinkled rather than totally immersed.
Whether you choose Israel or Jordan, the River Jordan baptism is a truly unique experience provided, that is, that you can look beyond the presence of soldiers from each country standing guard as pilgrims sing hymns, pray and get baptized in the holy waters that flow into the Dead Sea.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Making the most of the joy of travel

Hotel San Pietro hides within the rock of the dramatic Amalfi Coast  (wikipedia)

CHARLOTTE, NC Seeing a place for the first time is one of the great pleasures of travel, but visiting a destination for the second or third time is often more rewarding. Once you have seen all the "mandatory" sights, then you can begin to enjoy "travel for travel's sake."
Cascading wonder of the Plitvice Lakes in Croatis  (wikipedia)
Each of us is unique and, as such, we all travel in different ways with different perspectives. Many travelers go in search of something new each time they venture forth. Others are content to return to familiar places, destinations that become like an old shoe because they suit someone's lifestyle.

It doesn't really matter how or why people travel. For veteran travelers or even novices who want to attempt something different, pick an aspect or two of travel and immerse yourself in it. It could be people watching at a sidewalk cafe or a few contemplative moments in a massive centuries-old cathedral or surrounding yourself in a peaceful country setting where time seems to stand still.
Metro station in Moscow

Over the years I have come to understand how certain times of day affect my attitude.  I adore the serene, soothing freshness of a new day.  Barbara Grizzuti Harrison described an Italian dawn as arriving "with theatrical brush strokes,” and early morning for me has, indeed, become a time of renewal. 

I cherish those precious golden moments when the veil of night lifts to reveal the dewiness of daybreak.  When the world seems cleansed with coolness and moisture that beckons through a scrim of earth-clinging clouds, whispers in flowers and trees, gently nourishing them in clear, tiny droplets of life, caressing them in a misty shroud. 
Sukothai, Thailand's ancient capital

That time of day when a peach-colored sun is little more than a formless shape in the sky, innocent and subdued, dispersing gradations of light across the horizon.  When birds are hushed silhouettes with wings, made all the more distinct by the backlit palette of a delicate pastel sky, a sky that will swiftly yield to the frantic turmoil of commerce and enterprise. 

Morning is that fleeting portion of the day when tranquility prevails with muffled sounds that introduce a sunrise, all unified into a single uplifting serenade.  Daybreak is a symphony for my soul.
Morning dawns on the plains of Kenya  (Lasater)
Whenever possible I enjoy sipping coffee and watching the day unfold with a freshness all its own. For me, writing a description of those experiences are moments of pure joy where I can lose myself in another world all my own.
The Treasury at Petra (wikipedia)

"The piazza was buzzing with the rhythms of the day and a passion for living; fishermen sorting their catches and hosing down the decks of their tiny boats, vendors lining the pier with buckets of fresh squid, laundry lines filled with sheets and pillowcases and personal items strung between ancient mustard colored buildings, gray haired women dressed entirely in black peering from third story windows, observing the same daily rituals they had watched continuously from the same locations for decades, small groups of men, two, three, sometimes four, flailing their arms and hands with gestures to emphasize their points of view, the topic being secondary to what really mattered, which was the flair and the amount of expression with which the opinion was expressed, sidewalk cafes with waiters clanking dishes and glasses as they flitted among their mazes of tables, tethered children crying and reaching for elusive, brightly colored balloons, lovers walking hand in hand, so infatuated with each other that nothing else existed.
Wine bar in Stein am Rhein
Switzerland (Taylor)

"There were smells too.  And street sounds.  A feast for the senses.  People shouting from distant hidden doorways and alleys.  Invisible voices from upstairs apartments singing opera that permeate into the clamor of the streets, creating a theatrical backdrop for this elaborate outdoor stage. 

"Motor scooters zipping helter-skelter between people as if choreographed not to run into anyone or anything.  Fruit and vegetable stalls, and freshly cut flowers. 
Steam train crosses the Glenfinnian Viaduct in Scotland  (wikipedia) 
"This was a place where participation was mandatory, yet it was also a place where one could remain entirely anonymous.  It was a pageant, a carousel, a parade and a circus all wrapped into a single piazza, performed under a canopy of sunny, blue Mediterranean sky, and orchestrated by life itself."  
The Taj Mahal in Agra, India  (Taylor)
Traveling keeps you young, at least in spirit and in mind, if not body.
Tunnel to paradise in Croatia

 Travel is intoxicating. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison once wrote, "My unconscious mind reached a deep intuitive understanding of the past (my past), only to see more levels, deeper levels, hidden pasts.  It meanders sinuously among artifacts lost and found, unknown but known.  It travels many ways to arrive in the same place."
Berlin's Brandenburg Gate  (wikipedia
Perhaps the words of Daniel Boorstin sum up the wonder of travel best:  "A traveler goes in search of people, of adventure, of experience.  A tourist goes for sightseeing.  Just like the question is more interesting than a statement, and a road more intriguing than a map, I aspired to be a traveler.  Be brave.  Go through open gates.”
Dramatic Cliffs of Moher, Ireland  (Taylor
 Find that empty gate and wander through it. You will not be disappointed and your life will become richer.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Spend a day (or more) on the Lake of Lucerne in Switzerland

Another glorious morning greets Lucerne and its famed Chapel Bridge  (wikipedia)
LUCERNE, SWITZERLAND  For many Americans making their first visit to Switzerland, Lucerne is arguably the most popular destinations. As a matter of fact, veteran travelers never seem to tire of Lucerne either. Nestled in a bowl surrounded by majestic alpine vistas, Lake Lucerne spills into the River Reuss beneath the ancient Chapel Bridge to capture everyone's imagination.
The Jesuit Church beside the River Reuss is another popular spot
Lucerne's Old Town with its frescoed facades is a shopper's delight amid charming narrow streets and colorful cafes.

But once you have explored all the village has to offer, there is much more to see and do in the area. If you are traveling with a Swiss Travel System Pass, an outing on the lake is the perfect excursion to satisfy all your wanderlust needs.
The lake is a great way to tour
Using the rail pass as your ticket to free transportation on lake steamers and many other modes of travel, begin at the docks directly across from the railway station. It doesn't matter which direction you choose, but for this program we will journey in a roughly figure-8 direction aboard one of the many boats that sail across the lake.
The Wagner Museum is a pleasant discovery because many
travelers do not know about it  (
First stop is the Richard Wagner Museum where the great German composer lived and worked with his second wife and children from 1866-1872. Photographs, paintings, letters and, of course, musical scores are on display in the country manor in Tribschen.
Swiss "cablevision" of Pilatus

A highlight of the outing is the Frard grand piano on which Wagner completed his works. Today, the site is frequently used for concerts in which the piano often plays a significant role.

Next, Mount Pilatus, which is actually comprised of several peaks, of which the highest is Tomilshorn at nearly 7,000 feet.
Pilatus has the steepest cogwheel train in the world
From the boat landing in Alpnachstad walk across the road to catch the Pilatus Railway, the steepest cogwheel train in the world. Trains only operate from May to November, but there are panoramic cable cars that run year-round from Kriens.
Cog train to Pilatus

HINT: If the Lake Lucerne trip seems too ambitious, skip the outing to Pilatus and do it as separate half-day excursion later. By doing this, you can take the cable car from Kriens up to Pilatus and go down on the cogwheel train where you can catch the boat back to Lucerne.
The highest outdoor elevator in the world will raise your spirits
After Pilatus, cross the lake to the Hammetschwand to ascend the highest outdoor elevator in the world at over 500 feet. Built by hotel entrepreneur and railway businessman Franz Josef Bucher, the 111-year old elevator rises above Lake Lucerne with unbelievable panoramas. At the top, walk the path to the Burgenstock Resort before taking the funicular down to the landing where your lake journey continues.
Lake view from Hammetschwand
From the funicular, be sure to look to the left on the lake where you can watch your boat as it steams to the dock to pick you up; an ideal example of Swiss precision and engineering.

Now cross the lake again to disembark at the lovely Park Hotel in Vitznau. Even without reading this article you will recognize the hotel which dominates the surroundings on the shore of the lake. The Park Hotel has been reviving road-weary travelers for more than a century.
The Park Hotel Vitznau dominates the view of Lake Lucerne
Stop for a snack or a coffee before taking a short walk to the Rigi Railways. Reaching a height of just under 6,000-feet above sea level, the Rigi is the highest standard gauge railway in Europe. The Vitznau-Rigi Bahn (train), the first mountain rack railway in Europe and second in the world behind the Mount Washington Cog Railway in the US, was written about by Mark Twain in his book "Innocents Abroad."
Steaming to the Rigi, just as Mark Twain did (wikiwand)
For variety, and another adventure on the return, take the cable car back to Vitznau and catch the boat to the next stop on the journey.
Schiller Rock is an important monument for the Swiss
Don't be surprised to see as many Swiss on the boat as there are visitors because this is the region where Switzerland officially became a confederation in 1291.
Boat landing at Rutli Meadow
En route to RutliMeadow, known as the "birthplace of Switzerland", pay attention to the rock that rises like an obelisk from the lake. This is Schiller Stone, a monument dedicated to German playwright and poet Friedrich Schiller who wrote his widely acclaimed play "William Tell" about the legendary Swiss national hero. Oddly enough Schiller never visited Switzerland
Traditional alphorns welcome guests to the birthplace of Switzeland  (
Get off the boat at Rutli Meadow to visit the site where it is  said the oath of the Swiss Confederation was taken in 1291 by the three original cantons; Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden. As with the 4th of July in the US, August 1 is celebrated as Swiss Independence Day.
Massive grinder dug the
Gotthard Base Tunnel  (Taylor)

Now relax for a while before making a stop at the Swiss Museum of Transport. Opened in 1959, the museum features all forms of transportation in Switzerland including trains, ships, automobiles and aircraft.

Perhaps most impressive are the displays highlighting the construction of the Gotthard Base Tunnel, the world's longest (35.5 miles) and deepest (1.4 miles). This marvel of engineering opened in December of 2016.
Access road into the Gotthard Base Tunnel  (Taylor)
Next door to the transportation museum is Hans Erni Haus, a collection of work by one of Switzerland's most beloved artists.
Steaming for home after a marvelous day on Lake Lucerne
Take the steamer back to the landing and you've completed your day into Swiss history, engineering and precision. Best of all, if you are using a Swiss Travel Pass, many of the entrance fees are either free or greatly reduced.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Spain's Alhambra: Where More is Moor

Red tiled roofs of the Alhambra in Spain (wikipedia)

GRANADA, SPAIN – For nearly 250 years the Alhambra palace in Granada, Andalusia, Spain, known affectionately as "The Red Fortress", served as the palace, harem, residence of court officials and, at one time, a garrison of 40,000 soldiers. Even so, though massive in scale, its relatively unassuming exterior opens into an ultra-decorated interior filled with ornate designs and geometric patterns that virtually cover every inch of its walls, ceilings, courtyards and cloisters.
Generalife exterior (wikipedia)
Begun in the 9th century by the Islamic Caliphate, most of what visitors see today is the result of two reigns between 1333 and 1391. Yusuf I and Muhammad V provided most of the inspiration in what is regarded as the greatest expression of Spanish Muslim art and architecture in the world.

As an inscription on one wall in the Alhambra says, "Nothing in life could be more cruel than to be blind in Granada."
Fountains abound at the Alhambra  (wikipedia)
But there is more to the history of the Alhambra than the Moorish influence, for the Christians ousted the Muslims in 1492 and in the process, the palace became the residence of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Indeed, it was at the Alhambra in the same year that Christopher Columbus obtained his commission to seek a new route to India.

The king and queen stayed busy during that year, spending much of their time partially restoring the various palaces to Renaissance preferences.
Spanish Inquisition by Goya

Among the most enchanting aspects of the Alhambra is the constant sound of flowing water emanating from its fountains. Combined with tiled pools and channels, water is an integral feature of the structure as are the intricate lacy filigree that is featured in the Hall of the Two Sisters. The honeycombed patterns, while numerous, somehow retain their simplicity to create a harmonious and pleasing ambiance for all who visit.

Also present are the delightful warbling sounds of nightingales that enhance the sounds of the cascading water.

Ferdinand and Isabella were also responsible for establishing the Spanish Inquisition in 1478 in an effort to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms. Though not officially abolished until 1834, the Inquisition only had jurisdiction over baptized Christians. There was a loophole, however. Freedom of religion was non-existent during much of the period in which the Inquisition thrived which, therefore related to all royal subjects.
Intricate Arabic carvings can be found everywhere at the Alhambra (wikipedia)
Construction on the fortress began in 889 CE on the site of a small Roman fortification. For several hundred years the Alhambra fell into ruin until it was renovated and rebuilt in the 13th century.

Today, the Alhambra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which Moorish poets have described as "a pearl set in emeralds", referring to the color of the buildings and surrounding woods.
Gardens aplenty adorn the
grounds (wikipedia)

Oddly enough there are also caves encircling the Alhambra which are used as homes. Despite the historical importance of the palace, travelers get a strong dose of contemporary living when they view hundreds of television antennas emanating from the caves.

Visitors today do not enter through the Gate of Justice, the original access. Due to overwhelming attendance, the primary entrance could not accommodate modern-day throngs.
Arcaded gardens at the Generalife in Granada  (wikipedia)
The Alhambra is one of those places where visitors frequently fail to allow enough time to see it properly.
Ceiling of the Two Sisters Hall (wikipedia)
Among the most popular sites is the Court of the Lions, a rectangular courtyard that is roughly 116 feet long and 66 feet wide. It is surrounded by 124 white marble columns supporting a low gallery with a pavilion penetrating into the court at either end. The delicate and ornate walls extend to a domed roof while the walls are covered with blue and yellow tiles, with an enameled blue and gold border.
Court of the Lions

Directly in the center of the courtyard is the Fountain of Lions. Twelve sculptured white marble lions support an alabaster basin that gurgles with the sound of water gently lapping the pool. The lions are not created with anatomic accuracy but are instead designed to symbolize strength.

Often travelers in a hurry fail to experience the Palacio de Generalife or the "Garden of the Architect."

The Generalife has been restored several times since its creation in the 14th century. Situated on the summit of Monte Mauror is the Martyrs' Villa commemorating the Christian slaves who were forced to build the Alhambra and confined in subterranean cells.
Gardens and fountains are a hallmark of the Alhambra
Also situated on Monte Mauror are the Vermilion Towers which is a Moorish fortification complete with underground cisterns, stables and accommodations for more than 200 men.

The Alhambra is well worth a visit, and proof positive that under Ferdinand and Isabella, at least, "the reign in Spain didn't always fall upon the plain."